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Josh Enjoys Seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind Back on the Big Screen!

September 13th, 2017
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About a week after seeing the new 3D release of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, I got to see one of the 40th anniversary screenings of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  I can’t believe this film is forty years old!!!  Close Encounters is one of my very favorite Steven Spielberg movies, and one of my favorite movies altogether. Getting to see it — for the very first time! — on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen, was a thrill!

I love that Close Encounters is NOT an action/adventure like most of Steven Spielberg’s movies are.  Close Encounters is a more cerebral drama, and a surprisingly dark one at that.  As an adult, the unpleasantness of Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) and Ronnie (Teri Garr)’s marriage is more painful than it is funny, and that the film ends with Roy’s having never reconciled with his wife and kids, and possibly never seeing them again, is almost shocking as the ending of a big-budget Steven Spielberg film.  I love Close Encounters for that.  I love it for its messiness, both literally in the way characters are constantly talking over from one another and for the surprisingly realistic mess of Roy and Ronnie’s house, and also for its messiness of storytelling in that not everything is explained or wrapped up in a bow at the end of the film.  But most of all I love the film for being an intelligent sci-fi drama, rather than a shoot-em-up.

While some of the forty-year-old visual effects in the film look a little dated, over-all I was very pleasantly surprised how well the effects held up on the big screen!  These old-style visuals were executed with tremendous care and artistry, and the vast majority of the film’s special effects looked dynamite.  What an achievement that these visual effects still look so great forty years later.  The mothership’s arrival at the end was suitably awe-inspiring, as it is supposed to be.  I’d only ever seen those moments before on TV.  Seeing the enormous mothership appear above Devil’s Tower on a huge screen was amazing.  (For more info on the effort that went into the film’s HD restoration, click here.)

There is a lot of memorable, haunting imagery in Close Encounters.  Seeing the film on the big screen emphasizes what an incredible job Steven Spielberg did directing this film.  The shot compositions are incredible.  I’ll never forget the images of Roy staring at the shaving cream in his hand; or the shot of Roy in front of the huge mountain he has created in his house, as Devil’s Tower appears on his small TV (see below); of the image of Barry’s mother Jillian … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The BFG

I adored the work of Roald Dahl as a kid, and The BFG was in heavy rotation for me for many years.  The idea of a movie adaptation of that terrific book was exciting, and that it would be helmed by Steven Spielberg — probably the greatest director working today — was even more tantalizing.

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And so I was somewhat surprised that this big-screen version of The BFG left me rather underwhelmed.  This feels to me like a minor work from Mr. Spielberg.  It’s not head-poundingly frustrating like The Lost World or A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.  Rather, it’s just that the film feels very slight.  There are moments of greatness, but over-all I found The BFG to be somewhat boring.  I don’t think I’ve ever before felt that way about a Steven Spielberg film.

Although Mr. Spielberg has made many movies that feature children, and that are about childhood, it could be that this is the first Spielberg movie that is aimed so squarely at children in the audience.  I can imagine kids being thrilled by the film, but for me as an adult I found it very simplistic, without too much to capture my interest.  There are some lovely ideas in the film and some beautiful sequences (certainly the dream-catching sequence alone, in which the BFG takes Sophie to the underwater/underground magical realm in which one can chase and catch dreams as one would fireflies, is magnificent), but the story moves along without too much depth of character or too many surprises.  What played as a fantastical left-hand turn into craziness in Mr. Dahl’s original book — in which Sophie decides to elicit the help of the Queen of England to help her and the BFG solve their problems — plays in the movie like an amusing but almost distracting digression from the main story.

I was so excited that this adaptation of The BFG represented the final collaboration between Mr. Spielberg and the late, great Melissa Mathison (who wrote E.T.), and so I’m sad to report that I wasn’t as delighted as I’d expected to be by the film’s script.

The one time I was truly moved by the film was in the final moments.  In that bittersweet ending the film finally hit, for me, the emotions that I felt it had been striving for the whole time.  I wish there had been a little more of that emotional resonance in everything that had come before.

Ruby Barnhill, who plays young Sophie, the orphan girl who discovers and befriends the BFG, is lovely in the film.  She spends much of the film interacting with a CGI make-believe giant, and yet despite that she’s able to give a very … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part Three!

What fun this has been, revisiting a great year of movies,  Click here for the numbers twenty to sixteen, and click here for numbers fifteen to eleven.  And now, on to my top ten!

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10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens This was the hardest film to find the right place for on my list. I briefly had it in my top five, and then for a while had it all the way down at number twenty.  This is a film that has me very much of two minds.  There is so much about it that works spectacularly well.  The tone is perfect — this is a Star Wars film that is actually FUN (and funny!) again, a welcome relief after the stiff and dour prequels.  The film is wonderfully paced, carrying the audience along from one great action bit to the next.  The new cast is magnificent, with each actor perfectly chosen, creating a group of new young characters who I can’t wait to follow through additional adventures.  The film looks gorgeous, with beautiful special effects and top-notch work from every production department.  Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo and gives the best performance he’s delivered in two decades.  And yet… there are so many little things about the film that bug me, that don’t work as well as they should.  All of the coincidences and plot-holes.  The muddiness regarding what exactly the situation is with Resistance, the Republic, and the First Order.  The way Han Solo’s final scene works but not nearly as well as it should have worked (something I touched on in both of my articles about the film, and that I’ve been struggling to express to friends when talking about the film.  Thankfully, BirthMoviesDeath’s Devin Faraci absolutely nailed what was frustrating me in this terrific analysis.)  The fact that for the third time the Rebels have to blow up a Death Star-like thing.  This is a film with a lot of imperfections, and yet I do still sort of love it despite how rough around the edges it is.  J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have brought Star Wars back to life in a big, big way, and for that they have my thanks and appreciation.  (Click here for my original review, and here for my follow-up post.)

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9. Bridge of Spies When Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks work together, you know you’re in for a treat, and Bridge of Spies does not disappoint.  This quiet, intelligent film tells the story of Jim Donovan, a lawyer tasked with defending a Russian spy caught in Brooklyn in 1957 (an act that then  leads to Mr. Donovan’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies, the new film from Steven Spielberg, spans events in the Cold War from 1957-1962.  The film opens with the arrest of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in Brooklyn, NY.  Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer who primarily deals with insurance, agrees to serve as Abel’s legally required defense.  Despite the wishes of many around him, Donovan attempts to give Abel the best defense he is capable of, and the two men gradually bond.  In 1960, when a U.S. U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured, Donovan finds himself playing negotiator/mediator between the United States and U.S.S.R. governments, as he attempts to arrange a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

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Bridge of Spies is not only a fascinating and compelling film, but, like The Martian (which I reviewed last week), it’s also an important one.  The Martian is set in the future in outer space, and Bridge of Spies is set decades ago during the Cold War, but both are films with important things to say about our world and our culture today.  While The Martian champions the value of science and intelligence, Bridge of Spies champions the importance of the rule of law and the rights that all men and women deserve.  In two critical scenes in the film, Tom Hanks gets to deliver powerfully written and marvelously performed speeches that spell out this message succinctly and effectively.  In the first, after being stopped in the rain by a C.I.A. agent who asserts that there is “no rule-book” in these dangerous times, Donovan counters that the Constitution and the rule of law is their rule-book, and that it is their adherence to the values and rights set out in the Constitution that unites him, a man of Irish descent, with agent Hoffman, a man of German descent, as Americans.  In the second, we hear Donovan argue Abel’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring that though Abel might be their foe, that what sets America apart is our values and our adherence to those values and the rule of law, even when in conflict with an enemy.  Both scenes are powerful declarations of the principles behind which the film stands, and both, I think, are important messages for Americans to hear today.  The issues we face today are no less difficult that those faced in the fifties and sixties; our enemies around the globe no less fierce and intractable; but that is no excuse to abandon our values and our principles out of expediency or because we believe we have no other choice.

Once again, Spielberg and Hanks prove to be a winning combination.  Hank’s … [continued]

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News Around the Net

This video is amazing.  It’s a nine minute mash-up of clips from lots of great movies to create the notion that there is one bar in which a lot of famous movie characters meet up. Check it out, it is great (despite the mis-spelling in the opening title):

How about that love for Carlito’s Way?? Fantastic.  (Click here for my recent review of Carlito’s Way.)

So, what the heck is going on over at Marvel Studios?  There’s a lot happening behind the scenes that is starting to get reported.  Some of it is exciting, some of it very worrying.  The major event is the move of Marvel Studios, run by Kevin Feige, out from under the control of CEO Ike Perlmutter and over to the direct control of Disney (who bought all of Marvel a while back).  There have been many reports over the years of Ike Perlmutter’s tight purse-strings — limiting budgets for the Marvel films and leading to tough negotiations over salaries with the films’ stars — and his vindictiveness — directing Marvel’s publishing and merchandising arms to de-emphasize the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, because the rights to those film series are owned by Fox.  Although that has been continually denied by Marvel, the last year has seen the FF comic book –which has been published since 1962 — cancelled, and the removal of FF and X-Men characters from t-shirts and other merchandise (posters, toys, etc.).  Kevin Feige has been praised by many as the key driving creative force behind the success of Marvel Studios’ films, and so the idea of his having more creative control on his own, away from the supervision of Mr. Perlmutter, and perhaps larger budgets for his films, is very exciting.  On the other hand, I think the characterization of Perlmutter as a crazy billionaire is overly simplistic and denies his large role in Marvel’s reinvigoration as a publisher this past decade, and the creation and successes of Marvel Studios in the first place.  I’m also mystified by the way the Marvel Creative Committee seems to be being blamed for various Marvel Studios problems, as described in this weird piece by Devin Faraci at Birth.Movies.Death.com.  I love Mr. Faraci’s work (and later in this post I will link to some wonderful articles on his site, one of my very favorite web-sites), but his article about the Creative Committee doesn’t make much sense to me.  The Creative Committee is a small group of people from Marvel’s publishing arm: Joe Quesada (an artist who rose to the position of Marvel Editor-in-Chief in the aughts and who is one of the major reasons why Marvel was … [continued]

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Welcome (Back) to Jurassic Park

I have written many times here on the site that I am a big fan of revival screenings of classic films.  I am delighted whenever an opportunity comes to see a great movie back on the big screen.  I loved when Back to the Future returned to cinemas in honor of its 25th anniversary, and I was thrilled when Ghostbusters was screened at theatres nation-wide on several Thursdays in October last year.  I don’t understand why the studios don’t do more of this sort of thing.  I can think of so many classic films that fans like me would eagerly pay to get to see back on the big screen again!

Lately, one of the ways that we’ve been getting to see the occasional older film back in theatres is through a conversion to 3-D.  I loved seeing Toy Story and Toy Story 2, when they were re-released as a 3-D double-feature in 2009 in advance of Toy Story 3.  I didn’t get to Titanic 3-D (which I had interest in but never had time to see — I like Titanic, though I consider it one of James Cameron’s lesser works), and I didn’t have much interest in seeing Star Wars: Episode I in 3-D.  But when I read about the re-release of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 3-D, I knew I wanted to be sure to see it.

I love Jurassic Park.  Seeing that film for the very first time in theatres back in 1993 remains one of the great movie-going experiences of my life.  The film absolutely blew me away.  It wasn’t just the extraordinary visual effects (so groundbreaking at the time for their use of CGI to bring the dinosaurs to life), though that was of course part of it.  It was the whole visceral experience of the film.  The movie scared the hell out of me.  Right from the prologue scene at night on Isla Nublar, and of course straight through from the T-Rex attack all the way to the Velociraptors-in-the-kitchen sequence at the end of the film, I was gripped by the intensity of the filmmaking.  I remember the experience like it was yesterday.

I have seen Jurassic Park many times since, over the years, on TV or video and then on DVD, and I’ve always enjoyed it.  But the opportunity to see the film again on the big screen?  How could I not eagerly snap that up?

Well, no surprise, seeing Jurassic Park in 2013 of course couldn’t live up to my memories of getting my hair blown back by the film as a kid back in 1993.  But I nevertheless had an absolutely marvelous time experiencing Jurassic Park on a … [continued]

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Click here to read part one of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, in which I listed numbers 15-11.  Now, onward!

10. Looper In this smart, original sci-fi flick written and directed by Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe.  Joe is a Looper, someone paid to kill guys the mob from thirty-years in the future send back in time to get whacked, long before the law might be looking for their bodies or any evidence of the crime.  One day, the guy sent back in time for Joe to kill turns out to be Joe himself, now played by Bruce Willis.  Old Joe gets away from Young Joe, and things spiral out of control from there.  Bruce Willis hasn’t been this much fun to watch in an action movie in years, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific as well.  I loved watching these two play off of one another.  Emily Blunt (making her second appearance on my Best of 2012 list, as she also starred in The Five-Year Engagement) and Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels are all fun in supporting roles.  This is a twisty sci-fi tale that is mind-bending without ever losing sight of the character drama at the heart of the story. (Click here for my original review.)

9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Though not the masterpiece that the three original Lord of the Rings films were, this first of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is still a ferociously entertaining fantasy adventure.  At nearly three hours in length, this film is stuffed to the gills with extraordinary sights and thrills, with characters and with circumstance.  Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins (inheriting the role from Ian Holm who played Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and who actually reprises his role as “Old Bilbo” in one of this film’s many prologues), a great every-man anchor to the story.  He’s great, and I also loved seeing lots more of Ian McKellan, who reprises his role as Gandalf and is magnificent as ever as the gruff, temperamental wizard.  The film is filled with many great new characters (all of the Dwarves) as well as the welcome return of many familiar faces from the original trilogy (Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and of course Andy Serkis as Gollum).  The “riddles in the dark” scene with Gollum alone makes this film worth seeing, but there are so many other wonderful moments, from the long opening scene in Bag End with all of the dwarves (highlighted by Richard Armitage as Thorin and the other Dwarves singing the somber “Misty Mountains” … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Lincoln

With the simple title of Lincoln, one might expect the new film from Steven Spielberg to be an all-encompassing biopic of the life of our famous stovepot-hat-wearing former President.  However, quite cunningly, Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter (and acclaimed playwright) Tony Kushner (basing their work in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) chose instead to focus on a very short period — about two months — at the end of Lincoln’s life, in which he endeavored to bring the Civil War to a close and to pass the 13th Ammendment, abolishing slavery in the United States of America.

It’s an ingenious choice, and as a result Lincoln stays far away from many of the familiar beats of the biopic. The film is one-part character study, allowing us to spend time getting to know this most iconic of men, and one-part peek behind the curtain to see how the sausage of politics gets made — or, at least, how it did back in 1865.

The film is thrilling, and the way Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner made a two-and-a-half hour story about how an amendment gets passed into such an edge-of-your seat piece of entertainment is absolutely astonishing.  The script is terrific.  The film has a huge ensemble (I’ll get back to this in a minute), but it’s never overwhelming, never confusing.  We’re introduced to a breadth of characters each of whom has a distinct personality and point of view and each of whom helps, in a small way, to illuminate the story being told.  Through these characters we are brought into the world of the bitterly divided America of 1865, still caught in the final throes of Civil War, and we are given keen insight into the political process of the day.  We see all the different points of view on the amendment, we learn why these different individuals hold these different points of view, and we see in intricate detail the work done by Mr. Lincoln and his team (several of whom are exceedingly grudging temporary allies) to, step by tiny step, move the pieces into place in their attempt to pass this momentous piece of legislation.  This The West Wing: 1865, and I don’t mean that to belittle the film in any way but rather as a huge compliment.  Lincoln is exciting and humorous and tragic, filled with colorful figures and eager to show the audience the nuts and bolts of our political process, warts and all.

All of this, of course, is anchored and elevated (if I may mix my metaphors) by the astonishing performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.  I cannot believe this is the … [continued]

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Ranking the Films of Steven Spielberg

November 19th, 2012

So a few days ago, my good buddy Ethan L. e-mailed me Vulture’s ranking of all 28 films directed by Steven Spielberg.  The list was created, of course, in honor of the release of his new film Lincoln (which I have not yet seen, but desperately hope to get to soon!).

Vulture’s list is fun to read, but it’s total lunacy.

They were 100% correct in identifying Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as Mr. Spielberg’s worst film.  And I was pleased to see some love shown to Empire of the Sun, a woefully underrated flick.

But the second-worst Spielberg film should without question have been AI: Artificial Intelligence. That film is dreadful, FAR worse than those other films listed down at the bottom.

The Adventures of Tintin is an amazing film and the Vulture authors are foolish for listing it as one of Spielberg’s worst films.

I have never heard of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade being compared with Star Trek IV, but OK, I’ll go with that!  I do like both films.  Last Crusade is better than Temple of Doom, though, in my opinion.

They think A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is better than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade??? MADNESS!!!

Minority Report and War of the Worlds — two films that should be at the BOTTOM of the list — are ranked higher than two Indy films???  Higher than Jurassic Park??? Higher than Close Encounters of the Third Kind (one of Mr. Spielberg’s absolute best films, definitely in his top five)?????  ABSOLUTE MADNESS!!!

OK, without taking too much time to over-think this, here’s my list, best to worst:

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (click here for my review)

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

3. Jaws (click here for my review)

4. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

5. Saving Private Ryan

6. Schindler’s List

7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (click here for my review)

8. Jurassic Park (click here for my review)

9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (click here for my review)

10. Munich (click here for my review)

11. Empire of the Sun (click here for my review)

12. The Adventures of Tintin (click here for my review)

13. Amistad (click here for my review)

14. Catch Me If You Can (click here for my review)

15. The Color Purple (click here for my review)

16. War Horse (click here for my review)

17. The Terminal (click here for my review)

18. War of the Worlds (click here for [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Jaws (1975)

I’ve picked up a few of Universal’s gorgeous 100 Year Anniversary editions of their most classic films, including Born on the Fourth of July (click here for my review), The Deer Hunter (click here for my review), and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.

What can I possibly write about Jaws that hasn’t already been written?  Its reputation as a masterpiece is solidly deserved, and the film really hasn’t aged a day.  Of course the film is dazzling on blu-ray, crisp and clean.  But more than that, I can’t really point to a single moment in the movie that seems obviously fake or phony.  The visual effects hold up because, unlike many modern blockbusters, Jaws isn’t a film about visual effects.  As the often-told stories go, the mechanical shark Mr. Spielberg had on-site hardly ever worked, forcing the young director to find ingenious ways to shoot around the fake shark and find ways to depict the creature without our actually seeing it (resulting in, for example, the brilliant use of the yellow barrels as a way to suggest the shark’s menacing presence without actually showing it) and to build suspense and horror based on NOT seeing the shark.

But even more than that, Jaws holds up because, visual effects or no visual effects, there is far more to the film (whose screenplay was written by Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Peter Benchley) than just the shark.  The film isn’t about the shark.  It’s about characters.  It’s the characters who leave the biggest impression on the viewer — Chief Brody, Hooper, and Quint — not the shark.

Jaws has an interesting structure.  The film is basically divided into two distinct halves.  The first half is set on land, as Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) gradually grows more and more concerned about the shark he believes is menacing the small, picturesque community of Amity Island, where he is the new Chief of Police.  The second half of the film is an entirely different movie, set on board Quint’s raggedy old ship, the Orca, as Brody, Hooper, and Quint set out to chase down and kill the shark.  The brilliance of the film — and, I think, a critical component to its success — is that both halves work equally well.  I love the first half, particularly for its exploration of the many colorful characters of Amity island.  I love the gradual way that we get inside Chief Brody’s head, I love the dynamic between Brody and his wife (Lorraine Gary) and son, I love every moment with Amity’s mayor (played so wonderfully by Murray Hamilton) and the other government officials, I love it all and I don’t want the film … [continued]

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Did you enjoy the new Hobbit trailer I posted last week?  If you haven’t seen them, here are all of the other alternate endings to that trailer.

Uh oh.  Looks like Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt has dropped out of work on the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, apparently because Fox is rushing the film to meet the release date the studio had chosen.  This is not a good sign.

This past weekend, on the eve of Treme’s season 3 premiere came the good news/bad news that HBO had renewed the show for a fourth and final season (four seasons was apparently David Simon’s ideal length for the run of the show), albeit a shortened season.  The exact length of this shortened fourth season, what Mr. Simon refers to as “season 3.5,” is TBD.  I’m bummed the show couldn’t swing a full final season, but I’m thrilled that HBO is at least giving Mr. Simon and his team some episodes to bring their television masterpiece to a conclusion of their choosing.

Well,  now I know why Robot Chicken did a DC Comics special this year, rather than a fourth Star Wars one.  It’s because Seth Green and many of the rest of the Robot Chicken gang are working on a whole new Star Wars parody show, Star Wars Detours. This first trailer is funny, though I’m not sure why this is a whole new show and not just more Robot Chicken…

Speaking of Star Wars, it looks like Episode II and Episode III will be getting a 3-D theatrical re-release in 2013.  I sat out the Episode I re-release (I must admit I was a little tempted, but that film is just so bad I couldn’t see spending the money, even though I was curious about the look of the 3-D), and I’m not that much more interested in seeing Episode II. But seeing Episode III back on the big screen, and in 3-D?  That just might have my ticket.  But I am really waiting to see if they re-release the Original Trilogy.  Any excuse to see those films on the big screen again is exciting for me, no matter how much new digital fiddling Mr. Lucas and his minions have done…

This is an interesting list of the Top 5 Best-Acted Moments in a Steven Spielberg Film.  I definitely agree with numbers 5, 4, and 1, not so sure about 3 and 2…

I was already interested in Judd Apatow’s new film, This is 40, and this interview with Robert Smigel and Albert Brooks, both of whom are appearing in the film, has … [continued]

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The Complete Indiana Jones Adventures Back on the Big Screen: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!

September 21st, 2012
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This past weekend I was thrilled to have gotten to see the Complete Indiana Jones Adventures (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — I left before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) back on the big screen!  On Monday I wrote about Raiders of the Lost Ark, and on Wednesday I discussed The Temple of Doom, now it’s time to dive into Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

I think the success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was critical to the enduring life of the Indiana Jones film series.  Raiders of the Lost Ark was an extraordinary achievement and a huge critical and commercial success back in 1981, and it still stands as one of the very best movies ever made.  But The Temple of Doom, while undeniably a great movie, felt to many (at the time, and still today) as something of a mis-step for the series.  Many of the characters and stylistic trappings of Raiders were dropped in favor of a story that was very dark and horrifying.

The genius of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the way it course-corrects the series back to a path that seems more in line with the first film, bringing back many of the characters and elements that fans loved in Raiders while also telling a new and different story.  I think for those reasons, Last Crusade is one of the very best movie sequels that I can think of.

I adore the way that, after the opening sequence (which I’ll get to in a moment), the beginning of Last Crusade is structured to echo Raiders. We again see Indy teaching an archaeology class, we again see all of his female students dreamily looking up at him, and we again see Marcus Brody walking into the class with news for Indy.  It gives the trilogy a nicely bookended feel, helping the saga to feel like a complete, unified story.  It also puts the viewer on nicely comfortable, familiar ground as we begin the third installment.

There are two key creative choices that really help The Last Crusade succeed as well as it does.  The first is the choice of macguffin.  After having Indy pursue a sacred ancient artifact from Judaism in Raiders, it feels right that now in Last Crusade he should pursue a sacred ancient artifact from Christianity.  The Holy Grail is a suitably important and suitably mysterious object to serve as a worthy goal for Indy.  One of many reasons why Raiders and Last Crusade are by far the two strongest Indy films is in … [continued]

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The Complete Indiana Jones Adventures Back on the Big Screen: The Temple of Doom!

September 19th, 2012
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On Monday I wrote about how amazing it was to watch the Complete Indiana Jones Adventures (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — I left before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) back on the big screen!  On Monday I wrote about Raiders, now it’s time to dive into Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The first thing we need to notice is that I think Temple of Doom is the first instance of George Lucas’ proclivity for giving terrible, terrible titles to his films.  For some reason, Temple of Doom has never bothered me as a title the way some of Lucas’ later titles (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) have.  Maybe that’s just because I grew up with Temple of Doom — it’s one of those things that I just never really thought about — the movie was called Temple of Doom and that was that.  But I think it’s worth noting here.  I am all for the fun of a pulpy title, but Temple of Doom is a bit too simplistic for me.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is often-maligned and I do tend to agree it’s the weakest of the original three Indy films.   (Though the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skullclick here for my review of that abomination — made The Temple of Doom look like Citizen Kane.) But, though it’s not as 100% successful as Raiders or Last Crusade, I still think Temple of Doom is a pretty terrific film.

Watching all three films back to back drives home just how different Temple of Doom is from Raiders and Last Crusade, and that is most likely why it doesn’t sit as well with some audiences.  Indy’s familiar supporting characters are all absent in Doom. There’s no Sallah, there’s no Marcus (both of whom would return for Last Crusade) and there’s no Marion.

The palette of the film is very different.  Raiders and Last Crusade are both fairly brightly colored films.  But Temple of Doom is literally much darker, with the screen dominated by black and red pretty much throughout.

The Temple of Doom is also much darker, thematically, than either Raiders or Last Crusade. This is a pretty brutally violent film, and in particular there is some pretty horrifying violence against children.  Mostly it is implied, but there are still some on-screen sequences of children getting beaten and whipped in the mines underneath Pankot Palace that are pretty shocking.  What particularly struck me was the … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys The Complete Indiana Jones Adventures, Back on the Big Screen!

September 16th, 2012
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I had a tremendous time this past weekend enjoying The Complete Indiana Jones Adventures, back on the big screen!  One of my local movie theatres was participating in the national event, screening all four Indiana Jones films back-to-back-t0-back-to-back: Raiders of the Lost Ark (please note that, contrary to what the poster for this event said, the title of this film is NOT Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Naturally, I left before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so I consider that a moral victory.

What extraordinary fun it was to watch the three great Indiana Jones films back on the big screen!  I am a huge fan of the idea of studios giving their great classic films periodic big-screen releases (I had such fun last year when Ghostbusters returned to theatres for a few nights, and also at Universal’s 25th anniversary big-screen re-release of Back to the Future!), and I really wish more studios would get into this business.  How could they lose?  I know it costs money to restore these films, to make prints, and to advertise, but it’s hard for me to imagine that people wouldn’t eat up the chance to occasionally see a classic film that they love back on the big screen, the way it was meant to be seen.

Watching Raiders through Last Crusade only reinforced what I already knew, that all three films (even the weaker Temple of Doom) are extraordinary achievements, true cinema classics.

Raiders of the Lost Ark — How could anyone argue that this is not one of the most perfect films ever made??  The story unfolds like perfect clockwork, with each scene leading into the next, action sequence after escalating action sequence, as the story builds to its climax.  There is no fat on this film — name one scene in the movie that doesn’t HAVE to be there.  The stakes are clearly drawn, the characters are sketched with impeccably economy.  (We learn about Indy and Marion etc. WHILE they are doing/saying things essential to the plot.  The movie doesn’t grind to a halt just so we can get a certain character beat or learn a bit of back-story.  It all flows perfectly together.)

The casting is perfection.  Obviously, Harrison Ford was born to play this role (even more than Han Solo, in my opinion).  He creates a human-sized super-hero the likes of which we have never seen since.  Yes, Indy can do extraordinary things like getting dragged under and then behind a truck before pulling himself back on board, but … [continued]

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The Top 15 Movies of 2011 — Part Three!

Click here for part one of my Top 15 Movies of 2011 list, numbers fifteen through eleven, and here for part two, featuring numbers ten through six. Buckle up, now, as it’s time for the home stretch, the best of the best (at least in my humble opinion) of 2011!

5.  Young Adult Juno writer and director Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman re-team for a deliciously dark comedy about a twisted, pretty-much irredeemably terrible young woman named Mavis Gary (a magnificent Charlize Theron) who returns to the small hometown she left years before, in an attempt to win back her old jock boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). He’s married with a young baby, but so what?  During her week back in town, Mavis bumps into another high school classmate, the nerdy, disabled Matt (Patton Oswalt). The two strike up a weird sort-of friendship, and the way the arc of that pairing avoids any of the typical movie cliche ways that those sorts of relationships usually unfold on-screen is only one way in which this movie is unremittingly awesome.  The running gag about the way Mavis wakes up each morning, the terrific chemistry between Ms. Theron and Mr. Oswalt, and that pitch-perfect ending are just a few others.  A phenomenal film.  (Click here for my full review.)

4.   The Adventures of TintinShould anyone be surprised that the team-up of cinematic titans Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson produced gold?  This deliriously joyful, madcap adventure is non-stop pulpy fun from start-to-finish.  The film just zips on by, one incredible sequence after another, with Mr. Spielberg showing us once again how he is an absolute master at staging an action scene and assembling a crowd-pleasing adventure film.  The animation is gorgeous, the voice-work is impeccable (highlighted by another brilliant performance by the great Andy Serkis — I also praised his work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, when I wrote about that film earlier on this list), and when the closing credits ran I couldn’t believe the film was over already.  This one is going to get a lot of play in my household in the coming years, of that I have no doubt.  I can’t wait for the sequel, in which Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Jackson will apparently switch roles (so that Mr. Spielberg will produce the film and Mr. Jackson will direct).  (Click here for my full review.)

3.  BridesmaidsKirsten Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo, working with brilliant comedy director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks of Geeks), producer Judd Apatow, and a tremendous cast of women, hit every note exactly perfectly in this comedic home-run.  The film is … [continued]

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A Steven Spielberg Double-Feature Part II — War Horse

And now for the second-half of my Steven Spielberg double-feature — War Horse. (Click here for my review of The Adventures of Tintin.)

When I first saw the trailer for War Horse, I dismissed it almost immediately.  Something about the swelling music and the dramatic shots edited together rubbed me the wrong way, as if the trailer was screaming for us to understand that THIS IS A SERIOUS (read: Oscar-bait) FILM!!  Equally unappealing to me was that, on the other hand, what appeared to be a story about the adventures of a miraculous horse seemed to be to be incredibly silly and childish.  If the words “a Steven Spielberg film” hadn’t been in there, I would have immediately resolved not to see the film.

But there’s just no way that I can miss seeing a new film by Steven Spielberg on the big screen, and I’m glad that I didn’t write this film off because War Horse, while not a masterpiece, is a very solid film and a much different type of story than I was expecting.

The weakest part of the film is the first thirty minutes or so.  That’s the part of the film that is most like what I feared the movie would be.  A boy forms a miraculous bond with a beautiful horse, and then that amazing horse plows the field that everyone declared was impossible to plow.  Now, I’m no farmer, but the film presents us with two pieces of information that every character accepts as fact:  that, a) the horse Joey is far too small to be a plow horse of any kind, and that b) the rocky field is considered to be un-plowable by even the biggest, best plow-horse.  So, of course, Joey is able to plow the field, which brings us right into fantasy-land.  I was worried.

But then World War I breaks out, and the boy, Albert, loses his horse to a young man going off to war, and the film really begins.  I was worried that War Horse was going to be the adventures of this amazing horse at war.  Luckily, though, with one small exception (the scene in which it seems that Joey volunteers to pull the heavy artillery, in order to spare another, injured horse), the film is not about the heroic actions of an anthropomorphized heroic horse.  Rather, Joey is the vehicle for telling a series of different vignettes about World War I.  As Joey passes from owner to owner, and the war progresses, we meet various different characters on all sides of the conflict (British, French, and German) and so are presented with stories covering a wide range of the spectrum of experiences … [continued]

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A Steven Spielberg Double-Feature Part I — The Adventures of Tintin

Steven Spielberg has only directed one film since Munich (click here for my review) in 2005, and that was the tragically disappointing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008 (which I prefer to pretend never happened).  That’s a long dry spell for one of the masters of modern cinema.  Luckily for us all, Mr. Spielberg burst back onto cinema screens in a big way, late last month, with the release of not one, but TWO new films, released just three days apart from one another: The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. I saw them both during a terrifically fun late-night double-feature.  I’ll be back here soon with my thoughts on War Horse — for now, let’s dive into The Adventures of Tintin.

The film is, of course, based on the long-running French-language comic-book series written and illustrated by the Belgian artist Hergé.  It draws upon material from several of the Tintin books, including The Secret of the Unicorn (which was, at one point, the sub-title for this film — I’m not certain when that was dropped), The Crab with the Golden Claws, and Red Rackham’s Treasure. Tintin, Boy Reporter, purchases a model of a three-masted sailing ship, The Unicorn, at an outdoor market and immediately finds himself embroiled in a globe-trotting adventure involving various parties’ search for the wreck of the actual ship The Unicorn, which is rumored to contain an enormous treasure.

The film is magnificent, a viscerally entertaining romp all the way through.  When the film ended and the lights went up, I couldn’t believe it was over — the time had passed so quickly.  I’ve heard people comparing The Adventures of Tintin in tone to Raiders of the Lost Ark. While Tintin doesn’t equal that masterpiece, there certainly are similarities in terms of the film’s pulp-inspired adventurous spirit, and the rapid pace in which we (and the hero character) are thrown from one exciting action-sequence into the next.

Actually, what the Adventures of Tintin reminds me of, even more than Raiders, is the prologue to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, depicting one of young Indy (played by River Phoenix)’s adventures.  Not only is our protagonist a fairly young boy who is surprisingly tough and clever for his age, but there’s a delicate balance between intense action that features peril for our hero and an almost slapstick comedic sensibility.

That’s a tough balance to find, but with Steven Spielberg’s hand at the helm (not to mention producer Peter Jackson’s), it’s a balance that The Adventures of Tintin makes look effortless.  There are so many thrilling sequences that stick out in my mind, from the film.  There are the … [continued]

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My friend Rabbi Ethan Linden has written a wonderful article on his blog about HBO’s recently-concluded Game of Thrones mini-series (which I LOVED) and some broader thoughts about the fantasy and sci-fi genres.  Here’s an excerpt:

People love to make fun of the superhero comic book genre, the fantasy genre, and the science fiction genre, both in movies and in books.  This is unfortunate, because all three of these types of fiction provide some the most fertile ground for the creation of words that, though different from our own in important ways, nonetheless allow us to reflect on the realities of our customs, cultures and institutions.  For some reason, these three genres are often considered to be “nerdy” or “dorky” and the typical mainstream reviewed will often make a snide remark about the intended audience for these types of fictions before launching into a review of the actual material in front of them.  (Take a look at this New York Times review of the TV series for a prime example.)  That these genres are taken seriously is a shame, because great fantasy, science fiction and superhero stories can be among the best ways we have of thinking deeply about who we are.

You can read the rest of Rabbi Linden’s terrific post here.

This is a superlative article, over at Hitfix.com, listing 25 Movie Sequels That Hollywood Should Have Made.  The list is spot-on, with excellent choices both common (Serenity) and obscure (Devil With a Blue Dress).  Warning: reading this will make you a little sad that sequels to these films do not exist, while X-Men Origins: Wolverine does.

Check out this great new trailer for the adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  Looks phenomenal.

Speaking of trailers, Steven Spielberg has finally released a new film, his first since Munich in 2005!  (What’s that, you say?  He directed an Indiana Jones film in 2008?  No, no, you’re wrong, there’s no way Mr. Spielberg could have had anything to do with that train-wreck.)  Anyways, take a look at the trailer for War Horse.

Cars 2 didn’t really interest me, but I’m looking forward to the next Pixar film:  Brave.

Here’s a look at the latest Mission Impossible film: Ghost Protocol.  None of the first three Mission Impossible films have been as great as I’ve wanted them to be, but I’ve enjoyed them all, so I’d be excited for this fourth installment even if it wasn’t Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant)’s live-action directorial debut.

Here at last is our first teaser trailer for John Carter (Of Mars).  Is it possible this is going to be good?  … [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: Munich (2005)

I’m here at last with the long-delayed final installment of my Spielberg in the Aughts series with a look at Mr. Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich. This was pretty much the only Spielberg film from the last decade-and-a-half that I’d unabashedly loved when I first saw it in theatres, and I’m pleased that I found the film to be just as strong when re-watching it last month.

In September, 1972, eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich were held hostage and eventually murdered by members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group.  Following those terrible events, the film postulates that an Israeli Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana) is asked to lead a small, secret group of Israeli agents assigned to hunt down and assassinate the men who the Israelis hold responsible for the Black September plot.

I think that Munich is one of, if not the most, mature and emotionally devastating films that Steven Spielberg has ever made.  There’s no question that Mr. Spielberg is one of our preeminent masters of the pop crowd-pleasing adventure film, and he’s also shown great skill at tackling more serious topics in films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, and more.  In all of those films, though, the lines between good and evil were very clearly drawn.  What fascinates me about Munich, and what gives the film a power equal to if not surpassing those films I just named, is that this story is all about shades of gray.  There are no clearly defined heroes or villains in this film, and while one might enter the film with pre-established sympathies for either the Israeli or the Palestinian side in these events, the film wisely avoids painting either side as entirely heroic or entirely villainous.

As Avner and his team set about tracking down and killing their assigned targets, we see not only how Avner and his men (who each begin the assignment with varying degrees of idealism and toughness) begin to feel the mental and moral effects of their bloody work, but also how their actions — however justified they (and some audience members) might feel them to be — serve to extend the cycle of violence.  When Avner’s team kills a target, it’s not long before another terrorist group strikes back against Israeli targets, and so on and so forth.

Note that the film’s making a point about how violence serves only to beget violence is a subtly — but critically — different message than saying that the actions of this Israeli team are entirely without justification.  I don’t think the film gives that message at all.  I remember reading some criticisms of this film, from Jewish … [continued]

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The Worst Movie Endings of All Time

A few days ago, Devin Faraci wrote a great piece over on Badassdigest.com (a really phenomenal site that I can’t recommend highly enough) about the terrible ending of the classic Bill Murray film, Stripes.

Mr. Faraci is right on the nose — the last 30 or so minutes of Stripes are really quite terrible.  Now, I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of the first two-thirds of Stripes, either.  I think I saw the film way too late in life to really connect with it the way other children of the eighties did.  Despite my long-held love for Bill Murray’s movies of the 1980’s (epitomized by my near fanatical worship of Ghostbusters), somehow I missed Stripes throughout my childhood — I only finally saw it when I was in college, and by then I just didn’t find it all that funny.

But Mr. Faraci’s article got me thinking about other good films undone by their endings… and wondering if there any films, as Mr. Faraci asks, whose first two-thirds are so good that I forgive their weak ending?

(Let me state that, obviously, SPOILERS LIE AHEAD for the films under discussion!!)

Let’s begin with some films that start off strong but are, in my opinion, completely ruined by their terrible endings:

No Country for Old Men — I was totally engrossed in this tense, beautiful film for much of its run-time, but the ending totally sunk my enjoyment.  After following the character of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) throughout the film, and totally investing in him, I couldn’t believe how that character was completely abandoned and ignored in the final few minutes of the movie.  The film’s title — No Country for Old Men — and the way the end of the film focuses on Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) indicates to me that the Coen Brothers intended the film to be the Sheriff’s story, not Llewelyn’s.  But the movie never earns that.  It never shows us the message given by its title, and Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue in the last scene.  What was it about the death of Llewelyn Moss that so affected Sheriff Bell?  For a man who had clearly been involved in other cases that involved murder and death, what was it about this particular event that shook the Sheriff so deeply?  We’re never told, and ultimately, as a viewer, I didn’t care too much about Sheriff Bell — I was invested in Llewelyn!  And having the end of his story be cut off by the finale really disappointed me.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence — Not that the first two-thirds of this film were so perfect to begin with, but had the movie ended … [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: War of the Worlds (2005)

In 2005 Steven Spielberg returned to sci-fi with his version of H. G. Wells’ famous story from 1898, War of the Worlds.

Not surprisingly, rather than being a period piece, Mr. Spielberg set his adaptation in the present day.  Tom Cruise reunited with Spielberg to star as Ray Ferrier, an affable but cocky guy separated from his wife (played by the beautiful Miranda Otto, who played Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings).  When she and her new husband go away for the weekend, Ray has to look after their two children: Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning).  Despite his efforts, he finds that he has trouble connecting to either one of his kids.  Then aliens attack.

Mr. Spielberg, along with writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp, have chosen to take us through the story of an alien apocalypse through the eyes of these three “every-person” characters.  We witness the horrific events of the invasion through their eyes, as they struggle to survive.  While that’s not exactly a ground-breaking choice, I think it’s an effective way to structure the film.  We don’t have a sense, until the very end, of what exactly is happening — who the invaders are, what they want, or what the governments of the world are doing to fight back — and that only adds to the tension and terror of the film.  Ray and his kids are swept up in cataclysmic phenomena, and so are we as the audience.

There are some extraordinary visual effects sequences in War of the Worlds.  This big-budget sci-fi film was clearly made by a director who is a master of his craft, ably assisted by a huge assortment of talented artists, designers, and visual effects wizards.  Ray’s initial encounter with a tripod — and his frantic flight away from it while the monstrosity tears across city blocks and vaporizes other terrified civilians — is a tour de force sequence that make clear that Spielberg & co. meant business with this story.  The tripods’ attack on the ferry, the battle on the hilltop towards the end of the film… these are extarordinarily well-realized sequences, dark and violent and intense.

I love that, in many respects, Steven Spielberg chose to make a much grimmer film than is his usual practice.  There’s not a lot of fun to be had in War of the Worlds, nor are there many rah-rah crowd-cheering action moments (of the type found in, say, Independence Day).

But somehow, War of the Worlds still leaves me a bit cold.  I can’t say it’s a movie that I can get too excited about.  Is the problem that the film is TOO grim?  Or … [continued]

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Spielberg In The Aughts: The Terminal (2004)

You might have thought that Tom Hanks had a crazy accent in Catch Me If You Can, but that was merely a prelude to the ludicrously silly sort-of-Slovic voice that Mr. Hanks puts on for his role as Viktor Novorski in Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film, The Terminal.

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) has just arrived to New York City from the Eastern European country of Madeupistan.  Er, excuse me, Krakozia.  Unfortunately, his country undergoes a military coup while Navorski is in the air.  By the time he arrives in New York City, all relations between the United States and Krakozia have been severed, and due to a variety of legal permutations, Mr. Navorski is unable to enter the U.S. but is similarly unable to return to Krakozia.  In short, he finds himself stuck, indefinitely, in the airport.

Let the comic hijinks commence!

I commented in my review of Catch Me If You Can on my feeling, when I first saw the film back in 2002, that it was a surprisingly slight film for Mr. Spielberg to make.  That probably caused me to dismiss the film a little too quickly at the time.  Well, if Catch Me If You Can is slight, then The Terminal is practically nonexistent.

That sounds harsh, which isn’t my intention.  There’s certainly some fun to be had in The Terminal. It’s just that while Catch Me If You Can was a light, fun film, it did have a pretty dramatic emotional core.  The Terminal sort-of shoots for that as well, but there’s just not much there.  What’s left is a fun, frothy film, but one without a whole heck of a lot to say.

(My wife thought that Viktor’s predicament — in which he is forced to go to some extreme lengths in order to adapt to survive the stranded situation in which he finds himself — reminded her of Mr. Hanks’ role in Cast Away.  I’d never thought of The Terminal in that way, but she’s right!  The difference, of course, is that The Terminal doesn’t have any of the dramatic underpinnings of Cast Away.  That’s putting it mildly!)

The Terminal has a fairly episodic structure.  Through a variety of vignettes, we see Viktor adapt to his crazy situation and somehow make for himself a remarkably pleasant life living in the airport.  He gradually bonds with several of the other off-beat but kind airport employees — played by Chi McBride (Boston Public), Diego Luna (Y tu mama tambien, Milk), Gupta Rajan (just as entertaining here as he was in The Royal Tenenbaums), and a pre-Star Trek Zoe Saldana (and, by the way, it’s a riot to … [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: Catch Me If You Can (2002)

When I began this project of rewatching the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of films directed by Steven Spielberg, I was hoping that I’d discover (or rediscover) some great films that I had perhaps dismissed too easily when I originally saw them in theatres.  I wondered if watching the films now, years later and separated from the hype and expectations that came with their original theatrical releases, would allow me to appreciate them more and perhaps cause me to re-evaluate my original opinions.

So far, though, that hasn’t happened.  I’ve enjoyed (for the most part), re-watching The Lost World, Amistad, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Minority Report, but for all four films my opinions have remained almost exactly what they were when I first saw them.  (In a nutshell: mediocre, good, horrible, mediocre.)  But then, this week, I arrived at Catch Me If You Can.  I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this flick!

Based on the autobiography of Frank Abergnale, Jr. (and co-written by Stan Redding), Catch Me If You Can tells the story of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young man who, for years, successfully conned people into thinking he was an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, and who forged millions of dollars worth of checks.

Mr. Spielberg skillfully strikes a deft balance with the tone of the film.  There are some great moments of humor to be found in the tale (I particularly loved Hanratty’s knock-knock joke), and over-all the film has a fun, light tone.  And yet, at its core, Catch Me If You Can is really a profoundly sad story.  To me, the relationship between Frank and his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) is the back-bone of the film, and it is heartbreaking.  In Frank Jr. we see a young man who, for all of his experiences, is still basically a child, looking for his father’s approval and desperately hoping to find a way to return his life to his idealized vision of how things used to be — with him, his father, and his mother all living happily together in a nice suburban house.  Frank Sr., meanwhile, has seen his business slowly fail (in the film we see him continually dogged by the IRS, and one assumes, despite Frank Sr.’s repeated claims, that this is not without good reason) and his wife leave him, but he is too proud to admit when he needs help and too angry at the government (and the society that allowed him to fail) to push his son to stop the increasingly elaborate con that he’s spinning.

Mr. Walken’s unique line-delivery can make him a ripe subject for parody.  For me, his one scene in Pulp [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: Minority Report (2002)

When I first saw Steven Spielberg’s film  Minority Report in theatres back in 2002 (the only time I’d seen the film until I watched it again on DVD last week), I remember it becoming startlingly clear to me that the man has trouble with the endings of his films.

I recognize that the present-day epilogues to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are overloaded with schmaltz and are completely unnecessary to the story, but I’ve never been bothered by those endings (the way others have been, most famously William Goldman, who eviscerated Saving Private Ryan in his famous review).  I was so emotionally engaged with the stories and characters in both of those films that I was not bothered with their endings (even though the logical part of my brain did realize that Mr. Spielberg was laying the emotion on a bit thickly).  But as I wrote last week, I thought the final 25 minutes of A.I. were abominable and possibly the worst 25 minutes Steven Spielberg had ever put to film.  The ending of Minority Report isn’t quite at that level of jaw-dropping terribleness, but I think the first hour and 45 minutes of the film are a very solid, dark sci-fi thriller that is completely undone by the last 35 minutes or so.

At first, Minority Report kept me very engaged.  It’s easy and popular to hate on Tom Cruise these days, but I think he’s a far better actor than he gets credit for, and he’s an engaging lead here.  Mr. Cruise plays the generically-named Tom Anderton, the top-cop at the new Pre-Crime division that has been set up in Washington, DC.  Using three “pre-cogs” (psychics kept under sedation), the Pre-Crime team are able to intercept murders before they happen.  After six years of operation, in which the team has virtually eliminated homicides in DC, a national referendum has been set to determine whether Pre-Crime divisions will be set up in other cities across the U.S.  In advance of this, John and his team are under investigation by Federal Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell).  Everything goes to hell when the psychics predict that John himself is about to commit a homicide.  He goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence, but finds himself setting in motion events that might undermine the legitimacy of the entire Pre-Crime unit.

For that first hour and 45 minutes, Minority Report is a solid, gritty little film.  It goes to some surprisingly grim places.  There’s an early scene in which we learn that apparent super-cop John Anderton is actually a rather broken man.  With the rain falling outside, John sits in the dark in his cluttered apartment, watching holographic projections … [continued]

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“No force on Earth or Heaven could get me on that island” — Josh takes a look back at Jurassic Park III

After re-watching Jurassic Park (click here for my review) and The Lost World (click here for my review) last month (as part of my look back at the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of films directed by Steven Spielberg) I figured, what the heck, why not take another look at Jurassic Park III (executive produced by Mr. Spielberg and directed by Joe Johnston).

While not as bad as I’d remembered, like The Lost World this third Jurassic Park film is a pale reflection of the first one.

In some respects, I think I like Jurassic Park III better than the second installment.  Whereas The Lost World was slow and rambling — with a story that was all over the place — Jurassic Park III has a much leaner, meaner narrative: a group of people crash on the island and must find a way to survive long enough to reach the coast where rescue hopefully awaits.  That’s a simple hook, and I think it serves the film well.  The story gets going quickly, and from there moves right along like gangbusters straight through to the end.  There’s an intensity and sense of danger that I felt the second film was completely missing.

There are also some terrific action set-pieces.  Here is where Joe Johnston’s background in the world of visual effects serves him well.  We finally get to see some Pterodactyls (teased by the first two films), and they’re worth the wait — the whole sequence in the Pterodactyl cage is a tense, exciting adventure.  I also love the Spinosaur/T-Rex fight early in the film (shades of the King Kong/T-Rex fight, I felt, but that amused me rather than annoying me), as well as the Spinosaur attack on the river, in the rain, that takes place late in the film.

Whereas The Lost World chose — mistakenly, I think — to focus entirely on Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm, this third film wisely returns the focus to Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant.  I love Mr. Neill in this role, and it’s great to see him back front-and-center in this film.

Unfortunately, despite those strengths, there’s also quite a lot of weaknesses to Jurassic Park III, things that keep the film squarely mediocre in my mind.

First of all, other than Sam Neill, I think the film’s ensemble is pretty weak.  One of the key components to the first film’s success was how many great characters there were in the piece — and the great actors chosen to portray them.  But like The Lost World, while the lead character in Jurassic Park III is interesting and sympathetic, the rest of the ensemble is flat.  I love William … [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Now that we’ve arrived at 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, I can finally start calling this series looking back at the recent films of Steven Spielberg by the original title I’d thought up: “Spielberg in the Aughts.”  (My first thought, last month, was that I’d look back at the last decade of Mr. Spielberg’s films, none of which I’d ever revisited after seeing them in theatres — but then I realized there were several of his films from the ’90s that I wanted to revisit, too, while I was at it!  Click here for my review of Jurassic Park, here for my review of The Lost World, and here for my review of Amistad.) 

I hated A.I.: Artificial Intelligence when I saw it in theatres.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I thought the first three-fourths of the movie — right up to the point when Haley Joel Osment’s David finds himself trapped underwater staring at the Blue Fairy but unable to reach her — was a solid if somewhat dour sci-fi film.  But then the movie kept going.  I felt those last 25 minutes-or-so were the worst 25 minutes that Steven Spielberg had ever committed to film.  Those 25 minutes were so bad that, for me, they entirely destroyed the film.

So what did I think, a decade later?

Well, after nearly ten years of having the thought in my head that the final 25 minutes of A.I. were the worst 25 minutes of film that Steven Spielberg had ever shot, those 25 minutes had been quite built up in my mind, so not surprisingly they didn’t quite live up to the heights of awfulness that I had remembered.  Also, after having seen the entirety of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I can no longer state with certainty that the end of A.I. represents the worst 25 minutes that Steven Spielberg has ever put on film. 

But I will say that I still thought the ending was entirely awful on almost every level.

The basic plot of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was developed, over many years, by Stanley Kubrick.  As the story goes, Mr. Kubrick worked on the film for years — and often discussed the project with his friend Steven Spielberg — but for a variety of reasons never actually made the movie.  Following his death, Mr. Spielberg got involved with the project in an attempt to realize this unfinished work that Mr. Kubrick had begun.

As a movie-fan back in 2001, I was ecstatic that Steven Spielberg (the man who made E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) was returning, at long-last, to sci-fi.  I was intrigued … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Amistad (1997)

My revisitation of the last decade-and-a-half of the films of Steven Spielberg continues!  I’ve already looked at Jurassic Park and The Lost World, which brings me now to 1997’s Amistad.

In an attempt to recapture the magic of 1993 (in which he released two films in a single year, the dramatic historical film Schindler’s List as well as the crowd-pleasing action spectacle Jurassic Park), in 1997 Mr. Spielberg released both the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World as well as the historical epic Amistad.

In 1839 a group of African slaves broke free aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad and killed most of the crew.  When they were intercepted by an American naval vessel, the slaves were imprisoned and brought to trial.  A group of abolitionists became aware of the case, and hired a young, inexperienced lawyer named Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to take the case.  Mr. Baldwin was forced to retry the case multiple times, as the politics of a nation heading towards Civil War bestowed upon this small case an enormous weight in the potential fate of the nation.  Ultimately, the case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) assisted Mr. Baldwin in arguing for the release of the Amistad slaves.

As is often the case, Mr. Spielberg assembled a talented group of actors to embody the characters in the film.  Mr. McConaughey does a fine job as the jovial, slightly naive lawyer Baldwin.  The role doesn’t feel like much of a stretch for him (particularly after playing a lawyer the year before as the lead in 1996’s A Time to Kill), but he reins in some of his more over-the-top mannersisms which allows him to fit well into this historical drama.  Fresh off of The Lost Word, Pete Postlewaite pops up again as an equally unlikable fellow — this time, he’s the lawyer assigned to prosecute the Amistad case.  Stellan Skarsgard and Morgan Freeman play the abolitionists who are drawn to help the Amistad slaves.  Though neither has much to do in the film, both make the most of their small parts.  Other familiar, talented members of the cast include Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin van Buren, David Paymer (The Larry Sanders Show, State and Main) as Secretary Forsythe, Xander Berkeley (24) as the presidential advisor Hammond, Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) as Queen Isabella, and I was pleasantly surprised that I had forgotten that Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Spartan) has a fairly substantial role as the translator who assists Mr. Baldwin in communicating with the Amistad slaves.

But the two standouts of Amistad are Djimon Hounsou as … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Lost World (1997)

Last week I began my look back at the last decade-and-a-half of Steven Spielberg films with Jurassic Park.  Now my project to revisit all of the films that Mr. Spielberg has made since 1993 — films that, with the exception of Saving Private Ryan, I have only seen once — continues with Mr. Spielberg’s 1997 Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World.  (I’ll be calling this series Spielberg in the Aughts, but I can’t really use that title for a film made in 1997…!)

I remember being very disappointed with this film when I saw it back in 1997.  It was the first time I had gone to see a Steven Spielberg film in theatres and come out disappointed.  (But not the last…)  So when I watched this film on DVD, I was curious to see if I liked it any more now, so many years later and divorced from all the hype of the time.

In a word: no.

I will say that The Lost World looks great.  Mr. Spielberg and his frequent collaborator, genius-level cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, have darkened their palette this time out.  Whereas the first Jurassic Park was quite bright for much of it’s run-time, The Lost World has a much more shadowy look to it, and that is effective at adding a layer of spookiness and mystery to the proceedings.  The dinosaur CGI effects still look pretty great.  One of the few scenes that takes place in bright daylight is the introduction to Pete Postlewaite’s great white hunter Roland Dembo and his team, as they attempt to capture a number of dinosaurs in the midst of a high-speed run across a plain.  There are no shadows in which to hide dodgy effects, but none are needed — ILM’s CGI creatures (combined with some top-notch work from Stan Winston’s animatronic workshop) look fabulous.

But that’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about The Lost World.  I found the story to be a mess, and the characters flat and uninvolving.  From the get-go, The Lost World was operating at a disadvantage to its predecessor, Jurassic Park, because its source material was much weaker.

I still remember being blown away when I first read Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park (well-before the movie came out), and I was so excited when the news broke that he was working on a sequel book.  But I was underwhelmed by The Lost World when the novel was released.  It just didn’t seem anywhere near as interesting as the first.  Wisely, Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp chose to jettison much of the source material — but what they came up with in its place … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Jurassic Park (1993)

1993 was a banner year for Steven Spielberg.  That year saw the release of two films that he directed: Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park.  Both were phenomenally good, though two more different films I can scarcely imagine.  To my younger self, those dual accomplishments in 1993 embedded Steven Spielberg in my mind as a director at the top of his game who could pretty much do no wrong.  If he could succeed at making both a potent, emotional historical drama, as well as a nail-biting sci-fi action spectacle, then the man could do anything.

I remember very clearly when I first saw Jurassic Park on the big screen.  It scared the hell out of me!  That seems sort of silly now, but I wasn’t prepared at the time for how intense a film it was.  Seeing it projected on the big screen, I was totally blown away by the visual effects, and also by the incredible sound.  Jurassic Park is one of the first films that really made me think about the sound design.  I think it was the incredible sound-scape that contributed to the intensity of the film as much as the amazing imagery.

Watching Jurassic Park, today, on DVD, the film doesn’t have anywhere near that intensity.  It does, however, hold up rather well.  The CGI effects that were so ground-breaking at the time still look great.  That’s a pretty amazing achievement — I’m sure you don’t have to think too hard to come up with a lengthy list of films whose visual effects were groundbreaking at the time but are pretty laughable today — and it’s a testament to the quality work done by all the artists involved with the film.  It’s pretty amazing to me how well-made the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are.  There wasn’t a single shot that jumped out at me as being silly or fake-looking.  This is important in allowing the film to retain its effectiveness, even almost twenty years later.  It’s critical that the dinosaurs work as believable creatures — otherwise I think you’d be plucked right out of the story.

But the reason why Jurassic Park still works today isn’t just about the dinosaurs — it’s also about how carefully and successfully Mr. Spielberg (and screenwriters David Koepp and Michael Crichton, adapting Mr. Crichton’s novel) establish a believable, interesting ensemble of characters to hang the story around.  It takes almost a full hour of the film before the dino-mayhem really begins.  That time is well-used, as we get to know and care about the folks who are about to be terrorized.

Sam Neillhas never been better than as Dr. Alan Grant, the paleontologist hero of the film.  He’s ornery … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Empire of the Sun

Last month I wrote about discovering and really enjoying, in college, some films from what I consider to be Steven Spielberg’s “middle period,” in which he began moving from the crowd-pleasing adventure films that he did so well (epitomized by Raiders of the Lost Ark) to more serious dramatic material (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, etc.)  Rewatching The Color Purple for the first time in a decade, I found that there was still a lot to enjoy, though in some ways I felt the film was a bit simplistic.  (Click here for my full review.)

But I found myself quite mesmerized by Empire of the Sun when I re-watched it last month (also for the first time in about ten years).  This is a dramatically under-rated movie, and a strong piece of Mr. Spielberg’s over-all filmography.

Young Jim Graham is a spoiled British schoolboy, living with his parents in great luxury in Shanghai in 1941.  When the Japanese invade, he is separated from his parents in the chaotic evacuation of British citizens and is left to his own devices to try to survive in the dangerous war-time world.

Whereas I found The Color Purple to have a bit too much schmaltz, Empire of the Sun is surprisingly tough in its depiction of Jim’s four-year ordeal in war-torn China.  Although the film centers on a young boy (as do many of Spielberg’s films — see ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, AI: Artificial Intelligence, etc.), this is — for the most part — a tough, honest film.  There are moments of Spielbergian romanticization — mostly having to do with Jim’s fascination with airplanes — but I found those to be moving scenes that furthered my emotional connection with the story being told, rather than distracting me from the reality of Jim’s situation.

That’s a tough balance to find — but when he’s at the top of his game, no one is better at finding that balance than Steven Spielberg.  And he does fine work here.  There are long stretches of the film without any dialogue, propelled by the gorgeous and haunting imagery (and a lush but not overly intrusive score by John Williams).  When there is dialogue, it’s tight, well-written stuff penned by Tom Stpppard (Brazil, Shakespeare in Love).

Spielberg is well known — and rightfully so — for his skill in getting strong performances from his child actors, and Empire of the Sun is a stand-out in that department.  Jim is played by a young Christain Bale (who’s been having quite a moment, playing Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins & the Dark Knight as well as a variety of other high-profile roles in films such as … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Color Purple

The Color Purple, released in 1985, finds director Steven Spielberg at an interesting point in his career.  After having directed the first two Indiana Jones films as well at E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in the early eighties, Spielberg apparently had a desire to move towards more weighty, dramatic material.  But his “serious” films of the late eighties (The Color Purple, along with Empire of the Sun and Always) didn’t meet with an enormous amount of critical acclaim (compared to his successes in the nineties with films such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan).  But, in college, I decided I wanted to take a look at those “middle period” Spielberg films, and I was quite pleasantly surprised by their quality.  It’s been a while since I’ve last seen those films, though, so when I spotted The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun in the discount DVD bin at my local Newbury Comics, I snatched them both up.

I haven’t had a chance to get to Empire of the Sun yet, but my wife and I watched The Color Purple last month.  It wasn’t quite as good as I had remembered it, but I still think it’s a better film than people tend to think.

Adapted from the novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple tells the life story of an African American woman, Celie.  Growing up in turn-of-the-century Georgia, the poor girl struggles through hardship after hardship.  She is raped by her father as a young girl, and gives birth to two children who he takes from her.  She is married off to a cruel local farmer (Danny Glover), who beats her and forcibly separates her from her beloved sister, Nettie.  Later in life she forms an unexpected friendship with her husband’s mistress, the vivacious singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), who sets Celie on a path towards finally coming out of her shell and finding some happiness for herself.

The Color Purple is notable for some terrific performances from some well-known actors who, looking back on the film now, are unbelievably young here.  Whoopie Goldberg, in one of her very first screen appearances, plays Celie, and she is fantastic — soulful and full of life, even though she has very little dialogue in the film.  Whoopie is a talented comedian, but I have found that I’ve always preferred her in straight dramatic roles, and this is no exception.  Danny Glover doesn’t often play the “bad guy” in films, but he does a great job here as the monstrous Albert.  He cuts quite a menacing figure.  Oprah Winfrey appears, also in one of her first screen appearances, as the vivacious and strong-willed Sofia.  Her performance is … [continued]