Steven Spielberg’s Top 10 films might be one of the best murderer’s row of movies in cinematic history. It’s hard to argue against the quality, diversity and depth of Spielberg’s best work. He’s done every genre conceivable, won a couple Oscars and remains a director who’s in play to dominate either the summer box office or the winter awards season. Studios desperately want to find their Spielberg from the indie world, wanting a director whom they can build a relationship with for years to come. Spielberg is perhaps the most influential director of the New Hollywood Era but his output lately has slipped to a significant degree.
He’s still a great director, and still can craft a good to great movie, but what was once a 100mph cinematic tour de fource fastball is now around 85mph or so. He’s still throwing more heat than most but he’s not the feared ace of the staff he used to be. Spielberg’s best films are well past him and he probably doesn’t have another Raiders of the Lost Ark in him. But he’s not pulling an Oliver Stone and becoming irrelevant, either. He’s settled into a pathway of being good and respectable but never masterpiece worthy in his post Munich filmography.
Spielberg the producer is far more prolific than Spielberg the director nowadays but when he makes a film on his own it’s still something to stand up and pay attention to. Bridge of Spies is another of the final act of Spielberg’s career in being a good, not great, film that won’t be among the films mentioned as the high point of Spielberg’s career.
Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance lawyer who prosecuted Nazis during the Nuremberg trials. After working in insurance for some time in New York he’s given the case of a lifetime. He’s to defend a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) in court on charges of espionage. When he saves the man from the electric chair a happening of circumstance will change his life forever. An American spy plane pilot (Austin Stowell) has been captured behind enemy plans in Russia and the Soviets are eager to exchange their captured spy for the one captured by the Americans.
Donovan winds up in Berlin, East Germany, to try and negotiate with the Soviets while preventing an actual war from breaking out.
This is fairly solid for Spielberg as the film is about a man trying to do what he feels is right when everyone is trying to tell him to go along to get along. Jim Donovan wasn’t a liked man for a significant period of time because of his zealous defense of Rudolf Abel; he was defending a Soviet spy in an American court. Nowadays he’d be the subject extraordinary rendition to some hole in the ground that officially doesn’t exist, of course, but those were different times. Hanks gives him his every man likability, bringing a grounded nature to Donovan that only Hanks can. This is a role that Jimmy Stewart would’ve played in his day, of course, and Hanks does a tremendous job in the part.
It’s yeoman’s work for Hanks, of course, but the film crests much higher because of him. This isn’t one of his best performances, not by a long shot, but it’s almost too good for this film. Donovan is a man trying to do what’s right by his client, first and foremost, and Hanks is note perfect in the role. This is the sort of role his career has developed into at this point. Hanks has that gravitas. Having Hanks in the role helps to carry the film much higher than it should be because it doesn’t have the strength of writing a Spielberg film usually does.
This is a film that did get a polish by the Coen brothers, which gives the film some of its off beat comedy moments, but this is easily the worst script Spielberg has worked with in some time. This isn’t a well crafted film as it struggles with tone and pacing throughout because the film’s running time runs a shade over two hours. It feels like it should be a three hour epic, with significant moments removed or trimmed throughout, that has been trimmed to satisfy something else.
Bridge of Spies isn’t the film that’ll be listed among the elite films of Spielberg when he retires or dies, of course, but it’s in that second tier with The Terminal and War of the Worlds.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Matt Charman, Joel & Ethan Coen
Notable Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Sebastian Koch
One can see why Jack Black would be attracted to a project like Goosebumps. The last film that was a genuine hit that he starred in was Tropic Thunder almost a decade ago. He’s been more successful with his voice than as a starring attraction and Goosebumps is the type of film perfect for someone with his lackluster drawing record. It’s a franchise in the waiting, as the built in fan base should come out and give him something he hasn’t had in some time: a box office hit.
Simple premise. Zach (Dylan Minnette) is the new kid in town, having moved with his mother (Amy Ryan) from New York City to the suburbs in Delaware. His next door neighbor happens to be R.L Stine (Black) and there’s a mystery behind his novels. Instead of being figments of his imagination … they were in reality physical manifestations of Stine’s imagination that he wound up trapping in manuscripts. When they get loose it’s up to Zach, his friend Champ (Ryan Lee) and Stine’s daughter (Odeya Rush) to get them back into the books where they belong.
And for people currently in the age bracket for the books this is a perfect adaptation of the series to film. It’s a PG rated film that borders on a G rating with scares that a young child would be worried about. Anyone over 12 should be able to see coming minutes away at the earliest, of course, but anyone over 12 should go more for nostalgia than anything else. This is a film aiming purely at the current audience, nothing more, and is that nice bridge between animated fare aimed purely at the very young and the summer action blockbuster for the slightly older.
The thing the film that does exceptionally well is on the audio/visual side. This has a lot of potentially problematic animation, having a number of difficult things to create, and the film does so well. Nothing in this film feels fake or computer animated. A number of films over the past couple years have excessively used CGI and this film doesn’t over do it. There’s just enough to make it worthwhile but the film doesn’t overdo it.
It’s refreshing in a way. We know it’s CGI but the film doesn’t go overboard and take us out of the moment.
The problem is that the rest of the film doesn’t have that sort of care if you’re over the age of eight or so. There’s nothing we don’t see coming from miles ahead, and nothing funny that isn’t a couple inches removed from a fart joke, as the film really doesn’t try to appeal on an intellectual basis to anyone besides young children. It makes the film no better than a low level animated film in that regard as there’s plenty of greatness waiting to be found.
There’s enough here that a great movie could be found. This is a great riff on the book series, giving it a fairly brilliant context, and the film doesn’t do a lot with it. There’s plenty to be mined here and Rob Letterman doesn’t do much beyond give us a surface view of what the material could be.
Director: Rob Letterman
Writer: Darren Lemke, based on the novel series of the same name by R.L Stine.
Notable Cast: Jack Black, Amy Ryan, Dylan Minnette, Ryan Lee, Odeya Rush
Twenty years ago Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was an A-list actor at the helm of a superhero franchise before the current book for the comic book genre. Now he’s trying to resurrect his career as an actor, not a movie star, in a Broadway play he’s funding out of his own pocket. But it’s not going as well as he thinks. He’s recently added a co-star (Edward Norton) known for taking over productions, a girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) who may be pregnant, his ex-junkie daughter turned personal assistant (Emma Stone) and an ex-wife (Amy Ryan) trying to be a friend. Throw in the success of the play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” resting on a NY Times Theater Critic (Lindsay Duncan) with an anti-Hollywood bent and Thomson’s life is in turmoil in the 24 hours before the production’s opening night.
This is how we enter Birdman, also entitled Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s look at the nature of fame through the meta look at the career of Michael Keaton. Keaton, famous 20 years ago for his role in Batman and Batman Returns among other things, is an interesting pick in the lead because his career directly mirrors Thomson’s. Keaton’s career peaked in the ‘90s, as he went from one of the biggest comedic actors working to an iconic role as the Dark Knight. From there he’s gone for more dramatic roles and indie work to various degrees of success; in many ways this is the culmination of his career from Returns forward.
The film is about the nature of the artist vs. the nature of being famous as an actor. Thomson as a character wants the credibility of the former while the latter would save him from his current money woes. It’s a tale one imagines many actors in that position face; it’s very rare that an actor has that ability to make a profoundly substantial paycheck for a role that tests their limits as an artist. Most times for an actor their biggest checks come from lackluster roles in lackluster films with smaller films allowing them the chance to flex those acting muscles. Thomson looks at this adaption of a Carver novel as his ticket to something more substantial as an actor.
Birdman has a number of smaller subplots, et al, but the crux of the film revolves around this dilemma from Thomson. It’s more profound because it mirrors the career of Keaton, of course, but even without him in it the film works because it’s well designed. This isn’t an actor doing the “whoa is me” routine about the necessity of doing studio fare because work that allows them to grow as an artist is scarce. This is an actor and a character finding each other at the exact perfect time; it makes the rest of the film feel superfluous as the handful of subplots melt away in retrospect because Keaton and Thomson are a perfect combination of actor and character.
For Keaton this is the role of a lifetime, one that should garner him an Oscar nomination at the end of the year. The character works because Keaton is emotionally honest in the role. It takes a lot for an actor to be able to admit his flaws, and do so in a way that is honest as opposed to self-serving, and Keaton delving deep into a character that just wants some respect as an artist but doesn’t want to truly embrace the “starving” aspect of being an actor as well. It’s something one imagines Keaton has gone through over the years as he’s gone from the heights of being one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood to wanting respect from his peers and from his audience as an artist.
The film works because of Keaton; we can feel that conflict from him because it’s palpable. Keaton must’ve had this exact same dilemma, settling on smaller roles and smaller films, but having that insight into the character makes Birdman one of the best films of the year.
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Writer: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Nicolas Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo
Notable Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Zach Galifianakis, Lindsay Duncan