E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – 30th anniversary Review

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 

Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Dee WallaceHenry ThomasPeter CoyoteRobert MacNaughtonDrew BarrymoreThomas C. Howell

(OUT ON BLURAY on the 12 NOVEMBER 2012)

(CONTAINS SPOILERS… (though, if you have not seen this film yet, you should really stop wasting time on this silly blog and go and watch it right now!)

As I am writing this, ET is 30 years old (You probably thought it would be more, judging by those wrinkles on his face…). Exactly 30 years ago (on the 26th of May 1982) ET: The Extra Terrestrial was being premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in front of audiences and critics. Little did anyone know that this tiny little film, with a relatively low budget and a cast of unknown was going to become the most successful film in history.It stayed on the top of the chart for 16 weeks in a row and remained among the top 10 films for an astonishing 44 weeks, grossing around $800 millions (and if you adjust it for inflation it well above both Titanic and Avatar).

ET-mania was about to start and take over the world. Never before (and since) an image from a film like the one with a bicycle flying over the moon has been more instantly recognisable (Marilyn’s skirt blowing in the wind might be  just as iconic, but not many people will be able to tell which movie it is from). It eventually became Spielberg’s trade-mark and the logo of his Amblin Entertainment. But before the myth, before the merchandising, and the hundreds of “phone home” spin off commercials, ET is simply a great story and the perfect family film, a rare breed which today seems to apply to Pixar films only. It is a masterfully crafted modern tale which has all those trademarks that today are recognised as Spielberg’s: broken family, kids on bikes, sweeping music, beautiful visual, big emotions, laughs and tears within minutes from each other, flares on a lens, and course great action. This is quintessential Spielberg!

We all know the central plot about an alien left alone on Earth and befriending a child. But it so much more than that. It is obviously a rite of passage, it’s about growing up, and responsibilities. It is a story about the divorce of two parents and a child left alone dealing with it. It’s about family and friends, and what it is we call home. This is Spielberg’s most accomplished film, maybe just because it is his most honest and personal: the director is talking from his own experience as a child of divorced parents, looking for his own voice among his siblings and searching for somebody to talk to and to help him growing up.

The film is sometimes accused (by sniffy narrow-minded people, mainly) of being too sentimental, but the sentimentality in ET comes from being truthful to the kids and to their emotions. It’s never cheap and it’s not as obvious as might think or remember. ET for example is not the classic cute teddy bear, in fact it’s quite the opposite: it’s gross, slimy, really quite disgusting if you think about… and yet the film manages to make us all fall in love with him.

Spielberg gives an honest and authentic depiction of children both in normal and extraordinary situations. This is a man who not only seems to understand children perfectly , but at his heart is a big child himself. And so, when Elliott sees the alien for the first time, after the first moment of terror, what does Spielberg makes him do? He makes him go to his own room to show him his toys. When the older brother Michael steals a car to run away from the police he realises he doesn’t really know the way because “mom always drives me there”.  

These are beautifully observed moments where the kids feel real, from the way they talk, play and generally behave. The film is like a time-capsule of kids in the 80s and yet it works on kids today just as well. These are no actors, these are how kids would really react if an alien came to stay with them!

Spielberg not only directs his children actors like very few directors can (getting some truly astonishing performances from both Henry Thomas and the precocious Drew Barrymore), but he also uses all the tricks in the book to make us feel even closer to them.  And so he decides to shoot three quarter of the film by keeping the camera at ET’s level (which is also the children’s height) thus never showing us a grown-up person right till the final act, when ET’s (apparent) death forces Elliott to grow up.  The mother is the only one “allowed” inside this children’s world and consequently she’s the only one whose face we are allowed to see right from the start. Everybody else, just like in a Tom & Jerry cartoon is filmed from below the waist. And yet the way this device is carried on is never showy, never intrusive, never feels forced on us, nor it’s comic in any way. In fact, never for a single moment we stop wondering “Why can’t I see their faces?”. Each character has his own sound, or his own trademark: a sleeve rolled up along the arm, some key dangling off a belt, a flashlight, a scalp. We know exactly who everybody is, even if we never see their faces, but our attention is so completely focused on the kids and ET that we just don’t even pay notice the others.

It is a true masterpiece in film-making, technically perfect, beautifully staged, designed and edited. And every single element of film-making,  from the cinematography, to the special effects, from the directing to the acting, all come together to, let’s put it blandly, manipulate our emotions so well that it’s impossible to resist. And so, 30 years later , we still fall prey of its spell and there we all are, laughing with it, as ET and Elliott get drunk, or as Gertie shouts when she sees the alien for the first time, or even as ET hides in the cupboard among the stuffed animals and pretends to be one of them to the unsuspecting mother. And then a moment later, we find ourselves crying our eyes out as ET’s conditions slowly deteriorate, or as the kids give him the last goodbye by the spaceship…

I have rarely witnessed such a waterfall of tears in a movie theatre like I did all the times I have seen this is a packed cinema. I must have seen ET more than 10 times at least in a theatre… And yet, it doesn’t matter how many times I have seen it, it still gets me every time: I still cry at Elliott screaming to his lungs “He came to me” while the inert body of the alien lays on that cold medical table as the doctors try to revive him and the tears helplessly roll down little Gertie‘s cheeks. Just looking at the picture here on the left still gives me goose-bumps. My heart still leaps up during that final chase sequence as those bicycles take off into the sunset . And was there ever a more powerful final close-up  as the on the one on Elliott as the spaceship flies back home to the soaring music of John Williams? Ahhh… I was almost forgetting the music.

The score by John Williams is perfectly in tuned with Spielberg’s visuals and it hits all the right notes to make us feel completely helpless at their complete mercy. And there we are, going through every single emotion in the book: excitement, fear, horror, desperation, happiness. Just like in Star Wars it’s hard to imagine how this film could have been so successful without John Williams‘s contribution. Just think about the first 10 minutes of the film, which do not have a single line of dialogue but just rely uniquely on the music. It would be inconceivable for any family blockbuster today (Only Pixar’s Wall-E, which owes a great debt to ET, attempted it).

It is a film made to be experienced together with your kids, your brothers, your sisters, your parents, your loved ones, your friends. It is a film that must experienced, however cheesy this may sound (I’m ready to take the hit!), with your heart more than your brain. Leave your cynicism outside the door and try to learn again how to be a kid.. and if you really can’t, well I’m sorry about you, but then at least just marvel at the film-making skills on display here.

Spielberg has never been so perfect.

10/10

Check out other related reviews: Super 8, Raiders of the Lost ArkWar Horse  and the Adventures of Tintin

ET The Extra Terrerstrial is out on the 12 November on AMAZON UK

The Adventures of Tintin – Review

The Adventures of Tintin – the Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Steven MoffatEdgar WrightJoe Cornish. Stars: Jamie BellDaniel CraigAndy SerkisNick FrostSimon Pegg 

I should probably tell you straight away that I have been waiting for this film for about 3 decades! Yes I know, quite a bold statement which may give away my age, but it will also tell you about my level of expectations for this film. If then you add the fact that I’ve grown up watching Spielberg movies back in his golden years (obviously the 80s) and that I’ve also been an avid fan of all Tintin comics ever since I was a little boy, you can probably get an idea of the kind of palpitations I had when I sat into the theatre and wore my 3D glasses. Having said all that I will still try to give an unbiased and honest review as much I possibly can, praising the (many) merits of the film but also highlighting some of the faults which in my option prevented Tintin from being the masterpiece I really wanted it to be.

For a start I was very  pleased to see how respectful Spielberg was with the handling of the original material. After all, this is the man who wanted to turn Harry Potter into an American, combining several books into one (A bad, bad, bad idea Steven!). The story of this film actually combines several of the Tintin books: ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’ (in which Tintin befriends Haddock and saves him from smugglers) and the two-parter ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’ (which is the core of the story about the search for the lost treasure). There are also some very small elements and secondary characters from other stories too, but as far as taking liberties that’s where Spielberg stopped. Everything else is precisely how the Belgian creator, Hergé had imagined it: with that same sense of adventure, mystery, intrigue, action and fun. In other words the same mood and atmosphere that made the comics so successful  (at least in Europe) and incidentally, in a way those same elements that were also at the centre of one of Spielberg’s classic, Raiders of the lost ark.  It’s not surprising that Hergé himself, after seeing that film back in 1981 thought Spielberg was the only person who could ever do Tintin justice.

Spielberg pays homage to Tintin’s creator right from the start, not just in the beautifully design title sequence (reminiscent of the one from Catch Me If You Can), where he show us so many elements from all Tintin stories, not just in the colour palette he chooses for the cinematography of the film or in the way each character’s face looks, but he even goes as far as having Hergé himself appearing as a street artist drawing a portrait of Tintin the way we are used to see him in the comics: pure genius!

On the whole I must say that I wasn’t as bothered as I thought I was going to be by the motion capture animation. In fact you stop worrying about it about 5 minutes into the film. The characters look more cartoony than realistic and that helps getting away with the fact that their eyes (especially Tintin’s) are slightly dead. This is first and foremost still an animated film (I can place a bet right now that it’s going to be nominated at the Oscars next year, and probably it’s going to win one too!). One thing is for sure: it does look magnificent! From the moody dark shadows reminiscent of those film noir from the 40s, to the great vistas straight out of a David Lean classic, the impeccable cinematography (Spielberg is even credited as Lighting Consultant) is not just beautiful but impressive and atmospheric.

Spielberg in his first animated venture (and his first use of 3D too!) looks like a little boy who’s just been told he can do what he wants for his birthday: he appears to be liberated from any restriction he may have had on a normal feature film and seems to have a lot of fun in finding new beautifully inventive ways to transition from one scene to the next  in a way you could only do in animation (or with a lot of very expensive CGI): Spielberg’s camera floats, glides, flies, moves through glass, shoots straight into mirrors and gives us views which would otherwise been virtually impossible and yet, most of the times it’s never showy, it’s never forced or indulgent (in the same way,it wasn’t forced in ET, when the camera never showed us any adult – mom aside – for most the film and yet it didn’t make it annoying… In fact most of the audience didn’t even notice).

It’s like watching a master at work who knows exactly where the camera should be at which time. It all culminated with one of the most impressive and perfectly executed chase sequence ever portrayed on screen. Impressive not just because of its pace and its edge-of-your-seat thrills, but also for its meticulously choreographed  technique: in fact it takes place in just one impossibly-long shot, which adds to the tension and to the sense of fun. If you ever wondered why didn’t they just film the whole thing for real, that sequence alone (which by itself is worth the price of the entire ticket) should serve you as an answer.

I just wished that same tension and fun of that sequence had been present throughout the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong, this first adventures of Tintin is a roller coaster ride like few others. Essentially it’s one action set piece after another, and yet somehow I felt there was a strange tendency to resolve problems much too quickly. It’s almost as if Spielberg was so preoccupied to get us to the next action sequence that he almost forgot how to makes  like the one we were watching. I give you a few examples:  a chase sequence at the front of the film, ends much too soon before it has time to climax. Later on there’s a scene where Tintin has to steal a key from a bunch of sleeping goons. A lot of time is spent setting up the dangers and then just when the sequence is about to get fun, Tintin gets the key. There’s another scene where Tintin faints close to the propellers of a plane and once again he gets saved much too quickly.

Whatever happened to those classic Spielberg action sequences that were so tense despite being so simple? I’m thinking of Indy trying to get the antidote to the poison he’s just drunk as the little bottle gets kicked around a room full of screaming people in the Temple of Doom, or fight sequence by the plane in Raiders, or even the glass breaking sequence in the otherwise weak Lost World? (In fact they are too many to even mention).

The pace of the film is strange and a bit uneven. It has moments of long exposition (this is a fault that comes with the source material to be completely fair), then lots of little short action scenes (as I said, slightly too short to feel important. I would have rather had fewer set pieces but longer in their execution) and sometimes it’s even anticlimactic (I’m thinking of the last 10 minutes of the film for example). I don’t think it’s necessarily an editing problem. Since this is animation, there isn’t a lot of extra material that can be added to add tension to scene.

I  am probably picking needles because as I said before I love these stories (and the story-teller) way too much.

The comedy aspect of the film is a bit of a hit and miss: the Inspector Thompson and Thomson are obviously aimed at the younger crowd, but they’re also the weakest characters (we had a glimpse of that in the trailer itself, as one of them falls off the stairs: a scene which in the theatre where I was, full of kids, was received with dead silence), on the other hand Captain Haddock is perfect. I don’t know whether it’s the script, or Andy Serkis’s performance or both, but most of the jokes around him seem to work perfectly. Same goes for the little dog Snowy who is in almost every scene of the film, even if just in the background licking a massive bone in the desert. The audience I was with seemed to love him and so did I.

And finally Tintin himself which in this whole 3D world is probably the most two-dimensional character. Aside from the fact that he seems to get a kick out of solving puzzles and getting into adventures, we know very little about him. I’m not really blaming Spielberg for that, this exactly how Tintin was in the comics, but I do wonder if some character development would have been really seen as sacrilegious by the hard-code fans. Certainly not by me.

Finally I feel I should say a few words about John Williams score, the first one in years (especially if we dismiss the very forgettable one for the 4th Indiana Jones). There’s a very quirky and weird title music (which never really seem to play out throughout the rest of the film) which is the most un-Wiliamesque theme in a while. It’s certainly not bad, but it feels slightly detached from the rest of the film. The Star Wars title music was never repeated throughout the movies either, and yet it felt part of the score. This title music feels like it belonged to can other film (in fact it felt like a non used cue from “catch me if you can”). It’s hard to review the score, because for most of the film I felt it never really had the time to breathe as much as it should have. The comic cues suffered more than the others (the ones for the Inspectors for example), as they were covered by the dialogue and the rest of the sound effects to the point where I even wondered whether any music was needed at all. In fact on the whole I felt there was way too much music in the film (in fact there was hardly a moment without) and yet it had very little time for the music to shine. Having said that, I was still able to hum some of the Tintin action tunes once leaving the theatre… and that’s always a good sign.

To recap, I think Tintin has definitely legs for a sequel and even more than just one. It is a solid action-packed fun-ride for the whole family which is not as loud, dumb and insulting as some of those Pirates of the Caribbean films were (especially the latest sequels). It’s proper film-making with the heart in the right place.

I’ll be looking forward to the next one, even if I am very aware I have now passed the average age of the target audience…

7.5/10

Check out my other reviews of movies by Spielberg: Raiders of the lost art, ET The Extra-Terrestrial, War Horse

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 – Review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011)

Directed by David Yates. With Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael GambonRalph FiennesAlan RickmanJohn HurtHelena Bonham CarterTom FeltonJason Isaacs (hello!), Maggie SmithJim BroadbentDavid ThewlisRobbie ColtranGary Oldman.

(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD)

Watching this film in a packed theatre with some of the most excited audience I’ve ever had the pleasure to sit with, was as much part of the experience as the film itself. The tension was clearly palpable: cheers,laughter, sniffling and sobs from the crowd seemed to accompany the soundtrack all at the appropriate moments, and yet it was in the most intimate and quiet scenes where you could feel how much the audience was with this film: you could have heard a pin dropped for how quiet everybody was!

For many fans (and let me get this out now: I am one of them), this is much more than just another film in the franchise: it’s the it’s the end of an era, or simply  the end of a journey which lasted for over 10 years (14 if you count the first book, back in 1997).

There are no precedents like this in movie history (the closest thing it can be compared with is the end of a long-running TV series like Friends, for example). There’s a certain poignancy that comes with it, because, as we all know, this is the last one EVER. There will not be any other Harry Potter, no matter what.

The film clearly knows all that and consciously plays to it, tapping into our deepest-self, reminding us about this journey we’ve taken and how we’ve grown up with it. But we are certainly not alone: these films themselves seem to have grown up too: this isn’t your normal dull blockbuster like Transformers, with idiotic one-liner, explosion-galore and music plastered all over (I was actually surprised to see how much restrained the music was on this film, but just carefully used only when it was really needed), this is more of an emotional roller-coaster. It might not be completely appropriate for your average kid (some of the images are pretty strong and after a while I lost the count of how many dead bodies of students I saw…), but if you’ve seen the previous ones, you should be prepared for this too (and if you haven’t, I must ask: what on earth are you doing here?!).

The previously-unknown David Yates has slowly been able to find his own voice with the latest 4 of the 8 instalments, by combining the sense of magic the first 2 films had, the darker tone introduced to us by Afonso Cuaron (with the third episode) but also that more grown-up approach to the story, which has been brewing and growing with each chapter (and book of course).

In fact Yates has also been one of the bravest too, as he has found the courage to actually hack to pieces the overly-written source and actually make a better film (clearly after book 3, no editor would dare to tell JK Rowling to cut anything out). In this last “Deathly Hallow”, he was able to basically stretch the final battle over the course of the whole film, making it seem greater and more epic than it’s ever been in the book (In the end, box office aside, it really did pay off to split the movie in two parts).

Considering the incredible amount of expectations which a film like this can carry and, consequently, the almost impossible task of bringing everything to a close, HP 7.2  does a really good job! Yes, of course there will be some disappointed people, but I think the disappointment will come from the fact that secretly each of us would like this story to go on forever and, no matter what, you can never please everyone.

There are flashbacks and cameos from pretty much every single member of the cast from the previous instalments (I think only Kenneth Branagh was missing), some of whom are unfortunately relegated to just a couple of shots and a single line (there are time where you just wish they had a whole spin-off movie about Snape, as Alan Rickman deserves a lot more screen time). Maggie Smith however manages to make the most of her little screen time and makes up for the fact that she wasn’t around in previous “deathly hallow”. She most definitely steals the show with her “I’ve always wanted to do that spell” and with that smile that carried both pride and embarrassment at the same time, so cute that you just want to hug her and ask her to be your grandmother.

The film is a real feast for the eye. The special effects are the most detailed on any Harry Potter (fair enough it’s been 10 years since the first one!) and actually I have to confess the 3D conversion was probably one of the best one I’ve seen in a while and although it’s not quite the same as actually filming in 3D it makes me rather curious and hopeful for the forthcoming Star Wars saga.

Unfortunately nowadays we are so used to see big battles with thousands of CGI-rendered extras, that focussing on those alone would certainly lead to some disappointment. Once again the film knows this and decides to concentrate more on the emotional aspect of the story. Don’t get me wrong, the big action scenes are there (in fact, the whole film seems a big action scene!), but as a fan it’s the most emotional moments in the film that stick with you: the death of some of the characters, the overdue kiss, the flashback sequence with Snape and most crucially the moment where Harry is ready to go and die and says goodbye to his friends. I must confess that had be too. Credits to that trio of those not-so-kids-anymore (Radcliffe, Watson and Grint) who this time clearly show how much they have matured as actors.

Daniel Radcliffe is at his best here: he has a clear understanding of his character as his face shows not just the loss of innocence but also a deep maturity in the acceptance of his fate. Emma Watsons shines with a freshly newly acquired spontaneity: the moment where she kisses Ron is followed by a smile which feels so real that could almost be mistaken for an outtake. And obviously Rupert Grint who’s always been the best of them all and can now relax in his role of ice-breaker with his funny comments in the most tense situations.

As always, if there are faults in the film they are mainly to do with the original source itself and, in this particular case, with the overly long and convoluted plot. Still to this day I have some problems in telling you what a deathly hallow is what its purpose might be… and I am a fan who has actually read all the books and seen most of the films more than once!! I can only imagine what the average viewer will make of it). At some point I almost had no idea what was going on anymore as horcruxes, crowns, snakes and plot twists all got mixed up in my head. Did it matter? Not really… to a degree.

And yet, even though I knew that the stakes were high and I could follow the rough plot (well, I mean, it’s clear enough: good vs evil), I still couldn’t quite grasp exactly how could Voldemort be killed or how was Harry Potter able come back from the whited-out King’s Cross (In fact that was also the biggest let-down of the book as far as I am concerned: it would have made a lot more sense if Harry had died. What a brave and powerful ending that would have been).

On the whole the film is a success. It’s hard to see how it could have been better: it can be argued that some of that sense of magical wonder that some of the previous instalments had, was probably lost here, as it gave more space to its three main characters. The very final scene was unusually underwhelming for these types of films and is a clear example of that as it decided to concentrate more on the faces of our three main characters rather than letting itself go by showing us perhaps an aerial view of the Hogwarts Express leaving with a possible rousing them from John Williams. And yet, Spielberg did manage to do both things in ET, by giving us the unforgettable image of the spaceship leaving a rainbow-like trail but also finishing on a tight close up of Elliot’s face, thus creating on of the most emotional ending of any fantasy film ever!

But these are just small quibbles: either you go with the film or you don’t and I certainly did.

Considering what a massive commercial machine Warner Bros is we must be so thankful for the way the franchise has been handled (it makes me shiver to think that actually Spielberg wanted to shift it all to America… Thankfully somebody had the courage to tell him off for once). Producer David Heyman is obviously a man of heart, who cares for his fans and set out to make the best films he could ever make, playing on the strengths of its (let’s be honest) not-so-perfect source and in the end making it an even better product.

In the end this film must be judged with that same heart and not so much with the brain, taking in consideration the series as well as this ending.

And you know what? My heart can’t stop saying “I just loved the journey, thank you so much for it”.

8/10

 Read my review of Part one

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