Two from Spielberg (Jurassic Park, The Lost World), two from Kubrick (The Killing, Killer’s Kiss)

Movies watched:  Jurassic Park (home – 127 minutes), The Lost World:  Jurassic Park (home – 129 minutes), The Killing (home – 85 minutes), Killer’s Kiss (home – 67 minutes).

Total cumulative time:  3 days, 23 hours, 24 minutes.


The Steven Spielberg blu-ray box set from Universal finishes out with his two entries in the Jurassic Park series.   The original was another game changer.  Based on the bestseller by Michael Crichton, the movie features a theme park of sorts, populated by dinosaurs, brought back from DNA found in mosquitoes trapped in amber.   Of course, things don’t go as planned in Jurassic Park, because “Nature finds a way.”  One of the reasons the premise is so appealing is because the science seems plausible, and perhaps prescient as well;  scientists are doing genome sequencing on woolly mammoth DNA right now, and may be able to clone one in only a couple of years.

When Jurassic Park was first released I was working at a Jack-in-the-Box in Whittier, California.  Almost every Friday night, a group of co-workers would go see a movie.  We would just pick from the current week’s new releases.  So this particular Friday night, the debate was between Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero, which both opened on the same day.  (It’s funny to think of now, but the box office prognosticators were split over which movie would take first place.  Nobody knew what a juggernaut Spielberg’s film would become).  It was timing that made the decision for us.  There was a JP showing in about 45 minutes.   I have seen hundreds of movies in the theater, and that night was one of the most thrilling, exciting, purely visceral experiences I have ever had in a theater.  The T-Rex attack sequence was amazing;  everybody gasping, screaming, jumping in their seats, at precisely the same moment.  What a great shared experience, and what a demonstration of how masterful Spielberg’s direction was.


And how about the cast?  Every character (and actor) is distinct and believable.  Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill had quietly been doing great work for decades;  this film brought them the bigger audience they deserved.  The screenplay is near perfect, the score (John Williams again, who else?) is memorable, the effects hold up well.  Jurassic Park did for movies in the 90’s what Jaws did in the 70’s.  This is Spielberg upping the ante.  And it still holds up today.

Because this movie was such a runaway success, a sequel was basically a foregone conclusion.  So Michael Crichton, who had not intended to write a sequel, wrote a second book.  Crichton killed off the Ian Malcolm character in the first book (which the movie thankfully did not), and I love the way Crichton just casually brought Malcolm back in his sequel.


The concept of The Lost World:  Jurassic Park  is pretty straightforward.  The idea is that the character of John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, appearing in a cameo) had a second island, called Site B, where dinosaurs were still flourishing.  Is it plausible that Hammond would have had a second island, and never mentioned it to anyone in the first movie, or book?  It stretches plausibility, but it works.  So Hammond sends Ian Malcolm (played once again by Jeff Goldblum) to Site B to document the dinosaur activity.   Also along for the ride are Vince Vaughn and Julianne Moore, as well as Richard Schiff and Vanessa Lee Chester as Goldblum’s young daughter, who stows away on the voyage.  There is a competing team on the island, who are there to hunt and capture dinosaurs, to transport them to the mainland for use in a new commercial enterprise.  The dinosaur hunters are led by the always brilliant Pete Postlethwaite, who wants to kill a T-Rex, the ultimate big-game trophy.

The first time I saw this movie, in the theater, I had a basically positive response.  Seeing it now, it does not hold up terribly well.  It is just a pale imitation of the first movie.  The acting is good, there are a couple of good set pieces, but it is missing the sense of wonder that made the original more than just a run-of-the-mill thriller.   The original movie had Spielberg’s imprint on it in virtually every scene.  His touch is mostly absent from the sequel. lostworld2The finale of this movie, which features a T-Rex on a rampage through the streets of San Diego, is my least fovorite part of the film.  It borrows heavily from King Kong.  I’m not sure why it bothers me so much, but the original Jurassic Park had seemed like a special film, and somehow moving this the mainland at the end just turns it into a very run-of-the-mill monster movie.  This may be one of the most uninspired movies in Steven Spielberg’s entire catalog.   It is definitely worth watching, at least once, but is a weak follow-up to the original.


Stanley Kubrick is one of those directors whose name carries a certain cachet.  I am not a member of the cult of Kubrick;  I do not fawn over his movies as many other cinephiles do.  But I do appreciate his unique visual style.  Kubrick started out as a photographer, and he always had an eye for framing.  But his movies often have a languorous pace that I find frustrating.  The Killing was Kubrick’s first feature-length movie that he made for a major studio.  It is small budget, compared to his later films, but it has a fantastic visual flare.

The Killing tells the story of a group of guys who are planning to rob a race track, and walk away with the day’s take.  The group (led by the great Sterling Hayden) have planned everything down to the last detail.  Unfortunately, one of the gang (the unforgettable character actor Elisha Cook, Jr.) spills the beans to his unfaithful wife, and soon their best-laid plans have gone awry.

This movie is one of the best film-noir of the 1950’s, and has been vastly influential.  It is one of the first movies to feature a fractured narrative structure, in which the same time period is viewed multiple times, from the viewpoint of different characters.  Quentin Tarantino has cited the influence of this movie on his early films, especially Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.  The word genius is thrown about so frequently in Hollywood that is has lost all significance;  but I think Kubrick was truly a cinematic genius.  Few people in the history of movie-making have made a movie this visually sure-handed, at such a young age;


Anyone who likes heist movies, caper movies, or film noir will certainly enjoy this film.  And lovers of film will probably recall several movies made in the last 60 years that owe a debt of gratitude to this movie.  It is well-paced and features solid performances throughout.  The Criterion Collection did a fantastic job with their blu-ray version of this movie, it has never looked so good.

If you purchase this Criterion blu-ray, you will be able to view the Kubrick movie Killer’s Kiss, which is included as a bonus feature.  Killer’s Kiss is the movie that Kubrick made right before The Killing.  Essentially, he made this movie to try and get a deal with a major studio.  Killer’s Kiss was directed, shot and edited by Kubrick on a ridiculously small budget.  But his talent for framing, and his attention to detail, is already apparent at this point.


This very short movie (which breezes along at only 67 minutes) features a boxer who falls for a young woman that he sees in an adjacent apartment building.  They plan to move away together.  The only problem is, the girl has a night-club owner cum gangster who is in love with her, and does not want to give her up.  In order for our boxer hero to get the girl, he is going to have to fight for her.   The cast are all a bunch of unknowns.  One of the most interesting things about this movie is the casting of Frank Silvera (a black actor, born in Jamaica) as the lead antagonist.  It was not customary for a black man to get a prominent role in a movie in the 1950’s, (unless it was a role that specifically called for a “person of color”) and Kubrick cast Silvera because of his acting ability, not his race.  You will probably recognize Frank Silvera;  he was a good character actor who appeared in dozens of TV shows.

Kubrick’s camera work is so sure-handed.  There is a great shot on a rooftop, in which we watch our protagonist (played by Jamie Smith) run around the entire rooftop, searching for a means of escape.  The camera tracks him as he runs towards the camera, then away, then back again.  There is also a brilliantly chaotic fight sequence which involves axes and a mannequin warehouse!   Once again, Kubrick’s visual flare is astonishing.

killerskiss2Nothing that is seen on screen in a Kubrick film is ever accidental;  he meticulously planned and framed every single shot.  Look at this shot above, which is just one throwaway in a long sequence.   It is pitch-perfect.  If you are a fan of Kubrick, then it is well worth watching this movie, to see his early genius on display.




Jaws, 1941, E.T., Always

Movies watched:  Jaws (home – 124 minutes), 1941 (home – 146 minutes), E.T. (home – 114 minutes), Always (home – 123 minutes).

Total cumulative time:  3 days, 16 hours, 36 minutes


What is there to say about Jaws at this point?  So much hyperbole has been heaped upon it, (and deservedly so) over the last 35 years.  One of the most impactful movies of the 20th century.  The movie that gave birth to the “summer blockbuster”.  The first movie to gross over $100 million.   The movie tells the story of a great white shark terrorizing the beaches of Amity Island, a summer vacation retreat.  Roy Scheider is Police Chief Brody, who puts safety above all concerns.  Murray Hamilton is Mayor Vaughn, who is more concerned with the loss of revenue if the beaches are closed.  The movie also features a young and terrific Richard Dreyfuss as shark expert Matt Hooper, and the incomparable Robert Shaw as Captain Quint, a man who has a very personal reason to dislike sharks.


Everything about this movie is iconic, from John Williams’ often imitated musical score, to Spielberg’s sure-handed directing.  Spielberg’s camera work on this movie owes a lot to Alfred Hitchcock.  Not only does Spielberg borrow the “Vertigo” camera move in this movie, but many of the shots and angles are inspired by Hitchcock.

I was fortunate to see this movie on the big screen for the first time last year, with my son Kevin, when TCM brought it back into theaters.  I had seen it on the small screen at least 4 times, and I was blown away by how great it appeared on the big screen.  I noticed so much detail that I had never seen before.  If you ever have an opportunity to see a classic movie on the big screen, I highly recommend it.  You just might be amazed.


When I was a kid, 1941 used to air on cable a lot.  It was a movie I wanted to like.  It has a fantastic cast, and a decent premise.  The idea is that the Los Angeles is on edge after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  People are worried that the Japanese might attack the west coast of the US.  And the movie does feature one crazed Japanese submarine commander who is intent on attacking.  Unfortunately the movie is a big, jumbled mess.  I watched the extended version, and I can’t say that adding twenty-odd minutes did anything for the film, other than make it longer.

There are some good moments in this movie, and a lot of bad ones.  For the only all-out comedy that Steven Spielberg has ever directed, its just not very funny.  There is a dance-hall sequence that is ok, but feels like a dry-run for the opening sequence of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  The last 30 minutes of the movie, which adopts an increasingly manic pace, is the best part of the film.  But the amount of movie that one has to slog through to get to this point is virtually insufferable.  And what a squandering of great talent!  John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are wasted.  Not to mention Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee.

I want to like this movie, I really do, but it just doesn’t work.  I heard someone describe 1941 on a podcast recently as an entertaining mess.  I think he was half right.


Next up in the Spielberg Universal box set is E.T.  Again, this is a hard movie to talk about, because it transcends film, and has become a cultural icon.  This movie was one of the first “event films” of my youth.  I remember standing in line for hours, waiting to get in.  That phenomenon was essentially created by Spielberg and George Lucas.


Just as with Jaws this movie is full of iconic images and sounds.  I am grateful that this box set contains the original theatrical version of the movie, not the revisionist version that Spielberg re-released to theaters ten or so years ago.  In that version, he decided to replace the government agent’s guns with flashlights.  He also got rid of the awesome brotherly put down “penis breath.”  Thankfully, these two scenes are presented in their original theatrical format.

One of the most interesting things about this movie is the subtext.  This is not just a movie about an alien visiting earth, and befriending a family.   This is a movie about broken families.   Spielberg was a child of divorce, and this had a strong impact on him as a person, and a filmmaker.  I remember seeing this movie as a twelve year old, and watching the scene in the garage, when the two brothers smell their father’s shirt.  My twelve-year old mind realized that I wouldn’t even know what my father smelled like, because he left my life when I was only 2.


The other scene I loved as a kid, and still love very much, is the freeing of the frogs, and the kiss, which mirrors the kiss between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man.    Everybody has their own special moment in this movie, and I have to say, it does hold up pretty well.  Of course, part of that is the 12 year old in me, watching nostalgically.  I would love to know what a 12-year old today thought of this movie.


Audrey Hepburn, Always (1989, Steven Spielberg) starring Holly Hunter, Richard Dreyfuss and John Goodman

Always is a very different film in Spielberg’s body of work.  It is a sweet film, but ultimately pretty lightweight.   This movie came about because Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss were both fans of an old movie called A Guy Named Joe.  They talked about it while filming Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and joked that they would remake it one day.  Well, their joke became a reality in 1989.

The movie tells the story of a pilot named Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss) who puts out fires.  His closest friend is fellow pilot Al Yackey (played by John Goodman) and the love of his life is Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter).  But Dreyfuss dies in a plane crash, after saving Goodman’s life. The rest of the movie involves Dreyfuss becoming the “guardian angel” of another pilot, a man who takes a shine to Holly Hunter.

One of the best parts of the movie features a cameo with Audrey Hepburn, in her last film role.  Dear sweet Audrey was sick with cancer at this point, but she is still absolutely sublime in the role of Hap, who explains to Dreyfuss what is happening to him in the afterlife.   A strong case could be made for Audrey Hepburn as the greatest film actress of all time, and this short role is a nice bookend to a great life in film.

Ultimately, however, this film is kind of forgettable.  I felt good while watching it, I enjoyed it, but very little of it resonates.   I still say it is worth watching, at least once.  And in any other director’s ouvre, this would be a minor masterpiece.  But because of the caliber of Spielberg’s catalogue, this becomes a minor entry at best.