E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (E.T.)

(USA 1982)

It’s easy to forget what a big deal E.T. was in its day. The highest grossing film of the Eighties (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/), its original theatrical run lasted longer than a year (http://www.slashfilm.com/what-is-the-longest-theatrical-run-in-the-history-of-cinema/). It was the Thriller of movies—in fact, Michael Jackson appeared with E.T. on the cover of Ebony (http://www.grayflannelsuit.net/blog/pop-culture-capsule-michael-jackson-1982-ebony-magazine-spotlight). Having seen it only once back when it was current, I approached a recent screening with curiosity and trepidation. I wondered whether it held up; after all, Steven Spielberg is pretty schmaltzy, and I was Elliott’s age in 1982.

I’m happy to report that aside from outdated special effects and other superficial giveaways—hairstyles, clothes, technology, cars—E.T. has worn quite well. The reason is obvious: the story is simple, universal, and so well told it transcends its time. An alien on a mission gathering plant samples on Earth is accidentally left behind when his ship takes off in a panic. Keeping a low profile as one would on a foreign planet, the alien stumbles upon a boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), who takes him in (more as a curiosity or a pet than anything) and names him “E.T.” After establishing trust—not so much with words as Reese’s Pieces—the two form a bond. Elliott ultimately helps E.T. find his way home in the midst of some serious danger brewing for both of them.

Although it involves an alien, anyone can relate to this story because it speaks directly to basic human emotions, particularly fear and love. The acting and character development are superb. The child actors—including a baby Drew Barrymore—are natural; even a line with the term “penis breath” doesn’t sound forced. Elliott and his mother (Dee Wallace) capture the dolefulness of the single parent home, a relatively uncommon occurrence then. A young and ugly C. Thomas Howell has a small role as Tyler, one of the neighborhood kids.

Some of the plot straddles the line, but overall the story is believable even if it tugs at the heartstrings. I didn’t cry this time, but seeing E.T. with adult eyes didn’t diminish its impact. I say it’s Spielberg’s best film.

In 1994, the United States Library of Congress deemed E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A



Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

(USA/UK 1971)

What a great way to get into the Easter spirit: an afternoon screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory complete with Rocky Horror-esque audience participation (without the swearing) and a goodie bag filled with bubbles, taffy, a chocolate egg, an exploding popper, and a glow stick—sign me up!

One of the first movies I remember seeing, ever, is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I saw it with my sister and my cousins (Billy and Dottie), and I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. We saw it at the Madison Theatre, which is long gone. Here’s a picture of it: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/7383

I still remember what it looked like inside: it was a big open theater with a concession stand at the top of the seats divided by a half wall that allowed one to see the screen while purchasing popcorn. Today, it’s a lumberyard as it has been for decades. Sigh.

But I digress.

So how’s the movie? The screenplay isn’t totally true to Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel—he started it but didn’t finish it, and ultimately disowned the final version (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willy_Wonka_%26_the_Chocolate_Factory)—but it makes no difference. Director Mel Stuart keeps the film, to borrow from one of the songs, pure imagination and good fun. The sets are simple and the “special effects” are really low tech, like that trippy boat scene and the graphics accompanying the Oompa Loompas as they sing. Regardless, a timelessly magic quality that doesn’t need much comes through. Clearly, this is not the United States even if Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) speak in an American dialect. One of my favorite scenes from any movie is the one in which Violet (Denise Nickerson) turns into a blueberry. And who doesn’t love watching all these shitheads meet their fate: Augustus (Michael Bollner) sucked into a tube, Veruca (Julie Dawn Cole) falling down a trash chute to be incinerated, and Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) shrunk down to size? The color pallette is an awesome late 60s drab, and the clothes are amazingly gaudy. Everyone’s hair is stiff. The whole thing is wonderfully weird.

I love Wonka’s (Gene Wilder) deadpan disdain for, like, everything. The Oompa Loompas’ moralistic nursery rhymes against eating too much, chewing gum, being a brat, and watching too much TV are awesome. Some scenes are thin and quicker than I remember, but it’s a perfect movie for kids. It even has a happy ending. I never found it scary.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory still brings a smile to my face after all these years. Although I didn’t mind Tim Burton’s remake, I’ll take the original any day. Oh yeah—a trip to the candy store after the film (like I had) is obligatory.

In 2014, the United States Library of Congress deemed Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

(Music Box) A-


Hello, My Name Is Doris

(USA 2015)

The title evokes in my mind the song “My Name Is Jonas,” but even Weezer is probably too hip for Doris Miller (Sally Field), a sixty-something kooky cat lady who works in the fashion industry—not as a creative but a clerk in a cube, a job she’s held for decades. She develops a crush on the office’s new art director, thirty-something John Fremont (Max Greenfield), after a crowded ride in an elevator. When a self-help speaker (Peter Gallagher) convinces her that anything is possible, Doris decides to pursue John despite their age difference. Naturally, nothing pans out as she wants or expects—mostly because Doris misinterprets things and can’t quite deal with mixed signals. Her crush gets more intense as she gets closer to John. Is this really getting somewhere?

Written by Laura Terruso and director Michael Showalter, Hello, My Name is Doris is a cute if scattered “feel good” movie that really shouldn’t work. First, the story is not believable. I don’t mean an older woman falling for a younger man—the turns that the story takes are what ring fake. The situations are so far-fetched they’re downright inane. The business with electronic music star Baby Goya (Jack Antonoff), for example, is an eyeroller. The clothes Doris wears are out there, and not in a good way. Second, the film is loaded with one cliché after another—old people having problems with technology, silly hipsters being pretentious, superficial electronic dance music gags, Staten Island lacking culture, crazy cat lady hoarding stuff. The film’s biggest sin, though, is its predictability. From the outset, you know her cringeworthy actions are going to backfire on Doris. It doesn’t take much to see where this story is headed.

Despite a weak, aimless script that gives shallow treatment to its subject and its characters, Hello, My Name Is Doris works largely due to Field, who almost single-handedly elevates it to something meaningful. She pours a lot into Doris, giving her dimension: she’s eager, excited, nervous, vulnerable, even relatable. Field accomplishes this not so much through her lines but rather through her delivery, verbal and physical. She’s great to watch here. She and Greenfield create a chemistry that succeeds. The fantasy sequences are the best parts of the film, and there’s some great physical comedy here. Tyne Daley as gruff Roz brings pizzazz to every scene she’s in.

Hello, My Name Is Doris definitely has its problems. They’re not so severe that they ruin the film, though. I enjoyed it for what it is: an offbeat sort-of romantic comedy.

(ArcLight) C+




(USA 2015)

Emelie is the feature film debut of Michael Thelin, whose past work consists largely of concert films and documentaries for acts like Cee Lo Green, Stone Temple Pilots, Paramore, and Panic! at the Disco. Interestingly, he went with a thriller.

Emelie (Sarah Bolger), or “Anna,” is a sitter with a story that becomes evident over the course of her evening watching the Thompson kids, Jacob (Joshua Rush), Sally (Carly Adams), and Christopher (Thomas Blair). Emelie starts out cool enough, giving Jacob the video game his mother took from him earlier and playing dress up with Sally and Christopher. She turns dyspeptic, though, and things get ugly: she messes with their pets, shows them a porn, and leaves out a gun for them to play with. Oh yeah, and then there’s that scene with Jacob and the tampon. Emelie’s got issues, and one of the kids exposes why.

I really wanted to love this film. Clearly, a lot went into it: the plot is carefully constructed with no detail left unexplained. It looks professional, even if a bit made-for-TV. The acting, particularly the little ones, is pretty good. Bolger has a nice Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) thing going on. My issue is a technical one: ultimately Emelie is flat. Bolger is creepy and menacing but not scary or intense, and the plot fails to engage beyond a superficial level. In other words, it didn’t pull me into the action; it left me observing it passively from the audience. Disappointing for a midnight movie, I found myself not invested in the outcome. Perhaps Thelin’s next try will be better; I’d like to see more from him.

(Music Box) C



Everybody Wants Some!!

(USA 2016)

For me, Richard Linklater is hit or miss. Everybody Wants Some!! initially hit me as a miss: taking the same template, it starts out more like a Dazed and Confused knock-off than the “spiritual sequel” it’s billed as. It ultimately delivers—though what it delivers probably isn’t for everyone.

It’s August 1980. Jake (Blake Jenner) arrives at an unnamed Texas university, where he is attending school on a baseball scholarship and living in an off-campus house provided for the team. Predictably, the house and his teammates are a mess. His teammates are a motley crew of personalities that don’t always mix: competitive jocks, competitive weirdos, and competitive clowns. Most of them are on a quest for diversion: getting drunk, getting high, and getting laid. Through this quest, they bond as a team.

The energy and the humor here are definitely male—juvenile, lowbrow male at that. Picking up four years after Dazed and Confused, Jake might as well be Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), who played baseball and would have graduated from high school and started college during the summer of 1980. Regardless, the characters grew on me as I kept watching. So did the story.

Everybody Wants Some!! would be nothing without its excellent ensemble cast, which does an impressive job together. I fully expect to see some of these guys in bigger and better future projects. The chemistry between the team members is palpable and works really well. Glenn Powell—Chad Radwell in Scream Queens—is a natural as mischievous smooth-talker Finn, whose pickup line involves his “average dick.” He shines the brightest. Jenner exudes a boyish charm and confidence, and Tyler Hoechlin as McReynolds does cocky—and deflated—exceedingly well. Wyatt Russell as Willoughby nails “stoner”—anyone who went to school in the Seventies or Eighties will recognize him as someone they knew. Juston Street is awesome as Niles, an angry, angsty psycho who thinks he’s destined for the Majors. Zoey Deutch brings a winsome coquettishness to Beverly, Jake’s love interest.

I forgot about Dazed and Confused as Everybody Wants Some!! rolled on—its own essence and identity slowly but surely emerge. The plot is rambling and aimless—no big shock there—but it’s also fun and entertaining in its ridiculousness. I identify with its ridiculousness, totally. I like that Linklater chose the dawn of the Eighties—before Ronald Reagan, MTV, and Madonna—rather than deep in the throes. Everybody Wants Some!! is a nostalgia kick, and it got me reminiscing about my own college antics. It’s not profound. It’s not a great film, either—not even for Linklater, whose distinct touch is all over it. I still enjoyed it for what it is. A summer release makes a lot more sense than its currently scheduled April Fools Day opening, however fitting that particular day may be.

(Music Box) B-



(USA 1963)

Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra takes me back to high school Latin class, where I saw it the first time. One of the most expensive movies ever made—adjusted for inflation, its budget of $44 million amounts to roughly $336 million today (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056937/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv)—Cleopatra is a straightforward albeit very glamorous and maybe not entirely accurate history lesson. Everything about it, like ancient Rome, is impressive, excessive, and just plain epic. The characters are practically real-life deities, and the actors who play them—Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar)—are legendary. The sets are huge and overwhelming. Watching Cleopatra is a luscious Technicolor orgy for the eyes.

Is it a good movie? It kept me engaged, at least what I stuck around for (see next paragraph). Taylor injects her wry wit into Cleopatra. It’s fun and weird to see Carroll O’Connor (i.e., Archie Bunker) as a Roman senator. All that said, though, Cleopatra is not exactly entertaining.

Speaking of Latin class, Cleopatra was parsed out over a week, so it didn’t seem as long as it is: over four hours—edited from its original plan of six hours! Even the trailer is long. Fuck. Sadly, it’s too much for a school night. I left during intermission after the first segment—Julius Caesar and Cleopatra—and that is still longer than most movies today. For the record, I’m not counting this in my official tally because I didn’t stay for the whole thing. Et tu?

(Music Box) C+

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

West Side Story

(USA 1961)


I’m generally not into musicals, but West Side Story is an exception. I saw it in high school, and I liked its retro cheese factor. Now that I’ve seen it as an adult, I love it—for quite a few reasons I didn’t appreciate back in high school.

Jet Song

The cast here is flawless. Russ Tamblyn as gang leader Riff—well, he’s a Jet all the way ‘til his last dying day. Richard Beymer brings a sweet and likable innocence to Tony. George Chakiris as Bernardo oozes mystery, menace, and machismo. Susan Oakes plays Anybodys with just the right amount of sexual ambiguity. Somehow, Natalie Wood as Maria, a Puerto Rican, works. And who doesn’t love Rita Moreno as Anita?


The story is clever: a modern, urban American adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Manhattan street gangs the Jets and the Sharks instead of Verona houses the Montagues and the Capulets—an S.E. Hinton novel with dancing. Very cool!

Dance at the Gym

Speaking of dancing, yes—gang members snapping their fingers and pulling ballet moves as if they’re in a Michael Jackson video is corny. But it works. Jerome Robbins does breathtaking choreography here. The shots are big, colorful, energetic, and visually stunning. My favorites are the exteriors at the beginning: I feel dizzy, I feel sunny, I feel fizzy and funny and fine. West Side Story is definitely a film for the big screen.


Needless to say, the songs are classic. I’ve known them forever—some before I knew West Side Story. Written with Leonard Bernstein, this was Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway debut (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story). His trademark wit shines through the lyrics and the rhythms. I’ll always think of my friend Frank, who sang songs from West Side Story as he did dishes when we were roommates in college.

The Rumble

Despite its silly corniness—a large part of its charm—West Side Story is dark. It raises a lot of issues still prevalent today: race, delinquency (though we call it “thuggery” today), hate toward “immigrants.” Despite the many light moments here, the dramatic scenes are dramatic; they make you forget, albeit momentarily, the light stuff. The gym dance, the rumble, and the scene where Anita goes to Doc’s store to give a message to Tony are all suspenseful and intense. The final scene in the basketball court is a real tearjerker.


A large part of West Side Story was filmed on a soundstage, but it still nails the look and feel a New York City that doesn’t exist anymore.

Did I miss anything here?


In 1997, the United States Library of Congress deemed West Side Story “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Music Box) A

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival


Lawrence of Arabia

(UK 1962)

Roger Ebert’s comments sum up my experience:

“I’ve noticed that when people remember Lawrence of Arabia, they don’t talk about the details of the plot. They get a certain look in their eye, as if they are remembering the whole experience, and have never quite been able to put it into words.”


Lawrence of Arabia is an epic if ever there ever was one: a biopic of a bygone era’s famous and handsome man—author T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole)—on a wartime adventure to accomplish an important but impossible task in a rugged, foreign land. His first meeting with Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) does not go well, creating a certain tension that appears to stand in the way. The drama! Lawrence even has an English accent. Uniquely, though, this is a rather low-key epic: most of the set is a vast, sprawling desert, and it’s the little events that produce big results.

Director David Lean infused a major gay subtext. O’Toole is strikingly beautiful; in fact, Noel Coward observed that if O’Toole had been any prettier, the film would have to be called Florence of Arabia (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-25393557). O’Toole plays Lawrence with a distinct diva component. There’s a hint of something more than an employment arrangement between Lawrence and some servants and an Arab soldier or two. There’s also a weird scene where Lawrence is captured by muscled Turks and brought shirtless before an older, smarmy Bey (José Ferrer) with obvious designs on him; when Lawrence spurns his advances, the Bey has him beaten with whips. Lawrence doesn’t seem too bothered by the beating. The palace looks like a tawdry bathhouse.

What will probably stay with me above all else is F.A. Young’s cinematography, which is arresting and haunting. I definitely want a camel now that I’ve seen this.

In 1991, the United States Library of Congress deemed Lawrence of Arabia “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Music Box) A

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

(USA 1963)

A colleague who saw my check-in on Facebook unwittingly but perfectly summed up It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with one innocent question: why would I bother to see “that old person movie”? He’s not off base: crammed with stars most of whom had seen better days even at the time—Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Jimmy Durante, Carl Reiner, Phil Silvers, the Three Stooges—it’s the Cannonball Run of the Great Generation. Silly and fun in a “pull my finger” way, it’s a straightforward slapstick comedy about greed from a director (Stanley Kramer) known for tackling serious subjects. As I watched this, I saw the face my grandfather made when he told a risqué joke—kind of like Three’s Company’s Mr. Roper (Norman Fell), who by the way is also in this.

The story isn’t complicated: on a California desert highway, a group of travelers encounters a dying criminal on the run (Durante) whose last words tip them off to a suitcase of money buried in a park “under a big W.” After a futile attempt to devise a plan to find the money together and share it, a madcap race to get to it erupts—and it’s every man (and woman) for himself.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is over the top in every way: the scenery is huge—perfect for the 70 millimeter restoration I saw—the story is elaborate and overlapping, the cast is immense, and the film is very, very long. It’s interesting to see television stars like Fell, Peter Falk, Jim Backus, Marvin Kaplan, Jonathan Winters, and Don Knotts in minor roles, most before they were famous. Nothing about this film is sophisticated, which is a large part of its corny charm. Overall, the plot and the humor are uneven, going from impressively witty to beyond stupid—particularly the denouement with the fire truck ladder. The dialogue degenerates into yelling and the action becomes monotonous as the film progresses. Despite its shortcomings, though, it kept me engaged almost to the end—no small feat for a film that runs over three hours and has an intermission.

(Music Box) B-

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival



Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

(USA 2015)

The title is misleading: Henry Gamble (Cole Doman), teenaged son of a preacher man, is definitely having a birthday party—a pool party, no less. It’s an all-day affair for an Evangelical crowd, and it continues into the night. A lot more than cake, ice cream, swimming, and Jesus is going on here, though. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is much more complex and interesting than it may appear at first blush.

The opening scene is brilliant even if it is weird, and it shows exactly what Henry is going through: he’s lusting after his buddy, Gabe (Joe Keery), who just slept over. Henry’s sister, Autumn (Nina Ganet), home from her freshman year at a Christian college, is dealing with her lost virginity and possibly unresolved feelings for and mixed signals from the guy she gave it to, Aaron (Tyler Ross). Henry’s parents, Bob (Pat Healy) and Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw), are recovering from a disruptive event involving the deceased husband of neighbor and fellow churchgoer Rose Matthews (Meg Thalken) and contemplating a separation, something that probably doesn’t bode well for Bob’s career. Meanwhile, Rose, who clearly misses her husband, seems to have taken up drinking, and her son Ricky (Patrick Andrews) has other issues altogether.

Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is not what I expected—a very good thing. It’s about the secret matters that go on in private, how we face or avoid them, and the facades we all put up to keep them private. It definitely gets at Henry’s queer longings and raises some gay issues, but it’s not what I would call a “queer” movie. Its subject matter is broader than that. It’s not even focused on Henry—his family members, friends, and even secondary characters are all going through one thing or another: Logan (Daniel Kyri) is black and “questioning” if not gay in a homophobic white world, pastor Larry Montgomery (Steppenwolf member Francis Guinan) is questioning his faith and looking for an escape, and his wife, Bonnie (Hanna Dworkin), is repeatedly disappointed by the sagging morals of those around her. This is a smartly culled ensemble of realistic characters, each discovering himself or herself—much like Henry.

I enjoyed this film a lot more than I thought I would. Laced with sexuality, it manages to maintain both an honesty and an innocence that work really well. The acting, mostly but not entirely by newcomers, is surprisingly good—particularly Doman and Kyri, who play their parts with a winning uneasiness. Laidlaw is awesome as Henry’s mother, and she subtly defies what one might expect an Evangelical Christian mother to be. Writer/director Stephen Cone creates relatable, memorable characters—they’re all flawed and inconsistent, yet he approaches each of them with tenderness and leaves their dignity intact. A killer new wave inspired soundtrack scores major cool points. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party has the flavor of a John Hughes film—it was even filmed in Lake Forest on Chicago’s North Shore—but it stands on its own. Everyone here has a story, and each story makes for an absorbing film.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+