Thursday, October 6, 2016

AFI Top 100: #24 "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial"

Henry Thomas and E.T. in E.T the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

As behind as I've gotten on my AFI Top 100 reviews, I'm trying to find the fire to get my thoughts down on everything before they slip away, out of my brain forever (or at least until I see these flicks again). Because let's face it. The next 24 films really are some of the best of the best, and one viewing just isn't going to cut it. Still, a fair few haven't been watched since I popped them into my VHS player two decades ago—and that describes #24, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, to a T. Frequent viewings as a child led to an "I've seen it a hundred times!" reaction whenever anyone suggested it, culminating into too many years away from Elliott and his admittedly unsettling-looking alien friend, not to mention another of director Steven Spielberg's masterpieces.

When a curious alien gets left behind on Earth after a quiet botany expedition, the gentle creature finds his way into suburbia and—more specifically—the backyard of an equally gentle boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), who discovers the strange being late one night. Initially terrified, Elliott quickly befriends the alien, whom he names E.T., hiding it in his bedroom and enlisting his big brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), to help him keep E.T.'s presence a secret from everyone, including their frazzled mom (Dee Wallace). As the siblings try desperately to learn more about where E.T. came from—and how to get him home—it starts to become clear that the small alien's connection to Elliott may run deeper than anyone could have predicted. It isn't until both spontaneously become sick that they learn the government is about to discover E.T.'s whereabouts, and it's up to them to protect their friend.

When I was a kid, I never thought about the symbiosis between Elliott and E.T. Never. Maybe it didn't make sense to me, that the health and emotions of one depended on the other, because I was a little kid and empathy was a weirdly foreign concept. But it makes sense now, and the impact nearly crippled me when I watched these two discover that bond this time around. The montage of feelings—physical and emotional—that overwhelm Elliott as he sits in his classroom has the benefit of being both hysterical and unexpectedly traumatic. What an incredible way to play to the audience. Children and adults can get so many different things from a scene like that, and it only lasts 5 minutes. But more than anything else in the story up to that point, it greatly informs the rest of the film.



The discovery of Thomas for the role of Elliott may just have been a gift from the movie gods. The tears, the vulnerability, the empathy... most adults can't bring that kind of performance on command, but Thomas, after only a couple TV movie roles by 1982, already had the makings of a seasoned pro. Elliott is a complicated character--he's actually jarringly relatable. Any kid who had a favorite pet and a creative spirit growing up could understand his eagerness and his plight, which is why Thomas doesn't appear to be faking anything. Whatever he's giving us, it is real down to his bones. And thankfully, he didn't have to ride this emotional roller coaster alone. Sure, MacNaughton's Michael transforms into the supportive and protective big brother every little kid should have, but he's a far steadier, less developed role. Little sister Gertie was probably supposed to be similarly 2-dimensional—but then they cast Drew Barrymore.

This isn't an expose, so I have little interest in discussing the rise and fall and rise again of Barrymore. But here? There's little doubt about the way she commands the screen, her noticeable lisp making her cheeks just that much more pinchable, her eyes just that much bigger and brighter. She probably didn't even need to be good at the 'emotions' part, but instead of riding on her cuteness alone, her range of feels knocks us over. She isn't given the meaty material that her onscreen brother is, but what she was given, she slays.

Paired with probably my favorite John Williams scores, Spielberg's vision for a film meant exploring a world (sort of Peanuts-style) from the point-of-view of the children, shooting from Elliott and E.T's eye-levels for what felt like 90% of the movie. Adults were there, but somehow more other-worldy than the titular friendly alien himself. The secrecy and tension and fear of discovery dictate the editing pace, and as the outside world closes in around the kids, their once small and quiet lives take on new meaning and importance. And the world—or rather, universe—gets so much bigger.

I'm one of those people that likes being an adult. It's rare, actually, that I ever wish to be a kid again. I know so much more now. I knew so little then. But then I watch E.T. and I realize what it is that's missing. The best parts of childhood when the world still let kids hop on their bikes at 9 AM with the only rule being they return by sundown—or dinner, whichever came first. Movies can't be about this anymore, because the world isn't like this anymore. It's why the Netflix series Stranger Things grips at the nostalgia that E.T. and its counterparts invented (Dungeons & Dragons sequences aside). A treasured part of our lives as kids we'll never be able to reclaim, and that desperate hope we all had that our make-believe would become tangible and real.



E.T. is a strong movie etched out of a silly premise, one that could easily have been forgettable had it not been for the sheer magnitude of effort put forth by Spielberg and the young actors, particularly Henry Thomas. It's hard not to think about Steven Spielberg's affinity for working with children, not to mention crafting a magical tale for young audiences, in particular (which is what infuriates me most about the stunning failure of this year's The BFG).

While there are directors who have created incredible, memorable films that root deeply into our childhoods (Chris Columbus comes to mind), there aren't many who do it with such unwavering confidence. This is cinema at its most hopeful—and magical.

Rating: ★★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Universal Pictures]

Check back next time for #23 on the list, The Grapes of Wrath — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Music Mondays: Lady Gaga "Perfect Illusion"



A return to Music Mondays with a metal celebration from one of my all-time favorites. In what I would consider the most traditional music video she's ever made, Lady Gaga introduces us to the first single off of her forth-coming fifth studio album, Joanne, with frantic, dirty desperation. "Perfect Illusion" is a simple, heart-bursting metal anthem (co-produced by Mark Ronson) that has improved with every listen. No experimentation, no moody intros or breakthrough bridges... just a girl belting and dancing with everything she's got.

If this song is any indicator, Joanne (out Oct. 21) is going to be a return to Gaga's fine form (let's just pretend the majority of Artpop didn't happen, okay?) Because I'm feeling the need for more Gaga music in my life. Happy Monday, all!

xx

Artist: Lady Gaga | stream
Song: "Perfect Illusion" | download | stream
Album: Joanne
Directed by: Andrea Gelardin / Ruth Hogben

Monday, August 15, 2016

AFI Top 100: #25 "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Gregory Peck & Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Was this blog's radio silence deafening to anyone other than me? Probably not, but as I crawl back into the blogging driver's seat, I admit I must get my barrings. A month away may be enough to shake off the cobwebs and shoo away the crickets, or could very well make me forget how to form a thought. Let's give this the ol' college try, shall we? Or for this one, should I say 'high school'? Because was there a high school freshman in America not required to read this book by Harper Lee, feverishly digging through its themes with distracted desperation?

As we breach the last quarter of films on our AFI Top 100 countdown, it's almost surprising that we're already hitting the (too high?) #25 selection, To Kill a Mockingbird. The poetically idealistic exploration of racial injustice in the Depression-era South isn't only for school consumption, and should be remembered by the masses for more than introducing us to America's Favorite Dad. Like its source, this film is a storybook, hazy and imbued with the memories of early childhood.

It's the summer of 1933, and our narrator Scout Finch remembers the time fondly, herself a young girl of six (played by Mary Badham). The Depression has hit the quiet, dusty town of Maycomb, Alabama, but watching Scout and her older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), playing wistfully and without a care alongside their friend Dill (John Megna), you wouldn't know it. While Jem and Scout entertain Dill with scary stories about their reclusive neighbors, the Radleys, their father Atticus (Gregory Peck), a thoughtful widow and lawyer, becomes the subject of much anger when he agrees to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been falsely accused of rape. Over the next few years, as the charges fuel hatred and unmask the crippling racism ingrained in the white townspeople, Scout watches in wonder and reverence as Atticus fearlessly pursues justice for Tom during an emotional trial.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Movie Review: "The Secret Life of Pets" (2016)

© Universal Pictures

You can't hold it against a movie studio for going after the low-hanging fruit. And there's nothing more low-hanging than pet videos. While there is a part of me that would have been happy had The Secret Life of Pets been just a series of Vine-like vignettes—basically the Pet Collective viral videos in animated form—for it to be touching in addition to funny, there had to be some plot thrown in the mix. But with that plot comes the hyper-awareness that none of this is breaking new ground, and that the incredible voice talent is what makes it all come together amid the constant peppering of animal jokes. And we start, as most animal love stories do, when Girl Meets Pup...

In the eyes of Max the Dog (Louis C.K.), he and his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) have the perfect thing going living in Manhattan. That is until one day when Katie adopts a giant, unkempt pup named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), upending his spoiled life and special relationship with his human. Desperate to be rid of this unwanted intruder, Max cracks a plan to lose Duke during their walk while Katie is at work. But when they both separate from Max's group of friends at the dog park and get picked up by a the fuzz heading for the pound, they find themselves face-to-face with an angry white bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his band of abandoned rebel pets. After Snowball sabotages the truck, he rescues the pair with the caveat that they be new recruits in his battle against domestication and the human race. Meanwhile, Max's friends—particularly pup princess Gidget (Jenny Slate)—notice he's missing and go on a mission through the city to bring him home.

There's a reason this kind of content is human cat-nip. There's nothing that brings strangers closer together than talking about their beloved pets; or whether dogs are better than cats; or how bird people are weird... As a result, the movie leans real hard on the comedy pandering to that pet-owner instinct to cry out "That is so [insert pet name here]." And hey, I'm not judging, because I'm not immune. I did it, too, at least a dozen times. I own two cats and a Miniature Dachshund, and watching Buddy the Dachshund (Hannibal Burress) give himself a belly rub with a stand mixer left me bent over with the lolz. And don't even get me started on how bitchy and familiar Chloe the Fat Cat (Lake Bell) is.



But that's kind of the problem with the movie, too, if you want to identify it as a "problem." The comedy never really grows any legs, and the jokes are a blunt but purposeful flash-in-the-pan. One bit about dogs delivery puppy-dog eyes begging for food is over and you're on to the next bit about cats always landing on their feet. And so on and so forth. In the end, there's something very obvious about it all.

Duke is a problem, and he never really stops being one. Sure, he's the Buzz and Max is the Woody in this scenario, but unlike Toy Story, where their coming together leaves us elated that they did, by the end of Pets... we still kinda hope Duke will find another human. Oh, you didn't feel that way? Well maybe I'm a monster then! Despite the film working so hard to bring the two together through peril and strife, they remain as at odds as where they started. The hate and paranoia has simply diminished. Perhaps it's the absurdly unrealistic way that he is animated (no other animals in this world are as ridiculously exaggerated as Duke, except maybe dat viper up dere) or Stonestreet's 'blah' voice work, but he doesn't feel right in this story, regardless of the attempts to give him depth.

Inversely, aside from Louis C.K. proving he can literally do no wrong, Jenny Slate as Gidget is a pure delight, and she steals the film from the comedians surrounding her. Slate gives that fluffy nugget a voice reminiscent of Patty Mayonnaise, and we learn that Gidget is driven by a significantly more relatable motivation in her love for Max than any of the other supporting characters. Her fearlessness is both adorable and unexpected, and it offers some of the smarter comedic moments, particularly when she embarks on her adventure and makes friends with Tiberius the Hawk (Albert Brooks). That dynamic between the two of them has more going for it than most of the other triter moments with Duke or Snowball's 'funny at first but then you're over it' crime lord toughness.

While we're likely left wanting more, there is also a lot to love. I love my pets more than anything, and watching pets love their humans and humans love their pets is always going to get me. The opening sequence is worth the price of admission, as Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" rings through an opening montage that will turn you into a happy puddle. For most people, none of the rest is going to matter, because Max loves Katie and Katie loves Max. Anything else is just filler.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

AFI Top 100: #26 "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

Claude Rains & James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The recent labored action in our Senate (and later in the month, the House) has reminded me just how moved I can be by the Democratic process. Idealism doesn't take you very far in this world (or so we're taught), and the older we get, we often lean towards thinking that's for the best. But something happens when you witness idealism shift from talk to action. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in all its questionably naive glory, represents that at its core. Director Frank Capra is known for finding the heartstrings and giving them a solid pluck—sometimes harder and longer than any reasonable person would ask for—but it goes to show how emotionally invested we all can get, despite ourselves.

The film stars frequent Capra collaborator and all-around "good guy" James Stewart as Jefferson Smith, an idealistic young youth leader who finds himself with an unexpected United States Senate appointment after his controversial predecessor dies. Not knowing how in-over-his-head he is, Smith accepts his civic duty and turns to his late father's trusted friend, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), for mentorship. When Smith arrives in Washington D.C., he faces unrelenting resistance to his hopeful ideas, from members of the Senate to his politics-wise secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur).

Saunders takes it upon herself to wise-up the poor guy, rubbing the shine from his eyes by helping him write his first bill, one to create a government funded camp for Boys, and making sure he understands just how hard it's going to be. But as he pushes his plan forward, he is roadblocked by his friend, Senator Paine, who is under the thumb of James Taylor (Edward Arnold), a corrupt political boss, who aims to discredit Smith and everything he's worked for. Unwilling to compromise his values, Smith takes to the Senate floor in an attempt to save his reputation and weed out the corruption that surrounds him.

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