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The Films Of Steven Spielberg, Part One: The Spectacle

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 21, 2011 at 2:00PM

It seems somewhat appropriate that the week that sees Steven Spielberg celebrate his 65th birthday (which was on Monday) also sees the release of two new films from the director, arguably the most successful, and certainly one of the most famous, filmmakers of all time. The director has always been something of a workhorse, with 29 feature films across a 40-year career (that's one every eighteen months, more or less), all without mentioning his early TV credits, his countless producing credits and even helping to run an entire studio.
17


1941

"1941" (1979)
“I will spend the rest of my life disowning this movie,” Spielberg confessed to the New York Times, thereby admitting his film's failings with honesty and a smidge of regret. But how bad is this 1979 war-comedy, featuring the stacked cast of Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, John Candy, and many others? That depends on your tolerance for comedies that aren't particularly funny. Proceedings kick off with a parody of the director's own "Jaws," in which a skinny-dipping woman discovers a Japanese submarine lurking in American waters. Then, following a decision to bomb Hollywood (one can almost hear the in-jokey off-camera laughter), the narrative is immediately carved into myriad tiny little stories: Wally (Bobby Di Cicco) would rather dance than fight and hopes to prove himself at an upcoming dance; Captain Birkhead (Tim Matheson) pines for the loins every woman he sees; Ward Douglas (Beatty) is forced to house an anti-aircraft millitary weapon; Wild Bill Kelso (Belushi) accidentally blows up a gasoline station... and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, while there are strong moments, nothing ever meshes together, comic timing is seemingly absent, and the filmmaker's penchant for theatrical set pieces and explosions only makes things worse. But without berating it too much, the film was only a "flop" in comparison to its preceding films (and try to follow those two...) and it is, by all means, a very competently constructed movie – it's not like the man had a lapse in skill for a year. Even so, its "cult status" is a little too forgiving (and, at worst, delusional), with most giving props to its lack of sentimentality in counterpoint to the usual criticism of the director's gooey-centredness. But we like it when Steven makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, don't we? [C-]

Raiders Of The Lost Ark
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981)
For 30 years now, Indiana Jones has been a pop culture phenomenon. It’s easy to see why. Spielberg, hot off his first bomb with “1941,” was hungry for another hit. He needed something great, and found it earlier in George Lucas’ 1973 script “The Adventures of Indiana Smith,” another modern-day take on the movie serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s that so heavily influenced the two wunderkinds. Spielberg had always longed to make a Bond movie, and with this script, which he proclaimed as “a James Bond film without the hardware,” he found something even better. After a smart name change to Jones, the two intrepid young filmmakers set off to make a quick and dirty picture in the style of those old Saturday matinee serials. If you haven’t caught up with the first film in the series in some time, or haven’t seen it at all, then you need to stop reading and put it on now. It’s a perfectly paced and tightly scripted action film, with a lead character that’s far more interesting and complex than James Bond, or any other lead character in the wake of countless copycat movies that have come since (“The Mummy” or “National Treasure” series come to mind). Strangely enough, it’s in this franchise that Spielberg has made one of his very best (‘Raiders’) and easily his worst film to date, but more on that later... What’s so sad about the fourth movie is that Spielberg and Lucas clearly forgot what made the first one so special. For one, there’s the hilarious gag, improvised on set by a dysentery affected Harrison Ford (brilliant and iconic in the lead) wherein he decides to simply shoot a man wielding a huge sword. Moments like this show ‘Raiders’ and its filmmakers to be working on a level of intelligence not often seen in the average blockbuster, where spectacle almost always trumps logic. [A]

ET

"E.T." (1982)
While his films traditionally appeal to all ages (bar the R-rated fare), and kids adore the likes of "Jurassic Park" and "Indiana Jones," "The Adventures of Tintin" arguably marks only the second time that he's made a film specifically aimed at younger audiences. The first? One of his finest films, "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial." Famously derived from a much darker horror-tinged project by John Sayles entitled "Night Skies" and passed on by Columbia, who called it "a wimpy Disney movie," only to look on as the film became the biggest-grosser of all time up to that point (it still stands at No. 4 once adjusted for inflation), the film is the simple tale of a boy and his new best friend. But of course, Elliott (Henry Thomas)'s pal is something different; an alien who's been left behind on Earth. It's a true coming-of-age tale, arguably the only time the director's gone to that well, as Elliott gets drunk and kisses a girl for the first time thanks to his strange new friend. There's real pain, too, both in the classically Spielbergian fatherless family unit, and the devastating climax (which traumatized this writer as a child, although not enough to prevent it from becoming a favorite), but the sense of innocence and wonder, so often present in the director's work, means it never gets too heavy; the handling of tone is masterful. And what wonder; E.T. holds up amazingly well to this day as an effect, always a living character rather than a puppet, while Elliot's bike soaring above the trees is one of the director's most seminal and genuinely felt heart-in-mouth moments, so much so that it became the logo of his production company Amblin. It's certainly the director's first truly sentimental film (far more so than the more cerebral 'Close Encounters'), but it's proof that the word 'sentiment' doesn't have to be a perjorative one. [A+]

Twilight Zone

"The Twilight Zone: The Movie" (1983) (segment: "Kick The Can")
Originally, Spielberg's segment for "The Twilight Zone: The Movie" was an original piece written by "Twilight Zone" regular and writer of the source material for "Duel," Richard Matheson, and involving a neighborhood bully who gets his comeuppance when the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween spring to life. The creatures were going to be created by Craig Reardon, who had impressed Spielberg with his work on "Poltergeist," but ultimately the dark tale was scrapped after the death of Vic Morrow and two young Vietnamese children who were killed shooting John Landis' segment. Spielberg supposedly got so upset that he didn't want anything to do with the movie, but was contractually obligated. After the Halloween segment, Spielberg set his sights on remaking the classic "Twilight Zone" episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street." But again, Spielberg felt it was too dark for a film that had now been branded by very real horror. So he decided to do "Kick the Can," based on an episode nobody gave a shit about. The resulting segment reflects this halfhearted approach and the mediocrity of its source material, with a bunch of senior citizens who are given a chance to return to their youth. It's anchored by a nimble performance by Scatman Crothers but is the epitome of all the things Spielberg's critics make him out to be – saccharine, cutesy, chock full of phony uplift and cinematography that glittered with gleaming shafts of light. It's unimaginative, manipulative and blank and unlike most of Spielberg's work, you don't feel a damn thing. [D]

This article is related to: Features, Steven Spielberg, The Adventures Of Tintin


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