E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial


Drew Barrymore has worked with stranger co-stars than this.

Drew Barrymore has worked with stranger co-stars than this.

(1982) Science Fiction (Universal) Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert Macnaughton, Drew Barrymore, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell, Erika Eleniak, David O’Dell, Richard Swingler, Frank Toth, Robert Barton, Michael Darrell, David Berkson, David Carlberg, Milt Kogan, Alexander Lampone, Rhoda Makoff. Directed by Steven Spielberg

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Some movies become ingrained in us, a part of our childhoods – or a reminder of it. Few films fulfill that function as this one, which many consider to be Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus. While as a movie critic I would tend to say that this wasn’t the best film he ever made, it might well be the most perfect family film ever made. You be the judge.

An alien scientific expedition collecting botanical specimens in Northern California are interrupted by the appearance of government agents; they flee in their spaceship. In the chaos, one of their members is left behind. The extra-terrestrial – E.T. – finds a hiding place in a shed in a suburban yard.

One of the residents of the house, Elliott (Thomas) discovers the alien. He forms a bond with the creature that is both emotional and psychic – they feel what the other is feeling. Eventually he lets in his five-year-old sister Gertie (Barrymore) and older brother Michael (Macnaughton) in on his secret. His mother (Wallace), recently separated from their dad, is left blissfully ignorant.

Eventually it turns out that E.T. is getting seriously ill – and so is Elliott. E.T., knowing that he’ll die if he doesn’t get home, constructs a make-shift communications device that will allow him to “phone home” using a Speak N Spell, a foil-covered umbrella and other household items (the device, constructed by science educator Henry Feinberg, supposedly worked). When E.T. and Elliott become close to death, the government agents finally appear, led by a man with an impressive key ring (Coyote). However, when it appears that E.T. has expired, it turns out that love is a wonderful thing that can make miracles happen.

The film was a sensation when it was released in my senior year at Loyola Marymount, and would briefly become the all-time box office champion until Spielberg himself surpassed the mark with Jurassic Park nearly a decade later. It remains a favorite among families and is one of the all time home video best-sellers.

Part of what is marvelous about E.T. is how believable the kid actors are. In an era when cutesie kids were the norm rather than the exception, Thomas, Macnaughton and Barrymore were exceptional here. They acted like real kids and never seemed to be “forcing it,” never even seem to be acting. In a movie where no adult face other than the mom’s is seen until nearly an hour in, you need to have good juvenile actors for it to work for all audiences and fortunately for Spielberg, he got three good ones (both Thomas and Barrymore went on to exceptional careers, Barrymore in particular). Coyote has to convey both menace and elicit sympathy and he does so. Despite the scariness of the government agents, there really is no villain here – a nice message.

Of course, the real star here is E.T. himself, a creation of Italian sculptor Carlo Rambaldi. While primitive by today’s standards, E.T. lived and breathed for the children of the era and while today the technology is a bit dated and the look of E.T. less than scintillating, for its time though the movie looked amazing.

Like many Spielberg movies, there is a definite suburban feel to it. Spielberg was one of the first directors to make his films in a suburban setting (the original Poltergeist which was filmed concurrently with Spielberg acting only in a producer’s role was the flip side of E.T. – whereas E.T. was a suburban fairy tale, Poltergeist was a suburban nightmare) and remains one of the best for conjuring a suburban vibe. That works as a double-edged sword here; the movie has a kind of safe feel to it that kids from poorer environments might regard with a puzzled expression, and the cast is as lily-white as can be. The only (illegal) alien here is E.T. himself. I imagine Donald Trump would want him deported.

E.T. is a part of our cultural landscape – lines like ”E.T. phone home” and the image of kids on bicycles flying in front of the moon are familiar to nearly everybody in the Western world as is John Williams’ iconic score. There aren’t many movies that can be said to be beloved but this is certainly one of them. Likely everyone reading this has this movie wrapped up in childhood memories – if not their own then in the memories of their own children growing up. E.T. is one of a select few that can say that.

WHY RENT THIS: An iconic film that recalls childhood. Charming and heartfelt.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit dated and a little bit suburban.
FAMILY VALUES: Some peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The doctors and nurses who work on E.T. are actual emergency room personnel. They were told to work on the puppet as if it were an actual patient so that their dialogue would seem authentic.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some on-set video diaries, a featurette about the 2002 cast reunion, two featurettes on the iconic John Williams score, a Special Olympics TV PSA, and several photo galleries – all on the Blu-Ray edition. The Blu-Ray has the original theatrical version; the 2002 Anniversary edition has a digitally enhanced version of the film which got jeers from audiences and critics alike for the additional CGI which frankly was distracting.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $792.9M on a $10.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Kensho at the Bedfellow

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Bridge to Terabithia (2007)


Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

(2007) Drama (Disney/Walden) Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison, Kate Butler, Devon Wood, Emma Fenton, Grace Brannigan, Latham Gaines, Judy McIntosh, Patricia Aldersley, Lauren Clinton, Isabelle Rose Kircher, Cameron Wakefield, Elliott Lawless, Carly Owen, Jen Wolfe. Directed by Gabor Csupo

Sometimes a great friend comes along when we least expect it. Someone who broadens our horizons, turns our perspectives upside down and makes us look at the world differently. Sadly, sometimes great friends also leave us when we most need them.

Jesse (Hutcherson) doesn’t have the most ideal home life. Sometimes, he feels like the invisible boy. His dad (Patrick) and mom (Butler) dote on his little sister May Belle (Madison) and all his other little sisters. They have way too much on their minds though to spare much of a thought for him – money is tight and that alone is enough to get him bullied by Janice Avery (Clinton), a large sadistic girl.

There’s a new girl in class though – Leslie Burke (Robb). Jesse has always taken solace that he’s the fastest kid in school, but Leslie beats him in a race, netting him further grief from his tormentors. On the bus ride home, he discovers that Leslie lives next door. Irritated with her victory, he rebuffs her attempts to make friends.

Eventually she wins him over, especially when she expresses her admiration for his drawings in the notebook he carries around with him at all times. She tells him about her love for fantasy stories. Together they go exploring the woods near their home, crossing the creek on a fallen log. They find an abandoned treehouse and a broken down old truck near it. They decide that this is their castle and this is the world of Terabithia, populated by gnomes, trolls and all manner of fearsome beasts. They are the King and Queen of their little world which comes to life in their imagination.

Leslie has had a rough time of it, moving from place to place and having trouble making or keeping friends. Even though her parents are wealthy and loving, Leslie has been a lonely little girl. Jesse is really the first and best friend she’s ever had, so Leslie’s parents embrace him as one of their own. Leslie discovers that Janice has had an even tougher time of it. She is the victim of abuse from her father. Leslie befriends her, a turning point in Janice’s life.

Leslie isn’t the only one noticing Jesse’s talents. Ms. Edmunds (Deschanel), the music teacher Jesse has a secret crush on, invites him on a trip to the art museum. Although he tells his mom where they are going, she is half asleep and he takes her mumbled response for approval for his trip. He has the opportunity to take Leslie along but at the last moment he doesn’t, wanting the experience all for himself. Spending the day at an art museum on a stormy day seems like absolute heaven to him.

However, his trip to the art museum will have unintended but devastating consequences as tragedy will strike very close to him. Jesse’s life will never be the same afterwards.

The movie is based on the award-winning children’s book by Katherine Paterson which is in turn based on the real life experiences of her son David (who wrote the screenplay for the movie). Perhaps that is why the kids seem realistic to me and their relationship organic and natural. Robb who has also turned out impressive performances in Race to Witch Mountain and later in Soul Surfer is a lustrous beauty even at this age who seems almost angelic. Hutcherson who has gone on to star in the Hunger Games movies, shows some solid acting chops. While he doesn’t have Robb’s screen charisma, he is nonetheless more than adequate for the role.

Disney marketed this as a straight up fantasy movie which it isn’t really at all, although there are certainly digital creature effects thanks to WETA (which are better than average, by the way). This is a coming of age drama essentially with elements of fantasy which are meant to highlight the imagination of the children – we see what they see. Some people who saw the movie left disappointing, expecting something along the lines of a Harry Potter movies. There are also those who went into the film expecting another disappointing young adult fantasy movie and emerged pleasantly surprised.

There is a great deal of depth to this movie and it deals with a lot of things that kids deal with – bullying, economic hardship, fitting in, loneliness, imagination, feeling left out, and loss. Some of these things can be difficult for parents to help their kids with and in fact the parents in this movie don’t have all the answers. Just like most of us.

Still, I highly recommend this for not only pre-teen kids but their parents as well. There are some terrific opportunities for dialogue between parents and children to be opened up here. Not only that, this is as satisfying a movie for adults as it’s going to be for their kids. Highly recommended.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly candid and insightful. Pulls no punches. Terrific performances from Hutcherson and Robb, with Deschanel her usual solid self.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fantasy sequences can be a bit cliche.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are depictions of bullying and peril as well as a few mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be cinematographer Michael Chapman’s final film as he retired after filming was completed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video for the song “Keep Your Mind Wide Open” from cast member Robb, as well as a discussion about the book by cast members, educators and most insightful of all, author Katherine Paterson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $137.6M on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flipped

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Need for Speed

Treeless Mountain


Treeless Mountain

It may be bucolic but there's an underlying tragedy being enacted here.

(2008) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim, Soo Ah Lee, Mi Hyang Kim, Boon Tak Park, Lee Hyun Seo, Ha Min Woo, Lee Byung Yong. Directed by So Yong Kim

The world can be a harsh place. It is particularly rough on children, especially when their parents are not around. Think of how much harder it is when the parents give them up voluntarily.

Seven-year-old Jin (Hee) and her little sister Bin (Song) are sweet, well-adjusted little girls in South Korea. Unfortunately, their mom (Soo), not so much. Ever since her husband left them, she has had a very hard time adjusting. Raising the two girls by herself proves to be too much so she decides to go and reconcile with her husband. She then must leave her daughters with Big Aunt (Mi), her older sister who makes it very clear that this is a temporary arrangement and that she’s not interested in taking care of the kids herself.

It also becomes equally clear soon enough that she’s an alcoholic, which complicates matters. While their mom promises to return by the time that an empty piggy bank is filled with coins that Big Aunt will give them when they do their chores and are good (giving them incentive to be good – the better they are, the sooner Mommy will be home in their minds), they find themselves often bored with few children their age to play with.

They often wait by the bus stop they saw their mom leave from but she never appears. The piggy bank eventully winds up getting full (thnks to some cleverness from Jin who changes some of the bigger coins into several smaller ones to fill up the bank faster). Eventually they get a letter from their mom saying that things haven’t worked out with their dad and that she will be gone much longer than she first thought.

That’s the breaking point for Big Aunt who decides that the children must now be left with their grandparents on their farm in rural Korea. While the farm is not particularly successful and old granddad not wanting to raise a whole new set of kids after having already raised his own, the grandmother (Boon) takes the girls under her wing and teaches them the importance of family while they patiently await a mother who may never return.

This is a movie whose ambitions I admired very much. So Yong Kim has crafted a very quiet movie with not a whole lot of dialogue and a pace that requires a great deal of patience. Those who have it will be rewarded with a story that has its own beauty as well as its own tragic elements. One leaves the movie wondering what on earth will become of these kids and what sort of chance they have in life.

Much of the film centers on the two sisters and fortunately, both are adorable enough to be interesting. I wouldn’t call it a performance so much as the kids being themselves and allowing Ms. So to film them. There are moments that are truly charming…but to be fair, there are also some that are rather boring as well.

I liked the concept of following the children around and trying to get into their heads as they try to make sense of a missing mom. Unfortunately, the movie takes so much time in getting to its very chrming and bittersweet ending that I found my attention wandering. Maybe that makes me a curmudgeon but this felt more like babysitting than film viewing. I guess I’m turning into the grandfather here which is a scary thought in and of itself.

There is plenty to recommend the movie but one must be a little bit on the Zen side to truly enjoy it. It is rewarding, yes but I’m not sure I’d have the patience to sit through it again. It’s very much like a still life painting. There’s a lot going on if you have the patience and perception to look; it’s just that not all of us do.

WHY RENT THIS: A very realistic look at a family fractured by alcohol and neglect. The two young girls are adorable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Long periods of time go on with little story advancement. The director relies overly much on the cuteness value of the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: No violence or sexuality and almost no profanity. The themes are a bit on the mature side though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the cast were amateur actors who had never been in a film before.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the two little girls two years after the completion of filming; there is also a Q&A with the filmmaker after a screening at the New York Film Forum.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $124,023 on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even or even made some money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: White Noise 2: The Light