Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

Throwback Thursday: “Gremlins” (1984)!

There are few movies more quintessentially 80’s than “Gremlins” (1984).  To this day, I still think it was a strange movie because of its successful juxtaposition of elements.

On the one hand, it was a family film with a sense of wonder and the kind of wholesome sentiments about the American family that you would associate with Steven Spielberg.  (I was surprised to discover that though he was executive producer here, “Gremlins” was written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Dante.)  It takes place in a small town on Christmas, and follows a Spielberg-esque, young, good-natured, male protagonist.

On the other hand, the violence and black humor were pretty unexpected for a mainstream blockbuster feature film.  (If you’ve seen the movie, you can vividly remember the titular monsters being dispatched by the blender and the microwave, for example — and the murder of an elderly disabled woman is maybe the film’s biggest sight gag.)  Even the monsters themselves (which were skillfully rendered in this era of pre-CGI practical effects) were a little too scary for younger kids.  It was this movie, along with 1984’s “Indianan Jones and the Temple of Doom,” that led to the MPAA to establish its “PG-13” rating — for films that didn’t quite merit a hard “R,” but were still more intense than a mere “PG rating.”

What’s remarkable to me, though, is that these disparate elements were woven together more or less seamlessly.  “Gremlins” isn’t “Casablanca” (1942), but it’s a fairly decent goofball movie that kinda works.

A little trivia — the department store where the heroic Gizmo finally dispatches the villainous Stripe is a Montgomery Ward, which modern audiences would not recognize.  The chain went out of business in 2001.  (The eponymous online retailer has no relationship to the old brick-and-mortar stores.)  I last remember being at a “Ward’s” at Spotsylvania Mall in Virginia in the 1990’s.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “War of the Worlds” (2005)!

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog,  I will never stop loving Steven Spielberg’s 2005 take on H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.”  It was a damned decent science fiction epic, the special effects were fabulous, and it’s actually pretty scary upon its first viewing.  The movie successfully channeled post-9/11 anxieties without exploiting them, and Spielberg characteristically humanized the story’s apocalypse by framing it through the eyes of a realistic, relatable modern family.  (The terror of the genocidal monsters is a little ironic, too … when I was a kid, Spielberg was known for the wondrous aliens of 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and 1982’s “E.T. — The Extra Terrestrial.”)

Say what you want about Tom Cruise … I think he’s a decent actor, and he’s led some really terrific science fiction films.  Dakota Fanning was fantastic child actor here, and Tim Robbins was predictably brilliant (even if his story arc, in my opinion, was largely unnecessary and too depressing).

This was a great flick.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “The War of the Worlds” (1953)!

Man, did “The War of the Worlds” rock my world as a little kid.  When this movie made the rounds on 1980’s television, it was arguably a bigger reason to celebrate than a “Godzilla” movie.

I’m a little puzzled to realize that neither the trailer or the original film poster below show the Martian ships, which were pretty damned nifty for a 50’s movie.  I’m not sure why that is.  (Maybe up to  certain point the filmmakers wanted to save that as a surprise for people who bought a ticket?)

This isn’t the only adaptation of the classic 1898 H. G. Wells novel that I would come to love.  A few years later, I wound up getting the famous 1939 radio play on cassette tape.  And as an adult, I’ll always enjoy  Steven Spielberg’s genuinely frightening big-budget 2005 version.  I haven’t quite warmed to the new BBC series yet, but maybe that will change.

 

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A review of “Sinister” (2012). (With a caveat.)

It’s easy to see why “Sinister” (2012) came so highly recommended; this is a startlingly scary horror movie to which I’d give an 8 out of 10.  I was tempted to give it a 9, but some subjective personal tastes prevent me from giving this unusually disturbing film a higher rating.

It’s frightening.  The design of the supernatural Big Bad is quite good, despite its simplicity.  This film succeeds in giving us an intimidating bogeyman.  Far worse is his choice of victims and his modus operandi.  I won’t say much here … this is a movie where we learn about the story’s antagonist because the protagonist is an investigator — true-crime writer “Ellison Oswalt,” wonderfully played by Ethan Hawke.  I also won’t go into precisely how the baddie operates, because it’s just a little too dark to contemplate here.

It’s shot and scripted quite well … there are a number of nice touches, and the basic story is unsettling even by horror movie standards.  A late twist about how the violence is perpetrated is telegraphed in advance, but it still gets under your skin.  The directing by Scott Derrickson is spot on — the “jump moments” are cheap, but they still work.  Derrickson’s and C. Robert Cargill’s script is smartly unnerving — especially with respect to how these crimes are perpetrated.  (Yeesh.)  And the use of unusual and disturbing music is quite effective.  This film was the result of a lot of thought and effort.

Still, a few things suggested to me that this falls short of being a perfect horror movie:

  1.  Common tropes abound.  The most tired, to me, was the use of a horror writer as an ironic protagonist.  That’s an overused device.  The master himself, Stephen King, for example, has used this in no fewer than four novels and their subsequent film treatments, by my count.  (Yes, Hawke here is a nonfiction writer instead of a novelist, but the principle is the same.)
  2. Hawke’s protagonist, as scripted, is pretty damned unlikable.  “Deputy So-and-So” is his most important source, not to mention someone who shows him compassion when things get really tough.  Yet he sticks with that insulting appellation, and even screens his calls, throughout the entire movie.
  3. The bestselling nonfiction writer here has no idea how to cultivate a source.  (See above.)  I’ve been a writer, in some capacity, for my entire adult life, and I started out as a paper jockey.  You treat every source as important, even the crazy ones.  It’s both good manners and proper professional conduct.  And when you deal with any police officer, you’re especially conscientious if you’re smart — people in law enforcement are often (understandably) very sensitive about how they are portrayed in writing.
  4. Ellison Oswalt feels the need to move into a home where a multiple homicide was committed, in order to write about the crime?  That’s just nuts, even by eccentric writer standards.
  5. He chooses not to tell his wife?  I have never been married, but I know from both my personal and professional life that women get really, really pissed off when you neglect to tell them things that they think are important.
  6. Is Oswalt’s wife a Luddite who never googles anything?  I moved to Virginia a year ago, and I STILL google my address because I keep forgetting my zip code.
  7. Oswalt expects no neighbors to share such information with his wife?  (This is lampshaded a bit, as a child brings home the information from his school.)

Finally, there is one subjective matter that kept me from loving this movie — and it is admittedly a matter of taste.  Even as a devoted lover of dark stories, my enjoyment is sometimes affected by films in which children are victimized.  (I am referring here to the children depicted in the 8 MM (“Super 8”) film strips that are discovered by the main character.)

Yes, these are horror movies, and they are intended for adults, and we ourselves should be adult enough to recognize fiction as such.  (Otherwise we can buy a different ticket or click elsewhere among Netflix’ options.)  And plenty of great horror films feature imperiled children.  “28 Weeks Later” (2007) immediately springs to mind for me, probably because it is a favorite.  I think most other genre devotees would point to the universally recognized “The Exorcist” (1973).  But in those films and most others, things were depicted … differently.  (I’m being vague here for fear of spoilers all around.)

I’m a veteran horror-hound; I’ve routinely enjoyed films in which zombies or vampires wipe out humanity.  But what I saw in “Sinister” was too dark even for my taste.  This sort of reaction is rare on my part, but not unprecedented.  “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005) and “Wolf Creek” (2005) both took violence against the innocent too far for me to really enjoy or recommend them.  (Strangely, 1980’s legendary “Cannibal Holocaust” affected me little.)  Yes, zombie apocalypses tend to be gory affairs, but they are almost always faced by grownups, who are unbound, and armed, and generally able to fight back.

I would really  think twice recommending this to the casual filmgoer without a spoilerish hint about its content.  Your mileage may vary.

Hey … if you really want a scary story, check out The Internet Movie Database’s trivia section for “Sinister” after you see the movie.  Read how the “Pool Party” scene was filmed.  That’s … that’s nuts.  Nobody wants a director that committed.  Somebody should have called OSHA.  Seriously.

And here’s a joke for you.  Given the “Super 8” films we see in this movie, wouldn’t it be blackly funny if this film were  sequel to Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming “Super 8” (2011)?  It’s all about the kids, right?

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A review of “Super 8” (2011)

“Super 8” (2011) was, as everyone told me, a good movie – I’d give it an 8 out of 10. It had a smart, funny script that made for likeable adolescent protagonists, some nice tension in setting up a sci-fi mystery, and some great special effects (including an impressive train crash that reminded me of the very different “Final Destination” movies). I had fun with this.

I can only enjoy “family films” so much, though. It isn’t that I need violence or sex to be entertained. It’s that these movies are “safe” and therefore predictable. When I realized early on that this was intended for general audiences, it gave me a pretty good idea of what would and would not happen throughout the film. (This film is a mystery that is a little hard to discuss without spoilers.)

The movie was made even more predictable when you realize that director JJ Abrams was consciously imitating a certain other famous filmmaker. Let’s look as what we’ve got: 1) an earnest, vulnerable, yet ultimately heroic adolescent boy; 2) quirky, flawed, yet lovable supporting characters that aid him in his quest; 3) a sci-fi mystery; 4) several family conflicts involving absent parents; and 5) ruthless government and/or military authorities.

Hmmmm. Remind you of anything, anyone?  Hint: see this film’s producer.

There was a little too much heavy handed imagery and plotting. Accidentally turning on a film projector and seeing a dead parent? A flying locket with a picture of said parent? And the locket is let go at the story’s climax? I felt that Abrams would next reach right out of the movie screen and write the movie’s message in black Sharpie marker across my forehead. Just in case I didn’t get it.

Still, this was good. Those kids were so damned cool it made me think it might be fun to be a parent. That heavy kid would actually be really cool to hang out with. If I were his Dad, I’d buy him all sorts of stuff for his hobby of making zombie movies, and I’d let him skip his chores just to give him the space he needs.

This movie also did something pretty creative that I don’t remember seeing done outside of “The X-Files.” We’re shown a government or military conspiracy, but this time the local police department does NOT cooperate or become complicit in it. So you see local cops actively working against their federal or military counterparts. I found that to be different and interesting, and it seems like the sort of thing that might occur in real life.

All in all, this was a good movie. It seems like a pretty decent flick with which to introduce a kid to science fiction.

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My review of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)

It’s easy for me to understand why “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a classic.  This movie held two big surprises for me, along with a lot of other things to admire.

First were the special effects.  This movie was made in 1977?!  That’s a little hard for me to believe.  The effects here seemed at least as good as the original (and not digitally remastered) “Star Wars,” which came out the same year.  Like Star Wars, it could only have used models and forced perspective.   Am I crazy if I think one or two of the effects here might have even been better?  There are several scenes where the smaller (scout?) spacecraft appear to revolve 360 degrees in midair, with remarkable depth and the appearance of a three-dimensional object.    Isn’t this at least as good as many sequences In Star Wars, with its more static shots of ships seen from only one angle?  (In retrospect, I don’t know if the version I saw of “Close Encounters” was itself remastered or “improved.”)

Second … was my favorite TV show of all time a rip-off of a 1970’s Steven Spielberg movie?!  I couldn’t believe how directly the 1990’s’ “The X-Files” seemed inspired by this – right down to an international government cover-up.  “The X-Files,” of course, was a horror-thriller series, while this is a family film – which did rob it of a lot of tension.  How much suspense can we really feel if we know that this material is suitable for all ages?  Indeed, the worst thing to happen to any of the major characters we follow is that he falls asleep from knockout gas.

To make things even more fun, I swear I saw a cameo by (an extremely young) Lance Henriksen, who had a guest appearance on “The X-Files.”  (He’s one of the scientists at the end.)

There was more about this movie to like a hell of a lot too.  Richard Dreyfuss is a damn good actor.  So, too, is Terri Garr – despite dialogue that makes her sound like a hysterical shrew.  (Cary Guffey was also a great child actor.)

The script is smart, with characters sounding like we’d expect them to sound.  Scientists are human beings who get excited over amazing discoveries, instead of being amoral automatons and devices for exposition.  The kids here sound and behave like KIDS, a lot like the characters behaved in the later “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.”  And the film did a great job of juxtaposing Dreyfuss’ everyman plight with larger global events witnessed by a range of other characters.

Plus, “Close Encounters” was just plain fun.  I’m not big into family movies, but even I’ve got to admit, Spielberg really does project a sense of wonder here.  This seems like a great film with which to get a pre-teen interested in science fiction.

I had a few quibbles, but they were all forgivable.

  • Several characters suffer unexplained “sunburns” after being near spacecraft, and then joke about it. This was 30 years after Hiroshima.  Why on earth are they not terrified?  If my skin burned after my proximity to strange object, I’d panic.
  • One character demonstrates an incredible lack of vigilance with respect to her son.
  • If a government conspiracy is so vast and resourceful, wouldn’t it make at least some effort to identify and monitor those who have had “close encounters?”
  • If you think about it, the aliens actually do a Very Bad Thing. Aren’t lives destroyed by their abductions?   It’s 30 years later for the returning humans, who never consented to be absent.  Yet we see little concern about this – or even a single sidearm in evidence in the movie’s final scene.  Wouldn’t this be an especially horrible oversight considering the nature of the scientists?  They’re presumably earth’s best and brightest – perhaps even the best qualified to inform us about defending against an alien invasion.  Wouldn’t it kinda suck if they were all abducted?
  • A newspaper headline misspells “kidnapping.” (Sorry — I’m a former news reporter, and I can’t get past it.)
  • Am I crazy, or does Dreyfuss’ character share a romantic kiss with a woman who is not his wife? This seems slightly out of place in a Spielberg movie.
  • Dreyfuss’ choice at the end reflects nary an afterthought about his wife and children.

Still, this is a great movie – I’d give it an 8 out of 10.

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