Volume 4, Number 12
This Week's Reviews: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Blade II, Iris.
This Week's Omissions: Sorority Boys.
of the Lost Ark
Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace
|E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
BY: DAVID PERRY
The first film my parents took me to was Beastmaster (I don't know what possessed them to do that), followed by Return of the Jedi and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. All three films opened over the course of a year, but today, I only remember sitting in the theatre for one of the movies. To this day, I remember the awe I was in sitting and watching E.T., the way I felt like I was watching more than simply a motion picture, but an incredible exercise in imaginative cinema. Shot at low angles to simulate the view of a child, E.T. turned into the most impressive work of American cinema in the early 1980's, creating a family film that not only gave a splendid view to the children, but also transported the adults to their childhood.
Countless rip-offs followed ranging from Roland Emmerich's Joey (aka Making Contact) to Randal Kleiser's Flight of the Navigator to Stewart Raffill's Mac and Me. All of them tried to recreate the magic in Steven Spielberg's masterpiece but none ever came close. Now, on its 20th birthday, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial comes back to theatres to move its vision onto a new generation of filmgoers.
The last time I watched the film was directly before high school when I was in a debate over the best film of 1982 -- E.T. vs. Das Boot, noticeably no one called upon Gandhi, the film that actually won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Back then, I was reminded of the pleasures that came with watching it the first time. Again, watching it now, for the first time on the theatre screen since I was a small child, E.T. causes all the emotions of that first viewing to come flooding back. It is a no-qualms manipulative film, but it is also one of the best crafted of them all. Stating that there's nary a dry eye in the house following this movie is not an overstatement of its impact.
Steven Spielberg has made a career out of manipulation through various stages. He's been the Turk of action nouveau (Duel, The Sugarland Express), redefined the big-budget blockbuster (Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark), moved into adulthood (The Color Purple, Schindler's List), and become a kid again (Hook, Jurassic Park). There's not an entry in his oeuvre that doesn't use some form of audience manipulation to get the needed audience reaction. What sets Spielberg apart from manipulators like, say, Tom Shadyac and Ron Howard is that Steven Spielberg has crafted his work into an art -- he is not using contrivances for a response to hide the fact that he otherwise has no substance, but instead uses manipulates the audience so that their reaction is akin to the one his characters are feeling. The only movie that makes me tear up every time I watch it is Schindler's List, where the audience feels like it sharing the same emotional effect as the director is.
Alienation has been a theme is some of Spielberg's works ranging from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Empire of the Sun. E.T. is, perhaps, his best structured of these works, even considering the remarkable work he did last year with A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which reworked the alien character to a robotic boy. I often criticize the director for relying on similar shtick, but when he gets it right, it can be magnificent.
But this is not a success completely dedicated to the work of Spielberg, a collection of other filmmakers helped turn this into the experience it is. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison gave depth to the story; effects operator Steve Willis fashioned a character that feels more realistic than many actors; vocal artists Debra Winger and then 77-year-old Pat Welsh created a voice, sounds, and even a purr that turns a childish entity into a wise explorer; cinematographer Allen Daviau mixed lights, darks, and gray steams that set the needed atmosphere; and composer John Williams scored childlike innocence with awed-excitement unlike anything else he has done. Child actors Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas give performances far beyond their ages, making it easy to see why they are the only two of the cast who have catapulted to some fame since 1982.
Nevertheless, when the dust clears, the lights flicker off,
and the credits begin to roll, the real excitement brought by E.T. can be found
in nearly every face looking up in wonderment. A literature professor of mine once mused
that he'd give anything to be able to relive the experience of reading Romeo and
Juliet for the first time again. E.T., in that way, is an artistic
breakthrough unto itself -- with every viewing, that same experience comes through. And
there's nary a dry eye in the house.
Fearless Vampire Killers
of the Damned
Hunter D: Bloodlust
BY: DAVID PERRY
Blade II is one of those not-so-rare films that turn interesting action film scenarios into hackneyed excuses for considerable gore and incomprehensible storytelling. Continuity and character development are second thoughts for this film, where anything goes out the window if it might hinder its ability to throw in a couple more gore shots.
The undesirability of Blade II is shocking considering that it is the latest effort from Mexican auteur Guillermo Del Toro who created the stunning Spanish horror films Cronos and The Devil's Backbone. Even his last work with a studio, Mimic, was an incredibly well-structured work of thrilling cinema. But none of the prowess seen in these early films is present in Blade II, where it feels more like a Del Toro payday than an actual attempt by him to pursue his normally lofty (read: socio-political) story devices. And, to add insult to injury, the movie only uses some of his trademarks in laughable ways -- the patriarch's skin seems to be made out of blue stockings and the dichotomous roles of individuals has been stratified to hackneyed clichés. Only his interest in the physiology of odd things bears an actually intriguing addition to the film.
Stephen Norrington made a more satisfying Blade with his earlier entry in 1998. That film, which used rave cinematic style and built characters through their formulas, was not high art but did certainly achieve the main point: to create an atmospheric, tantalizing, and exciting tale. Norrington had only made the horrendous Death Machine before tackling Blade, which stood as a fine achievement both for himself and for the then regular attempts by Hollywood to make dark action films out of comic books (three cheers, by the way, for X-Men breaking this without turning into a Joel Schumacher film). His next two works are reportedly comic adaptations The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Ghost Rider, where his dark and pervasive sensibilities will probably serve the films well.
But watching any Norrington film in comparison to any Del Toro films raises a striking question: how, in terms of the auteur theory (it does not help that David S. Goyer wrote both films), can Del Toro's Blade II fail beside Norrington's Blade. This is a troubling quandary, and one that rather irks me as a Bazin/Truffaut devotee -- neither film really lacks directorial flourishes or uses personal issues, meaning that Blade vs. Blade II reads like a side-by-side comparison of any two recent Academy Awards ceremonies, both are full of pomp and circumstance but signify nothing.
The trouble lies in the story, which Del Toro is not a suitable author for. He is a filmmaker whose mind becomes enamored more with capturing the effect with a hint of the cause to any issue. The screenplay by Goyer, however, delivers most of the story in a pile driver formation -- it is the weather report of movie scripts with constant and immediate updates.
Action films are commonly stupefied for modern audiences in an odd belief among film producers that no one outside of the elitists over at the art houses wants to think about the films they are watching. Most Hollywood genres have seen these gross acts of negligence, ranging from dramas (Patch Adams, A Beautiful Mind, A Walk to Remember) to comedies (Scary Movie 2, National Lampoon's Van Wilder, Super Troopers). No genre sees this more often, though, than the action genre with regular culprits popping up nearly every week. Someone needs to pass a memo around the studios that pretext is possible without making a film pretentious.
The closest Blade II comes to tackling anything remotely like this is in the film's recap of Blade, which serves about 15 minutes of recycled screen time. For a film built around the barrage of bullets and the clanging of metal swords, background is not an issue for the most part, and Blade II has no qualms about nearly excising it altogether. Some might consider this as simply frugal filmmaking -- there are some, without a doubt, who will like Blade II in its incomprehensible, mind-numbing form -- but the real fact, especially with a true visionary at the helm, is that Blade II is mostly sloppy filmmaking, justifying its lack of any discernibly interesting attributes by constantly keeping the audience at bay with its violent fury.
The story -- that half-man/half-vampire Blade has joined
forces with his vampire enemies to do battle with a new evolutionary form that kills both
species -- could have worked with some major script touch-ups and a director intent on
melding it into something more reputable. But Blade II never had those changes,
and instead comes to theatre screens as a hulking mess of guts and glory in the form of
ultra-cool vampire hunting. Without any real continence to speak of, the continuing story
of Blade lacks the appeal of a larger-than-life hero and instead becomes merely another
big screen superhero brandishing a collection of shiny weapons.
BY: DAVID PERRY
Alzheimer's is not necessarily one of the most common diseases, but nearly everyone has had an encounter with someone afflicted by it. I saw it firsthand a few years ago through a friend of mine's. As a schoolboy, I often received rides from school with him and his aunt. During high school, her memory became a problem -- nearly everyone agreed that she was in the early stages of the disease. A year ago, when I visited my old friend and saw his aunt again, I was struck by how feeble and lost she seemed. Alzheimer's is possibly one of the most debilitating diseases: not only does it ultimately strike the individual physically, but the mental toll is beyond comprehension.
It generally strikes people above the age of 65, usually through genetics. Notable Alzheimer patients include Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jonathan Swift, W. Somerset Maugham, Sugar Ray Robinson, Willem de Kooning, Maurice Ravel, Aaron Copland, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Rita Hayworth. The new film Iris tackles the life of an additional famed patient: novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch.
Directed by British stage director Richard Eyre (who served as artistic director for the Royal National Theatre for nine years), the film shows Murdoch during her illustrious, vivacious youth and her weak, debilitated elder years. By her death in 1999, the author of some 26 books could barely construct sentences to articulate her feelings. Much of her final days were spent sitting around watching television while husband John Bayley looked after her.
Bayley's novels Iris and Her Friends and Elegy for Iris are the source for this film, which delves into the story with an intense understanding that can only come from someone's firsthand account. Bayley loved Murdoch, and through their forty years of marriage, she proved that she too loved him.
Eyre's film is quite suited to show the love and devotion that is found in the Murdoch/Bayley marriage in the years directly preceding and following Mudoch's 1994 diagnosis. Performed by the fine acting prowess of Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent, these more current scenes in Iris strike an emotional chord relegated to the finest melodramas. Not only does this work as a well-crafted glance at spousal responsibilities to an Alzheimer's patient, but also at the way that Bayley really would have done anything for his wife. This is the type of relationship drama that Hollywood has tediously tried to create with little success time and again.
However, Richard Eyre does not leave this film as merely a look at this side of the story, he also adds much of their first years as a couple. Ultimately, this is where Iris looses much of its effect, as equally fine performances from Hugh Bonneville and Kate Winslet (both looking immeasurably like their older counterparts) portray the collegiate Bayley and Murdoch. Their irregular courtship at Oxford is something that seems interesting, but the time that Eyre has to allot to it (surprisingly, he confines the entire story to a mere 90-minutes) makes it seem like an unimportant anecdote to their story. Whenever the story goes back in time to the 1950's, the audience is left waiting for a return to the 1990's.
Iris never really delves into what made Iris Murdoch such a remarkable writer, which places it at a different placeholder than something like Ed Harris' deeply chronicling Pollock a couple years ago. Playing to British audiences (the movie is a BBC production), much of it relies on the audience already understanding about Murdoch, even if only in passing.
There are three or four films that could be made out of
this story: the artist biography, the study of a disease, the relationship drama, or any
combination of these genres. When the dust clears, Eyre has decided to simply worry with
disease and relationship, only really crafting much of his attention on the later. Like
Paul Cox's Innocence last year, this is a movie that really pains itself to
understand what makes a lifelong relationship work. Though Cox was slightly more
successful, Iris still packs much of the emotional punch that it yearns for,
convincing the audience that the old dictum "behind every great man, there's a great
woman" can also be the other way around.