This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Spielberg and Lucas: Then and Now

My recent review of War of the Worlds prompted me to take my own look at how its director Steven Spielberg and his friend George Lucas are both wrongfully blamed for creating the blockbuster mentality that Hollywood in currently engulfed in, as well as how they both hold up today as artists.

If my review sounded like I have Spielberg-bias, well, so be it. Along with Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, Spielberg is probably the only director who came onto the scene in the 1970s who basically still commands the same respect today.

One reason for this is that, unlike Lucas, Spielberg still respects the people who brought him the cachet he now enjoys. For example, even before he publicly apologized for unnecessarily tampering with his classic E.T.-The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Spielberg ensured that the original version of that movie would be available for the public. Heck, he even apologized for his part in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). In the documentary The People vs. George Lucas (2010), film critic Rafik Djoumi commented that the disdain for Crystal Skull was more directed at Indy creator Lucas, rather than Spielberg.

Indeed, before Crystal Skull, Spielberg made his great, controversial drama Munich (2005), which scored him his sixth Oscar nomination as Best Director. Since Crystal Skull, Spielberg has gone on to direct War Horse (2011), The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and, most importantly, Lincoln (2012), which earned him another Oscar nomination for directing. At the same time, fan disdain towards Lucas continues due, in large part, to his stubborn refusal to allow the original versions of the original Star Wars trilogy to be available on blu-ray.

One of my colleagues recently posted an interesting article about how the success of Spielberg's Jaws(1975), which deservedly became a classic and a big moneymaker in spite of the incredible difficulty Spielberg and company had in making it, told Hollywood that summertime was the best time to put out the big budget escapist films. Star Wars took that even further by saying that films with special effects were certain to bring in the cash, regardless of the story.

A previous article on the same blog made an interesting comment regarding an article in GQ magazine a few years earlier. It stated that Top Gun (1986) may actually deserve the blame that some unfairly put on Jaws and Star Wars in terms of how movies are not only made but marketed. The trailer for that film basically tells the whole story and watching the music videos for the film's songs such as Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away is pretty much the same as watching the film itself since the scenes in those videos are the same as those in the movie itself.

What's interesting, though, is how Spielberg and Lucas went off on separate paths once Jaws and Star Wars came out. The making of both movies proved quite the ordeal for their respective directors. Spielberg, though, would go on to direct a number of great films after Jaws, starting with the science fiction drama Close Encounters of the Third Kind(1977). But his reputation as a escapist filmmaker probably emerged during the 1980s when he directed the first three Indiana Jones films and E.T., as well as produced such films as Poltergeist(1982), Gremlins(1984), The Goonies(1985), Back to the Future(1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit(1988), as well as the anthology series Amazing Stories (Spielberg directed a few episodes of that show). This perception may have cost him Oscar nominations for directing both The Color Purple(1985) and Empire of the Sun(1987). Happily, Spielberg would get Oscar gold for both Schindler's List(1993) and Saving Private Ryan(1998).

In contrast, Lucas would swear off sitting in the director's chair for over two decades after Star Wars, although he was very much involved with making both The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). He would continue to score by producing the Indy films, as well as Labyrinth (1986). But Jurassic Park (1993) would bring him back into the directing fold when he saw the great work his company, Industrial Light and Magic, had done for that film.

As a result, Lucas decided to direct all three Star Wars prequels himself. I don't need to remind anyone of how disappointing they all turned out to be. However, the seeds of disappointment were probably sewn in 1997, two years before the release of the first prequel The Phantom Menace. Star Wars turned 20 that year and Lucas decided to commemorate the occasion by not only re-releasing the movie, but by adding certain CGI-tweaks to the movie, which resulted in the Special Edition. These changes included the now-infamous way Han Solo shooting Greedo was redone.

But even this 1997 re-release wasn't the definitive edition of the original trilogy, according to Lucas. When the films hit DVD in 2004, there were even more changes, such as Jabba looking even more ridiculous than in the 1997 edition, and, even worse, inserting Hayden Christensen into the end of Jedi. Yet, Lucas still wasn't done because when the movies hit blu-ray in 2011, there were (yep!) more changes, such as Vader suddenly giving the patented Star Wars "NOOOO!" before he tosses the Emperor down that shaft.

I've made peace with the fact that the prequels were disappointing (I am still a Star Wars fan but have never purchased the prequels on DVD) and I'm also fine with the unnecessary changes George claims were always in his head when making the original films. All I, and others ask is that the original versions of the first trilogy be available on blu-ray in a nice pristine state (I must confess, though, I'm happy with the 2006 DVD versions, even though I can understand why some fans are not). Now that Disney owns Star Wars, maybe they can be talked into doing this.

Many were understandably upset when we heard that walkie-talkies were going to replace guns for the climax of E.T.. However, as far as I know, there was never a petition for Spielberg to restore the original version of the film because he had already announced that it would be available on DVD. In contrast, Lucas has repeatedly stated that the updated original version of the original Star Wars trilogy is the ONLY version and, shockingly, that it would cost too much money and time to release versions of the original theatrical cuts.

The fact that anything is too expensive for George just makes me laugh. When Red Tails (2012), which Lucas produced, was released, he announced, not for the first time, that he was going to retire from making movies like Star Wars and focus on smaller films.

It's ironic that we have yet to see any of these smaller films, while Spielberg has made a number of non-blockbuster movies.

Hence, I'm always looking forward to seeing the next Spielberg movie in the cinema, but go into a new Lucas picture with reservations. For his part, Spielberg defends Lucas and his rights to change the Star Wars films. I can't entirely disagree with that stance since they are friends and the movies do belong to Lucas. It is noteworthy, though, that Spielberg has basically moved on from the success he achieved in the 1970s, whereas Lucas is virtually milking his own 1970s success for all he can.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Agony Booth review: War of the Worlds (2005)

My latest Agony Booth review is of Steven Spielberg's exciting take on War of the Worlds.

I’m going to admit right up front that I really liked this movie. In fact, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s best, his version of War of the Worlds is high up there on the rather short list of remakes that are actually better than the originals.

Before the 1953 film, the story was famously adapted for radio by the great Orson Welles, and it scared the hell out of people on Halloween night, 1938. And it just so happens that both Welles and Spielberg were labeled “boy wonders” because of their directorial successes at an early age. Spielberg was a big fan of the original film, so perhaps it was only inevitable that he would make his own version of the story. While to some, this movie may appear to be War of the Worlds in name only (after all, we never get an appearance from anybody named Dr. Clayton Forrester), Spielberg’s take retains the spirit of the original work, and even includes a bit more material from the original H.G. Wells novel.

Just as in the novel, the film begins with a narrator (Morgan Freeman) telling us that humanity has been blissfully unaware that an alien intelligence has long been watching us, and waiting for the right time to strike. We then cut to New Jersey, where Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is finishing up his work day as a crane operator. He then races home to meet up with his pregnant ex-wife (Miranda Otto) who’s dropping off their children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), so that Ray can babysit them while she and her new husband go to Boston to visit her parents.

Ray proves that he’s not exactly father of the year by being late to meet his kids, and later on by arguing with Robbie as they play catch (which ends with Ray angrily throwing a ball through one of his own windows).

Ray then goes off to nap, telling Rachel to order some food if she’s hungry (I guess this means the ten year old has her own credit card?). At the same time, reports come in of unusual lightning storms all over the world, resulting in lots of blackouts and electronic devices going dead. Ray wakes up, and after expressing his dislike for the healthy food Rachel ordered (next time, just get pizza for your kids, pal), he learns that Robbie took off in his car without permission.

Ray goes after him, and in the process encounters one of the disturbances he heard about via the news. Dark clouds suddenly appear in the skies, and lightning repeatedly hits the center of town, and just as quickly, the storm vanishes.

Ray finds Robbie, then goes to investigate the exact spot where those lightning strikes hit. A crowd has gathered around a giant hole in the pavement, which then begins to grow, causing all the neighborhood streets to break apart and buildings to collapse. The crowd then sees a huge, three-legged machine rise up from the ground. It proceeds to shoot out laser beams that vaporize anything and everything in its path, and never was the phrase “ashes to ashes” more apt.

Ray escapes the machine and its death ray and makes it home, in shock and covered in the dust that was once his neighbors. But he manages to pull himself together and pack up his kids and some supplies.

They miraculously get hold of the only working car for miles around and drive away just as their entire neighborhood gets obliterated. They make it to his ex-wife’s suburban home, which is currently empty, so Ray gets his kids ready to sleep down in the basement. Alas, they don’t get much sleep once they hear a horrific noise outside. In the dawn light, Ray discovers that a Boeing 747 has crashed into the neighborhood.

While searching the wreckage, Ray encounters a small TV news crew. The reporter tells Ray that these machines, nicknamed “tripods”, are also attacking other parts of the world. And just like in the original movie, the machines are equipped with force fields that prevent any human weapons from so much as making a scratch on them.

The reporter shows him footage of the original lightning strikes, and slows it down to show how the “lightning” was really a small capsule flying down from the sky and burrowing into the ground. Meaning, the tripods must have been buried underground many years before.

Ray then decides to head to Boston to reunite the kids with their mom. But Robbie is determined to join up with a passing military convoy to fight the aliens. He expresses his disgust for Ray, knowing he simply wants to get them to Boston so he can dump them off on their mother.

At the same time, a nice freaky moment occurs when Rachel walks off to find privacy to relieve herself. She sees a dead body floating down the river, followed by dozens more. Things get worse as they continue on their way to Boston, only to find themselves surrounded by an angry mob who steals their car away. Ray and the kids then attempt to get on a ferry going across the Hudson River, but the aliens cause the ferry to sink, forcing everyone to swim to safety.

Robbie is determined to join the soldiers in fighting the aliens, and Ray is stuck in a situation where he has to choose between saving Rachel and letting Robbie go. Eventually, he decides to save Rachel, and he and the girl are offered shelter by a guy named Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). But Ogilvy (a name taken from the novel) turns out to be a nutcase who has a mental breakdown when he looks outside and sees the aliens feeding on the blood of humans. His ranting and raving threatens to draw the aliens to their hiding place, leaving Ray no choice but to kill him (hey, I hated Howard the Duck as much as the next guy, but Robbins shouldn’t be blamed for that!).

Then comes the film’s most intense sequence, as the aliens hunt for Ray and Rachel in Ogilvy’s house using a long, snake-like periscope (similar to the one seen in the 1953 movie) and manage to find them. They run outside, where a tripod scoops them up. They’re thrown into a cage-like structure with other prisoners, but luckily, Ray was earlier able to snag some grenades from an abandoned army jeep. He pulls the pins and the resulting explosion brings the tripod to the ground.

This frees everyone, and Ray and Rachel finally manage to get to Boston, which isn’t as devastated as you’d think, given the circumstances. When they arrive, they realize that the tripods are starting to weaken. Because he’s the lead character, Ray informs the nearby military of something you’d think they would have noticed on their own already: the tripods no longer have their force fields. Once they’re told the obvious, the soldiers fire at will and destroy the alien invaders.

Ray finally delivers Rachel to her mom, who’s staying with her parents (Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the stars of the 1953 film). Also here is Robbie, who’s miraculously survived, even though the last time we saw him he was with the army heading over a hill into a massive wall of fire. Morgan Freeman’s narration returns to inform us that, just like in the novel, the aliens were brought down because of their lack of immunity to Earth bacteria. In other words, they were smarter than the aliens in Signs because it wasn’t just plain old tap water that did them in.

The film has some head-scratching moments. Many have taken issue with Robbie surviving at the movie’s end, but perhaps the biggest WTF moment for me was why the aliens left their machines in the ground for God knows how long, and yet no one ever came across them.

But overall, the film picks up after a slow start and remains exciting until the end. The scenes with the aliens hunting people are as intense as those of dinosaurs doing the same in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The 1953 original was released during an era of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, and in their place, Spielberg’s version is made with 9/11 sensibilities (“Is it terrorists?” Robbie asks at one point in the film, and when Ray is covered in the dust of victims, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the WTC dust that covered Manhattan), which gives this movie a timely feel.

I was skeptical about a remake of War of the Worlds initially, because I thought that it had already basically been remade nine years earlier as Independence Day. Thankfully, this film manages to be different from ID4 because it’s told entirely from the POV of everyday people just trying to survive, as opposed to top bureaucrats and heads of state tasked with stopping the aliens. In an issue of Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King named the film one of the best films of 2005, calling it “human science fiction, and that’s a rarity.”

This brings us to the movie’s star. Cruise is as fine here as he was in his previous film with Spielberg, Minority Report. While we may question Ray’s parenting skills, Cruise does a good job of playing a blue-collar everyman who’s simply trying to protect his children. In another nice touch, Cruise’s usual smirking, hotshot action movie persona is subverted here, as the movie makes it clear that his character is in way over his head. One of his best moments is when Rachel asks him to sing her to sleep and Ray realizes he doesn’t know any bedtime songs, so he starts tearfully singing the Beach Boys as a lullaby.

Like basically all of Spielberg’s films, the production values are top notch. The visual effects are good without being overdone, and John Williams delivers another exciting musical score. The aliens themselves are nicely done by ILM, and it’s a nice change of pace seeing aliens in a Spielberg film that aren’t as benevolent as those of Close Encounters and E.T.

Some complained that Dakota Fanning as Rachel does nothing but shriek for the whole movie, but she and Chatwin are believable as kids caught up in something terrifying and otherworldly, to say the least.

Although the movie was financially successful, this was in a way the beginning of the end of the public’s affection for Tom Cruise, who was making headlines at the time for jumping on Oprah’s couch and hooking up with Katie Holmes and fighting with Brooke Shields about postpartum depression. This tabloid fodder ended up overshadowing the movie itself.

But the film reminds us it’s not an accident that, for a time, Cruise was a real force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. One reason for this is that as his star rose, Cruise set out to work with the best people, not necessarily those who would kiss his ass. This is why he has a nice who’s-who’s of directors in his filmography, including Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and Michael Mann.

While the Mission: Impossible sequels are still bringing in the money for Cruise (with a fifth installment due next year), it’d be nice if he was able to make good movies again, rather than churning out junk like Oblivion and the upcoming Edge of Tomorrow.

War of the Worlds, despite a few hiccups in logic, succeeds in its objective, which is to deliver thrilling entertainment. It gives blockbusters with big stars and great special effects a good name.