July 26th: The Future is Blue/Grey

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152. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002)

Philip K. Dick was a fabulous author and a continuing rich source of inspiration for cinema, when his stories are adapted well they have given us the likes of Blade Runner. When they are adapted poorly we get films like Paycheck and Imposter. If you haven’t heard of them don’t be surprised, they are quite average. The attraction lies in the scope of Dick’s work, the meditations on what memory means and whether memories constitute the core essence of the human experience. These ruminations can be used as a framing device for a superior action film like Total Recall or they can be explored in more depth as in Blade Runner.

Minority Report is a little different, being a short story that differs slightly from the usual exploration of memories and instead questions the notion of free will as an essential part of the human experience. The Cruiser stars as John Anderton, the lead member of an experimental ‘Precrime’ police unit. A unit which utilises future visions of three ‘precogs’ in order to predict when and where a murder will take place and prevent them from ever happening. Things go a pear-shaped when The Cruiser comes up as the lead suspect in a predicted murder so he does a runner, eventually picking up the lead Precog and trying to unravel the set-up. There’s plenty of typical late Spielberg on display in the film, the shattered family unit (remarkably similar to The Cruiser’s family in War of the Worlds), some flashy camerawork and a bum-number of a running time. It’s also a remarkably blue film, I don’t mean tits’n’arse, but this is more blue-grey in colour tone than Michael Mann’s Heat. In that film the colour had the effect of lending cold and blank tone to the ultra-modern city of Los Angeles, it was ideal. Here it has the unfortunate effect of looking a lot like a grim car advert from the future.

There’s very little to write about Minority Report that could be interesting. It continues the downward curve of Spielberg’s action output, a curve that surely reached its horrible nadir with the fourth Indiana Jones film. When his more serious output, such as Munich, is so accomplished it really does make you think that he should concentrate on that kind of thing rather than clinging to dream of making another Jaws or Jurassic Park. One way of improving might be ditching the shattered family angle and at least 30 minutes off the running time.

Here is an interesting bit of trivia from IMDB about the gestation of the project and about a film I would probably have enjoyed a bit more…

“The story “Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick was originally adapted as a sequel to Total Recall (1990) by writers Ronald Shusett and Gary Goldman, later joined by Robert Goethals. The setting was changed to Mars with the Precogs being people mutated by the Martian atmosphere, as established in the first film. The main character was also changed to Douglas Quaid, the man played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The project eventually fell apart but the writers, who still owned the rights to the original story, rewrote the script, removing the elements from Total Recall (1990). This script was eventually tossed out when novelist Jon Cohen was hired in 1997 to start the project over from scratch. The only original element from the early script which made it to the final Minority Report (2002) film is the sequence in the car factory, an idea that Steven Spielberg loved.”

April 29th: Oskars all round.

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97. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) #7 in IMDB top 250

Weighing in at a tasty 3 hours plus this is a chunky film. There’s not an awful lot you can say about it that hasn’t already been said. If you don’t know the story; Liam Neeson is Oskar Schindler, a Czech businessman and Nazi party member for whom World War II presents a business opportunity unlike any other. His newly established ceramic factory in Krakow employs Jewish workers from the hastily built ghetto, because it is cheaper than employing a ‘normal’ Polish worker. Over time Schindler becomes more and more aware of the atrocities being committed against the Jewish population, especially after the arrival of the new Captain, Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes), and the construction of the concentration camp at nearby Płaszów. Eventually, at great risk to all involved, Schindler makes arrangements to rescue over 1000 of the Jewish inmates at the camp under the guise of a cheap labour force.

This is powerful and mature film-making at its finest. There isn’t a hint of sentimentality about the film at all. Instead it makes great strides at forcing you to view this story in all its grisly detail. A story of misery, pain and endurance. At the centre of the whole thing are four stunning performances. Liam Neeson as the Nazi whose believable gradual transformation is a credit to the actor and to Steve Zaillian’s script, Ben Kingsley as the accountant who smuggles the most needy into the factory and manages a performance mainly of great emotion through the simplest expressions, Embeth Davidtz as the maid caught and captive in the madness and horror next to Ralph Fiennes’ Göth. This is the clincher. Fiennes is on the verge of being overtly camp, too pathetic and impotently angry but instead he manages to balance the performance on a knife edge. He never descends to any easy trope, instead he finds the broken human inside the character and pushes him forward alongside the disgusting engineer death.

Schindler’s List might have easily suffered from being worthy or trite but it doesn’t. It is a superb piece of cinema about an important and incredible true story. See it.

One quick final point. There is a writer for The Guardian newspaper called Tanya Gold. I don’t know Tanya but I’m afraid I find her a little bit annoying. She recently wrote an article about how we have too much of the Nazis in our popular culture, fearing that it somehow amounts to a kind of fetishism. Well, Tanya may have a bit of a point but it got lost in her desperate scramble to attack any culture product with a sniff of swastika and she made a bit of a messerschmidt of the whole thing. Read it here. Whilst there is a bit of a national fascination (it isn’t quite an obsession yet) with the defeated culture fascist Germany you have to accept a bit of chaff with the wheat. For every Schindler’s List there may well be a story about ‘Nazi cows’ but I think I’d be willing to pay that price for a piece of cinema this satisfyingly constructed.

Note: Schindler’s List is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘True Stories’.

April 23rd: One you’d rather forget.

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91. 1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)

I’d read that this film was the one that sticks out like a sore thumb in the Spielberg canon. I’d read right. As far as I can tell this is the only time that he’s attempted a comedy and it’s woefully misjudged. Despite a star cast and what appears to be a whopping budget something has gone very wrong in making this particular film. It doesn’t hang together, the slapstick seems off somehow. How badly this is might be open to interpretation, comedy is after all the most subjective genre. But from the opening parody of Jaws I felt a bit bemused by the whole thing. How many directors do a comic re-interpretation of their own smash hit a mere four years after the original? Very odd. On top of this Treat Williams’ character spends the entirety of the film attempting to rape a woman. How I didn’t laugh. Having said all that, there are scenes that work well, particularly the bar fight/dance competition which manages to strike the right note of choreographed chaos. But these moments are the exceptions rather than the rule and the stellar cast goes to waste.

April 4th: No gadgets?

85. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)

Time for something a little more cerebral from the king of American cinema. I’ve always been of the opinion that Spielberg’s best films operate as cinematic theme park rides providing brilliant visceral thrills in an escalating fashion. Duel, Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark/the Last Crusade and Jurassic Park all fit into this pattern and, with the exception of Duel, they are classics of the summer tentpole blockbuster genre. I’ve not watched much of his serious output so now seems as good a time as any. Munich is the story of the alleged vengeance killings carried out against the perpetrators of the 1972 Olympic massacre of 11 Israeli athletes. It’s made with a steady assured hand and the narrative is admirably neutral in terms of judging the events. I’d expected a Jewish bias of some kind but it isn’t there, this is a human story about the effects of violence on people and how it can be carried with you. Eric Bana is absolutely superb as I’ve come to expect as was Ciarán Hinds (previously brilliant in Hallam Foe) and their friendship lends the film a warmth which it would otherwise have lacked. Daniel Craig’s South African accent could have done with a bit of work though.

Here’s an alternative view from my good friend Tom Figures (Stifler on the comments board)…

“I found it lacking in shooty bits and the baddies didn’t have eye patches and scars and other distinctive ‘baddy’ features. So it made it dead hard to work out who was who.

And the goodies plan was a bit boring, trying to secure railway lines to all these European cities on the orders of “his rail”. We never even find out who the chap who owns the rail company is! This left me confused for much of the film. Bond did nothing whatsoever, he just sat in cars (which had no gadgets) being useless all the time.

Worst. Bond. Film. Ever.

5/5 stars, see it now!”