Steven Spielberg

Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg), the theatrical version

The first act of Duel ought to be enough to carry it. Spielberg’s direction, Frank Morriss’s editing, even Jack A. Marta’s workman photography—it’s spellbinding. It even gets through lead Dennis Weaver calling home to fight with his wife and revealing to the audience he’s a wuss. See, last night he and the wife went to a party and some guy groped her and Weaver didn’t do anything and now she’s mad. Jacqueline Scott’s the wife. She’s in one scene, a handful of shots, at home taking care of the kids after the incident while Weaver’s driving across the state (of California) for a business meeting. The whole account depends on it, but really it’s because he’s a wuss. Weaver’s a wuss, which… isn’t actually part of Duel’s initial narrative impulse because the phone call to the wife is added material for the theatrical release. Duel is a TV movie turned theatrical release (for international markets).

Weaver’s even more of an annoying wuss because he puts up his leg in a very pseudo-macho way while on the phone. It’s weird. And it’s a lot, but Duel can get through it because it’s so well-made.

See, Weaver’s driving to this meeting and he pisses off a truck driver. That truck driver starts messing with Weaver, not letting him pass, roaring past him, waving him on into another vehicle. A rural highway nightmare. What’s Weaver going to do about it with his machismo posturing after all. But Weaver doesn’t really matter—not even as much as the comedy bit playing on his radio—what matters is how Spielberg and Morriss tell this story. Well, to be fair to writer Richard Matheson… relate this anecdote.

And if Duel were a short or led Psycho-style into something else, it’d be fine. But once Weaver gets around other people and starts narrating the film with his thoughts… there’s only so much good filmmaking can do and covering for Weaver’s basically obnoxious performance is too much. Especially given how the narration doesn’t exactly sync up with the character onscreen and definitely not in the implications of his relationship with Scott. Because it turns out—though it’s a single mention then gone—Weaver’s a Vietnam vet and he might be suffering from some kind of PTSD. It’s such a surprise you spend the entire scene where white collar Weaver is trying to figure out how to speak with blue collar working men—he’s going to tell off the truck driver, who he thinks is in this roadside restaurant with him—wondering how the hell Weaver made it back alive.

There’s no help from Weaver on it, of course (I get the feeling hearing Weaver describe his character would be a trip), because his performance is… a step too far into disbelief. Killer truck driver who runs cars off the road then goes and gets their plates as trophies, yes. Dennis Weaver not being able to make a traumatized beta male sympathetic in the slightest, no.

The second half of the film—basically everything following the restaurant and Weaver’s narration starting—moves fast but not well. Nothing Weaver does is reasonable (he’s already missed the meeting, yet continues driving towards it even though the film’s established he can’t be late), Spielberg gets obvious in the reveals. Not to mention when the truck does finally turn into a six ton slasher and go all in on attacking Weaver and anyone around him (though not the school bus, in an inserted for the theatrical sequence; because Weaver in danger isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic as annoying school kids), it’s only impressive as far as the stunt driving goes.

Duel’s beautifully made for a while, then it’s well-executed albeit middling, then it’s a little tedious. Given it’s a real-ish time thriller about White middle class suspicions of the White working class being validated in a terrifying way… it shouldn’t get tedious. The tediousness of the third act is interesting—somehow Duel still moves at a good pace but Weaver’s so annoying in the action it drags.

Spielberg wanted Weaver for the role because of Weaver’s turn as the creepy motel employee in Touch of Evil, which… is definitely not the same skillset required of the role in Duel, which basically turns into a “Twilight Zone” episode once the narration starts.

So it’s this great short film with this okay “Twilight Zone” episode tacked on around halfway in.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Richard Matheson; director of photography, Jack A. Marta; edited by Frank Morriss; music by Billy Goldenberg; produced by George Eckstein; released by Cinema International Corporation.

Starring Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Chuck), Lou Frizzell (a bus driver), and Carey Loftin (a truck driver).


Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg)

Catch Me If You Can is a spectacular showcase for Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t exactly rise up to meet him, not the filmmaking, not the writing, not his costars. With the exception of co-lead Tom Hanks, who’s a whole other thing, the direction, the writing, the supporting cast, they’re all tied together in a less than impressive knot.

Let’s get the filmmaking out of the way first.

Spielberg’s direction is adequate, at least as far as the composition goes. It’s never too good, it’s never too bad. The film opens with these extremely cute animated opening titles, but they go on way too long and the accompanying John Williams music is some of the film’s least impressive as far as the score goes. And the score’s usually middling so to open on a low point… Not a great start. Then the movie goes into the framing device (getting ahead of myself on the script problems) as FBI agent Hanks is trying to get DiCaprio out of a French prison. There’s something very affected about the style, with Spielberg mimicking late fifties and early sixties style without bringing anything new to it. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski don’t show the mid-sixties through rose colored glasses as much as they artificially twinkle the past. Everything shimmers with unreality, which kind of hurts the true story angle as Catch Me rarely shows how DiCaprio is pulling off his cons. Plus the age discrepancies. DiCaprio’s twenty-eight playing seventeen playing twenty-eight. It mostly works, thanks to DiCaprio’s performance but against some of what Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson throw at him; there are significant hiccups.

Like Christopher Walken as DiCaprio’s WWII vet dad. Walken’s sixty; he looks pretty good for sixty. But he was supposed to be some kind of forty-year old grunt in WWII? Again, Catch Me’s fast and loose with its hold on reality but given it’s all about the amazing things DiCaprio’s character was actually able to do… not having to constantly suspend and re-suspend disbelief would be nice. Walken’s actually good, even if he’s a stunt cast and his part is so thin he’s just doing a generic Christopher Walken performance. Nathanson doesn’t do character development or texture. Even when the story needs it. Spielberg doesn’t help with it either; it’s DiCaprio’s movie but Spielberg’s more concerned with Hanks’s FBI agent.

Let me just use that to segue into Hanks. Hanks is not good. He does a questionable and pointless accent, presumably to make the character seem less flat, and there’s nothing else to it. First act, it seems like Hanks might go someplace—and the film does try to force him into a paternal relationship with DiCaprio, which doesn’t work—but it’s a nothing part. It’s not even engaging enough to be a caricature. Nathanson’s a shockingly thin writer.

Okay, maybe not shockingly. It’s not like the script’s ever got any more potential than it delivers. But Spielberg really does just go along with it. The female roles are exceptionally thin; they’re all dumb and easy, whether it’s bank teller Elizabeth Banks, flight attendant Ellen Pompeo, working girl Jennifer Garner, or nurse Amy Adams. Worse is when DiCaprio ends up staying longterm with Adams, it’s never clear why; especially since the movie makes fun of her so much. Though, I suppose, even worse is when Adams brings her parents into the film. Martin Sheen—in a stunningly bad bit of stunt-casting—is bad. Nancy Lenehan is mom, with zip to do, which is actually much better for her than, say, Nathalie Baye as DiCaprio’s mom. Baye gets the film’s worst part by far.

Through it all, DiCaprio manages to keep his head up and keep Catch Me working. He contends with some questionable makeup decisions, never getting to followthrough on set pieces, and the astoundingly bad pop culture reference. There’s a truly incompetent James Bond Goldfinger sequence, which ought to be a gimme but instead Spielberg completely fumbles it.

Spielberg never takes Catch Me If You Can seriously enough, from the casting to the writing to Kaminski’s silly photography. DiCaprio takes it seriously, to good effect. Hanks takes it seriously, to… if not bad effect, at least wanting. It’s a glossy, trite trifle. Could’ve been a lot more.

Though not with the same script, supporting cast, principal crew members, or director.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, based on the book by Frank Abagnale Jr. and Stan Redding; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; costume designer, Mary Zophres; produced by Spielberg and Walter F. Parkes; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Abagnale Jr.), Tom Hanks (Carl Hanratty), Christopher Walken (Frank Abagnale), Nathalie Baye (Paula Abagnale), James Brolin (Jack Barnes), Amy Adams (Brenda Strong), Martin Sheen (Roger Strong), Nancy Lenehan (Carol Strong), Brian Howe (Earl Amdursky), Frank John Hughes (Tom Fox), Ellen Pompeo (Marci), Elizabeth Banks (Lucy), and Jennifer Garner (Cheryl Ann).


The Sugarland Express (1974, Steven Spielberg)

After setting up Goldie Hawn and William Atherton as the protagonists, Sugarland Express takes about an hour to get back to them. Hawn and Atherton have an amazing setup–he’s about to get out of prison and has been transferred to pre-release. Hawn comes to visiting day but to break him out. She’s just gotten out of jail and the state took away their son. So she wants Atherton to come with her to get him.

They make it out all right only to end up kidnapping a state trooper (Michael Sacks) within the first twenty or so minutes. There’s a big car chase sequence–pretty much the only one of the movie, which eventually has about 80 cars in a shot–where Hawn and Atherton get the upperhand. Well, they bumble into it. But then Sacks isn’t really particularly with it either. Once the cops figure out what’s happened, they call in the boss, Ben Johnson.

So until Johnson gets into the movie, it seems like Sacks is going to take over as protagonist. But then he doesn’t. Because Johnson dominates the film. Intentionally. Director Spielberg, screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, they pull back from Hawn and Atherton’s story and fill it out with the ginormous police response. It’s the kidnappers followed down the highway by a line of a dozen cop cars. It’s quirky. Johnson takes an immediate liking to Hawn after she grins at him through the back window. Because Johnson doesn’t want to be a hard ass, he wants to help these crazy kids (they’re supposed to be twenty-five but he’s a softey), and he’s never killed a man in ninteen years on the Texas highway patrol.

The movie is based on events from 1969. Texas in 1969. So that character motivation raises all sorts of possibilites for further discussion of portrayal of law enforcement in popular culture. But for the purposes of Sugarland, Johnson’s an old softey and he wants to help all these kids–including Sacks–get out of the situation okay.

Eventually they have to bed down for the night–cops and kidnappers–and that break from the Express is when the film catches back up with Hawn and Atherton. There hasn’t been time for them to get a moment. And it’s kind of when it becomes clear how far Spielberg and the writers want to keep the viewers from Hawn and Atherton. They don’t want to dig too deep. Just like they don’t want to dig too deep on Sacks, who Stockholms way too fast to be an effective state trooper unless they’re really all supposed to be sensitive doofuses (no other cop in the movie is sensitive–just Sacks and Johnson–the rest are gun-happy). And they don’t want to dig too deep on Johnson, because, well, he’s in his late fifties and it’s a still Goldie Hawn movie, after all.

So there’s not going to be character exploration. There’s also not going to be much more comedy; Atherton is realizing the gravity of the situation. The adrenaline has worn off and he sees his death. Meanwhile Hawn’s convinced because they’re famous–oh, yeah, they’re folk heroes–they’re going to get their baby back. Only they can’t really talk about it because, well, they aren’t bright. The moments when you do actually find something out about Atherton and Hawn–about their backgrounds or situation–it’s a sympathy moment. Not just for the audience, but for Johnson and Sacks too. Because even though Sacks is a doofus, he’s not a dope like Atherton or Hawn.

Then there’s the next morning there’s the next big action sequence–involving the kidnappers, there’s a big car crash without them that Spielberg plays without absurdity but still want some humor in the danger–and it’s a doozy. Texas gun nut vigilantes go out after the kidnappers. They shoot up a used car lot, with Hawn trapped in a camper while Atherton goes after an escaping Sacks through the lot. It’s intense. And sets the direction of the rest of the film. The energy of it too. The first half has a lot of great editing from Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields and it’s fast but it’s not hurried. In the second half, with Atherton deciding to officially offer to trade Sacks for the baby, the Express–save narrative-driven slowdowns–is accelerating all the way to the finish. Spielberg and the screenwriters are intentional with how they use their time.

The script from Barwood and Robbins is precise. Spielberg’s direction is always in rhythm with it, even when he’s slowing down or speeding up. He gets flashy at times, but always to further the story–or affect its pacing. And there’s this patient, lush Vilmos Zsigmond photography so it’s never too flashy. Then there’s that great editing. And the effective (and simple) John Williams score, which enthusiastically promises hope then takes it away. It’s a technical feat.

Of the performances, Atherton and Johnson stand out. Sacks and Hawn have a lot less to do. Well, Hawn has more to do occasionally but it’s really just more screentime. The first half of the film is Atherton in a panic, the second half is Hawn in a different one. Again, Spielberg and the screenwriters stay back from the characters. They’re caricatures the actors have to fill out, because if you fill them out too much in the script, then Sugarland can’t be Sugarland. Part of the film’s charm is Spielberg and the screenwriters ostensibly keeping things light. Because it’s a Goldie Hawn movie and she’s so cute and bubbly. Only there’s a sadness around the cute and bubbly. Because it’s a tragedy, not a comedy. It’s a tragedy with some funny parts and some exciting parts. But it’s such a tragedy instead of trying to cover all the factors, the filmmakers just implied them and the actors informed them through their passive performances. Because it’s a lot of Hawn, Atherton, Sacks, and Johnson in close-up. There’s a lot of time with these characters together. And they have to develop together. And they do. The filmmakers are able to bake in all the sadness without doing any excess exposition dumps.

Sugarland’s great. It all works out.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, based on a story by Spielberg, Barwood, and Robbins; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields; music by John Williams; produced by David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Lou Jean), William Atherton (Clovis), Michael Sacks (Slide), Ben Johnson (Captain Tanner), Gregory Walcott (Mashburn), Louise Latham (Mrs. Looby), Jessie Lee Fulton (Mrs. Nocker), Gordon Hurst (Hubie Nocker), and A.L. Camp (Mr. Alvin T. Nocker).


Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)

Sometimes special effects are just a little too much, especially with CGI composites letting director Abrams set so much of Super 8 in gigantic action sequences. The film’s about a bunch of tweens in 1979 Ohio making a Super 8 zombie movie when they witness a train crash. The train crash, with train cars flying through the air and the kids running through showering debris, is the first time it seems like Abrams might have a little too much confidence in CGI composites. Especially when cinematographer Larry Fong can’t match the kids in the foreground. Actually, other way around, the CGI compositers can’t match Fong’s lighting of the kids pre-composite.

Then Abrams takes a little break from it and concentrates on the story. He’s already got most of the ground situation done. Abrams’s script is real good at brevity when it needs to be (which makes all of Noah Emmerich’s evil Air Force colonel a little much). By the train crash sequence, Abrams has established lead Joel Courtney (his mom has just died), his sidekick Riley Griffiths, the girl they both think is cute (Elle Fanning), and their second tier pals (Ryan Lee is the pyromaniac in training, Gabriel Basso is the scared one, Zach Mills is the one you forget is in the movie). Kyle Chandler plays Courtney’s dad; he’s a sheriff’s deputy who eventually has to take charge in a crisis situation. Abrams spends some time establishing the strain between Chandler and Courtney because the mom died. It’s effective stuff without ever being particularly… good. Both Chandler and Courtney give good man tears.

Fanning’s dad is town drunk Ron Eldard, who Chandler hates. Eldard doesn’t want Courtney around his daughter. Fanning’s outstanding and Courtney’s likable, so their gentle tween friendship stuff is nice. It’s not so deep it should take over the plot, which Abrams lets it for a while, but it’s nice. Abrams and Fong know how to go for emotional gut shots and they deliver, lens flares and all. And the emotional gut shot music from Michael Giacchino is a lot better than his eventual action and thriller music. Giacchino’s score by the third act is like a TV movie version of John Williams. Oh, right–Steven Spielberg is one of Super 8’s producers. The movie plays like an homage to some of his seventies and eighties films, most often Close Encounters.

The homage, while unnecessary, is kind of cute.

Turns out the Air Force is shipping something top secret and monstrous on the train and they come to town trying to reclaim it. Enter evil colonel Emmerich. None of the Air Force guys are good, however. They’re variations of evil.

For a while, the movie’s about Griffiths trying to integrate the train crash into his Super 8 project while Chandler deals with Emmerich. Then dogs start running away and people’s electronics are getting stolen. Then there’s a quarantine–sorry, not a quarantine, an evacuation. Abrams checks way too many homage boxes on his list, letting Super 8 get away from its stronger elements.

The kid stuff is good. Besides Fanning, not of the performances are great–Courtney’s good, but he’s got fairly predicable narrative tropes to work through–and Abrams’s banter material is what makes Griffiths and Lee’s performances.

Chandler’s investigation stuff is okay, not great, but it mostly runs concurrent to the better kid stuff. Their Super 8 movie, which runs over the end credits, is awesome.

When the evacuation hits, however, is when Super 8 slips. Abrams’s direction is all right just never quite good enough to get the action stuff done. Especially not with all the composited action nonsense going on around the kids. Everyone has a somewhat chill reaction to misfiring tanks, broken legs, and giant monsters, kids, adults, and soldiers alike. There’s this tedious crashed bus sequence at the beginning of the third act; it ought to be excellent, instead it’s artless. There’s no choreography to the frantic action, just CG tying everything together.

Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing, seemingly to keep things as PG–13 as possible, doesn’t help in that one bus sequence. They’re choppy instead of frantic. Otherwise the editing is undistinguished, sort of like Fong’s photography, or–at its best–Giacchino’s score. The film’s technically competent without ever excelling at anything. Abrams doesn’t need anyone to excel to get Super 8 done.

The finale is a little long, with Abrams going from set piece to set piece to set piece–not forgetting to tug at the heartstrings when he can. The heartstring tugging is the most effective–next to the humor–because the cast is so strong. Super 8’s biggest problem is Abrams not being able to balance between the characters and the plot. It’s too bad.

But Super 8’s still pretty good. It’s just nothing special… which Abrams seems to understand. His enthusiasm, for something he’s writing, directing, and co-producing, is a tad too muted.

Artificial lens flares aren’t enough.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Martin Whist; produced by Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Steven Spielberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Kyle Chandler (Deputy Jackson Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Noah Emmerich (Colonel Nelec), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Riley Griffiths (Charles Kaznyk), Ryan Lee (Cary), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Zach Mills (Preston), David Gallagher (Donny), and Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward).


Poltergeist (2015, Gil Kenan)

It’s hard to imagine Poltergeist being any better. Even if director Kenan was any good, there’d still be David Lindsay-Abaire’s atrocious screenplay, and even if both those elements were any good, there’d still be the acting. And even if the acting was better–and a better script would probably help on that front–there’d just the photography and editing and music.

Poltergeist is so broken, there’s just no point in fixing it.

There’s no point in talking about Kenan at length. He’s bad with actors, he can’t make scary scenes, he can’t compose a shot. Without a major gimmick, there’s no point for a Poltergeist remake and Kenan’s got nothing. Unless the producers thought the problem with the original was it was too good so they figured out a way to make it bad (Lindsay-Abaire’s script plays like a truncated version of the original).

Are any of the actors good? No. Jane Adams is odd comic relief; in some ways, Jared Harris is the best as the celebrity ghost hunter just because he’s not so obviously phoning it in. Though it’s possible the reason Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt’s performances are so mediocre is because they could never figure out what Kenan was doing with the camera.

The film makes Rockwell and DeWitt’s son, Kyle Catlett, the ostensible protagonist. Except the film doesn’t seem to understand how protagonists work. Because it’s so inept.

Poltergeist is too incompetent a film to be a cynical remake. It’s actually rather pitiable.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gil Kenan; screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on a story by Steven Spielberg; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Bob Murawski and Jeff Betancourt; music by Marc Streitenfeld; production designer, Kalina Ivanov; produced by Sam Raimi, Robert G. Tapert, Nathan Kahane and Roy Lee; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Eric Bowen), Rosemarie DeWitt (Amy Bowen), Jared Harris (Carrigan Burke), Jane Adams (Dr. Powell), Saxon Sharbino (Kendra), Kyle Catlett (Griffin), Nicholas Braun (Boyd), Susan Heyward (Sophie) and Kennedi Clements (Madison).


The Goonies (1985, Richard Donner)

There’s a lack of consistent mood to The Goonies. The film has its phases and the mood and tone change from phase to phase, but Chris Columbus’s script changes characterizations between these phases as well, which is rather disconcerting. For example, while the film introduces the villains–Anne Ramsey as the mother, Robert Davi and Joe Pantoliano as her sons–with some humor, but by the end they’re entirely slapstick.

And Donner can’t really direct the slapstick. There’s a noticeable lag, which editor Michael Kahn (who otherwise does a phenomenal job) can’t do anything with. But Donner does well with the actors. Even the weak performances, like Jeff Cohen (whose annoying overweight kid isn’t just annoying, he’s also the butt of all the script’s jokes), are generally all right thanks to Donner’s direction.

There are some stronger performances–Martha Plimpton and Corey Feldman are both good. Josh Brolin and Kerri Green have their moments too. Jonathan Ke Quan simultaneously has a lot to do, physically, but not much to do acting-wise, which is good… he doesn’t do well in his big scene. As the de facto lead, Sean Astin is more appealing than good, but he does have some fine moments.

Excellent music from Dave Grusin and photography from Nick McLean help through the rougher spots–like the entire third act. Oddly, J. Michael Riva’s great production design shines brightest during that third act.

It’s saccharine and superficial, but Donner’s direction is quite good. It’s a passable kiddie adventure.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Chris Columbus, based on a story by Steven Spielberg; director of photography, Nick McLean; edited by Michael Kahn; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, J. Michael Riva; produced by Donner and Harvey Bernhard; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Sean Astin (Mikey), Josh Brolin (Brand), Jeff Cohen (Chunk), Corey Feldman (Mouth), Kerri Green (Andy), Martha Plimpton (Stef), Jonathan Ke Quan (Data), John Matuszak (Sloth), Robert Davi (Jake), Joe Pantoliano (Francis), Anne Ramsey (Mama Fratelli), Lupe Ontiveros (Rosalita) and Mary Ellen Trainor (Mrs. Walsh).


E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982, Steven Spielberg)

For E.T., Spielberg takes an incredible approach–every scene has to be iconic, every scene has to create a sense of nostalgia for it. It requires absolute control of the viewer and Spielberg’s only able to accomplish that control thanks to John Williams’s score. Every note in the score–and its corresponding image on screen–is perfect.

As a narrative, E.T. is a complicated proposition. It’s about a highly advanced alien stranded on Earth with no one to rely upon except a kid–Henry Thomas. E.T. must know Thomas isn’t the most able person to help him, but Thomas and his siblings (Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore) are the best choices because of their sincerity. Or so one would think, because Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison offer very little insight into what E.T. is thinking.

Except beer is good.

But there’s also no perspective on the federal agents investigating the alien landing. Spielberg goes with shots out of a “Twilight Zone” episode but as a way of avoiding the traditional science fiction approach to the story. It’s one of his few highly stylized moves in the film.

Instead of stylization, Spielberg instead relies on that Williams score and Allen Daviau’s moody photography. Daviau makes the suburban setting either mundane and discreet or full of mystery and magic. The magic moments in E.T. are the most difficult but also the most successful.

E.T. is patently unambitious as far as narrative metaphors go; Spielberg smartly eschews symbolism in favor of wonderment.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Melissa Mathison; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by Carol Littleton; music by John Williams; production designer, James D. Bissell; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Spielberg; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Henry Thomas (Elliott), Robert MacNaughton (Michael), Drew Barrymore (Gertie), Dee Wallace (Mary), K.C. Martel (Greg), Sean Frye (Steve), C. Thomas Howell (Tyler) and Peter Coyote (Keys).


Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)

Lincoln is a political thriller. The vast majority of the film concerns the 13th Amendment and Lincoln’s attempts to get it through the House of Representatives. When Lincoln isn’t pursuing this story (or when director Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s tangential subplots are too thin), the artifice starts showing. Not even Daniel Day-Lewis, in a phenomenal performance as Lincoln, can survive all of them. He survives most of them, but not when Spielberg brings up the John Williams schmaltz.

At its peaks, Lincoln makes one forget history and be enthralled at watching it unfold. It’s discouraging Spielberg and Kushner didn’t apply this same vigor to the finish. Lincoln is not a biopic; it’s inexplicable why Spielberg felt the need to include the assassination… other than the viewer’s expectation.

He should have left well enough alone, because he fumbles the end. And the second ending. And especially the third.

The film has an all-star cast of recognizable faces if not names. James Spader is the best; he’s allowed the most freedom. Both David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones are excellent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is lost–his role’s useless in actual narrative. Jackie Earle Haley doesn’t do well either. Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie are fantastic as the villains.

Sally Field is Lincoln‘s other big misstep. The other actors, even the lesser performances, transcend their celebrity. Field embraces hers, apparently with Spielberg’s full blessing. It’s a goofy casting choice.

Lincoln is often great, but not consistently. Day-Lewis is, however.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Tony Kushner, based in part on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), James Spader (W.N. Bilbo), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), John Hawkes (Robert Latham), Jackie Earle Haley (Alexander Stephens), Bruce McGill (Edwin Stanton), Tim Blake Nelson (Richard Schell), Joseph Cross (John Hay), Jared Harris (Ulysses S. Grant), Lee Pace (Fernando Wood), Peter McRobbie (George Pendleton), Gulliver McGrath (Tad Lincoln), Gloria Reuben (Elizabeth Keckley), Jeremy Strong (John Nicolay), Michael Stuhlbarg (George Yeaman), Boris McGiver (Alexander Coffroth), David Costabile (James Ashley), Stephen Spinella (Asa Vintner Litton) and Walton Goggins (Clay Hutchins).


Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper)

In a practical sense, one can just watch Poltergeist and be in awe of the technical qualities. Hooper’s Panavision composition and Matthew F. Leonetti’s photography alone are enough to make it a singular experience. But then there are Hooper’s additional touches–like how a scene’s establishing shot is usually the third shot in the scene, the first two being close-ups or reaction shots. Or the strobe effect. Or the eerie movement, which is probably the most famous Poltergeist visual.

But then there’s the script. Screenwriters Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor are not big on exposition. In fact, the entire familial relationship at the center of Poltergeist is mostly inferred. One of the film’s obvious “goofs” involves JoBeth Williams only being sixteen years older than daughter Dominique Dunne makes a lot more sense if one assumes Williams is her stepmother. The dialogue–and Dunne’s behavior–even suggests it. But the film is full of those discrete little moments… the filmmakers put an incredible amount of trust in the viewer.

The acting is all excellent. Dunne, in the smallest family role, probably gives the film’s best performance. After her, it’s Craig T. Nelson as the dad, then Williams. These three are absolutely fantastic.

The other kids, Heather O’Rourke and Oliver Robins, are both good.

In the supporting cast, Beatrice Straight is particularly exceptional.

While Jerry Goldsmith’s score is derivative of his other work, it ties the film together quite well.

Poltergeist is great. It’s surprisingly deep and technically magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tobe Hooper; screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor, based on a story by Spielberg; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Michael Kahn; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, James H. Spencer; produced by Spielberg and Frank Marshall; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Heather O’Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling), Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina), Martin Casella (Marty), Richard Lawson (Ryan), James Karen (Mr. Teague) and Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh).


The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Steven Spielberg)

Even though The Lost World: Jurassic Park is pretty bad, it features some of Steven Spielberg’s more interesting work as a director. It’s a b genre picture, with a huge budget and Spielberg directing it. It even has a cute King Kong reference. It’s a singular film in Spielberg’s filmography—even when he does a terrible sequel like Temple of Doom, it’s not as interesting. None of those statements mean one should see The Lost World. It’s tiring and boring; all of the action sequences are stale.

One problem is the CG technology. It’s gotten away from Spielberg. He can do pretty much whatever he wants, so he doesn’t have to think about it anymore and so he doesn’t. The film rushes from CG sequence to sequence, but nothing interesting. This Jurassic Park is intent on being dumb, not even giving the pretense of intelligence. Jeff Goldblum handles it pretty well, but his character is nowhere near as amusing as before.

Another problem is the script. While Spielberg may be responsible for Vince Vaughan’s casting and performance, David Koepp wrote some terrible lines for the character. But Koepp has even more problems—he doesn’t have a story. He’s got Vanessa Lee Chester pointlessly running around (as Goldblum’s daughter); she doesn’t even have a real action sequence.

There’s some good acting—Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard and Richard Schiff are all excellent. Howard’s a great worm.

Even the John Williams score is peculiar.

But being strange doesn’t make it worthwhile.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by David Koepp, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Gerald R. Molen and Colin Wilson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jeff Goldblum (Dr. Ian Malcolm), Julianne Moore (Dr. Sarah Harding), Pete Postlethwaite (Roland Tembo), Richard Attenborough (John Hammond), Vince Vaughn (Nick Van Owen), Arliss Howard (Peter Ludlow), Vanessa Lee Chester (Kelly Curtis Malcolm), Peter Stormare (Dieter Stark), Harvey Jason (Ajay Sidhu), Richard Schiff (Eddie Carr), Joseph Mazzello (Tim Murphy) and Ariana Richards (Lex Murphy).


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