Ready Player One (2018)

2018 #183
Steven Spielberg | 140 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg’s latest foray into the style of popular moviemaking he helped create in the ‘70s and ’80s — the summer tentpole action-adventure mega-blockbuster — is an adaptation of a novel so bedded in the popular movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s that the whole thing is a bit too meta: it’s a movie obsessed with the brilliance of ‘80s pop culture, made by one of the primary creators of that culture. At least Spielberg insisted that all references to his own work be cut, otherwise it could’ve become a mite self-congratulatory. Though it does mean that Spielberg becomes conspicuous by his absence in a Spielberg movie. Oh, it’s enough to make your head spin…

The plot, then: in the year 2045 the real world is a mess, so people spend most of their time in the virtual reality playground of the OASIS. When the game’s creator died, he left behind the first in a series of challenges, and whoever completes them will inherit the OASIS itself. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, I guess we’ll chalk that up as just another reference. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, tsk, go read more Dahl.)) Unfortunately, no one’s even been able to crack the first clue… until someone does, of course, because this is an action-adventure blockbuster, not some existential mood piece on the futility of trying to please the dead… or, you know, something. Anyway, cue lots of whizzy CG antics, with CGI that’s actually allowed to look like CGI because it’s all set in a CG environment — I bet the animators were thrilled when that brief came along, because who doesn’t love their job being made easier?

What other car is an '80s lover gonna choose?

Unfortunately, the same amount of effort seems to have gone into the screenplay. Some of this no doubt stems from the original work: the world of 2045 makes no plausible sense (check out the ghost of 82’s review for more on this theme), and there’s the least convincing romantic relationship outside of a George Lucas movie. Worst for me was something a screenplay can readily fix, the dialogue, but which here is frequently full of clunky, hand-holding exposition. This rears its head not just when establishing the film’s world and its rules, which would be bad enough, but also for relatively minor and easily-followed plot points throughout. It’s like the film has been written so even a goldfish could follow it — you don’t need to remember the start of a sentence because its end will explain the same thing again. Equally ill-considered is the movie’s apparently pro-gaming stance. Certainly, a lot of gamers seem to have embraced it as a film that understands their culture; and yet its final message is, “go spend more time in the real world, ya nerds!”

And yet, I mostly enjoyed it. It may not hang together if you engage your brain, but as a bit of fluff it’s largely a fun virtual romp. There are more Easter eggs than a Cadbury’s warehouse in January, which are fun for geeks like me to spot, and those whooshy visuals are even more entertaining when viewed in 3D, which (as Blu-ray.com’s review put it) is “a compelling demonstration of why the format is worth keeping alive.”

Watching other people play video games

But, even though I liked it overall, I can’t help feeling it was a bit of a waste of Spielberg’s time. It’s not that he’s done a bad job — he’s still a god amongst men when it comes to crafting a blockbuster movie — but I also think the end result lacks a certain something that his best work contains. I don’t really know why, but for some reason I feel like he should’ve spent the time it took to make this doing something else, and left this film to be helmed by someone… less important. I mean, there are a lot of other filmmakers who could’ve done a fine job with the material, and wouldn’t have felt the need to cut all the book’s references to Spielberg’s films either.

4 out of 5

Ready Player One is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

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The Post (2017)

2018 #125
Steven Spielberg | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

The Post

Perhaps the timeliest historical movie ever made, The Post is, in its plot, about the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’, a leaked report that examined decades of US government decisions about the Vietnam war; but, thematically, it’s about press oversight of a government lying to its people to cover up their own wrongdoing, including trying to forcibly stop the press from performing that role — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not to mention that it also concerns itself with matters like whether sources who leak classified information are whistleblowers or traitors, and attitudes towards women in positions of power in the workplace.

For various reasons related to these elements, it’s attracted a lot of comparisons and accusations. For example, some have criticised it for being about a case in the ’70s rather than one in the present day. I guess allegory is tricky for some people to understand… Or, alternatively, that any such parallels were accidental, as if experienced director Steven Spielberg wasn’t aware of them. I think the film went from script to screen in just nine months for a reason…

Then there’s the inevitable comparison to Spotlight, another recent newspaper journalism-themed true-story movie, and a Best Picture winner to boot. Those who thought Spotlight was exceptional tend to think The Post doesn’t measure up. Personally, I thought Spotlight was good, but I didn’t love it as much as some others. I would hesitate to say The Post is better than it, but I would be equally as hesitant to say it isn’t as good. Arguably Spotlight is a better movie about journalism, focusing as it does on the everyday legwork and procedure that go into putting together a major story, whereas The Post has more on its mind than just the facts of how reporting works. There are also many comparisons to All the President’s Men, but I’ve still not seen that so can’t comment fairly (there is this rather excellent trivia/connection, though).

Reading the papers

Relatedly, some people think this film should’ve been about the New York Times, as they were the paper that first broke the Pentagon Papers story and initiated the legal case it all led to (and, later, they were the only paper awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the publication). There’s certainly an argument for that being the real story, but, conversely, that would be to assume the focus of this movie is solely the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In fact, The Post is the story of Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, and how the Pentagon Papers changed them both. It’s the story of an underdog-like local paper making an (inter)national mark by doing something at odds with a legal ruling — the fact they chose to back-up the Times by publishing too (even if the action was instigated as much by friendly rivalry/jealousy as it was by “freedom of the press” ethics) is an important point in itself.

It’s also the story of a woman — a business owner at a time when women didn’t hold such roles; and not a woman who confidently elbowed her way in either, but one who found this position thrust upon her — going from meek and overpowered to confident in her own mind and running the show. I’ve read reviews that think this latter element is somehow forced on the film, as if the makers didn’t notice it until halfway through and only decided to draw it out when they reached a shot near the end where Streep walks past a crowd of other women with admiring expressions. That’s not the case, obviously — that’s simply not how movies are made — and that arc is clearly in mind from the very first scene where we meet Graham. Meryl Streep is excellent in the role, which is easily the film’s most fully-realised character. Everyone else is certain of themselves and what they believe is the right thing to do, but over the course of the film she goes from quiet, uncertain, and reliant on her trusted advisor, to believing in her own instincts and standing up for them. It’s a clearly-charted but believable journey.

A man's world

Nonetheless, it’s somewhat hard to divorce The Post from the context of when it was made — the way it reflects the current climate in American politics and the news coverage thereof. But then, is that a problem? Are works of art not as much about the time in which they were made as the time in which they’re set? I guess that’s a whole other debate. That said, it carries a message that would be important in any era, about the need for reasoned, responsible, independent oversight of those who govern us.

4 out of 5

The Post is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (2013)

2017 #127
Erik Sharkey | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

If you don’t know the name Drew Struzan, there’s a fair chance you know his work: he’s the poster artist behind the likes of the Back to the Future trilogy, almost everything Indiana Jones related, many iconic Star Wars posters (including the primary art for the prequel trilogy), and so many more. Even when not painted by Drew himself, his style has been a major influence on blockbuster posters across the board, even in today’s era of Photoshopped collages. Nonetheless, you may wonder if the topic can really support a feature-length documentary. How much is there to say? Turns out, plenty.

It starts out, as the title might suggest, in the form of a biography — rather than just looking at Struzan’s famous posters, it talks about his days as a struggling artist; literally starving, choosing to spend his limited money on paint rather than food. Once it reaches his move into film posters it goes more topically, covering a series at a time. He started on B-movies, which led to doing a poster for Star Wars’ 1978 re-release, which led to Indiana Jones, which was his big breakthrough: his poster for Temple of Doom established him as the Indy artist, and he went on to do video covers, book covers, and the rest.

Painting Menace

Despite the biographical start, the film is really an appreciation, if that were a genre, but a well-deserved one. There are stories about how the posters were commissioned, or designed, or painted, or whatever, but also about their impact, effect, and significance, and what it’s like for filmmakers to work with Struzan. In that regard the list of interviewees is impressive, including the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and more. Their presence speaks not only to the awe-inspiring people Struzan has done posters for, but also how much they admire him. As Spielberg says, he was trying to make a movie that would live up to the art they’d later commission from Drew.

Movie posters are just advertisements, really; certainly in the minds of executives — I mean, why else are the Marvel ones overloaded with every possible character and location featured in the movie? But to the public they’re more than that. Michael J. Fox makes the point very well right at the start of this film: the poster is the first part of the story; it’s where the film begins for the audience. There’s definite truth to that — the ad creates an expectation, and the resultant film has to match it. With Struzan’s work, the bar was never set higher.

4 out of 5

Fandango (1985)

2017 #22
Kevin Reynolds | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG

Fandango

In this coming-of-age comedy drama, pitched as “celebrating the privilege of youth”, a group of college buddies — two of whom are about to be drafted into Vietnam — go on a final road trip to celebrate their graduation and defer the impending seriousness of adulthood.

Fandango began life as a student short made by writer-director Kevin Reynolds that just featured the skydiving sequence. That was seen by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, who liked it enough that he gave Reynolds the money to develop a feature film around the idea. But when he saw the finished result, Spielberg distanced himself from it — he even had his name taken off the credits. No idea why — it’s a super movie. If we’re being picky then its structure is a little episodic, but the scrapes the gang get into are linked by arcs that chart their characters’ development, which is where the film has it’s heart. It’s also resplendent with nice little touches, like well-composed shots (for a first timer, Reynolds clearly knew what he was doing), poignant character moments, and some occasionally profound dialogue, too. A sequence that sees the guys fighting with fireworks in a graveyard, foreshadowing the war several of them are about to head off to, is a particular standout.

Boys will be boys

Kevin Costner, tearing through Texas as a free-spirited college flunk-out wearing one-armed sunglasses, an increasingly grubby tailcoat, and a shit-eating grin, has never seemed cooler. That almost masks the fact that it’s also a very good performance, actually. It might’ve been forgotten under some of the blockbusters he did, and some of the crap in more recent years, but the guy can act. The lead cast surrounding him is equally as likeable — it genuinely feels like hanging out with a ragtag gang of college mates on their last hurrah. The final act stretches credibility pretty darn thin with what those guys are able to pull off, but it’s nonetheless a suitably emotive finale.

I’d never even heard of Fandango until the ghost of 82 recommended it to me last year, which is possibly the end result of Spielberg having disowned it. The history of cinema is no doubt littered with these little gems that, for whatever reason, only resonated with some people at the time. One of the real benefits of the blogging era is that we can recommend them on.

4 out of 5

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

2017 #129
Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller & Steven Spielberg | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG

Twilight Zone: The Movie

I can’t remember when I first heard of Twilight Zone: The Movie — certainly not until sometime this millennium — but I do remember being surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Why wasn’t it more often talked about? After all, here’s a film based on a classic TV series, directed by some of the hottest genre filmmakers of the time: John Landis just after An American Werewolf in London; Joe Dante just before Gremlins; George Miller fresh from Mad Max 2; and, most of all, Steven Spielberg, coming off a run that encompassed Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. I mean, Jesus, even if the movie wasn’t great then surely it should be well-known! It was only later still that I learnt about the infamous helicopter crash. Couple that with a mediocre critical reception and relatively poor box office results, and suddenly it’s no wonder no one ever talked about the film. My viewing of it was primarily motivated by attempting to complete the filmographies of Spielberg and Miller, but I’m glad I did because, on the whole, I rather enjoyed it.

As the original Twilight Zone was an anthology series, so is the movie — hence having four directors. Although the original plan was to have some characters crop up in each segment, thereby linking them all together, that idea didn’t come off. The end result, then, is really just five sci-fi/fantasy/horror short films stuck together — composer Jerry Goldsmith is the only key crew member to work across more than two segments. The advantage of that as a viewer is, if you don’t like one story, there’ll be another along before you know it. Because of that, I’ll take each part in turn.

The Trump Zone

The film begins with a prologue, directed by John Landis, featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as a driver and a hitchhiker chatting about classic TV and scary stories. Although obviously the shortest segment, it’s good fun and sets a kind of comic tone — not one the rest of the film follows, to be fair, but it’s kind of effective in that it has a knowing wink to the audience: “we all know The Twilight Zone is a TV show. Now, here are four stories from it.”

Landis also directs the first full segment, Time Out, the only one of the four not adapted from an original TV episode. Basically, it’s about a Trump supporter. You might not have noticed that if watching before last year, for obvious reasons, but viewed now it’s kind of hard to miss. What’s depressing it that the point of the film is this guy’s views are outdated in 1983, and yet you have Trumpers spouting the same shit in 2017, three-and-a-half decades later. That aside, as a short moral parable it’s effective. It doesn’t have the ending that was scripted (thanks to the aforementioned tragedy), I think the conclusion it does have is actually more appropriate. It feels kind of wrong to take that view, because the only reason it was changed was that terrible accident. Obviously it wasn’t worth it just for this segment to have a better ending, but there it is.

Scary kid? Check.

Segment two, Kick the Can, is Spielberg’s, and anyone familiar with his oeuvre — and the criticism of it — will see that right away: it’s shot in nostalgic golden hues and contains positive, sentimental moral lessons. In fact, it’s so cloyingly sweet, it’s like a parody of Spielberg’s worst excesses. It was originally intended to be the last film in the movie, and you can see why: it would’ve formed a positive, upbeat finale to the picture. I’m not sure why they moved it — possibly because they felt it was the least-good. That’s what a fair few critics believe, anyway.

Personally, segment three was my least favourite. This is Joe Dante’s short, titled It’s a Good Life, and is about a woman who accidentally knocks a boy off his bike, gives him a lift home, and finds a pretty strange situation therein. I found it to be kind of aimless; weird for the sake of weird. It’s prettily designed and shot, with bold cartoon colours, but if I watched the film again I’d give serious thought to just skipping it.

The final segment remakes arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It’s about a paranoid airplane passenger on a turbulent flight, who thinks he sees a monster on the wing. Naturally, no one believes him. I’ve not seen the original version so can’t compare, but director George Miller and star John Lithgow do a fantastic job of realising Richard Matheson’s story, loading it with tension and uncertainty — is it actually all in the passenger’s head? And if it isn’t, can they survive?

Fear of flying

On the whole, I liked Twilight Zone: The Movie more than I’d expected I would. Nonetheless, as a series of shorts, it’s destined to be a footnote in the career of all involved (even Landis has done a fair job of moving on from the controversy — as I said, I hadn’t even heard about it until relatively recently). The only truly great segment is Miller’s finale, but the others all have elements that make them worth a look.

4 out of 5

Jaws (1975)

The 100 Films Guide to…

See it before you go swimming.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 124 minutes
BBFC: A (1975) | PG (1987) | 12A (2012)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 20th June 1975 (USA)
UK Release: 26th December 1975
Budget: $7-12 million (sources vary)
Worldwide Gross: $470.6 million

Stars
Roy Scheider (The French Connection, All That Jazz)
Robert Shaw (From Russia with Love, The Sting)
Richard Dreyfuss (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poseidon)
Lorraine Gary (Jaws 2, 1941)

Director
Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)

Screenwriters
Peter Benchley (The Deep, The Island)
Carl Gottlieb (Jaws 2, The Jerk)

Based on
Jaws, a novel by Peter Benchley.


The Story
As the seaside resort of Amity Island prepares for the lucrative 4th of July weekend, a series of violent shark attacks threaten the lives of residents and holidaymakers alike.

Our Heroes
Police chief Martin Brody is the one lumped with having to work out how to stop a man-eating shark, battling both small-town politics as well as the underwater predator. Eventually he’s aided by Matt Hooper, a young shark expert, and Quint, a salty old shark hunter.

Our Villain
A 25ft great white shark, with a taste for human flesh.

Best Supporting Character
Amity’s Mayor just wants what’s best for his town and its people — which, in this case, is having the beaches open for July 4th, whether people might get eaten or not.

Memorable Quote
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” — Brody

Memorable Scene
A group of young people sit on the beach at night drinking. The eyes of a boy and girl meet. They race off towards the sea, stripping as they go. She gets into the water first, while he’s too drunk to get his clothes off. She messes around in the ocean while he passes out on the sand. Then, she notices something underneath the water — something that grabs her — and… well, it doesn’t end well.

Memorable Music
John Williams’ famous, simple main theme is the definitive musical interpretation of approaching terror. When Spielberg first heard it, he thought it was a joke. Later, he said it was half of what made the film so successful.

Making of
Three mechanical sharks were built for the film, but no one thought to test them in water before taking them on location. They kept malfunctioning, causing a constant headache throughout production — because of them and other issues of shooting at sea, the film’s 55-day schedule ended up taking 159 days, and the $3.5 million budget ballooned to as much as $12 million. On the bright side, Spielberg had to work out how to shoot material around the unavailability of the sharks, which led to him taking a Hitchcockian approach of showing the ‘monster’ as little as possible, which was ultimately a benefit to the film’s effectiveness.

Next time…
Jaws was the highest grossing film of all time, so naturally there were a series of cash-grab sequels. As far as I was aware they were universally condemned, so I’d never paid them any heed, but I recently read a review that made me think I should give them a go. It said Jaws 2 wasn’t actually all that bad, Jaws 3-D was trashy fun, and Jaws: The Revenge… well, in for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. Incidentally, the last one is the film of which star Michael Caine famously said, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

Awards
3 Oscars (Editing, Sound, Original Dramatic Score)
1 Oscar nomination (Picture)
1 BAFTA (Music (also for The Towering Inferno))
6 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Actor (Richard Dreyfuss), Screenplay, Editing, Sound)
1 Grammy (Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special)

Verdict

It’s easy to start discussing Jaws in terms of it being the first summer blockbuster, or its troubled production, or the effect it had on audiences’ desire to go swimming. But divorced from all that, as a film in its own right, it’s a thrilling adventure movie — a man vs. a shark, when it comes down to it. It’s so packed with memorable shots and moments — be they horrific shark attacks, improvised one-liners, or precisely calibrated jump scares — that it’s no wonder it made Spielberg’s name. Personally, I feel the pace flags a bit once the three men get on a boat and go shark hunting, which slightly holds me back from completely loving it. Quibbles aside, it’s still a classic of suspense.

The BFG (2016)

2017 #51
Steven Spielberg | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA & India / English | PG / PG

The BFG

The writer/director team behind E.T. reunite for another tale of a young kid befriending a strangely-proportioned otherworldly creature who can’t quite speak English properly and has an acronym for a name. This one, of course, is adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, here rendered into live-action — or, for a large part, realistic computer animation — by director Steven Spielberg.

If you don’t know the story, it concerns insomniac orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who one night spots a 24ft giant outside her window. Wary of her informing the rest of the world of his existence, he snatches her up and carries her off to giant land. Despite Sophie’s fears, he doesn’t eat her, because he’s actually the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, motion captured) — but his fellow giants are a different story. Led by Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement, also motion captured), they bully the comparatively tiny BFG and are a constant threat to Sophie’s life, so she concocts a plan, which involves a trip to see the Queen (Penelope Wilton).

For all its CGI — and, in creating a fantastical other-world adjacent to our own, there is a lot — much about The BFG feels pleasantly traditional, almost like a throwback to kids’ movies of a couple of decades past. This is partly the re-teaming of Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, I suppose, but perhaps also the decision to retain the novel’s original 1982 setting. Not that you’d know it for most of the running time, until the Queen makes some telephone calls to “Nancy and Ronnie” (Reagan) and “Boris” (presumably Yeltsin, though that means someone’s got their eras mixed up); references that, coming quite near the end of the film, made me pause in the realisation that it wasn’t just set today (the reference to Boris made me assume the Queen was phoning our foreign secretary).

Window dressing

More than dated references, though, the throwback feel is thanks to the pace. I’d hesitate to call The BFG slow, but it’s certainly gentle for a good long while. I don’t think it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, but a little extra speed early on, bringing the luxuriant two-hour running time down closer to the 90-minute mark, might’ve been beneficial. There’s certainly magic and wonder to be found throughout, which are very important aspects of a story like this, but I do wonder if kids might get a bit fidgety nonetheless, which would destroy the effect.

There is a lot to admire, however. The production design is superb, the giants’ environment full of stuff pilfered from the human world and re-appropriated into useful things — a ship for a (water)bed, for example, or a road sign for a tray; in one sequence, cars and trucks become roller skates. It’s all realised with startling detailed CGI. Okay, you’re not going to mistake the giants for upsized real humans (which kinda makes me long for a Hook-era version of the film, when they would’ve done it all for real with optical effects), but look at the small details — the texture of the giants’ skin, for example — and it looks phenomenal.

More importantly, the acting is pitched perfectly. Clement and his cohorts manage to be both menacing and comical by turns, Wilton brings easy class to the Queen, and Rafe Spall has an amusing little supporting role as a palace footman. However, Rebecca Hall is utterly wasted in a strangely nothing-y part as the Queen’s assistant — I can only presume this was either one of those “I love the book so will take any role” situations or one of those “my part was mostly cut” situations.

Big star, little star

But the real stars are the two leads. Ruby Barnhill was the result of a months-long search for the perfect Sophie and it was worth the effort. Called upon to be confident, scared, awed, and ingenious, Barnhill’s performance is precisely calibrated — “subtle” would perhaps be overselling it, but she lacks the histrionics you get from weak child actors. She’s overall charming, which is important in engaging us in the relationship between her and the BFG. In the giant role, Mark Rylance is, of course, sublime. He may have been recreated in the computer, but all of his personality shines through, his expressions and mannerisms both believable and familiar if you’ve seen him in his corporeal form. It’s one of the best-yet advocacies of so-called “performance capture” (where the actor’s whole performance is captured by those grey jumpsuits with little dots on, as opposed to just “motion capture” where it’s only their physical moves being digitised and supplemented by animators — both are the same process really, it’s just someone coined a different term to indicate when more of the actor’s own work is retained).

Considering the level of challenge The BFG clearly presented to Spielberg (in the special features he talks about how at times he was unsure how to make the movie, with all the tough requirements of different scales, etc; he and his team actually spent a whole summer making the movie in previsualisation before they did it for real the year after), it’s something of a shame that it’s destined to be regarded as a minor work in his canon. I’m not going to argue it deserves a greater status among his venerable output, but it would be a shame for it to go ignored because of that.

4 out of 5

The BFG is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of this week.

100 Films @ 10: Most Represented Directors

It’s 100 Films’ 10th birthday at the end of the month. To mark the occasion, I thought in the run-up to it I’d publish some lists based on the last ten years of my blog, because who doesn’t love a list?

How many lists have I got? Why, 100 of course!

…haha, no — that would be ridiculous. There are ten — one for each year of 100 Films. And each one has ten items on it. Ten times ten is… why, it’s 100! What a coincidence.

For the first list, I’ve put opinion aside for pure facts: these are the ten directors who’ve been most-reviewed on this blog. That excludes films only featured in my 100 Favourites series — this is just their work that has been covered as part of my ‘main’ blog.

It may be worth noting that, because it’s purely based on statistics, this isn’t a list of my ten favourite directors… though as they’re ones I keep watching movies by, I guess it’d be a fair starting point.

10
Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan has made nine feature films, and seven of them are reviewed here. Throw in an extra one for the IMAX version of The Dark Knight and his short documentary, Quay, and he edges ahead of runners-up John Carpenter, Ernst Lubitsch, George Miller, and Billy Wilder.

9
Tim Burton

The next four directors are technically tied, but I’ve found a way to differentiate them. First: the Burtonesque Tim Burton, whose eight entries can be split into six main-list films and two reviews of things I’d already seen (Batman and Batman Returns).

8
Ridley Scott

Next, the man we can probably thank for all the Director’s Cuts we get these days, the more classical of the two Scott brothers, Sir Ridley Scott. He also has eight, of course, which factors in six main-list films, one alternate cut that I nonetheless counted on my main list (Blade Runner: The Final Cut), and one non-main-list film (Alien: The Director’s Cut).

7
Zack Snyder

Our third eight-film filmmaker is everyone’s favourite “visionary” director of superhero movies (right?), Zack Snyder. All eight of his films were on the main list, though two of them were alternate versions (the extended cuts of Batman v Superman and Watchmen).

6
Clint Eastwood

Simple and straight-up, much like the man himself, Clint Eastwood has a pure eight films.

5
Steven Soderbergh

The top five heads into double figures, with ten films for one-time enfant terrible and now retiree Steven Soderbergh.

4
Martin Scorsese

Perpetual awards season snubee, Martin Scorsese also has ten feature films, but edges ahead thanks to his part in anthology film New York Stories.

=2
Roy William Neill / Steven Spielberg

Unlike other directors on this list, there’s no reasonable way to differentiate this pair. You may not know the name Roy William Neill, but he helmed eleven of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, and those four years of work have landed him near the top of this list. Conversely, Steven Spielberg is probably the most famous film director working today, if not ever, and his eleven films span 44 years, stretching from his first (1971’s Duel) to his most recent Oscar nominee (2015’s Bridge of Spies).

1
David Fincher

Topping the list is my go-to pick for favourite director, David Fincher. He’s helmed ten movies, but I’ve reviewed twelve — that’s eleven main-list features (including the Assembly Cut of Alien³) and one extra for the marginally-extended director’s cut of Zodiac.

Tomorrow: when directors re-cut.

Schindler’s List (1993)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #80

“Whoever saves one life,
saves the world entire.”

Country: USA
Language: English, Hebrew, German & Polish
Runtime: 195 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th December 1993 (USA)
UK Release: 18th February 1994
First Seen: VHS, c.2001

Stars
Liam Neeson (Darkman, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)
Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Iron Man 3)
Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Amistad, Lincoln)

Screenwriter
Steven Zaillian (Awakenings, Moneyball)

Based on
Schindler’s Ark, a Booker Prize-winning novel (released in America as Schindler’s List) by Thomas Keneally.

The Story
In occupied Poland in the early days of World War 2, German businessman Oskar Schindler opens a factory supplying the German military, staffed by Jewish workers. As the Nazis begin to close the ghettos and ship Jews to concentration camps, Schindler uses his connections and profits to surreptitiously save as many as he can.

Our Hero
Oskar Schindler is a self-interested businessman, womaniser, and member of the Nazi Party. Initially employing Jews merely for financial reasons (they’re cheaper than Polish workers), his innate humanity begins to come to the fore.

Our Villain
Nazis! But in particular Amon Goeth, the sadistic commander of the Paszów labour camp, who’s fond of executing Jews at random, amongst other horrors. Nonetheless, Schindler has to deal with him to ensure the (relative) safety of his workforce.

Best Supporting Character
Schindler’s contact on the local Jewish Council, Itzhak Stern, who becomes essential to making his business a success, and facilitating his operation to save the workers.

Memorable Quote
“I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more.” — Oskar Schindler

Memorable Scene
During the destruction of the ghetto, Schindler sees a little girl in a red coat (the one splash of colour in the body of the film), wandering alone through the devastation. Later, as the Nazis burn piles of the dead, corpses are ferried to the pyres on small wagons. On one, Schindler sees a small body in a red coat… (There’s a good piece on the psychology of why these scenes are so effective here.)

Technical Wizardry
Spielberg chose to shoot in black-and-white to match actual documentary footage of the era, which was how he ‘saw’ the events. It was also shot without storyboards, Steadicams, cranes, or zoom lenses, and about 40% was filmed using handheld cameras, to emphasise a documentary feel. For a similar level of realism, Spielberg originally intended to make the film entirely in German and Polish with English subtitles, but changed his mind because he thought he wouldn’t be able to accurately direct performances in foreign languages.

Making of
Acting as producer, Spielberg initially tried to attract another director because he felt he wasn’t capable of doing the story justice. Martin Scorsese turned it down because he felt it should be done by a Jewish director, and Roman Polanski rejected it because it was too personal (he lived in the Krakow ghetto, only escaping on the day of its liquidation, and his mother died at Auschwitz). Finally, there was Billy Wilder — depending which version you believe, he either wanted to direct but Spielberg was already prepping the shoot, or he actually convinced Spielberg to direct it. Ultimately, Spielberg waited ten years between acquiring the rights and making the film, when he finally felt capable of tackling it.

Awards
7 Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration)
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Costume Design, Sound, Makeup)
7 BAFTAs (Film, Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score)
6 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actor (Ben Kingsley), Costume Design, Make Up Artist, Production Design, Sound)

What the Critics Said
“If E.T. The Extraterrestrial is Steven Spielberg’s fantasy masterpiece, and Jurassic Park is his commercial masterpiece, then Schindler’s List is certainly his artistic masterpiece. It’s an extraordinary work of vision and passion that raises even the gifted Spielberg to a new level of artistry. And like all great works, it elevates everyone who views it.” — Dennis King, Tulsa World

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“It’s very, very hard-going and not an easy film to watch, but its importance is unparalleled. You sit there for three hours feeling uncomfortable – because these monstrosities really happened, because we live in a world where people are capable of these acts of inhumanity – and you still can’t even begin to imagine what it must have really been like, to live through that, to see your family and friends shot dead in the street or transported away en masse to the gas chambers. And yet, despite all that, you end the film feeling inspired. Someone made a difference.” — Millicent Murdoch, Millie’s Movie Reviews

Verdict

Schindler’s List wasn’t Spielberg’s first ‘serious’ film, but I think it shows a marked increase in quality over his good-but-flawed previous efforts, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Liam Neeson gives a commanding performance as the imperfect hero, while Ralph Fiennes finds what little humanity there is in Goeth (and there isn’t much) to pull him short of being an Evil Nazi caricature. The stark black-and-white cinematography acknowledges the incomprehensibly horrific events, while Spielberg’s divisive penchant for sentimentality seems well-matched to the tale, offering a measure of hope from humanity’s darkest days.

What’s in #81? What’s in #81?

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #79

The mission is a man.

Country: USA
Language: English, French, German & Czech
Runtime: 170 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 24th July 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 11th September 1998
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Stars
Tom Hanks (Big, Cast Away)
Edward Burns (She’s the One, 15 Minutes)
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Jason Bourne)
Tom Sizemore (Natural Born Killers, Black Hawk Down)
(The lead cast includes since-famous people like Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi, and the supporting cast even more recognisable faces, but, still, Edward Burns is second billed.)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun, War Horse)

Screenwriter
Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home, The Patriot)

The Story
In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, a group of soldiers are tasked to locate and rescue just one man: Private Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in action, earning him a free pass home. As the squad trek across France, mindful of the waste of resources, they encounter first-hand the early days of the Allied invasion of Europe.

Our Heroes
Just a regular bunch of soldiers, co-opted into a PR mission that isn’t that easy. They’re commanded by Captain Miller, their respected leader with a secretive past… a past which is actually thoroughly mundane, and just highlights the bizarre, heightened world of the war.

Our Villains
Nazis!

Best Supporting Character
Matt Damon was cast as the eponymous soldier because Spielberg wanted an unknown with an all-American look. Unfortunately for that plan, before Private Ryan came out Damon won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting and became famous overnight. It certainly changes the effect to have the team rescuing Movie Star Matt Damon rather than Some Unknown Actor, but, on the bright side, he’s good.

Memorable Quote
Reiben: “Hey, so, Captain, what about you? I mean, you don’t gripe at all?”
Miller: “I don’t gripe to you, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.”
Reiben: “I’m sorry, sir, but uh… let’s say you weren’t a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?”
Miller: “Well, in that case, I’d say, ‘This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover, I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men — especially you, Reiben — to ease her suffering.’”

Memorable Scene
The opening half-hour, which recreates the Normandy landings in shocking, brutal detail, and is supposedly very true to the actual experience. Surely the definitive modern combat sequence from any war movie.

Technical Wizardry
The heavily desaturated cinematography by Janusz Kaminski instantly lends the film a grim veracity, very appropriate to its tone. Such extreme colour palettes are commonplace nowadays, mainly thanks to digital grading, but when Private Ryan came to US TV providers had to deal with numerous complaints from viewers who thought there was a problem with their signal — which the broadcasters fixed by just upping the saturation of the film, of course.

Truly Special Effect
The involvement of ILM was downplayed so that the film didn’t come across as “an effects movie”, but they still had a key role — for instance, providing most of the bullet hits throughout the D-Day sequence. Not remarkable effects work in itself, maybe, but it’s appropriately invisible.

Making of
The D-Day sequence alone cost $11 million. It was filmed over four weeks (almost half the entire shoot), gradually moving up the beach to film the whole thing in chronological order. Spielberg personally operated the camera for many shots, none of which were storyboarded. The shoot involved up to 1,000 extras, 20 to 30 of whom were amputees fitted with prosthetic limbs to simulate them being blown off. Reportedly, many veterans have congratulated Spielberg on the sequence’s accuracy, including actor James Doohan, aka Star Trek’s Scotty, who participated in the Normandy landings.

Next time…
HBO’s Band of Brothers is basically Saving Private Ryan: The Series, taking the film’s visual style to tell the true story of a company of soldiers from their training, through the invasions of France and Germany, and right up to the end of the war. Often topping lists as the greatest TV series ever made, it certainly belongs in consideration.

Awards
5 Oscars (Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Tom Hanks), Original Screenplay, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Makeup)
2 BAFTAs (Sound, Special Effects)
8 BAFTA nominations (Film, Actor (Tom Hanks), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up/Hair)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
1 Saturn nomination (Special Effects)
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Action Sequence for the Normandy landings. It lost to Armageddon.)

What the Critics Said
“hands-down the best film of 1998. Spielberg has clearly stated in recent interviews that he made the film as a monument to the brave men who fought and died in that terrible war (and on D-Day, in particular), but he’s also done something morally heroic in the process. Private Ryan clearly illustrates, once and for all, that war — the real, appalling thing, not the flag-waving glorification that you usually see at the movies — is hell on earth. Spielberg accomplishes these goals with a technical virtuosity that no other director, arguably in the history of the cinema, can even approach. […] He’s a director whose work has grown right before our eyes from that of a precocious whiz-kid to the complex, humanistic statements of a true artist. Whether or not you always appreciate how he utilizes his skills, the man is an undeniable genius.” — Paul Tatara, CNN

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“the opening 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan – where [Spielberg] thrusts us into the 1944 D-Day landings of Omaha Beach – is arguably his most impressive and certainly his most visceral work. It’s absolutely exhausting in its construction and sense of realism and the realisation soon sets in, that this cinematic auteur is not about to pull any punches in portraying a time in history that’s very close to his heart. The opening is so commanding that some have criticised the film for not living up this grand and devastating scale but Spielberg has many more up his sleeve. He’s just not able to deliver them too close together – otherwise, the film would be absolutely shattering and very difficult to get through. To bridge the gap between breathtaking battles scenes the film falls into a rather conventional storyline about men on a mission but its only purpose is to keep the film flowing and allows Spielberg the ability to make the brutality of war more personal.” — Mark Walker, Marked Movies

Verdict

Is Saving Private Ryan the greatest war movie ever made? Maybe. The relatively simple story allows it to explore the mindset of the soldiers making the first forays into Europe after D-Day, both their camaraderie as a group of men and the actions they took to function through the experience. It’s certainly the most influential World War 2 movie of modern times — nearly 20 years later, its desaturated colour palette remains de rigueur for films set in the war. So too its realistic depiction of combat, which is more plausible than some of the Boy’s Own adventures that came before, though not so ridiculously gruelling as some that have come in its wake. Personally, the only superior WW2 ‘film’ I can think of is Band of Brothers, and considering that has ten hours to explore its characters and situations, it’s not really a fair comparison.

#80 will be… a very different Spielberg/WW2 story.