Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Steven Spielberg Career Retrospective

Steven Spielberg: This country's greatest living director, or the greatest living hack? Personally, I vote for "greatest living director," and I hope I can convince you in this career retrospective, where I'll chronologically list and give my (brief) opinions on every major film he's directed. It's going to be a huge pain in the ass, but that's what I do. Anyway, at least he's my favorite director.

Oh, and as much as I love the man, he definitely has directed some shit. But, even then, it's always entertaining shit.

And I'm going to give each film a rating from the following scale that descends from best to worst:

Buy it
Rent it
Watch it on TNT
Skip it

And just for the sake of clarification, you'll have to understand that a rating of "Skip it" from me means it's the absolute worst of the worst (or, at least, that it's just incredibly boring and pointless), since I'll watch just about any piece of shit on TNT. If you've spent more than five minutes reading this blog, you'll have figured that out by now. Anywat, let's get to it:

Duel (1971)
Duel is probably the best Spielberg movie that most people haven't seen. It's also the best TV movie ever made, which helps to explain why most people haven't seen it. Now that Spielberg has risen to the level of certified movie icon, Duel has been released and rereleased a bunch of times on video, DVD, etc, but most people still haven't seen it, which is a shame because it's an absolutely cracking little film. It stars Dennis Weaver (of McCloud fame) as the lonely driver on a long car trip who gets terrorized by a trucker who's face, identity, and motives are never revealed. And that's it. But that's all Spielberg needed to craft one of the tightest, most exciting thrillers of all time. Seriously, this film is brilliant and is an absolute must see.
Rating: Buy it

The Sugarland Express (1974)
After Duel, Spielberg continued to work in TV for a few years, but this was his first release on the big screen... and it's a pretty good one, if not as memorable as his next few. In (very) brief, Goldie Hawn and William Atherton play convicts on the run from the law in Texas. There's a lot more to it than that, but at the end of the day, maybe there actually isn't. Sugarland Express is one of the more subtle and restrained Spielberg films, but it's also very well done. As I said, it just isn't as memorable as everything else he's did, and feels more like one of his earlier TV movies than something that was quite ready for the cinema. But it's a fun, well done little movie by one of the all time great directors.
Rating: Rent it

Jaws (1975)
Jaws, of course, needs no introduction, explanation, or summary. Jaws is one of the biggest, best, and most important movies ever made. It's a perfect film, in my opinion, and one of the many titles I'll give as my answer when people ask if I have a favorite film. It's just... well... one of the most satisfying, exciting, entertaining movies of all time. And it's scary as hell. Even to this day, I can't swim alone in a pool because of how many times I've seen this movie.

Rating: Buy it

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Close Encounters is considered a great film by a great many people, but I'm not really one of them. I consider it an almost great film, however. I think this is a film that is all set up with no real pay off... but the set up is absolutely amazing. This is the film where, as a visual director, Spielberg really became Spielberg. There are so many gorgeous, exhilarating, iconic moments in this film, that it's really worth watching, but you won't miss much if you skip the last half hour to 45 minutes. It just doesn't have a satisfying ending, in my opinion, nor one that makes much sense on any kind of logical or human level.
Rating: Rent it

1941 (1979)
Spielberg's first failure! And a well deserved failure at that, though it is worth watching if only to see Steven Spielberg directing a bunch of WWII era fighter planes. But, as a comedy, this movie completely falls flat. What else is there to say but that it just isn't very funny?
Rating: Watch it on TNT

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Best... movie... ever. As Spielberg enters the 80s, movie history is born with the first Indiana Jones movie. With this movie, both Spielberg and George Lucas prove themselves as certified film gods and not just flukes. Well, Lucas's status as a film god may have diminished as of late, but we'll save that commentary for my Lucas career retrospective (ugh). Anyway, Raiders of the Lost Ark... what else is there to say about this one other than that it's one of my (and the entire world's!) all time favorites? It's just brilliant from start to finish, and hasn't aged a day in my opinion.
Rating: Buy it

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Oh boy, this is a tough one.

This is arguably the best film Steven Spielberg ever directed, with a story that is more heartfelt and better told than any of his later, more "adult" efforts. It's absolutely brilliant and perfect and, dare I say, magical. It's also probably the only film that I love but yet still can't sit through. It's just too god damned sad. It's also a film that I saw for the first time with a childhood friend who is now dead, so it has that added emotional quotient that makes it impossible for me to make it through. Even though I own the DVD. Even though I love it. Even though it has a happy ending (sorta. I mean, it's sad for Elliot, but ET gets home). Can't watch it. Just thinking about that scene where they find ET's body in the forest is almost enough to make me want to run to the kitchen and cut out my heart with a Ginsu.
Rating: Buy it (But never watch it)

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
This almost isn't even worth mentioning. Twilight Zone is actually a pretty good movie containing four different story segments, Spielberg's being the worst of the bunch. Spielberg's reputation as a director of sentimental crap is extremely unfair and unfounded, in my opinion, but this treacly, trite tale of senior citizens who turn into kids certainly doesn't help my defense. But, at the end of the day, it's just boring and pointless. But this film is worth watching for the segments directed by George Miller and Joe Dante.
Rating: Watch it on TNT

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
This is one of those films that can divide any room into those who absolutely love it or hate it. Even Steven Spielberg has gone on record to say that he kind of hates it. Far be it for me to disagree with the man himself, but I think it's awesome. No, it doesn't quite have the charm of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it does have some of the most amazing action sequences in movie history. And it has a cave full of bugs. And it has a villain who rips a guy's heart out of his chest and then shows it to him before he dies. So, yeah, it's a dark film. But it also has a sense of humor. What can I say? I love it.

Rating: Buy it

The Color Purple (1985)
How else to follow up Temple of Doom than with an adaptation of an epistolary novel about two African American women living in Georgia in the 1930s? I mean... why not? This film marked a turning point in Spielberg's career where he made a concerted effort to make films that were more than just big, summer movies. Some critics would accuse this film, and many of his others, as little more than "Oscar bait" but I don't think that's fair. I think Spielberg just wanted to make some films where he didn't have to direct in a room filled with thousands of snakes crawling all over the place. And, again... why not? However... this film doesn't really work for me because Spielberg approached it the way he approached his earlier films: by telling the story with his signature visual flair. This was a gorgeous film to look at, but unfortunately the story didn't really feel fully fleshed out. Also, as engaging as charming as I find Whoopie Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, neither of them really had the acting talent to carry an entire film. Danny Glover is amazing, however. At the end of the day, it's a decent film that entertains, but it wasn't anywhere near as emotionally gripping or satisfying as, say, E.T. or even Sugarland Express.
Rating: Watch it on TNT

Empire of the Sun (1987)
There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who love Christian Bale and think he's a brilliant actor, and then there's me. I just don't get the appeal of this guy. There's a reason why he only plays characters who are pissed off all the time: That's the only emotion he can pull off convincingly. He's just a completely boring, one note actor in my opinion who can completely suck the life out of any movie he's in. Well... almost any movie he's in. He was actually pretty good in this one, back when he was just 13.

But we were going to talk about Empire of the Sun. This is a pretty good movie, although the pacing is off so it drags in more places than it should. It's almost almost three hours long, even though it feels like it's much longer. But... it's good. It's gorgeous and well filmed, of course, but it also has a really great story and some wonderful acting. It's something of a picaresque story with a view different vignettes, some of which are less engaging than others and probably should've been cut to trim down the already bloated running time. But, you know, I liked it. It just doesn't stand out as one of my favorites.
Rating: Rent it

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Last Crusade is the favorite Indiana Jones film for a great many people, and rightly so, since it just exudes charm and good humor. Personally, I prefer Raiders of the Lost Ark by a country mile, but that doesn't diminish this film by any means. I absolutely adore this film and think it's one of the most entertaining films I've ever seen. You know... it's just that the original Indiana Jones film is better. But this film does have Sean Connery as Indy's father, and the return of Sallah, Marcus Brody, and the Nazis. This is definitely the funniest and most broadly appealing Indiana Jones film, but I still prefer the dark, black comedy of Temple of Doom and the creativity and movie-serial, pulp novel inspired tone of Raiders.
Rating: Buy it

Always (1989)
In case you were wondering when we'd finally get to a skip it, here we go!

But don't get me wrong, it's not a terrible movie. In fact, it's even a pretty good movie. It's well written, the cast is great and performs perfectly, and Spielberg's visual dazzle is pretty well on display. The main problem is that the story is so ill-thought out and misguided it's hard to believe this movie was actually made (well, remade, but that's another story). Richard Dryfuss is a hotshot pilot who dies in a spectacular crash and then comes back as a guardian angel of sorts to a younger, up-coming hotshot pilot. The hook is this young pilot falls in love with, and starts to court, the girl Dryfuss used to date!

A clever plot to be sure, but who wants to watch that? Who are we rooting for here? On the one hand, the young guy is such a great character we want him to win Holly Hunter's heart, but, on the other hand, Dryfuss is our hero (I think) and we're forced to watch him suffer. So we feel bad while we watch, and then grow angry at a god who would put one of his angels in this kind of position. I wouldn't want to die and then be forced to come back and watch my wife date some guy who was younger and more handsome than I was.

Then again, maybe Dryfuss is in hell and this is his pennance for a life of misdeeds? If so, that would also be pretty poor story telling since he seemed like a nice guy. So I just think it was a dumb movie with a story that's almost impossible to not find awkward and off-putting, and Spielberg should have known better. It is maybe worth watching, however, if only because it's a Spielberg movie and because all of the actors were so good. How often do you get to see John Goodman, Holly Hunter, or Richard Dryfuss any more?
It's also notable for being the last performance by the always wonderful Audrey Hepburn.

Rating: Skip it

And since that closes out the 80s for Mr. Spielberg, that seems as good a place as any to take a break. After all, I have to go take my laundry out of the dryer. Come back soon for the second part of our Steven Spielberg Career Retrospective.

No comments: