Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Steven Spielberg Career Retrospective Part II

Hook (1991)
Now this isn't a very good film. Notable for having one of the highest budgets of its time, Hook was a monster hit that has not aged well, which says a lot considering how it wasn't any good to being with. It has the highest of high concepts: What if Peter Pan grew up? Well, most people probably assumed he'd have grown into a better man than this film, which seems to hold the opinion that you are either Peter Pan or an immoral corporate raider who neglects his family and only cares about money. This movie relishes in this dichotomy and heaps irony on top of irony until it stops being the least bit clever.

But it all looks pretty, and some of the child actors were quite good, and you can't beat the inspired casting of Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Bob Hoskins, who all but steals the show in every movie he's ever been in. But when you walk away from a movie thinking, "boy, I wish Bob Hoskins was in more movies," maybe that means the movie you just saw wasn't all that good.

Maybe this works as a kids movie. I certainly remember enjoying it when I first saw it in the theatre. But, as an adult, it's insufferable.
Rating: Skip it

Jurassic Park (1993)
Now this is a movie.

If I were to rank all of the movies in order of how many times I've rewatched them over the years, Jurassic Park would definitely be somewhere in the top five. It's just a ridiculously entertaining film that keeps me enthralled every time I watch it. It's absolutely one of the most brilliant pieces of pure filmmaking the world has ever seen.

Ok, and it's also kind of dumb, but that's ok. It doesn't have the depth of Michael Crichton's novel, but that's ok. I've reread the original novel almost as many times as I've seen the film, and all things considered, the film has aged a lot better. When I was a younger man, I didn't understand why Spielberg excised most of the science from the novel, but as I grew older, I realized that Crichton's science was mostly nonsense. Spielberg made the right decision. But the film is short on story. But that doens't matter since it's a movie about dinosaurs, and it presented the most amazing dinosaurs the world had ever seen.

I love this movie, and so do you.
Rating: Buy it

Schindler's List (1993)
One of the reasons why Steven Spielberg is my favorite director is how he'll follow up a film about genetically bred dinosaurs run amok with a heartfelt film about the Holocaust. Name one other director who could've pulled both of those films off to such critical and fan acclaim? Filmed in stark black and white, Schindler's List is as much a visual feast as any Spielberg film, though that is as much a detriment to the film as it is to its credit. There are a few scenes in this film where Spielberg the visual stylist takes too much power over Spielberg the story teller, such as in the scene where the German plays the piano while the soldiers kill the Jews in the tenament building, or when the gas chambers are revealed to be just showers. These are thrilling scenes, but perhaps a bit too thrilling. Spielberg was maturing, but still unable to always become completely invisible as a director.

Also, and this perhaps too petty of a criticism, but I would rather have had Spielberg direct a Holocaust film that centered around a family of Jews, and not a single, noble German who was the hero. But it was without any doubt a breathtaking, brilliant film. Spielberg's first Oscar wins for Best Picture and Best Director were well deserved, though he had been deserving for other films before this one.
Rating: Buy it

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
And then Spielberg took four years off, and you would've too. He had won and Oscar and directed the most grueling, emotional film of his career, after all. But, all things considered, he probably should've taken a little more time and returned to Hollywood with a better film than this piece of shit.

But that doesn't mean I don't love this movie, I just acknowledge the fact that it's not very good. As a follow up to Jurassic Park, it definitely has more dinosaurs, more thrills, and better computer effects, but it also has a lot less plot and less charm. But that's fitting because Lost World the novel was a huge piece of shit as well, though it wasn't quite as stupid as this movie adaptation. But, again, this movie is about watching dinosaurs eat people, an area in which it delivers better than any movie in history. The scenes of dinosaurs eating people are wonderful, and the film is worth watching just for the scene where the hunters are chasing the dinosaur stampede. That may, in fact, be the coolest scene in movie history, and I'm not exaggerating at all. But, at the end of the day, there's almost as much to hate about this movie as there is to admire, if not more so, actually. The characters are all annoying, the plot is stupid, and the set pieces make absolutely no sense at all. And, really, why is Ian Malcom's daughter black?

Lastly, this film is notable for being the only sequel Spielberg ever directed that wasn't an Indiana Jones film.
Rating: Watch it on TNT

Amistad (1997)
Amistad may very well be subtitled "The Lost Spielberg Film," since nobody ever remembers it. Admit it: Before you started reading this blog (and, of course, I'm humoring myself by pretending that anybody is actually reading this blog) you had completely forgotten about Amistad. As soon as you reached this point, you probably thought to yourself, "oh yeah... that movie!"

And that's a shame because it's actually a pretty good movie. It's not in his top ten to be sure, but it's a good movie all the same. Anyway, it's entertaining, and even quite moving and profound in places. Cinque's "Me wants free" speech in particlar always makes me misty. If for nothing else, this movie gave Djimon Hounsou a career, for which we can all be thankful. Djimon Hounsou is awesome.
Rating: Rent it

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Spielberg won his second Best Director Oscar for this film, though Shakespeare in Love beat it for Best Picture. A lot of people will tell you that was a travesty, but I liked both films a lot. Either of the two deserved the top Oscar, in my opinon, even though I've only seen Shakespeare in Love once while I've seen Ryan about 8 billion times. So maybe it was a travesty after all. Anyway, this movie is awesome. I've already hyped up this film in my list of the ten best war movies, but this film is so good no amount of hype could ever do it justice. Was it perfect? No, but it was still awesome all the same.
Rating: Buy it

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
A great many people have written a great many detailed, elaborate, scholarly articles explaining why this is one of the most brilliant films ever made. And I've read them all. I know the history of this film. I know that it began as the brainchild of Stanley Kubrick (another one of my favorite directors who will no doubt get his own Dononline retrospective soon enough), who gave Spielberg his blessing to finish it after his death. I know all of the theories and explanations. I've watched this film multiple times to get a better understanding and refined viewpoint. But, at the end of the day, I can't deny the inevitable: I think this movie sucks.

There isn't one sequence, set piece, or idea that works for me. It's all just a huge mess, in my opinion. I don't even find it entertaining. The special effects are wonderful, of course, but this was 2001. All films had special effects that were wonderful by that point. Computers took the special out of effects and just made every movie looks fantastic. I did almost like Jude Law's performance as the Sexbot (would any woman really have intercourse with something called "Gigolo Joe"?), but then I realized that his character, like all the others, served no purpose, learned nothing, and had boring, pointless story arcs.

I just didn't like it. I have no idea why I always feel so apologetic about it, but that's how it is. The main problem with this movie (other than that it sucked?)? There was no real emotional point, in my opinion. David was supposed to be the first robot that could love, and yet the only thing that made him different from the thousand other robots in this movie was that he cried a little bit more. That teddy bear seemed pretty lovable to me. I certainly found him more believable -- not to mention less creepy -- than Haley Joel Osment.

Anyway, I could go on and on about how much I hate this movie, but maybe I'll save that for another time.
Rating: Skip it

Minority Report (2002)
I saw this movie opening day, and I didn't really love it. There were just too many flaws that hurt my enjoyment. There was the bit with the eyes, that let Anderton and is wife sneak around even though he was a registered fellon. There was the ending, which was predictable and cliche. Then was the entire premise, that made no sense because the precogs foresaw a murder "committed" by Anderton even though he never actually killed anybody.

But, many viewings sine then, my feelings have changed and I've warmed up to this movie. In fact, I think it's quite good, if not one of Spielberg's very best. But it is a good science fiction film that's full of action and clever idea. And, no, those "flaws" I mentioned above don't really bother me anymore, since they aren't really deal breakers. It was one of those movies that let me down because it wasn't as brilliant as I was expecting, but when I saw it again, it wasn't as bad as I had remembered.
Rating: Rent it

Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Spielberg's second film with Tom Hanks (and his first with Leo DeCaprio) is an absolute delight. I can't think of any better way to describe this film. It isn't up there with E.T., The Color Purple, or Schindler's List in terms of story content, but it's as entertaining and, well, fun as anything he's ever directed. Throw in Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, and a bunch of cute girls and you've got one of the most entertaining films of his career. But there aren't any dinosaurs or guys who rip hearts out of other guys' chests.
Rating: Buy it

The Terminal (2004)
I like this movie, but I'd be hard pressed to label it as one of Spielberg's big successes. It's a likable, charming comedy that has an easy going tone that is only a little bit trite and only kind of stupid. But, again, I like it. I think it's funny, and while it isn't the most engaging or visual splendid of his films, it's still a Spielberg movie. Spielberg doing light comedy may be a waste of his talent, in my opinion, but it's still entertaining. But it's also a little boring, and even though it's supposedly based on a true story, the entire premise is impossible to believe. That wasn't a deal breaker for me, but I can see how it would be for a good number of people. This movie wasn't a big hit.

This was also Spielberg's third film (and as of this writing, last) collaboration with Tom Hanks, who's fantastic as always.
Rating: Watch it on TNT

War of the Worlds (2005)
Spielberg and Tom Cruise team up a second time to make another science fiction blockbuster, and it's another instant classic. This is just an over the top, exhilarating, balls to the wall disaster movie, and I loved every minute of it. This was probably Spielberg's best pure action movie since Jurassic Park, and he's at his best (or at least, at his most entertaining. I'm not going to argue that this is a better film than Schindler's List) when all he cares about doing is taking the audience on a nonstop thrill ride. This isn't exactly a nonstop thrill ride, since there are actually more than a few character moments where the actors get to talk about their feelings and all that, but for the most part, it's just a lot of stuff blowing up. The beginning section is so strong that the ending really feels like a let down (especially since the ending was so faithful to the novel's, which was already dumb even considering it was 100 years old), but it's still one of my favorites.
Rating: Buy it

Munich (2005)
Munich is a great movie. It might be too soon to tell, but it seems to be a landmark picture that introduced yet another Steven Spielberg to the world: One who was finally able to bridge the gap between the director of thrillers like Raiders and Jaws and the man who made heartfelt dramas like The Color Purple and Schindler's List. Munich has a deep, philosophical storyline that raises more questions than it answers, but it also has thrilling set pieces that almost out Hitchcock Hitchcock. It's a brilliant, soaring success for the director.

But... it's also kind of boring in places, and I'd be lying if I said I really understood everything Spielberg was trying to say. It's not one that I rewatch very often. It's just a little too cold. It's the kind of film I respect on an intellectual level, but don't necessarily love watching on any kind of emotional level.
Rating: Rent it

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
After 20 years, Spielberg, Lucas, and Harris Ford reunited for once more installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, and the world was a better place because of it, in my opinion. I've already reviewed this film in detail here (some might say in too much detail), but needless to say, I loved it. When I first saw it, I merely liked it, but in the time since then I saw it a few more times in the theatre and even more times on DVD, and it has grown on me more and more with each viewing. It's not a perfect film by any means, with a charmless, less than villainous villain and a lackluster finale, but it's still an Indiana Jones film and it still entertains. Every Indiana Jones films has been less spectacular than the one that came before, but that's ok because since the first film was brilliant, even films that get progressively less brilliant are still great. That was a long sentence, but thanks for sticking with me.
Rating: Buy it

And... that's it. That was every major film directed by Steven Spielberg over the course of his career. And, no, I'm not forgetting Poltergeist, but since he isn't actually billed as the director, I'm not going to get into that fiasco. I woudl've rated it as a Watch it on TNT anyway.

Let's see how the films broke down in terms of my rating scale:

Buy it: 12
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Temple of Doom
Last Crusade
Jurassic Park
Schindler's List
Saving Private Ryan
Catch Me if you Can
War of the Worlds
Crystal Skull

Rent it: 6
Sugarland Express
Close Encounters
Empire of the Sun
Minority Report

Watch it on TNT: 5
Twilight Zone: The Movie
The Color Purple
Lost World
The Terminal

Skip it: 3

I would say Spielberg aquited himself very good, and his ouvre definitely proves him to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.


aak said...

I agree with most of your assessments, and I wholeheartedly agree that AI is worthless. I only take issue with your suggestion to skip Hook. I dunno. Maybe if I hadn't seen it as a kid, I wouldn't love it so much. I guess I would say to skip it unless you'd seen it when you were young.

Donald said...

To be perfectly clear and honest, if I ever see Hook playing on TNT, I'll sit down and watch it every time. But that's who I am. I have a fairly high tolerance for terrible movies, and I love Spielberg. So, yeah, I don't skip it.

But you can agree that most people won't miss much if they do skip it, and, indeed, I recommend that they do.