Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Always (1989)
Studio Line: Universal - They couldn't hear him. They couldn't see him. But he was there when they needed him . . . Even after he was gone.

Steven Spielberg directs this heartwarming romantic adventure USA Today calls "a winner." Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss) is a legendary pilot with a passion for daredevil firefighting. However Dorinda (Holly Hunter), the woman he loves, and Al (John Goodman), Pete's best friend, know that legends can't take risks forever. After sacrificing himself to save Al, the ace pilot faces his most challenging mission: helping Dorinda move on with her life. Breathtaking cinematography and exhilarating aerial choreography highlight this compelling adventure that co-stars Brad Johnson and features a special appearance by Audrey Hepburn.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, Brad Johnson, John Goodman, Audrey Hepburn
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1; audio English DD 4.1, French Dolby Surround; subtitles none; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated PG; 123 min.; $24.98; street date 7/20/99.
Supplements: Production Notes; Cast & Filmmakers' Bios; Film Highlights; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - John Williams

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/B/D-

Hello, and welcome to one of Steven Spielbergís most obscure films! Due to the directorís immensely high profile, there really canít be a forgotten Spielberg effort, but some of his movies have largely gotten lost in the shuffle. Relatively few ever saw 1974ís The Sugarland Express, but that flick remains reasonably well-known due to its historical value since it was Spielbergís first theatrical release.

Other obscurities donít benefit from that distinction, of course, and two of his late Eighties works qualify as his least famous, I believe. 1987ís Empire of the Sun probably will always be his most forgotten flick; it performed the worst at the box office and included little star power to make it memorable to the masses, though it did offer an early role for Christian Bale - whose future fame remains to be seen - as well as a part for John Malkovich, who was largely unknown at the time.

While the movie didnít move too many tickets, the cast of 1989ís Always helps save it from obscurity. After all, it stars two Oscar winners in Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter, though the latter wouldnít obtain her award until a few years later for 1993ís The Piano. It also features John Goodman in a supporting part well before he turned into a star via Roseanne and The Flintstones.

As a Spielberg piece, Always seems unusual just because itís so darned bland. Actually, it stands out in other ways, mainly because it remains his sole foray into the romantic comedy genre. Of course, other Spielberg flicks included romantic elements, and Always features drama and bathos as well as some lighter aspects, but it still seems unique due to its emphasis.

It also stands out because Always remakes an older film, 1943ís A Guy Named Joe. Though Spielberg happily adapted outside material - from novels like The Color Purple, Jaws, and Jurassic Park to childrenís stories like Hook to historical events like Amistad - Always stands as his sole remake of another film. Since I never saw A Guy Named Joe, I canít compare the two, but as a whole, I thought Always was a moderately enjoyable but lackluster event.

The film focuses on the adventures of pilots who drop water on forest fires. Regarded as the best of the bunch, Pete (Dreyfuss) lives a good life with his best friend and coworker Al (Goodman) as well as his radio controller girlfriend Dorinda (Hunter). However, she worries about him due to the danger involved in the job, and his risky attitude toward the task doesnít engender fewer worries on her part.

As such, Pete agrees to take on a job as a pilot trainer, though he hates to leave the active skies. Nonetheless, he does this to show his affection for Dorinda, although he apparently canít bring himself to actually tell her he loves her. Inevitably, Pete takes on one last job when a major fire roars, and he doesnít come back from this one.

The rest of the film follows Pete in ghostly form, as he has to tie up loose ends before he can move to the next world. Mostly this involves letting go of Dorinda, who remains scarred by his death. In Cyrano fashion, he acts as the spooky guide for bumbling pilot wannabe Ted (Brad Johnson) and he helps the goof become a strong flier. However, he reacts less positively to a budding romance between Ted and Dorinda, and he has to deal with his own emotions before all involved can move on with their lives (and deaths).

Always doesnít exactly venture into much new ground creatively, though of course itís hard for any remake to indulge in fresh territory. Usually, the most a filmmaker can hope to do with this sort of effort is to give it an interesting twist or attitude. Again, I never saw A Guy Named Joe, so itís impossible for me to judge the success of Always in that department, but I canít say that much about the film seemed particularly inspiring.

Really, Always has to be the most nondescript film Spielberg has made. I donít regard that as a terrible negative, for Iíll take the blandness of Always over the stereotypically Spielbergian sentiment of Amistad and Purple, but it feels less like one of his own flicks than the others.

As such, it comes across as a competent and occasionally engaging piece, but it lacks much sense of personality. The actors all seem perfectly competent, but the overall generic tone robs them of much spark or flair. The entire project delivers a moderately entertaining and warm experience, but it feels like the cinematic equivalent of Chinese food; a half an hour after the credits roll, you may forget you ever watched it.

The unmemorable side of Always really seems to be its main flaw. At this point, the most significant aspect of the movie is the way that it prefigured the following yearís megahit Ghost. I think itís very likely that director Jerry Zucker took in a few screenings of Always, as Ghost clearly evokes the Spielberg flick, including the iconic use of an old pop standard - ďSmoke Gets In Your EyesĒ for Always and ďUnchained MelodyĒ for Ghost - while both also feature leads who canít tell their women they love them until itís too late.

It seems odd that a rip-off of a Spielberg film handily outperformed the directorís own work, but thatís what happened here. Always struggled to gross a mediocre $43 million, while Ghost snagged a hearty $217 million and became the second top-seller of 1990, behind only super success Home Alone. Ghost was no better than Always, and it probably was the inferior flick, really. So why did it earn so much more money?

I have little idea. I guess audiences were more eager to see sexy young Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze hook up instead of aging Richard Dreyfuss and cute but unspectacular Holly Hunter. Whatever the case may be, I wonít bemoan the financial failure of Always, for the movie merits no wails of pain. At best, the film offers a reasonably entertaining and compelling experience, but it remains quite forgettable and it quickly fades from consciousness.

The DVD:

Always appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall the movie offered a decent but mildly problematic picture.

Sharpness generally came across as acceptably distinct and accurate, but some concerns occurred. At times the image looked somewhat soft during wide shots. However, the film usually seemed fairly clear and accurate. Unfortunately, the non-anamorphic transfer displayed some particular issues. It provided heavier than normal examples of jagged edges, and it also suffered from some moderate edge enhancement at times. Print flaws seemed fairly modest. A little grit and a few speckles cropped up along the way, but the movie offered no significant defects.

Colors came across as fairly accurate much of the time, but they also became somewhat too heavy at times. This attitude particularly affected skin tones, which often appeared excessively reddish. Those elements also spread to other parts of the image, and the movie generally betrayed a mild muddiness to the colors. Black levels appeared reasonably deep and dense, while shadow detail rendered low light scenes appropriately, without too much thickness. As a whole, Always provided an acceptable but moderately flawed image.

Better was the Dolby Digital 4.1 soundtrack of Always. Given the vintage of the movie and its genre, I didnít expect a very exciting mix, but I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. Most of the film stayed fairly reserved, and for those portions, general ambience and the score dominated the track. Those elements came across with reasonably good definition, as the movie featured a nice sense of atmosphere and solid stereo separation to the music.

However, the action sequences really brought the mix to life. When fires raged and planes soared, the track kicked into higher gear and became quite active and involving. The elements provided clear delineation from the side channels, and the surrounds bolstered the effort with good reinforcement. In addition, the rears added some strong unique audio that created a lively and engaging piece during the appropriate sequences.

Sound quality showed a few concerns but remained fairly solid. Speech usually appeared natural and distinct, but some edginess occasionally affected dialogue. However, I discerned no problems related to intelligibility. Effects also showed a little distortion during louder sequences; for instance, planes and explosions demonstrated some problems in that regard. Nonetheless, most of those elements came across as acceptably clean and accurate, and they provided good dynamics. Music also offered nice fidelity, as the score appeared clear and vivid throughout the movie. Always benefited from some solid low-end, as bass response consistently appeared deep and rich. Though some flaws cost it some points, I remained pretty happy with the soundtrack of Always.

Less satisfying are the extras found on the DVD. A fairly bare-bones affair, Always includes nothing of much consequence. We get the filmís theatrical trailer and some text materials. The ďProduction NotesĒ discuss the original movie on which Always was based and provide a reasonably nice examination of the project, while ďCast and FilmmakersĒ gives us brief biographies of director Spielberg as well as actors Dreyfuss, Hunter, Goodman, and Audrey Hepburn.

All in all, itís a lackluster package for a bland movie. At best, Always offers a moderately compelling diversion, but it lacks anything to make it more than that. I enjoyed my time with the film, but thoughts of it left me almost instantly and the experience seemed quite forgettable. The DVD offers generally mediocre picture plus fairly robust sound and a smattering of perfunctory extras. Leave this one for the Spielberg completists, as nothing about the set makes it stand out in any particularly positive way.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3333 Stars Number of Votes: 27
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