A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

AI

A new type of robot, a child capable of love, is adopted by a couple – but the robot, David, soon finds himself alone and on the run…

Seen before? Yes, on 26 September 2001 at the UCI Derby.

Best performance: David is played by Haley Joel Osment (the best Anakin Skywalker we never got). He’s simultaneously innocent and creepy, adorable and unsettling, familiar and unusual. And he never at any point blinks.

Best scene/moment/sequence: “I love you, David.”

Review: The look of this film is simply stunning – freeze-frame any random moment and you could hang the resulting image in a gallery. It’s Spielberg letting his peerless imagination loose with camera, lights, filters, smoke, shadows and budget. Wonderful production design and cinematography lead us through the film’s three discrete sections: a cold, clinical, quiet and airy opening (childhood); a grimy, gritty, seedy and almost post-apoc middle (growing up); and a lyrical, fairy-tale ending (death). Each one is, in its own way, *entrancing*. There’s real emotional substance here. It’s a film about some heavy subjects – love, identity, innocence, guilt, motherhood, belonging, human rights, cruelty… It has one of the best juvenile leads in cinema history. It’s challenging and demanding and emotional. It’s probably Spielberg’s strangest film. It’s certainly his most underrated.

Ten blue fairies out of 10.

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Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving-Private-Ryan

When a soldier’s three brothers are all killed in action during the Second World War, the US army sends a team into France to locate him…

Seen before? Yes, at the flicks in 1998.

Best performance: What struck me most about the cast was just how many faces there are that I recognise from other things. As well as Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Ted Danson, there’s Tom Sizemore (Heat, True Romance), Barry Pepper (Enemy of the State), Adam Goldberg (Chandler’s bonkers flatmate in Friends and also recently Fargo), Vin Diesel (The Fast and the Furious), Giovanni Ribisi (Phoebe’s brother in Friends), Jeremy Davies (Lost), Paul Giamatti (Downton Abbey), Dennis Farina (Out of Sight), Corey Johnson (Doctor Who), Nathan Fillion (Firefly), Leland Orser (Seven), Bryan Cranston (Seinfeld)…

Best scene/moment/sequence: The final battle to defend the bridge. It’s 26 minutes of sustained action, tension and horror.

Review: When Saving Private Ryan was released, I was just starting my degree in Film and Television Studies – so, given my mindset at the time, perhaps I’ll always view it in terms of its cinematic techniques. And I think they are the film’s biggest success. There are numerous long, handheld takes; shutter speeds and lens sizes are cleverly varied to help sell the reality/immediacy of war; and – if you’ll allow me to use a pretentious analytical phrase – the mise-en-scène is *constantly* interesting, inventive and illuminating. The storytelling is stunningly, winningly precise. It does get rather sentimental at times – Captain Miller’s stories about his life back in America are twee, for example – but it’s also not afraid to show dubious behaviour on both sides of the war.

Eight FUBARs out of 10.

Amistad (1998)

amistad

African slaves overpower their captors and head home, but are soon arrested, taken to America and charged with murder. Their trial becomes a cause célèbre…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: In the second half of the film, Anthony Hopkins gets plenty of fruity screen time playing former president John Quincy Adams. Peter Firth is also worth mentioning for his small but enjoyably deadpan role as a Royal Navy officer.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The opening five minutes – Cinqué and others breaking free and taking over the slave ship – is the movie’s most cinematic sequence. Set at night, with little dialogue, it grabs your attention straight away.

Review: Involving stuff – part historical epic, part courtroom drama. The religious symbolism perhaps gets a bit heavy-handed at times, but on the whole it’s a very entertaining movie.

Eight Matthew McConaugheys out of 10.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

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Wait, what? There was *another* island with dinosaurs on it?! Shit!

Seen before? Just the once, at the cinema in 1997.

Best performance: One of my favourite actors, Richard Schiff, plays laconic team member Eddie Carr. He’s beardless in this, unlike everything else I’ve seen him in. (By the way, who in their right mind thinks Vince Vaughn being in a film is a good idea?)

Best scene/moment/sequence: Like the first movie, it’s the T-Rex attack that impresses the most. Here, it’s while the characters are hiding in their multi-unit techno-trailer, which ends up dangling off the edge of a cliff.

Review: A big disappointment. Did Spielberg think he had to get to the dinos as quickly as possible? That would explain the film’s fumbled and rushed opening. The plot is based on inelegant ret-conning of the first movie, contrivances and perfunctory set-up. Characters almost turn to the camera and whisper, “Don’t ask. Just go with it.” Early on, we also get camoes from Jurassic Park characters John Hammond (there solely to give us exposition) and his grandkids (totally pointless). There are, it must be said, flashes of Spielberg brilliance throughout – some deaths are inventively staged, for example, while dinosaurs stalking their prey in the long grass is a great image. Watching this, I had what I thought was a revolutionary idea. I realised it’s basically a remake of King Kong: loosely the same story, the same structure, and a very similar final act in a US city. There’s even a character intent on filming the creature/s in situ. Did Spielberg actually want to make his version of Kong, but couldn’t get the rights so did this instead? (Peter Jackson was in pre-production on an aborted attempt in 1996/97.) Of course, one Google later, and I see that every single person ever has already spotted these similarities. But that final half-hour in San Diego did make me wish the whole film had been like that – it’s playful, tongue-in-cheek and bonkers, and much more fun than the tepid, lifeless retread of the first movie we get for 90 minutes.

Six shoehorned-in lines of dialogue about the little girl being a gymnast in order to set up a scene later on when she uses her parallel-bar skills to kick a dinosaur’s arse… out of 10.

Schindler’s List (1993)

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A German profiteer opens a factory during the Second World War and uses his position to protect Jews in Nazi-controlled Poland and Czechoslovakia…

Seen before? Yes, at the cinema in 1993. I was a year too young for a ‘15’, so lied about my age to get in.

Best performance: Has there ever been a more chilling portrayal of pure evil than Ralph Fiennes’s turn as Nazi cunt Amon Goeth?

Best scene/moment/sequence: The ‘liquidisation of the ghettos’. It’s a huge sequence, covering hundreds of characters and a massive area of a town, but it’s the personal moments that especially hit you in the gut: most famously, Oskar Schindler’s dreadful epiphany when he spots a young girl in the mayhem.

Review: It’s a tough watch, but a necessary one. The terror rises inexorably over the first half. At first, the cruelty and violence are shocking and sudden; then they become sickeningly commonplace. Spielberg’s direction – for which he finally won an Oscar – is controlled, unshowy, focused. Liam Neeson is excellent in the lead role. Some say the ending gets too sentimental; I don’t agree.

10 red coats out of 10.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic-Park

Two paleontologists and a mathematician are given a preview of a unique new theme park, to see whether it’s viable. Things go wrong when the exhibits – cloned dinosaurs – start to escape…

Seen before? Yes, three or four times now. I first saw it at the cinema when it came out, having accepted and completed my mum’s challenge to read the novel in the week before we went to the flicks.

Best performance: Jeff Goldblum plays chaotician Ian Malcolm: it’s very possibly the most Jeff Goldblum-appropriate bit of casting imaginable.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The T-Rex attack, which comes about halfway through the film, is a stunning action sequence. It begins with the now famous rumbles of sound and shaking glasses of water. It’s tense and scary. And it features one of the best ever combinations of CGI and real photography (seriously: even after 21 years it’s seamless). Superb stuff.

Review: I fear familiarity may have dulled a) what a killer idea for an adventure film this is – what a great twist on the disaster-movie format – and b) just how mind-bogglingly impressive the special effects are (both CGI and practical). When Jurassic Park came out, it felt revolutionary. It still does. In 2014, when there are countless CGI-heavy films available, few (if any) are as crafted, integrated and classy as this. In Spielberg’s hands, photo-real dinosaurs are simultaneously a tool for telling story *and* a spectacle within themselves – as characters look up in awe at a Brachiosaurus, so do we; as they flee for their lives from Velociraptors, our heartbeat goes mental. His sense of endless wonder is very evident throughout. The story is simple, but we’re in the company of a likeable cast – even the two brats aren’t too bad. And there are good, know-what-they’re-doing actors in supporting roles (Wayne Knight, Samuel L Jackson, Bob Peck). This is a blockbuster of a B-movie. Sensationally entertaining.

10 mosquitoes incased in amber out of 10.

Hook (1991)

Hook

Peter Pan has grown up and forgotten his magical past, but then old archenemy Captain Hook kidnaps his children…

Seen before? I saw it on VHS when it first came out.

Best performance: Dustin Hoffman has long been on my list of people who can do no wrong. Sadly, this film challenges that placement. A fun Phil Collins crops up in a one-scene cameo.

Best scene/moment/sequence: It’s a struggle to think of anything that especially impressed me. The baseball game in Never Never Land maybe?

Review: Twee, naff, overlong and so, so dull. The first real stinker of this #SpielbergWatch process. Not only is its overall effect vapid, sugary schmaltz, but the movie has such little momentum to it – a long, dreary middle section featuring the Lost Boys seems to never-never end. Also, perhaps because it’s deliberately a children’s film, there’s no real menace or danger. A man’s kids are taken away from him, yet neither Peter nor the kids ever seem that concerned. Hoffman’s Hook, meanwhile, is an unentertaining, impotent villain. On the plus side, the Never Never Land sets are superb, especially the intricate piratic ships, docks and wharfs. Spielberg’s folly. I doubt I’ll ever watch it again.

Three Tinkerbells out of 10.

Always (1989)

always

A firefighting pilot is killed while saving his friend’s life, then returns as a ghost to mentor his replacement and watch over his girlfriend…

Seen before? Nope.

Best performance: John Goodman’s great fun in a supporting role.

Best scene/moment/sequence: Audrey Hepburn’s cameo (as an angel, essentially) is suitably off-kilter and serene.

Review: Not really my cup of tea. It’s soppy, tepid stuff, at times rather like an (admittedly well-made) American TV movie shown on a weekday afternoon on Channel 5. Good dialogue and a decent cast just about keep it flying, though. (Speaking of which, the various aerial sequences are really well staged.)

Five warm beers out of 10.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

LastCrusade

Indiana Jones is hired by a businessman to track down the Holy Grail, a quest that brings him face-to-face with his father…

Seen before? Yes, loads of times. I first saw it at the cinema, aged 10: it was one of the highlights of my childhood. I can vividly remember the huge woofer of a laugh everyone gave to Sean Connery’s sarcastic “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers!”

Best performance: Connery is just fantastic. His comic timing, especially in tandem with Harrison Ford, is a thing of joy. I’ve read that when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came to cast Indiana Jones’s dad, they felt the only person suitable would be James Bond. They got it spot on. (Apparently, Connery ad-libbed the “She talks in her sleep” gag.)

Best scene/moment/sequence: There’s plenty of wonderful comic moments, great stunts, snappy dialogue and grisly touches. One highlight is an unrivalled run of gag-filled action in the desert: Dr Jones Snr is inside a tank, being held captive by Nazis, while Dr Jones Jnr is fighting them on top, around and hanging off the side of it. Both halves of the scene (inside and out) are inventive and exciting, and each wittily affects the other in haphazard ways.

Review: Another *corker*. There’s a deliberate return to many of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s successful elements – a lecture scene with gooey-eyed students looking up adoringly at Indy; Marcus Brody, who gets a lot to do; Sallah; Biblical mythology; the Nazis; a climax in a desert wilderness… But this is no pale copy or lazy retread. Firstly, a terrific 15-minute prologue gives us a perfectly cast River Phoenix as a young Indiana Jones (his fear of snakes, his scar, his hat, his skill with a rope – all explained). Then, of course, there’s Sean Connery, who’s constantly entertaining. The script is peppy, the action is fast-moving, the music is delightful, Ford is clearly having a ball, and the whole film is a riot from start to finish.

Ten Holy Grails out of 10.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empireofthesun

When the Japanese attack Shanghai in 1941, a British boy called James (Christian Bale) is separated from his parents and ends up in an internment camp…

Seen before? Yes, once, a long time ago.

Best performance: Miranda Richardson (superb) gets second billing for a small but haunted performance as a camp inmate. It’s a shame Christian Bale grew up to be such an insufferable cockstain, as he really is quite excellent in this.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The chaos and commotion of everyone trying to flee Shanghai is stunningly staged.

Review: The third of Spielberg’s eight films set during or soon before a World War; the second to have events kicked off by the attack on Pearl Harbor; the second to be partial set in Shanghai; and the second movie running not to include any genre/sci-fi/horror elements. It’s an effective character story weaved in with real history, and has plenty of light and shade. What struck me most while watching this again was its enormous sense of scale. Some sequences take place across entire city streets and use thousands of excellently marshalled extras; one scene, the DVD special features told me, shut down seven blocks of Shanghai’s busiest street. The internment camp sets, meanwhile, are *huge*, yet still very detailed and textured. And an epic daytime air raid is all the more daring, dangerous and downright cinematic for being done for real – no dislocating CGI or crummy matte effects here. Bombers fly past the actors, monumental crowds fill the screen, and buildings explode while our main character cheers *in shot*. It’s breathtakingly well executed.

Eight toy planes out of 10.