Archive | June, 2021

Why am I not the critic I used to be?

26 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I don’t write many negative reviews anymore. But when I was starting out with this blog, I had a pretty good balance of positive and negative. Sometimes, I would purposefully seek out supposed “bad” movies just so I could add on to their piles of bad reviews.

I was too influenced by other film critics such as Siskel & Ebert and Richard Roeper. But they got/get paid to see movies and give their two cents about them. I just did it so I could stay active.

But the thing is, I’m an artist too. I’m a filmmaker. And I’ve grown a lot since I started this blog. I’ve also learned…that if you look for something to dislike about a movie, you’re going to find it. It’s easy. And it’s lazy. What takes effort is crafting the art and looking for the good things in other art.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s just not fun for me to write negative reviews anymore.

What movie did I say I hated most? Freddy Got Fingered. Well, you know what? Tom Green deliberately set out to make a troll movie and he succeeded big-time. I will never see this movie again…but I will strangely admire Green for his efforts.

What other movies was I too harsh on?

Reality Bites. I don’t hate that movie nearly as much as I did before. In fact, I still own it on DVD for the good things in it plus the interesting audio commentary from director Ben Stiller and writer Helen Childress.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Everything that bugged me about this intriguing chapter in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise don’t bother me anymore. In fact, watching it again recently, I think I like it.

The Happening. So much of this movie doesn’t work, but I can see what M. Night Shyamalan set out to accomplish. Why fault him for that?

Armageddon. C’mon…it’s goofy as hell and I think that was Michael Bay’s intent.

Angels in the Outfield. I grew up with this movie. My criticisms still hold true, but it didn’t do anything to harm me at all.

Evil Dead. I needed to see this movie for what it was and not what I wanted it to be. It’s a decent remake.

Short Circuit. I still like “Short Circuit 2” more, but still, why give one-and-a-half stars to Johnny Five?

Toy Soldiers. This movie could have been written a lot better. But look at all the pyrotechnics that was put into it!

Three Amigos! Really, past-Tanner? It’s not THAT bad.

Neither is Child’s Play 2. Or Uncle Buck. Or The Grinch.

Half-a-star to Kazaam, huh? Is that why it’s one of my guilty pleasures?

At least I admitted in mostly-negative reviews for movies like Exorcist II, The Last House on the Left, Mommie Dearest, Top Gun, White Water Summer, The Good Son, and Red Dawn that they each had their own merits to them.

Even “North,” the film that inspired Roger Ebert’s “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie,” I don’t particularly care for it but at the same time I think director Rob Reiner and writer Alan Zwiebbel suffered enough because of it. And they just wanted to make a fun comedy–they didn’t intentionally set out to make a bad movie.

Oh, and 2 stars to Good Burger?? C’mon, you love that movie and you know it! Oh, and 2 stars to the 1990 miniseries Stephen King’s It? Is that why you watch it every once in a while–just to make sure you don’t like it? (Boy, I’m glad I didn’t review “Hocus Pocus” at all.)

I think what I’m ultimately trying to say is that I shouldn’t have tried kidding myself back then about being a “serious” film critic. I’m both a movie lover and a filmmaker, and I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life.

My Favorite Movies – Mask (1985)

22 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I remember watching Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask” for the first time at age 16 on TV and thinking to myself, “Huh…this isn’t like most coming-of-age teenage films…it’s mostly just people living their lives…I like watching these people…I care about them…this story isn’t going anywhere I expect…and I love it…wow…hey Dad, can we go to Hastings so I can buy the director’s-cut DVD?”

“Mask” is a wonderful film based (loosely) on the life of Rocky Dennis, who was a regular kid albeit with a facial deformity. In Siskel & Ebert’s initial review of the film in 1985, Siskel said it best: “Put a regular face on this kid, and you still have a terrific picture.” That was a testament to how much both he and Ebert admired the film’s characters and the filmmakers’ attempts to make them as real as possible.

Speaking of that review, I have to mention something that really bugs me–apparently, in marketing this film, the boy’s face was hidden in the trailers and advertisements. Both Siskel and Ebert hated that ploy too and I hate it too, because it made the kid look like a carnival freakshow, which totally goes against what the movie is about!

Thank God the marketing team behind the delightful 2017 film Wonder, also about a child with an unusual face, knew not to treat it like a gimmick. It’s the little things you have to appreciate to understand how far we’ve come in society.

Anyway, Siskel & Ebert were definitely right because once we’ve gotten past the initial shock of seeing what this kid Rocky looks like (and it’s a first-rate makeup job too), we get to like him as soon as we get to know him a little–and that’s only in the first few minutes; the rest of the film gives us an immensely likable character played beautifully by Eric Stoltz.

As I mentioned above, “Mask” is simply about how Rocky and his tough, messy, but overall loving mother Rusty (Cher) live their lives. We see Rocky getting by in a new school district and making some new friends who are of course turned off by his appearance at first (but like the audience, they accept him because he’s cool). We see Rusty hanging out with her motorcycle-riding friends and feeding a bad drug habit. And it’s even more interesting when it comes to the relationship between this mother and son, especially when Rocky tries to get his mother off drugs and she isn’t having it. We meet other people in their lives, such as Rusty’s complicated lover Gar (Sam Elliott) and a blind girl named Diana (Laura Dern) whom Rocky meets at a summer camp where he counsels. And…that’s pretty much the movie. It’s about how these people relate and go about their days. And because they’re such interesting characters, I’m all in.

Even when I first saw this film at age 16, I had to give kudos to this film for just being a slice of life.

And yeah, I know this is very loosely based on the true lives of these real-life people and Bogdanovich took some liberties in telling their story, but you know what? I don’t really care, because the movie still works as is.

My Favorite Movies – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

20 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are two of my top 100 personal favorite movies–but if I had to extend that list to a top 400-500, I would make room for two other “Star Wars” movies in particular. And one of them is definitely Rogue One.

“Star Wars” (or “Episode IV: A New Hope”) showed our space-traveling heroes using the newly-received plans for the galaxy’s Rebel Alliance to find a weakness in the Imperial Starfleet’s Death Star and blow the big mother up. But who got hold of the plans in the first place and how did they get out? That’s what “Rogue One” is about–you could call it “Episode 3.9,” since it ends where “A New Hope” begins.

And while “A New Hope” was a fun, rousing space adventure, “Rogue One” feels more like a war film–still a rousing space adventure but with a darker edge to it. A lot of the action is on ground-level, which gives it a great sense of scale. When the Imperial Walkers are storming the beach, I get a sense of how big they are; when the Death Star is seen from below, it’s a tense moment because we know what it means; when shooting goes on in the streets, you get a sense for how quickly they have to think with a blaster; and so on. Watching this “Star Wars” movie, I felt like I was there.

The setup is buildup as our key heroic characters go from place to place, finding one answer after the other, barely escaping death, finally knowing what they’re up against, etc. Then late in the movie, it picks up even more as they decide to step up and take a huge risk in bringing the Death Star plans to light. What results is what even the film’s detractors will label as (I’m gonna go a little crazy here) A FREAKING AWESOME CLIMAX OF EPIC PROPORTIONS!!!!

OK, I’m calm now.

I’ve already seen a lot of backlash towards this movie, specifically for it being short on character and thus short on depth. This is just my opinion, but I think that’s unfair. Sure, we don’t know Jyn Erso or Cassian Andor or Chirrut Imwe as well as we know other “Star Wars” characters such as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, Rey, or Finn–and how could we, considering we got to know the latter characters for more than one movie? But it’s not like the former have no character, and I, for one, knew just enough about them to want to keep following them to the end. I liked Jyn’s attitude (and how it changes through her arc of finding reason for hope in the galaxy), I liked Cassian as an intriguing anti-hero (he shoots first and asks questions never), I liked the friendship between Force-minded Chirrut and mercenary Baze Malbus, and I especially like the anti-3PO mannerisms of the droid K-2SO. (There’s also Bodhi Rook, the defected Imperial Pilot–we don’t know why he defected, but c’mon, do you need a reason to stick around with the Empire?) They’re acted wonderfully, they’re likable, and they’re a diverse group of heroes I was glad to see in action.

And because (spoiler alert) you know none of them are going to make it out alive during this important mission, what was also important was how big their ultimate sacrifice felt. For me, it worked very well.

The rest of the backlash came for the film’s writing and plot holes…I don’t care, OK? No film is perfect, and the strengths for all of my favorite movies outweigh the flaws.

However…I have to talk about the CGI to bring back Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Have I changed my mind about how the effect looks almost five years since my initial review? Well…not really. I mean, it’s still impressive and the uncanny valley doesn’t distract as much as other similar effects–there are some instances, however, where it gets a little weird. (But I will say it’s better than the effect of bringing back young Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia for about 10 seconds.) At least now, I can talk about how great the effect is for K-2SO–actor Alan Tudyk had to wear a green suit, stand on stilts, and wear robotic-like armor while filming the scenes, and then computers handled the rest of the effects work. That’s a great exercise in using both computers and practical effects. (Phoebe Waller-Bridge underwent the same method as droid L3-37 in “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”)

So they brought back Grand Moff Tarkin–that’s not who I remember most. I remember…the return of Darth Vader. His big scene near the end of the movie is still chilling and excellent even today. In this moment, I’m reminded of why he was one of the scariest movie villains in history.

In my original review, I criticized the villainous Orson Krennic for being “weak” and “not as memorable as Darth Vader or Kylo Ren.” (Yeah, way to compare, idiot past-Tanner.) Since then, I’ve seen this actor, Ben Mendlesohn, in other things like The Land of Steady Habits, “Mississippi Grind,” and the TV series “The Outsider,” and…I dunno, seeing him again here as the villain, I can’t help but smile, perhaps with recognition. Maybe he’s still a weak villain and I just like seeing this actor play him. I don’t know…but this series is called “My Favorite Movies,” so I shouldn’t really care either.

Overall, I just love “Rogue One” for being what it is: a spectacular, fast-paced, rousing thrill ride (though, again, with some real heaviness brought to the mix). It’s not just “A Star Wars Story”–it should be called “A Hell of a Star Wars Story!” I liked it when I first saw it in a theater; I love it even more now.

NOTE: I will say, for all the things I love about this movie, I don’t like Bor Gullet. I get that the Rebels are very paranoid and are using extreme measures against a former enemy pilot who came to them for help, but…really? They’re using a giant squid creature that senses your feelings, lies, wrongdoings, etc.? Why is that here??

Luca (2021)

18 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

While the latest Disney/Pixar film “Luca” (now available on Disney+) is getting decent reviews from critics, a lot of ’em are still declaring it one of Pixar’s weakest films, to which I say, “Oh so picky.”

What do you want me to say, that it’s not as heartwarming as “Soul” and “Coco,” as clever as “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” as groundbreaking as the “Toy Story” movies, “Up,” and “Inside Out?” OK, it’s not, there you go. Now I can talk about how awesome it is as “Luca.”

“Luca” is the latest Pixar film to make something cute and lovable out of what we would normally find frightening and repulsive. As was the case with the monsters in “Monsters, Inc.,” the dead people in “Coco,” and the rats in “Ratatouille” (…actually, the rats are still a tad repulsive), I don’t see little kids being frightened by the sea creatures in “Luca,” even after a “Jaws”-inspired opening in which fishermen are met by a quick-witted creature and quickly get away from the “horrifying monster.”

Luca is the name of our main character (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a “sea monster” who is as offbeat-adorable as many Pixar protagonists. Much like Ariel the Little Mermaid, Luca has a fascination with the surface world while his parents (Maya Rudoplh and Jim Gaffigan) forbid him to explore beyond the underwater world because (of course) humans are the real ones to fear.

Things change when Luca makes a new friend in another sea creature, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), and discovers that all sea creatures can pass as human when they’re out of the water. As real boys, Luca and Alberto become the best of friends and get into all kinds of misadventures in their own little world above surface, which involves a lot of “Jackass”-like stunts with makeshift Vespas. Their want for a REAL Vespa drives them to a fishing village, where they learn that if they win prize money in an annual sports competition, they can buy their own Vespa and travel the world! (Makes sense to me.)

Thus begins their literal fish-out-of-water story as Luca and Alberto befriend a local girl named Giulia (Emma Berman), train for the competition (which involves bicycle-racing and fast-eating), and attempt to fit in with the townspeople–as long as they don’t get wet, their secret is safe. (Oh, and did I mention the competition also involves swimming?) Meanwhile, they have to put up with a local bully named Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), who unlike most Pixar bullies such as Randall (“Monsters, Inc.”) and Chef Skinner (“Ratatouille”) is consistently funny (he’s like Gaston of “Beauty and the Beast,” only without the muscles). And Luca’s parents, who also approach the surface, try to find their son. (The parents’ methods of finding Luca by splashing water onto all the local boys are some of the funnier parts of the movie.)

Yeah, some of this is standard stuff, but as is the case with the best Pixar movies, there’s something special underneath (forgive the pun) the surface. That is the bond between Luca & Alberto and the developing relationship between Luca & Giulia which threatens that bond. What started off as a classic “Little Mermaid” story became Pixar’s equivalents of “Stand By Me” and “The Kings of Summer.” As a result, it grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go.

“Luca” is a great summertime movie, not just because it includes people having fun and adventure in the season, but because summer is the season in which solid bonds are formed and tested. And that is what is at the heart of the story of “Luca”: the relationship between Luca & Alberto and what other desires could break them apart. And of course, having Jacob Tremblay (who’s been acting in movies since preschool) and Jack Dylan Grazer (so entertaining in “Shazam” and the “It” movies) supply the voices helps too.

“Luca” was the directorial debut of Enrico Casarosa, who usually does art work for other Pixar movies, and I was also pleasantly surprised to find that frequent Pixar writer Mike Jones’ co-writer for this one was Jesse Andrews, best known for writing both the novel and film adaptation of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” They add to the charm and humor of this coming-of-age fantasy that is of course, as is typical of Pixar, also beautifully animated.

Yeah, I know I mentioned the animation last in this review of a Pixar film, but c’mon, it’s Pixar–would you expect anything less than stellar visuals? Even “The Good Dinosaur” had pretty imagery.

My Favorite Movies – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

18 Jun

By Tanner Smith

What is the greatest sequel of all time? “The Godfather Part II” or “The Empire Strikes Back?” Well…it’s easy to say either one, but I’ll go with The Empire Strikes Back simply because it had more to prove.

I mean, “The Godfather Part II” had a lot to follow up with too, since its predecessor was a Best Picture winner. But “The Empire Strikes Back” had more to lose (and…yeah, I guess it did lose people upon initial theatrical release, but I’ll get to that in a bit) because it was a sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time and it had to bring in both the kids and the adults. The first movie already entertained the kids highly–simple themes, black-and-white aspects, nothing but adventure, and so on–and it helped bring in older audiences because of its added simplicity. But with the sequel, they needed to show that they weren’t here for the moment–they were here to stay. Audiences needed to be entertained, but they needed to leave this film wanting more and thinking even more about what they already saw.

What resulted was one of the greatest films of all time. (I should apologize for the hyperbole, but…I won’t.)

“The Empire Strikes Back” is entertaining, for sure. The battle against the Imperial Walkers, the chase into the asteroid belt, the lightsaber battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, among other sequences, are just as thrilling as anything in “A New Hope.” But there’s something else to this movie too. Under the guidance and teachings of wise Jedi master Yoda (which is still the greatest muppet work I’ve ever seen in any movie–the way it’s able to communicate even nonverbally is outstanding!), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has to learn more about what it truly means to master the arts of the Jedi. In any other movie, he’d go through some tough scrapes, then go in to fight the villain at the end, and come out victorious…but not in this movie.

“The Empire Strikes Back” does not end happily. The heroes are beaten and defeated (and one of them is captured), the villains are more powerful, and we now know more about the connection between Luke and Vader than what we ever could have expected (with what is still probably the greatest twist in any movie)…and audiences had to wait three years before learning what would happen next in “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.”

And that’s where audiences were split on the film in 1980. Many people weren’t especially happy that they didn’t get the “Star Wars” movie they wanted. (Oh, how times haven’t changed.)

Quick side-note: I like to think the emotional responses left from audiences match the ones I went through as an audience member for 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” (At least we only had to wait one year for that film’s conclusion.)

But other people knew back then that what they just saw in “The Empire Strikes Back” took a lot of guts and left them thinking and discussing with others about everything. And in the years since, people have come back to it with a better mindset. It’s the darkest “Star Wars” movie we’ve gotten and it’s also the greatest–and it’s one of my top 30 favorite films of all time.

Now, about Star Wars Episode Vi: Return of the Jedi–I love parts of it, but other parts of it could’ve been cut out or expanded upon or simplified or whatever. It’s still an entertaining film for what it is and I still like it, but that’s about as far as it goes for me.

There are two other “Star Wars” movies that I’ll talk about in this series in the future because I can’t help but place them in my personal top 400-500 favorite movies (and yes, that is as far as the list goes–I’m not sorry, I love movies so much)–but I had to start with the two “Star Wars” movies in my top 100: “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” both of which the Force is still strong with.

My Favorite Movies – Star Wars (1977)

18 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Star Wars! How could this NOT be on my list of personal top 100 favorite movies? The movie that helped change pop culture geekdom/fandom for better or worse started with a hugely entertaining thrill ride from 1977 that still holds up even to this day. And I freaking love it!

…But as I mentioned in my initial review, which I wrote/posted here on Smith’s Verdict over five years ago (NOT the first time I saw “Star Wars,” mind you), there’s hardly anything new I can bring to a retrospective of one of the most popular movies of all time than my own personal feelings toward it. I’ve loved “Star Wars” (which I only refer to as “Episode IV” or “A New Hope” to avoid confusion in conversation) since I first saw it at age 15…but since I’ve learned more about the story of how it was made, I respect it even more.

Writer-director George Lucas took a big risk in making this film. Science-fiction fantasy-adventure wasn’t held in high regard at the time, so a classic-Western story set in space wasn’t being taken very seriously by studios, investors, or even most of the cast and crew. Lucas had made a big hit with the nostalgia-filled comedy “American Graffiti,” which gave him some free reign–but still, it was hard for people to believe that his next film wasn’t going to be a silly kid’s film. Nobody believed in “Star Wars” except for the guy in charge. it was his vision, and due to his anxieties and depression, he had trouble verbally communicating it often. Even when he showed it to his friends and colleagues, such as Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, among others, the only one who saw something special in it that could make it a huge phenomenon was Spielberg. (But De Palma did lend a helping hand in crafting what is now popularly known as the introductory “Star Wars” opening crawl, which helps set the audience up for the universe they’re about to see.)

It seemed destined to fail. And then…well, I think you know what happened next.

That is a wonderful behind-the-scenes story, and I sincerely hope that there’s a cinematic biopic made about it in the future. (That, and the making of “Rocky,” which is equally inspiring, if not more so.)

Little did people know how highly successful “Star Wars” would become, leading to a franchise that has its hits and misses, to be sure, but will always be unique. And it began with this extremely fun film that is admittedly as simple as they come, with obvious heroes and obvious villains (again, classic-Western story here) and a treacherous journey with a lot of obstacles to overcome. But who cares how simple it is? It’s hugely entertaining and an amazing thrill ride that makes for two hours of great entertainment!

Side-note: I don’t particularly care for the Special Edition/”New Hope” version of the film, or the other Special Editions, for that matter. I don’t watch the “Star Wars” original trilogy on Disney+ (which has the updated versions); I just watch the original versions on DVD, which I’ll always treasure.

I’m sorry I can’t get into much more detail about the film (and if you want more, here’s my original review). As a stand-alone entry in a longer series of films, this film works wonders. It takes a lot to beat it in terms of sheer entertainment…now, in terms of something a little deeper than that, that’s what its sequel is for! (I’ll get to that soon…)

My Favorite Movies – The Mighty (1998)

17 Jun

By Tanner Smith

The Mighty is a film that just gets better and better each time I see it…and I would add “which is more than I can say for “Simon Birch,” though that’s really not fair.

Both “The Mighty” and “Simon Birch” were family films that came out in 1998, and people seemed to argue about which one is better. But why? They only have one similarity: a friendship between two adolescent outcasts with disabilities that they see as for a heroic reason (and even that’s handled differently in both films).

I watched both these movies a lot when I was a kid. “Simon Birch” had enough innocuous charm and likable characters for me to continue watching it, while “The Mighty” felt more natural and in a realistic setting (at least, when it doesn’t show the characters’ fantasies of King Arthur’s knights, but there’s a purpose for that). I’ve watched both movies again as an adult, and…honestly, the stuff that moved me in “Simon Birch” really irritated me now. It also follows an annoying trend I’ve seen in a lot of family movies (I also mention this in my review of The Journey of Natty Gann): everyone in the supporting cast must be a one-dimensional jerk so that we can feel more sympathy for the main characters (however, there were two exceptions–Ashley Judd’s brief role as the mother one of the boys, and Oliver Platt as Judd’s boyfriend who’s a genuinely nice guy). And, I’m sorry to say this, even Simon, the title character, grew kind of annoying. While I don’t hate it, as it does have its worthwhile moments, it’s just a reminder to me that it is possible to outgrow some of the films we watch repeatedly as children.

“The Mighty,” on the other hand, I didn’t watch as much as “Simon Birch” back in the day. I think it was because it was a little too real for me. I mentioned in my review of The Secret of Roan Inish that there are two kinds of family films, one better than the other that most kids won’t want to check out but then will notice how much it grew on them since they watched it. “The Mighty” is a film like that. While it has its lighthearted moments (which are needed to balance out the heavier moments), this film is a little tougher in its issues (not so tough to gain an R rating, of course) and more poignant than one might expect. I can see real people in these characters, and they’re acted wonderfully (especially Kieran Culkin and Sharon Stone); I can feel what they’re going through; I like the philosophies that are used to connect the King Arthur stories to real life; the film even has a way of using sarcasm to say things about the characters’ backgrounds (for example, Kevin tells Max, “My dad was a magician–he heard the words ‘birth defect’ and disappeared.”), which is a risky but refreshing move; the fantasy aspects are not overdone; and so on. In the review, I complained about an unneeded climax involving the late James Gandolfini as Max’s psychotic father who causes Max to ultimately stand up to him and fight his inner demons as well. But I don’t think I mind it so much anymore).

What don’t I enjoy about “The Mighty?” Well, maybe that very catchy theme song by Sting…eh, who am I kidding? I like that too.

My Favorite Movies – Last Action Hero (1993)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

To quote the Honest Trailer of “Batman Forever,” “Yep, this is definitely the worst movie I’ve seen 40 times.”

Let me be clear–there is SO MUCH about “Last Action Hero” that doesn’t make sense. Like, AT ALL.

And everything that just about every critic has said about it…they’re right. It is a huge mess.

But damn it if it isn’t an interesting, fun, and amusing…huge mess. I can’t even take back my mixed review I posted for it here long ago.

But, dude…Schwarzenegger…the meta humor…the cool stunts…the fun premise…the Hamlet sequence…Charles Dance and his glass eye…that awesome-as-hell moment where Schwarzenegger busts through the skylight between two gunned henchmen and causes them to shoot each other…Tom Noonan as a caveman-like axe murderer…Ian McKellen as Death–THERE’S SO MUCH ABOUT THIS MOVIE TO LIKE!!!

“Last Action Hero,” directed by John McTiernan of “Die Hard” and “Predator” fame, is a heavily ambitious movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie movie about a young boy who is a huge fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and magically finds himself transported inside of one. I first saw this movie as a kid, and that idea alone was what got my interest to begin with.

The kid, named Danny (played with convincing pluck and energy by Austin O’Brien), has an opportunity to see an exclusive sneak preview of the latest in a series of Schwarzenegger films called Jack Slater (in which Schwarzenegger plays the titular LA cop). It’s “Jack Slater IV,” in which Slater is out to avenge the mob murder of his “second cousin” (played by the late Art Carney)–I love that he’s always referred to as his “second cousin,” because action-movie motivations always have to be “personal” in some way. (Btw, I guess he really didn’t mean that much to Slater because he isn’t even mentioned again after the first reel!)

Danny is friends with an old-school projectionist (Robert Prosky) who gives him the opportunity to see the movie late at night while he checks the print. For a gag, he gives him a golden ticket he claims to be “magic.” But soon after the movie begins, the ticket’s magic works all too well, transporting young Danny right into the middle of a chase scene in the streets of LA, where he suddenly appears in the back seat of Slater’s car. This chase scene is a lot of fun and the kid actually makes a good comic foil (and audience stand-in) for all the madness happening all around him, such as the car hurling off a bridge and going upward from an aqueduct.

In the greatest of action-buddy-movie contrivances, Slater’s captain Dekker (Frank McRae) lets Danny be his new partner on the case, since he knows more about it (from watching the movie’s prologue on-screen). This is all while Danny is trying to convince Slater that this is all a movie and he is played by a famous action star named Arnold Schwarzenegger. One of my favorite bits is when they visit a video store where Danny tries to prove it, and he’s shocked to find that Sylvester Stallone is the star of “Terminator 2!”

What about the fact that LA is filled with gorgeous buxom women? “This is California,” Slater retorts. And what about the fact that about over 9 million people live in LA alone, despite everyone having a 555 telephone number? “That’s why we have area codes.” Man, I love that!

The bad guy in the movie is supposed to be Italian mobster Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn), but the one who truly takes center stage is his supposed henchman (er, “lackey”), the sophisticated straightshooter Benedict (Charles Dance), who sports a glass eye. When he gets hold of the kid’s magic ticket is when Danny has to bring Slater into the real world to find him–but this isn’t like the movies (though it’s close enough, I guess). This is where the movie starts to drag, but there are still some interesting ideas here or there.

Oh, but before that happens, we get a thrilling sequence in which Slater and Danny have to infiltrate a mobster’s funeral to dispose of a body that is set to detonate nerve gas. This includes a lot of madness involving a crane that the little kid has to learn quickly how to operate while Slater has to dodge bullets from the guns of just about EVERY GUEST AT THE FUNERAL–but it’s a movie, so the odds are in the heroes’ favor.

Look, I’m not going to lie–this movie’s nuts, man. I didn’t even mention the fact that there’s a cartoon cat in a trenchcoat walking around Slater’s police station like he’s a normal member of the force. Is the cat a character in “Jack Slater IV??” I don’t know what the deal is, but…where was I going with this?

Maybe I just love the spirit of the movie. And the self parody of the action-movie genre. And the ingenuity of the screenplay (co-written by Shane Black).

Or maybe I just love it ’cause it’s fun. Let’s go with that.

My Favorite Movies – Breaking Away (1979)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Previously on Smith’s Verdict: “Is it better to win or to keep your self-respect?”

Well, this movie, “Breaking Away,” takes it a step further.

“Breaking Away,” directed by Peter Yates (of “Bullitt” fame) and written by Steve Tesich (who won the Oscar for this screenplay), is about a working-class 19-year-old in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana. Like his friends, he still lives at home, isn’t in college, and isn’t sure what to do with his life. He does however have an affection for the sport of bicycle racing–he idolizes the famous Italian bike racers so much that he even speaks in an Italian accent, plays opera records much to the frustration of his father, and even renames Jake the cat to “Fellini.” He even manages to pick up a college girl, who thinks he’s an Italian exchange student, and he continues the ruse from there.

This is Dave (Dennis Christopher). His friends aren’t doing any better than he is–they spend nearly every day together and go swimming in water-filled rock quarries to pass the time. Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) has some idea of what he wants to do, which is marry his girlfriend Nancy (Amy Wright). Mike (Dennis Quaid) used to be a popular high-school football quarterback and is resentful of everyone who made it to college football except for him. Cyril (Daniel Stern) is even less ambitious, which would be so sad if he wasn’t so funny. (Cyril has the best lines in a film that is filled with great lines of dialogue.)

They’re labeled “cutters” by the university students, as a dirty slur to describe “townies” and because their parents were among the stonecutters who cut the limestones on numerous designs (including on campus). (The term “cutters” was made up for the film; the actual term is “stoners,” which wasn’t used for obvious reasons.) There’s a wonderful scene in which Dave’s father (Paul Dooley, wonderful here) takes a stroll with Dave on the college campus and talks about how he regrets the legacy he left behind for Dave. Dave says he doesn’t mind…his dad does.

Mike is sick of feeling inferior to the college guys (which include a young Ellis from “Die Hard,” I kid you not), so he wants to get him and his friends enrolled in the annual Indiana University Little 500 bicycle race–really, it’s a way for Dave to prove himself, so the four can sign up but Dave will actually ride the race for the team’s win. But Dave believes he’s better than a silly college race, so he sets his mind on competing with a professional Italian cycling team for a big cross-town race.

What happens to Dave in this race and what it leads to afterwards always inspires me each time I watch this film. So many people will do anything to win no matter what–but as this movie argues, what does that even prove? Dave learns (and I think his friends learn this too) that it’s the little accomplishments (and how they’re accomplished) that truly matter.

People generally root for the underdog in movies–it’s not just that we want them to win; what’s more important is how they win. (It’s kind of like watching a KC Chiefs game!)

I mentioned there were some funny lines from Cyril in this movie. Here are a few of them:

“When you’re 16, they call it sweet-16. When you’re 18, you get to drink and vote and see dirty movies. What the hell you get to do when you’re 19?”

“We rednecks are few. Paleface college students are many. I counsel peace.”

“We may plead, but we would never beg!”

And my personal favorite: “I wouldn’t mind thinking I was somebody myself.”

None of these sound very funny out of context. Just watch the movie if you haven’t already.

My Favorite Movies – The Bad News Bears (1976)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

When I was a little kid, I watched a lot of children’s sports movies, such as “Little Giants,” “The Big Green,” the “Mighty Ducks” movies. I didn’t watch “The Bad News Bears” until I was a little older, at age 13. And even though I had seen its copycats many, many times and enjoyed them each time, there was still something about “The Bad News Bears” that just felt so fresh and new to me at that time. Why is that?

Well, for one, I knew it wasn’t talking down to me because I was a kid. This 1970s movie was made for adults AND kids, and director Michael Ritchie and screenwriter Bill Lancaster weren’t afraid to insert a little dark comedy and a lot of sardonic humor into what would’ve been your standard kid’s sport movie about an underdog Little League baseball team. The coach is an alcoholic grump. The kids are little big-mouthed smartasses. And the important lesson is more for the adults than the kids: don’t take out your frustrations associated with failure on those younger than you.

Oh, and it’s also…not very politically correct. I’m sure many people who have seen this movie remember a certain line of dialogue from a little tough-guy kid putting down his teammates which includes harsh racial slurs–damn, was that a different time!

Walter Matthau stars in one of his most iconic roles as Morris Buttermaker, a former minor-league baseball player who’s now a grumpy drunk. He’s been asked to coach a Little League team that has been formed as part of a lawsuit to allow all children to play. As you’d expect, the kids are not very skilled and Buttermaker isn’t an ideal coach–he even passes out due to drunkenness on the pitcher’s mound during practice.

When the kids’ spirits are broken during a disastrous first game, Buttermaker decides to take his job more seriously. Even though the team votes to opt out of the season, Buttermaker shouts that they have no choice and they’re gonna get better no matter what! (I love that scene–it’s even funnier in the remake.) They even recruit a couple other kids with their own skills: Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) and Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley). Soon enough, the team gains more confidence and starts winning games and make it to the championship game versus a team coached by the aggressive and competitive Roy Turner (Vic Morrow).

Mistakes are made, lessons are learned, a kid is even SLAPPED at one point (jeez, 1970s, you were HARSH), and I don’t even give a damn about the outcome of the game more than how everyone reacts to it. Because this movie is far more better-written than any of its copycats that came after.

Why does “The Bad News Bears” stand out even today? Because it’s not like those other movies–instead, it’s an interesting, unflinchingly honest look at competition in modern society. We get that in the way Buttermaker’s backstory about his old playing days and his personal life is given to us, as well as Buttermaker’s counter-rival Turner, who just wants to win because it’s probably the way he was coached as a young person and will do what it takes to achieve…well, ANYTHING in his life. The kids are portrayed as real kids and ones who need positive role models in their lives–Buttermaker may not be the best example they got, but he is the only one and it turns out he’s not too bad at it.

See? Both adults AND kids can get something out of this comedy, and that’s the reason I think it still holds up today.

I saw its first sequel, “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”–it’s not very good, but it does have its funny moments here or there. I never watched “The Bad News Bears Go to Japan” in its entirety–I saw the first 10-15 minutes once and then changed the channel.

I do like the 2005 remake, directed by Richard Linklater, though I’m a little disappointed by how faithful Linklater was to the material–it’s pretty much the same script as the original, only updated. The best part about it, though, is Billy Bob Thornton as Buttermaker–Thornton goes beyond Matthau’s grumpy demeanor and instead plays Buttermaker as a guy who most likely has a body stashed in the trunk of his car. To me, that makes his scenes with the kids all the more hilarious.

What’s more important to us? To win or keep our self-respect? Well, maybe this will help–as the wise Bill Murray said in “Meatballs,” “IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER!”