The Abyss – 1989

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The Abyss – 1989

I love this movie.  But if you ask people about The Abyss, many of them will probably say that it was an OK movie that had a stupid ending.  But I beg to differ!  If you watch the director’s cut, the ending makes a whole lot more sense.  The script was very brilliantly crafted and the plot had a pacing and a flow that was remarkably deliberate and incredibly well thought out.  Everything in the film had significance and led very naturally into what came next.  It all made sense, despite its science fiction nature.

This film had it all.  Great character development, great acting, action, suspense, drama, romance, and a very specific moral agenda.  It had incredible “Oh my god!” moments that were enhanced by a great soundtrack and groundbreaking special effects.  Like all my other favorite films, this is one I could watch over and over again without ever losing interest.

The Abyss stars Ed Harris as Virgil “Bud” Brigman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his hard-nosed wife Lindsay.  He is an oil rigger on an experimental underwater oil drilling facility that she designed.  Along with them are a colorful cast of minor characters, like the paranoid conspiracy theorist, Hippy, played by Todd Graff, a bulky Marine Vet named Catfish, played by Leo Burmester, and a honky-tonk country girl called Lisa “One Night” Standing, played by Kimberly Scott, and several others, all of whom are fiercely loyal to Bud who has the quality of being a natural leader.  They refer to Lindsay as the “Queen Bitch of the Universe.”

But film actually starts in a U.S military submarine.  They are sailing in deep water along an abysmal trench that is at least three miles deep.  They begin tracking an unidentified object moving through the water at incredible speeds.  The mysterious object makes specific course changes, indicating intelligence, and they think it is a Russian vessel or possibly a missile.  It passes by them and causes all their power to shut down, but when the power comes back on, the find that they are seconds away from a collision with a rock wall.  The impact causes the sub to flood with water, killing the crew and sinking the vessel.

The military makes a deal with the oil company and sends a team of Navy Seals down to the oil rigging vessel named Deep Core, which is about a mile below the surface, and several hours away from the trench.  The civilian oil workers and their diving equipment are used to assist the Seals in their search and rescue mission.  But while the submarine is being searched, an oil rigger named Jammer, played by John Bedford, sees something that terrifies him.  He damages his oxygen tank and sees a glowing vision.

I know that might sound a little lengthy, but it is a great set-up for the rest of the film.  My favorite actors in the film are Harris and Mastrantonio.  They both really played their parts well and had a great on-screen chemistry together.  The scene where Lindsay drowns was intense and unnerving to watch, just like it was supposed to be.

And I have to give a special thumbs up to a fun performance by Leo Burmester.  Sure, Catfish is a minor character, but I have always liked the way the actor took the small role and made it memorable.  And we can’t forget Michael Biehn as Lt. Coffey, the Navy Seal who gets the bends and goes off the deep end, and tries to start a war with the aliens that live at the bottom of the trench.  It is they who have been visiting the humans and scaring them half to death.  All except Lindsay.  She somehow develops a friendly relationship with them.  In the famous water tentacle scene, they want to learn more about the humans so they explore Deep Core using a solid column of water like we would use an underwater camera.

But I would have to say that my favorite scene in the film is the one where the hurricane on the surface causes the control platform to get thrown out of place before the umbilical can be removed from Deep Core.  Not only is the submerged oil rig dragged along the ocean floor, the crane holding the umbilical is ripped from the platform and crashes into the water.  The horror as the wreckage plummets toward Bud and his crew is one of the most intense parts of the film.  It misses the rig by mere feet, landing on the edge of the oceanic trench.  For a few seconds, relief washes over them until it is slowly replaced with terror as the wreckage teeters and falls over the edge, nearly pulling the damaged oil rig into the abyss.  It gets my heart racing every time!

And then there is the knife fight, the submersible battle, the drowning scene, Bud’s daring dive into the abyss to disarm Coffey’s nuclear warhead (made possible by the use of breathable liquid which allowed him to avoid pressure sickness and death), the aliens rescuing Bud, their rise to the surface, and their warning to the human race to stop the violence and the war.  It was all so well done!

Then there was the wonderful soundtrack by Alan Sylvestri, a film score composer who always has a talent for capturing the feeling of the film he is writing for.  This time, he really used sound to portray cold, dark ocean depths.  Also, the mysterious and beautiful aliens are enhanced by his ethereal music.

Director James Cameron, who is known for daring, big budget films, did not disappoint.  The scope of the underwater sets and environments that were built for the making of the movie were incredible.  “Two specially constructed tanks were used. The first one held 7.5 million US gallons of water, was 55 feet deep and 209 feet across. At the time, it was the largest fresh-water filtered tank in the world. Additional scenes were shot in the second tank, an unused turbine pit, which held 2.5 million US gallons of water. As the production crew rushed to finish painting the main tank, millions of gallons of water poured in and took five days to fill. The Deepcore rig was anchored to a 90-ton concrete column at the bottom of the large tank. It consisted of six partial and complete modules that took over half a year to plan and build from scratch.”

The special effect of the alien water tentacle was incredibly well done and was something that nobody had ever seen before.  Apparently, it took 6 months for the effects team to perfect it, using techniques that had never before been attempted.  But the result was incredible!

The director’s cut ending was really heavy on the “give peace a chance… or else,” angle.  But that sentiment was really downplayed in the theatrical release.  That might explain why such a great movie performed so badly at the box office.  Still, the film is well-respected today, and it has long been one of my personal favorites.

1978 – Coming Home

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Coming Home – 1978

Once again, I am impressed with Jane Fonda as she takes the lead in a very dramatic film.  And this one sure is a whopper, as it deals with a very difficult subject matter.  Its plot is told from the perspective of a woman whose husband is going to Vietnam.  She stays home and volunteers at a Veteran’s Association hospital.  While there, she meets and falls in love with a paraplegic.  She has an affair with him and has to deal with the consequences when her husband returns.

Fonda plays Sally Hyde, the unfaithful wife.  Her husband, Captain Bob Hyde, is played by Bruce Dern.  The man she has her affair with is Luke Martin, played by Jon Voight.  There was nothing about this movie that was easy or light-hearted.  It was some pretty deep and serious drama.  The story was a good one, though not much really happened until about half-way through the film.

And when that turning point came, it came not from the main story or the big name characters.  The film’s drama shifted into high gear when a seemingly unimportant sub-plot took a deadly turn.  Sally’s roommate, Vi Munson, played by Penelope Milford, has a brother named Bill, played by Robert Carradine, who had spent only 2 weeks in Vietnam before coming back home with serious mental and emotional damage.

The film was going along just fine.  Captain Hyde had gone off to war and Sally was trying to resist giving in to Luke’s advances.  Meanwhile, Sally, Luke, and Vi, spent time with Bill whenever they could.  But then, one day, after Luke has left the hospital to return to the real world, Bill has an episode of extreme depression and commits suicide by injecting air into his veins.  That one really took me by surprise.

After that, the already serious tone of the film turned even more serious and depressing.  Sometimes the dialogue turned a little preachy in its anti-war sentiments, but it wasn’t just hot air.  I say that because I happen to agree with most of what was said, though I also think that there are times when war is a necessary evil that can bring about change like nothing else can.  But I’m not trying to debate philosophy.

The point I’m trying to make is that no matter what your opinion about the moral implications of war might be, there is an absolute truth when it comes to war.  Some people die.  Others are wounded.  The wounds can be physical or emotional.  But nobody who goes to war comes home the same as when they left.  And I think that was the point of the movie, in a nutshell.

But there was more drama still to come when Bob returned home.  I was reminded of the 1946 Best Picture winner, The Best Years of Our Lives, a film that had much the same message.  Bob returns to find a strange emotional distance between himself and Sally.  And then, when he learns of her affair, he loses his mind and nearly murders Sally and Luke.  In the end, he commits suicide by stripping naked and swimming out into the ocean until he drowns.

The script was just bursting with Oscar potential.  It was deeply emotional, and you could tell that both the actors and the director, Hal Ashby, were passionate about what they were doing.  In fact, Voight and Fonda both took home Awards for Best Actor and Actress that year.  Also, Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones, and Nancy Dowd, won for Best Original Screenplay.

I have to take a moment to really recognize Voight for an inspired performance.  He created a very real character.  There was subtlety and depth in his performance.  Luke was a good man whose life had been irrevocably changed by a war he never even believed in.  He was bitter and angry, and yet he was trying to be a good man who did the right things, despite the wrongs that had been done to him.

In his final scene, interspersed with scenes of Bob’s suicide, is a scene where Luke is talking to a group of young students about his experiences in Vietnam.  He says, “I don’t see any reason for it.  And there’s a lot of shit that I did over there that I find fucking hard to live with.  And I don’t want to see people like you, man, coming back and having to face the rest of your lives with that kind of shit.  It’s as simple as that.”

1977 – The Turning Point

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The Turning Point – 1977

This movie had one of the standard Oscar nominated formulas.  It was a given that a plot like this one would be nominated for Best Picture.  If it had been made in the 1940s I would say that it had rich, white people having emotional crises.  But this is the 70s and the trend tended towards middle class people instead of wealthy people.  And I found it interesting to learn that the script was “a fictionalized version of the real-life Brown family, and the friendship between ballerinas Isabel Mirrow Brown and Nora Kaye.”  It had an element of fantasy and a touch of romance.

But most importantly, it had Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft.  MacLaine was the lead, DeeDee, a mother of three who had once given up the life of a prima ballerina to have a family, a choice she regrets and blames on her closest friend.  That friend is Emma, played by Bancroft.  She gave up the prospect of marital bliss and a family to live the life of a prima ballerina, a choice she doesn’t regret at all.

Add to the mix DeeDee’s eldest daughter, Emilia, played by Leslie Browne.  She is an extremely talented ballerina who has the potential to be a world-class dancer.  When DeeDee takes her to New York to join Emma’s dance company, she meets the leading male dancer, Yuri, played by Mikhail Baryshnikov.  Yuri is a playboy who beds the young Emilia and then breaks her heart when he moves on to his next conquest.  The scene where she gets drunk and goes on stage was pretty funny, though maybe slightly unrealistic, as it probably would have ruined her career.

But most of the film’s emotional drama stems from the fact that a jealous DeeDee blames Emma for ruining her own chance at greatness.  She claims that when they were both up for the same part, Emma had sabotaged her career to further her own.  The friendship between the two women slowly deteriorates until the claws come out, though only briefly.  The catfight only lasts a few seconds, but it is enough to show the women how strong their friendship really is.

There are also a couple of minor subplots that I felt had a certain amount of good drama and a fair amount of truth to them.  One involves Emma’s admission to the idea that she loves being on stage more than anything, so much so that it can almost be called an obsession.  Unfortunately, she is no longer a young woman and she is becoming too old to play the parts she wants to play.

I’ve never been a huge follower of ballet, so the film’s subject matter seemed a little beyond me.  But I know enough about it to tell the difference between good dancing and mediocre dancing.  That being said, both Browne and Baryshnikov were fantastic, especially in the dance scenes.  You could tell that they really knew what they were doing.  I thought Baryshnikov did a good enough job as an actor, though his Russian accent was sometimes so strong that it was difficult to understand his dialogue.

Another little subplot that I liked was one that involved DeeDee’s husband Wayne, played by Tom Skerritt.  Apparently, he used to be a ballet dancer as well.  DeeDee admits to feeling guilty that, by getting pregnant with his child and marrying him, she also ruined his chances at being a professional dancer.  She also confesses that part of why she had him get her pregnant was to prove to the rest of the company that he wasn’t gay.  His response was perfect.  He said that he knew her reasons, wanted to prove the same thing, and loved her enough to give her what she wanted.  And as for being a professional, he admits that he never had any delusions that he had the talent for greatness.

But when it came down to it, the film’s drama was a bit too sappy for my tastes.  It wasn’t a bad film.  It kept my interest well enough, though I thought its pacing was sometimes too slow.  MacLaine and Bancroft both did a good job, as did Browne and Baryshnikov.  But the emotional content and the drama were just too shallow to elevate the film to ‘gripping’ or ‘deep’.

Still, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the dance sequences.  I look at the film as a glimpse into a hoity-toity, high-brow world that I know very little about.  I really liked the music and the costumes.  And OK.  I’ll admit it.  I also liked looking at Baryshnikov without his shirt on.

1977 – Star Wars: A New Hope

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Star Wars: A New Hope – 1977

OK, here we are at one of the big ones.  I have so much that I would love to say about this awesome movie that spawned one of the biggest and most well-known franchises in history.  It was a true cultural phenomenon that, and I’m not exaggerating, changed the face of moviemaking.  Even people who are not sci-fi fans know what Star Wars is.  It was immensely popular and continues, to this day, to be a beloved film.  But here’s the trick.  It wasn’t a perfect movie.  In fact, it had some glaring and irredeemable flaws.

Now, what I mean by that is that Star Wars was a relatively low budget science fiction movie, and there are times when it is clearly evident.  The film’s biggest weakness, as is often the case with the director, George Lucas, is the contrived, and sometimes hokey dialogue.  The plot also has a few holes that the restored scenes were not able to fill.  And the character development and motivations were often two-dimensional.

But all that being said, I love this movie.  First of all, I have to give the Academy credit for finally… FINALLY nominating a sci-fi film.  The only other example I have come across prior to 1977 is 1937’s Lost Horizon, which I would actually call a fantasy.  Star Wars has iconic characters that are easily recognizable.  The young farm boy who becomes a hero, the wise sage, the princess, the swashbuckling rogue and his trusty sidekick.  And, of course the evil villain!

There were two members of the cast who were already well-established in the world of cinema were Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing.  And when I think about it, those two proved to be the best actors in the film, when looked at with a critical eye.  Cushing, in particular, was incredible in his supporting role of Grand Moff Tarkin, the sinister Commander of the planet-destroying Death Star.  He steals every scene he is in, even in the presence of the movie’s main villain, Darth Vader, acted by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones.

Guinness was also incredible, playing Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi, one of the last remaining Jedi in the galaxy.  His mysterious and insightful moments as he introduces Luke to the Jedi power, the Force, easily fill you with a sense of wonder.  Guinness played him with a great sense of well-placed gravitas.

Of course, everybody loves the hero, Luke Skywalker, played by Hamill.  How can we not?  He rises from humble beginnings, learns to use a the Force, and beats the bad guys, saving the day in a thrilling action sequence in which a small band of fighter planes attack the massive, moon-sized Death Star.  Hamill’s acting, while not bad, was probably the weakest of the cast, but fortunately he got better in later films.

The only female character in the film is Princess Leia, but she is a wonderful female role-model.  She is smart, strong-willed, beautiful, and commanding.  But she also has a soft, sensitive side which comes out at all the right times.  Fisher did a great job, and she looked great doing it.

Ford played Han Solo, the smuggler with a heart of gold.  I think he is really a fan favorite because of his suave and charming demeanor, his reckless bravery, and even his shady, criminal side.  Ford played the part believably and made a truly memorable character. And of course, his furry partner, Chewbacca, played by the 7 foot, 3 inch Peter Mayhew.  Chewbacca was often used for comic relief, but Mayhew was actually able to give him a personality, despite the make-up which completely covered his face.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two more fan favorites, neurotic interpreter droid, C-3PO, acted and voiced by Anthony Daniels, and his short and quirky counterpart, astromech droid, R2-D2, controlled by Kenny Baker.  Not only were they fun, each with their own with distinct personalities, but they were integral parts of the plot.

Sure the special effects were ground breaking for their time, and most of them still hold up by today’s standards.  But I have to mention the final factor that elevated the movie from good to amazing: the soundtrack.  This is John William’s best known and greatest score, and that is saying a lot for the film composer who gave us Indiana Jones, Superman, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jaws.  The score was magnificent and the exciting musical themes that Williams came up with gave the movie a high-energy backdrop which drew movie-goers around the world into the grand and lofty universe created by Lucas.

1977 – Julia

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Julia – 1977

I need to confess, I didn’t have very high hopes for this movie.  First of all, I didn’t know anything about it except that it starred Jane Fonda, who I always have a difficult time appreciating, and Vanessa Redgrave, who is easy to appreciate.  Second, it was about Lilian Hellman, an author about whom I know nothing, and in whom I have no interest.

But that just goes to show you what I know.  I was wrong on both counts.  Let me discuss each of those points in a little more detail.  I know that Fonda has had a prolific career and has done some great acting.  However, it has been my misfortune to have only seen one of her films: Barbarella.  I think that gave me a skewed sense of her skills as an actress because it was so campy and poorly acted.  But in Julia, I have had to revise my opinion.  She did a great job, and though I didn’t always like her character, it doesn’t mean she played it badly.

But that being said, I think that Redgrave was better.  Fonda’s acting was all on the surface and sometimes lacked subtlety.  But Redgrave had that unique unseen quality that set her above her costar.  There were hidden depths in her eyes that made her fascinating to watch.  Then again, I think my opinion may be biased.

Lilian Hellman, played by Fonda, was a famously celebrated dramatist, screenwriter, and playwright for over 50 years.  Julia, played by Redgrave, is her dearest childhood friend.  She is a very wealthy heiress who studies medicine in Vienna in the years before WWII.  When the fascist regime begins to rise to power and the Nazi party starts to assert their authority in Europe, Julia uses her personal resources to fight them.

The film’s plot spends significant time developing the friendship between the two women, from their young and innocent beginnings to the dangerous days of the war.  It follows Lillian’s rise to prominence as an author, and only follows Julia’s life as a medical student through Lilly’s sporadic correspondence with her.  In fact, most of the 2 hour film is spent exploring their relationship and leading up to the last half-hour or so.

And it is that last half-hour that made the film so good.  Julia has gotten involved with resistance fighters and asks Lilian to smuggle some of her family’s vast wealth into Germany.  Lilian agrees because of her love for Julia, a love which, I might add, was depicted as nearly homosexual, though the point was made that their love was strictly emotional, and never physical.  The tension that is created when Lilian agrees to smuggle the money into Berlin was wonderfully built and held until Lilian is able to leave Germany.

The way Lilian is met by one stranger after another, each of whom guides her towards the success of her mission, was very interesting to follow.  The money is hidden in the lining of a fur hat which Lilly wears while all her baggage is confiscated and searched.  And there is always a lot of natural suspense whenever Nazis are involved.  In that way, most of the movie was a little slow without much action or tension, but the payoff of the climax was worth the wait.

And finally, I’ll say that the movie was only slightly feminist, which is perfectly fine.  Sure, there were the lesbian overtones in the relationship between Lilian and Julia, but they were appropriate in setting up Lilian’s motivations for agreeing to take on the dangerous mission.  I found it interesting that the book upon which the film is based was actually written by Hellman, and she claimed that the events depicted were factual.  I wonder if the homoerotic relationship was there in Hellman’s autobiographical novel, or if the filmmakers added it to liven things up.

This movie is notable for a few other actors, like Jason Robards who played Lilian’s mentor and sometimes lover, Dashiell Hammett, Lilian’s initial contact in Paris who asks her to smuggle the money into Berlin, Johann, played by Maximillian Schell, Hal Holbrook as one of her wealthy friends, and Meryl Streep in her big screen debut as Ann Marie, Lilian’s snobbish socialite friend.

As with all film based on historical events, I did a little reading, and found that though Hellman purports the truth of her story, the filmmakers came to the conclusion that it was mostly fiction.  Director Fred Zinnemann was quoted as saying, “Lillian Hellman, in her own mind, owned half the Spanish Civil War, while Hemingway owned the other half. She would portray herself in situations that were not true. An extremely talented, brilliant writer, but she was a phony character, I’m sorry to say. My relations with her were very guarded and ended in pure hatred.”

1977 – The Goodbye Girl

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The Goodbye Girl – 1977

This was a romantic comedy done right.  It was well-written, expertly acted, and fun.  The characters were realistic and charming.  But it makes sense.  The script was penned by the famous playwright Neil Simon who is known for his witty and well-crafted dialogue, and good character development.  If you know Simon’s most famous play, The Odd Couple, then you would easily be able to see his handy-work in The Goodbye Girl.

The film stars Marsha Mason as Paula McFadden, a single mother raising a ten-year-old daughter, Lucy, played by child actor, Quinn Cummings. The little girl is written to be precocious and very mature for her age.  If the film had any flaws, I might point the finger at her, not because of how Cummings played the part, but because of how Simon scripted the character.  He came very close to breaking the cardinal sin of movie-making – Cute for the sake of cute is never cute… never.  But Simon stands right on that line without ever really crossing it, so I’ll let it pass.

The story begins as Paula and Lucy arrive home to find a note from Paula’s live-in boyfriend, saying that he has left them.  But he has also rented the apartment to another tenant since the apartment is in his name.  Eventually, the new tenant, a quirky young actor named Elliot Garfield, played by Richard Dreyfuss, arrives and demands to be let into the apartment.  Rather than keeping Elliot locked out in the rain, and rather than throwing Paula out on the street, they agree to try living together.  From there, personalities clash and hijinks ensues

Dreyfuss won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his efforts, and I think he really deserved it.  He created a wonderful and likeable character who was very believable as the romantic lead.  As professional actor, he was an egomaniac.  He had eccentric personal habits and, since the lease was technically in his possession, he started off with a bold disregard for the two ladies.

Mason did a great job, as well, though this is the first role in which I can remember seeing her.  She was pretty, though not gorgeous, and her on-screen chemistry with the young Lucy was fun and light.  At first, she barely has a kind word to say to Elliot, but eventually he actually calls her on it and she realizes that he is right.  She immediately softens her attitude toward him, causing him to fall in love with her.  Also, her own sub-plot as a middle aged woman struggling to get back into shape to get a job as a dancer, the only profession she has ever really known, is interesting and fun.  It was also realistic, as she ultimately fails simply because directors are looking for young dancers with youthful faces.

Paula is able to help Elliot through a difficult experience, which I felt was one of the movie’s funniest sub-plots.  Elliot had moved to New York to play the lead in an off-off-Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.  Unfortunately, the terribly self-aggrandizing homosexual director, Mark, played by Paul Benedict, wants the character of King Richard III to be played as a flaming sissy.  The way that Dreyfuss agonizes over this ridiculous direction in what is supposed to be his big break in the Big Apple is so well acted.  Dreyfuss played it perfectly.

The romance between Elliot and Paula is very well written.  The two start off as complete opposites and the building of their romance is slow and grudging.  Simon allows the relationship to take its time and grow in an easy and understandable way.  I always have to roll my eyes at movies that portray true love as something that strikes instantly and conquers all.  Real life doesn’t work that way.

One of the major themes in the movie is the emotional damage that Paula suffers because of the abandonment.  Apparently this is not the first time she has been deserted.  Naturally, when love blooms with Elliot, she is afraid that he will do the same thing.  But the ending is so well done.  Elliot’s career takes a surprising turn because of his involvement with the terrible Shakespeare tragedy and he eventually lands a part in a major film with a famous and respected director.  However, this would require him to go to Seattle for a month.  Paula assumes the worst.

But Elliot proves her wrong by going out of his way to reassure her that he loves her.  He asks her to come to Seattle with him.  The invitation is enough to convince Paula that he loves her, and her fears of another abandonment vanish.  Her joy at this realization is infectious, and I found myself smiling right along with her.

So, I have to give this film a great big thumb-up for its brilliant script and its wonderful acting.  If you like romantic comedies, this is one you should definitely see.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind – 1977

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind – 1977


This has long been one of my favorite science fiction films.  There are so many films out there that depict aliens as evil or war-like.  The films in which aliens are depicted as benign are not as easy to find.  I can think of 1997’s Contact, 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (another Spielberg film), or even 1984’s Starman.  I know that there are plenty of others, but other movies like 1996’s Independence Day, 2002’s Signs, and even older films like War of the Worlds from 1953, and 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, portray other-worldly visitors as conquerors.

However, Stephen Spielberg had a different vision of life from outer space, and he took a fascinating approach to the subject.  We have all heard any number of strange tales about unexplained disappearances throughout the world, fighter planes gone missing or ocean vessels lost at sea.  Well, Close Encounters shows a few of those vehicles turning up in unlikely or even impossible places.  They show no signs of age or ware, and their crews are conspicuously absent.  French scientist Claude Lacombe, played by Francois Truffaut is sent to investigate, along with his interpreter, cartographer, David Laughlin, played by Bob Balaban.

Meanwhile, in Muncie, Indiana, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss and Jillian Guiler, played by Melinda Dillon, each have frightening direct contact experiences with the aliens.  Jillian’s son Barry is forcibly abducted in a wonderfully creepy scene in which the visitors assault them in their home for the sole purpose of taking the child.  They alien’s motives are completely mysterious.

Now what is so fascinating about Spielberg’s story is that Roy, Jillian, and many other people are implanted with a psychic vision that they cannot explain.  They become obsessed with UFOs and the image of a strange tower or mountain.  In Roy and Jillian, the vision is so strong that it drives them insane.

I loved the way Dreyfuss played his part.  His descent into madness is heart-wrenching as it destroys his life.  He gets fired from his job and his wife leaves him.  Roy, terrified by what is happening to him, is more than once brought to tears as his sanity disintegrates.  But every time he sees anything that even vaguely resembles the shape of the mountain, he goes into an immediate trance and becomes fixated on whatever it is, whether it is a pile of shaving cream or a mound of mashed potatoes.

The visions drive Roy and Jillian to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.  I loved how the visions were like an invitation to a meeting in which the aliens planned to make formal contact with humans.  And what a meeting!  The final sequence of the film lasted about 35 minutes, and we are treated to fantastic flying ships, strange lights, menacing cloud formations, a gigantic city-sized mother ship, and three different kinds of strange white-bodied aliens.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music of John Williams, which was an integral part of the plot.  That famous and iconic 5 note musical phrase is a staple of popular culture, synonymous with alien abductions.  If you ask me, Williams is a genius and a master of his craft.  He takes a little melody that, honestly doesn’t sound particularly melodic by itself, and he turns it into something that is amazingly melodic and even grand and lofty.

I’ve been trying to find any real flaws with the movie and am having trouble finding any.  The special effects hold up perfectly well, even for a modern viewer.  The story was so fascinating and well-written that whenever I watch the film, I get completely wrapped-up and engrossed in it.  If you ask me, this is Spielberg at his finest.

I can never get over how perfect Dreyfuss and Dillon were for their parts, and how awesome they both were.  I have watched the little documentary about the making of the movie which is included on the DVD.  There are interviews with the cast and Spielberg, himself.  I learned that, originally, Dillon didn’t want to take the part.  She had no desire to do a science fiction film.  Also, Teri Garr, who played Roy’s wife Ronnie, wanted to do the film, but wanted the part of Jillian.  Fortunately Dillon accepted the part and was cast just two days before filming began.

Jillian’s son, Barry, a pivotal role in the film, was played by Cary Guffy.  He was only 4 years old when the movie was filmed, and he was also interviewed for the documentary.  Funny enough, he still has the same face.  It is said that Spielberg is wonderful with children and employed wonderful tricks to get the young actor to give the proper reactions and desired facial expressions.  He would have a man appear on the set in a clown costume or a gorilla suit when he wanted surprise or fear, or give Cary toys when he wanted delight.  Guffy recounted it as a wonderful experience.

Obviously, this is one of my favorite science fiction movies and I’m sure I will watch it many more times in my life.  It never gets old for me.  It is always fresh and fascinating.  It touches my imagination in all the right places.  I am intrigued by both its light side and its darker nature.  But now the movie is nearly 40 years old.  So I’ve no doubt that there are a lot of people that have never seen it.  Even people who are sci-fi fans!  I say to them – go see it!  You’ll be glad you did!

1976 – Taxi Driver

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Taxi Driver – 1976

This was a strange little movie.  First of all, if you like Robert De Niro then you will love him in this film.  Many critics have called this his best performance ever, which is saying a lot for the prolific actor.  He plays the character of Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet who is socially inept.  He is passionately disgusted by the ills of a society he feels has rejected him, and yet decides to become a murderous vigilante, perpetuating the problems he supposedly hates.

That contradiction has been debated by film scholars and critics.  He abhors pimps, junkies, pushers, and whores, while at the same time going to pornographic theatres on a regular basis, and making plans to murder a senator.  And though his motives for that could also be debated, he altruistically goes on a suicide mission to save a 12 year-old hooker named Iris, played by a very young Jody Foster, planning to go out in a blaze of glory.  He murders several men in cold blood before getting wounded, himself.

Though he expects to die, he ends up living and being praised as a hero.  The media and the young girl’s family treat him as a savior.  Personally, I couldn’t see it that way.  Sure, he put an end to the child’s sexual servitude, but what gave him the right to play God?  There were other ways for him to be the hero and punish the men who were exploiting her, legal ways.  In my eyes, he was just as criminal as the men he executed.  He did the wrong thing, but for strangely righteous reasons.  Fortunately, I think the filmmakers thought the same way, and the end of the movie, where Travis is deified, is meant to be ironic.

As I mentioned, Travis’s motives for wanting to assassinate the Senator are a little ambiguous.  The character that De Niro created is obviously mentally unstable.  He sees a beautiful woman while driving his taxi, and falls in love with her.  But he is so socially awkward, he creates one uncomfortable scene after another.  He is positively creepy at times.  The object of his desire is Betsy, played by Cybill Shepherd.  He forces his way into her life and she is intrigued by his boldness.  She agrees to go out with him a few times, but is disgusted when he takes her to an adult movie theatre on their second date.  Betsy works for Senator Charles Palantine, played by Leonard Harris.

So after Betsy rejects Travis, he undergoes a frightening transformation.  De Niro was incredible and very convincing in portraying this change.  He changes his appearance, buys 4 guns, and plans to murder Senator Palantine.  But why?  Is he doing it to punish Betsy for rejecting him?  Or does he want to simply get her attention?  Or perhaps he thinks that her job is what is turning her against him, and eliminating the Senator will change that.  It was not explained to my satisfaction.

Foster, was already known as an established child actor.  She was obviously talented and comfortable in front of the camera.  I’m not surprised she has had a very successful career.  Shepherd was also good and she looked fantastic.  One of Betsy’s co-workers who I recognized was Albert Brooks, playing the part of Tom.  He was interested in Betsy and was appropriately protective of her when the creepy taxi driver started to lose control of himself in his anger at her.

And I have to mention the last 2 members of the cast who caught my attention, simply because they were names that I recognized.  Peter Boyle played a fellow taxi driver called Wizard.  There is a touching scene in which Travis goes to him looking for advice but is unable to express his feelings sufficiently to ask an answerable question.  Wizard grows too uncomfortable and leaves him with no answer.

Then, finally, there is Harvey Keitel.  I have always thought of Keitel as an exceptional actor.  Here, he plays the sleazy lowlife, Sport, the pimp who is selling the 12 year-old Iris.  When Travis shoots him in the stomach, I had mixed feelings.  I hated him for becoming a cold-blooded killer, something he clearly loathed in others, and cheered him for disposing of the child molester.  I also noticed that Sport had a long painted nail on his pinky finger, presumably for scooping and snorting cocaine.

I found it interesting to learn, through my research, that director Martin Scorsese, who had an interesting little cameo as a crazed passenger in Travis’s cab, was quoted as saying that the character of Travis Bickle was not cured of his mental deficiencies because of his cathartic experience.  After all was said and done, he was still a mentally and emotionally unstable man who would eventually return to his violent tendencies, and it is hard to like such an anti-hero.

1976 – Network

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Network – 1976

This was a good movie that I enjoyed watching, but was a difficult movie to place.  Wikipedia calls it a “satirical black comedy-drama,” but I’m not sure I’d agree with that.  It is certainly a satire, but if it is supposed to be comedic as well, I didn’t see it.  It was a film in which the writer, Paddy Chayefsky, was going on an angry rant about the morally and emotionally crippled generation of people who grew up watching the boob-tube.  It very pointedly condemns us all as dummies who know, and for that matter, believe, nothing except what we are shown on the devil box.

But it doesn’t stop there.  It goes on to say that there is no such thing as freedom, no such thing as democracy, and no such thing as nations.  There are only corporations and the money they use to control the world.  “It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet.”  The film is a complaint about the pathetic state of the global conscience.  It is this self-righteous anger that produced the film’s famous line which we’ve all heard: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

But, of course, that is only one iconic scene in a 2 hour film.  The movie starred William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, and Robert Duvall, with Ned Beatty in a supporting role.  The central character was Finch as Howard Beale, a TV news anchor who, during a live broadcast, had a mental breakdown, telling the nation that he planned to commit suicide on the air.  Apparently, he had become tragically desensitized to the horrific nature of his broadcasts.  He felt no more emotion when reporting mass murders and criminal scandals than he felt when reporting sports or lost puppies.  In addition to that, his news program has depressingly low ratings.  In his madness, he hears voices and has visions.

Holden plays Max Schumacher, president of the network’s news division.  He is a middle-aged man who is Howard’s friend and boss.  He cares for Howard as he sees him descending into the madness of a pseudo-religious zealot or prophet.  Dunaway plays Diana Christensen, an emotionally dead, ambitious, network programmer who sees the crazy Howard as a resource to exploit in order to raise the network’s ratings.  She starts an affair with Max, but cannot feel love or any other kind of emotion for him. She will apparently do anything to improve her network’s ratings.  To this end, she wants to program crass sensationalism that put me in mind of shows like The Howard Stern Show or Jerry Springer.

Duvall plays Frank Hackett, Diana’s boss.  He is just as ambitious as Diana, but he is also greedy and power-hungry.  He approves the implementation of the Howard Beale Show, on which Howard can rant about the ills of society.  Beatty plays Arthur Jensen, the president of the network who allows Beale to have his show until one of his tirades hurts one of his business deals with Arab oil corporations, at which point he reigns Howard in and gets him to preach a different gospel.

Like I said, all the characters were larger-than-life and over-the-top.  There were a lot of long speeches that were very much like sermons.  As I do my research about the movie, I can see why this movie is called a comedy.  A lot of the dialogue, when taken out of the context of the plot, is viciously cynical and even humorous.  But they were played so straight in the context of the film, that I never once found myself laughing or even chuckling.  It was all performed so seriously that I didn’t hear acerbic one-liners.  I heard extreme characters.

For example, when Diana          meets a character named Laureen Hobbs, played by Marlene Warfield, because she wants to pitch a counter-culture, anti-establishment show that shows real acts of criminal terrorism, she introduces herself, saying, “Hi, I’m Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.”  Hobbs replies, “I’m Laureen Hobbs, a badass commie nigger.”  Diana says, “Sounds like the basis of a firm friendship.”  See?  It is funny, if you think about it, right?  But it was delivered so straight, that you might almost see it as a civil way for the two characters to break the initial tension in an uncomfortable meeting between people who are normally on opposing sides.  When you look at it that way, it isn’t funny, it’s just clever.

The movie’s ending wasn’t funny at all.  It was biting and horrific, but not funny.  The rating of Howard’s show start to tank after he starts preaching Jensen’s depressing message about the illusion of individuality and personal freedom.  Diana and Hackett see their hit show dying, but Jensen refuses to take him off the air.  The only thing they can do to prevent the network from dying with it is to have Hobbs’s terrorist group assassinate Howard on his live program.  The movie ends with a bit of narration saying, “This was the story of Howard Beale: The first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”