Monday, March 21, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XIII: The octopus was very scary!


Hey, Goonies never say die.

Directed by Richard Donner
Written by Chris Columbus and Steven Spielberg
With Sean Astin (Mikey), Josh Brolin (Brand), Ke Huy Quan (Data), Jeff Cohen (Chunk), Corey Feldman (Mouth), Kerri Green (Andy), Martha Plimpton (Stef), John Matuszak (Sloth Fratelli), Joe Pantoliano (Francis Fratelli), Robert Davi (Jake Fratelli), and Anne Ramsay (Mama Fratelli)

Spoiler alert: moderate

After the scandal over the authorship of Poltergeistthe one that came close to devouring Tobe Hooper's career, and made Steven Spielberg feel kind of bad about himselfSpielberg made a statement to the effect that he would never write for another director again, and if he wrote it, then he'd be the one unambiguously in charge of the final product.  Three years later, he produced a film based on a story he wrote, which he immediately handed off to Richard Donner.  Well, so it goes.

Fortunately, The Goonies comes to us without any tiresome controversy, even though it is well-known that Spielberg had an awful lot of input into the finished film, up to and including directing at least one scene himself.  Still, it no doubt helped that Donnerwho for some reason I never really think of as one of our great filmmakers (or even our great journeymen), despite the one or two great films he oversawwas a mature professional in the prime of his career.  (What he wasn't was a coked-out splatter filmmaker who, rumor has it, was chosen partly because Spielberg believed, correctly, he could be easily pushed around.)  It probably helped, also, that after his script for Gremlins, Chris Columbus (The Goonies' screenwriter, tasked with expanding Spielberg's story into a full-fledged film), was already in the process of building a rather substantial career of his own.  Heck, maybe Spielberg had even learned that a dictatorial hand made no one happy.

Yet there's no mistaking The Goonies for anything but Spielbergian, considering how carefully it follows in the footsteps of E.T., from its general subject matter (The Goonies is the single most representative kid's adventure film from the kid's adventure film's single greatest era), down to its production methods (Donner and Spielberg endeavored to shoot The Goonies in script order, to help the child actors, and used tricksif not quite such cruel tricksto elicit genuinely awe-struck reactions from them).  So, it's shot like E.T.; it's constructed a lot like E.T.; it demands a childlike openness to movie magic like E.T.; and, even more than E.T., the only adults it gives a damn aboutoutside of its effective (if characteristically cloying) final sceneare its villains.  (And it barely gives a damn about them.)

But wait!  Mikey actually has a father?  The Goonies' Spielberg cred just took a real hit.

Meanwhile, whatever The Goonies does not owe to E.T., it tends to owe (with interest) to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, trading E.T.'s melodramatic focus for some serial-style high adventure in the process.  It's thus from those films that The Goonies borrows its cavebound questing, its awesomely elaborate deathtraps, and even one of its principal cast members, the delightful Ke Huy Quan, whose faded career after his pair of Spielberg joints remains a testament to the racism of Hollywood, even if his two roles weren't.  (Well, unless "person unaccountably skilled in the martial arts" or "STEM-obsessed nerd" are a pair of obscure Asian stereotypes that I, personally, am not familiar with.)

They're not, right?

On the other hand, by including post-pubescent kidsand Corey Feldman, deeply involved with whatever weird, indeterminate state his character is supposed to be inThe Goonies feints at least as much toward Gremlins as Spielberg's more precious kid's adventure.

And maybe I should finally take a moment to define my terms: I've probably written the words "kid's adventure" a thousand times in the past three years, without ever saying exactly what that means.  Clearly, it's an easy label to apply, but a hard one to explain, because it's such a very vague description, turning mainly on the question, "What's a kid, anyway?"  The best definition I can come up with is that kid's adventure depends heavily on the notion of innocencenot to put too fine a point on it, but they can't be screwing around, or even really thinking about screwing around in any systematic or knowledgeable way.  Thus, if Gremlins and Fright Night do sneak in, it's by the skin of their teeth, and I'm honestly not that terribly sure they do belong in the same category as Explorers or Cloak and Dagger.  Meanwhile, Back to the Future pretty plainly doesn't.  And Halloween is absolutely not a "kid's adventure"in case that needed pointing out.

So The Goonies mixes up its subgenre a little, by offering two distinct classes of protagonistpresumably as a sop to the teens in its audiencebut one of the most interesting things about it is how it tends to view the awkward romantic fumblings of its older characters principally through the lens of its too-young-to-understand-such-things central hero.  Essentially, The Goonies views its (brief) swerves into romance as a kind of adventure in itself, neither quite incidental to the story (as it would typically be in any adult adventure), nor as the stated or unstated goal of the adventure (which is how it would usually play out if all the characters had fully emerged into their rutting years).  Either way, it handles its central hero's first kiss with far more gravity and wondernot to mention a lot less skittish tomfoolerythan Spielberg handled Elliott's, in that other movie.

"Skeevy and sweet" was a combination not every 1980s movie managed, though certainly many tried.

Of course, The Goonies isn't about the terrifying exhilaration of encroaching sexual maturity, as viewed from the safety of childhoodalthough this is, I suspect, one of the big reasons that nostalgia clings to this film like glue.  No, The Goonies is about a bitchin' treasure hunt, the kind that comes out of the clear blue sky on the last day you and your buddies have together before the evil banks, and even more evil real estate developers, throw you out of the only home you've ever known.  (And I think we may have found the other big reason The Goonies hits a kid at the right age directly in the heart.)

And so we arrive in Astoria, Oregon, and meet Michael "Mikey" Walsh, his brother Brand, and their pals, "Data," "Chunk," and "Mouth" (The Goonies features the most adorable reductionism you've ever seen), as they prepare to leave their neighborhood in the Goon Docks, forever.  However, as they're going through all the garbage the Walsh family has quarantined in their attic, they find a treasure mapand a doubloon as well, suggesting that the prospect of mortgage-rescuing wealth isn't entirely of their own fancy.  The map is quickly decoded, revealing that it's tied in with the local myth of One-Eyed Willie, infamous buccaneer, who (as legend has it) found himself buried alive in a seaside cave by the cannons of the Royal Navy, along with his ship, his crew, and (most importantly of all) his gold.  Exhorted into one last adventure, our Goonies follow the map to an abandoned restaurant.  Brand, heartthrob that he is, manages to steal his crush Andy and her friend Stef along the way, and their whole gang investigatesunfortunately for them, however, the restaurant has been converted into the base of operations for another gang, this being an actual gang, namely the murderous Fratelli family.

Because they are impetuous and frankly foolhardy, they get into a scrape involving a refrigerated corpse, and ultimately wind up fleeing into the tunnels and caves that it turns out actually do exist beneath the restaurant, and may even lead them to Willie's rich stuff.  Unfortunately, Chunk, the slowest and stupidest of the lot (and with Mouth around that's saying something), finds himself capturedand this puts the Fratellis hot on the Goonies' trail, determined to kill these meddling kids who can expose their crimes.  It's lucky for our heroes that Chunk, though slow and stupid, makes a friend of the least-favored of the Fratelli clan, a certain deformed, Errol Flynn-loving muscleman known only as Sloth, who frees Chunk, and accepts the mission of saving the Goonies from his own family.

In the most dashing way feasible, given his starting place.

The Goonies, basically a two-act film, now becomes one long chase scene through J. Michael Riva's awesomely, deceptively lo-fi production design, which serves as the setting for a collection of ingenious adventure sequences, each serving to either test the kids' mettle or reveal their yearning for more than life has given them thus far.  All the while, Donner oversees an impressive ramping of the tension as the villains inch closer.

Sadly, it's when the villains finally catch up that the very best thing The Goonies had going for it begins to be stripped away.  It's a bit of a shame, returning to the film as an adult (I have, in fact, seen it many times as an adult), and watching The Goonies' palpable sense of danger begin to dissipate, one humiliating action sequence at a time.  This is a film that starts out with Chunk trapped in a refrigerator with a body that has a bullet hole in its head; and it ends with the Fratellis flummoxed by sub-Stooges slapstick.  Even the music gets in on the act, and The Goonies frankly sputters into its climax.

But, then again, this is a weakness that is all but unavoidable in The Goonies' genre: the only way around it is to straight-up cheat, like E.T. did (or to kill off some of your child characters, I suppose, but this almost never happens). The Goonies doesn't cheat, and so it winds up with villains whose credibility rapidly erodes as they continually fail to murder children.  You get used to resolution problems in your kid's adventure moviesbut that doesn't mean you actually prefer them to embrace their problems, at least not this enthusiastically.

And, yes, this is even more the case for this particular kid's adventure movie than for just about any other, since The Goonies is very, very close to the very best of its kind, possessed of a fantastically tangible aesthetic, and filled with impossibly charming grace notes in practically every frame, from broken statuette penises to Sloth's wiggling ears.  Our child heroes, and the child performances that animate them, are amongst the finest you'll find anywhere, rendering believably shitty kids who remain, somehow, effortlessly loveable.  (Okay, Feldman's Mouth might be an exception, but if he is, at least it's deliberate.)  Well, nobody can be everybody's favorite, but every last member of The Goonies' principal cast is worth praising, Feldman included: it's a true ensemble, and even if Sean Astin is pushed into the foreground as the film's lead (cutely, it's clearly somewhat against Astin's will), Spielberg and Columbus' story, and Donner's direction, gives everyone their moments to shineand often enough, they're all shining, all at once.

(But, fair is fair: if anyone stands out, it's probably Jeff Cohen's Chunk.  Although The Goonies was something of an incubator for performers with notable futuresAstin and Josh Brolin, chiefly, and of course Feldman had a career alreadyCohen never acted again.  He's in the business in a different capacity, but I wonder if he should've stayed at it: Chunk, already pretty much the platonic ideal of the fat kid stereotype, likewise gets what I estimate to be the second-best part of the whole movie all to himself, when he tells the Fratellis "everything"every bad thing he's ever done, in a short life that, it turns out, is already full of sin.  Now, I don't even know if we're supposed to perceive his tale of fake vomit at the movie theater as true.  And yet we can certainly hope it isbecause it's hilarious.)

The Goonies gets to the heart of childhood fantasy and wish-fulfillment like virtually no other film of its kind doeshell, it literalizes it, in the wishing well scene (the first-best part of the movie), which is something like straight-up genius.  The only competitor that I can think of offhand is Explorers; but The Goonies, for all its professional gloss, is still more akin to a story children might actually make up themselves.  It soft-pedals the childhood dread that E.T. gets at, but, honestly, that's no crime, and its claim to the status of an all-time kid's super-classic is at least as well-justified as the film Spielberg actually directed.

Score:  9/10

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