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Revisiting Always, Steven Spielberg’s worst movie

Always (Photo: Universal Pictures)

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.

Always—that’s the really sappy one where Richard Dreyfuss plays a dead fire pilot who gets sent back to Earth to watch over Holly Hunter and teach Brad Johnson everything he knows about flying a tanker plane—is not one of Steven Spielberg’s more fondly remembered movies (it’s barely remembered, period), and it’s reputation as the nadir of the director’s sentimental streak is fair. But hot damn if it isn’t a charmingly strange movie—a cornball ’50s romance slightly updated for baby boomers, with Dreyfuss cast improbably (but not ineffectively) as an amused latter-day Cary Grant. Anyway, that’s the feeling I got watching it for the first time in a decade or so this past Saturday: “Hey, this ain’t so bad.” Plenty of folks will tell you that this is Spielberg’s worst film, and while it fails in some respects, it’s also searchingly sincere.


Maybe I’ve just softened to Spielberg’s gooey, mushy side; as is often the case with directors of the baby boom generation, it expresses itself through nostalgia, both for supposed generational touchstones (see: the use of The Platters’ hit 1958 version of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” as a leitmotif) and for earlier forms of filmmaking. This includes the blatantly Howard Hawks-ian milieu and performances (especially from Hunter and John Goodman, who plays Dreyfuss character’s best friend), the totemic casting of Audrey Hepburn as an angel, and the use of older practical effects, including rear projection, in the aerial sequences. To fans of Spielberg as a master technician, the movie is really known for two elaborate in-camera effects. The first is an opening shot that utilizes a super long telephoto lens to make it seem like a seaplane is about to collide with a fishing dinghy (an effect replicated by Hoyte Van Hoytema in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy); the second is a tracking shot through a kitchen that is choreographed with a real-life jetliner passing overhead.

Screenshot: Ikebana

On the opposite end of the formal spectrum, I finally got around to watching A.K.A Serial Killer, Masao Adachi’s challenging 1969 documentary/conceptual alienation piece “about” the notorious Japanese spree killer Norio Nagayama, which I’d been meaning to see for a few years now. Soundtracked by avant-garde jazz and occasional snippets of voice-over that relate the events of Nagayama’s life, A.K.A. Serial Killer mostly finds Adachi’s camera exploring the spaces his subject passed through or lived in: alleys, storefronts, concrete piers, train tracks (the classic pictorial obsession of Japanese film), nightclub drags clustered with American sailors, classrooms, fences, an abandoned ping-pong club, an indoor basketball court, a decrepit movie theater. It’s a neat idea, but it wears thin over 86 minutes, even if you’re as fascinated by everyday life in mid-20th century Japan as I am.

Adachi, who quit film in the 1970s to join the militant left-wing underground, is an interesting character, but I’ve always found his collaborations with other filmmakers—whether as the screenwriter for Nagisa Ôshima (on Diary Of A Shinjuku Thief and Three Resurrected Drunkards) and Kôji Wakamatsu (on Violated Angels; Go, Go Second Time Virgin; Ecstasy Of The Angels; and many others) or as the subject of Philippe Grandrieux’s unorthodox interview documentary It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve—more compelling than anything he’s directed. Instead, the real discovery of the week for me turned out to be a very different Japanese nonfiction film: Ikebana.


Made in 1957, this is apparently the most personal of the short and feature-length art documentaries directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman In The Dunes, The Face Of Another, Antonio Gaudí), whose father, Sōfu Teshigahara, founded the sōgetsu-ryū school of Japanese floral art. It begins as an unusually elegant conventional documentary on the history and art of ikebana (the color and lighting are exquisite), becomes an affectionate portrait of Teshigahara’s father, and then unfurls into a broader statement of personal philosophy on art and human expression in the age of nuclear war. Out of fluff comes the strong stuff. I highly recommend it.

[Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Photo: Netflix

I don’t have kids or patience, so I tend to watch whatever I want, whenever I want, schedule permitting. But I recently had a young houseguest—my 8-year-old niece—for a week, which required me to show a little consideration for who was watching with me. Despite working for a pop culture site, I’ve fallen a bit behind on my movie viewing, and I really wanted to catch up with Okja. I’d read and heard so much about it, and I was already a fan of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. But I was otherwise going into Bong’s latest film with little knowledge of the plot. Still, I took an informal poll (via the internet) on whether this was the kind of movie I could watch with an 8-year-old. The results were mixed, but I was tired of waiting, so we started watching it.

We didn’t finish watching it together, because, as it turns out, I am not capable of explaining the hypocrisy of owning a pet while happily being omnivorous. I’ve since gone back to finish it, and though it doesn’t yield as pointed a criticism as Snowpiercer, it’s a solid follow-up. Tilda Swinton gives us another memorable villain, looking less like a put-upon low-level bureaucrat here and more like a billionaire giving a TED Talk. As Lucy Mirando, she’s all knobby knees and severe blond bob—her desperation is palpable and, as it turns out, two-fold.


As far as the rest of the parable, which also touches on animal rights, it’s a mix of heavy-handed moments that work (see: Lucy’s talks) and some that don’t (half of what Jake Gyllenhaal gets up to). But the longer I watched, the more suitable the “super-pig” moniker became. After all, though Okja actually looks like a giant hippo, it makes much more sense for this anti-capitalist fable to feature a “super-pig,” no?

[Danette Chavez]


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