Posts tagged Steven Spielberg
Welcome back to Weekend Movie Preview. Things have been pretty busy for me over the last month or so, which is why you haven’t seen as many of my movie reviews coming out. However I’m trying to get back into the swing of things and hope to deliver you guys with more regular columns. I had such fun at the theater this week, I felt like I just needed to share my thoughts on the new “Evil Dead” and “Jurassic Park 3D.”
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My latest round of reviews features my thoughts on “Not Fade Away,” “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” and “The Sessions.”
Not Fade Away
When I interviewed David Chase about his big screen debut “Not Fade Away,” the director/writer had some fascinating things to say about the connection between music and film as artistic mediums. He also provided interesting insight into his main character Doug’s emotional dilemmas and the movie’s ambiguous ending. The problem is that his intentions were not obvious during the film.
“Not Fade Away” is an angst-ridden, cliché period piece that’s more of an aimless coming-of-age tale, than an artistic statement about the power of rock n’ roll. A large part of that conception has to do with the abundance of banal elements like arguments about political issues at family functions, egotistical squabbling between band mates, parroted motivational statements, and the usual “parents just don’t understand” conflicts.
In positive ways, the film resembles Chase’s television creation The Sopranos, with a dark, moody aesthetic and superb soundtrack of classic rock songs. Additionally, Sopranos alum James Gandolfini reteams with Chase to give an entertaining performance as Doug’s crabby working-class father. He has a couple of poignant soul-baring conversations with Doug, so it would have been nice to see him more in the film.
Perhaps the most original thing about the movie is that (SPOILER ALERT) Doug doesn’t actually make it in show business. Chase realizes the ending may work against him with American audiences, who usually only want to see success stories, but at least it’s unique. This realistic outcome connects well with the filmmaker’s message that while you can lose it all, as long as you have good tunes by your side, life goes on. I just wish Chase had devised a less hackneyed vehicle for delivering his point.
My Grade: C
Quentin Tarantino has been paying homage to westerns for so long that it was satisfying to see him finally take the genre by the horns with “Django Unchained.” His version of a western is largely like you would suspect: aggressive satire in the vein of “Blazing Saddles,” silly push zooms, whip-crack sound effects, gratuitous slow motion, and blood splashing by the bucketful. Even with Tarantino’s strong track record, it’s hard to top the hilarity of KKK members arguing at length about the eyeholes in their hoods being cut unevenly. It’s also tough to surpass the excitement of the film’s Mexican standoff, which leads to an explosive shootout.
More than his last film “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino uses “Django Unchained” to comment on the horrific social climate of the time period (1850s). He tests your stomach with violent punishment, sadistic torture, and bare-nuckle brawls that have slaves fighting to the death. I consider myself someone hardened by his previous work, although I still had moments that made me queasy.
Normally I dig Tarantino’s anachronistic soundtrack, but this time it just felt off, especially the lengthy inclusion of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name.” Plus the film is bloated, taking what feels like forever to arrive at the epic showdown. I thought that the movie was anticlimactic until I was blindsided by the massive shootout. Then, the story continued for a while after, which surprised me. A tighter ending and a more direct arc toward the bad guy would have significantly changed this picture for the better.
Once again, Tarantino tailors dialogue incredibly well to his star Christoph Waltz, writing lines in the actor’s precise cadence. However the tension the writer/director created with Waltz’s exchanges in “Inglourious Basterds,” is not nearly as palpable here. At least magnetic performances by the actors make up for the movie’s shortcomings. Christoph Waltz is brilliant as Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter who frees Django (Jamie Foxx) and helps the former slave to rescue his wife. From the moment you see him on screen, Leonardo DiCaprio is clearly having a blast in his first bad guy role as the pseudo-intellectual egomaniac Calvin Candie. Samuel L. Jackson is equally unforgettable as Candie’s deceptively conniving head slave. Can someone please cast Leo as another villain ASAP?
My Grade: B
I saw “Lincoln” fairly late in the game compared to most of my colleagues, who caught it in November. By the time I watched it in early December, my hopes were pretty high because of all the praise I kept hearing for the film. What really took me aback were all the different types of viewers that were raving about the movie. I don’t think I heard a single bad thing about it. That’s a lot of pressure to like a movie, right?
Well, I’m pleased to report that “Lincoln” not only met my expectations, but it actually exceeded them in a number of categories. From a technical perspective Steven Spielberg is a highly skilled director, so his superb work didn’t come as a surprise. Also, I knew that as a story, this picture wouldn’t be the standard biopic, choosing to concentrate on the last year of Lincoln’s life and presidency. I liked the narrow scope of the tale.
What truly blew me away were the quality of Tony Kushner’s screenplay and the powerhouse performance by Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Kushner’s dialogue is whip smart, plus his portrait of the era’s politics is quite thorough. Daniel Day-Lewis is notorious for throwing himself into every role; however nothing can adequately prepare you for the intensity of his efforts. He truly embodies the Lincoln in all senses, from his appearance to his raspy falsetto voice. The other actors are no slouches either. Sally Field gives a nerve-wracking, tortured performance as Lincoln’s wife and Tommy Lee Jones excels at oratory insults as Senator Thaddeus Stevens.
What’s fascinating about the film is that you get to see Lincoln from multiple angles: the devoted family man, the suffering husband, the jovial storyteller, and the fiery politician. Perhaps the most captivating part of the movie is its examination of the American political process, as the president does everything in their power to pass the 13th Amendment and end slavery. At points Lincoln can become monotonous with the character’s constant jokes and goofy stories, although at least they make light of that in the film. Plus the silly wigs and facial hair are a distraction.
However there are some brilliant moments when the writing, acting, and directing come together to create compelling scenes. The one that really sticks out involves Lincoln’s pondering about the legality of The Emancipation Proclamation. As the depth of his statements affect you, Spielberg slowly closes in with a zoom, and then Daniel Day-Lewis surprises you with his spirited ultimatum. It doesn’t get any more thrilling than seeing the soft-spoken kind president, threatening to exercise his immense power, should his will not be done. Not exactly the stuffy man you remember from the history books. This guy is pretty damn cool.
My Grade: A-
It’s hard to think of a Hollywood movie that treats sex with sincerity and sensitivity, that’s why a film like “The Sessions,” is surprising, because it manages to treat both sex AND disability with care. This tale is a heartwarming, honest one about Mark O’Brien’s (John Hawkes) quest to complete his human experience. As someone who is severely physically disabled, he has never been able to know love or even sex despite the fact that he’s perfectly capable of the act. Social stigma surrounding his condition has prevented women from becoming intimate with him, but should he be denied that pleasure due to circumstances beyond his control? Of course not.
That’s how Mark ends up seeking out a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him become comfortable with his body, as well as the act of sex. Their sessions together not only teach Mark what to do in the bedroom, they aid him with overcoming his own mental roadblocks.
One of the amusing things about Mark is that since he was raised very religious, he leans heavily on his faith. His priest (William H. Macy) doesn’t just hear Mark’s confessions; he becomes a friend to Mark. At first he’s wary about Mark’s quest, however he quickly ditches his hang-ups to support what he feels to be a vital initiative to putting Mark on a better path in life.
This film is shot in an understated way, without using fancy camera tricks, allowing the dialogue and the actors to drive the film. Director/writer Ben Lewin creates witty, candid exchanges between the characters that will make you chuckle with their quirky humor without distracting you from their serious message. A large reason this works is the comedic timing of John Hawkes. He delivers Mark’s lines with unbridled honesty and the perfect balance of self-deprecation to prevent the film from slipping into depressing territory. There are moments though, where Mark is a very unlikable character. He’s rude, insensitive, and singularly minded about women as objects. Thankfully, this dissipates as he grows into a more mature person.
The other performances on in the movie are so-so to Hawkes’s by comparison. They’re not bad, just not nearly as captivating. Although Helen Hunt bravely disrobes several times during the picture, her Massachusetts accent is heavy-handed and she comes off a bit stiff at times. William H. Macy seems to be on autopilot for his part as well, which is fine for his character.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is its predictable tear jerker ending. Since the movie is based on a remarkable true story, it obviously pulls from real events, but Lewin didn’t need to go with such a low blow to the audience.
My Grade: B+
A small shelf or coffee table simply won’t do if you want to own Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor. Whatever you prefer, you’re gonna need a bigger one to hold this book. The behemoth behind the scenes volume is so meaty Jaws himself would have trouble sinking his teeth all the way into it.
The first reason he would struggle is the book’s size (11.9″ x 10.5″) and weight (4.67 lbs). At almost 5 pounds, it’s one heavy duty book! Secondly, there are over 300 sprawling pages with the most comprehensive making of account you’ll find available about Steven Spielberg’s famous film. Memories from Martha’s Vineyard delves deeper than any DVD commentary or behind the scenes documentary could possibly go, sharing hours of interviews and a wealth of amateur and professional photos depicting the people, places, and props that brought the movie to life.
Starting with the location scouting that led filmmakers to the New England island of Martha’s Vineyard, this book intricately documents the movie’s entire production process from start to finish. There’s an unexpected but brief foreword by Steven Spielberg as well as interviews with production designer Joe Alves, screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, and casting director Shari Rhodes. Although the real stars of Memories from Martha’s Vineyard are the island’s working-class natives who got acting roles in “Jaws,” helped construct the sets, and assisted the crew with day-to-day affairs.
Because he’s a resident of the area, Taylor is able to give you a true insider’s glimpse into the quirks of these unique New Englanders and the subtleties of their culture. His familiarity with the location is a big reason why he got such great candid remarks for this book. People there clearly trust him to do the subject justice.
Perhaps the most fascinating element that Taylor explores about his native island is the complexity of its politics. For instance, using several angles, he vividly recounts a frustrating tiff between local leaders and the film crew about a building being constructed as a set. Protective politicians almost caused production to grind to a complete halt because the temporary structure was not in keeping with rigorous zoning regulations. Thankfully due to finesse and assistance from the right stakeholders, everything was eventually resolved.
Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard is truly a fantastic read for anyone rabidly obsessed with Steven Spielberg’s epic movie, and for film buffs in general. This gorgeous book has enough cool photos and fascinating anecdotes to keep you occupied for hours.
Its only real detriment is its massive size and weight, which makes it incredibly difficult to read for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s too heavy to hold in your hands for long and it’s not something you can read laying down in bed. It’s a shame that it doesn’t lend itself to being explored cover to cover because the content absolutely makes you want to do that. So you’ll just have to ration your reading, taking just a few pages at a time, because there’s no way the publisher Titan Books could make it any smaller without sacrificing the quality of this volume.
Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” falls into this category, as a cheesy, feel-good film tailored to audience need during the holiday season. That’s not to say the movie is bad; though its sappy themes of friendship and family, as well as its obvious inspirational qualities simply make it a guilty pleasure.
The fact that “War Horse” is an adaptation adds extra sympathy for those who have read the Michael Morpurgo novel it’s based on or seen its Broadway counterpart. If “War Horse” were released at any other point in the year, it would probably receive positive reception, but viewers might not be as willing to accept its unflinchingly upbeat message.
Our tale starts in England near the onset of World War I. Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), a poor farmer with a bit of a drinking problem, stubbornly purchases a horse at an auction. Even though it’s not suited for working the land, Narracott trusts his gut feeling that the animal is exactly what he needs to turn his luck around.
What Ted doesn’t predict however, is the strong bond his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) immediately forges with the horse, who he names Joey. No one believes that Albert will train Joey to plow the fields, but the teen finds a way to surprise his neighbors.
After war is declared against Germany, tragedy strikes for the Narracotts, forcing Ted to sell Joey, which leaves Albert heartbroken. A group of British soldiers buy Joey to make him part of their mounted unit. From there, the film follows Joey’s adventures during World War I and all the people of varying nationalities he touches along the way: the English, the French, and the Germans.
Part of the feel-good message in “War Horse” is that even in times of great hatred and war; people aren’t all that dissimilar They all care for Joey despite their vastly diverse languages and cultures. In some instances, they’re even willing to set aside their differences with one another to help a creature in need, like the British and the Germans do one do in a touching, humorous scene.
With Steven Spielberg at the helm, great sensitivity is shown to both the boy/horse relationship and the wartime parts of the story. The friendship that Albert establishes with Joey is one of true love and respect, reminiscent of Elliot and E.T from Spielberg’s “E.T.” Just like Elliot, Albert defies barriers of language and species to find kinship with Joey. There’s no mind melding or fingers lighting up though.
Pulling from his “Saving Private Ryan” experience, Spielberg creates convincing battlefield sequences filled with frantic dashes through trenches as gunfire and explosions rain down on his soldiers. However to make his film more family friendly, Spielberg tones down the violence significantly, showing almost no blood, and only depicting death for dramatic effect.
Perhaps the most surprising thing in “War Horse” is Spielberg’s effort to humanize the horses. From the close shots where you can see deep into their eyes, to the frequent cuts to their reactions, you really feel like you understand what the animals are thinking. As a result, it’s easy to sympathize with them, even if you’re not a horse lover. I’m not normally into them, but I still enjoyed this fluffy tale.
My Grade: B+