Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Latest Movie Quiz

Dennis Cozzalio has done another one of his splendid movie quizzes over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. I always enjoy filling these out (and reading how other folks have responded as well). Here are my latest answers.


1) Your favorite opening shot (Here are some ideas to jog your memory, if you need ‘em.)

There are a number of opening shots that I really love, but I don't know that any first image in a movie could ever possibly get much better than the simple, but enormously effective, ultra-slow reverse zoom on Bonasera's face as he relates his tale of woe to The Godfather.

2) Tuesday Weld or Mia Farrow?

Whichever one didn't call Spielberg the "Leni Riefenstahl" of the Olympics.

3) Name a comedy you’re embarrassed to admit made you laugh

I'm not embarassed to admit it, but the Don Knotts/Tim Conway comedy The Private Eyes always makes me laugh even though I often feel like I'm the only one in the world who finds it funny.

Best Movie of 1947

Not sure I'm qualified to pick the "best" movie of '47 but I think one of the most under-appreciated movies of that year is Robert Montgomery's experimental first-person POV adaptation of Chandler's noir classic Lady in the Lake.

5) Burt Reynolds was the Bandit. Jerry Reed was the Snowman. Paul LeMat was Spider. Candy Clark was Electra. What’s your movie handle?

"The Omen"

6) Robert Vaughn or David McCallum?

Bobby, baby!

7) Most exotic/unusual place/location in which you've seen a movie

I used to own a pocket television when I was younger and my introduction to a few movies (including Midnight Run as I recall) came from a black-and-white screen no bigger than a business card as I was tucked away in my bed late at night.

8) Favorite Errol Morris movie

The only one I've seen is The Thin Blue Line.

9) Best Movie of 1967

Well, continuing my theme of "most underappreciated" movie, I tend to feel that the cinematic value of In Cold Blood is somewhat overshadowed by the significance of its source material. Yes, it's a historic book, but (not unlike To Kill a Mockingbird,) it could also very well be a truly great film.

10) Describe a profoundly (or not-so-profoundly) disturbing moment you’ve had courtesy of the movies

Earlier this year I brought home a movie from the video store entitled Film Geek about a lonely, eccentric young man working in an Oregon video store whose whole life basically revolved around movies and who ran a website devoted to that very subject. I have to say that, while being well aware of the many similarities I shared with him, I was disturbed by how utterly pathetic I found the character to be. What disturbed me even more was later when someone whom I had never even met possessed sufficient enough inisight to liken me to this same character. In case you've never experienced it, there's nothing more unsettling than seeing yourself in a movie and not liking what you see.

11) Anne Francis or Julie Newmar?

Julie Newmar because she was in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

12) Describe your favorite one sheet (include a link if possible)

Again, there are so many great ones, but the sheer simplicity and raw emotional power of the Unforgiven teaser poster is hard to surpass.

13) Best Movie of 1987

As before I wouldn't say it's the best movie of that year, but 1987 was the 25th anniversary of the first James Bond film and the producers marked that occasion by releasing a very respectable entry in the series (called The Living Daylights) which featured the debut of a woefully undervalued Timothy Dalton as a tougher, more intense Bond. I remember going to see it opening night on my family's first day of vacation in Seattle and there was literally a line around the block at the theatre. EVERYONE wanted to see the new Bond. It's interesting to me that so many people now are praising Daniel Craig's grittier, edgier interpretation of the Ian Fleming character (and this is not to take away from Craig's performance at all, because I thought it was fabulous), but he's not exactly doing anything new.

14) Favorite movie about obsession

My usual answer would be Vertigo, but I recently re-watched The Prestige and can't help but think that that's also a pretty decent meditation on the destructive nature of obsession.

15) Your ideal Christmas movie triple feature

I'd probably start with two rather unconventional choices like Die Hard and Gremlins and then end with the more seasonally-appropriate and inspiring It's a Wonderful Life (I still tear up when Stewart cries "Please, God. I want to live again.").

16) Montgomery Clift or James Dean?

With all due respect to Dean (who was indeed great in Rebel Without a Cause), I don't know how anyone who has ever seen the performance that Montgomery Clift gave in his one scene in Judgement at Nuremberg could not pick him.

17) Favorite Les Blank Movie

I have yet to see one, but in scanning his list of films on IMDB I see he did a short about Huey Lewis and the News. Gotta go with that one.

18) This past summer food critic Anton Ego made the following statement: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize that only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Your thoughts?

I remember when I saw Ratatouille in the theatre and I first heard that speech. I thought it was very compelling. I still do.

19) The last movie you watched on DVD? In a theater?

DVD: Blade Runner Final Cut
Theatre: No Country For Old Men


20) Best Movie of 2007

Of the relatively few film's I've seen so far this year, I'm going to have to say No Country for Old Men.

21) Worst Movie of 2007

That would be Transformers.

22) Describe the stages of your cinephilia

(most ages are approximate)

2 - 8: As a young child we had a lot of movies around the house (my father got into the video business in its beginning years) and I spent a lot of time in front of the TV. My parents also took me to see a fair amount of films in the theatre (my earliest memories are of seeing The Muppet Movie and The Empire Strikes Back on the big screen). I wouldn't say that I necessarily loved movies more than any other pursuits/activities. They were simply a part of my everyday life like food, clothes, etc. In other words, they were just... there. The pendulum wasn't even moving. It was resting motionless in the center.

9 - 16: One day my dad brought home a video camera and I realized that I could create products similar to the ones I had grown up watching. Thus, a fascination for the mechanics of movie-making was born and I began to devour as many movies, books about movies and even movies about movies (such as the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark) as I could. I also began collecting soundtracks and learning whole films by heart (including my personal favorite to recite: Back to the Future). My tastes ran exclusively to Hollywood movies (past and present). The pendulum finally swung to one side.

17 - 24: As I was beginning to leave my teen years and enter adulthood, my love of movies slowly shifted to a love of cinema. Works like Schindler's List introduced me to the concept of film as an art and not just as an enertainment. In college my friend Tucker broadened my horizons with silent, foreign and arthouse films and their directors (whose names I had never heard of nor could properly pronounce). I came to the painful realization that I was an "expert" in a subject that I really knew nothing about. While it was humbling it also, unfortunately, led to my becoming a "film snob." The more I learned about Truffaut, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, et al, the more elitist I became. To borrow my friend Tucker's phrase: "If it didn't have subtitles, I wasn't interested." The pendulum swung way back to the other side.

25 - present: Eventually my cinephiliac arrogance tempered itself as I rediscovered my affection for the so-called "simple" pleasures of Hollywood filmmaking and realized that there was just as much artistic value in something made by Bryan Singer as there was by Louis Malle. I've also finally embraced the fact that I will always be learning about film. Indeed, I will be a lifelong student. Thus, the pendulum has found its way back to the middle once again, but unlike my early years it is still in motion and while I don't know where it will take me next I am eager to find out.

23) What is the one film you’ve had more difficulty than any other in convincing people to see or appreciate?

See #3

24) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth?

Laura is one of my favorite films.

25) The Japanese word wabi denotes simplicity and quietude, but it can also mean an accidental or happenstance element (or perhaps even a small flaw) which gives elegance and uniqueness to the whole. What film or moment from a film best represents wabi to you?

I miss being able to see both the chain below the bike and the tracks underneath the road signs at the bottom of the screen in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Those are two genuine mistakes that I think add a lot to the charm and artistry of that film.

26) Favorite Documentary

I think you've asked this question before, Dennis, and my answer's still the same. Clear Cut: the Story of Philomath, Oregon.

27) Favorite opening credit sequence

Once again, there are so many, but I think that the opening credits that Kyle Cooper designed for David Fincher's Se7en are truly extraordinary. I don't know that I've ever seen a main title sequence, for a film released in my lifetime at least, simultaneously prepare an audience so adequately for what they are about to experience, capture the "essence" of a film so succinctly or prove to be so innovative and (as can be seen from the number of imitators that subsequently followed) so influential.

28) Is there a film that has influenced your lifestyle in a significant or notable way? If so, what was it and how did it do so?

Now this I am somewhat embarassed to admit, but I am known by my friends for wearing a lot of black. Not because I like Goth or am a particularly morose individual, but because I think it's a very beautiful and elegant (not to mention easy-to-match) color to wear. However, it wasn't until I saw the Bruce Willis vanity project Hudson Hawk that it really occurred to me how striking all black can look on a person. It may not have turned me into a cat burglar, but when a single film can inform one's fashion sense to such a degree, I think that qualifies as influencing a person's lifestyle.

29) Glenn Ford or Dana Andrews?

See #24

30) Make a single prediction, cynical or hopeful, regarding the upcoming Academy Awards

Not a prediction really, but Oscar night is of my favorite days of the year, so I REALLY hope that it happens.

31) Best Actor of 2007

While I consider Daniel Day-Lewis and Johnny Depp two of our finest living actors (and I've yet to see There Will be Blood and Sweeney Todd), I watched Death Proof not too long ago and I think what Kurt Russell did in that film was beyond excellent.

32) Best Actress of 2007

This is going to sound terrible but I can't think of a performance by an actress that really stood out to me this year.

33) Best Director of 2007

At this point, I'm going to say the Coen brothers

34) Best Screenplay of 2007

I always feel it's unfair to answer this question without actually having read any of the screenplays.

35) Favorite single movie moment of 2007

I don't know if this qualifies or not because it didn't actually occur during a movie (it's a more of a favorite moment inspired by a movie), but it occurred to me about 20 minutes after walking out of the theatre that the first 2/3 of Bourne Ultimatum actually took place in between the penultimate scene and the finale of its predecessor Bourne Supremacy, thus providing more information on the conversation between Matt Damon and Joan Allen, seen in the previous film, and throwing it into a whole new light (an aspect of the film I didn't see anyone mention in any of the reviews). The pleasure of this moment of realization was further elevated by the fact that I sent my observation to David Bordwell--in response to a piece he wrote on the film--and he very kindly mentioned my name on his blog (despite my cautioning him that he might receive some flack for doing so). Anyway, it's probably my favorite "movie moment" of 2007 because it reminded me once again that I still do know a thing or two when comes to movies, something that I had sort of lost sight of during this past year.

36) What’s your wish/hope for the movies in 2008?

Add my voice to the chorus of eager/nervous fans who don't want the fourth Indiana Jones film to totally suck blubber.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The "Kidd" From Brooklyn

Four days ago (just on the cusp of Chrismas Eve), the great Michael Kidd died from cancer in his L.A. home. He was 92.

Kidd was born Milton Greenwald on August 12, 1919 in Brooklyn, New York. Although he studied engineering in school, Kidd soon discovered a passion and talent for dance and would go on to become one of Broadway's greatest choreographers (working on such shows as Finian's Rainbow, Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, Lil' Abner, Destry Rides Again, Brigadoon and The Goodbye Girl) sulminating in five Tony Award wins. Kidd eventually emigrated to Hollywood where he worked both in motion pictures (choreographing films like Where's Charley?, Star!, Hello Dolly! and The Band Wagon) and television (directing episodes of All in the Family and Laverne and Shirley). Though he never won an Academy Award for his spectacular film work (nor, unbeliaveably, was he ever even nominated) Kidd did receive an honorary Oscar in 1996.

However, for most people (including myself), Kidd will always be remembered primarily for his amazing contribution to MGM's 1954 musical (and one of my personal favorite films) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a work which may very well feature Kidd at his most creative. The truly interesting thing about this story is how it almost didn't come to be. Initially, Kidd did not want to be involved in the film as he had just come off a Broadway project and wanted a rest. He changed his mind after hearing the splendid score but only agreed to be involved as a general "movement instructor" and not a choreographer as he could never make himself believe that seven strapping "backwoodsy" brothers could possibly dance at the level of a typical movie musical without it looking silly or incredulous. He feared audiences would either laugh at the antics on screen or storm out of the theatre in a huff (a la Singin' in the Rain) or perhaps worse. Director Stanely Donen agreed to include no dancing in the picture, but shortly after Kidd was brought on board, Donen promptly did an about-face saying: "Well, Mike, as long as you're involved in this movie we might as well have some dancing in it." At first Kidd was not pleased at all, but his commitment to the lack of believability in seeing big, strong loggers prance and twirl about like ballet dancers compelled him to come up with a most elegant solution.

His approach was to have the dance numbers centered around typical country activities like chopping wood, raising a barn, etc. Thus, the brothers movement, while still not perhaps technically dancing, are far more consistent with the world that the movie creates and the sequences that Kidd designed were (and still are) enthralling, exciting, funny and, at times, perhaps even a bit suspenseful. Nowhere is this more perfectly represented than in the brilliant six-and-a-half-minute dance sequence that serves more or less as the signature set piece of the whole film. It's a scene that I've watched at least twenty times and I swear I still never get tired of it. Note how the number starts out relatively simple and straightfroward but as it progresses, and the brothers try harder and harder to "one-up" the other suitors and win the affection of the ladies, the level of athleticism required for the feats builds and builds until by the end, in a remarkably adept bit of movement, Frank Pontipee (Tommy Rall) is flipping through the air without the use of his hands. Throughout it all, though, we as an audience accept its "reality" because of the subtle degrees by which it arrived at that point.

So, check it out. It's sheer perfection right down to the little spin and hop into the men's arms that the girls do at the very end.



So, rest in peace, Michael. Thank you for providing the world with some beauty while you were here.


MICHAEL KIDD (1915-2007)

Monday, December 24, 2007

"What's This?"

It's a snowflake, Jack. Welcome to Christmastown.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE!

P.S. I promise I will start writing again very soon. In fact, it's my New Year's resolution to "get back on the horse" and become a regular blogger again. Thank you all for your patience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"You cut the turkey without me?"

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE!"

-Quote provided by Barry Levinson's AVALON (1990)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Faith & Suffering in Shadowlands

"Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."

Suffering is a part of life. At some point in our time spent on this Earth we are all confronted with this truth. Charles Grodin begins his autobiography It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here with the anecdote: "I remember crying once as a little boy (I forgot why) and thinking that if this was the best life had to offer, I wasn't so sure about going on." I mention this passage because it eerily reflects one of my own experiences. I also remember crying once when I was younger (like Chuck, I don't recall the reason or even the exact circumstances) and disliking it to the point that I wasn't so crazy about continuing on with this life if it was going to involve this. It's not that I was contemplating suicide or anything like that. I was just desperately searching for a way to "bargain" with life such that I wouldn't have to endure any more pain.

For some individuals this is where the dealing with the reality of pain begins and ends. My college professor once said that there are two kinds of people in this world: philosophers and drug addicts. The drug addict merely goes through life looking for the next distraction to keep himself occupied. The philosopher actually faces into the tough issues that life has to offer. He asks questions and seeks answers. Even as a youngster (though I was beginning to display "drug addict" tendencies in my desire to sidestep as much pain as possible) I was also already launching my tenure as a lifelong philosopher because in the midst of my tears I was asking a simple but vital question: "Why?"

"Why?" is a very important question. In fact, "Why?" may be the most important question a person can ever ask in his lifetime. The question of "Why?" particularly seems to surface in the face of extreme hardship. As the aforementioned college professor wrote once in a book: "Our questioning is not really from a desire to know the particular meaning of the particular event. More importantly, it is from a desire to be assured that it has any meaning at all." In other words, does my suffering serve some purpose? Is there meaning behind it? Or rather is it pointless and arbitrary? Is it simply another random occurence in a cold, unfeeling and ultimately absurd universe? Well, as a Christian, quite obviously I believe that there is meaning to suffering (and consequently to life) and some of my favorite stories deal with this very theme. That's why, when I heard a while back about RC's Film + Faith Blog-a-thon over at Strange Culture, I knew exactly which film I was going to write about... well, it was this one or The Mission.

Some of my real-life heroes have been extraordinary indviduals who stood up against incredible odds to fight for some form of liberty for themselves and their fellow man (Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Oskar Schindler, etc), but some of my other heroes happen to be a more mundane, less "romantic" historical figures. One in particualr holds a special place in my heart. This fellow didn't start any great revolutions. He didn't free or save millions of people. He was just an ordinary guy who dealt with what life threw at him in a very real and very forthright way. It is precisely the "ordinary-ness" of author C.S. Lewis that makes him, in my mind, heroic and noble. Ironically, when it comes to Lewis' writing, I am not necessarily his biggest fan. His fiction (primarily the Chronicles of Narnia series) is pleasant enough but a little too allegorical for my taste (I actually prefer the books of his friend and fellow "Inkling" J.R.R. Tolkien), but I love his more "philosophical" efforts (such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, etc). Although I admit I haven't read as much of his work as I would like to, the reason I respect and admire Lewis has less to do with his achievements as a writer and more to do with his experiences as a human being.

Though raised in a religious family, Lewis became an atheist in his teen years. It was actually Tolkien who helped convert him back to theism and Lewis ended up becoming one of the great Christian apologists. Certainly no stranger to suffering (having fought in the trenches of WWI), Lewis wrote some thought-provoking meditations on reconciling the existence of evil and the reality of human suffering with the concept of a righteous, loving and omnipotent God in such works as The Problem of Pain. Lewis' theodicy was well-developed, intelligent and rational.

"God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

Then something significant happened. Lewis met and fell in love with an American woman named Joy Gresham. Joy moved to England with her two sons (David and Douglas) and she and Lewis were married in 1956 and lived relatively happily together for four years. In 1960, Joy died of Bone cancer and a short time later, in 1963, Lewis himself followed. During the intervening three years, Lewis struggled quite a bit with the loss of Joy. Though it was not Lewis' first occasion doing so (his mother also died of a cancer when Lewis was very young), for some reason Joy's death seems to have affected him deeper than anythings else he had ever endured up to that point. This challenged Lewis' faith to an incredible extent and in his book A Grief Observed, Lewis lays out very honestly and openly not only the bereavement felt over the death of his beloved wife but the anger, the fear and the general questioning felt in the face of a possibility that God is not real or, perhaps worse, that He is not good. The text is such an outpouring of a person's emotions, doubts and vulnerabilities. To read A Grief Observed is to see a man lay his innermost being completely bare, to gain insight into a soul in turmoil.

"No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear."

Interestingly, A Grief Observed was initially published under a pseudonym and never mentioned his wife by name. Thus, a number of Lewis' friends recommended the book to him thinking it might be of some help to him. I find this scenario not only ironic but also extremely revealing because it suggests that Lewis' own friends didn't recognize him in his writing. This indicates to me that his musings in A Grief Observed were unlike any writing he had ever done before. Indeed, I first read it during somewhat of a dark period in my own life and found that it "felt" completely different from, say, Mere Christianity (which I had also recently read at the time). The Lewis who wrote before Joy's death and the Lewis who wrote after it seeemed to me like two completely different men. It's as if the first Lewis had it all figured out and the second Lewis wasn't quite so sure anymore. The Lewis who wrote a A Grief Observed is the Lewis whose perspective on pain was really put to the test, who was given more of an intense taste of the kind of acute, almost crippling, anguish and heartache that life has offer. Thus, he gained a deeper understanding and more profound appreciation of what pain truly is, what it does to us and, of course, whether or not it has purpose.

"Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn."

Being that C.S. Lewis is one of my heroes and his story is an extremely moving one to me, it should come as no shock to people that one of my favorite films is Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands as it dramatizes the period in Lewis' life I have described above. Shadowlands actually began as a 1985 BBC-TV movie written by William Nicholson starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom (of which I've only seen bits and pieces a long time ago) and was then adapted by Nicholson into a stageplay. It was this stageplay that served as the basis for the 1993 film which features the great Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy. While I've been told that the earlier version is far more subtle, less "Hollywood" in its style and sensebilities and contains fewer liberties taken with Lewis' story (the two Gresham sons, for example, are combined into one child for the '93 version) it would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss the later version's "gloss" for lack of substance. Certainly the film is handsomely shot and exceptionally well acted but, in fact, there is quite a bit about it that is very "un-Hollywood." First off, while some might find it emotionally manipulative I find it to be very restrained and low-key. Also, while many films are content to simply use tragedy as a means for injecting "drama" into a love story (cancer almost always serves quite effectively in that capacity) without unpacking its deep and lasting effects on real flesh-and-blood human beings, Shadowlands faces directly into the provocoative complexities of dealing with suffering and death... especially in the context of spiritual faith.

Sometimes it seems to me that faith is perceived nowadays as a kind of unflinching optimism; a delusionary reassurance in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that "all will be well;" it amounts to little more than closing one's eyes, covering one's eyes and singing "LA! LA! LA!" in the face of any and all adversity. In this sense, the idea of faith is almost always associated with blindness or ignorance, a phenomenon with which I must admit I don't necessarily see a lot of virtue. In essence, that kind of faith is really just another way of distracting one's self, another drug for the addict to take to deaden the pain rather than actually deal with it. I'm not so sure that God wants us to be a bunch of "Pollyannas," only seeing good everywhere and not admitting that oftentimes things just plain suck, taking pleasure in our pain as if we were masochists. I think He wants us to look squarely into the darkness that exists and acknowledge it for what it is (this includes seeing the darkness in ourselves as well). A lot of the time this involves anger, sadness and a whole other range of sensations that really don't feel very good. If one can emerge from the other end of this tunnel of misery and still have hope, then I think one can be more assured of his faith.

This is where pain and suffering can serve a purpose. A faith that has actually learned to confront the harsh reality of pain seems to me to be a deeper and stronger faith. It's a faith that, as the book of James says, is "tested by fire." Naturally that doesn't make the testing process itself any easier. Lewis understood that but he didn't really come to grips with it until Joy was taken from him. He did not abandon his faith before his passing, but he did have great difficulty holding onto it. In the end, Lewis' faith was a well-earned one. He held his beliefs not because he simply refused to confront reality, but rather because he confronted reality. He did not have blind faith. On the contrary, he had eyes to see.

Just as I would recommend Lewis' book A Grief Observed to anyone going through a rough period in their life, I feel I can recommend Shadowlands to anyone who has ever asked "Why?" in the midst of a tough time. It may not make anybody's list of great films (although it did make the 100 Most Spiritually Significant Films over at Arts & Faith) but on the subject of faith, I happen to think it is one of the greatest out there. It doesn't provide any huge, enlightening answers, but it does ask some hard questions and poses some thought-provoking ideas. Like C.S. Lewis himself, the film is humble but passionate, warm but melancholy, terribly sad and yet simultaneously full of immense joy. As Jack (Lewis' nickname) and his wife discuss in a scene set in the beauty of a picturesque countryside (but with rain serving as an almost symbolic counterpoint):

JOY: It’s not going to last.
JACK: We don’t need to think of that now. Let’s not spoil the time we have together.
JOY: It doesn’t spoil it. It makes it real.... What I’m trying to say is that the pain then is part of the happiness now.

In closing, I want to briefly mention something that I think is interesting. As it does to all men, death finally came C.S. Lewis on November 22, 1963. If that date looks at all familiar to you it's because it was the same day that JFK was assassinated and from a global socio-political perspective that was naturally the more significant event. Thus, every newspaper the world over splashed across their front pages headlines of Kennedy's untimely demise. So, while everyone was in shock and mourning the passing of one of America's most handsome, most charming, most charismatic and, consequently, most popular presidents ever, an old, but great, man was quietly leaving this planet in a manner very befitting the time that he spent on it.

"You play the hand you're dealt. I think the game's worthwhile.”

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Please, sir, I want some Moore."

Although I am still in the process of writing the next two installments of "31 Days of Speilberg" (Schindler's List in particular is taking a long time), I wanted to very quickly acknowledge something that I think might be important.

The man who portrayed the debonair susperspy James Bond in more "official" movies than any other actor turns 80 today. Now, naturally I realize that Roger Moore has done other things beside Bond (such as the TV series The Saint and... ummmmm... Boat Trip?) but I knew him first as Bond and, perhaps more importantly, I first knew Bond as him! Moore was the first Bond I ever saw (in a story I relay here) and while it's true that Moore's decidedly humorous approach is not nearly as beloved nowadays as it was back when he played the character, I think that both Moore and his movies are rather--oh, how I hate this word--underrated. He's certainly not the best Bond (that's Connery obviously) and he's not even my personal favorite Bond (I actually happen to really like Dalton). Nevertheless, I still think he's better than a lot of people give him credit for (in my book, he's still far superior to the abominable George Lazneby). I happen to have a tremendous amount of affection for Moore. Perhaps we Bond fans can't help but find a soft spot in our hearts for our "first Bond," simply because, whoever he might be, he's the one who introduced us to the fantastic world of 007. As corny as most of them seem to us now, Moore's entries in the series were incredibly successful and his contribution to the Bond legacy was/is enormous. He was the Pierce Brosnan/Danel Craig of his time. He rejuvenated the franchise. He kept it going. Without his seven movies, we probably wouldn't still have Bond today (something which I know many people would probably prefer but which I would consider a tragedy).

So, happy 80th Birthday, Roger! Let's lift our glasses of vodka (shaken of course, even though you never actually ordered them that way) in your honor. I don't know how you plan to celebrate, but I intend to re-watch one of your movies tonight... just probably not a A View to a Kill. ;)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Real quick

"I'm not dead yet... I'm getting better."
--MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL


I only have an hour of internet time (I am at my local public library because my own internet has been down for over a week), so I'll try to make this brief and clear.

This blog is not dead nor am I.

I needed some time to get away and think about what had happened, how it happened and whether or not I planned to continue blogging. I also needed to, as Megan put it, "recharge my betteries" since this all took a lot out of me.

In the interim other things of a personal nature occurred in my life that were not much fun (when it rains, it pours sometimes) and which can certainly force one to realize that there is much more to life than just the "virtual world."

I eventually decided that I will continue to blog but I will not be rushed. I will proceed with "31 Days of Spielberg" as soon as I am able to (picking up where I left off with the entry on Jurassic Park) which will probably be when my internet is working again.

Hope that clears things up.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"31 Days of Spielberg" and plagiarism

Before proceeding with "31 Days of Spielberg" (I'm already a couple days behind schedule but it can wait; this is more important and should be dealt with swiftly and directly), I wanted to take some time and address a rather serious issue that has arisen recently. In case you were unaware of the situation, I have been accused of plagiarism in my writings here on this blog, particularly in my early posts on "Eyes," Columbo and Duel and specifically with regard to a book called Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Hollywood Blockbuster by Warren Buckland (you can read the charges on a thread here at spielbergfilms.com where passages in Buckland's book and my blog are compared). Now, as much as I would like to simply deny the claims and say "No, I've never read Buckland's book! I don't know what you're talking about. It's purely a coincidence!" I can't do that. It's not that simple.

In fact, I have read Buckland's book. It was one of many sources I used in my research for this project before the month of August began. I found it to be a very helpful and very insightful text (and can recommend it to anyone interested in analysing the specific filmmaking techniques of Spielberg). I agreed with quite a number of Buckland's observations and consequently found myself adopting some of his conclusions. For the purposes of the blog I wanted to incorporate the ideas which we both shared (along with several ideas which I know arose out of me spontaneously since I take notes on the films as I view them) into the final essays. In the actual process of writing, and as all writers should (they teach you this when you write research papers in Jr. High), I tried to "put it in my own words," but I found Buckland's descriptions of what actually occurred on the screen were quite apt and as I tried to describe the same shots myself, I found it very difficult to not refer to him on more than one occasion. In the end, I probably "leaned" on his writing more than I ought to have (to the point that it became difficult for even me to tell where his ideas ended and mine began). I realize, of course, that copying someone else's phrasing but simply changing a word here and there does not qualify something as an original writing and I can assure you that my intent was not to plagiarize anyone nor to pass off another author's hard work as my own. I merely wanted to write as intelligent, well-informed and well-researched (but still personal) a piece on Spielberg as I could. It may seem like that should be easy to do, but when you're the one sitting in your chair staring at the blank computer screen, it can be quite a daunting task.

In retrospect, I see that my biggest mistake was in not citing Buckland's book specifically or even throwing out a simple acknowledgement in the form of a "My thinking on this subject has been heavily influenced by Warren Buckland" or merely quoting his passages outright (which, incidentally, I do with other writers/critics elsewhere throughout the project and I always try to explicitly mention the source) but attributing them to him. This is really about giving credit where it's due and in that regard, I admit that I failed and I am sorry. I can offer no excuse except to say (and this is not really an excuse, just an explanation) that it was very early on in the project and I hadn't yet found the "rhythm" by which I was operating. I lacked confidence in the approach I had planned to take toward the material. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn't know how to get there at first. I was not fully comfortable in the writing process, but as the days continued (and with the help of a constant deadline) I found it became much easier to, as I mentioned in the beginning of my entry on Jaws, simply say what I wanted to say and not worry about whether or not it has been said before (and in no doubt more eloquent fashion) by someone else. The hardest part of anything is always getting started; taking that first step. Once you get going, however, the pressure and insecurity seems to ease off significantly.

In an attempt to prove that I am not trying to hide anything from anybody, I wanted to let everyone know that since the plagiarism claims first surfaced I have been corresponding with Warren Buckland (which is in itself a humbling turn of events; I never anticipated this project would bring me into contact with actual published authors who have written on Spielberg, even if it's not under the best of circumstances). We have discussed the matter, I have apologized for any wrongdoing for which I might have been responsible and I have agreed to temporarily remove the three posts in question ("Eyes," Columbo and Duel) and revise them so as to satisfy everyone (hopefully) that they have come from me alone and from nobody else. I will still continue with "31 Days of Spielberg." My commitment to that has not wavered in the slightest. In fact, the writing of the essay on Schindler's List (which immeditately follows this next one on Jurassic Park) is one of the reasons why I undertook this project in the first place since that film has been a hugely significant one in my life.

Finally, I wanted to apologize to my readers. I hope I have not disappointed you or betrayed your trust in any way. Many of you have been very kind and generous with your praise all along and even through this recent turn of events several of you have been very supportive and encouraging and I thank you for that. However, I am not doing--nor have I ever done--this for praise, for esteem, for glory, for fame and certainly not for money. One thing I have never lost sight of is that in the big scheme of things, I am a nobody. I am a thirty-one-year-old video store clerk who lives in Corvallis, Oregon. I make little more than minumim wage a year and I happen to love movies. I never intended for this blog to be anything more than an expression of one little guy's passion and affection for cinema. Thus, I began this "Spielberg" project because I admire Spielberg and his films and I wanted to share that admiration with other people and maybe--just maybe--even spark a little bit of discussion on him because I personally don't think that enough can ever be said about this great artist. I never, ever anticipated this thing would catch on as much as it has (and I am not saying that to relieve me of my responsibilities as a writer) nor did I ever expect to be mentioned in the same sentence as professional, educated authors who have contributed greatly to the conversation about Spielberg. In spite of the way things have turned out, I am still glad that I've been able to participate in the discussion, even if only in a very minor capacity. This has been a learning experience for me too and I can assure you that I am learning a lot from it.


Thank you once again for your kind attention.


Sincerely,

Damian Arlyn

Sunday, August 19, 2007

DAY 19: Hook (1991)


For the first twenty years that he was making movies, Steven Spielberg was often referred to as the "Peter Pan of Hollywood," a filmmaker who simply refused to grow up, telling fantastically fun and entertaining stories with child-like sensibilities. Though this perception eventually came back to haunt him later in his career, for a long time Spielberg himself proudly wore this label (going so far as to feature a passage from J.M. Barrie's book in E.T.) and even considered doing his own adaptation of the classic tale. When Steven did finally get around to bringing a version of the Peter Pan legend to the big screen, he himself was already trying to grow up artistically and the resulting film--pardon the expression--didn't quite fly. Like Always, another disappointing effort from his "professional adolescence," one can't help but wonder what Spielberg's Peter Pan would have looked like had he made it years earlier.

The idea for Hook originated in the home of screenwriter Jim Hart when he and his family were gathered around the dinner table one night playing one of their regular "What if?" games. It was there that Jim's son Jake asked the question that would later become the film's tagline: "What if Peter Pan grew up?" Hart used the premise of Peter Pan growing up as the basis of a screenplay which he then shopped around Hollywood. At one point Nick Castle was attached to the project but eventually Spielberg came on board and such big-name starts as Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts were all hired. The budget for Hook ended up costing around $70 million. Principal photography began in February of 1991 and lasted 116 days. With a few very brief exceptions, Hook was shot entirely on studio soundstages. The enormous sets were designed by the Oscar-nominated Norman Garwood (Glory, Brazil) and brought a definite sense of theatricality, even artificiality, to them. Perhaps this was an attempt to capture the feel of a classic Hollywood fantasy like M-G-M's Wizard of Oz, but many critics felt that the film looked like it was shot more at a theme park than a movie set. "Every day it was like going to work at Disneyland," said actor Dante Basco who played the lost boys' leader Rufio.

When Hook hit theatres in the winter of 1991 it was not terribly well-received by critics. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael complained that "its tricks feel strained; we're constantly aware of the backbreaking effort it's taking to produce them, and that's no kind of magic at all." David Ansen of Newsweek stated that the the "Neverland sets are a letdown; overlit, they have a cheesy artifice of a rundown Amusement Park... Hook is a huge party cake of a movie with too much frosting. After the first delicious bite, sugar shock sets in." Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone: "The film has been engineered for merchandising potential and the widest possible appeal. What's missing is the one thing that really counts: charm."

Once again, Spielberg's usually keen casting sense seemed to betray him. Rather than hiring the right people for the roles, Spielberg felt compelled to go with major "names" (perhaps as a means to recoup much of the film's balooning budget). Hyper-active comedian turned dramatic actor Robin Williams was cast as the middle-aged businessman Peter Banning who must re-discover his forgotten identity as Peter Pan. Since Robin Williams was by this point extremely well-known for his high-spirited antics and childlike demeanor, this is an idea that by all accounts should have worked but for some reason didn't. Indeed, Williams' best scenes were his earlier ones in the film (where he played Banning) rather than his later ones (when he became Pan). At one point Kevin Kline was set to play the part but was unable to do so because scheduling around conflicts with the film Soapdish. This is unfortunate as Kline would no doubt have been able to find the right balance between the two distinct personalities.

In the role of Peter's fairy friend Tinkerbell Spielberg cast Hollywood hottest new actress fresh off of her lead role in the surprisingly successful Pretty Woman: twenty-three-year-old Julia Roberts. Spielberg's decision to cast Roberts could only have been motivated by her star status since there is little or nothing in her performance to indicate she could ever have played a satisfactory Tinkerbell. Oftentimes she seems like she's in her own movie and indeed, in many ways, she is (having shot all of her scenes in front of a blue screen to be combined later with footage of the other actors). Apparently Roberts was so difficult to work with (even Spielberg admitted in an interview that he wouldn't work with her again; a rare claim for the usually easy-going director to make) that she was given the name "Tinkerhell" by the crew. To be fair, Roberts was a little distracted at the time having recently called off her impending marriage to Kiefer Sutherland (while entering a new relationship with Jason Patric) and checked into a hospital for "exhaustion" shortly before filming.

Not every actor, however, is miscast. The real delight of the film is Dustin Hoffman's deliciously over-the-top, but nonetheless brilliant turn, as the titular Captain James Hook. Hoffman seems like he's having such fun playing the famous villain that he almost singlehandedly walks off with the movie and makes it very clear why the film is called Hook. Of course it helps that Hoffman has a great partner to play off of in most of his scenes: British actor Bob Hoskins plays Hook's faithful, but none-too-bright, lackey Smee. Hoskins makes the perfect foil for Hoffman and their scenes together are among the best in the film. Finally, even though she's only in the very beginning and very end of the film, esteemed English acress Maggie Smith (as Audrey Hepburn did in Always) brings dignity, grace and a welcome degree of genuine emotion to her role of Granny Wendy (while the role of young Wendy, seen briefly in flashbacks, was played by a then unknown actress named Gwyneth Paltrow). While the presence of these actors isn't anough to compensate for the film's massive shortcomings, they do serve as fitting, at times almost painful, reminders of what Hook could have been.

While Spielberg's vision for Neverland may have been to create a very stylized and fantastic (read "unrealistic") world, it also comes as wholly unbelievable. The only glimpses we get of the magical land outside of the enormous sets are computer generated, cartoony-looking images. Neverland never feels like an actual place; it's as two-dimensional as the animated Disney version, perhaps even more so since this one is inhabited by real people. In fact, the only two places in Neverland we really get to see are Pirate Town and the Lost Boys' hideout: a ridiculously modern playground with a basketball court and skateboard ramps. As Leonard Maltin observed, "It feels more like something out of a McDonald's commercial." It's a sad state of affairs when the most interesting environments in a Peter Pan movie are not in Neverland.

Spielberg's usual knack for directing believable performances from his child actors also seems to fail him on this project. Most of the kids in the film come off as sickenly cute or just plain annoying. The Lost boys themselves, a rag-tag band of misfits resembles nothing like the energetic, imaginative kids of Barrie's original story. The worst offender would be their punk leader Ruffio, for whom we are supposed to feel a tragic loss when he gets killed by Hook, but who, unfortunately, inspires very little in the way of sadness. Peter Pan's daughter Maggie, played by Amber Scott, is endearing (and has a nice scene where she sings the Oscar-nominated "When You're All Alone") but a little too self-consciously precocious. The only child actor who comes off as natural and inspires any degree of sympathy is Charlie Korsmo, who plays Peter Pan's son Jack. Korsmo had previously appeared in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy and across from comic actors Bill Murray and Spielbergian collaborator Richard Dreyfus in What About Bob? Following Hook both Amber and Korsmo quit acting (although Korsmo did come back in to play a small part in 1998's Can't Hardly Wait).

As with Always, the main problem with Hook is Spielberg's tendency towards excess. He just doesn't seem to know when to quit (Spielberg himself seemed aware of this during filming as he confessed to Ivor Davis of the London Sunday Times: "Every day I came onto the set, I thought, 'Is this flying out of control?'"). He pushes every scene well past the point where it should end (the climatic fight goes on way too long), he milks every emotion well beyond our tolerance level and even stretches the film's running length well beyond its endurable limit: Hook runs 2 hour and 22 minutes, which may not seem like much in comparison to a Harry Potter movie but it's the quality, not the quantity that makes the difference. Worst of all, probably, is that Spielberg doesn't seem to know what he wants to say with Hook. Although the film contains some of his usual themes (light, flying, familial disharmony, an absentee father, etc), the main message of the story (which seems to be that it's okay to grow up as long as one doesn't lose touch with their "inner child") feels insincere. Since Spielberg himself was in the process of trying to mature as a filmmaker, Hook's moral (however well intended it may have been) just doesn't seem consistent with its style and tone. Again, had Spielberg made the film earlier in his career, there's little it doubt would have been a superior product.

Coming from a director who has a history of producing episodic movies, however, Hook is not without its moments. The entire first twenty minutes of the film (especially the eerie kidnapping of Peter Pan's children from their beds) is nicely put together. One scene in particualr shows a grown-up Peter walking into the same nurseryhe used to visit in his youth and looking at the murals around the room depicting scenes of his adventures, which naturally he doesn't remember. As Peter starts to get a chill he runs to the window and closes it (with a "hook" latch no less) as a visual reprsentation of his attempt to keep from remembering that part of his life. However, at that moment his wife Moira calls his name out from another room, Peter turns and strikes his trademark pose of standing with his hands on his hips. Williams plays it as a natural, instinctual move on Peter's part, as if he were ready for anything at that moment. It indicates that the little boy Peter is still inside there waiting to come out and in spite of the grown-up's best efforts to keep him buried, he will emerge. It's a wonderful little moment made all the more maddening by the fact that film doesn't dramatize these events satisfactorily. These early scenes, which featured prominently into the film's publicity, are so good precisely because they promise so much. It's a shame that the film doesn't deliver on those promises.

Finally, the scene that always manages to give me goosebumps when I watch it (which, incidentally, isn't that often) comes after a rather sweet little flashback sequence depicting the story of Peter's life. It's when the grown-up Peter finally finds his happy thought and sails out of the tree and into the sky (passing, in typical Spielberg fashion, in front of the sun) as the always reliable John Williams unleashes his music score in all its glory. When Peter finally learns to fly Williams' music soars. It's a great moment because it's a very long time in coming and for a brief seconds Hook becomes the movie that we hoped it could be. If everyone were completely honest wth themselves, they would admit that that was the moment that they all went into the movie to see: when the grown-up Peter Banning realized who he truly was and became Peter Pan again. Unfortunately, the elation is short-lived as Spielberg makes the mistake yet again of allowing it to go on and on and on.

After the dust settled, Hook didn't turn out to be a flop. It went on to gross $300 million worlwide ($120 million of which was grossed domestically) and receive 5 Oscar nominations, but the film isn't exactly beloved by and, in fact, is looked on today as another one of Spielberg's biggest disappointments. After two less-than-successful attempts at "serious" films, one hit sequel, and two , it was beginning to look as if Spielberg's "Midas" touch had left him. Some critics and filmgoers might have even been tempted to conclude that Spielberg was now "over the hill" as a director, that his days of making great and/or hugely successful movies were past. Spielberg demonstrated, however, with his next two films that not only they were not past, they were about to begin all over again.


TOMORROW: The dinosaurs return

Saturday, August 18, 2007

DAY 18: Always (1989)

In February of 1989 (shortly before the release of Last Crusade), Spielberg’s three-and-a-quarter year marriage to actress Amy Irving came to an end. The filmmaker who for so long had told stories about divorce, having endured the separation of his parents when he was younger, had now experienced one of his own. Needless to say, it was devastating to Spielberg, but he continued to pour himself into his work (as he had done for twenty years by this point) and his latest project was a remake of one of his favorite movies: Victor Fleming’s 1943 A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy (glimpsed briefly on a TV in Poltergeist). As with every film in his career, the emotional tenor of Spielberg’s personal life affected his art and in this case, unfortunately, not in a positive way. Spielberg had wanted to remake Fleming’s film for a long time and it is possible, even likely, that had Spielberg made Always several years earlier it would have been a very different, and probably much better, movie.

A Guy Named Joe told the story of a WWII flyer named Pete (Tracy) who is killed and then comes back in the form of a ghost to inspire another young aviator (Van Johnson) but then has to watch as this new pilot falls in love with his former girlfriend (Irene Dunne). The film may be grossly sentimental and with strong propoganda intentions, but these qualities appealed to Spielberg’s sensibilities. If there were any filmmaker in the 80’s who could do a good remake of A Guy Named Joe, it would have been Spielberg. And yet, nearly every decision made during the film’s production seems to be the wrong one, his first mistake being the story’s setting. Always revolves around an aerial firefighter named Pete who risks his life to save his good friend during a flight gone wrong. Given Spielberg’s love for the WWII era, it is strange that he chose not to do Always as a period piece (like his Amazing Stories episode “The Mission”), which would have allowed Spielberg to re-create the forties in all its magnificent detail (as he did in 1941). For whatever reason, though, Spielberg chose a more modern setting. “It’s a contemporary movie.” he said. “It feels like it’s set in the forties, but in fact it is set today.” Unfortunately, by trying to give the film a timeless quality, Spielberg failed to make the story either believable or relevant. At one point in the film Pete’s buddy Al says: “What this place reminds me of is the war in Europe, which I personally was never at, but think about it. The beer is warm, the dance hall’s a Quonset, there’s B-26’s outside, hotshot pilots inside, an airstrip in the woods... It’s England, man! Everything but Glenn Miller.” While this dialogue is an attempt to explain why this contemporary tale has such an old-fashioned feel to it, it only works to further confuse the audience.

Another problem with removing the story from its original WWII setting is that the tragic death of Pete pales in comparison to the monumental sacrifice made by an American pilot giving his life for freedom and democracy. As Roger Ebert observed in the Chicago Sun-Times review: “It's one thing to sacrifice your life for a buddy in combat and quite another to run unnecessary risks while fighting forest fires.” Ralph Novak of People added: “Spielberg’s miscalculation was to forget that A Guy Named Joe spoke to a most particular need. Coming in WWII, when young lives were so palpably precarious and the need for comforting illusions so great, it had a ready audience. These were Americans who, if not more na├»ve than we, were at least more willing to suspend their cynicism.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone claimed the time shift was “calamitous—-Joe spoke to a nation’s sorrow; Always lacks a similar sense of scope or urgency.”

As further evidence that Spielberg himself didn’t seem to know what era the story was taking place in, he has a character utter an epithet like “Aw, nuts!” and then at another juncture in the film toss out a “Shit,” the inconsistency only heightening the film's schizophrenic nature. Also, as Pete’s girlfriend Dorinda makes a glorious entrance in a supposedly beautiful dress (when in reality it’s quite hideous), all the men stare as Pete whispers “Gosh!” The dance scene between Dorinda and Pete, incidentally, is another example of Spielbergian excess. Not only does it go on for far too long but at one point it descends into (literally) cartoonish humor with Dorinda telling the men desiring to dance with her that they must first wash their hands. They all immediately rush to the bathroom to accommodate her wishes. It’s a scene right out of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and might make more sense if it were believable that the men would treat Dorinda like a goddess, but there seems to be no reason to. Thus, their actions seem unbearably cute.

As David Denby noted in New York magazine, Dorinda’s entrance is “the most purely sexless moment in Spielberg’s long career as a boy, and it made me realize to what extent sex in his movies is a matter of dreams and idealization.” However, as author Doug Brode observes, “when Pete and Dorinda retire for the night, they do what a pair of lovers would do today: get in bed together, though they’re not married, something the couples in the forties film would never do. Their frank attitude about sex only makes the earlier idealistic attitude toward Dorinda seem all the sillier: it’s as if Spielberg can’t decide whether he wants to make an honest movie about today’s flying firefighters, whom he could easily observe firsthand at any Northwest outpost, or a sentimental film about the wartime pilots he knows from old movies and stories told him. Either approach would probably have been fine, but the combination in a single film is uncertain and all wrong.”

Another problem with the movie is the cast. Spielberg’s usual knack for picking exactly the right actors for the parts, bizarrely, seemed to abandon him on this one project. Spielberg friend and Jaws/Close Encounters collaborator Richard Dreyfus played the part of Pete, the devil-may-care pilot turned guardian angel. In fact, it was their mutual affection for A Guy Named Joe (discovered while working on their previous films together) that prompted Spielberg to want Dreyfus in the part originally played by Spencer Tracy. As fine an actor as Dreyfus is, he is no Tracy. As Pete’s girlfriend Dorinda, Spielberg hired the diminutive, but fiery, Holly Hunter. While Hunter has moments of wit and charm (particularly in a rather funny sequence when she’s trying to pretend that she’s spent all day in the kitchen preparing a meal which she really just bought ready-made), her usual tendency to over-act mars most of her dramatic scenes. Lest I get accused of being a "Holly-hater" I should probably beat everyone to the punch by adding that I have never been a big fan of Holly Hunter. Outside of the two Coen brothers' films (Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), I find her very unappealing, unattractive and, quite frankly, annoying... particularly her voice (I always found it interesting that the role she played that earned her an Oscar was one where she hardly said a word). If that makes me a "meanie," then I'm sorry. Finally, the role of Ted, the pilot whom Dorinda falls for after Pete's death, is played by Brad Johnson (no relation to Van Johnson, who played the corresponding character in the original film), a 6'3" male model with, alas, very little in the way of acting talent. He's certainly handsome but why Spielberg cast him remains a mystery to this day. It is difficult to believe that Dorinda could be interested in such a "big lug" for some reason other than his mere sex appeal. Johnson comes off as awkward and completely lacking in any grace or substantial on-screen presence. Granted, his character is supposed to be clumsy (as in the scene where he tries to douse a fire in the trash can and misses) but it is unconvincing and seems fake.

In fact, out of the all main actors, only two come off as anything better than mediocre. The first is John Goodman who portrays Pete's big-hearted friend Al. Although he plays little more than a variation of his usual screen persona (first established in the TV sitcom Roseanne), he is nonetheless eminently funny, charismatic and memorable. Goodman virtually steals every scene he's in. My favorite moments involve him dunking his chicken leg in beer and sucking the cream out of a twinkie through a straw. The other performer who positively shines in her scenes is the radiant Audrey Hepburn who plays Hap, the angelic "spiritual" adviser for Pete. Hepburn's last big screen movie role was in 1981's They All Laughed (though she did do a TV movie in '87), so the iconic actress practically came out of retirement for Spielberg's film, which proved to be her final screen appearance as she died of colon cancer four years later. Although her presence isn't enough to save the film from its own shortcomings, her two scenes are like a welcome relief from how "forced" the rest of the movie feels. She practically glides through her dialogue with an ease and effervescence that only someone of her class and elegance could achieve. When Audrey's on the screen, Always truly does fly. When she's not, it sinks.

The storyline of a fellow coming back after death provided Spielberg with yet another chance to exercise his abilities as a metaphysical filmmaker. Always certainly wasn't the first time Spielberg showed death to be less of an ending and more of a beginning (a la Poltergiest), but quite apart from seeing it as an opportunity to say something significant about either life or death, Spielberg seemed content to use it simply as background for something else: the real focus of the film is the relationship between Pete and Dorinda. Unfortunately, it's a relationship that is heavy on romanticism and sentimentality and very light on genuine emotion or depth. The fact that Spielberg was in such a vulnerable state in his own life no doubt played a big part in the bittersweet tone of Always. Why else would Spielberg sidestep the main storyline of the original film (a dead pilot becoming the invisible "guide" of a living one) in favor of the love story. The climactic scene of the original, which had Spencer Tracy guiding Van Johnson through a dangerous mission, is in Always changed instead to Pete guiding Dorinda through a tricky drop. While this might bring an interesting twist to the plot, it shows how unnecessary the "Ted" storyline is. What's the point of having Pete as the source of inspiration for the Ted character if he's not even going to function in that capacity when the moment of truth comes?

Always is the kind of film for which Spielberg is constantly being derided for making: essentially a two-hour version of "Kick the Can." A film dripping with self-indulgent, saccharine "sappiness" that has the effect of turning off audiences rather than engaging them. It's overkill. Vincent Canby of the New York Times complained: "Always is filled with big, sentimental moments [but] it lacks the intimacy to make any of this very moving. Though the story calls out for simplicity, it unfoleds in an atmopshere of forced laughter and forced tears. Gentle and moving as it means to be, there is barely a scene that wouldn't have worked better with less fanfare." Even these flaws might have been forgiveable were it not for the fact that Always (unlike E.T. or Color Purple) is extremely dull. This is probably the worst sin of all. Spielberg's indulgences can often be tolerated if he is involving us in an interesting story or fascinating characters. Always, unfortunately, has neither and so the film comes off as slow, preachy and (with a few exceptions) devoid of humor. It is, in other words, a bore.

As with all Spielberg's work, though, Always is not without its merits. In spite of its oppressively sweet-natured content, Always does contain a great deal of very striking cinematography by Mikael Salomon (especially impressive after the more conventionally shot, but far more enjoyable, Last Crusade). The aerial sequences, designed by future October Sky director Joe Johnston, are also extremely effective. The film was shot on location in Montana and Washington and features some spectacular plane choreography. The filmmakers even took advantage of the devastating 1988 Yellowstone Park fires to help contribute to the realism of the forest fire sequences. Finally, John Williams' music, which may seem melodramatic when heard accompanying the film's over-the-top images, is actually one of the most subtle, delicate and poetic scores he's ever composed. When heard on its own, the music's beauty and simplicity is easily apparent. It seems to have been written, as the Musichound Soundtrack Guide eloquently states, as if it “existed on glass.” Indeed, of all the movie soundtracks I own it is one of my personal favorites and a real delight to listen to when I am in a contemplative or meditative mood.

While Always may/may not be Spielberg's "worst" film, it is certainly a major disappointment. I still like it and would sooner watch it than 1941, but even the most avid of Spielberg fans can't deny its massive flaws and its (at best) extremely mediocre aspects. Although Last Crusade , released earlier the same year, was a big hit with critics and audiences and seemed briefly as though it might have brought Spielberg "back from the edge of professional oblivion," Always did nothing to help the situation... nor did Spielberg's next film.


TOMORROW: Faeries and pirates and Children. Oh my!