CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
A first contact movie that never mentions the word alien, Spielberg’s earliest sci-fi establishes the blueprint he would later gear for sentimentalism in ET, and outright terror in War of the Worlds. This falls somewhere between those two poles, opening with a devolved space-invasion checklist in which characters are rightly relegated to a succession of strange occurrences we already know the answers to. Act two moves back into the kind of formula you expect from Spielberg — storytelling grounded firmly in the eyes of children, beats string-blasted by John Williams. Something more straightforward. So you’re not expecting a curve-ball when the final half-hour slips into a carefully induced reverie that can only be described as Spielberg doing 2001. This beguiling, near-wordless symphony-with-pictures will leave you pondering I’m not sure what. Pondering something.
Serial killer on the loose in San Francisco, only one grizzled cop for the job.
Unusually for an action movie, carrying my attention throughout wasn’t the action — which was assured — but the eye-catching photography constantly permeating the picture. Shots artfully framed, awesome panoramas of the San Francisco cityscape, sharp contrasts, and — it has to be said — the image of Clint Eastwood, its leading man. One such example tracks his character, maverick inspector Harry Callaghan, walking down the road having just foiled a downtown bank robbery with some spectacular marksmanship. Don Siegel arranges this scene of devastation with a burst fire-hydrant, an upturned car, and flustered shoppers in broad daylight, all around Eastwood, whose insouciant strut juxtaposes it all like a giant middle-finger.
It works both ways though. The sequence that implies due process is putting serial killers back out on the street, after Callaghan has tortured his main suspect, wrangles with this viewer. Such messaging has been described as fascist — I think it’s sincere but too clumsy for me to take seriously, a case of scriptwriter and future NRA-guru John Milius conflating his medium with his politics. If there were due process in action movies, they wouldn’t be action movies, and if real-life law enforcement behaved like they do in action movies, we wouldn’t want them to. Leave the logic of genre-cinema to genre-cinema.
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
Pleasant but insubstantial, the Coens’ songful rendering of the Deep South shimmers with Hollywood artificiality, and, well, not much else. Perhaps my lack of familiarity Homer’s Odyssey, on which this is to some extent based, would be worth an extra point. But I am familiar enough with the Coens’ work to know this is amiable by their standards.
SAVING MR. BANKS
I love Mary Poppins. Frankly I’m suspicious of anyone who doesn’t. Songs, performances, storytelling, pretty much everything except the “Jolly Holiday” segment. So with those cards on the table, there’s more than usual riding on this based-on-true-story, ‘based’ being the operative word. Structurally, a flashback thread documenting P.L. Travers’ childhood in Australia is incorporated into her present-day negotiations with Walt Disney, who wants to secure the rights to make a film based on her Mary Poppins books. (Disney is played by Tom Hanks, a casting choice so perfect it’s almost surprising the role hadn’t come along for him sooner; Travers by Emma Thompson in her iron mode.)
Those flashbacks, which delve deep into the traumatic tales bubbling under Travers’ work, adopt a heighted tone that’s almost suggestive of the magic realism of the 1964 film. However, the line between magic and unreality is crossed by Colin Farrell’s theatrics as Mr Banks, the father whom she failed to save. This being a drama about the making of Mary Poppins, there are irresistible moments, but even to enjoy them I had to tune out Thomas Newman’s twinkly, woefully overbearing score, which cakes everything with an ersatz sweetness.
All of that is on the film’s own terms. In context, its narrative is almost entirely constructed — infused with real detail yes, but impossible to draw any conclusions from given the way they are strung together. P.L. Travers would doubtless recognise a galling double-irony: she fought obstinately to prevent her work from being Disneyfied — here, 27 years after her passing, her own life-story befalls that same fate.