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Archive for the ‘Adventure’ Category

Lost Horizon (1937)

LostHorizon1937_previewDirected by Frank Capra

I read the book Lost Horizon a few years after I read The Good Earth, but it was still a very long time ago. I don’t remember every bit of the plot, but I did like it quite a bit; the adventure appealed to me, as did the idea of a beautiful place of peace. Being a fan of the book and a fan of Frank Capra, I thought the movie would be wonderful. The adventure and the philosophy that I loved in the book were in the movie, but I had a hard time remembering to watch through 1937 glasses. Shangri-La is not a utopia if you watch through 2017 glasses.

So what’s the story? Robert Conway, a British diplomat, is on the last plane out of a war-torn Chinese town with four other people: his brother, George; Lovett, a paleontologist; Barnard, a crook; and Gloria, a prostitute. Instead of heading to Shanghai as expected, the pilot flies the plane deeper into Asia. The plane crash-lands high in the freezing Tibetan mountains, but the group is rescued by a group of people who lead them to the monastery Shangri-La, where everyone is happy and all is well. But all is not as it seems…

The Good: The acting is good for the most part. It’s really quite fun to watch the change in Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), Lovett (Edward Everett Horton, who usually scares me), and Gloria (Isabel Jewell) as they go from frightened, selfish people to people who care about making their world better. Ronald Coleman makes a fine Robert Conway, although I would have liked to see a little more contrast in his character as Shangri-La changes him. That’s the screenwriter’s fault, though. John Howard is miscast as George Conway. He doesn’t even try to do a British accent, even though he is supposed to be the brother of the very British Coleman. That said, Howard did bring a lot of energy to the screen, with his growing impatience a contrast to the others’ peacefulness as everyone else settles in. Sam Jaffe makes a wonderful wise High Lama, even though he was only 46, so the makeup artists did a fantastic job, too.

The production design is great. The designers had to bring the east and west together for Shangri-La, which is in “Tibet” but built by a man from Belgium, with treasures from all over the world inside. The valley needed its own look, too. The end result is beautiful and believably peaceful.

Dmitri Tiomkin wrote a beautiful orchestral score for the film that underscores not only the beauty and peace of the valley but also the mystery and uncertainty that everyone finds there.

The Bad: Jane Wyatt is wooden in her performance as Sondra. She is school-girl giggly when she’s around Conway and sad when she thinks Conway is going. That’s all she’s got. It was a little painful to watch.

Chang is played stiffly by H.B. Warner. It may have been the way he was directed, but almost every time he talks, there’s a pause, almost as if he’s trying to remember his lines. He was nominated for best supporting actor, so some people saw something there. I will freely admit that I am not a professional acting judge, so I could be wrong and the performance could be brilliant, but it annoyed me.

The Ugly: There was nothing really ugly about the movie, except that about seven minutes of the movie are still shots instead of motion picture. The movie was edited from when it was first shown, and the original footage was lost. Film restorers looked in vaults all over the world for the missing minutes. They did find a full sound track and some of the missing moving footage, so they used stills from the filming to fill in the film that was lost. Some of the footage they found, though, was not of the best quality, so the movie is uneven in quality, too. It makes me so sad when movies aren’t taken care of. I hate it when art is lost.

Oscars Won: Best art direction; best film editing

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (H.B. Warner); best sound, recording; best assistant director; best music, score.

Why I would not want to live in the Shangri-La of 1937:

     Women have no rights and get very little respect from men.

  1. Conway asks the High Lama what happens if two men both want the same woman. The Lama replies that their manners are so good, that the man who had the woman first would give her to the second man. No one bothers to ask the woman which man she would rather be with.
  2. Sondra is teaching a class of children English when a child asks to be taken to the bathroom. As soon as she leaves to help the child, Conway simply dismisses the class without asking Sondra if she is done for the day. He assumes that she would be happy to spend her time with him instead of teaching.
  3. When Sondra tries to start a philosophical conversation about why people outside of Shangri-La are the way they are, Conway tells Sondra to stop asking why, saying that it is the most annoying question in the English language. He had a chance to actually think about his culture and discuss it with someone who is generally curious, and instead he shuts it down because he is more interested in Sondra physically than he in in honestly answering her questions.
  4. Barnard takes a shine to Gloria when she stops wearing her makeup, telling her she looks wholesome without and ordering her to never wear it again. When George asks if they would like to leave, Barnard says he isn’t going, and then Gloria says “I’m going to stay, too. Is that right, Barney?” (That’s paraphrased a bit.)

   The people of the monastery have no respect for the native people. 

  1. None of the people living in the monastery of Shangri-La are acolytes of the High Lama. Apparently only Europeans and Chang (who is played by a white man) are allowed to study in the monastery and do whatever they so desire, whether it’s playing the piano or riding horses or reading. The only native people living there are the servants. No one thinks to ask if that’s what they want to be doing.
  2. The people in the valley are basically patted on the heads and told what good people they are. They are not taught what is in the books that are brought into the valley. They farm and mine for the monastery because that’s what they have been taught to do. They are more or less slaves, even though they don’t know it. The High Lama even admits that those who live in the monastery rule those who live in the valley.
  3. Shangri-La was founded by a Christian missionary whose goal is to have the “Christian ideal” win all over the world. No, he doesn’t teach Christianity, but he also doesn’t draw on any tenants of other religions, including whatever the natives believed before he got there. While not stated, I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t allow the native religion to be followed in the valley.

Okay, rant over. I know that Lost Horizon came out 80 years ago, and I freely acknowledge that values have changed a bit over the years. That’s why it’s so important to try to understand where and when the filmmakers were coming from. You can’t judge art from the past with the values of today.

Captains Courageous

Directed by Victor Flemingcaptains courageous

Side note: I knew I hadn’t posted for a while, but I had no idea that it had been three months. I wouldn’t have guessed more than one. Where does the time go? I’ve decided to make another change, since two movie reviews a week are apparently more than I can handle. I’m just going to post once a week. on Thursdays, so anyone looking for a weekend movie has a new idea. And now back to our irregularly scheduled post:

I knew that I had seen Captains Courageous as a child because I remembered very clearly a scene where Mickey Rooney has an argument with the captain. It turns out that doesn’t actually happen in Captains Courageous, so I’m thinking that maybe a similar thing happens in Boys Town. But I’m still sure that I saw this movie, because my love of pea coats and fisherman’s sweaters is rooted so firmly in Captains Courageous that when I see the DVD at the library, I think, “Oh! The pea coat movie!”

So what’s the story? Spoiled, conniving, manipulative Harvey Cheyne, aged ten, is suspended from his elite boarding when the teachers find out he is blackmailing other boys and trying to bribe teachers to get what he wants. His formerly absent father decides to take Harvey with him on a business trip to Europe to try to teach him that you have to work for what you want. When Harvey tries to play a prank on the other boys on the ocean liner, he falls overboard. He is rescued by a group of fishermen, but nothing he can say will make them return to shore before their fishing season is over. Faced with spending three months on a fishing boat full of men who all have to do their part, Harvey is forced to learn that hard work at honest labor delivers more rewards than he could ever have imagined.

The Good: The screenwriters made an amazing choice for this movie. Rudyard Kipling’s novel upon which this movie is based was published in 1897. The writers decided to set the movie in 1937 instead. It would have been good if it had been set in 1897, but changing the setting made the movie much more timely. At one point, Harvey tries to manipulate one of his classmates by threatening to have his classmate’s father fired. This would have been a huge threat in the 1930s, when millions of people were out of work and starving because of the Great Depression. This setting connected people to the movie much more strongly than a historical fiction film would have.

The supporting cast was wonderful. Lionel Barrymore is excellent as Captain Disko, and Mickey Rooney does a good job is his smaller-than-I-was-expecting role of Dan, the captain’s son. I loved the other sailors (some of whom are played by rather prolific actors), who all had different personalities and came to be fond of Harvey in their own different ways. Melvyn Douglas plays Mr. Cheyne, a widower who thinks that he is giving Harvey everything he needs, only to realize that he doesn’t know his own son. It’s a small role, but Douglas’s ability makes it a tender one.

Now let’s talk about the most amazing thing in the movie: Freddie Bartholomew’s acting. I marveled throughout the entire movie as I watched a spoiled brat struggling as he turns into a young man. It’s ridiculous how good of an actor that child was. Everything in the movie hinges on the part of Harvey, and if a lesser actor had played him, the movie would have failed. I don’t have the words to describe his acting; Captains Courageous is a movie you will want to watch if you enjoy watching fine acting.

The Bad and The Ugly: Nothing exactly fits into these categories, so I had to make a new category for today:

The I Have No Idea How I Feel About This: People who have looked at the movie poster will say, “Wait a minute. Spencer Tracy’s name is on the movie poster. Why haven’t you talked about him?” It’s because I have very mixed feelings about this performance. The performance itself is not exactly bad, but Tracy’s accent is atrocious to the point that it becomes distracting. He does express various emotions well, but for me, he never quite becomes jolly Portuguese sailor Manuel; he’s just an actor doing a bad accent. It’s possible that the performance is good and the accent is ugly, but since they are so intertwined, it’s hard for me to make a judgment.

Oscar Wins: Best actor in a leading role (Spencer Tracy).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, screenplay; best film editing.

Star Wars (1977)

star warsDirected by George Lucas

Happy Star Wars Day! Because it’s May the Fourth, I decided I needed to review Star Wars today. Yes, it was nominated for best picture. Even though Star Wars is an awesome movie, it seems kind of odd today when Star Wars is just a fact of life. Also, the Academy doesn’t always recognize the amazing science fiction blockbusters; it tends to skew towards the brooding independent dramas nowadays. Anyway, Star Wars blew everyone away when it came out. I’m too young to remember that. Like most of my generation, I grew up watching Star Wars. I literally don’t remember not knowing that SPOILER ALERT Darth Vader is Luke’s father. My personal favorite of the original trilogy was Return of the Jedi, because I really liked watching the primitive Ewoks destroy the Stormtroopers. Also, the Ewoks are cute. But I grew up watching them all. Often. I was incredibly excited when the movies were rereleased on big screen in 1997, although I was incredibly disappointed at some of the changes George Lucas made. I was super excited for the new trilogy that started with The Phantom Menace, but now I pretend those movies just don’t exist. I cried last December when I sat in a theatre and watched those yellow letters move across the screen. I cried when Han and Leia saw each other again. So yeah. You could say I like Star Wars. That made it really hard to write an objective review. But I have tried my best, and for those who think I am being too hard on Star Wars, reach out with your feelings, and you’ll know the truth.

So what’s the story? For those of you who don’t know, farm boy Luke Skywalker accidentally becomes embroiled in a fight for the freedom of the galaxy when two droids with the plans to destroy the evil Empire come into his life.

The Good: There really are many amazing things about Star Wars that I think even a non-fan would admit to. The soundtrack, for example. John William’s score may be one of the best movie scores ever written. I love that many of the characters have their own musical themes, or leitmotifs, if we want to be fancy about it. And the orchestrations are wonderful. It seems like the perfect instrument is always chosen to play at a particular time. It’s truly a magical soundtrack.

For the most part, the acting is good. Alec Guinness was apparently annoyed that he was remembered for Star Wars instead of his other movies (if you haven’t seen it, I recommend Kind Hearts and Coronets; it’s hilarious and Guinness is amazing), but he did a good job anyway. Harrison Ford was perfectly cast as Han Solo, the mercenary smuggler with a conscience. Carrie Fisher is fabulously fierce as Princess Leia, a princess with attitude who withstands torture to protect what she believes in. Leia may be a diplomat, but she’s not a prim and proper princess. She’s fantastic. All of the other roles, from the droids to the aliens to denizens of the Empire, are also well cast. There are too many people to mention in one post, but everyone does wonderful work (with one exception that I discuss later).

Once again, special effects win over CGI. Most of the special effects still look good almost forty years later. That’s just amazing to me. When so many movies nowadays looking dated after two or three years because they used CGI, it makes me happy that older movies still look realistic because of old-fashioned effects. The sound effects were also ridiculously good. Every alien race, every droid sounds different. That must have taken some serious creativity to be able to come up with sounds for all of those different creatures.

The story might not be original (more on that later), but the screenplay is. Lucas managed to balance humor and seriousness perfectly. I also think that it’s very clever how George Lucas let us know what Chewbacca and R2-D2 are saying by the reactions of Han Solo and C-3PO, respectively, instead of using subtitles. It draws the viewer more into the movie, I think. And honestly, who doesn’t know at least one quote from Star Wars? It’s a very memorable screenplay.

All of these elements – the music, the acting, the special effects, the screenplay – are great, but what really makes Star Wars so special is the world building. George Lucas created an entire galaxy and filled it with all sorts of different aliens and droids and humans. He imagined different sorts of planets, from planets that are nothing but deserts to swamp planets inhabited by seven-foot-tall furry aliens to planets that are completely peaceful and have no weapons. He imagined a princess who rescues her rescuers when their plan goes wrong. There are good guys and bad guys, yes, but there are also people who couldn’t care less about the Empire and are just trying to live their lives the best way they know how. The many books that have been written that take place in the Star Wars galaxy is a testament to what a fertile field it is for all kinds of stories. To me, that is the most amazing thing about Star Wars.

The Bad: The story is completely unoriginal. George Lucas himself has admitted that he closely followed elements of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces as he wrote the story of Star Wars. Of course, having Luke follow the same familiar pattern that we’ve seen heroes go through throughout literature for thousands of years may be what makes the story so endearing. One could argue that even though much of the “far, far away” galaxy is unfamiliar, placing Luke in the story pattern as many of our myths connects the story back to us. Still, if you’re looking for story originality, you will not find it in Star Wars.

Like I said before, most of the actors are great. However, Mark Hamill has some cringe-worthy moments as Luke Skywalker. He doesn’t do quiet sadness very well. He’s not terrible throughout the entire movie, but sometimes it’s so bad.

The Ugly: Even though Star Wars takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, the men all have Earth-style 1970s haircuts. The style isn’t really flattering on anyone, even the swoon-worthy rogue Han Solo. That was a bad call by the hair and makeup people.

Another thing that I find terrible is how hard it is to find the original 1977 theatrical version instead of the updated one released in the late 1990s. People should be able to have access to the movie that they fell in love with. My theory is that once an artist releases his work to the public, it belongs to the public as much as it belongs to the artist. Thanks to my awesome brother who was far-sighted enough to snap up the originals on DVD during the short time they were available, I was able to see the movie I grew up with (Thanks, Jon!). But even on those DVDs, the original movies are only on the bonus disc. They aren’t the main event. I would really like to see a beautifully restored edition of the original versions on DVD. (Are you listening, Disney? Or Fox? Or whoever owns the original movies? It would be a big money-maker. Lots of people would love you. Please?)

Oscars Won: Best art direction-set direction; best costume design; best sound; best film editing; best effects, visual effects; best music, original score; special achievement award for Ben Burtt for sound effects for the creation of the alien, creature, and robot voices.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Alec Guinness); best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.

Life of Pi (2012)

Life_of_Pi_2012_PosterDirected by Ang Lee

Just as there are movies that I’m watching for this blog that I have been wanting to see for a long time, there are movies for that I’m watching for this blog that I have never had any intention of seeing. These are not the movies that I haven’t heard of before or ones that I think are violent, but movies that for some reason or other I really, really don’t want to see. Life of Pi was one of those movies. I read the book about ten years ago, and I loved it – until the part where Pi comes to the mysterious island. After that happened, I lost my ability to suspend my disbelief. Because of this, I developed an antipathy towards the book, and I really didn’t care to see the movie. But since I make sacrifices to fulfill my goals, I watched Life of Pi.

So what’s the story? Teenager Pi’s family, along with their literal zoo full of animals, is moving from India to Canada. Before they make it to their new home, there is a shipwreck, and Pi ends up as the only human survivor on a lifeboat with four of the animals, including a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The Good: Life of Pi is based on a rather complex book. It’s not just the story of a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger. His unusual name is explained, as is his conversion to three different religions. I was impressed at how well the book was adapted as a screenplay. The writer, David Magee, managed to fit in the frame story as well as the flashbacks to great effect.

I didn’t see the 3D version of Life of Pi, so I can’t judge that aspect of the cinematography, but what I would call the “regular” cinematography was fabulous. The shots were so beautiful and so carefully set up; it was almost like watching a living painting.

The acting was very good. Pi was played by several different people, young and old, and all were good. Pi’s mother Gita and father Santosh were played by Tabu and Adil Hussain respectively. They made a good couple did a wonderful job playing off each other, the mother trying to protect her son by keeping him safe from the world, the father trying to protect his son by showing him harsh realities of life.

The Bad: I don’t know if it was because I had already knew the book and therefore knew what was going to happen, but I found Life of Pi to be rather tedious. I loved the first hour or so; in fact, it made me wish that I had been born in a zoo in India. But not long after the shipwreck happened, I realized that I was no longer mentally involved in the movie. I’m not sure exactly why I stopped caring about Pi, but I just wanted it all to be over.

I also felt that Pi’s conversion to Islam was glossed over. His first introduction to Hinduism was fully covered, as were the beginnings of his interest in Christianity, but we don’t really know how he became interested in Islam. Since all his religions were important to him, I feel like they all should have been given equal weight.

I was a little annoyed at how small Gerard Depardieu’s role was. He’s an amazing actor, and his part was little more than a cameo. I seem to remember the cook having a larger role in the book, and I wish they had taken advantage of the great actor they had hired and let him do more.

The Ugly: Three years ago, this movie won the Academy Award for best visual effects. Today, it looks fake. This is why I am so against CGI; it just doesn’t hold up well. ET, made over thirty years ago with puppets and green screens, looks more real today than Life of Pi. During many of the ocean scenes, I couldn’t help but think of The Truman Show (1998), where Truman believes himself to be sailing on the ocean but is in reality in an artificial pool of water that is nowhere near as deep as the ocean. The animals were sometimes obviously, disappointingly fake, too. It niggled at my mind and kept me from enjoying the movie as fully as I wanted to.

Oscars Won: Best achievement in directing; best achievement in cinematography; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original score; best achievement in visual effects.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best writing, adapted screenplay; best achievement in film editing; best achievement in sound mixing; best achievement in sound editing; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original song (“Pi’s Lullaby”); best achievement in production design.

Django Unchained (2012)

django unchainedDirected by Quentin Tarantino

 When I first decided to watch all of the best picture-nominated movies, I wasn’t planning on blogging about them. I wasn’t watching them in any order at all; I would just watch what I felt like or had access to. Since Django Unchained streams on Netflix, it was easy to get, so I watched it probably about a year ago. I hated it. I’m not a big fan of violence, but Quentin Tarantino obviously is. (Yes, this is the first Tarantino film I’ve seen.) I can understand why some people would find the movie funny, but it’s not my kind of humor. I was so glad that I had watched it and could check it off my list. But then I realized that if I were going to write a fair review of a movie, I would have had to have seen it recently. So I reluctantly watched it again this week. I still don’t like it, but I can admit that there elements of the film that are excellent.

So what’s the story? German bounty hunter King Schultz needs the help of the slave Django to find three men he’s hunting. Django turns out to be remarkably good at killing white men for money, so Schultz teaches Django all the skills he will need to be a bounty hunter himself. When he has learned enough, Django and Schultz go to the plantation Candyland to rescue Django’s wife from the clutches of the evil Calvin Candie.

The Good: I have never said this of any movie, and I will probably never say it again, but the cinematography was fun. I didn’t realize fun cinematography was even a possibility until I saw Django Unchained. I can’t exactly put my finger on what makes it fun, but the camera angles are jaunty and the cinematographer uses stereotypical camera work in unconventional ways. Even if I didn’t particularly care for what was being filmed, it was filmed creatively.

Christoph Waltz gave an excellent performance as King Schultz, who was a deeply ethical con artist and bounty hunter who only used his skills to rid the world of evil people. He’s an interesting character, and Waltz portrayed him wonderfully. Leonardo DiCaprio, who is not always my favorite, does do a very good job at playing King Shultz’s opposite: a completely villainous wealthy man who cares only about himself and his property. There’s no subtlety here; he’s just completely bad. DiCaprio does it well. I didn’t even recognize Samuel L. Jackson in his role as Stephen, an obsequious slave who is as proud of Candyland as Calvin Candie himself. He did a good job.

Django Unchained kind of reminds me of The Princess Bride (1987), not in the plot or the acting or the subject matter, but  the way that it makes fun of a genre while being a movie of that genre itself. I attribute that to the screenplay. Even though it’s not my style of humor, I did laugh at the scene with the men in hoods. There was witty banter and good dialogue throughout. It was a good screenplay, even if it wasn’t my style.

The Bad: I initially liked Jamie Foxx in the role of Django, but as the movie goes on, the role gets cockier, but Jamie Foxx doesn’t. He’s a little bit too quiet for the role, I think.

At the very beginning of the movie, words appear on the screen: “1858: Two years before the Civil War”. This bothered me soooo much. The American Civil War started in 1861, not 1860. There must be a reason that Tarantino decided to put that wrong information up, but I don’t know what it is. I also don’t know why Django’s wife is named Broomhilda, when the actual name is Brunhilda (or Brunhilde, if you want to be even more German about it). I can’t handle when people get little details wrong. Again, I’m sure Tarantino did that on purpose, but I was just annoyed.

The Ugly: I hate violence, especially when it’s violence for violence’s sake. Django Unchained has tons of over-the-top graphically bloody violence. Sometimes it’s even played for laughs. It never made me laugh, and the sprays of blood and guts everywhere were overdone. I know, I know, that’s a Quentin Tarantino thing, but it’s not my thing, and I don’t think it’s necessary.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actor in a supporting role (Christoph Waltz); best writing, original screenplay.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best achievement in cinematography; best achievement in sound editing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

beasts-of-the-southern-wild-posterDirected by Benh Zeitlin

The nice thing about doing this project is that sometimes, I get around to watching movies that I’ve been meaning to watch for a while. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those movies. I’ve been wanting to see it since it came out, but I haven’t ever had the time, the desire, and the DVD at the same time. Now that the stars have aligned and I’ve seen the movie, my opinion of it is: huh? I had heard it was a fantasy, so I was expecting something along the lines of Pan’s Labyrinth. It wasn’t like that at all. I liked it, but was left confused (and a little disappointed) when it was over.

So what’s the story? Little Hushpuppy lives with her daddy, Wink, in a poverty-stricken Mississippi River Delta area known as The Bathtub. She loves her community and her daddy, but when the polar ice caps melt, The Bathtub is flooded, ancient animals called aurochs are released from the ice, and Wink becomes desperately ill. Hushpuppy must confront her fears and go on an epic journey to save her daddy.

The Good: The whole time I was watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, a quote from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream kept running through my head: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” Quvenzhané Wallis was fantastic as Hushpuppy. She had the most determined, ferocious look I have ever seen on a child. I couldn’t believe she was only five when she did that acting. And she didn’t do a good job of acting for a child; she did a good job of acting, period. It was an incredible performance. I can’t get over it.

The soundtrack fits the movie (and Hushpuppy) perfectly. There are moments of dreamy bells that reminded me of childhood fantasies and imagination. There are some great zydeco fiddles and accordions that are reminiscent of the area. It’s very moving and very well-done.

I don’t know the technical term for this, but I really liked the look of the movie. The blending of the fantastical elements with the more realistic elements of the Southern poverty worked really well. It’s not quite set decoration; maybe art direction fits. Whatever you choose to call, it was artfully done.

The Bad: I don’t like the feeling that I don’t know what to make of this movie. I admired Hushpuppy’s ferocity and determination, the love that everyone had for The Bathtub, but I don’t understand how that translates into their need to blow up the levees. I kept thinking that it reminded me of something like The Odyssey, but it wasn’t quite a direct retelling of that story. The lines were extremely blurred between the reality of Hushpuppy’s situation and the fantasies that she created to cope with reality, so it’s hard for me to know what happened and what didn’t. I really don’t like feeling this way about a movie. Maybe I just need to watch it again someday.

The Ugly: I didn’t find anything bad enough about this movie to make it into the ugly category. Beasts of the Southern Wild is very good as a whole. It’s just a confusing good.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actress in a leading role (Quvenzhané Wallis); best achievement in directing; best writing, adapted screenplay.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

ETDirected by Steven Spielberg

Even though I am a child of the 1980s, I didn’t grow up with this movie. I’d seen it a few times, but not a lot. My mom didn’t approve of some of the language the kids used, which is fair. (For some reason, people in the ‘80s thought it was really funny for kids to use bad language. I’m so glad that phase of our society is mostly over.) It was interesting to go back and watch it as an adult with a different understanding. I felt like even though E.T. is about kids, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s only for kids.

So what’s the story? A bunch of aliens come to Earth to collect plants. They are interrupted by a group of alien-hunters, who cut one alien off from being able to return to the ship. He is left behind when the ship takes off. He makes his way to the suburbs, where he is found by Elliott, an unhappy young boy. Elliott and the alien, whom he christens E.T., form an unshakable bond as Elliott tries to keep E.T. a secret from adults and help E.T. return home.

The Good: It’s scary to make a movie about children. Child actors can make or break a movie. The children in E.T. were breathtakingly good. Henry Thomas is completely convincing as Elliott. Little sister Gertie is played by Drew Barrymore; this is the only role of hers that I think she does a good job in. Robert MacNaughton is big brother Mike. He has a couple of rough patches acting-wise, but nothing terrible. The three kids truly act like a family. They squabble, they call each other names, the little sister can’t be trusted with secrets, and they pull together when they need to. They know they can depend on each other when it’s important. That’s what a family is.

Of course, this isn’t only due to the acting; the screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, had a lot to do with that. Her screenplay is fantastic, even if she does occasionally have the kids say things that I don’t think they would say in real life. The story could have been bogged down in cheesiness, but the screenwriter managed to keep the movie balanced on the fine line between heartfelt and ridiculous. She also manages to give a sense of backstory without bogging down the movie, which can be another hard thing to balance.

John Williams’s musical score is glorious. I can’t get it out of my head, but I don’t mind too much because it’s so beautiful. Not only is it beautiful, it fits the movie perfectly. It doesn’t overwhelm the movie at all. Williams is a master at using the orchestra, too. The instruments he uses are always the right ones for his themes.

This movie is thirty-three years old, but the special effects hold up. My brother would say that that’s because they don’t use CGI, and I think that’s a good explanation. As CGI gets better and better, the older CGI things end up looking fake, where a well-done robot alien or the overlay of one shot over another to change the background will always look real. I was impressed.

The cinematography was exceptional, also. Part of the reason the adults are so threatening is that no adults (with the exception of Henry’s mother) have faces until close to the end of the movie. The first scene is especially effective because of this. It’s shown from E.T.’s point of view, and we see that he is an intelligent, but frightened, being trying to reunite with his people. It’s heartbreaking and scary all at the same time.

The Bad: Everything worked well, but it can be stressful to see these kids trying to keep E.T. a secret from the adult world. Kids in danger movies are hard for me sometimes, and in this case, while I completely understood the reasoning behind their actions, that didn’t stop me from wanting to step in and help them. I know that won’t bother everyone, though.

The aforementioned children-swearing thing did bug me. I was glad to know that Henry Thomas actually objected to some stronger language and pointed out that he would never say that, so his character shouldn’t, either. And it’s not so much the language I object to, although it’s not my favorite. I hear worse than that every day at work. It’s just that it makes everything feel less realistic for words like that to be coming out of a nine-year-old’s mouth.

The Ugly: I have to go with “nothing” for this one. E.T. is an incredibly well-made movie.

Oscars Won: Best sound; best effects, visual effects; best effects, sound effects editing; best music, original score.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography; best film editing.