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The Post (2017)

Even with the added timely benefit of championing a free press in the era of Trump, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a movie held together by big speeches and Meryl Streep. It’s the story of the Pentagon Papers but it’s told from the wrong perspective. It’s told through the reference of whether the owner of the Washington Post (Streep) will or will not publish and how this endangers her family’s financial control over the newspaper. Plenty of dismissive men doubt her because she’s a woman. It’s simply one of the least interesting versions of an important story. Streep is her standard excellent self and has a few standout moments where you can actively see her character thinking. I just don’t understand why all these talented people put so much effort into telling this version of this story. I missed the active investigation of Spotlight, how one piece lead to another and the bigger picture emerged. There was an urgency there that is strangely lacking with The Post. The question of whether she will publish is already answered. It feels like the screenplay is designed for Big Important Speeches from Important People. Tom Hanks plays the gruff editor of the newspaper and Streep’s chief scene partner. They’re enjoyable to watch, as is the large collection of great supporting actors (Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, and a Mr. Show reunion with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk). This is a movie that is easier to admire than like, but I don’t even know if I admire it that much. The film has to call attention to Streep’s big decision and the stakes involved by underlining just what she has to lose and reminding you how brave she’s being. When Streep leaves the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s a bevy of supportive women lined up to bask in her accomplishment. It’s a bit much and another reminder that The Post doesn’t think you’ll understand its major themes. It’s a perfectly acceptable Oscar-bait drama but it sells its subject short and its audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

The BFG (2016)

220px-The_BFG_posterRoald Dahl is the kind of highly imaginative, inventive, and subversive children’s author that makes one wonder why more of his books don’t end up as movies. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the best known, and there’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and the rather spooky for kids 90s film, The Witches (it at least spooked me as a kid). For such a prolific author, it’s a little curious he has so few film credits. Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful directors of the modern era, so if anyone could wrangle Dahl’s wondrous worlds onto the big screen, he should. The BFG should be a transporting experience brought to vivid life with cutting-edge technology. All the special effects in the world, however, can’t solve a raft of nagging script problems that manage to take the fantastic and make it boring and predictable.

In 1980s London, little orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) is abducted one night when she spots a giant blowing a mysterious trumpet into the windows of sleeping children. Fortunately for Sophie her captor is the BFG (Mark Rylance), which stands for Big Friendly giant, and he’s a vegetarian, having sworn off the bone-eating habits of his nastier giant peers. In Giant Country, the BFG collects and cultivates dream particles, concocting special mixtures that he then shares with sleeping children. The other giants bully and snidely dismiss the puny BFG. Sophie and the kindly BFG must work together to stop the larger giants from going back to London and dining on innocent children.

maxresdefaultThe BFG has some pretty big friendly problems when it comes to its misshapen plot structure and its alarming lack of urgency or escalation. We’re all familiar, consciously or unconsciously, to the three-act story structure at this point, which is the principle formula for screenwriting. The BFG gets started pretty quickly, abducting Sophie and taking her to the land of giants by around the 15-minute mark, and from there the movie seems to take a leisurely stroll. I can’t really tell you where the act breaks are because the movie just sort of luxuriates in the meandering interaction between the BFG and his human pupil. There’s the initial threat that the other cannibalistic giants will discover her and this threat pops up in a handful of set pieces where Sophie has to constantly find new hiding places. Unfortunately, this threat never really magnifies or changes. She might get caught, and then she doesn’t. She might get caught, and then she doesn’t. There’s a repetition to this threat with our antagonists at no point getting more threatening. This is and a lack of a narrative motor make the movie feel rudderless, plodding from one moment to the next without a larger sense of direction. And then the third act comes (spoilers), presumably, when Sophie and the BFG travel back to London to try and recruit the Queen of England’s (Penelope Wilton) help. This sequence includes an extended breakfast that it punctuated by the memorable climax of watching the Queen fart and her little corgies fly around the room powered by their flatulence. It has to be the climax because what follows certainly doesn’t follow. Within five minutes, the BFG leads the Brits back to the land of giants and they restrain and airlift all the other giants in shockingly easy fashion. It’s a victory that feels relatively hollow because of its ease. These giants were never much of a threat to begin with, which is why we spent more time deliberating over dream ingredients than a retreat from man-eating colossuses.

Another aspect of Dahl’s novel that falls flat on screen is his verbal gymnastics and witticisms. It just doesn’t work with actors repeating the words without the text in front of your eyes. Listening to the BFG talk for any extended period of time is like being stuck with a crazy person muttering to him or herself. I would estimate that at least 60% of the BFG’s dialogue is folksy malapropisms. It’s not endearing and grows rather tiresome, especially with the unshakable stagnation of the movie’s plot. And so we get scene after scene of a big CGI creature talking verbal nonsense. Are children going to be entertained by any of this? Are they going to be engaged with the giant’s gibberish or will they find it one more impenetrable aspect of a movie and a story that seems to keep the audience at length? I couldn’t engage with the movie because it never gave me a chance to invest in what was happening. The BFG is a gentle soul and shouldn’t be bullied by his giant brethren, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically love him. I didn’t.

For a Spielberg movie this feels oddly absent his more charming and whimsical touches. There are scant moments where it feels like Spielberg is playing to his abilities in this fantasy motion capture world, like exploring the underwater land where the BFG gathers his dream ingredients, and in the narrow and messy escapes Sophie has not to be caught. It’s a shame that the creative highs of Spielberg in full imagination mode are too often absent the rest of the movie. He too feels like he’s coasting, allowing the technology and the fantasy setting to do the heavy lifting. The land of the giants is a bit too underwhelming as far as fantasy worlds go. It’s simply too recognizable except for slight peculiarities, like “snozcumbers.” It’s not an enchanting location and we’re not given enchanting characters, and with the little narrative momentum or escalating stakes. I experienced a lot more fun and whimsy from Spielberg’s other major mo-cap movie, the nearly forgotten 2011 Adventures of Tintin. The action sequences especially had such a lively sense of comic brio and imagination that was pure Spielberg. I get no such feeling from The BFG. If you told me that Robert Zemeckis had made this movie I wouldn’t have blinked. I don’t know if Spielberg was hoping to recapture that E.T. magic with screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who passed away in 2015) but this isn’t close.

I will credit the special effects department for the amount of work put into Rylance’s BFG visage, which looks eerily like the Oscar-winning actor. The range of the facial expressions is another sign that mo-cap performances are just as legitimate as live action flesh-and-blood performances. I can admire the technical feats of the character while not exactly feeling that much enjoyment from that character. The interaction between the computer elements and the real-life elements could be better, most bothersome with little Sophie interacting with the giant’s giant personal things.

I was left wondering whom The BFG is supposed to appeal to. I think kids and adults will be bored by its slow pace and stagnant, minimal stakes, weird and unengaging characters and their annoyingly impenetrable speech habits, and the overall lack of charm and wonder. It’s saying something significant when the most mesmerizing part of a fantasy movie is watching the Queen of England, her dogs, and a room full of her royal servants violently fart green clouds of noxious gas. That was the one moment in my screening where the kids in the room seemed to be awake. Otherwise the BFG character must have calmly put them to sleep with his prattling gibberish. It’s not an insufferable movie and there are fleeting moments of entertainment, but they drift away like a memory of a dream. There just isn’t enough going on in this movie to justify its near two-hour running time. Not enough conflict, not enough world exploration, not enough character bonding, not enough whimsy, and not enough entertainment. It feels too lightweight to matter and too dull to enchant. The BFG could have used more farts. That would be a sign of life.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Bridge of Spies (2015)

wpid-images3.jpegAn intriguing behind-the-scenes negotiation during a heightened period of danger, Bridge of Spies relies upon its history to do the heavy lifting and it’s plenty enough for a handsomely made, reverent, and engaging legal procedural that’s also hard to muster great passion over. Tom Hanks is again a noble everyman, this time an insurance lawyer, James Donovan, called in to defend a mild-mannered Russian spy (Mark Rylance) captured during the Cold War. Things get even more complicated when spy pilot Francis Powers is shot down over Soviet airspace. The movie’s civil liberties arguments are pretty clear and still applicable to our modern era, but the movie becomes exponentially more interesting once Powers is captured and Donovan travels to Eastern Berlin to negotiate a prisoner swap while trying to work three sides, the Americans, the Russians, and the Eastern Germans who were hungry for legitimacy. It’s during these back-and-forth negotiations and posturing that the movie really hits its stride, pulling incredible facts together while forcing our protagonist to be the world’s greatest poker player. It’s the details of this story that makes it feel more fulfilling from spy techniques to the new life on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The acting is robust and Rylance (TV’s Wolf Hall) makes a strong impression in a role that requires him to be cagey to a fault. Hanks is his usual determined, inspirational self, which plays all the right emotions in a way that still feels expected and a little boring. Bridge of Spies is a slighter Steven Spielberg affair, a good story well told with good actors but a movie missing essential elements to plant itself in your memory. It’s a fine movie but sometimes fine is just not enough, and considering the talent involved in front of and behind the camera, I expect better.

Nate’s Grade: B

Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg’s long in the works biopic of Abraham Lincoln could have easily been retitled, The Thirteenth Amendment: The Movie, such is the narrow band of focus. Lincoln is an engrossing, handsomely mounted study in the political machinations that went into passing the 13th amendment to outlaw slavery. Unless you’re a fan of history of politics, I can’t imagine that this movie is going to prove that engaging for you. This is a big movie about Big Moments with lots of people with beards giving speeches. Daniel Day-Lewis does a tremendous job as our titular sixteenth president, giving the man more foibles and traces of humanity than I can remember from any screen portrayal. Liam Neeson (The Grey) had long been attached to be Spielberg’s Lincoln, but I cannot fathom any other actor in the role after seeing Day-Lewis’s amazing work. I think he’s a shoo-in for his third Oscar. It’s intriguing to witness what a political animal Lincoln was, able to play off different sides to get his way. In the end, you may even feel a stir of patriotic pride, inspired by the good that government can grant with the right leaders for the right causes. The supporting cast all provide great performances, from Sally Field as the volatile Mrs. Lincoln, to James Spader as a conniving lobbyist, to Tommy Lee Jones as a stubborn curmudgeon… so basically Tommy Lee Jones. Just about every speaking part is a recognizable character actor. Who’s going to turn down the prospect of a Spielberg Lincoln movie? The tighter window of focus allows the movie greater depth as an important political juncture in our nation’s history, but Lincoln could have also been the 19th century equivalent of that Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just a Bill.” This is an easy movie to admire but I think a more difficult film to love, to fully embrace.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

It may not be fair, but I was never expecting to like Steven Spielberg’s first foray into animation, The Adventures of TinTin. It just looked so busy and I’m still on the fence when it comes to motion-capture technology. So imagine my surprise when I found myself not just enjoying the movie but also actively loving it. This rollicking adventure practically hums with energy and imagination. It’s easy to get lost in its sweep. The action sequences, of which there are several, are terrific, breathlessly paced but showing great fair and imagination. It comes to the closest of any imposter to replicating the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Give great credit to Spielberg but also his team of terrific Brit writers (Dr. Who’s Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and the man behind Attack the Block, Joe Cornish). The characters don’t feel like soulless androids, the adventure is lively, the immersive visuals are gorgeous to behold, and the scale of some of these action set pieces is just massive, in particular a chase through a Moroccan city that is performed in one unblinking take (although does it matter when it’s animated?). I felt transported while watching Tintin, back to a time of childhood awe and excitement. Some will find the movie wearisome and vacant, but I’m prone to shaking off my adult quibbles when a movie can make me feel like a kid again

Nate’s Grade: A-

Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 is writer/director J.J. Abrams’ reverent homage to early Spielberg movies. For some, it will be too reverent to the point of being a slobbery love letter.

In 1979, a small Ohio town, 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is reeling from the death of his mother in a factory accident. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is a police officer who doesn’t know how to raise his boy. He even tries to convince his son to spend the summer at a baseball camp. “It’ll be good for you to spend some time with kids who don’t run around with cameras and monster makeup,” he says. That kid is Charles (Riley Griffiths), a self-possessed amateur filmmaker. Charles is writing and directing a short Super 8 film and all his friends are helping. Joe’s specialty is makeup, given his attention to delicately painting models. Being the makeup guy comes in handy when the gang invites the local pretty girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), to be in their movie. Joe gets to apply her zombie makeup. One night, the gang sneaks out to a train yard to film a scene in their movie. A U.S. Air Force cargo train is passing by and suddenly derails, in grand apocalyptic fashion. Strange things start happening all over town shortly after the train crash. Car motors and electrical equipment go missing, dogs run away to neighboring communities, and people start to go missing. The Air Force comes into town and takes charge. It seems that train was carrying something and that something has escaped.

What Super 8 does best is replicate a time, place, and mood. The movie is successfully awash in nostalgia, and that childhood nostalgia is the best aspect of an otherwise ordinary film. Abrams has fashioned the greatest film tribute to Spielberg in history. But its limited ambition makes it feel like the greatest cover band of all time. You’ve assembled al your talent and energy into replicating someone else’s original work. Congratulations, Super 8 is a glossy tribute to Spielberg. Now what? Well, the movie works well at finding that unique, infectious spirit of being young and full of ideas. Filmmaking, and movies in general, has a magic to it, the synergistic creativity and the sheer possibilities that can abound. Translating the imagination into a communal artistic experience. I’m sure Abrams was just as excited about the possibilities of a camera in his childhood as Spielberg was. That feeling of discovery, that rambunctious creativity, and the endearing clumsiness of amateur productions, it all rings completely true. I made silly movies with a camera and my friends when I was younger; my group of friends and I became known for our video projects in high school. So I could have readily watched an entire movie about kids and cameras and their artistic aspirations (as long as it was better than Son of Rambo). The highpoint of Super 8 for me was, surprisingly, the children’s short film “The Case” that plays over the closing credits. It’s funny and charming and sweetly affable. Finally seeing Charles’ finished film is the ultimate payoff.

Abrams as a director is quite capable of delivering big summer moments. He’s a genre specialist and a geek’s best friend. I’ve even compared his style to that of a young Spielberg in my review of 2006’s Mission: Impossible III. Abrams has a natural feel for putting his camera in the right placement. While Abrams can do exciting action with the best of them, crafting compelling screen compositions to ignite the senses, it’s the smaller touches that connect to his storytelling that impress me most. The very opening shot tells you so much and grabs you. It’s a slow zoom into a factory’s sign proclaiming how many days have gone by without an accident. A man takes down the number plates and the count drops from 750 to 1. There’s a small moment where alice imitates a zombie, cocking her head, lurching, going in to bite Joe. And you see her, in that moment, as Joe does: a lovely young woman who makes your heart melt. With the aid of Michael Giacchino’s very John Williams-esque score, you effectively feel Joe’s burgeoning young love. Then when we pull back there’s a trace of Alice’s red lipstick along Joe’s neck, indicating she made actual contact. It’s a small detail that makes you smile all over. It’s these small details that often play to plot or character that affirm for me that Abrams is a director of fantastic promise, a true Spielberg protégé. Now if Abrams could lay off his excessive use of lens flairs (though it’s not as prevalent as Star Trek; you could make a drinking game into every time there was a lens flair).

The young actors are pretty good despite the somewhat hollow characterization by Abrams. These kids are defined by one-note traits (the kid obsessed with explosives, the wuss, etc.). I was going to be more upset by this until I remembered that movies like The Goonies, deemed a nostalgic classic by my generation, also had flimsy, one-note characterization (the fat kid is fat, the Asian kid has funny gadgets!). The scenes where all the kids are assembled make for some of the best entertainment. The young actors have a great rapport with one another and feel like a true makeshift band of friends. Their camaraderie, uncertainty, and hopes seem entirely genuine. They seem like real kids with real kid problems and worries. Courtney is a strong emotional center for the film. It’s hard to believe this is his first role on the big screen. Fanning (Somewhere, Curious Case of Benjamin Button) has been acting ever since she was the two-year-old version of her famous big sister in I Am Sam. I’m on the record as saying that Elle is a superior actress to her sister, and I feel like that claim bears fruit with Super 8. There’s a scene where Fanning’s character is asked to practice some feeble dialogue. Her cohorts think of her as a pretty girl and a source of transportation. But in this one scene, she turns on a dime, bringing out real emotions that leave the boys breathless and the audience too. It’s reminiscent of the audition scene in Mulholland Drive where Naomi Watts, at the flip of a switch, transformed into a different person, coursing with vibrant life. Consider it the toned-down kiddie version.

Truthfully, the monster stuff is actually the weakest part of the film. Super 8 works best as an endearing, nostalgic trip about being young. It works best as a coming-of-age tale and a somewhat touching first romance between teenagers. It does not work well as a sci-fi monster movie. You can tell that the monster/alien stuff has been grafted on to a separate storyline; the plots have little to no bearing on one another. If the kids happened to never go to that train stop that one night, their storyline would be almost entirely unaffected. It’s like parallel movies that pass each other occasionally but have little shared resonance. I found the human stuff, about being young and hurt and with your friends, to be affecting and interesting. The big-budget explosions, the monster mystery teased far too long, the subterranean third act that ends in a gob smack of logic issues, the heavy-handed metaphor about “letting go” (after only fours months? I think you’re still allowed to be sad four months after your mom dies) – that stuff plays well in trailers, but it’s far less interesting. The monster/alien conspiracy fails to lead to anything ripe in the narrative; the Air Force antagonists are more furtively empty than menacing. They don’t seem to care so much about a group of kids filming around the crash site. They’re pretty ineffective antagonists. The monster is hidden for so long, the film builds to an expectation level that it could never meet. The creature design of the monster/alien looks exactly like a smaller version of the Cloverfield creature (also produced by Abrams). When Super 8 is a poorly mimicking other B-movies, trying to wring tears by the film’s somewhat forced ending, I kept thinking, “The Iron Giant did this much better.” I guess once again aliens or a supernatural encounter helps people heal their family strife, which is something M. Night Shyamalan has been selling for years. This is one monster movie that would have been infinitely better without its monster.

Super 8 is obviously a personal film for Abrams, harking back to his boyhood days of monster movies, amateur filmmaking, and young love. This nostalgic time warp will likely succeed with many audience members. Nostalgia is a powerful narrative weapon. It taps into our warm memories of old. But nostalgia is easy to pattern. What’s difficult is creating a work of art that people will be nostalgic over a generation hence. Super 8 is not going to be an inspiration to a new generation of budding young filmmakers; it reconfirms the joy of monsters, movies, and creative possibility. But the elements don’t gel. The monster stuff feels tacked on to an affecting coming-of-age tale about a group of kids working together to make a movie. Rarely will the two plots really have much traction with one another. I think Super 8 would have been an even better movie had the “summer movie” elements been stripped. No monster. No sci-fi thrills. No military intervention. No train crash. Just kids, a camera, and the emotions of growing up.

Nate’s Grade: B

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

I lived in New Haven, Connecticut for a year while my wife was earning her Master’s degree at Yale. We hated it. New Haven is a college town that doesn’t know it’s a college town, so everything closes at 10 PM, there are no student prices for anything, and the people there more or less sucked. We were happy to depart from the Nutmeg State. Then the week after we were going to leave was when Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and the production team for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were coming to town. They were going to film a motorcycle chase along Chapel Street (where I walked to work every day) and all along the Yale campus. Finally, a reason to stay in New Haven presents itself and it has to happen after we escape. It’s not often one of the most anticipated movies comes to your doorstep.

I could have been an extra in the motorcycle chase, which set in 1957, could have used a long-haired Beatnik type (played by yours truly) for an exaggerated reaction shot. I could have been sipping on an espresso and then Indiana Jones could have zoomed by on the bike snatching by hot beverage, leaving a long-haired Beatnik type (me again) to mug shamelessly for the camera. It would have worked. Alas, it was not to be, though it certainly would have made this ages-in-development sequel more enjoyable on my part.

It’s been a long time since part-time archeology professor and full-time treasure hunter Henry “Indiana” Jones (Ford) beat the Nazis. The world has gotten a lot more complicated thanks to the Cold War, the atomic bomb, and the fact that Jones is now well into his 60s. It’s been 19 years since his last adventure but the man with the bullwhip and the dusty fedora still has a knack for intrigue. Soviet KGB agents have captured Indy and his friend Mac (Ray Winstone) and taken them to the Area 51 warehouse. They’re seeking a recovered artifact of alien origins that can wield tremendous power, as they always do. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is the head KGB agent and likes to threaten her enemies with a riding crop (perhaps she earns some extra money on the side punishing bad, bad comrades). Indiana Jones manages to escape and is pursued by the Soviets and blacklisted by his government due to his perceived involvement with Russia.

Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) seeks out the help of Dr. Jones. Mutt is a greaser on a motorcycle that might be a chip off the old block. His parents are in trouble. The stepfather that raised him (John Hurt), an old archeology buddy of Indy’s, has traveled to South America and found a legendary crystal skull. The bizarre artifact would lead the way to the mythical golden city and crazy amounts of Mayan supernatural power. Unfortunately, the skull has also made him as batty as a bat and Spalko is going to kill him. Indy and Mutt fly down to South America to save the crazy old man. Oh, and Mutt’s mother is also in danger, and she would be none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who has plenty of romantic history with a certain swash-buckler afraid of snakes.

Seeing Ford back in action just feels right. His character has grown into a bit of a curmudgeon but he’s working the same territory Bruce Willis did last year in the long gestated Die Hard sequel. He’s an old man serving some justice to all these young punks that won’t get off his lawn. The film acknowledges his age and mostly uses it as a means for comedy (he cracks that a life of adventure isn’t “as easy as it used to be”). Ford looks more alert than he has in years.

Blanchett is one of our finest actresses on the planet but she has serious trouble maintaining her Ruskie accent; she alternates between Russian and British the whole movie. Her dominatrix-styled villainess is certainly interesting, and man does she have great posture, but the film doesn’t really know what to do with the Soviet bad guys. They become more or less Nazi stand-ins and seem to repeat the same ambitions that the Nazis carried out in two or the three previous films. Allen has aged magnificently and is a welcome return. She and Ford have terrific screwball comedy chemistry and pick up right where they left off in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. LaBeouf does a solid job even though he doesn’t have any meat to his character after his Marlon Brando-like introduction in leather jacket and motorcycle. Instead, Spielberg continuously winks at the audience about Mutt’s obvious familial line. It wouldn’t be a Spielberg movie without some family dynamic.

I’m pleased to reunite with Indiana Jones, I like the new characters, and I even like Mutt, but the story the characters are saddled with is lousy. This is the script that Ford, Spielberg, and co-creator/producer George Lucas all agreed upon? I’m not one of those people that have an issue with aliens being the primary movers and shakers in the plot (in informal talks with friends, many are upset that little green men are the stars). The first three Indy films dealt with a religious supernatural power and now this new installment covers a space alien supernatural power, so that doesn’t concern me. What bothered me is that Crystal Skull is a murky mash-up of [i]Temple of Doom[/i] and Stargate. Once the primary characters reach their hidden temple the movie takes a nosedive. Spielberg almost crafts an anti-intellectual message, where finding out the reality behind the magic ruins the soul. The exact story behind the Crystal Skull is frustrating in how oblique it is, and Spielberg doesn’t want to offer any clarity. I’m at a loss to explain exactly why anything happened in the concluding 20 minutes, least of all how an alien race must have a very different definition of the word “gift.”

Never before has the action in an Indiana Jones film come across as so campy. This is likely the most disappointing part of Crystal Skull: the action is too tongue-in-cheek. There were moments where I thought the film was one step away from Army of Darkness. Spielberg is enough of a brilliant tactician to know how to setup and build satisfying and stylish action, which normally involves organic complications and letting the audience fully grasp what’s happening. This means no rapid-fire edits and plenty of long, high angle shots to get the big picture. And when he’s in his groove, there are few that can top Spielberg when it comes to an action sequence. There are points in Crystal Skull where the action is rollicking and joyously packed with excitement and wonder. The opening sequence inside Area 51 starts the film off with a bang, the motorcycle chase through Yale is well choreographed, and a car chase in the jungle is fantastic in the amount of back-and-forth scuffles and emerging obstacles. It’s by far the film’s high point and then there was one point where Mutt was swinging from vine to vine like freaking Tarzan and he enlisted the help of monkeys. It took me completely out of what had been a rip-roaring action sequence. Then there’s the moment where Marion drives everyone off a cliff and onto a tree that bends to drop them safely before smacking back like a rubber band. I’m not asking for complete believability in an action caper but I’d prefer it not become an embarrassing Looney Tunes cartoon. Crystal Skull is filled with little moments that will completely yank you out of the movie.

The action sequences feel too pat for the material the film wants to cover. Even that great jungle car chase could have been boosted with some extra ingenuity. The scene opens with the Soviets driving a vehicle that is slicing the forest to splinters and clearing a path for the caravan of cars to follow. Now I know the Spielberg of 1981 would never have introduced such an interesting machine in a unique setting without using it later. The Spielberg of 2008 is different because this nifty blade mobile isn’t even seen again after its initial introduction to establish how a car chase in a jungle could be possible. The action relies too heavily on distracting CGI that takes the action sequences on annoying, over-the-top detours. Just because computers can make it happen doesn’t mean it’s always a good avenue to go down. In short, the CGI is undercooked and over used.

I also need to speak frankly about the CGI — it is terrible. However, when I watched Crystal Skull my party got a tad lost on the way to the theater so the only seats left were the third row from the screen. I spent the entire movie with my neck craned up. Perhaps if I saw the film in a position it was more intended to be seen the special effects would come across as more professionally polished, but from my neck-cramping position they looked pitifully amateurish for a major summer blockbuster with Spielberg and Lucas’s names attached. The effects work is shockingly shoddy, but the practical production design is amazing. Unfortunately, this does not balance out in the film’s favor.

I’m coming across as harsh but I only get this way when my expectations are raised because of a pattern of quality. The three prior Indiana Jones films were lively, imaginative, and deeply charming and satisfying adventures that leaned toward the exaggerated but still managed to thrill without feeling dumb. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the few perfect movies in existence, in my opinion, and set the standard for all action/adventure movies to follow. It’s unfair to expect the same sensation watching a sequel 19 years after its predecessor, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does manage to hone in on the same spirit that made the other Indy films such high-flying thrill rides. If you set your brain to a low frequency, enter the theater with lowered expectations, and already know that at one point Mutt will swing from vine to vine like freaking Tarzan, then Crystal Skull will provide the necessary popcorn entertainment you’d seek in a summer blockbuster. It is possible to think Crystal Skull ranks up with its predecessors but that requires so much contortion that I wouldn’t know how to arrive at that opinion. I suppose we should all resort to the consolation that even with E.T. taking over the plot, this thing could have been a lot worse. Just remember that if an alien offers you a “gift” to run in the other direction.

Nate’s Grade: C+

War of the Worlds (2005)

Steven Spielberg is America’s favorite director. He’s made films about alien encounters before (hell, it was most of the title of one movie), but Spielberg has never tackled evil aliens. Alien movies either involve cuddly little green men or the kind that want to destroy our planet. The latter is usually more interesting and finally Spielberg takes the trip with War of the Worlds.

Instead of focusing on high-ranking government officials, War of the Worlds concentrates on an everyday man just trying to save his family. Ray (Tom Cruise) is a New Jersey dock worker and a divorced pop. His ex-wife (Miranda Otto) has dropped off the kids (Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin) for the weekend. Ray isn’t exactly father of the year and his sullen kids remind him of this fact. Meanwhile, there seems to be a series of lightning storms hitting the world that then leave an electronic magnetic field that eliminates all the electricity in the area. A storm hovers over New Jersey and lightning strikes not once but over twenty times in the same spot. Ray goes to investigate the site. The ground beneath trembles and caves in. A giant machine with three tentacle-like legs emerges from the earth and starts zapping any humans it can find. Ray escapes, packs up the kids in the only working car in town, and runs, runs, runs, all with the aliens just a step behind ready and waiting for a people zappin’.

There are three things an audience will have to put behind them in order to enjoy what War of the Worlds has to offer.

1) The film has no plot. War of the Worlds spends the first 15 minutes setting up its handful of characters and their misery with each other. After that, it’s nothing but all-out alien attacks. That’s really it. Ray and the kids run to one place and think they’re safe. The aliens come and attack. Ray and the kids escape to a new place. The aliens come and attack. Lather, rinse, repeat. There is little more to War of the Worlds.

2) Spielberg has pretty much forgotten how to make good endings. I think A.I. was the nail in the coffin. Routinely Spielberg films seem to run out of gas or end rather anticlimactically, but A.I. really cemented the glaring fact that Spielberg cannot sit still with an unhappy ending. So, yes, War of the Worlds both ends anticlimactically and with an abrupt happy ending. Of course the H.G. Wells novel ends in the same fashion so there’s less to gripe about, until, that is, until you reach the implausible reunion. Spielberg can’t keep well enough alone and forces the story to be even happier at the cost of logic.

3) Ignore whatever feelings you hold about Tom Cruise. Off-screen, many feel that Cruise is becoming an obnoxious, pampered, self-involved, couch-jumping cretin. No matter what your feelings about Cruise and his self-taught knowledge about the history of psychiatry, that is not who is in War of the Worlds. He is playing a character. I never understood the argument that because you dislike an actor as a person it invalidates all their acting. I’ve read magazines that actually say people are staying away from Cinderella Man because people think Russell Crowe is a grump. In War of the Worlds, Cruise plays a deadbeat dad who finds his paternal instincts during the end of the world. The character isn’t deep and acts as a cipher for the audience to put themselves in the scary story. Plus it’s not like Cruise is a bad actor; he has been nominated for three Oscars.

Since this is a large Hollywood horror film, the acting consists mainly or healthy lungs and frightful, big-eyed expressions. So it seems natural that little Dakota Fanning would play the role of Child in Danger. Cruise somehow finds some points in the story to exhibit good acting. There’s a moment right after Ray and his kids escape to their mother’s home. He tries making them food out of whatever they saved which amounts to little more than condiments and bread. His kids rebuff his offer and he throws the sandwiches against a window and repeats to himself to breathe. In lesser hands this moment would just be some light comedy, but Cruise turns it into an opportunity to see the character’s desperation. Tim Robbins shows up late playing a nutball going through some self-induced cabin fever.

War of the Worlds, at its core, is a post-9/11 horror film on a mass scale. Spielberg plays with our paranoia and anxiety and creates a movie that is fraught with tension and an overriding sense of inevitable annihilation. The aliens are so advanced and so powerful. The deck definitely seems to be stacked against Earth. I felt great amounts of dread throughout the film knowing that the aliens will find you, they will get you, and it’s only a matter of time. And that’s the recipe for a perfectly moody horror film. War of the Worlds is chilling in its depiction of worldly destruction, and yet it becomes even more terrifying by how realistic everything seems as the world falls apart when its under attack. The introduction of huge, human-zapping aliens is expected to be scary, but who knew human beings at their wit?s end could be just as scary? A crowd of people turns into a violent mob fighting for any last bit of space in Ray’s working car. A man sitting on top of the hood is actually ripping away chunks of windshield with his bare, bloody hands.

War of the Worlds really benefits from awesome special effects. As stated before, we live in a jaded age where most special effects have lost feeling special. Computer advancements have also created a more advanced audience able to point out the big screen fakery at a faster pace. If you don’t believe me, look back at some movies from 1995 or so and see if you’re still wowed. War of the Worlds marvelously displays destruction on such an incredible scale. City streets ripped apart, houses blown up, cars flipping through the air, ferries plunged into the water, and it all looks as real as can be. There are moments I know that have to be computer assisted, like seeing miles and miles of stranded vehicles and people on the side, but it looks like they filmed it for real. The only thing that seemed hokey was people being vaporized by alien ray guns and having their clothes remain. I don’t know if Spielberg was going for a veiled Schindler’s List reference or they thought anything more grim could rock their PG-13 rating.

Due to all of this realism, War of the Worlds is not a film to take young children to see. The startling realism and suffocating sense of dread will keep kids up for weeks with nightmares, maybe some adults too. There’s more than a passing reference to 9/11, and that may be a wound too fresh for some. Thousands of people walk the streets as homeless refugees. There are large tack boards with hopeful missing fliers of relatives. One of the most horrifying images consists of a flowing river filled with floating corpses. There’s also a grand set built around the remains of a downed airplane. When Ray is trying to explain the situation at first, his son interjects, “Were they terrorists?” Spielberg calculatingly uses our memories of 9/11 to create a true-to-life horror story that doesn’t feel exploitative. “War” implies some kind of even ground. This is a massacre, and one parents should be wise not to bring youngsters to.

With War of the Worlds, Spielberg has crafted a chilling, realistic, post-9/11 horror movie. The action is big, the destruction is bigger, and the dread is at a near breaking point. Sure the movie is plotless and the ending is anticlimactic and forcibly happy, but War of the Worlds should appeal to those looking for the safe way to witness the end of the world. Spielberg invented the big summer movie and War of the Worlds is a taught return to form. It’s not much more than watching aliens destroy things but for many that will be plenty for a summer movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

January at the theaters is a tale of two kinds of films. One type are the studio bombs (take Just Married and Darkness Falls, please take them far away). The other type are the prestige pictures expanding their releases in hopes of garnering some of that Oscar magic. A lot of prestige films were released around the holidays and though not every one could be a winner, they were all better than Kangaroo Jack. Well, except for The Hours.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Premise: Successful true-life con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leo DiCaprio) zips across the world posing as a pilot, doctor and lawyer – all before the age of 18. A mousy Tom Hanks provides the chasing.

Results: Breezy and light-hearted, Catch is an entertaining and fun romp that works with a charming Leo (unlike in Gangs), a jazzy score and a skillful recreation of the 1960s life and mood. Spielberg hasn’’t made a film under two hours since 1989, so Catch is a tad long.

Nate’s Grade: B

A.I. (2001)

A.I. is the merger of two powerhouses of cinema – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The very mysterious film was given to Spielberg by Kubrick himself who thought ole’ Steven would be a better fit to direct it. The two did keep communication open for like a decade on their ideas for the project until Kubrick’s death in March of 1999. What follows is an imaginative futuristic fairy tale that almost grabs the brass ring but falls short due to an inferior ending. More on that later.

In the future technological advances allow for intelligent robotic creatures (called “mechas”) to be constructed and implemented in society. William Hurt has the vision to create a robot more real than any his company has ever embarked on before. He wants to make a robot that can know real love. Flash ahead several months to Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) who are dealing with their own son in an indefinite coma. Henry is given the opportunity to try out a prototype from his company of a new mecha boy. His wife naturally believes that her son could not be replaced and her emotions smoothed over. Soon enough they both decide to give the boy a try and on delivery comes David (Haley Joel Osment) ready to begin new life in a family. David struggles to fit in with his human counterparts and even goes to lengths to belong like mimicking the motions of eating despite his lack of need to consume. Gradually David becomes a true part of the family and Monica has warmed up to him and ready to bestow real love onto their mecha son.

It’s at this point when things are going well for David that the Swinton’s son Martin comes out of his coma and returns back to his parents. Sibling rivalry between the two develops for the attention and adoration of their parents. Through mounting unfortunate circumstances the Swintons believe that David is a threat and decide to take him away. The corporation that manufactured David had implicit instructions that the loving David if desired to be returned had to be destroyed. Monica takes too much pity on David that she ditches him in the woods and speeds off instead of allowing him to be destroyed.

David wanders around searching for the Blue Fairy he remembers from the child’s book Pinocchio read to him at the Swinton home. He is looking for this magical creature with the desire she will turn him into a real boy and his human mother will love him again. Along David’s path he buddies up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure ‘bot that tells the ladies they’re never the same once he’s through. The two traverse such sights as a mecha-destroying circus called ‘Flesh Fairs’ complete with what must be the WWF fans of the future, as well as the bright lights of flashy sin cities and the submerged remains of a flooded New York. David’s journey is almost like Alice’s, minus of course the gigolo robot of pleasure.

There are many startling scenes of visual wonder in A.I. and some truly magical moments onscreen. Spielberg goes darker than he’s even been and the territory does him good. Osment is magnificent as the robotic boy yearning to become real, but Jude Law steals the show. His physical movement, gestures, and vocal mannerisms are highly entertaining to watch as he fully inhibits the body and programmed mind of Gigolo Joe. Every time Law is allowed to be onscreen the movie sparkles.

It’s not too difficult to figure out which plot elements belong to Spielberg and which belong to Kubrick, since both are almost polar opposites when it comes to the feelings of their films. Spielberg is an idealistic imaginative child while Kubrick was a colder yet more methodical storyteller with his tales of woe and thought. The collaboration of two master artists of cinema is the biggest draw going here. A.I.‘s feel ends up being Spielberg interpreting Kubrick, since the late great Stanley was dead and gone before he could get his pet project for over a decade ready. The war of giants has more Spielberg but you can definitely tell the Kubrick elements running around, and they are a gift from beyond the grave.

I thought at one point with the first half of A.I. I was seeing possibly the best film of the year, and the second half didn’t have the pull of the first half but still moves along nicely and entertained. But then came the ending, which ruined everything. There is a moment in the film where it feels like the movie is set to end and it would’ve ended with an appropriate ending that could have produced lingering talk afterwards. I’m positive this is the ending Kubrick had in mind. But this perfect ending point is NOT the ending, no sir! Instead another twenty minutes follows that destroys the realm of belief for this film. The tacked on cloying happy ending feels so contrived and so inane. It doesn’t just stop but keeps going and only gets dumber and more preposterous form there. I won’t go to the liberty of spoiling the ending but I’ll give this warning to ensure better enjoyment of the film: when you think the movie has ended RUN OUT OF THE THEATER! Don’t look back or pay attention to what you hear. You’ll be glad you did later on when you discover what really happens.

The whole Blue Fairy search is far too whimsical for its own good. It could have just been given to the audience in a form of a symbolic idea instead of building the last half of the film for the search for this fictional creature’s whereabouts. The idea is being pounded into the heads of the audience by Spielberg with a damn sledge hammer. He just can’t leave well enough alone and lets it take off even more in those last atrocious twenty minutes.

A.I. is a generally involving film with some wonderfully fantastic sequences and some excellent performances. But sadly the ending really ruins the movie like none other I can remember recently. What could have been a stupendous film with Kubrick’s imprint all over turns out to be a good film with Spielberg’s hands all over the end.

Nate’s Grade: B

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