A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, it sure was a whole lot easier to put a damned bow on a franchise. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, director J.J. Abrams’ return to the trilogy he kicked off with The Force Awakens, is clearly facing some monumental pressures in its quest to deliver a satisfying ending, with a litany of production woes ranging from the passing of Carrie Fisher, the dismissal of the original director, and the ire of random goons on the internet. Given all of the agita, the fact that the final movie comes off as something other than a clear victory lap is less than surprising. What’s odd, though, is how much of the narrative chaos feels self-inflicted. This is a finale that somehow registers as both flabby and rushed, expending at least as much energy in rubbing out perceived past snafus as in moving forward. I mean, it’s still better than Attack of the Clones, but the line is perilously close at times.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Steven Spielberg’s suburban fairy tale for kids who think they are too hip to believe in fairies, turns 35 with a new E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 35th Anniversary Limited Edition (Universal) plus additional Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K Ultra HD editions.
Henry Thomas is Elliot, an emotionally bruised kid suffering under his parents’ separation who finds and bonds with another lonely, lost soul, a benevolent alien left behind when his spaceship leaves. “I’m keeping him,” says Elliot, but meanwhile an army of government men search for him. As E.T. grows homesick and just plain sick. Elliot and friends need to help get E.T. home.
It’s a fantastical adventure with a grounding in the modern suburbia of divorce and adolescent anxiety, and E.T. is the ultimate imaginary playmate come to life. Part pet, part best friend, part guardian angel with an emotionally symbiotic connection to Elliot, this funny looking stranger in a strange land (think of a squat, mutant teddy bear with lizard skin and monkey fingers and voice between a growl and a purr) is a wizened old grandfatherly being with the trust and playfulness of a child.
[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, and others of its genre and worth, operate somewhat like a Socratic dialogue. Philip Marlowe (or whoever) moves from chance meeting to chance meeting, from one seemingly unrelated event to another, and by these means a Gestalt of existential accident and dislocated drift is achieved. That these dark tales are often played out in an urban environment of sleazy hotels and bars, sinister vacant lots, heavily guarded and highly suspect private sanitaria, plush residences, bookstores and photography shops without clientele, and of course the disreputable backrooms of police stations, only adds to the general ambience of paranoia and disorder. This geographical web, without apparent center or pattern, in which men like Marlowe operate perfectly mirrors the tangled, convoluted motives and desires of those enmeshed in its toils. However, a thread of logic, a path towards ultimate clarification, is consistently extended, delineated by the proliferation of event and character, though it is not until practically the dénouement that the reader fully apprehends the overwhelming sense of fatedness and design which retrospectively permeates the novel.
Inevitably, these novels generate a sort of mythic significance: the private eye takes on some of the benighted grandeur of a Greek hero seeking blindly for the key to a divine—whether benevolent or malicious—plan or doom; he becomes like some medieval quester for the Holy Grail, or the solution to a spiritual conundrum that will set all the world right—until the next quest is initiated. Ross Macdonald has authored few books in which he does not deal with the classical theme of familial sin that taints generation after generation until some final purgation is achieved, usually by means of Lew Archer’s (Macdonald’s Marlowe) intervention. Macdonald sets his characters in an environment that reflects their spiritual malaise: in his next-to-last published novel, The Underground Man, he turns L.A. into a hellish arena in which, surrounded by encroaching brush fires and blinded by smoke and smog, Archer and his clients confront old sins and new retribution.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
Sugarland is a small, undistinguished Texas burg not far from the Mexican border. The Sugarland Express is one commandeered highway patrol car and a caravan of half a dozen other h.p. cars, then a few dozen local police cars, then a couple Louisiana highway patrol cars, then a few hundred civilian cars, trucks, campers, and at least one Houston-based TV news van, all bound for the aforesaid Sugarland, Riding in the lead car are an escaped convict, his wife (also recently a con), and one relatively new state policeman whose dialogue sounds like a mélange of the Highway Patrol rule book, the safe-driving code, and Reader’s Digest. The convict may be even more hapless than his prisoner: he broke out—walked out—of the minimum-security prerelease farm from which he’d have been freed in another month anyway, persuaded by his wife that swift action is needed in order to rescue their infant son from a foster home. Before his journey had fairly begun he found himself guilty of grand theft auto, speeding, resisting arrest, stealing a policeman’s gun, and kidnapping—all within about eight minutes. Now it promises to become a very bad scene, what with Clovis (the con) garbling the syntax of all those threats that are supposed to keep his cop prisoner in line, Lou Jean (the wife) impetuously shoving a riot gun at police cars that draw too near, and half the local constables and deerslaying rednecks in the state trying to be the agent of retribution for these desperados.
The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
Clint Eastwood does his own mountain-climbing rightly enough, as a camera swooping out from closeup to acrophobic helicopter longshot verifies time and again. One tight-lipped smile of appreciation for that, and little remains to be said in favor of Eastwood’s fourth directorial outing. From the behind-the-credits sequence of an unidentifiable supporting player ambling through some locations-for-locations’-sake European streets, The Eiger Sanction lacks shape, rhythm, and any notable tone or point-of-view. Its grotesques—Thayer David as a 100-percent albino named Dragon who directs an international Murder Inc. from a secret red-lit room, George Kennedy as a hot-damn-buddy Western type, and Jack Cassidy as a patently treacherous faggot—are (un)directed so broadly, yet without a true sense of outrageousness, that one is inclined to feel sympathy for the performers (though only Kennedy seems to deserve any). More ordinary sorts are blatantly set up over and over to be knocked down by an incredibly predictable putdown script (Gregory Walcott, as a Dragon man who keeps rubbing Eastwood the wrong way, is such a clod that the only thing conceivably dangerous about the character is his incompetence as a tough guy). After sharing with us his own amusement at being proffered as a professor of art history who has retired from the killing game in order to enjoy the stash of masterworks bought with his ill-gotten gains, Eastwood walks uninterestingly through the rest of his part, counting on the uninflected slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am machismo that didn’t see him through High Plains Drifter either; on the evidence of his second and fourth films (he didn’t take a role in Breezy and I’d appreciate a chance to reconsider Play Misty for Me), he should leave the direction of himself to other people. The story involves the Eastwood character in one of those murky internecine projects wherein, by the time the action has run its course, we’ve had it demonstrated ad nauseam that the potentiality for betrayal is inherent in any relationship a truism that has been worked out more scrupulously in other thrillers where the conclusion didn’t seem so foregone.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
Jaws begins with a chillingly realistic sequence of shots that are at the same time metaphysically portentous and eerily beautiful. The camera pans slowly across a group of college people singing and drinking around a beach campfire, cuts a fluid swath along a bluish twilight New England sand dune, eases into a placid sea behind a pretty girl, and follows her as she swims fatefully out over those murky depths where we all know what is waiting. As the girl splashes innocently against a postcard sunset, we cut to a couple of quick shots whose point of view is somewhere below the water, evilly hovering, gazing up at the girl’s form and the dusk sky which swims and shimmers above her like an out-of-focus image of another world. The underwater camera and the presence it represents move progressively closer, intercut with shots of the girl from the surface, until finally she gets this funny look on her face, bobs once or twice like a cork floater on a fishing line, and goes shooting through the water at shark speed. And then she’s gone. There’s this silence, this beautiful fading sunset, a few harmless waves lapping the beach….
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
The recurrence of certain thematic ideas clues us to a consistency of vision at work in Steven Spielberg’s last three films. For one thing, all are “disaster films” in the sense that they deal with the revelation of character in time of stress. Each of the three films, in one way or another, treats of a battle to the death between a pursuer and a pursued, each respecting and fearing the other’s power. Most fascinating, though, is the fact that all three films deal in some significant way with people’s relationship to machines. (It comes as no surprise that Spielberg’s current work-in-progress, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is about human encounters with UFOs.) Even his earliest television work is marked by an interest in the struggle of the human against the Object. The second section of the Rod Serling trilogy Night Gallery (1969) starred Joan Crawford as an art collector who arranges for an eye transplant, and awakes from the operation just in time for a New York power blackout, with frantic results. A more mature made-for-TV feature, Something Evil (1970), pitted Sandy Dennis against a houseful of poltergeists. But it was with Duel (1972) that Spielberg first dealt specifically with that curiously American simultaneous dependence upon and fear of machines.
Richard Matheson’s script for Duel is a vertiginous plunge into the American collective unconscious, with an enormous, wheezing tank truck metamorphosed into a contemporary dragon that irrationally menaces the allegorically surnamed hero, David Mann. His first name is as apt as his surname: the fact that the driver of the truck remains unseen turns the truck itself into a giant Philistine enemy opposing this modern David. Spielberg presents the truck to us not from the point-of-view of Mann’s eyes, but from a fragile point deep inside the mind of the threatened salesman. In closeup, the truck is always overpoweringly huge; in middle- and longshot its size is emphasized by comparison with Mann’s car, making the truck more than ever an insatiable monster bent on gobbling up helpless prey.
The metaphoric impact of all this is heightened by the fact that Mann has chosen to drive this winding, hilly country road to avoid freeway traffic. In his life’s journey he has strayed—but willingly—from the Dantean true path, and found himself confronted by a ravening beast. The snake, too, that most allegorical of creatures, makes its appearance in one of the film’s most interesting scenes, Mann’s stop at a garage that, in the tradition of Cable Hogue’s “Cable Springs” stagecoach stop, offers an exhibit of snakes as a roadside attraction. Interestingly, the snake sequence comes just after an incident in which the truck has nearly forced Mann into the path of a train at a crossing, and precedes the climactic sequence in which a radiator hose gives out and spews steam about as Mann’s car grinds to a halt on a steep grade. Whether this is an intentional proliferation of phallic symbolism or merely a sequence of variations on shape, Spielberg’s emphatic treatment of the images demonstrates his awareness of the coincidence.