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?

The Goonies

January 24, 2011

Redrum? No, Goonies

During the end credits of Steven Spielberg’s 1941, we see a series of faces from earlier scenes in the movie, all engaged in various forms of shouting. At that point, you realize that the film has had one overriding, annoying characteristic: It’s very loud.

I was watching Spielberg’s new production, The Goonies, and trying to remember what it reminded me of, when that credit sequence flashed into my mind. The Goonies was exactly the same sort of experience: grating and noisy.

Aside from grating and noisy, the first thing that should be said about The Goonies is that it isn’t all Steven Spielberg’s fault. He co-produced and is credited with the idea for the movie, but his marvelous directorial touch is definitely absent. Spielberg chose veteran director Richard Donner (Superman, Ladyhawke) to helm. (The handsome exteriors were shot in Astoria and Cannon Beach, Ore.)

Somehow this just isn’t Donner’s kind of movie. The story—about a group of kids who stumble into an old-fashioned buried-treasure caper—calls for charm, wit, and high energy. It’s certainly got the latter, as the film follows the thrill-a-minute rhythms of a bad night in a haunted house. But when someone screams in horror every 30 seconds or so, it gets numbing after a while.

Spielberg’s idea was not a bad one. At least since Treasure Island, kids have dreamed of being lifted from humdrum reality into some exotic adventure, preferably one involving one-eyed pirates and treasure and pieces of eight. The Goonies begins with the kids (members of the titular society) discovering a crusty old map in an attic.

The map leads them to an abandoned lighthouse and the maze of catacombs (and the series of boobytraps) that snake underneath. Adding to the frenzy, and hot on the kids’ trail, is a trio of bloodthirsty criminals and their imbecile brother (played, under much freaky makeup, by John Matuzak, former head-basher for the Oakland Raiders—whose symbol is a one-eyed pirate).

The kids are drawn sketchily, with a reliance on type: There’s a fat one, an Asian one, a loudmouthed one. The only time a sense of wonder or innocence enters their adventure is toward the end, when they get closer to the treasure they are pursuing.

I would guess the cause of the film’s lack of distinctiveness is the distribution of authority; Donner may have been the director, but Spielberg was the head honcho, and worked closely with screenwriter Chris Columbus (who wrote Gremlins). Thus The Goonies has no particular sensibility behind it. It feels more like a movie made by a committee that thinks it knows what the young audience is going to want to see this summer.

They may be right; the preview audience I saw the film with seemed enthusiastic. But to me, The Goonies is strangely uningratiating—and a sense of ingratiation is exactly what the film needs the most.

First published in the Herald, June 1985

Millions loved it, and it ended up the #6 top-grossing film of 1985. If you were a kid, it seems to have been an important film, then and now. Just excruciating. Maybe, come to think of it, it actually is a Richard Donner kind of picture.


December 21, 2010

Gremlins may well be the most sheerly outrageous movie of this about-to-be-busy summer season. It’s a giddy, frenetic horror/fantasy stuffed with jokes, frights, and hyperactive little creatures called gremlins.

In the opening scenes, in a rundown store in Chinatown, an inept inventor (Hoyt Axton) picks up a cute pet for his son. He is sold the creature with a warning: Never let it in the sunlight, never get it wet, and never—ever—feed it after midnight.

Of course, all those things will happen to the adorable fuzzball. It gets wet, which causes it to multiply. Then the offspring are accidentally slipped some fried chicken after midnight and they experience a transformation. When they leave their cocoons they turn mean and set out on a rampage of dirty tricks.

Before long, the small-town setting is overrun by the beasties, and it’s up to Axton’s son (Zach Galligan) and his girlfriend (Pheobe Cates) to try to beat the little monsters.

From the basic outline, there’s no way to convey the madcap high spirits of this tale. Director Joe Dante has created a fantasy small town that exists as a kind of movie memory: He’s given it the flavor of It’s a Wonderful Life (which plays on a TV screen at one point) and the fairy-tale atmosphere of The Wizard of Oz (Polly Holliday plays a hissable bank owner as the Wicked Witch of the West).

The look of the movie is sitcom-ordinary, but Dante pushes things into high gear when the gremlins get loose on Christmas Eve. The mayhem that results is scary, funny, and absurd. It’s also ferociously imaginative. You can picture the filmmakers sitting around cooking up ideas: “Wouldn’t it be wild if the gremlins did this—and this, and this?”

It’s at this point that Gremlins jettisons any sort of realistic underpinnings, but the film is just too fast and clever for that to really be a problem. Besides, the whole idea of gremlins is that they’re bugaboos who get into the machinery and make mischief, so it’s fitting that the movie starts going crazy when they take over the screen. (The gremlins were created by Chris Walas, who deserves star billing.)

The screenplay was discovered by Steven Spielberg when he was looking for someone to write the script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Spielberg, who is credited as executive producer, may have seen the opportunity to do a flip side of his E.T., and probably jumped at the chance to do something less sweet. Choosing Dante to direct—he’d made the witty horror films Piranha and The Howling—was a brilliant stroke. There isn’t a lax moment in the film.

Dante is a sharp satirist and a very able conductor of action. There’s not a whole lot of emotional depth among the people onscreen, but that’s not really what the movie is about. It’s a bright, noisy funhouse, and Dante is the gremlin behind the camera—throwing everything he can think of into the mixer. Except that, unlike the gremlins, there’s a method to Dante’s madness, and somehow the finished product emerges as both efficient and stylish.

First published in the Herald, May 1984.

That screenwriter was Chris Columbus, who went on the bigger things. I’m not sure what I was thinking in proposing that Gremlins had anything like “realistic underpinnings” to begin with, but so be it. Of course Gremlins 2 pushes even more into the realm of satire, and ought to be better known. I go on more about Joe Dante’s movies in a piece at the Crop Duster.