Monday, November 19, 2012

Ranking the Films of Steven Spielberg

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Recently, Vulture ranked all 28 of Steven Spielberg's films. As bloggers Will Leitch and Tim Grierson wrote: "Spielberg doesn't always receive his due, dismissed in some quarters as merely a 'commercial' moviemaker who lacks the soul of a true artist." 

The article did get me thinking, though: How would I rank Spielberg's films? So much of his filmography helped peak my interest in the cinema when I was a child. I still regard Jurassic Park as the best experience I've ever had in a theatre. I can still remember feeling my heart in my throat. Combine Jurassic Park with my  love for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Hook and E.T. and Spielberg was easily the most influential film figure in my younger years. In my eyes, no made better movies. For those seeking both pure adrenaline and loveable characters, Spielberg is where you'd look.

Granted, Spielberg has had his fair share of cinematic misfires, but there's no denying his ability to inspire new generations of filmmakers with his stylistic flair and ability to effortlessly take on any genre or subject.

While I haven't seen everything in his oeuvre, here is how I'd rank the Spielberg films that I have seen:

20) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
19) The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
18) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
17) A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
16) The Terminal (2004)
15) The Color Purple (1985)
14) Saving Private Ryan (1998)
13) Empire of the Sun (1987)
12) War of the Worlds (2005)
11) Catch Me If You Can (2002)
10) Hook (1991)
9) Lincoln (2012)
8) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
7) Schindler's List (1993)
6) Minority Report (2002)
4) E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
3) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
2) Jurassic Park (1993)
1) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Perfection. Pure, unadulterated entertainment where we get to see Spielberg at his finest.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Movie Review: Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis
I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

Long-regarded as one of America's greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln was many things: A shrewd politician, a hardworking family man and a vocal proponent of passing an anti-slavery bill.

The gradual build-up to director Steven Spielberg's opus has helped revive public discussions on Lincoln outside of the usual historical circles. Yet, few films have ever ventured to portray the much-revered president on the silver screen and, if anyone were to succeed in the role, it would be celebrated British actor Daniel Day-Lewis. And, while the always-reliable Day-Lewis commands the screen with his award-worthy performance, Lincoln may ultimately leave some viewers scratching their heads.

Spielberg's Lincoln chronicles the last four months of the titular hero's life, from January to April 1865. The action takes place in Washington, as the President struggles to bring an end the Civil War raging throughout the nation. Lincoln puts most of his time and energy into passing an amendment to abolish slavery, a contentious issue that proves divisive within the House of Representatives.

In the moments where the script calls for levity, Lincoln enlists the help of three affable Republican "thugs" (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson, all excellent) to convince the remaining Democrats who are still on the fence over the anti-slavery act to come back with a verdict in support of the bill.

However, considering the historic significance of America's 16th President of the United States, it's somewhat perplexing as to why Spielberg gets off to a slow start in the early going. The first hour is filled with awkward exposition as the script calls for too many heavy-handed conversations that quibble over the semantics of passing a bill. Periods of long, drawn-out speeches on constitutional law and negotiating peace slow the momentum to a standstill.

The screenplay, by Tony Kushner, neglects to delve deeper into the man behind the iconic top hat and beard. There are even instances where, despite Day-Lewis' mesmerizing performance, Lincoln recedes into the background. When we do get glimpses of his private family life they are fleeting — especially frustrating considering certain scenes with his wife Mary (Sally Field) hint at a fascinating, albeit unhappy, marriage. Even a subplot involving his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is ultimately discarded in favour of the unending parade of secondary characters.

But where Lincoln ultimately falls short is in its hazy narrative. Is this a biopic on the man behind the legend or a docudrama on the abolishment of slavery in the United States?

Daniel Day-Lewis exudes a confidence in his craft rarely seen in actors working today. Although the passage of time prevents us from knowing exactly how Lincoln spoke and acted towards his colleagues and family, Day-Lewis imbues his metaphor-spouting Lincoln with a gentleness that defies his reputation as a commanding leader. Speaking in soft-spoken cadences that rarely rise above a whisper, Day-Lewis' Lincoln walks with shoulders so stooped that they appear to carry the entire weight of the world. He has the uncanny ability to transport you in time and make you believe that the person you are watching on the silver screen is the real person — as opposed to a carefully crafted reconstruction. It's a powerful — and beautifully subdued — performance from an artist who many would argue is a gift to acting.

The supporting cast is a revolving door of familiar faces from Jackie Earle Haley (as Alexander Stephens) to David Strathairn (as Secretary of State William Seward). But it's Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania rep Thaddeus Stevens that is the standout — and potentially one of the early contenders for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Grizzled and peevish, Jones unleashes passionate pleas in defense of Lincoln's anti-slavery bill — much to the chagrin of Democratic pro-slavery speaker Fernando Wood (Lee Pace).

Lincoln is not as epic or sentimental as one would come to expect from Spielberg — it's easily the director's most restrained work to date.

While the film has its powerful moments — many of which take place in the House of Representatives — Lincoln, the man, ultimately gets lost within Lincoln.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Blu-ray Review: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Comparing the Blu-ray transfer to the DVD release.
I reviewed this Blu-ray for Next Projection.

Cast: Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Erich von Stroheim
Director: Billy Wilder
Country: U.S.
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: YouTube

Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080 p
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Original aspect ratio: 1.37:1

English: Dolby True HD Mono
French: Dolby Digital Mono
Spanish: Dolby Digital Mono
Portugese: Dolby Digital Mono
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish and Portugese

Sunset Blvd. finally gets its close-up on Blu-ray. As one of the most cynical glimpses of Hollywood to ever hit the silver screen, Billy Wilder's satiric masterpiece is classic cinema at its finest.

Long revered as one of the finest films ever made, this seminal work marks a career high for Wilder who, at the time, was Hollywood's most celebrated director, having recently won the Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay for The Lost Weekend (1945).

With its assortment of colourful characters both fictional and real, Sunset Blvd. delves into the dark side of movie-making -- from the desperation of those who seek a life in the spotlight to those jaded figures who work behind the scenes. It's a dirty business and Wilder wasn't afraid to shine a light on its dark corners.

Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is down on his luck in Hollywood and, after a series of misadventures, finds himself in a ramshackle mansion on the outskirts of town. Once inside the oppressive house Joe meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging former silent screen star, and her solumn German butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). When Norma shows Joe a script she plans to use as her "return" to the silver screen, she enlists him as her screenwriter in exchange for money to pay off his creditors. Lost in her delusions and exaggerated sense of self-worth, Norma showers Joe with money and jewellery -- lavishing the man she believes will be her gateway back to fame.

Sunset Blvd.'s theme of opportunism and its consequences narrows in on what making movies does to people in the business.

The transfer and digital reconstruction is gorgeous, capturing the luscious light and shadows in every shot. Paramount clearly appreciated the importance of preserving this classic and celebrating its place in film lore.

There is a wealth of supplemental features, many of which were brought over from the DVD restoration that was released a decade ago. Featuring the likes of film historian Ed Sikov, actress Nancy Olson and film historian Andrew Sarris, the extras give tidbits on the behind-the-scenes issues in bringing this classic to the big screen.

The only complaint is that, after clocking in at more than two and a half hours of extras, the information doled out in the interviews tends to get a bit repetitive. Perhaps had some of the smaller supplemental features been edited together into one longer finished product than viewers wouldn't suffer from a sense of deja vu. 

This Blu-ray release includes featurettes on "Sunset Blvd.: The Beginning", "Sunset Blvd.: A Look Back", "The Noir Side of Sunset Blvd.", "Paramount in the 50s" and a deleted scene, among other bonus supplements.

Final grade: A