Days of Heaven (1978)

*. The rap against Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven has been consistent since its premiere. The photography by Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler is universally praised (Almendros won an Oscar though Wexler apparently shot more than half the picture, following Almendros’s lead). The story, not so much. In short, it’s a movie of beautiful surfaces, with depths that are left largely to the viewer to fill in.
*. I’ve talked before about the two issues I most often have with beautiful photography. In the first place, we shouldn’t mistake great design or art direction, or a beautiful setting, as being synonymous with great photography. If you’re shooting something beautiful, it’s easy to make it look beautiful (I said something about this in my notes on The Revenant). The second point I’d make is that beautiful photography shouldn’t draw attention to itself unless that is the purpose. If it doesn’t serve a purpose it is only a distraction, or something that can undermine the rest of the film.
*. It’s not as though people didn’t think that the beauty of Days of Heaven — and Roger Ebert considered it “above all one of the most beautiful films ever made” — to be a potential problem right from the get-go. On the Criterion commentary track editor Billy Weber says this: “the only thing I remember thinking is that it was too good looking, it was a little bit bothersome, you saw how good looking it was from the beginning, and it felt, I was nervous that it was going to take away from the emotion of it, that people were going to view it as like a coffee-table book . . . they’d leave the theatre saying it was so beautiful, but that’s all they’d say.”

*. When the first reviews came out Weber’s fears were confirmed (Pauline Kael: “The film is an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it”), which he found upsetting because he felt it really was about something and not just pretty. And I think most critical writing today would have his back on that. Though not all. David Thomson concludes his brief appreciation with the following admonition: “Days of Heaven remains one of the great visual experiences in American film, and a warning that film is more than visual.”
*. Ebert tried to salvage the film a different way. “Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven has been praised for its painterly images and evocative score, but criticized for its muted emotions: Although passions erupt in a deadly love triangle, all the feelings are somehow held at arm’s length. This observation is true enough, if you think only about the actions of the adults in the story. But watching this 1978 film again recently, I was struck more than ever with the conviction that this is the story of a teenage girl, told by her, and its subject is the way that hope and cheer have been beaten down in her heart. We do not feel the full passion of the adults because it is not her passion: It is seen at a distance, as a phenomenon, like the weather, or the plague of grasshoppers that signals the beginning of the end.”
*. I can’t quite agree. For one thing, Linda’s voiceover seems to have been almost an afterthought, and it’s not true that the story is presented as seen from her point of view. Personally, I also find Linda’s New Yawk accent to be a strain, and her homespun philosophy not very deep or affecting. If not for Ennio Morricone’s score I’d be tempted to watch Days of Heaven with the sound off next time. And what of the plot would I miss?

*. This leads to another point. I like the look of Days of Heaven as much as anyone. There are shots here that seem like they must have taken forever to get right, though I don’t think they had that luxury. And many of the interiors are just as gorgeous as the prairie landscapes (that’s Alberta, not Texas). Vermeer seems to have been a major inspiration. Honestly, you could cull at least a dozen pictures from this film to use as your desktop background. And there’s also a more personal connection. My father could remember the days of threshing gangs, which he often described as having a similar sort of romantic glow. And I also remember nearly burning down a wheat field with him one day.

*. That said, is there too much of it? After a while I did get a bit tired of that picturesque house they seem to have borrowed from Giant (or is that the Bates house?). And when there’s a single cut during the scene where Bill and Abby head out for an evening tryst to an abandoned parasol I thought it seemed a bit precious. Also, why insert all those shots of rabbits and pheasants in the wheat field if we’re not going to see what happens to them? They are being herded into the shrinking cover and will end up being massacred by the reaper. Why draw away from showing that? It’s an image that goes back to Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and would have fit with this movie’s theme just as well.
*. Is it even a criticism of Days of Heaven though to say that it’s a bit thin on everything but the visuals? According to Peter Biskind’s reporting Malick didn’t like the way things were going initially and so made a conscious decision to “toss the script” and go “wide instead of deep.” The Farmer (Sam Shepard) doesn’t even have a name.
*. Script? Much of it was improvised, and much cut. People started thinking they were working on something close to a silent movie, and not just from this paring down. In the excerpt from his autobiography included in the Criterion material Almendros says that the “model was the photography of the silent films” and an homage to their “blessed simplicity.”

*. As for the cast, Sam Shepard wasn’t an actor at the time but at least he had an interesting face. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams do not have interesting faces, though we may be thankful that Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and John Travolta, the latter being the guy Malick really wanted to play Bill, were unattainable. The mind fairly boggles. Linda Manz, who Thomson thought gave the best performance, is wearing a mask, leaving us to wonder what Linda knew. I started longing for scenes with Robert Wilke just so I could see someone who looked like he was acting.

*. The plague of locusts and the fire are representative to me of the rest of the movie. They are wonderfully realized and have a kind of beauty all their own. And at no point did I feel any engagement with what was going on. Like a sense of creeping dread with the first appearance of the locusts, or hoping that they could put the fire out. I just watched and wondered at how, and how well, it was done. Or take the ending, with Abby and Linda heading off their separate ways like two female Bobby Dupeas. Did I care where they were going? Not really.
*. So sure, one of the most beautiful films ever made. And a personal vision pursued to excessive lengths, including two years of editing. But let’s face it, Giant was a more compelling story, with stronger characters, and it was Old Hollywood trash. New Hollywood broke a lot of ground, but it had some limitations too. I’m still not sure what Malick was even trying to express or do with this movie aside from showing that something like it could be done. In that sense at least it’s a triumph.

Uncut Gems (2019)

*. I don’t see the point of the opening shots in the mining camp in Ethiopia. This movie isn’t Babel, showing how the world is somehow all personally connected on various levels. In fact, I think I like the idea of Howard (Howie) Ratner (Adam Sandler) not knowing where the black opal is from. It just comes to him in the belly of a fish! We feel like we’re in a story as old as Herodotus.
*. But then we do get a nice transfer from the interior structure of the gem to the inside of Howie’s guts as we watch his colonoscopy on video. In passing, I wonder why so many doctors/health care professionals think people want to see these videos. Perhaps some people do. I sure as hell don’t. But at the dentist they’re always asking me to look at movies they’ve made of the inside of my mouth. I always try to politely say I’m not interested. And I have a friend who was given the video results of their colonoscopy on a DVD! Why? This makes no sense to me. I’m not a dentist or a doctor. What use could I make of this information? And aside from that, it’s disgusting.
*. Digression over, and back to Howie getting his check-up. I think this is a great fit with the film’s theme. Howie is a gambling addict in a very big way, and isn’t cancer (which is what he’s being tested for) the ultimate spin of the roulette wheel? Cancer comes in many different forms, and can be the result of hereditary or lifestyle factors, but I’ve heard that some two-thirds of all cancers are the result of random genetic mutation. So it’s a crapshoot. Life is a bet you have to make. Is going to the doctor for a check-up all that different from laying money on a basketball game?
*. There’s also a connection, a little more strained but still operational, between the colon and Howie’s appetites. This is a guy who wants too much. And like a lot of people with big appetites, this can lead to health complications. Remember that he takes the opal out of a fish’s belly. Cancer is like the Stuff, you have to ask if you’re eating it or if it’s eating you.
*. Sandler got a lot of praise for playing Howie, and I think it’s deserved in that he gives us a jerk who is not entirely unsympathetic. On the one hand he’s a mask: a professional hustler hidden behind sunglasses and a rictus grin. But there’s a real sadness and sense of waste in his addiction, even if we don’t like the guy. Obviously he’s the author of his own destruction, and the movie feels a lot faster than its running time because of the accelerating catastrophe of his unraveling.
*. I don’t know anything about the jewelry business but I wondered how plausible all of the stuff about the opal being passed around was. Lakeith Stanfield’s Demany in particular struck me as someone I wouldn’t want to do business with at all, seeming to have no sense of responsibility whatsoever. And yet Howie puts his fate entirely in Demany’s hands.
*. Two celebs in the cast playing themselves. Kevin Garnett is credible. His best scene has him simply playing blank to Howie’s ranting about how they’re both the same, being players in some cosmic game. I got the sense that he wasn’t buying any of it. The Weeknd subplot, however, I could have done without. I didn’t see where it had much to do with the main story and the scene in the nightclub was routine and pointless.
*. Apparently Julia Fox is a celebrity as well, though she’s not playing herself. Her Wikipedia page refers to her as a “socialite,” and gives this as her first movie role. I didn’t know what “socialite” meant. She has worked as a clothes designer and a model. I thought she performed well, but her character also struck me as incredible. My guess is that she’s going to run off with the money at the end. Tattoos can be removed.
*. The electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) works surprisingly well. Perhaps because it seems so discordant. Or maybe this is the soundtrack for such a milieu. I only walked through the jewelry district once, and that was many years ago.
*. Nicely handled throughout by the writer-director brother team of Josh and Benny Safdie. The plot has a lot of freaky elements whipped at us at high speed, which helps make up for the fact that it’s a pretty simple story of self-destruction that we’ve seen before.
*. Underneath it all is that sense I mentioned of life being a game. Though it’s a game that’s rigged in ways we can’t know. The thing is, Howie should be a winner. His tests for colon cancer come back clean. He wins his first big bet, against huge odds, and then his second for an even bigger stake. He’s got a rich wife, a couple of kids, and (at least) a couple of beautiful lovers. And yet it’s clear that he’s also a total loser. Losing is his fate, something he can’t escape no matter what. All the bad things in life, just like all of the good things, are so unfair.

Quiz the one hundred-and-twenty-seventh: I like to keep a gun in my drawer (Part two)

I have to admit, after my first gun-in-a-drawer quiz I didn’t figure I’d be doing another for a while. But that’s where people keep putting them! Unlike in Canada, where you’re legally required to keep them locked up, even in your home, the guns here are quickly available and ready to use at a moment’s notice.

See also: Quiz the seventy-fifth: I like to keep a gun in my drawer (Part one).

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She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

*. Art house meets viral horror. Or the other way around. An intriguing idea, I think, but, perhaps necessarily, excessively abstract. Which means (1) I wasn’t really sure what was going on, and (2) I didn’t feel any sense of dread or horror.
*. The story has it that Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is depressed. Or drunk. Or infected with a curse that passes freely from one person to another when they express the conviction that they will die tomorrow. Once you tell someone that you think you’re going to die tomorrow then they start believing it. Though it’s not clear that anyone does actually die. At least demons don’t come crawling out of television sets to kill them anyway. Instead, awareness of their own imminent demise just gets people down.
*. As I understand it, writer-director Amy Seimetz, one of today’s leading indie filmmakers, wanted the movie to be an allegory for social anxiety, much like venereal horror allegorized STDs. As I said, this is an intriguing idea. But it wasn’t that convincing. Everyone seemed more depressed than anxious, and though the two are related they aren’t the same. But I think if you look at it as a sort of Final Destination for people experiencing mid-life angst then that might help.
*. Seimetz: “This is a horror movie where you never get to see the monster. One of my favorite horror movies is Friday the 13th Part 2. You only see Jason once with a bag over his head, but it’s terrifying!” Leaving aside this strange affection for Friday the 13th Part 2, what she’s saying here is fine as far as it goes. There have been horror movies where the monster is never seen. But in that case you really have to make the audience feel the monster’s presence, and here I felt less dread than confusion.
*. There’s a point here relating to what I said about anxiety and depression. You can make a pseudo-horror movie (even a horror parody) out of anxiety. It’s very hard to make any kind of a movie out of depression. There’s a thread of a plot here, but on the whole the film is inert. It doesn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. It doesn’t even want to get out of its pyjamas.
*. I don’t blame the cast. Sheil is solid and Jane Adams, who plays Amy’s friend and spends most of the movie wandering about in her bedclothes, is also excellent. At least given that both of them are stuck in a kind of narcotized state. But Seimetz’s direction is all over the place. She uses strobe lighting in one sequence but I don’t know why. In another scene she has Amy arrive at a rental house with her boyfriend and sticks the camera on the floor. And I looked at the screen and said “Why is the camera on the floor?” And then the next shot is through a narrow doorway. Which is meant to recall the opening scene, but had me again wondering why she’d put the camera there. Here are the two shots. I don’t see the point.

*. It seems to me that if you’re looking at a movie and you’re noticing the way a shot is set up and you’re noticing because you think it’s really bad and you don’t understand the reason for it, then there’s a problem.
*. So not a thrilling movie, or one to spend that much time thinking about. Which is too bad given that there obviously was some thought and talent behind it. But then it’s hard to shake the feeling that entertainment wasn’t the goal.

Carry On . . . Up the Khyber (1968)

*. One of the skits in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) is set during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and it makes fun of British officers remaining imperturbable in the face of calamity. Of course the military were an endless source of fun for the Python gang, but this particular angle had already been played up in the Carry On films, perhaps most notably in Carry On . . . Up the Khyber.
*. In this, the sixteenth Carry On effort, the usual gang (with Roy Castle subbing in for Jim Dale as the romantic lead) once more represent the Empire under siege, this time by angry natives in the Indian province of Kalabar, which is near the Khyber Pass (rhymes with “ass”). The entire final act of the film plays out like a forerunner of that Python skit, with the officers enjoying a black-tie meal inside the Governor’s Residency, indifferent to the battle raging outside. Which is actually a bit odd, since Carry On movies don’t usually play out one joke at such length.
*. The plot here hinges on the discovery by the locals that the local Scottish regiment, the 3rd Foot and Mouth, actually do have underwear on beneath their kilts. This makes the “devils in skirts” seem less invincible, which leads to the rebellion. Even by Carry On standards I think that’s a stretch, and I can’t say it’s terribly funny either.
*. Many fans and critics consider this to be the very best of the Carry On efforts. I think this is for its generally high production values. It looks good, from the Pinewood sets to the Khyber Pass locations (which were actually shot in Snowdonia). At least I can’t think of any other reason to choose it over many of the other films in the series. It’s mainly more of the same, though there’s a minimum of gay jokes, if that’s a plus or minus for you.
*. The jokes are the usual off-colour puns and bawdy innuendos, but I don’t find them to be any funnier than usual. There’s a labored running gag that has Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond (Sid James) enjoying rounds of “tiffin” (sex) with various harem gals. Once again the men have to get all dressed up in drag at one point. There are a bunch of in-jokes or bits of timely humour that I doubt many people will get today. The banging of a gong is derided as “rank stupidity” (a nod to the Rank Organizations’ symbol). The Burpa leader Bungdit Din wants to teach the Brits a lesson for banning turbans on buses, which refers to a recent strike by Sikh bus drivers in England. A final shot of the Union Jack with the words “I’m Backing Britain” flew over my head.
*. Snowdon still looks beautiful, not having dated nearly as badly as these jokes. I visited Wales once as a kid and it was places like this that I have the fondest memories of. Some day I may even get back to hike around them again. I’d forgotten this movie, however, almost completely since I’d first seen it. Still, it has a few smiles, and if not the best in the series it’s far from the worst.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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*. Restraint? We don’t need any stinking restraint. The play’s first line (after the prologue) is bellowed from the back of a convertible by one of “the Montague boys”: “A dog of the house of Capulet moves me!” We’re not sure why he’s yelling this, who he’s talking to, or what it means. But it’s loud.

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*. The decibel level matches the loud visuals: the bright colours, jumpy editing, quick zooms, etc. It’s a way of inflating the drama of the language. It’s why Mercutio has to both scream and repeat his end of the Queen Mab speech (“This is she!”). And why Romeo has to scream and repeat (three times!) his line to Tybalt just before killing him (“Either thou or I, or both, must go with him!”). Yelling and repeating lines shows you how important they are.

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*. I don’t want to sound stuffy or hyper-critical on this point, but I do think it’s worth stressing. As explained on the DVD commentary “the whole motive of the entire project” was to use “modern-day equivalents to decode the language of Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s “language is clarified because it’s articulated in familiar images.”
*. But is this true? I think the visuals, full of overripe, kitschy Catholic tat, simply overwhelm the language. Luhrmann has made a movie that is so strong visually it doesn’t need any dialogue. If you went through it with a modern audience and asked them to explain any of the trickier parts that have been retained from the text of the play I don’t see where the presentation would help them a bit. Luckily, Romeo and Juliet is not a terribly difficult play, but my point is that the difficulty in the language remains, it’s only that this doesn’t matter if the audience “gets it” by other means. They can follow along by reading other signs, or by observing what kind of a pose is being struck.

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*. The fact that the actors don’t seem that comfortable with Shakespeare doesn’t help. Again this may sound snobby, but the thing is, Shakespeare wasn’t a “story” man. He tended to borrow them from other sources and they didn’t always hold together that well. The language is what you come to Shakespeare for, especially one advertised as sticking to the original text. If you want a modern, music-video style romance there are plenty of other options at the local cineplex.
*. Of course the deal with any production of Shakespeare, on stage or screen, is how to make it seem contemporary and “relevant.” That’s not a huge problem, since Shakespeare was a popular entertainer, but there are a couple of hurdles. The first is the language, which is finessed in the way I’ve just discussed. The other relates to the updating of historical references.
*. Overall, I think the updating is quite successful and creative. I really liked the network news reading the prologue, Queen Mab turning into a tab of party drug, and M. Emmet Walsh in a sadly truncated version of the apothecary scene.

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*. Other aspects, however, are harder to handle. Calling the pistols “swords” made no sense to me, and I guess there was just no way of making the concept of banishment and exile relatable in a contemporary setting. Is there any jurisdiction where this is still practiced as a form of punishment? Apparently it gave Luhrmann a lot of heartache and he tried to cut any mention of it out entirely, but this made nonsense of the plot. Still, there was just no way to make it meaningful for a contemporary audience.
*. As with the visuals, the music is all over the map. I think if they’d stuck with one particular style it might have helped draw thing together better. Instead there are just bits and pieces of different songs in different arrangements and the sense I had was of a mess, with the snatch of Wagner at the end being a cliché.

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*. I don’t understand Luhrmann’s fascination with gay camp. Why make Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) a drag queen? Because, according to the commentary, he is the most poetic character, but also the angriest (pace Tybalt). Apparently queens are poetic, angry types. It’s weird, but I found it tired. And why are these characters so often Black? The fallout from Paris Is Burning? Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element?
*. Some of the creative decisions are both bold and effective. I really like the hint of something going on between Lady Capulet and Tybalt, and the decision to have both Romeo and Juliet alive together at the end to address each other.
*. The cast has hits and misses, but again what works best is a look. Paul Sorvino as Mr. Capulet appears to be another angry homosexual, for whatever reason. John Leguizamo is feral and feline as the Prince of Cats. Pete Postlehtwaite seems to be having a hard time coming down off of some of his herbs, but he’s the only one who is at all at ease speaking Shakespeare’s language. I share Roger Ebert’s mystification at Brian Dennehy’s role as Mr. Montague. Does he have any lines at all?

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*. I think both DiCaprio and Dames are adorable, as they should be, but don’t show off any real acting chops here, or even any feel for the material.
*. What is it with Romeo’s drenched look? He seems to always appear dripping wet, from sticking his head in the sink just before his first seeing Juliet, getting in and out of the pool with his clothes on, or running around outside in the pouring rain. I think Luhrmann just liked seeing water dripping off of DiCaprio’s stylish locks. At one point in the commentary they are about to say something about the water imagery, but the discussion is immediately sidetracked and it never got addressed. I don’t recall it being part of the play at all.
*. Obviously a movie as hip and noisy as this was going to alienate traditionalists, and it did. I think it works a lot better than it should, all things considered. And I don’t think there’s any way of finally sorting out the good from the bad.

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Ghosts of War (2020)

*. Another gift of low expectations! I had heard nothing at all about Ghosts of War going into it, but figured it was probably pretty bad. It is, however, a suitably entertaining dog’s breakfast of a movie, with a bit of something in it for fans of psychological thrillers, horror, and SF. Critics dumped on it and it didn’t find much of an audience, but I found it to be a better than average time-killer.
*. The set-up: during the Second World War a squad of American soldiers in France find themselves custodians of a French chateau formerly occupied by Nazi bigwigs. Historically, this made no sense to me. Were they operating behind enemy lines? Why were they on their own? Well, press pause on all of that. Before things are over you’ll be wondering about a lot more than historical accuracy.
*. It turns out the chateau is haunted by the family of the owners, who had been killed by the Nazis. This led to more questions, some of which are articulated by the squad leader: “What the hell does haunted even mean? Does that mean specific people have ghosts that are somehow anchored to the places they died, or is it places where evil has occurred that makes a portal to demonic forces? Or is evil simply a man-made concept in the first place?”  Hmmm.
*. In any event, this part of the movie plays the way I thought it would: as a mash-up of The Conjuring with Call of Duty. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Sure it’s your standard haunted-house story, with lots of things going bump in the night and some very generic-looking ghosts. You know, the type that like to pop up out of nowhere screaming or saying Boo! with their mouths dripping ichor. But I thought director Eric Bress played it well. And then some Germans show up to crash the party. All well and good. But hold on to your hats because the final act enters strange territory. Which is also spoiler alert territory, if you don’t want to go any further.

*. Well, as things turn out the squad are actually American soldiers who, in some near-future war in Afghanistan, are blown up after failing to protect a family from ISIS fighters. That family then put a curse on the soldiers. The squad are then medevacked to a spiffy hospital where their dismembered bodies are kept on life support while they are entertained by a virtual reality program that has them playing soldiers in World War II France. Only there’s a ghost, or a family of ghosts, in the machine. The curse has infected the virtual-reality program, which leads to the squad being stuck replaying the haunted house scenario we’ve just been watching.
*. So there’s a lot going on here. You can pick up clues as things go along, like the references to Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” And if you know Bress’s previous work (2004’s The Butterfly Effect, or 2009’s The Final Destination) you might be even more on guard. But it’s still quite a twist they throw at the end. Does it make sense? Well, of course not. But given that premise, how could it?
*. I was also a little confused about how we were supposed to view the soldiers. Our first impression is that they are a gang of brutal jerks, except maybe the leader and the guy with glasses (the latter, naturally, being the one who both knows German and how to play the piano). But then at the end they become more sympathetic figures, since in killing Germans they’ve only been playing a video game anyway, and the Afghan curse seems a bit unfair.
*. Today’s horror films have at least given me a greater familiarity with the landscape of Eastern Europe. As I was watching this one I scribbled down the location as being either Hungary or Romania. In fact it was Bulgaria. Hey, I was close.
*. Possibly, just possibly, Bress is trying to say something about PTSD, or the moral equivalence between Nazis and ISIS, but if so that’s a message that’s soon lost. I mean, he may have been trying to say something about theoretical physics too, but I doubt it.
*. The final scene is ambiguous. Either the squad are going to be stuck in an endless loop or somehow the leader is going to get them off the hook somehow. It’s open-ended, which is something a lot of people don’t like but I don’t know how they could have wrapped things up any better.
*. So hardly a classic, but still something silly to have fun with. It’s a movie I’d rate a lot higher than blockbuster crap like The Nun, which is what it sort of reminded me of. The Nun was filmed in Romania.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

*. I guess I have to start with a prefatory note saying that the version of this movie I just watched is the Special Edition which was released in 1980. I was going to watch the Director’s Cut that came out in 1998 but the disc in the three-disc set I’d borrowed from the library was so damaged I couldn’t play it. Seriously: what do people do with these things? Use them for coasters? But I’ve ranted about this before.
*. Anyway, I think the main difference with the Special Edition is that we get to see inside the mothership. Which is kind of underwhelming anyway. Even Spielberg didn’t like it (he preferred keeping it a mystery) and took that scene back out in his Director’s Cut. So I guess you pick your disc and take your chances.
*. I honestly can’t remember what I thought of this the first time I saw it, so I guess it didn’t have the same impression it had on me that it did on others. It was a big hit though, riding the new youth demographic to blockbuster heaven (it came out the same year as Star Wars). But how good is it?

*. Spielberg got the sole writing credit but apparently it was the work of many hands (Paul Schrader wrote the original draft but then wanted his name taken off the project due to creative differences). It’s all a bit of whimsy. Spaceships cruising all over the world, being seen by millions, and yet they remain the stuff of tabloid headlines? Apparently they hide in clouds! Meanwhile, why does such a high-ranking official as Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) not have a translator on his staff when in the field? I mean, I can understand having to use Bob Balaban in a pinch, but then after picking him up in the desert they take the erstwhile cartographer on as a full-time member of the team? What?
*. I find the build-up to still be fun, with Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) chasing his dream after getting sunburn on half his face, but the climax is empty and dull. David Thomson: “thirty years ago, when we were just babes, the climactic light show was awesome.” But it’s more than forty years ago now and Star Wars is still a thrilling adventure story and Close Encounters is just a bunch of Christmas lights hung about a rock in Wyoming. Aliens came all this way just to play Simon with us? They must not think we’re very bright.

*. But how could it be otherwise? I find this to be a movie that is in some essential and even deliberate ways soft-headed. So much so that even critical praise of it takes on this same quality.
*. Pauline Kael saw it as a celebration of “the best-humored of all technological-marvel fantasies. It has visionary magic and a childlike comic spirit, along with a love of surprises and a skeptical, let’s-try-it-on spirit. It sends you out in a sate of blissful satisfaction.” In her review of E.T. Kael would be explicit about the feeling such films engender: “Like Close Encounters, E.T. is bathed in warmth, and it seems to clear all the bad thoughts out of your head. It reminds you of the goofiest dreams you had as a kid, and rehabilitates them.”
*. I think if you love Close Encounters it’s for these qualities. After originally pursuing Steve McQueen for the part of Neary Spielberg came to realize that what he really wanted was not a manly man but a man-child, someone who reminded him of his own sense of childhood wonder staring at the stars. That’s the way this movie works, if it works for you at all.
*. I want to stick with the mushiness of the ending because it relates to three critiques that I think can be leveled at the movie.

*. (1) In the first place, the movie is, chronologically and thematically, very much smack in the middle of the great run of paranoid conspiracy thrillers that were so thick on the ground in the late 1970s. Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Parallax View (1976), Marathon Man (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Coma (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Once again we have the normal Joe determined to find out “the truth” that’s being concealed behind a vast (really vast, in this case) government cover-up.
*. In some ways Close Encounters would be the most influential of all these films, as its tropes would become the guiding mythology of The X-Files and much else. Before this time the whole “alien abduction” theme was pretty marginal to mainstream culture. After this it would take off. But placed alongside those other conspiracy movies I mentioned how tame and inoffensive it seems. Compare Roy and Jillian looking down on the landing site to Beatty in the rafters of the convention hall, Sutherland above the pod facility, or Michael Moriarty discovering the secret lake of alien ooze in The Stuff (1985). Here there is nothing sinister going on, to the point where it’s unclear why they’re bothering to keep it a secret. The conspiracy was well intentioned and there was no need for feeling paranoid about it. The government doesn’t even kill the farm animals it leaves by the side of the road as a warning but only puts them to sleep for a while. This is a conspiracy thriller that makes the paradoxical point that we have nothing to worry about. Or, as Gene Siskel put it on Sneak Previews, it has the “awfully nice message ‘Don’t be afraid of the unknown, seek it out.'”

*. (2) Audiences have always had trouble with the casual way Roy abandons his family. In his defence, it does seem as though Ronnie (Teri Garr) dumps him, in a one-side telephone call that hints at irreconcilable differences. Still, it is abrupt, and as their kiss on the roadway makes clear he’s clearly thinking of moving on. Also, it’s worth noting that he dumps Jillian as well at the end, after the hint that there might be some romantic connection brewing there.
*. This is a point that Spielberg became sensitive to as well, saying that it was a young man’s movie that dated more than any of his others, in that he couldn’t imagine, after having kids of his own, doing what Roy does. Still, he finds it to be a “sweet, idealistic odyssey of a man who gives up everything to follow his dreams.” What it underlines though is Roy’s essential childishness. He even gets to put on red pyjamas at the end to taken by the hand and led aboard the ship by a little girl. An ascension, or reversion to some state of pre-maturity? So good-bye wife, kids, and even puberty with all of its embarrassing body hair and sexual organs.
*. (3) One must become as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is my final point about the ending. Not an original point, but necessary. This is the SF version of the Rapture, with Neary and others being taken up from the mountaintop, all to the sounds of a heavenly chorus. It’s no mistake when one of the scientists looks up to the mothership and says “Oh, my God,” or when the crowd in India chant “He has come” in Hindi.
*. But as with the sugar-coating of the conspiracy angle this clothing of the ending in the borrowed robes of religion strikes me as dangerously anodyne. What I think of more than anything now when I see the line-up of Rapture cadets in their jumpsuits is the uniforms of the tragic “away teams” of the Heaven’s Gate cult. I know they were Trekkies, but were they also fans of this movie?

*. Is the title ever explained? It comes from the writings of ufologist J. Allen Hynek but I don’t recall the different levels ever coming up for discussion. Did I miss it? Probably. Or was it assumed that everyone in 1977 knew Hynek’s work?
*. The players are all good, starting with Dreyfuss as the scruffy and half-sunburned Everyman. There’s one of the great child performances of all time by Cary Guffey as Barry. The casting of Truffaut was inspired. Spielberg just wanted his face, but as Thomson observes, his “lack of fluent English placed him quite nicely somewhere between humans and aliens.”
*. All the iconic scenes involve the light show — I can’t remember any scenes just with people interacting — and the effects are state of the art for 1977. Roger Ebert (in 1977): “the last thirty minutes are among the most marvelous things I’ve ever seen on the screen.” I doubt many people feel the same way today, though I think I’d still take what we get here ahead of the end of The Abyss, which would be state of the art ten years later, or any of today’s CGI gee-whizzery. There’s something about the effects here that are charmingly retro in a way that suits the theme of childish wonder. Spielberg, wary after shooting Jaws on location, wanted to do the whole movie in studio, and a number of the process shots with matte paintings look borrowed from an earlier generation of filmmaking. The scene on the road, for example, might have come from Invaders from Mars (1953). But it works with the little boy out late at night, looking at spaceships.

*. So it’s just what its greatest admirers love about it: a film suffused with the glowing Christmas-tree lights of childhood wonder. I mentioned how Spielberg wanted a child-man as his hero, but as his comments about Roy’s abandonment of his family indicate what he may have been thinking of was something a good deal younger or more infantile than that. Perhaps someone little Barry’s age. That is, around three years old. Or maybe as grown-up as the six-year-old girls who played the aliens.
*. Spielberg would later say that the image of Barry opening the door to all the alien lights outside stood as a good summary of his career up to that point: a child standing at a threshold of great promise and danger. That’s a universally relatable feeling, which is what gives the film its strength and is why it’s so fondly remembered today by people who first saw it when they were kids. As I began by saying, it didn’t have the same impact on me. I feel even more today that there’s something missing from it, even if it still has that childhood glow.

The Post (2017)

*. I want to start out by saying that while I’m not a big fan of Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, or Tom Hanks I still went into this one with an open mind. They’re all talented, it’s just that I don’t like their work very much.
*. Unfortunately, The Post started off boring me and ended up being a movie I despised.
*. At the end of the movie Katharine Graham (Streep) says to Ben Bradlee (Hanks) “You know what my husband said about the news? He called it the first rough draft of history.” First, I don’t think Philip L. Graham was the first to come up with that line. Second, while a newspaper may offer a first draft of history, a movie about a story now nearly fifty years old that misrepresents history this badly has no such excuse.
*. By misrepresents I mean the way the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times (for which they won a Pulitzer) is made over into a story broken by the Washington Post, “a little local paper” (that’s what they call it) with a heroic female owner who, through this experience, is empowered. Not only is the Times nudged aside, but it’s done in a way that makes the film into a fawning love letter to Graham and Bradlee. As you would expect, given that it’s based on their memoirs.
*. For example, notice how, at the end, the press flock around the publisher and editor of the Times on the courthouse steps and ignore Graham and Bradlee? Nothing is said, but the message is clearly that she is being ignored just because she is a woman. Not because it was the Times that had been sued first, making it really their case.

*. The rest of the movie is even more heavy-handed. The script just pounds away with crude expository dialogue and preaching. It’s like there’s a flashing red light that comes on to tell us when to cheer. “If the government wins and we’re convicted, the Washington Post as we know it will cease to exist,” Bradlee is warned. To which he heroically replies: “Well, if we live in a world where the government could tell us what we can and cannot print, then the Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist.” Yay! Or when Graham passes through her agony in the garden party and tells her various executives that the Post is “my paper now!” Another yay!
*. The whole movie is this clumsy. When Graham goes to court a helpful young woman, presumably a student or clerk, helps her avoid the crowds outside the courtroom and then tells Graham that she works for the government. But then why is she being so kind? Because she really believes in what the Post is doing! Plus, she looks up to Graham as a role model, fighting the old boys’ club. You have to groan as you listen to this, but it actually gets worse as the clerk is humiliated by her (male) boss when she gets into the court. Come on.
*. We get it already. We can’t not get it. Anthony Lane: “If anything, we get the point too much.” Even the big line from the Supreme Court’s decision is read out loud by one of the Post reporters to a silent newsroom, like Sally Field holding up her unionize sign at the cotton mill. Freedom of the press! Yay!

*. The thing is, for all its topicality (and the film was made in a rush, at least partly in response to Donald Trump’s attacks on the press as “enemies of the people”), the points being made are just platitudes. Sexism is bad. A free press is good.
*. I don’t think anything so noble was going on. The decision to run or not to run the Pentagon Papers was a business one, and it paid off. I doubt it had anything much to do with sticking up for the Post‘s employees or the troops in Vietnam, at least at Graham’s level. And Graham herself, while not an old boy, was a wealthy heiress and member of the highest rank of society, not to mention, as her later thoughts on the subject indicate, no die-hard crusader for a free press. But this won’t do in the present political climate so we get to listen to speeches about how hard she has to struggle to make her voice heard in a man’s world and all the rest of it.
*. The script was by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Singer had also written The Fifth Estate and Spotlight, both of which were a lot better than this. I have to blame the crudity of the script here though for most of the film’s failings. Spielberg’s direction might have worked, but I think all the long takes with complicated dolly and tracking shots needed a boost from a more engaged score. I was wondering if this film even had a score in the first hour, and when it did arrive it just seemed to play over obvious cues.
*. As you could have bet your house on, The Post received widespread critical acclaim. Despite agreeing with its politics (how could you not?) I found it a piece of dead spin in an outdated style. It’s less a drama than a lecture, which in the present crisis of journalism is of no use at all.

Quiz the one hundred-and-twenty-sixth: Cover story (Part one)

Could it be that magazines will soon go the way of all things print, consigned to the dustbin of history and leaving us to play with our cell phones while sitting in waiting rooms? If so, my boxes of old movie magazines may finally be worth something. But, alas, there may not be many more quizzes like this week’s incredibly easy offering.  So enjoy this walk in the park, film fans!

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