Category Archives: Spielberg

“War Horse” turns up the schmaltz to 11

Director Steven Spielberg has been known to oversentimentalize his movies, especially those that deal with important historical events or ethical causes. So with “War Horse”, a film about protecting animals and the horrors of World War 1, you can practically taste the sugar-coating over the film.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) develops a strong relationship with his family’s horse, Joey. At the outbreak of World War 1, his horse is recruited into the war effort by Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), and Albert is enlisted soon after. As the war rages on, Joey is exchanged between the British, the French and the Germans throughout the front, finding humanity in each of them despite the carnage of conflict.

The morals of the story are fine. The beauty of nature, man should be more kind to each other, respect divine laws, blah, blah, blah. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before which makes the film pretty redundant.

The production feels like an expensive version of “Black Stallion” meets “Little House on the Prairie”, so full of schmaltz and pomp and circumstance and tear-jerker moments. It’s a Hallmark greeting card propped up by millions of dollars. So while it’s a typically well-made Spielberg film, it’s nothing more than a glorified soap opera.

There’s a touching scene where a British soldier and German soldier work together to free Joey from barbwire. It’s one of the only interesting scenes in the film and pretty much could have served as just a short film and gotten across the same meaning. Layering everything else on is indulgent. Noble intentions aside, “War Horse” falls short.

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“The Post” a solid piece of craftsmanship

When a film’s writing, directing and acting all work together, the result, no matter the film’s other shortcomings, is poetry. “The Post” finds director Steven Spielberg with stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and writers Josh Singer working together and balancing their talents to create a great film.

“The Post” focuses on the Washington Post’s decision on whether or not to publish the Pentagon papers, leaked classified documents that show that the United States knew the Vietnam War was unwinnable, but continued to send troops to die anyway. Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the Post’s owner, must grapple with whether the risk of taking on the federal government is worth it to print the truth, a truth which hurts one of her dear friends, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Meanwhile, editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) pushes to uphold the right of the freedom of the press despite the consequences.

The film is a taught examination of a single choice and the consequences that stem from that choice. It masterfully builds up the pressures put on the characters and uses their backstories to drive their actions, creating greater empathy and eventual repercussions. Hanks and Streep’s acting, along with Bob Odenkirk and the entire cast really, convey the desperation of their choices and the repercussions it could have for future journalists.

Spielberg has always focused on the simple actions of good people and the positive influence they can have on the world. Whether it be Oskar Schindler saving the Jews in his factory despite the risks or Abraham Lincoln choosing to liberate the slaves over peace or the platoon in “Saving Private Ryan” trekking across Europe to save Private Ryan despite the craziness of risking all their lives for one man. The Post’s decision to publish the papers sparks the same moral compass: the truth should win out. In a world of moral grayness, finding the right solution and sticking to that is what matters.

While Spielberg sometimes indulges in the cheerleader ra-ra moments of fist pumping that are unnecessary, his focused direction on the story and characters combined with his ability to infuse action with deeper meaning make the film breeze along and engage the viewer.

At times feeling a bit too messaged-focus especially in the light of today’s news, “The Post” nevertheless is another strong example of the newspaper film that exemplifies the honorable duty of the newsman and newswoman.

‘Jurassic World’ a so-so reboot that is still plenty of fun

The nostalgia surrounding Jurassic Park (1993) is high. It is the same problem that has plagued franchises such as Star Wars or Indiana Jones or The Terminator. Every time a new entry tries to reawaken long dormant franchises such as these, it has such trouble stacking up against nostalgia. So the deck is already stacked against Jurassic World from the start.

Jurassic Park is the millenial generation’s King Kong (1933), an adventure film that redefined special effects and influenced a generation. While it is certainly far from flawless (the characters are a tad one-dimensional, the ending is a deus ex machina), it is an immersive dinosaur extravaganza that still holds up today.

It is just incredibly difficult to follow up however with something that is not just a rehash of the original. The basic premise has always been man undervalues nature and tries to profit off of it, dinosaurs escape and eat people and man learns a lesson about its place in the world. There are no other story avenues really to explore after that. So Jurassic World is trapped trying to find something new to say while remaining true to its predecessor.

The film really tries. There’s genetic mutation, a fully functioning theme park, training raptors, weaponizing dinosaurs for combat… but at it’s heart, the Jurassic Park franchise has always been about running away from dinosaurs, and there is no escaping that.  However, the film manages to still be fun.

Set 22 years after the events of the original Jurassic Park (the other sequels are pretty much ignored), Jurassic World focuses on Owen (Chris Pratt) as he attempts to train the park’s Velociraptors, and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park department head, and her relationship with her two nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson). Working behind the scenes, the park’s scientists, seeking to boost sales, have created a genetic hybrid, the Indominus Rex, a creature they quickly lose control of and who goes on a murderous rampage throughout the island.

The characters are pretty cardboard-cut. Real credit should be given to stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard for getting as much as they do out of the script. The rest of the cast are pretty much forgettable dino-food.

Stronger motivations were needed to really punch up the characters. For example, the hybrid is treated as a rather mundane enterprise for the company. It is just an experiment gone bad. What would have really made things more interesting is if business were dropping. There are hints that people have grown stale with dinosaurs, but this could have been accentuated much further. Perhaps the Masrani company that owns the park is falling apart, and Mr. Masrani (Irrfan Khan), instead of being a relative nice guy as he is in the film, demands the biggest attraction yet, putting all this pressure on Claire to save the park, which pushes her towards tampering with nature in a way never before tried, raising the stakes for everyone associated with the park, their last chance, only for it to blow up in the worst way possible. This would have revealed a bit more about the characters, especially Claire, showing her obsession with her job and why she never has contact with her nephews or family.

Similarly, Owen is also never really given a reason for his attachment to the raptors he trains. He mentions something about being in the Navy and one date with Claire, but it severely lacks in emotional stakes. Perhaps while in the Navy, Owen does something terrible which exposes him to his animal side, a facet of his personality that he sees he has in common with the raptors (think to Quinn’s monologue in Jaws (1975) that reveals something of his character). This bonds them, and he is left to wonder just what part of his personality is real: the animal, which is symbolized by his remoteness and connection to animals, or the human, his caring for others and ability to have a higher moral judgment. And then this dynamic gives him an arc as he works to save Claire from the monster she has created and reveals his humanity.

Director Colin Trevorrow gets some good action out of the story and there are some tense moments, but nothing on scale to the original. Steven Spielberg has always been able to build up suspense and create a moodiness that few other directors can. Whether it be the vibrating glass of water, a tracking shot of a Dilophosaurus approaching a victim or a Velociraptor slowly opening a door handle, these small moments of buildup really add a lot of terror to the original film. Trevorrow is unable or unwilling to use similar cinematic techniques to raise the suspense of his film, keeping viewers from truly being on the edge of their seats.

The expanse of digital technology has often left current filmmakers under the pretense that since they can construct anything they want in a computer, they should. But the absence of real objects, of dirt and rain and grime, creates a hollow feeling, one that Jurassic World is often plagued with. The park is too pristine, the digital effects too plentiful and the atmosphere too placid. It lacks the characters covered in mud, the rainy moodiness and the beads of sweat pouring off of people’s brows that makes things feel real. It seems to be more of a videogame environment than a real location, and this disconnect keeps the audience from really experiencing the park.

Now, having said all that, the primary purpose of a Jurassic Park film is to entertain, and Jurassic World is nothing if not entertaining. It keys in on the nostalgia of the original film to great effect, playing with the conventions of the monster movie and the action movie, poking fun of and admiring them. There are some truly breathtaking moments, such as the pteranodon escape, the gyrosphere sequence, and, above all, the climax. The last twenty minutes of the movie nearly make up for all its flaws along the way, creating the type of dinosaur slug fest that appeals to the inner child of all of those who worship prehistoric beasts. It is worth the price of admission itself.

So, yes, Jurassic World is a deeply flawed film, but it is also a fun one. It is sad to see so many films coming out of Hollywood that are simply “good enough”, that never strive to be the type of jaw-dropping, have-to-see experience like the original Jurassic Park. Those movies no longer seem to be made. Jurassic World is just another cash grab, cashing in on a bygone era, but at least it delivers something close to wonder and amazement. That at least deserves some kudos.

 

‘Bridge of Spies’ heartfelt if less than great

Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s fourth film together. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is a modern classic (despite its flaws). Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a fun ride. The Terminal (2004) is admirable if largely forgettable. As the two have gotten older, their choices of projects have changed, but they both still seem to be intrigued by history and reflecting the past onto our present. Bridge of Spies feels like a story told by two friends who see a world bent on blood for blood, who see reason and negotiation falling by the wayside, replaced by pride and force. It is told by older and wiser men, the style and acting very subtle, building up simple moments of suspense, such as waiting for a telephone call. The result is a solid, if unspectacular film.

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance salesman (formerly part of the prosecution at Nuremberg) who is tasked with defending a known Communist spy. Hated by most Americans for standing with such a man, Donovan simply states that all men, whatever their crime, should be met with dignity and justice as ordained in the Constitution. When a U2 spy plane pilot is shot down and captured over the Soviet Union, Donovan is presented with a unique opportunity; he is recruited by the CIA to negotiate a trade of his Communist spy for their American pilot.

Spielberg is in no rush with his storytelling. He glides smoothly from introducing the spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), to his trial to introducing the U2 pilot to the negotiations between nations. It is both refreshing and a bit maddening at times. A good half hour could have been cut out of the film (especially during the first act), but the deliberate pace really lets you examine the political atmosphere and think about the ideas in the film: Do foreign agents deserve the same rights as legalized Americans? What is the value of a single, innocent person in comparison to the pride of nations? Is standing for your beliefs no matter the cost worth it if you put your life and the lives of your family at risk?

Spielberg and writers Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman answer these questions with solutions of heartfelt understanding and respect for all people. Whether or not one’s personal view is similar is besides the point; they are presenting a vision of cultural respect and rule of law that they believe in. As the world still deals with suicide bombers, illegal immigrants, enhanced interrogation techniques and opposition to nuclear deals, the film is very timely and worth examining. Some may resent the ego of Hollywood idealism attempting to impose its views on a complex world, but few will find fault with its sentiments.

Hanks carries the film in an everyman kind of way that is easy for the viewer to relate to. Given free range to really define his character as he travels from Washington to East and West Berlin and back, his good nature and simple belief in everyone deserving a fair shake is distinctly American in the Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-sense. Indeed, the film feels like an homage to the simple morality films of the 1950s and 1960s; fair is fair, right is right.

What could have really helped however is some form of ticking clock. There is tension throughout the narrative, but a deadline of some sort that drives Donovan would keep us on the edge of our seats. In addition, we are barely given a glimpse into the true horrors of the world Donovan is entering into. There are some moments with East German gangs and prisoners attempting to escape past the Berlin Wall, but a storyline involving prisoner Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) could have been fleshed out more to show individuals in the crosshairs of a world out of control. The result feels like a dampening down of the truth.

And then there’s the Spielberg schmaltz. It was mostly kept in check during Lincoln (2012), but it returns at times in Bridge of Spies with a vengeance. Why Spielberg can not just let the story tell itself is baffling. He must for some reason have multiple endings that overdramatize his narrative past the breaking point.

But all in all, the story is interesting and solid, its heart is in the right place, and it proves that Spielberg and Hanks still know how to churn out a good film. And that’s what Bridge of Spies is; good, not great. Not among the year’s best, but certainly something worth remembering.