An American Tail

August 18, 2020

americantailAnimator Don Bluth left the Disney studio a few years ago, reportedly feeling frustrated by his efforts to give their creaky animation department a good swift kick in the pants. So Bluth made a complicated feature, The Secret of NIMH, that attempted new ambition in animation.

Meanwhile, ironically, Disney was getting off its high horse and pumping some new blood into its own efforts. Last summer’s The Great Mouse Detective showed some renewed energy from the Disney people.

Now Bluth checks in with his own mouse feature (this one produced by Steven Spielberg’s production company), and it’s – ah – extremely cute, which will be a recommendation or a warning, depending on your own predilections.

Interestingly enough, it’s a story about immigration, set in the latter part of the 19th century. The Mousekiwicz family lives in Russia, but are persecuted by cats (read: cossacks). So they scramble aboard a ship heading for America, where, they’ve heard, “There are mouse holes in every wall and bread crumbs on every floor” and absolutely no cats.

During the voyage, the tiny mouse hero, Fievel, is washed overboard in a storm. He floats ashore in a bottle, in New York harbor, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, which is just being erected. But he despairs of ever finding his family again, and has a series of adventures during his search.

Bluth’s story is a bold one for a full-length cartoon, since it touches on religious persecution, union origins (a mouse organizer calls for a communal effort against the cats!), and a lot of business about the United States as a melting pot.

But Bluth doesn’t forget that his biggest audience is small fry, and there are many adorable characters with squeaky voices. Also a passel of songs, most of which are painless.

In fact, the entire film is pretty painless. Even Dom DeLuise’s roly-poly cowardly cat, the only good-natured cat in the film, is acceptable in part because the actor is spoofing Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion voice from The Wizard of Oz. (DeLuise is one of the few recognizable voices in the cast; other well-known actors disguise their voices, and most are unknown.)

The animation is fine. The harbor scenes are drawn with care and detail, though the characters look like the usual cartoon designs. Bluth’s high point is the sea storm, which is dominated by a dark, Poseidonlike figure rising from the black water the stir up the seas. It’s the single most exciting and inventive sequence in the movie, and the subsequent scenes look a bit pallid next to it.

However, Bluth seems to be on the right track, with his combination of first-rate animation, offbeat storylines, and darling touches aimed at the kids. And his inclusion, and celebration, of the completed Statue of Liberty in the final sequence is both a heartfelt salute and a sensible commercial move – and isn’t the coupling of patriotism and commercialism appropriate for an American tale?

First published in The Herald, November 1986

Bluth would continue his quest at exactly the same time Disney actually rebounded into a titan again; Land Before Time came out in 1988, All Dogs Go to Heaven in ’89. An American Tail has become a classic; the sequel, Fievel Goes West, was done without Bluth.

*batteries not included

July 17, 2020

batteriesThese days Steven Spielberg is garnering justified praise for having moved past mechanical sharks and aliens with Empire of the Sun. It’s very gratifying to see Spielberg at work in the adult arena, especially for those of us who have been his supporters all along.

Now Spielberg’s production company gives us *batteries not included. It’s about these people in a New York tenement who are trying to save their building and are helped by, uh, er, these – well, aliens.

Spielberg did not direct this film, although his name is prominently displayed in the credits. Matthew Robbins, who wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s first theatrical film (The Sugarland Express) directed, and to him goes the lion’s share of the blame. We can only hope that Spielberg was so busy with Empire that he never saw the rushes of this one.

*batteries not included has  the worst of everything: condescendingly adorable old people, relentlessly cute spaceships, grossly oily villains. Worse, it can barely tell a story coherently.

That leaves the special effects, executed by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic people. They’re quite seamless, but with a movie this bad who cares about technical proficiency?

Despite the presence of theatrical heavyweights Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as the keepers of the flame in the old building, the actors make almost no impression at all. Elizabeth Pena (La Bamba) has a sleepy beauty, but her role is nonexistent. Michael Carmine fumes a lot, as the thug who bashes things up in an effort to get the tenants to move out.

Frank McRae plays a washed­up ex-boxer with a tender side (this film doesn’t miss a cliché) who tinkers with toys and speaks exclusively in lines he has learned from TV commercials. The two spaceships fly about, doing sweet things for these poor tenants. Then they begin cannibalizing hardware – coffee pots, Pepsi cans – in a process that turns out to be procreative. This, of course, means that the spaceships will give birth to little spaceships even sweeter and more huggable (not to mention merchandisable) than themselves. Which prompts the operative response to these baby ships and the film as a whole: Yuck.

First published in The Herald, December 1987

So, not a good impression with me. I did like Robbins’ Dragonslayer, so this was a letdown. Everybody was tracking the growing-up of Steven Spielberg at this time, all but demanding that he put away childish things, so that explains my lede. The screenplay features a battery of names, including story credit to Mick Garris and co-writing credit to Brad Bird, both of whom had worked on Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and would go on to bigger things; screenplay credit also goes to Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson, who did Short Circuit and Tremors.


Empire of the Sun

October 2, 2019

empireofsunIn the opening shot of Empire of the Sun, the screen is filled with murky river water; flowers drift by in the current, and then a wooden box – but the box is cracked open, a coffin revealing a pale corpse inside. Immediately, the audience is served notice: This will not be your average Steven Spielberg movie.

Actually, the average Spielberg movie is generally an exhilarating film experience, although the director-producer-conglomerate has lately been Hollywood’s favorite whipping boy. He’s made an incredible amount of money in a few years, and he’s brought no small measure of joy into the lives of moviegoers, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. to The Color Purple. For this, and for the sin of making movies about children and extraterrestrials, he’s become the subject of scorn.

For some reason the same people who rightly complain about how Hollywood ignores children’s movies are the same folks who whine that Spielberg must make films for adults. While the rest were trying to figure that one out, Spielberg was out making Empire of the Sun, which turns the neat trick of being an adult movie about childhood.

It’s based on a novel by J.G. Ballard, who drew on his own experiences as a boy growing up in occupied China in World War II. Spielberg’s film charts the wartime life of young Jim (Christian Bale), who begins the story as the spoiled son of the British uppercrust in Shanghai. After he’s separated from his parents in the crush of evacuation, Jim is on his own in Shanghai for a few weeks, then taken into custody and shipped to a Japanese prison camp.

Most of the remainder of the film is set in the camp, where Jim evolves from a posh kid into a savvy survivor, mainly under the influence of three people: a sickly, beautiful woman (Miranda Richardson), a compassionate doctor (Nigel Havers), and especially a cocky, manipulative American seaman (John Malkovich), who holds court constantly and apprentices Jim in the ways of a survivor.

Empire of the Sun is a rich production, from the magnificent period detail in the Shanghai sequences (filmed on location) to the nuances of Allen Daviau’s cinematography in the potentially monotonous camp scenes (filmed in a Spanish desert).

But there is much more than top-flight production value. Spielberg’s eye for the small touches that reveal so much about character is as keen as ever, such as the mysterious layer of spilled face powder that tells the story of Jim’s parents’ capture at their empty home. It is supremely evocative directorial work.

It’s fascinating that Spielberg, whose criticized weakness is toward sentiment, would choose an adapter whose work is, to put it mildly, not known for its heart. Playwright Tom Stoppard’s screenplay is marked by neat understatement, and an ability to pack various meanings within a single line: When a truck leaves for the camp, Jim finagles his way on board by offering help to the confused driver: “I know the way to Suchow! My parents were members of the country club!”

Stoppard’s coolness matches Spielberg’s warmth, and suits this often grim story. Yet Spielberg finds the life-affirming thread in the material, made rich by the complexity of the design and the naturalism of the actors (Spielberg, so superb with children, has gotten a great performance out of young Christian Bale). Spielberg masterfully guides this odyssey from the dark to, quite literally, the light.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1987

I recall having the chance to see this film twice before writing about it, a rarity in movie reviewing. From this piece you can get a sense of where Spielberg’s reputation was in these pre-Schindler years, based on my defensiveness about it. I still think it’s one of his finest films, and the idea that Spielberg’s sensibility thrives in juxtaposition to drier creative talents like Ballard and Stoppard seems legit. Whatever happened to young Christian Bale?

The Color Purple

October 19, 2012

The Color Purple opens with a shot of a beautiful field of lavender flowers; then the camera tilts up to show two young girls playing and singing in the field. After 2 ½ hours of movie, and 30 years in the lives of its characters, this shot will have its emotional payoff in a final scene set in the very same field, among the very same flowers.

That’s getting a little ahead of things, but it’s indicative of the balance and classical construction that fills this movie. With this film, Steven Spielberg sheds the stigma of being a kiddie director—one which he didn’t really deserve anyway—and puts his hands on the best director Oscar that’s eluded him for years.

That’s right, you can send the statuette to Steve’s house now, and save everybody a lot of trouble. At this admittedly early date, it’s hard to imagine The Color Purple in anything but a sweep of the year’s awards—for a few of the actors, for Allen Daviau’s cinematography, and for Quincy Jones’ music.

Jones is also the film’s executive producer, and the man who secured the rights to Alice Walker’s novel in the first place. He also hired Spielberg, which was a brilliant stroke; few other directors could discover such a sense of life within the melodramatic and painful events of the story.

The story spans 30 years. We first meet Celie as a 14-year-old girl about to give birth to her second child—both products of her father’s rapes. He gets rid of the children, and he soon gets rid of Celie, by marrying her off to a local widower farmer, known to her only as Mister.

It’s a violent union. He beats her, and throws her younger sister out of the house. Over the years, Celie grows accustomed to this treatment, and even to the fact that Mister’s mistress, Shug, moves into the house with them. Shug, a juke-joint singer, turns out to be a friend to Celie—after her sister, the only friend Celie has known.

Other characters weave in and out: Harpo, Mister’s oldest son, and his boisterous wife, Sophia; Mister’s father, a mean and crotchety old man; Squeak, who vies with Sophia for Harpo’s attentions.

Spielberg’s treatment of the story at times recalls the silent rural dramas of D.W. Griffith; he uses motifs, such as the reading of letters, the singing of songs, the framing of characters in windowpanes, to trace the spiritual growth of the heroine. Celie’s habit of covering her smile with her hand, which began with her father’s opinion that she was ugly, is used in such a way that when Celie finally learns to smile with a big toothy grin, it fairly lights up the screen.

Much of that power also comes from the interestingly understated performance by comedian Whoopi Goldberg, making her film debut as Celie. Goldberg lets her eyes do much of her talking—watch especially a scene in which Shug sings a special blues song for the heretofore-ignored Celie, and the heart-melting look in Celie’s surprised, embarrassed, touched eyes.

All the performers are good—Danny Glover as Mister, and Margaret Avery as Shug, especially—and I can’t think of a single wrong or awkward note in the film.

Early in her life, Celie consoles herself from the ravages of living by saying, “This life be over soon. Heaven lasts always.” It is Walker’s contention, and Spielberg’s, that that is not enough. Eventually Celie realizes that there must be something more to existence than just existing. That realization is her triumph. That film’s triumph is in making us believe it, too.

First published in the Herald, December 22, 1985

Yeah, funny story about those sure-fire Oscars. The movie got 11 nominations and no wins, and Spielberg was not nominated. (Out of Africa was the big winner.) I think Spielberg’s command of film language actually worked against him here, and the movie might have puzzled people looking for a different kind of approach.

Young Sherlock Holmes

December 27, 2011

“The game is afoot!” cries the greatest detective who ever graced the pages of imagination. However, the face from which the phrase emanates has not yet felt the touch of a razor, and the speaker is too young to have smoked the famous pipe. That’s because this is Young Sherlock Holmes, the story of the sleuth’s crucial boyhood adventure.

If the title has the suggestion of spoofiness to it—a la Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein—don’t worry. This is a straight version of the boyhood days of Holmes, without any cute jokes at the character’s expense.

Naturally, there could be no Holmes without Watson, and as the film begins, an adolescent John Watson is making his way into a new boys’ school. As he enters the dormitory, he hears the anguished sounds of a violin being tortured. They player is a lean youth who expresses his fury at not having mastered the instrument.

“How long have you been playing?” Watson asks.

“Three days,” replies the analytical stranger, who could be no one but Sherlock Holmes himself.

A friendship develops, which must sustain the two through a harrowing adventure to come: the strange case of some angry Egyptians, who have built their own pyramid in a seedy section of London and plan to kill a batch of Britishers, using a hallucinogenic drug shot through a blowpipe.

The film moves from the scenes at the boys’ school, where Holmes first displays his deductive powers and from which he is wrongly expelled, to this wild adventure, as our heroes force a showdown at the ornate pyramid temple full of chanting Egyptians (the film is lavishly mounted).

This lively plot is an invention of scriptwriter Chris Columbus, who also wrote Gremlins and The Goonies, which were produced, like this film, by Steven Spielberg’s company. It owes nothing to Arthur Conan Doyle, in terms of plot, but it does take pains to be true to the spirit of Doyle’s detective.

Much credit should also go to director Barry Levinson (Diner). Columbus’s script is a bit heavy on laborious exposition, and the film gets off to a meandering start, but Levinson’s affection for the characters carries the day.

He’s chosen three wonderful actors—none of them star faces—for his principals. Nicholas Rowe is a dead ringer for what you imagine the young Holmes must have looked like. Even his long, worried stride is appropriate for the character.

At Watson, Alan Cox, a squat, bespectacled boy, gets most of the laughs in the film, as well he should. He effortlessly communicates the mix of exasperation and hero worship that the young Watson would have for Holmes.

Sophie Ward, a radiant young actress, plays the young lass who is the love of Holmes’ life. And Anthony Higgins is memorable as Holmes’ demanding school mentor.

One thing: Don’t leave during the end credits. There’s a tasty little surprise tacked on after the credits, which should please fans of the detective, and suggests that, though the film may be over, the game is still very much afoot.

First published in the Herald, December 5, 1985

It doesn’t seem to be especially remembered today except as a culty item for the Goonies generation. At the time, I thought it created a rather nice Sherlockian glow, but I’m worried about actually seeing it again.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

November 24, 2011

Dr. Jones and Dr. Jones: Ford and Connery

In 1981, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas combined their already successful talents and invented a hero to match their memories of the great breakneck cliffhangers of the 1940s. His name was Indiana Jones (played so memorably by Harrison Ford), and the film was Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Ah, you’ve heard of it. This mammoth hit was followed by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, another smash. Now Lucas (as producer) and Spielberg (as director) have brought their hero back for a final go-round, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

As usual, the movie is constructed around a series of hair-raising stunts and chases. In this case, there’s a twist at the start: The curtain-raiser features not the mature Dr. Jones but an adolescent Indy (River Phoenix), a Boy Scout who stumbles across some tomb robbers and leads them on a merry chase when he snatches the artifact they’ve dug up (“This belongs in a museum!” shouts the serious lad).

This sequence is a delight, as young Indy prances about on a speeding circus train; we learn how he came to fear snakes, adopt the Stetson, and even how he acquired the scar that graces Harrison Ford’s chin. It’s a wonderful sequence, and gets the film off to a rousing start.

It also introduces the idea of Indy as someone’s son, which is taken up in more detail as we skip ahead to 1938. Dr. Jones, it seems, is the son of another Dr. Jones (Sean Connery), himself a great expert on ancient artifacts, and a somewhat distant father. But the elder Jones is in trouble. He has been searching for the Holy Grail, the most famous artifact in history, and he has vanished. Indy suspects some competing crusaders, such as the Nazis, may have kidnapped Dad when the location of the Grail was deduced.

So the adventure of The Last Crusade is twofold: find the father, and find the Grail. The quest leads from the canals of Venice to an Austrian castle to the belly of a zeppelin to a mythical Middle Eastern country. For the details, you’ll have to see the movie. I’m not about to spoil the fun.

In the most basic way, The Last Crusade delivers the goods, and a lot of it is exhilaratingly mounted by Spielberg (the script is credited to Jeffrey Boam). The production is lavish, Connery is just what one would hope, and there’s effective supporting work from Denholm Elliott and a newcomer named Alison Doody; she’s Indy’s girl.

That said, the film still has an air of redundancy. The format is essentially unchanged from the previous films, and Spielberg and Lucas seem wary of breaking out of the thrill-a-minute rhythm. I’m surprised Spielberg hasn’t wrought more emotion out of the father-son relationship; it’s supposed to be a reconciliation, but it simply doesn’t pay off effectively.

And I wonder whether Spielberg’s heart is in the boys’ adventure genre any more. He abandoned Rain Man in order to fulfill his Indy agreement with Lucas, and Spielberg has described The Last Crusade as his final film for the youth market. I suspect he has already moved on.

First published in the Herald, May 1989

So Spielberg didn’t entirely abandon the youth market, and it wasn’t even the last Indiana Jones movie. I recall Spielberg saying that the original conception was about a very shy, bookish father who was transformed by the adventure; but when they cast Connery, that idea became impossible, and the theme of the movie changed. But that original idea sounds better.


July 8, 2011

Steven Spielberg is going to be changing a lot of people’s lives this summer. His E.T. is the kind of movie everyone is going to wish he had seen at the age of ten; and Poltergeist is full of the affection and respect that has been missing from scary movies lately. Actually, Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written and produced by Spielberg, although it seems Spielberg stepped in to direct some sequences himself (he also supervised the editing and provided the detailed design from which Hooper worked). Hooper is a good director—his Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an interesting movie that is doomed forever to be a reference point for talkshow/cocktail-party critics who have never seen it—but almost everything about Poltergeist is recognizably Spielbergian.

After the first few entries in his disgustingly young career (The brilliant TV-movie Duel; one of the best “Columbo” episodes, Murder by the Book; The Sugarland Express; Jaws), the word on Steven Spielberg was that Yeah, the guy understood cinema, even if his movies were nothing more than well-crafted stimulus-response machines that didn’t really understand or care about people. Despite the disastrous 1941, Spielberg has managed to turn that too-pat analysis around, and in these first weeks of the summer has presented the public with a hugely entertaining pair of People movies.

Both films are set in solid, average suburbia; Poltergeist presents a normal, three-kid, one-dog family that gets hassled by some troubled spirits. Spielberg and Hooper establish their normalcy without any sense of rush or bother; as often happens in a Spielberg movie, scenes around kitchen tables are important in revealing intrafamily dynamics. The only unusual ripple we see is that little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has the disturbing tendency to stare into the static TV screen—after the day’s programming has gone off. It isn’t long before this leads us into a series of spaces—a cluttered closet, an unfinished swimming pool, an opening in a tree—that are just as pregnant with terrifying possibility as the humming, busy tube.

“It knows what scares you”—the ad line for Poltergeist is very true; Spielberg and Hooper have quite a knack for selecting objects and events that can turn from innocuous to sinister within seconds. Like the stuffed clown that sits in a chair in the kids’ room. When I was a kid, a clown was about the scariest thing around, and this one gets to be just as horrific as I always suspected. The audience is led to confrontations with other such basic childhood fears as: is that Something outside the window moving, or what? and Something is wrong and I’m going to look under the bed now but Please God don’t let there be anything down there! The filmmakers orchestrate the mayhem so fluidly—and the characters are so well-acted (by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the parents, Oliver Robins as their son, Beatrice Straight as a phemonena expert) and are made to matter so much—that the audience is irresistibly drawn into a heady degree of involvement.

The special effects are nice—especially a white, long-limbed phantom who hovers outside a doorway and emits a growl not unlike that of the MGM lion who presides over this movie—but the best special effect of all is the levitation effect. That’s the one in which the filmmakers raise the audience members right out of their seats. At one point in Poltergeist a character warns a group of folks to “Get a good hold on yourselves.” Audiences all over would be well-advised to do just that.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

Calling them People movies seems not right, because E.T. and Poltergeist are just as rigorously composed as Spielberg’s previous films. Anyway Jaws is a People movie, too, when it comes to that. Boy, it was a good time seeing this in a theater full of shrieking people that summer. That scene involving a closed door and the slow movement to open it should be shown to all aspiring horror-movie directors as a model for how to stage and cut a scene. By the way, I’m looking at the ads in this issue of The Informer (monthly newsletter magazine of the Seattle Film Society) and both Poltergeist and Star Trek II were playing in 70 mm. (Poltergeist was at the late, not especially lamented Town theater). Remember 70 mm.? Why has that fallen off the movie-format discussion table?