My top 10 Spielberg movies

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Today is the 70th birthday of one of my favourite film directors, Steven Spielberg. His movies have been in my life for as long as I can remember – ET was the first film I ever saw at the cinema – so to celebrate here’s my rundown of his 10 best. Click the links for full reviews…

10. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – a vibrant, dynamic, fun and likeable caper movie.

9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – a terrifically enjoyable adventure movie.

8. Schindler’s List (1993) – a tough watch, but a necessary one.

7. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) – a glorious, glorious triumph.

6. Jurassic Park (1993) – a sensationally entertaining blockbuster of a B-movie.

5. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) – probably Spielberg’s strangest film; certainly his most underrated.

4. Jaws (1975) – there’s plenty of humanity, as well as terror and excitement; a masterpiece.

3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – a riot from start to finish.

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – an astonishing achievement, a timeless gem.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – it’s difficult to think of a more thrilling, more captivating, more downright enjoyable adventure ride of a film.

 

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Hail, Caesar! (2016)

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Written, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan

Eddie Mannix, a fixer at a 1950s Hollywood film studio, must contend with a star who’s been kidnapped by communists, another who’s fallen pregnant, and another who can’t act…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tilda Swinton plays two roles. Twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker are both journalists, and are based not that loosely on real-life gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. The gag is that they always appear in quick succession, confusing whoever they’re trying to get information from, and Swinton’s having fun with the characters’ clipped voices and supreme confidence.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): George Clooney (4) assays another Coen-brothers idiot. Frances McDormand (8) has a tiny yet comical cameo as an editor. Fred Melamed (2) was also in A Serious Man. Josh Brolin (3), Tilda Swinton (2) and Scarlett Johansson (2) appear again.

Best bit: We see a number of scenes from fictional movies being shot at the studios – a Biblical epic, a Gene Kelly-style musical, an Esther Williams-style swimming film, a Western, a stuffy drawing-room drama… They’re all entertaining in a behind-the-curtain way, with the musical being the best. Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is a song-and-dance man who’s playing a sailor in his latest movie. The sequence we see being shot is an elaborately choreographed number called No Dames, which has some dazzling dancing and subversive lyrics.

Review: It’s not awful, but there’s a relentless sense with this film that it’s not as good as it should be. It’s a sketch show rather than a wholly satisfying movie, and like most sketch shows is very hit and miss. The Acorn Antiques-style fictional movies, for example, are tremendous fun, while there are a number of classy and funny performances – not least from Ralph Fiennes, who nearly steals the entire film as uptight-yet-polite English director Laurence Laurentz. But the story is so lightweight and scattergun. Threads seem to get picked up then dropped on a whim, while Scarlett Johansson’s subplot is beyond cursory. The film meanders and never seems to rise above a mildly interesting second gear. There’s also, sadly, a smugness about the proceedings. It’s a funny film, but nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is.

Six Soviet submarines out of 10

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, Matt Reeves)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: Despite its title (shouldn’t dawn come first?), this is a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). An opening montage tells us what’s happened since that movie’s pandemic – basically, lots of people died, society collapsed and intelligent apes have formed a colony in some redwood forests. It’s been ’10 winters’ since the pandemic, so we’re probably in the 2020s, and the events take place in and around San Francisco. Although not a remake, this story shares some similarities with 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

Humans: The plot kicks off after a hotheaded man called Carver (Kirk Acevedo) shoots an ape when they come face to face in a forest. It’s the first human/ape encounter in a decade so maybe we can excuse his nerviness. Carver used to work for the water company so he knows the local dam can be used for power. But he later fucks up a temporary truce with the apes by smuggling a gun into their camp… The lead human character is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who is recceing the dam when Carver shoots the ape. Peacemaker Malcolm wants to parley with the apes and he soon forms a bond of trust with their leader, Caesar. Malcolm’s girlfriend, Ellie (Keri Russell), used to work for the CDC so knows that the surviving humans are immune to the disease that wiped everyone else out. His son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), like to draw and it’s not entirely clear why Malcolm keeps taking him on dangerous missions. Back at the colony, the group’s leader is Dreyfus (a soulful Gary Oldman). He’s a man under pressure and has a reactionary instinct, yet thanks to some smart writing and acting he’s still a sympathetic character. He advocates killing the apes, but you kinda see his point of view. (Will Rodman from the previous film also appears in a briefly seen video clip.)

Apes: The film’s opening shot (once we’re past the montage, that is) is a mission statement. An extreme close-up of Caesar’s determined eyes slowly pulls out to reveal his full length… As in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, motion-caption technique has been used to imbue the CGI apes with believable emotions and movements. They’re astonishingly photorealistic, and you quickly forget that the apes are a) computer-generated, and b) not human – you just accept them as characters. Caesar (again played by Andy Serkis) is their leader and rules with power and compassion. He can speak fractured English and walks more upright than his followers. He forges a shaky pact with Malcolm, but is betrayed and shot by his friend Koba (Toby Kebbell) who advocates killing all the humans. An injured Caesar then hides in the house he grew up in (ie, the one from the previous film). Koba, meanwhile, is leading an attack on the human colony, having framed them for the shooting of Caesar. Other featured ape characters include Ash (Doc Shaw), who’s shot by Carver; wise old orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval); and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), Caesar’s eldest son. The last shot of the movie, incidentally, is a bookend to the first: we again see Caesar’s eyes, but they’re now sorrowful and foreboding. A war with mankind is on the way and will hit in a sequel due out in 2017.

Review: This is a monster movie where the monsters are sympathetic characters, which is a really great trick to pull off. And it’s very well directed by Matt Reeves, who also made the stomach-churner Cloverfield (2008). There’s a heavy sense of foreboding hanging over the whole story, for example. Characters, situations and incidents feel well thought-out and textured, while the pace is not all go so the storytelling has to chance to breathe in between the action. In fact, while a simple plot, every scene is dusted with nice moments of humanity or poignancy. You feel for these characters. It helps that the film is shot with more solidity – long takes, tracking shots, naturalistic lighting – than Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was all about fluid camera moves and a softly lit sheen. This is generally a more dangerous and therefore more interesting world, and is full of post-apocalyptic production design that tells story very well. But it’s the characters where the film most succeeds. We’re shown two sides of the divide – human and ape – and there’s plenty of mirroring going on. Both have a determined and reasonable leader, a misguided member who thinks war is the answer, and innocents caught in the crossfire. The script switches and balances the two POVs very well. Add in some very good incidental music by Michael Giacchino and a few entertaining action scenes – even if a 36-second shot from the top of a tank is a bit show-off-y – and you have an entertaining couple of hours.

Eight petrol stations out of 10

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, Rupert Wyatt)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: This is another reboot of the franchise, though the film does have some vague similarities to 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The story is set in San Francisco in the modern day over a stretch of eight years.

Humans: The lead character is Dr Will Rodman (James Franco), a research scientist who works for biotech company Gen-Sys. His boss is the money-obsessed, moral-light Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) – the line “I run a business not a petting zoo!” tells you all you need to know about him. After five years of working with primates, Will finds a cure for Alzheimer’s, but the chimp from his study goes on a rampage and has to be killed. She’d recently had a son, so Will smuggles the young chimp out of the building, takes him home and names his Caesar. Will lives with the father, Charles (John Lithgow, very good), who suffers from Alzheimer’s… until Will tries the cure on him and it works. Five years later, however, Charles has a relapse. Meanwhile, Will starts a relationship with veterinarian Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto). Also, after Caesar is placed in a primate shelter we meet its manager – the no-nonsense, charmless John Landon (Brian Cox). His son Dodge (Tom Felton) is his assistant and also a vicious little shit.

Apes: In a first for this series, the ape characters are mostly computer-generated creations. But they’re still driven by actors’ performances using motion-capture technology (you know, that thing where they put golf-balls on a onesie and film the actor wearing it on a green-screen space). It’s really impressive stuff, not least because the apes’ emotions are so well conveyed, even if occasionally the creatures seem a bit lightweight against the real-life backgrounds. Caesar is played by Andy Serkis, the actor who pioneered the art of mo-cap with his portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies. Caesar’s mother – nicknamed Bright Eyes by Will, a nod to the 1968 film – dies early on, so to save the infant Caesar from being put down Will takes him home and raises him. Because of a treatment of new wonder drug ALZ-112, Caesar has above-average intelligence. By the age of three, he’s using sign language and doing puzzles; five years later he can understand English. But he’s a volatile ape and attacks a neighbour when angry, so a court orders that he live in a primate sanctuary. It initially seems to be a friendly place, but Caesar is soon held in a dirty cage and mistreated by the staff. So he escapes, frees his fellow inmates and doses them with ALZ-112… The rebellion soon involves hundreds of primates from across the city, and their rampage climaxes (almost inevitably) on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Review: There are two films going on here, running side by side. When the story is being told from Caesar’s point of view, it’s a very watchable and engaging thriller. The combination of Andy Serkis’s talents and the CG wizardry create a character easy to sympathise with, and even without dialogue we always know what he’s thinking and feeling. However, the human side of the story is disappointingly thin and bland. James Franco’s Will is as uninteresting as a Hollywood lead can be; Freida Pinto’s Caroline is as tokenistic as they come (she has *nothing* to do all film long – seriously, she’s a totally pointless character); and the bad guys – Jacobs, Landon and Dodge – are stunningly one-dimensional. It’s a shame.

Six Towers of Hanoi out of 10

Planet of the Apes (2001, Tim Burton)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: This movie could be viewed as a second adaptation of the 1963 novel La Planète des Singe, a remake of the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes, or simply a waste of everyone’s time. The story starts aboard a United States Air Force space station called Oberon in the optimistically chosen year of 2029. But the bulk of the action is set on an alien planet in the far future. The end of the film then brings a surprise twist, though not the same one as in the 1968 film. The action moves to the Earth of 2029, but history has been changed. Apes now rule this world too. It’s never explained how. Or why. It’s a silly sequel-baiting coda that was never followed up.

Humans: Our lead character is Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg, who dropped out of Ocean’s Eleven to star in this sludge). He works with primates being trained for space missions. After one of them is sent out in a small pod and falls through a wormhole, Davidson follows and ends up on a planet where intelligent apes are in charge and humans are kept as slaves. It’s not all bad news, though: he soon meets a cute woman called Daena (Estella Warren; what she lacks in acting talent she makes up for in standing around looking confused in an adorable kind of way). Kris Kristofferson plays her dad and there are a few other featured people. In a change from the 1968 film, the humans of this world can talk – which makes the apes’ control of them seem even more cruel. We learn that the humans used to be the dominant species, and once Davidson tracks down his space ship he infers the planet’s backstory. The ship crashed here centuries before Leo did (somehow…) and populated the planet with intelligent apes.

Apes: The ape masks are well designed and more articulate than in the original movies. Also, more thought has gone into giving the characters non-human postures and movements. But little of that work was worth it… Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) is the most interesting of the apes. She’s sensitive, smart and opposes the harsh treatment of humans. She buys Davidson and Daena for her father, Senator Sandar (David Warner), then helps them escape. Meanwhile, General Thade (Tim Roth) is a warmongering chimpanzee; he also has a thing for Ari, but she’s not interested. In one scene, Thade’s father is played by – get ready to prevent your sides from splitting – Charlton Heston. He even has a jokey reference to the original movie: “Damn them all to hell!” he says before dying. Also worth mentioning is Limbo (Paul Giamatti), who’s a slaver and the comic relief – two things that don’t often go together.

Review: This film was a turning point for director Tim Burton. He was coming off a decade-plus run of wonderful movies – but this has none of the wit, style or creepiness of Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood or Sleepy Hollow. It feels like a studio film where creative decisions have been so flattened out by committee that nothing of any distinction remains. There’s cheesy dialogue, paper-thin characters, painfully weak comedy, a score that drones on, and a general absence of wonder. Wahlberg is a dreadful leading man, lacking charisma, while many exterior scenes are shot indoors and feel drab and lifeless. Rubbish.

Four skankiest, scabbiest, scuzziest humans out of 10