(On Cable TV, December 2018) I really enjoyed (with reservations) Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, but then again I was supposed to: I’m very near the nerdy child-of-the-1980s demographic that the book celebrates and aims for. There is nothing wrong in writing a novel meant to stroke the nostalgic sense of a particular audience (after all, the boomers have been doing it for at least thirty years), but Ready Player One got a particularly severe case of spotlight rot as it became a publishing success and people farther away from its intended audience started reading (and rejecting) the book. With the adaptation of the novel to film, I was looking forward to the result almost as much as I was wondering how it would smooth some of the rough edges of the original. Expectations ran high for the result—after all, there was no better outcome for the film than to be actually directed by Steven Spielberg, given Spielberg’s stature in shaping the 1980s and the novel’s frequent nods in his direction. As a director, Spielberg could also be counted upon to deliver the wow factor of a big special-effects-driven production. Fortunately, Ready Player One lives up to the hype and the apprehension. Much of the novel’s cheerful homage to 1980s geek-culture remains intact, and most of the plot has been ably adapted on-screen despite the mountains of exposition that Cline (and readers) loved along the way. It’s still a story about a young man in a dystopian future trying to make something of himself through an epic Easter egg hunt in a virtual reality environment. In the details, however, many things have changed. Even though the movie’s licensing team made heroic efforts to obtain permission to use a flurry of pop-culture references, some changes were still necessary and arguably improve the experience. I far rather enjoyed going back to an astonishing digital re-creation of The Shining than Wargames, and I suspect that Spielberg did as well. Ready Player One does fix a few of the novel’s more vexing moments, although a few annoyances do remain. Still, the point of the film is the giddiness of playing hard with pop culture, and having fun along the way. The special effects are often astonishing, and the giddiness of a few scenes (such as the Manhattan Race) are well worth a look, showing Spielberg once again at his most entertaining best. (He even had time to begin and complete The Post in-between Ready Player One’s production and completion). It’s clear that Ready Player One does remain a very specific kind of film for a very specific kind of audience, but the film expands its reach beyond the novel, and the result is an enjoyable future thriller with terrific special effects and probably as many pop-culture references as we’re likely to ever see again under the current IP framework.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) There’s a plethora of documentaries about famous directors these days, and it seemed strange not to have one about Steven Spielberg’s career. Spielberg’s two-and-a-half-hour running time certainly reflects the amount of material available for discussion: Not only does Spielberg have a forty-year career at this point, there is also a fascinating dramatic arc to a filmography in which, as he himself will admit, he grew up and matured behind the camera as audiences were watching. Spielberg went from pure pop entertainment to some of the most acclaimed dramatic movies in recent Hollywood history, and this progression does end up forming much of the native backbone to this HBO documentary. Numerous interviews with well-chosen subject help flesh out commentary from Spielberg himself. This being an authorized biography, do expect a sympathetic overview of his wok—while some reviewers ding a few obvious items in the Spielberg filmography, much of it reflects the consensus opinion with a few illustrative details. Not every Spielberg film gets equal treatment—there’s deservedly a lot to say about Schindler’s List, and almost no mention of Always. Alas, the film is already a reflection of its time—the material coming from the end of 2016, it talks about Lincoln but not about the Ready Player One/The Post early-2018 one-two punch echoing Spielberg’s 1993 annus mirabilis. Still, there are a few revelations here for casual Spielberg fans—I knew the broad outlines of what led to the character-defining divorce of his parents, for instance, but did not know that they had reconciled in the past few years. Because of carefully chosen details such as those, Spielberg remains an entertaining and well-structured overview of a big and important career.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) There’s something quietly amazing in how Steven Spielberg, now that he has mastered the filmic form, can go from wide-screen spectacle to a far more restrained drama and deliver said smaller movie in the time it takes for the bigger movie to complete post-production. As the story goes, Spielberg read The Post’s script in February 2017, started shooting in May, wrapped up editing in November and the film made it to theatres in time for the December Oscar season—all the while blockbuster Ready Player One underwent post-production and release. That’s ludicrously fast, but you can understand the urgency while watching the film. After all, The Post is a full-throated defence of the power of a free and independent press unafraid to aim for the biggest targets—something very much needed considering the authoritarian behaviour of the current American administration. It specifically tackles the story of the Pentagon Papers, and specifically the decision of The Washington Post to publish from the papers at a time when it wasn’t clear if this was an illegal act. You know how it’s going to end, but the script wisely focuses on then-new owner Katharine Graham as she wrestles with the decision to publish, balancing legal and business exposure with journalistic duty. With Meryl Streep playing Graham and Tom Hanks as the legendary Ben Bradlee, Spielberg can rely on screen legends to deliver the drama, and the film is never quite as good as when it features characters batting around big ideas as they relate to their current situation. It’s an inspiring film, perhaps a bit too rearranged to suit dramatic requirements but not outrageously so. Spielberg’s direction remains satisfying even when there are no car chases, supernatural creatures or fantastic landscapes to behold—this is one of his tight dramatic films that would have been released straight to video had it not featured his producing and directing skills. The Post also explicitly positions itself as a prequel to All the President’s Men and generally sustains the scrutiny created by the association. I’d call it essential viewing in these troubled, often truth-alternative times, but I fear that the only people willing to watch the film are those already convinced of its righteousness.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) While The BFG was a box-office disappointment, I think it will modestly endure as a decent family movie thanks to some solid directing from Steven Spielberg: He’s been making popular entertainment for so long that he gives the impression of being able to direct them on autopilot and still deliver the same level of quality. Here, his roving camera once again takes centre stage as he tells the story of a young girl and her Big Friendly Giant friend as they fight against less friendly giants. The queen, and then the British military eventually get involved. I’m not going to pretend that The BFG is a hidden gem: there are some basic issues with the film that hold it back—notably the somewhat repulsive character design, non-jolly discussion of children being eaten, some uncanny-valley issues in presenting almost-human CGI characters, the exasperating malapropisms and many of the cheaper jokes. On the other hand, the direction is superb, the special effects are very well done, and the film’s second half becomes wilder and wilder in terms of plotting and incidents. Newest Spielberg muse Mark Rylance is quite good as the titular BFG, while Ruby Barnhill sustains a lot of attention as the teenage protagonist. Meanwhile, my inexplicable crush on Rebecca Hall continues unabated thanks to a minor but solid supporting role. While there isn’t much to the film’s plot, the wall-to-wall special effects are used wisely to heighten the fairy-tale nature of the film and create characters from motion-capture technology. Considering The BFG‘s disappointing box-office returns, it’s likely that we won’t see anything similar for a while … so let’s appreciate what we’ve got.
(In French, On TV, May 2018) There’s been a Duel-sized hole in my Steven Spielberg filmography since forever (I remember wanting to see the film in the late eighties after reading a book about Spielberg and E.T.), so it’s great to finally being able to watch the film that propelled him to the big leagues. Originally made for TV, Duel proves to be a classic suspense film starring a harried long-distance commuter, a winding road and a mysterious truck that just wants to kill him. (The trucker is almost entirely absent from the film, so the truck becomes the antagonist.) Executed on a budget but with high standards, Duel ends up carrying its rather simplistic premise far longer than anyone would have expected. Road rage is now a more common fear than back in 1971, so there is some universally applicable suspense in seeing a truck become murderously determined to harm a motorist in a small car. While the premise isn’t bulletproof (get off the road! Take a real highway!), Duel does multiply plot points and mini-vignettes in an attempt to keep the suspense high. Dennis Weaver is bland but serviceable as the everyday man protagonist—not much is required of him but channel your average audience member and he does it well. There is some thematic content here about dehumanization and masculinity, but the focus is on pure suspense: the film is still effective today, largely because of its focus on essentials. Very few TV movies have aged as well as Duel.
(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?