Monday, January 23, 2012

A Remake Done the Spielberg Way

Last week was amazing.  I got so much work done both on the finishing up side of things and the prep side and I had a great time hanging out with my teacher friends at our long lunches (everyone gets an hour for lunch during an exam week).  Add to that getting to spend more time with my friend Bond than I have in over a year this past weekend and a fancy meal at J. Gilbert's (it was Restaurant Week in Columbus again), and you have the mark of an amazing week.  I also hadn't seen my study hall in over a week (which in itself is enough to make a week great...they annoy the piss out of me) so it's almost a shame that today we had to get back into the normal routine of class, rinse, repeat.  However, I am cautiously optimistic about this second half of the school year.  The first half seems to have flown by, from my point of view, and I know with the senior play and the musical in the near future that my time is going to essentially evaporate into the air.  Before you know it (in exactly 4 months and six work days), it will be summer and I'll be chilling.  It's a nice thought, considering the challenges ahead (like getting through my second year of having students in the OGT and finding all the props we'll need for the shows) and it's part of what keeps me going.  Also, I feel like I've largely broken in my classes and that I can control them all and get them to produce the kind of work I expect (which in itself is a first-time feeling...usually by now I've resigned myself to "what you see is what you get").  Maybe I have finally hit that 3rd year stride all the wizened ancients have told me about. Now, onto today's film which is also about new beginnings and renewals but also about love and loss...all those great general emotions that make for touching stories.  It is a film that had already been made once before in the 1940s as A Guy Named Joe and is not one you would expect to see as a contemporary story in 1989...considering the film was about World War II and fighter pilots.  To my knowledge, even though we were all terrified of World War III, it wasn't something that had happened and thus could be written into a story like this.  However, Steven Spielberg and his team of artists would not be blocked from bringing their version of the story to screens (afterall, it was one of his favorite films) and so they made a few setting changes and took some generous liberties and suddenly yes...the story was fresh and relevant again.  However, would it be a success or would it be known as Spielberg's second major failure (cause we know how people loathe the idea of remakes).  Let's fly into the sunset and find out with Always.

Pete Sandich is an aerial firefighter who spends his days flying a surplus A-26 bomber over forest fires and dumping fire resistant slurry on them to put them out.  He is an ace pilot and wonderful at what he does, however he is also a huge risk taker and is constantly putting his life in danger for his job.  This gives his partner Al Yackey pause and drives his girlfriend Dorinda Durston, a pilot and a dispatcher, many sleepless nights.  One night, after Pete manages to glide into the runway on nothing but a wing and a prayer, Dorinda presents him with an ultimatum: either Pete gets out of the air and moves to Flat Rock, Colorado to train firefighters or she leaves him to find a man who can fly sensibly.  To quote her, "I love you Pete, but I'm not enjoying it."  Pete agrees, but not before he is needed for one last run.  During the flight, Al's engine catches fire and Pete risks his own life to save him...killing himself in the process.  Al and Dorinda mourn Pete's loss and move on to new places, seemingly drawing the story to a close.  However, Pete's spirit is still kicking and has been assigned by Hap, a kind of angel, to be the inspiration and guide of a new pilot in training named Ted Baker.  Ted is a bit of a klutz, but he has talent that Pete can easily see even when his instructor (Pete's old friend Al) cannot.  Things become more difficult for Pete, however, when he discovers that Dorinda is also in Flat Rock and that Ted is falling in love with her.  He now has to ask himself if he should spend his energy getting her to not forget him, or if he has the strength to let her go.

Always is something of a curiosity for Spielberg in that it came after a long smear of action-adventure pictures and two heartfelt dramas (Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple respectively).  It looked to follow in those films footsteps in that it was about human emotion and drama, but it also had the supernatural angle that was more in tune with the Indiana Jones films and Poltergeist (which Steve directed).  However, it was not meant to be a success, as it opened behind National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Tango and Cash, The War of the Roses, and Back to the Future Part II and didn't exactly light the box-office on fire.  More damning was the critical response which criticized the director's departure from his established formula, his insistence on making a remake, and dated material.  Indeed, the film even takes a moment to mention how much the firefighter's lodge is reminiscent of the USOs of WWII.  Tired and dirty airmen and women hang around while they drink beer and eat bad food.  Some of them fall in love and then spend sleepless nights wondering when their partners will arrive home safe and sound.  However, I think this comparison does a disservice to the film.  Sure it feels a little like romanticised World War II...but at the same time it is a depiction of what life is like (or may be like) for those firefighters who work so hard to keep our nations national forests from burning to the ground each year.  I personally think it was an ingenious plot device that allowed Speilberg to have his WWII planes and pilots and yet still keep the film firmly rooted in the present day.  How many other directors were making films about aerial firefighters?  That story also provides a great deal of conflict early on in the film and provides Dorinda with a very good motive for wanting Pete to stop what he is doing.  To quote her again, "I could understand if you were risking your life for someone else's life...anybody's life."  Indeed, the fact that Pete risks himself for burning trees makes his daredevil piloting much more of a character flaw that it would have in a film where soldiers are really risking themselves for the lives of the men they work with and thus gives him immediate complexity as a character.  Richard Dreyfuss as Pete is only one part of the heart of the film...the other parts filled by John Goodman as Al and Holly Hunter as Dorinda.  Goodman always gives 110% whenever he is on camera and that is true here as well as he manages to be funny and amazingly touching (sometimes even in the same scene) and Holly Hunter expertly acts Dorinda and keeps her from being the nagging and worrisome shrew she could have been.  She is both soft and strong, funny and serious, and she carries the biggest challange of the film...not turning into a stereotypical "weeping widow".  All three actors deserve to be nominated for their work in this film, and it is a real shame that none of them were.  Sure, they've all earned their respective awards for better known work...but it is work like this that goes unnoticed due to critical disintrest and box office numbers that really matters and shows that it isn't just "Roseanne" or The Piano or The Goodbye Girl that are worth seeing.  I will always love Always (forgive the terrible pun that I didn't mean to write) and will forever insist that it is a gem of a movie. (P.S. I forgot to mention, this film is also the final film performance of Audrey Hepburn who expertly plays the angel Hap with a grace and a wisdom that seems supernatural and it is always a delight to see her in this.)

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