Thursday, November 24, 2011

Hugo

Grade: 54 (C+)

I wish I loved this more than I did. I hate to break my usual “no personal pronouns” rule again, but there’s no other way to address this. Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo, is a deeply, deeply personal film in many ways. The film is based on Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but the story of a lonely boy fascinated by movies, machines, and magic watching others live their lives is clearly informed by Scorsese’s own childhood. An asthmatic, young Scorsese couldn’t play with other kids for fear of his poor health. His parents and siblings often took him to the cinema, and so a legend was born. Hugo is a tribute to Scorsese’s childhood, a film that celebrates the magical qualities of the movies while emulating many of the films Scorsese loved as a child. It should work better than it does.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan. His father (Jude Law) was killed in a fire. A clockmaker, Mr. Cabret taught Hugo both the importance and joy in his craft and the magical escapist powers of the movies. Taken in by his drunken, absent uncle (Ray Winstone), Hugo now lives in a Paris train station, winding up the clocks as his uncle taught him. His only possession is an automaton (a wind-up robot of great sophistication) left to him by his father. Hugo steals wheels and cogs from small machines to replace the automaton’s missing parts, all while evading the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).

One day Hugo is caught by Georges (Ben Kingsley), a mysterious shopkeeper who notices the young boy’s talent for fixing simple machines. Georges takes Hugo on as a helper, and Hugo befriends Georges’ adopted daughter Isabelle. Georges forbids Isabelle to go to the movies, but when Hugo learns that his automaton is linked to Georges’ past, the two partake in a whimsical adventure. They find something incredible: Georges is none other than famous filmmaker Georges Melies, director of the early cinematic classic A Trip to the Moon.

Pictured: Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon

The film’s early focus on the precision of clockmaking and machines is a clear stand-in for film itself. As Hugo and Isabelle discover Georges’ past, the two learn to appreciate the magic and innovation of his films. Originally a magician, Melies used clever camera and editing tricks to tell magical stories of mermaids and moonmen. In Hugo, Melies’ films are thought to be lost forever, with many prints burned during World War I. Scorsese’s love for film shines through: for the process, for the escapist qualities, and for the magic of film storytelling and innovation. By the end, Hugo forms a surrogate family through the magic of film.

The film’s greatest weakness, strangely, is born from Scorsese’s love and devotion for film. Scorsese recreates several classic movie moments and styles, from the “couple separated in comically trifling situations” to the expressionistic silent film-style performances. But where the big performances in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were necessary for the medium at the time, here they feel too big and too focused on recreating a different style of acting, and it results in several distractingly mannered performances (Cohen). Other scenes are far too sweet for their own good (Michael Stuhlbarg’s turn as a film historian is a measure too twinkly). And while the film is personal overall, it’s also sometimes frustratingly beholden to modern children’s films (insert dog reaction shot here).

Scorsese’s overuse of digital effects is particularly distracting; the 3-D is impressive and immersive, but the CGI backgrounds and swooping are disappointing coming from a director whose other period pieces (The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, The Aviator) have wonderfully tactile qualities. In a film about the wonders of movie magic and innovative practical effects, easily generated computer effects seriously undermine the story.

It would be far easier to overlook these flaws if the central character was strong, but Butterfield overuses pauses and never seems quite as fascinated with the world or with film as Scorsese clearly is. Kingsley and Moretz fare better; a better film would center on a more well-defined relationship between Melies and his child. The film’s overwhelming sweetness and sincerity nearly win out, but the whole affair is too long for such a simple and affecting story. There’s no doubt the film will enchant and delight many. It did not quite enchant and delight me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.8: Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. November ends with the last classic Spielberg adventure film: 1993’s Jurassic Park.

Grade: 86 (A-)

From 1975 to 1982, Steven Spielberg released four instant classic adventure films: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. A remarkable track record by any standard, these films captured the imaginations of critics and audiences alike. But Spielberg, like any artist, wanted to expand his horizons. His first two attempts at mature films, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, certainly had admirers, but neither had the same success as his earlier films. His attempts to mix fantasy with adulthood, Always and Hook, fared worse. But Spielberg had another card up his sleeve: an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park. The result, still his most financially successful film, served both as a return to and as a grand sendoff to his classic adventure films.

Eccentric Billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has an idea for a theme park, but he won’t reveal exactly what it is. His frustrated lawyer, Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferraro), insists he bring in outside opinions for whatever he has planned. Enter paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), his paleobotanist assistant Dr. Ellie Sadler (Laura Dern), and genius mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), none of whom know exactly what to expect. But they’re all amazed at what Hammond has done: the “crazy son of a bitch” has cloned and brought back to life dinosaurs of all shapes, types, and sizes: Triceratops, raptors, brachiosaurs, and tyrannosaurs.

After initial amazement, the three consultants express their qualms: Hammond is playing God, and there’s no telling what the danger is. The group continues their tour into the park along with Hammond’s grandchildren, Alex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello). Meanwhile, head computer programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) sabotages the park’s security system in order to steal the dinosaur embryos for a competitor. But there’s unintended fallout: the dinosaurs get loose, and head technician Ray Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) and security warden Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck) can’t get the system back on line. Now people are dying, and with Grant and the kids stranded in the park, time is running out.


First off, it must be said that the film looks great. Jurassic Park marks Spielberg’s first extensive use of CGI (indeed, one of the first extensive uses of CGI in film history), and it’s a stunning blend of digital effects and real settings and characters. CGI has been misused and overused from its inception, but from Jurassic Park to A.I. to Minority Report and War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s integration of CGI and practical effects has been near seamless.

None of the fantastic effects would matter, though, if not for Spielberg’s mastery of old fashioned moviemaking. As always, the Howard Hawks “men on a mission” and “men vs. force of nature” storylines are here. Hitchcock, of course, is a major influence in the of the suspense scenes orchestration: raptors stalk and peer around corners;  monsters or villains seen first through shadows; the T-rex attack is dragged out to near unbearable lengths; and the gradual introduction of the dinosaurs is as masterful as that of the shark in Jaws: first there’s only a glimpse of the raptors, then we meet the herbivores, then the babies, and then the horror starts.

There’s a new influence too: Spielberg goes all the way back to classic monster movies like Frankenstein (the basic story and ethical questions) and King Kong (Goldblum even references it). The introduction of the T-rex is a particularly shrewd mix of Hitchcock and Kong: first there’s only sound and vibrations, then a hint there’s something wrong, and then we’re in way over our heads.

Many remember Jurassic Park for the non-stop action, often as intense as anything in Raiders. But while the white-knuckle intensity kicks off at the fifty-minute mark, the film’s dialogue-heavy first act is as loose and shaggy as Jaws, with a gradual reveal of the monsters and a long introduction of the film’s world, its scientific particulars, and its fun characters. There’s a good deal of overlapping dialogue a la 70s Spielberg classics. Many of the characters even parallel those of Jaws: Grant as the reserved, prickly protagonist (Chief Brody), Malcolm as the eccentric, wisecracking, sometimes amazingly condescending expert (Hooper), and Muldoon as the tough-guy hunter who makes a fatal mistake (a more mentally stable Quint). Sadler, meanwhile, is a Marion to Grant’s Indy: just as intelligent and capable, and often called upon to help save the day when everyone’s out of their depth (her reaction to Hammond insisting she should stay behind because she's a woman is priceless).

Hammond, of course, is the mayor, or the government, or whatever classic Spielberg character doesn’t respect the awesome power of a force of nature. He’s trying to control something he doesn’t understand, and while there’s no doubt that he had good intentions, he didn’t consider the consequences of his actions. In Spielberg world, man’s arrogance makes him think he can control something uncontrollable. Hammond is more powerful than many of said characters, absurdly wealthy and surrounded by yes men, and when the people who know what they’re talking about tell him what’s what, he believes he’s right and that everything will work out just fine (Jaws/Raiders). He even allows his own grandkids to enter the park before there’s any guaranteed safety (Jaws again). Hammond was written as a cold, calculating businessman, but Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp wisely sweetened the character. And why not? Spielberg respects his showmanship.

Spielberg has less respect for Nedry, the arrogant programmer. There’s motivation to his actions: he has money problems after past mistakes, and while Hammond won’t cast him out, he’s not going to give him extra help. Nedry’s desperation, self-importance, and all around selfishness drives him to betray his employer, a man clearly willing to give him a second chance. Jurassic Park marks one of the first clear examples of another Spielberg theme: men whose selfishness blinds them to the feelings or well-being of others. An offshoot of the “men controlling nature” theme, the key difference here is malicious intent. That key difference also leads to Nedry’s comeuppance.


The film’s major character arc is in Grant’s treatment of children. In Grant’s introduction, he frightens a young boy who didn’t show him or his dinosaur proper respect. When Grant comes to Jurassic Park and meets Tim and Lex, he finds them as annoying and off-putting as he finds most children. Tim is a devoted fan of Grant’s writing while Lex has a schoolgirl crush on him. But when the chips are down, it’s Grant who saves the kids. Grant’s maturity comes when he bonds with the kids; by the end, he’s gone from reluctant protector to admirable father figure. The eternal optimism of early Spielberg shines through Jurassic Park; no matter how horrifying the events of the film gets, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, and even the most cynical hearts can melt. After the stumbles of Always and Hook, it’s refreshing to see Spielberg approach adulthood honestly.

There’s one especially important theme to Jurassic Park: the dark side of technology. Spielberg’s interest in men trying to control forces of nature bleeds over into the real (well, less mystical) world. This theme was certainly in the margins of past films (Empire of the Sun, the Indiana Jones films, even 1941), but with Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg first clearly expressed his concern that improper use of technology could have drastic consequences. There’s classic Spielbergian wonder a la Close Encounters and E.T., but it all segues into terror. Like Frankenstein blown up to King Kong like proportions, there are men playing God in Jurassic Park, and in the immortal words of Goldblum’s character, “Before you even knew what you had…you’re selling it.”

No one has considered the moral and ethical consequences of their actions; it’s all about what they could do, not what they should do. And there’s a body count because of it. This theme plays a major part in almost every Spielberg film since: Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Minority Report, War of the Worlds, even the breezy Catch Me if You Can. This idea could also serve as a criticism of the poor use of CGI and modern moviemaking from many of Spielberg’s contemporaries, particularly George Lucas. Oddly, Jurassic Park’s sole flaw comes from Spielberg using technology he didn’t understand: it’s easy to forgive minor plot holes or “movie” moments, but the film’s understanding of computer hacking near the film’s climax is lacking, to say the least.

In Jurassic Park, several characters maintain that evolution finds its way past barriers. It’s a fitting metaphor. The film marks a turning point in Spielberg’s career: it’s a return to form after two poor fantasy outings. It’s an embracement of adulthood and of new, more complicated themes. It’s a summation of where Spielberg had been, where he was, and where he was going. And with that, the director bid adieu to the real, classic Spielbergian adventure film and raced onwards toward maturity (though this year’s The Adventures of Tintin looks like a return to good old-fashioned Spielberg movie magic). The final shot of the film wraps it all up: a helicopter (a great invention of man), filled with hope and the solace that something good survived, moving towards the great unknown.










The initial plan for Director’s Spotlight in December was to cover Steven Spielberg’s work in the 2000s, but it doesn’t seem to make much sense to hold off on the five historical films I didn’t cover just to wait for Spielberg’s Lincoln next year. As it is, here is the tentative Director’s Spotlight schedule for December:

November 28: The Color Purple/revised Empire of the Sun
December 1: Schindler’s List
December 3: Amistad
December 4: Saving Private Ryan
December 5: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
December 8: Minority Report/Catch Me if You Can
December 10: The Terminal
December 11: War of the Worlds
December 12: Munich
December 14: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (with special appearance by The Lost World: Jurassic Park)

Overlooked Gems #14: Sexy Beast

Grade: 78 (B+)

There’s a layer of latent homoeroticism at the surface of many gangster movies. The idea of a bunch of tough guys acting tough, talking tough, and staring angrily at each other is often inherently homoerotic. Add that to the fact that many professional criminals in the films are either virulent homophobes or misogynists and it’s easy to suggest that there’s something repressed among these guys. Whether these come from smart filmmakers (Reservoir Dogs, Once Upon a Time in America) or incompetent ones (The Boondock Saints), the subtext is there, whether or not it’s intentional. In the 2001 British gangster film Sexy Beast, director Jonathan Glazer turns the subtext on so high that it’s shocking no one kisses each other.

Gal (Ray Winstone) is a retired English gangster. He’s served time in prison, but that’s in the past. He lives with his former porn-star wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman) in a Spanish villa near a old friends Aiche and Jackie (Cavan Kendall and Julianne White). Gal is living it up, relaxing by the pool in the hot sun. He doesn’t need the “one last job”, and he doesn’t miss the life. He’s got it made. But there’s a man he didn’t count on: Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a former associate whose very name causes a frightened silence at the dinner table. Don wants Gal to take part in a complicated heist back at home. Gal doesn’t want any part of it, but Don isn’t one to take no for answer, and he’s not leaving until he gets the answer he wants.

Sexy Beast opens with a tan, oiled up Winstone relaxing by the pool in nothing but a Speedo. The song “Peaches” by the Stranglers, a song about checking girls out at the beach, blares in the background. It’s pretty clear that sex is an important part of the movie right away. That Gal has a big ol’ gut from time away from home doesn’t matter: this man has attained something no one in the movies can. He loves his wife and he loves his new life, and that’s an attractive thought…so attractive that Don goes out of his way to get Gal for the job when he could find plenty of capable men back in London. It doesn’t matter that Gal isn’t interested in the job or in Don (he hates him). Don gets what Don wants.

Sexy Beast’s has two of the best against-type casting decisions of the 2000s: Winstone, a large, imposing actor, was best known at the time for playing vicious working-class Englishmen in Nil by Mouth and The War Zone; he’s now known as Jack Nicholson’s casually homicidal right-hand man in The Departed. In Sexy Beast, Winstone’s size makes him less intimidating. He’s grown fat and comfortable, and his time outside London has softened him.

Kingsley, a small, lean man most famous for playing Gandhi, is the decidedly nasty Don, a man who makes up for what he lacks in size in cold, controlled movements and outright viciousness. This man has had to fight hard to make it where he is, and he did it by being a scarier alpha-male than any of the bigger guys around him. Kingsley reportedly based the character on his cruel grandmother, and there’s an animal-like ferocity to his character (he urinates all over Gal’s bathroom as if he’s marking his territory). That Kingsley chose his grandmother as a basis may suggest something strangely feminine to the character as well.

There’s a lot of dry humor in the way Don badgers Gal into doing the job; in a typically hilarious exchange, Gal carefully says “I must turn this opportunity down”. Don replies “No, you must turn this opportunity ‘yes’!”, and he doesn’t stop there. Don believes Gal has “gone soft”, and it’s clear he wants Gal way more than he should. He has planned this job for months, and now, only a few days before it begins, he demands Gal join him.

If Don’s questionable devotion to Gal didn’t make things clear, his sex-talk ought to get it right out in the open: Don slept with Jackie years ago, and he pursues her right in front of her husband, Aiche. But something’s not quite right: he claims that Jackie “tried to pet a finger up my bum”. Jackie’s fear of Don already makes the mutual agreement on the nature of this affair questionable, and Don saying this out of the blue is even weirder. Don also criticizes (and seems somewhat fearful of) Gal’s former porn star wife. Even better: when Don gets kicked off a flight, he justifies to the air marshals that a Spanish man tried to have his way with him a few hours ago. Don doesn’t comment on this, but he’s telling us everything, and Kingsley plays every scene perfectly. It’s his finest performance, one that should have won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (he lost to Jim Broadbent for Iris).

Director Jonathan Glazer’s music-video past sometimes shines through in distracting dream sequences, and while the third act works well enough (and bolsters the homoeroticism argument in a scene in a few choice scenes), the film never recaptures the glory of the slow-burning second act. But for the most part, Sexy Beast is an assured debut from the oddly non-prolific Glazer, a hilarious, witty gangster riff that knows there’s something fishy about the big talkers.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.7: Steven Spielberg's Always/Hook

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. Today’s focus is on two fantasy films that deal with growing up: 1989’s Always and 1991’s Hook.

Always Grade: 9 (D-)

Way back during the filming of Jaws in 1974, Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss bonded over their mutual love of the 1943 film A Guy Named Joe, in which a World War II pilot (Spencer Tracy) dies in battle and serves as a guardian for a new pilot…one who happens to fall in love with his girl. Spielberg and Dreyfuss constantly quoted the film to each other, and they talked about remaking the film. They got their wish in 1989 with Always, the worst film in Spielberg’s filmography.

Aerial firefighter Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss) fights wildfires. He works with his girlfriend/dispatcher Dorinda (Holly Hunter) and his best friend, fellow pilot Al (John Goodman). Dorinda worries about Pete’s recklessness as a pilot, but he doesn’t pay any mind. On one particularly dangerous mission, Pete risks his life to save Al. It works, but Pete is killed in an explosion. When Pete awakens as a spirit, angel Hap (Audrey Hepburn in her final role) explains that he is to work as a guide to aspiring aerial firefighter Ted (Brad Johnson). But things get complicated when Ted falls in love with Dorinda.

Always gets off to a terrible start right from the concept: aerial firefighting might be an important job, but it isn’t nearly as important as fighter pilots in World War II. From the beginning, this is a low stakes remake. Spielberg’s update isn’t much of an update; similarly, the film is a remake of a kind of melodrama that went out of fashion while Spielberg was still a kid. Spielberg’s admiration for Old Hollywood has always been clear, but it’s usually combined with New Hollywood aesthetics (Jaws, Close Encounters). Here, there’s no re-imagination; it’s a cover song of outdated material.

The opening minutes of Always are dire; Spielberg tries to establish the inherent danger in Pete’s job by making him run out of fuel, but Pete and Al yuk it up all the same. When the two touch down, they inhale helium and sing in high-pitched voices to an irritated Dorinda. Spielberg uses overlapping dialogue, but there’s no sense of who anyone is or why they’re doing anything. That doesn’t improve: none of the characters have a clear motivation. Dreyfuss’ is a daredevil for the sake of being a daredevil. Hunter’s sudden fear of Dreyfuss’ death seems completely arbitrary, as if she’d never noticed before what his job was and how he works. Goodman’s anger towards Hunter in a later scene is completely inexplicable. Johnson doesn’t have a character trait beyond “blandly handsome”.

The comedic scenes in Always are similarly poorly defined. Spielberg’s films are often very funny (E.T., the Indiana Jones films), but only when the comedy is used to move the action forward. Here, there’s no through line and no point. Spielberg has Dreyfuss and Goodman goofing around for the sake of having them goof around. It doesn’t establish anything about their characters or their friendship. Goodman’s material is particularly bad: every gag involves his gross eating habits (drinking Twinkie cream though a straw, dipping a chicken leg in beer) or getting oil or paint smeared all over him. Goodman’s too good of an actor to deserve such embarrassing material. The film makes the same mistake as 1941: everyone’s a buffoon, and there’s no reason to care about any of them. Worst of all: everyone’s laughing at their own damn jokes. Among the other unfunny gags: Dorinda making shopping lists in her sleep, Dreyfuss holding clean towels out for dirty men only to find them black with soot, Johnson accidentally ordering a root beer with an olive in it.

Is the relationship between Hunter and Dreyfuss any better? In a word, no. The two aren’t the least bit convincing as a couple: Dreyfuss plays Pete as a smug, cocky, condescending jerk, while Hunter’s natural folksiness is overplayed (she isn’t helped by her terrible mullet). Their banter is labored. Their romance would have seemed cornball in 1943: Dreyfuss can’t say “I love you” until right before his death, and his call is drowned out by his engine. Oh, please. The two have no chemistry and no stakes in their relationship; it’s difficult to see why Dreyfuss would come back from the dead, except by the will of the script. When Dreyfuss does return, he seems abusive and possessive. His objection to Johnson and Hunter’s relationship, a cry of “That’s my gal!”, is especially callous.

But what about the flight scenes? Aren’t they exciting? Nope. Spielberg can’t distinguish any of the firefighting scenes from one another, can’t establish the much-needed life and death stakes, and can’t clarify why anyone would want this dangerous job in the first place (John Goodman’s sanctimonious speech isn’t going to cut it). He can’t establish a consistent rhythm or tone in any of the scenes: everything is strung together without much rhyme or reason, and the material, whether “heartwarming” or “sad” or “funny”, is all similarly tone-deaf. It’s telling when late scenes involving unnamed firefighters have higher stakes than anything in the main plot. The late Audrey Hepburn provides the sole note of dignity as a cheerful yet sad-eyed angel guiding Dreyfuss through the afterlife. Her material is cornball and ill-defined, but at least she’s not embarrassing herself.

How does this charmless film fit into Spielberg’s filmography? Spielberg’s past three films were all, in some form, attempts at maturity. The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun were his first attempts at “serious” movies, while Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade grappled with Spielberg’s “absent father” theme in a grown-up fashion. With Always, the director attempts to deal with love and death in an adult fashion. Admirable, but everything’s as hollow as John Williams’ strangely unmemorable score. Spielberg grew up watching A Guy Named Joe with his father, a WWII pilot. His reasoning behind remaking this childhood favorite doesn’t seem to be anything more than empty nostalgia. 1941 was a fascinating disaster, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a well-constructed but ugly mess. Always is junk.

Hook Grade: 22 (D+)

Spielberg’s follow-up, 1991’s Hook, has a long and troubled history. Originally envisioned as a high-concept musical starring Michael Jackson as Peter Pan (make your own joke) or as a straight adaptation of the Peter Pan story, Spielberg abandoned the project after declaring his “adulthood” with Empire of the Sun (itself a bit of a Pan retelling). But Spielberg’s young son drew a picture that gave him an idea: what if Peter Pan grew up, and what if Captain Hook lived?

Peter Banning (Robin Williams) is a lawyer. He’s married, with two children: Jack (Charlie Korsmo) and Maggie (Amber Scott). Peter is an absent father, often too preoccupied with work to pay attention to his children. While visiting his wife’s granny Wendy (Maggie Smith), Jack and Maggie are kidnapped. Wendy insists that she’s the Wendy from the Peter Pan story, and that Peter is the Peter Pan. He doesn’t believe her, but a visit from Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) brings him back to Neverland, where Captain James Hook (Dustin Hoffman) and his sidekick Smee (Bob Hoskins) hold his children hostage. Peter doesn’t remember his past, but Tinkerbell makes a deal with Hook: wait for Peter to train with the Lost Boys, led by tough-guy Rufio (Dante Basco), and they’ll give him the war he wants. Only through finding his inner child can Peter save his children.

Hook gets off to a rough (and I mean rough) start. The opening scene, involving a grade-school stage production of Peter Pan, isn’t a terrible idea, but Spielberg uses the laziest, most clich├ęd signifier of the inattentive parent: the fucking cell-phone. He follows it up with Peter missing his son’s all-important baseball game because he’s too busy with work.  It’s not a good sign when Steven Spielberg, an artist known for realistic, believable relationships between parents and children, lays it on so thick. The film’s opening fifteen minutes pile it on further: Peter frequently uses phrases like “my word is my bond” with his ten-year-old son and demands that he “stop acting like a child”. Spielberg isn’t above heavy-handed irony, either (Peter’s afraid of flying/heights). It all culminates in a terrible scene in which Peter screams at his children to shut up, as he’s on the phone call of his life. Spielberg’s usually a master of treating children like adults and making adults feel like kids again. The film’s opening fifteen minutes talk down to everyone.

Spielberg’s Old Hollywood influences show up again: the Howard Hawks “man on a mission” feel, a scary Hitchcockian kidnapping scene, and a clear love for both Disney’s Peter Pan and for the old Errol Flynn swashbuckling films. But too often Hook cannibalizes old Spielberg films: E.T. was already a strong retelling of Peter Pan, and the kidnapping scene, while effective, is too similar to the home invasion scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with objects flying around and doors opening on their own.

Spielberg being Spielberg, he manages to create some indelible images and scenes: early scenes of Peter at Wendy’s house have a strong mix of reluctance and curiosity, and some of the comedy between Hook and Smee is strong. But too much of the comedy involving the heroes is overly whimsical or manic (a training montage, a terrible scene involving imaginary food), some repeated jokes are intensely unfunny (watch for jokes about grown orphan Toodles’ “marbles”), and the final showdown ping-pongs between overly goofy fights (there is no reason for the Lost Boys to fight with eggs and paint) and poorly choreographed sword fights. The biggest shock: Neverland, from the pirate’s ship to the Lost Boys’ home, looks shockingly cheap. Some of the locales of the Indiana Jones films were certainly weathered, but they weren’t the ugly eyesores on display in Hook. Sometimes it looks like Spielberg’s going for a storybook feel. It doesn’t work.

The conception of Peter Pan growing up isn’t a bad idea, and for a while, Robin Williams is surprisingly effective. Williams can be a gifted dramatic actor (his comedic acting too often relies on Williams riffing), but sometimes sappy scripts bring out the mushiest qualities in the actor. But Williams begins the film as a conflicted man: one who wants desperately to please his family but is too focused on his work. The script doesn’t meet him, but for a while, he’s just fine. As Pan reaches Neverland, Williams overplays the ADULT PETER aspect. As he begins to realize what he’s missed and what really matters, Williams gets drippy and sentimental. When he finally finds his inner child, he’s less mugging than usual, but it’s still a disappointment compared to where he started.

Hoffman and Hoskins fare slightly better as Hook and Smee; they’re silly, unthreatening villains, but at least they’re more fun to watch. The children, meanwhile, are virtually indistinguishable from each other: the only Lost Boy with any personality is the irritating Rufio. and most of them are lousy actors. Young Amber Scott is overly precious as Maggie (she gets her own terrible song to sing). Korsmo is fine as Jack, but he’s used very badly (more on that later). And Julia Roberts is irritatingly manic as Tinkerbell, without any of the firebrand qualities that made other incarnations of the character so interesting. They all reflect a faltering in confidence from Spielberg: Hook and Smee can’t be too frightening (never mind how scary even E.T. could be). The children are stereotypical, undeveloped, and often gross. Tinkerbell and Peter’s inner child are both sickly sweet, manic, and as over the top as possible.

When it comes time for Spielberg to develop Pan’s back story, things get especially rocky. Apparently Peter ran away from home as an infant because he was afraid he would die. How could he run away as an infant? And how did he grow to a teen in Neverland? He then returned to real world after falling in love with Wendy’s granddaughter Moira. Except that he didn’t meet her so much as he saw her sleeping in a creepy scene. Things get creepier in a subplot involving Tinkerbell’s love for Peter; this was implicit in the original story, but here it’s both explicit and poorly developed.

Peter’s fatherhood is part of a long line of absent fathers in Spielberg’s films. Hook is the first Spielberg film that doesn’t handle it well. Peter lost track of what’s really important (his fatherhood) after he focused on his work. But Hook doesn’t treat parents with the same respect that Spielberg had in past excursions (Jaws, E.T.). Peter works too hard and that’s that. Never mind that he’s working hard to provide for his family. The relationship in Hook is oversimplified; the worst bit comes not from Williams’ Pan, but from a scene in which his son, Jack, vindictively smashes his father’s watch while yelling about all the times when his father wasn’t there for him. Never mind that this is the simplistic scene Spielberg avoided in Last Crusade. This is a distressingly ugly scene that plays to the narcissistic side of children: everything’s about Jack, and in a relationship this simple, no one could argue with it (Spielberg explored the dark side of childhood more knowingly in Empire of the Sun and A.I.).

Spielberg no doubt saw some of himself in Peter Pan. A wunderkind, the director had found smashing success at a young age, often with films celebrating childhood innocence. But everyone has to grow up: The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun marked a change in Spielberg’s career. Suddenly, the safe (mostly) carefree adventures and smart-aleck humor didn’t have the same appeal. Spielberg’s next two films, Last Crusade and Always, attempted to deal with adult themes through the prism of adventure (one more successfully than the other). Perhaps workaholic Spielberg fretted that he spent too much time working and not enough time as a father. Perhaps he felt that he, like Pan, needed to regain that childhood innocence that everyone had loved so.

He didn’t give himself enough credit. Many parents worries they don’t do enough for their children, but Spielberg’s strong history with children suggests he worried too much.  Hook doesn’t have the same feel that E.T., Close Encounters, Jaws or the two strongest Indiana Jones entries have. It’s too calculated a regression, and only John Williams’ fantastic score hits the right notes. Spielberg was growing up; it was time to move on.

Saturday: We wrap up Spielberg’s classic adventure films with Jurassic Park

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.6: Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom/Last Crusade

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. Today, his first two Raiders of the Lost Ark sequels, 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Temple of Doom Grade: 33 (C-)

After the smashing successes of Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg decided to make good on his promise to George Lucas to make two more installments in the Indiana Jones franchise. Spielberg, Lucas and company puzzled over how to handle the next film. They knew they didn’t want to bring back Marion or the Nazis, and so they decided to make it a prequel. So far so good. The group threw around the idea of a haunted castle in Scotland, but Spielberg vetoed the idea, having just made Poltergeist, so the haunted castle became a demonic temple in India. And that’s where things got complicated.

1935: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) escapes a close call with treacherous Chinese businessman Lao Che (Roy Chiao). Jones brings along Lao’s mistress, American singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), and sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan). Through a series of extraordinary circumstances, the trio find themselves in an Indian village. The people are starving, the children missing. A local shaman explains that the nearby Pankot Palace has kidnapped and enslaved their children and taken their sacred stone. He enlists Jones and company to save the children and retrieve the stone, which Indy believes may be one of the lost Shankara Stones, filled with diamonds and mystical wonders. But to save the children and the stones, they must overcome the Thuggee, a cult that worships Kali (an evil god), practices human sacrifice, and controls Pankot’s Maharaja.

Temple starts off well enough with a spectacular musical sequence reminiscent of Old Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and an Indy entrance worthy of the best James Bond movies. The game of wits between Jones and Lao Che is one of Spielberg’s great, Hitchcockian suspense scenes. Ford is as good as ever as Jones, and Lao Che is a threatening villain (one who could have carried his own film). The early comic relief is strong as well: Indy has been poisoned, and his attempts to stay alert and alive are often quite funny. The escape is very funny as well, culminating in a terrific set-piece involving a jump from a plane.

There’s an early warning that things will go south: Willie. Spielberg and Lucas’ decision to avoid a Marion re-tread is respectable, but the decision to make Willie the polar opposite of Marion results in a shrill, doddering idiot incapable of taking care of herself. Willie is materialistic and shallow at the beginning, but some might assume that she’ll become a well rounded character later on. Nope. Willie becomes more intolerable as the journey progresses, and her thoughtless putdowns of Indian culture are often downright ugly. An attempt to bring pathos to her character via a story of her grandfather’s lack of success is thrown out as arbitrarily as “pass the salt”. The character is never anything more than an annoyance, and her eventual romance with Indy is completely unbelievable (Capshaw herself has stated her hatred for her most famous character).

Short Round is a more polarizing character. Some find him funny and charming where others regard him as an irritating, reductive stereotype. There’s no doubt that there’s no real need for Indy to have a child sidekick, but Quan is a good actor, and many of his early scenes with Indy have great humor and banter (one strong sequence involving a cheat during a card game is quite funny; pity that it was intercut with scenes of Willie shrieking). The character deserved a better movie.

But these characters are hardly the worst thing about Temple (Willie would certainly be a close third or fourth). Lucas envisioned Temple as a darker film than Raiders, and patterned it after the dark The Empire Strikes Back. The problem is that the Star Wars Trilogy was part of an ongoing saga; it made sense that things got worse before they got better. Temple is a prequel, and the entire Indiana Jones series is episodic. Spielberg disagreed with Lucas, but decided to go with his best friend’s framework. And so the ugliest film in Spielberg’s filmography was born.

There’s no doubt that Spielberg’s craftsmanship on Temple is as strong as ever: the villains are threatening, there’s a strong mastery of visual gags and storytelling, and the film has the great tactile quality that the two stronger Jones films share (a quality sadly missing from the majority of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull). There are later set-pieces (the mine-cart chase, the bridge scene) that are excitingly crafted as well.

But in many ways Spielberg’s gifts as a filmmaker only succeed in making the film uglier. Lucas and Spielberg wanted something horrifying at the center of the film, and they got it. The Thuggee cult is as horrific as anything Spielberg ever put on film. It is also astoundingly offensive. The cult isn’t a gross oversimplification of the dark side of Hindu spirituality so much as a complete misrepresentation: the cult also combines certain elements of Mayan and Aztec rituals (human sacrifice) and Satanic cults. There’s no doubt that Lucas and Spielberg had no intention to offend, but the thoughtless mishmash is offensive all the same. The margins aren’t much better: Willie’s putdowns of Indian culture are annoying enough, but the film seems to relish in mean-spirited shocks about Indians eating snakes, monkey brains, and other gross things. The film is famous for a scene in which the villainous Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) tears the heart from a man’s chest. On one hand, the scene is effectively horrifying and memorable. But it’s in service of a storyline so hateful that the film becomes exhausting.

Perhaps the worst bit comes from the child slavery angle: this is an important subject, and far too horrifying a reality to be thrown in so cavalierly here. This isn’t meant to be a soapbox, but the subject isn’t thrown in as anything more than another shock. The villain gives a weak justification for the slaves in order to find the Shankara Stones. What about the stones? What do they do? There isn’t much of an explanation of the significance of the film’s MacGuffin, aside from vague assertions of power and prosperity. There’s very little real struggle over them until the end of the film. Not to suggest that Judeo-Christian artifacts are superior to Eastern ones, but Spielberg, Lucas and company better understood the importance of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail than the Shankara Stones. They’re just relics that signify fortune and glory. That isn’t enough.

What’s the explanation for all the ugliness, aside from Lucas’ silly idea that the second film had to be dark? Raiders screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan hated Temple and refused to do anything with it, and he came up with an interesting explanation: “Temple of Doom represents a chaotic period in both their lives…”; Lucas had just gone through a difficult divorce, while Spielberg’s relationship with Amy Irving was at a low point (he would later marry and divorce her before his marriage to Capshaw). Couple that with Spielberg’s desire to escape the “cutesy” label E.T. had given him (something the Spielberg-produced Gremlins would do better the same year), and Temple starts to make more sense. The self-conscious attempts to be dark? There’s Spielberg and Lucas’ personal troubles and Spielberg’s uneasy attempt to mature. The hateful Willie character? Spielberg and Lucas were going through difficult periods with women.

There’s some that think Temple could have been saved had it been relocated to Scotland, the Thuggee made into Satan worshippers. While that would have been less offensive, there’s still a problem in that the film still would have been a self-conscious stab at darkness. Raiders featured frightening imagery, no doubt, but above all else it was a fun movie. Its key was taking old movie serials and injecting them with the gravity and power only great filmmakers could bring. Spielberg brings his mastery of Hitchcockian suspense, his Howard Hawks style adventurousness, and his David Lean-like mastery of imagery, but it can’t change the fact that the Indiana Jones films are supposed to be light, fun entertainments. If nothing else, Temple shows Spielberg’s willingness to take risks in injecting so much peril and terror into an adventure film. Those risks were in vain.

Last Crusade Grade: 82 (A-)

Spielberg agreed. With Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the director chose to “apologize” for the previous film and fulfill his obligation for an Indiana Jones trilogy with the lightest, funniest, warmest entry in the series. Originally not enamored with the idea that the MacGuffin would be a static item like the Holy Grail, he chose to bring one of his pet themes to the project: the absent father (see: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Catch Me if You Can). The decision to bring Sean Connery on as the father (remember, James Bond was an inspiration to the Indiana Jones series) adds weight to a film that is not only a farewell to the franchise (for now), but also, in a way, a farewell to the classic Spielberg adventure film.

After a strong prologue, Indiana Jones brings friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) the Cross of Coronado, an item he had searched for his whole life. Jones is approached by Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), a wealthy American businessman searching for the Holy Grail, the cup that Christ supposedly used at the Last Supper. Donovan had hired Jones’ father, Henry (Sean Connery), an expert on Grail lore, but Henry Jones, Sr. has gone missing, and Indiana goes to Venice to find him. Indiana, Marcus, and Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) find an artifact that may point them in the direction of the Grail before rescuing Henry from the Nazis (Indiana “hates these guys”). But Elsa and Donovan are working with the Nazis, and now it’s a race to the finish between good and evil.

Right off the bat, things are much stronger than in the previous installment. A fun prologue introduces young Indiana Jones (a well-cast River Phoenix) and many of his tropes (the whip, the hat, the scar, and the fear of snakes). But above all else it establishes the distant relationship between Jones and his father. Connery goes against his tough-guy persona to play a bookish old man whose interest in archeology often outweighs his concern for his son. The two Joneses clearly care for each other, but neither knows how to show it. Indiana’s non-traditional lifestyle makes sense now, considering his father’s distance from his family, and his disinterest in his father’s obsession (the Grail) only clarifies their shaky relationship.

Like previous Jones entries, Last Crusade combines the Saturday-matinee serials that Spielberg and Lucas loved with the Howard Hawks “men on a mission” storyline, Hitchcockian suspense dragged to extreme levels (North by Northwest seems like a strong influence on the Jones films), David Lean’s mastery of imagery (Lawrence of Arabia), and the continuing storyline of men tampering with a force of nature they couldn’t possibly understand. This Jones installment’s frequency of gags and comic timing adds a screwball comedy feel, from Jones’ banter with Elsa to Henry Jones’ bumbling. Spielberg sometimes had trouble with comedy (see: 1941, Always)); Last Crusade’s strength is its integration of the comedy into the storyline.

Last Crusade wisely borrows many of the more iconic moments from Raiders of the Lost Ark (the Nazi villains, the European and Desert settings, the Judeo-Christian artifact) while expanding other elements. Spielberg’s mastery of visual gags carries over from the first film to make the funniest of the films, an often agreeably goofy film that uses its humor to move the story further. Sallah (John-Rhys Davies) and Marcus are back, their roles expanded. The two often provide comic relief (Marcus’ lack of direction is particularly funny), but they are never buffoons, a mistake Spielberg made in 1941. Elsa, meanwhile, works as a cross between Marion and Belloq (a strange mix): a love interest that made a deal with the devil. If the film’s reverence for Raiders is ever a shortcoming, it’s in the set-pieces. They’re often strong, but sometimes they feel like retreads (the motorcycle chase and the fight atop the tank in particular). But they’re welcome retreads, and a return to form after the ugliness of Temple of Doom.

The strongest element in Last Crusade, and what makes the film more than just a Raiders retread, is the father-son relationship. Spielberg, after all, did come from a broken home. Spielberg’s empathy for fathers was clear in Jaws, but while there’s no judgment of the absent father figures in Close Encounters and E.T., their absence is felt. With Last Crusade, Spielberg began to reconcile the theme that had dominated so many of his early films. The Grail’s importance is clear, but the film’s real definition is in the journey the two men take together. Indiana is roped into Henry’s Grail obsession, Henry into Indiana’s adventures; in becoming acquainted with each other’s life’s work, the two develop a better understanding for each other. Henry’s love for his son shines through when he nearly loses him, and Indiana’s quest for the Grail ultimately boils down to a chance to save his father’s life.

The film’s climax is not the discovery of the Grail, nor is it the triumphant defeat of the Nazis, but a moment of understanding between a father and son. After several days worth of hearing his father call him “Junior” over and over again (and it’s always funny), the son finally hears his chosen name, “Indiana”. It’s the warmest moment in the series, and an element of emotional maturity in a mostly lighthearted film.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade comes at an interesting point in Steven Spielberg’s career: after the hateful Temple of Doom, Spielberg took a break from the adventure films he was best known for to make two prestige pictures, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. While Last Crusade may seem like a regression of sorts (Spielberg has admitted as much), it is better thought of as a tribute to the great adventure films of Spielberg’s classic period, and as a farewell. As the father-son reconciliation (and the two “serious” films) suggested, Spielberg was growing up, becoming a father, and moving on to a new period in his life as a man and as an artist.

The film serves as a proper ending to the Jones series (let’s just ignore the latest installment for the time being…or for all time if you’d prefer). Indy is reunited with his father and his best friends, and together, they ride off into the sunset like the great heroes of Old Hollywood. That’s the way it should be, and it’s a fitting capstone to a chapter in Spielberg’s career. Spielberg’s classic adventure films weren’t quite through yet (Always, Hook, and Jurassic Park were still around the corner), but with Last Crusade, Spielberg began to wave goodbye.

Tentative Director’s Spotlight Schedule:

Thursday: Always/Hook
Saturday: Jurassic Park
November 20-30: Break
December 1: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
December 3: Minority Report
December 5: Catch Me if You Can
December 8: The Terminal
December 10: War of the Worlds
December 12: Munich
December 17: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (sigh)

Canceled: The Goonies and Gremlins are Spielberg productions, but neither feature the questionable “directed by” status that Poltergeist does. They’re out.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.5: Steven Spielberg's E.T.

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. Today’s entry is Spielberg’s 1982 masterpiece: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

Grade: 99 (A)



After Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg considered a number of eventually abandoned projects. Two stand out: one, a sci-fi film called Night Skies, would feature a family being terrorized by aliens after befriending a kind one; the other, Growing Up, would be a small, personal film inspired by Spielberg’s childhood. Night Skies was split into two films. The more horrific moments became Poltergeist, the aliens replaced by ghosts. The sweeter half was combined with Spielberg’s autobiographical film. The result, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, is the director’s most personal film, and his greatest, a celebration of friendship that doubles as the greatest film ever made about childhood.

Elliott (Henry Thomas) is a ten-year-old boy. He has a sixteen-year-old brother, Michael (Robert McNaughton), and a five-year-old sister, Gertie (a young Drew Barrymore). The three children live with their mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), who has recently divorced her husband. The three live in a loving but uneasy environment, unsure of how to act around their mother sometimes. Michael often teases Elliott and Gertie, as older brothers are wont to do, but no more than most siblings. Elliott is a lonely child who often feels caught in the middle of his sister, who needs more of his mother’s attention, and his brother, who would rather spend time with his friends.

One night Elliott finds a strange creature with huge eyes, a glowing heart, and magical healing powers. Initially frightened, he eventually brings it back to his house. Elliott and his siblings befriend the alien, nicknamed “E.T.”, and have carefree moments of humor and bonding with it. When it learns to communicate with them, it tells them that it was left behind by its ship and friends, and that it needs to go home. The creature and Elliott develop a psychic bond of sorts: it feels what he feels, and likewise. When the two grow ill, the children help E.T. build a device to communicate with its kind and “phone home” in order to leave. But things grow complicated as their mother learns of E.T.’s existence and as government workers (led by Peter Coyote) close in on E.T.’s location.

E.T. is full of suspense, humor, wonder, and awe. Spielberg’s mastery of Old Hollywood techniques is in full effect here. His Hitchcockian instincts make the most thrilling sequences (particularly the film’s famous bicycle chase near the end) as exciting as anything ol’ Hitch ever dreamed up; the early, frightening scenes of people stalking E.T., combined with how little we see of E.T. at the beginning, borrow from Hitchcock as well. The Howard Hawks/David Lean style “men on an adventure” plotline comes into play as well, only this time Spielberg taps into the feeling of children re-enacting their favorite adventures. The film’s sense of imagination and joy is as vivid as anything in the best Disney films, but the vision is pure Spielberg. The director never talks down to the audience (Roger Ebert applauded Spielberg’s decision not to subtitle any alien communication or spell out everything E.T. does). He instead presents his greatest imaginations and lets the audience take it from there.

Disney’s Peter Pan (or any iteration of the story, really) is a major influence on E.T. (the mother reads the story to Gertie as E.T. and Elliott overhear). Both stories involve three highly imaginative siblings going on a real adventure. Both show how lonely and confusing childhood can sometimes be. Both feature a rag tag group of children coming together to overcome adversity. Both feature a creature with magical powers. And both celebrate childhood, imagination, and fantasy. E.T. is most often tagged as a “science-fiction” film, but aside from the presence of an extra-terrestrial being, that label hardly applies. The film has the heart and soul of the greatest works of fantasy.

The film’s greatest appeal to childhood wonder is a sequence straight out of Peter Pan: E.T. dies on an operating table; the scientists couldn’t save him. Elliott tearfully bids goodbye to his friend and proclaims his love. Suddenly, E.T.’s heart begins to glow again. Elliott has saved E.T. with his love. Observant viewers will note that his mother’s earlier reading of Peter Pan highlighted the section in which the reader pleads for its child audience to clap to save Tinkerbell’s life. It is the same principle, one that Spielberg uses to great effect.

The classic Spielbergian mistrust of authority is present in E.T., but Spielberg’s most good-hearted film has no real villains. E.T. understands that children often fear what they don’t understand. Elliott doesn’t want to dissect a frog, and his compassion for the animal doesn’t take into regard his teacher’s point-of-view. Elliott later frees the class’ frogs in a hilarious scene in which he and E.T. grow drunk after E.T. drinks some of his mother’s beer.

This ties into something later: E.T. and Elliott fear the government agents that pursue the alien. These men don’t want to hurt E.T., but they don’t consider the effect their scientific curiosity has on him (similarly, Mary can’t see the alien until Elliott and Michael show her). It takes the heart of a child to save E.T. and bring him home. Spielberg’s purest vision is one of his great explorations of tolerance (a reoccurring theme from Close Encounters to Schindler’s List to Munich), and at the end of this one, everyone learns to love. This message could be saccharine in lesser hands; the key is Spielberg’s utter sincerity and refusal to spell his message out for everyone, resulting in a genuinely sweet movie.

One of Spielberg’s greatest strengths is his ability to work with child actors, from early films like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to later works like Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and War of the Worlds. E.T. is the finest example of this. Dee Wallace and Peter Coyote aside, most of the cast is made up of young actors. Spielberg’s decision to film E.T. in chronological order (unusually difficult in most cases) caused the children to grow real, emotional attachments to the subject, resulting in believable performances from all (Barrymore’s later career was never as good). Henry Thomas is particularly natural as protagonist Elliott.

How is E.T. Spielberg’s most personal film? Spielberg grew up as a child of divorce, unsure of his place in the world. To escape the emotional trauma, Spielberg often played with imaginary friends. It’s no coincidence that Elliott and “E.T.” have similar names; this is Spielberg’s fantasy come to life. As an older boy, he was very protective of his mother and teased his younger sisters (similar to Michael). If Spielberg never writes an autobiography, E.T. would more than suffice. His decision to tell his story as a science-fiction combines his personal experience with his gift for making his imagination seem universal.

In lieu of a conclusion, I’m going to break from my usual choice to forego putting myself in the narrative. I could go on and on about E.T.: on its warm-hearted humor, its great sense of how children talk and see the world, and on its expert craftsmanship. I could incessantly rave about John Williams’ greatest score, a swooning, romantic, rhapsodic piece of pure cinematic joy and wonder. I could, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to share something.

E.T. isn’t just my pick for Spielberg’s best film. It is also, next to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, my favorite film of all time. I share this not as a validation of my opinion (although I do strongly believe this is one of the greatest of all American films), nor as a way to put down Spielberg detractors (although they can all go to hell). At their best, Steven Spielberg’s films are exciting, wondrous, adventurous, and moving. I grew up watching Jaws, Jurassic Park, Hook, and the Indiana Jones films, but I’ve come to believe that E.T. is Spielberg’s clearest expression of the optimistic, big-hearted worldview that colors many of his finest films.

E.T. is as magical and lovely a film as I’ve ever seen, and it reminds me of why I go to the movies: to think and to feel. E.T. forces me to do both: to consider who I am, where I came from, how I got here, and where I’m going; and to feel as open about it as I can. My childhood is in E.T., as is my adolescence, and my young adulthood. I have no doubt that I’ll revisit the film for many years to come, and that I’ll share it with my children and my grandchildren. I don’t think it makes me a sap. This film is too good-hearted to dupe me, and too intelligent to need to. I can think of no better way to end than with Roger Ebert’s summation of his review: “This film made my heart glad.”