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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…)

Annie Hall (1977)

23 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s address the elephant in the room first: Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” won the Best Picture Oscar instead of “Star Wars.” There’s not much I can add to that, so let’s move on.

Well…maybe there is. I’m not going to act like I can’t understand why “Annie Hall” took home the award instead of the ever-popular “Star Wars” (which is one of my favorite films, so calm down). “Annie Hall” was more than just a typical romantic comedy. Hell, it was the 1970s, when typical romantic comedies were the rarity until the 1990s, when “When Harry Met Sally” set a new standard in 1989…thus resulting in the “typical romantic comedies” I can think of, now that I think about it…

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, “Annie Hall.” It was more than just pure comedy. Sure, there are funny lines of dialogue and many unusual comedic sketches (such as a cartoon sequence, fantasy journeys through time and daydreams, and constant breaking of the fourth wall), but considering all of it as the mindset of the narrator, Alvy Singer, played by writer-director Woody Allen, the film is more than a comedy and more like a bitter exploration into his psyche. In that respect, while “Star Wars” was the most fantastic, inventive and fun movie of 1977, “Annie Hall” might have been the smartest and most insightful.

“Annie Hall” represents the pure use of comedy I admire—if done well, comedy can allow audiences to get a real feel for the characters. Comedy can set you up and draw you in, and before you know it, you’re learning more about the characters and also learning from them as well.

If it wasn’t clear from Woody Allen’s films prior to this (“Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas”), Allen is a sad, sad man. The questions he has about life lead to a non-stop pursuit of answers, he has a very low opinion on many aspects of life and existence, and it’s probably fair to say that his therapy in getting through life is by creating characters to live through and writing jokes; first for standup, then for cinema. (Allen has since made quite a few dramatic films later in life, and while jokes may not be a primary focus in them, the way he lives through his characters certainly is.) With “Annie Hall,” written and directed by Allen, the public got a pretty clear picture of Allen’s personality and how close his character of Alvy Singer is to the actual Allen.

Alvy, a comedian, has a very low opinion of himself. As the film opens, he addresses the camera with a couple jokes—one about how short and pointless life can seem and another which is attributed to Groucho Marx: “I would never want to belong to any group that would have someone like me for a member.” All uphill from here, eh?

The film is essentially Alvy’s recollection of previous relationships with women, particularly the one he had the most fondness for: Annie Hall (played by a fabulous Diane Keaton, who won an Oscar for the role). He tries to understand why he and Annie broke up a year ago, and we take this journey inside his head, figuratively speaking, experiencing memories and fantasies (all in non-linear fashion, by the way). We even see the source of his melancholy at a very young age, when he read as a child that “the universe is expanding” and often questioned his mother about the point of existence.

Alvy recalls many pleasant times with Annie, more so than with his first wife (Carol Kane), who disagreed with him about his thoughts on the JFK assassination (maybe Allen felt better when he saw Oliver Stone’s “JFK”), or his second wife (Janet Margolin), a writer who was unable to get an orgasm. Annie talked a little differently (“la-de-da, la-de-da, la-la, yeah”) and dressed a little differently (with a wardrobe that started a trend for a little while after this film’s release), but they shared many fun times with her: frantically trying to cook lobsters, making fun of men from her past, among other things. She feels a loving connection between the two of them, but when the two of them move in together, that’s when things start to get a little tense, leading to their breakup.

But it doesn’t stop there. From that point on, Alvy has bad dating experiences (and bad sex), he’s unsure of what to do with his career, and when Annie calls for him in the middle of the night, it’s to get him to kill a spider (“a spider the size of a Buick”).

Sometimes, the journey through Allen’s (er, sorry—Alvy’s) psyche takes detours. I’m not sure why they’re there, but I find them simply hilarious. For example, Alvy and Annie are standing in line at a movie theater and Alvy is very annoyed by the guy standing behind him and telling his friend about the works of Fellini and McLuhan and his opinion on them. What does Alvy do? He brings in McLuhan himself to talk down to the man, saying “You know nothing of my work!” Why is this there? I don’t know—maybe just to appease Allen’s annoyance of people who try to act smarter than they are, but it’s got nothing to with Annie, other than…she was there.

But then again, maybe this was never really about Annie after all. Maybe this was all just a way of making Alvy feel better about himself. That would also explain the scene in which he revisits his first-grade classroom (with 6-year-old Alvy there as well) and all his old classmates state what kind of adults they became. (“I’m into leather,” a girl states.) Is this a way of Alvy thinking to himself that he could’ve had a worse journey in life than ending up as a comedian? A way of making himself feel better? Could be.

“Annie Hall” is also somewhat of a love letter to living in New York City (something Allen recaptured in the arguably-better “Manhattan” two years later) as opposed to Los Angeles, where Alvy and Annie visit in the final half-hour of this hour-and-a-half film. L.A. doesn’t look very good here, and I think what Allen was trying to say was people in New York City think too much and people in L.A. think very little. Ouch. No wonder Woody Allen never attends the Oscars in Hollywood, despite his numerous wins and nominations for his screenwriting.

Basically, “Annie Hall” is all about Woody Allen. It’s his vision, his dialogue, his persona, his representation of how he feels about love and life in general. And amidst all the talk about how embittered he is about a lot of things and how unsure he is about himself (to the point where he can’t let good things be as good as they should be), there is a lesson to be learned by the end of “Annie Hall”: relationships can be painful, but they’re also worth the pain. He’s not telling us how to feel; he’s telling us how he feels. And maybe we can learn something from him in the process.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

10 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here at Smith’s Verdict, I (Tanner Smith) try to bestow through words an enlightened point of view on the films I choose to review. (Or, at least, that’s what I try to do nowadays—do you know how many of my earlier reviews I would like to rewrite/revise?!) With that said, let’s talk about what many critics and audiences declared one of the worst films ever made—John Boorman’s “Exorcist II: The Heretic.”

How badly was this film received? Within ten minutes of its Chicago critics’ screening, the crowd chased the executives away in anger. At a theater in Hollywood Blvd., the audience threw things at the screen (at least these people actually stayed through the film to the end). On the night of the premiere, audiences straight-up laughed at the film, as they couldn’t take it seriously. And among the critics who slammed it harshly, Gene Siskel wrote in his review for the Chicago Tribune, “’Exorcist II’ is the worst motion picture I’ve seen in almost eight years on the job [as a film critic].” (I feel sorry that Siskel saw worse films in his remaining 22 years of life ‘til his death in ‘99.) Is it truly worth the hate it receives? Let’s take a look…

It should be noted that despite taking the opportunity to direct a sequel to “The Exorcist,” one of the greatest (and most profitable) horror films of all time, director John Boorman did not care for the original film, calling the original script “rather repulsive.” For the sequel, he set out to make a film in his own vision—one that would take risks while sending the audience on a journey that was “positive, about good, essentially” (according to Boorman in an interview). So, where did he go wrong and did he succeed in some way(s)?

Before I answer that, I’ll talk about the story. Four years after the exorcism of Regan O’Neil, which resulted in the death of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) (oh, and also the death of Father Kerras, but never mind about him until “Exorcist III,” if you can help it), a preacher struggling with his faith, named Lamont (Richard Burton), is sent to investigate what truly happened back then, after Church authorities declare they don’t want to acknowledge that demons and Satan exist. The now-teenaged Regan (Linda Blair) is monitored by a psychiatric institute because she claims she doesn’t remember anything from the experience. Psychiatrist Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) believes her memories are simply repressed and has a method that can help find them.

OK, this is where you really have to suspend your disbelief when this method is introduced—it’s a device that can apparently cause two people to go under hypnosis and visit each other’s minds…I’m not entirely sure that’s how that works.

Tuskin wants to use the machine to find out what really happened to Regan. While continuing his investigation, Lamont becomes involved and tries questioning Regan, which Tuskin doesn’t see as doing as much good as harm. Things get even more complicated when Lamont hooks himself up to the machine with Regan, which leads to more questions needing to be answered.

So, you can probably spot the first point in which “Exorcist II: The Heretic” goes downhill. This machine, a “synchronizer,” seems highly implausible, especially after the first film had such a gritty, realistic feel to it and made the supernatural elements feel more plausible with each scene. The way this device is set up feels more at home in a science-fiction film. I would believe in hypnotherapy as an attempt to solve the problem of interpreting Regan’s past trauma, but not this thing. In fact, this was the very thing I mentioned before that caused audiences to give up and laugh at its premiere. It seemed to start out fine, with an exorcism prologue that is creepy enough for audiences…and then it cuts to Regan being introduced to Tuskin’s machine. Odd segue, eh?

Is that the only problem with “Exorcist II: The Heretic?” Well…no. As much as there is scientific babble about how the machine “synchronizes brain waves,” there’s a lot of spiritual babble as well. Much of it is actually kind of fascinating (which I’ll get into later), but for the most part, it’s either not written well or not delivered well. It’s a little difficult to understand what the film is saying for the most part because of confusing dialogue. I think I have some idea of what the film was building up to, but I’ve seen the film twice now (once out of curiosity, twice to review it) and I can say this: when Tuskin delivers one of the final lines of dialogue, “I understand now but the world won’t,” I was confused because I was still a little lost, much like “the world.”

It also doesn’t help that Richard Burton, who takes up a good chunk of the film’s spiritual aspects, delivers his lines like he’s talking in his sleep. Burton looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than in this film. His character is supposed to be a troubled priest seeking answers beyond his comprehension, but the way Burton plays it gives off the impression that he could use a drink. Hearing him say the central demon’s name “Pazuzu” multiple times out of what is supposed to be fear just comes off as silly. (But to be fair…the demon’s name is “Pazuzu.” I dare you to say that name at least twice without cracking up.)

And while it has its talk of the spirit world, the demon world, exorcism, and so forth, “Exorcist II: The Heretic” also shows a little of the “terror.” But the problem there is, as “The Exorcist” proved successfully, less is more. There are many laughable visuals in the film, most notably a giant locust that flies around Africa in search of a new victim. And there’s also James Earl Jones in a locust costume…need I say more?

So I’ve talked about the confusion the film generates, the ridiculous plot device that’s literally a device, and Richard Burton’s embarrassing performance. Is there anything positive to say about this film that most people called one of the worst of all time?

I think so. For one thing, I admire that the film is a continuation (even if four years after the original event is a little too long) and they don’t try the same things the original did. The narrative allows more to be discovered, such as when Regan develops somewhat of a psychic ability and has an interesting conversation with Lamont about it and about how it can used to someone’s advantage before it can be used for evil. And when Lamont goes from place to place, country to country, finding out more than he expected, I was interested to find out more of what was beneath the surface of the mystery (even if the name “Pazuzu” is off-putting). And there are some chilling moments, such as the prologue and Lamont’s encounter with James Earl Jones’ Kucomo. But those chilling moments make way for conversations that sound false and moments that seem silly rather than frightening (such as loud chanting when the characters are in Africa). “Exorcist II: The Heretic” isn’t trying to be a horror film, necessarily, but more of an odd, unusual, spiritual journey in which characters find themselves facing against the Devil. And considering one of these characters (Regan) spent an entire film (the original “Exorcist”) with a demon inside her, that journey is all the more fascinating, especially when she develops her psychic gift (or is it a curse?). It almost feels like she’s being tested by God to make the right choices.

But sadly, Boorman doesn’t execute that intriguing element well, and it leads to a confusing climactic scene in which, again, I’m not entirely sure what happened and what was learned from it. I just know…there were a lot of locusts.

“Exorcist II: The Heretic” is a very strange film, but it’s not one of the worst movies ever made. There are parts I find interesting to watch and other parts I find maddening to watch, as well as parts that are simply absurd (such as when Regan casually says the line, “I was possessed by a demon”). I think if the plot was tighter, the people behind the making of the film were more confident about what they were trying to accomplish here, and, like I said, hypnotherapy was involved in the story (instead of that ridiculous machine), people would think differently about it. As is, it’s a mess, but it’s an intriguing mess.

Star Wars (1977)

22 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What can I say about “Star Wars” (or as it has since been called, “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”) that no one else has said about it before? It was a cinematic game-changer when it originally released in 1977. It changed the way we look at film. Many have tried to imitate its brilliance with little to no success. It made the science-fiction genre respectable again. It began a revolution in special effects, thanks to Industrial Lights and Magic. And it’s still influential now, even after almost 40 years since its original release.

I agree with everything said by those who have hailed it as a masterpiece. In fact, it’s one of my all-time favorite movies. So what can I say about it that no one else has? Probably nothing. But I’ll review the film anyway.

There is one thing I will say about it. I have never seen the Special Edition, and frankly, I don’t care to either. Seeing what was done with “updated effects” in “E.T.” was painful enough, and so I felt I didn’t need to see Jabba the Hutt’s appearance in an extended version or the possibility that Greedo shot first instead of Han. With that said, I am reviewing the original theatrical cut (which was titled “Star Wars” without the subtitle “A New Hope”) because that’s the only version I’ve seen and held in high regard.

With that said, the effects back then still hold up pretty well. I believe I am seeing starships soaring into space; I believe I’m within the vastness of space; I believe I’m seeing a real battle in space; and the practical effects are outstanding as well, adding more to the universe. The technical aspects from back in the day still look impressive even now. (Some of the computer graphics are noticeably dated, but even then, I don’t mind too much.)

For those who don’t know the story, even if it’s a rare few, the film is about a civil war in the galaxy. The Rebel Alliance is in hiding and the evil Darth Vader (performed by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) seeks them out after they’ve stolen plans for the Galactic Empire’s Death Star, a space station with enough power to destroy planets. Rebel leader Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) hides data containing the information in a droid called R2-D2, which escapes with fellow protocol droid C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), before she is taken prisoner. R2-D2 and C-3P0 manage to make their way onto a desert planet, Tatooine, where they are captured by traders and sold to moisture farmers, where they meet Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the farmers’ young nephew. Luke receives the message Leia left in R2-D2 and thinks he knows who the message is intended for—an “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, who may be an old family friend named Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness).

Believe it or not, that’s only the first half-hour of “Star Wars.” While we’re introduced to these new worlds, we’re getting a good sense of back-story. It was a masterstroke on writer-director George Lucas’ part to begin the film from the perspective of these two droids—two strange beings we’re learning about and learning from. And the opening shot is just brilliant—a Rebel fighter ship being overpowered by a much larger Empire ship; it lets you know right away that the Empire has the upper hand. I also like that Luke, despite being the main character, isn’t introduced for about 20 minutes. It keeps us guessing in that sense.

Anyway, Luke meets the aging Ben Kenobi and learns that he was once known as “Obi-Wan” when he was a Jedi Knight. He’s a teacher of the mysterious Force, a mystic energy that can help bring balance to the universe. Luke also learns that his late father, who he never knew, was once a Jedi Knight before he was destroyed by the dark side. Kenobi convinces Luke to join him and the droids on a quest to rescue Leia, join the Rebels, and destroy the Death Star. They hire a smuggler/pilot, named Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and his first mate, hairy Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and they set off into space to carry out the mission.

At the heart of “Star Wars” is a science-fiction coming-of-age tale with Luke in the center of the action, accepting his destiny as a soldier in the fight for freedom in the galaxy. He gets his chance to join the battle against evil and is not the same person he was by the time the movie ends. It’s a strong arc that gets better by the film’s second sequel.

The performances are adequate but suitable for the material. (Sometimes I have to wonder what Lucas’ intent was when he was directing Fisher, who delivers an on-again/off-again British accent.) They play familiar types with enough personality to make them individuals and their portrayals are improved upon in the sequels, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” (both of which, I’ll get to later). Mark Hamill is the would-be hero with some learning to do, Harrison Ford is the cocky, wisecracking ally, Carrie Fisher is the kind-hearted but stubborn warrior princess, Alec Guinness is the wise old leader, Anthony Daniels is the worried comic-relief, Peter Cushing (as villainous Governor Tarkin) is a leader that’ll remind you of a Fuhrer Nazi, and David Prowse/James Earl Jones is an intimidating dark lord who will use the Force to get what he wants and doesn’t care who stands in his way. They’re interesting enough so that you want to know where they go from point-one. And I give the actors credit for not sleepwalking through their roles in order to cash nice paychecks—they feel like they belong in this universe.

“Star Wars” has been copied many times to capture the same magic and style and tone, but many filmmakers forget that “Star Wars” was famous for being its own thing while paying homage to various sources—Greek mythology, religion, adventure serials, Akira Kurosawa, even World War II, among others. Lucas took these ideas and crafted a story within certain traits that made “Star Wars” his own. Compare that to most filmmakers who practically rip off other movies. “Star Wars” is its own thing. It has a unique blend of adventure, masterful storytelling, appealing characters, inventive concepts, and new worlds. It was the beginning of something special that would make its mark in motion picture history, and for good reason.

The Up Series (1964-2013)

16 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “7 Up” project began in the mid-1960s as an episode of a British investigative current affairs program called “World in Action.” The near-40-minute episode, entitled “Seven Up!,” followed 14 children, all age 7, who were interviewed. The purpose of the program was to present “a glimpse of Britain’s future” and ended with the infamous quote, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The participants were chosen to represent different social classes in Britain in the 1960s.

Seven years later, when the children were 14, researcher-turned-director Michael Apted directed “7 Plus Seven” (or “14 Up!,” as it’s also known) with follow-up interviews. And because Apted believed that human lives reform in some manner within seven years, he would continue to follow these same participants (for the most part; a few dropped out, since there was no long-term contract requiring them to participate in each film) at ages 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and 56. (As of now, it’s unclear whether the series will continue at age 63.)

Watching these films as a whole, spanning five decades from “Seven Up” to “56 Up,” is a marvelous experience, capturing the truest essence of life possible for a documentary. It’s not only one of the best documentary projects of all time; it’s a real sociological study. It represents the lives of these people, they talk about what has changed every seven years and what hasn’t, and while we see the changes in each character, we still see who they were and get a sense that they are who they are. It’s like when you look at a photograph of yourself as a child—you know that you are the child and the child is you, but it’s difficult to comprehend the connection due to how much time has passed since the photograph was taken. And so, when each of these people in the “Up” series are shown as children and as adults, you notice the changes in each of them, but you also recognize some of the characteristics in them as children.

These are ordinary people—Tony, Suzy, Neil, Nick, Bruce, Jackie, Lynn, Sue, Symon, Paul, Andrew, John, Charles, and Peter. We don’t know them (though we feel like we do, through the films) and we can’t necessarily say that we at times are like them, because as the entire project indicates, no one is the same as another. But we do recognize parts of ourselves in some of these people that allow us to identify with them, want to know more about their lives, and become engrossed in everything else they have to say. Originally, the project was conceived as a way to make a political point about social class, but as Apted learned more about his subject’s lives, he lost sight of the bigger picture. But that’s fine, because the audience did too. He grew close to his subjects, so we did too.

The individual films in the series are all special in their own way. Some are more exciting and interesting than others, but there are hardly any downsides. The first two (“Seven Up!” and “7 Plus Seven”) are fairly standard, but that’s not bad at all. It starts to get very interesting at around “21 Up,” which shows the growth and maturity of the subjects as they prepare for the rough road of life. After “28 Up,” which some a couple fascinating changes (which I’ll get to in a moment), it becomes clear what the (new) purpose of the project is.

Now let’s talk about the participants. Jackie, Lynn, and Sue are all from the East End of London. While Lynn has a family and career, Jackie and Sue each married young, became single mothers, and later divorced their husbands. Andrew, John, and Charles, each representing the rich upper class people who usually map out the lives of children. These three pretty much followed the path that was already set for them by their parents and society. Of these three, Andrew is the only one who has participated in all of the films, Charles quit after 21, and John skipped 28 and 42. Symon and Paul lived in a children’s home run by charity—since then, Paul emigrated to Australia and has lived there with a wife and children ever since, and Symon has gone through a divorce and remarriage. (It’s also reported that his ex-wife didn’t care for the project, while his current wife does. He and his wife are now foster parents.) Nick grew up on a farm but didn’t see himself working on it in the future; he instead grew up to study science and become a professor and nuclear physicist in the United States. He married before 28, though everyone who saw the film apparently felt the marriage was doomed, due to her commentary. Because of this, she didn’t return for 35 or 42, and by 49, Nick was divorced and remarried. Bruce was a quiet boy who wanted to be a missionary and became a teacher and traveled to places such as Bangladesh. One of the more pleasing developments in the series is when he is 35 and regrets not having been married and in “42 Up,” he is a newlywed. He’s now a devoted husband and father. Neil and Peter were middle-class boys living in Liverpool. Peter skipped 35, 42, and 49, and returned in “56 Up” (mainly to promote his band). (I’ll get to Neil in a moment.)

Of the 14 participants, three stand out most to me (and a lot of other people, for that matter). One is Tony, also from the East End. He’s a favorite because he’s so open and charismatic and one of the biggest supporters of the project, which means he’ll most likely stay with it till the end. He dreamed of being a jockey at age 7; at 14, he was an apprentice at a horse-racing stable; at 21, he talks about a race where he had a photo-finish, from which he keeps a photograph as a souvenir, but he had to move on from being a jockey and instead concentrated on being a taxi driver; at 28, he owned his own cab, got married, and started raising a family. One of the most poignant moments in the series comes from “42 Up,” when he sits with his wife and confesses an affair he had; a real rough patch in their relationship. But they still stayed together after his wife forgave him. A particularly funny moment in the series is in “56 Up” when he tells an anecdote about how he was recognized for the series by someone who wanted his autograph instead of Buzz Aldrin’s (Aldrin was Tony’s fare).

Suzy, who comes from a wealthy background, was always reluctant about doing the films, as she was forced to do it in the first place by her parents. She’s always said she would stop participating, but she kept coming back (probably because she feels obligated to do so after so many years). Suzy was a very shy girl growing up, and by 21, she formed a very negative opinion about marriage. The most dramatic change in the series is from her from age 21 to 28. When you see her in “21 Up,” she’s bitter, chain-smoking, and nervous. But then in “28 Up,” she’s cheerful and happy and married with children; a remarkable transformation.

And last but definitely not least, there’s Neil, from a Liverpool suburb. Neil is the most complex person in the series and his story is consistently captivating and unpredictable. As a child, he was happy and excited, though you have to wonder what his home life was like, since he is also saying things like “I don’t want to have any children because they’re always doing naughty things and making the whole house untidy.” I don’t know many 7-year-olds who would talk like that, especially while smiling (like he does), so it may be indicated that Neil’s happiness was hiding something. By 21, he was living in a squat after dropping out of school after one term. By 28, he was homeless and living in Scotland; in “28 Up,” he provides the most heartbreakingly frank statement about why he will never have children: he’s afraid the child will inherit the most negative traits from him. Many people thought Neil would be dead by 35, but he was still alive, though his life had hit rock bottom. But luckily, by 42, he was able to put his life back together; he’s been involved in local council politics as a Liberal Democrat and he’s even made friends with Bruce, who let him live with him for a while.

This is what the most compelling documentaries contain: real human drama. You don’t find movie characters as fascinating as Neil.

Another special thing about the “Up” series is that with each film being released every seven years (and it still remains to be seen whether we will see “63 Up” in 2020), it allows the audience to think back about themselves and how their lives have changed in the past seven years. That reason (and more) is what truly makes the “Up” series special—it’s documentary filmmaking at its best.

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

11 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When people think of the title “Saturday Night Fever,” they mostly think of the lighthearted moments that involve John Travolta dancing on a disco floor, as well as the soundtrack, which includes many memorable songs performed by the Bee Gees. And that’s how I thought of it, having heard the soundtrack before actually watching the film. In fact, there were even a few times when I labeled it as “the disco movie.”

And boy, was I way off. “Saturday Night Fever” may have its entertaining, cheerful moments on the dance floor, but the film as a whole is a hard-edged, gritty drama about a guy trying to get by in life while hanging on to what he has left to lose. And its main character is not a wholesome, happy-go-lucky leading man, as for the most part, he’s sexist, racist, and vulgar. But he lives for Saturday night and lets out his anger brought on by life on the dance floor at a disco. He has a charisma that can either be admired or laughed at. And maybe he can change and grow out of his habits and lifestyle.

John Travolta stars in a brilliant performance as 19-year-old Brooklyn local Tony Manero, a macho guy who cares for looking good, getting laid, and being the best dancer. His personality gives his less-ambitious friends the illusion that he has everything covered. But his life is as screwed up as everyone else’s. He lives with a family that worships his older brother, who is a priest (his mother even makes the sign of the cross when she mentions his name). The father yells for no apparent reason and often snaps at Tony at the dinner table.

By the way, the funniest moment is when Tony’s dad hits him in the head and Tony reacts by shouting, “Watch the hair! I work on my hair a long time, and you hit it!”

But outside of his home, Tony is king of the dance floor at the 2001 Odyssey disco and worshipped by women, including a young, spunky floozy-wannabe named Annette (Donna Pescow) who desperately wants to make it with Tony. Tony doesn’t care for her in the slightest, but dances with her because she’s a good dancer.

Tony has a certain way of looking at women—they are either nice girls or they’re tramps. He does know that he doesn’t want to have sex with Annette because he wouldn’t respect her anymore, but he himself isn’t entirely fond of his own belief, especially when he sets his sights on a Brooklyn girl, Stephanie (Karen Gorney), and decides he wants her. But first he wants to get to know her first and for her to know him before bringing up snappy judgments—and she does, as she describes him to his face as a “cliché” who is going nowhere, while she has made it as a secretary in Manhattan. She only comes to Brooklyn to dance, and with the $500 dance contest approaching, Tony and Stephanie team up to enter it.

Let’s talk about the themes of “Saturday Night Fever.” There are two in particular. One is relating to women not just in a sexual way. Tony doesn’t see most women as people and more like objects he and his friends can put in the back seat of their car and perform sexual deeds with. But with his new, complicated relationship with Stephanie, he can learn to respect women and acknowledge them more than his friends can or will. For example, on their first date, he tries to act more mature than he is, and Stephanie sees right through it, causing Tony to subtly realize that women aren’t as dumb as he would like to think they are. Another important theme is the dream of young people escaping the same old routine of working and “being nowhere, going no place” and reaching their version of the towers of Manhattan. There’s a scene in which Tony sits with Stephanie on a bench in a park, where they can see one of the bridges that lead out of Brooklyn. He tells her about it, and you can sense that his dream is to just leave his Brooklyn life behind and start anew in Manhattan. This is after Stephanie put him down about being a “cliché” doing the same stuff over and over again with his friends and blowing off steam on the dance floor, and you get the sense that the desire is becoming more evident to him.

Everything pays off in the end in which Tony does grow up, leave his worthless buddies (whose macho deeds accidentally gets one of them killed), and he does cross that bridge into Manhattan, where he will start a new life with an enlightened view of the world around him and the women in his life.

These themes are very well-handled and make the film much more deeper than you’d expect, as you can interpret your own analyses toward most of the little events, such as Stephanie’s reasoning, Tony’s reasons for dancing, or the visit of Tony’s priest brother who is thinking of quitting priesthood, etc.

And then there’s the dancing. Disco may be dated, and most cynics who haven’t even seen this film can argue that that’s the reason for not watching it. But the themes are far from dated, and dancing here is not what the film is about at all. Dancing is only here as a way for Tony to escape his regular life, even if it is for just a little while each week. It’s a subtle fundamental point that people can miss if they don’t watch this film all the way through. And at times, I can imagine why it would be tough to sit through this, because Tony and his friends really are profane and vulgar to themselves and to others, including women and minorities. But really, this film doesn’t necessarily glamorize their attitudes; if anything, it criticizes them. But I digress. The dancing in “Saturday Night Fever” is energetic and the soundtrack, especially the songs by the Bee Gees (“Staying Alive,” “Night Fever,” “You Should Be Dancing,” and so on), is fabulous.

Actually, I just realized how perfect the song “Staying Alive” is for this movie. Especially that lyric that goes “I’m going nowhere / Somebody help me / Somebody help me yeah”—I didn’t realize until now how much meaning it has.

John Travolta takes center stage in “Saturday Night Fever” and his performance is nothing short of brilliant. His character can be rough around the edges at times, but the more you get to know him, the more you realize how much he needs to leave Brooklyn. And he’s very charismatic, particularly in the little moments that give him joy, such as when his boss at the paint store gives him a $2.50 raise. He’s so happy about it that his annoyed boss actually doubles it! His happiness is so real you can reach out and touch him. And Travolta is also a terrific dancer. There’s one extended moment midway through in which he has a solo dance in the middle of the floor, and it’s the most energetic dance sequence in the movie. Travolta is wonderful here. And “Saturday Night Fever” is a very well-done film that has more than meets the eye.

September 30, 1955 (1977)

18 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The title “September 30, 1955” refers to the date of James Dean’s death. The actor was only 24 years old and his best movies (“Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant”) hadn’t been released yet. But “East of Eden” took movie audiences by surprise—or rather, it was James Dean’s performance that took them by surprise. As “September 30, 1955” opens, we meet our main character—a young man named Jimmy J—as he watches “East of Eden” in a cinema. As he watches James Dean perform the touching final scene, a tear falls across his face.

Whether this is the first or one of multiple times he has seen this movie isn’t clear, but one thing is certain—Jimmy J feels that James Dean is a close friend. That is why when he hears that James Dean died in a tragic accident the very next day, it really hits him hard. His mother and friends don’t understand his grief. Jimmy J has to remind them that they really don’t. The worst anybody could say was that James Dean was only a movie star. He was more than that. That’s what anybody might have said on the actual date that people heard about the death of James Dean. There may be a lot of other people who feel the same way as Jimmy J, but this is a sleepy Arkansas town where an event like this isn’t very important. Quite odd—this could have been the most-talked-about event to come along in a long while. But with the upcoming homecoming (excuse that pun) at college, what’s more important?

“September 30, 1955” does a nice job when it focuses on Jimmy J’s grief and interaction with his friends. Jimmy J is played by Richard Thomas (best known as John Boy on “The Waltons”) and while the character isn’t given much of a personality throughout the film, he nearly makes up for it in a bedside scene with a great amount of range. Strangely enough, the final half of this film is the best thing of the movie. The characters—including those played by Tom Hulce, Deborah Benson, and Lisa Blount—are given room to grow after a couple of painfully long sequences—one involving an attempted séance (the only saving grace is Lisa Blount’s Vampira exterior) and the following one involving an attempt to scare a couple of ex-friends with makeup. I felt if those scenes were trimmed down a bit, I’d be a bit more satisfied. I wouldn’t ask to delete the latter scene because it sets up the bedside scene (not giving anything away here).

So do I recommend the film? Well…it’s a close call, but I do. The director James Bridges has a good feel for the town that Jimmy J and his friends live in, the actors are good (especially Lisa Blount as Jimmy J’s ex-girlfriend who believes she can communicate with spirits), and the writing of the dialogue that these kids say is spot-on. There are flaws, of course—this is not particularly well-executed. As I’ve said, some sequences drag on for too long, some hints of comedy fall flat, and the final shot is unsatisfactory. But as a drama and a portrait of those grieving over the legendary actor James Dean, “September 30, 1955” works.

Oh, God! (1977)

17 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Upon meeting God Himself, a mild-mannered grocery clerk named Jerry is asked not to smoke as He adds, “Tobacco was one of my big mistakes.” Jerry, of course, thinks this is some sort of prank and plays along by asking if God has made any other mistakes. God’s response—“Ostriches—silly-looking things. And avocados—I made the pit too big.” Yes, the one who claims to be God has just declared himself fallible. But the crazy part is that he really is God. There’s no other way to explain it.

That’s how the writers of “Oh, God!” want to play it. Are they being blasphemous? Not necessarily. This is a satire on religion, but not in a mean-spirited, cheap-shot, or offensive way. God Himself isn’t given dumb treatment in this movie; in fact, as played by George Burns in human form, he’s like how we would imagine him if we were to meet Him. Be honest—don’t some of you imagine him as an old man wearing golf pants? (Well OK, He actually explains that he chose this form so that Jerry would be comfortable with his appearance.) “Oh, God!” is not trying to offend anybody—it has good nature and has a feel-good spirit to it.

The story of “Oh, God!” features Jerry (John Denver) as he receives a letter in the mail, granting him an interview with God. Jerry is curious, so he goes to the location he’s supposed to meet Him at. He at first thinks it’s a prank performed by a friend, but God pulls many tricks to convince him who He really is. (For one thing, he makes it rain inside Jerry’s car.) Now that Jerry is convinced that he is seeing God, what now? God wants Jerry to spread the word that God is alive and that things on Earth can be all right, if we want them to be. Pretty simple, but as you’d expect, when Jerry states that God has told him to repeat this message, he is met with skepticism as he hits first the news, then the media, and of course, the churches.

The screenplay to “Oh, God!” is winning in the way that it delivers many surprises while still being careful around its subject matter. My favorite line in the film is not about God’s mistakes, but about his last miracle—Jerry asks if God still performs miracles, to which He responds, “The 1969 Mets.” There are other funny scenes, such as the 10:00 news story featuring Jerry, and the final courtroom scene in which Jerry (and God) must present his case after many have accused him of blasphemy.

George Burns is wonderful in the role of God, with a twinkle in his eye and a trustworthy face and voice. John Denver, however, is a bore. His constant whining grew tiresome, as did Teri Garr as his equally skeptical but somewhat loyal wife. But Paul Sorvino, as the reverend who helps bring Jerry to court for his “blasphemy,” is well-cast and pretty funny.

“Oh, God!” could have easily been a low-brow, bad-taste satire or a Sunday morning church sermon, but this is a funny, tender, and pleasurable comedy with more human values than you might expect.

One on One (1977)

4 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“One on One” is a sports film that is utterly predictable, but has its heart in the right place. It’s a feel-good comedy that is quite engaging, getting past the clichés seen in most sport movies. If the story of a small-town jock making it into a big-city university and hoping to win the girl of his dreams sounds familiar, it basically is. It’s a reliable formula that audiences are interested in. Audiences can guess (and mostly guess correctly) who will the big game at the end of s sports film, but it’s the journey that leads up to it that really matters most. “One on One” is a good movie—it’s well-acted, funny, and has a good sense of its environment, particularly when the environment is a basketball court.

Robby Benson, who co-wrote the screenplay at age 21 with his father, portrays the protagonist, a small-town, high school basketball player named Henry Steele. He’s a shy, naïve teenage boy with wide eyes, certain gullibility, good nature, and, of course, great skills in basketball. He’s only 5 feet 10 inches, but the coach from a big university thinks he could use him. The coach grants him a scholarship (and a new car), which Henry accepts.

Henry is welcomed into the system and is given a tutor, an alumnus big brother, and a spot on the team. His tutor is a cute young woman named Janet, played by Annette O’Toole with great appeal. In this film, O’Toole shows a remarkable screen presence and an appealing personality so that when Henry surely falls in love with her midway through the film, we don’t doubt it. Their scenes are the best thing about “One on One.” They’re played with soft humor and genuine sweetness. At first, this naïve kid doesn’t know how to feel around this cute grad student. But the next time they meet for a tutoring session, he impresses her—she says that he’s the first jock she’s met that has read “Moby Dick.”

Then later in the film, Janet breaks up with her boyfriend—a bearded professor for whom she’s a teaching assistant—and gives Henry support off the court. As their relationship develops, she even asks him to move in with her. (I love how Henry silently mouths, “Wow!,” after being asked to move in with this gorgeous grad student,)

But there’s a problem—Henry, who started out playing well on the team, is playing lousily and it becomes revealed that that’s because he’s constantly thinking of Janet. At one point, his friend helps him by taking him to a party—this doesn’t go well and it leads to the coach’s secretary (Gail Strickland, very funny) making a pass at Henry…in a very big way, let’s just leave it that. Also, the same friend gives Henry some speed to make him play basketball with manic energy.

This leads to the coach (G.D. Spradlin) into believing he’s made a mistake in granting this kid a four-year sports scholarship. He asks Henry to give up the scholarship. Henry refuses, so the coach does many things to humiliate/hurt him. What do you call a guy like this, without typing a certain seven-letter word for “jerk?” Well, believe me—“jerk” isn’t enough to a guy as despicable as is portrayed in this film.

All I’ve mentioned is handled well. As predictable as this film can be, particularly with the final climax involving the big game, “One on One” is still sweet and funny. Robby Benson is likable in the main role, Annette O’Toole is engaging, and on top of this, the film’s message about not giving up isn’t thrown in your face. “One on One” is a nicely-done feel-good movie.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

7 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Smokey and the Bandit” starts slow, but ends fast. It’s the strangest thing—it’s a movie that I wanted to just move along at first, but as it ended, I wanted to see more. It happened after about twenty minutes in that I started to really enjoy myself. Actually, I can tell you the moment it happened. It happened when Sally Field appeared on screen and joined the adventure of Burt Reynolds’ “Bandit” (as he’s known by his CB radio handle) and Jerry Reed’s “Snowman” as they go on an urgent trip to haul a truckload of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia.

To be sure, I was enjoying the company of Reynolds and Reed, who have a nice comic rapport with each other as they kid with around in their introductory scenes together. What I wasn’t enjoying was the way the bet for the beer was set up, by rich Big Enos and Little Enos (annoying), and I also wasn’t looking forward to how it would all turn out since Bandit and Snowman got the beer with no trouble at all and only fifteen minutes into the movie. I was hoping something would bring the movie to life—hard to believe I could ask for that, since Bandit is driving a cool-looking black Trans Am, but I need more than a car to get me interested. I’m not driving the car, and Reynolds and Reed communicating by CB radio (Reed drives the truck full of beer) could get boring. That’s how I felt while watching this movie.

But thankfully, director Hal Needham apparently knew someone like me would feel this way. So instead of a mere “getaway show,” he brings along three things to make “Smokey and the Bandit” into something fun.

The first is the character of Carrie, played by Sally Field. She’s an excited young woman who joins Bandit after hitching a ride with him, while wearing a wedding dress. She ran away from a wedding and wants something new. What she gets is Bandit’s exciting reckless-driving. What Bandit finds (and what we find) is a terrific gal. She’s attentive, fun, excitable, and so darn cute. She even gets her own CB handle—“Frog.” (“’Cause you hop around like one,” Bandit explains. “And I’d like to jump you.”) And as Sally Field plays her, she brings the heroic side of the movie to life. She’s very funny as she shouts for joy over Bandit’s driving and attempts to explain her background to this charming person she just met (while Bandit has his CB radio on for Snowman to listen to her ramblings). I loved watching her.

The second is the villain—a Texas Mountie with the handle of “Smokey Bear.” He could have been just a boring, one-dimensional caricature. Well, as played by Jackie Gleason, Smokey has two of those things right—“one-dimensional” and “caricature”—but never “boring.” In fact, Gleason is absolutely hilarious as this overweight lawman who chases Bandit along the trail and doesn’t give up for anything. He doesn’t care if he’s far out of his jurisdiction. He just wants to find Bandit and nab him. He’ll shout if he doesn’t get what he wants and takes it out on his idiot son, Junior (whom “Frog” was about to marry), even going as far as to say “There is no way that you could come from my loins.”

The third is the staging of each scene that follows as those two characters are introduced. As Smokey chases Bandit from place to place, the chases are well-staged, well-shot, and most importantly, fun to watch. Pretty much every way Bandit can evade Smokey is put on display here. They’re to the point where I found myself actually involved and I was proud of the movie for bringing me to this after a slow opening.

So what if there’s no feel for Bandit and Snowman to deliver the beer to Big and Little Enos on time? Let these folks drive, let Field keep talking, let Gleason keep chasing after Bandit like Wile E. Coyote, let Reed get beat up by some tough guys at a bar so he can gain revenge by running over their motorcycles in his truck (I love that scene). Once “Smokey and the Bandit” gets going, it really gets going. And as I said, when it was over, I wanted it to keep going.

I love you, Sally Field. I really love you.