Archive | March, 2013

The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)

27 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Children sometimes like to pretend their action figures are alive—they play their games with this imaginative concept and treat their tiny figures as if they were real people. But because these kids know their toys are not truly living, they feel free to subject them to all sorts of playful tricks in an imaginary war for them. But what if these toys actually did come to life? They wouldn’t be toys, though. They would be real, three-to-four-inch high people. Throw them around in these previously-harmless games, and they will be injured or worse. These kids would then have to learn responsibility in the case of looking out for these new companions, because they truly are new companions. That’s how “The Indian in the Cupboard” manages to teach lessons to kids without feeling the need to preach. It’s an interesting concept for a family film, and it’s put to good use.

Based on the popular novel by Lynne Reid Banks and adapted by “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Matheson, “The Indian in the Cupboard” joins that special class of family films that truly know its target audience and treat them with enough intelligence as well as entertainment value that also manages to teach something. There’s as much focus to the story as there is to the (required) special effects. As a result, the kids are not only entertained, but they feel they learned something from the movie. And adults, or rather parents of these young children, won’t be bored by it.

“The Indian in the Cupboard” begins as a boy named Omri (Hal Scardino) is celebrating his ninth birthday. He gets a skateboard and the latest toys, but also a little plastic Indian figure and an old cupboard. Omri finds a key that fits the cupboard lock and puts the Indian inside it. He learns, to his amazement, that once he sticks a figurine in the cupboard, turns the key in the lock, and opens the door, that figurine comes to life. That’s what happens with the Indian, who is now a living, breathing, four-inch tall Iroquois native named Little Bear who sees Omri as a giant and reacts with awe and fear. Omri and Little Bear (Litefoot) soon befriend one another, as Omri realizes just how real Little Bear really is. “He talks, he eats, he trusts me,” Omri writes in his classroom story about the ongoing experience.

It’s here that the lesson of responsibility comes into place. Omri knows that this previously plastic toy is now suddenly alive because of this cupboard, and at one point feels free to try this new discovery on other toys (RoboCop and Darth Vader, in one brief scene), but once he does this, he realizes that this is not a game to play. This is a dangerous, delicate new thing that Omri must be careful with. He must also make sure that Little Bear is safe while he decides to stay in Omri’s world for a while—once Little Bear is out of Omri’s sight, he is attacked by a bird, and so Omri uses the cupboard to bring a British wartime medic, Tommy (well-played by Steve Coogan), to life for help. That also brings into the question of overusing this gift just because he can—Omri learns that if he’s going to do it again, there has to be a good reason for it. At one point, Little Bear even points out, “You should not do magic you do not understand!” “The Indian in the Cupboard” is effective at stating that everyone must be responsible for their actions, even a child.

Midway through the movie, Omri’s friend Patrick (Rishi Bhat) is let in on the secret, but Patrick is defiant and decides to use the cupboard himself, despite Omri telling him this is too much responsibility for him to handle. Patrick brings to life a cowboy figurine (and his horse) that becomes a cranky, emotional cowboy named “Boo-Hoo” Boone (David Keith) that of course sees Little Bear as a “stinkin’ savage” and so the two are at war with each other. So while Omri has to convince Patrick that having this four-inch person around is something to think further about, he also has to make sure the cowboy and the Indian get along. A clever, nice touch.

The visual effects in “The Indian in the Cupboard” are outstanding. Mixing the young actors (Hal Scardino and Rishi Bhat) with miniature people are seamless and well-done. They look like they’re right there in the frame with each other. Also, the effects aren’t flashy; they’re executed in a surprisingly plausible manner (notice how in some shots, the little people are out of focus in comparison to the “big” kids), which helps make it easy to suspend disbelief. There’s another fantastic effects shot that shows Little Bear in the palm of Omri’s hand, and it looks so convincingly real.

What it really comes down to with “The Indian in the Cupboard” is its messages of ethics and relationships. The themes of ethics are present in this movie, but they’re not thrown at your face. We see Omri’s growth and learn along with him, which also makes this more of a coming-of-age story than anything else. The relationships are present not only with Omri and Little Bear, but with Little Bear and Boone who do sort of become friends, despite their differences. They’re both tense yet interesting relationships to follow.

I don’t want to make “The Indian in the Cupboard” seem like so much of a family drama with special effects, because the movie is also a good deal of fun. There are little touches that help make the film interesting and fun to watch (as they follow along with the morals and ethics), including the character of Tommy who is fascinated by what happens to him (though he believes it’s a dream, to be sure) whenever Omri has to bring him to life for help. And of course, having a cupboard that can bring anything to life is undeniably fascinating—I love the bit in which Omri offers Little Bear a plastic tepee on his first night, and then uses the cupboard to make it into a real one. There’s also a crucial scene in which Omri and Patrick are forced to keep an eye out for a loose pet rat and make sure it doesn’t get to Little Bear and Boone, and there comes a satiation later in which Little Bear must go underneath the floorboards of Omri’s bedroom in order to retrieve the cupboard key, while the rat might also be loose down there. (Though, I’m not going to lie—I kind of wished there was an action sequence in which Little Bear fights off the rat. Instead, we’re subjected to seeing the boys as they listen for danger. But that’s a minor nitpick.) The best way to describe “The Indian in the Cupboard” is saying it’s smart, entertaining, and downright magical.

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987)

27 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Wouldn’t it be nice if one small boy reached out for people to listen to him about the way the world is with nuclear weapons, and a high-profile NBA star immediately followed? Of course with the NBA star following this kid’s way of reaching out to the world, the public would be telling the story to the world, making them both heard…but not exactly followed. In the case of “Amazing Grace and Chuck,” the kid is a Little League pitcher named Chuck (Joshua Zuehlke) who is disturbed by what he sees on a tour of a nuclear missile base. He is so disturbed that he makes a vow that until the bombs go away, he won’t pitch Little League baseball.

Chuck doesn’t have a big plan. No, he just says he “can’t play because of nuclear weapons.” This makes him the object of mockery by his classmates and some of the adults in town. His parents try to convince him that this won’t solve anything. But Chuck doesn’t care—he just won’t play.

When someone stops doing the thing that someone does best because of the existence of nuclear weapons, you can expect it to be on the news. Chuck’s story reaches Boston and catches the ear of a Celtics star named Amazing Grace Smith (Alex English). He comes all the way down to Chuck’s hometown out west to meet with the kid and announces that he’ll do the same thing—that is, he’ll quit playing basketball until the bombs go away. And so, the national news is all over this story. People are upset by Amazing’s decision, including Amazing’s agent (Jamie Lee Curtis).

But when a movement like this (as short as it is) goes public, both sides of the world have a little bit of conflict that may grow into something bigger. Before anything (that includes the movie itself) can go too far, the President of the United States (Gregory Peck) speaks with Chuck and tries to convince him to quit this protest. Now this is where the movie is really surprising. This is the point where the movie is supposed to give up on itself and give us cheesy situations and corny dialogue. A movie is in trouble when the President needs to tell a kid to stop what he’s started. But the surprising thing is, Gregory Peck plays the President so well that there isn’t a false note within the performance. He is utterly convincing in this role.

The script doesn’t let him or the kid down either. Something I should have mentioned earlier—Chuck is quiet through most of the movie. He speaks only when he needs to (there are rare moments when he wants to). Eventually, everyone notices this when Chuck is silent through the final half of the film. This works for many reasons—1) We don’t get any scenes of the kid whining about how this is turning out. 2) In being quiet, power is given. 3) He is also quiet when with the President. There are no arguments between the kid and the President to force the President to change his mind about things. There are no big explanations, there aren’t a lot of questions answered, and there is hardly any corny dialogue. And strangely, it works. This is a fresh script.

I also liked the friendship between Chuck and Amazing, the relationship between Chuck and his father, and the exchange of angry words between Amazing and the father, who is jealous that Amazing is seemingly taking his place as role model. I also felt that the Jamie Lee Curtis character was credible.

Just because I felt the relationships between the central characters and Gregory Peck as the President were credible, the story is not entirely credible. This kind of thing about a world peace movement started by one little thing doesn’t happen as easily. But “Amazing Grace and Chuck” is a pleasant little movie that doesn’t expect us to believe that this is realistic. We can buy it as fantasy certainly. But still…wouldn’t it be nice? And that’s the question that the film ends with.

License to Drive (1988)

27 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“License to Drive” seems like it’s going somewhere special. It has the premise of a kid failing his driving exam yet he still wants to drive. You would expect something fresh to come from this idea. But you’d be wrong. Instead, “License to Drive” gives us an entire second half of complications, out-of-control, near-death car accidents (none of which fatal but they’re still not funny), and a long chase sequence. That’s too bad too, because the first half is quite amusing.

The movie stars Corey Haim as an average teenager named Les. Like many high school students, he has a crush on the pretty girl in school—in this movie, she has the nice name of Mercedes—and really wants to drive. But of course, he isn’t focused enough in studying, and his wild, reckless best friend Dean (Corey Feldman, who co-starred with Haim in “The Lost Boys”) isn’t very motivational—“You’ve been a passenger in a car all your life—you don’t need to study.” Les does, however, have a brainy twin sister who studies very hard. When it’s time to take the test, his sister passes, but Les is unfortunate enough to fail. Even more unfortunately, he already scheduled a date with Mercedes (Heather Graham) that he certainly can’t bail on now. So Les asks (right to the camera, breaking the fourth wall and letting us know that we’re in for a different movie), “An innocent girl, a harmless drive, what could possibly go wrong?” There’s always a line like that in these movies.

I wish “License to Drive” hadn’t driven down that route, so to speak, because the first half is most enjoyable. Corey Haim plays a different character than he plays in “Lucas.” While his character in “Lucas” was more original, his character in “License to Drive” is more the same as any other teenager. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because we can identify with him as he goes through his high school problems—wanting to impress the girl, living with his family, and taking the driving exam. Haim is appealing here. Even more so are his family, with Carol Kane as the pregnant mother (I love the bit where she fixes herself a full plate of mashed potatoes with ketchup all over them and says as her teenaged kids look in disbelief, “For your information, this is exactly what I ate when I was pregnant with all of you and you turned out OK.” That’s a great line.) And Richard Masur who is a riot as Les’ overreacting (well, not really overreacting but he shouts a lot) father. Then there’s the scene in which Les takes the test. First, he must take the computer exam (kind of odd, considering he was supposed to take that long before, but oh well). We feel the pain on Les’ face as he tries to get questions right. This scene captures feelings of desperation and the want to drive. Les fails but since his twin sister passed (and with the computers conveniently crashing after Les hits the computer in frustration), he is allowed to take the driving part of the exam. This is the funniest scene in the movie. His driving instructor, played by James Avery, is a military man who uses a cup of coffee (filled to the brim) instead of a clipboard. He tells this scared kid that if that coffee spills on his pants, he fails.

Well, that’s pretty much my review of the first half of the movie, which deserves three-and-a-half stars. But then the long second half approaches us and the film has gone downhill. Les is willing to steal his grandfather’s Cadillac to take Mercedes on a date. Only problem is, he has no license. So the script calls for all sorts of incidents to occur—none of them particularly funny, which is what the main purpose is with this movie being a comedy.

It’s sad to see a movie with comic potential go downhill like this. I really liked the first half of this movie—it had insight, good humor, appealing characters, and true moments of fear of looking like an idiot while trying to impress your dream girl. But they all go through the wrong lane (OK, enough driving puns) as “License to Drive” approaches a dead end (OK, I lied).

Maybe cars themselves are not very funny. What can you do with a piece of metal and machinery that could possibly be funny? Crashes aren’t funny. Cars spinning out of control aren’t funny. Chases aren’t funny. So what can be done with cars as humor? I wish the writers of “License to Drive” took more time thinking of an answer to that question.

Short Circuit (1986)

27 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The only success that comes out of “Short Circuit” is a lovable creature. Everything else falls flat—the story, the acting, and the pacing. The creature is a robot called Number Five—it’s the most likable robotic special effect this side of R2D2. Unlike R2, which only has a comic personality by its constant beeping and translations by C-3PO, Number Five has a voice and a personality all its own.

The cute-looking robot comes from an assembly line of other robots, built by the military as weapons. But Number Five is different. After being struck by lightning, its circuits are fried in such a way that he is, in fact, alive in the way that it can think for itself. It is no longer controlled by the military anymore. Needing input, Number Five escapes the facility and wanders the streets.

This will not do. The robot’s creator (Steve Guttenberg) and his assistant (Fisher Stevens, a white man playing an Indian man—stereotypical accent and all) are sent to locate Number Five and bring it back, while also to disassemble in order to “find the bug.” They do not know Number Five is alive—how could anybody begin to fathom that? And soon, the whole military is out to find Number Five and shut it down…permanently.

Number Five finds a woman named Stephanie (Ally Sheedy). She’s a friendly animal lover and she thinks that Number Five is an alien seeking input on Earth. She shows it around the house and gives it an encyclopedia to read (it reads the whole thing in about ten seconds). When she realizes that Number Five is in fact a robot, she is about to turn it over to the military until she realizes that Number Five isn’t a robot at all—it can think, it’s alive. To disassemble it would be to kill it.

And so, “Short Circuit” becomes a similar movie to “E.T.” and not a particularly good one either. This movie is so full of cuteness that it really overstays its welcome. I didn’t like (or rather, I didn’t care the slightest for) any of the science involved, I didn’t think the story went anywhere special, and I certainly didn’t like the people involved. Steve Guttenberg is definitely not the best choice to play this brilliant scientist that created Number Five—he overacts and comes off as annoying, and when he’s not overacting, he’s just bland. Ally Sheedy is no better, partially because her character is so dim and not well thought out. The screenplay has a lot of faults to distracting effect. It’s dumb, obvious, and simple—this movie could play better to small children, but what is it really doing to their minds?

The only creative element of “Short Circuit” is Number Five. Voiced by Tim Blaney and constructed by the ILM Company, Number Five has a great comic personality. The robot is starving for more input and wouldn’t you know it? He watches so much TV that he sometimes mimics what he’s only seen on TV in order to get himself out of sticky situations. And it’s a great-looking robot—almost cute, if you really look at it. Number Five deserves a much better movie.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

27 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Kramer vs. Kramer” is a well-acted family drama concerning divorce and child custody. It could have been a sappy made-for-TV melodrama, but this screenplay (based on a novel) has its characters dealing with things either lightly or poorly, depending on the circumstances—just like real people. In that way, this movie is intriguing in the way it deals with the situations at hand because the people in this movie deal with them in realistic ways. That’s why “Kramer vs. Kramer” hardly steers wrong.

It begins as Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), a married woman, tells her seven-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) that she loves him. The son Billy, half-asleep, says, “I’ll see you in the morning.” One look at Joanna’s face and you know that he won’t.

Joanna is leaving her workaholic husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and little Billy because she doesn’t feel like she belongs in their lives anymore. She’s unhappy. She has tried to talk to Ted about it, and even tries to tell Ted that she’s leaving, but he’s wrapped up in his work to listen. Eventually, Ted does understand and tries to talk Joanna out of it, but it’s too late.

The next morning, Billy goes into his parents’ bedroom and sees Ted sleeping alone. He wakes him up, asking “Where’s Mommy?” twice. Ted asks what time it is, Billy looks at Ted’s wristwatch and says, “The little hand’s on the 7 and the big hand’s on the 9,” before immediately asking again, “Where’s Mommy?” This scene shows that Ted hasn’t exactly been paying much attention to his son either. But Ted knows his plight and does what he can to please Billy.

He cares for the boy for 18 months. Sometimes Billy complains that something “isn’t the way Mommy does it,” Billy interrupts Ted while he’s working, Billy has an accident on the playground so Ted has to take him to the emergency room quickly, and Ted teaches Billy how to ride a bicycle. A real bond forms between a father and son. These scenes are really the highlight of the movie—furthering the relationship between Ted and Billy and showing just how much Ted cares for his son.

So when Joanna finally returns, wanting her son back, you feel something.

“Kramer vs. Kramer” made the wise decision not to tell it from the child’s point-of-view and showing us his plight. Instead, we see the plight of the parents. They make some wise decisions regarding it, but they also make not so wise decisions as well. What they both want is attention from their own son, instead of the son wanting attention from both parents. You want a movie with the exact opposite premise, see the Little Rascals short “Big Ears,” featuring little Wheezer getting himself ill so his parents will notice him. “Kramer vs. Kramer” doesn’t work that way.

“Kramer vs. Kramer” leads to the custody case in court, which from what we’ve seen should be a no-brainer. We’ve spent so much time with Ted that the movie actually seems to take his side—the kid is going to stay with him, no question. But when they call Joanna to the stand and she gives her testimony, she actually proves to have some good points about why she should be in custody of her son. That’s when “Kramer vs. Kramer” decides not to take sides, and just let the case play out with these characters. The ending of the movie isn’t predictable.

Great performances hold the movie together. Dustin Hoffman does some of his best work here, playing Ted as very normal and all the more convincing. His love with the kid, played by Justin Henry with unforced charm, comes off as genuine. You truly believe these two as father and son. Meryl Streep shows from the first shot that she’s an actress of many emotions. Watch the first shot that is just a closeup of her face as she’s thinking of leaving her son, but not truly wanting to because she loves him. You can practically sense her mind leading to a decision. And when her character Joanna gives her testimony in court, you feel the sincerity that Streep brings to the scene. Also of note is Jane Alexander, who is winning as Joanna’s friend whom Ted sometimes turns to for advice.

“Kramer vs. Kramer” is a winning movie with a talented cast and a brilliant screenplay. It’s an appealing family drama that plays itself realistically and succeeds in showing a very good portrait of divorce and child custody. They’re both tricky subjects; “Kramer vs. Kramer” pull them off.

Be Kind Rewind (2008)

26 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Be Kind Rewind” can be easily described as overtly whimsical. And that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. I can see a lot of people—or critics who in some ways resemble people—being somewhat annoyed by everything thrown at us by visionary director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and others completely won over by the magic of it all. I fall into the latter category.

Sometimes, “Be Kind Rewind” is sticky. Other times, it’s forced. Mostly, it’s enchanting. It takes place at a street corner in Passaic, New Jersey, which seems to be stuck in a time warp. It has probably the last VHS rental store in the world (the movie’s world, anyway)—no new releases, because those are available on DVD of which there is none on display whatsoever. It’s said to be the birthplace of jazz pianist “Fats” Waller, as store owner Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) believes. But it’s implied that that’s not the truth. The store is set up for foreclosure and demolition to make way for modern conveniences. Fletcher leaves town to see what he can do, leaving his faithful live-in employee Mike (rapper Mos Def) in charge with instructions to keep his klutzy, annoying friend Jerry (Jack Black) out of the store.

Jerry works at the nearby power station and in a half-baked scheme to sabotage it, he becomes “magnetized” and accidentally winds up erasing every tape in the store. Desperate and panicked, Mike and Jerry grab a vintage video camera and set out to make their own versions of popular movies and rent them out instead. With help from their friends, they start with “Ghostbusters,” then “Rush Hour 2,” and then these homemade versions become so popular that it becomes a new business with a system—name which movie you want “sweded” (that’s the term they choose because they insist that the tapes come from Sweden, but who are they fooling?) and they deliver the goods. Suddenly, the store has the best business it ever had, but that doesn’t seem to please the copyright holders of the original films very well, especially since people seem to enjoy these shorter, reenacted versions better.

That story is bizarre enough, but it’s far from predictable and it’s very intriguing in its whimsy. Gondry loves to experiment with quirky, awkward humor to further the production and there’s plenty to be found here, which I’ll leave for you to discover.

The casting is inspired. I’ve always been a fan of Jack Black, but he has found a role that suits him better than a lot of his earlier roles. Mos Def is quite good as Mike—he’s calm and relaxed in contrast to Black’s zaniness. Melonie Diaz sports a cute smile and a can-do attitude as Alma, a local woman who helps Mike and Jerry with their business. (It should be noted, though, that a potential romance between Alma and Mike is immediately forgotten about after it’s set up.) Veteran actors Mia Farrow and Danny Glover are excellent in supporting roles.

The film is also a heartfelt tribute to independent filmmaking if I ever saw one and the way these “films” come about and how many people support them are great to watch, especially for an indie filmmaker such as myself. On top of that, Mike and Jerry’s new versions of these films such as “Ghostbusters” and “RoboCop” are so enjoyable, so funny, and very quirky. That they made them in just a few hours made me think back to the times when I was a kid making movies with no experience and very little equipment. I just wanted to put on a show, as these guys did.

The ending is just wonderful. It brings the tribute full-circle and becomes a sequence so heartwarming, so enchanting, so whimsical, that I couldn’t help but smile and even start to cry. I was actually wishing for the end credits, not because of usual reasons, but because I wanted to keep the tears from coming. That’s how well “Be Kind Rewind” worked for me. It’s sweet, cute, and just downright enjoyable.

Darkman (1990)

26 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sam Raimi’s “Darkman” is a rarity in the movies—a superhero story that didn’t used to be a comic book series at first. It feels like it could be a comic book series, or a graphic novel series, and has fun with its energetic story and appealing “origin story.” Every superhero requires an origin story—how the hero gained his or her powers or skill—and “Darkman” is a doozy from the start. It gets stranger as it goes along, but that’s what makes it so entertaining. It’s engaging from beginning to end.

“Darkman” opens with criminals making deals and killing off those who disappoint. One bad guy in particular has a weird habit of breaking (severing) his victim’s fingers and keeping them as trophies in a small case, like a jewelry box. Strange enough, but then we’re introduced to our protagonist—a scientist named Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) who is developing a new type of artificial skin to help burn victims. The experiment isn’t going very well, as the skin disintegrates after being exposed to light for 99 minutes.

We know that these two plot elements are going to come together soon enough. That they’re both equally strange story aspects keeps you curious about how they’ll be handled once the meat of the story kicks in.

Anyway, as dumb luck would have it, just as Peyton discovers that the best way the skin can stabilize if it stays in darkness (apparently, this synthetic skin is photosensitive), this is when his laboratory is invaded by mobsters who know he has an important document that proves that a real-estate developer is bribing members of the zoning commission (and wouldn’t you know it—Peyton’s girlfriend Julie, played by Frances McDormand, is an attorney who was responsible for the document).

Are you getting all of this? Are you still with me? If so, you’re a bright reader.

So the bad guys blow up Peyton’s lab and Peyton is horribly burned alive. He survives the tragic ordeal and escapes from the hospital, but his face and hands are horribly disfigured. Oh, and a lot of his nerves are severed, so he can’t feel pain. To exact revenge on the people who did this to him, he creates a new lab in a condemned building to make new masks. He makes one of his original face so he can be with Julie again, though not telling her of his condition. Other masks are created for his enemies—he can observe them and study them, and then use the masks to become them one-by-one, in order to thwart them. The problem is he has only 99 minutes with each mask.

This leads to some fun comic scenes in which Peyton keeps his cover while impersonating these people. And give credit to the actors for imitating Liam Neeson imitating them. In particular, there’s Larry Drake, who plays a mobster who catches Peyton in disguise. Playing against himself (if you will) is a challenge and it confuses us as well as the henchman who is trying to figure which one is which. (My favorite moment in the film is when they’re both held at gunpoint and one of them shouts, “Shoot him!” while the other shouts “Shoot him!”)

“Darkman” has fun with its creative storytelling and unique visual style—the kind that Raimi has specialized in the “Evil Dead” movies (particularly the second one, which had an appealingly bizarre visual taste). “Darkman” has that hazy, dim comic-book look resembling a dark Batman tale and goes about with neat, tricky shots of people or objects popping into the frame and out and intriguing camera angles that keep action scenes not only exciting but also comic. Nicely-handled special effects help as well.

Liam Neeson, as the conflicted hero Peyton, is solid. He makes an interesting individual to follow in this superhero tale and does great work at showing the lighter and darker sides of this person who has lost his looks, restored his intelligence, but also struggles with the feeling of revenge, whether or not he can control it. At one point, he’s on a date with Julie at a fair and gets angry for a simple thing such as a worker stiffing him from a prize, and his anger which comes from previous experience with his enemies, comes through in an effective way. Neeson is well-cast here, and so is Frances McDormand as Julie, who is consistently appealing and shares some good chemistry with the hero.

One major problem I have with “Darkman” is that Peyton never really becomes Darkman. It’s said at the beginning that Peyton’s masks are only stabilized in darkness, and yet he’s constantly using them in the daylight. This means that this never becomes a crucial point of the plot and so the film doesn’t have a clear motivation. Maybe “Darkman” should have begun right at the end, when Peyton realizes who and what he is.

But then again, now that I think about it, maybe I didn’t want “Darkman” to be so simple that Peyton would actually use his replicating inventions in the dark when it’d be easier. If he did that, we wouldn’t have a constant troublesome conflict of having to be rid of a mask after 99 minutes before he gets caught. And of course, this means “Darkman” wouldn’t be as much fun.

And that’s what “Darkman” is—fun. It’s an intriguing mix of superhero origin story and unique visuals. It’s its own creation for film, not based on a comic book, and it’s quite an effective thrill ride.

The Rescue (1988)

26 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If a teenager can hack into the defense network system (“WarGames”), build his own atomic bomb (“The Manhattan Project”), and fly a jet into enemy territory to save his father (“Iron Eagle”), then why shouldn’t four teenagers and a younger kid be able to sneak into North Korea and save their Navy SEAL fathers from a Korean prison, while making little attempt to disguise themselves?

That’s the central story element of “The Rescue,” a gutsy, well-shot movie that has high spirits and a likable if unspectacular young cast. The whole idea of the movie may be preposterous and that’s most likely the word that almost every other film critic used in their negative reviews of this film. But strangely, I got into the movie. So what if it’s preposterous? So what if (spoiler) everything works out for these kids? It’s a teenage adventure movie—leave it at that and enjoy.

Four Navy SEALs stationed in South Korea are sent on a mission to destroy a disabled U.S. submarine in enemy North Korean waters. They succeed, but are captured and sent to a North Korean prison. A month passes and the imprisoned SEALs are scheduled for execution.

Teenagers Shawn Howard (Ned Vaughn) and Adrian Phillips (Christina Harnos) each have a father that is a prisoner. They use a friend’s homemade listening device to eavesdrop on a discussion of a rescue mission to go in and get the men back. But they are shocked to know that the plug has been pulled on the plan. They and the friend—Max Rothman (Marc Price, TV’s “Family Ties”), the son of the SEAL head—tell the news to rebel J.J. (Kevin Dillon), another son of a captured SEAL. J.J. comes up with the idea of stealing the government rescue plan and taking matters into their own hands. They’ll get a boat, escape the border patrol, find the mission operative, and get their fathers back. They have an unexpected ally—Shawn’s ten-year-old brother Bobby (Ian Giatti), who followed them to help.

“The Rescue” could be made as a silly kids’ movie, but it’s not dumb and it’s not boring either. A lot of that has to do with the masterful direction by Ferdinand Fairfax, who shoots with a great visual style. The climax is surprisingly well-handled, despite the preposterousness of the situation. But I felt involved—at one point, when the plane they use to escape in loses both engines and comes close to a nose dive, I even held on to my own stomach. That’s really saying something about the look of the film.

The young actors are fine and likable—even Marc Price, who was so obnoxious as the neighbor Skippy in “Family Ties,” is likable. Kevin Dillon (seen in “Platoon” and “The Blob”) is a convincing rebellious hero, Ian Giatti has a special enthusiasm that comes with the age, and Christina Harnos is spunky and has some karate moves to use on some (get this) Korean gangsters. The only problem is that their characters aren’t fully developed and neither one is given a chance to stand out.

So what if all of these kids have it easy with one too many close calls? It’s entertaining as a PG fantasy—you know nothing bad will happen to these kids, but let the direction by Ferdinand Fairfax guide you. “The Rescue” isn’t a great movie, but I liked it enough to recommend it. It’s a high-spirited teenage adventure film—deal with it.

Three O’Clock High (1987)

26 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Three O’Clock High” is a movie about the events leading up to a fight, and then the actual fight itself. It sounds like a plot for a Western, but has been brought to life as a high school movie. That’s actually a nice move and has potential for a charming movie, but the fight is far from charming.

You could call this movie a mix between “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and “Risky Business.” It features a nervous, bright high school senior named Jerry (Casey Siemaszko) who is having “one of those days.” He’s late for school, his car has a flat tire, and he takes his mom’s car (with the license plate SUPRMOM). But it can only get worse, and it does. Everyone is spreading rumors about the new kid in school named Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), a mean-spirited bully who’s said to have raped a teacher, killed a student, etc. Jerry, who works for the school newspaper, is asked to write a piece about him. Unfortunately, his questions make Buddy angry and he challenges Jerry to a fight in front of the school at 3:00. Jerry has six hours to get out of fighting Buddy and in that duration, he gets mixed up in all sorts of situations that involve breaking the rules.

There are ways of avoiding the fight, and they all go wrong. Unfortunately, a lot of these situations are not only pointless, but also questionable. There’s a subplot involving a switchblade intended for a frame job—Jerry’s nerdy friend Vince has an idea to plant it into Buddy’s locker as an attempt to get him kicked out of school. The plan goes wrong, but what I want to know is where and how did this guy get a switchblade? This is the editor of the school newspaper—does he just carry around a switchblade every day at school? This is a school full of high school stereotypes—did he convince one of the “burnouts” to lend him one? And in a short amount of time, no less? Why didn’t we see that story?

What’s the story with the bully? Is he a complete and total psychopath like everyone says? Is there another side to him? We hear about his violent nature; is it true? It must be. There’s nothing else in the entire duration of the movie to say otherwise. At least when a character like this was introduced in the high school comedy-drama “My Bodyguard,” the hero managed to befriend a bulking so-called monster because they both learned how to get along with each other. This bully in “Three O’Clock High” isn’t falling for any of that. He will fight Jerry no matter what it takes—he even manages to find Jerry’s car (how he did that, I don’t know) and destroy everything under the hood just so he doesn’t get away.

“Three O’Clock High” is a well-made movie—the use of unusual cinematography, camera angles, zooms, and closeups are quite interesting and make the movie about as well-made as a movie about a high school fight could be. Also, the way it takes a Western plot and takes it high school is quite interesting as it constantly builds up the entire six hours waiting for it. And it does have its memorable, funny moments. I especially liked a sequence in which Jerry tries to get in trouble so he could get detention and thus not go through with the fight. How he handles his book report is very funny. He acts rebellious, smokes, and even kisses his teacher who’s somewhat turned on—“Now that’s what I call a book report,” a student exclaims. There are moments like that, and I could forgive the stupid parts of the movie and recommend it based on those. But I’m not recommending the movie because the final climax involving the fight is too grim and so brutal that it breaks the spirit of the whole thing.

It’s a pretty intense fight, but there’s nothing fresh or funny about it, and the final blow just about did it for me. Should I even mention the brass knuckles? Everyone was cheering, but my jaw was dropped.

Hot Shots! (1991)

26 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Now here’s something strange—we have a parody film called “Hot Shots!” that mostly lampoons elements from a movie I didn’t like, which was “Top Gun,” and I liked this parody. Weird, how I’d prefer this ridiculous but often very funny film over the movie it borrows elements from, which had great-looking dogfights, but a boring human story. Maybe the filmmakers of “Hot Shots!” knew that some people felt that way, and made fun of that material and more. But whatever they did, it worked for me.

Charlie Sheen plays (and plays with) the Tom Cruise role in “Top Gun” for “Hot Shots!” and his poker face makes him right for the role of Topper Harley. Whenever people look at him, he just likes to show how tough he is by tightening his lip and keeping his eyes open. But when he isn’t trying to act tough, he’s just a macho buffoon, like he’s supposed to be in a film that is like films such as “Airplane,” “Naked Gun,” and not to mention “Top Secret.” These films are funny by giving us silly humor that makes us laugh rather than roll our eyes. In fact, some of the filmmakers of this film also made “Airplane” and the “Naked Gun” movies. You can’t stop yourself from laughing at a good joke and there are plenty in “Hot Shots!”—most notably, a scene in the beginning of the film in which Sheen, playing a young test pilot, passes by an attractive woman on horseback on his way to the air base and he copies her movements on his own motorcycle. That is truly hilarious and we would expect him to bump into a tree branch or fall off or run into that old comedy cliché of someone being distracted and then running into something, killing the infatuation. But he doesn’t and thank goodness he doesn’t—that joke of running into something while distracted is too old to be funny anymore.

Another good running gag is the vision of one of the test pilots, played by Jon Cryer—his vision is distorted by a bad case of “wall-eye.” He keeps missing something he reaches for.

That is all I wish to say about this movie, other than the fact that I laughed a lot during this movie. There are some parody scenes that aren’t that funny, but the funniest moments are when we’re caught by surprise. There are plenty of those moments in “Hot Shots!” We also get strong supporting, comedic work by Lloyd Bridges and Cary Elwes, not to mention as much work as we can get in a movie like this from beautiful Italian actress Valeria Golino as the love interest. But like I said, Charlie Sheen’s poker face will make you laugh.