The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

2016 #134
W.D. Richter | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Buckaroo Banzai seems to have quite the cult following in the US, but, as far as I understand, it never made an impression over here; not until the internet enabled such cults to go global, anyway. It has big-name fans (one, Kevin Smith, was developing a remake for Amazon until legal wrangles got in the way), so of course it’s been noticed in more recent times. I’ve been somehow aware of it for ages, but finally got round to seeing it last year after Arrow put it out on Blu-ray.*

For those equally unfamiliar with the film, it’s an action-adventure sci-fi satirical comedy (kinda), concerning an adventure (one of many, I imagine) of Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (RoboCop’s Peter Weller), the famous physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician. While testing a device that allows him to pass through solid matter, Banzai briefly travels to another dimension. This kickstarts a series of events that leads to the escape of evil aliens the Red Lectroids, who Banzai must defeat lest it brings about the end of the world. That’s the streamlined version, anyway.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve found it quite hard to tell what I thought of Buckaroo Banzai. On the one hand, I can definitely see where it gets its cult appeal, and I appreciate some of the ways it’s being different and boundary pushing. On the other, there’s been a definite backlash to it and I can appreciate where that comes from too — the criticism that some of that “boundary pushing” is merely sloppy storytelling and crazy overacting. There are parts where it’s hard to tell if it was deliberate and quite clever, or just incompetently done. Part of the problem (but also the appeal) is that it’s played so straight. It’s unquestionably a comedy — it’s too ludicrous to be anything else, and the sheer build-up of comedic lines becomes clear as it goes on — but it’s all played with such a straight face that I can see why you’d think everyone involved believed they were making something serious.

Dr Buckaroo Banzai

There are ways it could be ‘normal’, too: it contains so many elements that could be used to construct a traditional narrative — a new member being introduced to the gang, a love interest, an inciting incident which kicks off the events of the narrative, and so on — but it chooses to use none of these in a traditional way, instead being batshit crazy and thoroughly unique with it. Interestingly, director W.D. Richter was also one of the writers on Big Trouble in Little China, which is another action-adventure movie featuring a similar loose, crazy, fever-dream style. (Of all things, he also wrote Stealth, the forgotten-as-soon-as-it-was-released jet-pilots-vs-AI action thriller starring Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx from 2005.) I can see how, after a diet of mainstream adventure cinema, something like this could feel refreshing. It’s almost like counter-culture pulp; like a Rocky Horror for the ’80s, but without the camp. (Or, at least, not the same kind of camp — I mean, have you seen what Jeff Goldblum’s wearing?)

In the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray, James Oliver talks about cult movies and their history. “Cult” is sometimes used nowadays as a catch-all term for anything in the broad sci-fi / fantasy / horror realm, or with a dedicated and eager fanbase. It’s almost mainstream. The term’s roots lie in the opposite direction, of course — films that critics and mass moviegoers disliked but that developed a following of people who appreciate and defended them nonetheless. This is a lot easier and quicker than it used to be since VHS came along, and even more so in the era of DVD and Blu-ray. Banzai was possibly the first cult film to benefit in this way. Oliver concludes by reasoning that the film “resists easy assimilation. It plays too many games to be embraced by everyone and is, accordingly, often patronised or even denigrated, even by some of those who usually like cult movies. But such resistance just makes those who love it love it just that little bit harder. So it is a cult movie and, no matter how much the meaning of that phrase may mutate over time, it likely always will be.” Based on the aforementioned backlash — how it’s had a chance to move in a more widely-known direction but hasn’t done so — I think he’s right.

Villains

Personally, I’m still conflicted. I sort of didn’t think it was all that great, but also loved it at the same time. “Loved” might be too strong a word. I admired some of the ways it was different from the norm. Plus there are some very quotable lines, and the music that kicks off the end credits is relentlessly hummable. On balance, I really wanted to like it more than I actually did like it. Maybe I’ll get there on repeat viewings (because we know how good I am at getting round to those…)

3 out of 5

* Said Blu-ray was actually released two years ago this month — where does time go?! ^

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

2017 #64
Roland Emmerich | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

Independence Day: Resurgence

With nostalgia-driven reboots and belated sequels all the rage these days, it was inevitable someone would eventually get round to Independence Day, the highest grossing film of 1996. Back then it took $817 million, a total most producers would be happy with even today… especially those behind Resurgence, which managed a comparatively paltry $389.6 million, leaving it in 21st place on 2016’s chart.* I guess nostalgia doesn’t win everything.

One thing the two-decade delay has given us is an interesting setup for a sequel. Reflecting real life, the film begins 20 years after “The War of ’96” (i.e. the original movie). Humanity has rebuilt, integrating alien technology with our own to create more advanced aircraft and weaponry, including a moon base and defensive satellite system, all on the assumption that the aliens will come back. But they don’t and everyone lives happily ever after.

Not really! The actual mechanics of the plot are far too fiddly to bother getting into here, but suffice to say the aliens do return, and, in typical sequel fashion, they’re bigger and badder. Facing them on humanity’s side are returning faces (Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman), returning characters with new faces (Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher), some surprising new faces (Charlotte Gainsbourg?!), and Liam Hemsworth, who somehow merits top billing. No Will Smith, because he died. Well, his character died, because Will Smith was busy doing Suicide Squad, which is basically the same thing.

The cast who DID come back

I jest at the Squad’s expense, but I actually enjoyed DC’s notoriously messy movie more than this. I think. (I intend to review it next week, when it’s also on Sky, so we’ll see what I say then.) You see, although from the outside it may look like Resurgence is just a rehash of the first movie, but with bigger spaceships, there are actually good ideas in here: how the world has developed since the last film, where the characters are, some new facets to our understanding of the alien race. Unfortunately, the film is in such a hurry to churn through Plot that it doesn’t take time to let any of the potentially-interesting stuff settle; doesn’t allow the space for it to be developed or appreciated. It feels wrong to complain that a blockbuster isn’t long enough, especially in this day and age, but you wish Resurgence had just given itself a little time to breathe; to properly explain why characters were doing certain things, rather than throwing in a speedy line of dialogue that there’s no time to process; to allow its set pieces to show off their scale, rather than racing from one to the next as if having as many as possible is better than making the most out of… well, any of them.

Despite the unwavering focus on plot over everything else (it even sidelines spectacle at times, which is what big-budget disaster movies like this should be about), the headlong rush to get through the narrative means its storytelling is really sloppy. For instance, we’re reintroduced to Goldblum’s father (Judd Hirsch) trying to hawk his book to a room of uninterested pensioners; then we next see him on a boat, just in time to get caught up in the giant spaceship’s arrival. So, does he live on this boat? It doesn’t look big enough for that. So is he just hanging out there? Why? I mean, he was just at a book reading. And why does he have a boat anyway? Yet for all this rushing, the film begins to waste time on a bunch of random kids in a car, or some salvage sailors performing a job that (in story terms) doesn’t actually need doing. Clearly the script needed a good going-over by someone with an objective eye.

Independence Day: The Next Generation

Maybe it’s daft to focus on the quality of the screenplay in a film like Independence Day — as I said just now, its genre dictates it should be all about spectacle. But it’s the poor screenplay that undercuts those things. Not just because it has iffy dialogue or muddled character motivation (which it does), but because they’ve made the story more complicated than it needed to be and the film is desperate to tell us it as quickly as possible. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that it runs exactly two hours, because it feels like it’s been sliced as thin as possible on an individual scene level, as if they were trimming frames here and there to have it run no longer than 120 minutes.

The big show-off scenes are further marred by variable effects. Much of the really grand stuff is decent, if hurried past, but the film is flooded with green screen work that is consistently atrocious. Like, “it was better 20 years ago”-level bad. The deleted scenes may hold the key to why this is: there’s one where a character is picked up from a bus stop on an ordinary street, except it’s been filmed on a green screen instead of on, y’know, a street. If you’re making your effects team waste time generating something you could’ve filmed by popping down the road, no wonder they don’t have time to do the tricky stuff properly.

And, quite bizarrely, there are a couple of action bits that mirror sequences from, of all things, San Andreas. They happen back to back — intercut, in fact — which just emphasises the parallel. This signifies nothing, really, it’s just… strange.

We're gonna need a bigger spaceship

I really wanted to enjoy Independence Day: Resurgence, because I thought the “20 years later” ideas had promise, and also I have a soft spot for the original. Sure, it’s cheesy as hell, but mostly the cheese works thanks to an earnestness and the evocation of some degree of emotion. Plus, it achieves what it sets out to be — that is, an entertaining disaster movie cum alien invasion actioner. This follow-up wants to do the same thing on a bigger scale, and it is indeed even cheesier at times, but not in the same likeable way. If the first is a tasty chunk of mature cheddar (which, for the purposes of this analogy, we’re going to say it is) then the second is a thin slice of processed burger cheese. And, also like fake cheese, it fails to achieve even the straightforward thrills it sets out to create.

2 out of 5

Independence Day: Resurgence is on Sky Cinema from today.

* For what it’s worth, if it had equalled the $817 million then it would’ve been 8th on 2016’s chart, beating the likes of Fantastic Beasts and Deadpool. ^

Independence Day: Special Edition (1996/1998)

2016 #102a
Roland Emmerich | 154 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I’m not sure when I last watched ID4 (as it was so often branded and marketed, for only semi-clear reasons — sure, US Independence Day is July 4th, but other than that the “4” has nothing to do with anything), but it’s been a damn long time — my DVD copy, which I know I never watched (I have the shiny new remastered Blu-ray now), has a postcard inside advertising the forthcoming Planet of the Apes remake, in cinemas Summer 2001. The time I best remember seeing it was in cinemas on its initial release. Independence Day was a phenomenally huge deal back in 1996: it felt like that shot of the White House being destroyed was on TV on loop; there were making-of TV specials (I remember the behind-the-scenes footage of how they did those incredible, much-discussed effects as clearly as I remember anything from the film itself); I listened to the Radio 1 Independence Day UK audio drama on tape (it was… so-so), read the tie-in comic book adaptation, and also the tie-in novelisation — which was the first book I ever gave up on without finishing because I thought it was so badly written. Ten-year-old badblokebob, literary critic. The film itself was also the first 12-rated movie I went to see in the cinema, so it was even more of a big deal for me.

Revisiting it 20 years later, with a sequel imminent, ID4 obviously no longer has that attendant hype, but it does hold up pretty well in its own right as a blockbuster disaster epic. At least, it did for me — I read a review on Letterboxd from someone who watched it for the first time this January, saying that, in the age of the modern spectacle-based blockbuster, Independence Day doesn’t compete. Which feels weird, because it was all about the spectacle when it came out; but of course, things date, and what counted as sheer cinematic spectacle in 1996 is (it would seem) underwhelmingly run-of-the-mill in 2016. It’s fair to say that not all of the model effects still hold up, but there’s a physicality to them that really works. The best ones are still among the best movie effects ever.

The film’s first half is superior to its second. Co-writer/director Roland Emmerich and co-writer/producer Dean Devlin conceived the film off the idea of 14-mile-wide spaceships just appearing one morning, and the realisation of that concept (and the ensuing destruction) is where the film really shines. That’s not to say there’s not good stuff after the aliens unleash their devastating destructive power — the famous presidential speech comes just before the climax, for one — but it’s from the midpoint on that some things begin to get a tad muddled, some subplots are rushed along, and other events get needlessly elongated. That said, it’s all relative: the 2016 version of this story with this many characters would surely run for five hours as it endeavoured to give them all a starring-role-level storyline and turn every effects-fuelled alien encounter into a 20-minute action sequence.

One area it really succeeds is humour. It doesn’t lose the scale or seriousness of the events, but it keeps the tone entertaining. That feels like a skill a lot of blockbusters used to have that’s gone awry in recent years, though you could use the tone of Marvel Studios’ movies to counterpoint that. Those Marvel films are definitely subject to a different criticism of modern blockbusters, however, which is their mindless destruction of whole cities. It’s a just criticism, and some of the blame for it can surely be traced back to the popularity of ID4. However, here the destruction isn’t so unfeeling: the morning after the aliens’ famous landmark obliteration, President Whitmore mulls over how many people died and how many didn’t have to if he’d made different choices. Both Marvel and DC have had to make that kind of reflection a plot point in sequels to retrospectively justify it happening in the first place.

This was the first time I’d watched Independence Day’s extended Special Edition cut, and I’d advise not bothering. It adds around 8½ minutes of new material, but the scenes don’t add all that much, and some of them are so awkwardly rammed in that it’s almost irritating — for instance, several are inserted in the middle of an existing music cue by merely fading out the score immediately before the new scene, then fading it back in afterwards! They’re deleted scenes that have been shoved into the movie, with the score often fudged to make room and stuff like that, rather than it being a genuine “extended cut”. People seem to love extended cuts on disc, but sometimes a nice deleted scenes section is preferable.

With the way things are nowadays — every hit sequelised; old IPs regularly dragged up for new moneymaking opportunities — it was kind of inevitable we’d get ID4 2 eventually. I’m looking forward to it, but not insanely hyped up. It probably benefits from the 20-year wait story-wise, allowing for a drastically new status quo on Earth when the aliens return, but with blockbusters released all year round now, and CGI meaning every one is overloaded with effects shots that are far more epic than ID4 had, there’s little doubt that the sequel won’t have the same enduring impact on the blockbuster firmament. For its faults, you can’t deny ID4 that.

4 out of 5

Independence Day: Resurgence is in UK cinemas now, and is released in the US tomorrow.

Jurassic Park (1993)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #47

An adventure
65 million years in the making.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 127 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 11th June 1993 (USA)
UK Release: 16th July 1993
First Seen: cinema, 1993

Stars
Sam Neill (Dead Calm, Event Horizon)
Laura Dern (Wild at Heart, Inland Empire)
Jeff Goldblum (The Fly, Independence Day)
Richard Attenborough (10 Rillington Place, Miracle on 34th Street)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)

Screenwriters
Michael Crichton (Westworld, Twister)
David Koepp (Death Becomes Her, Panic Room)

Based on
Jurassic Park, a novel by Michael Crichton.

The Story
Invited to a remote island by an eccentric billionaire, a group of scientists, investors, and children discover he’s managed to clone and resurrect dinosaurs, which he intends to exhibit in his theme park: Dinosaur Land!
…not really — it’s called Jurassic Park. As the visitors tour the park looking at the creatures, a nice two-hour nature documentary unfolds.
…not really — the dinosaurs escape and run amok and people die and it’s basically a horror/disaster movie with giant prehistoric lizards as the killer/natural disaster. Good times.

Our Heroes
Dr Alan Grant and Dr Ellie Sattler are palaeontologists invited to Jurassic Park’s test run by enthusiastic grandfatherly billionaire John Hammond. There’s also Dr Ian Malcolm, a sexy mathematician (oxymoron?), and Hammond’s grandkids, siblings Tim and Lex, who Grant is essentially left to babysit. There’s also a handful of other characters who are essentially dinosaur-food… er, I mean, who are totally going to survive to the end of the movie.

Our Villains
It’s a bit mean to call the dinosaurs villains — they’re just behaving as nature intended. Of course, when uber-predators like Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptors are involved, they’re still the main threat. Their impromptu freedom is all the fault of greedy, traitorous tech geek Dennis Nedry, though.

Best Supporting Character
For what may be the only time in movie history, Samuel L. Jackson is in this movie and isn’t the coolest character. That honour goes to Bob Peck as the park’s badass head ranger, Muldoon.

Memorable Quote
“Don’t move! He can’t see us if we don’t move.” — Dr Alan Grant

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Clever girl.” — Muldoon

Memorable Scene
As the newly-arrived visitors drive across the island, Hammond whispers to the driver to stop. Dr Grant idly looks off to the side, and his mouth falls open in shock. He pulls off his hat. He stands. He fumbles to take off his sunglasses, not believing his eyes. Dr Sattler is distracted by a leaf that shouldn’t exist. Grant reaches over to grab her head, turns it to face what he sees. Now she looks shocked, standing and pulling off her glasses. Whatever they’re looking at, it’s big. And only then, as John Williams’ music swells, does Spielberg cut to it: towering over them, a Brachiosaurus — a real, living dinosaur.

Write the Theme Tune…
Some chap named John Williams totally lucked out writing the film’s iconic main theme, which is one of music’s best evocations of the feelings of awe and wonder.

Technical Wizardry
It’s easily overlooked among all the visual antics, but the film’s sound design is incredible, too. Spielberg insisted on all-new sounds being captured throughout (rather than using any library effects) to help ensure the dinosaur roars sounded unique. The T-Rex’s roar was a combination of sounds from dogs, tigers, alligators, elephants, and… penguins.

Truly Special Effect
Spielberg thought about using a combination of animatronics and groundbreaking CGI to create the dinosaurs, but they just resurrected some real ones instead. More seriously, there’s actually only 15 minutes of dinosaur footage in the film. Nine minutes of that is animatronics — despite its fame and influence, just six minutes were created with CGI.

Making of
Spielberg came up with the idea for the famous rippling glass of water when he saw the mirror in his car vibrate because of sound. When the effects team tried to replicate that with water, nobody could do it… but they told Spielberg they could. The night before the effect was to be shot, effects supervisor Michael Lantieri placed a glass of water on a guitar, plucked the strings, and got the desired effect. For the film — where the glass is on a car dashboard, not a musical instrument — guitar strings were attached to the underside of the dashboard. These days you know they’d just do all that with CGI, and this is why older movies are better.

Next time…
Spielberg returned to helm first sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997, which has its fans, but not that many. Joe Johnston took over for Jurassic Park III, which is less epic than either of is predecessors, and more of a brisk (just 90 minutes long), straightforward action-adventure movie. After many years of aborted plans, the series was revived last year in Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, which met with incredible financial success and a mixed (though generally favourable) reception. A fifth film, directed by The Impossible’s J.A. Bayona, will be a direct sequel to Jurassic World and is slated for release in 2018.

Awards
3 Oscars (Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
1 BAFTA (Special Effects)
1 BAFTA nomination (Sound)
4 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Director, Writing, Special Effects)
7 Saturn nominations (Actress (Laura Dern), Supporting Actor (both Jeff Goldblum and Wayne Knight), Performance by a Younger Actor (both Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards), Music, Costumes)
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Villain — for the dinosaurs? I don’t know.)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“As he did in Jaws, Spielberg has crafted a man-vs.-nature masterpiece with admirable logic, darkly funny violence and enthralling state-of-the-art special effects. Watching Jurassic Park, one gets the same feeling of wonderment, glee and old-fashioned fright that moviegoers must have felt 60 years ago when King Kong roared out of the jungle and scaled the Empire State Building. […] We ask for two things from big-budget thrillers like this: Make us believe and make us jump. Jurassic Park delivers on both counts; it’s the best gasp-between-the-giggles movie made since a cocky young director and a clunky Bruce the Shark scared the beach out of us 18 summers ago.” — Steve Persall, Tampa Bay Times
(I want to quote so much of this review, because it’s full of good bits, like how it’s “the most intelligent, pro-feminist adventure movie yet made”; or how “a faithful version of Crichton’s tale would have cost at least twice the film’s $60 million price tag” — a film costing $120 million? Unthinkable!)

Score: 93%

What the Public Say
“We’re kept waiting for the first full shot of a dinosaur, and it’s worth the wait, the little jeep carrying Sam Neill and Laura Dern stopping long enough for them to gawp in helpless wonder at the sight of Brachiosaurs eating. It works for two reasons. One is the reactions of the actors, which only adds to the moment’s sense of authenticity and gravitas. The second is the use of CGI. Jurassic Park was like a great leap forward in special effects technology. Before this, the only way to see dinosaurs on film was the stop-motion animated models shot painstakingly by Ray Harryhausen and his peers. Suddenly, all that was consigned to cinema history thanks to digital effects, work that holds up today because Spielberg knew how to use CGI judiciously rather than too often […] The combination of CGI and puppetry to create the dinosaur looks seamless, and whilst it must have been painstaking to develop and film there’s no doubt it’s great to watch” — Mike, Films on the Box

Verdict

For a certain generation, Star Wars is undeniably the defining cinematic experience. For a more recent one, I guess it’s Harry Potter or something. In between, you have my lot — and as became quite clear with the unexpectedly phenomenal response to Jurassic World this time last year, we have Jurassic Park. It was the first film I ever saw at the cinema, and much of it has been lodged in my memory every since.

That it’s beloved shouldn’t be such a surprise, really: it was huge back in 1993, and is one of only ten films that can lay claim to ever having been The Highest Grossing Movie Of All Time. It wasn’t the first film to employ computer-generated special effects, but by featuring them so prominently it paved the way for further effects breakthroughs. The groundbreaking imagery still holds up today — and when you consider that the effects in some movies out last week are already dated, that’s even more impressive.

It’s certainly not just about the effects, though: it’s a fantastic adventure movie, putting its likeable characters through the ringer in a story that is by turns exciting, funny, scary, and genuinely awe-inspiring.

#48 will be… a roaring rampage of revenge.

Morning Glory (2010)

2015 #194
Roger Michell | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rachel McAdams takes a break from time-jumping rom-coms to lead a film where the romantic subplot is merely tacked on, presumably for marketing purposes. Really, it’s about a woman in love with her job.

McAdams plays the producer of TV’s worst-rated breakfast show, but her dream career faces ruin when it’s scheduled for cancellation. If only she can persuade her hero, investigative reporter turned disgruntled host Harrison Ford, to toe the line…

Overlong, predictable, and not the sharpest newsroom-based comedy, Morning Glory’s likeable cast nonetheless carry it to a level of entertaining amusement. Not the disaster it’s been painted as.

4 out of 5

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

2015 #20
Wes Anderson | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.37:1 + 1.85:1 + 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English | 15 / R

The Grand Budapest HotelThe latest from cult auteur Wes Anderson, which managed that rare feat of enduring from a March release to being an awards season contender, sees the peerless concierge of a magnificent mid-European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) accused of murdering a rich elderly guest (Tilda Swinton, caked in Oscar-winning prosthetics) and attempting to flee across the country to clear his name. More or less, anyway, because this is a Wes Anderson film and so it takes in all kinds of amusing asides, tangents, and recognisable cameos.

The film has the feel of an artisan confection: candy-coloured, precisely designed and constructed, sweetly enjoyable, but with a hidden bite. Something like that, anyway. There are many praises to sing along these lines. The visuals are the most obvious. As is apparent even from the trailer, the shot composition is tightly controlled, squared-off but using that formalism to its advantage in various ways. I don’t know if this is always Anderson’s style (this is only the second of his films that I’ve seen, but it was similarly employed in the other), but here it works in ways almost indefinable.

The performances are just as mannered, and equally as fantastic for similar reasons: they exist within very specific constraints, but then push at their boundaries. Fiennes displays a perhaps-surprising flair for comedy in the lead role. Apparently Johnny Depp was Anderson’s initial choice — thank goodness that didn’t happen! You can completely see Depp in the part, bringing his rote whimsy to it, but how much more entertaining it is to have Serious Actor Ralph Fiennes going somewhat against type, and playing the role beautifully too. A host of familiar faces turn up in supporting roles that display various degrees of individualistic eccentricity, and there’s no weak link, but Fiennes is the stand-out.

Not suspicious at allI suppose the kooky idiosyncrasies of Anderson’s brand of storytelling and filmmaking will rub some viewers up the wrong way, looking on it all as vacuous affectations signifying nothing. To each their own, but, whatever the merits (or not) of Anderson’s style as a kind of one-man genre played out across his oeuvre, The Grand Budapest Hotel displays a synthesis of contributing elements that creates a movie that’s ceaselessly inventive, surprising, amusing, and entirely entertaining.

5 out of 5

The Grand Budapest Hotel placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Right Stuff (1983)

2009 #49
Philip Kaufman | 181 mins | TV | 15 / PG

The Right StuffThe Right Stuff ostensibly dramatises the story of the ‘Mercury 7’, America’s first group of astronauts, but in fact equally concerns itself with the tale of test pilot Chuck Yeager. But I’ll get to him.

I’ve recently steeped myself in dramas and documentaries relating to the US space program, from For All Mankind’s contemporary footage to In the Shadow of the Moon’s retrospective interviews, from Moonshot’s earnest docudrama account of Apollo 11 to From the Earth to the Moon’s thorough chronicling of events. But all of these have one thing in common: they cover the Apollo missions alone. Mercury came first, America’s initial attempts to put men into space before Apollo’s grand mission to the Moon.

In this context it’s nice to actually get some coverage of these earlier, vital missions, though such an in-depth knowledge of what was to follow has its problems for The Right Stuff’s narrative, just as knowing the facts always does for a historical movie. Equally, it gives the emotional resonance a helping hand — knowing Gus Grissom’s tragic fate lends the poor treatment he received following his unfortunate splashdown an extra poignancy; or when Alan Shepard asserts he’s going to the Moon you know he’ll make it (eventually).

Exposure to other such works makes quality comparisons inevitable too, though the only one of serious relevance here is From the Earth to the Moon. It’s an unfair one, of course: despite The Right Stuff’s epic running time, it’s nothing to the twelve hours afforded to an HBO miniseries. Conversely, where the miniseries is effectively twelve one-hour plays, shifting focus every episode, director Philip Kaufman’s film does follow a more linear — albeit wide-reaching — progression. While Yeager may disappear for long stretches, for example, his story is revisited and continued; while Gordon Cooper isn’t introduced until after we’ve had plenty of Yeager, the film closes on his first spaceflight. Flitting from character to character could make the film feel fragmented — and the brevity in dealing with many of the supporting characters, especially the wives, does suggest this — but the missions move ever on and take the narrative with them.

The other effect of having seen so much about the space program of late is that the trips to space lose some of their wonder. The handful of spaceflights actually depicted here are often praised, both for their special effects and their pure effect on the viewer, but having seen many others recently does tarnish the sense of wonder somewhat. The effects work is faultless however, as is the integration of footage of the real missions, and the unique qualities of John Glenn’s flight make it stand out regardless of how many other real spaceflights one’s seen recreated on screen.

A handful of these sequences aside, Kaufman leaves the technical aspect of proceedings alone. The various test flights and rocket launches we do see are undoubtedly important set pieces, but they’re not a thorough catalogue of events. Attention is only lavished on the scientific and engineering challenges when it has some direct impact on the characters, and just as often Kaufman is concerned with the family — specifically, the wife — behind the astronaut. These touches of family drama are well played, most affectingly with Glenn and his shy, stuttering wife, but each astronaut’s tale comes and goes, not even one relationship going through an arc that lasts more than two or three scenes. Even when powerfully portrayed, these are portraits not stories.

There are some injections of humour and symbolism too, but again in keeping with the piecemeal style. A pair of NASA recruitment officers, played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, provide some comic relief early on for quite a sustained stretch, but then more or less disappear — excepting a recurring motif of Goldblum telling a room of Important Men news they already know. Similarly, the film opens with a fantastic image of Death, a black-clad preacher arriving to inform a wife and child of their husband/father’s fiery death. He crops up again, demonstrating his presence as symbol and not character, but is too often forgotten about. Plaudits are due for not overusing him, naturally, but a few more appearances wouldn’t have gone amiss.

And so what of Yeager? Why so much of a test pilot who was denied the chance to apply to be an astronaut, even if he’d wanted to? It’s hard to disagree with the assessment of screenwriter William Goldman, who left the project over disagreements with the director: it seems Kaufman, for whatever reason, is set in a belief that Yeager had ‘the right stuff’ pumping through his veins, while those chosen to be astronauts were just ordinary guys who got lucky; that Yeager was a pilot proper, brave and skilled, while the Mercury 7 were little more than living computers to perform a handful of tasks atop a huge rocket. If this is Kaufman’s belief it isn’t overbearing, but you can see where Goldman’s coming from. After all, if this is purely the story of the Mercury 7 and their trips into space, why is Yeager there at all, never mind so prominently?

By eschewing a straight trotting out of facts and incidents, even a dramatised one, for a selection of events and experiences, Kaufman made a film that is perhaps less about the real-life story and more thematic — that theme being, primarily, heroism. If he winds up uncertain whether or not the Mercury 7 were heroes, perhaps that’s the point: these were just ordinary men, thrust into an extraordinary situation. Except Yeager, of course, who is never anything less than the flawless embodiment of the titular virtue.

4 out of 5

The Right Stuff is on ITV4 tonight at 10:35pm.