Thursday, December 19, 2013

Uncanny X-Mas

Merry Xmas, jerks. In a special holiday post, we have compiled three different Top 5 lists of Christmas movies for your enjoyment. We're critique-light this time around, so this would be a great time for you to chip in in ye olde comments sectionne. Here we go!


5. Trading Places (1983)
4. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
3. Batman Returns (1992)
2. Gremlins (1984)
1. Black Christmas (1974)

Honorable Mention(s): The Apartment (1960), Die Hard (1988)

Most Overrated: It’s  A Wonderful Life (1946)

How in Sweet Baby Jesus’ Name Did This Get Made: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)


5. The Family Stone (2005)
4. Groundhog Day (1993)
3. Die Hard  (1988)
2. Home Alone (1990)
1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Honorable Mention(s): National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1989)

Most Overrated: The Santa Clause (1994)

How in Sweet Baby Jesus’ Name Did This Get Made: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)


5. Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
4. March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)
3. A Christmas Carol (1951)
2. Batman Returns (1992)
1. Die Hard (1988)

Honorable Mention(s): Gremlins (1984), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Most Overrated: A Christmas Story (1983)

How in Sweet Baby Jesus’ Name Did This Get Made: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)


Next: Dawn of the Dead (1978). Get Psyched!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Evan's Pick: The Apartment


Occasionally I’m guilty of taking my analysis of films beyond the relatively benign realm of interpretation and into the nasty realm of projection. I don’t mean to force my views onto the movies I watch, but sometimes I have a hard time filtering out what I’m bringing to an experience and what the experience is supposed to be bringing to me. This gets more complicated when I encounter ambiguous messages that I disagree with upon deciphering. This might be the case with The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s 1960 film examining the interwoven lives and aspirations of three New Yorkers occupying different rungs on the ladder of American capitalism.

The Apartment centers its story on a white-collar single yuppie (a neurotic Jack Lemmon) named CC Baxter who works for Consolidated Life, a sprawling insurance firm in Manhattan. Aspiring for more than his decent but meager salary, CC frequently allows his supervisors to use his apartment after work, without compensation, so they can engage in extramarital affairs. Although this arrangement inconveniences CC—so much so that he falls ill at one point because of his exile in the rain—he acquiesces to it in hopes that his supervisors will put in a good word for him with, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the man in charge of hiring and promotion at Consolidated Life. Meanwhile, CC hits it off with an elevator girl at his office named Fran (a young Shirley MacLaine), whom he pursues romantically. However, his pursuit faces complications due to the affair Fran is having with a coworker—Mr. Sheldrake, to be precise. It soon becomes clear that Mr. Sheldrake routinely goes through girls like Fran, leading them on with tall tales about how he plans to divorce his wife and marry them. The naïve Fran soon falls into despair, while CC endures utter torment as his boss uses CC’s apartment to shag the woman CC loves.

Fran, a recent transplant to the city, is relatively poor (by American standards), and although CC is middle-income (but upwardly mobile), they both willingly give what little they have in life to people who are already much better off than they are. After long days of (to quote Cher Horowitz) earning minor duckets at a thankless job, CC works late or drinks by himself at bars until he’s allowed to return home to his dingy apartment. At home, he supplies his inconsiderate employers with liquor and appetizers, for which they conveniently refuse to reimburse him. Even his apartment is depressing: it’s dimly lit and looks cold, and he really only gets to enjoy an impersonal TV dinner and sift through annoying advertisements on his television before returning to bed, reading Playboy and starting the whole routine over again.

The film seems to present this bizarre relationship between CC, Fran and Mr. Sheldrake as a metaphor for the class divisions within capitalist economies, specifically the way this economic framework pits its various participants against each other. Not only do Mr. Sheldrake and his buddies already occupy a better position in life than Fran and CC, but they routinely “exploit” their inferiors by misleading them with the promise of a better tomorrow. Depressingly, both Fran and CC are eager to comply with this arrangement. The working-class characters in the film place themselves in self-sacrificing, disadvantaged positions purely because of their aspirations of achieving some version of the American Dream. For CC, it’s promotion, and for Fran, it’s married life. And yet, they both bear this mistreatment with smiles, because they need these people, above all, to like them.

This film’s critique of the American Dream depicts the working life of Americans as an impersonal, unfulfilling ritual that they slog through in the hopes of someday having it a little better. Even CC’s job at Consolidated Life seems empty and meaningless, consisting of him crunching insurance numbers in a cavernous, sterile office that stretches far beyond the horizon. Despite CC’s upbeat demeanor, the film doesn’t present us with anything in his life that seems worth living for, other than his career (something I find rather cynical, and not in a good way). Fran’s story, meanwhile, takes on a decidedly darker tone once she discovers the extent of Mr. Sheldrake’s deception, at which point the film begins delving into themes despair and even suicide.

For a movie as depressing as this one gets, though, The Apartment is awfully charming.  I’ve actually never seen an early Jack Lemmon performance and was totally enthralled by his goofy, idiosyncratic performance. He’s just so likeable: not only is he “a real cutie,” as his doctor neighbor puts it, but Lemmon delivers a manic, high-energy (but never annoying) performance that instantly endears you to his character. Meanwhile, Shirley MacLaine embodies that charming, girl-next-door archetype with her pixie haircut, coy mannerisms and straightforward affect. Not only is the budding relationship between CC and Fran both believable and enjoyable, but their chemistry is palpable as well. As a viewer, you want to see them end up together. The wit woven into every scene keeps this film from becoming a depressing chore.

For as cynical as the movie is at times, it leaves us with a somewhat hopeful vision of two people shirking the frustrations of the world they inhabit and starting to care about what matters most: that which they can find in the present, immediately before them—not some promise dangled in front of them in a far-off future. It’s certainly a nice takeaway message, even if it means conceding to the film’s mutually exclusive premise of having to choose between a decent career and self-respect. Others may disagree, and perhaps I read too much into it, but regardless of whether my analysis is valid or not, The Apartment is an excellent film: funny, charming, timeless, and—most importantly—stimulating.


Between the Hays Code and the Hollywood Blacklist ensuring every movie made in America stepped up to the plate with two strikes against it, it’s a wonder our fine nation was ever able to produce anything enjoyable aside from the pitch black crime melodramas that swarmed the screens after the second World War. Despite the extreme censorship and unfavorable labor conditions for Red Fascists, Hollywood somehow managed to squirt out a dramedy about infidelity and loneliness that neither pulls punches nor rots teeth. And they called it The Apartment (1960).

Jack Lemmon is one of those actors (along with Michael Caine) whom I was familiar with exclusively through roles from his golden years, so it is refreshing and exhilarating to see him in his prime as the romantic/comedic lead, CC Baxter. Shirley MacLaine is perfect in her role as the modern yet vulnerable single woman Ms. Kubelik, and while it can be hard to take him seriously as a sleaze, Fred MacMurray does a commendable job as the corporate big shot Mr. Sheldrake, conducting an extramarital affair out of a lackey’s apartment. While Lemmon’s delivery isn’t quite as dry as his lines sometimes demand, this is an excellent script that has an innate understanding of how loneliness and need can drive people to do unethical, unfortunate, and sometimes absurd things. Though the subject manner and its execution would be considered somewhat tame by today’s standards, there is no hint of Haysian interference (Although a Jewish doctor tenant straight off of Dropsie Avenue* administers the most un-Tarantino adrenaline shot I’ve ever seen).

My favorite part of the film is perhaps the first thirteen minutes, which serves essentially as history-porn: The technology, habits, values, and cultural-isms of 1960 are on full display as Lemmon goes through a typical night alone in his pad. Baxter mentions the staggering of work shifts to accommodate nineteen stories of office workers through a handful of elevators. Rent has gone up recently due to one of those new air conditioning units being installed in his place. The gas stove has to be match-lit with every use. His television utilizes a remote control, but it’s built in to the table sitting next to his couch. He frustratingly flips through the scant few television channels available to him over a frozen TV dinner, thoroughly disgusted by the glut of advertisements, which features a cigarette commercial urging him not to buy into the hype concerning those newfangled filters. There is an interesting intertextuality present in his television choices, which are confined to Westerns and high Hollywood Glamor from the Golden Age of American cinema. It’s interesting to see Lemmon, an icon of American film, get revved up to watch talkies made thirty years before the film he’s acting in. There is even a Tiki bar set used in the film.

One last bit of enjoyment for me was the fact that the film’s premise was already well underway before the opening credits roll: modern filmgoers may be thrown by the lack of plodding lineality that has come to occupy a place somewhere beyond the quotidian in newer movies, but the fact that Baxter is already sick of the primary plot device when he shows up was refreshing for me. The short of it: The Apartment is a great film. A+

*Secret Will Eisner Reference!


With The Apartment, director and co-writer Billy Wilder leads us into a world where the comedy and humor we were advertised, while present, isn’t the full package. The proverbial pied piper he is, Wilder squeezes his meat hooks around our skulls and forces us to confront ideas and themes we may not have seen on the Silver Screen before. The road we take with this feature is indeed a dark one. Loneliness and suicide are very present, and we’re confronted with these demons in a grimmer Hollywood world that more closely mirrors our own. It’s uncomfortable at times, painful and gripping and heartfelt, but The Apartment’s not without its charm, either.

Jack Lemmon is the cohesive ingredient that glues this layered package together. He’s our sense of comedic relief, our over-the-top eccentric man thrashing with his own problems in a way that carries some comfort, carries some sense of hope that everything will be all right in the end. It’s very difficult to construct a film that works well as both a drama and a comedy, but with Lemmon as his one-two punch, Wilder found something that ensnares us as much as it socks us in the gut.

What’s more interesting to note is the setting of this film. Casting away fear of being labeled a communist by the powers that be of the era, Wilder takes aim at the corporate world—the soulless realm of insurance, to be specific. We’re tossed into Lemmon’s race to the top of the corporate food chain, a seedy game where hearts are broken, coworkers are used and the grimy tingle of emptiness is forefront. And in this slice of life, this Sears Catalog aspiration, we’re confronted with an intense level of pain. It’s the forced look inwards—Wilder’s meat hooks holding us steady.

And what’s to be won? In the final few minutes, the director would have you find your humanity again. He’d ask that you take heed from Lemmon’s neighbor. Be a mensch.

Next: Dawn of the Dead. Get Psyched!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Brighid's Pick- Year of the Dragon


 If Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon were a car, it would be a massive, growling muscle car. It would run on grain alcohol and the unfulfilled dreams of homeless children.  It would have a bomb and a shotgun strapped to the under carriage like Max Rockatansky’s ’73 Ford XB Falcon. And absolutely nothing would be welded, bolted down, or fastened correctly, causing the behemoth to fling all kinds of important things (steering column) every which way the second it whips around a corner too fast. This film is rough sex without release, a crunching thrash metal song without a shred-tastic solo, or some other metaphor I can’t currently muster lacking a crucially important complimentary aspect. Michael Cimino takes an Oliver Stone script and attempts to lay a bleak, hard boiled, neo-noir piece of cinema on us. He almost pulls it off, but there are so many loose seams and incongruent asides that this mighty endeavor ultimately collapses under its own weight. Despite its failure to complete its objective, it is still a fascinating film, and has wormed its way into my regular viewing rotation.

Having the best actor of his generation helming the lead role helps make up for what would otherwise be a casting faux pas: Mickey Rourke is on the gentler side of 30 in this role, attempting to play a 15 year police veteran with a failed marriage. Out of sequence shooting causes the level of fake gray in his hair to vary wildly, and he just doesn’t have the lines in his face to make this aspect of the film work. It strains the believability of his failing marriage, and it’s hard to take someone as fresh-faced as Rourke seriously as “New York City’s most decorated cop”. 

Despite this, Rourke gives us a Mike Hammer style protagonist, who callously burns through what little support system he has left in order to thrust a spear of justice into Chinatown’s bloated underbelly. Mickey’s Stanley White is mean, blunt, violent, possessed of hubris, and holds administrative politics in utter contempt. He doesn’t even possess the effervescent humor of a Dirty Harry, and is accused by his superior and old childhood friend of “Running through the department like a piece of heavy machinery”. His obsession with Joey Tai, the film’s chief antagonist, is the stuff of Sophoclean tragedy.

With one glaring exception, the Chinese characters are cast much more effectively than the Anglo Americans. John Lone is fantastic as the debonair villain riding a wave of violence to the top of the Triads. More than just a charismatic scenery-chewer, Lone is also allowed to portray Tai with fear and vulnerability. Moriarty-esque villains are a dime a dozen, but “plucky” and “in over your head” are characteristics usually reserved for the hero.  The older Tongs are composed of veteran professionals (Victor Wong cameo!) who dispel any Yellow Peril nonsense from seeping in. Dennis Dun portrays an undercover officer under White (A year later both he and Wong would star in Big Trouble in Little China, arguably the greatest film ever put to celluloid), and manages to make a memorable impression despite his sporadic presence.

The single greatest flaw of the film, by FAR, is the character of Tracy Tzu, a gonzo style television reporter played by the beautiful-but-talentless Arianne. Every scene she speaks in is an island of pure, unadulterated suck in an otherwise tempestuous sea of badassery. The character doesn’t really have legs enough to be more than an ancillary component to the greater narrative, and there is a disjointed affair between her and Stanley shoehorned into what’s supposed to be a boilerplate contest of wills between Tai and White. Another flaw to the film is Oliver Stone’s Sobchakian* insistence on inserting Vietnam into everything his name is attached to. This leads to some uncomfortably incongruent story parallels, like the notion that Stanley’s quest to vanquish the Vietcong as a soldier has been revivified in his mission to clean up the other side of Canal Street. I guess we’re supposed to ignore the fact that China and Vietnam are different countries housing different cultures.

 And lastly, the ending is hollow and jarring; utterly out of place with the grim tale that is the rest of the film. White lost a great deal in his quest to topple Joey Tai, but he didn’t lose nearly enough if he’s allowed to have such an appallingly cheesy sendoff, especially in light of the fact that he manages to start a riot just seconds before.

What the film does do right is mood, action, and atmosphere. I’m not a Cimino scholar, but I suspect his direction (And this film in particular) was studied by one Quentin Tarantino. One scene in particular stands out in this regard, featuring a police investigation in the basement of an ancient soy processing facility. Its necessity in the film is debatable considering how involved it is versus how much it forwards the plot, but it is gorgeous, chthonic, and rich. Scenes where Rourke and Lone are allowed to bare their fangs at each other are absolutely electric. Every exchange of gunfire is swift, brutal, and produces a body count. The final showdown between Tai and White, featuring them literally charging each other on a set of rail tracks, is endorphin-inducing. I can’t tell if the sets are constructed or location, but they provide a majestic mix of ye olde noir and LED-lit Gibsonian cyberpunk. 

Everything in this film is dirty, save for Tracey’s obnoxiously period apartment. Dragon can get a little didactic at times with speeches about the plight of Chinese people, but it manages to avoid any missteps in portraying the Chinese community as helpless victims unable to control their own fate. Everyone in this film is offered choices; all of the principal players have their own agency. Chances are that if a character has a gun held to his or her head, it’s the consequence of a decision they made, NOT the catalyst for a decision. This film’s ending blows a hole in the back of the noir vibe it was angling for, but everyone dropping nails in their own coffin is a great vintage touch that isn’t really seen in more modern melodramas.

Year of the Dragon fails to achieve the greatness it grasps for, but it is awesome nonetheless. It’s a smorgasbord of amazing camera work, moody settings, unforgiving ambience, and stellar acting. Large chunks of the film feel like Cimino breathed an old Spillane yarn to life. Unfortunately, it’s weighed down by unnecessary characters, curious subplots, and uneven pacing. While not every punch lands, very few of them are pulled. B.

*Another Secret Reference, you human paraquat!

As someone previously (and shamefully) unfamiliar with the early films of Mickey Rourke, his chiseled good looks in Year of the Dragon caught me off guard at first. Underneath his male model exterior, however, lies the same bold, gritty, and scary Rourke I’ve come to know from his more recent work. And scary he is: as the relentless antihero of the 80’s crime noir Year of the Dragon, Rourke bulldozes his way through his enemies and takes what he wants from his friends. Thanks to his magnetic personality, he comes across in this film as one of those rare people who somehow both intimidate and charm.

Rourke’s presence as Police Captain White is the best thing about this film, but the rest of it is quite good. Year of the Dragon is fun in that violent, dirty, brutal way that action films of the late 80’s and early 90’s often were. There’s no shortage of blood, grisly murders or gratuitous explosions. While the plot—revolving around Captain White’s relentless attempts to take down Joey Tai’s violent gang in New York’s Chinatown—is serviceable enough, it’s the film’s penchant for shocking violence and dramatic plot turns that ensnare the viewer.

White isn’t a pure hero by any means; many of the things he does over the course of the film to bring Tai to justice should give the viewer pause. He’s so empowered by the strength of his convictions that he’s willing to bypass the rules to get what he needs. This reckless assertiveness presents itself not just in his work life, but in his sex life as well. He’s both fascinating and uncomfortable to watch.  

In addition to Rourke’s performance, John Lone gives an entrancing performance as the ambitious, villainous Tai, while Caroline Reva, the actress playing White’s exasperated wife, Connie, manages to turn a minor supporting role into the emotional core of the film. It also boasts colorful supporting characters, like a cloistered nun working surveillance for Captain White and a weathered Mafia don with an electrolarynx who argues with the film’s antagonist. You could make entire films about some of these supporting characters.

The movie is by no means perfect. Its musical score detracts from the drama on several occasions, particularly during White’s big heart to heart with his wife. Also, the quality of Ariane Koizumi’s performance as the reporter Tracy, White’s extramarital love interest, is beneath this movie. She delivers such an awkward, stilted performance that she shatters the suspension of disbelief in every scene she poisons with her presence. I’m almost shocked such a dirty, grizzled film allowed this soap operatic performance to cheapen it up.

These complaints are minor in comparison with the beautiful mess the rest of the film has to offer, though. It’s easy to forgive foibles like Koizumi’s performance when they’re weighed against scenes like the one in which hot lesbian Chinese bodyguards in clubbing attire fire at White in a crowded discotheque. Whenever you feel yourself losing interest, the film presents you with something like that—something shocking and horrible and amazing—that demands your attention and practically dares you not to care. Like its protagonist, it doesn't ask your permission; it already knows what you really want. 

If there’s one scene that embodies the 80’s carnage that is Year of the Dragon, it’s a scene about two-thirds into the movie where our hero, Stanley White, finds himself chasing down a Chinese gunman who tried breaking into his home. As White leaves his house in hot pursuit, the gunman sprays a machine gun at the door said goon exited from, stalling our man of action only temporarily, and allowing the young hoodlum just enough time to hop in a car and hit the gas. New York’s most decorated officer, Detective White, whips out a hand cannon and takes aim for a fraction of a second before firing. In this fraction of a second, he manages to send a bullet through the gunman’s skull, which then explodes in a gory display of splattered blood that would make horror effects maestro Tom Savini blush. As a couple more seconds tick on the clock, this vehicle rolls into a concrete wall and succumbs to a fiery end so intense, one would think the car was wired with dozens of pounds of C4. That’s the kind of Reptilian-brained amusement this film has to offer, or at least, it’s the kind of good, old-fashioned American fun audiences will remember – a hard-nosed, gritty, action-packed police beat that pushes the violence and pain and punishment to the extreme.

As Conor pointed out, there are other elements woven into this blanket of entrails, and they’re forcibly (and poorly) sewn in to pad the film. In this smorgasbord of 80’s bloodbath, there’s the bizarre affair between White and Chinatown reporter Tracy. The scenes between these two are off-putting, to say the least. White, played by Mickey Rourke, is busy spinning his tough, angry cop yarn while Tracy, played by Ariane, hams up a naïve eye candy reporter role more suited for a Woody Allen fantasy. Along with this, our decorated veteran succumbs to old Vietnam wounds in a script that stumbles to make this pain relevant to the plot. The undercurrent flows irregularly, seeming to suggest nothing more than “all Asians look alike” when it comes to Stanley’s inner demons. At least, that’s the message the audience is left with, as this social commentary is tied to this film loosely enough to suggest that it was merely an afterthought in the script-writing phase.

But, for what Year of the Dragon is, a bad-ass infusion of testosterone, it succeeds. The feel of this 80’s noir, the smell, the sound, the taste – it feels authentic. Rourke does one hell of a job giving Stanley White that gruff allure, the kind of gruff allure once used to make cigarettes cool. And like a decent glass of scotch, Year of the Dragon goes down smoothly, with just a mild hint of a rough aftertaste.

Many films are released year after year to feed this part of our brains, to tantalize and ensnare that lizard core, but few barrel past the suspension of disbelief to truly captivate us in a way that feels legitimate. In this case, that legitimacy remains intact.

Next: The Apartment. Get Psyched!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Scott's Pick - Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounter of the Third Kind: A UFO encounter in which occupants of the UFO have made some form of contact with the witness.

This method of classification was developed by astronomer and famed ufologist Dr. Josef Allen Hynek. Hynek, for the uninitiated, was a researcher with the United States Air Force’s UFO debunking project, Project Blue Book. After working for decades in this field, Dr. Hynek began to oscillate away from the official stance on UFOs, citing a plethora of credible testimony and disagreeing publicly with the Air Force’s conclusions. He became a champion for the cause of ufology, eventually forming the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) in his home city of Chicago, Illinois.

Why is this important?

The film Close Encounters of the Third Kind takes its name from Hynek’s classification system. The esteemed doctor also served as a consultant on the film, even making a cameo, albeit briefly, near the film’s conclusion at Devil’s Tower. This cameo can be seen after the craft has landed and its inhabitants revealed. As the humans stare in wonder, there’s a close-up of an older man with glasses and a beard, resting a pipe upon his lips. This man with the pipe would be Hynek.   

What this connection really does, however, is add legitimacy to this film. It tethers credibility to a phenomena presented to mainstream audiences in a time when this field was soaring off the ground, a decade when famed researchers like nuclear physicist Stanton Friedman were digging deep into research and presenting their findings to the public. This film, especially in the 1970s, was the only rallying voice to take seriously a subject matter often met with cynicism, ridicule, and flat-out denial. It was the cry and cinematic experience intended to present an alternative reality to the public, to beckon us forth onto a new level of thought.

Indeed, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a passion project of Steven Spielberg’s, one he desired to make for many years, but it’s more than just a movie about aliens. It’s a dissertation on the nature of man and a call to action to enter a new state of consciousness.

“Well, they’re not moon burns, Goddamnit!”

While the film itself is fictional, the character of Roy Neary is an every man that embodies the confusion, frustration, and emotional throes of those who have made contact with something outside what they can clearly define as reality. His plight and his dissolution with his family are representative of what some contactees endure, and they’re also representative of something more than that. Though Roy is the engine speaking towards those in society who have confronted something extraordinarily bizarre, he’s also symbolic of what happens when one’s reality, molded and solidified for decades to think along one tunnel of perception, is forcibly broken.

This is to say that the half-burnt flesh adorning his face is no mere accident. It’s the mark left by his experience, marring the skin of who he is, who he once was. This burning is our visual cue of the road he’s about to embark on, as it’s disfigured the portrait of the seemingly stereotypical working stiff we knew him to be. And as he begins to gather clues and obsess over the faint image scorching into the back of his brain, this desecration of his person reminds us that who he was has been ruined and altered, physically, until he can piece himself back together and solve this puzzle that’s broken the stereotype of his middle class existence. And his skin, indeed, heals at the end of Roy’s adventure. What it posits, though, is will we heal?

Roy’s personal voyage is the metaphorical voyage through life we all face, sooner or later, as we age and come to terms with that which dares to intrude on what we understand as reality. How it affects us, however, is optional. With regard to the other characters in the film, we don’t have to be physically marred. It’s one of the choices Spielberg seems to outline, offering us an alternative to the jarring encroachment of a new experience.

“You can come and play now.”

One of the most awe-inspiring shots of Close Encounters of the Third Kind arrives when these extraterrestrial visitors knock on the door of the Guilers, summoning the enchanted Barry Guiler to come out and play. As Barry’s toys begin to dance and jump around, the mechanical monkey pounding the cymbals as the children’s record player blares a happy little tune, we switch perspectives to the eyes of a child, relaying the same reality-shattering experience with Roy through someone whose mind hasn’t been permanently molded and defined. It is here, when Barry is summoned downstairs and sees the gaping fridge with all the food spilled out, we’re given one of the most glorious shots of this film. It’s a close-up of the boy’s face – a steady focus on his eyes and his mouth as he looks onward. At first, he’s bewildered. His mouth is frozen open as those illuminated eyes of his gaze forward. The audience is shown a few seconds of this before, within the same shot, that mouth begins to smile, and Barry’s bewilderment morphs into a playful grin open to this bizarre phenomenon.

With energetic gusto, Barry bolts out of the house, running off into the forest in search of those lights that stirred up the order of his and his mother’s domain.  As any loving parent would do, Barry’s mother chases after him, plucking him from harm’s way, burning herself in the process, and thus serving as yet another dissertation of Spielberg’s on the nature of humans. While Barry embraces this altered reality, his mother shies from it, burying herself in her duties as a parent. Yet, she is not immune to this wonder.

Before the aliens visit Barry for a second time, Jillian Guiler is shown drawing sketches of that image that haunts Roy Neary – Devil’s Tower. She tears these off her canvas paper, stuffing away the bug that’s eating at the back of her brain as she returns to her chores. But this new universe is there, calling to her, beckoning her to explore – just like it did with Roy. It’s inescapable, and as the disappearance of her child serves as the catalyst to seek out this unknown, she begins to embrace it, pairing up with Mr. Neary along the way.

“You have no right to make people crazy!”

These character archetypes prove interesting to analyze, but the truly fascinating characters didn’t make any of the three edits of the film. I’m talking, of course, of the audience, those who paid to sit down in a chair and gaze at this construction Spielberg put together. Watching the film is a journey in itself, a wondrous adventure uniquely its own within the genre of science fiction.

Ensnared by a spectacle of glowing lights we can’t explain, we’re led along a narrative that works to legitimize itself. Whether it’s the doggedness of the government researchers in pursuit of the answer to these mysteries or the element of the unknown that defies the demands to define the extraterrestrials as friends or foes, there’s a strong attempt to coerce a change in us. Spielberg has crafted a cinematic mystery that ends not in violence or betrayal or bloodshed or love or lust or any other cliché trope in cinema. He uses the magic of film to dazzle us with light, with color, and with sound. We’re called to the edge of the unknown with our leads. We’re summoned to the base of Devil’s Tower to awe at a light show set to playful music.

In the course of reaching this arrival point, we’re shown races interacting with this mystery together. Indians are seen chanting to the sky. They teach Lacombe, a French investigator, this chant to share with his colleagues within the U.N. and the U.S. military. When the UFOs cross the skies along a hilltop in Munsie, Indiana, all sorts of people are gathered together, gazing at the stars. There’s a togetherness in this adventure, a uniting that, even when the government steps in to block civilians from gathering at Devil’s Tower, cannot be stopped. People find a way, and when the inhabitants of the lights finally unveil themselves, it doesn’t matter who’s a civilian and who’s an authorized personnel.

And when we finally reach that arrival point? When we awe at the extraterrestrials and listen to the magic of the music that served as a communication point – what happens? The doorway opens, and the credits roll. Spielberg brought us here, and it’s up to us to react. To choose.

[In 1990, on a Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert segment about the “Future of the Movies”, Steven Spielberg was asked by Siskel, “I started throwing out all your films, and you say, ‘Give me this one negative. Let me hold this one.’ What occurs to you?” The director answered with:

“I think, maybe, the one image for me - you’re asking the question, I feel obligated to give you an answer, so let me give you an answer even if I take it back in my sleep tonight. Okay? I think it’s the little boy in Close Encounters opening the door and standing in the beautiful, yet awful, light, just like fire coming through the doorway.”

When pressed on what that scene meant to him, Spielberg responded with:

“We don’t know what’s out there. And yet, we should discover what’s out there. We should be afraid of not knowing, and we should take a step toward what we don’t understand.”]


Despite this film being considered a classic, a genre staple, and a personal favorite of one of America’s more prolific directors, I have never seen it, nor have I ever engaged in the enthusiastic discourse that surrounds the film. So I have fresh eyes and no expectations.

The first thing that struck me is that I’ve seen this film a thousand times before. While Spielberg’s pacing is from an older era of film where attention to detail on the part of the viewer is required, the basic structure has shown up in nearly every disaster and alien-contact film shot since. Unlike its children, however, Close Encounters does not feel rote or cookie-cutter in its form. We are introduced to all the information and characters we need to know in an unfettered manner, and we are not shown more than we need to see. What’s even better, we are not held hostage by Sci-Fi’s greatest flaw as a genre, the Information Dump.
In fact, Close Encounters is barely a Sci-Fi film, as it instead chooses to focus on the drama generated by a good family man whose entire world has shifted beneath his feet after encountering a UFO. His obsession with the unknown begins to poison every aspect of his life, costing him his job, his respectability, as well as his marriage. Once the bottom of that bag falls out, he throws everything he has left into solving the mystery of the nagging image that’s been lodged in his brain since his extraterrestrial contact. Parallel to Roy’s story is Jillian’s, a single mother whose child is abducted by the aliens. The tertiary yarn stars various government officials (Lance Henriksen cameo!) attempting to solve the mystery of just what the hell is going on, in between being baffled by the sudden appearance of a Soviet ship in the Gobi desert and US planes missing since WWII materializing in Mexico. 

If I have one gripe about this film, it is Roy’s decision to leave his family behind at the end for the aliens. His quest may have dissolved his marriage, but he is still beholden to the children he sired. They still love and need him, but are written out of the film as soon as it’s time for Roy to go on his quest. This sours the ending and Roy’s arc for me, turning a no-doubt home run into a screaming triple off the wall. Knowing what a sap Spielberg is for his own family, I can only assume his children were born after this film was made.

What stands out most about the film, for me, is the conflict between mounting tension and ramrod optimism. Roy’s obsession with the shape and his unshakable urges are reminiscent of the maddening effect Lovecraft’s Cthulu has on the dreams of people, and until the end of the film, we really have no idea what kind of aliens we are dealing with, or what they want. We know they take children and random artifacts, and dump them in absurdly inappropriate places when they are finished with them. But for all the portentous pressure-cooking that goes on, the film really isn’t all that dark, and utterly lacking in cynicism. The government is being secretive and disingenuous, but they are truly trying to solve the mystery while preventing mass panic, from the very top down to that black man at the radar terminal who looks and sounds alarmingly like Morgan Freeman. When Roy and the other vision-touched folk run afoul of the military, they get sleeping gas dropped on them, not shot. And what happens when the government’s Top Men* finally come face to face with the aliens? They reach out peacefully, and are met with equally friendly gestures, replete with a return of scientific hostages.

Citizens of the world often roll their eyes at the simplistic optimism that can be present in American creativity. And while too much Americanism might be bad for your teeth, notions such as new, wondrous things being discovered for the benefit of everyone, risk being rewarded, and endings coming up happy are comforting to me. This was a great film. A.
*Secret Raiders of the Lost Ark Reference!


When I was a child, I never committed to watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind because it looked dull for an alien movie. I craved danger, excitement and terror in the movies I consumed, all of which this appeared to lack. Now that I’m (technically) an adult, I am proud to announce that I finally sat down and watched this movie from start to finish. However, I’m not sure whether I should be worried or impressed that my instincts as a kid were correct.

Man, is this movie boring. I won’t come out and say Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a bad film, but there’s an almost inexcusable lack dramatic tension. The plot, which concerns some civilians who begin having subliminal visions after their various encounters with alien spaceships, barely goes anywhere over the course of the film’s two-plus hour running time, and the protagonists aren’t meaty enough for this to qualify as a character study.

It doesn’t help that there are no stakes in this story. Nothing is at risk. The aliens appear benign from the outset, and the film fails to truly make the audience question their motives, making it hard to worry about the outcome. Worse, the ending, despite being drawn-out, is anticlimactic. The assembled humans meet some aliens, they bond, and the protagonist flies away with them, abandoning his family while a peppy John Williams score celebrates his adventurous decision. Without established stakes, though, there is no sense of relief or catharsis or victory. The spaceship merely departs, leaving emptiness in its wake.

Now, I concede that this movie is less about plot and more about a concept—that concept being the experience of having one’s worldview shattered—but therein lies its biggest flaw: my mind, as the viewer, was not shattered by what I saw. Yes, I observed Richard Dreyfuss have a close encounter with fictional aliens, but my brain did not make the necessary leap from my reality to his. For this movie to work, you have to accept its characters’ revelations as your own, which is difficult since I’ve seen movies with fictional aliens before. This disconnect between what the characters feel and what I felt ultimately crippled the film for me.

I don’t mean to imply that this film is devoid of value, and I certainly don’t mean to detract from those whom this film moved. I think my colleagues’ reactions to and analyses of this film are totally valid. Scott's analysis suggests that this movie may have been groundbreaking at the time of its release, and I can respect that, even if I can’t say that it comes across as a groundbreaking film in the era in which I watched it. There are also other dimensions of this film to consider, and I’m not blind to them. To its credit, the film does a decent job, especially in its first half, of conveying just how earth-shattering this experience would be for its characters; having definitive proof of alien life might make us rethink our entire paradigm. The film captures a sense of wonder and majesty in its first act; one scene in particular, in which an assembly of monks chants a five-note sequence in unison, gave me chills.

Ultimately, though, the film seems blissfully unaware of how unremarkable its story is. It concludes this adventure by serenading the audience with a dull finale in which humans and aliens play musical notes at each other for what feels like an eternity while glowing spaceships twirl in the air. My mind was still not blown. Instead, I kept wondering when this self-indulgent cacophony of sound and color would end and let me get back to living my life, with its universal paradigm still firmly in place. 

Next: Year of the Dragon. Get Psyched!