‘Gremlins’ 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Review

Gremlins 4K Ultra HD cover

The following review is written by Ultimate Rabbit Correspondent Tony Farinella.

Gremlins” came out a year before I was born, but the true test of any good to great movie is how it holds up, regardless of how old it is.  While watching this 1984 classic for the first time in what feels like ages, it does show its age in some respects.  However, there is something rather charming about the 80’s comedy/horror film that still holds true to this day.  The film is rated PG, although if it were released today, I would imagine it would get a PG-13 rating.  There is nothing overly graphic about it, but it’s partially a children’s horror/comedy and partially a young adult horror/comedy. Oddly enough, the PG-13 rating was put into place two months after this film, according to research.

Everything gets set into motion when a quirky and outside-the-box inventor named Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) wants to buy something special for his son on Christmas.   He happens to come across a very special creature known as a Mogwai.  The man in charge of the antique shop does not want to sell it, but his grandson does a side deal with Randall in order to get some much-needed money.   He tells the man to remember three things: Don’t get it wet, don’t expose it to the sun, and don’t feed it after midnight.  Randall thinks this sounds simple enough and proceeds to take the Mogwai home to give to his son Billy for Christmas.

All is fine and dandy with the Mogwai, which ends up being named Gizmo, until one night it gets wet.  They learn that this creates even more Mogwais in the process. Things turn even worse when Billy (Zach Galligan) feeds them accidentally after midnight. Now, Gizmo is one of the good ones.  He is adorable and harmless.  The rest of them, however, turn evil and create mayhem and mischief at every corner.  It is up to Billy and the girl he likes, Katie (Phoebe Cates) to stop these gremlins from destroying everything in their path.

Gremlins 4K scene clip

Considering all of the various films that came out in the 80’s that dealt with teenagers/young people in peril trying to figure things out, it’s easy to see why this film was such a success.  We are seeing a lot of that with “It” and “Stranger Things.”  What’s old is new again. People hold a certain affinity for the 80’s and the films that came out during that period.   They also like to see the young kids taking control of a situation.  That is what happens here.  It doesn’t take long for things to get out of hand.

“Gremlins” is a very fast-paced film directed by Joe Dante, and he mixes the comedy and horror together just right. The screenplay by Chris Columbus is also very well-written, and this helps the proceedings.  It is not a scary film at all, but it is a film which knows what it is trying to accomplish for audiences. This is a film which is a lot of fun and over-the-top with its use of the various creatures inhabiting it.  While they garner a lot of screen time, it is impossible not to notice the cast which also includes Judge Reinhold and Corey Feldman.  It is also great to see a horror film where the parents actually believe the children instead of doubting them, and they are fighting alongside the children against these hideous creatures.

In the end, thirty-five years later, “Gremlins” does show some signs of aging, but as mentioned earlier, considering how people are gravitating toward the horror comedies of the 1980’s with young teens in peril, it works quite well in today’s cinematic world.   With it being released on 4K, this is the perfect time to pick it up and add it to your collection.  The transfer is a solid upgrade, and it’s the perfect movie to watch with Halloween fast approaching.   While there is a lot going on here, it never feels overstuffed or overpopulated.  It feels just right in terms of the pacing, the acting, and the outcome.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

____________________________________________________________________________

Video Info: The 4K is released on 2160p Ultra High Definition 16×9 1.85:1, and the Blu-Ray is 1080p High Definition 16×9 1.85:1.  While the 4K transfer is a solid improvement over the Blu-Ray, it’s not a huge improvement.  The Blu-Ray is pretty basic and does not stand out all that much. It is still grainy in certain scenes, and they didn’t add anything new to the Blu-Ray.  With the 4K, it adds more color with the high dynamic range.  For those like myself who are really big into audio and video, you want to own the best version of this film. Again, it’s the same Blu-Ray that’s always been out there, but you are buying this for the 4K transfer.

Audio Info:  I did not notice a huge difference in the audio on the 4K disc as much as I do with the video quality. However, there is still a slightly noticeable difference here with the audio on 4K, and this is what makes it an especially worthy purchase.  The audio on the 4K is DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: French 5.1, Dolby Digital: Spanish 5.1 (Both Castilian 5.1 and Latin 2.0).   The subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish. For the Blu-Ray, you get Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English 2.0, Dolby Digital: French 5.1, Dolby Digital: Spanish 5.1 (Both Castilian 5.1 and Latin 2.0).   The subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French.  There are no problems to report with the audio, and it is consistent throughout.

Special Features:

Filmmakers’ Commentary with Director Joe Dante, Producer Michael Finnell and Special Effects Artist Chris Walas:  If you are looking for the behind the scenes commentary track on the filmmaking process, this is the special feature for you.  They cover a lot of ground here, and it is especially interesting to hear from Chris Walas who would go on from here to win an Academy Award for Best Makeup on “The Fly.”

Commentary with Joe Dante, Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, and Howie Mandel:  If you are looking to hear from the actors and how they approached this project, this is the right commentary track to listen to as they tell some great stories.  These commentary tracks are on both the 4K and the Blu-Ray.  They are both worth listening to, as they offer something different.

Theatrical Trailers

Photo/Storyboard Gallery

Gremlins Behind-The-Scenes Featurette (06:21):  This was put together when “Gremlins” was being shot, so it is not a modern special feature.  It features interviews with Joe Dante, Hoyt Axton, Zach Galligan, Chris Walas, Phoebe Cates, and Steven Spielberg. Oddly enough, Spielberg did not consider it a horror film or a spoof when talking about it on this special feature from the 80’s.  I wonder what he thinks of the film today.  He said “Gremlins” was unlike anything he had read which was why he bought it and gave it to Dante to direct.  It would have been great to see a more modern special feature which looked back on the film thirty-five years later.

Additional footage which includes an extended opening, an extension of Judge Reinhold’s character, and more with commentary by Joe Dante (10:26): Joe Dante talks about the editing process and how the original rough cut was two hours and forty minutes. He talks about why these scenes were deleted as some were repetitive.  Other voices are heard on the commentary track, but they are not identified.  I believe some of them are from the actors like Phoebe Cates and Zach Galligan. You can listen to this with or without commentary.

Should You Buy It?

While there are no new special features, “Gremlins” is a good addition to add to your collection if you own a 4K TV and 4K Blu-Ray player.  The 4K transfer is an improvement, and the price is only $24.99. That said, it would have been nice to see some new special features as well as an updated Blu-Ray release to go with the 4K disc. If they had just put a little more time and effort into that, this release would have been a home run.

Advertisements

Joe Dante Talks About the Making of ‘Innerspace’ at New Beverly Cinema

Innerspace movie poster

On August 22, 2012, UCLA’s Association of Movie Archivists (AMIA) student chapter concluded its “Something Old, Something New” festival at New Beverly Cinema with a double feature of “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “Innerspace.” The audience also got a special treat when the director of “Innerspace,” Joe Dante, stopped by, and he took great delight in sharing his experiences in making the 1987 science fiction comedy.

Dante pointed out how both movies actually have something in common; William Schallert, who played Grant Williams’ doctor in “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” also plays Martin Short’s doctor in “Innerspace.”

“Innerspace” was originally meant to be a “serious spy movie” when Dante first heard about it, but he said wasn’t interested in directing it. Warner Brothers at one point even thought about making it into a movie about a crew exploring the human body, and Dante said he didn’t have the heart to tell the executives there was already a movie about this subject which was called “Fantastic Voyage.”

But when Jeffrey Boam, who would later write the screenplay for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” rewrote the script, he turned it into a comedy. Boam described his script to Dante as “Dean Martin being shrunk and then put into Jerry Lewis,” and this got Dante interested in making the movie. The only thing was Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment, was making the movie, and Spielberg wanted his protégé Robert Zemeckis to direct it. Zemeckis, however, decided he didn’t want to direct, and Dante said he “inherited it” as a result.

Dante said he had a “wonderful experience” making “Innerspace” mainly because of the cast which included actors Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, and Meg Ryan among others. The movie was shot in San Francisco, and things went fine even though Senator Dianne Feinstein apparently hates it when filmmakers come up north to shoot there.

In talking about working with Short, Dante said the actor “liked doing many takes” and that he “did a lot of improvisation” throughout. But when Dante had to tell Short that they had “more than enough takes” to work with, Short got on his knees and told him in his Katherine Hepburn voice, “No Joe! Please let me do just one more!”

What made “Innerspace” less fun for Dante, however, was that the studio found it to be “not funny.” After one particular day of filming, Dante recalled studio executives from Warner Brothers invited him out to lunch and told him what he was doing wasn’t funny and they thought he “should know that.” They also described Short as being “not very attractive” and wanted to recast the role with someone like Dennis Quaid instead. Upon hearing this, Dante asked them, “Did you even read the script?!”

Dante reflected there are many executives involved in the making of any movie, and they all want to “have their say” in what ends up onscreen. After hearing what they had to say, Dante said he wondered if he was the only one on the set who thought what he was doing was funny. While this conversation left him with a lot of anxiety, he decided to “plow on” and just make the movie he always intended to make.

When it came to test screenings, Dante said “Innerspace” got “one of the best previews” of any movie he had ever worked on. He even recalled how the studio executives who once doubted him were “high-fiving each other” and believed they had such a hit to where “they didn’t think it needed any advertising as a result.”

“Innerspace,” however, ended up flopping at the box office in the summer of 1987, and Dante said this was because Warner Brothers did not know how to promote it and that the original poster failed to include the movie’s actors on it. Dante even recalled the review from Los Angeles Times which said the movie “crashed and burned.” Regardless, it later became one of the first movies to find the audience it deserved on videotape and DVD, and it has since developed a strong cult following. It also won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and this was back when CGI effects were far from ever becoming a reality. Film critic Roger Ebert apparently thought the red blood cells we see in the movie were actually real, and Dante ended up having to tell him they were not.

Joe Dante said most comedies don’t work unless they are seen in a movie theater, and “Innerspace” is definitely proof of this. The audience at New Beverly Cinema was laughing constantly throughout, and the movie still holds up very well to this day. It was great to see Dante this evening as his presence was once again a reminder of how delightfully entertaining a filmmaker he truly is.

‘Christopher Robin’ Has Enough Childlike Wonder to Make it Worthwhile

Christopher Robin movie poster

Christopher Robin” has been compared by many to Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” even before its release. Truth be told, this comparison holds a lot of weight as both films deal with characters we were introduced to as children who have since grown up and left behind the imaginary worlds they reveled in. Both get married and become parents, and we catch up with them as they have long since become consumed by their jobs at the expense of everything else. The question is, can they rediscover the innocence and wonder they once had? We go into these movies knowing the answer will be yes, but we how long will it take? In the case of “Christopher Robin,” this man is quicker than Peter Pan to do so, and this makes the film fare better than “Hook.”

The movie starts off with young Christopher (played by Orton O’Brien) being given a going away party by his furry friends in the 100 Acre Wood as he is about to head off to boarding school. Among his friends is, of course, Winnie-the-Pooh whom he promises never to forget about once he goes away. But as the opening credits unfold, we see Christopher being molded into what society expects of him. Seeing a teacher slam her ruler on his desk quickly brought to mind the lyrics of a certain Pink Floyd song (“we don’t need no education…”). Even worse, he loses his dad much sooner than anyone should, and this forces him to grow up much quicker as he is now considered to be the man of the house. And there is the sequence of him as a soldier on the battlefield, and while it does not include any exploding limbs a la “Hacksaw Ridge” (it’s a Disney film after all), we are shown enough to be convinced Christopher has seen his share of brutal combat.

When we catch up with Christopher as an adult (played by Ewan McGregor), he is married to the lovely Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), father to Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), and an employee at Winslow Luggages. It is no surprise to see he has long since become consumed by work as he makes the mistake of telling his boss, “I’ll do anything for this company.” Now this is something I have long since learned never to tell any employer as they will be quick to blackmail you emotionally, and this is compounded by Christopher’s co-workers constantly living in fear of unemployment. As a result, Christopher is forced to cancel his trip into the country with his family, and they do not even try to hide their disappointment to where Evelyn flat out tells him, “I haven’t seen you laugh in years.” Christopher ends up all alone, that is, until Pooh arrives in London seeking his helps. Pooh has lost all his friends in the 100 Acre Wood, and the two go on a journey which serves to save both of them from a world without love and imagination.

“Christopher Robin” is at its best whenever McGregor and Pooh bear share the screen together. Unforgettably voiced by Jim Cummings, the “silly old bear” remains one of the most lovable creations in literature as he keeps saying he doesn’t have much of a brain, but he proves to be full of Yoda-like wisdom throughout. Instead of being animated this time out, Pooh and his friends are brought to life through CGI effects to more closely resemble the actual toys A.A. Milne owned all those years ago. But as amazing as the effects are, it is Cummings who gives Pooh his heart and soul as he professes to Christopher how “doing nothing often leads to the very best kind of something.”

When it comes to the other furry friends from the 100 Acre Wood, some get more screen time than others like Tigger and Eeyore. Those who know me best know I am a die-hard Eeyore fan, and just as with the animated “Winnie-the-Pooh,” the infinitely depressed donkey steals the show thanks in large part to the vocal talents of Brad Garrett who gives Sam Elliott a run for his money in the baritone department. Eeyore has always been a wonderful supporting character in Milne’s stories as he marches on despite his gloomy state of mind, and Garrett makes him a source of incredibly dry humor throughout. Now if only Eeyore could get his own movie…

Directing “Christopher Robin” is Marc Foster, who at first seemed like an odd choice for this material. Foster previously gave us the devastating “Monster’s Ball,” the James Bond adventure “Quantum of Solace,” the Brad Pitt zombie movie “World War Z,” and “Machine Gun Preacher” (the title says it all). Perhaps it was his film “Finding Neverland” which snagged him the job as that one was about J. M. Barrie and his relationship with a family who inspired him to create “Peter Pan.” Like J.M. Barrie, Christopher is shown here to be a lost soul who needs to regain his sense of wonder before he becomes just another corporate drone. Foster navigates Christopher’s journeys through worlds real and imagined to where we are eager to see regain his sense of wonder, and he looks to remind us of the child within ourselves who hopefully has not been obliterated by society.

Along with cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser, Foster gives “Christopher Robin” a rather bleak look which recalls the dirty visuals Spielberg gave “Hook” as the imagined world of 100 Acre Wood proves to be vert foggy and not as inviting as it once was. It’s like “Return to Oz” in which Dorothy travels back to the magical world she left behind, only to find the yellow brick road has been ravaged to where you wonder if it will ever be put back together again. Part of me wishes the filmmakers had worked a little harder to balance out the different worlds Christopher and his friends travel in an out of as this movie looks a little bleaker than it needs to. In the process of delving into Christopher’s life in the city as an adult, it threatens to provide more muted colors than luminous ones.

The story hits all the beats you would expect it to as, like “Hook,” we have a good idea of how things will end up. We know Christopher will eventually come to see how his family is a far more precious commodity than anything else, and things are resolved in ways which are not completely satisfying. Granted, Disney would never be quick to allow Foster or anyone else to make “Christopher Robin” a tragic tale of a man who discovers too late what he had after losing everything to where he becomes a real-life Eeyore. Plus, there’s all the merchandising to think about. But for what it’s worth, the performances by McGregor, Atwell and Carmichael succeed in keeping this motion picture from becoming an exercise in shameless manipulation. The cast, whether they are acting or voicing their characters, more than rise to the occasion to where the human element of this movie is never lost.

“Christopher Robin” pales in comparison to “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” one of the more underrated films from 2017. Granted, the latter is more of a biographical film as it deals with the real life A.A. Milne and of how he inadvertently robbed his son of his childhood, but the balance between the real world and imagination felt much stronger in that one. Still, I enjoyed “Christopher Robin” for what it was, and seeing Pooh, Eeyore and Tigger brought to life through CGI made this all the worthwhile for me. When it comes down to it, the moments Christopher shares with his cuddly friends really warmed my heart. While some let the child within them die, you have to admire those who succeed in keeping that part of themselves alive as it is never easy.

While watching “Christopher Robin,” I was reminded of what Stephen Rea said in Neil Jordon’s “The Crying Game:”

“When I was a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Here’s hoping we never put away those childish things away permanently, Oh, and by the way, adults carrying stuffed animals is not a sign of mental illness. Trust me, I have been proving this wrong for years.

* * * out of * * * *

Christopher Robin Eeyore poster

The Best Movies of 1998

1998 logo

Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

‘Jaws’ – Peter Benchley’s Novel vs Steven Spielberg’s Film

Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” is much darker in tone as the main characters come across as unhappy and have harsh tempers which constantly get the best of them. There are also a number of subplots that bring out the negative sides of each character throughout. When it came to turning “Jaws” into a movie, Spielberg worked with different screenwriters to make the characters more likable, and he eliminated many of the novel’s subplots. In the process, he changed much of the story to where the movie focused on the terror the shark wreaks on the helpless townspeople and tourists, and on the last act where Brody, Hooper and Quint go on a hunt to destroy it.

The movie has the married couple of Martin and Ellen Brody more or less settled on Amity Island, and Ellen seems to be happier than Martin about their relocation from New York City to their current residence as her husband has a big fear of the water. Benchley’s novel, however, has them at odds with one another to where they argue most of the time, and it is Ellen who is more dissatisfied with the move to Amity Island as she misses her former life in the city.

One major subplot which did not transfer over to the movie is when Ellen Brody has an affair with marine biologist Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss). It turns out she used to date Matt’s older brother and being with Matt vividly reminds her of the life she used to have. While Spielberg’s film portrays Matt and Martin as being friends, Benchley’s novel has them becoming enemies as Martin struggles with getting older along with his envy of Hooper who represents the man he used to be.

Quint, who was unforgettably portrayed by Robert Shaw, is described much differently and barely speaks at all. Suffice to say, his speech about being on board the USS Indianapolis when it sank is not in the book. Even Quint’s death is different as, instead of him being eaten by the shark after it jumps on board the Orca, he gets his foot caught in a rope attached to the great white and drowns after he is pulled underwater.

As for Hooper, who survived his ordeal in the shark cage in the Spielberg movie, he is killed off in the book as well. Perhaps it is karmic justice as Benchley portrays him as an obnoxious man who Martin almost chokes to death at one point.

Another subplot which did not carry over from the book is when Mayor Vaughn is found to be seriously in debt to the mafia, hence his strong need to keep the beaches of Amity open despite the shark attack. Spielberg’s movie, however, has him resisting Martin’s urges to close the beaches as Amity Island is seriously dependent on tourist dollars during the summer for its very existence.

When it comes to the ending of “Jaws,” Martin Brody does not kill the shark by shooting a bullet into the air tank stuck in its mouth which causes it to explode. In the book, he is helplessly stuck in the water after the Orca sinks, and the shark heads straight for him. In the process of Brody accepting his fate, the shark ends up passing away just mere inches away from him. After battling these men for several days while having barrels stuck in it and suffering from blood loss, the shark just gives in and dies which makes for a rather anti-climactic ending.

Many of the changes came about because Spielberg set out to make an audience pleasing movie, and he didn’t want the main characters battling one another as they battled the shark. But for those who have seen the movie hundreds of times, it is worth reading the book as Peter Benchley uses the shark as a metaphor for Martin Brody’s realization of his mortality and how it comes to affect his actions on the job and in his marriage.

Despite its differences, Benchley’s novel remains a riveting tale of suspense and terror worth reading while you sit on the beach and getting a nice suntan.

History Repeats Itself to a Depressing Extent in ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’

Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom movie poster

Remember the scene in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” where John Hammond told Ian Malcolm they were not going to make the same mistakes, and Malcolm quickly replied they were going to be making new ones? Well, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” doesn’t make new mistakes and instead repeats the old ones as the humans once again try to save the once extinct species in way we have all seen before. Yes, the visual effects are fantastic, but everything else feels astonishingly banal as nothing new is brought to the franchise. As for the storyline, it simply shows history repeating itself, something we see happen in the real world more often than not.

Three years have passed since the events of “Jurassic World,” and the theme park has been left in ruins. Now an active volcano threatens to destroy what’s left of the dinosaurs, and those in the government debate whether it is worth the trouble to save the species from becoming extinct again. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) argues it would be best for the volcano to destroy the dinosaurs as he sees this as nature’s way of correcting the mistake Hammond made in cloning them years ago. Meanwhile, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) has formed the Dinosaur Protection Group in an effort to save them. When the U.S. senators do not come through for her, she finds a savior in Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), Hammond’s partner in developing the technology to clone dinosaurs, who is intent on moving the dinosaurs to an island where they will have zero interaction with humans. Of course, this also means she will have to acquire the services of her ex-boyfriend, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), in the effort to rescue them.

Okay, the “Jurassic” movies have never been heavy on complex characters as the attention is focused mostly on the dinosaurs. The reasoning is understandable, but I have grown weary of letting the filmmakers get away with weak characterizations which are always upstaged by the special effects. Howard and Pratt are fun to watch in anything the appear in, but their talents are wasted as their characters are relegated to the romantic will-they-or-won’t-they scenario which will all know will end with them kissing passionately as they can only fight their intense feelings of love for so long.

The screenplay by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly proves to be “Fallen Kingdom’s” biggest stumbling block as it takes the story of “The Lost World” and follows it to the letter to where the twists and turns the story takes are not the least bit surprising. As I’m sure you have derived from the trailers, the plans to move the dinosaurs to another island are thwarted by a team of mercenaries led by Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) and Lockwood’s slimy right-hand man Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) who looks to sell the dinosaurs to the highest bidders. You would think after all these movies humans would realize they can never fully control what they have created, but when dollar signs are involved, common sense and morality always take a backseat to greed.

Actually, some characters here had interesting potential which the filmmakers really could have built on. Eli Mills, thanks in large part to Rafe Spall, wins the audience over as he does Claire when he tells her of the plan to save the dinosaurs, but he is later revealed to be a slimy bastard as he looks to profit off them instead. Spall has described Eli as being a victim of high ambitions and of allowing himself to believe he is doing the right thing. He has been entrusted with securing the financial future of the Lockwood estate, and he feels this is the only way he can do it. Still, the character eventually becomes a one-dimensional baddie whom the audience is made to hate, and it got to where I kept waiting for him to say, “Hey look at me! I’m dino-meat!”

The same goes with Gunnar Eversol who is played by Toby Jones. Gunnar is the auctioneer who sells off the dinosaurs, and Jones has compared him to a rogue arms dealer who is morally neutral about the work he is doing. This could have made for an especially fascinating character, but alas, Jones is given only so much to do here as Gunnar is designed to be an appetizer for the “Jurassic” franchise’s newest dinosaur, the Indoraptor. Considering how morally neutral Gunnar is, it would have made more sense for him to take his fate as though he saw it coming instead of screaming like he doesn’t deserve it.

B.D. Wong returns again as Dr. Henry Wu, the chief geneticist of the Jurassic theme parks. Wong plays Henry as a man whose love for science is as big as his own ego, and he is a welcome presence in this deeply flawed sequel. But like the other characters, Henry is given short-shrift to where he just ends up acting like a one-dimensional jerk.

There are some new characters added to the mix such as Dr. Zia Rodriguez, a Marine veteran and a paleo veterinarian, played by Daniella Pineda. Pineda makes Zia into a quirky presence throughout, but the character feels half-realized never fully human. As for Justice Smith, his character of hacker and systems analyst Franklin Webb is this sequel’s most annoying as runs all over the place screaming as if we couldn’t already tell how unprepared he is to be around dinosaurs. I kept wanting to slap Franklin in the face and tell him to grow a pair as his whining made this sequel even more frustrating than it already was.

It is great to see Jeff Goldblum back as Ian Malcolm, one of the most popular and fascinating characters in the “Jurassic” franchise, but his appearance here is a mere cameo as he serves to bookend “Fallen Kingdom.” This is a real shame as the speeches he gives offers us a glimpse at what this sequel could have been: a look at humankind’s abuse of various powers, and at the possibility of if and how humanity and dinosaurs can co-exist. As he makes clear how Jurassic World is no longer the name of a theme park, but of the times humanity now lives in, we are reminded of the opportunities this sequel lost out on exploring.

And yes, there is the little child character named Maisie Lockwood played by Isabella Sermon who constantly sees through the deceptions of the adults and manages to outwit the dinosaurs chasing her. Of course, seeing her being smarter than the adults quickly becomes exasperating, and that’s even though this kind of character serves to remind adults of why they need to listen to children more often. Remember the child from Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” who told his parents “don’t touch it, it’s evil” and they did anyway? Well, you get the picture.

I couldn’t help but walk into “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” with high expectations as it was directed by J.A. Bayona, the Spanish film director who gave us “The Orphanage,” “The Impossible” and “A Monster Calls.” “The Impossible” had an especially profound impact on me as he depicted the devastation of 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in a way to where I felt I experienced and survived it along with the characters. I guess I was hoping he would bring that same cinematic power to this long-running franchise, but his efforts do little to improve this sequel’s poor story and screenplay.

For what it’s worth, Bayona does give us some memorable moments. The scene where the characters observe one of the vegan dinosaurs crying out to be rescued as the volcano lays waste to Isla Nublar is truly heartbreaking, and the moment where the Indoraptor stalks the helpless Maisie in a sequence which evokes “Nosferatu” as the dinosaur stretches his creepy claws out is wonderfully chilling. I also loved how Bayona started this movie off in near silence as it opens in an underwater environment. It is times like this where I am reminded of how silence is golden, and I was hoping he would use it to his advantage. But as many sequels go, this one is noisy as hell and is at times undone by Michael Giacchino’s overambitious score.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is not this franchise’s worst installment (“Jurassic Park III” still holds that honor), but it is pretty close. “Jurassic World” managed to do the impossible which was bring back much of the awe and wonder from Spielberg’s 1993 classic, but this one finds those things sorely missing to where I wondered if there was ever enough of a reason to make another sequel other than money. What we get here is the same old thing, and the results are depressing as its storyline points out how humans will keep making the same mistakes over and over again as they refuse to learn from history. It left me wondering who would be better off here, the humans or the dinosaurs. As I left the theater, I kept thinking about what Ellen Ripley said in “Aliens:”

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

Ripley had a really good point there, and this line was also proof of how James Cameron could come up with good dialogue when he put his mind to it.

* * out of * * * *

 

‘Jurassic Park’ – Michael Crichton’s Novel vs Steven Spielberg’s Film

Michael Crichton’s book “Jurassic Park” served as a cautionary tale on scientists’ tampering with biology as they bring dinosaurs back to life without thinking about the consequences of their actions. When Steven Spielberg adapted it to the silver screen in what turned out to be a genuinely thrilling movie, much of it was changed and details were omitted to make it the kind of audience pleasing movie he was best known for making at the time. He doesn’t delve as much into the darker side of Crichton’s characters and made them more likable, and the changes proved impossible to miss.

Working with David Koepp, who got screenwriting credit along with Crichton, Spielberg developed the cartoon the main characters watch during the park tour to remove much of the exposition found in the book. Crichton goes into extensive detail about how dinosaurs were recreated using their DNA which ends up being found in mosquitoes trapped in fossilized tree resin. Despite many scientists saying it is impossible to create dinosaurs in this way, it still makes for a very compelling story.

Koepp also cut out a sequence from the book which had Grant and Hammond’s grandchildren being chased down the river by the Tyrannosaurus. This was done for budgetary reasons, but this dinosaur would later appear in “Jurassic Park III.”

The book also had a sub-plot about young children getting attacked by small theropod dinosaurs, but Spielberg cut this out because he found it too horrific. However, that same sub-plot would be used to start off the movie version of “Jurassic Park: The Lost World.”

When it came to the characters, some of the biggest changes occurred with John Hammond, the curator of Jurassic Park. The book describes him as a ruthless businessman who is arrogant, deceptive, utterly disrespectful, and thoughtlessly rude. Even though he eventually comes to see the consequences of his experiments, he still moves ahead with his plans in the name of profit. He is even willing to sacrifice his grandchildren to the dinosaurs if that’s what it takes.

In the movie where Hammond is portrayed by Sir Richard Attenborough, he is instead an eccentric and friendly old man who is caught up in the wonder of what he has helped bring to life. However, he eventually realizes he cannot control the dinosaurs and is desperate to see his grandchildren brought back safely. This change came about because Spielberg very much related to Hammond’s obsession with showmanship.

Dr. Alan Grant, played by Sam Neil, is shown to like kids and enjoys being around them in the book. However, the movie has him being not the least bit fond of them. This change was made to give Grant more room for character development as he comes to be the father figure Hammond’s grandchildren lack when things go wrong.

Ellie Sattler, played by Laura Dern, is described as a 23-year old graduate student of Grant’s who is planning to get married to someone other than him. In the movie, she is Grant’s love interest and hopes he will one day be open to having children with her.

Jeff Goldblum gave a scene stealing performance as chaos theorist Ian Malcolm, and he gives Spielberg’s film the bulk of its comic relief. Crichton, however, wrote Malcolm as being more serious, philosophical, and at times downright condescending. Unlike the movie, Malcolm is killed off at the end of the book, but in the follow-up book “The Lost World” he is revealed to have survived.

One character that got drastically downsized was Dr. Henry Wu who is played by B.D. Wong. Crichton has him providing much of the detail about how the dinosaurs are cloned, and he stays on the island and is eventually killed off while the movie has him heading off to the mainland where he survives, and he was the only actor from this movie to appear in “Jurassic World.”

The lawyer Donald Gennaro, one of the movie’s greediest and thoughtless characters, comes across as rather likable in the way Crichton writes him. While he becomes something of a scapegoat towards the end, he is the one most insistent on the island being destroyed to protect the rest of the world from these dinosaurs. But in the movie, he is ever so eager to exploit the park’s profit potential any which way he can.

Then there are Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex and Tim, who are along for the tour of the island as well. In the book, Tim is the oldest of two at 11 years old and is good with computers while Lex is only 7 and more into sports. Spielberg switched these characters around to where Lex was the oldest, and he did this in order to cast Joseph Mazzello as Tim. Ariana Richards plays Lex, and she’s the more into computers and helps save the main characters in one critical scene.

Looking back at “Jurassic Park” the movie, it was the last time Spielberg adapted a book and changed the characters to where they were likable and easier for audiences to spend time with. His next movie was “Schindler’s List” which had him exploring one of the darkest periods of human history, and making it had a major effect on the movies he directed afterwards. When it came to turning “The Lost World” into a movie, Spielberg was more willing to embrace the darker aspects Crichton explored intensely in his books, and this was something readers wished he had done with the first movie.

‘Jurassic World’ Resurrects a Decades-Old Franchise with Fresh Blood

Jurassic World movie poster

I still vividly remember when “Jurassic Park” came out in 1993. I was in high school back then, and many of my friends got to see it before I did. Their reactions always stayed with me as they described how thrilling a movie it was. One guy kept holding his arm intensely and kept saying, “It steamed the glass!” I would later find out what he meant when I saw the movie a few days later, and it was quite the thrill ride as well as groundbreaking in terms of special effects. Steven Spielberg delivered us the kind of blockbuster he had been delivering to us since he made “Jaws” all those years ago, one which is thrilling and fills you with wonder and awe.

It was later followed by “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” which was more of the same but fun if you could get past the fact that Spielberg pretty much directed in on auto pilot. As for “Jurassic Park III,” a better title for it was “300 special effects in search of a screenplay.” Now we have “Jurassic World,” the latest sequel in this franchise which arrives over a decade after the previous installment. While there’s little chance in recapturing the wonder of the original, this sequel still proves to be a fun time at the movies.

Intended as a direct sequel to “Jurassic Park,” “Jurassic World “shows us how the island of Isla Nublar has long since become an infinitely popular theme park. John Hammond’s dream is now a reality, and guests are treated to a variety of shows and rides which depict these once extinct creatures in all their incredible glory. But now tourists have long since gotten used to dinosaurs being brought back from extinction, and now they want something more intense and scary. As a character notes, the park’s attendance level spikes when a new dinosaur is unveiled, and this makes the park operators create one which ends up scaring not just the children but their parents as well. And just as before, the results prove to be disastrous as the road to hell is always paved with good intentions and a misguided quest for profit.

What I liked most about “Jurassic World” is how its screenplay acknowledges how tired and worn out people are by watching dinosaurs in this day and age. This is exactly how I felt after watching “Jurassic Park III” as what was once thrilling and magic had since become depressingly routine. As a result, the script has a subversive feel as it ponders our need for the same level excitement we had in the past, and of how desperate we are to relive or top it. Now on one hand this sequel has a lot of things going for it as the filmmakers explore the desires of both the public and the corporate world which continues to be blinded by dollar signs at the expense of everything else. This wouldn’t be a theme park without a Starbucks or a Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville Restaurant in it, and both are on display here. Heck, even Buffet makes a cameo carrying a couple of margaritas, but when the dinosaurs start wreaking havoc, it’s clear he won’t have time to look for his lost shaker of salt.

On the other hand, the movie has its characters making incredibly dumb decisions which will have audience members scratching their heads in disbelief. Then again, this wouldn’t be much of a movie if everyone used their common sense on a regular basis. Those of you who have watched “Jurassic Park” over a thousand times will be instantly reminded of famous dialogue like when Ian Malcolm talked about how scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could create dinosaurs to where they never stopped to think if they should. Then there’s Ellie Sattler who made it clear to Hammond he will never have control because that’s the illusion he was trying to avoid.

Then again, the one line which stands out most is when Hammond said how he “spared no expense.” When we get our first glimpse of what has become of Isla Nublar, we are reminded of what Hammond said as it has accommodations your local Motel 6 can only dream of offering guests. They may leave the light on for you, but they can’t give you amazing vistas or prehistoric creatures to look at.

Actually, one of the best moments in “Jurassic World” comes from B.D. Wong who reprises his role of Dr. Henry Wu from the first movie. When asked why he and the other scientists created the new dinosaur, Indominus Rex, Henry responds, “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.”

In terms of the human element, “Jurassic World” does suffer a bit. Then again, these movies have never been about complex characters as much as they have been about dinosaurs. Still, one of the best things about this long-awaited sequel is Chris Pratt who lends his “Guardians of the Galaxy” charisma to his role as Owen Grady, a former military officer and velociraptor trainer. Pratt adds the heroic element this movie demands, and his comedic skills are put to good use.

Another terrific performance comes from Bryce Dallas Howard as the park’s operations manager, Claire Dearing. It’s great to watch Howard take Claire from being a work obsessed park employee to a badass heroine who ventures out into the danger zone to save her two nephews before they become the dinosaurs’ main course.

It’s also a kick to see Vincent D’Onofrio here as the antagonist Vic Hoskins, head of security operations for InGen. The actor manages to take what could have been a simple one-dimensional villain and makes him a lot more interesting. You can see in his eyes how he has a secret plan for the dinosaurs which has yet to be revealed to our heroes. Of course, we all know how D’Onofrio’s character is going to die, and it is not pretty.

Spielberg once again stayed in the executive producer’s chair for this sequel, and the director is Colin Trevorrow who is a very lucky filmmaker as he went from directing a movie with a budget of $750,000 (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) to this $150 million summer blockbuster. While he is not able to fully recapture the wonder of “Jurassic Park,” he makes “Jurassic World” a solid piece of summer entertainment which brings out the kid in you. Trevorrow also creates moments which will have the audience cheering loudly, showing he is more than capable of giving us the kind of crowd pleasing movie we expect in the summertime.

“Jurassic World,” like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” was stuck in development hell for years before it finally came to fruition. For the most part it was worth the wait as it comes with a stronger story and screenplay than the last two “Jurassic” movies could ever hope to have. There’s plenty of great dinosaur fights, tourists getting terrified, and there are characters here worth rooting for. All in all, it does what a summer movie should do which is entertain you from beginning to end.

Of course, when you look more closely at the story, it illustrates how history keeps repeating itself when dollar signs get in the way. Once again humans deluded themselves into thinking they could control dinosaurs, and nature finds a way to prove them wrong. With “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” about to be released, I imagine we will watch humans again trying to tame these prehistoric creatures, and their efforts will prove to be largely futile. Oh well, hopefully we’ll get another entertaining sequel in the process.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Ready Player One’ Revels More in the Virtual World Than in Reality

Ready Pkayer One movie poster

Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” is a novel I could see a lot of directors being ever so eager to turn into a motion picture. Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Zemeckis and even (gasp) Michael Bay would have had a blast bringing to life the virtual world Cline wrote about to where the possibilities of what they could bring to the silver screen seem infinite. In the end, it makes perfect sense Steven Spielberg was the one to adapt it as no other filmmaker has captured our collective imaginations as much as he has.

The year is 2045, and Earth has long since become consumed by pollution, corruption and climate change (which is real folks, don’t let anyone tell you different), and its inhabitants, those situated in the middle or lower classes, are consigned to mobile trailers which are stacked on top of one another. While this cannot be mistaken for a glamorous lifestyle, many clueless politicians and wives of U.S. Presidents would be quick to describe them as FEMA luxury suites. Looking at how barren their existence has become, it’s no wonder these characters prefer a virtual reality as opposed to the one they are forced to live in and endure on a daily basis.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, manages to escape their depressing reality in the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a VR world which allows its users to engage in activities of either an educational, entertaining, or a profitable kind. You can be any avatar you want to be whether it’s Freddy Krueger or Godzilla, and you go into it believing it will allow you to be a somebody instead of a nobody. But eventually, even its most devoted users need to find a way to better deal with the real world as a line between the two needs to be drawn.

One of the OASIS’ most devoted users is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old who lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio with his aunt. It’s no surprise how quick he is to dive into this virtual world, but his reasons for doing so run much deeper than we initially realize. We learn the OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric computer genius with an incredible love for 80’s pop culture. Halliday has since passed away, but he has left behind a trail of bread crumbs in the form of Easter eggs for his fans to discover. The first to find all these eggs is promised full ownership of the OASIS among other desirable gifts. Of course, there is a corporation, or a video game conglomerate if you will, named Innovative Online Industries (IOI) which is determined to gain ownership of the OASIS before anyone else. Will the rebellious users beat the greedy corporation to the finish line? Well, the answer might have seen obvious in the past, but these days it looks like the bad guys get away with far too much in the real world.

“Ready Player One” is essentially a combination of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Tron” as our protagonists are on the search for something which will fulfill their wildest dreams, but they have to find it in a world where the laws of nature do not necessarily apply. And when it comes down to it, the winner will not be someone who is the best at gaming, but someone with a good heart who wants to do the right thing, and who has a strong spirit. Finding someone like that in this day and age, let alone in the future, is an ambitious task as everyone appears susceptible to greed and corruption, but the filmmakers went into this project with the full belief such a person still exists, and a world without hope is not one we should be quick to live in.

The challenge Spielberg has with “Ready Player One” is balancing out the real world with the wondrous virtual world the characters are ever so eager to inhabit. But with all the tools he and his fellow filmmakers had at their disposal, it is easy to see how lopsided the balance is here. Spielberg clearly revels in amazing visual effects he can put onscreen. Watching this movie just once is not enough as there are an infinite number of Easter eggs to discover and acknowledge. While you may easily recognize such pop culture artifacts like Freddy Kruger and the DeLorean time machine from “Back to the Future,” there are so many others to acknowledge here to where you will be very surprised at what Spielberg and company were able to fit into a PG-13 movie.

When it comes to the real world, I feel Spielberg could have done more to distinguish it from the OASIS. This man did give us “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.,” movies which exceeded anything our imaginations could conjure up. Years later, however, he gave us “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich,” films which did not shy away from the horrifying reality people are forced to endure. Surely Spielberg would be able to balance out the real world from the imaginary one to where we can see the difference between them or at least determine which one is more important to live in, right?

Well, “Ready Player One” functions a lot like the original “Jurassic Park” in that the spectacle gets the majority of attention while the human element suffers in comparison. But like “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg still has us captivated with incredible visual effects which leave us in complete awe. As the movie goes on, the avatars of the main characters start to look and feel more real than I expected, and this makes up for the limited character development they receive throughout. Cline co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, but it feels like everyone could have gone a bit deeper with the material.

On a personal note, I loved how Spielberg digs deep into 1980’s nostalgia. Being a child of this decade, I still very much enjoy the music and movies which came out of it. To his credit, Spielberg doesn’t reference his own movies here, regardless of the fact they play a big part in Cline’s book. It’s also great to hear the music of Alan Silvestri here as his themes from the 80’s, particularly those from “Back to the Future,” never grow old. Silvestri’s score here references a number of pop culture classics, and I’m sure you will recognize many of them.

Tye Sheridan has turned in terrific performances in “The Tree of Life,” “Mud” and “Joe,” and he fits comfortably into the role of the typical young Spielberg hero who is wise beyond his years and smarter than the average adult. Olivia Cooke is a wonderful and strong presence as Samantha Cook, a fellow OASIS player whose avatar goes by the name of Art3mis. Ben Mendelsohn also shows up as Nolan Sorrento, the infinitely greedy CEO of IOI who is determined to gain full control over the OASIS. It’s a lot like the character Mendelsohn played in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but this time he is playing someone who believes they are in charge and actually is.

But if there is one performance worth singling out here, it is Mark Rylance’s as James Halliday, the main creator of the OASIS. Rylance makes Halliday into a wonderfully eccentric character whose social skills could use a bit of work, but whose heart shines through in everything he has created and accomplished. Not once does this Oscar-winning actor make Halliday into a caricature of Steve Jobs and instead presents us with a human being desperate to find someone in this world who has not been completely corrupted by the powers that be.

“Ready Player One” will not go down as one of Spielberg’s best movies, but it is far from being one of his worst. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission and watching it once will not be enough as there are so many Easter eggs to identify. Heck, if you close enough, you can even spot a poster with Wil Wheaton on it. While its message of how important it is to spend more time in the real world than the virtual one might seem a bit hypocritical, this movie was directed by a man who knows the difference between the two to where he doesn’t have to prove to us that he knows this. Still, on a story and character level, this could have dug deeper beneath the surface.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ Still Leaves Us in Awe 40 Years Later

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 40th poster

On this week’s edition of yes, this movie really is that old, we have Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Released back in 1977, it is now being re-released in a new 4K remastered version in honor of its 40th anniversary. I first watched it on laserdisc at a friend’s house back in the 80’s, and I remember being somewhat traumatized by it as there were scenes which proved to be quite scary. I have since watched the film several times, but this 40th anniversary re-release allowed me to see it on the big screen for the first time. Suffice to say, this is the way you should view this particular Spielberg classic.

The film begins with strange discoveries being made in various parts of the world which include the appearance of Army airplanes reported to have gone missing back in the 1940’s, a lost cargo ship which has reappeared in the Gobi Desert for no discernable reason, and witnesses living in India are found singing a five-tone musical phrase which is revealed to be the distinctive sounds of UFO’s. Meanwhile, out in Indiana, Ray Neary a blue-collar worker, husband and father to three very loud kids, is working late at night after a large-scale power outage takes place, and he finds himself having a very close encounter with a UFO, one which lightly burns his face with its bright lights. From there, he becomes obsessed with finding out more about these alien visitors to where he gets left with subliminal messages he is desperate to find answers for.

Throughout the decades, there have been countless movies dealing with human beings and their first contact with extra-terrestrials, many of which feature the last remnants of humanity fighting off an alien invasion determined to wipe them out with extreme prejudice. As I got older, I came to realize how rare it is to have a science fiction movie which deals with aliens in a highly intelligent way. Among them are Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact,” Spielberg’s “E.T.,” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” which was one of the very best movies of 2016. Even rarer these days is the motion picture which leaves you in an extended state of wonder and awe from start to finish and even after you leave the theater.

Even 40 years after its release, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” still has an immense power to enthrall us as its characters come into contact with something they have longed to see. There is nothing about it which comes across as unintentionally laughable, and while technology has evolved to a whole other level since the 1970’s, this movie feels timeless in its exploration of possibilities and discoveries. It also works on many different levels in that it is funny, scary, thrilling, and deeply emotional.

This film is especially unique on Spielberg’s resume as it is one he directed and also wrote the screenplay for. It would also mark the last time he would direct his own screenplay until he made “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” in 2001. As a result, there should be no doubt of just how personal this film is to him. It turns out he wanted to make this one before “Jaws,” but he didn’t have the commercial clout at the time to get the budget he wanted. Of course, when “Jaws” came out, this changed forever.

Spielberg has said “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is not actually a science fiction film, and watching it again has me agreeing with him completely. Yes, it does feature aliens and UFO’s, but they are not really the point. Also, this film takes place in a reality we all know and relate to. “Close Encounters” does not take place in some future dystopian world, but instead one we all inhabit as the main characters are regular people working regular jobs and supporting their families. They don’t want to see UFO’s, but they did, and now they cannot and will not deny their existence. Throughout this movie, we remain in the human universe and we never enter an alien one, and this is very important to point out here.

“Close Encounters” also deals with stories which would become a hallmark of future Spielberg films and productions such as “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” and “Poltergeist” among others. Seeing the government conspire to keep this alien visitation a secret is presented in a way which feels not only realistic, but also very possible to pull off back in the 1970’s. But he also shows how the truth of things cannot be kept a secret forever, and, like Ray Neary, we want to see this all the way to the end because we won’t stop and until we get answers to fulfill our curiosities.

When it comes to the actors, Spielberg really just lets them loose here. He doesn’t direct them as much as he lets them run wild, and I don’t just mean the kids who are a noisy bunch as presented here. Richard Dreyfuss is perfectly cast as Ray Neary as he brings a crazed and enthusiastic energy to the role of a man who has seen things he wasn’t supposed to see, and he is not in a position to unlearn what he has learned. Even as Ray’s actions increasingly alienate him from his wife and kids, Dreyfuss makes us empathize with his plight as he is caught up in something he cannot turn his back on.

Melinda Dillon is equally wonderful as Jillian Guiler, another character who, along with her fearless son Barry (Cary Guffey), experiences a close encounter of her own. She also suffers the indignity of her son being kidnapped by aliens, but she is eventually reunited with him in the movie’s last half. It may sound like I’m giving plot points away here, but I’m not because Dillon’s performance is such an emotionally fulfilling one to witness as she takes Jillian through the stages of fright, grief, desolation, and eventually joy and happiness. She makes you experience these emotions with her, and seeing her smile when Barry reappears is a moment of pure elation.

Spielberg’s casting of filmmaker Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe, a French government scientist, was truly inspired. Along with Bob Balaban who plays David Laughlin, Lacombe’s assistant and interpreter, he portrays a government official who brings sanity to a situation which has other government officials responding to in a panic to where the quick answer is cover everything up and keep the number of witnesses to a bare minimum. Truffaut brings a strong level of thoughtfulness and wonderment to his character as Lacombe shows an openness to first contact others would not be quick to embrace. While military officers are eager to keep Ray and Jillian out of the area, Lacombe tries to make them see they were invited to be here.

Many images from “Close Encounters” will forever remain burned into my consciousness. The most prominent image of all is when young Barry opens the front door where an alien ship hovers outside, waiting to make contact with someone, anyone. This is still the defining image of who he not just as a filmmaker, but as a human being. Spielberg’s eagerness to make contact with aliens from another galaxy is no secret, and here’s hoping a UFO does make contact with him in his lifetime. Better they meet him than a certain person who is currently occupying the White House.

I think people these days who are seeing “Close Encounters” for the first time might say it takes too long to get to the last half where humans finally get to communicate with aliens. But like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” this film is more about the journey than the final destination. Spielberg wants us to question what we believe and how far we will go to get answers to questions which have plagued us for an infinite amount of time, and we share the awe of the characters once those answers are delivered to us here. And it’s not just that the characters get answers here, they truly earn them as well.

This is also one of those films its director couldn’t stop tinkering with over the years. Ridley Scott couldn’t leave “Blade Runner” alone years after its release, and Oliver Stone continued to tinker with his dream project “Alexander” to where the final cut he gave us still doesn’t feel final. As Spielberg was finishing up “Close Encounters,” Columbia Pictures was in dire straits financially and begged the filmmaker to release his pet project sooner rather than later. What came out in 1977 wasn’t his complete vision, and he eventually got to make a special edition of the film which was released in 1980. The 4K restoration of “Close Encounters” is essentially a combination of both versions, but the scenes with Ray Neary exploring the inside of the mothership have been cut out. Spielberg has said over and over he never should have taken us inside the ship, and I completely agree. While Spielberg provides the characters with many answers, there are still some things better left to the imagination.

Seeing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at the Cinerama Dome afforded me the opportunity to see the movie in its most desirable format. The audience I saw it with was left spellbound at what unfolded, and this says so much about this movie’s staying power. Just when I think I have become so jaded and embittered a filmgoer as studios continue in their desperate search for the next big franchise, a motion picture like this comes along to remind us filmmakers still have the power to leave us in a state of sheer wonderment. It feels like we have had an overabundance of movie anniversaries lately to where these celebrations feel more like a ploy to get more money out of our pockets. But this particular anniversary is one worth acknowledging as it continually reaffirms the power of cinema to truly transport to another time and place and, in the process, rescue us from the real world even if it’s only for a temporary time.

The only thing which bugs me about “Close Encounters” these days is Ray’s decision to leave his family behind and travel with the aliens. Essentially, he is presented with the same question Captain Decker is faced with in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture;” Would you leave everything and everyone you have ever known behind just to explore another world and dimension? Seeing Ray getting on board the ship made me wonder how his family would have reacted to this decision, and it plagues my mind long after the end credits have finished. Then again, Spielberg did make this film before he had any kids of his own. Had he made it after he became a father, there’s no doubt Ray would have made a different decision. Still, one could not blame Spielberg or Ray for being tempted to go. I certainly would be tempted.

* * * * out of * * * *