Sunday, June 26, 2011

If you loved E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS......

In 1977, Steven Spielberg challenged viewers with his epic vision of an alien visitation to an unsuspecting world. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND gave viewers not only spectacle but solid human drama and riveting suspense. The conclusion remains one of the most beautiful sequences in film history as the alien forms and humans interact, a magnificent made even better by John Williams' moving score and Spielberg's uncanny ability to combine superb editing with a magnificent visual pay-off.

Only five years later, the director (and Williams!) concocted one of the most popular films of all time: E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. Again, combining human drama, cute but believable kids, and an irresistable alien who just wants to go home, Spielberg delivered a thrilling but sentimental sci-fi film bound to warm the hearts of all but the most cynical observer.

Obviously, the above comments don't do justice to Spielberg at his popular best, and neither did the many films that aped his approaches. Remember
GOONIES, GREMLINS, and other lesser attempts? Perhaps the best was the Spielberg-produced POLTERGEIST, which wasn't about aliens at all. Instead this comic fright-fest pitted a charming but flawed modern family (the parents smoke pot!) against the lively energies in their home, which just happens to be built above a former cemetary ("You moved the cemetary, but you left the bodies!").

Well, if you have seen the new Spielberg production SUPER 8, then perhaps many of the above films and themes popped into your memory. Again, we have the incomplete family (E.T., CLOSE ENCOUNTERS). This time the mother has been killed in a factory accident, the father is struggling deputy sherrif, and the only child(Joel Courtney) lives in a dream world of models, monsters, and movies. And...SPOILER ALERT...there's an alien who wants to go home and a big cover-up by Spielberg's favorite villain the U.S. military. Yes, it is all familiar, but this concoction is far more enjoyable than the plot suggests.

For starters, J.J. Abrams, the mastermind behind LOST and ALIAS, has given fresh life to Spielberg's themes, primarily with a sympathetic cast of kids and adults. As in E.T., the kids are left to their own devices, particularly a Super 8 camera which they are using to film a zombie movie.
They create, bicker, apply make-up and fall in love with the leading lady, beautifully played by Elle Fanning. While filming a key scene they witness an incredible train wreck and strange after-effects, captured on film! But enough plot. What makes SUPER 8 work so well is the use of period details( this time late 1970's), a technique Spielberg is famous for. Although the suspenseful and somewhat overly sentimental ending doesn't quite work, SUPER 8 is by far the best "big" movie of the summer.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Take a second look or listen

Last week my wife and I saw Woody Allen's new nostalgic comedy MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, a frothy tribute to the city of love and lights. With nods to some of his earlier films, Allen sets up the eternal debate between genuine feeling and philistine grabbing. Owen Wilson, embodying Allen's persona, plays Gil, a successful but unhappy screen-writer, who has come to Paris with his spoiled fiance (Rachel McAdams in a bravely unsympathetic mode) and her obnoxious parents. This plot is simple: she wants to go home to Hollywood and he wants to write in Paris. It's the second story that makes the movie special.

To escape his smothering future family, Gil takes midnight walks in the streets of Paris where he is picked up by a limo from the 1920's and whisked into the artistic world of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. Along the way, he falls in love with the entrancing Adriane (Marion Cotillard, gulp, can you blame him?) These scenes give Allen a chance to comment on nostalgia for a time often overly romanticized, especially by writers and film. He manages to expose Hemingway as a drunken lecher, and even worse, a writer trapped by his own machismo style. As Hemingway speaks to Gil, he intones some of the stripped, blunt language that was his pride but also his curse as a writer. As for Fitzgerald, he is seen as an attractive and shallow weakling, as is his wife Zelda. And Allen goes further, revealing Pablo Picasso as a preening but unsure cock of the roost.

All of this made me reconsider the talents of 1920's Paris. Have they been over-rated by historians and even art historians (hmm)? How many people read Gertrude Stein and her almost nonsensical prose? Did Picasso really "invent" Cubism? Do we forget about Cezanne's incredible spatial and color inventions of thirty years before or Picasso's co-worker Georges Braque's intricate analytical cubist pieces and his clever synthetic collages? Yes, Picasso gave us THE WOMEN OF AVIGNON and GUERNICA, which are brilliant and shocking works, but of all the artists embodied in Allen's film, Henri Matisse and Fitzgerald come off best in the real world. THE GREAT GATSBY and many of his stories remain some of the finest, most sensitive writing of the 20th Century, much more readable than almost anything by Hemingway. Matisse with his vivid colors, his radical arrangements in painting as well as in sculpture and cut-out collages, which he virtually made an art form, are more interesting and aesthetically pleasing than almost any work by Picasso.

Though Woody Allen purports to love the past as seen in 1920's Paris, he is also realistic about the snares of nostalgia. If Gil stays in Paris, it won't be in the 1920's.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Still the Best

We just finished watching the London 25th anniversary of the musical LES MISERABLES on PBS. This is a magnificent concert production with a huge orchestra and chorus and thousands of die-hard LES MIZ fans in attendance. Although the intimacy of the London or New York productions is dwarfed, the concert provides stunning clarity of voice, diction, and emotion. Don't miss it. I am sure PBS in their search for donors will show it many times; that's what pledge breaks are for.

Seeing this concert brought me back to my first experience of LES MISERABLES in the spring of l989. I led our sixth annual Humanities Class trip to New York where we took in the arts and theater. Our first play was the recently opened smash THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with its soaring melodies and incredible sets. The students were swept away, particularly the girls, by the romance and spectacle.

The next night, feeling PHANTOM was the pinnacle of Broadway musicals, we trooped into LES MISERABLES without much expectation. By the end of Act I as the barricades were erected with smoke, fire, emotion, and great music, I could tell that the students were in awe, especially the boys this time. Maybe it was the swaggering machismo of the young revolutionaries, but perhaps it was also the sweep of Hugo's themes and the extraordinary music that lifted them. As Act II progressed, the deaths and sacrifices began to change the tone. At the death of Eponine in Marius's arms and the defeat of the students, the emotions of the audience rose. And in the finale, as Jean Val Jean dies in the company of his daughter Cosette, Marius, his son-in-law, and the spirits of Cosette's mother Fantine and Eponine, the scene takes on the qualities of great operatic ensembles, lifted by the show's major theme "One Day More," sung by the entire company. As the lights came up, I looked around at my group. Like me, most of them were in tears, even some of the athletes, who never dreamed they would respond to a show like this.

If anything sums up the power of the musical LES MISERABLES, it is this: it speaks to our sense of beauty, justic, and love in terms few popular entertainments could possibly envision.