Film Review: Bridge of Spies (dir by Steven Spielberg)


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I saw Bridge of Spies last weekend and I’m a little bit surprised that I haven’t gotten around to writing a review until now.  After all, this is not only the latest film from Steven Spielberg but it also stars the universally beloved Tom Hanks and it’s currently being touted as a possible best picture nominee.  (Mark Rylance, who plays an imprisoned spy in this film, is also emerging as a front runner for best supporting actor.)  The screenplay was written by the Coen Brothers.  (Oddly enough, films scripted by the Coens — like Unbroken, for instance — tend to be far more conventional and far less snarky than films actually directed by the Coens.)  Even beyond its impressive pedigree, Bridge of Spies is a historical drama and by now, everyone should know how much I love historical dramas.

And the thing is, I enjoyed Bridge of Spies.  I thought it was a well-made film.  I thought that Tom Hanks was well-cast as an idealistic lawyer who stands up for truth, justice, and the Constitution.  I agreed with the pundits who thought Mark Rylance was award-worthy.  It’s become a bit of a cliché for Amy Ryan to show up as an understanding wife but it’s a role she plays well and she made the most of her scenes with Tom Hanks.  Steven Spielberg knows how to put a good film together.  This really should have been a film about which I rushed home to rave.

And yet, at the same time, I just could not work up that much enthusiasm for Bridge of Spies.  It’s a good film but there’s nothing unexpected about it.  There’s nothing surprising about the film.  Steven Spielberg is one of the most commercially successful directors in history and the American film establishment pretty much orbits around him.  He’s good at what he does and he deserves his success.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a subversive bone in his body.  Bridge of Spies is a lot like his previous Oscar contender, Lincoln.  It’s very well-made.  It’s the epitome of competence.  But there’s not a truly surprising or unexpected moment to be found in the film.

And I have to admit that, even as I enjoyed Bridge of Spies, I still found myself frustrated by just how risk-adverse a film it truly was.  After all, we’re living in the age of Ex Machina, Upstream Color, and Sicario.  Bridge of Spies is a good movie and, in many ways, it provides a very valuable history lesson.  (The film’s best moments were the one that contrasted the U.S. with the cold desolation of communist-controlled East Germany.)  But, overall, it just didn’t make a huge impression on me.  It was just a a little bit too safe in its approach.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar-Nominated Horror Film: Jaws (dir by Steven Spielberg)


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There’s little that is more intimidating than trying to write a review of the 1975 best picture nominee, Jaws.

I mean, seriously, what’s left to be said about this film?  Jaws is one of those movies that everyone has seen and everyone loves.  And, even if someone somehow hasn’t seen the film, chances are that they still know all about it.  They know that it’s a movie about a giant shark that attacks Amity Island, just as the summer season is starting.  They know that the town’s mayor refuses to close the beaches, because he doesn’t want to lose the tourist dollars.  They know that the final half of the film is three men (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw) floating around in a boat, searching for a shark.  And they certainly know that, whenever you hear John Williams’s iconic theme music, it means that someone is about to get attacked.

Jaws is such a part of our culture that probably not a single day goes by without someone saying a variation on “we’re going to need a bigger boat.”  Did you know that, on twitter, Ben Gardner’s boat has its own account?  And despite getting pretty graphically dismembered about halfway through Jaws, poor little Alex Kintner has an account as well!

What’s amazing about Jaws is that, even though everyone’s seen it and it’s been parodied a few thousand times, Jaws remains incredibly effective.  I still find myself cringing whenever the shark catches Alex Kintner and that geyser of blood explodes out of the ocean.  I still jump whenever the shark suddenly emerges from the water and scares the Hell out of Roy Scheider.  I still laugh at Richard Dreyfuss’s hyperactive performance and I instinctively cover my ears whenever I realize that Robert Shaw is about to drag his nails across that chalk board.

And then there’s that music, of course!  Even after being used, misused, and imitated in countless other films, the Jaws theme still fills me with a sort of existential dread.  The mechanical shark was notoriously fake-looking and was rarely seen onscreen as a result.  The camera and the music stand in for the shark and it works beautifully.

The one unfortunate thing about Jaws is that it’s been so critically acclaimed and so embraced by audiences that I think people tend to forget that it is primarily a horror film.  Mainstream critics tend to look down on horror as a genre so, rather than admit the obvious, they claim that Jaws is more of a thriller than a horror film.  Or they talk about how it’s actually meant to be a political allegory or an environmental allegory or an examination of male bonding.

So, let’s just make this clear.  No matter what the elitist critics or even Steven Spielberg himself may say, Jaws is primarily a horror film, with that relentless killer shark serving as a prototype for such future horror fiends as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and both of the Ghostface and Jigsaw Killers.  (Jaws even opens with a stereotypical slasher movie death, as a nude and stoned swimmer is suddenly attacked by an unseen killer.) If not for Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss floating in the endless ocean, you would never have had films — like the Blair Witch Project — about people being lost and stalked in the wilderness.  And when that shark attacks and graphically rips apart its victims, how different is it from something you might find in a George Romero or Lucio Fulci zombie film?

On the basis of Jaws and Duel, I think it can be argued that, if Steven Spielberg hadn’t become America’s favorite director of crowd-pleasing, Oscar-contending blockbusters, he could have been one of our best horror directors.  Sadly, Spielberg has pretty much abandoned horror and I doubt that Jaws would be as effective if it were made today.  (I suspect that the temptation to resort to a cartoonish CGI shark would be too great.)

But that’s all speculation.

What matters is that Jaws remains one of the greatest films ever made.

And it’s a horror film!

 

Lisa’s Early Oscar Predictions for July!


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It’s shaping up to be a strange Oscar race.  Here we are halfway through the year and, yet, there are no front-runners.  Some very acclaimed films have been released this year and yet, few of them seem to be getting the type of buzz that usually accompanies a surprise Oscar nomination.  Last year at this time, there was cautious buzz for Grand Budapest Hotel while almost everyone felt pretty safe assuming that Sundance favorites like Boyhood and Whiplash would be players in the Oscar race and many of us were highly anticipating the release of films like Birdman and The Imitation Game.  (For that matter, a lot of people were also still convinced that Unbroken would win best picture.  The buzz is not always correct but still, the buzz was still there.)

This year, some people are hoping that Mad Max: Fury Road will somehow break through the Academy’s aversion to “genre” filmmaking.  (And seriously, the Doof Warrior deserves some sort of award, don’t you think?)  Quite a few are hoping that Ex Machina will not be forgotten.  Personally, I have high hopes for Inside Out.  The buzz around Bridge of Spies is respectful, largely because it seems like the type of film that usually would be be nominated.  (That said, this film also seems like it could bring out the worst impulses of both Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, leading to a movie that will have more in common with The Terminal than with War Horse.)  Carol was beloved at Cannes.

So there are definitely possibilities out there.  When I made my Oscar predictions for this month, I didn’t quite have to blindly guess as much as I did way back in January.  But still, it cannot be denied that — as of right now — this race is wide open and there’s a lot of room for surprise.

Below, you’ll find my Oscar predictions for July.  You can also check out my previous Oscar predictions for January, February, March, April, May, and June!

Best Picture

Black Mass

Brooklyn

Carol

I Saw The Light

In The Heart of the Sea

Inside Out

Sicario

Suffragette

The Walk

Youth

Best Actor

Michael Caine in Youth

Johnny Depp in Black Mass

Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs

Tom Hiddleston in I Saw The Light

Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett in Carol

Marion Cotillard in MacBeth

Sally Field in Hello, My Name Is Doris

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Lily Tomlin in Grandma

Best Supporting Actor

Albert Brooks in Concussion

John Cusack in Love & Mercy

Benicio Del Toro in Sicario

Harvey Keitel in Youth

Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight

Best Supporting Actress

Joan Allen in Room

Helena Bonham Carter in Suffragette

Jane Fonda in Youth

Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight

Rooney Mara in Carol

Best Director

John Crowley for Brooklyn

Todd Haynes for Carol

Ron Howard for In The Heart of the Sea

Denis Villenueve for Sicario

Robert Zemeckis for The Walk

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4 Shots From 4 Films: Kwaidan, Minority Report, La Horde, The Exorcist


A new feature that I thought was a nice way to introduce not just our readers, but also fellow site writers to some films we love, admire and think worthy of checking out.

It won’t be any sort of review or recap of what the film is about, but just a simple, single shot from the film itself that the individual writer considers an worthy and interesting glimpse of the film.

To start off “4 Shots From 4 Films” here’s the first 4 shots. Moving forward it will be just 4 screenshots and the title of the film they belong to.

4 SHOTS FROM 4 FILMS

Kwaidan

Kwaidan (dir. by Masaki Kobayashi – 1964)

MinorityReport

Minority Report (dir. by Steven Spielberg – 2002)

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Jurassic World”


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“Everything old is new again.”

How many times have you heard that one? Well, in the case of the just-released (and record-setting in terms of its worldwide box office take) Jurassic World, it turns out that tired old adage is actually quite true, since director Colin Trevorrow has chosen to hew pretty closely to Steven Spielberg’s original model for this fourth installment in the previously-presumed- moribund franchise extrapolated from the works of Michael Crichton. There’s certainly nothing happening here that one could call overtly “new,” per se, but gosh — it’s been so long since Jurassic Park III  that it all just sorta feels new, ya know?

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CGI technology has come a long way since the original Jurassic Park  made its debut in 1993, as well, and that’s a big factor — maybe even the biggest factor — in this new flick’s by-popcorn-movie-standards “success,” but don’t think that means I’m damning Jurassic World with faint praise. Truth be told, we just got back from seeing it in Imax 3-D and it’s got pretty much everything you’d ever want in a brainless summer thrill ride : superb effects, likable leads, drama, suspense, tension-cutting humor, nicely despicable (sorry, does that even make sense?) villains, and mile-a-minute thrills. My wife and I both left the theater smiling and I ain’t ashamed to admit it.

My only real gripe is one that I knew I’d have going in — Jurassic World continues the morally-questionable trend established at the series’ outset of using kids placed in danger (in this case brothers Zach and Gray, played by Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins, respectively) as its primary focus/narrative crutch, with benevolent adults coming in to save the day (here represented by Chris Pratt’s  “dinosaur wrangler” character Owen, and Bryce Dallas Howard — who, goddamit, Hollywood is bound and determined to make a star out of yet! — as their hitherto- inattentive aunt Claire, who’s one of the park’s big-wigs), and I’m sorry, but if you don’t know why that scenario is inherently creepy to some of us, then you haven’t been paying much attention to the some of the uglier and more salacious rumors about Spielberg’s personal life that have been swirling around for decades now. And that I won’t repeat here. So let’s just move on, shall we?

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In any case, that solitary-but-predictable qualm aside, the fact of the matter is that Jurassic World is expertly-crafted throwaway fun. Not every movie needs to re-invent the wheel to stand out, and Trevorrow wisely has that figured from the outset here. All we want from his big-budget extravaganza is pretty much the same sort of story that had us jumping in our seats all those years ago, and to feel the same sort of “rush of excitement” that we did back then and which the two previous installments in the series just weren’t able to capture. It’s a dinosaur movie, for Christ’s sake, so just give us a shit-load of dinos on the loose and we’re gonna be happy! How hard is that to figure out?

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About the only  wrinkles to the formula here are the introduction of the new genetically-engineered “super-dinosaur” Indominus Rex, and the hare-brained scheme laid out by the villainous Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) to train Velociraptors to be — uhhmmm — super-soldiers for the US army. But rich people with more money than sense employing unscrupulous lackeys and amoral scientists have been a Jurassic staple, in one form or another, from jump, and one might even argue that really smart people doing really dumb things has always been at the heart of these flicks. That’s okay with me if the end result is admittedly disposable fare done with this much gusto, flair, and panache. There are a million and one reasons to write off Jurassic World as derivative, senseless garbage,  sure — but when you’ve got five or six bloodthirsty dinosaurs battling it out for supremacy at the end, I don’t care about any of those intellectual (or, as is more often the case, pseudo-intellectual) arguments. I’m just having a damn good time.

Scenes I Love: Saving Private Ryan


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Today marks the 71st Anniversary of the Normandy Landings on D-Day. As the day winds down I thought it best to share one of my favorite scenes from a film that tried to capture the chaos and death of the fateful day on June 6, 1944. The film in question is Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. This is the film which won him his second Best Director Oscar (I still think the film should’ve won Best Picture over Shakespeare In Love) and the film which helped redefine not just how war films were shot from 1998 on, but also de-glorify World War II on film.

This scene showed the opening moments of the D-Day Landings on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. It’s a scene that’s over 22-minutes in length and shows the utter chaos and destruction heaped on American troops as they attempted to land on the beach to take their objectives. While there have been war film before Saving Private Ryan that depicted war as the hell it truly is they were mostly about the Vietnam War. Rarely did we ever get a World War II-based war film which showed war in realistic fashion. Spielberg broke that taboo by making the battle scenes in his film — especially this extended opening sequence — done as realistic as possible without actually having people killed for real on-screen.

When this film first came out in the summer of 1998 no one knew what to make of it. This opening sequence became the talk of everyone who went to see the film. To say that they were shocked by what they saw was an understatement. Even now with over a decade since the film was released and people having seen this scene over and over again it still retain it’s impact. It’s not even the grand scale of the production required to film this action sequence which made this scene so memorable. It were the little things. Like a mortally wounded American GI crying out to his mother while trying to keep his blown out insides from spilling out. Then there’s the scene of another young soldier praying furiously with his rosary beads as men around him die by the score.

This scene also showed what most World War II films of the past failed to do. It showed both sides behaving barbarically. In the past, only the Germans were shown in a bad light. In Saving Private Ryan, we see that American soldiers were also prone at shooting surrendering troops and/or not mercy-killing enemy soldiers being burned alive (actions that have been well-documented by historians). This scene also showed just how courageous the young men of this generation which Tom Brokaw has called “The Greatest Generation”. Men who went off to war not for material gains, but for an idea that they had to stop evil (Nazi and Hitler) from taking all of Europe and, maybe, the world itself.

There’s a reason why Saving Private Ryan is in my list for greatest films of all-time and why this scene remains one of my all-time favorites.