Can Phone Home Again
by Steven Spielberg
The first time I saw E.T., I hated it. The barrenness
of its setting (cookie-cutter subdivisions, sun-baked pavements),
not to mention the desertion of the father figure, all served
to alienate me. But then again, I’m a born contrarian, so
maybe the fact that everybody else at the Mahaiwe Theater
was bawling and/or smiling like diabetics who’ve been given
the green light to indulge at the candy store had something
to do with my perceptions.
To be fair, I tried the movie again, on video, about three
years ago, and again, I simply wasn’t impressed. If anything,
I felt the need for fresh air. But I gamely took my two sons
to see the 20th-anniversary re-release of E.T. over
the weekend, and, miracle of miracles, I was hooked. Nearly
everyone of a certain age knows the story by now. An abandoned
extraterrestrial befriends Elliott (Henry Thomas), who, with
siblings Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore),
aid the alien in his quest to go home. Along the way, they
have to deal with faceless government bureaucrats, who may
or may not be there to help. But more importantly, they have
to deal with each other, and the fact that their family has
taken on a kind of ghostlike aura, with each individual doing
his own thing.
Thankfully, director Steven Spielberg refrained from adding
too many gizmos and effects into this newer version. Indeed,
the few differences I could discern included better-colored
lights under the aliens’ spaceship, and the removal of guns
from the feds’ hands when Elliott, Michael and their friends
attempt to spirit E.T. back to the forest in the film’s famous
“Look, Ma, I can fly” climax. What strikes the viewer, long-since
inured to Hollywood’s penchant for heavy-handed special effects
and production tricks, is the utter simplicity of the movie’s
delivery and style. Sure, there’s an alien in the bathtub,
but this is essentially a fairy tale about a broken family
and how it becomes whole. Yeah, there are two scenes featuring
a spaceship and other little gnome-like figures, but the most
awe-inspiring and thought-provoking scenery comes instead
from the lush forest that seems poised to take back Elliott’s
This is the fertile backdrop for the children’s imaginations
and adventures, and because I spent my childhood biking, alone
in my dreams, throughout rural southern Berkshire County,
it saddened me to think that such natural pastimes are now
tinged by fear of kidnappings and molestations. At the same
time, however, this fear underscores the idyllic, straight-outta-Hansel-and-Gretel
quality of Elliott’s woods.
Another thing that impressed me was the way in which the movie
spoke to children, not as potential consumers or know-it-alls,
but as individuals who just happen to be part of a family.
The sheer un-starlike quality of Thomas and his costars (including
Dee Wallace, who plays the children’s mother), the normal
messiness of their home, their attempts to pretend that dad’s
abandonment means nothing, are presented in a straightforward
way that all children will intuitively understand. When’s
the last time you saw movie siblings, especially ones who
are spaced apart in years, doing anything together? Or when
you imagined that a chase involving bikes, and not hot rods
or motorcycles, could thrill you? E.T. brings home
the fact that is really wasn’t that long ago when kids all
rode the same generic kind of banana bike, and did things
outdoors instead of parking it in front of the PlayStation.
There’s an element running through the movie recalling Springsteen’s
best songs of escape—indeed, Peter Pan and Halloween figure
prominently. But underlying the entire enterprise is the central
idea, seemingly old-fashioned but never so important, that
home is best.
by Mira Nair
Wedding, the new film from Mira Nair, is bursting with
colorful, sumptuous imagery complemented by kinetic camerawork.
This visual feast is backed with a pulsating soundtrack packed
with vibrant Indian music, both traditional folk songs and
electronic dance hits. The story, set in the days leading
up to an elaborate, traditional wedding in a contemporary,
middle-class family in Delhi, is equally ripe with outsized
emotions and personal drama. All the elements would seem to
be in place for a terrific film. Why, then, isn’t the picture
as much fun as it should be?
Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) is a harried father trying
to make sure everything is ready for the wedding of his daughter
Aditi (Vasundhara Das). The traditional Hindu ceremony, and
the army of relatives coming from all over the Indian diaspora,
make this a complex and expensive task. The workmen setting
up the wedding are uncooperative and unsympathetic. The bride
is unenthusiastic. Lalit’s son is 13 and full of teenage angst.
His niece Ria (Shefali Shetty) is also moody, mostly from
the endless questions as to why she isn’t yet married. All
this is portrayed vividly, if a bit too emphatically.
There is less “noise” crowding out the interesting romance
between wedding coordinator P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz) and the
Vermas’ maid, Alice (Tilotama Shome). Raaz is remarkable as
the self-important businessman who suddenly realizes his deep
loneliness, and Shome is subtle and charming.
There is an overripe quality to Nair’s work that has had a
tendency to make big emotions seem forced. This pushed her
would-be erotic epic Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love over
the edge, and was unrestrained in the forgotten cinematic
train wreck The Perez Family. There are scenes in Monsoon
Wedding that make joy seem downright tiresome. It also
doesn’t help that Nair has an unhappy habit of telegraphing
every big moment and minor calamity. (When she cuts to a long
shot of an SUV in which illicit lovers are having a rendezvous,
you just know that cops with flashlights are on their
way.) There isn’t a single surprise in Monsoon Wedding.
The film does provide a window into the Westernized world
of the Indian middle class, and the tension between old and
new. Children go off to work in America or Australia, and
come back as “foreigners.” The cultural tradition of arranged
marriage, which is at the center of the story, clashes with
the sexual freedom made possible by cell phones and cars.
Nair does a good job of sympathetically showing both points
of view, and, surprisingly, refrains from passing any judgments.
To their credit, Nair and screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan ultimately
bring the focus back to the strength of the Vermas. The father,
Lalit, suffers all manner of indignity for the occasion, but
this isn’t simply for smug comic effect (as in Father of
the Bride). He truly loves his family, and Shah’s performance
makes this love the glue that holds the family, and the film,
together. When everything turns out well in the end, we’re
as happy for him as we are for the lovers.
by Guillermo Del Toro
If Hollywood were as squeamish about violence as it is about
nudity, the return of half-vampire superhero Blade (Wesley
Snipes) would have a NC-17 rating. Directed by ghoulish stylist
Guillermo Del Toro (Cronos, Mimic), Blade
II is not so much a splatter flick as a slice-and-dice-and-eviscerate-and-incinerate
flick, with very little to offer other than elaborately ritualized
acts of carnage against human (and inhuman) bodies. In one
scene, a head is cleanly chopped in half, exposing the brain
like a sushi roll. If you flinch during autopsies, this is
not the gorefest for you.
Blade joins forces with his arch enemies, the bondage-wearing
Vampire Nation, to fight against a new urban contagion: Reapers,
vampire-zombie mutants who feed on the living and the undead,
creating more slimy-skinned Reapers. Blade is given command
of an elite unit called the Blood Pack, who hate him with
an unholy passion, and it’s a-hunting they go. First stop?
A vampire S&M club that could turn the stomach of Jeffrey
Dahmer. Good thing Blade has Whistler (Kris Kristofferson),
his grizzled father figure, and Scud (Norman Reedus), his
young techie friend, to watch his back against the psychotic
pack leader (Ron Perlman). There’s probably no point in mentioning
that by the time the quarrelsome crew gets to the sewers of
Prague, the Reapers are so numerous that they must have masticated
every body in Europe.
The digitally enhanced fight scenes are well-executed, the
urban-hell atmospherics are expensively decayed, and the high-tech
weaponry is exceptionally flashy. But despite Del Toro’s flair
for recycling horrific bits from a mix of genres, Blade
II gets boring quicker than blood spurts from an artery.
The high-concept plot—ancient scourge meets biomedical engineering—might
have been quite creepy if it had been used for plotting instead
of just window-dressing. But that would have required a thought-out
script. To its aficionados, apparently, sadism doesn’t need
to make sense.