Sunday, November 18, 2012

On the Films of Steven Spielberg.


My views on Steven Spielberg and his films have changed over the years. When I was a kid, I thought he was the Second Coming, the filmmaker of the coolest movies this side of George Lucas. Then the Eighties ended and I started noticing the emperor had holes in his underwear.  With mainstream acceptance among his peers came a Spielberg more willing to take risks and make the types of films he’d been denied before.

Spielberg has now made a lot of movies of varying genres, nearly all of the ones not involving George Lucas filled with manipulative, cloying sentimentality. Below is the list of his movies I’ve seen and what I think of them. I’ll just put this out there now: If “Schindler’s List” is one of your sacred cows, you probably want to stop reading.

The List:

Duel- An impressive debut, this tale of road rage was well ahead of its time and felt too high-end to be made for TV. But it was. You can’t really screw up a good Richard Matheson story and Spielberg breathed life into this one with zeal.

Jaws- Overrated. Good on a technical level, but that’s Spielberg’s strength. As a movie, it’s a lurching, underacted snooze.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind- Oh, look at the pretty lights and cool aliens. Okay, wake me up when anything interesting happens…It’s over?

Raiders of the Lost Ark- Flawless. Lucas and Kasdan and Ford, oh my. These are the types of films at which Spielberg excels. There was no room for his schmaltzy sentimentality here.

E.T.- One of Spielberg’s corniest, schmaltziest films. I loved it when I was a kid, but after being dragged to see it by yet another family member for a seventh time, I began realizing just how bad it was. Nowhere has alien contact been mishandled with such childish annoyance. What’s really frustrating is how Spielberg gets good performances out of his actors while forcing them to emote into a Hallmark greeting card.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom- Still good but suffers from the inclusion of two annoying sidekicks and the director’s obvious hots for Kate Capshaw. Don’t believe me? Watch the DVD extras, and don’t forget he was married at the time.

Empire of the Sun- Although it views like a commercial for the resilience of young boys, it’s a relatively watchable film filled with wonderful imagery and a genuinely touching ending.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade- For some reason, Spielberg didn’t want to direct another Indy film until the father/son dynamic was revealed. Once more, Lucas’ involvement precludes any sentimentality and aside from a few less-inspired action sequences, it’s closer to the greatness of the original.

Hook- Pure torture, let’s move on.

Jurassic Park- I was no fan of Michael Crichton’s alarmist rhetoric in the form of cautionary Frankenstein unleashed melodrama, so it should come as no surprise that I hated this movie with the intensity of a thousand suns. Oddly, the core idea was good, but Spielberg’s distracted, uninvolved direction turned it into a snooze-fest of epic proportions. In fact, the most riveting scene in the film is the scene at the dinner table where the ethical implications of cloning are discussed, probably because Spielberg had no choice but to show up to work on a non-fx day!

Schindler’s List- The Holy Grail of Holocaust films and the reason why Spielberg was so distracted during the filming of Jurassic Park. This film does a huge disservice to the Holocaust and those watching it by painting a black and white portrait of comic book level super villainy. The director finally reveals that he doesn’t seem to know the difference between sentimentality and genuine emotion with this tear-jerker. The real irony is after this, he claimed he didn’t want to do another Indiana Jones film with “cartoonish Nazis,” as if this film wasn’t stocked with them.

The Lost World- Ironically, this Jurassic park sequel improves on the original by actually providing a story and dramatic tension that doesn’t involve people hiding under a desk from dinosaurs that probably never existed. The emotions are real and the stakes feel real, too. Not a great film but decent.

Amistad- Spielberg’s saving grave when making films about historical events is that he surrounds himself with good and great actors. Amistad is one such case and the only reason it’s a success.

Saving Private Ryan- Although it runs on a bit longer than it should and the last scene is unnecessary, this is what I consider to be one of Spielberg’s great films. The pacing is perfect, the battle recreations are disturbingly well-done, and the acting and imagery are second to none. After this film, I was convinced Spielberg was headed towards more great films.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence- Stanley Kubrick made two great films (A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey) and a whole bunch of other ones. This was to be his film, too, but he died when he realized he was filming “Eyes Wide Shut” and people might actually see it. I don’t blame him, but Spielberg shot the movie in his friend’s honor. It’s actually pretty good. You also can’t usually go wrong with a Brian Aldiss story. Sensing a theme here? More on that later.

Minority Report- The second in what I see as Spielberg’s science fiction trilogy, this is a severely underrated film thanks in no small part to Tom Cruise’s performance and stunning visuals. You can go wrong with a Phillip K Dick story, but only if you’re a complete idiot.

Catch me if you Can- So far, my theory that Spielberg was back to making good movies was not disproven with this witty, well-acted true story movie.

The Terminal- Another good one. Spielberg and Tom Hanks make a groovy combo, baby.

War of the Worlds- Lookit him go! This one made me forget all about his lackluster earlier attempts at films about aliens. Took a classic and reinvented it brilliantly. Yes, there’s your typical Spielberg ending where all the kids are okay, but this ain’t Frank Darabont!

Munich- And the Spielberg express ground to a screeching halt. What made this man think he could shoot a Seventies-style William Friedkin-esque epic based on a true story? He actually does pretty well for the first hour, then the film unspools like a poorly wound cassette. Eric Bana isn’t a good actor on his best day (his sad attempts at scenery chewing in the Star Trek reboot pulled me out of the movie) but nowhere were his meager talents more on display than in this plodding mess. And what the hell was Daniel Craig in this movie for? A total waste of time and talent.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull- I don’t care what anybody says, this movie showed us Spielberg can still deliver actual entertainment. Featuring some of his best camera work and visuals, this movie is also severely underrated. Oh, and Lucas was involved.

Lincoln- I know the over 50 set is embracing this movie like a long lost love, but I’m afraid it doesn’t live up to its hype. Despite the impressive cast and acting, the script is relatively dull and the direction is shallow. Spielberg is simply out of his depth when trying to capture historical drama. He can’t do it all.

 

So what can we conclude here? For one thing, Spielberg works best from the work of superior writers. An auteur he ain’t. Also, his strongest ability, emotion, does not serve him well when dealing with weightier topics. That doesn’t mean he’s shameless like Mel Gibson, but he’s damn close! All in all, Spielberg is a very good director whose reputation has been vastly exaggerated by his box office success.

I take issue with people who blindly think he’s this wonderful filmmaker because of the films in his filmography rather than the content of those films. Soon he will be making the film version of “Robopocalypse,” one of my favorite recent novels. I can only hope my theory holds and the superior writer’s material becomes a good film.

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