Spielberg By Numbers – Minority Report

This is just a really entertaining film.

Minority Report (2002)

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The Plot: In a future where technology can predict murders before they happen , one pre-crime officer becomes a fugitive when the system predicts that he will kill someone, but he suspects that he’s being framed in order to discredit the system.

Seen it Before?: A couple times before, but I like it more every time I see it.

Writing (9): The script is excellent, with all manner of really clever twists and turns throughout. The final act is like a parade of “what?” “What?” “WHAT!?!?” and it’s fantastic.

My only gripe is that the dialogue feels a bit stilted here and there. The cast is wonderful, but you can tell they have to sort of stumble through patches of awkward dialogue. But this is only in a few scenes. The overall plot moves with breakneck speed, and you can’t help but get sucked into it.

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Acting (8): I really like Tom Cruise in this one. There’s a lot of depth to his character, especially with his tragic past. The scene where he’s reliving old videos of his son, the scene where we see what happened when his son was kidnapped, and then the scene where he confronts the man whom he thinks stole his son are all incredibly acted. They could easily be hammy, but Cruise goes for raw emotion and it works really well.

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I also really like the depth in Max Von Sydow’s performance. He’s likable, but once we realize what he really did, there’s a simmering malevolence beneath the calm exterior that’s so creepy.

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Kudos also to Colin Farrell. At first you just KNOW he’s the bad guy, but when he realizes that they’re all being set up, the shift is so natural it doesn’t feel like a random switch for dramatic purposes. You realize that he’s genuinely searching for truth and it’s not just a witch hunt.

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The rest of the cast isn’t as strong, but it’s not a big deal since they’re mostly just obstacles or window dressing in John’s journey.

Visual Style (9): Spielberg is quoted as saying to his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who won Oscars for his work on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan) that he wanted to create the “ugliest dirtiest movie” they had ever made. I think Spielberg and Kaminski came out of A.I. with a more daring experimental approach that I think contributed a lot to this film’s unique look.

For a film that is set in such a slick future, I’m intrigued that chose such a gritty visual style. It recalls the muted colors of Saving Private Ryan, but avoids the crisp sharpness of A.I. Now, there are definitely other movies that are grimier in terms of the set and lighting (I’m thinking of the industrial dampness of Alien), but I think making the camera work itself rougher and more gritty in this film adds a great element.

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Not only is John’s work life a shiny facade for a damaged, unkempt interior, but so many of the characters have a conflict between their external and internal selves and I think the crisp shiny sets combined with the shaky, gritty camerawork expresses that well.

Now once John escapes into the grimier parts of the city, we get plenty of physical ickyness that shows that, even though pre-crime has lowered the crime rate, the city has done nothing to combat the rampant poverty and drug use that has reduced the inner city to a moldy, gross, collection of tumbled-down apartments.

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My only issue is how the film sometimes turns to gross-out humor for a laugh (ie, a blinded John groping about in the fridge and accidentally grabbing the green spoiled milk and black moldy sandwich instead of the fresh milk and nice sandwich that are right there) that doesn’t really add much to the film except to make you breathe a sigh of relief when he finally is able to get out of that place.

Music (7): The music works in terms of its background atmosphere, but there really aren’t any memorable themes that stand out. This film has many elements of the neo-noir genre, and ambient music is often an important part of such films, and I think Williams could have created a futuristic equivalent to the “moody saxaphone riff” that became a cliche in the 40’s. Instead, he scores the film as if it’s a slick action film (which it kind of is, but we’ll talk about that in the next section).

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Genre (8): Spielberg went into this wanting it to evoke the moody atmosphere of film noir classics like The Maltese Falcon, and I think it works, for the most part. It was marketed as a slick action film, but I think the film’s best moments are the more thoughtful scenes. It’s ultimately a mystery film, and that’s what gives the script it’s headlong pace that just pulls you in.

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Again, as is often common in Spielberg films, sometimes things dip toward the comedic, and in this one, it doesn’t always work. Certain scenes (like the jetpack fight scene) edge into more slapstick goofiness that one would find in a generic action flick, but not in a moodier cyberpunk film like this one. Now, it’s still entertaining, but I think the film could have evolved from Great Film to Classic Film if it had committed more fully to the cyberpunk/film noir style a la something like Bladerunner.

Overall Thoughts: Great twisty plot, fantastic visual style, and a great lead make this a lot of fun to watch and analyze.

Total Score: 41/50

Rank

  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. E.T. (45)
  4. Jurassic Park (44)
  5. The Color Purple (44)
  6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  8. Jaws (42)
  9. Empire of the Sun (42)
  10. Minority Report (41) (According to RT, this one beat out Amistad by 20 points)
  11. Amistad (41)
  12. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  13. Hook (39)
  14. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  15. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  16. The Sugarland Express (35)
  17. Always (34)
  18. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  19. 1941 (27)

Next week, we’re moving away from the sci-fi world and entering the real world with Catch Me If You Can.

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Spielberg By Numbers – A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

This is both very much a Spielberg film and also very not a Spielberg film. Let’s see how it stacks up.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

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The Plot: The life of a robot child who explores the dangerous and beautiful world around him in search of his mother who abandoned him.

Seen It Before?: Yep, though only once.

Writing (7): The three-act structure works really well for creating this world. We get the clean home in the beginning, the terrifying world of “flesh-fairs,” and then the poetic quest for “The Blue Fairy” amid the jagged sinking world of Manhattan. Add to that a prologue that asks questions but offers no answers, and then an epilogue featuring a world in which humans are extinct and hyper-advanced robots are sifting through the rubble, and you get a poetic (though occasionally overlong) robot fairytale.

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The dialogue feels trapped between Spielberg’s two preferred rhythms: that of a heightened reality and that of real life. I think that’s the Kubrick influence. This is Kubrick’s film, one that he worked on for a long time. But then he passed it to Spielberg before he died. As a result the script oscillates between Kubrick minimalism and Spielberg drama. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t (there are a number of really awkwardly delivered lines). But when it works, it’s pretty wonderful.

Acting (8): Haley Joel Osment does a beautiful job of portraying a robotic child. In the beginning, he’s kind of creepy, but as he learns human mannerisms and develops, you grow to cheer for him as he explores what it means to be an individual. The scene where he confronts the other David and is so angry that he’s not unique that he destroys it is done so wonderfully. I can see any other actor overdoing the scene, but Osment infuses it with enough emotion to give it impact, but not so much that you forget that this is a robot.

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Another shout out to Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe. He seems immediately trustworthy, but you come to realize that this is only because he’s programmed to be appealing. He’s not evil or dangerous, but the level of arrogance programmed into him to make him attractive also means that he can be very self-serving. And yet, we see him grow a bit as the film progresses, progressing to the point where he feels protective of David, saving him near the end.

As for the rest of the cast, they feel a bit distant and flat, but I feel like that was intentional. That may very well be Kubrick’s influence. We saw him use that same technique in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But since Spielberg was the one who oversaw the actual shooting, I’m wondering if he encouraged the cast to go for a colder, more distant type of performance in keeping with Kubrick’s style.

Visual Style (10): Despite the film’s pacing issues, you can’t deny that this film looks beautiful. It’s a wonderful blending of Kubrick’s artfully constructed composition and Spielberg’s striking use of light. Spielberg obviously put a lot of thought into paying homage to Kubrick’s style, but I like that he also infused it with his own bit of magic. This allows Spielberg to challenge himself and find new ways of framing and shooting scenes that will push him to take greater chances in future films, which only makes him a better director in the long run.

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Music (8): John Williams’ score is very subtle in this one, adding atmosphere and drama, but not as effectively as in his other more minimalist scores. I DO really like the piano piece that ends the film.

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According to behind-the-scenes material, Spielberg didn’t show Williams the last seven minutes of the film and let Williams compose the piano piece as a sort of symphonic poem telling the story as Williams saw fit, and then Spielberg edited what he had shot around the music, which is VERY Kubrick-esque (think of how Kubrick shot and edited scenes based around pre-existing symphonic pieces). But Spielberg also did that with the end of E.T., editing the scene around Williams’ triumphant music. But, unlike E.T., this one ends with a dose of Kubrick-esque ambiguity that I think works really well.

Genre (7): While, visually, I think the blending of Kubrick and Spielberg works spectacularly, in terms of plot and pacing, the three acts all have different genres (each with their own strengths) which causes the whole thing to feel disjointed. Act 1 with David and his mother is filled with so much creepy tension at the beginning that once it becomes more heartfelt, it feels a bit too little too late, which robs the scene where she abandons him of its full impact.

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Then Act 2 has a very brisk pace and everything feels more like a Bladerunner-type of dystopia with grimy streets filled with garish neon signs. The pacing is much better here, and it whips by in no time at all because this is the section where you really become invested in David’s story. This is I think the most Spielberg section of the whole film.

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Act 3 is very much Kubrick’s. Now, the Pinocchio metaphor is pure Spielberg, but the quiet meditative quality and the epic imagery combined with the slower camera movements is very much Kubrick. The final scene in the extreme future feels very much in the vein of 2001, and I know a lot of people don’t like it because they find it slow and strange, but I ADORE it specifically for that reason. I love slow ponderous sci-fi, so maybe I’m weird. This is also why Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of my favorite Trek films.

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But regardless of everything, I love how this movie looks and how it’s paced. It’s unfortunate that the three separate acts don’t combine together well enough to create a truly exceptional film, though. As a labor of love in tribute to Kubrick who started working on the film but couldn’t finish it, I think the film succeeds. But as a classic film among the greats of Spielberg’s canon, it juuuuust isn’t able to hold its own.

Overall Thoughts: A visually beautiful film that functions as a love letter to Kubrick’s genius, but it fails to find the cohesion needed to make a huge impact.

Total Score: 40/50

Rank

  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. E.T. (45)
  4. Jurassic Park (44)
  5. The Color Purple (44)
  6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  8. Jaws (42)
  9. Empire of the Sun (42)
  10. Amistad (41)
  11. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  12. Hook (39)
  13. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  14. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  15. The Sugarland Express (35)
  16. Always (34)
  17. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  18. 1941 (27)

Next week, we’re staying in sci-fi land with Minority Report!

Pixar By Numbers – Part 7

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It’s been a while, but Pixar By Numbers is back!

Alright, first up we have…

Cars 3 (2017)

cars 3Overview: After a devastating crash, Lightning McQueen has to decide if it’s time to retire or keep racing. His situation is complicated when Rust-eze is bought out by a wealthy businessman who doubts McQueen’s ability to get into racing shape by the next season.

The Concept: 8/10

I actually like the back-to-basics approach this one takes. It feels much more of a sequel to the first one than the second one. The clash of old and new is cliche, but it makes for an entertaining film.

The Characters: 7/10

McQueen’s arc is great, and ties in really well with his growth in the first movie, but I was surprised how all the secondary characters become SO secondary that the focus is basically JUST McQueen and Ramirez. And that’s fine, but I would have liked to see more Sally. She and Lightning are a thing and yet she’s so far on the sidelines, we don’t even get any hints that they’re in a relationship at all. I would have liked at least one scene where he gets to talk through some of his insecurities and issues with her.

I felt like Nathan Filion was sorely underused. He’s a delight, but his character became more of a catalyst to move things along rather than a genuinely interesting antagonist.

I will say, I LOVED how Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson got to be an integral part of the film. I guess they used deleted scenes from the first movie for his flashback scenes, but it was really awesome to hear him again.

The Story: 7/10

The plot is super predictable, but it’s got a soul. Even though you can see the twists coming miiiiles away, you don’t mind, because it moves along with a fun pace that never feels draggy or rocky. McQueen’s overall arc is actually really poignant, a sort of more mature progression from his arc in the first movie. I was pretty impressed.

The Humor: 7/10

I actually liked that this one wasn’t as funny as the previous ones. There’s still a lot of amusing moments, but it wasn’t as wacky or bizarre as the second one. There wasn’t really a lot of super memorable stuff (probably because the side characters have such small parts) but it served the story well. I feel like there could have been a better balance of humor in order to appeal to kids more, but I think the filmmakers were trying to play things safe. Not much stands out, but at the same times, nothing descends into ridiculous territory.

The Heart: 8/10

What Pixar is best at is presenting adult issues in situations that children can empathize with. No child anywhere is going to face issues of retirement/feeling obsolete and out of touch, but if they are faced with an adult in their family who IS dealing with such things, they can understand where they’re coming from. 

And even though it was obvious waaay in advance, Ramirez getting to be a racer like she’d always dreamed was a nice changing of the guard. I must admit to getting a bit gooey inside when McQueen came out with Hudson’s color scheme and number. If they do continue the franchise, I look forward to seeing how this new mentor/student relationship progresses. But if it doesn’t, this was a great way to end things.

Overall Score: 37= 74/100

And then we go to…

Coco (2017)

Coco-Family-Poster-PixarOverview: The story of a young boy who wants to be a musician like his idol, but his family has banned music because of Miguel’s ancestor who chose music over family. When he steals a guitar from the mausoleum of his idol, who he believes is his own relative, he’s cursed and sent to the land of the dead where he must obtain the blessing of a family member before sunset or he will stay there forever.

The Concept: 10/10

This movie is beautiful. The entire Day of the Dead art style is rendered to spectacular effect. Each Pixar film has focused on a different group of characters (superheroes, toys, monsters) but I think was the best possible treatment of ghosts/spirits that they could have done. The visuals are stunning.

The Characters: 8/10

Hector and Miguel are incredibly-written characters. I think Hector is one of Pixar’s most multi-layered and thoughtfully-written characters. I just adore both of their arcs. Miguel has such an infectious energy and enthusiasm, but also a resentment that pushes him to find answers and not trust anyone (except for the one person he shouldn’t trust).

I also loved Imelda. When we see her through Miguel’s eyes, she’s threatening, but once we get to know who she is, she very nearly steals the show. I LOVE her singing at the end. It’s just one of those moments that makes you want to get up and cheer.

My only complaint is the family back in the real world (except Coco because she’s adorbs). Their Footloose-esque ban of music seems very “plot point” as opposed to a decision consistent with their family’s lingering pain at Coco’s dad’s leaving.

The Story: 9/10

The Plot is a bit predictable, especially once we get to the reveal of the villain, but overall, everything moves with such a steady pace that you don’t mind. I think the whole focus is the characters, and their arcs are given enough space to breathe without things feeling rushed. Plus, there’s a great balance of the hilarious and the thoughtful.

I also like how the music is seamlessly integrated into the story. It’s allllmost a musical, but it blends everything together so well that everything feels like a logical progression from what came before. It’s intelligently crafted and a lot of fun.

The Humor: 9/10

When it’s funny, it’s hilarious. The humor doesn’t feel tacked on, nor does it feel forced. I love all the sight gags, and I think Diego is one of the most awkward hilarious sidekick characters ever. I could watch him fall over and be weird forever. Also, the relateable family moments are a delight, and it’s just wonderful. The comedy is balanced throughout, and I’m a fan.

The Heart: 9/10

This one’s really emotional, but not in an over-the-top manipulative way. It didn’t have me bawling the way other Pixar films have, but it’s still got a wonderful message. I think the central conflict is a bit heavy-handed, with music ultimately bridging the gap between the past and present, but the characters are so well-rounded and interesting that you don’t mind. I think this one is a good sign that Pixar is moving out of their slump and continuing to stay relevant.

I do think they need to try shaking up their story-telling methods, though, because the ending is very predictable, and I think that hurts its emotional impact a bit. When Pixar started blazing trails with more sentimental stories and making disappointment a recurring theme, it was great, but I think it’s time for them to go in new directions.

But overall, this is a wonderful movie and I can’t wait to get it. Definitely would recommend.

Overall Score: 45=90/100

Let’s see where the ranking stands:

  1. Finding Nemo (96)
  2. Wall-E (94)
  3. Monsters Inc. (94)
  4. Inside Out (92)
  5. The Incredibles (92)
  6. Coco (90) I’m pretty happy where this one ended up on the ranking.
  7. Toy Story 2 (88)
  8. Toy Story 3 (88)
  9. Up (88)
  10. Finding Dory (88)
  11. Toy Story (86)
  12. Ratatouille (86)
  13. Monsters University (80)
  14. Cars 3 (74) (I’m liking the steady progression of each Cars films as they go)
  15. Cars 2 (72)
  16. Cars (68)
  17. A Bug’s Life (64)
  18. Brave (64) 
  19. The Good Dinosaur (60)

Spielberg By Numbers – Saving Private Ryan

This one’s intense.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The Plot: Set during World War II, the story of a group of soldiers who go behind enemy lines in France to find a soldier whose brothers have all been killed in action.

Seen it Before?: Our English teacher traumatized the class by showing us the first fifteen minutes of the movie in junior high school (we were going to be watching the whole film, but a few people started crying and we had to stop. And then parents panicked and we never got to finish it). Never got around to watching the whole thing.

Writing (9): The dialogue feels completely natural, even when it’s not. Robert Rodat’s script moves with an effortless ease that really makes you marvel at how well he’s able to keep things moving forward and focused despite the episodic structure.

I also like how the script keeps the characters from becoming stock types, which is a common thing in quest stories like this. Each character has their own collection of admirable traits and character flaws, and we become invested in them not as a heroic troupe, but a group of people all trying to stay alive in a horrific situation.

My only issue with the script is the frame story with the older Ryan. It feels incredibly contrived and a bit sappy. And the fake out as to the older man’s identity in the beginning doesn’t work as it seems to suggest that he’s having a flashback to the Omaha Beach attack, but his character wasn’t present at that time. The story as a whole is driven by such brutal realism and heartbreaking humanity that the fairy-tale quality of the older Ryan comes across as a bit forced.

Acting (10): This film begins the AMAZING team-up of Tom Hanks and Spielberg that will give us some incredible work down the road. I love how Hanks’ character isn’t the stoic straight man that you’d usually see in this sort of situation. He’s a human guy who’s fighting to keep things together, and you just grow to care so deeply for him the way his men care for him. Hanks is incredible anyways, but this is definitely one of his best roles.

The rest of the cast is filled with some really well-known names that you’d never expect to see in a serious war film such as Nathan Fillion or Adam Goldberg, but they all work together beautifully. Few characters drift into the background, and the camaraderie between them all feels very genuine. I especially liked the performances of Jeremy Davies (Corporal Upham) whose character learns a brutal lesson about the realities of war. For so much of the film, he’s a timid cowardly person, but I like how he didn’t get a huge redemption moment where he heroically saves the day (even though it’s set up that that is exactly what is going to happen when the gunners run out of ammo and he is left holding the very ammo they need). His saving of “Steamboat Willie” leads to Miller’s death in the end, and it’s Upham who ultimately executes the man he saves, but it’s not a heroic moment. It’s a tragic moment where we see a naive man learn that in the landscape of war, one can’t always afford to be a “good” person. Davies sells this tragic character arc beautifully.

Visual Style (10): To modern viewers, the visual look of this film appears very conventional, but we have to sit back and realize that Spielberg essentially set the standard for the washed-out grays and olives that every other filmmaker on earth copied for years afterward. At the time, it was innovative and iconic.

I also want to praise the sound design here. It’s related to the feel of the film, so I’ll put it here, but I’ve got to say the ominous distant creaking of the approaching tanks before the final confrontation has got to be one of the greatest uses of ambient sound in a film. It’s such an unearthly sound, and it never became a film cliche. That particular ghostly sound is completely unique to this film, and adds so much to the build up to that final battle. Mad props to the sound team.

Music (9): John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen” is a GORGEOUS piece of music. I also really like the understated music that underscores the rest of the film. This is a film whose visuals have to take center stage, and I think a huge sweeping score would detract from the shocking realism of the film. In other films where Williams wrote more understated music, it came across as bland or uninspired, but in this one, it feels like an integral part of the film landscape. I think Williams has definitely done better, but this is overall a fairly solid score.

Genre (10): Everything about this film feels very cohesive. Its simple plot (brave a harsh landscape in search of a symbol of hope and victory) gives the whole thing a universal feel. Yes, it’s primarily a war movie, but it’s also Lord of the Rings and The Odyssey.

But within that Epic Quest framework, we’ve got a unique war film that doesn’t idealize anything. It doesn’t demonize the Germans and it doesn’t present the Americans as glowing paragons of virtue (except for Ryan himself, but he’s the McGuffun they’re questing for and therefore doesn’t have to be all that flawed or human). It doesn’t show war as anything glamorous, and it doesn’t even say much about the overall cause or purpose of the war. We have characters that say they want the war to end and they want to win the war, but the film keeps the focus on characters who want to survive and go home, not the governments who are fighting each other.

I also like how the film, on several occasions, sets up a situation that would lead to any number of standard film cliches, but then subverts that and gives us a brutal death or a loss of nerve instead. It’s no wonder this film became the gold standard for pretty much every war film that came afterwards.

Overall Thoughts: An iconic war film that somehow manages to simultaneously fit within established Epic Quest conventions while subverting a great many Hollywood narrative conventions.

Total Score: 48/50

Rank

  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. E.T. (45)
  4. Jurassic Park (44)
  5. The Color Purple (44)
  6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  8. Jaws (42)
  9. Empire of the Sun (42)
  10. Amistad (41)
  11. Hook (39)
  12. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  13. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  14. The Sugarland Express (35)
  15. Always (34)
  16. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  17. 1941 (27)

Next week, we go on a quest back into sci-fi land! Also, I FINALLY got my hands on Cars 3, so once I see that, I’ll be able to do the next Pixar By Numbers as well. See you then!

Spielberg By Numbers – Amistad

This one’s pretty brutal, but it’s a good one.

Amistad (1997)

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The Plot: (Based on a true story) Following a revolt on a Spanish slave ship and the discovery of said ship by the Americans, a public controversy erupts as the case goes to trial. While the trial begins as a dispute over property, a small group of abolitionists, including former president John Quincy Adams, turn it into a battle for the freedom of the African prisoners.

Seen it Before?: Yes, though I was pretty young.

Writing (7): I like how the script moves along at a pretty decent pace, though there are times when it starts to drag. I do like how the script causes the audience to reevaluate their opinion of many of the characters over the course of the film, especially Cinque.

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At the beginning, we see him at his most desperate and strong, brutally escaping from confinement and leading the revolt against the crew. And then, as we go, he becomes less of a Herculean hero character and more of a realistic humanized hero. We learn about his life before he was captured, especially when he tells the story of how he accidentally killed the lion.

In terms of the American characters, so many of them are sort of stock types and thus don’t really offer much in the way of arcs, though I do like the progression we get with Matthew McConaughey’s character as he goes from enthusiastic go-getter to realizing the enormous gravity of what he’s actually arguing.

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I think the fact that this is a courtroom drama takes some of the surprise out of the script. It’s such a Hollywood trope that you can see a lot of the ups and downs coming a mile away. We know Adams is going to join in eventually, and we know someone is going to give a big dramatic speech at the end that changes everyone’s mind. We know there’s going to be moments where the prosecution gains the upper hand and we know there is always going to be doubt near the very end as to the judge’s ultimate decision. The story itself is gripping and makes for a fantastically moving film, but the artificiality of taking a historical event and making it fit into a courtroom drama mold does hurt the story’s impact.

With Schindler’s List, everything moves episodically and organically, jumping from character to character, creating a terrifying tapestry of the reality of the situation as it progresses throughout the years. With this one, we DO get very realistic and heart-rending depictions of the horrors of slavery, but the main movement of the film happens in a more “safe” environment where we know the rules.

Acting (9): Everyone does beautifully. Even when the script doesn’t give the characters much to do (as in the case of Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård) the actors give their character a great deal of depth and humanity. The scene where Freeman’s character visits the slave ship and has a moment of overwhelming panic in the hold is probably one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the film. And it’s not done in an over-the-top fashion either. The editing and directing is kept to a minimum. Freeman carries the entire scene with his facial expressions and body language.

Djimon Hounsou is also FANTASTIC in this one. He is able to show simultaneous strength and vulnerability, and that takes a level of nuance that I can’t even comprehend. The scene where he speaks up in the court room gives me chills every time.

Matthew McConaughey is also quite the surprise in this one. He’s playing a very different type of character from the more swaggery confident gents that he will play later in his career, but he’s able to really show just how scared his character gets as he realizes that he might not be able to win the case.

And Anthony Hopkins is, of course, always flawless. But we expect that from him, so it’s not a HUGE revelation. His massive speech at the end is just marvelous.

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Visual Style (9): The abstract, heightened reality of the opening scene is immediately captivating. I think the dark lighting was also a way to keep the scene from garnering the film a much harsher rating, but it also portrays the terror of what is happening really well. It allows the viewer to not only feel the desperation and anger of the slaves, but also the terror of the ship’s crew as they realize they won’t all be getting out alive.

That then gives way to a more naturalistic style of cinematography as things move into the realm of offices and courtrooms. But even so, Spielberg’s characteristic focus on light, still shows up throughout as a perpetual symbol of hope, keeping things from ever becoming visually dull.

Music (8): John Williams’ main theme with the choir is excellent. The rest of the score keeps to itself, sitting in the background and not raising too much of a fuss. The gentle tribal stylings that underscore Cinque’s story of the lion work somewhat, but they feel more like the background to a video game a la Crash Bandicoot. Knowing how amazing John Williams is, I’m aware of how much better these gentler background pieces could have been.

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Genre (8): This is a courtroom drama, primarily, and it functions in that respect very well. I think, as I’ve said before, that the script could have been more daring in terms of shaking up all the things we expect with a courtroom drama, but it’s an adequate frame on which to hang the story.

I do like how, at the very end, we get the juxtaposition of the destruction of the slave trading fort with the revelation that Cinque’s village was destroyed in the civil war that was going on at the time. It’s a tragic end cap that keeps the audience from feeling the same sort of satisfied resolution that usually ends films like this. The injustices and tragedy weren’t solved with one court case. As someone who generally gravitates toward fairy tale endings, it’s nice to see Spielberg going for an ambiguous, darker epilogue.

Overall Thoughts: A beautiful moving film that sometimes feels to constrained within generic expectations.

Total Score: 41/50

Rank

  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. E.T. (45)
  3. Jurassic Park (44)
  4. The Color Purple (44)
  5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  6. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  7. Jaws (42)
  8. Empire of the Sun (42)
  9. Amistad (41)
  10. Hook (39)
  11. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  12. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  13. The Sugarland Express (35)
  14. Always (34)
  15. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  16. 1941 (27)

Unfortunately there will be no dinosaurs next week…we’re still in Brutal Historical Film land.

In a Galaxy Far Far Away – The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi has been out for a few weeks, so hopefully there aren’t too many spoilers here, but just in case you haven’t seen it yet, be prepared for spoilers.

OK, so unlike other entries in this series, this one picks up RIGHT where the previous entry ends, so let’s just jump right in here.

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Episode Number: 8 — Released: 2017 — Production Number 9

The New Order Strikes Back

People were so worried that this would be a rehash of Empire, but it’s nice to see them going a different route in a Post-Rogue One universe. Though I do like the subtle rhyming elements that DO call back to Empire.

We’ve got Rey seeking training from a great Jedi Master who isn’t what she expected. We’ve got Yoda! We’ve got a mysterious dark tree that contains secrets relating to the Force (I wonder if it’s the same sort of tree that Luke went into on Dagobah). We’ve got a scoundrel who ends up betraying them, though Lando is WAAAAY cooler than DJ and gets a redemption arc. We’ve got the debut of a new type of freaking huge Star Destroyer a la the Executor from Empire. We’ve got a huge confrontation in which the parentage of the main character is revealed, though it is the opposite of Luke’s earth-shattering revelation.

But this isn’t an Empire rehash. The trilogies are all supposed to rhyme, but this one goes in new directions not just in terms of story twists, but in terms of its entire mythology. While the Prequels felt like a Greek tragedy and the Original Trilogy felt like a Greek myth in terms of their scope and their heightened reality, this new trilogy feels more like a Shakespearean history, presenting a vast scope while remaining intimately connected with the personal journeys of its characters. It feels a lot more visceral and less concerned with Fate or Destiny with capital letters. The Force Awakens was literally about the end of a perfect fairy tale existence, and The Last Jedi is about a frantic dash for survival in a purely Darwinian fashion.

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There are no grand plans at play. Our heroes escape with barely anything left, suffering huge losses over the course of the film, and there’s no rosy horizon. In fact the very end suggests that, though everyone will probably die, there are Force-sensitive folks out there in the galaxy as well as tons of heroes who will still fight for what’s right. It’s not the Jedi’s job to persist. The galaxy can survive without them.

And I think that’s my favorite thing about this. Its about people, not the destiny of one super powerful family.

I am Snoke, the Darkside Master

I love that Snoke was a red herring. I feel like who he is and where he came from is still important, but it doesn’t matter who he is because Ben Solo’s fall was the result of Luke losing faith for a terrible instant and Ben listening to the first dark side user who decided to use him to further his own goals. We KNOW there are dark side users out there in the galaxy who aren’t Sith. It’s obvious that one would sense Ben’s power and swoop in as soon as possible, dazzle him with visions of him as a dark side successor to Darth Vader and even create a troop of followers named after him. The Knights of Ren didn’t appear in this movie, but they don’t have to. They were bait that drew Ben Solo to the dark side (or at least 80% of the way there because he’s still very conflicted). It doesn’t matter who they are.

Ultimately, the whole dynamic of the apprentice turning against the master to grow more powerful is a Dark Side trope Snoke should have seen coming (though he’s probably not a Sith, so maybe he was clueless). We needed Kylo Ren to overthrow Snoke earlier than Episode 9 because we need to see what would have happened had Vader succeeded in overthrowing Palpatine before episode 6. Luke redeemed Anakin in his final moments and he gave his life to save the galaxy. But in this trilogy, there are no prophecies or destinies. Kylo Ren is conflicted in a human way, and he makes the right choice as Vader did…but then his self doubt and insecurity take over and he doesn’t want to step outside his comfort zone, so he turns to Rey and asks her to join him, choosing the security of power (that isn’t really security at all) over the light that he needs to balance himself out.

Kind of a Strange Old Hermit

Luke’s journey in this one is AMAZING. Going back to A New Hope, we see an Obi-Wan who’s completely at peace with his life. He’s made HORRIBLE mistakes, and he’s been involved in terrible situations, but he’s worked through it all, and he’s ready to face the end of his life with a serene acceptance. Luke in The Last Jedi has no such serenity. He ran from his problems, but instead of working through them, he’s hid from them so that when Rey forces him to deal with it, the emotional trauma of his own catastrophic failure is too much.

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Luke does finally find that peace and acceptance once he tells Ben that he failed him, but his journey to that incredible apotheosis is a jagged very human one. Luke is not the wise old wizard who has all the answers, he’s a man who made a mistake and who is paralyzed with fear and regret. His ultimate end is so incredibly powerful because it’s one of relief. He stretches himself to his absolute limits to save his sister, and in so doing is able to finally find the sort of peace that is necessary for him to become one with the Force. I know we’ll see him again as a force ghost (because it’s just really important) but his arc in this one is so well done, I’ll be super mad if he’s not at least considered for an Oscar. That performance was stunning.

This only goes to show what little people can do

I really liked how, following Rogue One’s incredibleness, this film really played up the Normal People Being Heroes aspect of the whole thing. The bomber gal who gives her life at the beginning, Rose (who doesn’t feel like she’s a “hero” but ends up nearly sacrificing herself to save everyone), and the little boy at the end (when he grabbed that broom with the Force, I just about squealed in delight out loud and made everyone around me hate me) were essential parts of this movie, showing that Rey isn’t the One who can save them all. It’s the actions of lots of people who will save them.

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Admiral Holdo’s INCREDIBLE final moment is just as heroic as Vader’s final moment. Rose’s standing up to Finn is just as important as Leia standing up to Han. I liked how Rose and Finn’s mission was a failure. They trust the wrong person and get captured and nearly executed. Sometimes plans fail. Finn then learns not to be selfish and nearly sacrifices himself to save everyone before being stopped by Rose who sees his potential.

Rey does help save everyone, but it’s not a deus ex machina. Luke distracts Kylo, Leia’s leadership keeps everyone alive, and Rey allows them to escape. They’re ALL heroes. And they’re all flawed humans. It’s perfect.

Burning bridges (and trees)

Star Wars is all about its iconic imagery, and The Force Awakens was, too. It was a study in nostalgia. The Millennium Falcon got a big crowd-pleasing reveal, Han and Chewie did, too. Darth Vader’s helmet was sitting on a pedestal. Luke’s first lightsaber was discovered in a chest, surrounded by ominous voices and a flash of the past. The iconic stormtrooper armor was immortalized in Captain Phasma’s silver variant. The whole movie was about familiar icons.

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This movie is about reducing those icons to their utilitarian reality. Luke tosses his lightsaber over a cliff. The Millennium Falcon is just a ship. Luke’s X-wing was sunk into the ocean. Kylo Ren’s Darth Vader-esque helmet is smashed. Phasma’s armor is broken. The pedestals all come crashing down, taking the beloved icons with them, and the series is making it clear that the past needs to be learned from and then allowed to drift back into the past. Yoda even burns the tree so Luke can see how little those symbols of the past matter. Yoda knows what’s up. Holding on to past and tradition and icons is what allows dark side users to periodically rise and wreak havoc (it’s literally been going on for thousands of years). But by attaching more importance on personal growth and strength and an intuitive and more all-encompassing view of the Force (which Qui-Gon Jinn followed, making him something of an outlier), the whole concept of dark forever in competition with light can be replaced by a more balanced grey approach that matches the reality of nature. Luke has yet to tell Rey this, but she seems perfectly placed to take up the grey Jedi mantle down the road.

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I hope we get a Force Ghost Luke in the third movie…

Conclusions

There have been lots of reviews about this movie, and there are tons of comments on Facebook from fans complaining that this movie has ruined everything they’ve loved about the whole franchise, but, respectfully, they missed the point of the movie. It’s not about flashy lightsaber battles, it’s about people wrestling with real conflicts, and I really enjoyed it.

I feel like the character arcs will make a lot more sense once we get to the third movie and the whole journey will conclude and it will be mind-blowing. I just hope we get actual closure. i don’t even really want a huge superweapon to be destroyed. I want Return of the Jedi where the amazing battle is mostly psychological (the scene with Luke, Vader, and the Emperor is the greatest moment in the entire franchise) and we get closure for all the characters…and hopefully done in such a way that Kylo Ren doesn’t die…though I feel like that’s a tragic inevitability…

And now we wait for two LOOOONG years before episode 9! Eeee!

Spielberg By Numbers – The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Moar dinosaurs!

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

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The Plot: (Based on Michael Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park) John Hammond sends Ian Malcolm to Jurassic Park’s Site B to observe wild dinosaurs in their natural habitat and to find Dr. Sarah Harding, Malcolm’s girlfriend who volunteered to leave early. But Hammond’s nephew, eager to recoup losses, sends a team to Site B to capture dinosaurs for a planned San Diego dinosaur attraction.

Seen It Before?: Yeah. It scared the crap out of me when I saw it in the theater, but oddly enough it didn’t give me nightmares the way the first one did (even though I loved the first one obsessively)

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Writing (5): The script for this one feels very muddy. The second book is much longer than the first and has a huge cast of characters. In the process of trimming it down and combining multiple characters into single ones, the script ends up feeling very uneven. Whole sequences are devoted to random characters dying, and we have no connection to them.

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The script is well-paced, but it’s so all over the place, mashing tonally different pieces together haphazardly, that it just doesn’t flow as effortlessly as the first film did.

Acting (7): Ian Malcolm feels like a completely different character in this one from the first film. Jeff Goldblum does his best to throw in as much sass as he can, but other than that, he’s just not very consistent. That is most likely an issue with the writing, but Ian just doesn’t work in this one.

The rest of the cast is alright, but aside from Pete Postlethwaite (whom I love) everyone just feels like they’re going through the motions to get to the end. I don’t really connect with anyone.

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Visual Style (8): The dinosaur effects are top notch, combining elaborate puppet effects with pretty good CGI (not as good as the first one, but still nicely done). And I love the darker atmosphere. That is one element from the book that I’m glad translated to the screen. The book has a grimier feel than the first one, and the film’s King Kong-esque visual style fits very well.

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Regardless of this film’s thematic issues, you can’t argue that it looks great.

Music (8): I love John Williams’ King-Kong-esque score. The drum-heavy main theme conveys a sense of adventure and action rather than the graceful sweep of the first theme. It’s a fun score that elevates a so-so movie into an entertaining popcorn flick.

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Genre (5): Whereas the first film was a techno thriller/cautionary tale in the lineage of such classic stories as Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moreau, this one is very much a monster movie in the vein of King Kong. It’s bigger on thrills and not as concerned with the themes of tackling established dogma in view of new evidence in the scientific community that the novel tackles.

In terms of thrills, the film delivers really well. I love the trailer-over-the-cliff scene. It’s goofy, but it’s well-edited and genuinely fun. The scene with Sarah on the cracking glass is seriously iconic.

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This is a lot more of a horror film than the first one, but the scares don’t add much to the story except to make you root for the dinosaurs rather than the moronic human characters .

And then we get the goofy Godzilla parody moment where the T-Rex rampages through San Diego, and you’re left wondering what you’re watching. It’s a hilarious scene, but it’s a really dumb climax to the more terrifying atmospheric monster film the beginning set itself up to be.

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Overall Thoughts: An entertaining monster flick that doesn’t really know what it wants to be.

Total Score: 33/50

Rank

  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. E.T. (45)
  3. Jurassic Park (44)
  4. The Color Purple (44)
  5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  6. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  7. Jaws (42)
  8. Empire of the Sun (42)
  9. Hook (39)
  10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  11. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  12. The Sugarland Express (35)
  13. Always (34)
  14. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  15. 1941 (27)

Next week, we’ll be going back into heart-wrenching historical drama territory.