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In 300 years . . .
The best compliment ever bestowed upon Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I believe, came from its star Richard Dreyfuss. "This is the only film that I've ever done that I know will be studied in 300 years," he said. Standing back and looking at the full spectrum of Spielberg's work, I can only think of three films that will be that important: Jaws, for what it did for popular American culture, Schindler's List because of its great vision of human tragedy and triumph, and Close Encounters because of its overwhelmingly positive vision of inter-species communication across space and time.
Yet, of all of the films that Steven Spielberg has ever made, this is the one that is the most far-reaching. Others get mired in the moment but this one looks at the broader picture, not of an individual but of the entire universe. What would happen if an alien civilization wanted to communicate with the human race? How would they do it? What signals would they send us? How would we set up a meeting? Sadly, that's a radical idea. Every other movie about aliens from Alien to Predator to Independence Day to Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes the easy road of having brain-suckers who want to turn us into food or slaves. Even Spielberg fell into that trap three decades later with his wobbly remake of War of the Worlds. But why? Why imagine that aliens would fly trillions or centillions of miles across infinite space to our tiny blue marble just to turn us into a midnight snack? Based on the larger view of the universe, that seems painfully narrow-minded.
What is so admirable about Close Encounters is that it isn't in a mad rush to get to the big picture. It wants to wonder, to ponder, to build a mystery, to allow us to get excited by the notion that something is calling us out to a distant location because it simply wants to bridge the universal gap, and it does that by bridging the communication gap by talking to us telepathically. That's a big, bold idea if you think about it, it is one that hasn't really been explored since.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released just six months after George Lucas gave us Star Wars. The great achievement of both is that they, along with Kubrick's 2001, elevated the science fiction to an epic scale. The took sci-fi out of the doldrums of 50s $10 quickies and make it respectable. They made it fun, they made it work by taking it seriously.
Both Close Encounters and Star Wars present radical leaps in the genre, but Spielberg's film does it in a more elegant way. If Lucas' film was a great roller coaster, then Spielberg's film was more like a symphony. It's got light and color and music and magic. You can imagine the last half hour of this movie as a great symphonic experience. It's like nothing he, or anyone else, ever had the nerve or the vision to explore again. Luckily, it has lasted and will last, as Dreyfuss suggested, for another 300 years.
A very happy accident in the shape of a killer shark.
Jaws is a happy accident. For what must have been a hellish production, Spielberg's first box office megahit came together in spite of itself. Here was a movie that by all accounts should have been a disaster. It was based on a clunky, overwritten pulp novel; the plot was thin; it was being directed by a young film director best known for a TV movie; It starred a broken mechanical shark that had so much downtime that it only appears on the screen for ten minutes.
Jaws did best by what it did least. Spielberg became a master in allowing our emotions and our imaginations to meet the movie halfway, and that inspiration was born out of the fact that for much of the movie we never see the shark. If we did, we'd grow tired of seeing it and the urgency of the story wouldn't be so strong. Much of what we see of the shark comes from other points of view. The opening scene, featuring a shark attack of a young woman, never shows the shark but it exists in our brains. And yet, we aren't on the shore, we're in the water with this girl as if we're swimming a few feet away. That's the power of this movie. Later, when Alex Kintner is killed, we see blood, we see the raft, and we see the attack out on the horizon behind the other swimmers. Was that a tail? Was that the shark? Was it the kid? What's happening? This movie works best on our expectations.
One of my favorite shots takes place in the middle of the film, during the fourth of July holiday when the local sheriff has tried to warn the county officials that opening the beaches for the holiday is likely to be a disaster. It is. A man in a boat is killed while the sheriff's son is injured. The boy is unconscious and is dragged ashore by some other swimmers. The way the moment is shot, the camera follows and for just a split second we aren't sure if the kid still has feet or if they've been bitten off.Those kinds of visual tricks create moments that intrigue us. If we saw the attacks, if we were present, the movie would lose us. Those are the tricks that kept the audience coming back over and over.
There is a lot of downtime in Jaws away from the shark. How many shark attacks can we handle in two hours? That time is filled with the human characters that fit the situation like a glove. We meet Brody (Roy Scheider) a city boy, a new sheriff in Martha's Vinyard whose come up from New York and hates the water. We meet an Ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a wealthy know-it-all who knows sharks inside and out both from his passion and from books. We meet the town's mayor whose understandable denial of the situation is born on the fact that the town needs revenue from the tourists. There's Brody's wife, every bit her husband's equal, a woman who cares about her husband and children but is more than just a token wife. I treasure the moment when they're alone and she casually flirts with her husband: "Wanna get drunk and fool around?" Even the smaller roles seem to have meat on them. This is one of those great movies, like The Godfather, in which the supporting players and the extras seem to have been cast because of their memorable faces. They don't seem like actors, they seem like real people who just wandered in front of the camera.
And then there's Quint, played in a magnificent performance by the late Robert Shaw as a latter-day Captain Ahab, whose beef with the shark is decades old and laid out in an intricate story so mesmerizing that we hang on his every word. He escaped a shark attack years ago, but many of his Navy buddies did not. Now, he wants a shark this shark and he's ready to wreck his own boat to get it. We see him with fire in his eyes, running his boat to the extreme and even smashing the radio to keep Brody from called in "a bigger boat." He's really what drives the movie's third act, running on a pulverizing blind obsession that eventually consumes him.
Without human interaction Jaws would fall on its face. This could have been just a monster movie whose only destination might have been late night television. Shark attack stories are hard to tell. How many shark movies have been a success before or after Jaws? Even the sequels decline sharply in quality after this (none involved Spielberg). Jaws 2 was entertaining but basically unnecessary. Jaws 3D was a silly excuse for 3D, and Jaws: The Revenge? . . . . ick! To experience the film now, four decades later, is to understand how movies have changed, and what changes Jaws created. Along with Star Wars two years later, it would forever turn the industry on its head. After the new breed of young directors took over Hollywood in the late 60s, the movies were a times of dark subject matter and filmmaking on a personal level. This was the era of personal filmmaking from which emerged talents like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and of course, Spielberg himself. Jaws and Star Wars put that era to bed.
Spielberg's filmography is a tapestry of some of the greatest works of popular American culture from the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. The enduring legacy of Jaws was created, as I said, as the result of a very happy accident that came in the shape of a killer shark.
The Sugarland Express (1974)
Never really grabs at the heartstrings it is reaching for.
n 1974, Spielberg finally stepped out of television work and into the major leagues. His first theatrical feature had a good deal in common with Duel in that it is another wall-to-wall car chase, only this time the results were far more human.
Based on a true story, The Sugarland Express follows Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) and her husband Clovis (William Atherton), whom she convinces to walk away from the pre-release program after several years on a prison stretch from which he is about to be released. She's desperate because their two-year old son Langdon has been taken by The State of Texas and has been given over to a foster family.
What follows is one damned thing after another. Clovis and Lou Jean steal a car and, in a bizarre twist, end up kidnapping a good-hearted young patrolman named Slide (Michael Sacks). Meanwhile the police don't want to upset the couple since they have Slide at gunpoint. The two become national heroes to the public and prey for local gun-nuts.
It takes some time to sink in, but as your watch the film you get the feeling that the themes of The Sugarland Express are ahead of their time. The idea of two fugitives on the lam on a mission of mercy whose plight captivates the public is more current now then it was in 1974. Lou Jean and Clovis become darlings of the media even though what they're doing is wreckless and unlawful.
For me, while it has noble intentions, it is problematic at a very base level. Yes, it's based on a true story, but it asks us to accept fundamental flaws that keep us from really getting involved in the story. I suppose that when the movie was made, it was during a time when outlaws were seen by the public as heroes. The image of authority figures had been tainted by the police beatings of demonstrators in the 1960s and by a nationwide trucker strike in the early 70s. The Sugarland Express seems to be feeding that legacy, yet it fails to win us over because fundamentally we are not on the same page as the movie. Clovis and Lou Jean could easily have worked the system without going on the lam so their ill-advised decision keeps us at odds with their plight.
Plus, the chase goes on for days and days when in reality it might have gone on for maybe a day. By this point we've seen so many police dash-cam videos that let us know how the police work in this situation that it seems impossible that such a thing could drag on as long as it does. But, maybe that's not the point, maybe this is supposed to be seen as an outlaw fantasy. I could buy that if it weren't based on a true story. This is a technically good movie with an interesting premise that just never really grabs at the heartstrings it is reaching for.
Duel announced an important new voice.
If I say that I feel a deep connection to Spielberg's work, I'm not exaggerating. His first feature premiered on ABC television, on November 13, 1971, exactly one day before I was born. This means nothing beyond the fact that I feel lucky that I've been following his work all my life, and it is interesting that his films came to the public just at the moment that I came into the world.
After working in television for a number of years, directing episodes of "Night Gallery", "Marcus Welby", and the very first episode of "Columbo", Spielberg got the chance to direct his first feature, and it wasn't some snoozer drama, it was an action movie that was right up his alley.
Duel was a hard-nosed, unsympathetic chase picture, a road adventure centered on tired salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) who is driving across the California desert to an appointment when he has an unfortunate encounter with a mysterious truck driver who's annoying driving habits are at first irritating, but quickly turn dangerous.
Across the western plains, Mann tries and tries to out-drive, outmaneuver and outsmart the hulking Peterbilt truck, but at almost every turn he is outsmarted. Trying to turn into the mountains does nothing to deter his opponent. Neither does pulling into a restaurant to wait it out. All the while the truck waits around every turn.
How this simple story resolves itself is not surprising, but what is surprising is how well Spielberg ramps up the tension. By never showing the truck driver, we the viewer psychologically begin to feel that Mann isn't being menaced by the driver but by the truck itself. Like the shark in Jaws, there's a crafty quality about it. While it does nothing outside of the plain of reality, we feel its presence as it bears down on Mann's tiny Plymouth Valiant.
You can see Duel in a lot of Spielberg's later work. The truck is a reminder of the shark in Jaws. The chase itself is representative of the Indiana Jones pictures. The every-man quality of the Dennis Weaver character is evocative of the characters that were to come such as the three men in Jaws; Roy Neary in Close Encounters; Indiana Jones and just about every character that Tom Hanks has played. There's nothing superhuman about David Mann, he's just an ordinary guy that we can relate to.
Spielberg's best films always have two realities one in the center and one on the outer edges. The story in the center is the chase between man and machine. The story at the outer edges is a commentary on the times. This was 1971, a moment in American history just off of a decade of protest, violence, assassinations and war. At this moment, in this particular year, The Vietnam War was still burning, The Manson Family went to prison and the American public had become jaded about the promise of their beloved country. Even television was upended that year with the cynicism of "All in the Family." What Duel represents is the jaded vision of another great institution: the American highway. Here were all the fear and paranoia of the times wrapped up in a 75 minute story of a failed salesman who couldn't get behind the wheel and drive across the country without being menaced by a psychopath. That's the bad news. The good news is that Duel announced an important new voice. At a time when the movies themselves were growing darker and more cynical, Duel was the alarm bell that a great director was on the horizon.
Have a hard time hating this one . . .
There was a moment when "The Phantom Menace" was the movie that burrowed under everyone's skins and made them cry out to the heavens. Yet, I noticed that as time went on, that mantel shifted to "Attack of the Clones." For whatever reason, this has now become the whipping post for all of George Lucas' perceived failures. To be honest, I can see where they're coming from, but based on what I saw back in 2002 when this movie came out, few back then seemed to hold that opinion. Nowadays they decry and claw at this movie as the low point in the Star Wars lore.
Are they right? Sort of. "Attack of the Clones" is certainly a deeply flawed film. It's too long. It has structure problems. It has pacing problems. It drags in many spots. It has far too many attempts at fan gratification. It's overloaded with too much CGI. And of course there's the dialogue. Written by Lucas and with no help from anyone else, the dialogue here is flat, dull, bland and colorless, and that sinks a lot of the drama. Yet, I wonder if the public reaction would have been so vitriolic if the dialogue had been better because underneath its problems, "Attack of the Clones" does tell a good story.
It is the story of an angry kid who sees that the entire universe is dead-set against him. He wants to go his own way, but can't have it. He wants Padme in his life, but can't have her. He wants to have a family but can't have it. Everything in Anakin's life seems to be slipping right through his fingers. The course of destiny always seems to work against him, and that makes a dangerous and already frustrated kid even more dangerous. Everyone can see it but him. It's a story we can all relate to. You had problems and frustrations as a kid and you were surrounded by adults who you felt were holding you back. That's a universal theme. The problem is that the dialogue wrings out a lot of the emotional weight.
My objections to "Attack of the Clones", however, take a backseat to sentimentality. This was the first movie that my wife and I saw together. So, flaws and all, I look at the movie with great memories of a time when I met the person that I would spend my life with. So, maybe I have rose-colored glasses about this movie but it means something more to me then to the average person. Do I hate the film? Certainly not. Much like "The Phantom Menace" I try and find the spaces in between, the areas of great achievement in the film (it's there, trust me) and those moments when Lucas got it absolutely right. It is flawed, it's imperfect, but there's a story here worth telling. You just have to get through George's dialogue to get there.
Much too much heavy machinery . . .
There is a distinct dividing line between the Fun Spielberg and the Serious Spielberg. Ever since "Schindler's List" back in 1993, I feel that his fun pictures have suffered in the wake of his desire to be taken more seriously. The last time he achieved greatness with his fun pictures was "Jurassic Park." And the first of his lackluster "fun pictures" was "The Lost World." I remember seeing "The Lost World" on opening weekend back in 1997, and I remember that it left me cold. What I remember is that when I left the theater I didn't remember much about it at all, and I think I commented that this would not go down as one of Spielberg's more memorable pictures. I was right and in revisiting that movie I think I have a better idea of why it's more or less forgotten.
The dinosaurs in "The Lost World" are supporting players in their own movie. They seem to be more or less background filler in a movie where the foreground is filled with a lot of heavy machinery; cages, guns, gadgets, cars, trucks, boats. It's like a Hot Wheel movie. And the characters aren't that interesting either, there's a lot of machismo given to a mostly male cast that looks and sounds basically interchangeable. Jeff Goldblum, whom I consider a treasure, is relegated to the role of "I told you so," which is a note that he plays over and over.
The story could work. I like the idea of a Jurassic Park safari hunt. We get a little of that but most of the movie is shot at night in the dark with a lot of negligible characters running around in the woods and in the grass.
But the biggest problem is that there is the movie has no sense of wonder. There's no sense of loving these creatures. There's no scene here that matches or equals the majesty of the first time we saw the Brachiosaurus in "Jurassic Park." Everything here is cold and efficient and kind of mean-spirited. Not to mention forgettable. Seeing it again last night I realized that while the movie opens well, it quickly degenerates into a retread of the earlier movie. "The Lost World" feels like a movie that Spielberg was contracted to make. Like "Crystal Skull," it never feels like a movie that he wanted to make. It's like his mind was somewhere else.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
The wages of sin is death . . .
Picture in your mind the output of a Quentin Tarantino movie if it were written by Agatha Christie. Try and imagine "Ten Little Indians" wrapped in reams of Tarantino-style dialogue and splattered with buckets of blood and guts and there you have the idea of The Hateful Eight, a retro spaghetti western that's as brilliant as it is brutal. After 20 years, Tarantino is still the most creative filmmaker that we have, a director who mines cinema's past while making it all seem fresh and new. How well does it work? Let me put it this way, it was nice that when I finally tore myself away from Star Wars that Tarantino would be there waiting with one of the best films of the year.
The Hateful Eight is, essentially, a Bottle Movie. For three hours, it traps eight worthless human beings in a cabin in the midst of a blizzard of Biblical proportions and lets them do what despicable people do, especially when they all have guns. It opens staggeringly with the vision of a wooden stake carved into the image of Christ on the cross. If the Bible reminds us that the wages of sin is death, then the sinners at the center of this story should not be surprised by their fate.
The movie takes place somewhere in 19th century Wyoming at a time when the wounds of The Civil War are no longer bleeding, but the scars emotionally and literally still sting. In the midst of this blizzard we begin with a traveler and his companion riding a horse-drawn stagecoach to a place called Red Rock. The man is a bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and the woman is his bounty, a beleaguered soul named Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ruth never stops reminding us, or her, that she has a date with the hangman's noose.
Along the way Ruth's stagecoach comes across a wayward traveler, a fellow tracker named Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Ruth recognizes Warren who was a highly respected Major from the Union Army. Legends of his exploits are as famous as they are infamous, but the most persistent is the legend that he carries a personal letter that he received from The Great Emancipator himself in his coat pocket everyone wants to see it.
Possible spoilers ahead What happens along the way is far too complicated to completely explain here. Tarantino's characters are never just one thing; they have dimensions, histories, side notes, personal tics, sins, successes, and legions of enemies far and wide. The destination for these travelers is a place that might have been a rest stop on the way to damnation itself, a far-flung haberdashery with more amenities then these people probably deserve. What's waiting there brings tension all around: A charming Englishman named Mobray (Tim Roth), a quiet drunken gunslinger named Gage (Michael Madsen), a wet-behind-the-ears sheriff (Walter Goggins), a former Confederate General named Smithers (Bruce Dern), and a narrow-eyed Mexican stable man named Senor Bob (Damien Bicheir). All of these characters seem to know each other, if not personally then by reputation. One of the greatest achievements in this screenplay by Tarantino is that every character is given a full backstory, not quirks, not traits, a history. We learn not only their names, but their sins as well. Each has a story to tell, each has a mean-streak ten miles wide, and each will pay greatly for it.
Right away we sense that something is happening at this tiny haberdashery but we aren't exactly sure what. We can sense it the moment that the stagecoach arrives at the front door. There are clues and questions: Why is there are piece of candy on the floor? Why is one of the chairs covered in fur coats? Why does the Mexican stable man seem so distant? Why is the latch on the front door missing? It is Warren who pieces things together. He notices things that the others seem to overlook, and he who controls tries to control a situation that threatens to become a bloodbath. Little by little, piece by piece the mystery of this wayward store begins to reveals its mysteries. That leads to a great virtuoso scene with Sam Jackson at the center doing what he does best.
Much more of this story I cannot reveal. Much more of this story I could not reveal. It's so complex yet so approachable and so engaging. We're there every second even though 90% of the movie takes place in the same room. We're so interested in these people because Tarantino always makes them interesting. He creates a gaggle of horrible people who have done horrible things and watches them all get their comeuppance one by one. The story's sense of moral decay has put off many critics, but I won't go there. I feel that I'm looking at Tarantino's vision of Hell on Earth, a place so placid, forbidding and dark, and filled with nasty yet, interesting characters that deserve each other. This is one of the best films of the year.
Yeah, it has problems, but the force is still with this series . . .
It is difficult to be blasé about Star Wars if you are one of the millions who live with George Lucas' seminal epic rattling around in your brain. Even if you aren't, even if you're only a casual bystander, you still cannot deny that Star Wars is an experience, something special, a mythology given to those of us who were lucky enough to have spent our formative years in the last third of the twentieth century. It is fashionable to make fun of it, but those who dismiss it overlook its impact. Look at the movies you've been attending for the last three decades; look at the video games; look at the storytelling. It owes something to Star Wars.
Alas, George Lucas. Once thought master of all he surveyed, the architect of an enterprise that worked because he was surrounded by talented people. With he prequels, he went alone and stumbled badly with a new series that did not meet factory standards and left the public reeling from the revelation that the emperor had no clothes.
When Lucas retired three years ago and handed the property off to Disney, it was the best thing that could have happened, especially since the man he handpicked to direct the next generation was a Star Wars fan himself. It is obvious that J.J. Abrams has a deep passion for Lucas' cinematic mythology.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a red-blooded adventure, teeming with heavy atmosphere; filled with dread and wonderment, action and suspense, wondrous and fearsome creatures, magic and mayhem, but most importantly the human element. Abrams opens up the world of Star Wars and digs into its buried myths, reminding us that in this world the legacies of good and evil are generational, and are based in very human qualities.
From this point on, Spoilers! Thirty-Two years after the Empire was toppled by teddy bears, the galaxy has been marinating in its own turmoil. The Jedi, the Sith, the Death Star (and probably the teddy bears) are now myth and legend. Luke is missing and remnants of the Empire are reorganizing into a new regime that makes the old one look like a kindergarten class there's a moment when the leader of the new regime addresses his troops in a setting that is uncomfortably close to footage of the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, including their own brand of Seig Heil. The new Empire is looking for the pieces of a map that will aid them in destroying the one power in the universe that could overthrow them. The last piece of the map is housed inside the bulbous little droid named BB-8 whose head rolls around his round little body, giving expressions that R2-D2 never could.
A trio of new heroes become the last hope: a tough-as-nails scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), a celebrated X-Wing pilot named Po (Oscar Isaacs), and a conscientious objector named Finn (John Boyega) who sheds his stormtrooper armor when he suddenly wakes up one morning to find that he's grown a conscience. The new characters don't feel that they've been grafted onto the story. They are part of it, even if they don't know or understand the entire set of circumstances in which they find themselves. Noteworthy too is their diversity. Women, blacks, aliens get a stake in a series that has traditionally been almost completely white.
The center of the evil plan is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) whose motivations could have come from Shakespeare. Soliloquizing over the melted mask of Darth Vader, he vows to bring back the glory days of the Sith. He's a force to be reckoned with, yet he's got a lot to learn. His youth, petulance and inexperience are present. He makes mistakes and when he does, he's prone to tearing a room apart with his lightsaber.
These new characters are interesting because they seem to be part of the world they inhabit. And their journey is helped along by the elders who have seen it all. Yes, Han and Chewie and Leia are here but they aren't just cameos. They are the human link to what has come before. What's so wonderful about The Force Awakens is that you feel that this isn't just a carbon copy of the original Star Wars, rather you feel that you're visiting other parts of this universe that you haven't seen before. For my money, there is no new character in the movie more interesting than a diminutive pirate Maz Kanata (played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o), an orange-skinned pirate whose eyes can apparently see into your soul. There is a lot of wonderment to this character and plenty of echoes of Yoda, though she still feels new.
One thing that Abrams and his writers improve upon is Han Solo. As fun as the character was in the original trilogy, he wasn't much of a character beyond his machismo. Here he has an arc; he's given a sense of purpose. He isn't just wise cracks. Mistakes have been made in the past and we see in his deeply-lined face that they have plagued him for years. The development of his character is at the deepest heart of this story.
Is it a perfect Star Wars movie? No. Is it a great Star Wars movie? You bet. One of the most tickling things about this movie is the simple fact that this is a movie that was never supposed to exist. Lucas maintained for years that there would be no Episode 7 but, of course, time makes fools of us all. Here it is. It's not a prequel, it's not a spin-off. It's the movie that we waited 32 years to see and it is probably as good as it ever could be. We've waited on pins and needles for this new installment, and here is an ending that leaves us thirsty for even more. It's gonna be great, I can feel it.
The Ridiculous 6 (2015)
A badly structured series of unfunny episodic sketches
It occurs to me that the worst thing that can ever happen to a comedian is to reach a point at which the general audience moves from "What has happened to you?" to the lower depths of "How do you keep getting work?" Such is the commentary on Adam Sandler whose recent spate of disastrous press over his summer box office comedy Pixels have finally given his money men a wake up call that the theaters for his movies are basically empty. Why they didn't catch on to this I don't know 12 movies ago is beyond me.
Personally, I've never liked Sandler, even during his heyday on SNL. Yes, he sold albums and was a box office star, but he grated on my nerves. His persona reminds me of that irritating kid in English class who sat behind me and made duck noises with his arm pits while amusing himself with annoying voices. In his movies it's the same idea; the only difference is that on the screen he's getting paid $20 million for it.
Sandler is not without talent. Under the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson he turned in a brilliant comic performance in Punch Drunk Love a decade ago, and more recently with Russian-born animator Genndy Tartakovsky they made Hotel Transylvania. Good pictures. Yet, he refuses to follow that same trail, and recently he has famously been using his company Happy Madison to fund movie projects so he and his friend can take trips to places he wants to go, like Africa (Blended), Las Vegas (Paul Blart 2) and Toronto (Pixels) and Hawaii (Just Go With It). Fine, but the result is that he stick his audience with movies that are destroying his already shaky reputation.
Now realizing that the movie theater is no longer a viable option to his laziness he has now taken his cinematic indifference to Netflix for a planned four-picture deal. The move does nothing to improve the quality. Entering into his first Netflix venture, a laughless chunk of indifference called The Ridiculous 6, did not fill me with confidence especially with reports that the movie was so offensive that a handful of the Native American actors simply walked off the set. I get that, but I don't find it offensive to the Native American culture so much as movies in general.
The plot is more or less superfluous. It's a parody, I guess, of every western movie from Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven all the way back to A Man Called Horse about a half-Indian man dealing his dual identity. Sandler plays White Knife, a saddle-sore who was raised by Apaches and learned superhuman fighting skills. His white father Frank Stockburn (Nick Nolte) goes missing and that puts him in contact with his five brothers: Chico (Terry Crews), Herm (Jorge Garcia), Lil' Pete (Taylor Lautner), Ramon (Rob Schneider), and Danny (Luke Wilson). That's a thin line on which to hang jokes that are either gross (one character is nicknamed "Beaver Breath") or just plain baffling the opening credits called this The Ridiculous 6 in 4K! What? I don't even get it.
If that didn't tickle your funny bone then the rest of the movie will leave you in stone faced indifference. We get a burro who projectile defecates. We get an extended gag in which a man scoops out his own eyeball. There's Vanilla Ice playing Mark Twain. There's one character so dumb that he thinks that babies are defecated out their mother's womb. Blake Shelton shows up as Wyatt Earp for no reason. There's baffling gag in which a man is stabbed in the leg with a carrot, which comes right after the appearance of a gang of thugs so tough that they have each removed their right eyeballs that's funny, right? Meanwhile I sat through this movie with the strange urge to do the same thing (it has that effect on you).
And right in the middle of all this is Adam Sandler who manages to sleepwalk through this movie with a measure of indifference that made me depressed over the fact that he was getting paid. If I did that on my job, I'd be fired. His character isn't consistent one minute he has an accent and the next minute he doesn't. Sandler's line-readings sound like he's reading from cue cards and then gives up halfway through. There's no joy of performance. He doesn't care. His scenes are lazy and unfunny and give you the basic urge to be anywhere else.
What he and his team have created here is not satire; it's a badly structured series of unfunny episodic sketches that feel like they were written by a 12 year-old with ADD. As the Native American stereotypes, I wouldn't worry so much about that because if you culled everyone who could find offense in this movie (whites, blacks, latinos, women) we'd be here all day I guess you could call it an equal opportunity offender. I spent 119 minutes with this movie and another half hour writing this review. That's 149 minutes out of my life that I am never going to get back. You just spent 10 minutes out of your life reading this review. That's 10 minutes out of your life that you're not going to get back. Sorry about that.
Steve Jobs (2015)
A well-made three-act play . . .
There was a time when, upon leaving the house, I never walked out without my wallet and my keys. After the revolution of Steve Jobs, it grew to include my iPod which contains not only my music but also podcasts, lectures, documentaries and anything else that makes the drollery of my drive to work into an intellectual awakening. Yes, Jobs changed the world, and personally changed my world and, admit it, he personally changed your world too. He wanted to free our computers from the confines of the wall socket, and make them smaller, faster and portable. Far from the paranoia of the HAL 9000, he wanted to make the future an inviting and warm place technologically, to push the future forward and make us see our portable devices as a friend. He understood what it took to make us happy. He was the master of supply and demand, supplying a demand for a product that we didn't even know that we wanted yet.
Ever since he passed away four years ago, biographers have been trying to pin down this man who bore the appearance of a wise, friendly showman on stage, a man whose innovations and beautiful mind put him in the same ranks as Edison, Tesla, Bell, Da Vinci, and The Wright Brothers. Yet, like Edison, he had a cold and bitter manner. It was said that he could be officious, dismissive and even cruel. That's the image that biographers are trying to wrap their heads around, the man who wanted the public to see their devices as a friend had few warm human interactions with those in his inner circle.
Danny Boyle's bio-pic Steve Jobs probably comes as close as anyone is likely to get with a storytelling narrative to who Jobs was personally. If you want a story closer to the bone, watch the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine from earlier this year. It intended to break apart Jobs' cult of personality and find out what made him tick. Steve Jobs does the same thing, and maybe has a much more cold-blooded vantage point. It was tempting to want to soften his image, to give Jobs a reverent quality of a genius who simply out-guessed and out-thought those around him. Yet, while Danny Boyle's biopic does what it can to celebrate his genius, it never shies away from making him look like a schmuck, which if you believe his underlings, it not that far from the truth (I can believe it since Wozniak was a consultant on the movie).
That's the key to the movie. It never backs away from the cold, bitterness of Steve Jobs. As played in a wonderful performance Michael Fassbender, we are introduced to a man who is driven beyond all reason to make a product that will change the world, but it is not without cost. He's cold and mean to those around him. He argues every minute detail the movie opens as he is berating his chief architect Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to get Mac to say "Hello" five minutes before it is due to be unveiled. Meanwhile backstage he denies the parentage of his 8 year-old daughter Lisa whom he doesn't even acknowledge until he sees her working on Mac Paint. She's a prodigy, much like her old man. Lisa is played in three wonderful performances by three different actresses who imbue Lisa with a kind of wise-beyond-her-years intelligence. Who wouldn't want a daughter like this? Jobs' prickly relationship with Lisa extends to all around him. Aaron Sorkin's script is wall-to-wall with words as Jobs tries to push his vision forward at the expense of personal relationships. In board rooms, in hallways, in stairwells, he gets into it with colleagues, with is long-suffering marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); former Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels); and most importantly his best friend Steve Wozniak, played in a surprisingly touching performance by Seth Rogan.
The wordiness of the script is off-set by Danny Boyle's visual style. We find ourselves in a heated conversation between Jobs and his collaborators that take place in the present but the movie will suddenly cut back to an earlier conversation from a few years before so that what was said then builds the suspense and surprise of what is said now. It makes the wordy script more than just conversation; it turns it into an exciting narrative. Boyle also makes the effort to make the three different eras 1984, 1988 and 1998 all look different by shooting first in 16mm then in 35mm and then in digital so that we mentally know which time period we're in.
But all the filmmaking skill doesn't override the human element. Jobs is an extremely difficult man to warm up to. Watching his interactions with those around him we are challenged to wonder if he was a misunderstood genius or an egotistical narcissist who took more interest in computer chips than human relations. Michael Fassbender is really the reason to see this movie. He's wonderful actor who is best at playing complicated and often distant men everyone from the slave owner in 12 Years a Slave to the sex addict in Shame, to the god-like Magneto in the X-Men prequels. We are challenged with how we feel about Steve Jobs, here. We can't possibly like how he treats his colleagues or his daughter, but we feel for him because he understands the he is a flawed man. He admits to Lisa that he is a damaged product, seeing himself as an operating system that he himself can't fix. The fact that he recognized that flaw may have been his best innovation.