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Perhaps Steven Spielberg wants to introduce a new generation to one of his favorite creations. Or maybe he wants to win back audiences disillusioned by his last sci-fi outing, A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). Then again, he could be trying to nudge this family favorite back into the all-time box office Top Ten. Whatever the reason, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial has landed again. What many call Spielberg's masterpiece is back where it was meant to be—in a darkened theatre on a big screen, with a top-notch sound system. Following George Lucas's Star Wars Special Edition lead, Spielberg is offering an update for E.T.'s 20th anniversary. Some details the filmmakers considered rough have been "improved"—now a digitally animated E.T. runs like a frantic monkey through the trees, and his face is more expressive. The soundtrack has been remastered. And some clippings from the cutting room floor have been reinserted to give us a few surprises.
The spiritual parable at the film's heart has made it a favorite among religious audiences, some of whom argue that E.T. is a Christ figure. (Originally, some religious leaders warned audiences away from the film for what they described as New Age messages, but those protests seem to have blown over.)
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says the digital additions and extra scenes "only add to the pleasures of this classic film. I love this movie: the music, the adorable children, the sweet relationship E.T. has with Elliot and the fantasy elements." She adds, "Many Christians have taken issue with the spiritual messages in this film. These topics are important to discuss with your younger children, giving them your spiritual perspective, but I don't believe those plot points ruin this movie or give Christians a theological reason not to let [their] children see it."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic is less worried: "Spielberg fashions an inspiring image of youthful innocence and courage in a story that some may find overly sentimental. Nevertheless, the childlike fantasy conveys some genuine emotion and a message of trust and peace that the family might enjoy sharing."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) meanders happily down memory lane: "I first met the little brown guy with the glowing finger in June of '82, just as I was graduating from high school. … It was a magical time and E.T. was part of it. So it's possible that my memories of the film are a bit idealized." He wasn't alone: the rest of Smithouser's audience—mostly adults—was enraptured by it.
For John Evans (Preview), a few careless words from the mouths of the children in the movie "prevent a wholehearted recommendation of this fascinating film."
Ken Priebe (Christian Spotlight and Hollywood Jesus) says the film "speaks to us on another level, a deeper one in our subconscious and our souls. It deals with everyday emotions and experiences like broken families, loneliness, friendship, and love. It also points to a hunger we all have for a relationship with a being outside our world. … We are all incredibly lonely." He then expounds upon how our loneliness cannot be redeemed by aliens, but by Christ.
Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) also recognizes "an allegory with similarities to the story of Christ. Think about it. A sacrificial being comes to earth, giving love and his life for others, dies, comes back from the dead, ascends into the heavens and promises to remain in our hearts. Wow."
While it is easy to see the symbolism, it would be wrong to oversimplify the reasons for the film's appeal. Other critics, like Tom Shone (Telegraph.co.uk), highlight additional relevant truths: "John Williams's score … reveals the film as the love story it was always meant to be: boy finds true love, loses true love, finds him again, before finally losing him to the heavens. It's The Way We Were, with the love interest played, not by Robert Redford, but by a four-foot stack of wrinkly rubber. (Same difference.)"
In The New York Times, screenwriter Melissa Mathison recalled, "I always thought of E.T. as very, very old, and Steven [Spielberg], I think, always thought of him as young. We were striving to achieve ideas about responsibility, about unconditional love, about the unimportance of appearance, and communicating on a deeper level."
For grownups, the appeal of Elliott's childlike faith is undeniable, unstained by cynicism and selfishness. We fear for his fragile love and his ability to communicate with the alien; adolescence approaches. Elliott's older brother is already struggling to hold on to his faith, and the grownups are almost uniformly hard-hearted, evil, and brutal toward children and harmless aliens.
For me, the film appeals to our basic human desire to defy one of Mom and Dad's primary rules: "Don't talk to strangers." Sure, the folks meant well—they wanted me to be safe in case a villain came hunting children in the neighborhood. But how many friendships did I fail to establish as a result? How much warmth, truth, and love have children missed because they have been taught to fear strangers or people who are different? As grownups in the city, we pass each other without eye contact or greetings, scurrying like ants (to borrow a metaphor from Richard Linklater's recent animated work Waking Life).
But in E.T., Elliott ventures out into the back yard at night to offer candy to a homeless person, striving to discern his needs. The boy has needs too. The movie never names them, but the absence of Elliott's father makes a strong suggestion. Most of Spielberg's films, in fact, show families without fathers, or fathers who are cold, distant, manipulative, and jaded. In A.I., there is an undercurrent of anger, as the fatherly inventor of a child robot justifies his callousness by describing God as the first neglectful father. E.T., on the other hand, is the friend, savior, and father figure who stays faithful.
The friendship of alien and boy will last forever, we're told, but instead of making an earthling of E.T., the relationship makes an alien of Elliott—he becomes more aware of the cruel world around him, and desires to escape the terrifying, claustrophobia-inducing evils of grownup rationality, suspicion, fear, and violence. When Elliott watches E.T. heading home, we know he wishes he were going along. We feel the tug as well. We're strangers in a strange land.
Hot from the Oven
There's another inhuman savior on screens this week, but this one saves with a bloody sword. Blade 2, directed by Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone) pits the half-man, half-vampire hero (Wesley Snipes) against a new enemy: mutant vampires called the Reapers.
In the original, Blade's vampire qualities were held at bay with the help of his guide Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), and together they worked to resist that wholly vampiric Nosferatus. The Reapers are worse, feeding on both humans and vampires and threatening both with extinction. Thus Blade has to join forces with his old enemies to stand a chance. Roger Ebert describes the scene: "This news is conveyed by a vampire leader whose brain can be dimly seen through a light blue translucent plastic shell, more evidence of the design influence of the original iMac." Chaotic, stylish, indulgent violence follows, choreographed like ballet, delighting action fans and troubling those who are worried about the excess of bloodshed on today's movie screens.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic reports, "del Toro's tedious bloodfest follows a ridiculous story line where pretentious characters engage in brutal acts while spluttering absurd dialogue."
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) argues that it delivers the goods to its intended audience: "By reducing the dialogue to a minimum, the film buys into the video game aesthetic. Viewers of that genre don't want to be bothered with worthless exposition. The plot doesn't make any sense, so why bother explaining it? Many critics have decried the influence of video games on contemporary cinema, and I, too, am uncomfortable with that direction. But there's something refreshing about a movie that knows its target audience and gives them exactly what they want—video-game mayhem."
Don Patton, Lisa Rice, and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) unite to disapprove of the movie: "Despite its captivating excitement, good story, excellent special effects, and astounding martial arts sequences, Blade 2 has off-the-charts levels of violence and foul language. The graphic levels of gore give [it] an extremely high wince factor. Thus, the deeper truths and spiritual values portrayed are not worth the dark, occult, evil, obscene vehicles by which they are delivered."
Paul Bicking (Preview) writes, "Blade 2 creates a poster child for exploitation of violence as entertainment from the opening scene … in keeping with the vampire theme, blood flows freely. Special effects take gruesomeness to new depths. Mixed into this gorefest are almost forty obscenities and a few strong profanities."
Many mainstream critics praised the film's top-notch technical accomplishments, but David Hunter (Hollywood Reporter) goes further: "For all the admiration one can have for the superior level of filmmaking and clarity of vision, Blade II is an abominably imaginative celebration of violence that revels in guns and all the current gadgetry for hunting and killing. Sickening and utterly pointless, when it's not just outrageously tweaked for shock value, the film is soulless and caters to the darkest of human instincts."
Taliesin Jones, playing in limited release, is getting a few mentions by Christian reviewers. (You'll find a synopsis at Hollywood Jesus.) The film presents us with another supernaturally gifted hero. When young Taliesin pursues a talent for piano playing, he discovers a mentor who teaches him other things as well, including the power of healing through prayer. Like Billy Elliott, the story becomes a young boy's quest to develop his talents in spite of his limits and his critics.
John Evans and Mary Draughon (Preview) write, "Much of the appeal of this story comes from its honest, straightforward investigation and commentary on the validity of God and divine healing. Both Christian and secular viewers will find Taliesin Jones immensely enlightening and thought-provoking as it explores many aspects of faith and belief."
A few mainstream critics were impressed, especially Melanie McFarland at The Seattle Times: "Faith can polarize people these days. To make a movie based not only on that subject but, more directly, on faith in God, can be a risk; few people go to the movies for a taste of evangelism. Considering all this, Taliesin Jones is a huge victory for its makers. They've created a film about a young man finding God that is accessible and touching to the marrow."
Sorority Boys is the latest in a long line of men-in-drag gimmick comedies. It follows the misadventures of three monetarily challenged chauvinists who take advantage of free housing in a sorority. They get away with it only so long as they convince everyone that they're just "some of the gals." Along the way, they learn the error of their chauvinistic ways.
Whatever the lesson, most critics claim that the film "drags" us right into the gutter and never leads us out. John Adair (Preview) says the film "is filled to the brim with sexually suggestive and explicit content. Add excessive foul language to this mixer and Sorority Boys earns a strong failing grade."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic writes, "The lesson of appreciating inner beauty is too little, too late in … M. Wallace Wolodarsky's film, which drags out its flimsy premise while mistakenly relying on monotonous, puerile humor and the sporadic goofiness of the three leads."
Phil Boatwright writes, "I shudder at the thought that there are people who could possibly find laughs viewing this excruciating and often mean-spirited film. Sorority Boys is vulgar, senseless, and nearly devoid of any real examination of the difference between the sexes."
Lindy Beam (Focus on the Family) warns, "If the R-rating isn't enough to make parents put their foot down, let me state it plainly: Sorority Boys is a lewd excuse for a comedy equal to any torture a twisted fraternity hazing committee could think up."
Mainstream critics were equally dismayed. "One element of Sorority Boys is undeniably good, and that is the title," says Ebert. "Pause by the poster on the way into the theater. That will be your high point. I should be a good sport and go along with the joke. But the joke is not funny. Sorority Boys will be the worst movie playing in any multiplex in America this weekend, and, yes, I realize Crossroads is still out there."
Film Forum covered the arrival of the disturbing sex comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights a few weeks back, but critics are still chiming in with their various complaints. Simon Remark (Chiaroscuro) offers a new review this week. He says, "40 Days and 40 Nights was almost an intelligent, profound, even transcendent film. Almost. Instead of focusing on the rewarding aspects of celibacy, connecting with another human being on a more substantial level, the movie only focuses on the fact that our protagonist and his new love can't live without sex. While I was entertained throughout much of the movie, I was disappointed with the message and outcome. If only Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Dogma) had made this movie, maybe it would have dealt with the protagonist's spiritual struggle and the various complexities of relationships formed under unusual circumstances."
Hoping for better options? Perhaps you are looking forward to the Robin Williams comedy opening next weekend? If so, you might want to think again. Parents especially should take note that Death to Smoochy is not Williams' typical family-friendly comedy. It's a dark, cynical, and violent caper that apparently fails even as that. Mainstream critics are getting early warnings out to audiences concerning the film.
Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) writes that it "is a loud, ugly, irritating movie without any of its satirical salvos hitting a discernible target. A stellar cast consisting of Robin Williams, Edward Norton … and [Danny] DeVito … is over-the-top in shrill performances that are embarrassing. Williams [delivers] the most grating performance of his career. Given the array of talent involved … you have to write this one off to the fact that anyone can have a bad day. But what are the odds that everyone has that bad day on the same day?"
Similarly, Alex Nohe (FilmThreat) declares, "The premise is a comedy cliché. A dirty clown? Robin Williams' performance is one-note and is delivered as if the film was a cartoon. Edward Norton's performance as Smoochy is also uninteresting and uninspiring. Outside of watching [Anastas] Michos' career-making performance as a cinematographer, the only other reason to see this would be to witness the difference between 'funny' and 'trying to be funny.'"
I'll have reactions from the religious press next week.
Next week: Jodie Foster stars in David Fincher's Panic Room. Dennis Quaid in a G-rated baseball movie called The Rookie. And reaction to the re-release of The Fellowship of the Ring with its preview of next year's The Two Towers.
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