Spies and Aliens and Witches, Oh My…

Starman (1984): written by Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon; directed by John Carpenter; starring Jeff Bridges (Starman/Scott Hayden), Karen Allen (Jenny Hayden), and Charles Martin Smith (Mark Shermin): Not normally known as a director of warm dramedies, John Carpenter took on Starman to ensure he could keep getting funding for the horror movies and thrillers (and one never-made supernatural Western, Diablo) he preferred. The result was Starman, a science-fiction movie that nabbed a rare major Oscar nomination for an sf film — a Best Actor nom for Jeff Bridges.

And Bridges is great as an alien being pretending to be human so he can make his way to a rendezvous in Arizona with his mother-ship. He takes on the appearance (and, thanks to a lock of hair, the DNA) of the dead husband of Karen Allen. Having watched the alien’s rapid growth in her living-room, Allen knows he is an alien. Their relationship drives the rest of the film, as they drive to Arizona. Basically, it’s ET meets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

As noted, Bridges does fine work as the alien, managing comedy and pathos when required and doing an awfully good job of suggesting a creature learning to use a body (and language) on the fly. Allen is also solid, as usual — as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, she makes for a non-cookie-cutter leading woman. The government forces are, as always, bad. However, the lead scientist played by Charles Martin Smith is sympathetic. It’s politicians and the military and not the forces of science who are the bad guys. In all, this is very good movie that’s aged surprisingly well. Highly recommended.

The Blair Witch Project: written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez; starring Heather Donahue (Heather), Joshua Leonard (Josh), and Michael C. Williams (Mike) (1999): Maryland: home of the Terrapins, the Ravens, The Wire, that weird state flag, and a homicidal witch. The Blair Witch Project is the most influential horror movie of the last 40 years, as it made the found-footage film the go-to vehicle for filmed horror pretty much up to the present day. It also suggested that less was more both in terms of putting graphic images on the screen and in terms of budget.

And despite a couple of verisimilitude-harming flubs (yes, it’s those guys fishing in two inches of water again near the beginning), it’s a fine piece of work. Of course, it’s hard to separate the film from the hype surrounding it in 1999. But watching it for the first time in at least 15 years, I’m struck by what a fine piece of mounting suspense it represents.

The three actors we spend most of our time with, those three film-makers lost in the demon-haunted woods of Maryland back in 1994, are utterly credible. They’re not all that good at camping or hiking. Their growing panic seems genuine — The Blair Witch Project is a really fine study of how group harmony can disintegrate disastrously under pressure. There’s even a tie-in to the 2016 presidential campaign, as the growing resentment directed towards director/group leader Heather by her male partners-in-film-making seems at least partially a result of sexism towards female leaders. And there’s that witch, of course, that deadly metaphor for hidden female power revealed and aimed at the patriarchy.

There are problems, but forgivable ones, especially in a movie that cost about $10 to make. I’d have liked more scenes shot in thicker portions of the woods during the day-time to add some atmosphere and menace to those day-time hiking excursions. That they’re traipsing through some very thin growth isn’t a plot problem — it’s not like witchcraft is contingent on Old-Growth forests. But there is a dearth of mood in some of those day-time scenes. 

The night-time scenes are well-imagined, though. I especially like how the sounds that terrify the campers on the first three nights all seem to involve massive, unseen beings crashing through unseen trees. It gives an almost Lovecraftian feel to those moments, an idea of something much larger and much worse than a witch walking somewhere behind the trees.

And so we leave our campers, forever stranded in woods they can’t seem to walk out of, no matter how long and how straight a bee-line they make in any one direction. Oh, sure, it’s hard to believe that someone doesn’t put down a camera (or pick up a weapon) as things get closer and closer to that much-discussed ending. So it goes. And those little hand-prints on the walls, when they come, are as awful as anything gory one could depict. Highly recommended.

Spy: written and directed by Paul Feig; starring Melissa McCarthy (Susan Cooper), Jessica Chaffin (Sharon), Jude Law (Bradley Fine), Miranda Hart (Nancy), Jason Statham (Rick Ford), Bobby Cannavale (Sergio De Luca), Rose Byrne (Rayna Boyanov), Alison Janney (Elaine Crocker), and 50 Cent (Himself) (2015): Hilarious spy spoof takes full advantage of Melissa McCarthy’s outsized comic talents by making her hyper-competent, if occasionally a bit over-matched. 

The supporting cast is pretty much uniformly well-served as well, whether it’s Jason Statham spoofing Jason Statham or 50 Cent supplying a winning cameo. Paul Feig, who did similar writing/directing duties on previous McCarthy movies The Heat and Bridesmaids, has become a gifted comic voice with a particularly appealing manner with women. If the new Ghostbusters is this good, people will be happy. Highly recommended.

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