CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) revisited

September 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite my fascination and quasi-obsession with movies, the Science Fiction genre has never really appealed to me. Sure, there have been a few dozen exceptions over the years (and it depends how you categorize certain movies), but it’s the non-classics in the genre that just never seem to connect with my love of film. So when Steven Spielberg states that he doesn’t consider his beloved CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE THIRD KIND (CE3K) to be a “sci-fi” film, you won’t see me get offended, or even offer a contrary argument. Of course, the difference is that Mr. Spielberg makes his claim based on his belief of life “out there”, while I simply have no desire to defend the category label.

For its 40th anniversary, the film is making the rounds in selected theatres, and the big screen is a must for this gem. Released in the same year and just a few months after George Lucas’ groundbreaking STAR WARS, Spielberg’s follow-up to JAWS confirmed his status as a revolutionary filmmaker, and cemented 1977 as one of the finest movie years of all-time (including ANNIE HALL, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, JULIA). CE3K would become the first of 7 Best Director Oscar nominations for Spielberg (inexplicably only one win to date).

Spielberg is credited as the writer, though many contributors are “uncredited”: Hal Barwood (now known for video games), Jerry Belson (Emmy winner for “The Odd Couple” and his work with Tracey Ullman), and John Hill (QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER), and Matthew Robbins (CRIMSON PEAK). Paul Schrader and Walter Hill also contributed to the script, making this the veritable vegetable soup of screenplays. The film came at a time when Columbia Pictures was struggling, so in order to remain under budget, Spielberg had to make some compromises on the final version. In a highly unusual development in the movie industry, Spielberg was able to revise, re-edit, and add new scenes to a 1980 re-release of the film – realizing his original vision.

Richard Dreyfuss stars as Roy Neary, a blue collar family man from Muncie, Indiana. With an acting career spanning more than 50 years (many recognize his baby face in THE GRADUATE as he offers to call the cops), it was AMERICAN GRAFFITI that caused his career to take off, leading to JAWS in 1975, and his stellar 1977 with both CE3K and THE GOODBYE GIRL. He later overcame a severe drug habit to star in such crowd favorites as WHAT ABOUT BOB?, MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS and “Madoff”. His wife Ronnie in CE3K is played by Teri Garr, whose acting career also covers more than 50 years, including small roles in five different Elvis movies in the 1960’s and her best known roles in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and TOOTSIE (for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination). In recent years, she has had to turn her energy and attention to health issues.

Melinda Dillon stars as Jillian, mother to young Barry (Cary Guffey) who is abducted by the aliens. Ms. Dillon received her first (of two) Oscar nomination for her work in the film, and is still seen annually breaking a leg lamp in the holiday favorite A CHRISTMAS STORY, although she retired from acting ten years ago. Young Mr. Guffey is now 45 years old and hasn’t acted since 1985. Director Stanley Kubrick considered him for the role of Danny in THE SHINING, but ultimately decided on Danny Lloyd, another youngster who decided against remaining in showbiz.

 Francois Truffaut was an Oscar nominated director known for kicking off the French New Wave of Cinema with his all-time classics THE 400 BLOWS and JULES AND JIM, and it was quite surprising to see him cast in the role of UFO expert Claude Lecombe. It’s likely that cinephile Spielberg loved the idea of working with a peer whose work he so admired. Truffaut is a significant screen presence despite his challenges with the English language (which led to “dialogue cheat sheets” throughout filming). Bob Balaban, so familiar to “Seinfeld” fans, plays the translator, while Justin Dreyfuss (Richard’s real life nephew) is the noisy and obnoxious son during the hectic family scene. Roberts Blossom is the one in the film who admits to spotting Bigfoot, and is best known as Kevin’s neighbor in HOME ALONE and the braced-up car seller in CHRISTINE. He was also a well-respected poet before passing away in 2011. Other familiar faces include Lance Henrikson (ALIENS), George DiCenzo (BACK TO THE FUTURE), Carl Weathers (ROCKY), CY YOUNG (OK, more a name than a face), Bill Thurman (Coach Popper from THE LAST PICTURE SHOW), and gas mask salesman Gene Rader, who hails from Paris, Texas.

 Desert discoveries are a key here, and offer more insight into Spielberg’s attention to history. The “lost” plane is a tribute to real life Flight 19 which disappeared in 1945, and The Cotopaxi was a real cargo ship that sunk … both becoming part of Bermuda Triangle lore. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is also significant here, and it’s Spielberg’s nod to John Ford’s frequent use of Monument Valley in his westerns. Spielberg has admitted to watching Ford’s THE SEARCHERS dozens of times while filming CE3K. Another tribute comes in the form of a wind-up monkey with cymbals. It was previously seen in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and can also be viewed as a precursor to the infamous clown in POLTERGEIST.

Spielberg acknowledges being inspired by President Nixon and the Watergate scandal. He wondered what else the government might be hiding from us. Remarkably, he gets his point across with a total absence of modern day cynicism. As opposed to what we usually see these days, the military isn’t trying to bomb the mothership and citizens aren’t retreating in a panic to bunkers. Instead, the military is working to keep the public safe (albeit through some sneaky strategy), the scientists are approaching communication through a protocol steeped in research and data gathering, and Dreyfuss and Dillon are trying to figure out why they were “chosen”. Spielberg delivers sweetness and warmth rather than a show of power and might. It’s such a pleasant viewing experience to watch people we like and to whom we can relate.

Some points of interest related to the film include a cameo from famed UFOologist J Allen Hynek, who is seen smoking a pipe as the abductees are released from the mothership. Mr. Hynek actually created the phrases Close Encounters of the First, Second, and Third Kinds. ABC news anchor Howard K Smith is seen since CBS would not grant permission for Walter Cronkite to appear. The film’s stunning visual effects come courtesy of Douglas Trumball, who also collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Of course, the Visual Effects Oscar that year went to STAR WARS, and that speaks to the contrast between the films. STAR WARS is clearly a special effects movie, while CE3K is much more of a character study … a study of human emotions.

 As for other Oscar categories, the film was nominated for 9 total, with the only win going to Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, though it was also awarded a Special Achievement Oscar for Sound Effects Editing. Spielberg was nominated, but Woody Allen won Best Director for ANNIE HALL, and Richard Dreyfuss actually won the Best Actor Oscar that year for THE GOODBYE GIRL. The great John Williams was of course nominated for his iconic 5 note melody (following up his immortal JAWS theme), and he instead won the Oscar that year for … repeat after me … STAR WARS. A quirky note on the music – the “voice” of the mothership was a tuba, not an instrument that typically gets much publicity.

While Stanley Kubrick opted not to show aliens in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, this film not only puts the aliens front and center, it reminds us to keep an open mind to those unfamiliar to us … a lesson that is still important today. The film was named to the National Film Registry in 2007, and seeing it on the big screen allows for the full impact of awe and wonderment. It’s rated PG and can be enjoyed by most ages. Spielberg only asks that you leave the cynicism at home.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

ARRIVAL (2016)

November 12, 2016

arrival Greetings again from the darkness. Our cinematic love affair with aliens goes back decades, and these films typically fall into one of two categories: evil aliens attack earth, or aliens come in peace and humans react poorly. We’ve seen aliens trying to provide us with righteous advice (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951). We’ve connected via a few musical notes (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) and radio frequencies (Contact, 1997). And we have certainly had our share of surprise and unwanted meetings (Alien, 1979; The Thing, 1982). Leave it to cutting edge director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Incendies) to find a new, more head-and-soul approach for the genre.

This high concept project is born from Eric Hiesserer’s screenplay of Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” … a title that makes sense by the end of the movie, but one a bit too blah for a big time production with Oscar hopes. Five time Oscar nominee Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist and interpreter. There is an interesting and well done sequence at the beginning of the film that provides the back story for her character and the foundation for the final reveal.

A dozen oddly shaped spaceships have docked (mid-air) at various points around the globe. The one in the U.S. is hovering over … no, not Area 51 … Montana of all places. Forest Whitaker plays the military officer charged with assembling the team that will try to communicate with the aliens. He chooses Dr. Banks due to her remarkable track record with languages. She is joined with uber-Science and Math guy, Physicist Ian Donnelly played by Jeremy Renner.

We do see the aliens and their artsy style of communicating (a touch of Rorschach), but this is about so much more than learning a new inner-galactic language. It’s about how the military reacts, how the general populace reacts, how the world leaders work together (or not), and even how the military, intelligence agencies and academia coexist. It’s about smart people working out a plan when the problem isn’t even clear … a between-the-ears head-scratcher.

Mr. Villeneuve utilizes what appear to be flashbacks in helping us better understand Dr. Banks, but the element of time may not be what we typically accept in story-telling. The story, characters, cinematography and score (one of the best matches of music and movie all year thanks to composer Johann Johansson) work together to provide an engaging, nearly hypnotic movie going experience. Plus, I’m fairly certain this is the first alien movie to reference Abbott and Costello and crack a Sheila Easton joke. This is beautiful filmmaking that is also thought-provoking and encouraging of some species self-analysis (our species).

watch the trailer:

 

 


MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

March 19, 2016

midnight special Greetings again from the darkness. Austin-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols serves up some of the familiar themes of spiritualism and parenting seen in his first three films: Mud (2012), Take Shelter (2011), Shotgun Stories (2007), but this time he goes a bit heavier on the science fiction … while maintaining his focus on the individual.

An exceptional opening scene kicks off the story, and Nichols makes sure we are alert by forcing us to absorb and assemble the slew of clues flying at us … an Amber alert, cardboard on the windows of a cheap motel, a news report tying us to San Angelo, Texas, duct tape on the peep hole, a duffel bag of weapons, two anxiety-filled men, and a goggled-boy under a white sheet who seems extremely calm in an otherwise hectic environment. We learn a lot, yet many questions remain.

As the boy and the two men speed off down the backroads, the setting switches to an eerily calm Calvin Meyer (the always great Sam Shepard), who is the leader of a religious cult similar to the Branch Davidians. “The Ranch” is desperate to get the boy back, and we learn they worship the numbers and words the boy has “received” from above. An FBI agent (Paul Sparks) leads the raid on the compound and takes us to an interrogation of Calvin by NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

Alternating between sci-fi special effects and an “on the run” story line, we slowly pick up more details about the boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), as well as the men with him – his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). It’s not long before they reunite with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and we really start to comprehend just how different and special Alton is.

It’s easy to see the influence of such films as Starman, E.T.: The ExtraTerrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. We are reminded that our society inevitably assumes the worst when something we don’t understand appears right in front of us. The Ranch sees the boy as a savior, and the government labels him a weapon. But it’s Shannon who captures the protective determination of a father trying to do the right thing for his son. Shannon again flashes the best ‘pained’ expression in the business, but it’s young Lieberher (so terrific in St. Vincent) who allows us to accept the father/son story in spite of the bright white lasers shooting from his eyeballs.

There are plenty of unanswered questions – not the least of which is, how did two “normal” parents end up with this “special” son? The visuals near the end are impressive to see on screen, but don’t appear to have much impact on the final questioning of Lucas or our understanding of how it all happened. It should also be noted that the piano score is especially impactful during both the quiet and thrilling moments. Director Nichols is a talented idea man, but he does leave us wanting more details.  (That’s his brother singing the song over the closing credits.)

watch the trailer:

 


STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

December 23, 2015

star wars Greetings again from the darkness. In what can justifiably be termed a cultural event, director J.J. Abrams brings us Episode VII in a film franchise (developed by George Lucas, now owned by Disney) that date backs almost 40 years. While I was one of the lucky ones who waited patiently in line to see the first Star Wars on opening day in 1977, I can only be described as a series fan rather than a Star Wars geek. My bond is with Han Solo and Chewbacca, so I’m not here to debate the minutiae of costumes, timelines and weaponry.

What I can happily report is that Mr. Abrams (he’s also directed Star Trek and Mission Impossible films) has found just the right blend of nostalgia, science-fiction, and geeky gadgetry to appeal to the widest of all audiences. The film is an honorable tribute to the previous six in the series, yet it’s more than entertaining enough to stand alone for new comers.

As we expect and hope for, the screen is filled with fantastical visuals that somehow push our imagination, while at the same time, feel realistic to the story and action. The aerial dogfights are adrenaline-pumping and spectacular in their vividness, and the more grounded action scenes feature Stormtroopers who have clearly had lots of target practice since the previous films.

You need only watch the trailer or read the credits to know that some of the old familiar faces are back: Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, and of course, our old pals C-3P0 and R2D2. Also back is the remarkable composer John Williams – likely to receive his fiftieth (yes, 50!) Oscar nomination for his work here. In addition to the familiar, new faces abound: John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Kyle (don’t call me Ben) Ren, Oscar Isaac as Poe, Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, and Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Hux. There is also the magic of Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke, and an all-too-brief sequence featuring Max von Sydow. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o voices Maz Kanata, and there is an impressive list of other cameos available online if you are interested (Daniel Craig being the most eye-raising).

Abrams along with action cinematographer extraordinaire Daniel Mindel take full advantage of all available technical aspects in creating stunning visuals and spine-tingling sound. It’s a film made to be watched on the biggest screen with the best sound system, so ask around if you aren’t sure. If you are a long-time fan of Han and Chewy, you’ll enjoy catching up with old friends. If you are unfamiliar with the Star Wars galaxy, this latest will hook you into the force.

watch the trailer:

 


THE MARTIAN (2015)

October 4, 2015

martian Greetings again from the darkness. With this week’s NASA announcement of the discovery of water on Mars, it seems necessary to point out that director Ridley Scott’s latest was not actually filmed on the red planet, but rather in the Jordan desert. OK, maybe not necessary, but it does serve as a reminder that the film (based on the popular book from Andy Weir) may be filled with science … but it’s also fiction – hence the label Science-Fiction.  If you were one of THOSE who actually paid attention in science classes and read the optional material, then you will probably find much fault in the details. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty fun ride.

Space has long been a popular movie topic, and a key to such favorites as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Aliens, The Right Stuff, Contact, Space Cowboys, Armageddon, Moon, and most recently Gravity and Interstellar. And of course there are the immensely popular franchises of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”, which both chose a different path than the “grounded” nature of the others. This latest film may actually have as much in common with Cast Away as it does with any of the space-based films, and while many movies these days seem to be advertisements for Apple, this one is owed a debt by the duct tape company.

Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew (Matt Damon, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Askal Hennie) are hard at work on their Mars mission when a severe storm causes them to evacuate in panic mode. When the storm hits, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. Once it’s realized that Watney survived and has every intention of being rescued, the film kicks into gear.

There are three separate stories we follow: the ingenious and spirited survival mode of Watney, the politics and brilliance of the NASA organization, and the crew who now believes Watney’s rescue is their responsibility. The NASA group is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and includes support work from Chiwetel Ejiofar, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, MacKenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong.

Taking the approach of an adventure film with the MacGuyver of all Botanists, Damon’s charm and humor stand in stark contrast to the annoyances of the two leads from Gravity, and provide a mass appeal that should make this entertaining for most any viewer. This approach allows us to imagine ourselves stranded on Mars, and whether we would panic or consider ourselves Space Pirates. There is also a lesson here for all students out there … pay attention in Science class! For the rest of us … “get your a** to Mars”!

martian2

 

 


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

watch the trailer:

 


INTERSTELLAR (2014)

November 16, 2014

interstellar Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a “must see” movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today’s Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan’s long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever handheld IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer’s complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the “Twilight” child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on “love” both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can’t be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that’s where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase “Do not go gently into that good night” can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein’s Relativity of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

**NOTE: (Could be considered a  SPOILER)  If I were sending a crew into space on a dangerous mission to save the species, and my Plan B was to have this group start a new community on a new planet, I would certainly send more than one female on the mission.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: scientific brain strain is your favorite form of entertainment OR you need proof that Gravity was mere fluff in the realm of space film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of time-continuum is hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock

watch the trailer: