Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

Jaws (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 10 out of 10

4-Word Review: Shark in the water.

A young woman (Susan Backlinie) goes out for a swim late one night only to have her severed hand wash up on shore the next day, which causes the Amity Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to fear that her death may have been caused by a shark. Amity mayor Larry Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) doesn’t want his town to risk losing business, so he has his coroner deny that a shark was responsible and hence the beach remains open, but then more attacks occur. Eventually an eccentric shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw), Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) from the Oceanographic Institute and Brody head out on a small fishing vessel called Orca to locate the shark and then kill it, but they find the underwater beast to be far bigger and more cunning than they had ever imagined.

With its exceptional ability to slowly build tension and keep the viewer riveted from the first frame to the last easily makes this the quintessential thriller. John Williams’s legendary score adds to the murky ambience and in many ways is more memorable than the shark itself. Director Steven Spielberg wisely adds a secondary layer to the narrative by creating colorful and distinctive characters, most notably Quint, who gives the proceedings a flavorful nuance and makes the conversations and interactions that occur between the three inside the boat more interesting than what happens in the water.

The most amazing thing though is how little the shark is actually seen and in fact you don’t even get a glimpse of him until about an hour in. Part of this was due to the difficulty of getting the mechanical creation to perform properly in salt water, but in the end this became a blessing in disguise as it’s the mystery and allusion to its large size that makes it so riveting. The viewer feels as helpless and confused as the men on the boat, which makes the climactic sequence when the shark suddenly does jump onto the boat all that more impactful.

Spoiler Alert!

The film though does deviate heavily from the Peter Benchley source novel and a legitimate argument can be made as to which one presents the story better. In the book the tone is darker and the characters less likable. For me this makes it more intriguing from a psychological bent as it conveys the idea that humans are like the shark that they hunt as they both selfishly devour everything around them. Spielberg though didn’t care for this interpretation so the novel’s darker subtext gets erased, but it still made me intrigued, as much of a classic as this movie is, to see a reboot where the narrative stayed more faithful.

Some of the book’s subplots got too involved particularly the one dealing with the mayor’s connections to the criminal underworld, so I’m glad that one got toned down.  However I felt the one though dealing with Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife (Lorraine Gary) should’ve been left in as it would’ve added extra tensions between the two while on the boat while also seeing how people can learn to work together even when they hate each other.

In the book Hooper dies when the shark attacks the cage that he is in while in the movie he is able to escape and somehow hide from the shark. This though seemed unrealistic as sharks have special sensing organs known as electroreceptors that allow them to detect the electromagnetic field emitted from a moving animal or at close range even the heartbeat of an immobile one, which means the shark most likely would’ve figured out where Hooper was hiding and gotten him.

In the book the shark dies from its many wounds just as it gets a few feet from Brody while in the movie it’s killed when the scuba tank that it has in its mouth explodes when hit by a bullet, but a 2003 episode of Mythbusters proves that in reality this wouldn’t have happened. My main beef though is that by having the shark literally blow-up into little pieces it denies the viewer the chance at seeing what the beast looked like as a whole. Supposedly this was one giant of a shark, so viewing it strung up at the end would’ve been a cool thing to have seen.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Despite these many differences the film still works splendidly and I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t, but I would still suggest reading the book afterwards as it gives the story and characters an added dimension.

My Rating: 10 out of 10

Released: June 20, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Steven Spielberg

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Sugarland Express (1974)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: She wants her baby!

When her baby is put into a home with foster parents Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) will have nothing of it and helps her husband Clovis (William Atherton) break out of pre-release prison in an attempt to steal the child back. The two hitch a ride with an older couple (A.L. Camp, Jessie Lee Fulton), but when the car gets pulled over by Officer Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) they panic and drive off. The officer is able to track them down when their car crashes, but when he goes to investigate the accident Clovis pulls the officer’s own gun on him and uses it to take him hostage. They speed off in his patrol car, which soon gets the entire Texas Highway Patrol after them as well as creating a media frenzy in a slow moving car chase that spans 2-days and 300 miles.

This film marks director Steven Spielberg’s full-length theatrical feature film debut and the result is highly entertaining. He takes an odd moment in history and helps infuse a playful quirkiness to the proceedings while also gently nudging the Texas stereotype. The music by John Williams and especially the harmonica solos by Toots Theilemans help cement the mood and tone. This is also the first film to use a panaflex camera and the first ever to feature a tracking shot from inside a car.

There are enough original and humorous scenes to make this well worth catching. The scene in which the police bring in a Porto potty so Lou Jean can stop and take a pee is hilarious as is the moment where their car runs out of gas and Captain Harlan Tanner (Ben Johnson) who is technically ‘chasing’ them must push their car with his to the nearest gas station. The impromptu TV interview done during the chase is great as is the first CB conversation that Tanner has with the three inside the patrol car. The best moment though is when they go through a small town where the main street is lined with onlookers and well-wishers who hand the three all sorts of gifts and encouragement through the car windows as they slowly drive through.

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Of course as with any true story the movie takes many liberties and I researched the incident by reading actual newspapers reports from that era and found this to be the jest of what actually happened. It all started in the early morning hours of May 3, 1969 when Ila Faye Dent (1947-1992) and her husband Robert where chased by the Port Arthur police for speeding. The couple managed to evade them by abandoning their vehicle and fleeing on foot into a heavily wooded area. They eventually came upon a ranch whose owner called the police to say that he had been attacked by two hitch-hikers. Patrolman Kenneth Crone, whose character is played by Michael Sacks and who also appears briefly in the film as a sheriff’s deputy, answered the call. When he arrived on the scene Robert pulled a gun on him and forced him back into his patrol car where the three then took off in the vehicle that started the massive 200 mile slow speed chase that attracted hundreds of police cars as well as onlookers and media outlets. Their destination was Wheelock, Texas where Ila Faye wanted to visit her two children from her previous marriage that where now staying with her parents. They had no intention of kidnapping them like it is portrayed in the film only to visit them for 15 minutes, which Captain Jerry Millter (portrayed by Ben Johnson) initially agreed to allow, but then later reneged.

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Ila Faye Dent portrayed by Gold Hawn in the film

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The actual car chase as it occurred on May 3, 1969.

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The changes that Spielberg and his team of two writers made to the story doesn’t help and I wish they had been more accurate with it. The biggest issue is the fact that the actual chase lasted for only about 5 hours while in the film it gets extended for 2 days, which doesn’t work because the part where they sleep overnight inside a car lot kills the momentum and makes for a draggy middle. The use of foreshadowing becomes too obvious and heavy-handed. The child-like enthusiasm by the two main characters is initially fun, but their notion that they can somehow take the police on a wild car chase and snatch back their child without having any consequences seems too unrealistically naïve even for a pair of country bumpkins as they are portrayed.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s biggest downfall though and the main reason it didn’t do well in the box office is with its downbeat ending. From a directorial stand point I liked it as Spielberg infuses all sorts of interesting elements into it including making the house in which the child supposedly is staying look very foreboding and ominous as well as a brief shot of a teddy bear being thrown out a car window and laying the road while the cars speed all around it. However, seeing Clovis get shot is jarring and takes away from the film’s otherwise lighthearted tone. In the real life incident the husband did indeed get shot and killed although it happened differently than the way it gets played out here, so I don’t really have anything against showing it, but film should’ve added in a brief moment showing Lou Jean being reunited with her child after her stint in prison, which also really happened. I realize the denouncement mentions this in text over the credits, but visually showing it would’ve made more of an impact and helped the audience leave the theater with an upbeat feeling.

End of Spoiler Alert!!

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: April 5, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Steven Spielberg

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

The Color Purple (1985)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sisters try to reunite.

Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) is a young black woman living in rural Georgia during the early 1900’s. She gets stuck in an arranged marriage to Albert (Danny Glover) who is abusive and has more of an interest in her younger sister Nettie (Akosua Busia).  When Nettie comes to visit them Albert tries to rape her and when she is able to fight him off it enrages him and her throws her out of the house and refuses to let the two sisters ever talk to each other again. Nettie makes efforts to contact Celie through letters, but Albert seizes them and takes them away before Celie can read them. Eventually Celie adjusts to the domineering ways of her husband until she becomes friends with Shug (Margaret Avery) who gives her the strength and confidence to stand up to him.

I have never read the Alice Walker novel from which this film is based, but I feel it would’ve worked better had Steven Spielberg not directed it as it unfortunately gets too much of the patented Spielberg treatment. Every scene reeks of a Hollywoodnized glossiness and certain scenes are so manipulative sappy that it becomes almost painful to watch. The musical score is overplayed and not reminiscent of the time period. A similar film like Sounder worked better because most of the scenes had no background music and was a better reflection of a quieter and slower paced era.

There are also moments of cute comedy, which seems a bit out-of-place and confuses what the underlying intent of the production was. Are the filmmakers trying to make a genuine recreation of a bygone era, or simply entertainment fluff and at points it gets very merged and hard to tell. This film also had some of the tackiest snow scenes I have ever seen. It looks like white stuff that was simply spray painted onto the ground and the shot showing snow falling while there is bright green foliage on all of the trees looks so ridiculous and I wondered why they had even bothered. Also, when talking about someone in a mocking manner as Celie and Nette do about Albert it is probably wise to at least close the bedroom door and make sure the source of your mockery isn’t standing right outside listening in.

Goldberg is good in an uncharacteristically restrained performance although her character is so extremely submissive that it frustrates the viewer and makes you want to reach out and shake her. Oprah Winfrey is quite engaging and simply watching the way she walks up the dirt road driveway when she first appears is a hoot. The scene where she is attacked by an angry mob of white people is the best dramatic moment of the whole film. Avery is also good simply because of her great singing voice and her vibrant rendition of ‘Sister’ is excellent although the ‘sing-off’ that she has near the end with a gospel church choir gets to be too much.

Glover gives one of his best performances and looks so much younger especially at the beginning that I had to do a double-take when I first spotted him. I liked the way that he is shown as domineering and cruel with Celie, but when out in the public he is quite intimidated and quiet with everyone else. Adolph Caesar who plays Albert’s father is a real scene stealer especially with his reaction to a glass of water that has Celie’s spit in it and the glib comments that he makes at the dinner table during a family confrontation.

The production values are great, but Spielberg over-directs and it becomes too slick for its own good. The story is never allowed to breathe on its own and a little more of a gritty, raw style was needed. The movie also goes on too long and takes a few too many tangents.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1985

Runtime: 2Hours 34Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Steven Spielberg

Studio: Amblin Entertainment

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

The Goonies (1985)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kids hunt for treasure

Mikey’s (Sean Astin) parents are risking having their house foreclosed, which will force them to move out of the region and Mikey will then lose touch with all of his friends. In an effort to save the home he and his four friends find a treasure map in the attic and they decide to follow it. On the way they bump into the infamous Fratelli family who compete with the boys for the treasure as well as threatening to kill them.

The concept is great and full of the type of grand adventure any 10-year-old boy dreams about. The action is generally entertaining and moves at a rapid-fire pace, which at times borders on becoming dizzying. However, the whole thing becomes increasingly more fabricated and fairy tale-like and inserting some subtly and restrained would have helped create a better balance.

The comedy is actually quite funny most of the way and I really enjoyed the opening car chase and wished that it had been strung out a little bit more. It does though become a bit too slick for its own good. Any peril the characters find themselves in immediately gets resolved in some cutesy way and thus there is never any type of real tension.

The special effects are not on par with what you might expect from a Steven Spielberg production. The big boulders that come crashing down around them look very much like the ceramic creations that they are. The bats that fly out at them also look unrealistic, but I will give credit for the pirate ship. There are also all sorts of gadgets and booby traps that the kids run into that was supposedly built in 1632 by the pirates, but I found it hard to believe after 300 plus years that stuff would still be functioning.

The young cast is okay, but it is asking too much that these kids carry the picture and it would have been better had some veteran actor been cast as an adult who goes along with them in order to give the thing a little more stature. Astin though gives a good effort in the lead and at certain angles looks exactly like his famous mother Patty Duke although I could have done without his strained ‘our time’ speech. Corey Feldman is also quite engaging especially at the beginning when he translates things for Mikey’s Spanish speaking maid (Lupe Ontiveros).

I wasn’t so crazy about Jeff Cohen who plays the fat kid named Chunk as there are just too many fat stereotypes with the character. The jokes involving his propensity for food are clichéd and tiring although his puke story does earn him a few points.

I thought it was good that actresses Martha Plimpton and Kerri Green join the boys later on by playing older teenage girls. Green’s character may be a bit too much on the prissy side and the fact that she could have romance on her mind as they are trapped in a dark and dangerous cave seemed almost absurd, but Plimpton is solid.

Anne Ramsey is terrific as the villainous mother of the two bad guys (Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano). In many ways I thought she was more engaging here than in her most famous role in Throw Momma from the Train.

The film is a bit too good natured and at times becomes like a live-action kiddie cartoon. I also thought Cyndi Lauper was a terrible choice for the soundtrack, but despite all that I still found it to be fun and perfect non-think escapism.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 7, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Donner

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Used Cars (1980)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Don’t trust car salesmen.

Crazy, zany comedy written and directed by Robert Zemeckis dealing with twin brothers Roy and Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) who run competing used car dealerships that sit right across the street from each other. The film examines the various shenanigans that each pulls on the other in order to give their business the edge.

Steven Spielberg was the executive producer and the result is taking a rather flimsy plot with an ordinary setting and propelling it to gargantuan proportions with lots of stunts, twists, and action. It teeters precariously to falling over-the-edge with too much of it getting silly and exaggerated, but somehow it manages to save itself by being consistently funny and clever.

Some of the segments really had me laughing even after repeat viewings. My favorite is when they jam the TV signals and then break into a live broadcast with one of their off-the-wall commercials. However, from a purely visual perspective the climax, which features over 250 used cars speeding across the desert in order to get to the dealership before an important deadline is impressive.

Although the humor does manage to hit-the-mark the rest of it is run-of-the-mill. The characters are too dishonest, lowbrow, and scheming, which makes it hard to warm up to any of them. This is especially true with the Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) character as the film goes overboard in creating the obnoxious salesman stereotype. The suits he wears are loud even from a comedy perspective and only a complete moron would be seen in public wearing them. Russell is also too young and too otherwise hip to be caught up in with the down-on-his-luck salesman caricatures and the part would have been better suited for an actor who was middle-aged. Bringing in Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon) as his love interest is too forced and their romantic interlude bogs down the momentum.

Warden shines as always and this could be considered his career pinnacle. He plays two very different types of characters and as usual pulls it off in effortless fashion. He shows great energy in a fight sequence as well as in the end while standing in the back of a pickup and dueling with Rudy.

Gerrit Graham comes off as the most likable of the bunch and the running joke involving his superstitious nature works. His dog has to rate as one of the better animal performers and does some really funny tricks.

The cars look like they are genuinely of the used variety and it is great seeing all the old model types that they no longer make. My only real quibble involves the climatic sequence which although fun seemed implausible especially when taken into consideration that the hundreds of cars seen careening across the desert were driven by student drivers and yet none of them broke down, or had an accident, which seemed highly unlikely.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 11, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 53Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video