Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited semi-autobiographical reminiscence of his childhood is here, and it’s perfect. Too perfect. José swoons over the way The Fabelmans transports him to its place and time and shows love and understanding to everybody it depicts, but has to admit that a few rougher edges here and there would have done it a favour. There’s only so much drama in the life of Spielberg’s young avatar, Sammy Fabelman, and that which there is is on the tame side. But Spielberg’s love for his parents is obvious and appealing, as is his love for cinema, which he’s unafraid to get specific about – the sequences that show Sammy making and screening films convey an interest in the aesthetics, technicalities, and effects of film, rather than giving it the far vaguer “magic of the movies” treatment such “love letters to cinema” often offer.
The Fabelmans is as unwilling to explore the dark side of humanity as we’re used to Spielberg being, but it avoids his proclivity for schmaltz, and José loved it. So there.
Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story is here at last. The obvious question it raises is just why such a well-regarded film needs a remake – and the answer quickly becomes clear. Robert Wise’s 1961 adaptation of the 1957 stage musical is indeed a classic, but this new version comes from and enters a different America, one in which its message, José argues, is more urgently needed but faces a more difficult challenge to be heard. And on top of that, it’s just a really good film.
We discuss the film’s use of colour and lighting, the brutality of the violence and believability of the gang, the purpose and effects of having a lot of dialogue spoken in entirely unsubtitled Spanish, and much more. The songs are timeless, the romance heartfelt, the imagery beautiful. West Side Story is a great success.
Eunsoo Lee and José Arroyo discussed Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Compared to other representative SF films before 2000, A.I.‘s David may exist as a character who desires to be a human being, but it also can be said he represents a new style of mecha narrative in which the human being is not the right aim. In addition, With the theory of SAVE THE CAT, Eunsoo discusses SF narratives as genre arts. As a film genre, they discuss to what extent the SF narrative is able to offer a variety of narrative styles.
A film dear to Mike’s heart since childhood, and a large blot on Steven Spielberg’s career despite its financial success, Hook imagines a world in which Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie’s flying boy who never grows up… grows up and forgets how to fly. When the adult Peter, a workaholic corporate lawyer unaware of his origins, travels to London with his family, his children are kidnapped, forcing him to return to Neverland, confronting his past, his attitude, and his erstwhile adversary, Captain Hook.
Hook is a chunky, colourful family film with flaws all over the place. Its action is unexciting, its plot composed of several disparate strands and themes that never cohere elegantly. José takes issue with Dustin Hoffman’s accent and John Williams’ score, finding the former pointless and unsuccessful, the latter prescriptive and overbearing. But Mike defends them, finding charm in them, and appreciating as an adult what never stuck in his mind as a child, in particular the central emotional conceit: that for all the costs of growing up, the refusal of the Lost Boys to do so, and the fact that all adults in Neverland are pirates, Peter’s happy thought – the crucial feeling that allows him to fly again – is of becoming a father and holding his newborn son. And José finds beauty in the lighting and staging of the film’s London townhouse scenes that he never appreciated upon its first release.
A messy film, but with pleasures. And anyway, it turns out that if you saw it five hundred times as a preteen then no criticism anybody can make can matter.
A brief illustration of the influence of Michael Curtiz on Steven Spielberg, putting two shots side by side, one from Curtiz´Robin Hood (1938) and the other from Spielberg´s Hook (2001), that I hope evidences the similarities and convinces of the influence.
I was bored through most of it and actively irritated by the end of the film. Mike kind of liked it. We talked about references, about address — it’s aimed at boys but some confusion about which generation — the quality of the animation. ‘It’s like a kid’s movie used to be but just not aimed at you,’ says Mike. A work in which the maker of a video game is treated and read as the equivalent of the bible; a sad film indeed. To me further proof that Spielberg doesn’t quite rank with the greatest of filmmakers: incredible technical skills, a prodigy. But to what end? I found it full of pop-cultural references pop-culture geeks will delight in but ultimately dumb and empty. I can’t imagine what people who don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, film and video games of the last forty years will make of it. There’s no emotional resonance to this film at all; and its view of human nature and the way the world works is as banal as it gets. Brummies will be interested in seeing how their city is used to signify a dystopic futuristic Columbus, Ohio. West Midlands News was delighted; more sophisticated viewers might get enraged. Throughout, Mike offers much more generous readings than the above.
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I found Bridge of Spies masterfully well-made, with an interesting look — lots of high contrast greys filmed with fish-eyed lenses — a very good central performance from Tom Hanks and a great one from Mark Rylance. It was also good to see all the wonderful German actors one recognises from Sense8 (Maximilian Mauff) and Homeland (Sebastian Koch) in supporting roles.
The film is based on a true story set at the height of the Cold War in which James B. Donovan (Hanks), an American lawyer, puts himself forward to defend the rights of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) and in doing so is then able to facilitate an exchange not only for Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a captured American U2 spy plane pilot, but also for Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student arrested in East Berlin.
It looks like an expensive film, with dozens of extras and intricate sets, an achievement considering its reported $40 million budget. The reconstruction of post-war Berlin, with its detailed view of the extent of its destruction and at that very moment the divisive wall is going up, is particularly magnificent. However, the film also feels curiously old-fashioned and slightly smug.
The film is a guilty and anxious attempt to show America how to behave morally and well today by dramatising an incident of decency and humanity from its past achieved against the tide of public and institutional opinion. I thought of it in relation to Lincoln and I’m sure future scholars will group them as films of his maturity exploring similar concerns… and oh so responsibly. If you can ignore the preachy-ness of it’s tone, it’s enjoyable.
I had to force myself to see Bridge of Spies. How could one miss a film written by the Cohens and directed by Spielberg? And I’m glad I did. But it was a struggle. And in the light of that struggle and on the evidence not only of this film but of so many dull, worthy and well-made ones over the last decade or more (War Horse anyone?), one can’t help but ask ‘When did Spielberg cease to matter’
In June 2013, at a University of Southern California event with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg predicted an implosion of the film industry: the failure at the box office of ‘tentpoles’, mega-budget movies that are designed with potential sequels in mind and anchor a studio’s release schedule, ‘are going to go crashing to the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.’
According to Anne Thompson in her interesting and illuminating new book, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System, the prediction came true. White House Down,After Earth, The Lone Ranger, Turbo and R.I.P.D. tanked at the box-office and the whole cinematic apparatus — the paradigm of production, distribution, exhibition — and the technological, economic and political structures that underpin it, did indeed change.
‘In 2012 US domestic movie box-office delivered a record-breaking $11 billion, up 8.4 % on the previous years’ Thompson writes. ‘If record foreign box office added to total it would have been a $35 billion year’. But as Thompson goes on to show, ‘despite appearances, the movie business isn’t thriving. The seeds of the industry’s destruction were present in 2012’.
Film in 2012
Inspired by William Goldman’s, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, an examination of the state of Broadway and its theatre through following the 1967-68 Season, Thompson follows, in chronological order, the developments in film in 2012: The discoveries of the Sundance Film Festival in January (Searching for the Sugar Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Your Sister’s Sister); the backgrounds to two potential franchises released in the Spring and why one worked (The Hunger Games) and one didn’t (John Carter); and how in 2012 the word “film” officially became an anachronism because by then the changeover to digital was pretty much complete.
Thompson also demonstrates how in May, the Cannes International Film Festival launched Cannes veteran Michael Haneke’s Amour and Cannes newbie Paul Thomas Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. ‘The studios use Cannes as a massive marketing opportunity to launch their pictures in the all-important global market, which has outstripped North America and now represents more than 50 per cent of the film industry’s annual grosses.’
Comi-Con in July underlined the importance of the comic-book movie and how the competition between those superheroes based on Marvel and those on DC carries over from the comic-book fan-base onto the film adaptations. According to Thompson: ‘Warner Bros, which acquired DC Comic in 1969 and therefore movie and television rights to the jewels in the DC crown, Superman and Batman, discovered in the early eighties that many fans of the comics were attending Comic-Con – and would come to see their movies. Soon the promotion of movies inspired by comic books expanded to genre films, and eventually just about anything aimed at the studio’s sweet spot, the young male demo’.
Thompson offers interesting insights into how the Fall film festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York) helped launch Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi and Lincoln; how female representation in popular movies hit its lowest in five years (only 28% of speaking parts in the highest grossing US movies were women) and how gender politics affected the reception of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty; and lastly, she gives a sharp and entertaining account of ten things that changed the Oscar race that year (One of them is that on the opening day of Zero Dark Thirty, three US Senators accuse the filmmakers of inaccuracy).
The Whole System Has Changed
What becomes clear in the book is that the whole system has changed, at least as it pertains to the ‘Global’ film industry with a primary base in the United States (Bollywood, Nollywood, Chinese Cinema etc. are all bypassed in this account). The overall structure of the industry is still oligopolistic with six majors who are signatories to the Motion Picture Association of America: News Corp-owned Fox, Sony, Warner Bros (which owns HBO), Viacom owned Paramount (which also owns CBS and Nickelodeon), Comcast owned NBC Universal (which owns USA and the Sci-Fi Channel) and Disney (which owns ABC and ESPN). Lionsgate, who is not a signatory to the MPAA, is now also considered a major. These companies control the film industry. But what that industry is has now changed.
Movies are now made on digital. On one hand, this permits all kinds of additional special effects, which can potentially make them very expensive; on the other hand, more personal dramas that don’t require much post-production can now be made on a micro-budget. As a result, in 2012 Sundance logged more than 4000 feature submissions.
Screen conversions from 35mm to digital expanded globally from 16, 000 in 2009 to 36,000 in 2010 and by 2012 the changeover was complete. Studios benefitted economically but even filmmakers are wary of digital. They ‘try to sock away a 35mm print of their films for safe-keeping as digital formats demand constant, expensive upgrading to the latest system’.
Thompson vividly demonstrates how the whole distribution system has changed. It used to be that movies played in theatres, then the film was made available after three or four months at a premium cost by Video on Demand (VOD), then sell and rent on DVD’s, then show it on pay cable, and then make it available on broadcast television all over the world. Now there’s a rush to get everything to Video on Demand (VOD) as quickly as possible and some films were available on VOD before they screened in theatres or bypassed theatres altogether. According to Thompson, ‘‘close to a quarter of the 2012 Sundance releases were made available concurrent with or before their theatrical openings on VOD outlets – cable iTunes, Hulu or filmmakers’ own website’ Recently, Josh Whedon’s In Your Eyes is an example of a film that bypassed traditional distribution structures and went right to VOD on the very same day it was premiered at the Tribeca film festival, the type of distribution theatre owners most fear because it renders them obsolete.
A Four Quadrant Movie
In 1982 Spielberg’s E.T. was the biggest box office success of its year. It was based on an original story and it stayed on screen for over a year in America. It was the ‘four quadrant movie’’, films that are equally appealing to young, old, male or female that studios constantly chase after. But of the top 26 films of 2012,’ nineteen were based on some other property, eight were sequels, four were comic-book franchises, two were remakes, two were prequels, and seven were originals’. Moreover, the biggest market is now China. it grew 36% in 2012, outstripping Japan as American’s biggest foreign market. American studios are so eager to curry favour there that they went so far as to re-edit Django Unchained an Iron Man 3 in order to get it through the censors and into that now lucrative market.
According to Thompson, in their University of California talk ‘Spielberg and Lucas were basically calling attention to the end of the movie business in which they grew up’. Spielberg, as powerful a director as there is in Hollywood, had struggled to get Lincoln made. It was a serious drama with no sequel potential. It wasn’t based on a comic book, and getting the money to make it had been so difficult he considered turning to HBO.
Steven Soderbergh did indeed go to HBO to make the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra. As a studio movie it would have cost $70 million to make and the studios didn’t want to risk it, even with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas attached to star. It was made instead at HBO for $23 million, won the Emmy, and was released theatrically outside the US. Oliver Smith, Martin Scorcese, Michael Mann, Neil Jordan, and Spielberg himself now all routinely work in television. That’s where serious drama and comedy that isn’t aimed at adolescents are being made.
What Thompson doesn’t explore are the aesthetic consequences of this. What might it mean to cut off romance, interiority, complex character psychology and so on from big screen presentation. Many might ask whether it would matter if the bigger and smaller screens carve up different genres or different themes amongst themselves, with spectacle relegated to the big screen, and more personal dramas to the smaller screen. But I think it matters a huge amount. In a now famous ‘Memo to Hollywood’ Manohla Dargis in The New York Times tells filmmakers the following:
‘ You know that moody shot that you and your director of photography anguished over for hours and hours? It may look beautiful, but there are critics who will never know, which certainly encourages them to pay more attention to the plot than the visuals. Viewers who bypass the theatrical experience and prefer watching movies on their televisions and tablets may not mind. Some directors, especially those whose talking heads and two shots look better on small screens, also won’t care; others just want their work seen however, wherever. But I bet there are directors who would freak if they knew how some critics were watching their movies’.
So should anyone interested in the art of movies since, perhaps even more fundamentally, sometimes even basic plot is not optimally decipherable on a tablet or phone. What one sees and how one is shown it is essential to how we experience and evaluate entertainment and art. Of course it does not always follow that bigger is better. But there should be some correlation between how a movie is designed to be seen and how it is in fact seen; at least as concerns evaluation of all kinds, but particularly that by professional critics.
Thompson’s Got Great Sources
If Thompson doesn’t answer this type of question she does touch on many others I have not addressed here. Thompson is a journalist who is there at all the events and festivals she’s writing about. She’s got great sources, and she seems to be writing in the heat of thought as it sparks to life and in the midst of events as they unfold. We get to follow, in chronological order, the developments in film in 2012 from Sundance to the Academy Awards (ultimately awarded in February 2013). Thompson thus affords herself and us an eye-witness and critical look at the state of the industry and the state of the art. And as her vividly entertaining and informative book makes clear in so many different ways, the prognosis is not good.
Anne Thompson, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System
Anne Thompson isFounder and Editor-in-Chief of Thompson on Hollywood
Newmarket Press for IT Books, UK: Harper Collins, 2014