Skip to main content

My engine's on fire! Can you believe that? And I was in such a good mood!


Always
(1989)

Spielberg’s only straight remake is as misjudged a piece of genre hopping as 1941, his sole stab at comedy a decade earlier,. Except that film at least has a crazy excess, for all its lack of real laughs. Always updated 1943’s A Guy Named Joe) and saw Spielberg dip his toe in the romance genre. You can count the number of times he’s subsequently attempted remakes or romances on one finger. As with laughers, he probably wisely realised love stuff wasn’t his forte.


Dabble with both comedy and romance, but in the service of an entirely different genre, and Spielberg can deliver something as fresh and vital as Raiders of the Lost Ark. But Always is a torpid affair, as if Spielberg buttoned himself down in order to respect the genre and the source material. He is diligent and earnest, but devoid of inspiration. You’d think this was just the next on his list of genres to tackle.


Yet the story goes that he and Richard Dreyfus first indulged their yen for the original movie while making Jaws, when they quoted lines at each other. It then shows up on the spooked family’s TV set in “Steven directed it really” Poltergeist, so it was clearly ever-brewing. The original was set during WWII, in which a recently deceased pilot returns as in spirit form to guide his replacement, and then reluctantly see his ex-girlfriend fall in love with said new guy. The ‘berg’s version follows the same basic template, but transposes the action to 1989 and an aerial firefighting team. 


A romance isn’t likely to move a breakneck speed, but it needs some momentum, some life in its bones. Always might be seen as the next stage in Spielberg’s desire to explore “adult” material and themes, following on from The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. He had been notably less than enthused about making Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade until the father/son dynamic caught his imagination (it shows in much of the so-so action), and Always (the beginning of a habit for delivering both a crowd-pleaser and a bid for critical acclaim in the same year) must have seemed like a significant statement. Stevie had grown up. But it actually suggests his newfound maturity is mere mimicry. He doesn’t really get romances, and he is certainly unable to ignite a spark between his leads or make the conflict and tragedy involving.


Part of the problem is the casting. Richard Dreyfuss is all wrong as Pete Sandich (the Spencer Tracey role in Joe). He leaves a vacuum at the centre of the movie, a stark contrast to the egghead energy and manic obsessiveness he brought to Jaws and Close Encounters respectively. Dreyfuss even looks dull. He was only in his early 40s when he made the picture, but he looks 10 years older. Grey and tempered, it’s difficult to see what Holly Hunter’s Dorinda (a ball of energy, even if she’s hitting all the notes of a typical Hunter role at the time) sees in him. Worse, Spielberg casts Brad Johnson as the new man in Dorinda’s life (Ted Baker). Johnson has all the charisma of a lumberyard, in only his second movie role (he vanished to TV and DTV as quickly as he arrived). It’s one thing not to be enthused by the departed, quite another to actively root against Holly finding new love because the proposed is the doziest man-hunk imaginable. It’s a fatal mistake, because we need to see, along with Pete, why Dorinda should move on with her life.


It’s ironic that the director, whose movies up until the mid ‘80s displayed a remarkable ability in predicting general audience’s tastes, slips up so resoundingly that a film the following year, treading similar territory, scores in every way this doesn’t. Ghost, from one of the Airplane! directors, pulls off the unfeasible feat of making you care for soppy Demi and generally slightly unsettling Patrick Swizzle. But Ghost conveys the illusion of deep feeling and loss, helped by an evergreen classic (Spielberg also tries that trick, but fails to conjure swoons). Perhaps the thriller plot was the key to Ghost breaking out; it had direction, whereas Always struggles to locate the next scene, and does so at such a crawl that the feeling this was an exercise for its director is reinforced; not a passion project (whatever he may say to the contrary).


 Jerry Belson adapted the screenplay; previously he worked an uncredited pass on Close Encounters and ironically (for such a fun-free ride as Always) eked out a career in TV comedy. His finished script is resolutely hackneyed; it’s not only the scenarios (which evoke a ‘40s movie, but not in the good way that you get from watching a ‘40s movie) but also the sentiment. By that I mean the sentiments expressed; surprisingly, for such a drippy title, this doesn’t drip buckets of sugary gloop over the viewer. Holly tries her best when she gets all teary over missing Dick, but the emptiness of the men in the movie means there’s nothing to get worked up about. It’s inert.


The dialogue is so so-so that it needs cast alchemy to make it fly. “It’s not the dress, it’s the way you see me in it.” “I sent you back to say goodbye. And until you do, she won’t be free.” One-line strains for cod-poetry, the other hits you over the head with its lack of polish. Here’s another; “I know now, The love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here”. What priceless pearls! When Audrey Hepburn’s angelic Hap informs Peter that, to gain his freedom, he must learn to give the same to Dorinda, you are forced to acknowledge this never has a chance to rise above the trite. It’s not just a show-don’t-tell thing, it’s that it’s so artless. And when a line as clumsy as “It’s a year tomorrow” (since Pete died) is inserted to give Dorinda realisation of Pete’s passing, it becomes clear something is very awry (as if she wouldn’t know exactly the date the love of her life had snuffed it; presumably she would have spent the next day oblivious if Ted hadn’t reminded her).


Spielberg and Belson have no interest in the broader philosophical questions either, although whenever there’s a hint of the eternal realms you can see the Spielmeister stirring from his stupor. It’s another area Ghost got down pat; the essential fascination with the beyond. Show just enough not to overwhelm the love story. The restraint here would be commendable if the romance engaged, but instead you long for more of scenes such as those with the crazy old man who repeats Pete’s lines and the bus driver who dies but is brought back to life. When Hap informs Pete that six months have passed on Earth, but only a few hours to him, it seems as if we might be privy to a fully-formed take on the afterlife. But it never materialises. Hap is a Yoda figure without even the dressed up homilies; it’s as if Spielberg is afraid of being anything of appearing opinionated. Again, at least Ghost takes a view, as overtly Christian as it is. Spielberg succeeds in making the afterlife as slack-jawed as the average Ron Howard movie. In Ghost, The Righteous Brothers made much of the moment where the lovers exchange a final kiss. Here, the recognition is devoid of impact, apart from some pretty lighting as Dorinda heads to the surface of the lake.


If the romance crashes and burns, the attempts at humour are as lame as can be. It’s frightfully funny when John Goodman’s Al gets oil all over his face. Again and again. Then gets covered in fire repellent. And gets pissed off with brawny Brad the clumsy klutz. Goodman does his best, and he’s never less than an agreeable presence (in anything), but this is the kind of thankless supporting role he is too often consigned; the big loveable fat man sidekick. It’s great seeing him and Hunter reunited (Stevie was a big Raising Arizona fan?) but neither can make a silk purse out of this one. Brad is supposed to be a charming goofball but his funny bone was absent at birth. And Dreyfuss is stuck sulking for 90% of the duration. It’s nice to see Audrey Hepburn one last time, but she’s so lightweight and unaffecting, she virtually immaterial. Original choice Sean Connery might have added some heft, but even he couldn’t have made Dreyfuss more “spirited”.  Blink and you’ll miss Keith David (maybe he just wanted to say he’d worked with the ‘berg?)


Even the standard Spielberg sure things are as doused as the fires Pete and co put out. The action finale at least works up a pulse, but it shoots itself in the foot before Dorinda takes off. Her action is so foolish, given her ropey flying skills displayed earlier, that she loses audience sympathy by battling the fires herself. Spielberg hasn’t worked enough at her psychology to let us empathise with her fragile mental state (and certainly not enough to suggest why she’d want to save Ted from danger, the big galoot). There’s a nice opening shot of a seaplane coming into view behind some startled fishermen, and sporadically an image packs a punch (Al’s reaction to Pete’s plane exploding, through his dirtied window) or are beautifully composed (Al, on the runway, trailing balloons) but Mikael Salomon bathes the picture in snoozy golden light (he’s work on the same year’s The Abyss is outstanding, however). Likewise, you’d be hard-pressed to recall anything about John Williams’ autopilot score.


Whatever you think oof Spielberg’s later career trajectory (and I’m generally not a huge fan; most of his work from the ‘90s onwards is reliable crafted but fundamentally flawed, usually due to broken-backed narratives), it’s evident he was undergoing an internal reconfiguration around this time. His desire to be taken seriously made his event movies seem calculated even by his standards, while his lack of real intellect stymied aspirations toward tackling weightier material. He’s not been the same since he stopped following his “shallow” populist instincts as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, that’s from the early ‘80s onwards. On the plus side, Always was in no real danger of wearing the dunce cap of Spielberg’s worst movie; Hook was just around the corner. The only way from there could be up.

** 


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) (SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica ’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel  had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

Just wait. They’ll start listing side effects like the credits at the end of a movie.

Contagion  (2011) (SPOILERS) The plandemic saw Contagion ’s stock soar, which isn’t something that happens too often to a Steven Soderbergh movie. His ostensibly liberal outlook has hitherto found him on the side of the little people (class action suits) and interrogating the drugs trade while scrupulously avoiding institutional connivance (unless it’s Mexican institutional connivance). More recently, The Laundromat ’s Panama Papers puff piece fell fall flat on its face in attempting broad, knowing satire (in some respects, this is curious, as The Informant! is one of Soderbergh’s better-judged films, perhaps because it makes no bones about its maker’s indifference towards its characters). There’s no dilution involved with Contagion , however. It amounts to a bare-faced propaganda piece, serving to emphasise that the indie-minded director is Hollywood establishment through and through. This is a picture that can comfortably sit alongside any given Tinseltown handwringing over the Wa