You don’t have to overtax the Google machine to find negative comments about being on set with Steven Spielberg. Type in “working with Steven Spielberg” and in 0.57 seconds 20,900,000 results appear, including an article where Shia LaBeouf rants, “He’s less a director than he is a f—ing company.”
LaBeouf’s resume is dotted with Spielberg-produced or -directed films like Disturbia, Transformers, Eagle Eye and, most famously, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but if Spielberg ever does the same search it’s unlikely they’ll ever pair up again. “You get there, and you realize you’re not meeting the Spielberg you dream of,” LaBeouf told Variety. “You’re meeting a different Spielberg, who is in a different stage in his career.”
But that’s pretty much it for the negativity. There’s a story about Crispin Glover suing Spielberg for using his likeness in Back to the Future Part II and the critical drone that his films are overly sentimental, but primarily it’s LaBeouf against Spielberg and the world. Most of his other co-workers have nothing but praise for the filmmaker Empire magazine ranked as the greatest film director of all time.
This weekend he returns to theatres with Ready Player One, a sci-fi film that brings a virtual reality world called the OASIS to vivid life. Star Tye Sheridan calls the director a great and passionate collaborator who makes everyone feel equal on set. Co-star Ralph Ineson calls Spielberg “one of the most iconic figures of the last 100 years,” adding that it was difficult to takes notes from him on set. “When he is speaking to you your mind vaguely goes blank the first few times because your internal monologue just goes, ‘My god, Steven Spielberg is giving me a note.’ And then you realize you haven’t actually heard the note.”
All directors give suggestions on set, but it seems it’s the way Spielberg speaks to his actors that sets him apart.
Ed Burns remembers making a mess of several takes on the set of Saving Private Ryan to the point where Tom Hanks said to him, “I’ve seen you act before, and this isn’t acting.” Afraid he would be replaced, he got nervous and continued to blow take after take but Spielberg didn’t offer guidance. Two weeks passed. The cast started laying bets on who would be fired first.
Turns out, no one was fired and Burns learned a lesson he would later take into his own directorial efforts like Sidewalks of New York. The actor reports that Spielberg said, “I like to give my actors three takes to figure it out. If I step in after the first take and give you a note, especially with young actors, you’ll hear me rather than your own voice.”
Burns calls the experience “a life changer” adding it taught him that being a director is “about knowing when to give direction.”
The superstar director says the listening lesson was learned early in life. “From a very young age my parents taught me probably the most valuable lesson of my life: Sometimes it’s better not to talk, but to listen.”
There’s someone else Spielberg keeps in mind when making a film. “I always like to think of the audience when I am directing. Because I am the audience.”
Much of the fun of 2008s Taken was watching beloved thespian Liam Neeson go all Chuck Norris in a dirty little Euro trash thriller.
In the action adventure movie Neeson played a former “preventer” for the US government. A specialist in black ops, he was an undercover agent who contained volatile situations before they got out of control. Retired, he lived in Los Angeles near his estranged seventeen-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). When she is kidnapped by a child slavery ring he has only 96 hours to use his “particular set of skills” to get her back. His rescue mission takes him on a wild rampage through the soft underbelly of Paris. “I’ll tear down the Eiffel Tower if I have to,” he says.
It’s a down-and-dirty little flick, classed up somewhat by the presence of Neeson in the lead role and it became an unexpected lightening-in-a-bottle hit. It also redefined Neeson’s recent career.
At an age when many actors are staring down the barrel of character parts and cameos, the sixty-one year old has made an unlikely U-turn into action movies. “I was a tiny bit embarrassed by it, “ he says of Taken, “but then people started sending me action scripts.”
Arguably best known for his Best Actor Oscar nomination as the charismatic but humble German businessman Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, the Irish actor has fully embraced his new career path. Vanity Fair even acknowledged the twist in an article called, “Wham! Bam! Thank You, Liam!”
His latest actioner is Non-Stop, a high-flying thriller that takes place on an international crossing from New York to London. Neeson is an air marshal who must prevent a crazed killer from murdering passengers in flight.
The actor’s rebirth as a gun-toting, neck snapping gravel-voiced Stallonite™—aging action star—works not only because he has the physical presence to be taken seriously as a hard man, but also because he has the acting chops to make us believe him as a ruthless and efficient killing machine.
Taken and Taken 2 (which were essentially the same movie) worked not just because the action sequences were out of control, but because audiences had some empathy for Neeson’s character as he kicked butt across Europe. It was a personal mission; he was trying to get his daughter back.
Action movies like Wrath of the Titans, The Grey and Unknown may not burnish Neeson’s rep as a great thespian, but when asked why he keeps making them, he has a solid reason: “Because they’re dumb enough to offer them to me!”
Opening in 1938 Germany, “The Book Thief” begins with a child’s journey.
Liesel Meminger (French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse) is sent to live with foster parents, the kind-hearted World War I veteran who has refused to join the Nazi Party Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his stern wife Rosa (Emily Watson). The little girl can’t read or write, but carries with her The Gravedigger’s Handbook, a book she “borrowed” after finding it on the ground at her brother’s funeral.
The unintelligible words in that book set Liesel on her path. Hans, who calls the girl “Your Majesty,” teaches her to read, igniting a love of words and storytelling that ultimately changes the life of a young Jewish man named Max and helps Liesel make sense of life in Nazi Germany.
Closer in tone to “A Beautiful Life” than “Schindler’s List,” “The Book Thief” is a touching, if somewhat melodramatic look at Liesel’s life. Jam-packed full of big moments, with kids forced to grow up too fast and confront the harsh realities of life, it’s a tearjerker that earns most of its schmaltzy, salty drops, but not all.
Based on the international best-selling novel by Markus Zusak and directed by Brian Percival of “Downton Abbey,” the film finds its main strength in the web of relationships that intertwine around Liesel. From tow headed neighbor Rudy (Nico Liersch), who loves Liesel at first sight, to the instant connection between Hans and his new daughter, to the bond that forms between Max and the girl as she reads to him, these links (and performances) bring humanity to the story, preventing it from being overwhelmed by the film’s dramatic tendencies. I’m mean, the movie is narrated by Death (Roger Allam) and set, primarily on a street called Heaven. You just know this isn’t going to be subtle.
Some moments work very well.
Kristallnacht, set to a soundtrack of young, angelic voices singing anti-Semitic Hitler Youth songs while the soldiers attack Jewish citizens and destroy their homes and shops, is chilling.
Others feel over-the-top, no matter how deeply the camera focuses on Nélisse’s soulful blue saucer eyes. (MAJOR SPOILER!!!!!!!!) Rudy’s final moments almost play like a “Monty Python” sketch, regardless of how attached you have become to the character.
Luckily Rush is a lovely and touching presence. He’s terrific as Hans, a compassionate, light-hearted man who understands the gravity of the situation. Watson, as his wife, is a tough nut, but compassionate one, but it is Nélisse who is at the core of the film.
She hands in a delicate, natural performance that rarely succumbs to the film’s melodrama.
“The Book Thief” doesn’t always trust the story to work on its own, so it wedges in a few too many big moments—and one egregious bit of product placement—but when it relies on the performances, it works.