(On DVD, October 2017) “Christian Bale plays J.G. Ballard” is a really weird sentence to contemplate for anyone who knows a bit about twenty-first century blockbuster movies and new-wave sixties prose Science Fiction. It’s even half-true. Empire of the Sun certainly features Christian Bale in one of his first major roles, and adapts J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel to the big screen. However, Ballard’s autobiographical experience mostly applies to the first part of the film, which depicts the lavish lifestyle of the British upper-class in early-WW2 Shanghai and their internment in civilian camps after the Japanese invasion. There are differences, though, as explained in a fascinating 2006 essay on the novel and the film by Ballard himself: Ballard spent the war in a camp with his parents, modified his character’s arc to differentiate it from himself and generally provided more closure than reality afforded. Still, as reported, Christian Bale did introduce himself to the author by saying “Hello, Mr Ballard. I’m you.” (The essay multiplies the strangeness—the film was partially filmed near Ballard’s home, leading some of his neighbours to feature in the film as extras.) The film itself is a study in the kind of old-school epic war drama that seems to have disappeared from the current movie landscape in favour of CGI-fuelled fantasy spectacles. There are a number of scenes with thousands of extras, a story that spans years, gorgeously fantastic sights captured in-camera without special effects (such as a stadium filled with objects taken by the Japanese) and an overall sweep to the story that feels prodigious. Bale is fine as the sometimes-unwitting protagonist of the story, but John Malkovich is delightfully amoral as a survivor trying his best to make it through the war, while various other notables such as Miranda Richardson, Joe Pantoliano and Ben Stiller (!) show up in smaller parts. The depiction of Shanghai is gripping, as is the way normalcy is disrupted in small and big ways after the Japanese invasion. The airplane motif is well done, and the film does earn its relatively happy conclusion. Dark humour and vertiginous sights (such as a faraway glimpse at nuclear explosions) enliven an already satisfying story. The result is still surprisingly engaging thirty years later—but then again, it’s a Steven Spielberg production.
(Second viewing, Netflix Streaming, April 2017) When people point to Jaws reprovingly as the one movie that changed cinema (for the worse) ever after by introducing the concept of the blockbuster, I usually have to smile. I was born almost exactly three months after Jaws’ release date, and for a cinephile such as myself it feels amusing to think that my year of birth was the year that cinema changed. Après moi le deluge, or something like it. Still: Jaws is Jaws, the very definition of an iconic film, from its musical theme to the poster image to a handful of classic quotes and shots. As an action movie, Jaws shows its age, but as a suspense film, Steven Spielberg still knocks it out of the park—and that’s still true even after four decades of shark movies inevitably compared to granddaddy Jaws. Rob Scheider is the likable everyday man, while Richard Dreyfuss turns in a likable performance as a dedicated scientist. Jaws has the added particularity of having very distinct halves—the last act dispenses with nearly everything coastal to focus on three men in a boat and a shark around them. It still works. It really still works: the terror of the shark is still visceral, and the joy in which the final explosion is greeted rivals the Death Star’s explosion in Star Wars. It’s a compulsively entertaining crowd pleaser, but it’s also crafted with care, and reflects the mid-seventies in a way that seems almost quirky today. As a kid, I remember being half-terrified by the film’s occasional showings on TV—I don’t remember much of the rest of the film, although I do note that its original PG rating is ridiculous—it’s at least a PG-13 now, bordering on R due to gore. But no matter how you see it, Jaws remains a great movie.
(Third viewing, On DVD, April 2017) There are many reasons why I shouldn’t like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a bit too cozy with bunk-science UFOlogy, for instance, and the plot (especially in its first half-hour) falls apart as soon as you look too closely. It’s long, meandering, is far too fond of weirdness for weirdness’ sake and the “goodbye kids, I’m going to space” ending leaves a sour taste in my mind. (Although Spielberg has, since becoming a father himself, recanted that ending.) On the other hand, most of these reasons are why Close Encounters of the Third Kind still works fantastically well today. Even forty years later, it still stands as a well-executed take on the well-worn first contact scenario. It’s a film that plays heavily on pure wonder, which remains an all-too-rare emotion in Hollywood cinema. It tricks our point of view (our hero is justifiably mad from any other perspective than his), is comfortable in blue-collar suburbia, paints aliens as benevolent (if unknowable) and spends no less than a final half-hour in a nearly wordless light-and-sound show. It’s also a movie that’s unusually emotion-driven: it doesn’t always make logical sense, but it’s certainly effective at creating suspense, awe or surprise. As flawed as it is, it remains one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. The special effects of the 1998 Director’s Cut are still convincing (well, except for some of the alien shots), the seventies period detail is now charming (even the reliance on UFOlogy lore now seems less and less harmful), Richard Dreyfuss makes a great next-door-neighbour protagonist, and it’s kind of cool to see film legend François Truffaut in a strong supporting role. I recall my parents discussing Close Encounters of the Third Kind with their friends once it hit television broadcast, along with my own memories of sequences such as the five tones, first backroad pursuit and, of course, the ending sequence which was completely enigmatic as a kid. I saw it again as a teenager and kept a good memory of the experience. So I’m very pleased to confirm, decades later as a middle-aged adult, that the film more than holds up as a SF classic.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) If memory serves me right, I saw Jurassic Park on opening night, which happened to be my last day of high school classes. A fitting anecdote for a movie that pretty much redefined the modern blockbuster, with top-notch special effects, near-perfect direction by Steven Spielberg and iconic performances that are still references even today. Revisiting Jurassic Park nearly twenty-five years later is not unpleasant. The movie holds up far better than most of its contemporaries—the blend of practical and digital effects is still largely effective and the pacing of the movie remains exemplary. In-between Sam Neil, Laura Dern, peak-era Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough (not to mention Samuel L. Jackson in a minor role!), the movie benefits from an embarrassment of thespian riches. Still, the star here is Spielberg—Other than Jaws (which I’ll revisit soon) I’m not sure he’s directed a better suspense film than Jurassic Park—the T-Rex sequence is an anthology piece, but the Raptor climax is really good, and there’s something justifiably wondrous about the first glimpse at the dinosaurs (ba-ba-baaa, ba-ba). Ironically, the thing that dates the film most are the glimpses at the computer screens—the CGI itself, save from some imperfect compositing, is still pretty good. It helps a lot that the script is so slick at what it does—from the “Mr. DNA” exposition sequence to the great way in which the script improves upon Michael Crichton’s original novel (which was quite a bit more scattered and needlessly dark), David Koepp’s work on the script remains exemplary. Jurassic Park is the complete package: great lines, great actors, great direction, great scenes, and great special effects. It remains a landmark for a reason, and could be the best movie of 1993 if it wasn’t for that other Spielberg film Schindler’s List. Two near-perfect movie in a single year: peak-Spielberg time.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) I gather that, at the time, seeing Steven Spielberg tackle a serious socially-conscious non-genre period drama such as The Color Purple project was a bit of a novelty. Of course, in retrospect it clearly shows the beginning of an important facet of Spielberg’s filmography all the way to Schindler’s List, Amistad and Lincoln. Has it held up in light of those latter examples? Yes and no. As hard as it can be to criticize a film denouncing injustice, there are times where The Color Purple gets, well, a bit too purple. Repeated scenes of abuse get tiresome, the film moves at languid pace (the victory lap epilogue alone feels as if it takes fifteen minutes) and as similar pictures has never gone out of fashion, I’m not sure the film feels as fresh today as it might have been back then. On the other hand, it is skillfully shot, expansively detailed and it features two terrific debut performances by none other than Oprah Whitney (in a non-too-complimentary role) and Whoopi Goldberg as the main much-abused protagonist. Danny Glover is also remarkable as a repellent antagonist. As for the rest, The Color Purple is about as far from Spielberg’s earlier work as it could be, even though it is thematically consistent with some of his later films—as an attempt to shatter perceptions about what we could do, it seems to have worked splendidly. As for the rest, the film does have a timeless nature—the depiction of the early twentieth century still looks credible, and had the film come out today, chances are that it would have done just as well in the Oscars sweepstake. Obviously best seen by people with an interest in period drama, The Color Purple may not be an easy watch, but it eventually proves its worth.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) I remember two or three jokes from my first viewing of Hook more than twenty years ago, but not a whole lot more. I have noted a certain polarization of opinion about the film—a lot of regular people like it, while critics don’t. I watched the film in regular-person mode, and wasn’t displeased from the experience: Despite claims of this being a sequel to the original Pan, Hook is very much a retelling … so closely so that it gives rise to some vexing issues (as in: “why bother?”) There is a very late-eighties quality to the way the action is staged in Neverland, prisoner of limited soundstage sets and the special effects technology of the time. As a take on the Peter Pan mythos, it’s decent without being exceptional or revolutionary—it’s still miles better than the 2016 Pan, although not quite as successful as 2003’s Peter Pan. Julia Roberts isn’t bad as Tinkerbell, although her unrequited romance is good for a few raised eyebrows. Robin Williams is OK as Peter, but it’s hard to avoid thinking that another actor may have been better-suited for the role. Meanwhile, Dustin Hoffman seems as if he’s having a lot of fun in the titular role. While Steven Spielberg directs, there is little here to reflect his legendary touch. It does strike me that Hook fits almost perfectly with the latest Disney craze of remaking its classic animated movies as live action. Perhaps contemporary opinion about the film will be more forgiving than the critical roasting it got at the time. Until that reconsecration, the result is perfectly watchable and squarely in the middle of the various takes on Peter Pan.
(Second viewing, on TV, October 2016) I practically never went to the movie theatre as a kid (I didn’t miss it much, and from my parents’ perspective, I can now understand that it was too far, too expensive and too complicated), but I did see E.T. The Extra Terrestrial in theatres and still remember bits and pieces of it. (Most notably Elliott’s initial encounter with E.T.) Later on, the movie became an object of semi-fascination given the time it took to make it to home video, the green VHS cassette and so on. Still, I hadn’t revisited the film in thirty-four years (!) and watching it now kid send me back into a mild trance of nostalgia. I know that some of it is enhanced—the version of the film I watched this time around is the 20th anniversary “walkie-talkie” edition, meaning that whatever spectacular special effects that seem to hold up so well were likely sweetened with CGI. Still, never mind the personal history or the alternate versions: Much of the core of the film is just as good today as it was in 1982, and much of the details seem even better today. E.T., much like Poltergeist, has become a time capsule of kid-centric eighties suburbia and Steven Spielberg’s skills as a director remains obvious in the way the scenes are meticulously built. The story itself is basic to an extent that allows Spielberg to focus on execution rather than plotting. The seams often show in weirdly atonal shifts (the drunk school sequence, the horrifying intrusion of white suits in an ordinary home) but they’re usually quickly patched up by finely observed details and charming performances. As an older viewer, it’s hard to miss the religious symbolism toward the end of the film, or bemoan the simplicity of the story. But those don’t quite capture the magic of the film’s execution, which gets away with flaws that would doom less gifted directors. It’s well worth a look today as one of the most Spielbergian movies in Spielberg’s filmography.
(Second or third viewing, On TV, September 2016) Forgetting something isn’t usually a cause for joy, but forgetting enough of a great movie to make it possible to rediscover it as a great movie is an exception. So it is that I remembered enough of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to remember that it was a good movie, but not enough to spoil the moment-to-moment joy of watching it again twenty years later. A far more decent follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark than the disappointing Temple of Doom, this Last Crusade quickly fires on all cylinders the moment Jones Senior (Sean Connery in one of his most enjoyable performances) shows up to rival Jones Junior. The interplay between Connery and Harrison Ford is terrific (especially when Alison Doody’s temptress character is involved), and confronting the Nazis in their backyard is a great way to heighten the stakes. Steven Spielberg is also remarkable in his action-adventure mode, cleverly building up suspense and working his audience like a fiddle—the tank sequence alone is a masterclass in how to build an action sequence. Faithfully taking up the thrill-a-minute rhythm of the serials that inspired the first film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one of the good adventure movies of the eighties, and it still works remarkably well today. For best results, watch it soon after the first film.
(Third or fourth viewing, On TV, September 2016) What a movie! I probably saw it more than twice before I started keeping online reviews in 1997, but it had been so long that I almost rediscovered the film in watching it again. It hasn’t aged much: while some of the special effects now look charmingly quaint, the pacing, shot construction, acting performances and overall sense of fun remains timeless. Harrison Ford has one of his career-best roles here, and Karen Allen is simply fantastic as Marion. Steven Spielberg directs the film with uncanny precision, and much of the practical effects are still convincing today. The use of Nazis as antagonists is guilt-free, while the mystical overtones of the story perfectly complete it rather than confuse it. Even looking at the film through the now-familiar Protagonist Redundancy Paradox (i.e.; Does Indiana Jones actually change anything through his actions?) doesn’t take away any of the thrills of the results. I’ve been revisiting a number of classic movies lately, and most of the time the reassessment isn’t kind. But with Raiders of the Lost Ark, I’m just as thrilled now as I was when I first saw the movie as a kid. What a movie!
(On Cable TV, August 2016) Whew. I’m not going to try to give a coherent review of Schindler’s List, but it has certainly earned its notoriety, awards and enduring reputation. More than twenty years later, it hasn’t aged, and in fact may have appreciated in some respects—the last sequence, presenting Holocaust survivors who have largely died since 1993, will only grow more impressive as a time capsule. Both Liam Neeson and Joseph Fiennes are terrific in their roles—there’s even a bit of canny physical casting going on with Neeson, given how his height often allows him to effortlessly become the focus of group scenes. But what’s perhaps most astonishing about Schindler’s List is how it works despite ignoring conventional wisdom. Its most transcending moments are found in digressions from the story it could have told more economically, whether it’s showing what happens to the luggage of people being hauled away to concentration camps, or a lengthy sequence detailing the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto, or another scene in which terrified women are forced into a group shower where they fear the worst. Those highlights are, at best, tangential to the film’s story about a businessman who saved more than a thousand people from being killed in concentration camps. But they pack an emotional punch that raise Schindler’s List far above countless more mechanical attempts at portraying the horrors of the Holocaust. If it means that the film is a massive 197 minutes long, then so be it: it’s so good that it passes by quickly. The essentially black-and-white cinematography is terrific, and hasn’t perceptively aged today. Director Steven Spielberg has achieved an artistic and humanitarian masterpiece here, and has done so in the same year he delivered his blockbuster Jurassic Park. Neither of these films are going away, but Schindler’s List has the added appeal that it will never be remade. Who can even pretend to retouch quasi-perfection?
(On Cable TV, April 2016) I sat down to watch Poltergeist with some apprehension: Horror movies often don’t age well, and this one had a reputation for being heavy on special effects, which don’t always age very well either. I had dim memories of being scared of parts of the movie as a young kid (enough so that without quite remembering why, I started feeling queasy when I saw the steak moving across the kitchen counter…) but otherwise approached the film fresh. Fortunately, Poltergeist still works splendidly today. It’s suspenseful, funny at unexpected times and crazy when it needs to pull all the stops. The special effects are not bad, and if the film feels familiar (it probably codified half the story beats we now associate with haunted-house stories), it’s also just quirky enough to feel fresh. The early eighties setting now has a definitive charm, as do some of the special effects limitations. Interestingly enough, modern technology now arguably enhances the film’s sense of dread: When I was intrigued enough to wonder what a hand-drawn 1988 Super Bowl poster would be doing in a 1982 movie, I immediately used my phone to Google my question … and really did not expect the answer I got. (Also: That steak crawling on the kitchen counter scene? Still gross after all these years.) On a more light-hearted note, I was impressed at the unexpected humour shown in the film as a family playfully accepts the presence of paranormal forces in its house (before a family member disappears, that is), and even more impressed at how the movie pulls out all the stops when it’s time for stuff to get completely crazy, either at mid-movie or during the all-out finale. Never mind that the various scares don’t really amount to something cohesive given the premise of the film: it’s thrilling enough to paper over any objections. The directing helps: Tobe Hooper may be listed as the director, but there’s a definitive early-Spielbergian quality to the result that practically makes the movie a full entry in Spielberg’s filmography. Of the actors, Craig T. Nelson is very good as the fatherly anchor of the film, with young Heather O’Rourke being iconic as the young Carol-Anne. Poltergeist is still fairly well-known today for a good reason: it has aged very well and even its competent 2015 remake makes it look even better.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) 2015 has been a year heavy in spy movies, but most of them emphasized comedy and action at the expense of any halfway realistic look at the profession. Fortunately, here comes Bridge of Spies to compensate for this sensational excess. Written by the Coen brothers and directed by Stephen Spielberg in his more serious mode, Bridge of Spies is a fictionalized account of the real-life Cold War heroics of James B. Donovan, an American lawyer who, almost by accident, became involved in clandestine activities. Selected to defend a man accused of spying in the US, our protagonist (ably played by Tom Hanks, making the most of his everyman persona) ends up ably defending universal values against an American government trying to pillory a target. His troubles aren’t over once that’s done, given how he then finds himself travelling to Berlin to negotiate an exchange of prisoners at a time where the Wall is going up and no-one seems quite sure who to believe. Relatively low in action (although it does feature a harrowing sequence in which Gary Powers’ U2 is shot down over the Soviet Union), Bridge of Spies makes up for it in portraying its hero as a man with a briefcase and strong principles. Mark Rylance provides crucial support with a laconic performance as a curiously sympathetic spy. At times, Bridge of Spies does run too long, and feels just a bit duller than it could have been. Compared to even the best of the other spy movies of 2015 such as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation or Kingsman, it feels positively adult, though, and that’s a substantial part of its charm. Consider it an antidote when you’ll be tired of seeing spies merely shown as gun-toting action heroes.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I’m late to Amistad, but watching it explains a lot of Steven Spielberg’s latter filmography, most obviously Lincoln. (Although I suspect that I’ll understand even more once I see The Color Purple). While I could blather on about Amistad’s excessive length and slow pacing, that would be missing the point of a film that dares to show how civilized arguments can make better humans out of everyone. This movie believes in the rule of law, but doesn’t shy away from showing distressing scenes of slavery and torture. (Amistad illuminates Lincoln’s distant treatment of slavery by the explanation that Spielberg already showed the worst in his earlier film, and wasn’t keen on graphically revisiting the issue.) It’s a period drama but a handsomely executed one, featuring actors that were either at the height of their powers (Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman) or on the verge of stardom (Matthew McConaughy, and Djimon Hounsou in a terrific performance). There are plenty of other things to like: Amistad lets subtitles play a role in the way viewers feel the story unfolding, credibly shines a light in pockets of American history that people would like to forget, ends on eloquence (albeit with an explosive coda) and appeals to our better natures. I wouldn’t necessarily call it gripping or essential, but it’s easily compelling and worthwhile … and has survived admirably well the almost-twenty years since its release.
(On TV, March 2015) Horses are noble and beautiful creatures. Doing a movie from a horse’s perspective through World War I doesn’t sound like a bad idea, and in the hands of Steven Spielberg, can become surprisingly potent at times. But at nearly two-and-a-half hours, War Horse often tests the patience of anyone who isn’t an equine fan. It takes half an hour to get to a triumphant plowing scene, for instance. But War Horse does get better and more urgent as it goes along: by the time we’re in the familiar WW1 trenches, the film holds nothing back in showing us the devastation of war on men and animals alike. Spielberg being at the helm, there are a few great sequences along the way, even though the film as a whole often seems markedly less spectacular than other Spielbergian spectacles. There’s a lot of war-is-hell content here –the film can be merciless in dispatching characters, something that the human-episodic structure (since the horse is the protagonist) takes to its fullest advantage. It adds up to a lengthy sit of a film, although rewarding for those with the patience to do so –and the last half of War Horse is quite a bit more dramatically rewarding that the first one, despite some outrageously sentimental manipulation toward the end.
(On TV, January 2015) As someone who owned the entire run of Tintin graphic novels in childhood, I wasn’t able to watch this big-screen adaptation without a bit of a protective interest. Unfortunately, I had a hard time getting comfortable with the film: The character design had a distracting bobble-head quality that sent the whole film into the uncanny valley, and I never could quite reconcile the photorealism of the settings with the way the characters looked. Despite the quality of the animation, The Adventures of Tintin reminded me of the 2001 Final Fantasy film in that it never quite could manage to make its characters feel as if they matched their surroundings. This being said, the quality of Steven Spielberg’s direction eventually made me warm up to the entire result. There are a pair of fantastic action sequences that do much to make the film worthwhile: A water-and-fire naval engagement looks great, but more remarkably a lengthy one-shot action sequence featuring characters racing downhill that would be impossible to do without CGI and a lot of direction skills. What’s fortunate is that the script is actually not too bad: witty at times, definitely steeped into a pleasant tradition of adventure films at others. Many of the early Tintin characters and details are there for the fans, and the globe-trotting tradition of the series feels intact. The Adventures of Tintin doesn’t amount to much more than a big adventure… but that’s not a bad thing. Still, I just wish a slightly-different direction had been taken about the visual look of the characters.