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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.
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Temple Of Doom

"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984)
Or: what happens when you make a movie while your two creative principles are going through simultaneous divorces. First conceived of as a film set primarily in China (set pieces included a motorcycle chase on the Great Wall and the discovering of an untouched prehistoric world not unlike "Jurassic Park"), after Chinese authorities denied producer George Lucas access to filming locations, it was reconceived as an old timey ghost story with our intrepid professor/adventurer trapped in an English haunted house. Spielberg, having suffered through the ordeal of "Poltergeist," quickly nixed the ghost castle idea (but traces of it turn up in the third film), and the two decided on, um, whatever the hell "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" is. Largely set in India, it introduces a number of moth-eaten clichés and features splashes of shocking violence, particularly when a cult leader rips the beating heart out of someone's chest. The movie was so intense, in fact, that it led to the creation of the PG-13 rating (only Spielberg could get away with that). On another historical note, it actually takes place before the events of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (supposedly so the filmmakers could avoid using Nazis as the bad guys), making this the first (and relatively painless) George Lucas prequel. As far as set pieces go, this movie has a couple of dynamite moments (the opening musical number/melee, the mine cart chase complete with sound effects from Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), but the overall tone is too oppressively dark (human sacrifice and child slavery are two of its sunny concerns), while the attempts to balance out with comedy are crippled by Indy's new companions; shrill Kate Capshaw and irritating child sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan). It lacks the jovial frivolity of the other films, playing like a two-hour exploration of why Lucas and Spielberg really needed to be hugged. [C+]

Last Crusade
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989)
Spielberg may not have made his Bond film, but he does Ian Fleming one better by casting the most iconic James Bond – Sean Connery – as the father of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. Circumventing the darkness of 'Temple of Doom' and even threatening to improve upon the genius of 'Raiders,' “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” remains one of the most entertaining, enduring films in a strong filmography. It begins with a prologue that casts River Phoenix as a young Indy, and from there, it centers on Jones’ dual search for the missing Henry Jones Sr. as well as the holy grail. We may marvel at Spielberg’s creation of fantastic set pieces (a chase through Venetian canals, the deadly obstacle course of the finale) and settings (Nasi-era Berlin and Petra, Jordan), but they never eclipse the people. Ford’s Jones has good chemistry with Alison Doody’s conflicted Austrian Dr. Elsa Schneider, as does Connery’s Jones (wink, wink), and she’s a welcome step up from the screeching Willie Scott of 'Temple of Doom.' This third entry in the series also brings a few beloved characters back in Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhy-Davies), but it’s Ford and Connery (aided by a consistently funny script from Tom Stoppard) who make this the joy it is. We love that Junior is a hero here, but above all, a human one who is capable of permanent scarring, near-fatal mistakes, and turning into a teenager whenever his father is around. [B+]

Hook

Hook” (1991)
Spielberg may have recently said to Vulture that “I'm Tintin. I'm also a Goonie,” but he’s also clearly a Lost Boy who never wants to grow up. That’s rarely been more clear than in “Hook,” where the director indulges his inner child a bit too much. Robin Williams is remarkably restrained at first, playing aging lawyer Peter Banning who has no time for fun or his family. He forgets that he spent his childhood as the Peter Pan of J.M. Barrie’s stories, flying through Neverland with the Lost Boys. But when his children are kidnapped by Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman, who makes a meal out of the elaborate scenery), Peter has to return to Neverland and learn how to be a child again to save his son and daughter. Clearly, Spielberg is enjoying being a child with no rules, and the excess sometimes pays off (in the Oscar-nominated set design) and it sometimes doesn’t (the film runs a nap-inducing 144 minutes). The film is rife with Spielbergian tropes including absent fathers, childlike wonder and an abundance of John Williams-fueled sappiness. And if it feels a bit too much like a musical to you at times, that’s likely due to the fact that Williams had written a Peter Pan musical and used the themes for this film. “Hook” is an overstuffed family film without the grown-up appeal of the Indiana Jones movies or “E.T.” but there a few entertaining moments that get the eight year old inside to giggle. Apparently, hearing someone called a “nearsighted gynecologist” actually gets funnier as you get older. [C]

Jurassic Park

"Jurassic Park" (1993)
A roar. A crane shot. That unforgettable John Williams melody. There’s a certain generation that responds to those signifiers within milliseconds, often with mile-wide smiles. And yet, time has illuminated the flaws in “Jurassic Park,” particularly the logical jumps that ensure, in typical kid-flick fashion, the T-Rex will arrive at the proper time, the kids will be smart enough to use the computers, and the adults will make a host of lethal mistakes. But it’s easily to forget those issues when Spielberg so matter-of-factly has the audience by the balls. After a violent, barely-seen raptor attack at the beginning, Spielberg keeps his dinosaurs hidden from view, instead building Michael Crichton’s charmingly heroic characterizations through screenwriter David Koepp’s blockbuster machine. We aren’t exactly chomping at the bit about the possibility of Dr. Alan Grant (a delightful Sam Neill) not surviving, though there’s an unshakable charge to the dinosaur attack sequences. And, brilliantly, many 'JP' dinosaur moments (which feature special effects still superior to those seen in many more contemporary films, particularly Joe Johnston’s “Jurassic Park III”) are scored with the triumphant Williams’ score, save one: the moment the tyrannosaurs sneaks out of its paddock and begins to stalk Dr. Hammond’s helpless grandkids. Letting the soundtrack sit it out, Spielberg is free to shoot the star monster stalk his prey with a mixture of curious grace and bloodthirsty chaos. While Spielberg has made more dynamic and challenging films since, most would argue this was the last time we saw the old magic sputter to life one more time. [A-]

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


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