Rating: The Good – 93.7 Genre: War, History Duration: 195 mins Director: Steven Spielberg Stars: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Steven Spielberg’s most personal film about the attempt of a German industrialist to save 1,100 Jews from the gas chambers by cajoling, bribing, and manipulating the greedy, preening officers of the SS camp in which they worked. There are few subjects so in need of honourable treatment than the Holocaust of WWII and that might explain why there are precious few cinematic accounts out there. That the most moving came from the master of the big screen adventure is both unlikely and likely. Yes, he is better known for movies aimed at younger audiences that leave little if anything to the imagination (because he succeeds so completely in getting it all up there on screen) but by the early 90’s, Steven Spielberg had already shown us he was capable of crafting touching broad-scale dramas with the likes of The Colour Purple. He had also demonstrated a cultured understanding of moviemaking with masterpieces like Jaws. That said, his experience with the ‘in-your-face’ cinematic techniques of the Hollywood emotional payoff is as much responsible for the effectiveness of this film as his more deft qualities. For the holocaust is a piece of history that requires in-your-face type confrontation. The cruelty and horror of what happened to the Jews needs to be shoved down our throats every now and then so we truly don’t forget. Yes, the artistry of the more subtle scenes elevates this film to the echelons of cinematic greatness and that is edifying for its status as a film, and yes, the more mature examination of the complexities of cruelty, guilt, and mass hatred can culture our understanding of humanity. But it’s the refusal to shy away from the raw horror of what happened that gives this film it’s universal resonance and that is imperative.
The result is a gruelling watch that will turn your face to stone yet in some small way do justice the suffering. Technically, there’s barely a false note played from the set and costume design to the sound production. But standing out is without doubt Janusz Kaminisk’s stunningly lit monochromatic photography. Spielberg’s use of his work here is nothing short of sublime from the moment he introduces his main character to the his final scene. In retrospect it seems now that nobody could inhabit this carefully constructed space better than Liam Neeson. He brings all the gravitas of an A-lister to the film but with the daring of an actor who has had to work for a living. It’s a tightrope of a turn that requires capturing all the ego, manipulation, caring, and bravery of the man. As his right hand man, Itzhak Stern, Ben Kingsley is beyond praise. Ralph Fiennes is to be commended too for giving what could’ve (and may well have been in reality) a mono-dimensionally evil character enough layers to, not excuse his actions (and those of many others like him), but to explain them.
However, whether the conversation be the acting, the editing, or John Williams deeply moving score, one always comes back to the director. It may have been a personal project but that in no way comprises his clarity. Despite the broad scale of both the story and the emotions it evokes, Schindler’s List is as focused a work as anything that has graced the medium and made with a level of skill that at times is breathtaking. The varied manner and innumerable methods that Spielberg uses to lay bare the cruelty and indignity with which the Jews were treated is as chilling as it is ingenious and it’s through these contrasts or critical junctures between the surreal and real that this indictment and essential analysis of one race’s inhumanity to another is enacted. And while one race in particular will be forever under scrutiny for these actions, the film’s greatest achievement is that it rises above the primal tendency to point fingers. That Spielberg chooses a German to be the hero in this tale is of course his essential message – the Jewish Holocaust was and is a human problem not a German one.
After successfully landing in Normandy on D-Day, a platoon of US Marines are sent on a unique mission of mercy to locate and bring to safety a soldier whose brothers have all been killed in action. Naturally, the orders put the men’s perspective on duty and morality at odds with one another as the needs of the few are seen to outweigh the needs of the many. Outside of the opening sequence which is undeniably terrific, Saving Private Ryan is a largely ham-fisted affair when placed side-by-side with the great WWII movies. Steven Spielberg shows little patience or subtlety and rather than giving us a real picture of humanity and war in the manner of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (released the same year), he instead falls back on a cartoon depiction of good guys versus bad guys. The greater success of this film comparative to Malick’s film, would seem to be therefore attributable entirely to the first 15 mins – a battle sequence so spectacular and visceral that it seems to act as a cloak for the rest of the film – as if the audience will be so desperate for the remainder of the film to be worthy of its opening that they will willfully ignore the most blatant of shortcomings. The simple truth is that the remainder of the film is driven by childish and cliched moral quandaries the likes of which were addressed just as superficially and ad nauseum throughout years of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs. But it wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating if Spielberg wasn’t (as usual) trying to ram the sickly sweet sentimentality (so primitively intertwined with cardboard notions of patriotism) down the audience’s throats. This is something he has done for far too long now and with too few exceptional interludes to excuse it. This is not to say Spielberg is a poor director. He’s a truly brilliant director who just lives up to his talent far too seldom due to an over-reliance on visual effects and/or reluctance to move out of his comfort zone.
“Summer’s over. You’re the mayor of Shark City.” This 1975 classic is Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus and arguably one of the best directorial achievements from anyone let alone someone who was essentially directing his third film. Even if you have managed not to see it yet, you’re probably familiar with the plot. Chief of Amity Island police, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) believes a large great white shark has staked a claim to the waters off his idyllic island but the township don’t want to know given that their lucrative summer season is about to begin. As the shark attacks continue, Brody teams up with marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and salty fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) and together they set out to catch and kill the terrifying fish.
Jaws is beautifully filmed full of wide beach and ocean shots and Spielberg uses that masterful technique of tracking the lead character early on in the film as he walks through the town in order to familiarise the audience with the town (a technique his protege Joe Dante would go onto use to great effect in Gremlins and The Burbs). Thus, Amity Island feels welcoming and homely to the viewer and, with that, the horrific intrusion of the shark into this environment feels as alien and scary to the audience as it should to the characters. The tension that Spielberg builds prior to the individual shark attacks would have Hitchcock salivating as the sounds of kids splashing and laughing in the water while radios play somewhere on the beach is slowly replaced by John Williams’ legendary creeping score. In fact, one now infamous scene climaxes with a seemingly effortless “dolly-zoom” shot (dolly-back/zoom-in) that Hitchcock spent years trying to pull off (finally accomplishing it in Vertigo).
The acting is uniformly superb with the great Roy Scheider being as likeable and as watchable as ever. The chemistry between him and the other two leads is terrific and drives the latter half of the film when the story involves nobody but them and the shark. The shots of the shark itself work brilliantly even to this day as Spielberg made up for the static nature of the mechanical prop (named “Bruce”) by intermingling shots of it with footage of actual great whites.
Jaws not only forged a whole new genre of film making but was probably the first major studio blockbuster and so it changed cinema for ever. However, even if that were not the case, it would still remain to this day one of the most entertaining yet technically proficient exercises in movie making. “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women.”
Rating: The Bad – 52.4 Genre: Science Fiction, Drama Duration: 146 mins Director: Steven Spielberg Stars: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor
Steven Spielberg was never an obvious choice in style or sensibility to complete the screenplay for and then direct Stanley Kubrick’s last major project because, firstly, he doesn’t tend to write films in the first place and, secondly, he has an inescapable tendency to infuse the majority of films he directs with a cheesy cliched child-like wonder. However, despite those differences, it’s still genuinely confounding at how much Spielberg misjudged the essence of this particular film.
A.I. begins with a profound look at the subject of life and sentience in what is clearly the Kubrick half of the story. To be fair to Spielberg, he very much replicates Kubrick’s stark and symmetrical visual style during this segment (no doubt thoroughly story-boarded as it probably was) and gives the film a feel that one could imagine Kubrick would’ve set. In this opening act, we follow a robot in the form of a human child called David (Haley Joel Osment) who is purchased by a couple who believed their own child was lost to them. We see David and his new mother beginning to form a bond and for all intents and purposes, David becomes part of the family. However, when the couple’s child returns to them, he quickly becomes surplus to requirements as the mother begins to see him for what he is.
This is the point at which Kubrick’s contribution seems to end and Spielberg’s is stepped up and it practically descends into farce as we are given an unashamed story of Pinocchio in the future. Even the visual aspects to the film begin to suffer as the downscaling of the story seems to remove any inspiration to get the look right. The film loses the subtle features which the previous tight production design and lighting ensured as the need for ‘big’ special effects seems to send Spielberg fully into default mode where style replaces substance to such a point that the latter must be artificially generated and crammed in anywhere it’ll fit. The last 20 minutes in particular are a complete car crash as the audience sees the worst of Spielberg and possibly the most inappropriate conclusion to a Kubrick film imaginable.
Rating: The Good – 79.7 Genre: Thriller, Action Duration: 90 mins Director: Steven Spielberg Stars: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone
Steven Spielberg’s early feature is a blistering psychological action thriller starring Dennis Weaver as an everyday motorist who, whilst driving through the desert to a business meeting, is targeted by a faceless maniac in a menacing truck. Adapted from a Richard Matheson short story, Duel is, on the face of things, an action movie but so deep does it delve into the constructs of fear and manliness and in such an insightful manner, that it becomes something much more piercing. Weaver puts in a brave and compelling performance in that he gives us a lead who is weak and even somewhat unlikable. This was necessary to capture the complexities of the character as well as the circumstances he finds himself in even before his encounter with the truck. In fact, in many ways, the truck and his battle with it is a thundering external metaphor for what he is already combating more inwardly as he set out on his journey that morning. For that reason alone, this is a fascinating and uniquely engaging film. However, Duel is also an interesting opportunity to catch Spielberg during his formative years and while the film is speckled with some basic errors, that immense talent for building suspense is evidenced throughout. Not surprisingly, the driving sequences are handled with aplomb but even the most ardent Spielberg fans will be pleasantly surprised by their ferociousness – kudos to his editor Frank Morriss and director of photography Jack A. Marta. Full of split second energy and raw edges, they become the mirror and the catharsis for the mental turmoil that drives this picture.
With the runaway success of Jurassic Park, it was only a matter of time before they set about making a sequel and with director Steven Spielberg and writers Michael Chricton and David Koepp back on board, there was some reason to be exited. This time around, the action is shifted to a sister island to the one the theme park was located on. A mysterious history-altering Site B that was apparently the nursery for the dinosaurs all along. When a takeover within Ingen forces out their eccentric founder John Hammond (a role only briefly reprised by Richard Attenborough), he commissions a small scientific expedition to document the dinosaurs before the larger nastier Ingen expedition lands in force to capture them and bring them back to the mainland for exhibition. Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm is roped back in (Sam Neil and Laura Dern sit this one out) and Julianne Moore, Richard Schiff, and Vince Vaughn complete the team.
The first thing that strikes a discerning fan of Jurassic Park is the relatively strong plot of the first film is replaced by a much weaker one. The pretext for this group of scientists being on the island is flimsy at best. It also ignores or contradicts the events of the first film. Even though we saw and heard Hammond speak to the fact that all animals were born on the first island in the first film, there’s now a completely new island to intrude on and question the original set-up (was this necessary?). Similarly, less care is given to the way in which the dinosaurs should behave. Okay, so the T-Rex is at least finally given its due credit for having one of the largest olfactory cavities in the fossil record (no more “don’t move and it won’t see you”) but it has also quite mysteriously become a twinkle-toed predator which can charge vehicles without making the slightest sound in the run-up (where were those spine chilling impact tremors?). Beyond a few notable flashes, the script doesn’t have the polish or clever sophistication of the first film either which is disappointing given both Crichton and Koepp are back. Spielberg’s return leaves a lot to be desired too given the pedestrianism of many of the action sequences which seem more attributable to a second unit director than the great man himself.
The good news regarding the script is that it has yet again, been peppered with strong and interesting characters and like the original, it’s terrifically cast with some genuine talent. Goldblum helps maintain threads of the first instalment and reminds us he can carry a film with the best of them and Moore is excellent as the strong willed palaeontologist with whom he shares a complicated romantic relationship. Pete Postelthwaite chews the scenery in a ramped up version of the cold-hearted hunter that Bob Peck was only allowed tantalise us with while a young Vince Vaughn reminds us what an edgy talent he was before he bloated. Richard Schiff and Peter Stormare round off the cast as the nice and mean guy characters respectively. However, what’s most welcome is that the wonder and excitement of the central concept hasn’t waned all that much and a new crop of dinosaurs plus the heavy hitters from JP1 are all energised thanks to a newer and smoother generation of CGI while first class animatronics flesh out the slower paced dinosaur scenes.
The Lost World suffers from an unnecessary fourth act that makes the experience far too drawn out and ruptures the character dynamics that drove the first three. Goldblum and Moore’s characters become mere vessels to steer it to a conclusion and the whole thing feels like a rudderless 20 minute homage to King Kong’s more iconic forth act. But the bottom line is, if you like to see dinosaurs hunting humans and see it done with a touch of wonder (oh yeah, John Williams terrific upbeat score makes a return too) then, The Lost World is a decent support act to the likes of its predecessor.
“The scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should.” Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster was rightly hailed for its giant leap (OK, some pun intended) in special effects but the major credit should go to Michael Crichton and David Koepp’s meaty screenplay as few mainstream movies have their dramatic tension driven so expertly by the dialogue and idiosyncrasies of its characters as this one. And while serving dramatic purposes so well, it also ensures some seriously funny interchanges throughout. Sam Neill heads a team of scientists sent to provide an experts’ opinion on a new type of zoo/theme park – where they find that the attractions are live genetically bred dinosaurs. Needless to say, all hell breaks loose and soon enough everyone is running for their lives.
Spielberg is the undisputed master of creating excitement on screen (even if he often aims his movies at younger audiences) and the thrills he dishes up here make this every bit as entertaining to the adults. Neill does well as the ‘straight man’ and with the exception of a few overbearing moments, Laura Dern does her usual good work as his paleontologist partner. However, the unquestionable standouts are Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough whose constant bickering provide many a funny moment. The acting is let down by the token kids Spielberg likes to throw into his stories with Ariana Richards’ shrill scream being the most annoying feature of the movie alongside the dumbness of her character’s actions.
The visual effects are obviously stunning and they still (mostly) hold up even today. There’s some limitation to the dinosaurs’ movement due to a combination of animatronics and early CGI but it rarely affects the action. However, what really makes Jurassic Park work is the manner in which it channels our innate sense of wonder for all things dinosaur. This is the film that best manages to tap Arthur Conan Doyle’s (The Lost World) essential excitement at the prospect of sharing our planet with these extinct monsters. And in the moments leading up to and including (especially including) the presentation of his first dinosaur, Spielberg does what he does best and puts us right there in the shoes of the protagonists so their astonishment becomes ours. It’s a great scene and it’s what adventure cinema is all about.
Rating: The Bad – 53.8 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 116 mins Director: Steven Spielberg Stars: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins
Steven Spielberg and writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp make the mistake of trying to tell a “meaningful” story of fatherhood and family against a backdrop of H.G. Welles’ classic alien invasion story and the result is a complete mess. Tom Cruise stars as a part-time father of two children who happens to be looking after them when strange lightning bolts begin shooting down from the sky. It’s not long before everyone is running for their lives and the Cruiser decides to shepherd the kids from his home in New York to Boston where their mother lives.
This early part of the movie is handled quite well and as you’d expect from the master of excitement on screen, the build up and initial disaster sequences are brilliantly set up. Alas, there are such critical character and casting problems present from the beginning that beyond that excellent opening, we never really buy into the film. For a starters, even though he plays the part of the grown up kid very well, Cruise looks about as fatherly as Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. In addition, the two children are overwhelmingly annoying with each rivaling the other for most annoying child character since Edward Furlong’s John Connor in T2. Dakota Fanning spends the two hours either disobeying her father, forcing him into repeated rescues, or screaming hysterically with her arms in front of her chest in some Dr Philian nonsensical self help exercise. Justin Chatwin (as Cruise’s son) on the other hand keeps trying to convince the three of them to turn back and fight the aliens! No, that wasn’t a typo, he wanted the three of them ….to…. fight…. the…. aliens.
All too often, Spielberg attempts to make his fantasy or sci-fi movies ‘something more’ by adding a rather crass emotional component and so, somewhat inevitably, the faulty family dynamics present in the story come off as being nothing more than a saccharine and cynical attempt at audience manipulation. Take for example the moment where Cruise is ‘forced’ to let his son walk over a hillside into certain doom because the son “needs to see it”(!?!). Spielberg cuts to a wide shot of Cruise slowly retreating from his son as John Williams’ heart rendering music kicks up a gear (or four) and the special effects (Spielberg’s favourite cloak) go into overdrive. There are few cinematic moments as artificial, false, and lazily manipulative as this one and it represents with crystal clarity the worst of Spielberg as a director. Come on Steve, you made Jaws!