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Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul

The light, inconsquential Victoria & Abdul steps around its most pressing questions to deliver two solid title performances in what is best described as a going of age picture for Focus Features (a Comcast company, as the audience is obnoxiously reminded in opening titles). The story of a bond between an Islamic Indian servant and the queen of England romanticizes both multiculturalism and monarchy in a lilting, interracial fantasy which is both limited and relatively innocuous.

Written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot and War Horse), Victoria & Abdul is almost entirely crafted in its poster, title and tagline that this is history’s most unlikely friendship. I kept waiting for the reason why as I was drawn into this exotic Asian world of the man summoned to serve the monarch. Without much to go by, Queen Victoria, portrayed by Judi Dench, who played the same queen in Mrs. Brown, and Abdul Kareem (Ali Fazal) are prisoners of their cultures, really, and they find in each other a range of shared values.

At least that’s how they are depicted in this adaptation of a book apparently based on the discovery of Abdul’s writings, though the opening credits also warn that license has been taken with their story, too. As it is, the old queen who feels like a silly old woman until the handsome young Indian looks upon her has lived most of her life. She slurps her soup, tears at her meat and gets a bit piggish with her dessert. But Queen Victoria is essentially dazed and dormant, literally sleeping and snoring when she first appears, until the warm, inviting gaze of the poetic coin-bearer enters her sheltered, scheduled life. When she brings him and his fellow Indian traveling companion, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), on board, it’s almost immediately like a geriatric Roman Holiday.

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Grifters, Florence Foster Jenkins, Mrs. Henderson Presents, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen, Philomena), who understands good humor, deft dramatic details and, above all, directing Judi Dench, whom he has directed in five movies, the cinematography, song and dance are as entertaining as one might expect. Thomas Newman’s musical score is among the best assets, as is the late Tim Piggott-Smith (Alice in Wonderland, Creedy in V for Vendetta) as Henry, one of the less caricatured royal attendants, who quite predictably do not accept Abdul.

For his part, Abdul from the outset knows English better than the English do. He’s eager to serve the queen, and eager to continue serving, after being instructed that essence of service is “standing still and moving backwards”, one of the better lines in Victoria & Abdul. Abdul is wide awake and ready to awaken Victoria from her slumber. It is hard not to like Abdul, except that he’s a blank slate, taking the 81-year-old woman on walks among the tree-filtered sunshine while he talks in bromides and tells her when she opens up that “we are here for the good of others”. He knows that she seeks knowledge and he steps up to provide it and, when it becomes clear that he’s Islamic (in a generic way) and keeps other secrets, he quotes the Koran and adopts the infidel and her country more or less as his own. As he quotes Rumi, teaches her Urdu, and, in a memorable scene, is enchanted by Puccini, Abdul trades as well as he’s able.

As a Moslem, Abdul is unholy, self-centered and inconsiderate. Taking in stories of Medici, he offers his own thoughts on art, the Taj Mahal and the Peacock Throne. He kisses and dances with the queen, who falls in love with love again while singing Gilbert & Sullivan and, tellingly, Abdul ignores Mohammed to whom he promised a quick return to the homeland. For her part, the queen disavows her staff and family and describes a burka as “splendid”. This is when it becomes clear that Victoria & Abdul amounts to benign playacting between two prisoner-impostors in a game well played. Victoria really may turn out to be a silly old woman out for a good time.

With a fatwa or Islamic death decree against the queen, disease and knighthood at stake, Victoria & Abdul could be much richer than it turns out to be. To its credit, and Victoria & Abdul is closer in theme and tone to Florence Foster Jenkins, Frears’ movie depicts what he called in an afterwards interview the “ridiculousness of royalty”. But skirting contradictions detracts from the movie’s intended sweetness. After all, there is nothing splendid about a woman being covered in cloth from head to toe on the premise that woman must be concealed because man is mindless. Or that a person with a crown can “have one billion citizens” after 62 years in office or that Abdul’s life is ultimately anything but deeply sad and subservient. But these two gamers forge a bond as true as possible, amid the magic of snowfall, as the pair trade gentle, deliberate breaths, his for the promise of her — and hers for the fact of him.


An interview with director Stephen Frears and Judi Dench after today’s screening at the ArcLight Hollywood was the usual mix of generic, fawning and flawed questions (for instance, Ms. Dench had to correct the interviewer, who apparently thought Frears directed her in Mrs. Brown) and silly audience antics. But seeing this grand movie star and her extremely talented director was worth the hassle and indignity.

Dench, who looks fabulous, discussed her contention that Queen Victoria was depressed at that later stage of her life “because there weren’t any more treats on the way”, as she put it. Victoria wrote up to four letters a day to Abdul, who, Frears wryly pointed out to laughter, was mere steps away in the royal palace. To one audience member’s question about what she’s learned during her marvelous career, Ms. Dench replied that she’s learned that she now grasps the truth about acting that less is, in fact, more, as in better, which she added she did not know when she was playing Ophelia on stage when she was 23 years old. And she also said that the camera picks up the thoughts in your head. After Frears, an excellent director with whom it’s clear she shares a deep connection, answered that he could not have conceived that he’d be sitting in an ArcLight Cinemas Q & A when he was young because he was constantly “terrified”, his leading actress jumped in and urged the audience to embrace the terror.

“Turn fear into a kind of petrol,” she said. Judi Dench commented regarding a question about locations in Victoria & Abdul that she loved the cold, wind and wet of Scotland. She interjected that the lack of sex after Mr. Brown died led to Queen Victoria being relegated to food as her only joy which was why the queen was obese. The actress who played Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, an eccentric artist in Tea With Mussolini, damaged Agniss in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Shipping News, greedy Ursula in Ladies in Lavender, a predatory lesbian in Notes on a Scandal, Annie Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s underrated J. Edgar, title characters in Frears’ Philomena and Mrs. Henderson Presents, a boss in several 007 films and the glorious old diabetic radical Armande in Lasse Hallstrom’s enchanting Chocolat, emphasized that she is certain that Abdul prolonged the queen of England’s life.

Movie Analysis: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Written by the late Melissa Mathison (The BFG, The Black Stallion) and directed by legendary Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Jaws, Munich, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Sugarland Express, Lincoln), Universal Pictures’ E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (available this week on a limited 35th anniversary edition Blu-Ray disc) remains sublime. Upon the recommendation of the greatest living philosopher, Leonard Peikoff, who names E.T. as his favorite movie, I saw it long after the original release. I was enchanted.

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After this afternoon’s viewing (my first seeing it on the silver screen) at the ArcLight Hollywood, I’m happy to say that I still am. E.T. is not flawless, though it is close. What Mathison’s screenplay creates, Mr. Spielberg’s mastery recreates in moving pictures with wonder, humanity and deft courage to depict what it means to be kind and loving. E.T. does this with slow, deliberate lighting, scoring and multiple loops that bring characters, action and themes full circle.

The movie begins with a strong sense of fear and dread — Steven Spielberg uses horror in all of his films — in extended scenes of darkness after an alien spaceship lands on earth, dispatching the extra-terrestrial and accidentally leaving him behind. The largely unseen alien finds his way into a suburban California household’s backyard shed, where a middle child of a broken home (Henry Thomas) notices the disturbance. As he’d done with toddler Barry in Close Encounters and Chief Brody in Jaws, Mr. Spielberg in this way acknowledges the legitimacy of being frightened by a strange alien.

But, as in his other films, he shows that it’s also easy to be alienated from familiar beings, too. With a mother (Dee Wallace) still adjusting to divorce and an older brother (Robert Macnaughton) who is cruel and reckless, freckle-faced Elliott has his reasons to be drawn to an alien in spite of the risks. The wide-eyed child has an ‘enter’ sign on his room’s door, a clue that he’s actively seeking friendship. Simply, in perfect scenes of two young males earning trust, trading and cashing in, which starts when ET witnesses Elliott’s decision to run from an authority figure, boy and ET bond.

The bond first seals when they begin to sleep, as if the pair can really, only and deeply find peace in having found one another. Of course, the alien’s suddenly a fugitive from the United States government, and the boy’s gone rogue from his family, which mocks and repels him. From there, E.T. takes the friendship to a higher level, as Elliott tutors his new friend, whom he selfishly conceals from his siblings, mother and everyone else, first explaining to ET that he’s human, then that he’s a boy and, finally, that he’s Elliott. Hidden in Elliott’s room with posters, comics and figures such as the Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers and Lando from the Star Wars serials, ET adapts. He refuels, recharges and overcomes his fear through Elliott’s sense of life.

All of this joy and enlightenment coming from the boy’s bedroom finally makes the middle child the center of the family’s home, sort of bringing the broken home together as the newly confident Elliott, as recharged as his friend, asserts himself in life for the first time. The boy draws a picture of the extra-terrestrial at school. He takes his younger sibling (Drew Barrymore) and, later, the older brother into his confidence, though Mom’s still too caught up in her new single parenthood to appreciate her growing children, let alone revel in her intelligent son’s emerging individuality.

Against this domestic setting comes the government, E.T.‘s villain as much as E.T. has one. While it’s kept in the backdrop for most of the movie, the threat of the state against their friendship creeps out in earnest — interestingly, fittingly — in the first scenes at a school. Amid a bulletin board about extinction and a teacher who remains essentially unseen, Elliott experiences a kind of telepathic communion with his friend back in his room. This entails Elliott’s dog, a can of beer and a clip of John Wayne sweeping Maureen O’Hara off her feet in The Quiet Man. The mayhem that ensues leads to Elliott’s coming of age. So, in a certain sense, does the teacher’s instruction in basic biology with frog dissection, which includes a lesson to “locate the heart and notice that it’s still beating.”

Elliott, melded with ET, acts so that it keeps beating. And this is one of E.T.‘s emblems; that what makes a heart beat, love and affection, is what keeps you alive. In ET, this vitality emits light.

The character suggested chiefly by dangling keys (Peter Coyote) represents the U.S. government, which, for 1982 when E.T. was released (the year Leonard Peikoff’s first book was published, in a happy coincidence), features an early depiction of the American surveillance state. For the state’s use of technology to violate rights, however, revitalized ET is one step ahead, devising and constructing his own machine, carefully using his friend’s possessions and lessons for electrical engineering.

Whose technology will triumph climaxes around Halloween in what’s probably Steven Spielberg’s most secular, individualistic movie — and, for this reason, his most American movie. Culminating as a contest of the byproduct of American culture, friendship and love and the state-sponsored result of government medicine, surveillance and coercion, ET explicitly embraces the former. “This is my home!” someone objects as the United States government violates property rights, as dishonestly and unjustly as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, stressing another subsidiary theme and planting one of many bookends in this intimate fable about friendship. E.T. unfolds in its own time, not in rushed, fast-cutting jumps, graphics and effects.

The state’s total invasion of one’s private life versus the power of shared values yields the film’s most searing scenes in a makeshift medical trauma in which the Peter Coyote character — a kind of older, alternate version of what Elliott might become if he loses his idealism and innocence — refers to the “miracle” of the extra-terrestrial. It’s the closest ET comes to getting and giving religion. Followed with a question about how the government can help, which begs to be answered to get the hell out of the way, government’s role in the miracle is totally, utterly repudiated.

Yet the government’s not a realistic villain because they do not act in accordance with their power and conviction, one of the movie’s flaws. We know what the state does to an unwanted alien and it’s the opposite of what happens here (remember Elian). It’s a forgivable error on E.T.‘s terms, though, as Melissa Mathison and Steven Spielberg focus on the love and light between the two young males. Other flaws include too many insider references to movies and other contrivances.

Light and love charge E.T. like one of its big, Ray-O-Vac batteries in the picture that all but created product placement. In this way, E.T.‘s as fabulously commercial as Christmas. This doesn’t mean E.T. doesn’t integrate matters of the mind with the power of a beating heart. In gentle, soft and mercifully slow scenes such as a boy’s breath on glass as he holds vigil for the one he loves, taking a solemn oath to be hereE.T. is a perfect example that it’s possible to dramatize soulfulness in secular terms — and expressing love both in physical and spoken affection, E.T. sustains its “heartlight” theme.

As it does, each character within Elliott’s family is also touched, moved and, ultimately, exalted (even Harvey the dog). Here, its two-point circles illuminate like fireflies. Mother reads J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan to her daughter — activating the sense of belief that arcs into a mother-daughter wish affirming life in reality. An angry boy lays down with imaginary friends, curls into a fetal position and awakens as an enchanted hero. In the most obvious example of the two-point loop, two friends’ flight by moonlight comes back around as the sun (and friendship) sets as E.T. rolls with a boy’s bicycle — backed by a band of boys’ bicycles — into one final, pulsating glow capped by the colors of a rainbow. With cinema’s most symbolic use of the sunflower as a metaphor for love as a matter of life and death since David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), E.T. charms, brightens and radiates.

Why Hollywood’s Finally Got a Hit

The worst summer at the box office in decades finally closes with a record-breaking hit in a new adaptation of an Eighties novel by horror writer Stephen King. The movie’s titled after the bestselling book, It. The Warner Bros. picture stars Jaeden Lieberher (Aloha, Midnight Special, St. Vincent) as the leader of a group of bullied children who are terrorized by a clown, and, this weekend, It smashed records in several categories, including an opening day beating of Marvel’s recent hit Deadpool. Why It is a hit is as simple as ever; audiences figured It looked like a good movie.

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And It is a good movie (read my review here) if a clear, coherent and character-based plot’s the standard for what makes a movie good. Not every good movie’s a hit, let alone a records-breaker, and, of course, not every hit’s a good movie. This summer’s dismal returns suggest a confluence of factors for declining box office trends. When it comes to seeing movies, people are more savvy about oversaturated marketing and advertising, more discriminating with their dollars and there are many more sources for discernment, for starters. There are more sources for entertainment, too, and, with rising cable prices and lower quality service and control of choices, streaming is growing as an option.

Today’s consumer has a wide range of choices in not only creative material but also the format for seeing the material — streaming a movie or TV show or listening to a book being read on a tablet, watching a Blu-Ray or DVD or seeing a classic movie or show via a variety of free, pay and subscriber models — and the range is both exhausting and daunting. An invitation to accept a clear-cut value proposition such as It‘s promise to deliver a coherent blend of character-based humor, plot and frights in the movie theater makes the choice easier: come to the theater and you’ll be scared, humored and entertained. That’s the appeal of It in a nutshell. Weekend receipts indicate that word of mouth was apparently better than decent. It blew past the summer’s overrated hit Wonder Woman.

But an article by Brooks Barnes in last week’s New York Times about an aggregator website co-owned by movie studios, to the extent they’re still studios, points to trouble for Hollywood movies in the future. The popular site, founded by Berkeley college students who named it Rotten Tomatoes, evoking the medieval practice of mobs physically assaulting criminals (which the Times reports spread to theaters and pelting artists with tomatoes in the 19th century), purports to rate movies based on an aggregate of numerous reviews.

Now, the studios that bought the site blame the site for poor box office results.

There is some truth in the claim. Audiences tend to stay away from movies with low ratings, which are decided by a committee of the site’s employees at an office in Beverly Hills. A 36-person bunch, who report to a former studio executive at a company partly owned by a unit of NBCUniversal, which owns MSNBC, NBC News and Universal Pictures which is itself owned by Comcast, the cable TV cartel, decides numerical ratings. The site’s senior “editor” sports a pink mohawk and dresses up as a comic book character at events the site sponsors in which audiences and movie critics are squared off in a confrontational contest. Rotten Tomatoes calls these events Your Opinion Sucks. The site’s “editor”, Barnes writes, was in charge of three such “sessions” at this summer’s Comic-Con. “Let’s just say that it’s not an accident that I chose a costume that needs a whip,” the Rotten Tomatoes senior movie “editor” quipped in a Catwoman costume.

This is the caliber of operations that studios, which the article admits game the movie review system with pre-release screenings of carefully selected critics deemed more likely to write a positive review of a given film, both condone and condemn. Not that it’s possible to rely on ratings by committees that (claim they) skim or read reviews and then put numerical values on them to choose which movie to see. Rotten Tomatoes, for its part, told Barnes that it aggregates a diversity of reviews because “critics at traditional outlets tended to be white men” and “Rotten Tomatoes wanted to include female and minority voices.” Try to numerically factor that, RogerEbert.com.

As Barnes reports, Americans increasingly use aggregated reviews from sources such as Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon, Yelp and TripAdvisor to make decisions on whether and what to buy. According to an entertainment industry consulting firm, 34 percent of U.S. teenagers consult Rotten Tomatoes before buying a movie ticket, an increase from 23 percent a few years ago. But he wrongly concludes that this rotten chicken coming home to roost represents a “battle between movie companies and critics.”

Going by what other people think of what other people think of other people’s reviews is not a conflict between the Hollywood moviemaker and movie reviewer. It’s the oldest, laziest form of conformity and it’s a byproduct of the mass dumbing down of American culture — the refusal to read, think and form a judgment based on the thoughts of one’s own reasoning mind — and this groupthink, rule by consensus or mob rule poses the gravest threat to Hollywood, movies and the culture. Whatever its merits, despite the fact that its audience may have been drawn by the groupthink, too, though I am more optimistic than that, at least It appears to have earned its audience based on the promise of a good movie, not by the allure of an arbitrary number picked by a band of bean-counters in Beverly Hills. On the other hand, It, a horror movie which also gains from the theme that deep-seated fear can be conquered, was made by a movie studio that also owns part of that popular and meaningless website.

 

Movie Review: It (2017)

It is a scary movie, no more, no less and better than most horror movies these days, not that I’m an expert in the genre (which I generally abhor). I have seen and do appreciate the occasional good horror movie. I saw the new adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel with a true King and horror fan (who hated It) at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome at the ArcLight on Sunset Boulevard.

Beginning with the sounds of a nursery rhyme and a boy’s laughter followed by a floating red balloon, It signals that this is a dark fairy tale which plays centrally on fear, not gore. There is a difference. In this sense, It, like the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation, is not as gratuitous as today’s blood porn, though there are buckets of blood. It isolates and examines potent childlike fear in each character: Georgie, the adorable little brother whose stuttering older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent, Midnight Special, Aloha) leads a group of bullied grade school boys, fears going into the basement. Another boy fears germs. More than one kid fears a parent. Or facing life without the parent. And so on. This band of prepubescent boys is like a bundled afterschool special in 1988, the year this New England town-based tale takes place; there’s a Jew, a black, a heavyset kid, a sick one, a stuttering one, a boy with eyeglasses. Later, a girl later the bunch.

They have deeper fears, of course, and It gets into certain character subplots more than others, with serious themes of adult abuse of children underlying each kid’s story. All the adults — from parent and policeman to pharmacist and librarian — in this tidy little Maine town are lousy, rotten or evil, some by benign neglect, others by calculated choice. This makes It more involving. The contrast between child and adult gives the kids an additional layer of fear and it seals the audience bond. There’s something to be afraid of for almost everyone.

Fear takes the form of a monster carnival clown that anticipates, amalgamates and promulgates each boy’s fear. When one of the kids does some historical research, a pattern is discerned that enhances the mystery of the town’s children and what they may have in common. On top of everything else are a bunch of bullies, all white males, riding around in a black Pontiac Trans Am that’s as menacing in a way as the clown. A girl bully plays a role, too. One of kids’ grandparents says the town’s cursed and it certainly isn’t lacking in miserable human beings. But this only makes the band of brothers more endearing, despite their handicaps, flaws and irritating habits.

For example, the token female (Sophia Lillis) has a tough exterior, which is sufficiently explained, and flirts and shoplifts her way into the boy’s club. All of the kid characters have some mildly challenging, annoying or morally questionable practice, habit or action, and, between the kids’ burdens to bear and their adult parents and guardians, It provides a stark lesson in how friendships form, fall apart and form lifelong alliances. I say stark because the story encompasses a lot of themes without really developing them, so there’s a hint or suggestion here and there about issues such as grief, body image and puberty. The main theme that love conquers evil, or friendship trumps fear, comes through.

With a few shock moments, a murder that goes unresolved and a few flat characters, It‘s far from perfect. As I said, It‘s a scary movie, no less and no more than that (and Bill Skarsgård as the clown is spot on). It brushes up against loss, pedophilia, alienation, incest, overprotective parenting and physical abuse and more, with computer-generated horror, songs by the Cult and the Cure and lots of juvenile banter that titillated the audience at the Cinerama Dome. But, with a strong leading cast and a consistent theme that one’s darkest fears can be conquered — and how refreshing to see a band for once in an absolute, unfiltered, unequivocal and unified assault on evil — to mine the good, It delivers steady, gripping terror, thrills and, at its best, something to think about that transcends fear.

Movie Analysis: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This summer’s movies or their ads have left me unimpressed, so I was thrilled to see Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind return to movie theaters for the film’s 40th anniversary. I had seen it in theaters when I was a kid. And again in 1980 when it was re-released with new scenes. I eagerly bought tickets to see it this week at the Cinerama Dome, where it premiered in 1977. It turns out other Americans are more excited about old movies, too. Box office receipts were better for Close Encounters of the Third Kind than for at least one new major movie. I’ll do the same when Mr. Spielberg’s ET returns to movie theaters later this month and, given today’s glut of lousy and mediocre movies, I expect good returns for that, too.

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Written and directed by Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Jaws, ET, Lincoln, Empire of the Sun), Close Encounters of the Third Kind packs a lot into its two hours plus running time. Mr. Spielberg is correct in his featured, pre-screening comments showing that the 1977 hit is not an example of science fiction, unless you regard life other than on earth as impossible. The broadest formulation of his theme is that we are not alone. Strictly speaking, this is also a theme of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

Like that play and movie, music is fundamental to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The song “Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” suggests the first sight of alien spaceships. The classic “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis and Budweiser’s cheery Seventies TV ad jingle, which follows a shot with a can of Bud, seed the subversion of the era’s dominant cultural ethos in favor of sweetness, benevolence and defiant, can-do Americanism. Listen for hints of composer John Williams’ distinctive 1975 Jaws theme. Of course, music is central to the movie’s plot about alien connection, communication and communion. And, if music foretells what’s to come in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it does, the director’s trademark blend of drama, suspense and terror heightens the story’s darker theme of alienation.

That said, Close Encounters of the Third Kind begins with a moving picture of two bright lights in a swirl of confusion. This is the film’s essence, which is a new, joyful, hard-earned enlightenment.

The audience is gradually immersed in a North American desert during a murky sandstorm. This symbolizes both the mystery of aliens that envelops and draws the audience into a multi-colored, musical finale and the post-counterculture era’s deep, mass confusion in the mid-1970s. “Are we the first to arrive here?” is the first spoken line of dialogue. It is an urgent question delivered seriously, insistently and repeatedly. Appropriately, there’s a Land Rover. Then, there’s a critical sequence involving Air Traffic Control which establishes the cultural context of insidious conformity, echoing skepticism. Then, the picture moves to the main midsection setting: the American Midwest. Riffing on the film’s unique integration of humor, tension and fear, a flirtatious and dangerous scene between Angie Dickinson and Earl Holliman from NBC’s Police Woman airs in the background.

Enter a young boy named Barry (Cary Guffey) and his mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) in a Muncie, Indiana, home filled with Mr. Spielberg’s pre-Poltergeist consumer goods — toy police cars, an American Airlines jet, a race car, trucks, that sort of thing, probably more toys than the typical middle class Midwestern toddler possessed, even 40 years ago, before toy shaming took hold. The scenes are an important marker. Barry’s self-starting toys represent the essence of what quality the aliens may seek in those they invite for communion: individual imagination and wonder at the world. Shifting to a government worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss before he played Pete in Mr. Spielberg’s Always; after he played Hooper in Mr. Spielberg’s Jaws) at home, another connection is made; here, too, the male is blissfully full of wonder and joy at the world — he plays with model trains, he finds good in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio — but Roy Neary’s domestic scene is more burdened than the boy’s home, where Jillian adopts a relaxed, more laissez-faire approach to parenting.

Roy represents the core conflict in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Contrary to the single-parent Indiana home, which tellingly is more conducive to the happy child, it must be noted, Roy’s nuclear family home is chaotic, filled with Mr. Spielberg’s post-Jaws family strife. Roy’s second-hander wife (Teri Garr), frankly, if you think about it, is not remotely interested in being intimate with her husband. She makes reference to their romantic past, sure. But it’s only in the context of an outing Roy intends as a moment of family unity to repeat the experience of his recent close encounter, this time sharing the wonder with his wife and kids. If Roy goes batty while obsessing after encountering an unidentified flying object (UFO), and he does in a sad subplot on the wreckage of mental illness, it’s not exactly Roy who vacates his marriage and family.

The adult’s intensely violent, invasive and invigorating encounter with an alien spaceship, again cued by twin lights, powers Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Thanks to Richard Dreyfuss (Lost in Yonkers, Whose Life is it, Anyway?, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Silent Fall, The Goodbye Girl), an outstanding actor who’s portrayed fraudulent businessman Madoff, Secretary of State Haig and Benjamin Netanyahu’s heroic brother in Israel’s 1976 ingenious raid on Arab terrorists, this insightful performance fully engages the audience in spite of its excess.

Steven Spielberg spins the tale of the detached, disaffected modern American idealist (an angry and downtrodden white male, incidentally) driven by forces beyond his control to madness, casting three Midwesterners into a generic world of Big Government conspiracy, complete with secretive helicopters, decoy trucks, faked national disasters and the United Nations. As he does, the lone individualist’s conflict gets a deeper dimension with hordes of Indians pointing to the sky, pop culture’s Marvin the Martian and Star Trek‘s USS Enterprise and an idealistic, intellectual Frenchman (perfectly cast writer, director and actor Francois Truffaut) who is the fountainhead of the impending ultimate close encounter. Truffaut’s Frenchman, Lacombe, represents the honest, diligent and scientific intellectual pursuit which accounts for the wonder and imagination of discovering the unknown. When Lacombe first faces the inconvenient, incontrovertible fact of Roy Neary’s intrusion on his plans, the philosopher-scholar asks the utility worker … if he is an artist. These two form an abiding bond for harmony.

Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind — a remarkably cinematic achievement with striking photography and deft screenwriting — balances wonder with terror, too. The scenes in which Barry is seized from his mother are terrifying. The scenes in which Barry’s mother and Roy Neary attempt to reunite in a herd of frenzied humans is horrifying. As the one, matching with another one, like Liberty and Equality in Ayn Rand’s novelette, Anthem, is swept away and lost in a mob of the many that are herded and fooled by the state, they’re rounded up for an uncertain outcome. That two freethinkers escape government control in that gas-guzzling, distinctly American symbol, the station wagon, breaking down not one, not two, but three government barriers, only to face barbed wire and press (not just carry) on to demand an encounter they know they have earned, goes to the undeniably affirmative, pro-American middle class sensibility of Steven Spielberg’s early movies.

“An answer!” Roy Neary calls out when captured, detained and interrogated by the government which asks what he seeks. Daring to ask a question of his own, he rises up and demands to know: “Who the hell are you people?!?” This is an expression of the film’s American ethos in a strong, powerful and emotional turning point which demonstrates that he who gains knowledge must seize the day, rise, speak up and defy the state. This is true down to three brave strangers who venture forth to disobey the government. “I must find out what’s going on,” one character asserts at a certain point. The movie’s iconic Western landmark reflects in a window as Lacombe’s childlike eyes brighten when the three make their escape, revealing his own secretly held rebelliousness, hinting at a deeper human, and, possibly, non-human connection to come; between Roy and Jillian, between Roy and Lacombe, between child and alien.

Whatever its flaws, from the Peanuts parents-like gibberish of the alien mothership, a bombastic soundtrack and an inexcusably incongruous inclusion of a priest which almost derails the movie’s innocence, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is as indelible now as it was when it played 40 years ago. This renders Mr. Spielberg’s intention — that the movie he first imagined with an early scipt in 1973 during the peak of press coverage of President Nixon‘s Watergate scandal would depict what happens “When You Wish Upon a Star”, in his words, borrowing Jiminy Cricket’s and Walt Disney’s theme song — a success.


Reviews of Steven Spielberg Movies

Movie Review: Lincoln

Movie Review: Schindler’s List

Movie Review: War Horse

Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

Movie Review: Munich

Movie Review: Empire of the Sun (1987)