Cinematic Greats: Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can - poster large

Catch Me If You Can (2002) is my favorite latter-era Spielberg movie, and my favorite Leonardo DiCaprio performance.  And while the true story is “supremely entertaining” (Stephen Holden), it is greatly enriched by deeper elements including Frank Jr.’s relationship with his father, and the loneliness of life on the run.  Performances by DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, and Christopher Walken unify with first-rate production and a great story into one superlative movie-watching experience.

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Cinematic Greats: Back to the Future

Back to the Future - large

THERE WAS A TIME not that long ago when great, original films on a grand scale came out at regular intervals.  Steven Spielberg had a lot to do with it.  Nowadays a great and original movie is more likely to be a small indie.  Thank goodness for Quentin Tarantino — and a select few others — who can still make movies that are big both in budget and in concept.

Everyone should be familiar with the Spielberg-produced megapop masterpiece Back to the Future (1985), directed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis.  But a central aim of my blog is to identify and give due adulation to all the movies I’ve seen in my life which deserve such recognition.  And who knows, maybe there’s someone out there who hasn’t seen some of the most famous blockbusters.  Back to the Future embodies perfection of the sci-fi pop genre.  Considering recent big flops [prior post], it might be a good idea for studios to reexamine classic successes like this one, and perhaps find a little inspiration.  10/10

Back to the Future - still

Bite this — Jurassic Park (3D)

Jurassic Park (1993), which I saw in its 3D release last night, suffers from slow and incohesive development throughout the first half of the film and too much silliness mixed into the more suspenseful latter portion.  There were a few good action sequences — a T-Rex snapping at children through the collapsed glass roof of an SUV stands out, but just as often the movie resorts to implausible scenarios nearly reaching the ridiculousness of Deep Blue Sea.

Yet the central liability of this picture does not lie so much within its dull periods, or moments that rendered me incredulous; rather, its most grave shortcoming is that it lacked the true sense of wonder which I expected from the great maestro.

Jurassic Park also felt dated, and I don’t mean from the technological point of view.  Big Hollywood monster movies and the related superhero genre have been a ubiquitous presence on the cinematic landscape for decades now — I suppose going back to the beginning of film.  Having seen a number of these competing movies in the twenty years since Jurassic Park was released has perhaps jaded me; raised my threshold of what constitutes a good monster movie.  I imagine at the time it was made, this movie might have been quite cutting edge — but I doubt that too.  Why?  Alien.  The better movies in the Alien franchise feature monsters that aren’t necessarily so much scarier than those of Jurassic Park.  But those movies are so much more frightening.  That’s because it does not matter the exact degree of horribleness in which a monster manifests itself — whether a T-Rex or an “Alien” — when either can just as easily kill you.  It’s because a good monster movie relies on that old stand-by Hitchcockian idea of building suspense.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Hitchcock’s Birds movie, but I’m certain he was able to get a lot more out of a few seagulls and crows than Spielberg got out of giant, menacing, teeth-gnashing dinosaurs.

Mystery, wonder, and fear: Alien

Mystery, wonder, and terror: Alien

Maybe that connects in a way to my comment about Jurassic Park lacking a sense of wonder.  This movie was aimed at the lowest common denominator: young kids.  It was made as a ‘family picture’, and, as such, seems deliberately dumbed down.  There’s nothing wrong with a good, grand family picture.  Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Back to the Future are all superb yet available to the same age group that Jurassic Park targets.  But they are at the same time great movies, classics that still resonate today with moviegoers of all ages.

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This brings me to a note about Mr. Spielberg: he has been prolific over the years, but unevenly so.  Compare Jaws to Jurassic Park.  Close Encounters to Minority Report.  Compare his true stories Catch Me If You Can and Lincoln.  Not much else to say about that — he’s been very productive but inconsistent.  It makes me think again of someone like Stanley Kubrick, who produced one masterpiece after another.

One final negative — the latter-day 3D appliqué on this release rang a little flat.  Children, especially those with an interest in dinosaurs, and their families, have loved Jurassic Park — it’s raked in nearly a billion dollars.  Lucky them: Jurassic Park IV is coming out next year.  But this one’s not for me.  4/10

Christoph Waltz on Charlie Rose; follow-up on Lincoln

Well worth watching.  Note the remark by Waltz after showing the clip wherein his character explains to Django what a bounty is. Waltz comments that his character does not say, as might be expected, “Bounty? You don’t know what a bounty is?” Very telling as to the caliber of writing by Tarantino.  Watching this interview, in the context now of having seen the best movie of 2012 and before that Charlie Rose’s hour-long interview of Tarantino, gives me cause to reiterate the first thing I said in my review: Tarantino is a genius.  The Waltz interview is also touching in that it sheds light on the difficulties Waltz had in obtaining recognition and success.  A universal theme for all actors.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Django Unchained is still showing in theaters and highly recommended to see in the public venue while you can.  As well as being the best movie of last year, it is sheer and grand entertainment.  You’ll have fun watching this one.

This episode of the Charlie Rose show also features Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for Lincoln [see my review], adapted from the large volume (944 pages) by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals.  I have not read Goodwin’s book, but I gather from Kushner’s comments and the book’s table of contents that the passage of the 13th Amendment was but a chapter or two; hardly the focus of the entire book.  That is to say, just a piece in the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, and an even smaller piece in the span of Lincoln’s life.  Then consider all the other written material available about Lincoln.  Why on God’s green earth Kushner had to cling on to this one short period of his life for a film that should have been about his entire life, or at least his entire presidency, is beyond me.  In the same way listening to Christoph Waltz strengthened my feelings about Django Unchained, the portion I watched of Tony Kushner’s interview strengthened the feeling of disappointment and dissatisfaction that I had walking out of Lincoln.

Another note on Lincoln.  People are talking about the unique perspective this movie delivers, the different approach it took in showing little-known aspects of his personality and his presidency.  Advocates have stated that previous movies haven’t shown this side of Lincoln.  My question: what movies?  Please can anyone tell me even one other movie in the last 50 years about Lincoln?  There haven’t been any!  This is why to me Lincoln was such a missed opportunity.  Kushner and Spielberg really blew it — in my thinking anyway.  Not that they care a whit.  Academy Awards will be bestowed upon this effort in great multitudes.  But in the long run the public will be at a loss.

A note on Charlie Rose.  I really like him, but boy is he enamored by Lincoln and its terrible writer.  Sometimes I question his judgement.  He was also very happy to interview the crew of Savages, the worst film of 2012.  Maybe I shouldn’t judge Rose in this way; I suppose he’s just doing his job to interview leading public figures.  After all, the other night he even interviewed that contemptible worm Dick Cheney.

Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis, Stephen Spielberg, and Abe Lincoln.  What could be better, right?  As it turns out, a whole lot.

Spielberg makes some unusual and risky choices in Lincoln.  The main curiosity is his decision to focus the entire film on the last few months of Lincoln’s life and presidency, and about 90% of that was spent on Lincoln’s pushing through Congress the passage of the 13th Amendment.

There were also some interesting decisions around that central choice, most notably the way the assassination was depicted.  These gambles did not pay off.

I think an opportunity was gravely missed: to take advantage of consummate actor Day-Lewis and Spielberg’s deft hand to form a more standard biographical account of the life of Lincoln.  The story of him as a child studying by candlelight, the ascendency to highest office, the drawing into and execution of war from the President’s perspective, and highlights like the Emancipation Proclamation — these are all fascinating events that the public yearns for.  Spielberg, in attempting for some reason a unique tale of Lincoln, completely omits these most interesting stories of Lincoln, and instead seems much more interested in showing that wrangling in Congress was not so different in 1865 as it is now.  His retro-CNN treatment utterly fails, and does a great disservice to all viewers.

In the movie’s favor are good performances by Day-Lewis and Sally Field as his wife, but again, these talents are for the most part wasted.  Not only does it miss out on all the most salient story elements at its disposal, but the whole feel of the movie lacks the sense of moment or drama that it seeks.  The performances by the cast as a whole fall short in the context of the limited vision of this picture.  The more I think of this film the more upset I get at what was lost.

This movie has been regaled with universal high praise.  I realize it is sacrilege to pan it.  But for the many out there who have watched it, were you excited by it?  Was it an exciting movie?  Was it even interesting?  A little.  I am certain that time will not be kind to this movie, at least not in the cinephile world.  It will have a nice legacy perhaps as an item to be shown in high school history classes.

A shocking 3/10, and probably a cinch for Best Picture Oscar, because the Academy is rarely interested in awards going to a film that deserves it.   I hope I am wrong, and that Best Picture goes to a movie of at least the caliber of Argo [prior post], but it seems the coronation has already taken place.