I want to watch ALL the films

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Yes that’s right, every last one of them. One of the least expected symptoms of lockdown that I have experienced is what I refer to as “Watchlist anxiety”. With so many streaming services just a touch of a button away and the lack of anything else to do, other than having an arm wrestle with some guy called Barry over a toilet roll in Tesco, I started to build up some watchlists. Before I knew it, it was massively out of control.

It’s time for some stats

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Now according to Google there are thought to have been approximately 500000 films made. A rather ambitious estimate is that I have seen around 2000 individual films, which is 0.4% of them, so its clear I have some catching up to do. In fact if I was to watch one film a day it would take me a more than likely unachievable 1369 years to watch them all. That is if I watch one a day, which has only really been possible since lockdown. In my normal life I reckon I probably get through about 150 films a year, so I’m looking at around 4000 years to complete. But the other problem is, people keep making films, and I think it would be unreasonable for them to stop just to allow me to catch up.

Kevin Feige: “Guys we’re not going to make any more films for the MCU because Dom has still got 498,000 films to watch, so we’re gonna hang fire so he can catch up”.

The other issue is of course, and I know I’m not the only one here, but I love a good re-watch. I am of course a Spielberg nut, but throw in the MCU and Star Wars and there is at least 60 films there that I have to watch on a regular basis, and the true rub here is, I have to watch them in order, oh yes, if you’re going to do something you have to do it right.

Me: Hey guys I see you’re watching Empire of the Sun

Friend: Yeah that’s right

Me: So what did you guys think of The Color Purple, it’s great isn’t it?

Friend: erm, well we haven’t watched that one yet

Me:

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The rewatches are my comfort blankets, as much as I love watching new stuff and getting that buzz from new films when they really hit you, I want to go back and watch every Spielberg from Duel (watched again this morning, it is Spielberg day, see below) and watch how his filmmaking changes over the years, likewise the MCU from IronMan onwards, it feels odd to me that you would just select one at random, or maybe I’m just odd.

The Plan

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I have a number of subscriptions, Netflix, Disney + and for now anyway, Sky Cinema through Now TV. On top of this I have an extensive DVD/Blu-Ray collection and I tape (its always tape, I’m a child of the 80s) stuff off the TV like Film4 and TCM. Away from the subscriptions I love collections. As already stated I have to watch Spielberg in order, the MCU in order, Star Wars in order and believe it or not I have also in the past 12 months thrown PIXAR and the Disney Classics into the mix, and I haven’t even mentioned Bond yet. The anxiety is caused by making sure I am getting the most out of my subscriptions and also not neglecting my slightly unhealthy fandom.

Therefore I have come up with a rota, a 15 day cycle if you will. A chaos organiser, an anxiety destroyer, and overwhelming overwhelmer.

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Day 1 – Netflix – this will invariably be a new film. Yes there is plenty of stuff I have seen before that may be fun to watch, but primarily I need to use it for the new stuff. Netflix is the bully of the group though, as it is the place most likely to pique my interest with new stuff so may shove some of the other days out of the way.

Day 2 – Now TV – I only have this for 6 months, and is quite limiting on what I haven’t seen, although there should be enough to tide me over

Day 3 – Planner – So this is my Sky box, films recorded from places like TCM. This is always a good day as invariably it is a classic film that I have never seen before.

Day 4 – Disney Plus – Now here is the problem, if I take out all the Disney classic cartoons, the PIXAR, Star Wars and the MCU, take out the Documentary’s and all the shorts there are currently still 324 films on Disney Plus, a remarkable amount of those I haven’t seen. I made the decision the other day to start at the top (they do a handy A-Z) and work my through them, so I watched Kirk Douglas in 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of the 498K ticked off, you see it works…………… yes I will consider therapy.

Recent news broke that Disney Plus was launching its Star service for more grown up viewers and at least another 250 films on that. At my current rate that is about 5 years worth of watching on its own.

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Day 5 BBC iPlayer/Kanopy – The BBC iPlayer has some fantastic classic cinema on there and Kanopy is a new service for me. It is free because I work for a University and it has a huge library of everything from World Cinema to early cinema, just this week I watched Plan 9 from Outer Space and looking forward to revisiting the Chaplin back catalogue that is on there.

Day 6 – Spielberg day. I don’t care how many times I have watched them all before, I never get bored. Close Encounters of the Third Kind for example, I have to watch that film 2 or 3 times a year and I always notice something new when I watch it. In a World where we need to do things that benefits our wellbeing, then watch what you like…………as long as its in order.

Day 7 – DVD/Blu-ray – I have to justify the collection, it is apparently taking up valuable shelf space, and cupboard space, and wardrobe space, oh and loft space. I have to be seen to be taking that 5 step walk across the living room to the shelf to be selecting one. I have to be careful though, this is the ultimate rewatch policed area

Wife: I don’t know why you have all of them, I bet you only watch about 4 of them

Me: That’s not true, I watch them all, an equal amount (never sounded more unconvincing)

Wife: I can clearly see your Aliens blu-ray in your hand, right this second, and I know you watched that the other night because I heard you say “somebody wake up Hicks” from the other room

Me: I was just putting it back (easily beat the previous level of sounding unconvincing)

Wife: Yeah whatever, by the way I hate that I know that it is an Aliens blu-ray.

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Not mine by the way.

Day 8 – Google Play – I have this other account where I don’t own the physical media and they aren’t often on streaming services so I have them on here, e.g. Tim Burton’s Batman (still my favourite Batman film) so once again to justify my outlay the Google Play account gets a turn. Like a kid who has just asked for Roblox vouchers, I actually asked for Google Play vouchers for Christmas just so I could add to the collection,

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Day 9 – Amazon Prime – My least favourite of the streaming services, however occasionally good things turn up on there, such as Fellini’s 8 1/2 and the black and white version of Parasite. I just keep it for the free delivery of the Blu-rays really.

Day 10 – MCU – Again back to the collections, and so I don’t get distracted in my one man, doomed to failure, mission of getting through the Disney Plus back catalogue, a separate day for the MCU.

Day 11 – PIXAR – this is of course followed by PIXAR for the same reason as the MCU, which brings me neatly onto

Day 12 – Disney Classics – There’s 56 of these bad boys so that’s 2 years work right there, assuming I don’t miss a cycle. I wonder if my daughter will still want to watch these with me when she is 55 years old and we’re just getting to Moana.

Day 13 – Bond – I can take or leave Bond if I’m brutally honest but I do own them all on DVD/Blu-ray and similar to Spielberg and the MCU it would be nice to watch them all in order. Anthology you say, ah pish. In fact I think there are some that I have never seen so there we go, I can watch a franchise and chip away at that outstanding 498k. Besides with No Time to Die delayed again, I have time to get up to speed with this James Bond chap.

Day 14 – Film Docs – This can be anything from the monumental Empire of Dreams to a making of doc on a DVD that I have never watched. I always claim to never have the time to watch the extras, well there you go…….BUILT IT INTO THE SCHEDULE!!!!

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Day 15- Star Wars – It’s where it all started, the obsession of Cinema and film is right there in those 2 words. I love all 11 films and I don’t really care how often I see them. They are like old friends, they are my childhood, they are my adulthood and I think we are very fortunate to live in a time when we have almost unlimited access to them.

That’s it that’s the plan, pretty cool eh? If this all sounds a little OCDish then please note that this is very much tongue in cheek, but film fans are notoriously about order, whether that is how you file your DVDs to what order to watch films in. There are entire websites dedicated to the order the Star Wars films should be watched in.

We live in a time when we have never had it so good, regarding access to films, but the amount of times I have sat for an hour just scrolling through streaming services procrastinating over whether to watch Willow for the 80th time or take a punt on The Apple Dumpling Gang (it’s on the list, oh yeah!), when in fact a little bit of order can make that decision for me. If I added up the time I spent scrolling, well that’s probably 20 films or one Lord of the Rings, right there.

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Me arriving for opening night of No Time to Die in 3390

So by the year 3390 I should have caught up, of course by then Cinema will be a totally immersive experience, but I’m sure, Tom Cruise will be making Mission Impossible 83 live from Alpha Centauri and there will be a new Spiderman reboot in the works and there will still be the financial toss up between some pick n mix or a villa in Marbella, rest assured I’m somewhere there will be a watchlist that will require some detailed plan of action

About me

My name is Dominic Holder and I like to promote the beauty and wonder of Cinema in my writing. I spend a lot of time promoting the power of Cinema as a tool of wellbeing to anyone and everyone. I love all kinds of films but in particular, I am a devoted fan of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, John Williams, Star Wars, Disney and Marvel. My love of Cinema stems from a trip as a 4-year-old to local cinema in Bolton to watch a Star Wars/Empire Strikes Back double bill, it was the first in a series of life-changing moments, I knew from the moment the Imperial Star Destroyer engulfed the screen at the start of  A New Hope I was hooked. Thankfully nearly 40 years later I still get excited and still find escapism and happiness within this wonderful medium.

You can follow me on Twitter @DomHolder and read some of my reviews on Letterboxd at letterboxd.com/DomH

You can read more of my blogs on Film at www.dominicholder.wordpress.com

Why we should all be eternally grateful that Spielberg made 1941

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A look at why Spielbergs most flawed film is one of his most important film  making experiences

There is a scene close to the start of 1941, where two young men are working in a restaurant kitchen. One is preparing the food on the grill, whilst the other is pot washing. They are both dancing to early rock n roll in preparation for the big Jitterbug contest that evening. As they dance, their work becomes increasingly erratic, the cook smashes eggs onto the grill, letting them cook with shell, the pancake batter gets sloshed onto the heat plate with reckless abandon and the pot washer sends ornaments crashing into the soapy water without a care in the world. If ever a scene could be used as an example of art imitating production, then this perfectly encapsulates the total chaos that is 1941.

Filming on 1941 started in October 1978. Spielberg coming off two of the biggest commercial and critical hits of the 1970s with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind made him one of the most bankable name in Cinema. Not since Alfred Hitchcock had a movie Director been on Cinema marquees. This was no matinee idol such as Robert Redford, or box office kings such as Burt Reynolds or Jack Nicholson, this was a movie nerd who knew that the record-breaking Jaws and the studio saving Close Encounters gave him pretty much free reign over budget, script, and cast. So when he announced to family and close friends that his next project was to be a comedy based on the Pearl Harbour attacks of 1941, more than a few eyebrows were raised. The material itself is not something that lies to comfortably with Spielberg, he never fully manages to get a handle on it, however, Spielberg’s bravado and self-confidence at this point knew no bounds. There didn’t appear to be anyone to say “no” to him.

The production itself went on for a staggering 257 days and it is reported that Spielberg shot over 1 million feet of film. Michael Kahn, who’s breathtaking work on Close Encounters will be revered for generatrions to come, struggles to weave the spaghetti like threads of plot together and on a film that is crying out for a steady hand on the Editing rudder this is a rare concept album curio performance from the usually dependable pairing of Kahn and Spielberg. Working on a script provided by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (who Spielberg would go on to greater success with Back to the Future in 6 years time), the screenplay was packed full of zany characters, each one displaying a cacophonic paranoia that drowns out any semblance of a cohesive story.

It’s quite stunning that 1941 was nominated for Academy Awards, but the nomination for Best Sound is beyond ludicrous. The one thing that 1941 is, is very loud. The montage cast call at the start of the end credits seems to emphasise this as each character is introduced with them screaming at the camera, only Robert Stack and Lionel Stander, who looks baffled throughout, get away without the scream.

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The film opens with a completely misjudged homage to Jaws, with Susan Backlinie reprising her role as the doomed Chrissie Watkins, only instead of a Shark this time she gets caught on the periscope of a submerged Japanese submarine. This cheesy, self-referential nod to his previous work is something that has thankfully not found its way into Spielberg work since, (with the possible exception of the cringe-inducing pseudonym Steven Spielrock on the production credits for The Flintstones, where Spielberg acted as Executive Producer), Backlinie is not the only Jaws alumni to make an appearance with Murray Hamilton and Lorraine Gary making an appearance. Gary actually screams more into the camera in her 5 minutes of screen time here than in all 4 Jaws films put together. We then move to the previously mentioned dancing chefs, a scene that culminates in a fist fight in the restaurant that results in a soldier having his face plunged into a cream cake. We are then introduced to John Belushi’s drunk, loud American pilot who ultimately has to chase his plane off down the street firing his gun as he goes, and of course he’s shouting. This is all in the first 10 minutes and it is quite apt when Robert Stack, playing Major Stilwell first appears on screen and says, almost to the audience, “this is madness”. The film continues with one eardrum bursting setpiece after another, which more often not culminated in a character screaming wide-eyed into the lens. But, perhaps most criminal of all, it’s just not funny.

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So why do I think this is an important film making experience for Spielberg? The free reign and lack of planning that hampered 1941 were eternally banished, never again would Spielberg go into production so ill prepared. One of the rare criticism I have ever heard labeled at Raiders of the Lost Ark is that some of the action sequences are over choreographed. Well yes, they are and for good reason. Raiders was meticulously planned, with each frame storyboarded and prepared, every fake snake and desert rock had its particular place, each battle-scarred truck had the exact amount of scorch marks, each piece of dialogue had a purpose to the plot. Spielberg was going in prepared, well and truly with no pedestal to preach from, he had to get this film right, on schedule and on budget, the result was an incredibly slick film that rose above its dusty landscapes.

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Spielberg also realised his own limitations with comedic material and has stayed away from all-out, and in particular, slapstick comedy since. He came close in 2000 when he almost directed Meet the Parents, ultimately being persuaded against the idea by his wife Kate Capshaw. Spielberg films are packed with humour but it is never allowed to dominate or take over. Comedy, along with romance, shares a filing cabinet, labeled “only to be used in case of emergency” in Spielberg’s office.

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There are moments of flair in 1941, but they are often displayed with a spiraling dizzyness that the camera battles in vein to keep up with.
Take the Jitterbug sequence that descends into an all-out brawl. At the end of the sequence the main protagonists, Wally and the downright disgrace of a character that is Stretch lie unconscious through pain and exhaustion, similar to how the audience feels at this stage.

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However, lessons are clearly learned throughout. Here Spielberg, who let’s not forget has always wanted to make a musical, really throws caution to the wind with an energetic dance contest that lent more than a passing influence to West Side Story and the recent box office smash Grease. Until the chaos rains down on screen, you can see a keen eye for choreography, which was later displayed to a much greater extent but smaller scale in the “Anything Goes” prologue to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In fact, the opening to Doom is an interesting comparison here. Once again we have a musical number that soon turns nasty as Indy crosses and double crosses in negotiations with the treacherous Lao Che. Here Spielberg manages to keep a tighter reign on the fisticuffs, carefully positioning the main protagonists. The utilisation of props to remove the attention away from the many kung-fu extras who have been brought in to swell the melee is expertly done, in particular, a giant gong doubles as a protective shield as Indy makes his escape through a nearby window. This blog was first written in March 2019, when the upcoming West Side Story was still in pre-production, I would like to think when we eventually see that film in December 2021 that it will be more Anything Goes than 1941.

There are moments where things work well in 1941. The scenes involving Robert Stack as Major Stilwell watching Dumbo in the cinema are very affecting, a nod to a rediscovery of childhood innocence, a quiet moment of respite, an escape from the horrors of the outside world, a safe, secure environment, as an audience member, there is a desire to pull down the seat next to Stilwell and sit and watch the rest of Dumbo with him. Spielberg’s more energetic films away from 1941 would often include such a scene, e.g. Quint and Hooper comparing scars on the Orca, or in Saving Private Ryan the squad sit in an abandoned church and tell stories of lost lifestyles back home, or Ray and Rachel share a lullaby in the cellar during a quieter moment in the terrifying War of the Worlds. The Major Stilwell/Dumbo scene was possibly a reminder to Spielberg moving forward that there needs to be a quiet time even in the most crash, boom, bang of films. You need to give the audience an opportunity to catch their breath.

Most importantly, perhaps, is what Spielberg learned as a result of 1941. He was not infallible, he couldn’t surround himself with “yes” men who would fail to have an opinion. He would know what it was like to not fully prepare beforehand and see the results as a consequence. He would know his limitations, and he would never again have a cast member scream into the camera.

For more reading on 1941 and all of Spielberg’s cinematic output please take a look at my 1970s blog.

Thanks for reading.

Dom

About me

My name is Dominic Holder and I like to promote the beauty and wonder of Cinema in my writing. I spend a lot of time promoting the power of Cinema as a tool of wellbeing to anyone and everyone. I love all kinds of films but in particular, I am a devoted fan of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, John Williams, Star Wars, Disney and Marvel. My love of Cinema stems from a trip as a 4-year-old to local cinema in Bolton to watch a Star Wars/Empire Strikes Back double bill, it was the first in a series of life-changing moments, I knew from the moment the Imperial Star Destroyer engulfed the screen at the start of  A New Hope I was hooked. Thankfully nearly 40 years later I still get excited and still find escapism and happiness within this wonderful medium.

You can follow me on Twitter @DomHolder and read some of my reviews on Letterboxd at letterboxd.com/DomH

You can read more of my blogs on Film at www.dominicholder.wordpress.com

The 91st Academy Awards

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I’m not ashamed to admit that I absolutely love the Academy Awards and have watched every year since, I think 1993 when Schindlers List swept the board. As a Brit, we can be very dismissive of an event that amounts to little more than just an annual backslapping event where, highly decorated individuals award highly decorated individuals by claiming that for one year only, they are the best. However, to have this cynical view is to hugely miss the point. The Academy Awards are meant to be a celebration, yes they are cheesy and yes an inordinate amount of time is spent trying to figure out what people are wearing, but the glitz and the glamour are what makes it what it is. A chance to take stock of where my favourite art form currently is.

Lets get one thing clear, the Academy Awards rarely, in my opinion give awards to the Best Films of the year, or even the films that will last long in the memory, and 2019 was certainly no exception to the rule. Green Book, this years Best Picture winner, was a light, fluffy piece that barely scratched the surface on the subject matter that it was based upon. Compared with the other nominee that tackled race issues in America, Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, to me there is no comparison, not only in the quality of the filmmaking but also the handling of the subject matter at hand. My thoughts are that out of the two, Green Book was the safer choice for an Academy, who desperate to show they are moving with the times, couldn’t quite be persuaded to award their highest prize of the year to a film that could be considered a political hot potato in the current landscape. Likewise, moving with the times is one thing, but awarding a black and white, non American language, made not for Cinema film Best Picture also proved to be a step too far for the Academy to take on this occasion, as pre-tournament favourite, and Netflix produced, Roma also missed out on the biggest prizes I personally am ok with this, I admired the astounding beauty of the film but I needed a bit more to convince me that I would need to watch it again or root for it as the overall best film. The Director and Cinematography gongs that it took home were hugely justified.

Ok, before I go on, I have a confession to make, I haven’t seen The Favourite yet, and will hopefully catch up with it before the week is out but I have seen the rest of the Best Picture nominations. My vote would have gone to the previously mentioned Blackkklansman and I would have also picked Adam Driver in Best Supporting Actor over Mahershala Ali, who was great in Green Book, but Driver kept me guessing as to which way his character was going right up to the very end of that film and I found it a completely magnetic performance.

So onto the ceremony itself, dogged with controversy before a limousine even pulled up to the red carpet, with a host in Kevin Hart first being hired then fired, a decision to not let all the Best Original Song nominees perform on the night, which was partially rescinded (4 out of the 5 had a warble), the decision to not let last years winners announce this years winners in the acting categories, again rescinded, and the daddy of them all………….a decision to not present all 24 categories on air, with 4 being moved to advert breaks. This last one was beyond ridiculous and was a potential smack in the mouth of the nominees and winners of those categories. The Academy was coming across as quite Orwellian with its “all categories are equal, yet some are more equal than others”. Thankfully, once again common sense prevailed and all were to be given their moment and rightly so. These people may not get to sit on the front row but its because of them that certain people do get to sit in the VIP seats.

So I was a little nervous before the ceremony started with no host, I personally think Jimmy Kimmel had done a solid job in the last 2 years and would have had no qualms with him getting the hat-trick, alas it became the job nobody wanted or seemed fit to do. With memories of Snow White fuelled nightmares of when last time the Academy went hostless being shown relentlessly on YouTube, the biggest gamble the Academy had made in 30 years was about to be unleashed on the audience.

And what an unleashing. If you going to go big, then go in BIG. Queen, with Adam Lambert, roared onto the stage, blasting the ear wax out of a possibly unsuspecting crowd with renditions of stadium rock anthems We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions. The crowd in the auditorium and, I suspect watching at home, embraced this cacophony of rock as the complete antithesis of the comedic monologue, Javier Bardem, in particular, was not holding back headbanging away as if he was in the back seat of the Murph Mobile behind Wayne and Garth. So far so good for the new look Academy Awards.

Once everyone had found their breath and their seats again, we got on with the more traditional act of actually handing out awards. First on stage was the comedy SNL triumvirate of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, who briefly raised the hope on the watching audience that the Academy had cunningly bluffed us all and had indeed secretly lined up a host or hosts. Oh and what a treat that would be, anyone who has watched Fey and Poehlers 3 opening monologues (or is a duologue if two are doing it) at the Golden Globes would know they would be outstanding hosts. Here they didn’t disappoint, firing off some zingers including a great gag about Netflix and how it was possible that their microwave would make a movie next year.

As soon as Ali was announced as Best Supporting Actor, they left the stage with him and that was that. However what followed was a host of mainly young, upcoming stars from a diverse range of backgrounds from the quite brilliant Awkafina and John Mulaney, who made my favorite joke of the night when he remarked at his first Oscars. “I want these people to like me to a degree I find embarrassing,”  to the strange choice of Serena Williams who didn’t look that happy to be there.

I did miss a few of the more traditional faces, I always like to see some of the legends being themselves and there wasn’t a lot of that this year. Michael Keaton turned up halfway through to present Best Editing and seemed almost like an imposter surrounded by all these young upstarts. Having said that the irrepressible Barbara Streisand almost stole the show and actually did steal Richard E Grant’s heart as she sassed onto the stage to deliver a speech on behalf of Blackkklansman. Further to this Bette Midler charmed audiences everywhere when she sang “Where the Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins returns with enough Diva gesturing to ensure that the Old School charm of Oscar was simmering away nicely in the background.

The highlight of the night, however, was to come when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sent the audience, literally Gaga with a spellbinding renditon of soon to be crowned Best Original Song winner, Shallows from A Star is Born. Its a big song at the best of times but to perform like that on the Biggest stage surrounded by peers was possibly the one moment that will be talked about for decades to come.

I always look forward to the In Memoriam section of the Oscars, not because I take any great pleasure in those lost, but usually because it is a quiet moment of reflection and is often the emotional heartbeat of the ceremony. This year was no different as the faces of those lost, some I knew, some I didn’t played across the huge screen accompanied this year by the conductor Gustavo Dudamel who guided the Los Angeles Philharmonic, through John Williams “Leaving Home” from Superman. This poignant moment, especially when Margot Kidder appeared really captured the solemnity of this section. As is the case most years, there is always omissions, and whilst I know the Academy can’t include everyone, Gary Kurtz should have been there. I’ll give the Academy the benefit of the doubt with Stanley Donan having only passed in the last couple of days.

Back to the awards, and finally some recognition for Spike Lee’s outstanding contribution to modern American Cinema with his Best Adapted Screenplay for Blackkklansman. Presented by Samuel L Jackson, who’s personal impartiality (rightly) went out of the window when his cheer echoed around the auditorium. Lee went on to make a speech about love, unity and ensuring the correct choice was made in 2020. He even dropped the F-Bomb for good measure which has largely gone unreported. Lee’s involvement in proceedings, however, wasn’t to end with this award.

The leading Actor awards, which were nailed on last year when Frances McDormand and Gary Oldman surprised no one with their wins last year really did provide the shocks this year. The often, unfairly, maligned Rami Malek won for Bohemian Rhapsody ahead of favourite Christian Bale and gave a quite wonderful speech, and Olivia Coleman brought the house down when triumphing over the perennial bridesmaid Glenn Close for her turn in The Favourite. Coleman could not have been more British in her speech, self-deprecating, witty, and the emotions just about kept hold of. She truly was a phenomenal winner on the night (I haven’t seen the film yet) but there was a little bit of heartbreak for Glenn, who I know will win one day.

Alfonso Cuaron took Best Director, as many predicted, which seemed to confirm the bookies number one pick of Roma to be crowned as Best Picture winner. But no, this most unusual of Oscar ceremonies had one more rabbit in the hat. And the Oscar went too……………..GREEN BOOK. Cue wild delirium by the Green Book posse, cue Spike Lee attempting to leave the auditorium before being ushered back into his seat. It is highly likely that the newly introduced preferential voting system, where members rank the films 1-8 as opposed to just picking their favoured film, will have seen Green Book over the line, but if that’s what it took, that’s what it took.

The lack of host only really showed we didn’t have a host at this point, with Julia Roberts having to lean into the microphone, whilst the Green Book party began to warm up, to tell everyone that “erm well that’s it everyone, go home now” or words to that effect.

Once again another year is over. I really enjoyed the show, I always do, I missed some of the magic, I love a good “lump in the throat” montage (see the YouTube clip below for an example from last year) but again I saw the celebration, I don’t think the Best Film of last year won, that was clearly A Quiet Place which wasn’t even nominated, but they rarely do win. All I know we now live in an age where Spike Lee is an Academy Award Winner and Olivia Colman has become the most unassuming Biggest Star on the Planet. Till next year folks.

The Maestro

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If I was to ask anyone reading this to sing or hum the first film theme that comes into their head, the chances are that they will perform one written by John Williams. It is quite possible that you do not realise that the tune you croon is by John Williams, it is also not entirely inconceivable that you may claim to have never heard of John Williams. I can guarantee however that if the name isn’t overly familiar then the work definitely will be. He is the foremost film composer in Cinematic history, whose work has transcended Cinemas, to firmly embed itself into popular culture. Nominated 51 times for an Academy Award, winning on 5 occasions, when it comes to scores for films, his is the greatest of all Greatest Hits compilations.

There is not a beach open to the public on Planet Earth that hasn’t had a person, at one time or another, stand looking at the sea/ocean going “Dur-dum” in honour of John Williams famous two-note characterisation of a terrifying ocean dwelling monster. This also applies to all swimming pools and lakes across the globe. Even those who have never seen Jaws instantly get the reference of some guy (it’s always a guy) who considers himself a bit of a character who stands on the edge of a lake going “Dur dum”. A loud, annoying laugh usually follows this as the “bit of a character” convinces himself that in the 43 years since Jaws’s release he is the first person to do this.

Dismissed initially by Spielberg who thought it was a joke, the two note masterpiece would quickly help turn Jaws from a disaster that nearly ended Spielberg’s career to becoming one of the most successful films of all time. A temperamental shark meant that Spielberg had barely enough usable footage to keep the audience on their seats, never mind on the edge of them. Enter Williams’s “Dur dum” and the stuff of seafaring nightmares is changed forever, by showing very little, Williams’s score becomes a member of the supporting cast, and a relationship with Spielberg was firmly established.

Spielberg

I am not going to write for too long on the actual Spielberg films themselves as I have covered them in great detail in my previous Spielberg through the decades blogs, instead, I will focus more on what John Williams scores have brought to those films.  Spielberg’s first feature-length cinematic release in 1974, The Sugarland Express, was a small-scale,  road movie that whilst demonstrating a capable filmmaker only gave slight hints as to the wonders that lay ahead. Williams produced an unassuming, relaxed, harmonica based score, that whilst perfectly complimenting the journey through the scorched, bare Texan landscapes, gave a little indication of the multitude of entries into popular culture that was to come, a bit like the film itself for its youthful director. The simplicity of the Sugarland score would be followed by the instantly recognisable and iconic two-note motif of Jaws and the five-note alien communication employed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

This was the start of over 40 years of collaboration that has produced not only some of the most successful films of that time period but some of the most memorable musical scores of any time period. From the  the action-packed, adventure thrill ride of his scores for the Indiana Jones films to the childlike wonder of watching E.T and Elliot cycle past the moon, (Imagine that scene if you will without Williams’s score) to the mournful, desperation of a single violin on Schindlers List or the respectful brass led orchestrations encapsulated in Saving Private Ryan, Williams’s scores not only captured perfectly the time and mood of each piece but added a different dimension to the stories being told that is often, in lesser hands, taken for granted in movies.

It could be argued that Williams’ scores have lifted even some of the more mundane, or less appreciated Spielberg films above the ordinary. Films such as Hook divided audiences but Williams’s score perfectly captured the pantomime feel of the film, whilst throwing in plenty of soaring orchestral moves to add to the magic of what is, in essence, a fairytale aimed at children. The 2000s, in particular, saw Williams demonstrate a variance in styles to suit the feel of the picture, from the jazz-based score for caper Catch Me If You Can, the jaunty clarinet led score for whimsical romcom The Terminal, to perfectly capturing the terrifying claustrophobia  for the dour and brutal War of the Worlds and Munich.

In the last decade, we have been treated to a number of styles that illustrate his mastery of genre score composition.  The Indiana Jones-inspired score to the Adventures of Tintin, the sprawling historical epicness of both War Horse and Lincoln to the playful jollity of The BFG and tension building configuration that accompanies The Post. It is clear that Spielberg and Williams understand each other, as masterful as I consider Spielberg to be, I do believe without John Williams his films would not have had the emotional and cultural impact that they had and will no doubt continue to do so for years to come, and if you don’t believe me, go stand on a beach next to the Ocean and see what tune comes into your head.

My Top 5 Spielberg related Williams pieces

Some of these are known the world over, some are just smaller pieces embedded in certain films that have always had an emotional resonance with me. The Truth is I could have quite easily picked a different 5 or even a different 500 tracks but the below 5 instantly sprung to mind.

5. Father’s Study – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The swirling central oboe piece makes way for the haunting brass section mixed with Eastern Promise in this short but vital scene close to the start of the Last Crusade. This is the scene that first questions Indy’s belief system. He questions Marcus as to whether he believes the Grail to be real, the glance of the Religious iconographic artwork in Henry’s home coupled with Marcus prophetic response about the perils that potentially lie ahead add to the mystique. For me, the score for the Last Crusade is the strongest of the Indiana Jones films, mixing just the correct amount of sentimentality with rip-roaring adventure.

4. New Beginning – Minority Report

This uplifting piece played at the redemptive finale of one of Spielberg’s more melancholic, yet thrilling movies that graced the start of the 21st Century. 90% performed by the string section, Williams dreamy opening builds up to an ending of optimism and hope that was a refreshing face wipe after a dour and dank film

3. The Face of Pan – Hook

In a film that struggles at times under the sheer weight of its sentimentality, slap bang in the middle of all the chaotic raucousness of the Lost Boys teasing the now adult Pan, there is this brief respite, of quiet reflective exploration that is as moving as this film should have been allowed to get “Oh there you are Peter”.

2. Journey to the Island – Jurassic Park

From its perky, effervescent start that buzzes with adventure and excitement, to its familiar reprise of the now famous Jurassic Park main theme, to its playful interior moments that accompany Dr. Grant’s struggle to fasten a seatbelt, Williams is throwing everything at this almost 9-minute opus. Along with the thrills and spills, there is enough lower tone brass to ensure that we don’t get too comfy and that there is a need to approach carefully. It all culminates in one of the most breathtaking shots in Cinematic history, the introduction of the Brachiosaurus to Drs’ Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm. The music perfectly matches the moment of sheer exhilaration that the audience is feeling and the bewilderment experienced by the characters. The track once again continues as the troop of explorers heads back to the visitor centre, and there is a brief reminder from Williams, that no matter how excited we are feeling about seeing these dinosaurs, assisted by a ferocious looking T-Rex skeleton in the Centre, we must as an audience exercise caution.

1. Escape/Chase/Saying Goodbye – E.T

Spielberg recently said, “without John Williams, E.T wouldn’t have been able to fly”. This piece of music is pure childhood. I’ve already talked about exhilaration and adventure in this blog, how can you not when writing about John Williams, but here we have the ultimate musical accessory. Split into 3 parts starting with Elliott and Michael escaping the home with E.T to rendezvous with their friends at the local park. This first segment is filled with peril and tension aided by Michael’s erratic driving and Elliot’s nailbiting tunnel peg removal from the back of the stolen van. As soon as we get on the bikes the second part kicks in with the frenetic strings that elicit pure childhood. The money shot moment kicks in 6:58 as the reprise of the flying theme launches, E.T, Elliot, Michael and their friends across the sunset. The final act of the piece, the emotional goodbye as Elliot and E.T part ways, is never allowed to descend into total mawkishness, but lets be clear here, it is not the intention of either Spielberg or Williams to have any dry eyes in the audience at this point, you cry at this, or else may I suggest you go audition for the role of the Tin Man in the Wizard of OZ as there is clearly a heart needed.

The Star Wars Universe

Away from his work with Steven Spielberg, Williams is perhaps most noted for his work on the Star Wars saga. Recommended to Star Wars creator George Lucas by Spielberg after Williams’ work on Jaws, Williams, and Lucas began yet another one of Hollywood’s great collaborative relationships. I will start by showing the original 1976 trailer for Star Wars to illustrate my point. The trailer conjures an almost unrecognisable atmosphere of the film to the one we know and love. Watching the trailer, you would have no idea that the film would be released in the UK with U certificate, but what is perhaps most intriguing is the lack of John Williams’ imperious classical score. Without the music, Star Wars is marketed as a suspenseful action thriller, almost a horror movie set in space. It is impossible for anyone in my generation to imagine a world before or even without Star Wars but the trailer below demonstrates that without John Williams we are watching a very different film.

Over the 40+ years since Star Wars was unleashed on the popular culture zeitgeist, each installment has been met with either Universal acclaim (Episode 5) to Univeral panning (Episode 2 anyone?) but what has never been in doubt in any Star Wars film has been the scores produced by John Williams. Even Episode 2 has the melodramatic but majestic Across the Stars, which proved that even when dialogue is written and delivered with the poise and guile of a drunk man being tasered whilst carrying a tray of marbles, that form may well be temporary but class is permanent. The music of the Star Wars saga is as much of an importance to our auditory functions as the collection of alien lifeforms or the fantastical worlds are to our visual appeals.

George Lucas created the Star Wars universe but I think John Williams created his own unique world with the variety, dynamism and pure out emotion that accompanies the visuals better than any other film series I can think of.  Fans of the films can listen to the scores from any Star Wars film and instantly be able to pinpoint the part of the film it applies too. Those slightly less devoted can listen to the score and have an entirely different experience as they are taken on a journey through their own imagination that holds no barriers. Here are my 5 favourite pieces from the Star Wars saga, in no particular order.

The Asteroid Field from The Empire Strikes Back

Recently adapted by John Powell for the Score of 2018’s Solo, this piece takes me back to my 4-year-old self who sat in the flea pit, cigarette stained, overflowing toilets and sticky carpet Canon Cinema in Bolton where I was watching a double bill of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. I don’t remember a great deal about Empire from that showing but I do remember this bit. Leaving all the damp, festering stench of the numerous discarded packs of Peter Stuyvesant Reds behind I was suddenly transported into the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon as we twisted and turned through the Asteroid Field to escape the pursuing Empire. I remember ducking and yelping in a C3PO style voice as the rocks (and occasional potato) flew past the screen. It was pure cinema, pure exhilaration and was the greatest thing this 4-year-old had ever experienced. Adding to this unbridled joy was John Williams who perfectly captured the excitement of this daring race through the stars. After the first 2 minutes of cat and mouse banter between the brass and woodwind section, with Han furiously searching for his Hydro spanners, we finally get to the precipice of the rollercoaster hill climb to be plunged at 2 mins 18 headfirst into ripping cornets and frantic strings. One of the finest demonstrations of film music dropping you right into the action.

Luke Vs Vader – Return of the Jedi

Due to my family being a bit late to the VHS party and not being regular cinema-goers I had to wait an eternal 5 years to finally get to see Return of the Jedi. On the night my dad brought home our first video recorder he had managed to obtain a copy of Jedi from the local video shop and that was me done for the weekend. Food was not necessary, I ran upstairs got my pyjamas on and waited impatiently for the rest of the selfish oafs to finish their Friday night chippy tea. Eventually, they sat with me and we pressed play and my mind was blown. I had read the storybook version of Jedi having received the St Michaels annual for a previous Christmas (see image below) cover to cover dozens of times but never seen the film. This was the one I had waited for, my whole life had led to this moment. I won’t bore you with the time we were told we were to watch it at school as part of our patron saints feast day only to find that the kid who organised it brought The NeverEnding Story instead, counseling did not help.

Image result for St Michaels Return of the Jedi

So finally Jedi, it was everything I’d wanted and more. None more so than Vader’s redemption which occurs just after the piece above. I don’t think it’s the saga’s greatest lightsaber duel but it is the most important to me and that is partly down to John William’s music, which captures the moment where Luke really does get the upper hand for the first time. The main hero and the main “villain” battling possibly to the death. The original trilogy to me was building up to this moment and it is hauntingly beautiful as a result.

Princess Leia theme – Star Wars a New Hope

It is often taken for granted just how much of an emotional punch John Williams brings to the Star Wars saga with his scores. Similar to the Yoda theme, the Princess Leia theme is instantly recognisable to the character that it accompanies. From the “Help me Obi-Wan, you’re my only hope” hologram of a New Hope, to the heartbreaking reprise 2 mins 40 into the Finale from The Last Jedi, as Williams remembers the late, great Carrie Fisher, we know we are in the presence of nobility, a courageous warrior and indefatigable leader. Princess Leia was in so many ways ahead of her time as a character, a shrieking damsel in distress she most certainly wasn’t. From the moment she meets and basically ridicules both Luke and Han at their lame rescue attempts, we have a hero with more than her fair share of guts and steely determination. Watch how she verbally spars with both Vader and Tarkin and how she ruthlessly dispatches stormtroopers whilst Luke faffs around with his makeshift cord/vine that will enable them to swing to safety and that’s just the first film. Williams score, although gentle and melancholic in places also demonstrates that this is no shrinking violet, this is a Force to be reckoned with.

Rey’s Theme – The Force Awakens

There are people on Planet Earth who like pineapple on pizza, who think Cristiano Ronaldo is a better football player than Lionel Messi, who think Queen never made a decent album after News of the World, and those who think that the latest Star Wars films are childhood destroyers and a slight on all of humanity…………..these people are all wrong. The one thing that they will no doubt all agree on, however, is that the music John Williams has produced for the most recent entries into the Star Wars universe is of an unflappable quality that captures the essence of the original and prequel trilogies. Joking aside, regardless of what your tastes of the visual action on screen maybe (and if you hate Episodes VII and VIII, you are and always will be wrong :)), you would be a deemed a pineapple pizza eating monster if you did not revel in William’s scores. Capturing elements from the original scores and mixing in new themes like a master alchemist. This is perhaps none more so illustrated by Rey’s theme, which starts with a solo clarinet which reflects Rey’s solitude before moving onto percussion with the rising strings as the audience surveys Rey’s barren surroundings whilst hinting at the adventure yet to come. Thematically it recalls Luke being called across by Aunt Beru to check that any translator that Uncle Owen may buy can speak Bocce. Packed with nostalgic nods to a Universe we are so comfortable in, here Williams’ score for Episode VII grants us a time to reminisce, whilst embracing new thrills and terrors that will mean just as much to a new generation as the Imperial March did to mine.

Duel of the Fates – The Phantom Menace

Ah, the Phantom Menace, the most eagerly awaited film of all time and possibly the biggest anti-climax. However, I watched it again recently with my kids, and although far from any kind of classic, it isn’t as bad as some would have you believe. In fact, I would go so far as to say compared to Episode II it’s a veritable masterpiece. As I have mentioned already, whatever the artistic merits of the films, one area that has never been questioned are John Williams’s scores for the prequel trilogy. Duel of the Fates was instantly iconic and has become firmly embedded into pop culture history. The piece also accompanies the standout scene of the prequel trilogy as Jedi’s Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn battle against the devilish Darth Maul (2nd best thing in the prequel trilogy after Williams’ scores), in a literal fight to the death. It’s easy to forget how perfectly choreographed this sequence actually is, and to coin a cliche, is worth the entrance fee alone. The music is a balletic partner to the ferocious battle on screen and is simply brilliant.

Other film work

Of course, there is more to John Williams than Star Wars and Spielberg films. Oscar-nominated 51 times, starting in 1968 for his score in Mark Robson’s The Valley of the Dolls till Brian Percival’s 2014’s The Book Thief, Williams has notched nominations for his work with 23 different directors including the likes of Oliver Stone, Norman Jewison, and Alan Parker. Before his Star Wars and Spielberg, Williams made an impact in a slew of disaster movies that were all the rage in the early 1970s, providing scores for major ensemble works such as the Poseidon Adventure (1973) and the Towering Inferno (1974), both scores were nominated. Following on from his double hitter of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Williams hit big again in 1978 with Superman, yet another score to firmly lodge itself into popular culture psyche for decades to come. The love theme from Superman the Movie (below) is near on perfect and once again is an example of perfect mood and moment capture.

Williams would continue to mix serious politically inspired scores most notably for Oliver Stone’s bruising Vietnam nightmare Born on the 4th of July and his conspiracy theory led JFK, both of which were Oscar nominated, with iconic festive fayre like the theme for Home Alone (see below)

Working with director Christopher Columbus, Williams’ score perfectly captured the magic of Christmas and the childhood wonder of that time of year,  and the menace of the films two main miscreants. There is more of that magic incorporated in the Harry Potter scores that he also produced for Christopher Columbus. Once again Williams was able to produce an instantly recognisable score for a new generation of literary, movie and music fans, best encapsulated perhaps by Hedwig’s theme (see below)

Influences

Not only has John Williams had a profound effect on the lives of audiences the world over, but he has also left indelible impressions on some of the finest film composers working today. All brilliant in their unique way the following have all produced scores of the most exacting beauty of raucous bravado that lends more than just a hint of the John Williams Approval Shadow looming above them.

Thomas Newman

It’s quite unfair to suggest that Thomas Newman lives in the shadow of John Williams as he is a composer of such exceptional quality that I could write a blog about the 14 times Oscar nominated musician in his own right. The reason I mention him here is that I feel he is the closest to Williams of any of his contemporaries. Specialising in large scale percussion led pieces, Newman captures that sense of Americana that has become so familiar to Williams fans. When for only the 2nd time in 40 years, Williams was unable to work on a Spielberg cinematic release with 2015s Bridge of Spies, Newman was the natural choice to take up the reigns and in doing so produced my favourite of this decades Spielberg scores. Never is this more prevalent than the 10:51 epic composed for the Glienicke Bridge sequence, where Newman mixes the orchestral swells of Williams with the almost dainty, dreamlike, piano-led mistiness that had served Newman so well in previous classic scores for the likes of Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.

A regular in capturing the playfulness whimsy of a Pixar movie and more recently the urgency of a Bond score, Newman is one of those composers that conjures up imagery of warm cup of coffee in front of a log fire on a cold day.

James Horner

The late, great James Horner who’s life was cut tragically short in a plane crash in June 2015, was a master of musical story telling. A regular collaborator with James Cameron, Horner again had the ability to create other worlds through his music to such a degree that it could be argued in some cases the visuals were matched to his music as opposed to the other way round. A fan of including angelic voices alongside perceived native beats, whether that be the tragedy of the ending of Titanic to the illustration of rusticness in Braveheart to the battle-hardened otherworldly experience of Avatar, Horner rose to prominence providing scores to fantasy films of the 1980s for the likes of Willow, Cocoon, and Krull, so the comparisons with Williams were clear to see.

Michael Giacchino

A fellow Pixar regular, Giacchino cut his composer teeth by providing scores for video games in the 1990s before becoming a regular collaborator with J.J Abrams with 2005 Mission Impossible III. He then went onto score the rebooted Star Trek film series in 2008, and the majestic Spielberg inspired Super 8 in 2011. He made his Pixar debut in 2004 with The Incredibles . A now staple of Pixar, Giacchino has also dipped his conductor’s baton into the Marvel Universe with his 1970s nostalgia inspired Dr. Strange score, which if you haven’t listened to then stop what you are doing right now and listen. Giacchino’s John Williams connection saw him enter the Star Wars universe in 2016 when handed the task of composing the score for the first standalone Star Wars movie, the impressive Rogue One. Filling the sizable Williams shoes in a World that only Williams had previously trod was no doubt a daunting experience, but was handled with a deft touch that perfectly encapsulated the mood of a movie that devotees will know the emotional outcome before it even starts. The piece below could have been written by John Williams himself in one of the earlier Star Wars. I think if I’m still able to string coherent sentences together in 40 years time I may decide to write a blog on Michael Giacchino in the same gushing tones that I am currently doing for John Williams

John Powell

Talking of composers who took the leap into the Star Wars universe I give you John Powell. It could be argued that John Powell’s score for 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars story is the most impressive element of the film, which is a back handed compliment if ever I heard one. I actually really enjoyed the film and think it will be thought of more highly when time becomes the most useful judge. However, there is no denying that Powell’s score is near on perfect. Similar to Giacchino, Powell really came to the fore with a series of action-packed scores for animated hits such as Shrek and the massively underrated, both from a film and score point of view, How to Train Your Dragon series. Powell had demonstrated that he could work music into action set pieces, whilst not being afraid to throw in some curve balls to the listening audience. See below for the rip-roaring and nail-biting Marauders Arrive from the Solo soundtrack, which mixes John Williams’ cues with tribal chants and breakneck pace. John Powell, like Michael Giacchino, will hopefully continue to dazzle us over the next decades as they are the closest I have heard to the mass appeal of John Williams.

The future

With John Williams close to becoming a Nonagenarian it is fair to assume that we are currently witnessing the twilight of his career. However, with Episode IX of Star Wars currently being worked on and a fifth Indiana Jones movie slated for early next decade, there is no sign of him wishing to take it easy. I leave you with the most iconic piece of any movie score and a piece that perfectly encapsulates the brilliance of the brilliant John Williams

Spielberg the 2000s

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) Minority Report (2002) Catch Me If You Can (2002) Tom Hanks in The Terminal (2004) War of the Worlds (2005) Munich (2005) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Welcome to Part 4 of my look at Spielberg through the decades. Following on from my previous blogs of Spielberg through the 1970s the 1980s and the 1990s we now enter what could be Spielberg’s most misunderstood decade. I personally see it as his most creative, showcasing brave ideas and taking risks that now the critical acclaim matched the audience love, he was willing to take. The one thing to say about the naughties as I refer to them is that the fluffiness has definitely gone, to paraphrase the opening crawl of the Empire Strikes Back, these are indeed dark times. The line up of posters at the top of the blog with the two obvious exceptions are a paradigm of murkiness. There are some issues, Spielberg doesn’t fully remove the crowd pleasing shackles, he can’t resist a couple of “see it’s all ok in the end” type endings, one in particular is very punchable but overall the impression I get is that finally Spielberg feels he has the freedom to make the films that he wants to make. This is certainly the case with the first of his 2st Century films.

A.I Artificial Intelligence (2001)

“Why do you wanna leave me? Why do you wanna leave me? I’m sorry I’m not real. If you let me, I’ll be so real for you.”

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) Haley Joel Osment in Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)

There are some who claim that Spielberg has not made a truly great film since Saving Private Ryan in 1998. However from 2000 onwards we have a collection of films that, whilst maybe not as commercially accessible or appealing as what has gone before, reward those willing to be challenged and open to new directions from Spielberg. This is no more apparent than A.I Artificial Intelligence, a film that requires patience and repeat viewings before a true and fair opinion can be formed.

The origins of the film date back to the 1970s when Stanley Kubrick bought the rights and attempted to adapt the short story “Supertoys last all Summer Long” written by Brian Aldiss in 1969. Concerned that the main role was too much emotionally for a young child to play, Kubrick delayed the production until he felt the technology was available to create the character of David digitally. As the decades went by Kubrick passed over the project to Spielberg as he thought it matched more of his sensibilities, but Spielberg worked with the majority of Kubrick’s ideas to form the film. Kubrick, who died in 1999 never saw the finished piece.

A.I is the story of David a Mecha that resembles a human child who is sent to Henry and Monica Swinton as a “replacement” for their son Martin who is suffering from an incurable disease and is currently being held in isolation. Monica, played by Frances O’Connor, is wary of David at first but slowly begins to grow towards him until she activates his imprinting protocol which means David now recognises her as his mother and will provide a child like love to her. All is going well until Martin, now out of suspended isolation, returns home and develops a sibling rivalry with David which culminates in David almost drowning Martin in an act of self-defence. Henry asks that Monica takes David back to his creator where he will be destroyed. However Monica abandons David in a forest in a hope that he will be able to defend for himself. David then embarks on a 2000 year quest to be reunited with his “mother” seeking out the fabled Blue Fairy who he believes will turn him into a real life boy.

I mentioned at the top of this segment that A.I requires patience. I remember being left dumbfounded on first viewing at the cinema, confused about what I had just witnessed, its ultimately a matriarchal love story, but it can also be an allegory for social distrust and prejudice, witness the gladiatorial baiting audience at the flesh fair or David’s treatment at the hands of Martin and his friends. David is looking for love but the larger picture here is the acceptance of the Mecha community as equals, which of course is a well trodden Cinematic story arc. Here’s the thing, A.I makes no secret of its influences and it takes repeat viewings to fully embrace this. The most obvious is Pinocchio, a film that Spielberg has referenced on occasions before most notably in Close Encounters, but there are clear nods to Blade Runner, and even touches of Cronenberg particularly in the aforementioned Flesh Fair.

However the biggest influence is clearly Kubrick. The opening hour, whilst not quite horror, has a spooky, eerie feel to it. The introduction of David is an unnerving experience not just for Monica but the audience as well. Played with eye-piercing perfection by Hayley Joel Osment, the young robot boy appears with an unblinking porcelain stare, he follows Monica around the apartment, appearing silently, always watching, he is more a robotic stalker than a loving child. Spielberg’s chooses to initially leave David ambiguous, he is often shot with angelic shapes around him. At the dinner table he is shot from above through the circular light fitting. The calming, blue and whites of Davids eyes and clothing give him an ethereal, robotic but angelic presence. His appearance states there is nothing to fear here, his actions and mannerisms suggest otherwise. The character of Monica follows the time honoured tradition of struggling parentage, this time the mother is the parent that the main protagonists desperately wants to engage and be with, when this isn’t possible David, similar to Jim in Empire of the Sun, settles for two surrogate fathers to guide him. Firstly we have an animatronic teddy bear, a childs toy (voiced brilliantly by Jack Angel) who scowls at the initial suggestion that he is a toy who like Jiminy Cricket in the much referenced Pinochhio is David’s conscious, exercising caution at every turn. Whereas Jude Law’s robotic Gigolo Joe is more interested in opening David’s eyes to the world, Empires Basie to Teddy’s Dr Rawlings if you will.

Haley Joel Osment in Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)

I don’t think Spielberg has ever made a more beautiful film, every frame glistens. Dismissed on its release, it was classed as an oddity in Spielberg’s filmography as audiences found the over emotional David too sentimental a character to fully invest time in, but this is a dark film. The first hour is a psychological, uncomfortable, in an intriguing way, watch, but the final half hour is second only to Close Encounters for sheer spectacle when viewed again. This is Spielberg’s second chance film, from its taut thriller opening act to the visually stunning 2nd I implore all readers who had previously dismissed A.I as sentimental hogwash to revisit and take in every inch of the screen.

Why should you watch it?

Because more than any other Spielberg film, A.I rewards repeat viewings. If you have only seen A.I once and found it difficult and cold, watch again, take it all in, there has never been so much beauty in a Spielberg film. This could be his most misunderstood masterpiece.

Minority Report (2002)

“You don’t have to chase me.”

Minority Report (2002)  Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton in Minority Report (2002)

You could argue that with the exception of casting Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg up until this point has never gone for the most obvious marquee name to star in his film, Spielberg himself was always the main draw. Even Saving Private Ryan was sold more on the subject matter in hand as opposed to the fact that Tom Hanks took the lead role. Dreyfuss was a big star in the days of Close Encounters but not really the same box office draw as the likes of Burt Reynolds, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson all who were considered for Neary. This was to change with Minority Report a film set in 2054 where pre-crime cognitives work alongside the Washington D.C. Police force to prevent murders before they happen. The twist here is that the Chief of Pre-crime himself John Anderton is accused of murder of a man that he has never met, forcing Anderton to go on the run.

Cast as Anderton, Spielberg worked for the first time with bona-fide Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise. The pair had been friends for some time and had waited for the right project to collaborate. The fast action, science fiction setting ticked both of their wish lists, the character back story of Anderton would also give Cruise the opportunity to stretch his often underrated emotional range as he deals with the impact of  being a grieving parent, the first of many similarities between Minority Report and the previous A.I. A facial disfigurement half way through the film would also prove that this was no vanity project for the often gleaming grin wearing Cruise.

Opening with a terrific prologue that fully demonstrates Pre-Crime in all its finery, the films tone is set by the prevention of Howard Marks murdering his adulterous wife and her lover. This scene sets the pace for the entire film, there is very little standing around, it really is the quintessential chase movie. The colours of the film follow on from the more desperate parts of A.I with lots of blues and silvers dominating the landscape of a city where it appears to be almost always raining. This is a grim look at a not too distant future.

Since Schindler’s List Janusz Kaminski has been Spielberg’s go to cinematographer, the opening three Spielbergs films of the 21st Century show a Director and Cinematographer in perfect sync with each other. After the glistening beauty of A.I, we have a damp, grubby world, perfectly summed up by the interior of the apartment of the black market doctor who performs an illegal eye transplant on Anderton to help him escape detection whilst moving through the city.

The warmness is only really achieved at the films conclusion, a conclusion that left some audiences frustrated, by its neatness and optimism, something that is glaringly absent in the preceding 2 hours.

The film itself balances film noir with modern day thriller, it raises questions about free will versus determinism, if an individual is aware of their own future, can they change it or is it set in stone. Does governmental interference, in this case to prevent murder, actually lead to a more harmonious society? The evidence on display in Minority Report is no. People still have extra marital affairs, people are still dependent on illegal substances, Anderton scores drugs to help deal with the loss of his son. The general public still rush around barely noticing each other whilst being bombarded with adverts in a perpetual world of unstoppable traffic that now slides down the side of buildings as there is no further road space available. This is a grim vision of a possible future world.

Cruise is excellent as Chief Anderton and he is ably supported by a slimy “is he good or is he bad” turn from Colin Farrell. The shining light for me though is Samantha Morton as Pre-Cog Agatha, who displays vulnerability and strength in equal measure.

The film has some stunning set pieces, the aforementioned prevention of Marks murdering his wife is one, the scene where Anderton confronts his own future is Spielberg demonstrating that he doesn’t need a T-Rex or Shark to get the edge of the audience’s seat get ever nearer to their bottoms. The crowning moment however is a single take shot just over a minute long where the camera follows the robotic Spyders as they go from apartment to apartment to carry out retinal identification on the residents. The camera offers a birds eye view of the crumbling, filthy apartment block, bobbing between apartments, it is a masterful moment in what is a brilliant yet astonishingly downbeat film. The 2000s had started with two films that had less than a sanguine view of the future packed full of edginess and tension. It was time to head back into the near past to lighten the mood.

Why should you watch it?

You should watch it because it is fantastic. Spielberg demonstrates all his artistic flair whilst never compromising on thrills and spills. The ending may seem a little bit of a cop-out but overall this is top end action sci-fi

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

“Dear Dad, you always told me that an honest man has nothing to fear, so I’m trying my best not to be afraid”

Catch Me If You Can (2002)  Leonardo DiCaprio, Lidia Sabljic, Karrie MacLaine, and Hilary Rose Zalman in Catch Me If You Can (2002)

The opening three films of the 21st Century for Spielberg have a multitude of cross over themes which have led some Spielberg devotees to unofficially dub the three as the “chase/on the run/running man” trilogy. In A.I mecha David, abandoned by his “mother” goes on the run to find her again, in Minority Report Chief John Anderton is on the run to prove his innocence from a crime he is yet to commit, and finally we have the third part, Catch Me If You Can, the story of a 19 year old fraudster being chased across continents by the FBI. Catch Me If You Can is a classic caper based on a true story and is easily the lightest in tone and possibly the most accessible to a wider audience of this unofficial trilogy.

Based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jnr, who over a 5 year period executed a number of elaborate cons including impersonating a Pan-AM pilot, a French teacher and a doctor. However he became most adept at check fraud, in fact he became so good at it that the FBI hired him after his prison sentence to help ensnare and capture other forgers. Leonardo DiCaprio at the start of his impressive post-Titanic career plays Frank with a youthful exuberance that demonstrates that he was more than just a poster boy for thousands of youngsters world wide after his tragic turn in Titanic. There are hints here of what’s to come for DiCaprio, leading the hedonistic lifestyle similar to Jordan Belford in The Wolf of Wall Street and holding his own against more seasoned actors such as working alongside Jack Nicholson in The Departed.

There is a wonderfully rounded supporting cast, headed up by a marvelously goofy performance from Tom Hanks as FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who leads the chase to apprehend Frank. Hanks is quite happy here to stay in the background and until his second appearance almost 40 mins in you forget that he is in the film at all. Hanks appears to be having a great time and it is refreshing to see him play a lighter role after such a tortured turn in Saving Private Ryan. Witness the scene where Carl discovers a red garment has been mixed with his washing at the launderette to see Hanks at his most playful. The film is also noted for an early scene stealing performance from Amy Adams as the naive fiancee. However it’s Christopher Walken who leaves the audience heartbroken, playing the outwardly over confident but ultimate failure that is Frank Snr. A father who is a failure in a Spielberg film, now where have we seen that before. Walken, who in my mind has always had an unusual screen presence, provides Frank Snr with edgy ticks that manages to convey a man who knows that everything is unravelling around him whilst lending a reassuring presence to Frank Jnr that all is well. Its at equal parts a powerhouse performance mixed with a sentimental subtlety from Walken. A particular stand out lunch scene between Franks Snr and Jnr is beautifully played by Walken and DiCaprio respectively. When the cast is on such form, as is evident throughout the movie, then Spielberg doesn’t have an awful lot to do. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but one thing I feel Spielberg has developed more in the 21st Century, is knowing when to just let the camera roll and allow the actors to get on with it. Catch Me If You Can was the first time I properly noticed this and is evident in future works such as Lincoln and The Post.

However, this is without doubt the most fun he has had since the turn of the century and this is reflected in his relaxed process to his direction, he finally gets to realise one of his long held ambitions, albeit fleetingly, with a brief homage to James Bond, Aston Martin DB5 et al. The film is shot mainly in a bright orange hew to demonstrate the overall lightness of tone, but the darkness that has followed Spielberg around since the year 2000 is never too far away. Frank Snr’s demise is one thing, the film also touches on abortion and infidelity but overall this is the sort of Spielberg film that you would quite happily recommend to your parents to watch. Spielberg would continue to go with a lighter shade of pale with his next offering.

Why should you watch it?

It demonstrates that Spielberg still had a fun side. It showcased that he was still the master of being able to pace a film without ever going too far in one direction. It also has the best opening credits sequence of any Spielberg film.

The Terminal (2004)

You say you are waiting for something. And I say to you, “Yes, yes. We all wait”.

Tom Hanks in The Terminal (2004)  Tom Hanks in The Terminal (2004)

So we reach that point in my blog where we talk about the film in each decade that is often ignored when discussing Spielberg films. Here in the Naughties we move onto The Terminal, a bittersweet tale about a man named Viktor Navorski played by Tom Hanks who’s home country of (the fictional) Krakhozia falls to a military coup whilst Viktor is somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean meaning that he is now a resident of nowhere and therefore cannot enter the United States of America or return to the now non-existent Krakhozia. Therefore Viktor is stuck at JFK airport………indefinitely. This sounds like a rather dour premise for a film but what follows is a rather charming tale about humanity and acceptance, strong recurring themes in the Spielberg cannon.

The Terminal slapstick style of humour is a joy to watch, not least Kumar Pallana’s sneaky airport caretaker who takes great pleasure on watching people slip on his deliberately soaked floors. Further to this, Hanks himself channeling some of his earlier physical comedy that hadn’t really been seen since the late 1980s. There is a Chaplin-esq quality to Hanks throughout in what is a hugely underrated performance from a man who always seems to be at the top of his game.

I suppose the question remains however whether Hanks should have been cast at all. I’m not sure if The Terminal was made now that he would have been (forget his age for a moment). As good as Hanks is in this film and that is undeniable, it seems the safe, quick and easy casting decision. I am the biggest Tom Hanks fan on my street, I host an annual Hanksgiving event each November where we* celebrate the brilliance of the man but even I would be intrigued to see a European actor in the lead role here and I think if made today that would have happened.

The other stand out in this film is Stanley Tucci as the uptight airport immigration official Frank Dixon, his resentment growing with each passing scene. Catherine Zeta Jones is very pretty but little else as the air hostess who catches Viktor’s eye in an unnecessary romantic subplot that ends just as it would in reality, which I suppose is something. Of far more interest is the romantic subplot between Diego Luna’s immigrant airport worker and a young Zoe Saldana who plays an immigration officer.

The Terminal is loosely based on the true life case of an Iranian, Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who still lived in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport at the time of filming and became a tired, frail and lonely individual. The Terminal doesn’t go there but it may have been interesting to see how Viktor’s mental health would have been effected over time, he was after all stuck at the airport for 9 months which surely would have tested anyone’s sanity. Spielberg plays it safe and bearing in mind his other output in the 2000s that’s probably not a bad idea.

The fact that The Terminal is not mentioned more positively among fans is actually a great shame as this is Spielberg at his most crowd pleasing and there is lots to be enjoyed here. This is his equivalent to playing an easy listening album on a Sunday afternoon. You are able to allow The Terminal to largely wash over you and makes few demands of the audience other than to not take yourself too seriously for the next couple of hours. There are issues with the film and it has no danger of ever troubling my Spielberg top 10 but this is as inoffensive as Spielberg gets and I laughed throughout and occasionally even had to remove that annoying dust that one sometimes gets in their eyes. Its also worth noting that if any readers are watching Spielberg films chronologically as I am (of course you all are ha ha) then enjoy The Terminal whilst it lasts as the rest of this decade is not pretty and the darkness on the horizon will have you longing for Viktor’s charm and warmth.

* Its basically just me sat watching Forrest Gump on repeat for 24 hours on the last Friday of November.

Why should you watch it?

At time of writing this is the closest Spielberg has got to really nailing a romantic comedy. Its a vastly underrated piece and was largely overlooked on release. Whilst never attempting to change the World, it deserves to find a wider audience.

War of the Worlds (2005)

“This… This machine it just started… torching everyone… killing everything.”

War of the Worlds (2005)  

Spielberg was back to his old tricks in 2005 with a double cinematic release, one aimed at the Blockbuster audience, War of the Worlds and another more serious, award baiting affair the upcoming Munich. However the main difference here is that there are no smooth edges, no crowd pleasing triumphs and quite frankly a lack of humour. This is Spielberg’s darkest hour. War of the Worlds is a fascinating entry in the Spielberg cannon, its quite possibly his bleakest film, the sense of loss and impending doom is quite startling. I remember watching at the cinema thinking being a Spielberg film starring Tom Cruise it will all be alright in the end, and frustratingly it kind of is (more on the ending later) but this is no happy shiny summer blockbuster with wise cracking buddies exchanging quips and uploading computer viruses into Alien spacecraft, this is an intense and at times disturbing experience for all involved.

Unusually for a Spielberg adventure tale, there is very little preamble or prologue, the aliens are introduced within the first 20 minutes, this is a tale about survival and the audience are thrown straight into the action of highways exploding and vehicles plummeting through the air as the alien crafts destroy everything in its path. There is no cosy suburban build up to this, Ray (Cruise) lives in a dull, grey street surrounded by downtrodden folk in a house that is bland and in dire need of a clean. We feel the apprehension of Robbie and Rachel, Ray’s estranged children, as they visit for a weekend submitting to the impending boredom and frustration. Ray is a poor father and role model (hmm we’ve been here before) but will redeem himself somewhat by the end.

Away from the spectacle it is some of the quieter moments where the tension and fear is raised up a notch in War of the Worlds. Notice in particular a quick scene in Robbie and Rachel’s mums kitchen where Ray aggressively attempts to make peanut butter sandwiches for their on-going journey. Here Cruise walks the fine line between attempting to remain calm and not totally losing his mind as he struggles to comprehend what has just happened to him. Food related panic is a Spielberg trait often overlooked see Roy building his mash potato mountain in Close Encounters and the effect that has on the others at the dining table, Elliot announcing to all that his dad is in Mexico with Sally, or Lex’s lime jelly wobble uncontrollably as the silhouette of the Raptor is seen behind the curtain in Jurassic Park, or David’s shocking unprovoked laugh at the dinner table in A.I.

The sandwich making scene is just the start of the quieter psychological scramblers on display here. The whole basement sequence with a menacingly sinister Tim Robbins almost stealing the show as the self proclaimed preacher Ogilvy, is right up there in the tension stakes alongside the Raptor attack in Jurassic Park or even the slow ascent up the hill of David Mann in his fuel sapped car in Duel whilst the truck closes in. The difference here is that there is no escape. The basement is grim, damp, and dark, the set wouldn’t look out of place in an Eli Roth film. Together with scenes of car jacking, capsizing ferry’s and a river filled with dead bodies, a sunny disposition filled blockbuster this certainly isn’t.

It is not a pleasurable experience watching War of the Worlds but it is a fascinating one. Some of the visuals on show are mind boggling and people should not underestimate Tom Cruise here. He has this film in the palm of his hand from the very opening and is on top form throughout. Dakota Fanning who plays the young Rachel is also fantastic. Yet again another non-annoying child performance showing a level of acting maturity. without you ever forgetting that she is a young child.

What prevents War of the Worlds from joining the pantheons of Spielbergs truly great films is a last 5 minutes which is as disappointing an ending as Spielberg has ever submitted. Maybe he too found the previous 100 minutes too dark and desired to leave the audience with a more optimistic conclusion. My problem is that I had invested time in these characters, I had bought into and accepted the choices they had made during the intensity of the battle in the film, I assumed they were a done deal so it was disappointing to have the rug somewhat pulled out from beneath me in what still feels an unnecessary epilogue.

Why should you watch it?

War of the Worlds is the grimmest of grimness in a very grim decade from Spielberg. For those who doubt Spielberg still had the capacity to be edgy and subversive, they need to watch this. There is nothing happy about this film, apart from a brief unnecessary post script. I watched again recently and was unnerved by its darkness. I think this film has got better with age and like a lot of Spielberg’s early Millenium output requires retrospective reviews. This is gripping stuff

Munich (2005)

We have 11 Palestinian names. Each had a hand in planning Munich. You’re going to kill them, 11 men, one by one

Munich (2005)  Munich (2005)

Once again in 2005 Spielberg graced cinema with two releases, however where you usually find a crowd pleasing mainstream blockbuster alongside a hard hitting drama, in 2005 you could be forgiven for thinking that Spielberg was on somewhat of a downer. The less than optimistic War of the Worlds was followed up by Munich, a film that rejects lightness of tone like no other Spielberg film. It’s an uncompromising piece of fiction based loosely on real events and is far removed from the crowd pleasing Spielberg as is thought possible. This is unflinching stuff and its flippin’ brilliant.

Controversial from inception to release, critics rounded on the moralistic message of the film, this is “eye for an eye” storytelling, we know as an audience who we are rooting for as long as we don’t focus to centrally on what they are actually doing. What we have here is on the face of it an espionage thriller, as Avner ,played with piercing realism by Eric Bana works alongside his team consisting of driver, a slightly out of place pre-Bond Daniel Craig, bomb makers, a wonderful Mathieu Kassovitz who really should be in more films, and clean up man played imperiously by the ever dependable Ciaran Hinds.

What sets this aside from your John Le Carre’s and Ian Flemings of this World, is that this is no slick operation, its hardly a glamorous existence, there is not a Milk Tray man insight. We are left in no doubt from the start of that the team are not cold bloodied assassins, they are there to do a job and they display all the signs of individuals who know that they are undertaking a horrific task. The set pieces are as taut as a snare drum in particular a booby trap phone that nearly takes out the young daughter of the named target and a bed bomb that takes out more than the team bargained for in more ways than one.

Going against the Spielberg grain somewhat there is plenty of focus on the human side of the story. Avner is not an absent father, more due to circumstance he’s an absent husband. Avner’s main focus throughout the film is his family and with each “successful” mission he seems to be further away from home, a call back to Tom Hank’s Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan.

Munich is exhilarating stuff and wrongly gets overlooked when discussing Spielberg’s top end dramatic films. Its possibly his most unsentimental film, it starts bleak and never rises above greasy grime. There is no triumphant walk off into the sunset for our protagonists here, instead a hot and sweaty descent into paranoia and regret. Spielberg has rarely been this pessimistic in his denouement and Munich is all the more authentic as a result. It really is Spielberg at his most fascinating and is perfectly in line with the more darker, dare I say it interesting films that have characterized his work up to this point in the 21st Century.

After the double hitter of 2005, his 6th since 2001, Spielberg would now go on to only make one film in the next six years and that would be a somewhat surprising return to an old trusted friend.

Why should you watch it?

Tense, claustrophobic, depressing, dark and gloomy. Spielberg’s output in 2005 was in stark contrast to his popcorn days of the 70s and 80s. Here we have a more intimate story set on a backdrop of paranoia. Munich’s moral see-saw adds a new dimension to Spielberg, who up until this point in his career had largely stayed clear of controversy. Munich enthralls and grips from the start, and is challenge for the viewer. Its essential Spielberg.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

It’s not the years, it’s the mileage

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)  Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, and Shia LaBeouf in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Talking about triumphant rides off into the sunset, the last time we saw Indiana Jones in the cinemas, he was riding off with his father and two of his closest friends in perfect silhouette in one of Spielberg’s most satisfying closing shots. That was 19 years previous and following on from a Millenial desire to nostalgically revisit former glories that included the divisive yet phenomenally successful Star Wars prequels, the announcement in 2006 that a new Indiana Jones film was to be made was met with delight and excitement possibly never felt for a Spielberg film, particularly in the internet age.

The delight and excitement of course led to one word, expectation. Artistically it could be argued that Spielberg had never been in as rich a vein of form as he had enjoyed in the preceding 10 years. Executive Producer and Indiana Jones originator George Lucas also had had enormous financial success with the aforementioned Star Wars prequels so it seemed to make perfect sense to revisit the crowd favourite. If anything it was the third part of the essential Indiana Jones triumvirate that perhaps needed to revisit the character the most. Without a recognised box office success since 2000s What Lies Beneath, Harrison Ford was probably in greater need than Spielberg and Lucas to make this delayed 4th installment a success.

Lucas had allayed fears of an older Indiana Jones by stating that there was nothing to stop the character continuing to have adventures in his later years and so the decision was made to keep with the Indiana Jones timeline by setting the film in the Cold War paranoia of the 1950s. The themes of paranoia had dominated the majority of Spielberg films of the 2000s, whether this was a response to 9/11 or a genuine desire to tell these tales is unclear.

By moving Indy to the 1950s the film makers were able to use the anxiety of post war America. Gone were the Nazis and the Religious artifacts, replaced by robotic Russians and Roswell inspired Alien creatures. The film plays on the ageing process as Dr Jones is plunged head first into the birth of rock n roll, with nods to Laslo Benedeks’s The Wild One, and Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog making it clear that time has moved on since we last spent time with him. This is a promising set up and its nice to see one of Cinema’s most familiar characters in this rather unfamiliar setting.

There are touches of the old magic on show as well. A fantastic motor cycle chase through the grounds of Harvard University would have not felt out of place in the any of the original three films and its clear to see that Ford has slipped effortlessly into the old leather jacket with ease. Its the second half of the film where it sadly loses its way, with misjudged set pieces and an over reliance on CGI which is made worse by the fact that in a number of shots, it doesn’t look quite finished, exhibit 1, Mutt sword fighting in between two jeeps in the jungle with extending legs.

Spielberg and Lucas were understandably able to attract a fine cast to work alongside Ford but the names on the call sheet appear to have added to the weight of expectation that was tightening around the productions neck. Oscar winner Cate Blanchett is amazing in everything but here feels miscast as a Russian villain who is neither Molaram scary or Belloq intimidating. The legendary John Hurt shows up as Indy’s old mentor Oxley but he’s given so little to do it looks like he thinks he’s in a completely different film to everyone else. These two however pale into insignificance when compared to a truly dreadful performance from perennially dreadful Ray Winstone, who plays a cockney double or triple agent who is annoying from the moment he is on screen with his cheeky “Oi Jonesy” schtick. The biggest disappointment for me is that by the end of the film he is still around.

Then of course there is the much maligned Shia LaBeouf, an actor who has suffered more than anyone at the internet keyboard warriors over the years. Yes he has not helped himself with a personal life that seems to bounce from indiscretion to indiscretion, however I think he is not that bad in this film. Yes his cockiness makes you long for the naive innocence of Short Round, or the comforting presence of Salah but the characters flaws can’t be pointed solely at LaBeouf.

Despite the casting/character problems it is a joy when Karen Allen makes her first appearance on screen as the returning Marion. She may have lost some of the confident spark but she certainly hasn’t lost her undoubted sassyness. Indy’s reaction on their reunion is pure delight and it is a feeling felt among the audience. There is also a touching cameo from Jim Broadbent who partially fills the gap left by long departed Denholm Elliot and the unable to be persuaded out of retirement Sean Connery.

So onto the Aliens and the nuclear protecting fridge. To be fair neither bothered me too much, Indiana Jones has always been a series of films where otherworldly treasures and unlikely situations arise, that has always been part of the fun. Is surviving a nuclear blast in a lead lined fridge anymore unlikely than falling 20000 feet from a plane with just a rubber dingy to land on, or for that matter, aliens visiting and storing treasures on Earth more fantastically bonkers than a cup that gives everlasting life?

Through the unrealistic expectations prior to release it was at times for some people difficult to remember that these were adventure tales not set in reality. Whilst never reaching the dizzying heights of the original three films there was still plenty to enjoy. It definitely demands a second watch if one hasn’t already taken place. For those who dismissed it on release it might be time to revisit and you never know you may be surprised.

Why should you watch it?

Because its not as bad as you think, the first half in particular is terrific. Yes there are missteps and it never sits snuggly with the rest of the series, but the weight of expectation that burdened it should be put to one side now and the film judged on its own merits. Like all of Spielberg’s 2000 decade output, it deserves a second chance.

Summary

So overall a rather inauspicious end to what I believe to be from a creative point of view, Spielberg’s most intriguing decade. It is a decade that is full of films that audiences have been known to approach with suspicion and dismiss on initial release. They all warrant and deserve repeat viewings. The first half of the decade in particular has some of the most impressive, off the leash, artistic works of his career.

He has now moved onto the current decade where film making has returned in part to a more classical approach, whilst still demonstrating that he is willing to experiment and challenge himself in areas of new exploration.

All images courtesy of http://www.imdb.com

90th Academy Awards

Good evening all, whilst part 4 of my Spielberg through the ages blog is currently being produced I thought I would just put some of my thoughts together on last nights Oscars’ the Academy’s 90th annual back-slapathon. It is a date in the diary that I always look forward to, the announced nominees, the mad scramble to get at least all the Best Picture nominees watched (I managed all 9 this year), the booking of leave so that I can record and watch the show the following morning without suffering any spoilers, and the hope that the kids School boilers don’t break this year (that happened 2 years ago).

This years Best Picture nominees were a mix of what I would normally consider “my sort of thing”, (Dunkirk, The Post, Three Billboards) and films that would be more a curiosity (Call Me By Your Name, Ladybird etc). Unlike some years I actually found that I could take at least something from each of the 9 so I was looking forward to the ceremony with an open mind without really having a clear allegiance to any one film. I obviously would have liked The Post to have been recognised further but it became clear early in the campaign that it would have to be satisfied with its nominations.

So onto the event itself, it was a night of few shocks as the clear bookie favourites in the acting categories were triumphant, and to be honest it would be very difficult to argue against any of them, although Margot Robbie and Laurie Metcalf in Best Actress and Supporting Actress respectively would surely have won in any other year. Likewise both the magnetic Daniel Kaluuya and the elf like Timothee Chalamet have huge futures ahead of them.

Guillermo Del Toro’s director nod was richly deserved. I would have loved to have seen Nolan recognised and I hope he doesn’t end up getting a sympathy Oscar in 30 years time to make up for past mistakes a la Scorsese and the Departed. Elsewhere Roger Deakins finally rewarded for an astonishing career, winning Best Cinematographer at the twelfth time of asking for his work on Blade Runner 2049 ( a film that I shamefully have yet to see) but if Deakins’ work here matches up to his previous nominations then I have no doubt it will be more than warranted. Special mention also to Best Live Action Short Film “The Silent Child” written and directed by former Hollyoaks (British teen soap) actors Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton showing that there is life after soap opera.

Away from the awards, I’ve always enjoyed the more quirky sides of the ceremony and this year had more than enough to keep me entertained. Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue, although politically charged as not as sharp as last years, still had its moments, his gag that Timothee Chalamat was missing Paw Patrol to attend the ceremony was spot on as was his advice to all announced winners to take their time to get to the stage to allow the organisers to “double check”. Kimmel is an excellent host, displaying enough here to suggest he could be host for a number of years yet. It didn’t all hit the mark, his ongoing jet ski gag got boring and his trip across the road to interrupt a public screening of the upcoming Disney film A Wrinkle in Time, where Oscar stars such as Gal Gadot and Mark Hamill delivered treats and hotdogs to the unsuspecting punters went on a bit long but overall he kept the tempo and humour just right.

Obviously the main topic of conversation leading up to the ceremony was the #MeToo movement and the ceremony fully embraced this with a diverse line up of presenters mixing up and coming stars, Margot Robbie, with more established legends of the screens such as the irrepressible Jodie Foster. Of course we all love a presenter that can make us laugh and this year was no exception. Lupita Nyong’o and Kumail Nanjiani made an impression presenting production design but stealing the show was Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish presenting the Documentary awards. It was also fantastic to see Rita Moreno and Eva Marie Saint practically illuminating up the stage. Frances McDormand majestic speech where she asked every female nominee in the room to stand with her in unity was an undoubted highlight and one of those Oscar moments that will be played over and over at future ceremonies, and rightly so.

Ultimately the only non-cut and dried award of the evening appeared to be Best Picture, with 4 or 5 of the nominees in with a genuine chance of being the victor. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were back to make up for last years La La Land/Moonlight fiasco. This time they read out only one name and crowned The Shape of Water as the 2018 Best Picture winner.

As this was the 90th ceremony there was a very nostalgic feel to a number of the montages that the organisers had arranged, one in particular that was around thanking the audience for paying and watching movies for the past 90 years was particularly well pitched, I confess to shedding a tear at the brilliance and beauty of the clip as it brought home why I love the immersive world of the cinema and all the magnificent joy and wonder that it brings. There are those who knock the Academy Awards as irrelevant, an unnecessary congratulate between multi-millionaires that in economic hard times is at best out of touch and at worst serious bad taste, but in a World where children need to know that dreams can be realised regardless of background and opportunity. More importantly it is a celebration of something that we all love……the world of Cinema. Here’s to next year.

 

Spielberg the 1990s

Hook Poster  Schindler's List Poster The Lost World: Jurassic Park Poster Amistad Poster Saving Private Ryan Poster

Following on from my previous blogs of Spielberg through the 1970s and the 1980s I now arrive at Part 3 of my journey through his career, and if push came to shove, my personal favourite, the 1990s. It was a particularly golden era of Cinema for me, it was the decade thanks to a successful driving test that allowed me off my own back to become a regular cinema goer. It was the decade that I began to earn money so could supplement the regular cinema trips by beginning to build an extensive VHS collection. It was also the decade of Cool Britannia, the launch of the Premier League and my University years.

Pretty much every Friday night my friends and I would head across to the Warner Brothers multiplex cinema in Pilsworth Bury, (Bolton didn’t have a multiplex at that time so we had to drive and take risks in war-torn Bury to get a decent cinema seat). On occasions I didn’t go with friends…………oh yes on occasions I went with a girl. The world was indeed an exciting place.

There was an abundance of variety on offer on the big screen as well, with hardly any hint of a wisecracking superhero or pointless remake.

It was also the decade that I finally started to join the dots regarding Spielberg. Jurassic Park was the film that made me realise, that this was the same guy who made Indiana Jones, Jaws, E.T and Close Encounters……….I loved all those films, and now he is making one about dinosaurs. The 90s was the decade that would finally reward him with critical approval, and rightly so, with 2 astonishing pieces of Cinema about World War 2 which are faultless in their execution and hugely immersive for the audience. It was also a decade that still showcased his fun side, and that is where we now begin.

Hook (1991)

Have to fly, have to fight, have to crow, have to save Maggie, have to save Jack, Hook is back.

Hook Poster  Image result for hook movie

I’m going to throw this straight out there……….I like Hook, I like it a lot. One of Spielberg’s most derided films has struggled to win fans in the past three decades, even Spielberg has publicly cited Hook as the one film of his that he struggles to enjoy. Critics have labelled Hook as over bloated, over stylised, overlong and bizarrely when you consider this is a Peter Pan film, over-acted.

Initially conceived as a musical with Michael Jackson in the lead, the idea was scrapped with Jackson not interested in playing a “grown-up” Peter Pan and John Williams songwriting not hitting the right creative path that Williams and Spielberg had envisioned. Ironically, in my opinion, Williams actually produced one of his most underrated Spielberg scores for Hook, catching the finished films actions, childlike humour and emotions perfectly.

As stated earlier I am a big fan of Hook but there are clearly issues. It’s overlong, at 2 hours 20 mins for what is essentially a kids film, it could quite conceivably lose 40-50 mins. Most of that chop could come from the ponderous opening act. Yes, there is a need for a backstory, there is a need for character development but Hook takes too long to get going. I recently watched Hook with my kids and you are almost 40 minutes in before you glimpse Neverland and the youngest, in particular, was beginning to lose interest. That’s not to say that adults won’t find things to enjoy in this extended first act. The immaculate Maggie Smith lends the film gravitas and the film sparkles whenever she is on. Caroline Goodall also is enchanting if a little underused as Moira.

Once the action relocates to Neverland the film really does come into its own. Spectacular sets that do lend to the earlier conceived musical ideas, glorious matte backdrops that transport viewers into the pantomime surroundings of Neverland. This in my mind is Spielberg setting his stall out. If you don’t like Hook at this point then leave now as you never will.

The colour that streams from the screen, the ping-pong dialogue between Williams and Hoffman, the Lost Boys (not as annoying as they clearly could have been) are fantastic entertainment, and in the middle of all that you have the indefatigable Bob Hoskins having the time of his life as the bumbling Smee.

Yes, it’s over sentimental, (remember this is a kids film), yes Julia Roberts has nothing of any note to do and yes it is too long. However, there is so much to love, such as the food fight, the finding of Peter’s face and, a personal favourite, Hook’s suicide attempt. Special mention must go to Charlie Korsmo, who stands out in a movie full of kids, as Jack.

Hook is divisive amongst Spielberg fans but for me, it achieves what it sets out to do. Its fun-filled, action-packed and was a film genuinely aimed at all the family. When compared to future re-tellings of the story it stands head and shoulders above P.J Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan and Joe Wright’s awful 2015 Pan.

Hook was a relative box office flop and this followed on from a rather nondescript few years for Spielberg. Indiana Jones films aside, Spielberg had not really hit his box office mojo since E.T in 1982. That was all about to come to an end.

Spielberg admitted to being disappointed with final result of the movie. He had such a hard time working with the rebellious crew of young actors that he later said, only somewhat kiddingly, that the experience made him wonder if he wanted to have any more kids. He also felt guilty that he wasn’t able to find an economical method to filming the many complex human-flight sequences in the film. However, after Robin William’s death, Spielberg says he is now thankful he made the film, as that was how he met Williams and became good friends with him. (1)

Why should you watch it?

Dismissed at the time of being over-blown, that is now with hindsight one of its main strengths. How do you make a Peter Pan film without throwing every color of the rainbow at the screen? A bit ponderous to start with, but once it establishes its confidence it is rip-roaring entertainment that rewards those who are willing to give it a second chance.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

 

Christmas Day 1990, 3:15pm, the Queen has just finished her annual, televised address to the nation and the BBC is about to show the World television premiere of E.T. Spielberg had always been fiercely protective of his most personal film. The video release of E.T was not until 1989, 6 years after the theatrical release. The BBC was allowed to show E.T on the proviso that they didn’t make any cuts, hence the line “it was nothing like that penis-breath” remaining in the broadcast, despite the time of broadcast not normally allowing such “language”. The reason I mention this is a further indication of the power of Spielberg. The BBC wanted the world exclusive and were willing to bend their own stringent censor rules to get the film. The power of Spielberg is that what may be deemed unacceptable for other filmmakers doesn’t apply to him.

Take Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, for example, a film rated as a PG in the UK but when all said and done considerably more violent than films such as Tim Burton’s Batman which was rated as a 12 in the cinema and 15 on home video.

Jurassic Park itself whilst not a graphically violent film, is incredibly tense and fraught with peril from the off.  In the UK it received a PG certificate whilst films like James Cameron’s The Abyss and the Spielberg produced Arachnophobia received a 12. I know which one scared me the most. There is a thought that if Jurassic Park was made by any other director then the 12 certificate would have been applied.

So onto the film itself, on paper, it is a match made in heaven. Spielberg and dinosaurs, in reality……….it is a match made in heaven. I’ve mentioned the tension already but it’s worth mentioning again, as this is the most white-knuckle, sweat dripping, edge of the seat terror-inducing Spielberg film since Jaws. I can remember watching it in the cinema as an annoying 16-year-old and being scared beyond belief from the Dilophosaurus attack to the Velociraptor siege at the conclusion of the film. The T-Rex attack on the Jeep is the films stand out set piece and is nerve shredding good. It starts with one of Spielberg’s most iconic, yet simplest special effects, a tepid glass of water sat on the dashboard of the Jeep, a distant thud creating a tantalizing ripple on the water. The audience knows to get itself ready……this is not going to end well.

Spielberg is a master of the off-camera menace, take the first hour of Jaws where the shark is never seen but the terror is always there, or the build-up to the climactic scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the sound of German artillery is heard approaching the compound, we know this isn’t going to be a comfortable watch.

In the T-Rex scene the thuds continue, “Can you hear that?” asks Tim “Maybe they’re trying to turn the power back on” replies blood sucking lawyer Donald Gennaro ambivalently. No its nothing like that Donald, prepare yourself for an unscheduled trip to the toilet, where quite frankly the lack of toilet paper will be the least of your worries. Once again employing the power of suggestion alongside groundbreaking animatronics, the brilliance of this scene is that here are the main protagonists, cars stopped in the middle of a thunderstorm and somewhere there is this ginormous beast, but the cast and the audience don’t know where it is. John Williams drops his score completely as if he too is sat frozen in fear waiting for the next resounding THUD!

When the T-Rex does finally emerge the scale and sheer power of the dinosaur is captured perfectly from the giant footsteps to the destruction of the Jeep with Tim and Lex still inside. The moment where Spielberg shows the kids screaming and clinging onto each other as the mighty T-Rex squishes the Jeep further into the mud with its enormous foot is so terrifying for all involved (cast and audience) that you have to remind yourself this is a PG film. I can remember vividly watching that scene in the cinema, it was as if the audience were unable to breathe. This is what Cinema is about, there doesn’t have to be fountains of blood to make an audience scared, just tap into inherent fears of the human psyche and then push them to the edge.

“My early exposure to all the leviathans of the Saturday matinee creature features inspired me, when I grew up, to make ‘Jurassic Park.'” (2)

If the T-Rex scene is all out terror then Spielberg demonstrates his more sinister side with the more suspenseful Raptor chase. Where the T-Rex is a beast who will hunt to satisfy his hunger, the Raptors are painted as more calculated. They are described as being in it for the chase, for the thrill of it. In many ways, the Raptors harp back to Yul Bryner’s Gunslinger in Michael Crichton’s other “theme park gone wrong” thriller, Westworld or even the T-800 in James Cameron’s The Terminator. The difference here is that the Raptors work as a team, displaying acts of cunning and guile, remember they never attack the same part of fence twice. Whereas the T-Rex attack harks back to the monster horror movie, the Raptor attack is more a psychological thriller designed to keep even the most anti-nail biter chewing down to the bone.

If I’m honest the end is a bit anti-climactic but as an audience, we have been through enough to wheeze a huge sigh of relief. As for the performances, they are all top-notch. Sam Neill is amazing in everything and one shot in particular displays the greatest “eye-acting” ever captured on film when he first sets eyes on the Brachiosaurus, a scene that 25 years on is still as breathtaking now as when Dr. Grant first grabbed and turned Dr. Sattler’s head to share the moment.

Jeff Goldblum plays the chaos theory mathematician Ian Malcolm, who is the first to notice that all is not all merchandising and day passes in the park. If there is one disappointment in the film is that Malcolm spends the final third of the film incapacitated and with little to do. His banter with Richard Attenborough’s Hammond is playful and gives the film some of its lighter moments. The children once again are less annoying than they could have been, Joseph Mazzello’s Tim is particularly charming. There is also a great turn from Samuel L Jackson as the chain-smoking Computer operator Arnold.

The stand out performance for me though is Laura Dern as Paleobotanist Ellie Sattler. Here is a female lead who is a match for any of her male counterparts in the movie. She is smart, gutsy and takes risks for the bigger picture. In a decade that launched the phrase “Girl Power” into the public psyche, here is a character who is an early icon of the movement. She is the complete antithesis to, Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott in Temple of Doom.

Jurassic Park was huge in every way, a box office behemoth which Spielberg actually needed after, Indiana Jones aside, a few disappointing years. It was generally loved by critics, but of course not in that way, it was, of course, a popcorn peddlers dream. As for Spielberg himself, the post-production of Jurassic Park became a catharsis as he was about to go on the most personal experience of his career.

Why should you watch it?

Copying somewhat the less is more blueprint that was so accidentally fundamental about the scares of Jaws, here Jurassic Park again toys with some of the more inherent human fears and puts the audience through the emotional ringer, at times gasping for air. A petrifying study of when “science goes wrong” that 25 years on is as fresh and tense now as it was then.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

Schindler's List Poster Oliwia Dabrowska in Schindler's List (1993)

In 1989 Spielberg directed and prepared two films for cinematic release, the bombastic blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the quieter, more intimate Always. If 1989 was a practice run, then 1993 was the main event. This is the first real example of what has become somewhat of a Spielberg trademark, the one for the fans and the one for himself. 1993 is possibly Spielberg’s crowning glory. Box office demolition thanks to Jurassic Park and then, finally, universal critical approval for one of the most astonishing pieces of Cinema anyone has ever produced.

I watched Schindler’s List again recently in order to be able to put this blog together, it had been a few years since I had sat through it. And that is exactly the point, we helplessly sit through it. There are times when it scarily feels that you are watching a documentary, this is helped in parts by the black and white cinematography and that approximately 40% of the film was done using hand-held cameras. The shoot was relatively quick, just 72 days, and was a personal immersion for Spielberg who had owned the rights to the source material since 1982 but had waited until he felt he was mature enough as a film-maker to be able to do the material justice.

“The Holocaust was life without light. For me the symbol of life is color. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black-and-white.” (3)

In Empire of the Sun, Spielberg hinted at the brutality of war but never really showed anything other than carefully constructed shots to illustrate the point. In order to do the subject of the Holocaust justice, Spielberg removes the shackles and shows us everything. At times as a viewer I found myself wanting to cry out in exasperation, mainly to the cameraman to stop showing this now, or even more strangely, ask them why aren’t you helping? We are shown in unflinching detail the desperation of the people as they search to survive against the evil regime that is bent on destroying their home, their town, their religion, their people.

A relative unknown at the time Liam Neeson lends a noble gravitas to the philandering, arrogant Schindler. When we first meet Schindler it is hard for us as the audience to warm to him but after he witnesses the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, we see a more vulnerable side to the profoundly effected Schindler as the true horrors consume him. In the first half of the film, it is difficult to truly like Schindler, we sympathise greatly with Mrs. Schindler, a small but effective part played by Caroline Goodall whose performance of loyal displeasure illustrates how the audience feels towards Schindler at first.

The frustrations that we feel towards Schindler pale into monochrome insignificance once we meet the execrable Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes with enough intimidation as to make Voldemort cower with fear in the corner. The main difference, of course, is that Goeth is based on a real person, so his depiction makes the evil that he purports all the more heinous. Fiennes fixes Goeth a steely gaze that freezes the audience as we once again beg the cameraman to stop filming as he carries out his cold-blooded executions.

For all the terror that the realism of Goeth brings to the screen, there is hope in the form of Ben Kingsley’s Ishtak Stern who acts as Schindler’s alter-ego and conscience. Stern is the voice of reason, the man who appeals to Schindler’s frugality by pointing him in the direction of the cheaper Jewish workforce. In turn, Stern ensures that many workers are needed to help the German war effort and by doing so helped save hundreds of lives. Kingsley is perfect in the role and is the warm presence on screen that the audience needs to help deal with what they are witnessing.

Schindler’s List was rewarded with 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Spielberg. On occasions Academy Awards are presented to individuals for a body of work as opposed to their most recent output, e.g. Martin Scorsese belated win for The Departed, which whilst a good film is not really in the same league as his earlier work, but here there was no doubt that Spielberg was being rewarded for Schindlers List. The critical acclaim had finally arrived for Spielberg after so long being treated with a sniffy upward-turned nose by his peers and well deserved it was.

However, perhaps more importantly for Spielberg, the film was a personal tour-de-force, an emotional pilgrimage that introspectively examined his somewhat lapsed Jewish faith. Spielberg was not paid for his contribution to the film and the Shoah foundation was established to further the remembrance of the Holocaust in World War 2.

In order to remove himself from the emotional bombardment of the filming process, Spielberg would edit Jurassic Park in the evenings to help lighten the mood. He had his friend the late Robin Williams ring the set regularly and perform some of his stand up routine to try to increase the morale of cast and crew

The question remains about whether as a viewer you can “enjoy” Schindlers List? I think enjoy is the wrong word, but there are lots to admire and as a piece of cinematic art it is peerless. Whilst it’s clearly not a film to sit around with your friends over beer and pizza looking for light giggles and thrills, neither should one feel guilty about appreciating and immersing oneself into one of the late 20th Century’s most complete pieces of Cinema.

Why should you watch it?

It is Spielberg’s most complete work. Yes, it is an ordeal at times and has moments of such unflinching brutality, but to sugar coat some of the events would be a disservice. It is film making of the highest calibre. Not one for  a regular re-watch but it is Spielberg at his artistic best. Quite simply one of the finest pieces of Cinema ever made.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997)

Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park Poster Jeff Goldblum and Julianne Moore in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

After the emotional rollercoaster of the critical success and personal enlightenment of 1993, for the first time in his career, Spielberg took a sabbatical from the director’s chair. Four years was the longest that he had gone without a major cinematic release as director. When he decided to return he followed a path that had previously been trodden in 1989 and again in 1993 by releasing two films almost back to back. The one for the fans and the one for me was never more evident than the 1997 blockbusting Jurassic Park sequel and the intense, historical courtroom drama about true life events of the Spanish slave ship Amistad (which I will come onto shortly).

With The Lost World, it was argued that Spielberg was easing himself gently back into the director’s chair and on reflection, it is easy to concur with such thoughts. The Lost World, whilst entertaining in places is Spielberg on auto-pilot. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is a lack of effort on display here but I don’t get the feeling that the director is overly enthusiastic about the job at hand. Spielberg himself has mentioned that perhaps his heart wasn’t fully in it

“I beat myself up… growing more and more impatient with myself… It made me wistful about doing a talking picture, because sometimes I got the feeling I was just making this big silent-roar movie… I found myself saying, ‘Is that all there is? It’s not enough for me.'” (4)

It’s not all bad though. What you have is still a fairly entertaining dinosaur movie and if we are honest with ourselves there is still tremendous fun to be had here. The cliff-top caravan vs T-Rex scene is outstanding, in particular, the slowly cracking glass separating Julianne Moore from plummeting to a watery grave is a quintessential Spielberg moment. If the director is bored and longing for more, he certainly isn’t showing it at this point.

There is also a beautifully shot Velociraptor chase through tall grass that sends shivers down the spine and the majestic Pete Postlethwaite who pretty much improves any film that he is in, is a more despicable, hissing big game hunter upgrade on the first films more skeptical Robert Muldoon played by Bob Peck. Despite the film lacking the strong presence of a Dr. Grant figure, (played with wide-eyed calmness in the first film by Sam Neill) it is good to see Jeff Goldblum front and centre as the wily chaotician, Ian Malcolm.

A pointless subplot involving Malcolm’s stow-away daughter is a Spielberg touch too far and adds nothing of any significance other than to add yet another struggling father figure to the Spielberg canon.

The problem that the film has before its even started is to still find wonder in the dinosaurs. I noted earlier in this blog when reviewing Jurassic Park that the first glimpse of the Brachiosaurus and the T-Rex attacks in particular still stand the sense of wonder today. There are no such money shots in the Lost World, the dinosaurs are introduced within the first 15 mins and they are there for the entirety. There is no real sense of menace, and Spielberg addresses this by turning the hunted into the hunters. There is a mean core that runs through the characters of the Lost World none more so illustrated by Peter Stormare’s latest European thug who gets his comeuppance from a pack of hungry Compsognathus.

The film climaxes in downtown San Diego where the hunting party has brought their captured T-Rex to be displayed at the San Diego Zoo. Needless to say, all doesn’t go to plan. Now what was quite an intriguing idea and what must have seemed like a fun concept on paper is quite frankly all over the place. This is the most out of control from a directorial point of view Spielberg has been since the dark days of 1941 (the film not the year).

I don’t hate this film but I realise there is plenty wrong with it. I feel this was a time when Spielberg felt he had to remind the world that he could still pedal the popcorn and make a film for the fans. I think this is the last film, with the possible exception of 2008’s Crystal Skull where he actually bowed to the easier option. It’s maybe the only film in his entire back catalogue where you could think that any number of directors could have made this.

Why should you watch it?

Despite its flaws it is still massively watchable. Yes there is a sense of phoning it in by Spielberg, but for sheer popcorn entertainment it can’t be faulted. 

Amistad (1997)

Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free.

Amistad Poster Djimon Hounsou in Amistad (1997)

As stated in the previous blogs every decade of work has a film that somewhat passes under the radar, a Spielberg film that sits quietly in the corner observing more illustrious or attention-grabbing bedfellows. In the 1990s we have Amistad a story of a slave mutiny on board a Spanish vessel on a trip from Cuba to the United States. Amistad often gets lost in the back catalogue of Spielberg historical dramas and that is actually a great shame as once again there is much to admire and digest.

Amistad is essentially an old-fashioned courtroom drama, but instead of a lonely accused sitting in the dock whilst free wheeling lawyers grandstand against each other in attempt to win the favour of a balanced jury, here we have 60 slaves crammed into the dock, none of them understand the language that is used to help determine their future existence. The courtroom scenes are interspersed with touches of light comic relief, the language barrier and an argument on where best to place a table are fun interludes. There are also moments of horrific torture and punishment on the Amistad itself, where slaves are seen scraping the food off each other’s faces to fight the terrible hunger they are suffering from.

The 10 minute scene halfway through the movie where Cinque, played with indomitable power by the marvellous Djimon Hounsou, recollects his experiences of the Amistad that culminates in rocks being tied to the feet of the already chained together petrified slaves as they are thrown over the side of the boat into the ocean is as brutal as any scene up until that point that Spielberg had ever put on-screen. As powerful as that scene is, it’s not really in keeping with the rest of the movie and adds little more than shock value.

This may be the problem for Amistad, the experiences of life before and on the boat for Cinque are never fully explored, with Spielberg instead focussing more on the court case. My feeling is that this would have been a better epilogue to the more interesting story and considering this is a film about the persecution of black slaves, the film paints the two white leads, an albeit excellent Anthony Hopkins as the brusk yet moral abiding president John Quincy Adams and Matthew McConaughey’s young impressionable lawyer, whose impressive hairstyle is the most memorable thing about him as the heroes of the piece. Morgan Freeman is criminally underused in a role that gives him very little to do other than stand around looking like he wants to join in more.

As previously stated Hounsou is an extraordinary screen presence and its near on impossible to tear your eyes away from him when he is on the screen. Hopkins also appears to be having a great time and almost steals the show with his impassioned 10-minute plea to the Supreme Court to find in favour of the Africans.

After the cruise control of The Lost World, Spielberg was back in serious mode, this being his first directorial release for his newly formed studio Dreamworks but again there is a feeling that he perhaps has his eyes on other projects. At times the film seems a little preachy and it possibly all ties up a little too neatly at the end.

The Academy who had been falling over themselves to reward Spielberg for his harrowing depiction of Holocaust brutality equally turned a blind eye to a depiction of a more direct American atrocity. With the exception of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Anthony Hopkins, there was only a couple of nominations in technical categories. No Best Picture nomination in a year that saw Boogie Nights also snubbed in favour of the farcical The Full Monty and the lightweight and ever so dreary As Good As It Gets. Whilst the horrors of the Holocaust happened thousands of miles away the issues of slavery happened right on their own patch. Not only was Spielberg’s film largely underappreciated, it may have also have been largely unwanted.

Why should you watch it?

Amistad feels shockingly relevant today and more people need to see it. It could have done with focussing more on the back story of Cinque and his cohorts and it is all a bit too neat and tidy, but it is a subject matter that should not be undersold and should have been seared into the consciousness of the cinematic going public. 

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

I just know that every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.

Saving Private Ryan Poster Saving Private Ryan (1998)

After a busy yet somewhat underwhelming 1997, a year that saw the release of two films that were perfectly serviceable but somewhat nondescript, Spielberg returned to a familiar subject for his next Cinematic release, World War 2.

Saving Private Ryan is the story of a battalion of American soldiers who are tasked with a mission to find a paratrooper whose three brothers had all been killed in action. This simple premise is all the set up that you need as you get launched straight into the middle of a blistering attack on the senses. For anyone who has not seen Saving Private Ryan then it is worth noting that this film is not for the faint of heart, with Spielberg at his brutal visceral best that will leave the audience trying to contain themselves through some of the most realistic depictions of warfare captured on film.

Most people familiar with the film will talk about the Omaha Beach landing scene which dominates the first 25 minutes. There is very little that I can add that has not already been written about this opening battle in the last 20 years other than to say I can distinctly remember that in a scene that is so loud and unflinching in its ferocity, there was unadulterated silence in the cinema as it unfolded in front of us. Myself and the friends I was with were numbed to our seats as the horror and emotion engulfed us.

As was often the way back then, my cinema-going friends and I would go for dinner and possibly a few beers before catching the late night movie and I remember this was one such occasion. So we were probably in quite high spirits as we sat through the trailers and the excitement began to build as we waited for the latest Spielberg epic to begin. That first 25 minutes was the most sobering experience I had ever had with a piece of Cinema. This wasn’t the place to give that knowing elbow to the friend on the right of you, you know the one where 20 minutes into a film, you give them a nudge that is the universally recognised body signal that this film is great. No, we sat, staring at what was happening. Then the reality hit home, and in retrospect, this was part of the Spielberg genius, the reality hit home that this was the reenactment of a real event. However it was more than that, the realisation hit that these were not trained soldiers, these were normal men sent to do an extraordinary and inexplicable thing, these were your local teacher, your baker, your local store owner…………your grandfathers. None of these men had signed up for this but here they were making the ultimate sacrifice to allow us to lead the lives we now do, allow me even to write this. This is the genius of Spielberg, it’s just a film but it feels so real. Before the Germans even fire a single bullet there is a brief scene aboard the approaching boats to Omaha, where Spielberg shows a couple of extras huddling beneath the decks, with looks of abject terror on their faces…………these are not soldiers…………these are ordinary, petrified men who are quite literally moments away from going through hell.

It is easy to dismiss, and many have tried over the past 20 years, Saving Private Ryan as just being 25 minutes of brilliance and then two and half hours of trudging. I’m here to reaffirm that they are truly wrong. I will talk about the closing battle, protecting the town of Ramelle shortly but before we get to that there is plenty going on to ensure that this film is not just a one-act special.

The Jackson vs clocktower sniper had Spielberg at his most imaginative and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski at his most searing. This is followed by an attempt to capture a German machine gun post that goes horrifically and tragically wrong. It is here that the often overlooked character development of the film. The fall out from the failed machine gun capture sees the squad slowly begin to turn on each other and dissolve as a coherent unit. They are pulled back together by Captain John Miller played by Tom Hanks who was making his debut in a Spielberg film. Hanks was at the time the most bankable leading man in Hollywood, having secured two best actor Oscars in the previous 4 years and countless box office smashes. He was the quintessential Spielberg leading man, an everyday man put in the most extraordinary situations. The Spielberg/Hanks working relationship is still going strong two decades later.

I made ‘Saving Private Ryan’ for my father. He’s the one who filled my head with war stories when I was growing up (5)

Hanks gives an exceptional performance, he is the glue that is holding the whole hellish world together. He is joined by a superb cast who are all at the top of their game, especially Tom Sizemore who plays the robust but curmudgeon Sgt Horvath and Giovanni Ribisi who plays the sensitive medic, Wade. There are also early career performances from Vin Diesel and Matt Damon. However, the stand out for me of the supporting cast is Jeremy Davies who plays bookish interpreter Upham. He shines the brightest in a cast that rarely puts a foot wrong.

So onto the climactic battle protecting the town of Ramelle. Once again there is a bombardment of the senses, however, unlike Omaha, this is a slow build. Reminiscent of the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park where we hear the impending doom before we see it, here Spielberg employs the power of rumbling sound to tap into the nerves of the soldiers and the audience. We hear the German tanks for a full 2 minutes before we see it, once the tank arrives we are back into the inferno of the hell of the Omaha beach, only this time in a more claustrophobic, rubble piled setting. Some of the violence in the Ramelle battle is more distressing for the audience, at this point we have invested two and half hours in getting to know these men, these heroes, we want to see them survive. But in a war there is no fairytale script, a particularly harrowing knife fight ends in agonising slow motion as one combatant finally gets the upper hand after an exhaustive struggle. The battle of Ramelle in my mind is equally as effective as the Omaha Beach landing and further shows that Saving Private Ryan is not just the sum of its opening 25-minute salvo.

Criticism labeled at the film was that it was too American, that once again America thinks it won the war on its own. I’m pretty sure that no one wins the war in this film, and besides anyone who watched any of the British war films of the 1950s would be led to believe that not only did Britain win the war on their own but they were the only ones in it.

Saving Private Ryan’s success and enduring longevity is testament alone to the legacy that the film has. It was Best Director Oscar number two for Spielberg, whereas the Best Picture award bizarrely went elsewhere. Those who watched the Academy Awards that year will probably never forget the look on Harrison Ford’s face as he read out the name Shakespeare in Love.

Why should you watch it?

Because it is so much more than just the opening 25 minutes. The character development and notion of brotherhood between the main protagonists is one of Spielberg’s finest depictions of togetherness and bonding. As viscerally blinding as this film is, at the heart of it is a truly human story.

As the 1990s came to a close, Spielberg had visually matured as a filmmaker. He had finally been accepted by his peers, with critical acclaim for two of the most groundbreaking depictions of World War, whilst still demonstrating a flair for the fantasy and wonder with Jurassic Park.

Spielberg would move into the 21st Century once again at the top of his game. As the world became used to life after 9/11, Spielberg would start to explore darker issues, the fluffy friendly family fodder would become few and far between, things were about to get creatively very interesting.

footnotes:
1. Trivia item from imdb.com
2. http://www.azquotes.com
3. www,wikipedia.com
4. http://www.imdb.com
5. http://www.imdb.com

Spielberg the 1980s

Raiders of the Lost Ark PosterImage result for Spielberg 80s filmsPoltergeist PosterTwilight Zone: The Movie PosterIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Poster The Color Purple PosterEmpire of the Sun PosterIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade PosterAlways Poster

Hi folks and welcome to the second blog of my looking back at the films of Steven Spielberg during the 5 decades that he has been directing motion pictures. In the previous blog, we looked at the 1970s, which provided a gentle, low key start to his career with the nerve-jangling TV movie Duel and the more sedate family drama Sugarland Express. Spielberg was then propelled into the stratosphere of movie stardom with the unexpected and unparalleled, at that point, the success of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The 70s ended however with the inauspicious 1941, a failure on so many levels, it had brought Spielberg down to earth with a  considerable thud.

It is to his enormous credit that he was able to bounce back.

The 1980s was a period of big money, big shoulder pads and in the cinematic world big pectorals and biceps. The 1980s made movie stars out of beefcake action men such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whilst the introduction of MTV in 1982 led to films constantly throwing in baffling montages to appear to be completely up with the times, see for example the quite bizarre dance sequence three quarters of the way into the otherwise brilliant The Breakfast Club. Partly due to the success of Star Wars, and to a lesser extent, Close Encounters, there was a slurry of Sci-Fi and fantasy films that now sit firmly in the nostalgia folder, remembered with fondness but generally just further illustrated how brilliant Star Wars 4, 5 and 6, and Close Encounters were, examples include Willow, The NeverEnding Story, The Explorers, The Last Starfighter and to a certain extent Ghostbusters (ducks bullets here).

Fortunately, Spielberg’s output has managed somewhat to stay clear of unnecessary aging, with the odd exception, relying heavily on practical effects and more human stories to give the majority of his 1980s output an ageless quality. It wasn’t without his disappointing films, the 80s was a fairly traumatic time for Spielberg both professionally and personally. There was the introduction of one of Cinemas most iconic heroes and a conscious move towards bolder and more grown-up films in what was seen by some as a desperate attempt to be accepted by the industry who saw Spielberg as nothing more than a glorified popcorn seller.

First things first, however, Spielberg needed to bounce back from the professional whooping he’d received regarding 1941, and a close personal friend was on hand to assist him with getting back on track.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) 

“Snakes, why did have to be snakes?”

Raiders of the Lost Ark Poster  

So as legend has it Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were sat on a beach in Hawaii, building sandcastles escaping from the media glare that was engulfing both of them after Star Wars and Close Encounters, when Spielberg mentioned to Lucas his long held desire to direct a James Bond film. Lucas replied by stating he had something that was better than James Bond and was a throw back to the Saturday morning adventure series that were broadcast on the fledgling media that was television in the early 1950s. Lucas’s story was of an archaeologist adventurer called Indiana Smith who battled evil forces around the world chasing priceless artifacts. Spielberg was hooked on the idea straightaway and moved this to the top of his directing pile once he had completed 1941.

Spielberg finally got the chance to recover from the battering he received from the aforementioned 1941 in 1980 when he began filming his new film Raiders. With Lucas acting as Executive Producer and the lead protagonist now known as Indiana Jones, Spielberg went for the first time in his career for box office gold in his casting, bringing in Harrison Ford, riding a crest of stardom following Star Wars. Lucas was initially reluctant to work with Ford on what was potentially another franchise and pursued Tom Selleck for the role. Selleck was tied down to a TV contract to make Magnum PI and had to pass on the role. Ford stepped in and the rest is movie history.

Conscious of the mistakes and the loss of control he endured during 1941, Spielberg was determined to be better prepared this time. Each scene was meticulously story-boarded down to the finite detail. Spielberg has claimed that he had never been so prepared before a shoot as he was on Raiders, desperate to come in on schedule and on budget……he achieved both.

So to the finished product, again similar to Jaws it is difficult for me to write too much about Raiders that hasn’t already been written or talked about many times before, so I will stick to what I personally feel about the film and see where I go from there.

Firstly I think it is Spielbergs most re-watchable film. If Close Encounters has the greatest final 30 mins of his films, Raiders surely has the greatest opening 10 minutes, maybe of any film. It sets the tone perfectly for what is to follow, however, what appeals to me most when I watch it now, is that the personality traits of Indy are there for us all to see from the very beginning. A man who will put everything on the line to retrieve the treasure he craves, but also the fact that he is just an ordinary man in extraordinary situations, now where have we heard that before. This is never better illustrated when Indy has been abandoned by the treacherous Satipo (played by a young Alfred Molina) and the temple is beginning to collapse around him. Indy jumps across the cavern and grabs hold of a stray branch to help him pull up onto the other side, the look on Indy’s face as the branch then slips is not only perfect comic timing but also lets us know that this is no superhero. In the opening salvo, this is further enhanced when he uses a vine to swing out to the boat-plane that he hopes will assist his escape from the Hovitos who are in hot pursuit. There is no twist and pike somersault here there is a swing that ends with a clumsy comical splash. From this moment on, despite his dubious morals and motives (let’s be fair Indy is always after the fortune and glory at pretty much any cost), we are on this guys side.

This vulnerable side to him is further illustrated as the Mercedes truck symbol crumbles in his hand during the legendary truck chase, a scene that demonstrates Spielberg at his most prepared.  A scene that was planned to an inch of its life with the use of storyboards and practical stunt effects. Personally its the highlight of the film for me and is the sort of scene that is sadly missing in today’s CGI fuelled blockbuster fodder. It’s beautifully choreographed and enhanced by Michael Kahn’s respectful editing, (here’s a thought why not let the audience actually see what is happening here rather than throwing in hundreds of quick cuts that make it impossible to see who is who).

The breakneck pace of Raiders never lets up and from the rolling boulder opening to the face-melting ending (which terrified me as a kid) the set pieces still stand up almost 40 years on. There are minor quibbles, such as the transformation of Marion from a hard drinking, tough as nails female character, to a somewhat shrieking damsel in distress by the end of the film, but overall this is Spielberg at his wildest, having the time of his life and recovering perfectly from the 1941 debacle.

I think Raiders is perfect Friday night fun, after a few beers I have been known to watch it similar to a football game, shouting out at times of peril, and on occasions recreating the odd scene in my living room. It truly is the “they don’t make it like this anymore” movie in the Spielberg canon, which was never more evident when watching the 2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Raiders is filmmaking at it’s most simple but effective and Spielberg now realised more than ever where his comfort zone lay. He was once again on a roll, a roll that commercially at least was about to hit even greater heights.

Why should you watch it?

Nearly 40 years old and as fresh today as it was then. The use of practical effects and brilliantly choreographed stunt work still stand up today. Yes, some of the Supernatural effects look a tad dated now but still pack a terrifying punch. Above all,and through fear of stating the obvious, we are introduced to Indiana Jones

E.T the Extra Terrestrial (1982) 

“You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.”

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Poster  

It is difficult to quantify in 2017 the cultural impact that E.T has had on the public consciousness. 35 years on since its release it still has the overwhelming power to amaze, to thrill, to frighten and cause such unbridled emotion as to make a grown man openly weep with joy and wonder.  Of all the films that Spielberg made in the 70s and 80s, this is the one that could quite conceivably have been made in the last 5 years, it still looks incredibly fresh. It could be seen as a companion piece to Close Encounters, Spielberg himself has stated that he got the idea after becoming fascinated by the spindly alien that emerges from the mother ship at the end of Close Encounters and wanted to write a story about an alien that comes to Earth but somehow stays behind and integrates with humans.

All the hallmarks for classic Spielberg are here, the sense of wonder, the shooting stars, the soaring John Williams score, the absent father, the childlike innocence, the suburban setting, if there was anyone out there who wanted to know what Spielberg was all about then E.T would be my suggestion as the perfect starting point. It’s been said that this is Spielberg’s personal favourite of his own films and has publicly declared that it is his perfect love story and that a sequel will never be made.

However, for all its startling beauty and pearls of magic, the film would be nothing if it wasn’t for the staggering performances of the three young leads. Spielberg has always appealed to the younger viewer but here he manages to elicit some of the finest performances given by children on film. Never once do we descend into sentimental mawkishness, the film is told entirely from their point of view, Spielberg famously filmed 80% of the film from the children’s height to emphasize the point, with the exception of Mary (played with an endearing level of understatement by Dee Wallace) we do not see the face of an adult until 30 minutes from the end of the film.

Henry Thomas as lonely Elliot is as strong a lead performance as you will find in a Spielberg film, and yes that includes Mr. Day Lewis in Lincoln. Thomas is in nearly every scene and as viewers, we never grow tired of him, he’s a young boy yet he manages to hold the attention of every adult watching this film as an equal.  Drew Barrymore pre- Hollywood wild child is the cute, without being sacharine, tomboyish Gertie. She gives a performance so real that she never appears to be acting, its as if she didn’t know she was in a film and was living and breathing every scene. It’s perfect. Finally, there’s Robert MacNaughton, who plays Michael the older brother the whole world wishes they had. (Spoiler alert) at the films operatic finale, E.T says a simple “thank you” to Michael and for reasons that I have never been fully able to explain to myself, that moment in a film filled with enough emotional wallop to make the Tin Man cry always hits me the hardest. MacNaughton is so understated in this film and vastly underrated when discussing the great Spielberg perfomances.

Adored by the general public and majority of the critics, its longevity far outstays those of its perceived critical superiors…..does anyone other than Ben Kingsley’s mum own a copy of Gandhi on DVD?

E.T does have its critics, some say its over sentimental, others have questioned the religious symbolism that dominates the final act, but I have to say if you do not loudly applaud and punch the air in delight when E.T and Elliot first take flight in the forest and soar past the moon, as Williams’ score exalts the audience……..then I would question whether you like the world of Cinema at all.

Why should you watch it?

Mainly because it is perfect story telling, taking the simplest of ideas, lonely boy befriends lonely alien, and makes it engagingly believable. It is Spielberg’s perfect love story mixed with plenty of magic and wonder that like Raiders has an ageless quality to it. Yes, its sentimental, but it is a film packed with such breathtaking beauty. This is landmark cinema that continuously rewards generations who visit it for the first time.

Poltergeist, Twilight, and pesky Jedi rumours

There are Spielberg devotees who reading this blog would be expecting to see Poltergeist as the next entry in his directorial list but officially he didn’t direct it despite constant rumours that as executive producer he spent more time on set than actual credited director Tobe Hooper. I quite enjoy Poltergeist, and there are definite Spielberg influences, not least the spooky prologue, dissolving into an “everything is not that bad American suburban setting” (see Gremlins for a further reference), however, I do find that Poltergeist relies too much on aged-poorly special effects that don’t seem to sit too comfortably in the Spielberg filmography, the previous mentioned Raiders and E.T are better examples of less is more effects that have stood the test of time far greater than Poltergeist.

In 1983 Spielberg directed the middle section of the Twilight Zone Movie. The film was beset by problems throughout production which culminated in the disastrous helicopter crash that claimed the lives of actor Vic Morrow and 2 young Vietnamese actors, who it turned out, were hired illegally in the segment directed by John Landis. The film never recovered and was a commercial disaster. The onset deaths led to high profile court cases that seriously effected Landis’s career. Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” segment of the movie was anchored by a charming performance by Scatman Crothers but the segment itself is, like the film as a whole, unremarkable and lives only in the memory for the wrong reasons.

Along with his publicly declared desire to direct a James Bond film, Spielberg never hid the fact that he would quite like a crack at a Star Wars film, however, due to friend George Lucas dropping his Directors Guild membership which Spielberg was a member of it never happened. Return of the Jedi was ultimately directed Richard Marquand, but pesky rumours have claimed that Spielberg may have had a hand in the directing of certain scenes, in particular, the battle of Endor. I would suggest that this is an unlikely turn of events but it makes for interesting copy.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

“Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory”

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Poster  

Following the monumental success of Jaws and Close Encounters, there came 1941, a professional low point that a young Spielberg struggled to come to terms with. On that occasion, Spielberg’s friend and collaborator George Lucas had pulled him out of the directorial chasm by providing him with the opportunity to direct Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg had his mojo back and then followed this up with even greater commercial success with E.T. He was once again on top of his game, the man who could do no wrong. However, the tables turned once again with the second professional mauling in 10 years he received on his involvement with the tragic Twilight Zone Movie. Spielberg himself was going through a messy break up with long time girlfriend Amy Irving, he was in somewhat of a rut. Fortunately, his friend was on hand yet again, giving Spielberg some safe familiar ground to attempt to get back on track by returning to Indiana Jones.

The duo decided that they wanted two things, one to make the film a prequel and the second to go darker, as is the tradition for the 2nd part of a projected trilogy. However, how much darker were they willing to go? Lucas himself was also going through a divorce and the final film seems to reflect a director and producer who perhaps personally were not in a particularly friendly place.

I have to say that on reflection, I find Temple of Doom to be at times a quite nasty film. If you put aside for the time being the casual racism that at the time probably wasn’t deemed so, then you still have a main protagonist who is only really interested in the fortune and glory. Indy may well be a victim of circumstance in this film to a certain extent but he is played by Ford in this film as someone who really doesn’t give a damn about anyone other than himself, with the exception of his young companion Short Round, (another tremendous, non annoying child performance in a Spielberg film, this time from Jonathan Ke Quan). It takes Indy three-quarters of the film, when he witnesses the brutal enslavement of the village children, to demonstrate the slightest tugging of his moral barometer.

Then there is the future Mrs Spielberg herself, Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott, a character who is so far removed from Indy’s previous female companion, the spunky Marion in Raiders, that when watching Doom you have a certain longing for a happier time, like watching people’s faces melt as they open the ark of the covenant. To be fair, Capshaw shrieky in your face Willie is excellent and adds the light relief that is needed in this darkest of hours. For a film that is aimed mainly at children, it serves up a diet of repulsive feasts, human sacrifice, hearts being ripped out of chests, villains being eaten in full detail by crocodiles and the hero being drugged by being force-fed blood……Spielberg has clearly moved on from E.T.

There are things to enjoy, the opening nightclub song, dance and fight scenes are tremendous fun, the thrilling mine cart chase in the film’s finale, although never reaching the heights of Raiders truck chase, is a wild ride. There is great repartee between Indy and Short Round, (a cheeky card game is played beautifully) and in Amrish Puri’s Molaram you could argue that ‘Doom has the series’s most memorable and terrifying villain.  The film, however, is crying out for a Brody or Sallah type character to add a reassuring presence for the audience. Thankfully both will make a welcomed return in part 3 of Spielberg’s most marketable hero at the end of the decade. I think this is quite a damning review which is a bit unfair as I am a fan, but more than any other Indiana Jones film (including the Alien one) it leaves me cold.

Why should you watch it?

For all its flaws, there is no denying that Temple of Doom is massively different to all of the other three Indiana Jones movies and for that alone should be of interest. Thematically, Temple of Doom has not aged well but the action set pieces from the dazzling opening to the white knuckle mine cart chase make this worth the patience that the middle segment might be testing.

The Color Purple (1985)

“I’m poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here. I’m here.”

The Color Purple Poster  

There was a serious fall out professionally after Temple of Doom, box office wise it had performed well but not in the same league as E.T or Raiders. Critics had blasted the extreme violence and racial stereotyping that had been portrayed in what existentially was supposed to be a kids film. The lack of perceived acceptance from the cinematic world was beginning to grate as well. By 1985 Spielberg had racked up a certainly not to be sniffed at 3 Academy Award nominations for Best Director. With Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark, he wasn’t expected to win but the loss for E.T had been a) a shock and b) a kick in the personal gonads for Spielberg who had developed a reputation of being a PT Barnum figure, or a glorified popcorn peddler amongst his peers. This bothered him and he longed for acceptance, he had conquered the box office but had so far not made any real dents in critical circles.

The family friendly ideas were still coming to him but in a possible attempt to be taken more seriously he decided to don his producer hat and leave the directors chair alone. In 1985 the power of Spielberg was apparent to everyone, despite the setbacks with Doom and the Twilight Zone Movie, monster, cultural hits such as Back to the Future, The Goonies and the previously mentioned Gremlins meant that Spielberg had a hand on the majority of films that my generation grew up with and still look back on fondly. But he wanted to be accepted artisticly as well as commercially.

In a move that was seen as some as an act of desperation, Spielberg decided on his next directorial effort as the big screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, a story about the trials and tribulations of a young African American woman as she lives in early 20th Century suffering domestic violence, incest, poverty, racism, and sexism. This was as far away from Spielberg’s previous Cinematic output as was deemed possible at the time.

The film is an interesting entry into the Spielberg portfolio, he never truly seems to get a grip on the material at hand. I have never read the novel but my understanding is that Spielberg left out some of the more hard-hitting themes. What he produced is what Brits would now refer to as Sunday afternoon Channel 5 melodrama that never truly seems to address the issues that appear to be put on the directorial plate. Maybe if Spielberg had made the movie in the 1990s or beyond we would have had a more involved, deeper film, but at the time critics and audiences alike questioned what Spielberg would know about black African American culture/history and how he, a white Jewish man could translate his vision to the screen.

I re-visited the Color Purple in order to write this blog and I was surprised by how much I got from it. Terrific performance from debutant Whoppi Goldberg, ably supported by a buffoonish and occasionally frightening performance from an as then relatively unknown Danny Glover. There is also an early career turn from Oprah Winfrey but the star of the show is the electrifying Margaret Avery who plays the third part in the  Shug, Celie and Mister love triangle. The film itself looks sumptuous, the Spielberg sunsets are there again and Allen Daviau’s gorgeous cinematography gives the film a warm feeling that perhaps the subject matter doesn’t warrant. Michael Jackson producer Quincy Jones stepped into providing the score, one of only 2 Spielberg directed films (so far)* not to feature John Williams and the score just makes you wish that Williams would come back and quickly. But overall Spielberg never fully addresses the issues that faced African Americans in the first part of the 20th Century, he paints a community, quite rightly, that depicts good black people and bad black people. There is little attention to the segregation and the torment that befell these communities at the time, there is a not a burning cross anywhere to be seen, the only white characters of substance, the mayor, and his wife are depicted as pompous fools as opposed to racist bigots. If anything it’s all a bit too nice. Its as if Spielberg, fresh from accusations of stereotyping entire nations in Temple of Doom, didn’t want to address these issues and stuck to a more crowd-pleasing path.

In Celie, Spielberg has only his second bona fide female lead, following on from Lou Jean Poplin in The Sugarland Express. It’s interesting that 32 years on there hasn’t been another especially when you look at the strong female characters that the likes of James Cameron and the Star Wars universe have produced in recent years.** Yes, you can only work with the material available to you but this is the only Spielberg where female characters are front and centre with the film built around them. For that alone, it is an essential watch for Spielberg fans.

So did this more grown up, serious affair work for the peer recognition hungry Spielberg?  The film was applauded by critics, garnering an extremely impressive 11 Academy Award nominations, including one for Goldberg, Avery, and Winfrey. Yes, thats right 11 Academy Awards nominations but what must have felt like a mischievous bout of pure mockery from the Academy Gods, not one for Spielberg. Yes, Mr Spielberg, your film is worthy of multiple nominations as we recognise the work of all of your colleagues and team……but not you. The teasing didn’t stop on nomination day as the Color Purple won no Academy Awards and still to this day remains the highest “losing” film on Oscar night. The main winner in 1985…….Out of Africa, a film about white people in Africa.

* 2018’s Ready Player One became the third Spielberg film not to be scored by John Williams, with Back to the Future alumni Alan Silvestri providing the nostalgia-based music

** 2017’s The Post is led by an astonishing turn by the always overrated*** Meryl Streep

*** Only idiots, with small hands, would ever think this.

Why should you watch it?

It is the biggest left field choice of Spielberg’s career and its a bloody good one at that. Spielberg showed that if you reveal the man behind the curtain, it wasn’t always an elaborate con, Spielberg showed that he was capable of stepping away from endless caper induced magical works, to showcase that he could deliver on adult orientated drama. This was clearly just the start in more mature themes but is the prelude to even greater achievements in the coming decades.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

“It’s at the beginning and end of war that we have to watch out. In between, it’s like a country club”

Empire of the Sun Poster  

Empire of the Sun is an adaptation of J.G Ballards semi-autobiographical novel of a British boy played by a young Christian Bale, who gets separated from his affluent family during the evacuation of Shanghai and becomes a prisoner of war in a Japanese Internment Camp. Spielberg initially was set to produce Empire for his cinematic hero David Lean to direct, Lean stepped aside after assessing the material and deciding that it was too similar to a diary and handed the directorial reigns to an eager Spielberg.

Spielberg had always been obsessed with the Second World War and had previously explored it in comedic fashion in  1941, but here was his first serious look at the 20th Century’s most harrowing global conflict. If the perception is that Spielberg had pussy-footed around more adult themes with The Color Purple, the same criticisms couldn’t be aimed at Empire of the Sun. The opening shot of wooden coffins floating in the Huangpu River sets the tone for a more serious piece. This film is more than just a prelude to upcoming epics but it is fair to say that Schindlers List and Saving Private Ryan would have been very different films, if made at all, if it wasn’t for Empire of the Sun.

Here Spielberg demonstrates his ability to shoot human scenes on an epic scale, utilising hundreds of extras in a very impressive Japanese occupation scene in the centre of Shanghai. The panic of Jim’s separation from his parents is intense stuff and demonstrates that Spielberg can produce moments of human madness without the reliance on props or special effects. This is a human drama of the highest order and is a precursor to the more hellish scenes in future films around the subject.

Once the film relocates to the prisoner of war camp we get further character development that was somewhat lacking in the first third of the film. Jim, in true Spielberg tradition, establishes awkward and non-compliant father/son relationships with two fellow prisoners. Firstly there Jim’s good conscience in the form of Dr. Rawlings played with a true British stiff upper lip by  TV star Nigel Havers. Secondly, we have the more dubious conscience/influence/father figure of Basie played with a surprising amount of restraint by John Malkovich. Both have a positive effect on Jim, with Dr. Rawlings reminding Jim of the moralistic life he had before the camp and Basie teaching Jim that to survive, one must know how to play the game of chance, inadvertently turning Jim into the camps “go-to” person.

The films stand out set piece is the “Cadillac of the skies” sequence as a set of American P-51 bombers launches a spectacular airstrike on the camp. Jim climbs to the top of one of the buildings to get a better view of the attack and it’s here that we witness Spielberg at his sharpest. A stunning mixture of pyrotechnics and aerobatics, all happening with Jim front and centre in the frame. One for the audience to ponder “how did he film that” as planes shoot across the centre of the screen close enough for the actors to be able to high five the pilots whilst enormous explosions erupt in the back and foreground. Pivotal scenes in Saving Private Ryan, in particular, will have shook the audience to the core and if you haven’t seen Empire of the Sun you may think you have seen all this before, but this is where it started.

As for the film itself, it does generally stand up today, it’s beautifully shot but I always feel it is more a collection of great parts without necessarily being the all round great story that it could have been. The performances, on the whole, are very good, however, I surprisingly take issue with Christian Bale. His performance is good and for one so young you could argue very good, but it holds none of the subtlety of say Henry Thomas’s Elliot in E.T. Where with Thomas you felt he was actually there unaware of his surroundings, definitely not interested in the camera, Bale I feel knows there is an audience watching and acts his way through every scene,  witness the scene where he devours the rice as a particular example. Maybe this is down to Spielberg’s direction as much as Bale’s performance and he should have reigned him somewhat.

Empire was once again nominated for Academy Awards in the technical categories, still nothing for Spielberg. Cinematographer Allen Daviau who was nominated as Cinematographer, publicly complained, “I can’t second-guess the Academy, but I feel very sorry that I get nominations and Steven doesn’t. It’s his vision that makes it all come together, and if Steven wasn’t making these films, none of us would be here.” (1)

Why should you watch it?

Put quite simply, without Empire of the Sun there would probably have been no Schindlers List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich etc. A film that shows his ability to portray real life epic storytelling. This film opened more opportunities for Spielberg than it is ever given true credit for.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

“And in this sort of race, there’s no silver medal for finishing second.”

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Poster 

1989 was a busy year for Spielberg, it was the first time he officially released two Cinematic releases in the same year. Following up, after the relative critical disappointment of the Color Purple and the disappointing box office return of Empire of the Sun, it was felt that Spielberg had to get back to what he was perceived to do best. His first offering of 1989 was a return to familiar territory and an opportunity to make up for perceived wrong doings in the last outing of one of the 1980s most iconic characters.

With Last Crusade, Spielberg and Lucas went back to basics. Gone was the black magic and extreme violence of Temple of Doom and there was a return to the more light-hearted adventure tale of Raiders with a more comedic approach. The Nazi’s were back as the villains and dark underground temples were replaced with brighter, desert settings. However the biggest coup that Spielberg pulled was convincing screen legend and former James Bond, Sean Connery to sign up to play Indiana’s grail lore, obsessed father. The casting of Connery is a masterstroke and the chemistry between him and the already brilliantly cast Ford is as good an onscreen partnership as Spielberg has ever delivered. The buddy movie as a concept was in full swing in the late 1980s, and the Ford/Connery partnership is right up there with the very best. The partnership also makes this by far the most sentimental entry into the Indiana Jones saga, amongst the ping pong repartee between the 2 leads, there are moments of tenderness that leaves the hardest of hearts with a lump in their throats. See Exhibit A – when Henry thinks that Indy has plummeted to his death over the cliff edge with the German tank, only to discover moments later that Indy has survived, we see the most moving of moments from Connery – “I thought I’d looossshhhhhtttt you boy”.

Away from the sentimentality, there is no doubt that Last Crusade is an absolute riot. Does it reach the heights of Raiders? No, not quite but it is probably the easiest of the Indiana Jones films to watch. There are welcome returns from Raiders of Salah and Brody (more in a moment on him) and of course every teenage boy’s wet dream with Alison Doody’s sexy, conniving, Nazi spy Elsa, giddy as a schoolboy indeed.

If anything the film lacks a truly great villain, with the always able Julian Glover being no more than a poor mans Belloq. There is also a lack of set piece to rival Raiders opening and the Truck Chase or Doom’s mine cart chase. Yes, the tank battle is functional and very entertaining but doesn’t quite hit the heights. The other problem has stuck with me since I first saw Last Crusade at the cinema, and that is the characterisation of the aforementioned Brody. As much as I really enjoy the late Denholm Elliots performance of Marcus, there is a scene in the Castle of Brunwald where Indy describes Marcus to Donovan as the following: “He’s got a two-day head start on you, which is more than he needs. Brody’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom, he’ll blend in, disappear, you’ll never see him again. With any luck, he’s got the grail already.” (2) I remember distinctly thinking in the cinema at the time, that is very cool, Brody is a badass…………as we all know it couldn’t have been more different, he gets lost in his own museum.

Last Crusade is one of those films that can’t help make you smile. Fantastic action, wonderful scripting, spot-on performances, arguably the best of the Indiana Jones scores and a ride off into the sunset that harks back to a more golden period of Hollywood that the Last Crusade embraces fully. Connery, in particular, is having a whale of a time and this is matched by his director, who hasn’t had this much fun for since 1982.

Why should you watch it?

It was return to safer, lighter ground after the darkness of Doom. Armed with one of Spielberg’s zingiest scripts and chemistry by the whole ensemble so strong you would think it was concocted in the finest lab, this was Spielberg at his most playful. Whilst not quite reaching the heights of Raiders, it is impossible not to enjoy Last Crusade. Pure entertainment.

Always (1989)

“I know now, that the love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here.”

Always Poster 

In my 1970s blog I mentioned that there is one film in each decade that passes somewhat under the radar when talking about Spielberg films, a film for whatever reason, nobody mentions, or seems to remember. Always is the entry in the 1980s that fits this category and that is quite unfortunate as there is lots to like in this gentle tale about lost love and future romance. It’s an unusual entry for Spielberg as romance has never really been his strong suit and the film borders on the saccharin on more than one occasion. However it is beautifully shot and has some spectacular scenes that are straight from the dictionary definition of Spielbergian, in particular the forest fire scenes and perhaps one of the most underrated opening shots of any Spielberg film.

Based loosely on the 1943 Spencer Tracey Film A Guy Named Joe, Always sees forest fire fighter Pete die whilst tending to a fire. Pete returns to Earth as a guardian to help Dorinda find peace and serenity without him. The problem with Always is that Pete is a bit of an ass and watching it again recently I wondered whether this was because the film was made in the 80s, when over the top and rubbish jokes were the norm, as opposed to Dreyfuss’s performance. The real star of Always is Holly Hunter who plays the cute as a button Dorinda. Hunter is purely magnetic from start to finish in a role which on paper doesn’t actually give her very much to do, but she finds the balance between mournful girlfriend and determined mover-on.

Ably supported by John Goodman who plays the cuddly wisecracking sidekick with ease the film is light and frothy and never over challenges the audience. Look out also for a spot of stunt casting with Audrey Hepburn in her final screen role playing the heavenly Hap.

If you have never seen Always then it is worth a look. For me, it loses its way in the last 20 minutes but you will not find anything to offend and you will have an easy straight-forward two hours if you give it a chance.

Always was a rather unspectacular ending to a decade that had started with such fanfare and wonder. Spielberg had personally had a tough decade, with the break up and divorce of his first marriage to Amy Irving. Professionally it was an odd decade in many ways. I find it his least interesting decade creatively. It started impressively with Raiders and the phenomenal E.T, but his desire to be accepted by his peers led him to projects that he didn’t seem too comfortable with and possibly did for the wrong reasons.  The Last Crusade was a return to the confident filmmaking of the late 70s early 80s, and he was about to embark on a decade of commercial success and finally…….critical acceptance.

Why should you watch it?

Because you probably haven’t……………..and you really should. 

Footnotes:

  1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_of_the_Sun_(film)
  2. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097576/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu
  3. All photos and quotes taken from http://www.imdb.com

Spielberg the 1970s

Duel Poster The Sugarland Express Poster Jaws Poster Image result for close encounters of the third kind  1941 Poster

This blog was first posted in May 2017, and has been edited and updated in April 2019.

Welcome to the first of a series of blogs looking at the Cinematic work of Steven Spielberg across the decades starting here with a review of his work in the 1970s

I will take a look at each film in turn and comment on styles, trademarks and how he has changed over time as a filmmaker. I will look at how he was influenced and how his films have influenced others.

Obviously as a fan I highly rate the majority of his work but if you are concerned that this is going to turn into slushy love in for Spielberg then fear not, there are some of his films that I am not a fan of, including one that I rate as one of the most frustrating 10 films I have ever seen.

Each blog will take a look at each decade separately starting with the 1970s, a decade that began with Spielberg being talked about as director of taut thrillers in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. Almost by accident, he was then catapulted into the stratosphere as the new Hollywood golden boy with astonishing, unexpected success. However, by the end of the 70s, his career had taken a considerable knock. The decade that had started so brightly was coming to an end with a monumental thud.

1970s

In the summer of 1968, Spielberg released Amblin, a mainly (apart from an ever-present soundtrack and the occasional giggle) silent 28-minute short film that was made in part to showcase his visual flair and shot construction. This charming tale of two strangers who meet whilst trying to hitchhike down a nameless American highway has no script and relies almost entirely on suggestion and apt visuals. It’s a curious piece that foreshadows upcoming road movies but scarcely hints at what was to come. The full 28-minute movie can be watched on YouTube and for devotees and completists, it is worth a viewing.

As a result of Amblin’s success, Spielberg found work directing episodes of TV shows such as Columbo and the middle segment of Night Gallery which starred Hollywood legend, Joan Crawford. Despite her diva reputation and initial reservations about “this kid” Spielberg and Crawford got on very well and remained close friends until her death in 1977.

Spielberg continued to progress and was finally given the green light to direct his first feature-length movie. It was to be a TV movie of the week in the USA but thanks to word of mouth and strong support it would receive a longer cut and theatrical release in Europe.

DUEL (1971)

I’d like to report a truck driver who’s been endangering my life

Duel Poster

 

13th November 1971 was the date that Steven Spielberg first began to tap away at the public consciousness of America when ABC aired his first full-length feature film Duel, the tale of mild-mannered suburbanite David Mann being chased along desert highways by a malevolent truck.

For an original running time for TV of 74 minutes, plot development and backstory are not required, terror and tension are the only items on the viewers’ menu. However, the more familiar cut of the film, that was played in cinemas across Europe in 1972 ran to a more theatrical 89 minutes and incorporated more subplot such as a heated telephone discussion with his wife who is frustrated with him for picking a fight at a party they had both attended the previous night.

The film survives purely on its slim concept and idea. A truck, whose driver is never seen, seems to have little motivation for the terror it afflicts on Mann, it is a cold killing machine, a bully of the highways, a forerunner perhaps to future nemeses such as the shark in Jaws or the calculated velociraptors in Jurassic Park.  There are early touches of Spielberg iconography throughout Duel, such as the sunburnt arid landscapes.  The handheld first-person camera techniques, a future staple of Spielberg films, are employed and used to create a sense of claustrophobia and tension experienced by some people in nightmares when an individual struggles to run away from a potential assailant.  The whole film is taken from David Mann’s point of view, we are with him all the way, we are desperate for him to get away, we want locals to help him, we want the car to have a bit more horsepower, we want him to be safe. David Mann himself is the first of a long line of lead protagonists who exist as an unremarkable everyday kind of guy who gets caught up in extraordinary situations.

The characterisation of Mann is an interesting one, initially, he is a wimpish character, crawling back to his wife to apologise in a public petrol station, but as the film progresses I get the feeling that Mann may have been getting some kind of masochistic kick from the ordeal he was going through. Take the dramatic hooks out of it for a moment and ask “Why didn’t he just turn around and go home?” Well if that viewpoint is too simplistic and plays into the hands of the plot hole seekers of online internet forums, does Mann continue on his journey in an attempt to face up to his responsibilities, prove his manhood if you will, is he secretly enjoying himself?

The scene in the cafe where Mann is trying to remain calm and figure out which one of the cafe’s patrons is the driver of the killing beast is full of enough nervous tension to be able to chew on. It’s ruined slightly by the intrusive narration which the studio insisted on for the TV movie, it’s a shame that Spielberg didn’t remove this from the theatrical release, after all, we are in no doubt at this point what is going through Mann’s mind.

As a viewer Duel is non-stop action that fills every second of the taut running time and is not layered with any sentimentality, a facet that would burden some of Spielberg’s later films. The climactic chase up the mountain as Mann’s car begins to lose fuel and power is nerve-shredding tension at its best. It is right up there with the likes of the shark attack on young Alex Kitner in Jaws or the T-Rex attack on Lex and Tim in Jurassic Park for sheer Spielberg adrenaline rush moments.

It’s incredibly showy in places, Spielberg camera movements are almost balletic with a “hey look what I can do with this shot” feel to them, but this is to be expected from a young director desperate to impress.  The overall balance of the film goes from taut Hitchcockian thriller to terrifying road movie. More than 40 years after its release it has aged remarkably well and still manages to scare the hell out of viewers. It is the first in a long line of Spielberg films that demands repeat viewings.

Why should you watch it?

Duel is packed full of themes and calling cards that Spielberg would continue to use throughout his career, such as the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Spielberg demonstrates to all his ability to build high tension and excitement whilst using the basic of techniques. Further to this at 83 minutes long why would you not want to take a second look.

The Sugarland Express 1974

I want my baby back

The Sugarland Express Poster Image result for Sugarland Express

Each decade that I will write about in these blogs features one film that passes under the radar for the casual Spielberg observer. These are the ones that would probably score single figures in the TV quiz Pointless should the contestants ever be fortunate enough to get a round asking to name a Steven Spielberg film. Despite being his Theatrical release debut in the US, Sugarland Express is the film from the 1970s that people tend to bypass on their way to bigger, and only in some cases, better things. This is a shame as there is plenty to enjoy in Sugarland and if looked at closely you will see many traits that will come to dominate Spielberg films for the next 4 decades and beyond.

Like Duel, Sugarland, which is loosely based on true events, is essentially a road movie as desperate mother, Lou-Jean (Goldie Hawn) helps her husband Clovis, (a typically weasly William Atherton), escape from prison to attempt to kidnap their young son who has been taken into care. Things do not go according to plan and before long they have what appears to be the entire Police force of Texas on their tail, which is heightened when Lou Jean and Clovis take hostage Highway Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks here somewhat fulfilling the Spielberg every day ordinary fella in extraordinary situation role). As the trio race across Texas, they start to become minor celebrities as local townsfolk begin to side with the young parents, and a media circus begins to develop around them. If the above all sounds a little dour, prison breaks, attempted kidnapping, hostage taking etc, then it’s worth pointing out that the first hour, in particular, is very light and is played subtly for laughs.

The issue I have with Sugarland is that it tonally shifts wildly in the final act as the breezy, humourous road movie descends into a dark, desperate conclusion that quite frankly has perhaps never been repeated by Spielberg since. It is clear in the final reel that this isn’t going to have the happy, victorious ending the viewers had invested in. Lou Jean and particularly the waspish Clovis both push the levels of goodwill that the audience built up for them and raise the real possibility that the authorities made the right decision to take their young son into care. Similarities between Bonnie and Clyde and to a lesser extent, Kit and Holly from Badlands are accurate, but unlike those two movies, it’s very difficult to root for a character like Clovis when in reality you would just like someone to give him a good slap.

That apart, Sugarland does have some high-quality set pieces, including a deafening shootout in a car lot and a police chase that demonstrated that Spielberg could handle action on a larger scale. Vilmos Zsigmund’s cinematography of dour and burnt landscapes is a welcome throwback to the superior Duel, and the performances, in particular from Sacks are engaging enough. I may not be Clovis’s biggest fan but Atherton plays him well in what is an early blueprint for future slimeballs in films such as Ghostbusters and Die Hard.

Sugarland also saw the first collaboration between Spielberg and John Williams. Williams and Spielberg collaborations have led to some of the most recognisable and popular film themes of the past 40 years, here William’s score can be seen as an analogy for Sugarland in general, a quiet, subtly effective score that gives little hint of what was to become in future partnerships between the two. A harmonica led bluesy score that never feels the need to be intrusive. The score never attempts to tell the audience what they should be feeling at any point, unlike say the score for Jaws which practically ratchets up the tension before anything is seen on the screen and works as a riveting plot device. The Sugarland score, is effective yet quiet and unassuming, a score that doesn’t necessarily jump out at you or live long in the memory, a gentle introduction of what was to follow for one of cinema’s greatest partnerships, which is startlingly similar to The Sugarland Express as a whole.

Why should you watch it?

Despite Sugarland’s low key reception and lack of appearances on most people’s Spielberg Top 10 lists, it does resoundingly reward repeat viewings. All the hallmarks are there, the family theme runs throughout, Zsigmonds’ beautifully parched and sunburnt landscapes paint the background to what is in all sense and purpose a tragic tale. It cannot be underestimated the contribution The Sugarland Express makes to the annals of popular culture as audiences bear witness to the first collaboration between John Williams and Steven Spielberg.

Jaws 1975

You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Jaws Poster Image result for jaws

Jaws is actually quite a difficult film for me to write about as it is very difficult to find things to say that hasn’t already been said many times by many people, so I will stick to what the film means to me. Firstly I probably watch Jaws 2 or 3 times a year, it’s on ITV4 all of the time so I don’t even need to get off my backside and faff around with DVDs, it’s very accessible. Earlier this year I showed it to my 12-year-old son, in an attempt to see what the current generation would make of a film built on tension, where the “monster” is only glimpsed in the final 3rd of the film.

It is well documented that the shoot was a tough one, an original 55-day schedule ballooned to 159 days, the mechanical shark steadfastly refused to perform and the young Spielberg was under enormous pressure to deliver with the plug threatened to be pulled at any time. However, it is with great credit to producers Brown and Zanuck that they stuck with their young apprentice as movie history was about to be made. The problems with the mechanical shark actually worked to Spielberg’s advantage. With so little usable footage of the oversized prop, Spielberg had to hint at the presence of the beast using clever camera techniques and the power of suggestion.  A personal favourite sequence of mine involved the two elderly fishermen who use their wives Sunday pot roast to attract the Shark. The shark naturally takes the bait and sets off back to the open water demolishing and dragging off the wooden jetty that the fishermen were perched on. As the fishermen flounder in the water, Spielberg produces a piece of subtle magic. Without any sight of the shark, the floating bits of wood stop heading in the direction of the vast open ocean and menacingly turn 180 degrees and start heading back to the fishermen. This visual flair and innovation would become staples of his work over the next few decades. The entire Alex Kittner beach sequence is a masterful scene full of visual red herrings and daring camera work that leaves the audience breathless after its alarming completion.

Apart from the vicious shark attacks, breakneck tension and thrills, Jaws would be nothing without the strong characters on screen, from the three leads to the colourful town folks who are cast perfectly from Murray Hamilton who plays the head in the sand County Mayor with particular slime and regret, to small but memorable turns from the likes of Jeffrey Kramer and Fritzi Jane Courtney, but its the three leads who all have placed themselves firmly into the annals of pop culture.

Roy Scheider plays Police Chief Martin Brody, a Police Officer who is scared of the water who spends the majority of the film trying to please everyone, from the business owners and mayor of Amity to his responsibilities as a father. Brody knows nothing about sharks and is the latest of Spielberg’s ordinary men in an extraordinary situation, Brody leads the exposition of Jaws, asking the questions that the audience wants to know “Is it true that most people get attacked by sharks in three feet of water about ten feet from the beach?”

Richard Dreyfuss makes the first of his 3 appearances for Spielberg as oceanographer Matt Hooper. Hooper is the conscience of the film, the doubting Thomas too much of the town’s hysteria. Hooper is the expert, the voice of reason that only Brody really listens too. Here Dreyfuss plays the exasperated Hooper as an embodiment of Spielberg’s personality. Hooper’s onscreen frustrations matching the offscreen problems that Spielberg went through making the movie.

Robert Shaw plays the most cliched character as the grizzled old sea dog Quint, a pro-fisherman who takes Brody and Hooper out to sea to catch and kill the shark. Quint barks and growls through the second half of the film, making life for his two companions, in particular, Hooper, difficult. As an audience member, we see the cantankerous Quint meet his untimely end and actually don’t feel too bad about it. We care about Brody and Hooper, we put up with Quint.

It is also impossible to write about Jaws without mentioning the iconic score from John Williams. Initially dismissed by Spielberg as a joke, the two-note shark motif has now passed into folklore as a sign of impending doom. Spielberg later confessed that not only was the score effective it was scarier than the mechanical shark itself and was a phenomenal tool in the tension building that particularly dominated the first 2 acts of the film. The problems with the mechanical shark were beginning to benefit Jaws. The nerve-jangling score coupled with rare glimpses of the shark, playing along similar lines to never seeing the driver of the truck in Duel, only heightened the fear that the audience was going through.

The success of Jaws was a surprise to everyone, none more so than Spielberg himself after the torturous shoot that had nearly broken him. After the distinctly under the radar Sugarland Express, Spielberg was now catapulted into the stratosphere, movies were big business again, the summer blockbuster was born, the mass merchandising was launched, the pressure was firmly on Spielberg now……how will he top or even match this? The answer to that will come in 2 years time with a film that even today stands as the definitive Steven Spielberg film.

N.B. my son loved it and it will also be remembered as the first time I  heard him utter a swear word when Ben Gardiner’s head popped out of the boat.

Why should you watch it?

Ok, if you are reading this blog it is highly unlikely that you have not seen Jaws at least a dozen times, but watch it again. Watch it for the quieter more subtle moments. Considering Jaws is widely regarded to have given rise to the bloated Summer Blockbuster it is an abject lesson in understatement. Due, in no small part to technical difficulties, the less-is-more, hidden terrors provide far more scares than if everything had gone to plan.

1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Have you recently had a close encounter… A close encounter with something very unusual?

Image result for close encounters of the third kind  Image result for close encounters of the third kind

The last 30 minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind are in my opinion the finest 30 minutes in the Spielberg canon, they may well be the finest 30 minutes in cinematic history. However, if you take away the aliens, the light show, the sheer wonder of the movie you are still left with a classic human drama of (this is a Spielberg film after all) an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Roy Neary starts the film as a nondescript family man, who has model trains in his living room and an inability to keep his young family under control. His life changes forever when Roy, who is an Indiana Electrical lineman, has his Close Encounter whilst investigating one of the large-scale power outages. The UFO files over Roy’s truck and burns part of his face, he then pursues the UFO, along with the Police over the Indiana highways. Roy’s encounter leads to him developing an obsession with UFOs much to the chagrin of his increasingly frustrated wife, Ronnie. He continues to see visions of a mysterious mountain,  in inanimate objects such as shaving cream and mashed potato, that seems to him to have a connection with the UFO. Over the course of the film Roy continues to alienate (pun very much intended) his family with his erratic behaviour , it is quite heartbreaking to witness Roy’s apparent descent into madness as his children openly weep at the dinner table ” I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad. It’s okay, though. I’m still Dad.”

Spielberg has, you could argue, made a living out of portraying father figures as absent or abject failures. Here we have Neary, played at times almost maniacally by Richard Dreyfuss,  as the suburban dwelling father of 3 by the end of the film, he has deserted them all and set out on a life of his own. He be-friends Gillian, who also is having visions of the mountain after her son Barry is abducted by the Aliens. In one of the stand out scenes, that balances wonder and spectacle with elements of pure horror that leave the viewer checking their fingernails to see if there are any left, Spielberg again encourages the audience to use their imagination by not showing the abductors but by dazzling us with a light show that is just a prelude to the films last 30 minutes. Along with the lights, the manipulation and use of kitchen appliances add to the claustrophobia witnessed in some of the more graphic horror films of the 1970s. The constant orange glow recollecting the horrible scorched earth house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre as one example. As terrifying as Barry’s abduction scene is, and let’s be frank here, it is as nerve-jangling as anything in Jaws, there is a feeling that Spielberg’s is in full control and is showing to the world that Jaws was not a unique success and that he can produce spectacle on the biggest scale.

Spielberg’s personal coup with Close Encounters was to cast French New Wave director Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe a French government scientist in charge of UFO-related activities in the United States. Lacombe is the antithesis to Roy throughout the film, whereas Roy is battling personal demons and is descending down an almost Dante inspired path, Lacombe views the events unfolding before him with a childlike wonder. He reminds me in a way of Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio, (a film that Close Encounters owes a massive amount too), by offering what little exposition is needed to the audience and by guiding Roy and the audience through the almost wordless ballet of the last 30 minutes.

So to the last 30 minutes which uses the old adage that a script should only have dialogue if the picture cannot tell the story. It is a masterclass in visual cinema. Using an old, disused, aircraft hangar, Spielberg designed the biggest set of its kind at the time. The mysterious mountain was revealed to be Devils Tower in Wyoming, which acted as a backdrop to the grand finale. The arrival of the majestic mothership keeps the promises that the audience has been made throughout the film. The sense of wonder and some may say childhood abandon that the cast of characters show as they watch the ship move into place is beautifully observed. The interactions with the aliens themselves are perfectly done, using sign language instead of actual dialogue. The odd line of dialogue, concurs with what the audience is thinking, “I just want to know that it’s really happening.” says an awestruck Roy.

Spielberg himself was unhappy with the final cut and wanted Columbia to allow him a further 6 months which was denied due to the severe financial troubles the studio was in at the time, they needed a big hit and now. To Columbia’s immense relief the film was a box office success, not quite to the excess of Jaws or another science-fiction movie released in 1977, but a success it was. Due to this Spielberg was allowed to go back and revisit the film in 1980 and produced what’s known as the Director’s cut. Columbia allowed him to do this on the proviso that he showed the inside of the mothership. Spielberg reluctantly agreed and added 5 minutes of footage at the end as Roy enters the mothership. It was not a popular move from the fans point of view and takes away from the wonder of the original, however, it is not as disastrous as some have reported. It certainly doesn’t bring anything new to the plot, Roy still abandons his family, the Aliens still leave Earth.

What is interesting when watching Close Encounters alongside Spielberg’s subsequent work, is that thematically Spielberg would make a very different film if he was to make it today. Spielberg himself has alluded to this in many interviews over the past 4 decades. He has publicly stated that if he was making the film now he would not have Roy abandoning his family and as a result, the story arcs would be different. Personally, I’m glad that Roy did abandon his family because it works for the story being told. We don’t know what happens to Ronnie and the family once Roy arrives at Devil’s Tower but quite frankly are we that bothered? I like most people like to see happy families but domestic bliss is not what Close Encounters is about. Its primarily about one man on a voyage of discovery, his treatment of his family is an unfortunate consequence of his change in psych. If Spielberg made Close Encounters post 2000 then I think some of the wonders may have been lost in a potentially over-sentimental ending that has dogged some of his more recent work.

Performance wise, its note-perfect. The aforementioned Dreyfuss and Truffaut are perfectly cast, but top marks must also go to Melinda Dillon as the single mum left devastated by the Alien abduction of her son Barry (a non-precocious gem of a child actor Carey Guffey). Bob Balaban gives able support but the stand out for me is Terri Garr, demonstrated what a fantastic but often underused actress she is as the put-upon and doubting Ronnie.

I make no secret of my love for Close Encounters, I try and find time to watch it 4 or 5 times a year and I always spot things I have never noticed before with repeat viewings. To me, it is the quintessential Spielberg film, with its sense of unending wonder, practical simple effects that makes the audience work, stories of fractured, suburbanite families, a wondrous score and a finale that makes you realise why you fell in love with cinema in the first place. I implore all of you to watch this film in the dark without any distractions….. you are repaid handsomely with every frame.

Why should you watch it?

As stated above, even to this day, this is the film that thematically sums up what Spielberg is about as a film maker. It is clearly a film about wonder, magic, childhood inquisitiveness and exploration. However it is more than that. It is a story about family, about self discovery, about trust and most importantly about hope. Despite the abandonment of the family, Close Encounters ending is a tale of success, acceptance and above all optimism.

1979 1941

Madness – it’s the only word to describe it. This isn’t the state of California, this is a state of insanity.

1941 Poster  Image result for 1941 film

After the critical and commercial success of Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg was now box office gold, the press labeled him the new golden boy of Hollywood. Studios were falling over themselves to offer him their upcoming projects. He was at one point linked with Superman, eventually made by Richard Donner and circled a number of projects before settling on his next choice. Spielberg had become a megastar, as famous and as sought-after as some of the leading box office stars of the 1970s. Films were marketed around the leading actors of the time. In the 70s it was the likes of Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and to some degree the likes of Jane Fonda and Barbara Streisand. Now there was a director, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Alfred Hitchcock. Spielberg’s name above the title of a film was all that was needed to get public interest piqued. His last two films had changed the way that films, in particular, summer movies were made and marketed to the masses and Spielberg along with fellow movie brat and Star Wars creator George Lucas were seen as the main instigators in this. The world waited with baited breath to see what magic Spielberg would produce next.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise when Spielberg chose a comedy as his next project. People close to him, those who knew him well, questioned whether this was the sort of material that he could make work. Furthermore, this was a comedy set to the backdrop of the Pearl Harbour bombings that ultimately led to the US joining World War 2. What was ultimately produced is, in my opinion, Spielberg’s poorest film to date.

The film from the very first scene, a terribly misjudged spoof of the opening scene of Jaws, sets the tone for a film that at its best is wildly out of control, to at its worst offensive (is attempted rape ever funny???) and just plain annoying (Slim Pickens is the stand out of awfully grating performances here). Its an incredibly noisy film, every line delivered as if someone 10 miles away needed to hear it at the time, and the attempt to fill the screen with non-stop spectacle constantly gets away from Spielberg. Looking at it now it would appear that the young director was untouchable with studio execs not daring to reel in their young superstar when what 1941 desperately needed was an Editor who would have steered the film to safer water. This is surprising when you think of the work that Michael Kahn had just produced on Close Encounters and would continue to do over the next 40 years of Spielberg, but I guess like the director himself everyone is entitled to a bad day. The shoot alone took a staggering 247 days and reports suggest that Spielberg shot over a million feet of film during that time. If that doesn’t demonstrate the chaos that was the shoot then I’m not sure what does.

Sadly positives are as rare as a quietly spoken line of dialogue, however, I will offer praise to Robert Stack who gives a charming performance as Major Stillwell who spends the majority of his screen time sat in a cinema watching Dumbo whilst the carnage continues unabated outside. There is also a terrific visual gag that involves an out of control (what else) tank going through a paint factory and getting splattered as it crashes into giant vats of paint only for it to then career through a paint thinner factory and come out the other side looking brand new. That scene apart however, 1941’s biggest problem is that it’s just not funny. It tries really hard and the ideas are there but the execution is completely out of control.

Co-written by Robert Gale and Robert Zemeckis who would go onto much better things such as Back to the Future, it seems in an attempt to impress they threw every idea they had at the script without the realisation that a semblance of order and plot is required to make a film watchable. Spielberg shows the chink in his armour with material that he never seems to have a firm handle on, I doubt it is no coincidence that he has not directed a straight out comedy since.

The film was a box office and critical failure. It is too long and could easily lose 30 minute of subplot that adds nothing of interest. For the first time, the knives were out for Spielberg and questions were raised whether his previous output had been some kind of glorious fluke. Here was a director who had largely been left to his own devices but had gone months over schedule and budget and delivered a mish-mash of a film that frustrated and annoyed in equal measure. I personally find it very difficult to watch and is by some distance my least favourite of his theatrical movies so far. I stated at the start of this blog that one of the films from the 1970s was in the top 10 worst films I have ever seen, obviously, this is 1941 but I think that is down to disappointment as much as anything.

STOP PRESS Since first publishing this blog I have written a further piece on 1941 explaining why, despite its flaws, it remains an essential part of Spielberg’s filmography. You can read that here Why we should all be eternally grateful that Spielberg made 1941

Why should you watch it?

You should watch 1941 to demonstrate an old cliche that you learn more as a person from your mistakes than your successes. The films bombastic excess has never been repeated by Spielberg and his films are more professionally put together as a result of 1941. I have watched it again recently and I smiled more than I did previously. It is still a tough watch for me but I am aware that it has it’s fans which is great. If you haven’t seen it before, give it a go.

Summary

So there you have it, the 1970s, 5 films made with wild abandon and imagination. A steady if at times unspectacular start that then exploded into mega box office and mega-stardom. The decade then finished with a quite frankly abysmal film. Spielberg’s confidence was knocked by this setback, he needed a hit, he needed people to believe in him again, luckily a close friend was on hand to offer Spielberg an opportunity to show that 1941 was a blip. This opportunity would be the creation of one of the most iconic characters in movie history.

For more on my thoughts on Spielberg please look at my site here https://dominicholder.wordpress.com/

What level of movie geek are you?

So it turns out that I am a bit of geek, a film geek nonetheless. Yes I watch a lot of films, not as many as I would like but I try to cram in as many as possible, and yes I can recite lines dialogue, but am I a geek? Yes I love to proclaim film trivia as if it’s the most interesting thing the ears of passers by will here all day, my inner child would love to think that work colleagues rush home to their significant others to say “Guess what Rambling Dad told me today about Rocky IV, it blew my mind”. I suspect that they do not.

However I don’t think I am an uber-geek, and I have come up with the following levels to put my hypothesis to the test. Reader, (I nearly put readers there but that might be a tad ambitious) feel free to see what level you fit into.

MOVIE GEEK LEVEL 1
You are able to spell the word “film” and understand that they are occasionally referred to as “movies”. You’ve seen a couple of movies and could possibly name the odd film star, but really the only famous ones. Believes Shia LaBoeuf to be a dish served at seafood restaurant in La Rochelle.

MOVIE GEEK LEVEL 2
You are aware of where your local cinema is, you occasionally talk fondly of one film and usually something like Dirty Dancing or Pretty Woman you have heard of James Bond, Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters, but you deem them all to be rather silly and not realistic. Level 2 geeks will always think there is something more productive to do with 2 hours than watch a film………..they are wrong. Mrs Rambling Dad is a bona fide Movie geek level 2. They have heard of Shia LaBoeuf but believe he is the new Indiana Jones or something

MOVIE GEEK LEVEL 3
The Blockbuster fan. These are the fans who will always go watch “the big films” and believes that Arnie and Sly are the greatest movie stars ever and actually claim that they are great actors. Movie geek level 3 will never read the book before watching the film “what’s the point” is often the response. They will only go and watch films with certain actors in them. Subtitled and black and white films are a big no no for Geek level 3 and don’t even go to anything that was made prior to 1977. Use Shia LaBoeuf as explaining to people that they are going to the toilet “I’m off for a Shia”

MOVIE GEEK LEVEL 4
Now we are getting serious. Movie geek level 4s will claim that their favourite director is Stanley Kubrick when in fact it is probably Steven Spielberg. Four’s have good film knowledge and will quite happily talk all night about films. Box sets are common place and film trivia books adorn book shelves. The DVD collection is not alphabetized but ordered by film maker. Can freely quote dialogue and name obscure actors in random films. They often name pets after Lord of the Rings or Star Trek characters. Blames Shia LaBouef for everything from appalling films, the Titanic sinking and death of Goose in Top Gun

MOVIE GEEK LEVEL 5
The ultimate movie geek. Level 5s have been known to camp for two weeks outside cinemas prior to the opening of the new Star Trek film, they believe Alien Vs Predator to be a misunderstood classic. They have email names such as Lasersword@filmgeek.co.uk. They explain the implausibility of laser beams making sparks when cutting a hole in the door of the Starship Enterprise. They name their children after Lord of the Rings or StarTrek characters. They believe Shia LaBoeuf is a God, and watch Transformers at least once a week to worship at the altar of LaBoeuf.

So there we go, where do you fit in? I’m a four, and proud of it. Ha ha