Thursday, March 22, 2018

Reserved Seating: Underrated Spielberg

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo that's always in touch with their inner child.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: In anticipation of Ready Player One, Rob and I chose three Steven Spielberg films we want to champion because we feel they’re underrated. Spielberg is a director I believe gets taken for granted nowadays. He’s such a dependable artist and reached great heights so early that I (and others, I’m sure) sometimes dismiss him when he doesn’t capture lighting in a bottle every time out. Plus, his frequency of output is enough where we don’t get the chance to miss him like some of his counterparts, whose films feel more like events because they are fewer and further between.

This past week, the Music Box Theatre in Chicago has been hosting a Sci-Fi Spielberg retrospective with five of his films: A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Minority Report and War of the Worlds. As of this writing, I’ve rewatched four of the five at home and am really in awe of Steven Spielberg movies all over again, which is perfect since I’m now very excited to see Ready Player One. Before we each get into our three selections for underrated Spielberg, Rob, what is your relationship with his filmography and do you have a preference of which type of Spielberg you would watch first (e.g. blockbuster, drama etc.)? Do you remember the first Steven Spielberg movie you ever saw, whether at home or in theaters?
Rob: Steven Spielberg is our greatest living filmmaker. There just isn’t any conversation worth having that assumes otherwise. And it isn’t just because he made Jaws, my all-time favorite film, either. I’d argue that it is objective fact. I agree that he’s often overlooked and underappreciated by modern audiences, though, and I think it’s because we’ve simply been living in his world for so long that we expect nothing less but perfection every time out. The irony is that even when we get it, we say, “Well, obviously this is great — it’s Spielberg!” and move on. He’s been scrutinized and minimized for his privilege and his perceived lack of edge (even I’ve been guilty of referring to him as the square teacher’s pet of the New Hollywood crowd), but somewhere between Gen-X cynicism and Millennial hyperbole lies the truth, and that truth is that he is the single most important figure in popular entertainment of the last forty years.

The chronology of my own relationship with the director is hard to define. As I said, Jaws is my favorite - the one I probably saw earliest -- but I’m fairly confident that Jurassic Park was the first time I consciously knew I was watching a Steven Spielberg movie and began to specifically seek out his work afterward. And I have to admit that I’ll always go blockbuster first. Many of his dramas are masterpieces, of course, but his greatest strength is his ability to please a crowd.

Adam: I do think he’s regarded as obvious, less sophisticated or too populist at times when the case could be made that he is a clear storyteller with a lot of interesting ideas embedded in commercial entertainment. Not every one of his movies work for me (for example, The Post wasn’t my favorite because it felt rushed), but there are some mostly dismissed or criticized films of his that I am a big fan of. This leads me to my first choice, which is A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
This movie was polarizing upon its initial release often being called an uneasy blend of Stanley Kubrick (who developed the ideas for the film) and Spielberg (who Kubrick basically handed the movie to make after seeing his special effects prowess progress). There is also a lot of conversation around how the movie has the wrong ending. SPOILER for A.I. - A lot of people say the film should end with David (Haley Joel Osment in an amazing child performance) trapped at the bottom of the sea, staring at a Blue Fairy statue, wishing to be a real boy. I get it. It’s a spot of closure, and the narration of an unseen Ben Kingsley tells us in cinematic language that he’s narrating the end of the David fable. But then the film goes on for another twenty minutes (Kubrick’s idea, not a saccharine choice of Spielberg’s, as his detractors have said) where David is rediscovered by advanced A.I. and studied. This is an interesting bookend to Kubrick’s own 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Keir Dullea’s character is given a familiar habitat to allow for aliens to observe him. In A.I. (coincidentally released in 2001), it is machines like H.A.L. that are trying to get something from this obsolete robot. It’s almost like a halfway point to the end of 2001. The ending of A.I. is dark despite its sentimental facade. David is studied and disposed of (this is why he is having sweet dreams) by the advanced mechas, similar to how humans used him earlier in the film and disposed of him, too. They have no need to be compassionate to David because they’re all intelligence. They are trying to solve for a formula and nothing more. They are copies of copies, and because David’s model was the last one to interact with their original human creator, they are looking for a “source code” gap to learn from, continue developing and become more intelligent.

The movie is saying a lot about humanity’s responsibility to artificial intelligence and the technology humans create. I read a headline recently about how people have been screaming at their Alexas and if that is appropriate or not. Should we be treating our technology like how we would want to be treated? The response to that headline was interesting, with people mostly saying “give me a break.” That is not unlike David’s whole journey in A.I. Am I saying I think people should be kinder to their technological creations? I’m not sure, but I do think it makes little sense to create technology to simulate human function and interaction and then act on the impulse to practice the worst humanistic traits upon it. A.I. was way ahead of its time in this regard, and I think the movie is unfortunately forgotten or dismissed in a time where it’s really interesting to rediscover it and consider its themes. This is from an era (era) of “dark Spielberg,” where he was reckoning with the future in science fiction films like A.I. and Minority Report (which I also think holds up very well and has a near career-best Tom Cruise performance), and I find this time period around the turn of the century among the most interesting in all of Spielberg’s career. If you ask an optimist (which I believe Spielberg largely is) what they’re pessimistic about, it can be an insightful conversation.

Rob: So, I’m the asshole who hasn’t seen AI: Artificial Intelligence since 2001. Between your comments and listening to a fascinating interview I recently transcribed between Top Critic Heather Wixson (Happy birthday, Heather!) and one of that film’s lead SFX designers, I definitely need to revisit it soon. I very distinctly recall it being a film I liked but didn’t entirely understand. It was one of the first times I remember thinking of that as a good thing, actually. I love that we sometimes need to grow into movies to appreciate them.
Anyway, my first pick is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the most ignored film in the series. I can appreciate the argument that it’s an empty gesture, a by-the-numbers, on-rails exercise in soulless cash-grabbing meant to squeeze a few more miles out of a tired series, but I totally disagree. If I’m staring at the Indy box set on a Sunday afternoon and trying to decide which one to put on, I’m almost always going with Last Crusade. It’s not the best film in the series (that’s Raiders, of course), but it’s essentially an Indiana Jones mixtape — all the best Indy action and charm with none of the overt racism or problematic gender politics. It’s not as scrappy as Raiders or as experimental as Temple of Doom. It’s The Force Awakens, a blend of greatest hits that goes down smooth. Last Crusade is also a strong example of Spielberg’s power as a manager. He wrangles the egos of Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, and George Lucas (the last of whom was apparently his legendarily finicky and cantankerous self during the entire production) enough to generate something that — while certainly not perfect — is a confident spin through his cinematic wheelhouse. I maintain that the third film in a trilogy like this should be fun and safe. Return of the Jedi. Ocean’s Thirteen, for example. Connery and Ford are clearly enjoying themselves, and most of the memorable Indiana Jones lines come from this entry. And yet, everyone sort of just shrugs it off as the obvious one. That’s a drag. Spielberg shouldn’t be punished for making it look easy.

Adam: I love Last Crusade. It’s my second favorite of the franchise easily and the first Spielberg I ever saw in theaters. I went with my dad (twice) during the summer of 1989 to see it and that’s just about the most perfect father-son action movie you could go see. I’m almost certain it’s where I became a Sean Connery fan (I was seven and had not seen any Bond films at that point) and was stunned to learn that Connery wasn’t actually 80 years old when he co-starred in Last Crusade. It’s a blast.
My next pick is going to be one that will surely make a lot of people roll their eyes, and that’s Hook. I say roll their eyes because I would have been one of those people if you asked me about Hook all the way up to last summer. Hook might be the first movie I saw as a kid where I thought to myself “I hated that.” I actually puked in the theater when I saw Hook because it gave me a migraine. It’s a story of legend among the Riske family. So what happened? I think it’s that last year I saw the movie from Robin Williams’ perspective for the first time and not through the eyes of his kids or as a lesser Peter Pan sequel. First off, good on Spielberg for not just remaking Peter Pan, which he could have easily done. Instead, he made a movie about the great lie of adulthood. I’m not saying I learned a life lesson when I saw Hook this last time, but what I will say is that it echoed something I believed to be true for years as I had an awkward transition from feeling like an “overgrown college graduate” to a “real adult.” The “truth” I learned is that in trying to play that adult role, you lose what made you “you.” That’s what Hook is about, I think. It’s not about how being a career-minded father is a scourge to humanity. It’s about not losing your childhood spark because that is what formed your personality. You can co-exist being a responsible adult and being a joyous person. I know Spielberg doesn’t consider this to be among his best films, but it’s a mess I find a lot of weird beauty in and I’m glad he made it. Points for me, too, because none of my affection is based on a nostalgic allegiance to all things Rufio. In fact, I never understood why ‘90s kids liked Hook. It makes so much more sense to me as a kids’ movie that plays better to adults.

Rob: Another one I haven’t seen in quite a while. I love this reading of it, though, that the big lie of adulthood is something we can’t see until we’re ready for it, and that the film secretly plays best to adults. It’s fun to think of Hook as the secret indicator of one’s true emotional maturity. I’m into it.
My second pick — the one I honestly considered not bringing up for this conversation — is The Lost World: Jurassic Park, a film I know you hate quite a bit. I’m going to make absolutely no argument that it’s anywhere near Spielberg’s better films. In fact, I wouldn’t even refer to it as underrated. I’m bringing it up simply because liking it has been a secret shame of mine for quite a while, and I want to work out why I have such a soft spot for such an obviously flawed film. For one, Jurassic Park fucking rules, and in 1997 (when I was 11) I was anxious for anything even tangentially related to it. I subscribed to a kid’s paleontology magazine, for Chrissakes. I was obsessed. So, there’s a lot about my affection for The Lost World that’s simply a by-product of having seen it two or three thousand times. Should nostalgia be considered when making a clinical, critical judgment? Probably not, but just go with me for a minute. Second, I actually like that it goes a little darker. It’s absolutely true that this film lacks the wonder and spectacle of the first, but I’d argue that in a way, that’s part of the point. It’s a way of breaking through John Hammond’s fantasy of what breeding dinosaurs would be like and revealing the more realistic, chaotic implications (“Ohh, ahh, that’s how it always starts…”). No fences. Poachers. Greedy businessmen. Vince Vaughn. I like it as a kind of Empire Strikes Back for the series, a more cynical chapter where everything goes tits-up. I like the dino round-up sequence and the raptors in the long grass. I like Julianne Moore and Pete Postlethwaite. It felt good to break the JP world open and widen the scope a bit. Don’t get me wrong, Ian Malcolm becoming Action Man is a mistake, and the whole San Diego sequence is a nightmare. I won’t argue with that at all. It’s an ugly movie (I sympathize with the Kaminski frustrations you outlined in your 20 Years Later piece) that Spielberg allegedly sleepwalked through (unconfirmed production gossip says that he wasn’t even in Hawaii for some of the filming), but I’d take the bonkers and uneven Lost World over the vapid and condescending Jurassic World any day of the week.

Adam: I perked up when I saw you were going with The Lost World: Jurassic Park because I thought you would Rob me into a new perspective, but that has not happened. Sorry, bud. I understand your point of view of it being something different and an expansion of the source material. My disappointment with The Lost World is that it completely abandons what I find so special about Jurassic Park, which is that it’s a FUN adventure about dinosaurs. Jurassic World feels, to me at least, like the sequel to Jurassic Park that would make the most sense coming out in 1997. Jurassic Park III is the pilot for a Jurassic Park TV series. Sorry to shit on your pick. I just dislike The Lost World: Jurassic Park so much. It’s the “let’s try to understand their economic anxiety” of the series.
My last pick is a movie most people probably think is worse than The Lost World, and that’s The Terminal. I saw The Terminal at a sneak preview in 2004 and remember thinking to myself that it was going to continue Tom Hanks’ amazing hot streak (The Ladykillers was a speed bump and didn’t count). I was stunned when it underperformed at the box office and was greeted with lousy reviews. It’s a movie I like a lot for both personal and objective reasons. I got dumped hard by my college girlfriend around Memorial Day 2004 (seems appropriate), and The Terminal was the first time I felt happy after about a week and a half of sheer, unbending depression (I had to return her ticket to opening night of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is hard to type even now because Harry Potter is a fucked up thing to ruin for someone). The Terminal was an upbeat movie where people were happy and the film felt like it was giving me a hug. I also had a weird thing back then where I loved airports (because it always meant I was going on vacation or coming home for college break), but I no longer have that after being beaten down by business trips since the time I first saw The Terminal. I think that might be one of the reasons people don’t like The Terminal is they don’t romanticize the airport. They hate the airport.

The reason I think The Terminal is actually a sneakily good movie is because it’s one of the few post 9/11 movies to deal with xenophobia in a non-confrontational way. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Tom Hanks’ character in the film is from a fictional country. He’s meant just to be a foreigner. Spielberg seems to be reminding us that “we” (Americans) shouldn’t give in to prejudices against people from other countries because we’re in a state of cynicism, fear or uneasiness. Hanks’ Viktor Navorski is portrayed in the film as being friendly, competent, skilled and ambitious, while some of the American characters like Stanley Tucci and Catherine Zeta Jones are shown as more suspicious or unstable. I remember being SPOILER surprised at the time that Hanks and Zeta Jones didn’t end up together at the end of The Terminal and that she ends up with the cheating husband she’s having an affair with instead. Now it makes sense to me. I think it’s saying something about her character and a set of people in general, which is that we align with those we consider in our circle even if it’s not the best option. There’s a scene where Tucci asks Zeta Jones why she is dating Viktor when she could have any man she wants (i.e. a white American guy like Tucci) and she says “That’s something a guy like you could never understand.” There’s a tragic irony in that statement because she doesn’t end up with Viktor, but instead with a guy much more like Tucci. Zeta Jones’ character knows it’s the wrong choice but she barrels ahead because it’s the one she would have to explain less to other people. She accepts her flawed relationship judgment like it’s a curse. A lot of people comment on how Robert Zemeckis is secretly a lot more biting than he can appear on the surface in films like Back to the Future or Forrest Gump. I think in The Terminal that Steven Spielberg is similarly masking a lot of snarkiness in the package of a light Capra-esque comedy. He’s holding up a mirror to the audience in the form of some of the characters. If I had 20 minutes to speak to Steven Spielberg I would spend 10 minutes on The Terminal and 10 minutes of just Jewish guys chatting. This movie is fascinating to me.

Rob: You’re on fire tonight, buddy. I need to revisit these movies immediately. I remember going to see The Terminal with a friend of mine after we finished work at the supermarket one night, but I remember absolutely nothing about it. Also, can we call Spielberg’s agent to see if he’d be interested in a weekly column called Just Jewish Guys Chatting? I never knew I needed that until right now.
My last pick is proof that my approach to this column hasn’t necessarily been to defend underrated Spielberg movies as much as it’s been to work through my complicated feelings toward a select few I have issues with. One of my favorite parts about writing with you is the way we can bounce ideas off of each other and see things from different angles. Thanks for that!. Anyway, a group of us were talking about The Color Purple when I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, and I made a pretty vocal argument against it. Despite an Oscar-winning lead performance from Whoopi Goldberg, the film is largely remembered as one of the first stumbles in Spielberg’s filmography, a misguided attempt at “serious” filmmaking by a guy famous for selling popcorn to ten-year olds. When I watch this one with my English students after we finish the book, we more or less always agree that it’s an okay film that pales in comparison to Alice Walker’s source material. This is odd, because Spielberg is famous for turning literary chicken shit into chicken salad (Jaws, Jurassic Park, Ready Player One [according to early reviews]), and this is the only adaptation I can think of that doesn’t improve on the original text. It’s too saccharine, too light, too “Disnified,” and it lacks the loneliness and coming-of-age sexual subtext that makes Celie’s story so compelling. Complicating things further are the representation issues (a straight white man making a film about a gay black woman) that — though certainly more permissible in 1985 — we’d never allow today. But though he later confessed he wasn’t the right person to make it and that he essentially punted on a lot of the stickier aspects, I’m including The Color Purple here because I like that Spielberg took a chance. He was clearly trying to make the classiest, most respectful film he possibly could, and his name lends a prestige that might have been missing (gross and unfair as that may be) had someone else made it. It’s almost the anti-Last Crusade, a film he wasn’t quite ready to make at the time. Considered as part of his larger filmography, though, I think we can appreciate it as a constructive step toward greater things.

Adam: I remember that discussion between you and JB about The Color Purple and saying to myself to not engage because there is no argument that wouldn’t sound crazy if I were defending it against representation concerns. I’ve only seen The Color Purple once and I have not read the book, but I really liked it when I saw it. It was four years ago when I wrote briefly about it (thank goodness for old F This Movie! columns) and I sounded a lot more naive then, but it’s undeniable I had an emotional experience with that movie. From what I can recall, I responded most to that film’s empowerment message and seeing Whoopi Goldberg’s character grow in confidence throughout the story. I’d like to revisit it and read Alice Walker’s book. It’s true that Spielberg is a sentimental filmmaker a lot of the time, and while he might be the wrong person to have adapted The Color Purple, it’s probably not as bad as it could have been with a different white director (not picking anyone out) whose heart might not have been as much in the right place.

Rob: I totally agree, and I want to clarify that my perspective is perhaps unfairly colored by my familiarity with the novel. The film nails many of the story’s more inspiring moments, and Spielberg’s sentimentality is only an issue because the film doesn’t delve as deep into the novel’s total, abject darkness. If he’d been willing (or able) to cut a little deeper, those triumphant emotional beats would be that much more impactful. I think you’ll see what I mean when you check out the novel.

Adam: Are there any other Spielberg movies you consider somewhat underrated that didn’t make this list? One more I defend to anyone who will listen is Catch Me If You Can. It is very well liked, but I think it’s the best movie of 2002 whereas most people consider it mostly (I think) as a light entertainment. That movie glides.

Rob: Like an...airplane? Cause he’s a pilot. Well, sort of. No others for me, but something tells me we’ll be having more Spielberg-related conversations in the future.

Adam: Yes we will. That’s called a Spieltease. That would be a good title for a remake of Striptease directed by Steven Spielberg.

Rob: Stay tuned for next week’s Just Jewish Guys Talking. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.

19 comments:

  1. Missed AI on the big screen when it came out & hadn't seen it since. Caught it at the Music Box this week. Great film, truly underrated alright. Haley Joel Osment was fantastic in it alright as was Jude Law. I hadn't heard about people not liking the ending but I found it really touching.

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  2. Sorry to be this guy, but Whoopi didn't win for The Color Purple, she won for Ghost. The Color Purple was nominated 11 times and didn't win a single award. I don't know if that is a record or not but it must be close. I just watched it this weekend and really enjoyed it, but again its coming from someone who hadn't read the novel before. I think I appreciated more now that its almost like a prologue for some of his more dramatic movies that came later. I may not have thought as much of it if I watched it in a theater in 1985.

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    1. Totally my fault. Thanks for the correction!

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  3. So glad to see so many of my personal picks for the most underrated Spielberg movies looked at from some interesting perspectives. I went through Spielberg's entire filmography a little while ago and was very surprised to have loved The Color Purple as much as I did, mainly because I felt it nailed those moments when Celie finally sticks up for herself. To be fair, I haven't read Alice Walker's novel, and it sounds like that makes all the difference in everyone's interpretive approach to the film. I'd probably consider Catch Me If You Can as Spielberg's most underrated, but I also go heavily to bat for Last Crusade as a great course correction for the Indy series (with Tintin acting as the final culmination that gets things more into Raiders territory), War Horse as the movie you never feel like watching but can't look away from once it's started, and Amistad as another one of those "step in the right direction" movies from Spielberg's "serious-era". I know Saving Private Ryan is loved by many, but I feel that's mainly for the opening half hour. I think the movie doesn't get enough credit after that point for its complicated look at what our ideas of heroism are. Awesome column!

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  4. I recently revisited most of Spielberg's films and found nearly all of them as enjoyable as I had remembered. Specifically, I was really impressed with The Sugarland Express. It is a ton of fun and has way more flair to its direction than I would have expected from Spielberg so early in his career. 1941 and Always on the other hand...

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  5. Is Munich not considered underrated? That's probably the last Spielberg film I thought was great. I have not seen Tin Tin, however.

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    1. Munich is underrated. I could have gone on but I limited my choices to three.

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  6. I love movies. Love love love.

    I think Hook is the only Spielberg movie I’ve seen.

    Hmm

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    1. Dear god. You need to take a week off of work/school and make some changes.

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    2. Looking back, I’ve always considered Steven Spielberg to be a mythical creature propagated by popular culture for entertainment. Like an unfrosted pop tart. People know about it, and talk about it like it’s actually a thing, but it’s really just a fictional talking point.

      I learned a few months ago that unfrosred pop tarts actually do exist. I really do need to make some changes.

      It’s likely that Ready Player One would have been my first conscious Spielberg experience because I’m eager to be part of the zeitgeist this time around, but now that it’s finally dawned on me that everything I know about the guy’s work is secondhand, I kind of feel like the world is my oyster right now.

      I’ve had Duel on my watchlist for a while - not because it’s his first, or even because it’s his, but because I am big into the premise - and now I’m unsure if that’s how I should start the first day of the rest of my life.

      Maybe I’ll do Crystal Skull.

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  7. I also like The Lost World. I didn't used to, but I think Jurassic World gave me a new perspective on it. It's far and away the best JP sequel. At the least, it's a really well directed action/adventure flick, and the only JP sequel that can be said of.

    I don't even know about Hook. I loved it for years and the last time I watched it it fell apart for me and I was so annoyed. I'll revisit it someday. Loved reading your analysis of it though!

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  8. I had a blast reading Ready Player One and recommended it to a lot of people who also liked it. It may not be literature, but I think Spielberg had good material to work with there. Can't wait to see the movie

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  9. Last Crusade was my favorite movie from the time I saw it in the theater in 1989 until just a couple of years ago, when Star Wars overtook it. For all of the family themes shown in Spielberg's films, has he made a better (read: more fun) father-son dynamic than Henrys Sr. and Jr.?

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  10. I like all your points on The Color Purple. Gosh I would love to be a student again, sitting in class with a teacher who asks you to read a book then watch a movie, then talk about it for hours.

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  11. That might have been my favorite edition of Reserved Seating. You guys have really been hitting your stride. Adam's been bringing the heat lately...like Michael Kopech heat. Really enjoying it. Top notch read guys!

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    1. Thanks! Speaking of Michael Kopech heat, you'll like what we have in store next.

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  12. tick tock tick tock hook's afraid of an old dead croc! - I have always loved HOOK!

    The Last Crusade is so great, man. The underground water escape right into the boat chase. The way he makes the tank chase in the last half into, basically, a WW2 movie followed directly by the death maze and the leap of faith...unbelievable that all that exists in one film. I like all 3 Indy's equally.

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