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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Nostalgia can be a curious beast. Whilst looking back on a golden era generally brings enjoyment, there is always the lurking danger of remembering past regrets.  Nineteen years after their ‘Last Crusade’, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg tread this perilous tightrope with a new instalment in their archaeological franchise.  Handing the fedora back to star Harrison Ford, they mostly manage to escape yesteryear’s sharp sting.
In 1957 Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) still finds himself in the midst of mayhem.  On the run from Communist agents after a fabled crystal skull, he attempts to use his ageing wits against them.  Learning it leads to great power whoever finds it, Jones begins his search with the help of rebellious biker Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) and former flame Marion (Karen Allen).  Fraught with double crosses, evil Russians and various jungle creatures, Jones’s adventurous cobwebs get shaken down faster than the crack of his famous whip.
Shifting focus from swashbuckling 1930s serials to 1950s B sci-fi films, this fourth entry maintains the series’ stylish fun.  The creative action and impish humour blends well with the era’s Cold War paranoia, injecting the script with some inventive substance. Although not delivering anything more above audience expectations, ‘Skull’ adds a few interesting elements tying in with established continuity. Occasionally becoming rather muddled within the usual supernatural themes, the plot veers over the edge of absurdity even for this series.  Spielberg’s and Lucas’s pacing craftsmanship are intact however, with the story and stunts mixed together in an exciting brew.  Composer John Williams provides yet another rousing score matching Spielberg’s determination to shoot the film with old style cinematic techniques. 
Unfortunately like some recent returning franchises, ‘Skull’ tends to smooth out the series’ rough edges. Helping to create a further comic book feel, the bloodless fight scenes dispense with the franchise’s previously seen gritty realism.  Thankfully the filmmakers do not to rely too much on CGI, with the high octane set pieces bettering any computer trickery.  The energetic cast seem to have a great time with the surrounding nonsense with a pleasingly craggy Ford effortlessly slipping into his iconic role.  Cate Blanchett’s icy villainess makes a fine addition to the rogues’ gallery, with LaBeouf lapping up his James Dean like role.  Older fans should get a kick out of the many references to past adventures providing wistful reminders of long departed characters.
Not quite reaching the bar set by ‘Raiders’ and ‘The Last Crusade’, ‘Crystal Skull’ is still an engaging outing.  It sets out to be an enjoyable romp of a commercial blockbuster and it succeeds admirably.  Skilfully re-capturing the series’ unique texture, Spielberg and Lucas once again deliver epic escapism proving their mastery of classy event movies.
Rating out of 10:  7

21

Las Vegas has long been portrayed as party central on America’s unique canvas.  Luring people with its neon coloured delights, the kitsch kingdom is one of the world’s biggest banks waiting to be broken.  Amongst the glamour, professional gamblers search for ways to unlock decades old gaming systems.  Drawing from true events, 21 reveals how clever M.I.T maths students used their skills to cipher millions from America’s eternal city of sin.
Desperate to study at Harvard University, gifted student Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) seeks fast money.  Professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) sees a perfect candidate in Ben to join his secret inner circle.  Leading a covert gambling group, Mickey uses his bright charges to count cards at various Las Vegas casinos.  Using this scheme to make a fortune, the group sees their dreams come true.  With the heights come the descents as security expert Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) gate-crashes their party.  Ensuing events create a dangerous cocktail where only one winner can emerge from life’s lethal deck of cards.
Films predominantly set in Vegas usually tend to be rather empty affairs.  Although the glitz is in place, stories never seem to firmly grip the province’s glittery character.  21 generally succeeds at going against the trend with a group of interesting characters.  Almost a Rasputin like figure, Spacey’s professor uses his classes to pick the best minds to join his illicit venture.  His lateral thinking holds sway with his co-conspirators eager to eke out a new life.  The interaction between them and the clever small twists are the best thing about a film that becomes as sparse of Vegas’ discarded dreams.
Full of implausibilities the plot trawls along at a snails pace.  Whilst the film is superficially enjoyable, the messages about greed and friendship become ham-fisted.  The one dimensional caricatures shine a light on the many inconsistencies throughout, with only Sturgess and Spacey leaving any memorable impression.  Las Vegas’ many fluorescent vistas are well captured by the cinematography with a thumping techno soundtrack elevating the mood.  Robert Luketic’s direction settles into a lazy groove turning the intriguing premise into pure Hollywood formula.
Switching to auto-pilot once the gambling scenes kick in, 21 eventually walks a familiar path.  Less an involving drama that it wants to be, 21 is reasonably light fluff  ultimately mirroring Vegas’ empty surface.
Rating out of 10:  6