The BFG (2016, Steven Spielberg)

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An orphan called Sophie is kidnapped by a benign giant who takes her to a strange land. He won’t let her go home because he can’t risk people finding out about giants, so she comes up with a plan…

Seen before? No. But Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel was probably my favourite book when I was a child.

Best performance: Penelope Wilton is fun as the Queen. It’s never actually specified that she’s Elizabeth II, but that’s certainly who she looks like.

Best scene/moment/sequence: Being a Steven Spielberg movie, there are plenty of great images and visual gags – especially when the BFG is creeping around London in the middle of the night. He has to hide in plain sight to avoid passers-by.

Review: Spielberg has made children’s films before, of course. The best of them – ET, The Adventures of Tintin – are for kids of all ages. But The BFG is more like 1991’s Hook: aimed squarely at a very young audience. There’s whimsy and fart gags, but the film misses the ‘real life’, wit, and sense of danger that make ET so effective. We start in an arch, fantasy-land London of cobbled streets, bumbling drunks and an orphanage that doesn’t notice when one of its girls goes missing. It’s possibly the 1980s (there’s a gag about ‘Ronnie and Nancy’). The action then moves to a magical realm and huge stretches of the film are two-handed scenes. Aside from brief appearances by some other giants, Sophie and the BFG are the only characters in the first 74 minutes… The film seriously drags. Not a huge amount happens, and given the difference in their sizes you soon get very bored of shots of Sophie actress Ruby Barnhill looking up and shouting her dialogue. It’s a huge relief when the action returns to London. Sophie’s plan for helping her new friend is to give the Queen a dream that will make her predisposed to giants, so we then get a childish but lively sequence at Buckingham Palace. As well as Penelope Wilton, this section also features Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall, two good actors gamely playing cardboard characters in return for a chance to work with Steven Spielberg. The BFG himself is a marvellous creation, played charmingly by Mark Rylance via motion-caption technology. But overall this was a chore to sit through.

Four snozzcumbers out of 10

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.

 

Bridge of Spies (2015)

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When a Soviet agent is arrested in New York City, lawyer James B Donovan is employed to defend him. Then the opportunity arises to swap the spy for an imprisoned American airman…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Mark Rylance won both a Bafta and an Oscar for his quiet, measured, charming performance as Rudolf Able, the Russian charged with espionage. But Tom Hanks probably has the harder job playing insurance lawyer James Donovan. He has much more screentime and a wider variety of scenes to play. It’s an extremely Tom Hanksian character, in fact: a gentle but determined and moral man with a dry sense of humour. He also gets a likeable running gag about having a cold.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The opening is superb: an almost wordless, gripping sequence where Able lives his life, picks up a dead-drop, and is followed by federal agents.

Review: Bridge of Spies is, for its first half, a courtroom drama. Then it evolves into a Cold War spy film, and throughout there’s a spine of JFK-style paranoia and politics. It’s fantastic stuff. Being critical, perhaps the plot calls for people to be reactionary a bit too often, but it is set in the time of Joseph McCarthy. You could also argue that the story lacks any real nastiness. But some lovely detailing in the writing, acting and production design mean that the two hours pass every enjoyably. And the Coen brothers co-wrote the script, which guarantees it never approaches being too earnest. On a technical level, this is immaculate filmmaking. It always is with Spielberg. Right from minute one you know you’re in safe hands. Having watched and reviewed a variable mix lately, this was like sitting through a karaoke and then putting on an ABBA album. It’s just on a more solid, more professional, more accomplished level than most films. For example, there are numerous techniques to make a film buff’s heart soar – motivated camera moves, cute scene transitions, long takes that let the actors breathe, the same imagery repeated in different contexts, handheld camerawork when there’s actually a reason for it… All things that are strangely rare in modern Hollywood movies. But the direction is never showing off or drawing attention to itself. The story is king. Spielberg’s best live-action film since at least Catch Me If You Can.

Nine U2 spy planes out of 10

Lincoln (2012)

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The 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, spends the political capital he’s gained from reelection to push for a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: One my favourite actors – David Strathairn, who’s in two of my five favourite movies (Sneakers and LA Confidential; yes, I know my five favourite films, what of it?!) – plays Secretary of State William H. Seward. Sadly he’s not involved as much as he could be. Daniel Day-Lewis is charismatic as Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is effective as his troubled son. However, in this film you rarely forget you’re watching actors giving performances. Most of the cast are incredibly theatrical, putting off-kilter emphases on words and shouting to the stalls.

Best scene/moment/sequence: Lincoln’s calm, thoughtful monologue about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of his numerous soliloquies.

Review: It’s a very talky film – a contrasting bookend for #SpielbergWatch, seeing how we started with the dialogue-sparse Duel. Most scenes are of men sitting at tables talking in paragraphs, which is not exactly vibrant movie-making. I missed Spielberg’s usual visual panache and inventiveness, which barely register in this. The movie does have an interesting story – but it’s a strangely flat one. We all know the ending, of course, and the fight to win the vote doesn’t seem especially difficult. Also, the film’s not as dynamic as the similar-territory Amistad, which more ably showed different aspects of the issue of slavery. Most strikingly, black characters are virtually absent from Lincoln (presumably a deliberate choice, as this is about Washington politics). On the plus side, we get a strong, very watchable lead performance from Day-Lewis, while the semi-comic subplot concerning three political operatives offering jobs and other incentives to whip votes could make a decent movie in itself. It gets nowhere near enough screen time, though; likewise, Lincoln’s family (including Sally Field as his complex wife, Mary) feel underdeveloped. An interesting movie rather than a wholly entertaining one.

Six aye votes out of 10.

War Horse (2011)

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The story of a horse called Joey, who’s owned by a variety of people immediately before and during the Great War…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tom Hiddleston shows up about a third of the way in and gives the film a much-needed boost of energy.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The moment when the cavalry mount their horses in a wheat field is a beautiful image. The subsequent charge on the German camp is well staged, and ends with a powerful, high-angle wide shot. There’s later also a really good scene in No Man’s Land – one soldier from each side working together to free Joey from some barbed wire.

Review: War Horse begins like it’s an episode of Lark Rise to Candleford – we’re in rural England with poor-but-happy people who have Mummerset accents, archly villainous landlords and plenty of facial hair. The opening 40 minutes are as twee, simplistic and dull as a Spielberg movie has ever been. Then the First World War breaks out, which frankly comes as something of a relief. The pace picks up a bit, we get a bit more visual flair – but it’s too late. I was bored rigid, I’m sorry to say. The story moves on, new characters get introduced (some interesting, some mind-numbingly naff), but the leaden beginning ruined any chance of me enjoying the rest of the film.

Four Benedict Cumberbatch moustaches out of 10.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

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Ace reporter Tintin buys a model ship at the local market and gets embroiled in an adventure to track down the lost treasure of seventeenth-century pirate Sir Francis Haddock…

Seen before? Yes, at the cinema on 6 November 2011 and on DVD a couple of times since.

Best performance: Andy Serkis plays Captain Haddock and is really brilliant, with lots of energy, charm and subtly. He’s often laugh-out-loud funny and holds the whole movie together – more than Tintin, this is *Haddock’s* story. (Although an animated film, actors performed their roles out through motion-capture technology, so they drove the characters’ movement, posture and expressions.) I spoke to Serkis on the phone once – he rang looking for my then boss, Gary Russell, with whom he was writing a book. I’ve actually met a large number of the key personnel on this movie… I’ve been introduced to co-writer Steven Moffat about three times through mutual friends – he was aloof, cold and totally uninterested in me each time. I once spotted Simon Pegg (one half of Thomson and Thompson) in Selfridges, so went and told him I’m a huge fan – he was friendly and open. The next day it was announced he would be playing Scotty in Star Trek. Last year, I saw co-writer Edgar Wright in HMV on Oxford Street, so said hello and told him I love his movies. (I don’t make a habit of this, by the way. Pegg and Wright are special cases.) He was polite and patient with my fanboyness. And, although I’ve never met him, I once transcribed an interview with producer Peter Jackson for a book on The Lord of the Rings, which basically makes us best friends.

ADDENDUM: I rewatched this film on Wednesday 13 August then wrote this review Thursday lunchtime. Literally a few minutes after finishing it, I popped to the nearest shop… and walked past Mackenzie Crook on Soho’s Broadwick Street. He plays one of the bad guy’s heavies in The Adventures of Tintin! When I saw him he had a baseball cap on, but clocked that I’d noticed him and gave me a ‘Don’t talk to me’ look.

Best scene/moment/sequence: An obvious choice, but I adore the comedic chase sequence in Bagghar, which is presented as a single 142-second shot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWmMo8hO57g

Review: One of the reasons I wanted to do this #SpielbergWatch process was so I’d have an excuse to see this film again. I utterly love everything about it. It might be – no, is – the best-looking animated/CGI movie of all time. The level of detail, of craftsmanship, of beauty in the design is stunning. A complete artificial world is created, and repeated viewings are a treat because you continually spot new things in the background of each shot. But, crucially, there’s real heart behind this movie too. Like in Toy Story, you soon forget about the technology and the computers, and instead get swept up in the story and charmed by the sheer talent behind it. The plot is simple but smart, with clearly defined characters. There’s wit, whimsy, danger, plenty of visual gags and madcap action… I haven’t read the Tintin books in about 25 years but this seems spot-on to me. A glorious, glorious triumph.

Ten Milanese Nightingales out of 10.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

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Indiana Jones goes up against Soviet agent Dr Irina Spalko in a bid to locate a mysterious and powerful crystal skull…

Seen before? Yes.

Best performance: Harrison Ford – as soon as he pulls on the fedora, turns towards camera and grumbles, “Russians,” he’s back as Indy. In an instant, 15 years or so of coasting in rom-coms and average action thrillers is forgotten.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The spooky, unnerving sequence at the Peruvian graveyard.

Review: I’ve never understood the negativity – vitriol, in some cases – aimed at this film. Is it as good as the three Indiana Joneses made in the 1980s? No. But it’s still inventive, playful, witty and exciting in the classic Spielberg style. It is tonally different from the last three, though. Gone are the 1930s, the Nazis, a feel of film noir and Allan Quatermain-style Boys’ Own Adventure stuff. We’re now dealing with the 1950s: Reds-under-the-beds, B-movie horror, Rebel Without a Cause teenagers, nuclear paranoia and rock’n’roll. The film has great incidental music, clever action scenes and – especially once Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood – winning humour. On the downside, Shia LaBeouf is a bit tiresome, it’s difficult to get away from how naff crystal skulls are (there’s an especially funny Peep Show episode that ridicules them), a few good jokes get unnecessary punchlines for the hard-of-understanding, and the second half of the movie is overly CGI-happy. Flawed, yes, but still good, honest entertainment.

Eight lead-lined fridges out of 10.

Munich (2005)

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After 11 Israeli athletes are murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics, Mossad agent Avner Kaufman and a team are tasked with finding and assassinating the Palestinians responsible…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Geoffrey Rush has a small but enjoyable role as the team’s case officer. (Daniel Craig’s in the movie too, playing a South African. His accent takes some getting used to.)

Best scene/moment/sequence: The first ‘hit’ – tense, well staged, detailed, it feels like a sequence from The Godfather or The Untouchables.

Review: Well, it’s a darkly apt time to be watching a film about Israel violently targeting its enemies, isn’t it? It’s a curious mix and can be seen as an historical drama, a revenge movie and/or a spy thriller. It drags slightly in the middle and gets repetitive at times, but is mostly impressive stuff.

Seven Bond villains playing father and son* out of 10.

*Michael Lonsdale (Hugo Drax in Moonraker) and Mathieu Amalric (Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace – alongside Daniel Craig, of course).

War of the Worlds (2005)

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Divorced stevedore Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his two kids have to go on the run when huge, three-legged alien machines burst out of the ground and start killing people…

Seen before? Once, on BBC Three a few years ago.

Best performance: Dakota Fanning (playing Ray’s daughter) is astonishingly naturalistic for a 10-year-old. She’s equally terrific in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The first appearance of an alien machine is brilliant – it’s a heady, seamless blend of practical effects, stunts, pyrotechnics and really good CGI. A few minutes later it’s topped by a scene in a speeding car, which is (on the face of it) all one extraordinary long take. Check it out here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUv7iRaWOOQ

Review: Enjoyable for the most part. There are lots of wonderfully staged scenes and the first 90 minutes of the movie have an energetic momentum – both are necessary as the story is paper-thin. Once Tim Robbins turns up (part plot device, part Basil Exposition), it loses its way somewhat and the climax is a bit flat.

Seven crashed Boeing 747s out of 10.

The Terminal (2004)

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Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks in his third Spielberg role) is from Krakozhia but gets stranded at JFK Airport when his country’s government is overthrown and his passport becomes invalid…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Stanley Tucci, an always classy actor who I passed in the street outside my office last week, plays airport boss Frank Dixon. (Catherine Zeta-Jones is in it too. Blimey, she’s an attractive woman, isn’t she?)

Best scene/moment/sequence: The breezy montage where, so he can help his new pal Enrique, Victor’s trying to get information about customs official Dolores. She’s played by Zoë Saldana and – cutely, given Saldana’s later career – is a Star Trek fan.

Review: The Terminal is based on a true story (see Mehran Karimi Nasseri’s Wikipedia page) yet it still smacks of contrivance and implausibility. It’s whimsy, with a blunt rom-com thrown in seemingly as an afterthought. It’s not a disaster, by any means. Some of the humour works well (I liked the running gag about the janitor who enjoys watching people slip on his recently cleaned floors) and it does have some charm. But Spielberg movies are rarely dull, and this gets very close to joining Sugarland Express, Hook and The Lost World in that category. Perhaps it needed a more quirky approach – what would Wes Anderson or Terry Gilliam have done with this story? Something much more interesting, I’d wager.

Five prominently placed Burger King logos out of 10.