Everyone knows who Steven Spielberg is, not only the director of movies like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Schindler's List (usually more "events" than mere movies), but also the producer of films like Poltergeist, Back to the Future, and Joe Versus the Volcano. He's big-time and important.
Duel (1971) -- The best made-for-TV movie... ever! Equal parts Hitchcock, Peckinpah, and Kafka, Dennis Weaver is the perfect every-Mann in this really intense man vs. impossible senseless bully (in this case, a huge-ass truck with a real personality) movie. In my top five list of Spielberg films.
The Sugarland Express (1974) -- The forerunner to Catch Me If You Can (and mimicker of Bonnie and Clyde--sort of), this movie has a lot of the same charm and humor of that movie, but this time with some grim stuff thrown in (especially the ending, which shifts the movie big time, but not in a bad way). Goldie Hawn does a good job of playing a half-retarded Texas cutie, and William Atherton is also great as her handsome (and smarter) hubby. Michael Sacks gives the movie some ol' guy coolness and warmth.
Jaws (1975) -- The first of it's kind (the summer blockbuster), this movie is better than you remember it if you haven't seen it in a while. To me, it's sort of a modern-day Moby-Dick with interesting twists. Great performances all around, wonderful direction, and of course John Williams' famous two notes, "Du dum..." (Jeannot Szwarc directed the sequel, Jaws 2.)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) -- This movie has a lot of ideas in it that I like: finding answers, the source of inspiration, the power of art, the psychic links that connect the entire universe, and others... and all of these ideas lace through a really great and magical science-fiction story with an unusual (for this time) premise: "What if aliens from outer space are good?" In a way, this is a blockbuster version of Kubrick's 2001, and they both have all of their elements tied together perfectly while never feeling they have to "explain" anything. This is a movie where emotions are more important than logic, but these same emotions also make you smarter. I could go on, but I'll end by saying that the ending with the musical communication with the spaceship is one of my favorite movie scenes ever. Magic, magic.
1941 (1979) -- Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Bob Gale try to make a huge slapstick movie on par with It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World... except they forgot to actually make it funny. The idea of panic creating imaginary enemies might be funny today post 9/11, and it might have even been funny during WWII, but coming out in 1979 the movie seems à propos of nothing at all. The movie is needlessly big and noisy, and I like big and noisy. Here's just one example: a tank goes through a paint factory and spills gallons of paint everywhere. It's supposed to be funny because it's big and zany, but this one joke proves that big and zany doesn't equal funny. And pretty much the entire movie is like this, which is a shame since many funny people were in it.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) -- Spielberg gives us one big show after another, now with the first of the Indiana Jones movies. It's one of those movies that you can't stop watching. Though not as cerebral as Close Encounters or even Jaws (it's a take on adventure matinees, after all), it's more exciting. Good good fun. (See below for the sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.)
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) -- I like this movie, even though it didn't connect with me in the way it apparently did with the rest of the universe. I think it's a great kids movie and it's got a lot of classic scenes and wonderful music.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) -- Directed with Joe Dante, John Landis, and George Miller. The last segment was the only good one. Landis's racism statement was dumb, the second segment was Spielberg at his worst, and Dante's was only slightly better than the first two. Miller's gets a "really liked it" while the others get a "did not like it." Of course, I never much liked the TV series.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) -- Spielberg would have you believe that this movie suffered from being "too dark," but it actually suffered from the fact that he would think such a thing. Because he had this misconception of it being a dark movie he was filming (and why, because they drink blood and stuff?), it seemed that he felt inclined to throw in lots of kiddy poo, a whiny Kate Capshaw, and dumb jokes (to give you an idea: at one point in the middle of India, the Capshaw actress character asks for a phone to call her agent, har har). In the end, however, if you can overlook the loud messy kiddy stuff going on, this is still a lot of fun and not nearly as bad as many would have you believe. In fact, it's good. (See above for the predecessor, Raiders of the Lost Ark. See below for the sequel, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)
The Color Purple (1985) -- For a movie that's about wife-beating, fathers getting daughters pregnant, etc. etc., this sure feels like a little Disney kids movie. Tonally incorrect throughout.
Empire of the Sun (1987) -- A really interesting movie that might be Spielberg's most underrated. It's a nice somewhat surreal look at a different aspect of WWII than you normally see.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) -- The only thing that makes the first movie "better" than this one is that it came first. Everything that made the first one great is here, as well as this one being honestly funny (as opposed to the supposedly funny second one). And once Sean Connery shows up 45 minutes into the movie, the film is downright delightful, with Connery playing a very believable character of an old man who would never choose these kinds of adventures for himself, but looks comfortable enough in them that you could imagine him being the father of Indiana Jones. The interactions with Harrison Ford and Sean Connery often steal the show from all the action, and that's a good thing--a welcome trick even.
Always (1989) -- One of those "what happens when you die" movies, and the idea for this one is interesting enough, even believable. Probably not as "sappy" as most have said it is, it's not that bad, and it's often even funny in spite of the semi-seriousness it's mostly up to.
Hook (1991) -- Most critics of this film are way off. I watched this movie a few days after finishing the fantastic book, Sir Barrie's Peter Pan, and Hook is not at all a "modern retelling" of the Peter Pan story, but a perfect sequel to that book. All or most of the elements that made the book (the book now, not the Disney movie or musical remakes) so much more than a mere children's book is here, as well as every detail right down to the last thimble--so much that I wouldn't advise anyone to watch it without having read the book first (much as I wouldn't advise someone to see part two without having seen part one). Even with the potential dangers of Spielberg movie floppery (focus on Goonie-like kids, hit in the nuts jokes, etc.) or even minor slips of perfect sequelry (the Lost Boys' inability to fly, the insistence on nods to the Disney version), this is an excellent movie. It's packaged for kids these days, but I think an adults' appreciation is necessary as well as a childlike imagination and belief that you can fly.
Jurassic Park (1993) -- I'm never one to praise a movie solely for its special effects. They're there to make a movie work as it needs to. I don't ever watch a movie because it has "cool effects," and I never understood why people do. But I have to admit that seeing dinosaurs in a convincing way on the big screen for the first time was pretty amazing to me. Again, of course, the effects don't make the movie, so it was also nice that it was pretty suspenseful at times, that it was funny, that it looked good, that I liked the music, all that. A little rough around the edges, but where else can you see dinosaurs like this? The movie certainly set the standard for what we were to expect from every effects movie after this, for better or worse. (See below for the sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park.)
Schindler's List (1993) -- Certainly a masterpiece, and from a man who has already made at least five or six movies which might be called that. The direction and camerawork is very, very careful and masterful (Spielberg's direction itself being something I usually don't regard as much as the story and characters) and the entire film is worthy of its serious subject matter.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) -- Probably a bad idea, but -- like the last one -- it's still fun to see huge dinosaurs running around trying to eat everyone. Lots of the side stuff, like the "human interest stories," doesn't work. In the first one, Sam Neil didn't want kids and, by the end, he did; in this one, all kinds of stuff is set up with Jeff Goldblum and his little girl, but nothing comes out of it except that we're annoyed to death by her, especially when she does those ridiculous gymnastic flips. Lots of dumb stuff and dumb jokes, but I like it a lot anyway. (See above for the predecessor, Jurassic Park. See Joe Johnston for the sequel, Jurassic Park III.)
Amistad (1997) -- All the usual slave stuff you've come to expect (not sure what kind of social commentary this is really making for Americans anymore, other than soothing some white guilt), but lots of the courtroom stuff is pretty interesting. Matthew McConaughey was well-cast, and Anthony Hopkins makes you pay attention to each scene he's in. It doesn't feel like the movie is two and a half hours long, so that's saying something. What kills the movie more than anything is John Williams' patriotic score: they may as well have been playing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" each time someone was talking. If you tune out the music, you're left with a pretty good movie.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) -- Everyone cites the first half hour or so as the thing to see, and I agree. Everything that's really good about this film is summed up there: the realistic killing, the sounds, the war film-looking camerawork and color, the chaos, the sadness, all of it. The remaining premise of the movie, to find Ryan, works well enough, but it almost doesn't really live up to that explosive beginning. Faces as perky as Tom Hanks and Matt Damon also somehow undercut the serious cruelty of war. Am I saying it's a bad movie? No, I'm saying it's a great movie; I'm just giving the most credit to where it's most due.
A.I. (2001) -- For most of the 90s, Spielberg had been pairing his "fun" movies (like the Jurassic Parks) with his "serious" ones (like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan) and this time he combined them both. This is mostly an exploration of what makes humans -- merely body-organ machinery covered by skin -- God-like (by exploring what makes robot machines human). Of course, that's what Pinocchio was, and I'm not sure it does much better than that story in getting that point across, but it does just as well. When it's not being quite so serious, this movie is Spielbergian fun (which is both a good and bad thing) with a "good" version of Foul Fellow taking the robot on adventures with Robin Williams cartoons and flying cars. It's a very long movie, and has like a million different parts where you wonder where it's going to end, but that's part of the goodness of it as well. Some of the movie is good, some isn't, but it's mostly pretty nifty. Oddly enough, Teddy -- the supertoy version of Teddy Ruxpin -- is one of the best things about the movie.
Minority Report (2002) -- A pretty good actiony suspensey-type movie which is about 98% perfect as far as those kinds of movies go. Not too much gets in the way of the fun. T here's a bit of the moral question of pre-judgments as well as a study in time paradoxes and free will, but that enhances more than gets in the way, and it makes the movie not absolute fluff. The only real problem I had with it were the "jokes" such as the two or three scenes where someone crashes in to some unsuspecting people's houses and they are -- of course -- having sex or yelling at each other or taking a dump. Or the one where the jet packs grill the hamburgers. Some of the premise and futuristic stuff is silly as well, but that part is more fun than stupid. A kind of good, forgivable silly.
Catch Me If You Can (2002) -- This is one of those "What's not to like?" movies. It's not the greatest movie you'll ever see, but there's nothing really wrong with it, and there's something about it that basically everyone will enjoy. Spielberg still knows how to make very entertaining and smart movies.
The Terminal (2004) -- Similar to Catch Me If You Can in that it's based on actual events and stars Tom Hanks, and that it's got a "What's not to like?" feel to it. In a way, with all of Tom Hanks' character learning to survive throughout the movie, this is a better version of Castaway. It's fun and light and nice, even if Catherine Zeta Jones' character is completely irrelevant and obnoxious.
War of the Worlds (2005) -- A pretty solid update of the H.G. Wells book (and somewhat of a remake of the 1953 movie). The emotional story is Tom Cruise's estrangement with his kids while protecting them from the aliens, and -- while usually these human interest backdrops get in the way of action movies -- it more or less works for the story here and adds some additional tension (though, of course, sometimes it just gets stupid). The tripods are good, the heat ray is good, the red weed is good. The aliens themselves aren't exactly satisfying; I think I was hoping for something more alien, something we haven't seen before, but they only appear in one or two scenes anyway. The biggest annoyance of the movie is Spielberg's "clever" (meaning dumb) direction. Sometimes he should just shoot the action straight on instead of us always having to see it through a hole in a windshield or a rear-view mirror. This has always been a problem with his movies, and it really doesn't work here since War of the Worlds is actually more serious than his other action movies like Jurassic Park. There's real menace and dread and a conjuring of real-life end-of-world problems (9/11 comes to mind, on purpose, I suppose, since there's even a joke made about terrorists) and visual cleverness sucks that dry. (The same thing happened with The Color Purple.) There's also some repetition here. Some of the scenes would be fine if they hadn't been done already in Jurassic Park. But, again, in spite of its handful of problems, this is a pretty tight, tense movie with show-stealing sound effects and even a good performance by the annoying Tom Cruise.
Munich (2005) -- Although people are eager to give Spielberg his cred these days (and usually he deserves it), they need to watch this one again, since -- in spite of its historical events (and current event relevancy) -- it's actually just an over-long and repetitive movie about a bunch of vacant characters (minus Geoffrey Rush, who brightens up the screen). The movie runs like this: guys get tip-off of whereabouts of terrorist, plans to bomb terrorist are gone over, they bomb terrorist--with the bombing getting a little more out of hand each time. Once, maybe twice, would have done, but we get who knows how many times. In many ways, it becomes a more repetitive and less jazzy Ocean's Eleven. The beginning of the movie at the Olympics was interesting, but after that fizzles for the next three hours. Here is a case where Spielberg's popcorn movie (War of the Worlds) released in conjunction with his "serious" movie wins the day.
Copyright (c) Jan 2001 - Sep 2007 by Rusty Likes Movies