Saturday, September 23, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle




Upfront I want anyone reading this to know that I am a big fan of "Kingsman:The Secret Service". I am a sucker for British Spies and that maniacal dip into comic laced espionage was one of my favorite films of 2015. The cast was great and the over the top violence made the film feel very cartoonish in a good way. As a consequence, "The Golden Circle" enters this year's movie experiences as one of my most anticipated films. I looked forward to further adventures and there was a promise of a returned Colin Firth, which made me want to know how they were going to pull that off. The advance information also tipped us to the fact that we would connect with the American counterpart of the private intelligence agency, so this stoked my interest even more. The director, Matthew Vaughn, has made several films that I really enjoy, including my favorite film of 2010, so I had great confidence in his ability to pull this movie together. Such confidence has been rewarded my friends. "The Golden Circle" is what you hope it will be for the most part.

One of the things that I find attractive about the series is that it is not afraid to be a little politically incorrect. James Bond might be a sexist pig, but his attitude is always tempered by a PG-13 rating. Kingsman goes all out in using sexual exploitation for humorous purposes and that might make the series unappetizing to film goes who want their movies to be socially just. In "The Secret Service" there is a punchline based on a promise of a forbidden sex act. It's just the thing a 12 year old mentality would laugh at and the film is upfront about that. That joke was one of the widely criticized moments of the first film. Writer/Director Vaughn has taken that joke and turned it into a plot point for this film. I really appreciated that the Princess Tilde returns to this franchise in a greatly expanded role and with a lot more dignity. That however allows the original tasteless joke to be a background to two sexually inappropriate moments of humor in this film, one of them involving Elton John. The other moment will be the focus of criticism by haters for this film. It involves a GPS device and the mucus membrane, and it certainly is a sequence that will make delicate sensibilities squirm. That plot point aside, most of the rest of the film is standard comic violence with over the top moments of gruesomeness.

There is a second aspect of this film that I really appreciate as well. The plots of both of these movies turn trendy social issues on their heads and use them as the motivation for the villain's plot. Global Warming was the theme of the first film, Drug Legalization is the driving force for this movie. The aptly named Poppy, played by Julianne Moore, is motivated to make her product socially acceptable through the use of international hostage taking. It is a creative plan that to a large degree mimics the plot of the first film but still manages to allow some twists in the story. There is a great shot against the U.N. that puts the U.S. President in the story. Unlike the feckless Obama impersonator in the first film, this character gets lines and is played by a recognizable actor, Bruce Greenwood. His approach to the plot is as deranged as Poppy's so the two intelligence agencies here are caught between a rock and a hard place.  The only thing missing from this is a satisfying comeuppance for the players, in the manner of the delightful head exploding climax of the first film.

Restoring Harry Hart to the storyline of the Kingsman is tricky. Being shot in the face is a pretty definitive exit for a character. I appreciated that the solution here was not a quick fix and it ends up being a secondary plotline in the story. There is a pivotal point with a dog and that also insures additional pleasure for most viewers.  Colin Firth adds so much class to the project and in future episodes (should they be made) his character will lend gravitas to the proceedings. We do lose a couple of characters that really could have made future stories great as well, but in the long run the films have to circle around Taron Egerton's Eggsy and Firth's Harry Hart.

The Statesmen organization has several good characters to add to the film. Jeff Bridges is a welcome addition to any film and Halle Berry is a fun match for the American version of Mark Strong's character of Merlin. At the moment, these are background players, the really active American counterparts are played by Pedro Pascal and Channing Tatum. The major drawback that I have with the film is the under utilization of Tatum's character "Tequila".  After a solid introduction, he is sidelined for the remainder of the picture. Pascal's "Whiskey" has to carry the American load and does so effectively for most of the picture. There are some twists that feel a bit forced but they do make for a rousing conclusion to the movie.

While there is nothing as excessive as the church scene from the first film here, there are some great action scenes that use the mix of slow motion and accelerated filming that the church sequence used. This style appears to be Vaughn's signature touch and although it might be a bit cliched if over used, I thought it was reasonably judicious here. A cab chase at the start of the film and the final attack on the secret lair both take advantage of that style and it works well in those scenes. Much of the rest of the film is presented more traditionally, including initiation rituals for the bad guys and Elton John's scenes. Oh yeah, did I mention that Elton is in the movie? He is pretty funny sending himself up in feathered costumes and parodying his own drug troubles. Julianne Moore gets to abuse him a little but he verbally gives it right back in great comic form.

This movie can't quite reach the satisfaction level of the original, few sequels manage to do so. "The Golden Circle" however does entertain and it meets our need to have the action a little bit bigger and the comedy a little bit broader. It is jammed with characters that complicate the story but also provide a lot of jokes. They have managed to bring back a character from the dead in a credible way for an improbable, over the top, spy adventure. I don't know that it will win over many converts. If you disliked the first film you will certainly not care for this movie. If however, you are like me and took fiendish pleasure in the undermining of political correctness and the shear joy of silly violence just for the comedic effect, than the Kingsman Golden Circle is tailored perfectly for you.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Movies I Want Everyone to See: The Right Stuff

Originally Published on Fogs Movie Reviews Fall 2013
 right_stuff_ver2
Review by Richard Kirkham
Kids of my generation all had the same heroes, astronauts. We watched the launches and splash downs on television both at home and at school. Everyone knew who John Glenn was and the Moon landing in July of 1969 seemed like the greatest day in history. A lot of kids followed test pilots and experimental aircraft like they were ball players with statistics. By the time the Vietnam War was finally run out, and Watergate had drained us of much of the respect we had for our government, the space program had shriveled in size and Skylab had tumbled back to Earth. Astronauts had become at best technicians in the sky and often faceless. In 1979, Tom Wolfe published "The Right Stuff" which reminded us all of what it took to be an American Hero in the Space Race. The rights to the book were snapped up and plans for the movie began. Four years later emerged a film that would be called by many one of the finest films of the decade. It is not a forgotten film, but in many ways it is a neglected film. Readers on a site like this might know the movie intimately, but casual movie audiences are often unfamiliar with movies that lack a cult following or came out before they were born. Let's see if we can work on that.


right_stuff_ver1"The Right Stuff" is a terrific entertainment that I think too many people think of as a history lesson. It traces the origins of the space program from the test flights of jet planes in the aftermath of the Second World War, to the most dramatic points of the Space Race with the Soviet Union. The fifteen years that span the story do include a number of historical events but they are told in an entertaining way, which while not always accurate may give us a clearer view of history than any textbook is likely to achieve. Part of the problem the film faced from the beginning was the tie in that was made to the political process. A year before the 1984 Presidential election, John Glenn was an active candidate for the Democratic nomination. Time Magazine featured a cover picture, not of Glenn as an astronaut but of actor Ed Harris playing Glenn. Rolling Stone did an in depth article on Glenn that they titled "The Right Stiff", making a connection between his Boy Scout reputation and the forthcoming film. By the time the movie came out, it was viewed by many as a political story that might have an impact on the election. The ad campaign did little to distance itself from such a perception, featuring as it did, press conference shots and dramatic images of astronauts walking down a hallway plus a couple of posters making the characters out as Mount Rushmore type figures rather than real people.

Phillip Kaufman was partially responsible for Raiders of the Lost Ark and is credited along with George Lucas for the story. He also did the excellent remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" in 1978. He was not the first choice for directing this film and it appears that there were some contentious behind the scenes issues when it came to putting the movie together. Academy Award winning screenwriter William Goldman had his script dumped after a meeting with Kaufman and composer John Barry could not understand what Kaufman was looking for in the music for the film. He wrote his own version of the script, focusing on elements from Wolfe's book that seemed to favor the original test pilots out at Edwards Air Force Base as the last of the men who had "The Right Stuff". In the end he manages to bring the two parallel experiences together, and make all of the featured historical characters have that little bit of personal quality that defines them as real American heroes.

Perhaps his greatest directorial decision had to do with the way in which the flight scenes would be visualized on screen. Eschewing the use of animation and computer technology to a large degree, the flight sequences were largely done using techniques that had been pioneered during the days of Buck Rodgers in the 1930s. Models were flown on wires, chemicals were ignited on the outside of models, real jet flames were fitted into wooden life sized models of test craft. Real footage of rocket flights was combined with material produced for the film to give life to the successes and failures of the early space program.
the-right-stuff-shepherdChuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier is the main hero in the film, despite the fact that he is limited in the amount of screen time his character receives.  Yeager is the real deal, last year on the 65th anniversary of the sound barrier breakthrough, he repeated the experience, at age 89. In the movie he is portrayed by playwright and actor Sam Shepard. The part earned him an Academy Award Nomination as a quiet man who had a keener sense of the destiny of manned space flight than many of those in the space program itself. (Look for the real Chuck Yeager in the bit part of Fred, the barman at the Happy Bottom Riding Club.) The other breakout role belongs to Ed Harris playing John Glenn.  We get to understand Glenn's quiet charisma through Harris' subtle work. The one scene where he breaks out in a human conflict works because he has been such a steady and quiet presence through most of the film up until that point.

The movie is packed with wonderful actors doing excellent work. Scott Glenn and Fred Ward are two actors I am always happy to see because I remember them from this movie. Glenn plays first American in space Alan Shepard. In addition to Tom Wolfe's book, I have read several biographies and autobiographies of the astronauts of the 1960s, Shepard's "Moon Shot" is a great read and I saw Scott Glenn in every story that Shepard shared in his contributions. Gus Grissom was one of the first American casualties in the space age, and I would like to think he was the surly yet good humored man as played by Ward. The other astronauts get brief moments, with Dennis Quaid's  Gordo Cooper receiving nearly as much time as the big three of Harris, Glenn and Ward.  Fans of "Aliens" , "The Terminator" and one of my favorites "The Quick and the Dead" will be able to pick out Lance Henriksen as Wally Schirra, who is mostly background for the Mercury Seven.   Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer have small roles as NASA advance men, David Clennon is a publicist for the Air Force, and Donald Moffat a very familiar character actor plays L.B.J.. Royal Dano, the sonorously voiced character actor who did the voice of Abraham Lincoln for the Disney attraction, has a part as the harbinger of death.rstuff06

Let's not slight the ladies either. The cast of women who play Mrs. Honorable astronaut is equally impressive. The hugely undervalued Pamela Reed has one of her best parts as Cooper's long suffering wife. Veronica Cartwright who has worked in the business since she was a child (The Birds and Leave it to Beaver) has her best role outside of Alien playing Betty Grissom. Barbara Hershey is beautiful and tough as the woman that Chuck Yeager names the X-1 after. The wife of the cinematographer was cast in the part of shy and stuttering Annie Glenn, Mary Jo Deschanel is also the mother of Zoey Deschanel the "doe eyed It girl" of the decade. Oh yeah, Kim Stanley and Kathy Baker are also in the cast, it was Baker's first cinema role and Stanley's last.

What all these talented people managed to do was to bring history to life. Not the history of a textbook but the everyday drama of people who happen to be living through history. The seven Mercury Astronauts became famous before they ever went into space, but they were men who had strengths and weaknesses like any one else. Those characteristics are integrated into the film in a very effective way. The tender scenes between the Glenns feel real even though we were not privy to them in history. The struggle of the Grissoms, after Gus's capsule is lost, may be exaggerated but it feels like a slice of reality television as we watch them cope with a less than perfect mission. Most of the astronauts ended up in second and third marriages and we get to see how the strain of being an American Icon could contribute to a failed marriage. The movie is filled with humor as well. Some of that humor is of the gallows type as the astronauts face the dangers that were space exploration. Some of the humor is a little juvenile but reflects the way they tried to blow off the pressures they are faced with. The Air Force song and Marine Hymn have never competed in a more hysterical way than in the medical evaluation scenes in the middle of the film.

There are plenty of technical accolades to spread around as well. The costumes and sets were top notch. The sound and editing won the Academy Awards for that year. Bill Conti who is best known for writing the "Rocky" theme, won the Academy Award for best score for this movie. It is a somewhat controversial decision because much of the music was cribbed from other classical composers. Conti  made sure that all of them were credited so that he was not accused of plagiarism. The theme he came up with is integrated with the other music seamlessly and that probably accounts for his winning the award. Just as an aside, he was the conductor of the Academy orchestra who got ignored/dissed by Julia Roberts the night she won her Academy Award for Erin Brockovich.


9.-The-Right-Stuff-Philip-Kaufman-1983There are some incredibly iconic moments in the film. There may have been earlier uses of the shot, but this was the first time I remember seeing the men walking abreast toward the camera shot in this manner. Clearly when they are all in their flight suits and helmets, moving down the long hallway, we have some men on a mission. Those men can be seen to be serious. The shot has been done a thousand times since and it is parodied quite often as well but this was the first time I can say I was impressed by the idea. I won't say it was invented here but I will say it was perfected.
Again, I don't know that it first appeared here but it was the earliest vivid image I can think of of a man walking away from a crash or explosion and not turning back.




Chuck Sam Shepard's Yeagar barely escapes from a fiery crash and he walks across the desert floor toward the rescue vehicle coming for him, he has a determined look and never glances backwards. Levon Helm, the drummer and sometimes singer for "The Band", played Yeager's buddy Ridley  gets a great come back line that tells us who really has the "Right Stuff" as the ambulance pulls up. Helm also did the narration of the opening and closing lines of the movie and his voice is perfect for the tone of the film.

Had the movie been a bigger financial success, I'm sure it would have mopped up at awards time. The lack of box office tainted the film a bit so that it is critical success that defines it today rather than awards. Those of you who have read my material before know that "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Jaws"  are my two favorite films. This would probably make my top ten list most days. More important however is the fact that this is the favorite film of my spouse of 33 years. Had I not made this recommendation I would have to answer to her. "The Right Stuff" is on regular rotation at our house with a couple of viewings a year. You should revisit it if it has been a while, and if you have never seen it before, what is wrong with you?


Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

35th Anniversary Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan



One of the great movie experiences of my life was seeing Star Trek the Wrath of Khan when it opened in 1982. I was a huge fan of the original series and when the first film came out I was there on opening day. A lot of people seem to be disappointed in Star Trek the Motion Picture, but I ate it up and the audiences turned out in droves. Despite some lingering negative feelings it was a huge hit. In spite of the fact that Wrath of Khan was the second film in the series, it felt like the film franchise was being rebooted. The action was going to be more dramatic, the uniforms for the Federation were dramatically different, but the best thing about this film was that it would focus so much more on the relationship between the three main characters on the Enterprise.

Admiral Kirk is unsatisfied with a desk position in Star Fleet. Spock is now the Captain of our beloved ship, and Dr. McCoy continues to be the kind of sage friend that both of them need to have in their lives. The film begins with a fake out on the rumored death of Spock, and then gradually refocuses on the melancholy that seems to hang over Kirk as he faces the fact that he is indeed getting older. The Enterprise is a cadet training vessel and it suddenly gets called into service and Kirk, McCoy and Spock are reunited on the bridge that we always want to see them at. There are the usual crew aboard and a new character that held the promise of important things to come. One of the old crew is now the First Officer on another Federation vessel ( or wessel as he was likely to pronounce it) , Captained by actor Paul Winfield. In the process of finding a location for an important experiment, they happen upon an old nemesis of Captain Kirk and the fireworks begin.

So many Star Trek tropes are introduced in this film that it already feels like the start of a new show. This is the film that gave us the Kobayashi Maru, the refusal to accept the No Win scenario, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", "I have been and always shall be your friend", "Khaaannnn", the old Klingon proverb and a dozen more. Kirk gets a lot of back story with the introduction of two other characters and the effect is to make the film even more personable. The biggest impression however is made by the guest star returning to a character introduced in the original series, Ricardo Montalban. He not only steals the Reliant, he steals the movie with his bare chest and long flowing white hair. Montalban spews out the lines with an elegance at one moment and a spiteful vengeance in the next. He is the embodiment of the genetically engineered superman that supposedly practically conquered earth in the 1990s, two centuries earlier. He mixes Shakespeare and Melville and still is convincing as he outwits and is outwitted by Kirk.

The first time I saw the film was at the National Theater in Westwood on opening day. It was a beautiful wide and large auditorium with a gold motif and curtains. It was famously the Theater where "The Exorcist" first played in Los Angeles, and it was only just now that I discovered it has been torn down for almost a decade. The movie was packed and the sound system was terrific. The impact of the film on me at the time was profound. Characters that I had loved were getting old or dying, the ship that we marveled at is severely damaged, and there is a bagpipe salute that will bring a tear to any stout hearted Trekker.

The Fathom event that put this back in Theaters featured a so called "Director's Cut". Nicholas Meyer who is responsible for putting the movie together with one fourth of the budget of the previous film did a fantastic job in 1982, but there were a few things he was unhappy about. The final scenes of the casket on the Genesis planet were filmed and added against his wishes, he wanted Spock to stay dead. According to the information being screened before the movie, he has subsequently acknowledged that he was wrong and that the scene works for the series. Most of the additions are small moments with a single line or two that elaborate on the characters motivations or fill in a plot element. The best additions were some small scenes that clarified that cadet Preston is Scotty's nephew and then Mr. Scott gets a better dramatic scene after the first attack on the Enterprise.

Before the program this evening, I watched the Original Episode "Space Seed" last night. Khan's impervious nature in that show has given way to personal vendetta in the film, and that works really well given how the plot sets up his situation. William Shatner was interviewed for about twenty minutes as an extra for the event and he was entertaining and eccentric as heck. He conflated a couple of the movies as he was talking about them, but he was an impressively sharp 86 year old. He seems quite vital and he keeps pretty busy. Kirk was always my favorite on the show. Spock was the popular character and I loved Leonard Nimoy, but let's face it, Captain Kirk was about as close as you could get to James Bond in space. He had a string of lovelies across the galaxy and he got to ham it up on a regular basis. His shouting of the name exemplifies the theatricality of his performances but also fits with the nature of his character.

Frankly, I may not stop smiling for a few days. From the first notes of James Horner's score with the Alexander Courage theme woven in, to the Amazing Grace electronic music at the end, I was hooked. This is another commercial for a video release, but it is exactly the kind of value added commercial that makes me want to spend my money and reward everyone involved. The word is given, Warp Speed my friends.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

It



I have seen a building enthusiasm for this film since the first trailer appeared. It has a startling look in the most famous scene from the story, and it is enough to get buzz going for the film. A few weeks ago, as I was watching another Warner Brothers film, they played a five minute sequence from it as a promo for the movie. That short segment was terrifying and amped me up for this movie in a way that I was having a hard time believing. I like some Stephen King properties but I have never anticipated them like a Star Wars film, but something here got under my skin. I am writing this a couple of days late because I have been traveling. We saw the film in one of the Thursday night early screenings and it was packed. This movie is clearly going to be huge.

All that said, I may be bursting a few floating red balloons with this next statement. "It" is not as frightening as you hope it will be, but it is better put together and acted than you have any right to hope. Not having read the book or seen the mini-series that was made from it, I have no reference for how the story is supposed to play out but there are a couple of things that are obvious right away. This movie is really a coming of age story with some fantastic elements and those are designed to scare us almost as much as the daily horrors that are part of growing up. All of the kids in the story are outsiders who have been labeled as losers. Each one is a stereotype that we have seen in other movies before. The sensitive nominal lead is a kid who is struggling with the loss of a beloved sibling. There is a chubby kid with a heart of gold and the soul of a poet who will be overlooked as a romantic interest in spite of being bright and charming. We have a needy Mama's boy who is a little to cowardly to be that shallow and will reveal himself as more than he appears before it is all through. The four other kids include a girl with a secret, the one Jewish kid in town, and a geek with a severe case of coulrophobia and let's not forget the one black kid in the neighborhood as well.

This version of the story begins in the eighties. I understand originally it was a fifties setting so that the adult part of the story would be contemporary for when the book and TV movie came out. The update does a couple of things,. First it will allow the adult story that is going to follow this chapter of the saga to take place in our times. More importantly, it sets the kids story in a period where nostalgia runs deep for modern film audiences. One look at this group of kids and there will be visions of "The Goonies" running through the minds of Gen-Xers and millennials. There is even a sly reference to the John Hughes films that so absorb the geek film audience of these times. All of this is managed with some splendid child performances by the young cast. Finn Wolfhard plays Richie, the geek with a filthy mouth. It is certainly no accident that the thing he is known for is the Streaming series "Stranger Things", a show that wallows in the same sort of 80s nostalgia.Jaeden Liebeher is Bill, the central character who has guilt issues that mimic King's character Gordie LaChance from "Stand By Me". He is a solid child actor, I have yet to catch up with his performance in "Midnight Special" but he was memorable in "St. Vincent" a film I can easily recommend.   Sophia Lillis is the right combination of tough girl and sensitive soul. Her character's story is probably the darkest of the kids and she plays it as a delicate balance of fear and openess. The performer who really steals the movie for me was Jeremy Ray Taylor, who plays Ben, the new kid who also happens to be the chubby kid. His struggle to talk to a girls, walk his bike and hold onto a school project at the same time is a perfect rendition of a kid at that age. His character has been well written but he was also nicely cast and the impact on the audience i a couple of spots shows that he may have generate the most empathy of anyone in the story.

The elephant in the room is Bill Skarsgård, the actor who portrays Pennywise the dancing clown. We get hints of the history of this character but nothing more than musings. Whether he is a real monster or a creation of the id of all these characters, Pennywise will do for clowns what Clark Gable did to undershirts in "It Happened One Night". Along with John Wayne Gacy, Pennywise does more to justify fear of clowns than anything else I can think of. Skarsgård has a distinctive lilt to his voice in this film. At times he sounds almost like a benign entertainer, but one look at those eyes and that deceptive smile and kids will run. The most frightening part of the film happens at the beginning of the film when cute as a button Jackson Robert Scott playing little brother Georgie, meets Pennywise at the storm drain. All the other horror moments in the film seem conventional in comparison to the exchange of dialogue and the slow paced bad choice that Georgie makes. The plaintive expression on the clowns face belies the evil that resides there and the quirky voice pattern makes us doubt that there is any danger at all. The crawling of your skin however should be enough to make you run in the opposite direction.

Like most horror films, every few minutes the audience is provided a jump scare or a sequence of building tension with a visual hook to it. None of these moments contains the same gut level terror in that opening moment. There is one scene featuring an old slide projector that comes close but too much has been revealed in the trailers to make it work as well as it should. At the climax, there is a little more of Pennywise and his dialogue than is advisable. The more tangible the character is, the less frightening he seems. As I said earlier, this is more of a coming of age film than a fright fest. The confrontation at the end makes this feel more like an action film and less supernatural, in spite of all the supernatural elements.  I still quite admire the film, it's just that it is less of what I was hoping for and more conventional than I wanted. Still it is a quality picture and if clowns creep you out to begin with than maybe "It" will succeed in giving you the nightmares that I somehow missed out on.  


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Lambcast: MOTM "In the Loop"

My contribution is minimal but the conversation is lively and filled with quotes from the film.



Monday, September 4, 2017

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 Roy 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.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Harrison Ford Draft on the Lambcast Podcast




I was a last minute substitute on this podcast and lucked into the first pick.
I wonder what I should choose.
Take some time and go vote for my slate of Harrison Ford Films HERE.