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You Can Phone Home Again
By Laura Leon

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Directed 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 neighborhood.

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.

Altared States

Monsoon Wedding
Directed by Mira Nair

Monsoon 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.

—Shawn Stone

Gore Bore

Blade II
Directed 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.

—Ann Morrow


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