The Spielberg Canon: Ranked Best to Worst

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One Month. 30 Days (plus). 32 Movies.

1 Incomparable Filmmaker.

I’ve written about each and every feature film (plus one short) that Steven Spielberg has ever made. And now I rank them.

To the extent that any list like this can have a logic to it, here’s mine. I factor in three criteria, in no particular order:

  • Historical impact, both on the industry (from box office to cinematic influence) and the culture.
  • My opinion of its cinematic merits, regardless of my personal feelings or affections toward it.
  • My personal feelings or affections toward it.

Each choice represents some undefinable combination of those three considerations.

Needless to say, some rankings could’ve gone either way. At times, there were tough calls on which choice should top another. In those instances, I allowed the second factor – cinematic merits alone – to trump the other two. A great example: Numbers 8 and 9.

Given where some films placed, particularly in the lower half, a reader could be left with the impression that I’m ambivalent about more of these movies than I actually am. Truth be told, I’d give all of his films from #22 on up either a 3 1/2 or 4 star rating. 23 through 27 are solid 3-star entries, 28 and 29 more mixed, with only the bottom three being unqualified duds (although I’d even say there’s a steep drop off between 30 and 31).

So as you go through this list, that important qualifier should give you a better bearing on how I feel about each of these films, as should the brief responses I add. By and large, Steven Spielberg has made good-to-great movies, with a few unqualified masterpieces.

And so, listed in ascending order from Worst to Best, here is The Spielberg Canon, ranked.

The Films of Steven Spielberg

32. Something Evil (1972) – this early TV movie is something awful.

31. The Terminal (2004) – an avalanche of schmaltz that goes from eye-rolling to insufferable.

30. The Adventures of Tintin (2011) – shockingly dull, would’ve been better as a live action thrill ride.

29. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – first forty minutes, great. The rest, not so much.

28. 1941 (1979) – fun & very well made, even if unfocused. Better than its reputation.

27. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) – a total blast of an old school monster movie.

26. War of the Worlds (2005) – elevates blockbuster thrills with potent 9/11 metaphor.

25. Amblin’ (1968) – the original 26-minute short film that revealed so many possibilities.

24. Empire of the Sun (1987) – gets a bit on-the-nose, but beautifully and poignantly told.

23. Amistad (1997) – the absolute best and worst of Spielberg, the filmmaker at his most bipolar.

22. The BFG (2016) – a big budget bedtime story that time will likely be kind to.

21. The Sugarland Express (1974) – Spielberg’s feature debut, filled with so many Spielbergisms still seen to this day.

20. Duel (1971) – the TV movie that made him the most coveted up-and-coming director of his generation (and got him the Jaws gig).

19. Bridge of Spies (2015) – first rate “minor” Spielberg.

18. Saving Private Ryan (1998) – spotty “major” Spielberg.

17. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – classy, sophisticated moviemaking that’s charismatically frivolous and effectively poignant.

16. Always (1989) – a soul-searching romance in the grand tradition of Old Hollywood, and light years better than any being made by Hollywood today.

15. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – would’ve made for a perfect end to the saga.

14. Minority Report (2002) – an insanely high degree of difficulty on all fronts, and Spielberg sticks the landing.

13. Hook (1991) – no Spielberg film has aged better.

12. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – the quintessential popcorn movie.

11. Lincoln (2012) – a towering portrait of a towering President at his most consequential moment.

10. War Horse (2011) – would stand equal to the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.

9. Jurassic Park (1993) – revolutionary in its time (in a number of ways), and endlessly watchable since.

8. The Color Purple (1985) – the most unlikely marriage of source material and filmmaker, yet it flirts with being a masterpiece.

7. Munich (2005) – philosophically, the definitive terrorism film of our time.

6. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) – it’s the Kubrick that resonates, but Spielberg made it a masterpiece. His most underrated film.

5. Jaws (1975) – the film that changed movies forever. As close to a B.C./A.D. historical marker as you’ll find in film history.

4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – never fails to take me through the emotional wringer in the most edifying way.

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – it captures the best of cinema from its entire history, all in 120 minutes. My favorite movie of all time.

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – the movie that moved up the most in my own personal estimation. A profound spiritual journey draped in sci-fi wonder.

1. Schindler’s List (1993) – the best movie Spielberg will ever make, and among the best ever made.


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And for a more streamlined glance from Best to Worst:

1. Schindler’s List (1993)

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

5. Jaws (1975)

6. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

7. Munich (2005)

8. The Color Purple (1985)

9. Jurassic Park (1993)

10. War Horse (2011)

11. Lincoln (2012)

12. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

13. Hook (1991)

14. Minority Report (2002)

15. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

16. Always (1989)

17. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

18. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

19. Bridge of Spies (2015)

20. Duel (1971)

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

22. The BFG (2016)

23. Amistad (1997)

24. Empire of the Sun (1987)

25. Amblin’ (1968)

26. War of the Worlds (2005)

27. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

28. 1941 (1979)

29. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

30. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

31. The Terminal (2004)

32. Something Evil (1972)

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THE BFG (Movie Review)

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***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
(for 
action/peril, some scary moments, and brief rude humor)
Released: July 1, 2016
Runtime: 117 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Jemaine Clement, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Adam Godley

Somewhere, Uncle Walt is smiling. With a Big Fat Grin on his face.

Steven Spielberg, in his first film under the Mouse House banner, has made a movie in the grand tradition of Walt Disney’s live action fables from generations past.

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A big budget bedtime story, The BFG continues an invigorating resurgence in non-animated fare by the studio of late (although, like The Jungle Book, this is a lopsided visual effects hybrid). But that renaissance has thus far been driven by adaptations of beloved animated classics with established strengths, outlines, and expectations. With The BFG, there is no template.

In creating this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s fantasy about the bond between an orphan girl and a lonely giant, Spielberg’s addition to Disney’s renewed live action slate has the book’s goodwill to live up to, not a perennial from the studio’s archives.

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What he does with it gives us a strong indication of what the Pop Culture Auteur would’ve done with the wizarding world of Harry Potter had he followed through on his initial intent to direct that saga’s first (and least dark) entry. Having John Williams‘ music again sure helps. From a screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison, this doesn’t possess the overwhelming soul or operatic crescendo of the E.T. script she wrote for Spielberg, but it does share the same heart and yearning for innocence.

The most kid-and-parent friendly movie by Spielberg to date, The BFG (an acronym for Big Friendly Giant) is the rare would-be blockbuster that in no way caters to all four “age quadrant” demos. Never once resorting to crass language, edgy innuendoes or pop culture references in some calculated, desperate attempt to appease teenagers and young adults (who may roll their eyes and check out at the first utterances of The BFG’s Seussical-styled speakery), Spielberg has made a movie not only in the spirit of the book on which it is based, but one that finds its joy in playing directly to the imaginations and hearts of the Pre-K to early grade school children that Dahl sought to captivate.

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Along with its silly yet tender content, The BFG is a patient cinematic page turner (not an action packed thrill ride), seemingly told at the pace of a school librarian as she reads to the kiddos all circled around her, in a style that evokes wide-eyed wonder. It’s in no hurry to get where it’s going.

Regardless of how this movie performs at the box office – and in a summer meant for explosions, not heart tugs, likely not well – The BFG seems destined to be a favorite of young families for years (possibly generations) to come, with parents and their little munchkins snuggling up on cold winter weekends or holiday breaks with hot cocoa, thick blankets, and this magical place.

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Sophie is a young British girl who’s never had a family or known a home. The BFG is the elderly, sweet-hearted runt of a more barbaric (and comically Neanderthal) race of secret giants. But The BFG has a special talent. He is a catcher of dreams. He’s a wielder of them, too, sharing them with people as they sleep, a benevolent sandman with a paternal heart.

And when the ardent young Sophie spots him lurking one fateful night, the BFG sweeps her away to his forest cottage in the hidden Giant Country, lest his clandestine existence be discovered by a misunderstanding world. In short, it’s the story of two orphans from their respective orphanages who become the first best friends that either has ever had.

The actual BFG (as Sophie has dubbed him; he has no proper name) is a wonderful creation on multiple levels, starting with the gentle, unassuming purity embodied by Academy Award winner Mark Rylance (Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies) and fulfilled by a new standard for motion capture animation (a.k.a. Mo-Cap). Never before has an actor so thoroughly shone through in a Mo-Cap performance, even transcending Andy Serkis’s Gollum and his Caesar of the Planet Of The Apes reboot (the same WETA animation team has come a long long way).

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Every thought, feeling, and nuance The BFG gives – every spontaneous reaction, be it a physical or emotional reflex – is so clearly and fully from the spirit, soul and body of Mark Rylance. And what a special, memorable performance it is, with moments of intimate and unexpected vulnerability. It’s a Mo-Cap breakthrough that could be dubbed Emo-Cap, because it captures emotions that I didn’t think were possible.

As Sophie, the adorably proper Ruby Barnhill is both The BFG’s opposite and his match (the fact that she’s a girl and not a boy is, in itself, refreshing). Her sharp, well-mannered, yet strong-willed (and brave) spunk – the kind that might utter a Poppins-esque “Spit spot!” – is the perfect contrast to The BFG, a playful but meek giant whose bruised yet generous heart is matched only in size by, sadly, his acute insecurities and low self-worth.

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Self-conscious, too, about his butchered-together English, Sophie’s affection for the BFG tempers her grammar nerdiness (a contrast I actually wish Spielberg would’ve played up in their character and relationship arcs, but oh well). It’s a friendship born of need yet forged with grace. And when it finally breaks out into the real world during the film’s second hour, they cross paths with Her Majesty the Queen herself (with a casting choice that will garner an instant affinity for any Downton Abbey ­diehard – not the Dowager’s Maggie Smith, but the more genteel and charitable Penelope Wilton).

The look and design of The BFG is a joy to behold, and often a marvel (that pops in 3D, but would be just as entrancing without it). Having a real live girl play against this animated giant actually helps sell the animation, too, as does the stylized design of the BFG’s features.

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As if directly addressing nearly every Mo-Cap criticism I had in my review of The Adventures of TintinThe BFG excels in integrating real actors and sets with animated characters, creatures and worlds at unprecedented levels of seamlessness. It’s still not wholly realistic, but that’s part of the improvement.

By embracing the odd and exaggerated features of these humanoid giants, The BFG makes its world more credible – not less – than past Mo-Cap efforts that have tried to make people photo-real. But most crucially, it’s the ability to see Rylance in every detail that seals it, especially in unguarded moments of deeply felt emotion.

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As a craftsman, Spielberg largely (and wisely) limits his “computer camera” to moves that only a real one could make, giving us an experience of more inherent veracity. The lighting is also consistent between the real and the animated, which helps to erase the comped edges joining the two. The result is a more beautiful, classic cinematic language, the kind we expect from Spielberg.

Sure, I’d still prefer an approach that re-sizes real actors and then blends them together (ala the various characters in the Lord of the Rings’ fellowship) over this reliance on digital, or perhaps even a throwback to the fully muppetized creations of Jim Henson’s creature shop peak, but with the degree of advancement seen here that desire is surprisingly mollified. This is as spectacular and effective as motion capture has ever been.

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The BFG is not made for all ages, but it is meant for them. It commits to a courageous integrity for something produced at such a financial scale, and that’s exactly what gives it its big-hearted charm. And yet while its sensibility is so unapologetically tailored to the single-digit set, its audience need not be.

Soften your cynicism. Don’t demand that this meet the typical expectations of sensory overload or propulsive spectacle. It may look like that, but it’s not actually like that at all. The BFG is the movie version of a kid. The kid we would all love to be. The kind we’d all do well to actually strive to be.

Well, let it be. And if you do, you’ll be saying along with Sophie, “I believe in The BFG.”

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(Check out my entire “30 Days of Spielberg” retrospective here – now including The BFG)

BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) – 30 Days Of Spielberg

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Bridge Of Spies (2015)
Rated PG-13

(for 
some violence and brief strong language)
Released: October 16, 2015
Runtime: 141 minutes
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Dakin Matthews, Eve Hewson

Day 30 of “30 Days of Spielberg”

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“Minor” Spielberg though it may be, Bridge Of Spies is far from insignificant.

While not indispensable viewing, there’s something essential about this true life Cold War yarn, even timely. This was my third time seeing it (the first led to the creation of this blog; its review was my debut post), and Bridge Of Spies has become more resonant with each viewing, continuing to reveal itself in subtle, rewarding ways.

The first time, it was the craftsmanship. The second time, its relevance. The third, its volume of sly, subtle humor. Once you get through all of the Spielberg (which is first rate), the idiosyncratic voice of screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen begins to emerge. It becomes easy to imagine the spin they’d put on James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks here) through George Clooney or James Brolin (in the film’s second hour especially) or Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Supporting Actor Oscar winner Mark Rylance) through John Turturro or Michael Stuhlbarg.

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From the opening “self portrait” shot, we see Spielberg’s clever artistry on full display, forecasting an entire film that would follow suit. It also works as an establishing metaphor, suggesting the dual nature of spies whose world we’re about to enter. It’s the true story, told in two chapters (each segmented into the film’s first and second halves), from late 1950s Soviet vs. U.S. espionage.

The first explores our Constitutional values in the face of an existential threat that strategically subverts them (like I said, relevant); visually, this is set within an aesthetic of rich detail and Americana. The second half is a fascinating covert off-the-books game of Prisoner Swap that takes us into Germany just as Berlin’s infamous border wall was being built (er, like I said, relevant), set in the dead-of-winter freeze apropos to a very Cold War.

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When a movie labels itself as “Inspired By True Events” as opposed to “Based On A True Story”, that distinction generally means that the filmmakers were “inspired” to create a portrayal so loose that it’s effectively a complete fiction. The lead character is either a re-named variation on a real-life figure, or a composite of several. Events aren’t real; they simply represent thematic ideas that the actual event also raised.

But James B. Donovan was real. He did what we see here. He was a citizen who served his country not only with honor but conviction and ingenuity – and at a crucial, precarious time. Who better than Tom Hanks to play such a Jimmy Stewart All-American, one who can be morally upstanding and morally conflicted in equal, authentic measure?

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And then there’s Rylance as Abel, in his Oscar-winning role. The antithesis of showy, it’s the kind of performance you love to see recognized during awards season; Rylance makes such a memorable impression with such a minimalist approach.

Pre-dating the events of Munich by fifteen years, Bridge Of Spies is a fairly quick return for Spielberg to the spy thriller genre he worked in ten years prior. Unlike Munich, this isn’t a psychologically tortured journey. It’s much less weighted yet still substantial, drawing modern day parallels, that makes for a classically entertaining cloak-and-dagger game of high stakes international intrigue between men in coats and fedoras on both sides of the Freedom/Communism divide.

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Again emulating the sophisticated nature of John le Carré novels (and their screen adaptations), the lengthy near-wordless opening sequence tracks Rudolf Abel, a Kremlin spy working in America, and the CIA agents on his trail. It’s a brilliant and riveting little piece of genre moviemaking. Hanks’ James B. Donovan, an insurance/liability attorney, is tasked by his country to represent the captured Abel in his trial.

This comprises the film’s first hour. It works as a meditation on Constitutional ethics, the temptation to fudge them against enemies who oppose them, and the conviction (via Donovan) that the best defense against enemies who stand by their cause isn’t to succumb to their tactics but to stay true to our founding principles and civil liberties. This all works as a proxy for America’s struggle today. Jihadists certainly aren’t abandoning their “ideals”, perverse as they are. Will we abandon ours?

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That second hour then fully shifts into spy movie mode, and from it emerges that Coen Brothers’ dry humor. It’s harder to initially recognize given that Spielberg’s inherent earnestness is so polar opposite to the Coens’ quirk, but it’s a great example of how smart wit can translate through a variety of smart sensibilities. Even so, it’s tension that drives the tone; occasional levity simply eases it.

As a thematic study it’s less rigorous than the first half, or simply a more streamlined extension of it, but then it does add the layer of the Berlin Wall. It’s the first time I can recall its construction ever being depicted on film – here, as a recurring backdrop – and one can’t help but start drawing comparisons to the border wall debate that has served as the initial rallying cry for Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

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Now while the film certainly evokes that appraisal (by pure luck, as it was filmed before Trump announced his candidacy), to liken the two would be a rash false equivalence. The Berlin Wall was built to keep its oppressed people in. Trump’s proposed wall means to keep illegals (and possible enemies) out. While the moral and practical merits of Trump’s wall can certainly be debated (and should), equating it to Berlin’s Wall is intellectually dishonest.

Nevertheless, what is telling to contemplate is what Donovan witnesses: how the Eastern Bloc Germans keep their citizens from escaping – by shooting and killing them. Would the same be required of United States border officers to keep illegals from entering? Securing a nation’s borders is both a worthy cause and a necessary one. But enforcement has consequences, and Bridge Of Spies helps us to consider them in very real terms.

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Yet ultimately, that layer is an unexpected (though likely welcome) addition for Spielberg, who instead consciously focuses the second hour on Donovan’s own resolve as he strives to broker the release of two American captives with one Ruskie stone (Abel).

He must do so while on a moral and strategic island, acting in direct opposition to CIA directives that want him to stay focused on the U.S. pilot, the only valuable asset, not the student. The CIA sees people as chess pieces; Donovan sees them for the human beings they are.

As it all unfolds – building toward a very riveting climactic standoff –  Bridge Of Spies becomes an emotionally rewarding story, too. It’s one of two men (Donovan and Abel) who, having been marginalized by the very governments they’ve been loyal to, find within each other a unique solidarity.

Bridge Of Spies won’t hold a consequential place in Spielberg’s legacy, but it’s still a damn good movie.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • For the arguments that James Donovan makes before the Supreme Court, the words used in the film were the same as were actually given.
  • A film version of these events was almost made in 1965. Gregory Peck tried to get it made, starring as Donovan, and had brought Alec Guinness onboard to play Rudolf Abel. MGM ended up pulling out as the studio, however, because they felt that at the time Cold War tensions were simply too high.
  • Spielberg cast Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel after seeing him perform in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on Broadway (which ended up leading to Rylance’s third Tony win).
  • Eve Hewson, who plays Donovan’s oldest daughter, is the real-life daughter of U2 frontman Bono (who’s real name is Paul Hewson). Coincidentally, the band U2 took its name from the U-2 plane that’s featured in this film.
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  • In another coincidence, the characters James B Donovan and Wolfgang Vogel share the same last names with the two villains of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
  • This was only the second Spielberg film to not have the music composed by John Williams. The first was The Color Purple. Williams was unable to do it due to a temporary health issue at the time that has since been corrected. Composer Thomas Newman stepped in as the replacement.
  • The opening shot of Abel painting a self-portrait is based on Norman Rockwell’s triple self-portrait.
  • A few Spielberg Oners pop up along the way. My favorite is the first glimpse into East Germany and the Frederick Pryor American student character, and how the camera moves around, past, and reframes the building of the Berlin Wall.
  • The opening shot of Abel painting a self-portrait is a nod to Norman Rockwell’s self-portrait.
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LINCOLN (2012) – 30 Days Of Spielberg

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Lincoln (2012)
Rated PG-13

(for
an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language)
Released: November 16, 2012
Runtime: 150 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace

Day 29 of “30 Days of Spielberg”

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“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”
– President Abraham Lincoln

Like its real-life icon, Lincoln is something to admire.

It’s a towering portrait of our most consequential President, at his most consequential moment. It’s not about his whole life but, rather, what his whole life was about.

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Of Spielberg’s four “noble” American historical films (including AmistadSaving Private Ryan, and Bridge Of Spies), this one wears its nobility best. Rather than preaching its ideals up on soapboxes, the process of ratifying the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which abolished slavery) required American idealists to be shrewd, practical, cunning, even ruthless.

In many ways, despite recognizable aesthetic touches, Lincoln is not a traditional Spielberg film. It doesn’t go for the emotional jugular; indeed, it seems to intentionally avoid it (example: John Williams’ music is often restrained, even absent, or underscoring monologues – if at all – with a melancholic piano rather than heroic brass).

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Focusing on that four month process (and Abraham Lincoln’s four last) at the beginning of 1865, this is – along with being a study of the man – the most intellectually rigorous version of Schoolhouse Rock’s classic “I’m Just a Bill” that you’re ever likely to see, from the floor of the House of Representatives to Lincoln testing the limits of his Executive Power.

It’s an academic (though still dramatic, and occasionally comical) retelling of Lincoln’s fight to expand equal rights under the law to all citizens. There’s a lot of talking. It’s mostly talking. Like a stage play. It’s intentionally theatrical in its presentation, as the hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner declares. Its period dialogue is at times beautiful to listen to, but also occasionally hard to wrap your modern mind around.

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Yet it makes the experience more immediate, and Kushner (adapting a section of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s much broader biography “Team Of Rivals”) writes like a self-disciplined Aaron Sorkin, applying restraint and humility, curbing personal bias, and writing characters as close to being historically accurate as a dramatization can (rather than spinning variations on his own Id). He even allows for Lincoln to tell his fair share of stories (a trait Sorkin infused into his own President Bartlett). When Kushner’s words are filtered through Spielberg’s cinematic eye, Lincoln becomes the best of live theatre and movie theater.

This isn’t high drama from a stylistic sense. It’s about the machinations of politics, albeit set against the backdrop of arguably the most important political undertaking in our nation’s history. Still, it’s about how these things get done. It’s seeing the sausage being made and how, in order to do that, you can’t be an ideologue nor can you merely compromise (in this instance, Lincoln absolutely couldn’t). There’s an inherent tension there. It’s about being realistic, not idealistic, yet finding the practical way to achieve the ideal.

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This film for Civics Geeks may test the patience of the average moviegoer, but it works even more effectively a second time around when you have a solid basis for what Spielberg and Kushner are doing here. Spielberg’s not so much being a dramatist as an observer, even if he does occasionally succumb to grandstanding on the House floor (one of my few issues, and a minor one). There’s a lot of exchanges between intellectual heavyweights. Of course, when they involve Lincoln, the President inevitably gets the mic drop.

The first hour – when Lincoln is setting a lot of his chess moves – may be tedious to some (not me, I’m a political/history junkie), but that groundwork pays off when the results of those moves (many of which are very high risk) start coming together in the second half. It’s not just about the moves that Lincoln and others make but how they play them. That’s primarily done by guesses, hunches, and gambles – although for Lincoln’s part those gambles are made with a keen sense of human nature in general and a perceptive read of both allies and opponents in particular.

The story also finds time to explore Lincoln as husband and father, further informing him as both President and, simply, as a man, through all of the tensions he was balancing (particularly his wife Mary Todd, who suffered from some degree of bipolar disorder, and deep depression).

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The all-star cast is possibly Spielberg’s deepest bench, and yet Daniel Day-Lewis still remains peerless. It’s his showcase, to be sure; a method immersion of transformative power. He has a way of being authentic, spontaneous, and utterly of-the-moment in a way that few contemporaries can (equaled perhaps only by Meryl Streep).

Doubly impressive: achieving that level of naturalism in such a thick period piece. Day-Lewis is understated and demure yet utterly compelling and authoritative, even with employing a creaky higher-pitch register that Lincoln reportedly had. His temperament is quiet, but his conviction and resolve are deep. And though slow to anger, he’ll unleash it when the moment requires.

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Tommy Lee Jones is the main supporting standout as Thaddeus Stevens, the anti-slavery ideologue who – despite the rightness of his cause – was in danger of undercutting the amendment because of his fidelity to an uncompromising ideal (sort of the Ted Cruz of his day, Stevens stuck to his principles in such an ornery fashion that nobody liked him). His virtue was his own worst enemy. You watch him with great admiration while also thinking, “Thad, you’re going to mess this whole thing up if you’re not careful.”

The rest of the ensemble is too big to praise in total, but it must be noted that James Spader is the total scene-stealer you want him to be (hilarious, actually), giving a great little character performance as the leader of a trio hired by the administration to, basically, buy votes.

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Lincoln is not a movie about doing the right thing with integrity. It’s about doing the right thing by any political means possible. It’s not an “ends justify the means” message but rather one about the complex political necessity to hedge integrity in the micro in order to achieve justice in the macro.

The whole theme is basically summed up by a direct quote from Thaddeus Stevens (and it’s verbatim to the historical record, not scripted): “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

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The sentiment isn’t cynical, it’s honest. And it actually reminds me of what St. Paul the Apostle said in Philippians 1:17-18: “The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

Because of the amendment’s victory, despite some of the means by which it was procured, Thaddeus Stevens – the pious idealist – rejoiced.

In many ways this is Spielberg’s most generous directorial effort, especially toward Day-Lewis as an actor (who towers in all respects, seemingly having struck a deal with Spielberg to let shots play out) but also toward Tony Kushner as a writer and his theatrically-structured screenplay (ex: the first time we see Lincoln, and his exchange with Union soldiers, it feels like the opening to a stage play). If Raiders Of The Lost Ark has the most cuts in Spielberg’s filmography (which it might), Lincoln likely has the least.

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Though not quite the radical departure that was Munich, this is Spielberg applying uncommon simplicity, particularly when it comes to camera movement and edit pace, even as many of the images framed and held remaining as stunning as ever. Through long takes and minimal cuts, Spielberg’s discipline isn’t simply to showcase the performances (although he does) but to showcase the moments.

The film’s various “Oners” aren’t motivated by style or camera choreography, but rather to give the actors (Day-Lewis especially) a lengthy theatrical rope. That in turn gives us, the audience, as vibrant and immediate a live theater experience as cinema can provide. Spielberg enables us to be in the rooms where it happens.

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There are brief scenes of Civil War settings, too. Mostly at outposts rather than battle fields, although the film’s opening images are a truly brutal carnage of Blue and Gray. That prologue, combined with the most harrowing scenes from Amistad (which were too few), can’t help but suggest that there’s still a full-on Civil War masterpiece rumbling inside Spielberg, waiting to be unleashed. But for now, these images are, in part, reminiscent of Dances With Wolves in the sense that, like that movie, Lincoln’s battlefield locations are shot more like John Ford westerns.

As we see our contemporary politics divide us even further, Lincoln gives us the gift (and lesson) of seeing our country at its best and proudest legislative moment. Not because it was easy or because it was always done with honor, but because the cause was just and the right man was leading it.

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In the face of dissenting voices all around – even in his own cabinet – demanding to end the war at any cost (including the continuance of slavery), Lincoln would not be moved. This was the moment. It had to be then. Right then. Or it’d slip away.

Seeing him maneuver toward that goal is fascinating. Seeing him fight for that end will rightly make any American proud. Lincoln takes an appropriately cynical look at how legislation gets done, and yet still makes you feel proud (and hopeful) about this nation’s possibilities. That’s the result of uncommon leadership.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • It was an interesting path to Daniel Day-Lewis finally agreeing to take the role (which would bring him his third Best Actor Oscar). He initially declined, telling Spielberg in a long and gracious letter that, essentially, he couldn’t account for why he felt unqualified to play the part, the man, but that he did. Liam Neeson was then cast, but eventually he had to drop out. Spielberg went back to Day-Lewis, who declined again. When Leonardo DiCaprio – Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can star, and Day-Lewis’s co-star in Martin Scorsese‘s Gangs Of New York – heard that Day-Lewis had twice declined, he personally flew to Ireland where Day-Lewis lives to meet with him and convince Daniel to take the role. It worked. To this day, no one has shared exactly how DiCaprio pulled it off.
  • After playing the role, Day-Lewis said, “I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met.”
  • In the brief moment where Lincoln sits alone staring at his watch, the sound is of Lincoln’s actual watch. Spielberg was able to have it recorded, thanks to the Kentucky Historical Society that owns it.
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  • Daniel Day-Lewis became the first actor from a Steven Spielberg film to win an Academy Award.
  • Day-Lewis said that if he did win the Oscar (his third), he would retire from acting for five years. He hasn’t acted since. His next scheduled project is an untitled film from his There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson. They will begin shooting almost exactly five years after Lincoln began shooting.
  • Sally Field was so determined to play Mary Todd Lincoln, despite Spielberg’s concerns that she’s ten years older than Day-Lewis, that she begged Spielberg to grant her an actual screen test (which is never done for established actors of her caliber). Not only did Spielberg agree to give it a try, but Day-Lewis was generous enough to fly all the way from Ireland to help give Field her best shot. She’s publicly expressed how grateful she remains to Day-Lewis for having done that. (Field gained 25 pounds for the role, too, in order to equal Mary Todd’s physical stature.)
  • According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s research (upon who’s book this film is based), the Ethan Allen story that Lincoln tells (with the vulgar punchline) was, in truth, a story that Lincoln actually loved to tell.
    Lincoln_AbeStory

WAR HORSE (2011) – 30 Days Of Spielberg

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War Horse (2011)
Rated PG-13

(for 
intense sequences of war violence, and some language)
Released: December 25, 2011
Runtime: 146 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Niels Arestrup

Day 28 of “30 Days of Spielberg” – Part 2

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It had been nearly ten years (and arguably twenty) since a Steven Spielberg film was this effectively sentimental. War Horse tugs at our emotions as unrepentantly as anything the earnest auteur has ever made. It may not be as personal as something like E.T., and yet you can’t walk away from this movie without sensing how deeply Spielberg’s heart is in it.

This is also one of the more underappreciated artistic triumphs of Spielberg’s career (perhaps due, in part, to being released a mere four days after – and in the lingering shadow of – The Adventures of Tintin, one of his most underwhelming). Told on an epic scale, it’s a visceral war movie in its own right. War Horse may have been quickly relegated to minor Spielberg status but, with the passage of time, it should be re-evaluated as one of his major achievements.

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As with previous heart-tugging high watermarks, Spielberg’s sentimentality here is not warm and fuzzy. It’s bittersweet, poignant. Tempered by separation, tragedy, and loss. War Horse doesn’t satiate the heart with cheap wish fulfillment. Its evocations – while bold and unabashed – are hard-earned and deeply wrought, set against the backdrop of a world at war.

Based on the young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo and inspired by the heralded award-winning stage play (Spielberg said he was ready to make the film version by intermission), War Horse puts an equine spin on the “boy and his dog” archetype, and then adds a majesty to it.

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This comes not only in the muscular grandeur of the central steed, or more potently in The Great War, but especially in how this narrative tells the story of two characters – one a British teenager, Albert, and the other a horse, named Joey – each with something to prove. Together, and then apart, they do.

This majestic scope is also captured in the film’s aesthetic. War Horse is Spielberg’s most blatant homage to his hero John Ford that he’s ever done. Though flashes of Ford’s influences can be seen throughout Spielberg’s career, with War Horse it’s as if he set out to channel John Ford – and honor him – in the same way he intended for Stanley Kubrick in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

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More specifically, it wasn’t Ford’s westerns so much that Spielberg was emulating but rather his tales of the common man, odes to the Salt Of The Earth working class. Films like The Grapes Of Wrath and The Quiet Man.

The most direct Ford influence at play in War Horse is the Welsh-set How Green Was My Valley (or, more infamously, the movie that beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture). One of the most stunning black-and-white films you’ll ever see, Spielberg essentially makes the Technicolor version of Ford’s pastoral landscapes, at times drawing obvious homages. (Watching these two movies back-to-back would be a great “film school” double feature.)

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Spielberg venerates other epics of the time as well (one can’t see the film’s final shots without instantly thinking of the silhouettes against dusk horizons from Gone With The Wind), making for one of the most gorgeously shot films of Spielberg’s entire oeuvre. It’s one that still has me constantly shaking my head in slack-jawed awe at the pictures he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski paint.

In an era when studios digitally amplify even the most basic images and settings, it’s refreshing (and for a cinephile, quite frankly, even moving) to see a movie so classically rendered, one that would stand as an equal among the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age. (For the craftsmanship on display alone, it boggles my mind how this movie has been dismissed – by critics especially.)

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For his part, John Williams‘ offers up the most stirring score of his late career, with epic cues like the one that starts at 3:15 in this track (although the first crescendo at 1:34 is worth the listen, too). Building to a sweep that always gives me chills, it is a fanfare for The Common Man.

Along with the style, Spielberg also captures the spirit and decency of the people who work the land, as Ford did, including those with self-destructive flaws. Albert’s father Ted is the town drunk, even as he genuinely strives to maintain the family farm and do right by his wife and son. Albert’s mother Rose, however, is a pillar of integrity, steadfastness, and grace.

In a gentle moment early on, both maternal and with fidelity, Rose has a conversation with Albert explaining to him why he should temper his anger and disappointment toward his father, and even be forgiving. It’s a perspective as empathetic as it is honest and wide-eyed (not weak or enabling) that also helps us to understand why she’s never left him, and never will.

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The scene, along with another between her and Ted, are moments that could easily be torn from the pages of Steinbeck. Emily Watson embodies Rose with an unwavering strength and unassuming humility; she’s subtly inspiring. Her virtues are replete throughout the film as well (often in contrast to mankind’s worst), with the titular horse serving as their iconic embodiment.

As a narrative construct, the second and third acts of War Horse sort of work like a Forrest Gump travelogue through World War I (crossing paths with, among others, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch who were each on the cusp of their fame in the U.S.), except the focus is as much on the people that the horse encounters as it is the horse itself.

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Even so, it’s amazing how much of a character Spielberg creates out of Joey, the horse, without ever resorting to a style that “personifies” him. The connection he makes with Albert, and others, is convincing precisely because the portrayal is real, not romanticized.

Unlike Gump, the journey doesn’t touch on the war’s major events or turning points but rather the full swath of the people in it, from soldiers good and bad on both sides of the conflict to innocent folk caught up in the proverbial crossfire.

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An episode halfway through involving a young girl and her grandfather, living in the French countryside, is particularly touching. Her spirit is effervescent despite suffering from frail bones, he’s understandably overprotective, and Joey serves as a muse of courage for both to forge.

The net effect of it all actually works as a perfect, sobering war film for those still too young to experience the literal blood and guts of Saving Private Ryan. Though still intense and perhaps surprisingly harrowing in its own unflinching way, War Horse would help older middle school aged children (and up) confront and grapple with the unforgiving ravages of war for the first time.

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A few battle scenes are particularly traumatic, with one sequence of trench warfare evoking the horrors of Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day invasion (but minus the gore, and also without Kaminski’s drop-frame technique that made the Normandy beaches even more chaotic). Another, by stark contrast, is a temporary truce – with Joey, again, at the catalytic center – that no doubt drew inspiration from the real-life Christmas Truce of 1914. Through this scene and others, War Horse uses Joey to help show that benevolence – no matter how fleeting or faint – fights to emerge in the face of such bleak inhumanity.

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The film also tracks Albert, who is eventually enlisted into the war as well, building toward the inevitable reunion at war’s end. Cynics (i.e. most film critics) would say that the reunion is contrived. I see it, rather, as a merciful dénouement to this wartime fable, one in desperate need of a life-affirming miracle. So, too, is the meeting of Albert and one of Joey’s wartime owners.

I may be a sap, but these moments never fail to put a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, perhaps especially because they’re not overplayed. Rather, they’re subtle and tender; a reminder of the very things – found in simple, common life – they were all fighting for.

There’s an overwhelming (at times devastating) beauty to Spielberg’s filmmaking here, but there’s also more. There’s a poetry. A lyricism. An undeniable humanity. I may be the only one who thinks it, but War Horse is a work of art.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • While still shot on film, this marked the first film Spielberg allowed to be edited digitally. All others had been cut, from the actual print, the old fashioned way: on a Moviola. The Adventures of Tintin must’ve been the gateway; the computer animated feature was also cut digitally, but by necessity of the fact that it was an entirely digital creation, not shot on film. He and editor Michael Kahn have since gone back to the Moviola. They felt that digital editing rushed their creative process too much.
  • This marked the sixth time that Spielberg released two films in one calendar year, except this time instead of being separated by 6 months it was only 4 days. The Adventures of Tintin opened on December 21st, and War Horse opened on Christmas Day, 2011. The other five Summer/December splits were:
  • Only three shots, lasting three seconds each, were digitally enhanced. Otherwise, everything seen is real. Spielberg was quoted as saying, “That’s the thing I’m most proud of. Everything you see on screen really happened.”
  • Further emphasizing that point, the film utilized 5800 extras and background talent.
  • Jeremy Irvine, who played Albert (in his feature film debut), actually contracted trench foot while shooting the war scenes.
  • Eventual Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne was almost cast as Albert.
  • The location where horses drag German artillery up hilly terrain was the same location for the opening battle scene of Gladiator.
  • Spielberg Oner alert: a nearly 2-minute single take about halfway through, as German soldiers ransack the home of the French girl and her grandfather.
  • For his battle scene, Tom Hiddleston shared a note that Spielberg gave him for one of his close-ups. “Give me your war face,” Spielberg told him. “I want you to de-age yourself by 20 years. So you’re 29, and when you see those machine guns, you’re 9 years old. I want to see the child in you.” Hiddleston said of the direction, “I just thought that was one of the most astonishing acting notes I’d ever been given.”
    WarHorse_Hiddleston

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011) – 30 Days Of Spielberg

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The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Rated PG

(for
adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking)
Released: December 21, 2011
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones, Joe Starr

Day 28 of “30 Days of Spielberg” – Part 1

Whenever you adapt a classic character that no one has a particular affinity or nostalgia for, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when it fails to catch on – even when you’re two of the most popular filmmakers in the world.

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Intended to be the first of a trilogy, The Adventures of Tintin is based on one of the most popular European comic series of the 20th Century, running from pre-World War II and into the 1970s, by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (the pen name of Georges Remi). Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (the King of Middle Earth), both looking to work in the realm of motion capture animation (a.k.a. Mo-Cap), became producing partners to adapt Tintin into that format. Spielberg would direct the first film, Jackson the second, and they’d co-direct the third.

Oddly enough, Spielberg did not grow up on the comic series. In fact, the first he heard of it came through the European film reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Critics wrote that Tintin had clearly been a major influence on Spielberg, to which Spielberg wondered “What’s Tintin?” Suffice it to say, as a construct, Tintin is the kid equivalent of Indiana Jones, an intrepid and globetrotting teen news reporter who finds himself caught up in one daring scrape after another. Who better to adapt that for the screen than Steven Spielberg?

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Yet shockingly, The Adventures of Tintin is one of the more boring action adventures you’ll ever sit through, despite coming from the ultimate purveyor of them. That has as much to do with the material as it does the format it’s told in. When everything is possible for a filmmaker, nothing seems impossible to the viewer. For an adventure story, that’s actually a buzzkill.

Nothing comes together in a script that tries to pull out all the stops, written by the most beloved British scribes working in film and television today: Steven Moffat (creative guru behind modern incarnations of Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes) along with Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (whose witty satirical spins on genre like Hot Fuzz and Attack The Block have engendered cult followings).

Part of the problem is how retrograde the material is, playing more like the kind of adventure that would’ve fascinated kids from generations past but not those of today’s. Even with the full force of modern technology, The Adventures of Tintin comes off as culturally archaic and antiquated.

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There’s simply no appeal to this hero, his quest, the clues he’s following, the mystery he’s solving, the scoundrels he’s facing, or the sunken treasure he’s seeking. The only person who seems compelled to stay on this mission is Tintin himself, but not any of us being asked to go along with him.

The subplot tangents are silly distractions, too; a London pickpocket and the two hapless investigators on his trail are there for comic relief and fan service (for all you Tintin diehards out there), but within the context of this fairly dense yarn it’s just aimless and pointless. It’s not that the story isn’t well-written; it’s that you find yourself not caring what this plot machine produces.

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All those issues considered, one has to wonder if the failure isn’t so much with the filmmakers as it is the specific medium of choice. To date, even following numerous attempts by high profile directors (Spielberg’s protégé Robert Zemeckis chief among them), no Mo-Cap animated feature has been a breakthrough success. The closest is Zemeckis’ first foray The Polar Express, but that has the goodwill of the Christmas spirit propping it up. At this point, filmmakers need to start conceding that there is an inherent problem with Mo-Cap animation that no director – regardless of how successful or populist – will ever be able to crack:

It’s kind of creepy.

Playing out like the animated version of stilted theme park animatronics, Mo-Cap characters – humans specifically – fall prey to the “dead eye” effect, where despite intentional focus and detail on every human nuance (including that “spark” behind the eyes), Mo-Cap humans never fail to come off as anything other than lifeless. They’re too real and not real enough.

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Animals and other creatures don’t fair much better, as anatomical movement is too smooth and free-flowing and yet not credibly reactive, with the cause-and-effect of instinctive responses not quite capturing the true physics of movement within space and gravity. From small but telling reflexes to the actual physical effects of blunt forces opposing each other (a staple of action movies), Mo-Cap undercuts the very reality it strives to emulate.

Also, the Mo-Cap world allows too much freedom for a filmmaker. With a computer “camera” that’s completely unrestrained, classic cinematic visual language is lost. Even Spielberg’s instincts and hallmarks become muddled and neutered, and the simplest non-action sequences can be confusing. There’s simply too much steadicam-style whirring, gliding, swooping and swirling, the kind that no real camera could ever do in the real world.

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A viewer may initially gawk at the spectacle of it all, but subconsciously the response is counter-productive because it makes the experience feel less real, not more. And then ironically, the viewer ends up feeling more detached from the experience, not submerged – which is the goal. Not even in 3D. Spielberg Oners also fail to impress (namely a 3-minute “one take” chase sequence through the streets, buildings, rooftops, and canals of the fictional Bagghar) because inherently they’re cheats.

Sure, they’re elaborate, high energy, and impressively designed (colorful and detailed, this is one amazing movie to look at), but only by design, not in execution. Problematically, we can’t be left breathless because we’re not wondering how they did that.

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In the end, it just comes off as a series of big budget PreVis sequences and nothing more. One can’t help but wonder how much more exhilarating this same material could’ve been as a live action thrill ride.

The Adventures of Tintin is a story built entirely on a series of high stakes that can never shake the underlying truth – in both narrative and visual format – of how safe it all is. It’s an explosion of imagination that fails to capture ours.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun is the title of what was to be Peter Jackson’s follow-up. It’s still listed as in development on IMDb, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
  • This was the first non-Pixar movie to win the Best Animated Feature award at the Golden Globes.
  • Spielberg enjoyed the freedom of the virtual camera so much that he did a lot of the camera work himself.
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  • Spielberg had initially intended to make his Tintin movie live action, but after a conversation with Peter Jackson about the visual effects needed, Jackson – a longtime Tintin fan – convinced Spielberg that the film needed to be Motion Capture. Spielberg found the argument so convincing that not only did he agree, but he brought Jackson onboard as his primary collaborator.
  • Spielberg had been considering the property ever since he first discovered it during the press tour for Raiders. In 1984, he considered making it with Jack Nicholson as Captain Haddock (performed here by Mo-Cap legend Andy Serkis). Before Serkis was hired, Spielberg bestie Tom Hanks was also considered.
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  • This was the first animated film for Steven Spielberg, his first 3D movie, as well as his first PG rating since 1991’s Hook.
  • Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the acting duo who co-starred in screenwriter Edgar Wright’s breakout action comedy Hot Fuzz, performed the bumbling twin detectives Thomson and Thompson (yes, spelled differently).
    Tintin_Paper1

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) – 30 Days Of Spielberg

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Rated PG-13

(for 
adventure violence, scary images, and some language)
Released: May 22, 2008
Runtime: 122 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent

Day 27 of “30 Days of Spielberg”

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Why must George Lucas keep ruining our childhoods?

Yes, this is Steven Spielberg’s movie, but the creator and and co-producer that formed the Holy Indy Trinity (a.k.a. Lucas/Spielberg/Ford) is primarily responsible for everything people didn’t like about this highly anticipated and longed-for return of Indiana Jones. I guess ruining the Star Wars saga wasn’t enough.

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I’ll get to this film’s backstory, which is more interesting than the movie itself (particularly since it explains so much), but first: a take on what works and what doesn’t in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, the fourth and thankfully not final chapter for the only action hero in movie history to reach the rarified legacy once held alone by James Bond.

The first signs of trouble actually started with the announcement of the subtitle. “…the Crystal Skull” sounds more like random fan fiction than the previously inspired, and historically rooted, McGuffins. Yet sitting down to watch this again for the first time in years, that first half-hour-plus had me rethinking my mixed impressions that have long lingered about this problematic episode.

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From the opening drag race to the exploits at Area 51 (Harrison Ford is far from rickety) to the campus motorcycle chase – all of which riffs off the late 1950s era quite nicely – this was firing on all of the cylinders you want from an Indiana Jones adventure. Yes, even the “nuked fridge” survival cop-out in the atomic blast was a funny bit of comic silliness, and yes, Shia LaBeouf was a great casting choice as Mutt (even if the name choice wasn’t), although I can sympathize with those who find it difficult to get past his real life “troubled artist” ungrateful punk routine.

But once this shifts to Peru forty minutes in, the Crystal Skull starts to crack, revealing a cheap imitation. For the next half hour the film seriously drags as Indy and Mutt search an old dank asylum and the farthest depths of area catacombs. Who knew the series’ most lethal booby trap would be too much actual archeologing? The slog continues as Indy and Mutt find themselves captive in the jungle camp of that red commie villainess with psychic powers Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett; well-played, criminally underused).

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The film doesn’t construct another legitimate action sequence until well into its second hour – and even then, we have to put up with digitized vine-swinging monkeys. The climactic scenes, too, feel more like video game levels than tightly constructed set pieces, relying way too heavily on digital effects rather than the raw throwback aesthetic that birthed the series.

We’re given the return of Marion Ravenwood to assuage our growing discontent with this lackluster blockbuster, but her thinly drawn character is one of this entry’s bigger embarrassments, and it’s the biggest tell of all that the bulk of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is little more than fan service cash grabbing.

(Even John Williams occasionally phones it in, dropping in Raiders’ Map Room theme for Area 51. Still, his “A Whirl Through Academe” cue is a highlight, and it figures that it would come from one of the fun – and entirely stunt-driven (not effects laden) – early sequences. This sounds like a classic underscore from the series because the scene itself is.)

And I haven’t even gotten to the aliens yet.

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Although to be honest, as a concept, making the Alien B-Movie chapter of this saga was a worthwhile proposition, especially given the late 50s era. The problem is what they did with it, along with (and perhaps especially because of) the general lack of satisfying action for the film’s final two-thirds.

Which leads us to this production’s long troubled history, and how its issues all land at the feet of one George Lucas. To be fair (and clear), I’m going to be making some assumptions based on what is known about the film’s development, so whenever I’m attributing emotional context to events, that’s me making guesses. But it sure makes sense, particularly when you consider that George Lucas will have nothing to do with the upcoming Indy 5.

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In the early 2000s, various script drafts went under the title Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods. Written by Frank Darabont (writer/director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), all versions incorporated the basic alien concept – per Lucas’s initial story ideas, and Spielberg’s sign-off – along with other elements that came and went. Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford went by a gentlemen’s agreement that they wouldn’t make another Indy movie unless all three of them could agree on a script. Through Darabont’s first two drafts, they cobbled out aspects that each weren’t keen to.

Darabont submitted his third draft – and Spielberg was thrilled. According to Darabont, Spielberg said it was “the best script he’d read since Raiders of the Lost Ark” and that he wanted to begin shooting in July of 2004. Ford was also onboard.

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Then Lucas chimed in. He rejected the script, in total, and wanted to bring in a new writer for a nearly complete overhaul. Darabont was stunned, the film was in turnaround, and the prospect of another Indiana Jones movie was suddenly in serious jeopardy – particularly since Ford had set a personal “now or never” deadline of 2008.

David Koepp, a favorite of Spielberg’s (Jurassic Park, War Of The Worlds), was brought in, and for all intents and purposes he basically transcribed a script that George would be happy with. Given Lucas’s veto power, the decision left to both director and actor was this:

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Either make an Indiana Jones movie with a script that’s George-approved, regardless of how they personally felt about it, or never make another Indiana Jones movie again. Four years later, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull was the result of that compromised choice. (To read much more about the whole saga behind the saga, click here to read the page entry at the Indiana Jones Wiki.)

It should be noted, too, that Spielberg would later cop to never having liked the Crystal Skull MacGuffin to begin with. In a 2011 interview with Empire Magazine (in which he basically confirms the compromised decision I just posited), he said that he agreed to the Skull because of his friendship with George. “I am loyal to my best friend,” Spielberg reasoned. “When he writes a story he believes in – even if I don’t believe in it – I’m going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it.”

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Still, Spielberg has some Indy repair of his own to do. Script aside, Crystal Skull’s heavy reliance on digital technology – not just with monkeys and aliens but even comping in synthetic environments – took the series to a gaudy bloat that ran entirely counter to its stripped-down roots (its $185 million budget is, by a considerable margin, Spielberg’s biggest to date). I probably shouldn’t count on Spielberg restricting himself entirely to the limits of 1984 visual effects techniques (as I suggested in my review of The Temple of Doom), but what a marketing hook that would be!

At the very least, let’s hope – from story to character to MacGuffin to craft – that when Spielberg and Ford finally get to make the movie they want to make (and will release in July 2019), that it’s the Indiana Jones we all love and remember.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • Due to new industry safety rules, Paramount execs wanted Indy’s bullwhip to be computer generated. Ford was indignant. Ford won, calling the request ridiculous.
  • One of Ford’s requests throughout the scripting process, including to David Koepp, was to have more jokes and references to his age. Contrary to other opinions, Ford didn’t want to avoid or minimize the age issue but embrace it.
  • Area 51 was revealed to be have the storage warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stored at the end of Raiders.
    CS_Ark
  • Ford’s costume measurements were unchanged from The Last Crusade, a testament to the shape he kept himself in.
  • Spielberg asked Sean Connery to return as Henry Jones, Sr., but Connery declined because he was enjoying retirement too much.
  • It should be noted that the aliens weren’t actually extra terrestrials. (If you haven’t seen the film I won’t spoil it for you, but it didn’t quite land as the awesome mindbender I think they were going for.)
  • This is the only Indy film in which Jones does not fire his gun.
  • This is the only Indy adventure to be set entirely in the Western Hemisphere.
  • On Dr. Jones’ classroom chalkboard is a sketch of the Sankara Stone that Indy went after in The Temple of Doom.
    CS_SankaraStone