Tag Archive | Steven Spielberg

Retro Recaps: Amazing Stories – The Pumpkin Competition

Retro Recaps is where we will look back at old television episodes from the past, and analyze their story, content, and much more.

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Though only lasting two seasons, Steven Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories, left an impression on my young mind many years later. While I didn’t have fond memories of the two episodes he directed, there were others that left little bits of residue in my youthful brain.

One of them, was a tale of the saintly and the selfish, that seemed to have a little bit of author Roald Dahl thrown into it’s storyline.

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The 32nd Yarborough County Fair is about to end another successful year. This time, the judges for the annual pumpkin contest have chosen Mildred McMinamin (June Lockhart) as 1st place winner!

However, the announcement is met by a sharp ‘NO’ from the audience, as wealthy local Elma Dinnock (Poly Holiday), cuts through the crowd and storms onto the stage. Elma claims that since she has not won in the 21 years she’s been entering the contest, it must be fixed (even though we see in one moment, that Mildred’s pumpkin is bigger than Elma’s).

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Her tirade is interrupted by Mildred, who claims her failure to win is due to the angry woman’s stingy nature. Elma owns half the county and has foreclosed on a number of people’s properties, and Mildred has decided to have her say in the matter.

“To be rewarded in life, Elma,” lectures Mildred, “one must give. Whether you’re raising vegetables or raising children.”

The words do nothing to change the old woman’s feelings, and she storms off the stage.ASTPC-1

Returning home, Elma is perturbed when a man named Bertram Carver (J.A. Preston) shows up at her doorstep. She quickly demands this ‘salesman’ leave, but allows him in when he says he can help her win next year’s competition.

Mr Carver claims he’s a professor of agriculture, and is working on finding a way to help end world hunger. Naturally, Elma cares nothing about the plight of the hungry, and wants him to get to the point.

It is then that Mr Carver pulls out a large green object the size of bowling ball. Cutting off a piece of it, he gives it to Elma to eat. When she claims that it ‘tastes like a pea,’ he confirms her observation.

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Bertram has created a formula to enlarge fruits and vegetables, but needs $10,000 to finish his research. He is willing to give some of his formula to help Elma, if she will give him the money he needs.

Elma’s desire to win gets the better of her, and she goes to her secret safe. However, she retrieves only $5,000, claiming it is all she can spare Mr Carver. The cash-starved botanist reluctantly takes the money, and gives the miserly woman a flask and some instructions.

As growing season begins, Elma plants a pumpkin seed with the formula, but over a period of days, nothing happens. Just when she is ready to sue Mr Carver for false advertising, she awakens one morning to the sounds of breaking wood! Rushing out to her backyard, she finds that an enormous pumpkin has sprouted in her garden!ASTPC-3

Shortly afterward, she goes to sign up for the 33rd annual pumpkin competition, and runs into Mildred.

Mildred claims her pumpkin is bigger than last year’s, and says she is telling Elma this to not only save her from disappointment, but also paying the entry fee (since the miserly woman hates to part with money).

This concern causes Elma to laugh and she proposes a wager: everything she has (her estate and savings) against everything Mildred has (a small trailer-home and meager finances). Her goading gets Mildred to consider, and she smiles at the nervous expression that washes over her opponent’s face.

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“Mildred,” she says, “do your friends really believe all that about, ‘blessed be the givers?'”

“I’m sure they do,” says a shaken Mildred.

“Good,” smiles Elma, “since you’ll be asking them to give you a place to stay!”

Elma then attempts to hire a local moving service to transport her pumpkin to the fair, but finds they are unavailable. Forced to get creative with time running out, she uses railroad spikes and rope to attach the pumpkin to her car, before driving off.ASTPC-5

However, the friction of the pumpkin against the road soon causes chunks of it to tear off over the course of the trip, leaving a sloppy trail behind the car.

By the time Elma has reached the fair, the pumpkin is 1/3 it’s original size…and Mildred has won for the second year in a row! Naturally, Elma throws a fit, claiming that hers is the biggest pumpkin there.

“Obviously, you haven’t seen this year’s entries,” chuckles the judge.

Opening a door behind the main stage, Elma is shocked to see numerous pumpkins…each as large as the one she grew!

“Quite amazing, really,” says Mildred. “A professor asked us for $5,000 to complete his research to end hunger. Of course, we all gave, and in return, he gave us his growth formula!”

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We then see Elma shaking on the ground, realizing that her greed has not only cost her the contest, but also the bet she made with Mildred…all because she couldn’t truly “give.”

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And that was The Pumpkin Competition.

This was one of those episodes that I only saw once, but remembered in bits and pieces. Most of my memories had to do with the enormous pumpkin of Elma’s, from it being dragged behind her car to it’s final ‘ruined state’ (though in my mind, the drive was longer, and there was less of the pumpkin when she arrived).

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There was also a scene I recalled, where Elma drives past a family changing a flat tire on their car. A boy in the car starts freaking out about ‘the great pumpkin,’ to which his Mom claims he’s “too old for fairy tales.”

When it comes to the characters in the episode, Elma Dinnock is our main focus. Played by actress Poly Holiday, many had already seen her play a somewhat similar character, in Joe Dante’s Gremlins…which also seemed to be an offshoot of Miss Gulch from the 1939 Wizard of Oz film. Just like Gulch, Holiday’s character roles were wealthy people who sneered down their noses at being “insulted” by those they felt below them. Though in the case of her character in this episode, she lived to be tormented by her decisions.

Strangely, Holiday’s portrayal of Elma feels a little less abrasive than one would assume. It almost feels like they hold back from making her too much of a caricature, though they do hammer over our heads just how obsessed she is with money in a few scenes.

There even comes a minor character moment when Mildred is lecturing Elma. When she mentions ‘raising vegetables or children,’ this causes the old woman to gasp. It could be possible that due to unforeseen circumstances in her life, Elma may have wanted to have a family and children, but being denied such things, turned her attention to more ‘monetary pursuits.’

June Lockhart’s Mildred is the straight-arrow of the piece, taking us back to her roles as the mother figure in the TV series Lassie, and Lost in Space. Her character isn’t wealthy like Elma, but she gets by well enough on her beliefs, and has a grandmotherly quality to her line deliveries.

Just like in episodes of The Twilight ZoneThe Pumpkin Competition is a story that shows someone being a greedy jerk, and getting their comeuppance.

Elma’s stinginess ends up being her downfall, when we find out she could have won the contest had she just paid Mr Carver the full $10,000 he asked for.

Of course, one has to wonder if he offered the formula to the rest of the locals as a way to get back at Elma. Or, maybe Mildred didn’t have enough money, but was able to convince her friends to chip in, thus why they were able to “share the wealth” of the formula.

Plus, given the local moving company was unavailable when Elma called, maybe they were busy moving the other contestant’s pumpkins to the fairgrounds?

Writer Peter Z Orton depicts a place that seems somewhat unstuck in time. The vehicles are decidedly retro, and we only have the fair location and Elma’s home to go off of. Orton was the story editor on half of the Amazing Stories episodes that were made, but this episode marks the only time he is credited as the sole writer for a story.

Directing duties fell to Norman Reynolds. This would be one of two Stories episodes he directed…the only directorial credits in his career. Many may know his name from doing production and art design in the 80’s and 90’s, contributing to films like Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark (to name a few).

Yes, The Pumpkin Competition doesn’t rank as highly as others, but it definitely into the methodology that would be a part of many Steven Spielberg-related projects: the ability for extraordinary things to happen to ordinary people, and maybe throw in a little morality tale into the mix.

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Retro Recaps: The Twilight Zone (Season 3, Episode 21) – Kick The Can

When it comes to Rod Serling’s television series The Twilight Zone, the episodes that most often come to people’s minds, are those that deal with some of the darker elements of humanity.

However, buried within it’s 156-episodes, there are some stories that tend to stick in our minds, that often don’t rely on aliens, or humans turning on each other.. One that I’ve seen show up in some people’s favorite episodes list (and that I recall watching with my Dad over the years), premiered on February 9th, 1962.

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The episode opens at Sunnyvale Rest, a home for the aged. As the camera shows us it’s tired residents, we see Charles Whitley (Ernest Truex), happily proclaim that his son is taking him home today.

TZ321-1When Charles’ son arrives, he explains to his father that he only meant to talk with him about the possibility of going home, and the two quietly part ways.

As his son drives away, Charles sees several kids playing a game of kick-the-can across the street from Sunnyvale. One of them kicks a dented tin can towards him, and Charles picks it up. As he holds it close, Rod Serling emerges from behind a bush, and delivers his opening monologue:

Sunnyvale Rest, a home for the aged. A dying place, and a common children’s game called kick-the-can, that will shortly become a refuge for a man who knows he will die in this world, if he doesn’t escape…into The Twilight Zone.

TZ321-2We next see Charles talking with a friend of his at Sunnyvale, named Ben Conroy (Russell Collins). While Charles holds the tin can from earlier (maybe he traded the kids for another in the home?), Ben complains how noisy the kids are outside their window.

Charles reminds him that the two of them were just as noisy as youngsters, but begins to wonder if those games they played, and some of what they believed in those younger days…may be the key to staying young.

Ben just dismisses these ideas, telling Charles that they’re old men now, but Charles dwells on his thoughts.

TZ321-3Concerned for his friend’s sanity, Ben tells the rest home superintendent Mr Cox (John Marley) about his fears. Things don’t get much better when the two observe Charles trying to act young, first shoving an empty wheelchair across the living room, and then running through the sprinkler outside! Mr Cox has Charles placed in bed, and warns Ben that his friend may need to be isolated for observation, unless he behaves himself.

Ben tries to explain the predicament to his friend, but Charles claims he doesn’t want to become “a vegetable” like a number of those in the home. When Ben snaps at his friend and tells him to “use his brain,” Charles quiets down…before looking at the tin can on his night table.

TZ321-5Later that evening, Charles wakes up a few of the residents, and they convene in a small room. When he stirs up memories of the games they played in their youth, their faces light up. Charles eagerly makes them buy into his request to play a game of kick-the-can in the summer evening, and soon the group is quietly waking up the other residents to join them.

Charles personally attempts to get Ben to join them, but Ben once again claims they’re too old to be doing such things. Even his request that his friend help him try to rekindle the lost magic of their youth does nothing to sway the old man, and Charles quietly leaves his friend’s bedside.

tz321-8One of the seniors has a stash of hidden firecrackers, and sets some off outside to distract the night nurse. Once she leaves, Charles and the others rush outside.

Ben goes to Mr Cox’s office door, and tells what Charles has done. The two rush outside to bring in the seniors, but only find a number of children playing kick-the-can under the streetlight!

Mr Cox rushes off behind the house to search for his missing residents, when Ben sees a little boy who looks just like Charles did in his youth!

TZ321-6Ben realizes that his friend was right, and pleads with Charles to let him play too. But the boy merely looks upon Ben as a stranger, and he and the other kids rush off into the night, their voices echoing on the wind.

Sadly, Ben finds the discarded tin can, and realizes that his mindset has doomed him to be what he claimed to be: an old man…one who has now lost one of the last friends he had.

As Ben walks back to the now-empty house, Rod Serling delivers the closing monologue:

“Sunnyvale Rest, a dying place for people who have forgotten the fragile magic of youth. A dying place for those who have forgotten that childhood, maturity and old age, are curiously intertwined and not separate. A dying place for those who have grown too stiff in their thinking, to visit…The Twilight Zone.”

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Over the course of it’s 5 seasons, The Twilight Zone would sometimes deal with the topics of youth, and age. Out of all of them, Kick the Can could probably be considered one of the most treacly of them all.

For much of the episode, the Camera never strays very far from Charles Whitley. Ernest Truex’s role definitely has some small memorable moments, but for much of the episode, one can’t help but wonder if Charles really has mentally started to lose his grip on reality. It could be easy to imagine that his talk about children’s games and magic keeping one young, is him trying to come to terms with the thought that he is never going to leave Sunnyvale Rest. Even so, Charles’ attempts to wish for something innocent is rewarded, and does not backfire on him like in some of the episodes, where wishing for vengeance or selfish desires, backfires on a number of “adult” figures.

Speaking of adult figures, Charles’ friend Ben is front-and-center as the “cantankerous old man” in the episode. However, he is not totally without heart. There is still the friendship he and Charles share, and he almost acts like a big brother figure at times. This comes to mind when he tries to get Charles to “act normally,” lest Mr Cox and the home’s nurse isolate Charles because of his actions.

The episode was written by George Clayton Johnson, a science fiction writer who seemed to write about age and time quite a bit. Along with writing an additional eight episodes of The Twilight Zone, he co-wrote the screenplay to Logan’s Run, in which a man tries to escape his societal fate, once he turns 30 years old.

In 1983, Kick the Can got a second chance at life, when Steven Spielberg directed a more up-to-date version of the story, for his portion of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie.

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A scene from the Kick the Can segment, from Twilight Zone: The Movie.

In this version of the story (also written by the original episode’s writer), the magic of playing kick-the-can is brought to the Sunnyvale Rest Home in Florida, by a man known as Mr Bloom (played by Scatman Crothers). Bloom gets a number of the old folks to play the game, but unlike the television show’s episode, the regressed elderly people still retain their memories. Though they soon wish to return to their actual ages, the chance to experience their youth again has energized them to make the most of their remaining years.

The film even attempts to do it’s own version of the Charles and Ben friendship. This comes in the form of a person named Agee, who decides not to return to his old age, and wishes to have a second chance at youthful adventure. A friend of his named Leo Conroy (Bill Crowley), who didn’t partake in the game of kick-the-can, has second thoughts and wants to to go off with Agee. However, the now-young-man tells Crowley that he cannot go with him, and he vanishes out an open window, as freely as if he were Peter Pan.

Much like it’s 1962 counterpart, the 1983 version feels much more innocent when put next to the film’s adaptations of more popular episodes like It’s a Good Life, and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

Seeing Kick the Can after all these years, makes me feel that it has slipped a few notches in my list of favorite Twilight Zone episodes, but some of what it preaches to the audience, can still be something to consider.

Even if many of us in the lasts few generations have never played a game of kick-the-can, the story’s request that we allow ourselves to not forget who we once were, can end up keeping us young, in ways that may not be seen by the naked eye.

Retro Recaps: E.R. (Season 5, Episode 8), “The Good Fight”

Growing up in the 1990’s, I still remember when NBC ruled Thursday nights, with their Must-See-TV lineup.

Thanks to the involvement of Jurassic Park alumni Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg, I soon had another show to watch along with Seinfeld and Frasier, when E.R. debuted in 1995.

Like millions across the country, I was soon deeply engrossed in the interconnected lives of the staff of County General Hospital, in Chicago, Illinois. The constantly-roving cameras, along with the hyper-kinetic scenes when the doctors would have to contend with emergency situations, soon had me sucked in.

All these years later, there’s been a few episodes that I can still recall parts of from memory. One of them came out twenty years ago this week, and I thought it fitting to do a Retro Recap on it.

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As the episode starts, we find John Carter (Noah Wyle) and several of the E.R. staff, working on a little girl named Corinna Nelson (Nicolette Little). While her father Sawyer (John Thaddeus) only has a gash on his forehead from the vehicular accident they were involved in, Corinna has a ruptured spleen. Med student Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) takes Sawyer to be stitched up, before returning to Corinna.

ER-TGF-6Doctors Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) and Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle) soon enter the room to examine the little girl, when her eyes close and her blood pressure spikes! A blood transfusion has been set up, but her body does not seem to be taking it. Lucy is sent to ask Sawyer if his daughter has any special conditions, but upon checking on him, she finds he has disappeared.

Sawyer had given Lucy some information, including the phone number for Corinna’s mother. Upon calling her, Lucy is given some shocking news: Sawyer’s name is actually Keith, and he kidnapped his daughter a few weeks prior!

ER-TGF-7Things don’t get better when they find out that Corinna has a very uncommon blood type, and the blood draw taken from Keith after the accident, confirms a match with his daughter. Carter inquires to the nearest blood banks, but finds nothing. Meanwhile, Lucy’s shift ends, and she attempts to follow the street address Keith gave her, even though Carter feels he just gave her false information.

Carter is soon relieved by Dr Greene, and takes off with a woman he knows named Roxanne Please (Julie Bowen). However, he also is informed by a member of the Chicago Police Department, that they found Keith’s totaled car came from a dealership in the Chicagoland area.

Carter attempts to spend the afternoon with Roxanne, but his mind is still on Corinna, and he heads off for the dealership, hoping to find information on Keith. There he finds out that Keith is a bookie, and the salesman tells Carter to check with a Bellhop at the Delaware Hotel downtown for more information.

ER-TGF-8Carter does so, and is surprised to find that Lucy is already there. The address Keith gave her was a former place he lived, and some locals in the area directed her to the hotel. A bellhop tells them that a guy named Toby knows Keith, and recommends they check out a meat-packing plant.

Back at the hospital, Corinna’s mother has arrived, but her daughter’s condition has worsened. With the lack of blood (her mother’s blood type does not match), her kidneys are in danger of shutting down.

It is then that Dr Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) gives the team some hope. The rare donor program has found some frozen units of Corinna’s blood type in Nashville. The blood is soon on the way, and Corinna is prepped for surgery for her ruptured spleen.

ER-TGF-9Meanwhile, Carter and Lucy have gone from the meat-packing plant, to a dilapidated neighborhood looking for Toby. Lucy manages to find a relation who says he may be at a market nearby. However, as she glances up at the nearby El train platform, she sees Keith on it!

Carter quickly rushes across the street and jumps the turnstile. Unfortunately, he is accosted for not paying the fare, and he watches as the train leaves with Keith on it. Carter and Lucy then find Toby, who claims he doesn’t have Keith’s contact information, but suggests talking to a guy named Uncle Joey at Soldier Field.

Back at County General, the blood has been received, but there’s bad news. Several small holes have been found in the bag, which could mean the contents may have been exposed to bacteria. This leads to Dr Benton and the others to performing a “blood-less surgery,” attempting to repair the girl’s spleen, while trying to keep her from losing what little blood she has left.

ER-TGF-10Taking Uncle Joey’s advice, Carter and Lucy head to another address on the south side of Chicago. As they wander around some dilapidated buildings, they both begin to question each other’s motives in looking for Keith. Carter claims he went looking because he wanted to help. Lucy on the other hand, feels responsible since Keith walked away when her back was turned (which Carter had berated her for earlier).

“I shouldn’t have made you feel that way,” admits Carter. “Truth is, you’re the only med student I had that showed any promise.”

Things don’t get better when Carter ends up taking a fall, and dislocating his shoulder. The two decide to leave, but find that someone has torched Carter’s Jeep!

They then take off on foot, and soon come to a payphone. Lucy decides to call Toby back to see if he can provide more information, but Carter feels that they’ve reached a dead-end.

ER-TGF-11Surprisingly, Toby comes through, and provides them with an address that leads them to a small wooden shack along some train tracks. They find evidence that Keith and Corinna had been living in the shack, along with a phone message.

Playing back the message, they hear Keith’s voice telling someone named Inga that he’s across the street, and to check on Corinna at the hospital.

This sends Lucy and Carter headed back to the hospital to look for Inga, when Lucy thinks of Keith saying the words, “across the street.”

ER-TGF-12The two end up rushing into a restaurant called Doc Magoo’s across from County General, and sure enough…Keith is there!

Keith is quickly rushed over to the hospital, where Lucy draws his blood. He’s then wheeled into the room with his daughter and ex-wife, but it is then that Dr Greene explains Corinna’s condition. The spleen surgery came out successfully, but given how much time has elapsed since she first needed the blood transfusion, Corinna has slipped into a coma. She’s had multiple seizures, and her kidneys have shut down.

“But his blood will make her better, right?” asks Corinna’s Mom.

“A lot of damage has been done,” says Dr Green, quietly.

ER-TGF-13After getting his arm in a sling, Carter goes up on the roof, and finds Lucy there. While they were able to get Corinna the blood she needed, Lucy is upset that they couldn’t have saved her from her current condition.

“Some patients get to you more than others,” says Carter, sitting down next to her. “I know. But when you do everything that you can…sometimes, even more than you though you could, you got to walk away knowing you fought the good fight. You fought the good fight, Lucy. Tomorrow, you’ll fight another one.”

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When it came to E.R., the general format for an episode, usually involved weaving multiple stories together like a hospital-based soap opera. Sometimes however, the show writers would give their multiple plot-threads a break, and focus on a singular event like this one.

In the E.R., the fight to save Corinna ends up being an event that touches almost every regular character on the show (even George Clooney’s Dr Doug Ross shows up for a few minutes). However, it feels almost like the secondary story arc, with the main focus being on John Carter and Lucy Knight’s quest to find Corinna’s father.

For the show’s fifth season, Lucy Knight was a newcomer to the hospital staff: a third-year medical student, but one that had some difficulty asking questions and getting a handle on certain elements. This led to a series of mishaps that soon ended up with her and John Carter at odds with each other.

With this episode, we both got to see each of them being strong-willed and caring people, who just want to help. The storyline isn’t too different from those we’ve seen before, where two characters who don’t get along, are forced to find common ground to achieve a goal.

The episode also had the two sharing some personal information about themselves. At one point when the topic turns to Keith “abandoning” his daughter, John and Lucy begin to divulge a bit about their own fathers. Carter admits that a father should stick around for his kids, only to find out from Lucy that her father wasn’t around when she was young.

The episode worked to bridge the communication gap between them, and going forward, the two ended up becoming a fan-favorite “pairing” that is still talked about to this day.

Looking back on the episode now, the storyline of the two looking for Keith Nelson seems a bit ridiculous. I doubt any medical drama today would use such a storytelling device, but the concept of doing whatever it takes to try and save someone definitely spoke to me. There’s even an added “emergency beat” when Carter comes across a woman in a housing complex, who is suffering from tuberculosis.

The final moment with John and Lucy taking a beat after their adventure, is still one of my favorite moments from the series. Carter’s speech about “fighting the good fight,” is one that I sometimes think about in my quieter moments.

Book Review: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction

Over the last 30 years, writer/director James Cameron has made a number of memorable, and successful films.

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Filmmaker James Cameron.

While he has delved into themes of espionage (True Lies) and period romance (Titanic), the bulk of his work takes place within the genre known as science fiction. Some of these films include The Terminator, The Abyss, and Avatar.

Recently, Cameron partnered with the television channel AMC, to create the six-part original series, AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. For the show, Cameron’s goal was to sit down with six of the biggest names in science fiction, and get their perspectives on the importance, and the impact of the genre.

These guests include directors Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.), George Lucas (THX-1138, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar), Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim, The Shape of Water), Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), and actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who portrayed the Terminator in Cameron’s film series).

Insight Editions’ book reproduces Cameron’s interviews in full, and offers several topical summaries by a number of people familiar with science fiction. These topics include dark futures, artificial intelligence, time-travel, and much more.

When I saw the interview lineup, I did question the inclusion of Schwarzenegger (given that Arnold has never directed a science fiction film). However, Cameron seems to have also included himself, as an unofficial interviewee within the book.

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James Cameron’s painted concept of the Terminator, once Schwarzenegger was cast for the role.

One of his cohorts named Randall Frakes (who has worked with him on a number of projects), acts as the interviewer for Jim’s views on science fiction. Over the years, I’ve often heard the story of how Cameron was inspired by Star Wars, quit his job as a truck driver, and got into film profuction. With the Frakes/Cameron interview, it was definitely an eye-opening look into what makes Cameron tick regarding science fiction, as well as some of the decisions he makes regarding his films.

It should be noted that when Cameron gets around to interviewing his guests, he chooses to mainly discuss the science fiction topics their work tends to focus on. For example, you won’t find Guillermo Del Toro expounding on time-travel, but you will get his views on monsters in science fiction (plus, he talks about the time he and a friend encountered a UFO!).

If you’ve studied any of the directors that Cameron interviews, you’re probably going to find some overlap with the information they provide. I was already well-versed in Spielberg’s handling of the late Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished film A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), and most of what he talks about during his interview, I was well aware of.

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Director George Lucas (left), explains his thought processes to James Cameron (right).

Of all the interviews, I felt that George Lucas’ discussion with Cameron came across as a bit ‘detached’ at times. One can sense Cameron wanting to possibly steer the conversation a little deeper towards Star Wars, but George doesn’t seem that interested in dissecting something he’s probably already discussed dozens of times before. Of interest to me, was his expounding a bit deeper into his feelings about inter-connectivity and micro-bacteria, which seemed to tie into that most loathed of prequel subjects: midichlorians. George also comes across as more of a realist, than his more optimistic friend, Steven.

While Spielberg and Lucas were two of the guys I was very familiar with, it was the likes of Nolan, Scott, and Del Toro whom I had little knowledge of.

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Filmmaker Ridley Scott.

Of the three, it is Ridley Scott who is the ‘old master’ of science fiction here, and one can almost feel Cameron acting like an excited fan, getting to interview a man after his own heart.

In recent years, Scott has made a comeback into science fiction with films like Prometheus and The Martian, which Cameron seems to have been heavily enamored with (he mentions it’s ‘science-fact’ premise to a number of his interviewees). Of course, the pendulum swings both ways, as Scott tells Cameron that Avatar inspired him to consider returning to the realms of science fiction.

The book also gets a teensy bit ‘political’ as it delves into some topics, such as how people perceive science in this day-and-age. I was surprised during one interview where Cameron seemed to ‘hijack’ the conversation, and expound a bit on his own views and research about artificial intelligence. While he didn’t feel that his Terminator films were some form of self-fulfilling prophecy, he does tell about an experience regarding how some people may be looking to misuse A.I., the way people ended up making a mess of things with atomic energy.

Along with a number of visuals from science fiction films (via still-frames and posters), the book is filled with a number of original art pieces created by Cameron. Most people are not aware that he is also an artist, and has been doing science fiction art for many years, whether for his own pleasure, or as concept pieces for films he has done.

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Concept art made by James Cameron, for his unmade science fiction short, Xenogenesis.

Most notable are a number of concept drawings and paintings done for an unmade short called Xenogenesis. It is fascinating to look at these, and see how Cameron utilized them in other films he’s done.

A prime example is this piece on the left. The giant robotic vehicle has elements that would be utilized for the tank-like Hunter-Killers in 1984’s The Terminator, while the female character doing battle with it in her own mechanical vehicle, seems eerily reminiscent of Ripley’s battle with the Alien Queen in his 1986 film sequel, Aliens.

For those expecting Cameron to mostly sit aside and let his guests speak, you may find yourselves disappointed. This isn’t someone from the entertainment section of a news program asking throwaway questions, but someone who is here to ask some very deep questions.

Readers may also grow a little tired, as Cameron tends to monopolize some conversations. This is most notable in his own interview with Frakes. It seems that Jim could go on-and-on with all the information he’s accumulated over the years.

Even so, James Cameron’s The Story of Science Fiction is a book I would highly recommend to those who are fans of Cameron, or any of the guests he speaks with. Even if you may know a lot about a few of those being interviewed, what you glean from reading about the additional guests and the science fiction genre in general, will surely be an eye-opener to many.

Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,’ 10 Years Later

Inspired by the Saturday Matinee Serials like Flash Gordon and Commando Cody that he saw as a boy, George Lucas would combine his memories of those shows with mythology and “the hero’s journey,” to create one of the most pop-culturally loved (and loathed) space-adventure series of all time.

Though not much of a storyteller, George was largely a man of ideas, and on a Hawaiian beach with Steven Spielberg in 1977, he shared another serial-inspired idea with his famous friend.

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L to R: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford on the set of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

While Steven had been trying to get the family of Albert Broccoli to allow him to direct a James Bond film, George claimed he had an idea that was “better than Bond.”

Lucas’ concept of an archaeologist/professor intrigued Steven, and the two directors made a pact to do a trilogy of films around the character.

With Harrison Ford cast as the lead, Indiana Jones made his whip-cracking debut in 1981 in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and quickly became a worldwide hit. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom followed in 1984, and while a much darker film than it’s predecessor, it still turned a profit. Five years later, the trilogy was completed, with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

However, even though he had created an entertaining action-film trilogy, the public wanted more. Following the release of Crusade, Steven would often be asked, “when are you making another Indiana Jones movie?”

The same was asked of Harrison Ford and George Lucas, and after a reunion with the cast and crew, almost everyone who had been involved seemed okay with doing another film…except Steven.

In a making-of excerpt, Spielberg explained that he was ‘the hold-out,’ and felt the scene of the characters riding off into the sunset at the end of Last Crusade, was a fitting closure to Dr Jones’ story on film.

In the end, Steven was coaxed along by his friends, and after a decade or so of prep-work, Henry Jones Jr, would return to the big-screen.

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Aliens…why’d it have to be aliens?

In the early years of the 21st century, it was commonplace for many to bash filmmaker George Lucas as an out-of-touch creator. His Special Edition releases of The Star Wars Trilogy had brought fans back to theaters, but purists were angered at the changes he had made. The release of the Star Wars prequels from 1999-2005, further cemented fan-hatred, when Lucas seemed unwilling to fulfill the words of what Obi-Wan Kenobi had told Luke Skywalker, in A New Hope.

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L to R: Producers Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas, on the set of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

When it came to Indiana Jones, his adventures of fighting Nazi’s and trekking through strange-and-exotic locales in the first three films, fit into Lucas’ ode to the serials and the time period of the 1930’s. While Indy would weather the years and rarely change his ways, audiences would soon find that the world of the 50’s, was a very different place.

With the defeat of Hitler and the end of WWII, there was now a new war…a Cold War, and it involved the country of Russia. With Crystal Skull‘s 1957 time period, the film attempted to tie together real-life elements, such as the fear of Communism, the Red Scare, as well as the birth of The Atomic Age.

There was also a change in the adventure-film aesthetics. In Lucas’ mind, the concept of 1950’s B-movies, would influence Indy’s 1950’s adventure, much in the same way that the 1930’s serial had done with the first three films.

And, unlike artifacts that were a bit more tangible to the common person in western civilization (such as the Ark of the Covenant or The Holy Grail), the mcguffin for the new film, would be a bit more of an ‘abstract’ object, akin to the Sankara stones from Temple of Doom.

The new item, was a crystal skull, in the shape of an elongated alien’s head, that possessed psychic powers.

Upon hearing his friend’s idea to use aliens in the new film, Spielberg claimed that he was done with alien films, but Lucas was adamant that the new film would work with the alien mcguffin. Over the course of pre-production, it was the one storypoint that he would not compromise on: there would be aliens, end of story..or so he thought.

Finally, Lucas decided that instead of being aliens, the crystal-skulled creatures, would actually be ‘inter-dimensional beings,’ but with an alien appearance. And, while they would travel in flying saucers (another staple of 1950’s B-movies), they wouldn’t travel through space, but through time.

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Poster for Tokyo DisneySeas’ Temple of the Crystal Skull attraction.

Some may assume that Lucas’ concept of crystal skulls in the world of Indy was brand-new, but in fact, they had been thought of as a (non-alien-influenced) mcguffin for Dr Jones, as far back as the early 1990’s.

During that time, Lucas was producing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The television series showed Indy in various time periods of his life, and at one point, a script had been written where Indy went looking for a crystal skull. However, the series was cancelled, and the script was shelved…but the concept was still there.

The story concept would next find new life, when Tokyo Disneyseas (an expansion of Tokyo Disneyland), opened Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull in the fall of 2001.

While the ride’s innards would largely resemble Disneyland‘s Temple of the Forbidden Eye, the deity known as Mara would be replaced by a large, glowing crystal skull, that sent riders on a path to their doom.

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“You Can’t Go Home Again.”

I often recalled as a kid, the characters in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comics, referencing this line. Taken from novelist Thomas Wolfe, I feel it best summarizes Lucas’ films where he returns to a familiar subject, after some time has passed.

When it comes the properties Lucas has been associated with over the years, people have very much been enamored with trying to recapture the magic they experienced, seeing those films in their youth. I recall how high the nostalgic factor was when Episode I debuted. Within hours of it’s release, it soon became apparent that George was not just going to shower his viewers with lots and lots of fanservice.

The same could be said when it came to Crystal Skull. However, I can’t help but feel there was a method to ‘the madness.’

Like the Star Wars prequels, it feels like many were hoping to walk in and encounter Indiana, as if no time had passed. Lucas isn’t really a sentimental individual, and it feels like the story concept for the film, was to show that Jones had to move on, and find a new group of people to be with in his life.

When we first encounter him, Jones is under suspicion of being in league with the Communists after the Area 51 opening. This puts his teaching career in jeopardy, and, we learn that two of the people in his life have recently died: Marcus Brody, and his father, Henry Jones, Sr.

As the story goes on, we see a new family unit build up around him. From the realization that Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) is his son, to the fact that Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) still harbors feelings for him, and his old friend Harold Oxley (John Hurt), needs his help.

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L to R: Indy (Harrison Ford), Harold Oxley (John Hurt), Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf)

By the end of the film, Indy has a new ‘family,’ and we see him marrying Marion.

Some may find this an odd ending, given the old formula of how Jones encountered a new female lead with every film, but that was a younger Indy, and he isn’t quite the ladies man now, as he was in the 1930’s.

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Parallels to Previous Storylines

While many gave Crystal Skull a hard time, screenwriter David Koepp still attempted to retain certain through-lines, that drew parallels to the three previous films.

In Raiders, there was talk about how Hitler was ‘obsessed with the occult,’ which tied into the search for the Ark of the Covenant. In Skull, there is word that Stalin is interested in ‘psychic warfare,’ which ties into the search for the crystal skulls, and attempts to find the lost city of Akator.

The villains also figure into parallels to previous films.

Ever since Raiders, there has come a moment where Indiana usually has to take on a ‘big baddie.’ Whether it be the German mechanic in Raiders, or Colonel Dovchenko in Skull, Indy usually finds himself fighting a losing battle, until he is saved by happenstance, and his foe meets a gruesome demise.

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There is also the continual plotpoint about how the lead villain is searching for something, and once they get their hands on it…it usually leads to their demise (as seen in the screencaps above).

Indiana himself is also open to story parallels.

Almost every film involves him trekking deep into a temple or a darkened cavern. In these situations, it is usually Indy who is the brave one, while he has to contend with a cohort who is freaked out by what they find inside. Whether it be Marion with the snakes in Raiders or Mutt encountering a scorpion in Skull, each darkened space can be counted on to contain some creepy-crawlies.

There also is Indy’s doubt over the ‘mystical nature’ of the artifacts he is looking for. In each film, he starts out just thinking the mysticism surrounding the items is nonsense. Of course, by the end of the film, he has usually changed his tune.

Also by the end of the film, he usually ends up going home empty-handed, but has quite a story to tell.

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Closing Thoughts, and Ideas on Indiana Jones 5

Much like The Phantom Menace, Crystal Skull would clean-up at the worldwide box-office, but it’s ‘imperfections’ have made it the black sheep of the series, causing many to disavow that it ever happened.

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Tweet from the Alamo Drafthouse, about their Crystal Skull celebration/not-celebration.

The most notable one, happened recently when the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema announced they were holding a 10th anniversary party for the opening of Crystal Skull…by showing only the first three films (the equivalent of throwing someone a birthday party, and not inviting the guest-of-honor!).

Looking around online in the past few days, it does appear there are those that feel the same as I do about the film: while not a great film, it is far from the trainwreck many claim it to be…but then again, internet fanbases loves to throw pity-parties.

One of the most ridiculous comments I heard following the release of Crystal Skull, was some fans ‘demanding’ that a fifth film be made to ‘apologize’ for the fourth one.

Rumors persisted that we might still get an Indy 5, notably in regards to The Walt Disney Company acquiring Lucasfilm in 2011 (whose purchase included ownership of both Star Wars and Indiana Jones licenses).

Now, word is that another film is coming to pass, with Harrison Ford once again cracking the whip…but, for the last time. Ford is now in his mid-70’s, and given Indy’s rough-and-tumble penchant for action and stunts, it makes sense this will be his last outing.

Scheduled for a July 2020 release, what the fifth installment will entail has not been revealed. Word is that Lucas declined to be involved with the film’s development, but David Koepp (who wrote the screenplay for Crystal Skull), is currently involved. However, it sounds like the new family Indy found for himself in his previous outing, may not return, and plunge the adventurer into a new area. With Shia Lebeouf having distanced himself from Spielberg, and John Hurt passing away last year, that just leaves Karen Allen, though there’s been no word if she’ll return as “Mrs Jones.”

Some of you might be wondering, where is is there left to explore? Well, given that the filmmakers like to have Indy associated with certain time frames, I have one possible locale: Vietnam.

Given Indy has already dealt with Germans and Russians, I could see him having been cleared of spy charges, and then ends up over in Vietnam in the mid-60’s. Given at the time a lot of young men were being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, I could imagine one of them becoming disillusioned, attempting to defect, and following Dr Jones on an adventure into the surrounding jungle territories.

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An interpretation of The Monkey King, by artist Aaron Shepard.

Of course, the big question you may have is, what would Indy be looking for? Why, The Temple of the Monkey King.

Also known as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King is known in a number of different Asian cultures. Resembling a monkey and having supernatural powers, some of the tales revolving around the character, tie into the concepts that the creature or certain items around him, can grant one immortality.

A story involving the Monkey King had been considered for both The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, and given how previous unused story ideas have often been recycled into later stories, I could see this being a good candidate to pay homage to some of the past story ideas Lucas considered.

Of course, some might say it could be a story retread, given the Holy Grail was a relic that promised ‘eternal life,’ but if the story was probably tweaked a bit more beyond what I can imagine, it might make for a fitting end. Plus, given technological leaps these days, one can imagine a motion-captured rendition of the Monkey King, interacting with Indiana Jones (though whether the old-school fans would accept this, is hard to say).

Of course, what you’ve read in the last couple paragraphs is just me speculating. I don’t have actual inside information, just a few ideas of my own. Still, if the Monkey King idea is dusted off, I’ll be interested to see what is done.

Otherwise, we’ll see if Spielberg and Koepp may find another religion-based mcguffin for Jones to go after in a few years.

Book Review: The Art of Ready Player One

Over the years, there have been a number of ‘making-of/art-of’ books that have adorned my shelves. Along with the majority of them that concern animated features, there are several relating to the films of George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. To me, these three men are ‘the holy trinity’ of directors who influenced my childhood, and got me interested in the worlds of film, and visual effects.

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Steven Spielberg converses with actress Olivia Cooke, on Ready Player One’s motion-capture stage.

Recently, Spielberg has returned to the pop-culture limelight, with his adaptation of Ernie Cline’s bestselling novel, Ready Player One. The story of an economically-bereft world where it’s inhabitants escape into a virtual realm of unlimited possibilities (and pop-culture cameos aplenty!), had me interested in what ‘the bearded one’ could do with Cline’s source material…and once I saw an early screening of the film, I was eager for behind-the-scenes material.

Fortunately, my appetite was (somewhat) satiated, thanks to Insight Editions‘ recent release: The Art of Ready Player One.

While a number of “art of” books are in my collection, I have become a bit of a connoisseur regarding how some are put together. I’ve seen some that miss the chance to provide intriguing commentary on their subject matter (The Art of Inside Out), and some that feel like certain bits of production information were squeezed in at the end as an afterthought (The Art of Big Hero 6).

With The Art of Ready Player One, author Gina McIntyre manages to hit the sweet-spot, with her 156-page tome having a cohesive balance to the material contained within.

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Concept Art of the First Challenge, by Alex Jaeger

The layout of the book gives us some background on the film’s literary beginnings, before delving into it’s characters, and then the world that Spielberg brought to life. The format of the book makes it seem like a companion piece to the film, making me feel reading it should be done after a screening (or two) of the film.

It’s always fun for me to see how certain elements of a film’s story evolved, though in the case of this book, it feel like much of the storyline was already locked-in, with a surprising lack of ‘abandoned concepts’ or ‘alternate story ideas’ mentioned. Even the section regarding character concepts, is rather sparse when it comes to showing the evolution of character designs.

A fun area of conceptual ‘what-if,’ happens in a section devoted to the film’s ‘second challenge.’ This was one of my favorite parts of the film, and seeing several unused concepts and reading commentary by the production designer and effects supervisor, made it a highlight that I think other insightful readers will enjoy.

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An original avatar design, by Aaron Sims Creative.

Of course, some may eagerly pick up the book hoping it’ll spill the beans on all of the pop-culture ‘easter eggs’ in the film. While a few are shown in concept, the book is far from being a ‘cheat sheet’ for the casual viewer.

Even with the book managing to placate my desire for behind-the-scenes information, there were a few things that stuck out for me as “minor nitpicks.”

One of the rather unusual things that the book’s text does, is repeat certain items several times. This struck me after reading the foreword and introduction pieces by Spielberg and Cline, only to find some of their remarks repeated in different interview context a few pages later.

There was also a rather unusual bit of labeling, where when identifying various images, the author almost seems to ‘gush’ about extra details in them. One example is an image of the character of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), relaxing in his personal chair. One would expect a simple explanation, but the description gives the full name of the haptic chair, along with the style of VR visor he’s wearing. I can only assume that the author of the book was trying to have some fun, and add in some extra touches of Gunter-level knowledge for the images on hand (FYI: ‘Gunters’ are the names of the egg-hunters in the Oasis, who are usually avid fans of Oasis creator James Haliday-oh great, now I’m doing it!).

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Gothropolis World Concept, by Stephen Tappin

There are definitely some eye-opening bits of art that helped show the scope of the world of the Oasis, with several pages showing a number of conceptual worlds that never made it off the drawing board (like the image of Gothropolis, which I assume is a DC Universe-only playground).

Like a lot of Art of Books, I couldn’t help but imagine The Art of Ready Player One could have made due with another 25-50 pages. We get some prime examples of the haptic technology used to enter the Oasis, but I could also see a section detailing more about thoughts and concepts, regarding the dystopian future world of 2045. When looking over Spielberg’s filmography, the ‘real world’ in this film is a much more bleak future than the ones we’ve seen in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, or Minority Report. One can only wonder what Ernie Cline and co-screenwriter Zak Penn thought of this world, let alone how production designer Adam Stockhausen and his team came to their conclusions on bringing it to life.

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Construction drawing for the Stacks sets, by Stuart Rose.

In this day-and-age, material about the production of feature films has become decidedly small-scale, unlike ‘the days of wine-and-roses’ when laserdiscs and the first DVD’s seemed intent on giving us a glimpse behind the curtain that VHS tapes were incapable of doing. Studios today see more profit in selling films in a digital format, than revealing the tricks-of-the-trade that brought these productions to life through multi-disc boxsets.

The Art of Ready Player One serves as another example of Insight Editions‘ attempts to keep pushing quality-based book releases, that give film fans and cinephiles like myself, something to placate our curiosity. Even with my nitpicks about a few areas, I was still satisfied with the final product, though like a Gunter trying to unlock all of James Haliday’s secrets, I still hunger to learn more about Spielberg’s latest feature.

Movie Review: Ready Player One

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language

While I had known about Ernie Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One for awhile, it wasn’t until hearing the author’s concept for the book, did I become intrigued: what if Willy Wonka was a video game designer, and he held his Golden Ticket Contest, inside his greatest video game creation?

That led me to seek out the book, and, upon hearing that Steven Spielberg was going to be adapting it, I was pretty much onboard for the bearded one’s latest film.

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In the year 2045, much of the world is in economic ruin. To combat their dreary existences, many people have escaped into the lifelike-yet-fanciful virtual world called The Oasis. Created by legendary gamemaker James Haliday (Mark Rylance), the late genius secretly created a contest within his borderless world…a contest that not only promises massive wealth, but total control of his greatest creation!

The film follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who along with his friends, attempts to solve the riddles and puzzles Haliday left behind.

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Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan)

However, the evil conglomerate known as IOI (Innovative Online Industries), is hoping to turn the free-to-roam world into a pay-to-play empire. Led by the business-minded Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the company will do everything it can, to win.

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While several people I know were fully ensconced in the world that Ernie Cline had written, I will admit his novel didn’t fully grab my attention. With the film’s screenplay however, there has definitely been some fine-tuning. With help from screenwriter Zak Penn (who wrote the story for Last Action Hero), there is a small toning down regarding the video game references, and a bit more given over to the worlds of motion pictures.

For much of the film, Wade Watts (and his avatar known as Parzival), is our guide to this future world. Most of his friends exist within the world of the Oasis, with Wade not really knowing much about them beyond their avatars. I did like the camaraderie developed between Wade and his friend Aech (Lena Waithe), but when it came to Wade ‘crushing’ on a girl named Artemis (Olivia Cooke), the writing felt a bit ‘forced.’

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Artemis (Olivia Cooke)

Unlike her novel’s counterpart, the character of Artemis is given over to being more of a ‘person’ here, and less of a ‘prize.’ Both her human counterpart and avatar are given more time and purpose in helping move the story along, but in regards to fully making her and Wade into a couple, it just didn’t work for me (then again, this could have been Spielberg channeling the ‘meet cute’ romances of 80’s films).

I’ve often believed that when it comes to Spielberg choosing his projects, he does so based on certain world events. Current events definitely feel like the world of 2045 in RP1 is possible: one in which high unemployment and crippling debt are the norm, and the majority of transactions are made digitally, with drones making all of our deliveries.

There are also some topics regarding the ‘disconnect’ many feel even when ‘connected’ through digital means, as well as how protecting your identity can be detrimental to your well-being.

Much like his work with The BFG, Spielberg’s work on RP1 ping-pongs between a virtual world, and a real one. CG character believability has been improving over the years, and for much of the film, I was surprised how focused I was on the motion-captured characters, and stopped looking for ‘bugs in the system.’

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L to R: Sho (Philip Zao), Aech (Lena Waithe), Parzival (Tye Sheridan),  The Caretaker, Artemis (Olivia Cooke), Daito (Win Morisaki)

Of course, one thing that many will be looking forward to, will be the character-heavy scenes within the Oasis. While some references are called out, the film fortunately doesn’t stop for every single little moment, treating most of the licensed cameos, in the same way Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph did. I will admit that I did have some ‘fanboy’ moments watching the film, but knew I had to judge the film on it’s merits, and not just on stuff I recognized.

Story-wise, the film thrusts us into it’s world pretty quickly, before allowing us some time to catch our breath in the second act. It feels like the story starts getting unwieldly in it’s third act, as Spielberg is almost in a mad dash to keep the action going, and resolve a number of plot threads. He almost ends up pulling a Return of the King with all that is going on, which made me pine for the simplicity (and editing) of a George Lucas Star Wars film ending.

While I was also very excited to hear that composer Alan Silvestri was on board, I felt his contributions to the film were sadly overshadowed too often by the 80’s soundtrack that was thrown at us. Even with the full force of the IMAX sound system around me during my screening, the only time Silvestri’s music really stuck out for me, was (sadly) during the closing credits.

Ready Player One overall, feels like it has a hard time finding it’s equilibrium. Spielberg struggles to bring out more of the novel’s cautionary vision of the future to viewers, but ends up sacrificing some of that message in favor of Wade and his friends, striving to ‘save the world’ in their own way.

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Even so, I do wonder if the struggle of the young people in the film, fighting ‘a war for control of the future,’ may in some way inspire the young people in our own reality, who are struggling against forces that seem insurmountable as well.

Final Grade: B

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Terrible 2’s Reviews: The Lost World – Jurassic Park

*Some people may say that most films lose their way by a third sequel, but that isn’t always the case. For every “Wrath of Khan” or “Toy Story 2,” there’s a dozen ‘number 2’ films that were made, that could not uphold the energy and enthusiasm of the first film. This review section, aims to talk about these “Terrible 2’s”*

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In 1993, Director Steven Spielberg created an amazing cinematic experience for millions of people worldwide, when he brought Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park to the screen. At times both awe-inspiring and terrifying, I often consider it my generation’s Star Wars.

No film stood a chance against it that summer, and with it’s box-office grosses breaking records worldwide, it was a sure bet that Universal Studios would bring the dinosaurs back to the big screen.

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Cover art for the book’s 1995 debut.

The success of the film caused Crichton to soon churn out a rather unnecessary sequel, dubbed The Lost World. Released in 1995, it’s story dealt with another island (“Site B”), where the dinosaurs that populated Jurassic Park, were born and raised.

The science-fiction adventure story, has Ian Malcolm (who had previously been killed off in the book-version of Jurassic Park!) and a number of persons go off to rescue a colleague named Richard Levine, who has struck off for the island on his own. Right behind them, are a group of people from the InGen rival, Biosyn, hoping to steal eggs from the dinosaurs that have been set free on the island.

What gave some hope during the production of this sequel, was when Spielberg himself came back to direct, making it one of the first sequels he’d done outside of the Indiana Jones series. This was also his first feature after 1993’s Schindler’s List, a film whose dramatic tone seemed to signify a new direction he wanted to go in.

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Teaser Poster for the film.

Most of the crew from the first film would return as well, though Crichton would opt out of screenwriting duties, which would pass solely to David Koepp (who had co-written the first film with Crichton).

From production on up through it’s release, much of the story and imagery was kept a secret. The teaser trailer was particularly exciting, showing the T-Rex roaring in the rain, before the words “Something Has Survived” flashed before our eyes! Only a scant few moments of dinosaur footage was released, before the film’s big release on Memorial Day weekend, in 1997.

The excitement over the film, would make it one of the biggest hits of the year. However, it failed to capture the magic that had enthralled us four summers prior, and made itself a prime candidate for this category.

Here’s some of my issues with The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

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The Lost World, in name-only

Let’s face it: when one adapts a famous novel to the screen, you have to expect some liberties to be taken. Of course, sometimes, there are quite a few.

If one were to read Peter Benchley’s Jaws, and watch Spielberg’s 1975 film, you’d find they are two completely different ‘beasts’ (did you know Matt Hooper was having an affair with the Sheriff Brody’s wife in the book!?).

When it came to Crichton’s novel, screenwriter David Koepp made quite a number of changes!

Of the new novel’s characters, he only ports over Sarah Harding and Eddie Carr, though drops the whole subplot regarding Biosyn, and instead has our villains come from within InGen itself.

In this case, the main corporate bad guy of the film, is John Hammond’s nephew, Peter Ludlow (played by Arliss Howard). Peter has taken over the company, and is eager to exploit the leftover dinosaurs on Site B to recoup the company’s lost investments from the shuttered Jurassic Park.

Of all the ‘set-pieces’ from the novel, the only one that seems to have survived the story restructuring, is when the two T-Rexes on the island come for their infant, and push a research RV over the edge of a high-cliff.

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Carnotaurus game boss, from the Lost World arcade game, from SEGA.

It should be noted that one of the more intriguing (new) creatures in the novel, actually ended up making it’s way into the SEGA arcade game tie-in.

Near the end of the novel, our main group of humans is menaced by a chameleon-like carnotaurus.  Though much like how the first film’s dilophosaurus was given fictional neck-frills and a venom-pouch, the Carnotaurus in the SEGA game was also embellished.

Notable was that in relation to it’s chameleon-like camouflage features, it was colored green, as well as given the swivel-eyes of a chameleon, which it did not have in real life.

The carnotaurus was one of the more memorable dinos in the arcade game, mainly due to it having a strange, digitized howl when one dealt a major blow to it.

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Few Likable Characters

With the first Jurassic Park, there were plenty of enjoyable characters to choose from. From paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), to the slimy lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), almost all of the characters easily stuck in our minds.

Unfortunately, that kind of chemistry across the cast is pretty much left in the dark here.

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L to R: Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Jeff Goldblum, Vanessa Lee Chester, Pete Postlewaite, Harvey Jason, Peter Stormare

In regards to the original film’s cast, Ian Malcolm is the only ‘major’ returning player. However, Jeff Goldblum plays him as the ‘reluctant hero,’ sometimes acting as a babysitter, other times trying to get people to listen, but most of the time just there to largely tell the idiots around him, “I told you so.”

Of all the new characters introduced, I couldn’t help but find Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Sarah Harding, to be quite annoying. The filmmakers seem to be trying to make her a vocally-outspoken and serious researcher, but oftentimes, she sounds moreso like she’s just there to spout certain facts, and doesn’t quite realize wholly that she’s among an environment of creatures that could squash or eat her.

Nick Van Owen (played by Vince Vaughn) is added in as a nature photographer/double-agent (Hammond secretly told him his nephew might show up!?), and seems to be the film’s resident “tree-hugger,” there to mainly get in the way of hunter Roland Tembo, played by Peter Postlewaite.

Probably of all the new characters, it is Roland who is the only one that seems interesting, let alone is given a small character arc. A bit like Robert Muldoon from the first film, Tembo is a big-game hunter who has caught almost everything…but, the chance to take down a Tyrannosaur, piques his interest enough to join the InGen ‘hunting’ party.

The film also attempts to make us care about two men in Roland’s employ, Ajay Sidhu (Harvey Jason), and Dieter Stark (Peter Stormare). However, Stark is quickly pegged to be our ‘evil man in the wilderness,’ and Ajay’s role is so underused, that when Roland expresses remorse for the loss of his friend at the end, it doesn’t really resonate (there was a deleted scene that did give the two more time together).

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L to R: Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Jeff Goldblum

The film also finds the time to shoehorn in some brief cameos, from Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards, reprising their roles of Tim and Lex for a brief meetup with Malcolm. Lord Richard Attenborough also returns as John Hammond, though mainly to bookend the adventure.

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Showoff!

This is a symptom I’ve seen in a lot of second films over the years (like Men in Black 2, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). When it comes to some sequels, the filmmakers seem to get worried that they have to top themselves from the previous film…and give the audience more!

That definitely seems to be the case with Lost World. We get so many extra dinosaurs, that at times, the wonder and awe that we experienced in the first film, is all-but-forgotten.

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Sure, the stampede/round-up scene in Lost World showed new effects boundaries being pushed, (making the Gallimimus scene in the first film look quaint), but so many of the effects-heavy scenes here, often feel like the film’s story is stopping just to say, “look at this!”

This isn’t to sat the effects work in the film isn’t admirable, but it just doesn’t feel as thoroughly in the service of the storytelling for much of the picture.

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Oh, Give me a Break!

There’s one scene in the film, that seems to have passed into the annals of laughable set-up/payoff scenes, when it comes to this film.

As Malcolm prepares to leave his daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester) and go to Site B, he makes mention of her upcoming gymnastics tournament, before being told she got cut from the team.

One would assume this was the writer’s attempt to show us how disconnected Ian was from his daughter’s life. However, there was so much more…

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In a later scene, Malcolm finds himself being menaced by a raptor in a multi-level utility hut, with Sarah and Kelly looking on. Suddenly, Kelly takes a leap, and, using some overhead piping as parallel bars, ends up using her gymnastics skills to take out the raptor, kicking it out of a window to it’s death.

How ridiculous was this joke? Well, a month or two after the film premiered, a comic book I was reading actually referenced it, with one character calling it’s set-up/pay-off a work of genius!

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More B-movie than usual

Spielberg filled some parts of Jurassic Park with homages to some of the old days of stop-motion monster movies, and that same feel (somewhat) continues with Lost World.

The film’s title and some of it’s ending, do borrows from the 1925 silent film, The Lost World. However, it is a brontosaurus that the explorers bring back to the mainland in the 1925 film, compared to the more exciting T-Rex.

Plus, just like the first film, there is a reference to King Kong in this film, with the name of the boat that brings the Rex to San Diego, being the S.S. Venture, which was the name of the ship that brought Kong to New York City.

The original ending for the film would have featured pterodactyls attacking a helicopter, but this was changed to the more B-movie scenario, of the T-Rex getting loose in San Diego, California.

Spielberg seems to really revel in getting his monster-movie fix during the rampage. People scream, cars crash, a family is terrorized, but, it feels like Spielberg pulls away from the main story a little too long, almost like he’s become distracted by what the guys at Industrial Light & Magic can do with their CGI creatures.

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“We need a lawyer-eating moment. Koepp, you’re up!”

If there is one saving grace to the Rex’s rampage, it’s with the man whom the T-Rex consumes in one scene, who attempts to escape into a nearby store. The man it turns out, is Lost World screenwriter and second-unit director, David Koepp. So, if you didn’t like the film, you can feel a little better knowing that the guy who wrote that gymnastics scene, got eaten onscreen. They even have some fun in the credits, as Koepp’s character is called, “Unlucky B******.”

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Loose plot threads much?

While the first Jurassic Park had several large plotholes (notably how the T-Rex seemed to be levitating over an area in it’s paddock, that became a steep drop-off only minutes later!), The Lost World had quite a number of storypoints where it felt like the script just gave up.

One notable plothole, comes after the ship with the Rex crashes into the InGen docks. Littered across the ship, are the remains of it’s crew. However, it’s never explained just how this happened. We see a severed hand holding onto the ship’s wheel, but there’s no way the T-Rex could have caused such a thing (the boat’s wheelhouse is completely intact!).

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My theory is that maybe raptors had gotten aboard, but one would have assumed they would have stayed aboard the ship, and then jumped off once they were able to get on the ground.

Another loose thread is how as the film enters it’s third act, Nick Van Owen just disappears from the story!

It’s never explained just why he didn’t accompany Ian and Sarah to the Rex’s arrival, and he’s never mentioned by name again. I guess maybe the two assumed he’d try some crazy stunt and free the Rex once it arrived? Or, maybe he just figured John Hammond’s paycheck only covered his time on Site B?

Speaking of this film’s habitat, the existence of Site B throws into question, a scene in the first film. During the tour of Jurassic Park, the group is shown a number of working scientists and technicians, whom Hammond claimed were “the real miracle-workers” of the park.

This seems rather hard-to-believe upon seeing Lost World, as one would assume if the development and breeding of the dinosaurs was all off-island on Site B, it feels like a wasted expenditure to have that small operation on Isla Nublar in the first film.

Plus, if the park was just for show as Hammond claims in this film, then why were important (and valuable) vials of the dinosaur’s DNA being kept there, rather than on Site B?

…the world, may never know.

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Overall, I think The Lost World: Jurassic Park’s biggest problem, is that it doesn’t know how to balance itself out, acting more like a ‘product’ than a film at times.

It’s shaky storytelling reminds me of such Spielberg films as Hook, and the most recent Indiana Jones film (which David Koepp also penned). Both of those films also seek to have Spielberg take us back to something familiar from our past, yet in trying to ‘make it new,’ there’s a certain something…missing.

Over the years, seeing some of the ridiculousness of certain situations in the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if Spielberg was trying to make some sort of 90’s era satire, ala Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy, Dr Strangelove.

Given how we have two groups of people trying to decide ‘what’s best’ for these prehistoric creatures, it feels like maybe writer David Koepp is trying to find some form of satire in the very PC way that characters like Nick Van Owen try to preserve nature, in the face of InGen and Roland Tembo’s crew, who either want to exploit it, or decimate it.

In the end, the film is not as memorable to us as the first one, but it cleaned up pretty well, being one of the top moneymakers for the 1997 summer movie season. Even so, it’s take didn’t do what most of today’s sequels do, and it made less overall than the first film.

While it is lacking in making us care about it’s characters, the film does get “brownie points” regarding it’s effects work.

The advances in technology with Industrial Light & Magic and Stan Winston Studios, helped the film earn an Oscar nod for visual effects (which it would lose, to the more aptly-named, Titanic).

I also have a soft-spot for John Williams’ score, which becomes it’s own ‘beast.’ Less like the eerie-yet-majestic feel of the first film, his score here brings in a true atmospheric sound that ties into the darker climate of a world, where there are no manmade fences to keep the dinosaurs at bay.

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Book Review: George Lucas, A Life (by Brian Jay Jones)

To many of us, there is a name. A name that can cause a person to respond in a number of ways. From a smile, all the way to an eyeball-rolling groan.

That name, is George Lucas.

Following his 2013 biography on Jim Henson, author Brian Jay Jones has tapped into another name many of us recall from our childhoods, but (probably) never fully comprehended.

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A Modesto Bee clipping showing the car crash, that changed (and almost ended) Lucas’ life, in 1962.

George Lucas: A Life seeks to educate the masses, giving us a tome that hits a number of Lucas’ life highlights, from his near-death accident as a teenager, to meeting director Francis Ford Coppola, and much more…but sadly, not as much as I had expected.

Without appendices and the bibliography at the end, Jones’ biography on Lucas clocks in around the same page-count as his Henson bio did. However, upon reading through his latest tome, it feels like Jones was forced to shore up a number of items regarding Lucas’ history.

Unlike his previous book, the doors were not thrown open to Jones, regarding in-depth research on his subject. A few of Lucas’ past acquaintances (such as Randall Kleiser and Gary Kurtz) contribute a few words to the book, but most of their inclusions feel like a small footnote, as the vast majority of information, is culled from other sources.

One habit Jones had in his Henson biography, was a certain ‘geeky giddiness’ when he’d mention Henson working on things in his early days, that he’d accomplish later on in life. Jones manages to tone down some of that geekiness here, but it manifests itself in other ways.

Most notable is in the book’s focus. Overall, it feels like analyzing the Star Wars films is his first priority, and the building of the Lucasfilm ’empire,’ is the second priority.

To many out there, Star Wars is George Lucas’ ‘calling card.’ Most talk about the film series, as if Lucas had known this was what he wanted to do since he was a boy. Of course, those of us who have ‘studied’ Lucas’ career (myself included), know that there’s more to the man than just X-Wing fighters and laser-sword fights.

When it comes to films Lucas worked on that weren’t related to Star Wars, the book’s information in these areas feels so tight, one swears large swaths may have been cut editorially, to fit George’s film career into a neat little package. I was hoping more light would have been shed on some of Lucas’ lesser-known projects like Willow, or 1994’s Radioland Murders (a film he’d been helping develop for over two decades!). Unfortunately, minimal information is provided, as we are whisked on to talk about the effects Star Wars has on Lucas’ life, let alone the constant inquiries in the 80’s, regarding when the public would see more Star Wars.

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Marcia Lucas, and George Lucas

One of the highlights of the book, is how Jones attempts to allow some visibility to one of the lesser-mentioned persons in Lucas’ early life: his first wife, Marcia.

While Lucas could be soft-spoken and quiet, Marcia was said to balance out that trait, often being rather ‘direct’ with him. Both bonded over their editorial experience (women doing editorial work, was extremely rare in the 60’s and 70’s), and it is surprising to find quotes of Marcia, discussing George and the films she worked on with him.

The book tells how she could be rather blunt about some of his decisions (she tells George how THX-1138 feels like a ‘cold’ film), and also how much she contributed to his work (she was the main editor on the climactic charge on the Death Star in the 1977 Star Wars).

Most biographies have the author attempt to find a through line to define their subject’s life, and in the case of Lucas, Jones seems to zero in on one word: independence.

Lucas is painted as a person who seemed most at ease when doing things (mostly) on his own. It often feels like he would have been comfortable just sitting in the editing room, except for his compulsion to have more control over some projects. Jones mentions such a thing happening on some producing projects, here Lucas seemed to take over the story development of some features.

It is also notable how he often balked at rules or guidelines others would set.

For example: his not including cast/director credits in the opening of Star Wars, was in violation of the Director’s Guild of America. This led to him being fined, and eventually resigning from the DCA.

He also seemed to have little time for unions or trade groups, let alone the Hollywood studio system. Many may be surprised that as much as his name is bandied around Tinseltown, George actually makes his home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In some ways, Lucas seems very much like Walt Disney: a man who was burned by the studio system that sought to control him, prompting him to decide that he would do things his way, and answer only to one person: himself.

However, while Walt Disney’s Kingdom would be easily accessible to many, Lucas’s ‘Empire’ would be largely his own domain to look over. He would choose the film projects, decide where his money went (he didn’t rely on outside investors, or taking out huge loans like the studio system), and keep public access to a minimum (notable is that unlike The Walt Disney Company or Pixar, Lucasfilm never became a publicly-traded corporate entity).

Similarities could also be made regarding their love of pushing technology. Whereas Walt would revolutionize the world of animation, George would do the same in the world of post-production. While many can easily look at his visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, most discount his push to improve picture and sound quality in theaters, let alone find a way to streamline the film-editing process.

Today’s theater system shows the fruits of that push: many theaters now house digital projectors, and often boast the latest sound systems to show first-run feature films. Plus, the majority of all editing these days, is done digitally.

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Top Image: Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas; Bottom Image: Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.

The biography also shows how George could fall in and out with a number of people. Old friends like Gary Kurtz and his ex-wife Marcia, were completely excised from his mind, while his friend and mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, would be a decades-long on-again/off-again friendship.

Out of all his friendships, it seems that the one Lucas still holds in high regard, is with director, Steven Spielberg.

There is a brotherly give-and-take mentioned in the chapters telling about the Indiana Jones film productions. Even if Steven and George would not agree on something, they would usually come to a compromise, sooner or later.

Much like Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve jobs, and Jones’ previous biography on Jim Henson, George Lucas: A Life strives to inform people about someone they think they know…but maybe, don’t.

There’s plenty of information for the uninformed, to find out more about one of the most familiar names in popular culture. However, for those of us who were expecting some further revelations about ‘the maker,’ it feels like Jones shuts the door to some minor revelations, that noone ever thinks to consider about Mr Lucas.

In conclusion, George Lucas: A Life is a good read, but probably not as entertaining or informative, as some of my other favorite biographies, such as Steve Jobs, or Jim Henson: The  Biography.

Final Grade: B

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Movie Review: The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)

(Rated PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor)

Probably along with Walt Disney, one of the names that was such a big influence on me growing up, has been Steven Spielberg.

Steven has often had a rather unconventional way of storytelling, dabbling in the visual and story aesthetics of his idol Alfred Hitchcock, while also seeming to embrace the new, and trying to go places that others dare not imagine.

The same could be said for author Roald Dahl, whose writings are often beloved by children, for their strange words, and even larger flights of fancy into strange realms and situations.

As his filmography has gotten more serious over the years, many hoped that Steven Spielberg could possibly return to the more adventurous, youthful spirit of the 70’s and 80’s.

In the last 15 years, we’ve gotten little glimpses of this with Catch Me If You Can, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and The Adventures of Tintin.

Though with The BFG, he regresses to a level we have only seen a few times in his career.

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A young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) witnesses a giant (Mark Rylance) on the streets of London one evening. As she has seen him, he takes her away with him to Giant Country, to keep her from telling about him and his kind.

Though he is a Big Friendly Giant (whom Sophie calls, “BFG”), he is the nicest among a group of a more gruff and mean lot of them, led by a muscular brute named The Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement).

Sophie forms a friendship with the BFG, and as they learn more about each other, she wishes to help him out with his giant problem.

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After watching The BFG, I couldn’t help but feel like the film was definitely playing against what has come to be known as “Family” films in this day and age.

The film does feel like it takes a step backwards for the Family audience, given that it feels stretched a bit thin in reaching its 2 hour run-time. While the kids might get antsy, I think some of the parents may appreciate a film that manages to take its time.

What may also shock some people, is just how ‘simple’ the story is. We don’t have super-elaborate backstories, and so much of what we see is often left to the audience to decipher. Plus, we are often finding ourselves trying to make sense out of the BFG’s language, in which he often mixes up how some words are pronounced (one of them will surely please Dahl’s older fans!).

Though the film isn’t without its little bits of Dahl cheekiness, notably in regards to the BFG’s favorite drink, frobscottle (I’m assuming a packed theater will illicit more laughter than the small crowd I saw it with, in regards to the drink).

Spielberg also seems to want to get in on the action, with some little bouts of slapstick and whatnot here-and-there. However, he almost gets a little too carried away in places, notable in a few scenes where the camera follows Sophie for several minutes, without cutting away to another scene.

While it has its little moments of strangeness here and there, it feels like screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T., The Black Stallion), chooses largely to focus on the relationship between the BFG and Sophie.

The BFG himself, is definitely a marvel of motion-capture, that shows how far WETA Digital (the guys who made Gollum and the Na’vi come to life) have come. He’s a bit more refined than the Quentin Blake drawings he’s based off of, but he’s given an almost grandfatherly look about him, as well as a more humble and noble nature, apart from his more brutish kinfolk. Rylance’s voice and mannerisms are also crucial in bringing the character to life, and given that Spielberg has cast him previously in Bridge of Spies (and his next film, Ready Player One), I could see him becoming a Spielberg ‘regular,’ in the same manner as Richard Dreyfuss.

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Most notable about the design of the BFG, are his eyes. Eyes have usually been a hard thing to pin down with motion-capture work, and oftentimes, if the eyes seem ‘dead’ or not alive enough (like in The Polar Express), it can cause us to lose touch with the character. However, the added techniques that WETA have used with the BFG, helps sell the illusion so well, that I was really surprised how well my emotions were being toyed with!

Where the effects work gets questionable, is that many times, Sophie is one of the only live-action elements in a scene, almost making one wonder why Spielberg didn’t go full-CG/motion-capture like with Tintin.

Though in a sense, maybe he wanted to pay homage to those films he saw growing up, where you had normal-sized humans reacting to larger-than-life figures, like in the old Willis O’Brien, or Ray Harryhausen films. There were a few times, where the BFG and Sophie’s interactions, reminded me of a scene or two from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Ruby Barnhill does a decent job as Sophie, but it feels like they try a bit too hard to make her likable. Fortunately she never gets super-annoying, but there were a few times where it would have worked best if she was seen, and not heard. As well, there’s a constant on-and-off of her wearing glasses, which left me wondering why she couldn’t have just wore them throughout.

Though they figure into the plot, the additional giants of Giant Country are a little more exaggerated, and not as serious as the BFG. One almost expects them to really become a big nuisance, but at times, they almost seem a minor annoyance to the plot, given their size.

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At times, the film almost seemed to hearken back to Hook, in its look being somewhat like a story come to life, but with a somewhat exaggerated look to London, and Giant Country (one also can’t help but wonder,  as the camera pans across London, what a Spielberg-directed Harry Potter might have looked like).

Speaking of Hook, if you know your Spielberg filmography, don’t be surprised if some shots seem to tickle old memories in your head (I was even surprised to find one scene reminded me of one in Saving Private Ryan).

A few reviews I read even mentioned the works of Studio Ghibli as possible scenic inspiration, and there are times that one can definitely get such a vibe. Maybe it’s in how much of the film tends to take its time in certain scenes, almost inviting the viewer to stop and smell the roses, rather than throttle them onward like most American films nowadays.

When Spielberg first worked with writer Melissa Mathison in 1981 on E.T., he was still a young man, and unmarried. Now, 35 years later, he he has been a family man, and in the last 7 years, became a Grandfather.

One can’t help but feel The BFG may have been thought of as a gift to his grandchildren, and also a way for him to dig back into his past, looking for a bit of that storytelling magic that he put on a shelf, as he grew up in the last 20 years.

It also seems to bring his filmmaking about childhood full-circle in a way.

When he was working on E.T., he referred to it as “an old-fashioned Walt Disney story about an boy and his alien.” Now here it is, 2016, and with the same screenwriter, he’s made “a Walt Disney Pictures story about a girl and her giant.”

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Final Grade for “The BFG”: B (Final Thoughts: Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison, dabble in Roald Dahl’s realms, and come forth with a Family film that manages to be whimsical, weird, and a bit unlike the conventional PG-fare. The BFG himself is a grandfatherly marvel from the effects wizards at WETA Digital, and actor Mark Rylance. Some in our ADD culture may grow bored at its pacing and focus mainly on The BFG and his friendship with Sophie, but if you have the patience and fortitude, it’s a pretty enjoyable ride. Though not a full return to the older days of Spielberg’s work, there’s a sense of wonder and old-school feelings, almost like putting on a well-worn pair of shoes)