Friday, July 29, 2011

the Directors: Steven Spielberg

It’s utterly impossible to have a serious conversation about film without mentioning Steven Spielberg.

However, in drafting this list, I was struck with something profound: I actually don’t care for a great deal of Spielberg’s movies.  For every classic, there seems to be a few letdowns.  Again, this argument is fruitless, given the fact that one name can be billed to so many indisputable masterpieces.

After a three year break from directing, Spielberg has two films set for December releases, a movie about our 16th President next year, and Jurassic Park 4 in the pipeline.

For better or worse, here’s a breakdown of Spielberg’s entire storied career.  And be forewarned: fantasy/sci-fi isn’t my preferred genre, apathy will be common among these reviews.

Duel (1971)
Technically a TV movie, but one most definitely worth mentioning, as it paves clear way for the suspense Spielberg would soon capitalize on.  The plot is simple: a rushed businessman cuts off an 18-wheeler and is hence chased by the truck for the duration of the film.  Although the film has aged badly, and it relies too heavily on Murphy’s Law, Duel is still a breeze.  B

The Sugarland Express (1974)
A woman sneaks her husband out of a minimum security prison, in hopes of rescuing their child from his foster parents.  But the film isn’t in the destination, it’s in the journey, which goes on and on and on and on.  Lou Jean and Clovis kidnap a cop and are chased by about 200 more for what feels like an eternity.  If the film didn’t have a harrowing Goldie Hawn anchoring it, it would be all but forgotten. C-

Jaws (1975)
The first bona fide blockbuster remains as engrossing as it did upon its release, for exactly the same reasons.  A horribly frightening opening scene, credible acting, music that’s synonymous with terror, a delay of shock, and much more.  Famously, the shark was supposed to be in the film’s first scene, but Spielberg and his crew couldn’t get it to function.  The result spawned an immeasurable suspense that many horror films consider the standard: wait to show the villain, for that what we don’t see is that what we most fear.  A+

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
During the making of this film, George Lucas visited the set and started complaining to Spielberg about a sci-fi flick he was working on.  They both agreed to give each other 1 percent of the total grosses of each other’s films.  Spielberg’s was a great success, while Lucas’ was the ultimate success.  My point is, Close Encounters is often out shadowed by Star Wars, which is understandable, seeing as how it’s the less flashy of the two.  Upon revisiting this film recently, I found myself oddly underwhelmed.  Its climax (thanks much in part to Fran├žois Truffaut’s spirited performance) remains essential to the Spielberg name.  Overall, it feels long winded, but ultimately worth it.  B+

1941 (1979)
My god, what a truly awful film this is.  You know you’re desperate when you start making fun of your own work (a Jaws parody?  Really?).  1941, which, you’ll forgive me for not fully remembering, concerns a slew of annoying Californians and an impending Japanese invasion post-Pearl Harbor.  The movie is unconvincingly staged, laughably acted and just all around phoned in.  Not at all worthy of anyone’s time.  D

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Well this isn’t going to gain me any friends.  I am not, nor ever will be, a fan of the Indiana Jones films.  I know this kind of speaking is sacrilege in some circles, but I cannot help it, they simply don’t do it for me.  I’ve tried time and time again (I’ve forced myself to watch all of them four times), and I always find myself counting the minutes until they’re done.  Of course, the opening of this film contains one of the most exciting openings in film history, but beyond that… I’ve never enjoyed the Kool-Aid that everyone else seems to swear by. C+

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
No matter what mood I’m in, or where I’m at, or what I’m doing, if I come across E.T. on television, I watch it through its duration.  E.T. is one of the few quintessential science fiction films ever made.  It is necessary and worthy on so many levels, digital effects being secondary among them.  Its acting redefined what children can bring to a picture, its music demonstrated how two mediums can work seamlessly together, and its story continues to move beyond words.  There quite simply isn’t enough praise you can throw at E.T.  It’s an essential American film, and, dare I say, the finest of Steven Spielberg’s career. A+ 

Twilight Zone: The Movie, Kick the Can (1983)
Often forgotten alongside John Landis and George Miller’s superior installments (about a bigot trapped in places he wishes he wasn’t, and a paranoid passenger spotting an alien at 20,000 feet, respectively), Spielberg’s small tale tells the story of an old man who discovers that by kicking a can around, he and his friends are instantly turned into playful youths.  It’s like Cocoon but dull.  C

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
If you offered me a handsome sum of money to tell you what this movie is about, I couldn’t do it.  I honestly have no recollection concerning Temple of Doom.  Everytime I watch it, it seems to immediately escape from my mind, and without cheating (via IMDB or Wikipedia) I can only say that I’ve given the film its fair number of chances and it simply does not stick.  C-

The Color Purple (1985)
Spielberg’s first attempt to be taken seriously was a courteous misfire. Meaning, its heart is most definitely there, but the resulting film is a (mostly) sluggish bore with (mostly) bad acting and far too much exercised restraint.  It’s as if the movie wants to be bold, but is more concerned with shielding our eyes from all the bad stuff.  The Academy Awards confirmed this, nominating the film for 11 Oscars, and awarding it with nothing.  It was a gentle pat on the back.  A “better luck next time,” if you will.  C+

Empire of the Sun (1987)
Capturing yet another flawless adolescent acting performance (this time by a very young Christian Bale), Empire of the Sun takes its sweet time showing the hellishness of Japanese-occupied World War II, and its duration (a long two and a half hours) is ultimately worth the reward.  This can be credited to Bale and John Malkovich’s performances, among others.  Again, it’s as if Spielberg desperately wants to tell a brutal story, but doesn’t have the heart to show the full brutality.  That was coming, but it’s fair to consider Empire of the Sun another, albeit more successful, trial run.  A-

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
This is the one with Sean Connery right?  And Nazis?  C-

Always (1989)
Another shit movie.  There’s really no other way to describe it.  While it isn’t as bad as 1941, Always is arguably Spielberg’s weakest and most forgettable film.  The movie, about a firefighting pilot who is killed in action, only to return as a curious ghost, rests solely on the shoulders of star Richard Dreyfuss.  And, unlike his previous efforts with Spielberg, Always turns Dreyfuss into a whiny mess.  One slight wave of redemption: Audrey Hepburn, in her final film role, as Dreyfuss’ fairy God mother.  D

Hook (1991)
After failing to be taken seriously, and relying too much on sentiment, Spielberg went straight kid all over again, with this revamped version of Peter Pan.  And while the casting is beyond spirited (Robin Williams lives up to the role, and I still, for the life of me, cannot recognize Dustin Hoffman behind that hair), the film runs a little too long, and bogs itself down with excessive dialogue.  Not a bad film, but get to the fun stuff already.  B-

Jurassic Park (1993)
Spielberg’s best film since E.T. brought dinosaurs back to life, scared and delighted both kids and adults equally, and reaffirmed his status as the go-to director for smart action thrills.  Jurassic Park is as entertaining as movies get; endlessly accessible and compulsively rewatchable.  Am I the only one who thinks Spielberg’s dinosaur robotics look more lifelike than, say, the CGI in Peter Jackson’s King Kong? A

Schindler’s List (1993)
In 1993, Spielberg delivered the greatest one-two punch in the history of American cinema.  Jurassic Park was released in the summer, and soon became the highest grossing film of all time.  Schindler’s List was released during Oscar season, and justly swept every major awards race.  While E.T. may be Spielberg’s finest accomplishment as a director, Schindler’s List is by far his most personal.  After half-assed attempts at convincing melodrama, Spielberg went all in with his holocaust drama.  The result is a perfect film, one that never feels dated, and remains incredibly difficult to stomach.  The ending of this film never fails to move me.  For the people out there who have been purposefully avoiding Schindler’s List: I understand your hesitation, but you’re missing out on a definitive American masterpiece. A+

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
This sequel has its moments (the dangling bus, the San Diego rampage, a campy Jeff Goldblum, a crazed Pete Postlethwaite) but it in no way delivers beyond its predecessor.  It’s better than Jurassic Park III (which Spielberg wisely declined to direct), but not at all necessary. Does anyone really think part four will be good?  Here’s to hoping.  B-

Amistad (1997)
Whether intentional or not, Spielberg was clearly trying to capitalize on the good fortune brought his way in 1993: one popcorn flick for them, on serious drama for me (he did this again in 2005, and he’s doing it this year).  Amistad starts off incredibly strong, and for good reason: it initially focuses on the slaves, not on white people trying to set the slaves free.  To be fair, his first action flick after Jurassic Park (no matter what it was) was bound to pale in comparison.  Similarly, no dramatic film can really live up to Schindler’s List.  But Amistad is overlong and consistently sluggish.  Djimon Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins are terrific, and if their roles were more prominent, the movie would’ve received a more welcoming reception.  C+

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Upon release, Saving Private Ryan became an instant war film classic, and was justly touted as the best war film ever made, a shoe-in for an Oscar sweep (it isn’t and it wasn’t, more on that here).  It’s true, Saving Private Ryan deserves every bit of acclaim that it continues to receive.  Its D-Day invasion sequence remains one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in film history.  But, as with all of Spielberg’s great films, the true beauty of the picture is found in its silences.  Such as when Tom Hanks cowers behind a hill to cry in solitude, or Edward Burns nods acceptingly at Matt Damon before they’re attacked. Like Jaws, E.T. and Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan is an integral part of the American cinematic landscape. A+

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
A.I. was Stanley Kubrick’s brain child for decades.  He was waiting for the moment when technology caught up with his vision (he wanted to use actual robots, not actors).  But in the late ‘90s, frustrated that he wouldn’t be able to implement his strict vision, he passed the project to his good friend, Steven Spielberg.  After Kubrick’s sudden death, Spielberg made A.I. his next project, resulting in a science fiction masterpiece that would have been greatly admired by his departed friend.  I love everything about A.I.  I love its three act structure (family, escape, serenity), the acting (Haley Joel Osment high off The Sixth Sense, Jude Law high off The Talented Mr. Ripley, plus William Hurt and Frances O’Connor), and its eco-future premise (that parts of Earth are underwater due to melted ice caps). Everytime I watch it, I fall into its world with such ease; always the mark of a great film.  A

Minority Report (2002)
Where A.I. focused on the sentimentality of our future, Minority Report, rather brilliantly, chronicles the dark side of our futuristic human nature.  Living in a world in which murders can be seen, and stopped, beforehand, Minority Report shows how the system could work, but not without a little sacrifice of independence.  Tom Cruise, in a rare, post-Magnolia great performance, perfectly embodies Chief John Anderton.  And while I may not always care what he’s doing (the film does get temporarily bogged down with a weak back story of Cruise’s kidnapped son), it’s damn fun to see how he gets there. A

Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Spielberg’s throwback to the Golden Era of pre-Vietnam – a time when the music was jazzy, the women were dolled-up, the men wore hats, and the drinks flowed like wild – is always a breeze to take in, thanks much in part to Jeff Nathanson’s shifty screenplay and evolving performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Walken.  But, as Spielberg often has a tendency to do, the film tries to cram too much in.  Take out some of the subplots and side schemes (thus eliminating 20 minutes or so of its 141 minute runtime) and the movie would undoubtedly flow better.  The pacing isn’t a major problem in Catch Me If You Can, but it was obviously a hint at what was to come.  A-

The Terminal (2004)
The biting-off-more-than-he-can-chew pacing troubles couldn’t be more evident than in The Terminal.  The premise, based on a real man who was stuck in a French airport due to diplomatic nightmares, is unique, and the presentation is delightful.  In terms of craft, The Terminal is damn near flawless, with John Williams’ score matched effortlessly with Janusz Kaminski’s photography, all under the guidance of Alex McDowell’s expansive set design.  But the movie simply takes on too much: the Trekie bit, the disgruntled janitor, Catherine Zeta-Jones; just focus on Viktor, limit the rest.  B

War of the Worlds (2005)
Here’s the quick breakdown of War of the Worlds: great action scenes, bad everything else.  Well, okay… Dakota Fanning is good, and the movie flows well.  But Tom Cruise is seriously overselling here and Tim Robbins’ cameo is utterly disastrous.  And the end (both on the human and alien side) is laughable.  A good action flick, but not much more. B-

Munich (2005)
Much like Schindler’s List, Munich is a movie that takes its damn sweet time moving along, but the lasting result is a film of indelible power.  The film is a series of set pieces: we get much needed exposition dialogue, followed by a harrowing action sequence, most of which draw fair comparison to Hitchcock.  The opening Olympic hostage sequence is so authentic, it feels like were actually there, and when Jim McKay says “they’re all gone,” it’s as if he’s telling us directly.  Munich is a great, patient film; a necessary component to the Spielberg name. A

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
At least this time around I have some people in my corner.  Seriously, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is completely ridiculous.  And I’m not just saying that as a naysayer of the Indy franchise, I’m saying it as a film enthusiast.  Escaping a nuclear bomb in a refrigerator, Shia LaBeouf, aliens (wtf?)… we should probably all just forget this ever happened.  D-

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Dec. 23, 2011)
Spielberg has two films set for Oscar-bait releases this year.  First is The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg’s first animated flick, which he collaborated with Peter Jackson on, followed by…

War Horse (Dec. 28, 2011)
Which looks just plain dumb to me.  More on this here.  Will Spielberg achieve financial and critical success with the “one for them, one for me” model he perfected in 1993?  We shall see.

In summation:
Masterful
Jaws
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Schindler’s List
Saving Private Ryan
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Minority Report
Munich

Great
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Empire of the Sun
Jurassic Park
Catch Me If You Can

Good
Duel
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Color Purple
Hook
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Amistad
The Terminal
War of the Worlds

Eh
The Sugarland Express
Twilight Zone: The Movie, Kick the Can
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Just Plain Bad
1941
Always
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

7 comments:

  1. I've started Amistad twice and never finished it. So boring.

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  2. Great post. It really is amazing that one man is responsible for so many great (and quite a few mediocre) films. I think you may have just inspired me to start marathoning his films.

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  3. Awesome man. Take that masterful list and you can have one hell of a mini film festival.

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  4. I actually loved Amistad and really disliked Saving Private Ryan.

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    1. Oh really? Well hey, fair enough. Sadly, Amistad didn't hold up for me when I watched it last. Strong opening though.

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  5. Jurassic Park was the first notable film I ever saw, and it kickstarted a life-long passion for film.

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    1. Such a great film, isn't it? That's one of the initial, most memorable films for me too.

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