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Flying High At The Aisle Seat

E.T. Returns To The Big Screen

Plus: GULLIVER marches on DVD, and post-Oscar Mail Bag!

By Andy Dursin

You know the old cliché that you cannot go home again, but whoever said it clearly had never watched E.T. as both a child and a grown-up.

Last week I went to see the Special Edition re-release of Steven Spielberg's masterpiece - - the ninth time I had seen the movie in theaters, but the first viewing I've had on the big screen since E.T. first opened in 1982. At that point, I was not quite eight years old, and my lifelong love for the movies was about to take hold during that magical summer.

While I had watched E.T. several years ago on laserdisc, I had held off on actually sitting through the film again from beginning to end because it is -- in many ways, for many people -- a "special event" film. It's a movie to savor and treasure, and revisit from time to time, but not wear out on repeat viewing the way some other classics are.

Watching the film again last week was something I'm never going to forget, but I guess what I was most surprised and delighted by was how well the movie holds up -- and how it not only captivates children, but also adults, who can watch the film from a different perspective and yet be every bit as moved and spellbound by the story as kids are.

Now that I'm an adult, I was finally able to see last week what critics had described in 1982, about how Speilberg's movie works for grown-ups in profound yet subtle ways. Whereas kids primarily identify with Elliott's plight to help E.T. get home, on this viewing I carefully studied the reaction of the other characters in the film, and was in awe of how Spielberg carefully painted every character's nuance in seemingly small background detail so effectively. Specifically, I was moved by how Elliott's older brother (an underrated performance by Robert McNaughton) aids his younger brother and gains his uncompromising trust, and how Peter Coyote's initially-villainous, ultimately sympathetic "Man With The Keys" is essentially Elliott as a grown-up, understanding his emotions and wanting to help the abandoned alien but not knowing how.

The movie is told with beautiful economy -- each scene creates and sustains an emotion integral to the characters, or serves to propel the story forward. The sequences with Elliott showing E.T. his room, his Star Wars figures, are so genuine, feel so real, that you forget you are watching a sci-fi fantasy that tugs on your heartstrings.

It's the kind of movie that cynics love to bash because it makes them feel emotional, but E.T.'s cinematic virtues are plentiful. The movie is anything but saccharine emotion. It makes you care about Elliott and his family because Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison make them seem like real people. There aren't any moments early in the film that don't feel like real life, and this timeless quality makes you overlook the occasional '80s staple like an Atari 2600 camping out on the top of the family TV.

We all know and love the film's operatic ending, but there are scenes throughout E.T. that are subtle and yet every bit as sublime. This is illustrated perfectly in the sequence in which E.T. watches the mother (Dee Wallace) read "Peter Pan" to Gertie (Drew Barrymore), with the creature almost as interested in studying their interaction as he is in Elliott's plan to help him get home. Henry Thomas' performance is still the greatest juvenile performance I've ever seen, and the sequence in which Elliott says goodbye to E.T. -- whom he believes to be dead -- is as moving as any moment in the entire film.

Making all of it work, of course, is John Williams' music, still arguably his finest score for not only its outstanding lyricism, but its unforgettable, symbiotic relationship with the movie itself. The quiet, poignant cues underscoring Elliott and E.T.'s scenes together -- the operatic finale that says every word in musical terms that Spielberg happily didn't feel the need to spell out with dialogue. Williams' music IS E.T. It's another character in the film, punctuating every emotion in a fashion that's as restrained at times as it is powerful at others.

The E.T. re-release is another example of new CGI work being added to an older film in order to enhance the special effects, but don't think for a second that the minor alterations are going to ruin your enjoyment here.

Instead, the major new addition to the film -- an early scene with E.T. taking a bath -- serves as a precursor to McNaughton's discovery of a dying E.T. near a brook later on, while ILM's special effects add further detail to E.T.'s face -- something that's never a distraction unless you are specifically looking for the new material. Of course, this is a movie about characters and not huge special effects sequences, so the changes are relatively minor and should not be a problem for all but the most avid "original version" purists.

The other significant change, aside from a brief addendum to the Halloween sequence, is the deletion of the government agents' guns from the climax -- a change Spielberg wanted to make back in '80s, when he revealed to the late Gene Siskel that he thought it was a one-dimensional and irresponsible portrayal of authority figures. I have to agree with him, and ILM has done a tremendous job excising the firearms -- it actually looks like alternate take footage instead of digital editing.

E.T. is going to be released on DVD later this year in both the "Special Edition" version and its original theatrical cut, but if you haven't seen the movie in ages -- and especially if you have a family of your own who hasn't experienced it at all -- don't miss this opportunity to watch it on the big screen, in full digital sound. Like all of the greatest "classic" films, E.T. works best in a theater, and its return to the big screen is proof that we all can, indeed, go home again.


New on DVD

THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER (***, 1959, 100 mins.; Columbia TriStar, $19.98): Ray Harryhausen's special effects and Bernard Herrmann's highly-regarded score are the main draws to this colorful though somewhat tedious 1959 adaptation of the Swift novel. Kerwin Matthews essays Gulliver, who washes ashore in the kingdom of Lilliput, where its tiny residents first enslave the giant before setting him free for further adventures.

The classic story was always a problematic one to adapt to the big screen, with most filmmakers wisely dropping some of Gulliver's later exploits and often excising Swift's satirical language almost entirely. Still, this Columbia effort is a game attempt at mixing mirth and fantasy, aided immeasurably by some of Harryhausen's finest trick photography, and Herrmann's majestic score. The movie may be best appreciated by older children, but for "Golden Age" genre fans, THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER is still a recommended view.

Shot in the standard academy aspect ratio, THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER is -- like all of its previous laserdisc releases -- presented in full-frame on Columbia's new DVD. The compositions only appear to be trimmed just a bit on the edges, but certainly there doesn't seem to be any major cropping going on. The mono soundtrack is okay, and several vintage featurettes (including "This is Dynamation!") are included, most of which have already been released on previous Harryhausen DVDs.


SHIRI (***, 1999, 125 mins., R; Columbia TriStar, $19.95): Korean box-office blockbuster made more money in its home country than "Titanic," setting new standards for its film industry in the process.

This 1999 production of Samsung Electronics (originally titled "Swiri") finds a pair of South Korean agents trying to stop an elusive North Korean female sniper from stealing a liquid bomb that will be used to blow up a World Cup soccer match, featuring a unified Korean team.

Writer-director Je-gyu Kang's thriller is a surprisingly potent and exciting picture, filled with atmospheric cinematography, nifty action scenes, and well-developed characters. At a time when so many Asian pictures are being re-cut, re-scored and ruined by American distributors, it's nice to see that Destination Films and Columbia TriStar included the original Korean version and soundtrack -- subtitled with yellow English subtitles -- on Columbia's superb DVD, due out April 9.

The 1.85 transfer is in excellent shape, while the 5.1 Korean soundtrack includes a great deal of surround detail at every turn. An English-dubbed track, also in 5.1, is available, but it's worthless not only for its American dialects, but also because the sound effects have been overdubbed and lack the presence they do in the original mix (there's also a 2.0 French dubbed track which actually boasts the strongest presentation of the film's music score).

Columbia has also included a music video and documentary featurette, making this a top-notch DVD worthy of a look for interested viewers, especially those who think that the only thrillers being imported recently from overseas are of the martial arts variety.


Mail Bag: Post-Oscar Fallout

From Gary Howard:

"Thanks so much for your musings on the Oscars and your faithful and very-much-looked-forward-to editions of Aisle Seat. Your thoughts about the Washington-Berry awards were right on. Now that the Oscars have become unashamedly Politically Correct, I think it needs to be said that during the Poitier Lifetime Achievement segment, it's interesting -- telling, really -- that while the clips from Poitier's life work rolled, the Academy chose to show exclusively African-American actors gushing about how his films affected their lives. Well meaning, but a pretty narrow perspective for a tribute to a universally-celebrated actor whose work is admired by all of us. And speaking of which, I always look forward to your work. It's consistently the best read from FSM these days."
Thanks Gary!

From John Clymer:

"I have just a few thoughts about Sunday's Academy Awards presentation (as I seen so few of the nominated films).

A Beautiful Mind was a solid, if unremarkable, film driven by Russell Crowe's performance as John Nash. However, it seems foolish to give it Best Screen Play, Best Director and Best Picture and not recognize Russell Crowe as Best Actor. I have not seen Denzel Washington's performance, but shunning Crowe, while awarding the rest does not make sense to me. Frankly, I didn't think A Beautiful Mind deserved any of its wins, save for Jennifer Connelly's performance.

I'm glad Halle Berry won. My wife tells me she gave a superb performance, but she gave the most self- important acceptance speech of the year. I know winning an Oscar must feel terrific and emotional, but under our nation's present circumstances I would have hoped Berry and other Hollywood types would have put their self congratulation in perspective.

Randy Newman gave the coolest speech of the night from my perspective. Hey it's nice to win an Oscar (after 16 nominations). It's really, really nice to win an Oscar. And he left it at that.

Not much else to say. I was rooting for Lord of the Rings, but hey, it's only a movie."

From Alex Von Hauffe:
To quote Rodgers and Hammerstein II, "What's the use of wondrin'?". Why do you think this was the least watched Oscarcast of all time? Probably because people realize it's all shuck and jive. And as far as fairness? Let's not forget "Life's not fair - that's why they make different bra sizes!"
From Steven Schwartz:
"I'd say that the actual "highlight" of the show was John Williams conducting that fine medley of past film scores - a beautifully edited and produced montage of main themes, and a very good historical perspective of the history of orchestral film scoring. "
Agreed Steven. Williams did an outstanding job here.

From Michael Karoly:

Real quickly.....Roberts and Berry both embarassed themselves handily at the Oscars last Sunday. Berry is not that great of an actress to insinuate that her win "opens doors" for African-American actresses; she doesn't have that kind of talent or maturity about her. Someone like Angela Bassett has the right to say that- she has been in a plethora of films where she was a shining star; Alfie Woodard (spelling...it's early) is another who could possibly make that claim (in recent film history). Hallie Berry's award was not 74 years in the making- I too hope that her performance was deserving of the Oscar, but her "political" statement, and her egomaniacal assertion that she could "open doors" with her win is just nonsense. Compare her speech to Denzel Washington and you can see who is actually opening doors.... Julia Roberts, in her "America Sweetheart" role, was pathetic. The general public probably thought she was "cute" at the Oscars, and that's why she can still get away with it. Her calling John Williams Tom Conti is unforgiveable....she just showed at that point how much she doesn't care about anyone but herself and the select few she's acted with. Her clinging on to Denzel Washington (who, by the way, handled it with class) was infuriating- she basically had to steal his moment....but she wouldn't behave that way if the American moviegoing public stopped buying into her plastic act. She should issue a public apology for her behavior- it was shameful. I'm glad Shore won for LOTR...it truly was the best in the field, in my opinion. I don't see how and adpataion of A BEAUTIFUL MIND could possibly be better than LOTR, but that's life. And I agree....best Oscar moment went to Randy Newman...I'm very happy for him."
From Robert Knaus:
"Thank you ever so much for your rave review of the new DVD of Disney's unfairly maligned version of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. To this day I still find myself defending the movie as Disney's most powerful and emotionally gripping "cartoon" feature of the 90's (far surpassing the gimmicky pop blockbuster The Lion King, which grows more tedious with each viewing). While I'm not a huge musical fan per se, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's glorious song score deserved the Oscar that year, and it's a shame that Menken's finest work was the one effort to not recieve even a nomination (hell, even Hercules got a score nod!). While I've had some problems with your "every-Disney-film-must-get-three-stars" review policy in the past (Dinosaur? The Emperor's New Groove? ATLANTIS?!?), this makes up for it in spades."
Glad I could oblige, Robert!


NEXT WEEK: Jodie Foster enters THE PANIC ROOM, plus that long-promised ORIGINAL SIN DVD review and more! Send all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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