Spielberg Sunday: Laser Cats 7

It’s not exactly new, but any chance for an additional short should be taken. It’s also funny to note that not only does Spielberg appear in this Saturday Night Live skit as himself, in a rather Hitchockian way but it’s also one of the running gags. Not to mention that there are of course references to several of his films, perhaps the funniest being Close Encounters of the Third Kind because it’s a great gag and wonderful commentary from the man himself.

Enjoy!

Laser Cats 7 (2012)

The 5 Most Invalid Star Wars Complaints

With the recent release of Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace in one additional D that has never before been seen there were bound to be many new articles that wrote upon the first film (chronologically) all over again.

Now, it’s been well-documented that fans and critics alike didn’t have much regard for Jake Lloyd’s interpretation of Anakin Skywalker and this was reiterated in the new articles. However, what struck me as a I read a new piece on old news was that, even in Episode One, much less the entire series, there are far more bothersome things that those of us who are fans can nitpick about. So, since fandom breeds nit-pickery whether one likes it or not, I have decided that there needs to be some priority set to this nitpicking. Namely, the focus will be on things ought not be nitpicked when you think about it.

I have asked Joey Esposito and Tom Sanford V to contribute their own lists as they are bigger die-hards than I, I’ll link to those when they’re up. I provide a sort of detached-weirdo perspective as the first time I truly saw the trilogy was in order in 2005 after I had seen Episode 3.

So enjoy (or become enraged by) my opinions below.

5. The Alternate Versions

This one is the last on my list because I agree with the fans right to complain about the alternate edits with new effects and the like with a caveat: namely, and this is a theme with me, if it really enrages you that much don’t buy them. I know I’m sticking with my DVDs for the time being. While I agree with the director’s right to change his film if he so pleases, I would prefer it if Lucas treated Star Wars like Spielberg treated E.T., meaning the original, unaltered version was always available and the new stuff was optional. I went to see the new E.T. but that was the only time, every other time the original has been just fine by me. So, yes, you have a right to complain about this switch, however, if you keep buying every release it’s falling on deaf ears. Therefore your options are one of two: hold out or get over it. None are great I grant you, but it’s the sad truth.

4. Midi-Chlorians

Here’s where my watching the series knowingly in chronological, so far as the narrative goes, order starts to factor in. This is one of the most over-debated and over-analyzed aspects of the entire saga. You can like or dislike it as you please, but I really don’t see the point in getting all up in arms about this point, when you have so many you could possibly choose from. Granted you implement things in the prequel trilogy that don’t follow through to the original and it removes an element of mystery but how much does it really detract? Furthermore, to parlay the filmmaker point above, it was introduced when the prequels were very much Lucas’s design, as concessions may have been made later on, so clearly he had it in mind. So it may not fit your vision but it fit his. Essentially, if one if offended by the very notion of the prequels they ought not waste time on this factoid. Conversely, if this is your biggest issue with the series that’s not so bad or you’ve blown it way out of proportion.

3. The Prequels In General

I alluded to this above but there are some who never got over the prequels happening in the first place. That’s fine. The original films are still there and if you watch those on an endless loop for all of eternity and never watch the prequels, would you still feel dirty knowing they exist? I wouldn’t. Now, even having seen the prequels first and then racing home to finish the series that night I won’t say the prequels are better, however, the concept was new to me when I first heard of it so I figured: “Why not watch it in order?” Today I think my appreciation for the saga and for prequels in general are heightened for it. Yes, I saw the prequels first, and yes, The Empire Strikes back is my favorite, and yes, The Phantom Menace is my least favorite, but in a lot of ways it functions like A New Hope does as a prelude to what’s to come.

2. Writing

People started to pile on to Lucas’ screenwriting seemingly only from 1999 to 2005 when seeing the new ones and then retroactively casting aspersions on his prior works. I can’t defend him in some areas but he knows his style and he jokes about being the “master of wooden dialogue.” He’s not Woody Allen or Joseph Mankiewicz or any of the greats, he knows that but he also typically writes his script in milieus he knows and where his style can flourish: Sci-Fi and adventure tales structured like serials, at least 10 films he had a hand in creating are in this vain (Star Wars and Indiana Jones) they emulate the style down to visual transitions and what I prefer to refer to as functional dialogue. However, suddenly when there are movies of his forthcoming some are not excited to see he is to be mocked and ridiculed? It’s exactly the same as what he’s always done. It worked then and it worked when the films rolled around again, the difference was in the receptiveness of the audience more so than the prowess of the artist.

1. Acting

Star Wars ain’t Shakespeare. Some actors will flail about. I don’t usually excuse actors I know to be talented from struggling with flat roles they seem uninterested in but it does happen. The fact of the matter is, I can ignore sub-par acting if I like the story enough. It will detract from it sure but rarely does it single-handedly ruin a film. Furthermore, as implied above, the saga might not embolden every actor. Sure, Harrison Ford did great things as Han, however, it’s right in his wheelhouse and his range is not the most vast to be honest. When dialogue has always been functional (I think we all know the story of the argument Ford and Lucas had on the set of the original about writing and saying things) and some actors can’t find themselves as well in that world, suddenly in the fourth film you’re going to pile on to a kid? I’m not going to say Jake Lloyd was the greatest thing since sliced bread but he did become the whipping boy for all that ailed The Phantom Menace in the eyes of many. Even I, who marginally liked the film, can pick many issues with that one and Lloyd is nowhere to be found on my list.

Essentially, due to fan outrage about the concept of the prequels existing and their dissatisfaction with the end result a child’s life was ruined, and yes I will go so far as to say potential was thwarted. You can’t tell me that Portman and Christiansen were always on point or that it ranks amongst Sam Jackson’s best works. As much as I’d like him you’d rattle off a bunch of Ewen MacGregor films before getting to the prequels. And if nothing else convinces you to absolve Jake Lloyd maybe this will: Did you like The Sixth Sense? I am assuming that you are a human being reading this and the answer is yes. Well, Haley Joel Osment is just one of those who auditioned for the role of Anakin but was not selected. So you can thank Jake Lloyd for The Sixth Sense if nothing else. Then feel free to troll on elsewhere, if you so please.

Spielberg Sunday- 1941

John Belushi in 1941 (Universal/Columbia)

Owing to the fact that I have decided to honor Steven Spielberg this year with my version of a Lifetime Achievement Award I figured it was an appropriate time to dust off some old reviews I wrote when I took a course on his work. The remarks still hold true, he is an amazing filmmaker.

Here is concrete proof that comedy is unquestionably the hardest genre to succeed in. Without trying to get inside Spielberg’s head and trying to determine exactly what it was that he was trying to do with this film, one can look at it as is and be left scratching their head. It is at best funny in small patches and most definitely a humongous waste of talent both on and off camera. I applaud Spielberg for not only making a huge departure from his big successes (Close Encounters and Jaws) but also for poking fun at the latter in the opening sequence of the latter film. This stands out as one of the few truly comic sequences throughout a film that is plagued by many difficulties. This film especially pales in retrospect considering that I’ve laughed much more during his action/adventure and sci-fi films and this film doesn’t seem to make any sincere satirical jabs at the paranoia in the United States following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, nor does it really succeed at being a farce. In its better moments, which were few and far between, 1941 is hysterical. More often than not, however, 1941 is poorly executed slapstick, ham-handed, off-the-wall nonsense that follows the wrong characters and actors.

So that this isn’t a complete diatribe there are some wonderful performances to be found here but as I’ve mentioned above these people make their exit from the film much too early. Probably the best performance in this all-star cast is that of Slim Pickens. He delivers not only some of the best lines of the film but delivers them only as he could with that imitable voice of his. Elisha Cook is also there but that’s about all what strikes me as really being odd is how ill-utilized these actors were. Most of the cast was a mish-mash of SCTV and Saturday Night Live stars who really didn’t do anything noteworthy. Dan Aykroyd got to do some of his shtick but his performance was undermined by some stupid writing, when towards the end for no reason known to man he went bonkers and exclaimed, “I’m a bug,” while he had wrapped oranges over his eyes with pantyhose. It got worse though John Candy, one of the funniest people who ever lived was just there for seemingly no reason, it was as if the casting director went amuck knowing that Spielberg could get any actors he wanted and got big names to do meaningless roles. Another under used player was Joseph P. Flaherty who provided the film with one of its best lines following the USO riot (“Maybe in the future we could have some Negroes come in and we’ll have a race riot.”) was also hardly there. Then there was Belushi, who I’ve always found overrated, doing an annoying version of the Penguin from Batman. He was occasionally funny in this and in other roles but overall I was unimpressed.

The big problem this film had was that it was more likely to lose its audience before tying all the storylines together. The additional factor of having the last 45 minutes of the film being one explosion, crash or pratfall after another didn’t help much at all.

Another factor that didn’t help this film was that on home video (apparently this version is somewhat different than the theatrical release) it is 2 hours long, it’s very difficult to do a comedy that lasts more than 90 minutes long.

About the only thing that made me realize that this was a Spielberg film was the inclusion of the Dumbo screening, which was both fitting to the story and helped me make it through that part of that performance because it is one of Disney’s finer works. The score was also a non-entity that I didn’t even think Spielberg worked with John Williams. The writing was also schizophrenic, spotty and unusually unfunny most of the time and I was almost shocked to find that Robert Zemeckis had a hand in writing it. It’s as if everyone was embarrassed with the end result so that there were no opening credits only closing ones.

3/10

Spielberg Sunday: Duel (1971)

Dennis Weaver in Duel (Universal TV)

Owing to the fact that I have decided to honor Steven Spielberg this year with my version of a Lifetime Achievement Award I figured it was an appropriate time to dust off some old reviews I wrote when I took a course on his work. The remarks still hold true, he is an amazing filmmaker.

Duel is a film that is deceptively simple in its narrative. It is simple enough that if you are simply told what it entails you’d wonder “Well, how can that ever make a good movie?” This is the same thought I had when my Uncle told me about it and talked about how great it was. He wasn’t wrong and there are many reasons why this film works so well.

While Spielberg worked many wonders in wielding this tale into an unforgettable motion picture, for which, we cannot forget that Richard Matheson wrote a tremendous screenplay based on his own short story. When we watch this film we get a sense of quiet and inner-monologue along with paranoid, frightened contemplation by our protagonist which is so well laid out that this comes very close to being a novel on film which is why people thought it couldn’t be done.

At the beginning we have a long sequence from the point of view of the protagonist and the only thing we hear besides the car-whipped wind and the hum of the engine is a radio call-in show where a man is talking to a woman and saying that he feels emasculated by his wife. Little do we know it but we are getting information about our protagonist without even knowing about it. I had suspected this for if we weren’t hearing a reflection of our protagonist this background conversation would be most extraneous indeed. The first time we see our protagonist is a shot in the rear view mirror of his car.

Duel takes what is a very real situation and takes it to its most insane and cataclysmic possible conclusions, the quintessence of horror. All we get in most of the beginning is a truck and a little car on a road. One cuts the other off and then they exchange volleys and try and block each other off. It’s a situation people find themselves in quite often, the exchange of ‘being cut-off’ and it is likely that, more than once, someone has wondered ‘Maybe I should stop messing around with this guy I don’t know what’s going on in his head.’ Not only do we see a man pushed to his limits but we only see this man. The trucker appears but once in the whole film. Occasionally, we see an arm sticking out a window but most of the time it’s a mystery. The fear of the unknown is also played upon in this film to a great extent and in what took a lot of courage and was difficult to pull off we never really do get to meet the trucker or understand him.

I don’t often hear people talk about Spielberg’s visual sensitivity this is usually because people often confused good art direction and set design with cinematography this is not the case and ‘Duel’ proves it. We see the wheels bounce and the camera accompanies it. We have two instances in which Spielberg uses a close up on the speedometer to increase the tension just a quick little glimpse and we watch the climb 70, 80, 90, this in tandem with the Hitchcockian and an occasional sampling of vivacious Bluegrass music. We watch our lead talking to his wife through a washing machine lid to show how trapped he feels when talking to his wife. We see shots of the back of the dusty, grimy trucks that read ‘Flammable’ and foreshadow the trucker’s demise and many more. The important thing about all of his camera work in the film is that it all has a purpose it doesn’t just look pretty. There’s a beautiful sequence where Spielberg tracks around the grill of the car and around the back and does the same with the truck moving up and down as he goes. Not only does this get us closer to the battle but it leaves us uneasy as do much of the shots and it works tremendously.

The paranoia of the picture really shows itself when the man is in the diner. At this point and really at any point in the film his name is irrelevant (When speaking to the operator we discover his surname is Mann, that isn’t an accident). He is just any old guy. In the diner we hear his thought process as he jumps through possibilities and then just as any person might. We see him look at the bar and scan all the patrons up from their boots to their faces. In this scene he loses it and confronts the wrong man about the on highway altercation he had. It’s in fact probably a film that has become more relevant as the years have gone on with incidents of “Road Rage” and even the coining of that phrase. We’ve seen this sleeper go from an odd chunk of macabre and mutate into something not so far-fetched.

The tension just doesn’t let down. We see tight shots of the back of the bus with the kids antagonizing an already aggravated man. We later see a great shot of the truck going back into the tunnel. He comes and knocks the bus out so that he and the car can engage in battle. It’s all battle now the trucker has decided to take it to the finish. Our protagonist once tried to avoid it by sitting at the side of the road for an hour but the truck was waiting for him just around the bend. Spielberg returns to the speedometer towards the end as we see the speed decrease because the radiator hose is leaking. This was foreshadowed when he stopped at a gas station and the guy popped his hood and that was noted it was dismissed as mechanic jive.

This is a film that should be noted not just as the first film of a great filmmaker but a great film on its own.

9/10