Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Films of Steven Spielberg

Without a doubt, Steven Spielberg is the most famous and successful filmmaker in American history. I know some people hate him, but I’m not one of them. When he’s on the top of his game, and he’s on more often than not, he is one of the best filmmakers in the world. He has not one but two films coming out this December – the animated The Adventures of Tintin and the WWI epic War Horse. So, I thought I’d look at his previous work. I should mention right off the top that I miss his early TV movies – Duel (which I have heard great things about, but somehow have never seen) and Something Evil (which I didn’t even know existed), as well as his 1989 film Always, which never held much interest for me. But I’ve seen the other 24. I do hope that one of his two new films is great, because I’m not quite satisfied with my #10 movie – it could be anyone of about five, as none of them are perfect, but all approach greatness at times. Anyway, here they are, from worst to best.

24. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Spielberg was wise enough to walk away from the Jaws series as a director after the first installment, probably knowing he could never top the original, so why try? He should have done the same thing with the Jurassic Park series. Yes, the special effects are amazing. The problem is, that is all there is to this movie. The movie is overstuffed with a plot that lumbers and makes little sense. The human characters are mere cardboard cutouts meant for our amusement – and to become dinosaur food. Perhaps Spielberg’s heart simply wasn’t in this one, because normally he is such a masterful storyteller, and here no thought at all seems to have been given to the plot at all. A huge waste of time and money.

23. Twilight Zone: The Movie: Kick the Can (1983)
Spielberg produced this ill advised endeavor, taking four classic Twilight Zone concepts, and handing each one to a different director to see what the results were. John Landis’ segment, about bigot, is tired and predictable – and sad since we know that people died making it. Joe Dante’s segment is wild and off the wall, and contains some kind of zany brilliance. George Miller’s is predictable, but effective. Surprisingly though, I think Spielberg’s segment is far and away the weakest. It stars Scatman Crothers (playing a version of the “Mystical Black Man”) as a mysterious man who shows up at an old folk’s home and gives them what they want – to be young again. Of course, they soon realize they really didn’t want that, they just thought they did. The film contains the typical dose of Spielberg sentimentality – but this time ratcheted up to the point that’s its almost unbearable. The dark visuals add nothing. No wonder the film was pretty much buried for years – Spielberg’s segment is a stinker.

22. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
I’m not sure who decided that Indiana Jones needed aliens, nuclear explosions, swinging monkey or Shia LaBeof, but whoever was responsible for it, messed up. I wouldn’t go as far as South Park did in saying that the film raped Indiana Jones – if you turn off your brain, the film can even be entertaining in fits and starts – but other than Cate Blanchatt, who rips into her role as a Soviet bad ass with a gusto that is appropriate for the film, nothing here works as well as it should. They named the third film The Last Crusade, and it should have stayed that way.

21. 1941 (1979)
I give Spielberg credit for attempting something as bizarre as this WWII comedy that John Wayne refused to star in because he thought it was unpatriotic (how I would have loved for The Duke’s last movie role to be as the cartoon watching General that Robert Stack eventually played). After all, he was still a young director, and coming off of two HUGE hits in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Does this film work? No, not really. It has some good moments, and it is the type of bad movie that you know was made by extremely talented people. But the whole thing doesn’t add up to much.

20. Hook (1991)
As a kid, I loved Hook. And when I flip through the channels now, and come across it, if it’s a scene with Dustin Hoffman’s wonderful, over the top Captain Hook and Bob Hoskins as his lovable sidekick Smee, I’ll watch for a few minutes, and remember why I liked the movie so much when I was 10. But then, inevitably, Robin Williams comes on the screen as a grown up Peter Pan, who has to venture back to Never Never Land, and learn a lesson, and I quickly lose interest. Spielberg clearly loves the Peter Pan story, and he wanted to do a version with a twist, but I can’t help but think a more straight forward retelling would have worked better.

19. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
The Indiana Jones moves were always a throwback to the serials of the 1930s, but did this film have to recycle all the tired, offensive racial clichés of that time period as well? The film was seen as offensive in India, and rightly so and don’t even get me started on Short Round. Spielberg himself has criticized the film, saying he thinks it is too dark and too violent – and doesn’t contain an ounce of his own personal feeling in it. The special effects are impressive, and there are some wonderful action sequences, and Harrison Ford actually still seems to give a shit. There is much to like about the film, but also much to dislike.

18. Amistad (1997)
Amistad tells an important and powerful story, but somehow never quite lives up to what it should have been. Maybe it’s because it’s a story about slavery that transforms the issue into safe, Hollywood genre – the courtroom drama – where even if the slaves win, it will be little more than a hollow victory, as slavery will continue. It is about a group of slaves who rise up against their captors while be transported, killing all but two of them, who say they’ll take them back to Africa. Instead, they take them to America, where they are put on trial for murder. One of the problems with Amistad is that there are a lot of characters, whose purpose never really seems clear. Matthew McConaghey as the slave’s first lawyer isn’t very well thought out, and I spent the whole movie waited for Morgan Freeman, as a free slave, to do something. And yet, there are moments that work amazingly well. Djimon Hounsou is terrific as Cinque, the leader of the slaves, and when the movie concentrates on him and his sad, tragic story, it is at its best. When he stands up in the courtroom and yells “Give us free”, it may well move you to tears. And Anthony Hopkins is terrific as former President John Quincy Adams, who takes up the slaves cause, and delivers a terrific, transfixing 11 minute speech in defense of them. So yes, Amistad is a decent movie, but it should have been better. Perhaps Spielberg should have found a different story – one that focused more on the slaves themselves, and less on a trial that in the end, didn’t really accomplish all that much.

17. Jurassic Park (1993)
The original Jurassic Park may not be a very original concept – but it is a triumph of special effects, and unlike its sequel, knows how to tell a story. Yes, the story is clichéd – about a rich man’s greed and his eventual comeuppance, about not messing with Mother Nature, etc. And yet, in the hands of Spielberg, the story works to a terrific degree. Spielberg has essentially made an old fashioned monster movie – something that would not have felt out of place in the 1950s, but has added state of the art special effects – which even nearly 20 years later, still look great. It doesn’t quite capture the youthful exuberance or glee that the best of the Spielberg popcorn flicks do – but its close enough.

16. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Spielberg initially came on board as a producer for this film, when David Lean was supposed to direct it. Perhaps Lean, who was better than just about anyone at making these kinds of grand epics, would have made a slightly better film. It’s not that Spielberg’s version is a bad film – it isn’t at all. The filmmaking is quite good, and young Christian Bale gives an impressive performance as a kid who grows up the son of wealthy Brits living in Shanghai, who ends up in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. It’s just that something seems a little bit lacking in the film. It doesn’t hit you as hard as it should emotionally. There are great sequences in the film, and overall, I think it’s an impressive film, but it’s not among Spielberg’s best. The fact that it came out the same year as John Boorman’s great Hope and Glory, which also looked at a child in WWII (based on Boorman himself) makes this one look just a little worse by comparison.

15. The Sugarland Express (1974)
Spielberg’s first theatrical feature has a breezy charm to it. It is about a woman (Goldie Hawn) who breaks her husband out of a Texas work farm and kidnaps a State trooper, and then heads off to get her son back from a foster family. This slow speed chase across the state becomes a media event, and the young couple become celebrities, who garner a lot of sympathy from the people along the way. The head cop chasing them (Ben Johnson) is a good man – and just wants to see things end before they get out of control, and someone gets killed. I have never been much of a fan of Goldie Hawn, but this is her best work – she makes this woman, who has done a stupid thing that she should know will never get her the end result she wants – but she is so full of life and energy, you can’t help but love her. And the movie has many a few nice scenes between the kidnapped cop and the husband, where the two get to know each other, and realize that perhaps they’re not all that different. And as always, Ben Johnson is solid in support. In the end, I can’t say that The Sugarland Express is a great movie, but it shows just how good Spielberg was right from the beginning of his career. He went onto make better films of course, but this rather low-key (especially for Spielberg) is filled with charm. I was surprised by how involved I got with it – and ultimately how moved by it I was.

14. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
As a pure popcorn flick, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is tough to beat. Foregoing the darkness and violence that derailed much of Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade is a hell of lot lighter, and a hell of a lot more fun. Harrison Ford seems rejuvenated in the role, playing opposite Sean Connery as his distant father, who he is still trying to gain approval from. The action sequences – especially the tank chase scene – are masterfully handled. Even the Nazi villains seem to be a little bit less cartoon like than they were in Raiders. No, The Last Crusade is not a great film – and doesn’t come close to reaching the heights of Raiders of the Lost Ark – but I defy you not to be entertained by it.

13. The Color Purple (1985)
To use that favorite word of film critics, The Color Purple is “flawed”. It is too simpleminded in its depictions of African American men, who are all either cruel and vile or else comic caricatures. It is flawed in some of the storytelling, as there are some confused moments in the editing and scenes that undercut their own power. And yet, The Color Purple is still a wonderful cinematic experience. In her first role, Whoopi Goldberg gives the best performance of her career, and makes Celie into one of the most memorable characters in any Spielberg movie. Here is a woman raped by her father, forced to give up her two children, sold to another cruel man (Danny Glover) who treats her as a slave, and somehow, through of all this, comes through and regains her humanity. It is an inspiring story, and Goldberg is absolutely terrific in the role. She is ably supported by Oprah Winfrey, as a woman who will not take crap from anyone, which leads her into trouble, Margaret Avery, as a nightclub singer who slowly, but surely, drags Celie out of her shell, and Danny Glover, who may be a one note character, but it’s a note he plays to great effect. Some people demand perfection from a movie, but I am not one of those people. For all its flaws, The Color Purple is a movie that I will never forget.

12. War of the Worlds (2005)
Take away the seriously flawed ending of this movie, and this easily finds a place in my top 10 list of Spielberg movies. Most of this movie is the most cynical Spielberg has ever been – portraying a post 9/11 America where everyone is simply out for themselves, and do not band together to fight the invading Martians like you expect them to. The film is virtuoso filmmaking – full of terrific sequences (the one on the basement is particularly brilliant), and Tom Cruise uses his movie star talents to full advantage here – and is ably supported by everyone, especially little Dakota Fanning and (not so little) Tim Robbins. Perhaps the reason Spielberg felt the need to tack on that happy, sappy, crappy ending is because he worried the film was too harsh. He shouldn’t have. Had he ended the film the way he should have, this one could have been truly great.

11. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Spielberg had gone kind of dark and series with Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, A.I. and Minority Report, so perhaps that’s why he decided to make this light and breezy crime film. Leonardo DiCaprio is at his charming best as a con man, who passes bad cheques, poses an airline pilot, a lawyer and a doctor (“I concur”), and Tom Hanks is humorous in support as the FBI agent on his trail. Best of all is Christopher Walken as DiCaprio’s dad, who revels in the thrill of his son being an outlaw (for the first time in a long time, Walken isn’t simply being Walken). The film is extremely well made, lightweight and fun. It doesn’t add up to all that much, but with a film this entertaining, do you really care?

10. The Terminal (2004)
I know a lot of people hated The Terminal, but I could not help but be won over by its simplicity. The film stars Tom Hanks as a man from the fictional country of Krakozia that, while he is in the air flying to America, falls in a military coup. As such, his passport and visa become invalid, and yet, America is not about to send him back to a war zone. He is told he can’t leave the airport, which he never does, which is baffling to the head of security (Stanley Tucci), who has to tell him not to leave, but never expects that he’ll actually stay. The film is a homage to the film of Jacques Tati, whose iconic character Mr. Hulot disarms everyone he meets with his sheer simplicity. Tati was silent, and while Hanks is not, the effect is the same. People can’t help but trust him – he seems so open, so sweet, and so guileless. Hanks’s performance feels effortless, as does the movie itself, though you know hitting and maintaining this tone was probably extremely difficult. It is also a triumph of production design – as the whole airport is a giant set, but one so precisely detailed, you’d never know it. Perhaps The Terminal was just too simple for today’s cynical audiences. Perhaps I’m just a big softie. But whatever the reason, I cannot help but love this film.

9. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
A friend of mine once told me that it was Raiders of the Lost Ark, and not Schindler’s List, that was Spielberg’s biggest anti-Nazi movie. Afterall, the Amon Goeth merely gets hanged in Schindler’s List, whereas Arnold Toht has his face melted off in Raiders. Roger Ebert expresses a similar sentiment, saying that while Schlinder’s List a movie by a mature adult about the Holocaust, Raiders of the Lost Ark could well be the fantasies of a Jewish teenage boy, who wants to stick it to the Nazis. Perhaps it’s this buried level that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark better than the rest of the Indiana Jones movies. It is also undeniable that this is one of the most flat out entertaining films ever made with terrific action sequences, as one calamity after another befalls Indiana Jones. I’ve never been a big Harrison Ford fan, but when he wants to be, he can play heroic better than almost anyone – and here he has his most iconic role, and he doesn’t fail to live up to it. In the end, buried meanings or not, Raiders of the Lost Ark is pure, unadulterated fun.

8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is great movie about man’s place in the world. Yes, it is about aliens coming to earth, but there is no battle, nor War of the Worlds. Instead, it focuses on a normal man (Richard Dreyfus) who sees a flying saucer, and then finds himself obsessing over it. He starts to see images in his head of a mountain – so much so that he starts building replicas of it. He finds others that share his obsession – who claim their loved ones have been taken. The film is not a typical alien invasion movie – but something much deeper, more meaningful than that. Yes, there are scary moments – little Barry standing in that doorway with fire all around him for example. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind retains that childlike wonder that Spielberg can do better than pretty much anyone else.

7. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Some will complain about certain aspects of Saving Private Ryan. Even back in 1998, many felt the bookended scenes in the cemetery were unnecessary and complained that the characters in the movie are types more than fully fleshed out individuals. I never agreed with that – and I still don’t. I don’t necessarily think that the bookend scenes are strictly necessary, and yes, they are manipulative, but they are still effective (Spielberg has the skill to manipulate without making you feel guilty about it). And while the characters start as stock characters, I do believe they are fleshed out as the movie goes along. I’d argue that this very well could be Tom Hanks’ best performance, as he gives his Captain real humanity. Of course, what everyone remembers are the battle scenes that begin and end the film, and to me, they are still among the best ever put on film – visceral, bloody, intense and gut wrenching. Yes, the movie indulges in clichés, but in Spielberg’s hands, they work.

6. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
It takes immense skill to make an audience cry and not have them feel overly manipulated afterwards – even Spielberg has not always been able to do this. But in E.T., he does. I have no idea why I cry when E.T dies – because I know he’s coming back, but every time it happens I do. And then I cry all over again when he meets back up with his family, and says goodbye to Elliot. Spielberg’s film is one of the best ever made about childhood – that confusing time in life that we all have to go through. There is an innocence to it that is refreshing. The movie is much more than a film about a boy and his alien.

5. Minority Report (2002)
I know many people hate the ending of Minority Report, but personally, I think it’s one of the most perfect endings in Spielberg’s career – the only problem is that he was perhaps too subtle with it. I mean, doesn’t that ending seem a little too perfect? That Tom Cruise’s character is able to break out of his cryogenic prison, get revenge, get back together with his wife, get her pregnant and live out an idyllic life in the countryside? It’s not that Spielberg doesn’t tell you the ending (Tim Blake Nelson’s character says it as they put Cruise in jail “They dream of whatever they want to”.) To me, it’s clear that Tom Cruise doesn’t “win” in Minority Report, he loses, and in the end he is just dreaming. Still, that is only one part of what makes this so movie so good. A sci-fi thriller, with healthy doses of Hitchcock, Minority Report is intelligent popcorn filmmaking at its finest. Spielberg uses Cruise effectively, and gets some great work from Samantha Morton and Max von Sydow. The scene in the mall is as well staged as anything Spielberg has done. This is a truly great film.

4. Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler’s List remains THE Holocaust film for many, and with good reason. What Spielberg did with this film truly is remarkable. It is a dark, three plus hour masterpiece, shot in black and white and unrelentingly bleak. Yes, he tells a story of a few hundred Jews that were saved and not the millions who died, who are in the background, and yet whenever I watch Schindler’s List the whole weight of what was done hits me. This is the film that truly showed that Spielberg could do more than just popcorn movies – he tried earlier, with mixed results, but Schindler’s List is so well made and completely unforgettable. Liam Neeson has never been better than he is as Oskar Schindler, even if they do whitewash him a little bit (his personal flaws aren’t really the point are they?). And even with all the evil Nazis I have seen in films over the year, Ralph Fiennes is still the one that stands out most in my mind. Many “important” films are ones that you see once and never have to again. That isn’t the case with Schindler’s List. It truly is a masterpiece.

3. Munich (2005)
I’m sure many will argue against my putting Munich so high on this list. It got decidedly mixed reviews when it was released in 2005. But for me, out of all of Spielberg’s “important” films, Munich is the one that hits me the hardest – yes, even more so than Schindler’s List. Munich is not a film about righteous vengeance – which I think is what most people thought it was going to be and wanted it to be. Instead, Munich is a film about the cost of violence, even when it’s done in the name of a “good cause”. The Mossad agents at the center of this film are tasked with killing the people responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. They are killing “bad men” in defense of their country. And yet killing, for whatever reason, has its cost and the end result is simply more killing, a non-stop circle of violence that will never end. The violence in the movie is strong – stomach churning in some scenes – and that’s the way it should be. Some have complained about the flashback sequence at the end of the film, but I think it works. Does it matter that Eric Bana was not there in Munich? No, it has haunted him ever since, and driven his every action so much, he might as well have been. The ending of the film, in New York City with the World Trade Center in the background is the best of Spielberg’s career. No false sentiment here. This is the darkest film Spielberg ever made, and once of the best.

2. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
I remember when A.I. came out in 2001, a lot of people spent a lot of time trying to figure out what elements of the movie were Spielberg’s own, and what elements came from Stanley Kubrick – who passed the project onto him before he died. To me, the question is pointless, as since Spielberg wrote the final screenplay, and directed the movie, it is his movie – although it is certainly heavily influenced by Kubrick. The film is about David (Haley Joel Osment) a “mecha” so advanced that he looks like a real boy. He has been programmed to love whoever activates him, and when a married couple, with a son in a coma, buy him, he immediately loves Mommy. At first, she resists, but David is so open, so sweet, that she cannot resist forever. When their son wakes up, they try to make it work, but they can’t. But Mommy still loves David enough that she cannot see him destroyed – so she drives out into the country and leaves David, and his creepy Teddy Bear, in the middle of nowhere. Thus begins David’s journey, alongside Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), whose name tells you what he is programmed to do. David wants to become a real boy, so Mommy will love him again. Of course, David doesn’t really love Mommy, nor does he really want anything. He is simply following his programming. He is programmed to love Mommy, and be loved in return, and since Mommy loves her real son more than David, it is only logical to think that she’ll love David if he is real as well. The sequence at the Flesh Fair is stunning and scary, and Rogue City is one of the distinctive environment ever created in a movie. David continues on his quest to find the Blue Fairy, and he finally does – under water at Coney Island, where he patiently waits for 2,000 years, until he is dethawed by more advanced mechas. They see David as a source of great information – because he actually knew humans. These mechas, apparently created by previous mechas, still have it in their coding to love humans, even though they are extinct. So David, who actually knew humans, is valuable to them. I have no idea what people are talking about when they say that A.I. has a happy ending tacked onto it. Afterall, it ends with the entire human race wiped out, and David apparently destroyed after they download his memories. Yes, he gets to see Mommy again, but that is all in David’s “dream” so the mechas can observe him. I could write on and on and on about A.I., which is a movie that simply gets more complex the more you think about it, but this isn’t the time or place for that. What I do know is that A.I. is a stunning achievement by Spielberg – perhaps his most ambitious film ever. In 2001, many admired its visuals, but thought its story was flawed. Looking back on it now, I don’t see any flaws. I just see a masterpiece.

1. Jaws (1975)
Spielberg has undoubtedly more accomplished films, more complex films, more “important” films in his career than his 1975 breakthrough Jaws. But he has never made a film as perfect as this one. Perhaps it’s because I saw Jaws way too young, and it has forever scarred me – keeping me out of the water for fear of shark attacks, but when I think of Spielberg, Jaws comes to mind first. The opening scene is brilliantly handled, as are all of the shark attack scenes. I don’t care that the reason we didn’t see the shark earlier is because it didn’t work properly – holding back the shark works brilliantly. No film still has the power to shock and scare me quite like this one does. And it also must be noted the three lead performances are just about pitch perfect – Roy Scheider as the police chief scared of the water, Richard Dreyfuss as the intellectual getting real world experience and especially Robert Shaw as Captain Quint. His monologue is one of my all time favorites. Jaws is a perfect film, and a masterpiece of its kind, and will most likely always be my favorite Spielberg movie.

No comments:

Post a Comment