Archive | January, 2013

War Eagle, Arkansas (2009)

29 Jan

Luke Grimes and Dan McCabe in "War Eagle, Arkansas."

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Enoch is a talented teenaged baseball player. He pitches strikeouts when he’s not under pressure. However, there are times when he does get under pressure—mostly because of his best friend, nicknamed “Wheels.” The reason Enoch is not popular among his peers is not just because of his stutter that prevents him from letting out a full sentence. It’s also because of his friendship and assistance to Wheels. Wheels is a smart aleck who won’t shut his mouth for even a minute. He also has Cerebral Palsy and is in a wheelchair, hence the nickname. These two share an odd friendship, having grown up together in a small community called War Eagle, in the Ozark Mountains. Enoch can’t talk, but can pitch very well; Wheels can’t walk, but he almost speaks for Enoch at some points—he can’t shut up. These two are the best of friends and they need each other. But Wheels is afraid of dragging Enoch down in the future.

The friendship between Enoch and Wheels is the main element of the independent film “War Eagle, Arkansas.” Theirs is a very refreshing coming-of-age story in that they don’t simply talk to each other about why they’re great friends or why they’re afraid of the future (it also helps that one of them has an uncontrollable stutter—I’m repeating myself, but let the record show that this kid has an even worse stutter than the geeky, stammering high school student who joined the debate team in 2007’s “Rocket Science”). When they get together and Enoch tries to come to Wheels with a problem, Wheels advises him and tries to help him, but not before using his acid tongue to a somewhat cruel outburst, even if some of what he’s saying is the truth.

“War Eagle, Arkansas” is a splendid piece of work. It doesn’t slip into melodramatic elements that would belong in a “movie-of-the-week.” Thankfully, the script by Graham Gordy doesn’t dumb down this coming-of-age story even when Enoch’s grandfather (well-played by Brian Dennehy) gives him multiple lectures about life. There are also nice, realistic supporting characters including Enoch’s mother (Mare Winningham) and Wheels’ mother (Mary Kay Place)—both love their children—and a video store owner named Jack (James McDaniel), who tries to build and open his own church in this small town. And then there’s a nice relationship between Enoch and a girl named Abby (helium-voiced Misti Traya), which has some comic timing in the ways that Enoch tries to use poetry as a pickup line, or when he writes conversations on his forearm to look at and bring up on their date. The relationship between Enoch and Abby almost strains the friendship between Enoch and Wheels when Enoch brings Abby to Wheels’ house. Wheels almost immediately regrets encouraging Enoch to ask Abby out. But he can’t just confront his friend and say how much jealousy contains him, not even when Enoch has a shot at a baseball scholarship for an out-of-state college.

And this friendship is one of the best coming-of-age teenage friendships I’ve seen in a movie. It helps especially that both boys are very well-acted. Enoch is played by Luke Grimes and Wheels is played by Dan McCabe. Both are newcomers, but they live and breathe their characters and do tremendous acting jobs. They play characters with differing personalities that really develop into one personality. The very best parts of the movie are when they’re together.

Also, the setting of the movie (a rural community) really makes you understand why Enoch and Wheels feel confused about their surroundings.

“War Eagle, Arkansas” is well-made with great performances. What I don’t understand is why, according to http://www.rottentomatoes.com, the sole review of this movie is from Philip Martin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Why is this movie so ignored? People need to see it because this is a terrific coming-of-age drama; one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Bandslam (2009)

29 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Bandslam” is advertised as sort of a “High School Musical” or “Camp Rock” clone. If you’re not familiar with those two references, you probably have a kid or two in your family that can explain. But you think that the actual film “Bandslam” really is a clone of those two full-of-pep, bit overly energetic Disney Channel movies, you’d be wrong. This is a really good teen film with fully-realized teen characters, snappy dialogue, good coming-of-age drama, and entertainment.

On second thought, this does have a lot of music and teenagers involved. And it is a feel-good movie. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the advertisements for selling it as an “HSM” clone but the film doesn’t go for the pep and energy all throughout.

The film’s central character is Will Burton (Gaelon Connell), who lives in a world all his own. He goes to high school, is new in town, and doesn’t fit in, like most teenagers. But he knows a lot about music and has a shrine dedicated to David Bowie. (The film’s narration comes from his writing letters to Bowie, who never responds.) He even judges people by what kind of music they listen to.

One day, he meets popular, attractive high school senior Charlotte (Aly Michalka, from that lame Disney Channel sitcom “Phil of the Future,” and of Aly & AJ). She shows him her band, complete with a drum loop, bass-playing Flea-wannabe “Bug,” and electric guitar-playing Asian-American British-wannabe Omar. They want to enter “Bandslam,” a battle-of-the-bands competition that everyone in school anxiously awaits. But Will doesn’t think they have a chance. Charlotte knows he knows a lot about music, so she appoints him as band manager.

One of the best things about this film is that the film and its stars really do know a lot about music. The script is very fresh and funny with references to Bowie, Springsteen, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the CBGB, a legendary New York club that was the start of punk rock. The film also delivers not the kind of teen characters we would expect in a film like this—an example is the third central character Sa5m (the “5” is silent). Vanessa Hudgens (HSM alum) portrays Sa5m not the way I would’ve imagined. She is NOT the Girl Who’s Full of Pep and Enthusiasm Who Falls for the Guy that she usually plays. Here, she’s an original—a loner, secret-keeping girl dressed usually in black who talks deadpan to keep herself from stuttering. She befriends Will as they work together on a human studies project and she has a musical talent too.

As the band—now labeled (get this) I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On—gains new members, which include a drummer with anger issues and a girl who plays classic piano, but is really good on a pop keyboard, Will starts to have fun for the first time in this new town. He teaches the band to improve at crucial points (I love the scene in which he makes them start out with “blue-beat” and work their way up), his friendship with Charlotte grows, as well as his friendship (and possible relationship) with Sa5m.

“Bandslam” is a very satisfying film—it’s intelligent in the way that it avoids the teen film clichés and gives us original, quirky characters and is also nonoffensive. Here’s a nice touch—none of the three main female characters (including Lisa Kudrow, who has a good role as Will’s supportive single mother) fall into the romantic comedy trap. Only one scene in this film falls into that category and that is the scene that we’ve all seen before—Sa5m wants Will to go see “Evil Dead 2” with her, but Charlotte has provided tickets to a rock band and Will totally forgets about the date with Sa5m, upsetting her. But luckily, the movie redeems itself with a satisfying scene in which Will and Sa5m present their own human study project.

The actors here are very good. Newcomer Gaelon Connell is especially good as the film’s lead—a likable awkward teen that makes us feel for him in the moments of drama (yes, there is drama involved, so take that into consideration). Vanessa Hudgens is compelling here as well—lovely singing voice too, but I already knew that. What also surprised me was the performance by Aly Michalka. After seeing her as the peppy, dumb girl in “Phil of the Future,” I was surprised by how well she can act and be taken seriously as an actress. When she shows how upset she is in those moments of drama, we believe her. We wonder what she’s doing hanging around with a few outcasts for a band, but the answer is revealed later in the movie and I will not give it away. Lisa Kudrow, as the mother, avoids the clichés of the overprotective mother and gives credible reasons for why she’s concerned about her son.

I enjoyed “Bandslam” very much. It has a good script and appealing characters—it does have a competition at the end between I Don’t Go On, I Go On and Charlotte’s boyfriend’s band, but even that scene is well done too. Parents, if you’re looking for a “High School Musical/Camp Rock” clone to dump the kids to see, my advice—keep looking, because “Bandslam” has a lot more on its mind than the advertisements gave itself credit for. I liked it very much.

Home of the Giants (2007)

29 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Home of the Giants” may seem to you like an average high school basketball movie in the same league as “Hoosiers” (indeed, this film takes place in Indiana), but you’d be wrong to assume that. Actually, describing what it really is might lose the film of its dignity, but I’ll try and make it seem as special as possible, because the truth is I really liked this movie.

“Home of the Giants” is actually a coming-of-age high school drama mixed with a crime thriller. It involves two teenage friends—a basketball jock, Matt (Ryan Merriman), who plays for his team called the Giants, and his entourage, Gar (Haley Joel Osment), who writes for the school paper. Matt is the big man on campus and can pretty much get away with anything. That’s how Gar sees Matt—he looks to Matt like a role model just as Matt looks to his ex-con older brother Keith (Kenneth Mitchell) as a role model. Keith has a job for Matt, and Matt fills Gar in on the plan to break into a possible drug dealer’s house and steal what is said to be a fortune. Gar isn’t so sure at first, but Matt talks him into it. But on the night of the heist, the guy (Brent Briscoe) comes home and it seems that Keith has cut off a finger or two while interrogating him. The days after, Matt and Gar find themselves in hot water, as the ticked-off guy stalks them and sends threatening notes, saying he plans to cut off Matt’s fingers as well. As you can plainly tell from that plot description, “Home of the Giants” is not your typical teen film.

The story development for “Home of the Giants” is smarter than you might think. The main conflict that these two kids face, other than the consequences they fear for themselves, is the difference between their friends and their heroes. If you help the person you look up to the most, why exactly are you doing that? Would he help you in a jam to return the favor? Is this really the person you’d want to be like? Etc. This is what makes “Home of the Giants” more of a coming-of-age story than anything else. The basketball scenes and the crime drama mesh surprisingly well together, and lead to a great payoff that comes with the final basket—I hardly ever felt as much suspense as I did with the final basket at the end of the final basketball game in a movie. Even the little details feel authentic, compared to most movies that feature high school sports. For example, neither of the boys’ fathers is abusive or a one-dimensional jerk that just slows things down for them. They have their reasons for worrying about their sons.

But there’s one very important element that I want to bring up. Whenever Matt wants Gar to do something that Gar doesn’t really want to do, Matt pulls the “I thought we were friends” card and Gar goes through with it. I’ve been through that situation many times with a high school friend before. Back in high school, I was an average guy and I was constantly caught between my friends, my heroes, and those who just tried to drag me down. I related to the character of Gar throughout this movie.

Speaking of whom, Haley Joel Osment, as Gar, has stepped out of his bright-little-boy roles and is acting his age. His acting isn’t as awkward as his obvious early-puberty stage in “Secondhand Lions.” As a conflicted high school student, Osment is totally convincing and sympathetic. Ryan Merriman is solid and winning as Matt, Kenneth Mitchell is suitably smarmy as Keith, and Brent Briscoe, almost reprising his similarly-slimy bad-guy role in “A Simple Plan,” has a good moment or two when he’s not merely looking intimidating. I wish that cute Danielle Panabaker, as Gar’s potential girlfriend Bridgette, had more to do, but she makes the most of her scenes.

“Home of the Giants” may sound like an odd idea for a coming-of-age high school drama, but it’s handled nicely and it’s neither dumb nor boring. The acting is solid, the direction is well-done, and the message of friends and heroes is very effective. This is a great film for teenagers who should seek this out, because it will be worth their time, and I think they’ll even see themselves portrayed here as well.

Permanent Record (1988)

29 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The term “teen movie” could easily be described as a comedy or drama about teenagers and just that. But only the bad “teen movies” are just that. But the best of this genre (I guess “teen movie” could be considered a genre) features more intelligence than expected—movies like “Tex” and “Lucas,” among others. Here is another movie to add to that list. It’s called “Permanent Record” and it’s about an event that a group of teenagers must cope with. It’s a movie so good that it’s unfair to even put it in a list with other “teen movies.” (OK, I’ll stop with the quotation marks.)

The first shot of the movie rings true. It’s a shot of a group of teenage friends who hang out together with their cars on top of a high bluff overlooking the sea. They have their own conversations and we see that they’re good friends. The camera pans all throughout the friends as they talk and mess around with each other. This shot isn’t forced and there doesn’t seem to be any acting (but we know these kids are played by actors).

One of these characters catches our eye as the first half of the movie unfolds with not necessarily a plotline. This character is a high school student named David (Alan Boyce), a model student. He gets good grades, is a nice guy, is a talented guitar player, helps compose the music for the school production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and has just received a scholarship from a great music school. He has about everything going for him. But something is wrong. He feels that he is too busy for the scholarship, but the principal reminds him that it’s not for another two years. He is also a bit impatient when teaching his best friend Chris (Keanu Reeves) to play guitar. Chris can be good at it, but he doesn’t focus enough and that almost makes David mad.

This first half is great because it shows that David, Chris, and their friends are teenagers who are bright and thoughtful. They are not like most teenagers you see in other movies. And their high school days are not routine. They’re well-written and insightful. The way David’s crisis gets worse is so subtle. We don’t need dialogue to see what’s really going on in this kid’s life. And it really hits us hard when the second half occurs right after Chris sees David on top of that high bluff from the opening shot, then he looks again and he’s gone.

Many of David’s friends believe that David’s death was an accident. But soon, Chris receives a letter from David before he died—a suicide note that explained that David wanted everything to be perfect and it wasn’t. Chris is convinced that David has indeed committed suicide and tells everyone because they deserve to know. But knowing that this model student committed suicide is even worse than trying to deal with his death. Nobody knows how to feel anymore and the rest of the movie is about Chris and David’s other friends as they express rage, cry over his death, and feel sorrow. Was there anything they could’ve done to stop him from killing himself? “Permanent Record” features the kind of realism and emotion expressed by realistic teenagers over a friend’s death that I looked for and missed in the ‘80s after-school special “A Desperate Exit,” which featured Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Rob Stone. The way these teenagers express their emotions feels authentic and real. Credit director Marisa Silver and her writers Jarre Fees, Alice Liddle and Larry Ketron for creating a story with such subtle realism.

The performances of the teenaged characters are spot on, especially by Alan Boyce as David, Keanu Reeves as Chris, Michelle Meyrink (“Real Genius”) as their friend MG, and Jennifer Rubin as David’s girlfriend Lauren. And another intriguing character is their school principal, played by Richard Bradford. He shows very little, but we somehow know he is a good man who is unlike the mean-spirited high school principals in other movies. Also, the parents are given something in particular to do. They are not entirely absent here. They show up when the time is right.

Everything leads to the heartwarming final scene, in which “The Pirates of Penzance” goes on without David to arrange the music. But David is remembered in a way I will not describe. It’s such a great scene. And because of that scene, there is a sense that life will go on for these kids. But they will also realize that life isn’t perfect. Life is problems, but they have to deal with it in the way that David couldn’t. That message is emphasized at just the right note. It didn’t need to carry out even further. If it had, it would’ve cost the movie its subtlety.

Tex (1982)

29 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When American audiences feel that all a movie really needs in order to satisfy them is a crime caper and a chase scene, it’s rare for the 1980s that a movie like “Tex” comes along. This is a movie about real people in realistic situations and the whole movie is just about a few weeks in their lives. What’s even more surprising and great about this movie is that most of these people are teenagers. They’re some of the most engaging group of teenagers I’ve seen in any movie. They’re the characters of “Tex,” adapted from a young adult novel by S.E. Hinton. S.E. Hinton is an author who clearly understands teenage talk, problems, and behavior (she also proved that with “The Outsiders,” one of my favorite books). “Tex” is faithful to the novel and even more alert towards its teenage characters.

The main focuses among these teenagers are two brothers named Tex and Mason McCormick. Tex (Matt Dillon) is a simple-minded yet engaging fifteen-year-old and Mason (Jim Metzler) is a cynical, basketball-playing eighteen-year-old. They live alone in Bixby, Oklahoma. Their mother is long dead and their father is a rodeo cowboy who hardly ever comes home and forgets to send the boys money at times. So the boys have to raise themselves (well actually, it’s Mason raising Tex) and they do a good job of it. But they need money, food, and heat. So Mason is forced to sell Tex’s beloved horse and that brings Tex in a world of emotions and partial hatred towards his brother.

We meet their friends—Tex’s motorcycle-riding best friend Johnny (Emilio Estevez) and Johnny’s smart aleck feminist of a sister named Jamie (Meg Tilly) whom Tex has a crush on. Their father (Ben Johnson) is a strict man who doesn’t want Tex and Mason associating with his kids—at one point, he even commands Johnny to promise not to be Tex’s best friend anymore. What he doesn’t see (or doesn’t even want to believe) is that his kids are just as unpredictable as Tex and Mason. We also meet another kid named Lem (Phil Brock) who got a girl pregnant, married her, and moved to Tulsa in order to care for his new wife and the newborn baby. But he also deals drugs. Tex doesn’t realize this, but Mason has known it a long time, even when he seems very happy that his baby is born. This situation leads to a violent scene in which Lem and Tex, who is basically looking for trouble, are caught up in a jam with one of Lem’s customers.

The story includes a lot of conflict, conversations amongst the characters, and more. This is a movie about events in these kids’ everyday lives and because we believe in these kids, we stay focused on their story. How the story develops in “Tex” is more to the point than actually what happens when it develops.

“Tex” is very well-acted. Matt Dillon is appealing as this simple-minded central character named Tex, and Jim Metzler is great as his knowing-well older brother Mason. Actually, I believe Metzler has the more complicated role than Dillon’s, because he has to play surrogate father to his stubborn younger brother and constantly keep him in line. I truly believed in these characters so much that I didn’t really care much for the plot. They’re realistic teenagers given room to learn and grow and I was interested in watching them do just those.

“Tex” is a movie that seems like true events are occurring, and I think that was what S.E. Hinton was originally shooting for when she wrote the novel it was based upon. “Tex” is a great movie, though it’s sadly overlooked by many. I hope more people seek this out and admire what this movie has to offer.

Project X (2012)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Project X” is a loud, obnoxious teensploitation movie that at some points reminded me of the offensive, tasteless moments in “Porky’s”…but also the finer moments in “The Hangover,” “Superbad,” and “Animal House.” At times when I was nearly feeling unclean or rolling my eyes in disbelief, I have to admit I laughed, but more importantly, I marveled at the film’s bravery to go the extra mile. Going the extra mile in a teen movie like this should make me hate it, but instead, I found “Project X” to be funny, nicely-made, and even intense when it needed to be.

The film is presented in the “found-footage” concept, which I have to admit I am growing tired of with each film using this format—films like “Blair Witch Project,” “Cloverfield,” “Paranormal Activity,” and even “Chronicle,” a film released a month before this one. “Project X” is mostly seen through the point of view of a video camera used to document the ultimate, “game-changing” house party.

It starts out as a birthday party for likable, average high-schooler Thomas (Thomas Mann), whose parents leave him in charge of the house for a couple of days. You know the drill—throw a party, get in trouble, raise some hell, and clean it all up before the parents return. We’ve seen all this before; it can be traced back to “Risky Business” in 1983.

The hosts are the overweight, geeky, glasses-wearing J.B. (Jonathan Brown) and the loud, crude, vulgar, loathsome, sweater-vest-wearing Costa (Oliver Cooper). They recruit an AV Club member named Dax (Dax Flame) to bring a camera around and record the party. Thus, we see the setup to the event—the parents leaving, Thomas forced to drive Mom’s minivan to school, Costa sending texts to everyone in school to show up at the party, as well as Costa constantly bragging about getting laid. I’m serious—this kid never shuts up. He’s probably the most unlikeable teenage-movie jerk you’ll ever come across, and you just want to hit him with a blunt object. Things don’t get much better with him, such as whenever something is damaged, he constantly says he can fix it; “no problem.”

Then we have the party—we have beer, we have drunk teenagers dancing and making fools of themselves, and we get more than three montages of them having a great time to a heavy soundtrack. (These montages grow monotonously with each one.) But we also have some trouble, like you’d expect from…well, every teenage house-party movie. There are too many people than expected (“Of course; it’s ‘plus-one,’” Costa explains to Thomas), a few freshmen try to sneak into the party, and Thomas attempts to get lucky with the popular girl in school, not realizing that his best girl-pal Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton) is the right one for him. When will we—er, I mean, he—ever learn?!

That’s how the party starts out, if you can believe it. As the night goes on, like you’d expect, things go wrong. But in the case with “Project X,” things go very, very wrong. In fact, the movie becomes less of a comedy and more of a horror movie. Things get more intense, mostly unbelievable, with each new twist in the event. And to be honest…that’s kind of funny. Not knowing what’s going to happen, and just knowing that every new occurrence is going to be worse than the last one, makes “Project X” a cross between “Risky Business” and “Cloverfield.” Everything you couldn’t think of going wrong goes wrong here. And I won’t give anything away.

And the way the party ends—the final five minutes of the event—is just crazy. It’s so exaggerated and so violent that I realize that I did not merely see a teenage comedy—I saw a teenage horror movie. It’s so “out there,” but I loved it. And the point-of-view of the video camera really adds to the intensity.

Why did I like “Project X” when I despised the same material that made teensploitation films like “Porky’s” so popular? I think the main reason I liked the film was because with all the craziness that occurs in this movie (the party becomes a life-endangering event rather than just a drunken, loud, naked, sex-crazed house party), this is that rare teen film in which every dangerous deed has consequences. And no consequences will ever be as memorable as the aftermath of a crazed druggie with a flamethrower.

The Lost Boys (1987)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s always fun to see horror movies that use old-school elements and update them into fresh modern entertainments, and “The Lost Boys” represents an appealing, fun look at the definitive vampire stories. This movie has the traditional vampire elements—vampires stalk the night and kill for human blood, and for weapons to fight them off, wooden stakes and holy water always come in handy. Where “The Lost Boys” differs is the teenage outlook. The lost boys in the title are teenage vampires living in Santa Carla, California—they dress like punk rockers, ride through the beach on their motorcycles in the night, and live in a cavern (with a Jim Morrison poster on the wall). They just happen to grow fangs, fly through the air and attack people (and drink their blood).

Oh, and who do they have to lure people into their traps occasionally? They have a “lost girl” who looks stunning while the boys look threatening. The latest person that falls for this is a young man named Michael (Jason Patric). Michael has moved to Santa Carla (which is often referred to as the Murder Capital of the World) with his divorced mother (Dianne Wiest) and younger brother Sam (Corey Haim). While checking out the boardwalk on their first night in town, Michael sees the girl—Star (Jami Gertz)—at a rock concert and follows her until they stop for a chat. It’s then that the Lost Boys—led by David (Kiefer Sutherland)—introduce themselves to Michael and decide to let him join their crowd.

Sam, a comic book geek, visits the local comic store and encounters a pair of brothers who work there—Edgar and Alan Frog (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander). They warn him of vampires swarming Santa Carla and they’re the ones to wipe them out. They give him a special comic titled “Vampires Everywhere.” “Think of it as a survival manual,” one of them tells Sam. “Our number’s on the back, and pray you never need to call us.” This proves to come in handy, as Michael falls in with the Lost Boys after drinking a little wine (which could be blood) and joining in on their bizarre activities (such as clinging on to a railroad bridge while a train passes by). But Michael himself is going through some changes—he sleeps during the day, barely has a reflection, and is starting to crave his brother’s blood. Sam freaks out, “You’re a vampire, Michael! My own brother—a damn bloodsucking vampire! You wait ‘til Mom finds out, buddy!”

This vampire problem is more of a way of Santa Carla’s nuisance, among the weird locals, mainly youths, of the town (most of which we see in an opening montage as The Doors’ “People are Strange” is playing). With that said, who would believe that these teenage punks who dress in leather and spikes could turn out to be vampires? But when they ultimately make themselves known, they mean business. These aren’t teenagers merely having fun—these are vile humanistic beasts that slaughter without mercy, while having fun doing it.

But hey, it’s nothing that some wooden stakes, garlic, and holy water can’t fix, right?

“The Lost Boys” is far from a standard horror film. It has a nice serious-satiric edge that fits nicely with the teenage-vampire-horror elements. The idea of these vampires being teenage punks living in a cavernous hangout (did I mention the Jim Morrison poster?) is fun enough, but then they are found deeper in the caves, hanging from the ceiling while sleeping. “I thought they were supposed to be in coffins.” “That’s what this cave is—one giant coffin.” The funniest parts of the movie are with the Frog brothers, whom Sam of course calls to help kill the vampires and save his brother. These are two teenagers who pretend to be Rambo and have suitable game-faces for going into battle. What’s great about this is that it’s not played for laughs—it’s the way that both young actors play them, as serious as possible, that makes these two characters enjoyable.

But of course, they are just teenage boys fighting vampires. At their crucial point of battle, their lives are actually saved by a dog. How embarrassing for them.

“The Lost Boys” is an immensely entertaining movie with wild ideas, a nice comic edge, and good acting. It’s also great to look at. The movie was photographed in rich, dark colors by Michael Chapman, and as a result, “The Lost Boys” always contains that grimness that should come in a vampire story. The night scenes particularly look fantastic. But that’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its flaws. For one thing, it’s a little overstuffed, especially with elements of Dianne Wiest as Michael and Sam’s unbelievably dim mother (she’s too slow to catch on with the madness), and Ed Hermann as a video store clerk who dates her, and whom Sam believes is the head vampire. Actually, that’s necessary. But then there’s Barnard Hughes playing a caricature of an eccentric Grandpa (“Read the TV Guide, you don’t need a TV”). He’s funny, but at times very distracting.

Of the actors, Corey Haim is very likable as Sam, and displays good comic timing while reacting to most of everything around him. Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander steal the show as the in-over-their-heads Frog brothers. Jason Patric is merely adequate as Michael, but to be fair, I don’t believe the character was written properly. But the real standout is Kiefer Sutherland as David, the leader of the Lost Boys. Sutherland smirks like no other and has a natural menace within him. It’s a strong performance.

The final act of “The Lost Boys” features Michael, Sam, Star, and the Frog Brothers as they fight off the vampires who storm Grandpa’s house while the mother and Grandpa are away. While it is exciting and has its share of awesome and darkly funny moments (they fill a bathtub up with holy water and garlic so that a vampire implodes inside it, damaging the plumbing of the house), I have to wonder if there was some other way this could have gone. Maybe this could’ve taken the direction of a psychological or philosophical look at what it means to be a teenage vampire, for example. But that was just a personal preference. Otherwise, the climax is relatively electrifying and quite fun. And that’s what can be said of the whole movie.

The Neverending Story (1984)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Neverending Story” is a clever, original, entertaining fantasy-adventure that uses familiar elements and creates inventive new turns for them. As a result, it’s an engaging adventure all the way through.

The most notable of these inventive twists is the lack of a standard villain. Instead of a high-ruling, magic, boring, evil wizard looking to destroy the fantasy world, we have something more complex. In the fantasy land called Fantasia, set in “The Neverending Story,” there’s an abstract entity known as the Nothing. It obliterates everything it touches so that there’s absolutely nothing left. It’s growing more powerful and about to destroy all of Fantasia. Now that’s a threat.

“The Neverending Story” begins in the real modern world as a bright, imaginative young boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) is picked on by the school bullies who chase him into a bookstore. He’s interested in the book that the librarian is reading. The librarian tells him that the books Bastian reads are safe because they’re only stories. He mystically implies that this book—the Neverending Story—has a lot more to offer, and so Bastian takes it in curiosity. He skips school and follows the world of Fantasia, as the Nothing is a worldwide menace.

Sent to seek out a way to stop the Nothing is a child warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), who ventures off into the weird lands of Fantasia. Along the way, he encounters many strange, helpful creatures, runs into some heavy obstacles, and as the story continues and Atreyu is finding answers, Bastian, still reading the book, is starting to believe that these new twists and turns in the story are because of his own imagination filling in most of the story. And it seems like the people of Fantasia actually know of Bastian. Impossible, right? That’s exactly what Bastian believes. But things get stranger and clearer until it seems as if the one that can save Fantasia is indeed Bastian.

That concept is actually probably the most intriguing part of the movie—the idea that a child’s faith can control fate and save lives (and possibly along with a whole new world). And it’s also interesting that while the cowardly Bastian is reading a book in which a boy his age is the exact opposite of him, it helps that when Atreyu does lose confidence, Bastian is the one who has to gain it back. “Be confident,” Bastian says, now very much caught up in the story. He’s really telling himself that so that later he’ll have the courage to follow his dreams. That was a clever touch.

The creatures that Atreyu encounters are all appealing and memorable. In particular, Atreyu’s Yoda-like figure on this adventure is an insightful, optimistic, humble “Luckdragon” called Falkor, who looks like a dog but can also fly, with Atreyu on his back. There are other weird creatures in this movie (you can see a lot in the gathering in one of the early scenes—it reminded me of the bar scene in “Star Wars”), and my absolute favorite is a hundred-story-high, gentle stone creature known as a Rockbiter (guess what he eats).

The sets are very impressive. Fantasia sort of resembles Wonderland and features the same kind of strange characters as such, like the scientific gnome and the man riding a racing snail. The art direction is quite imaginative. And the special effects are quite impressive here, considering most of them were probably models, puppets, and animatronics. They’re all pretty convincing and they actually manage to take what could have been a silly creature like the Rockbiter and make him into a sympathetic character.

I also really enjoyed the story and how creative it was along the way. Aside from Bastian possibly becoming the real hero and the whole concept of the Nothing itself, there are entertaining obstacles for Atreyu to overcome. I’ve already mentioned this scene briefly in an above paragraph, but it’s the most tense—it’s a scene in which Atreyu must be brave enough to make his way through a magic gate to the other side; otherwise, he’ll be zapped and destroyed. And then there’s a wolf creature that’s bent on destroying Atreyu before he succeeds on his quest—he gives a speech about lack of human imagination that is surprisingly complicatedly effective for a children’s movie. And that sets up the whole final act.

This isn’t really an actors’ movie, though the two young leads—Barret Oliver and Noah Hathaway—are adequate enough. But the voice acting of the Rockbiter, Falkor, and G’Mork (the wolf) deserve praise, and strangely enough, they were all done by one voice actor—Alan Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer has a talent for voice acting and has many distinct voices, all of which give new personality to each character.

The ultimate weapon throughout “The Neverending Story” is imagination. Stories don’t create themselves. It takes a special creative mind to keep them going. Although, you could argue that this might not be the best message for kids, since the movie opens with Bastian’s father telling him to grow up and face reality, and then he ultimately decides to use imagination to save a fantasy world. But the best way to accept this development is to look at “The Neverending Story” strictly as a fairy tale. Who really grows up in a fairy tale? And for that matter, it’s not like we all forget our imaginations in the real world, no matter how old we get. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be any filmmakers to create something as fresh and inspired as “The Neverending Story.”

The Freshman (1990)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Freshman” could be considered a spin-off of “The Godfather,” since both movies feature a character who is not only entirely similar to each other, but also played by Marlon Brando. In “The Godfather,” he was Don Vito Corleone. In “The Freshman,” he’s Carmine Sabatini, the man that is said to have inspired the character in “The Godfather” (despite the fact that “The Godfather” was a novel before it was a film). In every way respectful, he is the Godfather. He looks like him, acts like him, talks like him, and has the same kind of what could be considered discreet authority as him. With Marlon Brando playing the role of Sabatini, it’s in the great tradition of the original character Corleone, and not taken as a ripoff or a cheap shot.

And what’s better is that “The Freshman” is not supposed to be as serious and epic as “The Godfather.” It’s a comedy—this is the joke; Brando pays a Mafia man extraordinary similar in every way to Don Corleone. And the screenplay and supporting actors don’t let him down.

The story isn’t necessarily about him, like how “The Godfather” wasn’t necessarily about the Godfather. But like the Godfather, Sabatini plays a crucial role in a young man’s life. The young man in “The Freshman” is a film school student Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick). He has left his home in Vermont to attend New York University to study film. Things don’t start out very well, as his luggage and money are stolen by thief Victor Ray (Bruno Kirby). When Clark goes to school, his film professor (Paul Benedict) doesn’t tolerate excuses.

Clark confronts the thief and demands his stuff back. Instead, Victor offers Clark a job. He brings him down to Little Italy, where Carmine Sabatini socializes and keeps his office. Clark can’t believe the striking resemblance to Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, but Victor advises him not to bring it up. Clark has a conversation with Sabatini and it is like he’s actually talking to the Godfather. It intrigues him (and in some way, scares him), so Clark takes the job when the offer is made.

The job involves the movement of a giant lizard—a Komodo Dragon. In a very funny sequence of events, Clark and his roommate Steve (Frank Whaley) attempt to be discreet about moving this lizard from an airport and driving it (an especially difficult task) to an animal smuggler (Maximilian Schell) and his assistant (B.D. Wong).

But before he knows it, Clark finds himself a part of the Mafia family. Clark is doing what Sabatini and Victor tell him to do through a lot of convincing, and he’s also in the middle of a relationship with Sabatini’s daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) that goes way too fast for him, even pressuring into marriage. Everyone is even doing favors for him, like subtly threatening Clark’s film professor for an A-grade. And things get him in more legal danger than he expected. What’s he to do?

“The Freshman” is a sharp, funny, well-written movie that really makes good use, paying homage to “The Godfather” (clips of it are even shown in film class as examples). And it features a highly respectable performance by Marlon Brando, who is truly marvelous in playing a variation of the iconic character he brought to life. It’s strange that Brando didn’t think as highly of the film as I do, as well as most people who saw it. It’s reported that he attacked the movie when it first screened, calling it trash. Well, Brando may be a highly dedicated actor, but he’s no film critic. “The Freshman” is very enjoyable.

The Big Easy (1987)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Big Easy” starts out as a thriller, and then it turns into an erotic romance. Then it goes back to being a thriller again and then an erotic romance again, until the film finally becomes a romance/thriller. That usually comes rare in the movies, since in most thrillers, whatever romance develops isn’t quite as important as its own central story. But “The Big Easy” manages to keep consistency in both elements.

As you may have guessed, the Big Easy in the title refers to the nickname of New Orleans, Louisiana. And New Orleans is quite a unique city to set a thriller, as it’s one of the most mysterious cities, as far as I’m concerned. It’s humid and quite eerie with its many alleyways and courtyards. There had to be a thriller to come around and use it as its location.

“The Big Easy” starts with an investigation of the dead body of a Mafia (or “wise-guy”) member, found lying in a fountain. We meet our two main characters who are on the case. They’re a police lieutenant named Remy McSwain (Dennis Quaid) and an assistant district attorney named Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin). They meet in Remy’s office and are immediately attracted to each other, despite Anne wanting to keep this a professional relationship. They go out to dinner that night, and she rightfully accuses Remy of being on the take, to which Remy responds by saying she doesn’t know how the system works around here.

After some bickering between them, they wind up forming a passionate love affair with each other, mainly because Remy is too persistent. But after a couple days, their affair ends when Remy is caught on videotape while accepting payoffs in an Internal Affairs sting. Anne becomes his prosecutor, which makes things pretty tense for both of them.

Anne takes her job (and burden) seriously, despite her affair with Remy, and she nearly puts him in jail. But with the help of some folks at the station, the evidence is destroyed and Remy gets off scot-free. Anne wants to forget about all of this, but Remy has arranged for her to be “arrested” and brought to his mother’s house, where a party is being held and Remy would like to dance with her, as he’s still in love with her. This is a great scene.

But soon enough, more killings continue and it seems like someone on the police force might be involved, and so Remy and Anne work together again. While doing so, their romance is further developed.

“The Big Easy” is great because it manages to take a string of these nicely-developed, interesting characters and manages to fit them into a thriller that is not one of those assembly-line thrillers, but a real interesting caper that gets more intriguing and investing as it goes along. I wasn’t expecting much from the story in the first few minutes as much as I was enjoying the company of these characters on-screen. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that I was really getting into the mystery. And when one of the characters that I have become accustomed to turns out to be involved with the bad guys, I was actually pretty surprised because I didn’t want that person to be associated. That lets you know a thriller is working.

The two leads are intriguing roles and real three-dimensional characters as well. Remy, we see, is both honest and dishonest in doing his duty as a cop. Sometimes he does the wrong things, but for what he thinks are the right reasons—like arranging a “widow and children’s fund” so he can use the money to keep his younger brother (Tom O’Brien) through college. He’s also cocky and very persistent, and that’s how he usually gets his way. But that doesn’t mean that Anne isn’t a tough cookie. She’s smart, fierce, and will do anything to get what she needs, and yet she falls for this guy because she notices his charm. Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin do excellent jobs at playing these characters, and their love scenes are some of the most erotic I’ve seen in a movie—it’s mostly realistic.

But the supporting characters are given time to develop and shine. There’s the sincere police chief (Ned Beatty, excellent here) who isn’t constantly arguing with Remy like most chiefs, but actually fools around with him because the two are good buddies. And there are the other guys down the station, constantly making wisecracks at each other, even at a crime scene. There’s Remy’s younger brother who comes in at the wrong times. And last but not least, in fact he’s my favorite supporting character—Lamar Parmentel (Charles Ludlam), a Cajun-accented defense attorney in a Panama hat and a summer suit.

New Orleans also seems like a major character in the movie—no wonder the movie is called “The Big Easy.” The feel of the city is just right—the people, the locations, the music, and even the food are given notice as colorful New Orleans elements.

Sure, the movie ends with a typical showdown involving Remy and Anne versus the revealed killers, but even that’s well-done. It’s not as long as most climaxes go, and it even does the smart thing by making it seem like the characters’ actions are in their nature. “The Big Easy” is not just a thriller, and it’s not just a romance either. Those expecting either of those will be surprised by a great movie.