Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

New York City Serenade

West Side Story

by George Wolf

This week on Twitter, director Edgar Wright reminded anyone doubting Steven Spielberg’s way around a musical number to revisit “Anything Goes” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Okay, point taken, but West Side Story? That’s a big step up.

It is, and he makes it in stride.

Right from the opening minutes, Spielberg’s camera seamlessly ebbs and flows along with the street-roaming Sharks and Jets. Their threats of violence are more palpable this time, as Riff (Mike Faist, an award-worthy standout) and his New York boys want to settle their turf war with Bernardo (David Alvarez) and the Puerto Ricans once and for all.

At the dance that night, the first meeting between tragic lovers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler, a newcomer with an amazing voice who beat out thousands in open auditions) now happens under the gym bleachers, the first in a series of subtle and not-so-subtle updates that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich, Angels in America) employ to deepen the narrative impact.

“Dear Officer Krupke” seems more organic in the station house, “America” (led by an irresistible Ariana DeBose as Anita) is given more room to move across the west side city streets, while a department store full of mannequins depicting white suburban dreams proves an ironically joyful setting for Maria and her co-workers’ buoyant reading of “I Feel Pretty.”

And from one musical set-piece to the next, Spielberg’s touch is smoothy precise, starting wide to capture the breadth of Justin Peck’s homage to Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography, zooming in for intimacy, and then above the dancers and rumblers for gorgeous aerials set with pristine light and shadow. Stellar efforts from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Adam Stockhausen turn the everyday drab of hanging laundry and fabric remnants into an elegant playground for Spielberg’s camera eye.

In short, it looks freaking fantastic.

It sounds pretty great, too, even beyond the genius of Bernstein’s melodies and Sondheim’s lyrics. Because Spielberg couples his appropriate and welcome diversity of cast with a complete lack of subtitles, rightly putting the opposing cultures on equal narrative footing, and bringing more depth to the cries of “speak English!”

And as the gang fight turns deadly, all of the stakes are embraced more tightly. The offhand bigotry of Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll, terrific as always) is more casually cruel, the identity conflict of Anybodys (Iris Menas) feels more defined, while Anita’s fateful visit to Doc’s store – now run by Valentina (expect another Oscar nod for the incredible Rita Moreno) – plainly calls it like it always was.

Then, as his (almost) parting shot, Spielberg unveils his grandest revision, a move nearly as bold and risky as the one Richard Attenborough face-planted with in 1985’s A Chorus Line.

By altering the context of one of the most emotional songs, Attenborough showed he didn’t know, or didn’t care, about what the show was trying to say. Spielberg, though, gently adds a perspective that makes Tony and Maria’s quest soar with a renewed, more universal vitality.

Just like most everything else in this West Side Story.

Screening Room: Game On!

This week’s Screening Room Podcast looks at Spielberg’s latest, Ready Player One, plus Tyler Perry’s Acrimony, Flower and what to look for in this week’s new home entertainment releases.

Check out the full podcast HERE.





Shall We Play a Game?

Ready Player One

by Hope Madden

Ready Player One may be the most Spielbergian of all Spielberg movies. It’s Spielberg on Spielberg. Meta-Spielberg.

You get the idea.

It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio and the world is so miserable for so many that they spend all day, every day inside their video games. OASIS is a virtual world where you can play anything against anybody at any time.

The creator of OASIS and every devoted gamer’s hero, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), died several years ago and has built a challenge into the game. The winner will own OASIS (and its trillion in worth) outright.

And that’s it. A ragtag group of nerds (led by Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke) must learn to work together so they can defeat the megalomaniacal tech firm run by a guy who doesn’t even like gaming (Ben Mendelsohn).

What? Misfit kids teaming up to learn from a master nerd and beat the suits? Smells like Spielberg!

Ready Player One is a celebration of gamer culture in the same way that The Lego Movie indulged in the sheer joy of building with Legos. It is also an 80s pop culture nerd’s wet dream. You want to see a guy wearing Buckaroo Banzai’s while driving Marty McFly’s DeLorean romance a girl on Tron’s bike or run across a bridge made of the Iron Giant? Done.

Want to know what the Zemeckis Cube does? (Bill and Ted know.)

The entire assortment of John Hughesisms is set to righteous beats from Bruce to Blondie.

And that’s where the film could easily have become fluffy nonsense were it not for the genius move of taking an 80s fanboy icon (Spielberg) and allowing him to simply provide an undiluted version of every nostalgic gimmick he has ever hatched.

Every time he borrows from himself or leans on old tendencies—tendencies he’s been trying to shed since 1985’s The Color Purple—it feels like it’s meant to be.

It’s basically a Spielberg movie inside an ode to Spielberg movies.

Plus, oh my God I want a The Shining video game!

Unfortunately, that’s all it really is. The performances are hammy fun but certainly not revelatory. The story is thin enough that it doesn’t get in the way of all the cool FX and callbacks. You’ve seen it all before, you just haven’t seen it quite this unabashed, with frame after frame nearly bursting with the exuberance of some kid whose parents just demanded he put down that homework, crank up the tunes and start gaming already!





Must Never Be Silent

The Post

by Hope Madden

It is Oscar season, people, and we have a big story to tell. Assemble the heavy hitters!

Spielberg – check.

Tom Hanks – check.

Where do you go from there when you’re making the Big Important Film? The one with potential blockbuster legs?

Correct: Meryl Streep.

It is official: The Post has it all, beginning with the almost-too-relevant story of a newspaper casting off its personal associations to hold the government accountable by sharing actual news with citizens of the United States and the world.

“If we live in a world where the government tells us what we can and cannot print,” says Ben Bradlee by way of Tom Hanks, “the Washington Post has already ceased to exist.”

The year is 1971. The New York Times has just published parts of the Pentagon Papers, a decades-long study that proves the government lied for years about what was happening in Vietnam. The Washington Post wants desperately to be seen as one of the big news outlets, so they’re working to publish similar content of their own when Nixon decides it’s in his purview to suppress the freedom of the press.

A timely reminder of the struggle to maintain an informed public, Spielberg’s latest is also a testament to Post publisher Kay Graham (Streep). The film offers an insightful image of her difficult road and her courageous actions.

Like Spotlight, also co-written by Post co-scribe Josh Singer (writing here with Liz Hannah), this story encapsulates a watershed moment in journalism. No, not the struggle for a free press. The introduction of profit into the mix. Part of the film’s tension comes from the fact that the Pentagon Papers became available at the same time that the Post was being made public, which introduces yet another powerful contributor toward determining what is and is not deemed appropriate news: money.

It’s a lot to tackle, but naturally, Spielberg has it all well in hand and he doesn’t limit his spectacular casting to Streep and Hanks. Look for great ensemble performances from Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood and about 30 others.

Spielberg’s passion and polish come together here as an expertly crafted rallying cry. He’s preaching to the choir, but he preaches so well.





Fright Club: When Animals Attack

How is it we haven’t done this one yet? So many to choose from – most of them bad. Grizzly? Or Grizzly 2: The Concert? You know how we feel about Monkey Shines.

But, an animal attack has to be the human’s most primal fear, and it is sometimes mined for real terror when the story is in the right hands. Though there are a handful that fell just off the list – Burning Bright, Black Water, Lake Placid, The Shallows – these made the most lasting impression. They left bite marks.

5. Cujo (1983)

A New England couple, struggling to stay afloat as a family, has some car trouble. This naturally leads to a rabid St. Bernard adventure.

But before we get into all that, we’re privy to the infidelities that undermine the marriage of Donna (Dee Wallace) and Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly). Remarkably, it’s Donna who’s boning elsewhere. You might expect such behavior from her perennially shirtless husband, but no. Apparently dressing like Ma Engle is a real draw for New England boys.

This film is easy to write off. It dates terribly, from the heavy handed set up to the weak exposition to the inescapably Eighties score to Daniel Hugh Kelly’s ridiculous hair. Let’s not even get into this big, friendly St. Bernard covered in Caro Syrup pretending to be a menace, or the hillbilly family running the garage. (Stephen King will be damned if the South gets to corner the market on scary rural folk!)

Still, with all its many, many faults, once Donna and her asthmatic son (pre-Who’s the Boss Danny Pintauro) find themselves trapped in their broken down Pinto (What? Those seem like such reliable cars!) with a rabid dog (bigger than the car) attacking, the film ratchets up the tensions and rewards you for your patience.

Profoundly claustrophobic and surprisingly tense, benefitting immeasurably by Wallace’s full commitment to the role, the third of the film where we’re trapped in the heat inside that Pinto just about makes up for the entire rest of the picture.

4. Rogue (2007)

In 2007, Wolf Creek writer/director Greg McLean returned, again with the intention of scaring tourists out of Australia.

Australia – if I remember my Crocodile Hunter program, you know, before the deadly beasts of Australia finally killed him – is home to more man eating sharks, poisonous snakes, poisonous spiders, crocodiles and alligators than anywhere else on earth. It’s also the spot right under the hole in the ozone. I swear. The thing that seems to fuel McLean’s work is a bone-deep puzzlement over Australia’s tourism draw.

He’s not all anti-Oz, though. The aerial shots of his native nation’s North Territory inspire awe, and much of the film makes the rugged landscape a major character as riverboat tour guide Kate (Radha Mitchell) veers her group off course to answer another craft’s distress signal. Her boat’s quickly grounded when something bumps it, and she and her crew of tourists find themselves banked on a tiny mud island as daylight diminishes. Eventually they realize that inside that murky river is one mammoth crocodile.

One reason this film works as well as it does is that the croc looks cool. Another is that the performances are rock solid – Mitchell and Wolf Creek co-star John Jarratt, in particular, but look out for Sam Worthington in a small role. But the real star is McLean, who can ratchet up tension like nobody’s business. You know what’s coming, and yet still you jump. Every time.

3. Open Water (2003)

Jaws wasn’t cinema’s only powerful shark horror. In 2003, young filmmaker Chris Kentis’s first foray into terror is unerringly realistic and, therefore, deeply disturbing.

From the true events that inspired it to one unreasonably recognizable married couple, from superbly accurate dialog to actual sharks, Open Water’s greatest strength is its unsettling authenticity. Every element benefits from Chris Kentis’s control of the project. Writer, director, cinematographer and editor, Kentis clarifies his conception for this relentless film, and it is devastating.

A couple on vacation (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) books a trip on a crowded, touristy scuba boat. Once in the water, they swim off on their own – they’re really a little too accomplished to hang with the tourists. And then, when they emerge from the depths, they realize the boat is gone. It’s just empty water in every direction.

Now, sharks aren’t an immediate threat, right? I mean, tourist scuba boats don’t just drop you off in shark infested waters. But the longer you drift, the later it gets, who knows what will happen?

2. The Birds (1963)

As The Birds opens, wealthy socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) has followed hottie bachelor lawyer Mitch (Rod Taylor) to little Bodega Bay, his hometown, to play a flirtatious practical joke of cat and mouse. But you know what will eat both cats and mice? Birds.

Hitchcock introduces a number of provocative characters, including Hedren’s not-that-likeable heroine. Suzanne Pleshette’s lovelorn schoolteacher’s a favorite. But whatever the character, the dread is building, so they need to work together to outwit these goddamn birds.

The film is basically an intelligent zombie film, although it predates our traditional zombie by a good many years, so maybe, like every other dark film genre, the zombie film owes its history to Hitchcock. The reason the birds behave so badly is never explained, they grow in number, and they wait en masse for you to come outside. No one’s off limits – a fact Hitch announces at the children’s party. Nice!

Though the FX were astonishing for 1963, the whole episode feels a bit campy today. But if you’re in the mood for a nostalgic, clean cut and yet somehow subversive foray into fairly bloodless horror, or if, like one of us, you’re just afraid of birds, this one’s a classic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrN_U830_Gc

1. Jaws (1975)

What else – honestly?

Twentysomething Steven Spielberg’s game-changer boasts many things, among them one of the greatest threesomes in cinematic history. The interplay among the grizzled and possibly insane sea captain Quint (Robert Shaw), the wealthy young upstart marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the decent lawman/endearing everyman Brody (Roy Scheider) helps the film transcend horror to become simply a great movie.

Perhaps the first summer blockbuster, Jaws inspired the desire to be scared silly. And in doing so it outgrossed all other movies of its time. You couldn’t deny you were seeing something amazing – no clichés, all adventure and thrills and shocking confidence from a young director announcing himself as a presence.

Spielberg achieved one of those rare cinematic feats: he bettered the source material. Though Peter Benchley’s nautical novel attracted droves of fans, Spielberg streamlined the text and surpassed its climax to craft a sleek terror tale.

It’s John Williams’s iconic score; it’s Bill Butler’s camera, capturing all the majesty and the terror, but never too much of the shark; it’s Spielberg’s cinematic eye. The film’s second pivotal threesome works, together with very fine performances, to mine for a primal terror of the unknown, of the natural order of predator and prey.

Jaws is the high water mark for animal terror. Likely it always will be.





Old Pros at Work

Bridge of Spies

by George Wolf

It’s October, so if you hear “Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, two hour twenty minute historical drama” and think Oscar bait, you’re not alone.

But Bridge of Spies also walks the walk, emerging as a taut, effective and absorbing film, as finely crafted as you would expect from the talents involved.

It’s also a wonderful slice of history, especially for those not familiar with the story of Jim Donovan.

As the Cold War rages in the late 1950s, Donovan (Hanks) is an insurance lawyer with three kids and a wife (Amy Ryan) in a big house in the New York suburbs. When the CIA nabs Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), the head of Donovan’s firm (Alan Alda) volunteers him to help the Feds and give Abel just enough of a defense to make the trial seem legit.

Going through the motions doesn’t sit well with Donovan, even as his commitment brings a cost “to family and firm.”

Complications arise when the Russians capture one of ours, and a prisoner exchange seems in the best interest of both parties. That’s not the sort of thing governments want to officially participate in, so Donovan is sent to Berlin to negotiate the deal.

Standing alone, the true events are undoubtedly compelling, but onscreen they unfold like an intentionally old school genre thriller, crafted by veteran artists wearing their considerable skills like a perfectly broken-in pair of shoes.

Spielberg’s sense of pace and framing is casually impeccable, Hanks perfectly embodies Donovan’s inner journey, and Rylance is sure to get Oscar consideration for his scene-stealing perfection.

But there’s more. Composer Thomas Newman (what, not John Williams?) provides a gently evocative score, and Matt Charman’s script gets an assist from none other than the Coen Brothers.

As the tale moves from courtroom motions to clandestine spy games, it’s punctuated by perfectly realized moments that speak to more universal themes. Schoolchildren frightened by the thought of war, a mad dash to make it over the Berlin Wall, or a pledge to be a justice system that doesn’t “toss people in the trash heap”, all linger just long enough to resonate without manipulation.

By the time Donovan heads to the bridge for the prisoner transfer, the only chance of letdown in the film comes from being lulled into complacency by the skill of people who just know what the hell they are doing.

You knew Bridge of Spies would be good. It is.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 





Halloween Countdown, Day 2

Poltergeist (1982)

Come back to a time when TV stations went off the air late at night, after running the national anthem. Yes, it’s the early Eighties, an era that delivered Poltergeist, spawn of the dissonant marriage between Steven Spielberg and Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper.

Their aggressive take on the haunted house tale wraps Hooper’s potent horrors inside Spielberg’s brightly lit suburbia. Indeed, the put-upon Freeling family lives in a little California neighborhood, Cuesta Verde, that bears a striking cul-de-sac-riddled resemblance to the development where Elliot and his outer space buddy once rode bikes. In both of Spielberg’s ’82 films, the charade of suburban peace is disrupted by a supernatural presence. In E.T., though, there’s less face tearing.

That particular scene, where paranormal researcher Marty (Martin Casella) watches in the mirror as his hands rip the flesh from his skull, caused quite a stir when the film was released. Today it looks a bit goofy, but overall, Poltergeist still packs a real wallop.

Part of that success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril. JoBeth Williams’s performance of vulnerable optimism gives the film a heartbeat, and the unreasonably adorable Heather O’Rourke creeps us out while tugging our heartstrings.

Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.





Frothy Summer Concoction

The Hundred-Foot Journey

by Hope Madden

I did not have high hopes for this movie about a young Indian cook and his family, who open a restaurant 100 feet from a famous bastion of French cuisine.

Director Lasse Hallstrom’s output has primarily offered superficial romance, trite drama and cheesecloth since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. And the media blitz about producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg says “sledgehammer of sentimentality” to me. Plus, it’s made by Disney, who Slumdogged it up earlier this summer with the tastefully offensive Million Dollar Arm.

But there are two glimmers of hope.

Writer Steven Knight is not faultless, but when he’s on, he is brilliant. (Please see Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, Locke. Seriously, please see them.) So there’s that.

And any script can be made better when it falls into the hands of the incomparable Helen Mirren. You saw RED, right?

And basically, The Hundred-Foot Journey is an exact sum of its parts. The frothy concoction offers seductive visuals, feel-good cultural blending, trite drama, a script that sneaks in some subtle but bright jabs at France’s recent history of violent racism as well as the high octane competition of haute cuisine, and a gem of a performance by Mirren.

Watching young Hassan (Manish Dayal) struggle with his natural cooking instincts, the culture clash his life has become, and his romantic interest in a rival sous chef pales when compared to the boisterous, enchanting battle of wills between Mirren’s Madame Mallory and Hassan’s father (Om Puri). These two acting veterans are as flavorful and tempting as any of the dishes simmering onscreen, and the film weakens whenever the story pulls away from them.

Hassan’s romantic subplot fails to deliver any heat, and when the film follows him out of town, you can’t help but feel you’re biding your time until your next visit to Pop and M. Mallory.

It’s being called Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille, which isn’t far from the mark. Adapted from Richard Morias’s charming summer read, the film is as sweet as it is harmless. For foodies and folks looking for the cinematic version of a poolside paperback, The Hundred-Foot Journey delivers. If you’re seeking something with a little artistic nutrition, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Pass the Reese’s Pieces

Earth to Echo

by Hope Madden

Homey, middle class subdivisions. Kids on bikes. Spooky government types with flashlights and potentially evil aims. An adorable extra terrestrial who needs a friend. Lord, that sounds familiar.

E.T. gets a superficial but harmless reboot in Earth to Echo, the tale of three best buds spending their last night together before a neighborhood construction project sends their families in different directions. Rather than waste what little time they have left, they take off on a grand adventure that will test their bonds and see a couple of unpredicted additions to their group of pals.

What the film lacks in originality and depth, it sometimes makes up for with loose energy, naturalistic performances and good humor. Newcomer David Green collects a talented cast of mostly unseasoned youngsters to carry his tale. He curbs sentimentality nicely, and builds a giddy momentum appropriate for a “kids on a secret mission” storyline.

The screenplay by Henry Gayden offers some very humorous lines to a group who works to establish specific, believable characters. Reese Hartwig, in particular, gives the nerdy friend cliché a funny, nuanced turn, but the film boasts impressive performances all around.

Echo, though – the alien at the center of the kids’ adventure – never gets the chance to become a character at all, which seriously diminishes the overall impact of the drama and adventure. It’s one of many underdeveloped plotlines and characters, symptomatic of a storytelling style too slight to fit its content.

No one knows how to dig below the surface – not the director, the writer, or the young cast. As likeable as everything about the film is, it offers such a superficial treatment of the ideas it conveys that it rarely feels like a film. Instead, it presents a workmanlike restringing of dozens of reliable, familiar images and ideas from better films.

Worse still, it distances itself from an honest emotional impact. Yes, Spielberg was heavy-handed with sentimentality. But is there really a need for E.T.- lite?

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars