Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess. Like you said, Captain, maybe we do that, we all earn the right to go home.  Following the Normandy landings of June 1944 Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes his men of the 2nd Ranger battalion behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) a paratrooper whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Surrounded by the brutal realities of war, while searching for Ryan each man embarks upon a personal journey and discovers their own strength to triumph over an uncertain future with honor, decency and courage… Robert Rodat’s men on a mission script has the classic features of the WW2 combat movie – a selection of guys or types from all walks of life with their own business and point of view and declamatory lines. But the first thirty minutes constitute probably the best fighting scene ever put on film:  a literally visceral evocation of the beach landings with things you’ll wonder any man could have survived.  There are images that are seared on the brain. It’s a wholly immersive set up and utterly shocking, as real as you’ll ever want a war to be.  Then the film cannily shifts in tone, content and performance from sequence to sequence ranging from the subtle to the spectacular both in terms of visuals and narrative as the story hook about the military’s single survivor policy kicks in and has its ripple effect on this battalion of soldiers reluctantly tramping across France who seem like a proper cross-section of society:  Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel.  Spielberg said he wanted the kind of faces he saw in WW2 newsreels … and they work out their individual and collective issues under sniper fire and figure out what matters and try to keep going. The film has been lauded for its accuracy but some don’t like the dramatic coda.  That doesn’t matter. Hanks is brilliant as the heart and soul of the outfit. When he is on the verge of hysteria at the enveloping chaos and confusion we are on the edge of our seats, with him. The horrors of war are never hidden from the audience.  We get different perspectives – religious, personal, intellectual, about the rights and wrongs of bloody and vengeful action. It’s been a day of historical and war movies for me but I started out with Spielberg’s latest (Ready Player One) and I’ve concluded with this, one of the best WW2 films of them all, a stunning and perfectly judged achievement on every level because he is a director who can tell more in one frame than some directors can in entire scenes. Astonishing. MM#1700

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Ready Player One (2018)

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People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.  In 2045, with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves a video in which he promises that his immense fortune will go to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest as his avatar Parzival, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger. He finds romance and a fellow rebel in Art3mis aka Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and they enter a business war led by tyrannical Nolan Sorrentino (Ben Mendelson) who used to make Halliday’s coffee and is now prepared to do anything to protect the company … Adapted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline from Cline’s cult novel, this blend of fanboy nostalgia with VR and gaming works on a lot of levels – and I say that as a non-gamer. There are a lot of things to like once you get accustomed to the fact that the vast majority of the narrative takes place in the virtual ie animated world yet it is embedded in an Eighties vista with some awesome art production and references that will give you a real thrill:  Zemeckis and Kubrick are just two of the cinematic gods that director Steven Spielberg pays homage in a junkyard future that will remind any Three Investigators reader of Jupiter Jones, only this time the kid’s got a screen.  This being a PC-VR production it’s multi-ethnic, multi-referential and cleverer-than-thou yet somehow there’s a warmth at its kinetically-jolting artificial centre that holds it together, beyond any movie or song or toy you might happen to have foist upon you. There are some of the director’s clear favourites in the cast – the inexplicable preference for Rylance and Simon Pegg (sheesh…) but, that apart, and delicious as some of this is – it looks like it really was made 30 years ago – you do have to wonder (and I say this as a mega fan), Will the real Steven Spielberg please stand up?! This is the real Easter Egg hunt.

The Post (2017)

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We have to be a check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will? Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is the first female publisher of The Washington Post. With help from editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Graham races to catch up with The New York Times who are publishing Neil Sheehan’s explosive stories to expose a massive cover-up of Government secrets that spans three decades and four U.S. presidents. Together, they must overcome their differences as they risk their careers and freedom to help bring long-buried truths to light with the Attorney General acting on orders from Nixon to injunct The Times.  A source known to journalist Ben Babdikian (Bob Odenkirk) hiding out in a motel on the other side of the country is sitting with a 4,000 page file from Bob McNamara’s office which demonstrates that the Government knew Vietnam would be lost as early as April 1965… It was all Nora Ephron’s idea. She suggested to Liz Hannah that she should adapt Graham’s memoirs. She wrote a screenplay. Then Josh (Spotlight) Singer rewrote it and it became a reporter’s movie. Why don’t we suppose you’re a writer not a novelist?  As much about sexism as political conspiracy (on that it differs from All the President’s Men, its father superior in the paranoid thriller stakes) this is about a woman making a decision to publish the Pentagon Papers with or without the permission of her all-male board with the shareholders anxious not to upset President Nixon or his cohorts and lower their share value. Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe her advisor has a ball as the man who knows to expect the unexpected and his laugh at the conclusion is as much relief to us as to him. Much of the tension derives from Streep’s inculcating of Graham’s society dame and her realisation that what was acceptable years earlier – her ‘great’ father leaving his legacy to her husband – is no longer necessary and she is a middle aged grandmother finally coming into her own. Her mingling with the upper echelons of Washington society is intrinsic to the process of the story – both the gathering and the telling. Hanks’ interpretation of Bradlee takes a totally different approach than Jason Robards in the earlier film – he is another man entirely, and it’s to the benefit of the text. He is also a society man. The sentimentality of his friendship with JFK literally blinded him to the corruption of the office. Now he needs to kick Government ass. The journalism is fun but not remotely as engaging as ATPM even if it’s entertaining to watch people dropping coins at the phone kiosk and to hear the real recordings of Nixon’s phonecalls which narrate some of the segments. This is a message movie and it has a cliffhanging ending at Watergate! That it finishes on a horribly scored triumphalist note instead of the more pleasing sonorousness of hot metal and type is an aesthetic flaw I find quite unforgivable. Like anyone cares! Jefferson must be rolling in his grave.

Happy 70th Birthday Richard Dreyfuss 29th October 2017!

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Cinema’s Everyman is now 70 years old. He had a vast acting career in TV as a teenager and young man in everything from Peyton Place to The Big Valley, and even though you can see him in a small and uncredited role in The Graduate and meeting a typically bad end for a JD in The Young Runaways, it was George Lucas’ American Graffiti that brought him to prominence as a mature actor in cinema.  It was swiftly followed by an award-winning performance in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in which he thought he had been a disaster (he was wrong).  However when he teamed up with Steven Spielberg in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind he really announced himself and embedded himself in our collective consciousness. Seen latterly as an alter ego for the filmmaker, he had the capacity to embody ordinariness, discombobulation, dry humour and awe:  not a bad combination and one that made him the most appealing man on the planet. Then came The Goodbye Girl:  universal love and an Academy Award (which he keeps in his refrigerator). Nobody could take Richard III remotely seriously after that outing which was presumed to be a take on Dustin Hoffman’s insufferability when he became famous (Hoffman was turned down for the role!) One of his best parts was in Prisoner of Honor, a TV film about his namesake in the Dreyfus Affair for director Ken Russell. After a decade in which he did a variety of principally comedic roles (and a few years off after which he appeared for a variety of reasons to be mutating into a character actor) he reunited with Spielberg for the magical Always, a remake of A Guy Named Joe, one of those WW2 films the director cherished. With Mr Holland’s Opus he was in a film that seemed aimed at the cheap seats and it worked – he gave an enormously moving performance in a movie designed around the emotional power of music. Latterly he has moved between TV and the big screen and was enormously impressive in the better of the two recent TV movies about Bernie Madoff. Vocal about Jewish issues, civics and mental illness, Dreyfuss is also a writer, stage performer and all round good guy. You’re a mensch – many, many, many happy returns!

Spielberg (2017)

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His strength is really his ability to tell a story in pictures instinctively. What makes Steven Spielberg tick? Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary commences with on-set filming of Bridge of Spies and then materialises into a meticulously constructed mosaic of interviews, excerpts and archive footage beginning with footage shot by the film’s subject as a child when he used home movies to escape his loneliness and his parents’ disintegrating marriage. As Martin Scorsese states, Spielberg has always been a personal filmmaker, utilising movie themes to articulate his own experiences. And perhaps the one shocking revelation here is that Spielberg didn’t speak to his own father for 15 years, mistakenly believing that he had split the family. The truth was that his mother was having an affair with his father’s best friend, whom she eventually married. His father and his older sisters spared the boy the truth. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school so he conned his way into Universal Pictures by getting off the tour bus and putting his name on the door of an office (maybe…) and impressed Sid Sheinberg enough to get him to underwrite his TV work there for 7 years, making his debut directing  movie queen Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling’s show Night Gallery. Getting involved with that group of fellow wannabe filmmakers who came to be christened The Movie Brats, he had a support system of guys (they were all guys!) who would eventually become the most successful directors in the business. They all talk here – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and it’s nice to hear them speaking directly rather than through the medium of the third party commentators in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The culture was converging, the older directors were on their way out, they were on their way in. Amongst that crowd Spielberg was a nerd who wasn’t into sports or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, as De Palma observes. Reworking his family difficulties into his films Spielberg created a modern point of view and an immediacy that plugged into the zeitgeist like no other filmmaker:  he knew what we wanted before we did. His one big budget failure was 1941 and it was George Lucas who got him back on track making a film that he promised him would be better than James Bond after he spent a year in a hole ruminating his misstep. So it was that after Jaws and CE3K he then entered into the world of franchises with Lucas making Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lacy is careful to permit Spielberg to critique his own failures or damp squibs even while his contemporaries and stars and co-workers are heaping praise on his energy, his techniques and the panic he manages to hide when he doesn’t know what to do next:  his reaction to the set being placed in the wrong situation on the beach for Saving Private Ryan being a case in point. It’s as though his eye bypasses his brain and goes straight to the camera. He himself states that from his earliest days he felt he was writing with the camera (he probably wasn’t what the Cahiers critics had in mind). A happy second marriage to actress Kate Capshaw and the addition of children made him confront more difficult topics after getting critically burned with The Colour Purple, a film that exercised many when the popcorn king dared take on the black experience and from a matriarchal perspective at that. He wasn’t exactly drowning in awards with the fantastic WW2 epic Empire of the Sun either and screenwriter Tom Stoppard questions his resorting to sentiment. But it was another instance of his desire to empower a child and to take control of  the story of their life. Making Schindler’s List made him confront his Jewishness. He admits he dumped his bag of tricks and utilised a handheld camera bringing an immediacy to the terror in monochrome. At the same time that he was shooting the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto on location he was editing Jurassic Park in the evenings: when everyone in the edit suite saw the astonishing leap in computerised dinosaurs created by Dennis Muren they knew it was something special. As Lucas appositely states, it was the end of one era, the beginning of a new one. Saving Private Ryan was also a war film like no other and the shock of the shooting experience is vividly conveyed by Tom Hanks.  Lacy is canny in deploying some of the best US critics to venture their reading of the director, after setting up the Pauline Kael prediction about how Spielberg’s career would pan out – not as a screen artist –  while the UK’s Dilys Powell isn’t mentioned:  Janet Maslin, J. Hoberman and AO Scott all have their say and it makes for a very thoughtful chorus of opinions given their sometime antipathy to his work (and some of the more problematic films like The Terminal or Hook are basically ignored).  Latterly his films have taken a prescient turn, from the scenes in Minority Report and War of the Worlds that vividly reference the shock of 9/11 and the surveillance society, to the Middle East issues that are tackled in Munich: any equivocation in these stories can be calibrated with the explanation that the man himself is torn about how to deal with the perpetrators of terror. So, for Hoberman,  He’s the Hollywood equivalent of a public intellectual. The loosely connected Amistad, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln deal with democracy and the law and the origins and problems of America itself. Despite his success, Dustin Hoffman says Steven’s like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg. The director himself is quick to point out that he has worked with a large team of the same people for decades and calls editor Michael Kahn his blood brother; John Williams he says rewrites his films with music. In the end, all his films he says are father and son stories about separation and reunification – even Lincoln!  And there’s an unpredicted coda to his parents’ bitter divorce (what you might call a twist ending). This is very long at 147 minutes but there isn’t any gristle in an absorbing and fluid chronicle bringing together the many influences around the most important filmmaker of our time. It’s an authorised film but doesn’t suffer for that – he is very open about what drives him and how he works.  He declares happily that he has never had therapy:  Movies are my therapy. Hallelujah – for that we are all truly grateful.

Amazing Stories The Movie II (1987)

Amazing Stories The Movie.jpgThis anthology consists of four episodes of the 1985-87 television series which was licensed by Steven Spielberg from the original science fiction comic (with co-producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey).   In ‘Santa Claus ’85’ the man himself (Douglas Seale) gets arrested when a burglar alarm goes off as he’s delivering presents. Luckily a little boy (Gabriel Damon) comes to his aid. (Directed by Phil Joanou, story by Spielberg). In ‘The Wedding Ring’ museum thief (Danny DeVito) gives a purloined ring to his downcast waitress wife (Rhea Perlman), unaware that the previous owner’s ghost inhabits it. And that woman was a black widow. His wife becomes a sex-crazed killer wannabe and he has to get rid of the jewellery or face certain death. (Directed by Danny DeVito, story by Spielberg). Seventy-five years after he accidentally caused a train to crash, an old man (Roberts Blossom) waits for his penance in order to make amends – which turns out to be a ‘Ghost Train’ bursting through his son’s house while his grandson (Lukas Haas) is the only one who can hear the Highball Express coming (and Drew Barrymore’s on it if you look sharp!) (Directed by Steven Spielberg, story by Spielberg). In ‘The Doll,’ a lonely bachelor (John Lithgow) buys a mysterious doll for his niece (Rain Phoenix) from the lovable old dollmaker Mr Liebermacher (Albert Hague) but she hates it and he is drawn to this porcelain creature whom he christens Mary and believes she must be inspired by a real-life woman. (Directed by Phil Joanou, story by the great Richard Matheson). Beautifully made, not one of these stories outstays its welcome and it’s well-balanced between scary and funny and just a little bit magical as people meet their destinies. The star power and the performances by the kids are what stay with you, along with scores by Craig Safan, Thomas Newman, Georges Delerue and John Williams:  now that’s amazing. The original of the species. Good fun.

1941 (1979)

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Many critics thought this was a total disaster – and not just because it’s about a near-disaster. Steven Spielberg collaborated with the writing Bobs, Gale and Zemeckis (with an assist from John Milius) in a brash, bawdy, out-and-out madcap comic actioner about what nearly went down in 1942 and other more or less contemporaneous incidents – a Japanese invasion of California  including the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, a bombardment of Ellwood oil refinery in Santa Barbara, the Zoot Suit Riots and the US Army putting an anti-aircraft carrier in someone’s back yard (though that went down in Maine.) For those looking for auteurist elements, well that Jap submarine comes across a lone woman swimmer along the Californian coastline … Spielberg sending up (literally, as it happens) the opening scene of Jaws with Susan Backlinie gamely returning to the affray (and Lorraine Gary showing up in the ensemble). We meet a tank crew led by Dan Aykroyd (including Treat Williams, John Candy and Mickey Rourke), a crazy Air Forces pilot ‘Wild Bill’ Kelso (who else but John Belushi), Toshiro Mifune in charge of the submarine hoping to land in Hollywood, Slim Pickens in a neat reference to his role in Dr Strangelove, Bobby DiCicco entering a dance contest in a zoot suit, secretary Nancy Allen is aroused by airplanes and attracts Captain Tim Matheson, while Major General Robert Stack tries to calm the public about imminent attack and is consoled by a screening of Dumbo. There’s more. A lot more! A mixed bag of take it or leave it humour is balanced by incredibly staged setpieces – watch that ferris wheel roll off the pier! See Ned Beatty’s house collapse! – straight from silent movies. Spielberg is better with more tonally consistent humour intrinsic to character and story as we see in the Indiana Jones films or Catch Me If You Can but you can’t deny the spectacular fun here which probably led to the expanded (146m) version becoming a cult item. William Fraker’s cinematography is a thing of wonder while fans of the era’s movies will enjoy the likes of Warren Oates, Perry Lang and Bobs regular Eddie Deezen.

The BFG (2016)

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Orphan Sophie is taken from her bed by the BFG (Mark Rylance) whose language is a mangled and funny take on the Queen’s English. She goes back to his cave where he is the runt of a gaggle of giants who like to eat human beans and she’s in danger when Fleshlumpeater sniffs her out. They must make their way to the Queen to stop other children disappearing … Roald Dahl’s work is much loved and the combo of Melissa Mathison with Steven Spielberg (many years after their classic work, ET) seemed like a surefire winner. Everything’s personal but I don’t like the way this has been made: the dark style (in every sense), the look of the villainous giant (way too lifelike but in the wrong way), and the scale seemed to vary from scene to scene; when the giants are outside BFG’s cave they’re one size, inside they’re another. It adds to the other problems. It’s not particularly funny and a lot of the lingo is gone. The magic is diluted into the dreamblowing effects instead of the relationship with Sophie and it’s at its considerable best at Buckingham Palace when the Queen (Penelope Wilton giving it welly), her corgis, the heads of the Army and her staff experience whizzpopping – and she is quite amused. There are odd performances here – the child (Ruby Barnhill) isn’t the most attractive or talented we’ve ever seen, Rafe Spall as a member of the Queen’s household is sporting a very weird accent, Rylance is alright and thankfully unlike Bridge of Spies where his vocal performance ruined the film, he manages to stay in tune with the character.The Fleshlumpeater is misjudged and comes off like a big giant paedophile. Frankly a misfiring disappointment from such stellar talent.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Special Edition (1977/1980)

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No film is made by one person. Paul Schrader, David Giler, Hal Barwood, John Hill, Jerry Belson and Matthew Robbins all contributed to the screenplay in one way or another but it had one originating sensibility and intelligence – that of Steven Spielberg. He twisted and turned their various interpretations of his story to something that was and remains ineluctably his:  sceptical but imaginative and wondrous. It starts in a desert where planes that disappeared in WW2 are discovered. Then a little boy Barry (Cary Guffey) runs after a spaceship in Muncie, Indiana where there’s a power outage and electric lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) gets major sunburn from a flying saucer at a railroad stop. The witnesses to the ice cream-shaped vehicles zipping along the rural highway think they’re going crazy. Roy starts sculpting mashed potato at table, leading his children to cry and his wife (Teri Garr) to leave. He then takes garden soil into the living room and starts to build. Meanwhile, Barry’s mom (Melinda Dillon) sketches a mountain, repeatedly… The Devil’s Tower is where the alien encounter is planned by French scientist Lacombe (director Francois Truffaut) along with the US Army and other government agencies.The film was released before Spielberg believed  it was finished – Columbia was under pressure for a hit and they got it.The additions (some new scenes on top of deleted scenes) entirely expand the premise and the later Director’s Cut still retains the arc but is somewhat darker. Even if you believe (as I do) that most of the essential films were made between 1955 and 1965, this is monumental filmmaking. Once seen, never forgotten.

The Sugarland Express (1974)

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Goldie Hawn hasn’t made a film in over a decade. She is renowned as a beautiful, quirky, skillful comedienne yet probably her greatest performance came in Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature. Let nobody say that his first political films came in the 80s, here he was making quite the statement about rednecks, child protection, prison and gun law. The sly pre-release escape of Lou Jean and her husband (William Atherton) plays against precisely this southern backdrop as she determines to rescue their toddler son from his state-appointed foster family and they end up taking a hapless policeman hostage. The pursuit is statewide and the public line the roads to show their support for the dementedly funny couple. Spielberg was working from a screenplay by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins with a story he helped devise from a real incident a few years earlier.  Aside from the technical beauty of the film and some real photographic innovations by Vilmos Zsigmond, this film is distinguished by Hawn’s brilliance. She turned 70 a few days ago. How is that possible?  Happy birthday, Goldie.