War Horse (Spielberg, 2011)

Home Is Where the Horse Is

War Horse is a film of grand scope and of even grander emotions, an old-fashioned ode to a type of “aw shucks” sentimentality that could make you nostalgic for classic Hollywood or just downright nauseous. The titular steed at the center of Steven Spielberg’s laborious epic acts as the pure and unfiltered center to the various human experiences crossing its path, a familiar representation of home and comfort even during the darkest times. Examples range from acts of familial tenderness and sacrifice to the horrific violent specifics of trench warfare in WWI. These vignettes ebb and flow depending on the horse’s changing location, a problematic structure that favors broad narrative strokes yet lacks character development. Unfortunately, War Horse never stays in one spot very long, often rendering it’s drama inert and fleeting…

Read my full review at SanDiego.com.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982)

All of the recent Spielberg chatter inspired me to revisit one of the director’s earlier works. E.T. was the natural choice, mostly because it’s been more than a decade since my last viewing. I was immediately struck by the film’s organic examination of innocence and purity, a thematic cocktail that may feel sugary in this cynical day and age but really is something to cherish. I’d forgotten that E.T. is an unabashed kid flick, permanently rooted in the rush of emotions these young children experience on a moment to moment basis. The film asks the viewer to give in to its seamless rhythm, the children’s intoxicating conversations and the modes of communication they develop with E.T. For Spielberg, camaraderie and loyalty are more important than traditional plot devices.

E.T.‘s luminescent focus on wonderment and awe crescendos when Elliot looks over at E.T. slowly dying on the gurney, the boy’s eyes filling with the terror of imminent separation. This fascinating and draining moment encapsulates Spielberg’s motif of isolation and loneliness, a childhood fear he’s been examining throughout his filmography. A final note: Visually, much of E.T. is one long, fluid glide through exterior spaces, culminating in the fantastic bike sequence where federal agents chase Elliot et al. through a suburbia seemingly under permanent reconstruction.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (Landis, Spielberg, Dante, Miller, 1984)

Thankfully for my purposes, George Miller’s segment “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (a remake of the Richard Matheson penned/Richard Donner helmed episode from 1963) turns out to be the best of an uninspiring bunch, exhibiting a sense of space and ambiguity the other stories lack.

Once again, Miller deals with battling environments, showing John Lithgow’s nervous passenger trapped inside a caged vision of technology while nature’s wrath (personified by the crazed monster on the wing) attempts to break through several manmade barriers

This separation disintegrates when Lithgow shoots out one of the plane’s windows and comes face to face with the beast, his head fittingly coated with a sheen of ice while the other passengers attempt to pull him back in and recover the sanitized environment of air travel.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Spielberg, 2008)

Anyone expecting a well written continuation of the Indiana Jones adventures was bound to be disappointed, since this long in the making sequel had countless script drafts, a number of false starts, and finally a rushed shooting schedule to put the cherry on top. All these problematic production factors reveal why Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is such a mess from a screenwriting aspect (the ending is truly ludicrous). But one can’t deny the inherent visceral joy it is to see such a revered and entertaining character grace the screen after such a long layover, Harrison Ford’s Indy bringing clarity to Spielberg’s crazed and jumbled compositions with his whip, fedora, and sly grin. The film basically strings a number of well constructed action set pieces together, connecting them with lame exposition about Mayan temples and dead languages hoping the audience won’t pay too much attention while they eagerly await the next nostalgic moment (for the adults) or explosion (for the kids). Throughout the opening act, Spielberg unearths some interesting commentaries about the clash between patriotism and government fear-mongering (the film takes place during 1950’s McCarthyism), but the story quickly descends into popcorn madness, settling for broad comedic grimaces and overlong chase scenes to fill the obvious narrative void. It’s tough to watch one of your favorite movie icons taken out to pasture with such irreverent fluff, but we only have our filmmaking heroes to blame. 

The Color Purple (Spielberg, 1985)

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The Color Purple pulls the viewer’s heartstrings more than any of Spielberg’s films. For better or worse, every single frame is dedicated to producing an emotional reaction toward the material. It’s lucidly paced, wonderfully shot, and meticulously constructed, yet all of this plays deeply into the emotional output of the story. Unlike the director’s later epics (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), The Color Purple feels surprisingly contained, linked to a singular journey toward personal awakening. While all the performances have high points, the film is anchored by Whoopi Goldberg’s standout turn as Celie, a character whose somber face shows the pain and suffering shared by all the women in the film. Sure, the film builds to a standard Spielberg happy ending, but it still feels rightfully deserved.

Dipping Into the Water(shed): Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)

While I was growing up, my parents mentioned two films that scared them to the point of panic; Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. In the latter case, both still remember hearing John Williams’ haunting score, seeing the silver outline of horror incarnate shimmering under the surface, and gasping at the bloody scenes of shark carnage bubbling from below. The sum of these parts produced (and still does) an unfounded experience at the movies. Jaws was a shocker at theaters around the world and a watershed moment in film history, raking in the dough for Universal and making Spielberg a house-hold name. But the film’s success can not only be attributed to its entertaining execution. Jaws taps into something inherently scary, mixing wry humor and terrorizing imagery to produce a glance into the depths of an unimaginable evil; an overpowering force of nature humans cannot control or understand. Robert Shaw’s Quint and Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper (both experts on sharks) marvel at their adversary’s girth and intelligence, moments which smack of awe more than panic. Hooper even comedically attempts to take a picture of the beast, asking Roy Schieder’s Chief Brody to stand in frame so that other scientists will believe the shark’s huge scale. This mixture of unease and fascination translates over to the audience, causing an unmatched and authentic desperation on both sides of the screen. Jaws masterfully illustrates the resonance of a post-modern mesh of genres, leaving the viewer room to identify Spielberg’s intentions with character and plot while still feeling insanely frightened. As a director, Spielberg has never shied away from happy endings (many critics have consistently called him to task for this) but Jaws has never felt complete in the safest sense of the word. After Brody fires one last lucky shot and the shark’s bloody body drifts to the bottom of the sea, it feels as if a part of the rogue will break away, start anew, and begin feeding again. Of course the impending sequels ruined that notion, but Spielberg’s original still holds water in the horror department no matter how many rip-offs have come since. Not knowing what lies beneath will always be scary, and in this sense, the shark is still working hard to sneak up and remind us who’s boss.