Close Encounters of the Third Kind


Looking over the big movie titles of 2014, there aren’t a whole bunch of trends to be found. The most noticeable has to be privacy/surveillance in the digital age, which is the subject of a major documentary (Citizenfour), one of the top-grossing hits of the year (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and one of the worst box office duds (Men, Women & Children). Also, there are other ties related to great scientific minds, such as with the oft-acknowledged pair The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, plus how those relate to films as different as The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, Transcendence, Particle Fever and Interstellar. And there was the surprising trend in truly good vampire movies, namely Only Lovers Left Alive, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and What We Do in the Shadows, although that last one hasn’t officially been released yet. One way to spot trends or at least connections between the year’s movies is to consider their influences, some of which are shared among various titles. We look at essentials of the past each week in this manner with our “Movies to See After…” lists, and occasionally the same oldies show up for multiple new releases. Those and other significant precursors relevant to this year’s noteworthy titles are now on the following list of movies to watch after you’ve seen the movies of 2014. Just as was the case last year, a lot of them are well-regarded and familiar classics that you probably should already have seen. But those are the kinds that most clearly inform […]


ET Movie

Within the logo of Amblin Entertainment lies one of Steven Spielberg’s most iconic images: a boy flying on a bicycle with a shrouded extraterrestrial friend in tow. This image also provides a fitting summary of how Spielberg’s films have been popularly understood — as wondrous, spectacular articulations of imagination seemingly possible only through an affirmative style of filmmaking. But there’s also that other side of E.T. that’s absent within Amblin’s logo, that side that’s about the paranoia of a government that coldly quarantines and dissects a force it doesn’t understand, the parts of the film that met your childlike wonder with a stark nightmare. The tensions between these two poles of Spielberg’s work are explored in depth in a new book by film scholar James Kendrick, whose “Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg” approaches the storied oeuvre of the most successful living filmmaker from the vantage point of his evident but less appreciated darker themes – his propensity to meet wondrous imagination with the worst tendencies of human nature. In fact, Kendrick argues that the dominant way we interpret Spielberg – as something of a reliable architect of affirming cinematic entertainment –prevents us from fully appreciating the depth and complexity of a director whose work oscillates on the pendulum between light and darkness, hope and despair. Here’s what Kendrick had to tell us about the darkness brooding within Spielberg’s films.


Fitzpatrick Turturro

Often I see a real person in the news or in a documentary and my mind immediately comes up with an actor to portray him or her in a biopic. This happened this week when I watched a short film about failed prophet Robert Fitzpatrick, who last year spent his life savings on subway ads in NYC warning that the end of the world would happen on May 21, 2011 (exactly 19 months before the just-passed Mayan choice). The 13-minute documentary, titled We Will Forget, is directed by Garret Harkawik, and you can watch it in full after the jump. Above is a still of Fitzpatrick next to a photo of my choice to play him in a dramatic story of his life, John Turturro. Perhaps you’ll think of someone else (my wife was reminded more of Bob Balaban; you might prefer Zeljko Ivanek or James Rebhorn), but to me Turturro was just born to play this retired MTA worker from Staten Island. He’s like a cross between Turturro’s turn as the real-life Herbie Stempel from Quiz Show and his role as the lonely, reclusive brother on the TV series Monk. There are some other Turturro characters in there, as well, I’m sure. He could definitely do the accent, the mannerisms and the climactic display of confused disappointment seen sadly at the end of the short. As long as the movie itself garned enough attention, this could be a good part to finally earn Turturro his long-overdue Oscar nomination.


Steven Spielberg

With a giant pile of movies to his name, Steven Spielberg has the considerable honor of being the only filmmaker who makes entertainment that’s massively popular, critically acclaimed and decade-enduring. It’s an illusive triumvirate. His fundamental success is owed to a lot of things, but principle among them is his childhood sense of wonder and magic – a sense he’s never let go of. His childhood was also spent with a camera in hand. From Jaws to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Indiana Jones to The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun and Jurassic Park and Amistad and Schindler’s List and Munich and, and, and…he’s been a prolific, skilled presence in the filmmaking world for going on 5 decades, and he’s done so by spanning genres, tones, and subjects. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a little kid who hid under his bed after watching Bambi.


George Lucas on Star Wars Set

A week and a half ago, Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails was released. On the surface, the film breathes Hollywood oxygen through-and-through. It’s a WWII era action film that uses its setting for broad family-friendly cheese-banter and CGI-heavy eye candy rather than an opportunity for a sober interrogation of history. Red Tails looks and feels like any Hollywood film geared toward as mass an audience as possible. But the studio that’s distributing it – 20th Century Fox – didn’t pay a dime to produce it. The reported $58 million cost to make Red Tails came solely out of the pocket of producer George Lucas, who had been attempting to get a film about the Tuskegee Airmen made since the early 1990s. He was continually met with resistance from a studio system that saw anything less than the biggest guaranteed appeal to the largest possible audience as a “risk,” including a heroic true story about African-American airmen. The ideology that closed the doors on George Lucas of all people reflects the same business mentality that inspired Jeffrey Katzenberg’s lengthy warning to other studios in a memo written during the same years that Lucas was first trying to get Red Tails financed.  In the memo, Katzenberg warned studios regarding their practice of exponentially centralizing all their resources in a few very expensive projects, resulting in high risk, little room for experimentation, and an increasing reliance on that coveted monolith known as the “mass audience” (which, to make things even more complicated, now includes […]


Star Wars

As much as I admire the incomparable films made during the era, New Hollywood (the term referring to innovative, risk-taking films made funded by studios from the mid-60s to the mid-70s) is a title that I find a bit problematic. The words “New Hollywood” better characterize the era that came after what the moniker traditionally refers to. Think about it: if “Old” or “Classical” Hollywood refers to the time period that stretches roughly from 1930 to 1960 when the studios as an industry maintained such an organized and regimented domination over and erasure of any other potential conception over what a film playing in any normal movie theater could be, then if we refer to the time period from roughly 1977 to now “New Hollywood,” the term then appropriately signifies a new manifestation of the old: regimentation, predictability, and limitation of expression. Where Old Hollywood studios would produce dozens of films of the same genre, New Hollywood (as I’m appropriating the term) could acutely describe the studios’ comparably stratified output of sequels, remakes, etc. What we traditionally understand to be New Hollywood was not so much its own monolithic era in Hollywood’s legacy, but a brief, strange, and wonderful lapse between two modes of Hollywood filmmaking that have dominated the industry’s history.


Holiday Yoda

It’s the final countdown. Dunuh na naaaa. Less than two weeks to go until Christmas, so naturally now’s the time to start buying things. Who needs organizational skills when you can imbue that action-film frenzied spirit into your final rounds of festive gift buying? Since I’m the collectible fiend around these parts, I’ve been tasked with listing the essential holiday gifts from that world for every film fan. It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve mentally spent way too much money in compiling the list myself. But hey, occupational hazard. Anyway, here follows 15 of the must-have collectibles for this holiday season, some regulars of the Merch Hunter column will recognize, and some will be brand new. Either way, they’re what movie lovers want. As this is my handiwork, you can expect a general mix of the uber-expensive and ultra-collectible as well as the affordable and accessible, more charming options. No snob am I….



Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as MrSmith1939 and 2BorNot2B in order to discuss some topical topic of interest. This week, the two daydream the ultimate reboot – an entire era of filmmaking brought back to life through the lens of modern directors. What styles should we bring back and homage? It is a good idea to let nostalgia drive us artistically? Will people in 30 years be harkening back to the Abramsian style?


Left: 1970s Kids, Right: Spielberg's 1970s Kids

Movies have a strange relationship with history, that’s for certain. On the one hand, they have the ability to bring to life, in spectacular detail, the intricate recreation of historical events. On the other hand, films can have a misleading and even potentially dangerous relationship with history, and can change the past for the benefit of storytelling or for political ends. And there’s always the option of using films to challenge traditional notions of history. Finally, many movies play with history through the benefit of cinema’s artifice. Arguably, it’s this last function that you see history function most often in relationship to mainstream Hollywood cinema. In playing with history, Hollywood rarely possesses a calculated political motive or a desire to recreate period detail. In seeking solely to entertain, Hollywood portrays the historical, but rarely history itself. Tom Shone of Slate has written an insightful piece about a unique presence of that historical mode all over the movies seeking to be this summer’s blockbusters. Citing X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Cowboys & Aliens as examples, Shone argues that this is an unusual movie summer in terms of the prominence of movies set in the past. However, while such a dense cropping of past-set films is unusual for this season, these movies don’t seem to be all that concerned with “the past” at all – at least, not in the way that we think.



You hear the phrase “This movie could never be made today” quite often, and it’s typically a thinly veiled means by which a creative team allows themselves to administer loving pats on their own backs. But in the context of at a 35th anniversary exhibition of the restoration of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver with a justifiably disgruntled Paul Schrader in attendance, such a sentence rings profoundly and depressingly true. Like many of you, I’ve seen Taxi Driver many times before. For many, it’s a formative moment in becoming a cinephile. But I had never until last weekend seen the film outside of a private setting. And in a public screening, on the big screen, I’m happy to say the film still has the potential to shock and profoundly affect viewers so many decades on. For me personally it was the most disturbing of any time I’d ever seen the film, and I was appropriately uncomfortable despite anticipating the film’s every beat. Perhaps it was because I was sharing the film’s stakes with a crowd instead of by myself or with a small group of people, or perhaps the content comes across as so much more subversive when projected onto a giant screen, or perhaps it was because the aura of a room always feels different when the creative talent involved is in attendance. For whatever reason, I found the film to be more upsetting than in any other context of viewing. But one of the most appalling moments of Taxi […]



We’ve taken you behind the scenes of Cowboys & Aliens and into the mind of director Jon Favreau, and today we dig deeper into the films that the filmmakers talked most about during the set visit. Cowboys & Aliens may be the only Steven Spielberg film that Steven Spielberg isn’t directing. From the conversations I shared with Jon Favreau and co-screenwriter Bob Orci on the set of the film, a select group of movies kept returning to the fold as titles that had a lot to do with the shaping of tone and storytelling. A theme quickly emerged. While Executive Producer Steven Spielberg was busy inviting the filmmakers to private screenings of new prints of The Searchers, the filmmakers were drawing on their childhood love of Amblin and the films of Spielberg himself. Still, even though it lacks diversity in the directorial column, this is one seriously formidable list of inspirational films.


Jon Favreau Cowboys and Aliens

Yesterday we took you out into the middle of New Mexico and behind the scenes of Cowboys & Aliens. Today, we continue our week-long set visit report by talking with director Jon Favreau. I’m standing in the middle of the desert, and Jon Favreau is holding an alien arm up toward my face. There’s this look in his eyes that reads as a mix of sheer excitement and a hopefulness that the group surrounding him approves of his alien arm. From the amount of questions buzzing him like airplanes taking a pass at a giant ape on the top of a tall building, it seems like they do. Favreau has navigated a jungle-like career (which started in earnest when he met Vince Vaughn on the set of Rudy) in order to stand in front of some sun-stroked journalists with a piece of painted plastic in his hand. That career has taken him from the college of PCU to the fighting style of Friends and through indie acclaim, Comic Con domination, and into the metal suit of Iron Man which, of course, led him to New Mexico in more ways than one.


Culture Warrior

Synesthesia (syn-es-the-sia, Brit. syn-aes-the-sia): “The production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body.” Synesthesia is a neurological disorder in which the experience of one sense motivates an involuntary association with another sense. Those who experience synesthesia, known as synesthetes, are able to either perceive letters or numbers as inherently colored, hear movement, or – in probably the best-known cases of the disorder – see music in the form of colors and/or associative shapes. Now, cognitive sciences seem, on the surface, to have little to do with the study of cinema, but the topic of synesthesia can be particularly helpful in understanding the way in which we interpret the interaction of the two senses most available in watching movies: the aural and the visual.



Keanu Reeves’ The Day The Earth Stood Still remake got us thinking about other impending re-imaginings of science fiction classics. That in turn got us thinking about “classic” sci-fi films that should never get remade. Which in turn got us thinking about a few that probably should.


Its odd to think while some kids couldn’t wait to take their brand new Star Wars lunchbox to show off at school, others were packing it away for future safekeeping. I guess it is a good thing that I kept all of my Pogs in special round plastic cases. Just kidding!

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published: 01.29.2015
published: 01.28.2015
published: 01.28.2015
published: 01.28.2015

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