Thursday, January 30, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Steven Spielberg (4 of 4)

Stephen Spielberg, Senior Year


Oe of the exciting things about seeing movies over an extended period of time is seeing the growth of a genuine artist. Despite reservations about his early output, it was obvious from the outset that Steven Allen Spielberg was a dynamic story-teller and a wizard in communicating with a camera. His training manuals were the classics of the film-makers of spectacle—the David Lean's and Alfred Hitchcock's and Cecil B. DeMille's, the guys who made expansive roadshows that appealed to a mass audience. They made movies of exotic places and large personalities that could fill a Cinemascope expanse with adventure and color and grandeur. They could also manipulate an audience with their technique to fill them with awe and wonder, or propel them out of their seats in an explosion of popcorn. Movies were a thrill-ride, but with better scenery. From the beginning, Spielberg had that impresario spirit to look at an audience as a territory to be conquered: give them bread and circuses and chases. Tell them a story and give them a thrill. Very quickly, he became his own brand: "A Spielberg Film" was something to see.

The events of 9/11/2001 weighed heavily on Spielberg (as it did all of us) resulting in films where the usual sense of wonder was replaced by a loss of innocence.  The shocked expressions of Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds, and the blank look of his "Pinocchio" in A.I. were no longer the awe-inspired faces displayed in so many of his movies.  Spielberg's subject matter became darker—even in Tintin—and he seemed to be grasping for stories that illustrated the problems of the world...and how we might best overcome them. At the same time, he became a subtler film-maker, and his collaborators the top of their field.  




War Horse (2011)  Spielberg likes to tell the story of meeting John Ford ("So you want to be a 'picture-maker'") and having Ford make him look at his Remington prints and observe the horizon line of the paintings. "When you're able to appreciate why the horizon is at the top of the picture or at the bottom of the picture, then you might make a pretty good picture-maker.  Now get the f#&% outta here!"

War Horse proved that Spielberg had learned his lesson and quite a few other things as well.  Sure it's a horse story, but it's not like the usual "boy/girl loves horse" type of "growing up responsible" tale.  It's gritty, tough and incorporates an Equine Odyssey that offers an objective but not disinterested view of the best of man's instincts and its worst, and so much of it is done without words (and the words, by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, are quite well done). Pictorially, it is amazing—lush, full, going from verdant Irish hillsides to man-made trenches of death, with the horse (as it would be, anyway, to the audience) the focal point of the story as his human masters fall in and out of his story.  It reads deceptively simple, but Spielberg makes the most of the visual aspects that provide a pictorial sub-text to the story, giving it far more resonance than words on the page could provide.  And there is one episode in the story—a brief truce between Germans and Brits during the first World War that is a grimly humorous reminder of the uselessness of war and how a common goal can shatter a conflict like a disagreement can shatter the peace. War Horse is an overlooked gem.




Lincoln (2012) Spielberg's long-in-the-planning biography of the almost canonized saint of the U.S. Presidency.  With the help of his master craftsmen and his Munich scribe Tony Kushner—who manages to convey what was so special (and so irritating) about the man, the team focuses on the last months of Lincoln's life (Kushner's script was voluminous and Spielberg ultimately decided to concentrate on his last months), combining his relationships with the world of his family, compatriots, and enemies at the end of the Civil War, the passage of the 16th Amendment, and his death, while not treading the traditional paths of every other film that touched on the subject—Spielberg doesn't even show Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater, choosing instead to show the event through the eyes of his beloved son, Willie.  It's a stellar cast, all providing exceptional work but dominated by James Spader's lobby-lizard and Tommy Lee Jones, whose Thaddeus Stevens has reasons for delivering the controversial amendment both ideological and personal, and, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis, whose imaginatively scholarly work on the man creates a moving portrait beyond the static images of Matthew Brady, breathing life and voice into them, making the man less of a monument, more of a man, and no less monumental for it.  Much more so, the film is an exercise in showing the messy business of democracy—of seeking agreement for the greater good, despite the polarization inflicted by the various points of view, at a time when the nation was warring over higher ideals that are timeless over the short-sighted goals of economy.  Lincoln is an education in the best sense of the term, providing perspective on the man and his times...and ours.


Bridge of Spies (2015) Spielberg and Tom Hanks reunite to tell the story of insurance lawyer James B. Donovan who was roped into the no-win job of defending a communist spy (a standout performance by Mark Rylance) during the height of the Cold War and, through a combination of ideals and empathy with the man, ended up taking his case, first, to the Supreme Court to save his life, and then, later, to Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie to return him to Russia in exchange for Francis Gary Powers, the captured pilot of an American spy-plane. The film is entirely unflashy, muted and solid, has an impeccable sense of period (with no compromises for younger audiences—which is more unusual than you'd think) and still manages to be intriguing, even when one suspects how it will end—it is, after all, based on a true story. With a script by Mark Charman, it got a polish from the Coen Brothers with an emphasis on ideals...and ideals in the face of pressures, bureaucratic, autocratic, whichever side of The Wall they're on, both sides weigh in on the spirit of morality and grace. Ultimately, it is a story not about winning or gaining advantage, but of aspiring to the better part of humanness, and standing true to it.


The BFG (2016) The BFG is remarkable—stunning in all sorts of applaudable ways. The effects work is stellar, making up the vast majority of the mise en scene of the movie with a fluidity and attention to detail that draws one in with fascination. This is spectacular world-building, similar to the care and beauty that went into Disney' 2016 version ofThe Jungle Book from earlier that Summer. And the motion-capture performances of Mark Rylance (who was the very sly stand-out for his underplayed work in Spielberg's Bridge of Spies), Jemaine Clement and the other giant actors is truly amazing, completely stepping over "The Uncanny Valley" as nimbly as if there truly were giants of great stride. Spielberg also retains his reputation as a deft director of children, getting a terrific performance from newcomer Ruby Barnhill as the heroine of the story, Sophie.

I was dissatisfied with the film, however, despite it hitting all its marks, and bringing the wonders and chills of childhood to the fore. A great children's film should also appeal to adults, as well. And I found that the film dragged (despite my delight that it wasn't a roller-coaster). Bits of business and Spielberg's scrupulous sense of place by making sure the audience knows where it is at all times bogs the movie down no matter how fluid the camera work and intricacy of the choreography. I found myself drifting off, losing focus and the sense of caring about what was going on. Perhaps it was the circumstances under which the film was made. Maybe the filmmakers couldn't bear to part with a single word or sequence that had been worked out by "Our Melissa"—screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who'd written Spielberg's E.T., and who died from cancer while the film was in production. Gifted she is, but in the editing room, a filmmaker must be equal parts story-teller and butcher. Maybe the affection for the screen-writer overwhelmed the cruelty of the knife that is required to make a tight, concise film that isn't in love with itself, so determined is its aim to win over the audience. I think this was a case of too much affection for the material to the point of protection, and maybe some hubris that a Spielberg children's film was a certain home-run. Nothing is certain in the market-place. This one may be big, it may be friendly, but its quite a few feet below giant stage.



The Post (2017) The Post was squeezed into Spielberg's schedule while post-production continued on Ready Play One and casting hit a snag on another project. The first feature script by Liz Hannah (where it was put on 2016's annual "Black List" of interesting scripts), it has a textual and sub-textual significance during the turbulent Trump years: the obvious, textual one involves the publication of the so-called "Pentagon Papers" (comprised of a Department of defense study on the handling of the Vietnam War from the Truman administration on) by The New York Times and The Washington Post; the sub-textual one involves the struggle of Post owner and publisher Katharine Graham (played superbly by Meryl Streep) to deal with a potentially ruinous and lawfully risky decision to publish when she is being bombarded from all sides by a manfully aggressive phalanx of government and Wall Street types to go against her instincts as a newspaper publisher. Spielberg can be accused of hitting some of the points a bit hard, but there are extraordinarily nuanced sequences, culminating in one amazing sequence of a pressure-cooker of a phone-call where all the arguments in the world cannot dissuade from the role she was born to play and, because of societal and traditional women's roles she has blithely gone along with, she has been denied. The production summarized the story by saying it was "the week Katharine Graham became Katharine Graham" and the pay-off feels more important, personally, than just defying a governmental attempt to suppress the Press, than the breaking free of a woman's lifetime of suppression. It's quite the nifty Big Statement. 



Ready Player One (2018) When Spielberg does dystopian, of course he's going to come up with an alternative to it. The extensive CGI landscapes and characters that suffuses the VR Reality "The Oasis" in Ready Player One is where folks go to when they want to "escape" the reality of life in "The Stacks"—large towers of manufactured homes that have supplanted high-rise apartments as the solution to a growing population and the breakdown of society. Of course, they never really escape—they're just playing at it. The gist of the story is that the creator of "The Oasis" bequeaths his Virtual Empire to whoever can crack the many games contained in that world. The entire world is competing for the prize (including well-funded corporate interests) but the ones who seem to be closest are a motley group of "gunters"—a mongrelization of "egg-hunters"—who call themselves "The High-Five" (who have only met as avatars) have the best synergy to get to the end-game. But, the irony of the competition is that the guy who gets there is the guy who can appreciate not having it the most. He who desires it the least wins the most.

It's a VR version of "Willy Wonka" (with a bit of "Oz" thrown in), celebrating gaming culture while subverting it at the same time with the Big Picture. It's Spielberg at his cagiest and most ingenious.



What's next for Spielberg?  Tony Kushner's script of David Kertzer's The Kidnapping of Arturo Mortara (a historical piece about a Jewish boy raised Christian in Italy) looks to be next. After that, it's hard to say, as he frequently changes his mind in mid-pre-production about what's "right" to direct (for the longest time he was set to direct Memoirs of a Geisha, then abandoned it, his long-time project Interstellar ended up being directed by Christopher Nolan). Robopocalypse was in pre-production, but isn't anymore. There's still talk of another "Indiana Jones," but it is merely talk at this point. One suspects that Spielberg hasn't completely put away childish things—his directorial sense is still infused with a youthful enthusiasm. But his films have grown darker, more considered, and less feeling like contraptions.

Whatever his future work holds in store, it will be interesting, provocative, maybe even indelible.


A preview trailer of a five-part video essay on Spielberg on Indiewire.
Highly, highly, highly recommended.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything, Dept.: Steven Spielberg (3 of 4)


Steven Spielberg, Junior Year

One of the exciting things about seeing movies over an extended period of time is seeing the growth of a genuine artist. Despite reservations about his early output, it was obvious from the outset that Steven Allen Spielberg was a dynamic story-teller and a wizard in communicating with a camera. His training manuals were the classics of the film-makers of spectacle—the David Lean's and Alfred Hitchcock's and Cecil B. DeMille's, the guys who made expansive roadshows that appealed to a mass audience. They made movies of exotic places and large personalities that could fill a Cinemascope expanse with adventure and color and grandeur. They could also manipulate an audience with their technique to fill them with awe and wonder, or propel them out of their seats in an explosion of popcorn. Movies were a thrill-ride, but with better scenery. From the beginning, Spielberg had that impresario spirit to look at an audience as a territory to be conquered: give them bread and circuses and chases. Tell them a story and give them a thrill. Very quickly, he became his own brand: "A Spielberg Film" was something to see.

Now, with the achievement of his personal goal of winning dual Oscars for Director and Picture (for
Schindler's List), Spielberg could pursue projects following his interests with one eye on making money for his new production conglomerate Dreamworks SKG, and telling stories important to him...for whatever reason.



The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) After years of resisting efforts by studios to follow up one his blockbusters, Spielberg finally made a sequel to one of his movies. The Lost World would be the first. Partially, this was in gratitude to Universal Studios for allowing him to make Schindler's List. But there was another more selfish reason Spielberg wanted to do the follow-up-- he wanted to be the first one to have a CGI T-Rex rampaging through an American city. The Lost World is a wierd hybrid of sources, starting with the original book's opening. Then, it follows Crichton's follow-up book, then Spielberg went on his own tangent bringing the dinosaurs to the U.S. He's aided by a great cast: Jeff Goldblum returns, and is joined by Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite (his first of two movies for Spielberg), Arliss Howard and a pre-"West Wing" Richard Schiff. Only Vince Vaughn fails to register as a viable character. And...there's an annoying kid. Ultimately for all the technical advances, its a bit too much and unfocused, except for a Rube Goldberg set-piece--taken directly from Crichton's book--involving three people in an articulated double RV, a precipitous cliff and two predatory T-Rex's stomping around outside. It's a giddy nail-biter. And if Spielberg had stuck to that tone, instead of playing around with the satiric possibilities of Rex's in America, it would have been a far better movie.


Amistad (1997) The story of the uprising aboard the slave-
ship La Amistad had never been told before, but given Spielberg's clout post-Schindler's List, what was once considered box-office poison now had greenlight potential. (And one should remember that the subject of slavery was very rarely addressed in films—and, incredibly, when it was presented, it was dealt with tolerance for the idea of "owned" human beings, however familial the colors it was cast in) As with The Color PurpleSpielberg's earnestness gets in the way of the story, which, if one merely gets the facts right, would make for compelling drama. Again, the cast assembled is amazing * Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Feeman, and as the "white knight" of the story, new star Mathew McConaughey--who despite tamping down his snarky Southern man exuberance still feels anachronistic for the period. And as the focus of the story, male-model Djimon Houssou acquits himself well--an impressive start for greater things to come. Now, if only they'd left John Quincey Adams' exemplary summation unscored by John Williams it wouldn't feel so much like a lecture, which, unfortunately extends to the entire film. After Amistad, Spielberg would take a year off before taking on his next subject..



Saving Private Ryan (
1999) Spielberg's first film for his newly-created entertainment studio, Dreamworks SKG. Spielberg begins with a bravura set-piece--the landing at Normandy on D-Day presented quite unlike any way its been portrayed. Spielberg takes the subjective viewpoint to convey what it feels like to be a sitting duck in a go-for-broke battle, as well as the arbitrariness of death in war. Folks quibble about the rest of the movie, but you can't deny the power of that sequence, visually and sonically.** A uniformly fine cast with Tom Hanks, Ed Burns, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Matt Damon, as well as cameos by Ted Danson, Dennis Farina and up-and-comers Nathan Fillion and Paul Giamatti.*** Hanks' portrayal of a "Joe" who just wants to go home and does whatever he has to towards that end is well-reasoned--you have to believe that Hanks could deliver the devastating last line that slams home the coda of the film. It's one of the few war films to deal with the trauma of survivor's guilt and the brick wall that lies between life in war and life in peace. Saving Private Ryan raised awareness of the soldier's lot in the "good" war, and dispelled the notion that any war could be "good" for those on the line. For that alone, it should be regarded as one of the greatest of war films. After Ryan, Spielberg would take another year-break from directing.



A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) The Kubrick-
Spielberg love-child that nobody loved. Kubrick called it his "Pinocchio" movie, and quite rightly decided after years of development to hand it to Spielberg, which, after Kubrick's death, he was only too eager to complete. But in the transition from Kubrick outline to Spielberg screenplay there's a lot of gear-grinding going from cold fantasy to sentimentality. And unfortunately it suffers a fate that too many sci-fi movies suffer—it asks us to absorb too many concepts too fast, and the casual movie-goer has a hard time accepting global warming, robot love, and an ice-aged Earth inhabited by your PC's descendants. Throw in a Blue Fairy and a dying robot's last wish and the audience is in stitches. But...it dares to ask that question rarely asked (except by Hitchcock in Vertigo) "What is love, really?" And the answer is..."Love is what audiences didn't feel about this movie." Still, there's some definite mind-stretching going on here. And it gave Jude Law a star-making turn, at last. Plus, the kid, Haley Joel Osment,  is simply amazing. Spielberg would take another year off, and come back in 2003 with two new films.



Minority Report (2003)
Spielberg teams up with Tom Cruise on one of Philip K. Dick's high-concept sci-fi novels and manages to make a far more plausible future, but a less moody one, than that imagined in Ridley Scott's Dick adaptation, Blade Runner. Spielberg went the Kubrick route and hired future conceptualists (rather than art directors) to imagine the Washington D.C. of the future, full of mag-lev cars, targeted advertising via retinal scan, policemen with jet-packs and pre-cognitives who direct the police to the scene of the crime before it occurs. Spielberg casts a noir pall over the whole scenario which succeeds in nullifying some of his star's more intense moments. Colin Farrell impresses in an edgy performance that bests Cruise in their one scene together. The story is not much. But the trappings of it make it worth seeing. Spielberg evens pulls off a sequence that Hitchcock wanted to do: a fugitive makes his get-away by rushing into an auto assembly line and has the car built around him to escape.


One other thing we should mention—it put an idea into the head of computer engineers that produced the first series of computer touch-screens, showing what can happen when you build a better mouse.


Catch Me if You Can (2003) Spielberg, with a considerably lighter touch, tells the story of Frank Abignale Jr., who, shattered and adrift from his parents' divorce, gravitates to the edge of society and becomes an expert forger and jack of all professions. Leonardo DeCaprio is a hoot as a kid who just wants to belong somewhere, and Tom Hanks squashes any ego to play the flat-foot FBI guy who dogs his tail. Divorce is a subject close to Spielberg, and he must have been drawn to the story of a kid dealing with it...by doing anything he wants, and DeCaprio's Frank could be Empire of the Sun's "Jim," another loose cannon on deck, all semi-grown-up. There's some particularly good work by Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Jennifer Garner
along the way, and a snazzy, jazzy score that lets John Williams go back in time to when he was a jazz session-man named Johnny Williams. Look for Amy Adams in an early role, along with Elizabeth Banks and Amy Acker. Spielberg was always able to spot talent and use it early.



The Terminal (2004)
What Spielberg accomplished with Catch Me If You Can was needed on The Terminal, as, for some reason, its a return to heavy-handed direction. Maybe its because the film is so set-bound (A nearly-scale jet terminal and concourse was constructed to exacting detail on a sound-stage and the majority of filming took place there), or maybe the director thought there was a bigger message (a comment on the situation of illegal immigrants, perhaps? If so, it's buried under too much Spielberg-business) but the story of a Slavic visitor whose homeland goes to war and leaves him without a country and with invalid papers--thus making him incapable of leaving the terminal without being arrested and deported--overstays its visa. There is some great work with the minimum-wage employees of the port who form a greek chorus and cheering section for Hanks' character (and Zoe Saldana is featured—in an act of serendipity, she gives the Vulcan salute). But the film goes astray with Catherine Zeta-Jones as a cute/clutzy stew. You just don't buy her as being so pathetic. Ultimately when all is revealed one gets the impression of a balloon encased in concrete. All the potential charm is squeezed out of it by Spielberg's leaden direction. Spielberg would again take a year break and then quickly produce another two films in a year.



The War of the Worlds (2006)
Spielberg and Cruise again. This time Spielberg was paying homage to the original Paramount film, as well as Welles' (Orson's) radio version, and the original Wells (H.G.) novel, while also drilling down on something that had been fascinating Spielberg since September 11th--the idea of American refugees. War of the Worlds delivers that image in spades. There were all sorts of gripes about the tripod walkers (its from the book!) and the way the story just sort of ends (IT'S FROM THE BOOK! ALRIGHT??!), but at least no one complained about not making the invaders "Martians" anymore. I found Spielberg's devotion to the predecessors admirable, and only once does he succumb to "Tom Cruise-Super Hero" mode, (Cruise is blessedly at his most restrained). Dakota Fanning is extraordinary, and to see the stars of the Paramount version at the end of the trail warmed my heart. The only section of the film that disappoints is the extended scenes in Tim Robbins' basement. Robbins' performance is over-the-top, and the sequence kills any momentum for the film. But all in all, its a great attempt to modernize the classic while staying true to its red roots.

But, there’s more: One can see War of the Worlds as the final part of a trilogy of films, just as
Oliver Stone had a Viet Nam troika—all taking on different perspectives of that conflict. Close Encounters is The Searchers with E.T.’s instead of Commanche’s—little Barry is abducted and it’s his mother's quest to get him back. In E.T. one of the aliens is the one left stranded and he must find his own way home, just as Elliott must turn aside his selfishness and aid his alien-friend in doing so. In War of the WorldsTom Cruise is the “Ethan Edwards” character—a deadbeat dad, self-centered, another in a long-line of men with “Peter Pan” syndrome in Spielberg films. In his “search” he must get his family home and reunited with their mother. And his hanging-back from going inside that home is a direct reflection of the ending of The Searchers (In fact, I was half-way expecting Cruise to grip his arm at the end, but he didn’t).  It's not enough to say "we are not alone."  We never really were.



Munich (2006) The same year as War of the Worlds, Spielberg came out with this. It's the fictionalized story of a specific Mossad unit's hunting down of the perpetrators of the Munich Massacre at the '72 Olympics. It had been filmed once before as "Sword of Gideon" for the Showtime cable channel, but Spielberg and his scripters ("Angels in America" author Tony Kushner and veteran scribe Eric Roth) pull out all the stops and consider the cost of revenge on the team-members and the future outcome of that mission. Brutal and completely cynical, Munich is a very mature telling of a spy story, with all the possibilities for compromise, double-dealings and betrayals—as well as the identification with the "other side" that a story of this type can lend itself to. Plus, there are all the set-pieces of assassinations that Spielberg winds up like lethal Swiss watches. It's a bit like "Mission: Impossible" with guilt, and there are images from this movie that you will never, ever get out of your head. Eric Bana leads the cast with a couple of the assassins played by future Bond Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds. Plus, look for Mathieu Amalric and Marie-Josée Croze of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. After two films in the shadow of the dust-cloud of 9/11, Spielberg decided to lighten up for his next film.  But that shadow still remained.



Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) Comfort food. That's what you could call the fourth "Indiana Jones" film, after the harrowing one-two punch of his previous films. It was a chance to team with old pals, and do something lighter and more fanciful. But getting a story was the tough part. Spielberg, Lucas and star Harrison Ford tossed ideas around for years, leading to a decade of anticipation and false-expectations. When the movie was actually released, the fan-boys turned on it for stretching credulity too far ("Nuking the fridge" became a variation of "jumping the shark"), as if the first three films were somehow rooted in reality. Please.

Crystal Skull represents the true sequel to the original Raiders in terms of quality and verve. Where the other films were "variations on a theme" to the first, Crystal Skull embraces the filmic-culture of the time it is set. Instead, of the raucous serials of the 40's, this one is set in the 50's with such B-movie drive-in staples as Red-scare villains, hot-rodders, biker-boys, nuclear consequences and Invaders from Another World—I was only slightly disappointed that a nuclear explosion didn't create a giant creature-critter off in the distance. The film is buttressed by two "Indy-in-thrall" shots—one of a nuclear explosion and the other of an inter-dimensional ship tearing up the landscape in lift-off, that represent a choice between the destructive and the transportive, and serves as a cautionary presentation of choice for the McGuffin of the story—knowledge and its uses. There's more to "Crystal Skull" than its detractors have the patience to see. An article in the works will explore that, and speculate about what would be fun in the future...IF a rumored fifth "Indiana Jones" film comes to fruition. Part of me hopes it doesn't, because Spielberg could be better used on other projects.




The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) Spielberg teamed up with Peter Jackson to make this motion-capture animation version of the internationally popular Tintin books by Hergé.  Fun idea, especially for the ever-growing international audiences that seem to be a bit more predictable than jaded American ones.  But Tintin gave those who had been following Spielberg a special treat—an answer to a question no one had dared consider—what would Spielberg do with a film if he had no limitations whatsoever?  The results are almost hallucinatory.  The film starts out with a fairly standard pattern of Spielberg wizardry, pin-wheeling shots and edits. But before long, it turns into one long tracking shot, moving in and out of flashback, wheeling through chases that move from perspective to perspective without so much as a cut, stunts that couldn't be filmed, let alone approved for insurance purposes, and enough dog endangerment to produce life-threatening seizures in an entire kennel of ASPCA inspectors.  It's 1941 without the "restraint" and with a bit more class.  The learning curve of Spielberg with this film came quickly, conquering the "uncanny valley" and allowing the characters to squint to overcome it. And given its nautical theme, there's enough swaying from flash-back to flash-forward to evoke a certain wooziness.  Still, it makes you wonder  what other tricks Spielberg might have up his sleeve, given no restraint.  The thought is almost scary.


Spielberg is approaching the best of both worlds--he's working with some of the finest dramatists and authors available, while keeping his visual eye peeled for the striking image. If he has one weakness entering into his Senior Year, it is that constant desire to make Play-Mountains out of Mole-Hills.**** He can do anything he wants, with as much money as people can throw at him. But, Spielberg tends to work best with constraint...whether with time or budget, and that has a tendency to make him come up with better story-telling solutions than if he could do everything he wanted--a lesson learned from Jaws and Raiders... At least, he seems to know that--with his extended pre-production periods and his break-neck pace making movies these days. As for subject matter, his "light" films now carry darker nuances, while his more heavy subjects are benefiting from his more streamlined directorial style. Spielberg seems to have left his naivete behind, while keeping his sense of wonder...and outrage. Of all his contemporaries (Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, DePalma), he has managed to broaden and deepen his technique and subject matter in a cinematic environment that goes for the quick buck, and least common denominator. Of all of them, Spielberg seems to be the one getting better and wiser, in an age of the dumbed down movie despite all the money and clout he has earned throughout his career. It will be fascinating to see what he does with it in the future.




Freshman Year (1971-1981) Sophomore Year(1982-1993)

* One particular cast-member is a funny one: Darren Burrows who played "Ed," Cicely's aspiring film-maker and an obsessive student of Spielberg in "Northern Exposure."

** I have a vivid memory of watching Ryan for the first time. Ten minutes in, I realized I was in pain, so I pulled my head out of the movie, and realized I was ducking down in my seat. To avoid the bullets. I straightened up to watch the rest of the movie, but I did it with respect.

*** I've heard this rumor that its Kevin Costner as the German soldier shot through his rifle sight. Sure looks like him.

**** He did this literally—though in reverse—in the fourth Indiana Jones movie.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Steven Spielberg (2 of 4)

Steven Spielberg, Sophomore Year

One of the exciting things about seeing movies over an extended period of time is seeing the growth of a genuine artist. Despite reservations about his early output, it was obvious from the outset that Steven Allen Spielberg was a dynamic story-teller and a wizard in communicating with a camera. His training manuals were the classics of the film-makers of spectacle—the David Leans and Alfred Hitchcock's and Cecil B. DeMille's, the guys who made expansive roadshows that appealed to a mass audience. They made movies of exotic places and large personalities that could fill a Cinemascope expanse with adventure and color and grandeur. They could also manipulate an audience with their technique to fill them with awe and wonder, or propel them out of their seats in an explosion of popcorn. Movies were a thrill-ride, but with better scenery. From the beginning, Spielberg had that impresario spirit to look at an audience as a territory to be conquered: give them bread and circuses and chases. Tell them a story and give them a thrill. Very quickly, he became his own brand: "A Spielberg Film" was something to see.

At this stage of his career, after the high promise of Jaws and the lessons learned from the excesses and poor box-office performance of 1941, the lean and mean adventures of Indiana Jones for Lucasfilm emboldened Spielberg to form his own production company, Amblin Entertainment.




E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) Having directed the most crowd-pleasing film for the Summer of 1981, Spielberg began developing stories he had ideas for, but not the time or inclination to devote all of his energies to. One was his "haunted-house-in-the suburbs" romp, which became Poltergeist. Spielberg produced, but gave the directing reins to Texas Chainsaw Massacre auteur Tobe Hooper. A variation on the theme—Gremlins, written by Chris Columbus—was dispatched to Roger Corman alum Joe Dante. An anthology film based on Rod Serling's Twilight Zone was on the horizon. But, for himself, Spielberg developed a more personal, kid-friendly version of Close Encounters of the Third KindE.T., The Extra-Terrestrial.  A shift on CE3K's "little boy lost" theme, ET focused on a lost parasitic alien who gloms onto the middle child of a dysfunctional family, and teaches the kid about self-sacrifice and unselfishness...by, presumably, letting go of the link that was leeching the life out of the boy and sacrificing himself. This makes ET the most obvious Christ allegory since Klaatu made the Earth stand still. And, yes, ET is also a sci-fi variation of Lassie. With so many traces of classics running through it, how could it miss having its glowing finger on the pulse of just about everybody in America? ET quickly became Spielberg's second record-smashing blockbuster, trumping George Lucas' Star Wars (which had, in turn, swamped Spielberg's Jaws) for the #1 ticket-generating film of all time. One could become cynical about the mega-success of the film, but it does generate strong emotions, tug at the heart-strings and earns its sustained farewell scene with a pay-off where ET parrots significant dialogue back to his adopted family. ET remained the "most popular film of all time" until it was sunk by
James Cameron's Titanic 20 years later (a record Cameron overtook with his own Avatar).


Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) One can't mention TZ-The Movie, without acknowledging the lethal elephant in the room, that being the helicopter crash on-set
that killed actor Vic Morrow and the two Vietnamese children he was carrying in his arms. The accident on director John Landis' watch cast a pall over the entire enterprise. There were other segments—Spielberg's, and one each by George Miller and Joe Dante. Spielberg's seemed a natural—an adaptation of George Clayton Johnson's "Kick the Can," a sentimental tale of a group of old folks who lose themselves in a childhood game and return to their youth, literally. Richard Matheson's expansion spends more time with the kids (the least interesting part, really), but as Spielberg was becoming known as a "kids' director" (a title he would grow tired of later), one would think it was playing to his strengths. But, the "Kick the Can" segment is mawkish and curdlingly sentimental. It wears out its welcome (and its sense of wonder) very quickly, leaving a definite change in quality going from the inferior Landis-Spielberg segments into the riskier and better-fulfilled Dante-Miller segments.



Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) Things start out promising for the second Indiana Jones film, a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark--with a rollicking parody of Busby Berkeley musicals with the appropriate sentiment of "Anything Goes" to a free-wheeling romp as "Indy" tries to recover a diamond and the antidote to a poison he's been fed while an all-singing/all-dancing running battle erupts in a crowded nightclub (called the "Club Obi-Wan"). Unfortunately, that "Anything Goes" promise extends to just about every aspect of this lumbering, elephantine production. Far darker and violent than Raiders (because of it, the MPAA created the more restrictive PG-13 rating), it's a mean-spirited, gratuitous exercise with kids beating up on each other, our anthropologist hero being beaten with wood-beams and torches, the villain reaching into the chest of a sacrificial victim and tearing out his heart (before the guy is lowered into a lava-pit and burned alive! Alive? He just had his heart torn out!), and a ludicrous race through a mine-shaft that feels like a spastic E-ticket at Disneyland (if the stop-motion puppetry weren't so apparent). Add to this, Indiana (while under the spell of villain Mola Ram) turns into a really evil guy, and any sympathetic audience member has his loyalties severely tested. Also testing are the antics of Kate Capshaw as the high-strung, high-pitched heroine and the by-now-inevitable-in-Spielberg's-bag of-tricks "cute-kid" named "Short Round" who you sincerely wish Jones might drop off at the next orphanage.  An unpleasant experience all the way around. "Anything Goes," indeed. So sorry I went.




Amazing Stories (1985-1987): "Ghost Train"/"The Mission" Amblin's first foray into television was an anthology series (great!), featuring high-end budgets (terrific!) and direction by veterans (Eastwood, Zemeckis, Dante) and talented newcomers (Mick Garris, Phil Joanou, Brad Bird) (awesome!) on some of the thinnest threads of stories that could be stretched out to half-an-hour (...meh!). The "Amazing Stories" always looked good, but 90% of them were dramatically inert, offering few surprises and overstaying their welcome by at least ten minutes. The premiere episode directed by Spielberg, "Ghost Train," based on a Spielberg story (a lot of them were half-baked Spielberg kernels of an idea, although one was turned into the feature length ...batteries not included) was one such example. But damn, if "The Mission" didn't hold your attention and keep you white-knuckled until its far-fetched, disappointing ending. One of the few hour-long "Amazing" stories, "The Mission" is a clever nail-biter about a bomber crew trying to return home with their landing gear inoperable and the lower belly-gunner trapped in his perspex bubble. There's no way the commander (Kevin Costner right before he went big with The Untouchables) can land without crushing and killing their gunner who has become their "lucky charm." The characters are well-drawn, Spielberg keeps the tension white-hot, and its only the ending that's a cheat. Up until the last minute, "The Mission" is one of Spielberg's best achievements in directing.


The Color Purple (1985) When choosing a director who could be counted on to adapt the story of an abused black woman finding her identity and worth after a life-time of having it supressed, Steven Spielberg is not the first choice to come to mind. No space-aliens! No sharks! No cute kids! (In fact, the kids here are the meanest little scamps outside a
Peckinpah film!) And part of the problem with The Color Purple is Spielberg's earnest attempt to turn its rustic story of simple gifts and the struggle for simple dignity into Gone with the Wind. The approach leads to some raw, unflinching emotions and scenes of grandeur (particularly the way Spielberg weaves the scenes of Celie reading her sister's long-suppressed letters from Africa, with her imaginings of what that far-away country must be, interweaving and warping the continuity of those scenes), but it has the tendency to top-load things with unecessary theatricality. You end up watching the spectacle without feeling the emotions that are trying to be conveyed. One can't help but suspect it was Spielberg reaching for an Oscar, which had eluded him with Jaws and CE3K. Still, the director gets miraculous performances out of Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery. Eventually, Spielberg would find a way to get out of the way of the story.


Empire of the Sun
 (1987) ...But not just yet. Spielberg recruited playwright Tom Stoppard to script this adaptation of J. G. Ballard's fictionalized rememberance of life in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, and the concepts are a bit more solidified than usual. Spielberg still goes for "The Big Moment" every reel or so, but when it comes to the emotional climax of the film (young Jim Graham reunited with his parents after the war), he mercifully underplays it and exploits it for irony. It's one of his best films in his early period, and he gets great performances out of a pre-teen Christian Bale and John Malkovich, from very early in his career. It may, at first glance, seem an odd choice for Spielberg to make, but one can see themes of dysfunction and the finding of hidden strengths that have cropped up consistently in his films, and many of the images he produces in this particular film haunt. He was starting to craft a better way of story-telling than consistently "going for the fences" with every sequence, creating a more mature, understated way to make films. That doesn't mean he wasn't still capable of something bombastic, however...




Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989) The third Indiana Jones adventure further expanded the Jones universe. He was still fighting the Nazis later in the war, but Spielberg began his film with the adventures of a young Indiana Jones (played by River Phoenix) in a sequence that establishes—probably too much—the trademarks of the elder Indy, right down to bull-whip, hat, and Harrison Ford's scar above the chin. And to further the process along, we're introduced to his father, Professor Henry Jones, Snr., biblical scholar and seeker of the Holy Grail, played by the man who portrayed Indiana Jones' inspiration, Sean Connery. Connery doesn't quite get a handle on the elder Jones, the portrayal being inconsistent from scene to scene, but he does pull off the essentials--the pivotal scene where, to distract "Junior" from grasping at the Grail that is jeopardizing his life (and has monopolized his own) he calls him "Indiana" for the first time, and implores him to "let it go." There are nifty little set-pieces throughout, with a particularly terrific sequence where, using Grail-lore, Henry Jones the younger must best several death-traps, culminating in a literal "leap of faith" to achieve his goals. Ultimately, the film is not nearly as satisfying as the first, but it's a great deal better than the second, so that's progress. ***



Always (1989)
On Spielberg's list of favorite films is one that sticks out like a sore thumb. There, among the films of Kubrick and Lean and Truffaut, is A Guy Named Joe, a sentimental WWII movie (directed by Victor Fleming of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) about a fighter pilot who is killed in the line of duty and, having a rough time adjusting to the after-life, returns to look in on and meddle with the in-progress lives of those he's left behind. Eventually, he accepts his fate and leaves things to proceed without him. Maybe it has something to do with letting go of ego, or it might be about Spielberg's parents divorcing and his acceptance of it. But in making his own version, his screenwriters took it out of the war and into the realm of aerial fire-fighters, where there is constant risk, but not constant death. For the Spencer Tracy role, Spielberg turned to his "alter ego," Richard Dreyfuss, along with Holly Hunter and John Goodman...and Audrey Hepburn in her last role, playing Heaven's Concierge. Where Tracy's take could seem selfishly pig-headed, Dreyfuss comes across as selfishly pig-headed AND creepily manipulative, leading those he loves to the brink of suicide. When last I looked at this film, I saw it as romantic fluff—and it is—but it is also Spielberg's anti-Vertigo: On Dorinda's (Hunter) birthday, Dreyfuss' character buys her "GIRL-clothes" (as she effusively warbles). In the male-dominated flight-world, Dreyfuss' Pete is the only one who doesn't see Dorinda as "just one of the boys" and, like James Stewart's "Scottie" Ferguson, he wants to turn the woman he loves into his heart’s desire, and so manipulates her into becoming what he wants to see. This gives the film added resonance after his death and manipulation of Dorinda (making it just as much her film as his), and yes, nearly driving her to suicide, but also showing her how to save her own life. When he turns his back on his former life (and former love), he allows her to be the person she is going to be—and lets her take the path of her life—without him. "That's my girl," is his final ironic line. Poignant, sad, and brave...and a better film than first thought upon a reconsideration.



Hook (1991) A "package" deal—all the major players shared the same agency—Hook is a lumpish creature of disparate parts—and a film in desperate need of a light touch. It's not provided, however, and what should be a story with a sense of elation feels a bit juiced-up...like its been pumped with performance-enhancers, not unlike 1941. Set-bound, despite a thick veneer of special effects, it manages to feel claustrophobic, instead, as the elaborate nature of, well, everything becomes wearying. Robin Williams wasn't too happy working on it.
Julia Roberts wasn't. Dustin Hoffman appears to be enjoying himself, but he also appears to be playing to himself. And Spielberg, working on a complicated set-bound production found himself annoyed with the shenanigans of the kid-actors playing "Lost Boys." The "kid's director" had met his match. Or maybe he'd grown up just a little--a little ironic for this sequel to "Peter Pan."

Or maybe the more seasoned, more mature Spielberg was trying too hard to recapture something he'd already left behind.  Hook is the last, sputtering gasp of a sugar-coated diet.  



Jurassic Park (1993) Here's the deal: Spielberg, after years of owning the rights to, and nurturing the script for Schindler's List finally bit the bullet and decided to direct it himself (he'd been trying to get Scorsese to make it). Universal, his studio of choice, wasn't convinced of the box office potential of a black-and-white movie about the holocaust (Go figure!), so they coerced Spielberg to first make Jurassic Park, which had far greater box office potential, in order to off-set the anticipated Schindler loss. One can quibble about how craven a movie Jurassic Park is -- like Hook isn't -- but one has to admire the pedigree and brio that Spielberg brought to the project. The casting is superb: Sam Neill, Richard Attenborough, Samuel L. Jackson, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Peck all bring spark to the interchangeable cyphers of Michael Crichton's novel. And it's Spielberg in full "eating machine" mode. It's his most devilishly-intended thrill ride since Jaws. One particular scene stands out: Neil and the kids—there are kids, but they're good this time—have to scale an out-of-commission high-voltage electric fence, while elsewhere in the Park, Laura Dern is trying to restore power to the Island. Spielberg hangs on the sequence putting the lagging-behind boy-child in mortal danger of frying...and he stages it in an almost gleeful way (maybe it was those irritating "Lost Boys" from Hook...). The other thing about Jurassic Park is that it was aided immeasurably by Lucasfilm's post-production efforts to seamlessly integrate CGI dinosaurs into the frame. The results are spectacular, and changed the way movies have been made ever since. For some reason, Spielberg seems to be the master of integrating CGI and live-action than most directors...save for James Cameron.



Schindler's List (1993) While Lucas and Co. slaved away making pixilated dinosaurs, Spielberg was in Poland making Schindler's List. After years of toiling with the screenplay and casting, Spielberg was making his dream project...and he was miserable. The subject matter and the brutal way that he was presenting it...and the "ugly step-sister" reaction of Universal to it...deeply depressed him. Reportedly, he would call Robin Williams every night to make him laugh to get through it. Whatever it took, Schindler's List is a revelation. There are no camera tricks. No flashy set-ups. ** There is no romanticism. Schindler's List is bare-bones movie-making, and only once, where Schindler breaks down over the lives that might have been bought had he been a tad less materialistic, does it become sentimental. It's the most un-Spielbergian Spielberg movie that he had directed to that time. Eliciting uniformly terrific performances out of his cast, but particularly Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley, he brings out the best performance that Liam Neeson has ever displayed, probably because Schindler was a notorious performer. After years of reaching in subject matter to win Oscars, this one won him Best Director and Best Picture. Spielberg had arrived.


Spielberg's pattern would now be to produce any number of ventures, juggling them and a new family life (with Kate Capshaw and an extended family) take a couple years off, diversify with interest in documentaries and video-games, and then speed through two films a year. To do all that, he needed to expand his capabilities from merely heading a production company, like Amblin. He would have to become a studio. The one-two punch of the profitability of Jurassic Park and the prestige of Schindler's List would allow him to accomplish that.

The Sophomore Years (1971-19)




* But, not as good as the fourth would be. When I first did this retrospective, the news of the Return of the Great Adventure prompted a sad reprise of "The Last Crusade's" best line: "George, Steven, Harry...let it go." But, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a return to the series' roots, reflecting the times—and the movies of the times—in which it was set. Skull's setting was a nice conglomerate of 50's B-movie material with commie paranoia, saucer-men, and far-fetched nuclear fall-out all playing hands, while moving on to a mature understanding of the world and one's life in it. (I wrote about that more in a further review (which will appear here soon) called "Indiana Jones and the Terrible Age of Wonders.")

** ...save for a couple of rare instances of particularly eye-drawing moments of color.