E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is quite simply a powerful film. The word “powerful’ is usually associated with movies that are epic in scale or ambition. Or dramas about great tragedies. But E.T. is able to move us with innocence, joy, friendship, and loss, all told through the simple tale about a visitor from outer space.
Now we aren’t talking about a visitor who is intimidating or who carries a supernatural aura. It is a curious little creature with big bright eyes, an elongated neck, and is slow moving. In the beginning, its space ship has landed in a forest at California. We see several of its kind exploring the environment. Then a couple of trucks appear and men begin chasing them on foot. The space creatures run back into the ship and take off, but in the panic of it all, one member is left behind.
This creature finds refuge in a tool shed behind a nearby house. A fearful but curious boy named Elliott hears the noise, comes out of the house, and approaches the shed. He has a baseball in his hand. He tosses it into the shed. The ball is tossed back. And the creature comes out to meet him. What follows is one of the most moving relationships in movie history.
This is another masterpiece directed by Steven Spielberg. Nearly every shot is filled with his magic. At the beginning sequence for instance, the forest is characterized by darkness, shadows, rustling noises, flashlights, headlights, and fog. All these elements create a kind of fantasy atmosphere. And observe the scenes in Elliotts house, how the lighting is dimmed and minimal to allow the creatures presence to appear more life-like.
The casting and performances are perfect. Henry Thomas as Elliott is able to express strong will, wonder, spirit, and compassion. Robert McNaughton plays Elliott’s older brother as supportive and willing to listen. Their younger sister is Gertie, performed by Drew Barrymore in a cute role that she will always be remembered for. And Dee Wallace plays their mom as a single parent who is doing the best she can balancing parental duties and her emotional issues. The creature itself is an animatronic and is very expressive that we accept it as a living thing. Its farewell at the end is a tear jerking moment.
So is this one of the best movies ever made? As the saying goes, to each his own. But if somebody claims this to be their favorite movie of all time, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Before I continue forward reviewing movies from the 90’s, i would like to step back a little and look at two great films from the 80’s. One is E.T. (to be reviewed in the next post) and the other is Lethal Weapon 2. The former is a universal classic. But the latter has a personal meaning for me.
I know, Lethal Weapon 2 is not the usual type of movie that one would consider significant. But I watched it during my early teen years and was the first mature-audience rated movie I saw at the theater(it’s rated R). I was raised in a very conservative household. My father was strict and opposed violent movies. We had no Betamax, VHS player, or video game consuls at home. He said that they would encourage violence and video addiction. So my childhood apart from school, mainly consisted of outdoor activities like basketball, soccer, and biking.
Anyway, I became a teenager and with some kind persuasion, convinced my Dad to let me see Lethal Weapon 2. I had not seen the original yet. But what an experience it still was. In contrast to the movies of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis, here was an action film that didn’t use its action stars for shallow macho posturing. Instead, it portrays a genuine friendship. The film succeeds and actually depends on that relationship. These were the first action heroes I cared about. These were real actors.
Lethal Weapon 2 has Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, two stars I knew nearly nothing of at the time. (I remember seeing Gibson’s name on a rented betamax tape of Mad Max. My uncle rented it but banned me from watching it in respect of my Dads rules.) They play Riggs and Murtaugh, two Sergeants of the LAPD. The film opens without any energy reservation. The introductory Warner Brothers symbol has a Bugs Bunny Soundtrack. And immediately after, we are shown these two characters in a wild car chase. I was staring at the screen and trying to figure out their personalities. One is telling the other to drive faster, while the other is saying that he can’t because it’s his wife’s brand new car and he has to take care of it. The sequence is no fancy orchestration. But it’s loud, explosive, and fun.
Now the baddies are best described as very cold blooded. And even by today’s standard of movie villains, they still are. They are a group of South African government officials with thick accents. The leader, played by Joss Ackland, is very efficient. His office floor is covered with plastic so that after an incompetent henchman is shot, the body can be quickly wrapped up and disposed of. His right hand man is another reptile. Played by Derrick O’Connor with a high level of professionalism, he operates fast, shoots with a silencer, and is very comfortable with violence.
As for the films violence, I’ve decided to quote my favorite film critic, the late Roger Ebert in his review of Lethal Weapon 1 “..In a sense, a movie like Lethal Weapon isn’t about violence at all. It’s about movement and timing, the choreography of bodies and weapons in time and space. In lesser movies, people stand there and shoot at each other and we’re bored. In a movie with the energy of this one, we’re exhilarated by the sheer freedom of movement; the violence becomes surrealistic and less important than the movie’s underlying energy level.”
And this stands true for most of Lethal Weapon 2. The stunts are energetic, creative, and well-choreographed. One is a vehicle chase where Murtaugh and Leo(Joe Pesci in a memorable comic relief part) chase after a flat-bed truck with Riggs hanging on to its bumper. The sequence ends with a violent exclamation point but prior to that, the way Riggs roll his way out of it, and the way the car ramps off the back of the truck, the timing of it all, is cinematic and fun. Other sequences effectively use elements like lighting and shadow. Observe how when Riggs climbs onto the roof of his camper to get a better firing range, how his shadow is cast upon the landscape in the background. Or in the climactic shootout at the shipping port, how Riggs tumbles his way in the gunfights and how quick he draws his weapon. The violence becomes secondary. And what becomes appealing instead is the movement and style of how it is all presented. The film is directed by Richard Donner.
And then we learn more about the characters. They are real friends. Riggs knows Murtaugh’s family quite well. He even hangs out in their home, cooks once in a while, and helps himself to a beer in the fridge every now and then. We learn of Riggs sad past, that his wife was killed in a car crash, leaving him a widower and a bit emotionally unstable. Lethal Weapon 1 will reveal how much more unstable he was. But in Lethal Weapon 2, he has come a long way. His friendship with Murtaugh has healed him and brought him happiness. I took a real Journey into this movie. I was drawn into it by the performances and excitement.
I cannot remember why I went to see this film at the theater. Slasher films don’t really interest me. It must have been the hype surrounding it plus some recommendations from friends who insisted that it must be seen.
It turned out that Scream is a different kind of slasher movie. In a way, it’s a horror film about horror film fanatics. The characters behave as though they exist in such movies. They even memorize and lecture one another on the rules of surviving them.
Yet in another way, Scream is an unrelenting and merciless killer movie. It is filled with gripping suspense and horrible deaths. But because the characters behave as though their lives are in a slasher movie, we the viewers are a bit unsure of how to react to it.
In the opening scene, a young cheerful woman receives a phone call from a stranger. The voice begins asking her some questions “What is your favorite horror movie?” Her reply is Halloween. After some flirtation, she realizes that this voice belongs to a stalker who is right outside her house, and the scene transitions into a very intense sequence. The outcome is particularly horrific because the girl is played by the ever cheerful Drew Barrymore.
Like the masked villain in Halloween, the killer wears a white mask, but he wears some kind of black robe. He runs fast and is a bit clumsy; He often stumbles or hurts himself. The victims are mainly your typical teenagers, loud, talkative, panicky. They are played by Neve Campbell, Matthew Lillard, Rose Mcgowan, Jamie Kennedy and Skeet Ulrich. And then there’s a news reporter played by Courteney Cox and police man played by David Arquette.
The director is Wes Craven who made A Nightmare on Elm Street which was very original and creative. Here he seems to be trying a gimmick while still maintaining his ability to terrorize audiences. He succeeds. The suspense in Scream gives an electrifying jolt. But it’s probably not worth revisiting due to its violence.
The Zero Theorem is the most peculiar movie I have seen this year (the second is The Grand Budapest Hotel). It’s directed by Terry Gilliam who is known for his visually engaging style to accompany a story with a heavy theme. One example is Twelve Monkeys, a futuristic tale about the dangers of scientific experimentation. It had a character who was racing to save mankind from a virus, which made the film highly entertaining. The Zero Theorem, however, is different. It has no external motivation which means the film lacks momentum. In a nutshell, the story is about a man who is waiting for a phone call. He does this the entire film.
His name is Qohen (Christoph Waltz). The call is supposedly going to give him clarity, will explain the purpose of his life, the meaning of life. Thus the movie is a tale about existentialism.
It is driven by the situation of Qohen who in many ways portrays today’s working class. He sits in an office cubicle and must meet a productivity target. He’s a computer programmer who looks at a screen all day long, observing blocks with formulas, and fitting them to the right location for download. Qohen is occasionally visited by a motivational supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to check on his progress.
In an effort to boost Qohen’s morale, Joby grants his request to work from home. So a computer system is set up for Qohen’s residence, which is basically an old church, and Joby includes software with a digital therapist and sexy recreational activities.
Christopher Waltz plays Qohen as edgy, panicky, on the brink of a nervous breakdown. He has a fear of people which is very clear when he walks out in the neighborhood. The call is so important to him. Life is a meaningless routine to him and he needs answers.
To avoid spoilers, do not read further. I didn’t like the story’s conclusion. It has a faithless view. The Zero Theorem explains that life is pointless. That everything is just a random scientific occurrence. But do not doubt the movies imagination. It is a sight to see. The old cathedral where Qohen lives. The neighborhood of contemporary buildings and too many digital signs. The office main frame with all its wires. The gaudy fashions. The eccentric characters. There is even a bit of a poignant romance that occurs. Gilliam is once again able to envision this into a plausible place and combine it all with a well written story.
The Wedding Singer uses a tired story but makes up for it with music and zaniness. Anyone with fond memories from the 80’s should have fun watching it. It depicts the era, or maybe ridicules it, and adds in Adam Sandler to give it an edge.
Sandler is a good actor but a strange comedian. The strangeness is in his humor which often depends on a bit of wit and lots of passive anger. His disposition is usually calm. Occasionally he will express himself “Sir one more outburst from you and I will strangle you with my microphone wire” he says to the brides disappointed father.
This is at a wedding during a time when he shouldn’t be working. His name is Robbie. His fiancé has just left him because his career isn’t successful enough. So naturally he is an emotional wreck. But then he meets a cute and cheerful waitress at an event. Her name is Julia (Drew Barrymore). She has a boyfriend who is very different – vain, selfish, and disloyal, he is the movies “villain” and likes to dress up like Don Johnson from the Miami Vice TV show.
This character is one of the movie’s mocking references to 80’s pop culture. For instance, Robbie’s fiancé has a hairstyle that might remind you of the musical group Bananarama. Then his bestfriend Sammy (Allen Covert) wants to be like Henry Winkler’s popular TV character Fonzie, but dresses up like Michael Jackson. And the wedding band has a keyboardist who looks like a member from Culture Club. If ever, his looks would inspire a game show idea: “Who is the real Boy George?”
Viewers who didn’t experience the 80’s culture might not catch on to all this. They will be left with little to appreciate. The romance is simple. Drew Barrymore continues to shine with her endearing presence. Directed by Frank Coraci, The Wedding Singer isn’t too interested in having a story, but it loves and laughs at music and fashion. It just wants to have a good time.
While You Were Sleeping has a charming introduction : a voice narration. She tells about her father, that they were close, and that she learned a valuable message from him – that life doesn’t always happen according to plan. A voice narration is a wonderful way to start. It brings forth the same magical feeling as when opening a book and reading the opening line.
The young woman is Lucy(Sandra Bullock), a fare token collector at a Chicago train station. It’s a repetitive task for her but not exactly boring. That’s because at a certain time daily, Peter arrives and purchases a ticket. He’s the man of her dreams even if he never notices her. Then an accident happens. Peter gets mugged and falls unconscious on the railway track. Lucy witnesses the incident and goes to pull him out. And then later, after taking him to the hospital, confusion occurs. As Lucy takes care of Peter who is in a comma, a nurse assumes that Lucy is Peter’s fiancé and tells his family.
The family is so talkative that they barely allow Lucy to speak. We clearly see this as a story technique to prevent Lucy from telling them the truth that she isn’t Peter’s fiance. And so the story proceeds in this manner and Lucy finds herself accepted into Peters family. And then she meets his brother Jack, and things change.
The premise is ridiculous but it does prove one truth: That the longer a lie is concealed, the more difficult it becomes to confess it. And it doesn’t help that the family is so warm and welcoming of Lucy that she becomes helplessly attracted to them.
The movie is a delightful viewing experience. It has a Christmas romantic feel and this is aided by some cozy locations at Chicago. The characters are funny if not pleasant. Even Lucy’s uncouth landlord is funny when we discover his fetish for trying on women’s shoes.
Sandra Bullock plays Lucy as she should be: cute, shy, but strong when necessary. Bill Pullman is Jack who is amusingly suspicious of her, but only because he likes her. And Peter Boyle as Jacks father is entertaining as always as an elderly who tends to argue. It’s an engaging cast.
Movies like this don’t need to be analyzed for flaws. They disarm you with its charm and romance. They indirectly infuse you with optimism and cheer. And While You Were Sleeping, directed by Jon Turteltaub, is one of the best romantic comedies of the 90’s.
Tommy Boy has Chris Farley and David Spade, two former stars of the hit show Saturday Night Live. The former is known for his incredible physical energy and the other for his deadpan sardonic wit. They’re opposing forces. So to place them together in a comedy isn’t a bad idea.
The film is typical of what’s expected. Because of its stars, the story is a conveyor of skits to showcase their talents. But what if the plot itself is interesting? Tommy Boy misses on developing that opportunity.
It’s about a young man named Tommy(the late Chris Farley) who inherits Callahan Auto, his father’s auto parts company based in Ohio. His father is a business genius, has a large physique similar to Tommy, and is played by Brian Dennehy with a lot of enthusiasm. Tommy on the other hand isn’t a genius, is irresponsible, and has an elementary sense of humor. For example, his idea of a great night out is cow tipping. He is the apple that has fallen farthest from the tree.
But their company is in trouble. Competition is stiff and banks are losing confidence in financing them. And so when Tommy inherits the company, it all depends on him to save it.
The accountant is Richard played by David Spade in full-on sarcastic mode. He is smart, dependable, a bit miserable, and has good insight on business affairs. But he is also annoyed by Tommy’s incompetence. Who can blame him? In one sales call, Tommy sets a customer’s model car on fire to demonstrate the failure of brake pads. Nevertheless, they become sales partners with a shared mission. They travel together on a road trip across several states and market Callahan’s brake pads.
This plot would have worked much better if the film had given it more importance, particularly on the growth of Tommy as a sales man. Instead the movie rushes his development as he discovers that one sells better when using natural charisma and speaking openly. There is also a cliché of a subplot involving a conniving couple that try to take over the business. One of them is played by Rob Lowe who seems misplaced as an incredibly mean character.
The movie is thus mainly about Tommy and Richards travels and juvenile behavior. The pair travel in a convertible that gets more and more damaged as the journey proceeds. At one point, they accidentally bump into a large deer and decide to place its seemingly lifeless body in the rear seat for unclear reasons. And when Spade can’t handle Tommy’s irresponsibility any longer, he manages to find a plank of wood and whacks him on the head with it. It’s that kind of humor.
Tommy Boy, directed by Peter Segal, succeeds in proving the talents of Farley and Spade. But it doesn’t prove to be a recommendable film otherwise. This is the ongoing challenge that some comedies face: combining its comedians with a well written story.