REVIEW: Independence Day (1996)


Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox

A bonefide 90s blockbuster, a certified pop culture phenomenon, and a patriotic mainstay of 4th of July movie marathons nationwide. Can you get anymore entertaining than Independence Day?

On July 2nd, communications systems worldwide are sent into chaos by a strange atmospheric interference, revealed to be gigantic spacecraft, piloted by a mysterious alien species. After attempts to communicate with the aliens go nowhere, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an ex-scientist turned cable technician, discovers that the aliens are going to attack major points around the globe in less than a day. On July 3rd, the aliens all but obliterate New York, Los Angeles and Washington, as well as Paris, London, Houston and Moscow. The survivors set out in convoys towards Area 51, a strange government testing ground where the military has a captured alien spacecraft of their own. The survivors, led by the President of the United States (Bill Pullman), devise a plan to fight back against the enslaving aliens, and July 4th becomes the day humanity will fight for its freedom from extermination.

With ID4, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin established themselves as the big budget dream team of the 1990s. Taking in over $300 million in the box office and becoming as equally big a hit on video, ID4 is still fondly remembered by most moviegoers today. Sure, some critics still turn their noses to it, but by now, one has to admire the staying power this one has.

And this is directly attributed to Emmerich and Devlin, whose script balances any of the cheesier aspects of the alien invasion genre with disaster film tropes and surprisingly sharp drama. Devlin is on record as stating that, “you can have the greatest special effects shot in existence, but if you don’t care for the characters, it won’t matter at all.” Luckily he was able to live by his words in this instance, because his characters are all as top-rate as possible in a film like this.

In his first post-Fresh Prince role, Will Smith swoops in as one of the three main protagonists, holding his own against Golblum and Pullman. Though Goldblum’s character David is my favorite of the bunch, Smith’s macho air captain Steven Hiller is riot to watch and laugh at. And that sense of fun only gets better once they both pair up for their final mission, cramped together in an alien ship, matching wit for gut-busting wit.

Image result for independence day will smith jeff goldblum

Pullman’s character, President Whitmore, is a different beast: written to be a largely ineffective leader who is bullied around by his more ambitious Secretary of Defense (James Rebhorn), Pullman conveys enough of a heart to be genuinely likable and sympathetic, even if as an Executive he makes the worst decisions ever.

Image result for Independence Day 1996 cast

Rounding out the ensemble cast are a collection of some of the finest character actors and topical stars of the time, including solid performances from Loggia and Colin. Randy Quaid, however, is the main scene stealer, followed by a pleasant surprise in Brent Spiner, who relishes getting out of his Data persona to play a hilariously-eccentric Area 51 scientist.

But the main draw, really, behind ID4 was the impressive array of visual and special effects on display. ID4 was made at an interesting time in the industry, in which Jurassic Park had just displayed what was possible with photo-realistic CGI. ID4 happily took advantage of the technology, present in the swarms of alien attackers and F/A-18s buzzing in and out of the frame. Emmerich, however, thankfully preserves a heavy in-camera miniature element, and this decision pays dividends. Many of the buildings and cities erupting in spectacular explosions are scale models and pyrotechnics, and they still are as breathtaking as they were back in the day. The White House’s destruction even became an indelible cultural image, thanks to the saturation of the moment in the film’s marketing. The visual effects earned an Academy Award in 1997.

Image result for Independence Day 1996

ID4 is available in the home video market with two versions, the 145-minute theatrical version and the 155-minute Special Edition. The theatrical cut is already a well-put-together, narratively solid piece, so any added material in the Special Edition, even when fleshing out Quaid’s role, feels somewhat redundant. It doesn’t help that the sound mix in these scenes seems to be incomplete, and the excellent pacing of the first act is the most shattered by additions. I recommend the theatrical cut heartily.

All in all, ID4 is still a blast to watch. The humor is on-point without overbearing the natural drama, the special effects are still convincing, and the musical score by David Arnold has aged very well. I honestly can’t find any fatal faults with the picture. If you’re looking for a good War of the Worlds-style throwback that isn’t a stretch for non-viewers of sci-fi in general, Independence Day is your ticket.


REVIEW: The Right Stuff


Directed by Philip Kaufman
Written by Philip Kaufman, Based on the Novel by Tom Wolfe
Starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Lance Henriksen, Donald Moffat, Levon Helm, Mary Jo Deschanel, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer

Released to relatively little success in 1983 during former astronaut John Glenn’s failed Presidential run, The Right Stuff has now become somewhat of a cult hit, garnering more praise as the years go by. And why not? Based on one of the best-selling nonfiction books by Tom Wolfe and written and directed by Philip Kaufman, an interesting figure in cinema by any measure, The Right Stuff is probably one of the most fun and fulfilling pictures in the epic tradition out there.

The story of the beginnings of the US space program and the first seven Mercury astronauts, beginning when Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaks the sound barrier in 1947. After the Soviets successfully launch the Sputnik satellite in 1959, the U.S. redoubles its efforts to catch up, selecting 7 pilots for the program. They instantly become super stars, appearing on television and having articles written about them in Life magazine. The work, however, is serious and dangerous, as it has never been done before.

The Right Stuff is truly marvelous in every way. A near-perfect synthesis of excellent screenwriting, sublime editing, stunning photography and great performances, Philip Kaufman’s 7th film never ceases to put a smile on my face.

Related imageBeginning in 1947 with the breaking of the sound barrier, Sam Shepard enters the fray as the story’s first true hero, Chuck Yeager, a bona fide ace of World War II, now a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. Shepard’s performance, which was nominated for an Oscar, is authentic and confident, showcasing the skills that this now-unheard-of actor possesses. Matching him in quiet countenance is Barbara Hershey as Yeager’s wife Glennis, in a small but impactful role. This first section of the film, despite depicting several historic flights by Yeager, is quite intimate and quiet, showcasing the stresses placed upon both the pilots risking their lives to “push the envelope” and on their wives, who will be left with nothing save a few months’ pay to pick up the pieces.

While Yeager and his civilian rival Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson) continue to break speed and altitude records, the film slowly introduces us to several smaller pilots with big destinies ahead, namely the slick, silver-tongued devil Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), the ever-serious Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). When President Eisenhower and Senator Lyndon Johnson (played hilariously and to a T by Donald Moffat, Texas drawl and all) form NASA, Grissom and Cooper will join the quietly confident and uniquely eccentric Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), along with Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), and of course, John Glenn (Ed Harris) to become America’s Mercury 7 astronauts, reaching levels of fame that Yeager and Crossfield never manage to achieve before they even step foot into the capsule.

Related image

It is here where Kaufman’s screenplay really shows its steady legs. Throughout the constant and ridiculous testing at NASA to bureaucracy and empty showmanship designed to stir up the American people about a program which could falter and collapse at any moment against the Soviets, The Right Stuff rightly presents all of the silliness and irony inherent in the nation’s early space program, and in the rivalry between the astronauts from all three branches of the military. There are just so many great examples: the Congressional briefing in which Harry Shearer and Jeff Golblum seriously suggest circus performers as astronaut candidates, the comical friendliness between Marine pilots Carpenter and Glenn while the others are so incredibly cut-throat towards each other, even the uncomfortable first flight of Shepard, who is ordered to hold his bladder in the capsule while shot after shot after shot of running hoses, spilled coffee, and bubbling water coolers taunt him from afar, become near-Vaudeville routines of humor. And all the while, the film never descends into lampoonery, dropping us back into seriousness with ease whenever one of the astronauts embarks on a flight or taking us back to Edwards to check in on Yeager.

Another strength of Kaufman’s script is the use of cinematic devices to convey its story. Consider the old preacher from Edwards who’s solemn duty there was to inform wives of their husband’s deaths, as if he were the Reaper himself. Being one of the first characters seen in the film, he pops up quite frequently in the first act, a constant reminder to the wives that their husbands may be next. And when Shepard embarks on his first trip into space, who is there watching and waiting for his possible death than he.

Image result for the right stuff old preacher

While all of the Mercury 7 actors are perfectly cast and precisely embody the larger-than-like men they portray, Harris is easily the standout, just as Glenn was. Harris conveys such a prim and pure honesty and confidence, not just in his skills behind a control stick but in his conviction to God, country, and family that I almost forget that I’m not actually watching John Glenn on the screen. But this isn’t just a man’s movie, as the women of the film turn in some great performances of their own. The aforementioned Hershey is a woman apart from the rest in her relative lack of interest in the glamorous life of the others, while Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom is just a true delight to watch. Mary Jo Deschanel is especially good as Glenn’s wife Ann, a fragile woman barely keeping it together as her husband sits atop a missile originally designed to nuke a city.

Image result for the right stuff veronica cartwright

When the momentous flights into space truly begin, the technical mastery of Kaufman and his team become more apparent than ever. Shepard’s flight in particular displays some incredible matching with actual stock footage used, at the same time treating us to some of the best night photography I’ve ever seen. Editing by Tom Rolf is also perfectly sublime, making incredible use out of reused material for later cutaways that expand the scenes and work around what was surely budgetary constraints, while also providing some of the best scene transitions out there (my favorites are Yeager’s “What’s next, Ridley?” line, followed by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, and the slow move in to the pitch-black afterburner of Yeager’s F-104 and back into the Sam Houston Coliseum where the astronauts are being treated to a celebration).

Image result for the right stuff orbit

Special effects in The Right Stuff aren’t really of the cutting-edge variety, even for 1983 standards, but this does well for the film as a whole. As Kaufman said of his and visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez’s work, “we tried new techniques and old ones, often jerry-built. Sometimes we hurled models out of windows and filmed them on their way down.” The result is a sense of gritty authenticity to the images presented, with each plane flight appearing almost completely real, while the main effects sequence of Glenn’s three orbits around the Earth has an eerie sense of analog charm to it that entrances me to this day. And while Bill Conti’s score was a last-minute replacement for the work of John Barry, Conti’s work is no less significant, providing some truly rousing and inspiring cues while adapting selections of Holtz’s The Planets for others.

All in all, I’d go so far as to say that The Right Stuff is one of the greatest films of the twentieth century. It’s intimate and humorous at the same time as it is epic, and is so good it is a film I enjoy around every 4th of July, contributing to the fact that our nation’s accomplishments in space are among the few I am still proud of. If you’ve never watched The Right Stuff, don’t let the three-hour runtime scare you. I would classify it as probably the most fun epic film you’ll ever see.


Maestro’s Picks – April 14, 2017

How goes it, readers?

In anticipation of a big year for comic book films, Marvel Studios surprised us with an unannounced Thor: Ragnarok teaser trailer Monday morning. I’ve already watched it a hundred times, and I’m not tired of it. Oh, and I had the exact same reaction Thor did when I saw the Hulk:

Thor: Ragnarok hits theaters November 3, 2017.

Keeping it rolling with the Marvel news, it looks like we finally have our Cable….drumroll………………………….Josh Brolin! THR first reported the casting, and it looks like Ryan Reynolds has confirmed it, with his usual Deadpool-style photoshop job. Some fans wonder how Brolin will play a role in both the Fox X-Verse and the MCU, where he plays Thanos. My two-cents are this: what the hell do you mean? He just plays two characters in two different cinematic universes. It has happened before, why is it so hard to wrap one’s head around? As for what I think of Brolin playing the telepathic warrior, I think it’s an excellent choice. He’s imposing, stern, and yet, has impeccable comedic timing. He will definitely hold his own against Reynolds.

And hitting the web today after it’s debut at the annual Star Wars Celebration, the first trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi! GLORIOUS, I TELL YOU! GLORIOUS!!!

Also making its big debut was the teaser poster, and what an ominous, mythical-looking poster it is:

Twas a short one this week, catch you in seven!