Jurassic World Dominion

In preparation for the latest Dinosaur extravaganza, I recently watched all the other films in this series. There is a reason that Steven Spielberg is the most celebrated director of our times and Colin Trevorrow is a journeyman with only bits of occasional inspiration. Two suspense scenes in the first two Jurassic Park films show you what a master Spielberg is. The initial T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park is one of the most tense, frightening and well directed scenes in a movie ever. In The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the attack on the trailers adds on tension in each moment that Spielberg makes work so much longer and more effectively than anyone else has managed to do. Trevorrow, for all his gifts, simply does not have the instinct that Spielberg does. His tension building scenes are too abrupt, too frequent, and sometimes over the top in a way that he can’t quite pull off.  It’s not meant as an insult to say he is no Spielberg, it is simply an acknowledgement that his films have not been able to work at the same level.

Jurassic World Dominion is not a failure because of the action scenes, the problem is actually the opposite, the action scenes fail because the rest of the movie cannot quite justify them, I was willing to go along with the revamped “Jurassic World” because it stemmed from a solid idea, that built on what came before it, and even though it stretched the concept a bit, it managed to work. “Fallen Kingdom” and “Dominion” don’t have the right premise going for them, so the stringing together of solid action beats with bad story ideas and dumb characters, just won’t cut it. I enjoyed the moments of action in the film that employed the main characters from the two sets of film groups, but the secondary characters are underwritten, somewhat unnecessary and disposed of either too soon for us to enjoy their comeuppance, or without much drama. 

These posts never give away spoilers and I try to refrain from simply recapping the film as part of the discussion, which is a good thing in this case because I’m not sure I could keep it all straight. Characters come in who start off as antagonists, then end up as allies and allies disappear after a few scenes and are never heard from again. There are genetically created murder locusts, that may threaten the world food supply, but then they may simply be a marketing tool for genetically modified crops, but then the geneticist who created them demurs and maybe we want to get rid of them. It simply depends on the scene as to which way the evil corporation is going at the moment. There is no logical consistency in the objectives of the antagonists and the heroes have mixed motives for their actions as well. There are a bunch of shady characters who are acting out of greed, but sometimes they just seem to be malevolent for the sake of being evil.

All of this is happening in a universe that is not vey well thought out. There are dinosaurs in the wild, dinosaurs nesting in urban areas, dinosaurs in nature preserves, dinosaurs in illegal breeding factories, and dinosaurs in private possession. Despite all of the potential dino death surrounding everyone, the culture moves on as if the threat does not exist, until it is in your face. Are the velociraptors creatures to be feared and potential rivals to our dominance of the planet? Or are they creatures to be pitied because they are hunted, and misunderstood?  The film makers do their best to get as many different dinosaurs into the story as they can, and sometimes they come across as teddy bears, and other times as venomous snakes from the outback. 

As dangerous as a dinosaur might be, the human characters are the ones that present the biggest menace because they all offer a moment of pontification and exposition that just might kill…your interest in what is happening. Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Laura Dern, Sam Neil, Jeff Goldblum, B.D. Wong, and Campbell Scott all have a moment when they provide exposition and supposed philosophical insight into the events that are happening. Remember the scene where Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neil are warning John Hammond at the dinner table in Jurassic Park? Well it feels like that happens every ten minutes in this film. It’s as if TED Talks become the standard way that people communicate with one another. The most human and realistic moment comes when Ellie Stadler voices exactly what the audience is thinking after listening to a guru like Steve Jobs monologue from Dodgson. “What?”  It drew a laugh, but even such meta awareness doesn’t stop it from continuing. Everyone sounds like Jeremy Rifkin or Al Gore at some point, and it just gets to be too much.

Aside from the schizophrenic story telling, cartoon characters, implausible technology and unexplained political realities, the movie was fun to watch for two and a half hours. If you want high tech thriller mixed with old school adventure, just drop down to the subterranean hyper loop of Elon Musk, I mean Lewis Dodgson, and follow Sam Neil’s Dr. Grant as he plays ‘Indiana Jones in the Tunnel of Dinosaurs”.  Just don’t get distracted by the flaming killer locusts who will distract you until it is time for the two apex predators to face off in a climax that means nothing. If you put some Raisinettes  in your popcorn, along with some Hot Tamales, you will have done a more logical job of gene splicing than this movie, and you will enjoy consuming that a lot more than the film.

West Side Story (2021)

I’ve been waiting for Steven Spielberg to do a full fledged musical since I saw the opening of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” back in 1984. I think his sensibility and eye are right for musical sequences and that he could stage  some pretty energetic numbers and make them look engaging and not static, well it turns out I was right. I’m not sure why he chose this material, but once he committed to it I think he did a solid job justifying a new version of the award winning classic. I think I still prefer the Robert Wise version of the movie, mostly because everything was fresh but Spielberg found some ways to fill out the story, rearrange to songs and change some of the characters delivering the songs, in a way that is satisfying. 


The screenplay by Tony Kushner, with whom Spielberg collaborated on with “Munich” and “Lincoln“, adds some details to the backgrounds of our characters to flesh them out. Riff has a story that is spelled out rather than implied as it was before, Bernardo has been transformed into a professional boxer, and Tony is provided with some background that adds resonance to his character that maybe wasn’t there before. In some ways, the transition for Bernardo’s character is the most problematic, because he seems less sympathetic as a professional fighter, engaging in a street fight. The character of Chino is also built up and it provides some additional pathos to the final outcome of the plot. 


In moving around the order of the songs and changing the characters who perform them, Spielberg and Kushner help the character of Tony in one case and weaken him in the second. The decision to give the “Cool” number to Tony and Riff, works well giving Ansel Elgort and Mike Faist, an additional chance to show the gap between them, even as friends, and to make a stronger impact on the audience. While I appreciate the desire to include Rita Moreno more in the story, giving her the “Somewhere” moment robs Tony and Maria of a poignant moment that would make their tragedy more emotional at the end. 
So what else has changed? Well, the fight scenes are more brutal from the get go. Baby John doesn’t just get beat up, he is mutilated by a piercing of his ear done with a nail. Bernardo and Tony fight and the punches Bernardo lands when Tony is trying to hold his temper and let things chill, are hard and to the face as well as the gut. You can almost feel them and they look more realistic than most fight scenes, even those you might see in a boxing film. Both groups of opponents are struggling with the idea of losing their territory, not to each other but to the progress of NYC itself. That fuels a bit of the anger so that it does not feel entirely based in ethnic hatred. 

Some people have complained that Spielberg has reimagined the story as a “woke” parable on immigration. There has also been some defensiveness on the part of traditionalists that all the Spanish dialogue in not subtitled. The immigration issue is not any more prevalent than it was in 1961, so that seems foolish to jump on. The Spanish issue is a non issue since almost all those important lines are repeated bak in some form in English, and even a non-Spanish speaker like me could understand most of what is said by context, tone and the few words of Spanish that I know. Maybe the strongest argument against calling this film “woke” is that Officer Krupke, goes from being an overt racist in the 1961 film, to a fairly sympathetic character in this one.   Lieutenant Schrank is also not taking sides in the conflict, but seems more interested in avoiding kids being killed. 

Two great visual moments that clearly show that Spielberg was thinking about how the movie could look different yet still be familiar, come in the Gang confrontation and in the “America” number. The long shadows approaching each other from opposite directions in the salt warehouse, builds the confrontation moment nicely and being shot from above makes it feel more ominous. The girls dancing down the street in the daylight, pursued by the boys, instead of remaining on the rooftop at night, keeps the excitement and cleverness of Sondheim’s lyrics, but transposes it to a setting that feels even more joyful.

The bad news here is that the film has flamed out. It did not live up to expectations at the box office, and the critical hype , while strong, seems unlikely to sustain it for long in the onslaught of so many other films at the end of the year. I think it will mirror another great film that hid similar reviews and expectations but did no business. In 1983, “The Right Stuff” arrived with a thud at the box office. Oscar Nominations gave it a slight boost during awards season, but in the long run, it was passed by too often by too many people. I see the same pattern emerging here. I hope I am wrong and some holiday time results in more people seeing this worthy remake of a great musical. 

Young Sherlock Holmes

Inspired by a post from one of my on-line friends, I revisited this film today and decided to include it in the summer look back project, “films lost in time”. This really should not be a lost film but given it’s lack of box office success and the the fact that it is not yet available on blu ray, I suspect that most of today’s audience is only vaguely familiar with it.

This should have been a smashing success given it’s pedigree and release. Steve Spielberg is one of the Executive Producers and his team made up the rest of those responsible for bringing this to the screen. The Director was Barry Levinson, who had directed “The Natural” the year before and would go on to direct and win the Academy Award for “Rain Man” three years later. The script comes from Chris Columbus who had written “Gremlins” and “The Goonies” before this and who would go on to make a few films that will feel very familiar after seeing this (more on that later). This was released in the U.S. during the holiday season of 1985 and it basically tanked. The box office was mild to low and barely matched the production cost. So what went wrong, again, I’ll delay that for a few paragraphs. Let’s talk about the movie first.

The idea of retconning Sherlock Holmes into a youthful action character is not a bad one. In the original books, we learn of Holmes and Watson meeting as they take up rooms together on Baker Street, but this scenario makes them schoolmates at a posh academic institution in Victorian England. Holmes has already mastered the art of deduction as he calls it [frankly it is mostly inductive sign reasoning and a little hard to believe at times].

As the two young future archetypes are meeting, a series of deaths are taking place in London. We witness a mysterious figure using a small blow gun to shoot darts at several older gentlemen. Those men begin to have fantastic hallucinations which result in deaths that appear to be suicides. From the start of the film, it is clear that the film makers want to dazzle us with special effects as part of the excitement of the movie. Articulated puppets and stop motion animation are used early on to bring horrific images to life.

 

The most likely reason this film would be historically significant is that it contains one of the earliest CGI effects on screen to achieve the images the film makers wanted. A priest is attacked by a figure that climbs out of a stained glass window. This sequence explains why the films lone Academy Award Nomination was for Visual Effects. The Knight becomes a three dimensional image which strikes terror into the elderly man who runs into the street and is mowed down by a carriage.

Although primitive by today’s standards, it was jaw dropping at the time and I remember Siskel and Ebert talking about it and one of them picking it as their choice in their annual Oscar handicapping show.

The story centers around the two well known characters and a third one invented for this enterprise.  A confirmed bachelor like Holmes is during most of his film history, must have a woman in his past to explain his predilection. So Columbus creates Elizabeth, the niece of a character in the story and Holmes love interest. This will require that Watson and Holmes have to rescue Elizabeth on more than one occasion. That’s right, she is a damsel in distress for most of the last third of the film. The development of Holmes as a character is pretty good in the story. He is interested in unique subjects, he has an eccentric mentor, and he is admired by many and despised by a few elitists. His friendship with the new boy does not help him win the affection of either his belligerent teacher or the light blond future MP that he makes an enemy. Does any of this sound familiar to you? It should because it is likely that Harry Potter and friends grew out of this kind of stew. The fact that Chris Columbus who directed the first two Harry Potter films also wrote the screenplay here, seems like a lot more than just coincidence.

Let’s add another interesting parallel, young future Dr. Watson looks like a chubbier version of you know who.

With so many things going for it, what caused this film to fail with a broad audience? Speaking simply as a movie fan I think I can point to two things. The most criticized parts of the previous year’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” are resurrected to provide the villain and motives here. There is virtually no surprise when the antagonist is revealed, so the suspense is missing for the most part. When to secret society perpetrating the crimes is revealed, it is a moment right out of the very dark Indiana Jones movie.

 Acolytes surround a hapless victim overseen by an evil priest of an alien religious cult and a towering figure of the spirit that they worship. In a true “what the hell” moment, we discover that there are other murders connected to this story and suddenly the plot shifts to a completely different issue. Foreshadowing his future emotionally stunted growth, Holmes cries out and alerts everyone there to his presence. And none of this seems to be well connected to the logical procedural method Holmes supposedly follows. Instead, a series of chance insights leads to the discovery of an underground temple.

Holmes and Watson have to become Butch and Sundance and it is just not as credible at this point as it needs to be. The action points start driving the plot instead of the character points.

Holmes and Watson have to become the Wright Bothers at one point, and although the scene is fun, it feels tacked on rather than organic to the Holmes tradition of investigation.

One other thing that I think sabotages the film, and this is a spoiler so if you haven’y yet viewed the movie and don’t want to be ticked off before doing so, stop now and come back later.

Holmes fails.

All the build up and eventual destruction and the outcome is depressing and undermines the spirit of the film. Someone must have thought it was creatively challenging to finish on this note. Here is the way it came across to me. “Ho,ho, ho, your [character not to be identified by me] dies, Merry Christmas. Hope you and the family enjoyed this.” If you did the same thing to any of the other successful Spielbergian type movies at the time, you would get the same dismal box office result. “Goonies” would not be a beloved 80s touchstone, “Cocoon” would have stalled Ron Howard’s career, and “Raiders” would be an experiment that failed.

Despite the dramatic faults of the movie, it had a lot of other things to recommend it. The setting and sets were very nicely utilized and they look great. The costumes and the actors fit into the world that was created very effectively.

Bruce Broughton was nominated for the Academy Award for his music in “Silverado” from earlier in the year, and his work here is alo excellent. The theme tune will be a pretty simple earworm that will remind you every time you hear it of this film.

For those of you who think the Marvel Films invented the post title credit scene, stick around for the end of this movie. Clearly there were hopes of a sequel, but when a movie under-performs like this, you are not going to get Part II. Although Nicolas Rowe does reprise the character in a brief cameo in the far superior “Mr. Holmes” which I guess we can call “Old Sherlock Holmes”.

Ready Player One

We got a Spielberg film just last December (although for most it was just a couple of months ago in January), but “The Post” despite clearly being made by Spielberg, doesn’t need to be a Spielberg film. “ready Player One” on the other hand, seems to demand the hand of the master on the controller. This is a meta exercise in nostalgia, both for the period of time and for the kinds of films that Spielberg used to make. Lucky for us, it mostly works and the reason is Spielberg himself.

The book that the film is based on is a pastiche of ideas and images and memories from a million minds of gamers. It was primarily a tool for reliving the joy that comes from mastering a new game and solving a puzzle. Since the gaming industry was born and thrived in the 1980s, it also is rich in the music and films of the times. The conceit is simple, this movie is a race between lonely souls who have moved out of the real world and a mega corporation that wants to control the environment that they have all moved to. The competitions are laden with the kinds of pop references this generation of geeks will appreciate.

Ernest Cline’s novel is much darker than this popcorn fueled entertainment. A pop culture geek himself (he wrote the movie”Fanboys”), Cline saw the limitations on social interactions that living in virtual reality held. The specter of a new form of debtors prison, hovers over an environment where fantasy role playing has replaced real intimacy. The villain in the book is much less cartoonish than the ultimately feckless Ben Mendelsohn of the film.   The problems faced by the competitors were often mundane and repetitive, as many of the games being saluted were. It takes someone with a lot of patience and time to master some of the ideas that hardly seem worth mastering in the first place. Spielberg with the help of co-screenwriter Zak Penn, has refocused the story to celebrate the pop culture more than the dark under current in the story.

In the first chase in the story, we are introduced to the three main characters as they dash madly through a race that looks like a combination of Mario Kart and Grand Theft Auto. The motorcycle from “Akira” and the DeLoren from “Back to the Future” are driven by the future romantic couple and each has their own way of challenging the game. The chase though is typical Spielberg, it is frenetic but still comprehensible.  As usual, there is always one more piece of dramatic business to stretch out the tension of a scene. The events are so meta that he even lampoons himself with a reference to Jurassic Park as well as a few films he had a hand in as producer.

How could it not be a Spielberg film when the cinematography was done by the artist that Spielberg has worked with 18! times over the last thirty years. Janusz Kaminski is responsible for the look of so many Spielberg films that he might just be his shadow. The one thing that is missing that would put the nail in the coffin is a John Williams score. We get a vigorous but clearly 80s style theme from Alan Silvestri, veteran of “Back to the Future”, “Amazing Stories” and a couple of upcoming films in the MCU. Oh, he also scored the “Super Mario Bros. Movie”.

The changes lead to a more audience friendly experience. There are more movie references than video game Easter Eggs (although there are plenty of those). A 70s guy like me appreciated the music selection for the nightclub scene and if you like “The Shining” it replaces “War Games” as the main film sequence with a completely different take on the process. Also, there are fewer deaths of heroes in the movie. It is a cinematic stew of epic proportions.

Characterization and subtext are mostly lost with this film interpretation but it makes up for those points by always being visually stimulating. It does not have the resonance of an Indiana Jones or E.T., but it will entertain you for two plus hours and that time goes by quickly. The presence of Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance as secondary figures also adds to the depth of the film, but if deep is what you are looking for, go back and watch “Lincoln”. Until the next Indiana Jones film, this is as close to classic Spielberg as you are likely to get, and that is pretty darn close.

 

My Slate of Films from the Spielberg Draft on the Lambcast

 

OK, tell me that getting Spielberg’s Biggest Blockbuster of the 1970s AND his Biggest Blockbuster of the 1980s isn’t going to help me win this draft. Plus I have the sequel to his biggest Blockbuster of the 1990s to go along with it. This should be in the bag, but only if you do your part and vote for my slate in the Draft.

Jaws

There are plenty of posts on this site for this film. Here is a list:

40th Anniversary Jaws Week Posts

My Original Post on the 70s Summer Movie Project

Book Signing with Carl Gottlieb

Last Years Great Screening in a Great Theater

Others:

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Spielberg Blogathon Entry

While I don’t want to support Heather’s Team of films, I do have a link to my vigorous defense of

Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Vote at this link.

When you look at the choices, you’ll know the right thing to do.

 

UPDATE! Victory!

 

Draft Update

Thanks to everyone who voted.

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 2

So just a few random thoughts on the Best Picture Selections this year. Last week we watched two films with Lucas Hedges back to back. He was in “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards”. Timothée Chalamet was in “Lady Bird” and today’s “Call Me By Your Name”.  Nick Searcy was in “Three Billboards” and “The Shape of Water”. Today we had Bradley Whitford in back to back “The Post” and “Get Out”. Finally Michael Stuhlbarg was in “The Shape of Water, “Call Me By Your Name” and “The Post”. These actors have got to have great agents to get into the top pictures of the year not just once, but two and three times.

“Phantom Thread” and “The Post” were the two films I needed to catch up on, and while I admired them both, I don’t see either of them as a likely winner in the big category. “Phantom Thread” lacks anybody likable in the cast of characters, and “The Post” is so traditional that it won this award two years ago when it was called “Spotlight”.

Speaking of actors who appeared back to back in some of the films on the program, we had a historical event do exactly the same thing. “Dunkirk” was followed by “Darkest Hour” and it was almost as if Joe Wright’s film was just another segment of the Christopher Nolan film. It’s Title Card would read Parliament: Two Weeks.

I feel confident in my choice of “Dunkirk” as the best film of last year but I am not at all confident that the Academy will go along with me. 

Dunkirk   Christopher Nolan’s film was the most visually impressive, forward moving, and meaningful film of the lot. Listening to the score and watching how he masterfully integrated three separate time lines into a single narrative with clever overlaps and great timing, I know that this was the best directing job this year. Nothing against Guillermo Del Toro, but this complex story, logistical nightmare and historical memorial is simple better constructed than the odd fish love story. This is a film that tells a real historical story that will last long after the fashion of the fairy tale set in a mythological era in U.S. history, is a charming oddity. 

Some people complain that the characters here are not well developed, that is true. This however is not a character piece but a prism on the events that were taking place during a military disaster that became a turning point in a manner that was most unexpected. 

Darkest Hour  This film was even stronger the second time I saw it. The first viewing I was overpowered by Gary Oldman’s performance. He will surely be the winner in the acting category. I admired the film before but I have come to really respect it on this second encounter. Joe Wright manages to make a tale of political intrigue into a fascinating study of a character and the country who’s character he came to represent for the duration of the war. The one clumsy moment is a scene set in an underground train car. The only reason it is clumsy is that it feels so distinct from everything else, like a deliberate movie moment. That shows that the rest of the movie does exist as something more than the typical fare.  But even that scene works emotionally because it bespeaks of a real sense of what the British people felt at the time. 

Call Me By Your Name  I am being a little facetious when I say this film is a pain in the neck. That’s because in the first half I went to sleep and got a crick that is staining my muscles still. My least favorite of the nominees, this film is slow moving, meandering and confounding. I felt like I was listening to a play frequently, with dialogue written eloquently but sounding artificial. A couple of podcasters that I listen to love this film and especially the sequence with Michael Stuhlbarg as the father of Elio, consoling his son on the “special” friendship he had with Oliver. It ends on s deliberately false note when the Dad tells his son that he doesn’t think that Mom knows about the nature of their friendship. The mom had just picked up a near weeping Elio at the train station and she dropped hints for the previous hour that she knew how special Elio thought Oliver was. When Mr. Perlman says he never had a relationship with anyone like Elio had with Oliver, we can believe him because he so obtusely ignores how insightful his wife is. This will probably win the Screenplay Award, and it shouldn’t, if it takes the big prize I might yell loud enough to ruin my voice for a month.  

The Post  So this was the one new film we saw on day two. This has the phrase “Oscar Bait” pasted all over it. It features Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, a ton of high end supporting players and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The subject matter concerns the fight of the press against preemptive shut down of news publication. It is a first amendment issue that was understandably important, yet at the same time it ignores some pretty egregious behavior. We can always applaud someone after the fact when their actions seem just and there was no blow-back,  but there were issues regarding the acquisition of the Pentagon Papers that probably still need to be discussed.  Spielberg and co-screenwriters Josh Singer and Liz Hannah, manage to make a bureaucratic legal process look and sound like a courtroom drama with some mystery tied in.  Singer in particular is working on familiar ground since he won an Academy Award two years ago for a very similarly structured newspaper story “Spotlight”.

This is supposed to be a resistance film, about the Media vs. the President in a time when everyone wants to be standing up to the current administration. The parallels are not really there to give this much resonance. This is a two hour commercial for the Washington Post and the heavy handed feminist slant in some of the visuals makes it feel too much like a lecture at times. That said, it is well made and the John Williams score is excellent as usual. Because “Bridge of Spies” and “Spotlight” are just a couple of years old however, this feels like it is old territory and not quite as distinctive as it needs to be. 

Get Out  This one is the outlier. You rarely get a horror film nominated for Best Picture, but if you do, it is usually more of a big budget film. This Jordan Peele written and directed film seemed to come in under the radar, it made a huge splash, and it is getting some end of the year accolades. The intersectionality of this film is in keeping with all the film buffs who are much more woke than I am. I just enjoyed the twist and the characters in the film. Rod from TSA is a saving grace that adds more straightforward humor to the mix. Instead of a haunted house we get a upscale suburban plantation. The need for subtlety on the race subject is probably eliminated by the DNA of the movie. Being an outsider in an nearly all white environment makes Chris, our lead character played by nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya, mildly uncomfortable but also keenly aware of how different the culture he is visiting is. 

While most people will consider the “Sunken Place” to be the most horrifying image in the film, to me it is the silent auction with bingo cards. We still don’t know what is going on, but the suggestion is truly awful. Seeing it for a second time, I could pay more attention to some of the interesting choices that were made. Grandma and  Grandpa are certainly clever twists, although it seems strange that for the duration of Chris being a guest, the force required to hold those characters would be counter-intuitive to the actual plan. The creepy factor also takes Chris a little too long to respond to. His buddy is right, and he should be listening to him sooner. There is an outside chance this could take the award, the voting system gives weight to the number of ballots a film appears on, and this would be a popular ad to the list but not necessarily high on the list. Should it when I expect to see some “Get Out” Memes that mine the fertile teen speak use of the terminology. 

As an aside, let me rant about the misquotes being used to decorate the entry way to the theater. Both “Cool Hand Luke” and “Jaws” are misquoted in the floor below. 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 40th Anniversary

In 1977, Star Wars was the big film in the science fiction genre. It dominated the Summer season and took off as a cultural artifact that continues to resonate today. The likelihood that another science fiction film would come on the scene and impress in the same ways seemed remote, but Steven Spielberg was just at the start of his career and the third major motion picture he directed was going to wow us in ways that were very similar to his pal George Lucas’ little space opera. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is grounded in the everyday reality of audiences at that time. It was not set on a distant planet with space battles, it was taking place in our backyards, in Mexico, India and at a National Monument in Wyoming. The special effects were very different from “Star Wars” but equally compelling. When the Mothership shows up for the climax of the film, it almost makes you forget the space battles around the Death Star.

The film opened in December so it was a Holiday release and it did gangbusters business. It made more than a $100 million with maybe 300 screens during it’s opening run. In 1977/78, that was real money. Three years later in a re-release in a “Special Edition” it added another $16 million. This week’s run will add a smaller amount to the total but I think it is impressive that a 40 year old film still draws in enough customers to make a mark on the contemporary charts. The reason is simple, it was a great film in 1977 and it is still a great film, 40 years later.

Steven Spielberg is the consummate film director of the last fifty years. He may be rivaled creatively by directors such as Martin Scorsese or the Coen Brothers, but his track record of film success plus creativity is unparalleled. “Close Encounters” is entirely his baby. Although he has contributed to a few other film scripts that he directed, this is a solo credit, his only one. The inventiveness of the story and the odd way that it plays out building suspense as to what is happening to our sad hero is a testament to Spielberg’s creativity with story. Of course his directorial choices are outstanding as well. From the start of the movie, when a black screen is accompanied by an otherworldly note, held for a moment but increasing in volume until a crash and then the screen fills with a desert sandstorm image, we are hooked. The mundane but complicated work of air traffic controllers, talking on a radio with the flight crews of airlines, depicted on a black and green screen as a set of numbers, comes across like a tense mystery with just enough humor to make it memorable. Finally in the opening sequence we meet the Neary family, who are like all of us. Their home is average, cluttered, and filled with loud kids and distracted parents. The floor of the boys bedroom may be one of the most accurate pieces of set design ever. At the heart of this story is Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfess, his second time in a row playing the Spielberg persona on screen in a Spielberg movie.

What happens to Roy on this night changes everything. His relationship with his wife and kids will be damaged in ways that look beyond repair, but it happens slowly. If Quint was obsessive about the Great White, well he had nothing on Rot Neary and the vague form that he keeps seeing in his food, bed and bathroom. At the start of the film he is a well meaning father who kiddingly threatens one son while trying to help the other one figure out fractions in an interesting way. He wants his kids to share the magic of his own childhood experiences and the recurring theme of Pinocchio is introduced. It is only a few days later that he indifferently trashes the house where they all live in a quest to figure out the symbol in his head. His oldest son is embarrassed and lashes out when Roy can’t control his frustration and desperation. His wife, the wonderful Terri Garr, is mildly supportive but is also trying to protect him from himself. As much as there is to celebrate at the end of the film, there is plenty of tragedy to get us there. Roy’s actual encounter is brilliantly shown with practical effects in the truck he drives for work and the fantastic conceptualization of the UFOs he chases that first night.  Spielberg then allows him to undercut his own experience with a clever second encounter that is not at all what it seems. This is another writers touch that is well realized by the most sympathetic of directors.

There are a few moments that will leave modern audiences a bit bewildered. Roy trying to navigate using folded maps and not GPS is a pretty good example. At a official inquiry, a newsman points out that the absence of photos of UFOs is not proof of their non-existence any more than the absence of  pictures of planes or cars crashing denies that those things happen [these days, that kind of film fills the evening news]. There is a great humorous sequence when the investigation team needs to read some map coordinates and instead of going on-line, they have to roll a giant globe from a government office to their workspace. So the technology might be dated but the story hold up well. Can we trust the government to tell us the truth? Do we know all there is to know about space? Are some crazy people maybe not crazy?  Roy gets lumped in with a guy who believes in Bigfoot and that’s enough to discredit him in a lot of eyes. He does discover an ally in Jillian, who has lost her son Barry to the visitors. Barry’s disappearance is one of the sequences in the film that is iconic and it was really frightening. It was a moment that made you think this film could go anywhere and any point.

Melinda Dillon was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the distraught mother who also had the same kinds of obsessions as Roy. When the two of them finally work together as they arrive in Wyoming, you can feel the us versus them bonding between the two characters. Director François Truffaut was cast as the main scientific leader of the UFO team, and he works mostly because of his language barrier. Bob Balaban as the cartographer drafted as Truffaut’s interpreter also acts as a surrogate for the audience on the inside of the plot. This dual approach to the story might give away too much but because Jillian and Roy don’t connect till late in the film, and Balaban is sometimes unclear on what is happening, the suspense is maintained.

The climax of the movie is correctly remembered for the technical proficiency of the special effects and design teams and the outstanding score by John Williams. Williams has a huge number of Oscar nominations but probably fewer wins than he deserves because he was frequently matched against himself. This was one of those years. While most of the time he probably cancelled his competing nominations out, the classical score for Star Wars was not likely to ever be forgotten. His work in this film however is equally sublime and used in such a creative way in the story that maybe he should have received a co-screenwriting credit with Spielberg.   Vilmos Zsigmond won the Academy Award for the cinematography of the film, but there were several other photographic geniuses that made contributions as well including: John Alonzo (Chinatown), William Fraker (Wargames),
László Kovács (Paper Moon), Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Allen Daviau (E.T.), and a half dozen others.

There are many themes that you can pull out of this film and all of them feel like that could be the central focus. In the first part, mystery is at hand, in the second act it is obsession and the third transfers to both paranoia and hope. I always see this as a film that is ultimately about how the world can potentially be brought together by an event of this magnitude, or conversely how it could tear us apart. That dichotomy is the script again by the director himself. There are a hundred little moments that deserve more attention, and I hope that despite the fact that this is the first time I have written about this film, it won’t be the last and those moments will have some light shined on them as well. 

Addendum:

My friend Eric on the East Coast took his son to see this for the first time, while I was taking my daughter to see it today. Eric is a fine writer and he put together a nice post with a heartfelt message to Mr. Spielberg at the end. You might want to look at it here.

The Obligatory July 4th Post on JAWS

jaws at the egyptianDon’t let the title fool you, it is not just an obligation it is a pleasure to see and write about the greatest adventure movie of the second half of the last century [and so far, the first Sixteen years of the current one.]

No film has been covered as in depth on this blog site as the original Steven Spielberg classic. If you go back a year to the 40th anniversary, you will see that I saw the movie on the big screen four times in 10 days and did a different post on each one of those visits. You will also be able to find an extensive collection of posts at the following: Jaws Week.

It is late however, and I have some obligations in the next few hours so I will keep this years comments short.

First, I think this may be the first time I saw the movie at the Egyptian Theater, a spot that has become my go to cinema for classic films, including several events each year at the TCM Classic Movie Film Festival. The popcorn is good, the butter flavor rich and they have Coke Zero. Oh yeah, they also have the coolest old school design on the Boulevard.

In introducing the program and telling everyone the rules of conduct, our host tonight asked how many people were seeing the movie for the first time. I was flabbergasted to see nearly a third of the packed house raise their hands. While it surprised this veteran of at least a hundred trips to Amity over the years, it also created a great expectation on my part. I had to ask myself if the film would still work on a fresh audience that is jaded by the speed and CGI of today’s films. I can safely report that when Ben Gardner makes his final appearance in the movie, the screams were loud and people again levitated out of their seats.

When the shark first shows up in profile, there is another jump, and everyone still nervously laughs at Roy Scheider’s ad-libbed classic line. There are two more great scares, a dozen moments of levity that all break the tension in glorious ways and you can tell they were all working tonight. Finally, there was a loud outburst of cheers and applause when the hero solves the problem of the shark in a most satisfying conclusion.

As always, I picked up a couple more tidbits of information during the screening. In the hundred times I’ve seen the movie, this was the first time I noticed the timeline continuity error in the police report for Chrissy’s death and the date of the attack on Alex Kitner. Why I had not worried about it before is beyond me, but I think I’d go crazy if I worried about all those kinds of things. A movie is made up of a million moving parts and sometimes the cog in one section is out of synch with the gears in another section.

Something that bothers me a little more because it seems like it should be obvious. At dinner, when Quint is telling the story of the Indianapolis, I suddenly realize that he and Hooper have finished their meals and that Brody hasn’t even touched his food. It may be the framing on the big screen that makes this more noticeable, or maybe because Shaw is so compelling when he does the monologue, you don’t really take tour eyes off him much. So the Chief has a queasy stomach on the ocean with the more experienced sailors. That’s one more small detail that is so brilliant in making these characters real and representative of their types in the story.

I also think that different prints or sound systems may emphasize some parts of the music or the dialogue a bit more from one screening location to another. After forty years, it’s great to say the movie still succeeds and there are still small moments to discover.

 

AMC Tenth Anniversary Best Picture Showcase

It’s been an amazing ten years that AMC Theaters have put on the Best picture Showcase. In 2007, there were only five films nominated, continuing a long tradition since the 1940s of only including five films in the top category. In 2009 there was a change in the nomination process and up to 10 films would be honored as Best Picture Nominees. That’s when the Showcase evolved into a two day affair spread over two weekends. Since then we have had two years of ten nominations, two years of nine nominations and two years of eight nominations. While it is nice when extra films are included, the four a day weekends are a little easier to get through than the two five a day weekends they had when the rules first changed. Someday though, I hope to tackle the 24 hour marathon when they have eight to ten films play back to back in a single 24 hour period.

Shane, the AMC host for the event at Santa Anita

So this year, for some reason, I’ve not seen as many of the nominees as usual. That means I don’t have a lot of reviews to link back to. I will try yo make my comments extensive enough to give you a sense of the film, without necessarily giving you a full review.

Bridge of Spies

How it is that I missed a Steven Spielberg film, starring Tom Hanks and featuring Cold War spy intrigue is a mystery to me. I think that Mr. Spielberg has reached the point where everyone seems to take for granted that his films are going to be good. A bit like Meryl Streep, his movies get nominated a lot but don’t usually end up taking the prose. This is his third nominated film in the last five years, he has had eleven Best Picture Nominations in his career, but only one has taken home the top prize. It gets to the point where we just expect great work from him and then don’t need to confirm it with an award. As an artist with a high degree of consistency, Spielberg is hard to match and he has another excellent film with this movie.

The production design of this film is meticulous. The late fifties and early sixties are evoked in the subway rides and the vistas they reveal. Sometimes we are moving through an elevated train in Brooklyn, and other times crossing the border between East and West Berlin. The data that was being gathered by the Soviet agent is never described or explained, only the context of his arrest and the times. Tom Hanks Manhattan attorney works in the sort of firm you imagine would be found at the time, with big oak desks and solid doors with engraved nameplates to indicate the partner who’s office we are in. The bleak apartments and prisons of the Communist dominated sections of Germany are contrasted with lush Western hotels and meeting rooms. Only the Soviet courtroom where Francis Gary Powers is convicted, has the grandeur of the western locations.

Working without John Williams for the first time in forever, the music of Thomas Newman is dramatic without having a signature touch. Hanks is as usual excellent, but the stand out in a not quite wordless but certainly an economized set of lines is British Theater star Mark Rylance, playing a Soviet agent who remains unperturbed by his predicament. The impenetrable web of lies that the east Germans, Soviets and Americans  share with one another, has to be translated by the boy scout of an attorney played by Hanks, and there are national security issues in every step. It plays out effectively with the usual Spielberg professionalism and eye for details. The parallel images of boys jumping over neighbors back fences in New York and families being machine gunned as they try to cross the new wall in Berlin, is just one mark of that eye that Spielberg has for connecting the visual with the emotional.

Room

I’m not sure I have recovered from seeing this movie yet. A dark story that will horrify and inspire simultaneously, “Room” may be the best acted film nominated this year. Young Brie Larson is almost certainly going to be the winner of the Best Actress award. Her portrayal of a wounded lioness trying to raise her cub while at the same time learning to live with the damage done to her was remarkable. She works with a child actor equally gifted at this stage, Jacob Tremblay. The two of them are the focus of the film almost entirely, even in scenes with other actors, including accomplished veterans, they form the kind of symbiotic performance that makes your heart melt in one moment and freeze in the next.

The story is told effectively in the first half, with limited camera movement in a claustrophobic space that induces hopelessness. Even after the two emerge from the location of the first five years of young Jack’s life, they seem to still be trapped in that space. It is surprising that Jack, who has known nothing but “room” his whole life is the one who exits the cocoon with the least amount of difficulty. His mother Joy seems at first to be ready to be back in the world but the trauma of her experience is more likely to haunt her for a much longer time than her tough little kid. The scene where her parents and step father sit and confront the elephant in the room will show you how everyone was traumatized by the experience and also give you hope that Joy can recover. Her philosophy toward her son and his existence is humane and righteous, and the fact that her father can’t really deal with it crushes her despite her new won status.

The story is never exploitative, which says a lot for the screenplay and the director. It could have been a horror film or a melodrama, instead it is an opportunity to consider the reality that all sorts of crime perpetrate on our psyches. You may recoil at the suggestion of the media that Joy may have missed an opportunity at one point to spare her child, unfortunately you will also recognize the brutal nature of the news to find any point of controversy to exploit for interest sake. She is a young woman who survived a horrible tragedy, finds a way to rescue herself and her child and then gets second guessed by someone who can’t see that her life is still coming apart in spite of the fact that she is restored to her family. Anyone who doesn’t love animals may not get it, but the healing power of both real and imaginary dogs will cover you with a final warm message.

Mad Max: Fury Road

My third favorite film of the last year, Mad Max Fury Road is the kind of movie that I loved as a kid and would never expect to be nominated for Best Picture. Action films are often seen as mere entertainment and despite the fact that they have been put together in polished and inventive ways, they are mostly neglected at awards season. This is the fourth film in a series that has not been active for thirty years. As a reboot it expands the vision of the director and takes the real. in camera effects that make us movie fans, and puts them on the screen like they did in the days of Ben Hur.

 There is also much more of story here than you may at first believe. While the whole movie is a chase film, it is also a film that empowers it’s female characters and pushes back against the brutish domination of women that is often seen in action films. Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult are the real lead characters They play wounded souls who are aided reluctantly by the titular hero.

The Big Short

I am clearly not as smart as I’d wish to be. Even with Margot Robbie in a bathtub and Anthony Bourdain making metaphors in the kitchen. a lot of the financial hocus pocus this film was trying to show us was invisible to me. I have a vague understanding of the concepts but an unclear vision of how it was carried out. In an interesting way, none of the groups pictured in this story are the bad guys. They saw what was coming and did make a killing on it, but they simply screwed the real bad guys, whop were the incompetent and indifferent Wall Street types everyone worries about.

Written and directed as if it were a thriller. “The Big Short introduces us to a variety of characters that deserve admiration for their acumen and criticism for their scruples. It was put together from a non-fiction work that tried to explain how the economic meltdown of 2008 came about. According to the screenplay, avarice and stupidity combined with circumstances to bring about a situation where the housing market collapsed on itself. A combination of economic gurus, hedge fund analysts and up and comers anticipated the collapse and created a way to short the market that greedy banks and investment houses were all too willing to try to take advantage of.

The hit and run nature of the story does not give us much chance to care about the characters. We learn that Steve Carrell’s character has a tragedy, that Christian Bale’s character is a genius with no ability to connect to people, and that the character of Ryan Gosling is a weasel who simply cares about getting richer. Most of the action consists of people talking and screaming. Sometimes they are doing so in a humorous way, and every time they prove how stupid someone from an investment company. a government agency or a newspaper is, we get more depressed. After seeing “The Wolf of Wall Street” a couple of years ago, the director and screenwriter Adam McKay seems to have followed the director’s crib sheet and he tells the story through narration, comic freezes, and outrageous moments of human foibles. It’s a good film but I was not as impressed with it as I thought I might be. At least we skipped most of the drug use and sex parties of the Scorsese film.

Next week, the other four films, two of which I have seen and look forward to seeing again.