Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

2018: A Noisy Year, and Time for Changes

I’ve been writing the same, tired “Year in Review” article for a few years now. With the exception of one particularly creative dive into Boethius, admittedly a deep track reference if there ever was one, these write ups have been unremarkable and, I confess, lazy.

I’ve been doing this blog for almost seven years now. I don’t think our pop culture discourse has ever been noisier. It also, has never been less creative.

I read the same article about the same movie probably four or five times, every time. The assessment of film has become of an inescapable groupthink, which more often than not settles on analysis that is an inch deep and a mile wide. This problem isn’t unique to film, it’s in writing about television, sports, politics, basically all of journalism. We’re drawn to the hot take, the short article, the snarky humor, the bland repetitive analysis.

So what does this have to do with the state of popular culture in 2018? After all, 2018 was the year that brought us the best superhero movie (Black Panther), the best series finale of a television show (The Americans), Spike Lee’s return to form (Blackkklansman), and Steven Spielberg’s return to blockbusters (Ready Player One). The year’s biggest movie, globally, was the culmination of a massive series of films the likes of which we haven’t seen before (Avengers: Infinity War). These are real achievements, but something about them feels hollow. That isn’t right.

Film is about images. Roger Ebert understood this and repeated it often. What is lacking from the conversation is how those images make us feel. What they mean. In the moment, and more importantly, in the next moment.

Everything isn’t meant to be compared to everything else before it. With so many legacy movies, series, and filmmakers out there, we’ve been obsessed with just that – legacy. Legacy before the ink of history is even dry. This constant comparison makes art disposable. The art isn’t appreciated for what it is, but for how it measures up to other art. This, in case I’m not being clear, is a bad thing.

You could write about Blackkklansman and compare it to Lee’s earlier work, or you can talk about how Lee uses the film as a sledgehammer to shake the audience out of complacency. You could knock Spielberg as overly nostalgic, or you could point out how he uses nostalgia as a tool to reveal the humanity of an artificial world in Ready Player One. Black Panther is many things to many people, but instead of writing about what everyone is talking about, you can look deeper and see how and why Ryan Coogler’s best shot is when Killmonger walks into the throne-room. Ignore the noise – what does art mean to YOU? That is what I’m to endeavor to answer in the future.

That brings me to what’s changing on this page going forward:

1) I’m not writing traditional reviews anymore. See a movie or show, or don’t. I’m going to be writing about my impressions beyond simply answering whether art is good or bad.

2) Historical context needs time to develop. A new rule: a film or series needs to be at least five years old to have its influence discussed, ten to be understood, thirty to be fully appreciated.

3) I’m changing up the format a bit and working on a few other changes. It’s time.

4) I’ll still do Game of Thrones and maybe other Power Rankings, but I’ll be more thoughtful about a character or group’s story in the broader context.

5) I’m going to write about more random topics. I like to do that.

Thanks for sticking with this experiment that I started in 2012. I’ll do my best to continue making it worthwhile.

D.G. McCabe

December 21, 2018

(C) 2018

Bridge of Spies

Directed by Steven Spielberg, US, 2015

Spielberg has gone on a bit of a minimalist streak lately – well if a “streak” consists of three films.  Lincoln (2012) and Bridge of Spies (2015) could work well as stage plays.  War Horse (2011) is a stage play, although both adaptations come from the same novel.  In any event, for the time being the man who popularized the summer, special effects blockbuster has set visual effects aside in favor of character driven drama.

That isn’t to say that Bridge of Spies lacks compelling imagery – it is a compelling and magnificently shot film.  Period pieces and thrillers are notoriously difficult to shoot, and Spielberg makes it look easy.  Even if you are familiar with the back story of the U2 Incident (not to be confused with the U2 album “Songs of Innocence”), the film is suspenseful and intense.

Tom Hanks will get another Oscar nod for his role as real life attorney turned international negotiator, James B. Donovan.  Donovan reluctantly agrees to defend a Soviet spy in the mid 1950’s.   His work as an attorney draws criticism from his family and community, and eventually puts him in the dangerous position of negotiating a resolution to the infamous U2 Incident.

Overall, if you like spy movies, thrillers, Steven Spielberg, or Tom Hanks, go check this one out.

You might like Bridge of Spies if: You want to see a well executed Cold War spy movie.

You might not like Bridge of Spies if: You know everything about the U2 Incident and don’t want or need to see a movie about it.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Jurassic World (Review)

Directed by Colin Trevorrow, U.S., 2015

And we’re back!  After taking a post Game of Thrones season break it’s time to talk about some summer blockbusters.  What better way to get back in the saddle than reviewing the highest grossing movie of the year: Jurassic World.

Jurassic Park (1992) has aged exceedingly well.  While some of Spielberg’s classic films may not hold up as well as fans would like (see Doom, Temple of), the special effects alone in Jurassic Park make it both an impressive cinematic achievement and a great ride.

Unfortunately two ill-advised trips to the islands of the dinosaurs dimmed the achievement of Jurassic Park.  Their plots can be summarized as follows:

“Remember that horrifying island of the dinosaurs?  Well let’s go back there for some reason!  Oops, this was a bad idea!”

Thankfully, twenty three years after the original and fourteen after the most recent sequel, we finally have a sequel that lives up to the standard set by the original movie.

That isn’t to say Jurassic World is a better film that Jurassic Park. Most notably, some of the film comes off a bit cheesier than anything in the original.  The pterosaur attack showcased in the trailer, for instance, looks more silly than terrifying.

With a lesser cast this would just be another summer blockbuster to fade into the woodwork.  Fortunately for you, dinosaur-loving movie goer, the cast sets this movie apart from even the first Jurassic Park – Chris Pratt especially.  He channels the best of Harrison Ford’s blockbuster days (before his current, cranky old man days) with a twist of his own goofy charm.

While Pratt is a superstar in the making, the dinosaurs are the real stars of this show.  The main dino-villain, the genetically engineered Indominus Rex, is up there with the best movie monsters of all time.  The raptors are back too – still sans feathers – playing a key role in the plot.

Overall, Jurassic World calls to mind the best of the golden age of blockbusters while avoiding the excesses of recent blockbuster series like Transformers.  So if you haven’t already (and the money this baby has pulled in suggests many of you have), head down to your local theater and go see this one.

You might like Jurassic World if: You long for the days when summer movies were more like Indiana Jones and less like the Matrix sequels.

You might not like Jurassic World if: You demand that your velociraptors have feathers dammit!

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Director Profile of the Month – Steven Spielberg

I’m starting a new feature here on Cinema Grand Canyonscope – the director profile of the month.  This month – Steven Spielberg

Ask yourself a question – how many Spielberg movies have you seen?  If you’re like me, the results may surprise you.  I was certain that I had seen more Bergman movies or Scorsese movies (I’ve seen 7 of each).  Maybe in my movie watching life I’d even more Michael Bay films (also 7, mercifully he’s only made 9 features).  I’ve seen twice as many Spielberg movies.

Spielberg’s films have an internal consistency to them, his vision is one of hope triumphing over despair.  I’ve heard people find his worldview too rosy, and it’s true that he can’t resist romanticism.  I don’t think this is always a bad thing, unless you think that every work of art needs to be as dark and gritty as possible.   Spielberg rarely delves that deeply into individual characters to penetrate the dark recesses of the soul like Ingmar Bergman or Stanley Kubrick.   But do we really need him to?

I used to think that Spielberg had such a mastery of the big picture narrative that he couldn’t really make a movie that was completely character driven.  Lincoln (2012) of course, changed my opinion.  While the historical implications of the film’s plot are unquestionably monumental, equally without question is the fact that nothing much happens in the film.  After all, it only takes place over the course of a couple of weeks for the most part.  Even Spielberg’s best film, Schindler’s List (1993) is heavily dependent on plot and a massive narrative arc.  Lincoln, his next best film if you asked me today, while dealing with an important historical figure and event, is almost Ozu-esque in its simplicity (almost being the key word – Spielberg can’t resist a bit of pomp and circumstance during the film’s bookends).

While many great directors struggles outside of a certain genre (Hitchcock after all made almost exclusively thrillers), Spielberg is a notable exception.  The other 8 of his best films include thrillers (Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1993), Munich (2005)), adventure stories (E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)), war movies (Saving Private Ryan (1999)), and comedies (Catch Me If You Can (2002)).   Certainly Jaws is as much horror as thriller and Catch Me if You Can is as much an police procedural as comedy, demonstrating that it’s hard to pin down his films into genres at all.

So what makes Spielberg a great director?  His films contain a unique over-arching vision, are incredibly diverse as to style and genre, and extremely well-made.  He is too contemporary to really judge his influence but if young directors such as J.J. Abrams are any indication, his career will cast a long shadow indeed.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln

Steven Spielberg, 2012, USA

The biopic is a genre that is, like its literary cousin the biography, decidedly not for everyone.  The reason being that even relatively short lives consist of massive amounts of detail, so the author or filmmaker has to strike a difficult to achieve balance between burying their audience with minutia or glossing over complexities in the name of coherent narrative.  This is hard enough to do in a 400 page book, much less a two and half hour film.  Lincoln succeeds in obtaining this balance not by ambitiously retelling large swaths of our sixteenth president’s life but by focusing in on the the early months of 1865 right before Mr. Lincoln’s tragic death.

Don’t get me wrong – there are great biopics that succeed in taking the long view of one person’s life (Gandhi (1982), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Raging Bull (1980) to name a few).  Certainly Spielberg, with his talent to tell the over-story (often at the expense of his characters) could have pulled off a massive and action filled epic about Abraham Lincoln.  Perhaps someday that film will be made, but in this story is not massive, action filled, or epic, but rather a successful attempt to connect the audience with who Mr. Lincoln was by re-creating, in precise detail, a short period of his life.

While Spielberg goes beyond his comfort zone by resisting the epic and focusing on the day to day, Daniel Day-Lewis is squarely in his domain.  After all, his last two Oscar-nominated performances (winning one) were playing nineteenth century Americans.  Of course this is about the only thing that these characters have in common.  In any event Mr. Day-Lewis once again shows why he is often considered today’s finest working actor.  The rest of the cast (Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, etc.) are more than up to the task as well.

Of course Lincoln does not escape Spielberg’s eternally optimistic worldview, despite the tragic ending that we all know is coming.  After all, even his greatest work, the tragedy Schindler’s List (1993) is pure Spielberg when it breaks the fourth wall at the end.  For those who don’t like his work in general, this may be a bit of a turn off.  Certainly the tragic complexities of the Civil War are rarely visited territory in films, and there is a case to be made that Spielberg misses an opportunity.  For me, however, that is another director’s film for another day, and what Lincoln sets out to do – present a detailed portrait of Abraham Lincoln by re-creating a few specific months of his life – is masterfully accomplished.

You may like Lincoln if: You are interested in a refreshing take on the biopic that uses masterful acting and directing to present a vision of Abraham Lincoln that sheds new light on a revered historical figure.

You may not like Lincoln if: You feel that Spielberg can do no right and that every film about war has to be dark, bleak, and gritty.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe