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The Double McGuffin (1979)

12 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles used McGuffins in almost each of their own movies. A McGuffin, as described by Orson Welles’ narration at the beginning of “The Double McGuffin”, is a missing piece of a puzzle that leads to what the main characters in a story are trying to figure out. (“Usually there’s only one.”)

In “The Double McGuffin,” a children’s movie directed, written, and produced by Joe Camp (“Benji”), the heroes are a group of prep school kids who stumble upon the double “McGuffin.” One of them discovers a briefcase full of money and brings his friends to see it. Instead, they discover, to their terror, a dead body in its place. But when they bring police chief Talasek (George Kennedy) to its location, the body is missing. Then they notice a man carrying the same briefcase discovered earlier.

So, of course the kids are going to figure exactly what’s happening, and why, and everything leads to the discovery of a murder plot…but who is going to murdered? And why? And where? What makes the movie enjoyable is how bright these kids are and how fun it is watching them figure out a new clue whenever one comes up.

Ernest Borgnine plays the man with the briefcase. I really don’t see the point in casting a high-profile actor as a villain in a film that truly makes us want to follow along with the kids, who are appealing and very likable. He doesn’t have many scenes, but to give credit, despite being a children’s film, the adult actors—George Kennedy included—don’t dumb down their roles. Borgnine, in the few scenes he’s in, is calmly menacing and George Kennedy is convincing as the police chief who doesn’t like to be distracted. But Elke Sommer, as a mysterious woman, is given nothing special to do at all but to be stared upon constantly.

I mentioned that the kids were likable—these kids have to carry the whole movie and they do it very well. Dion Pride is Specks, the unofficial leader of the group; Greg Hodges is Homer, a spunky, witty young boy with a handy Swiss Army knife; Jeff Nicholson is Billy Ray, a young Texan who is probably the bravest of the group; Vincent Spano is Foster, the most enthusiastic of the group; Lisa Whelchel is Jody, the controlling, smart, pretty editor for the school newspaper; and Michael Gerard is Arthur, the stereotypical nerd. Now, it’s dangerous to use the word “stereotypical” in a positive review but I’ll take the chance because the kid is likable. All of these kids are well-cast and the movie works best when it’s alone with them.

What doesn’t quite work is the final half of the film. While not action-packed, the outcome is a bit confusing and set for a typical Hollywood ending.

But “The Double McGuffin” is a little treasure. It features kids and adults who are not dumb and a mystery that is actually worth investigating. I believed it when the kids solved something and was with them every step of the way.

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Breaking Away (1979)

1 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Breaking Away” is a funny, cheerful, and unpretentious movie that is one of the great feel-good movies that I’ll always remember. It has a wonderful screenplay, great acting, sharp direction, and most importantly, it has a spirit that leaps out at you, but doesn’t seem to slam in your face and force you to be pleased by what it has to offer. That’s what makes “Breaking Away” a small masterpiece.

It’s a coming-of-age tale featuring four kids living in Bloomington, Indiana. These kids are just out of high school and labeled as “cutters.” A “cutter” is a slang term to describe the workers of the town’s limestone quarries; most of them are “townies” who never went to college. That fits these four nineteen-year-old boys who want to spend one last summer with each other before making valuable choices in life, like college and jobs. They’re slowly but surely breaking away from each other, as it seems.

The main focus of the lead characters is Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who not only wants to be a champion bike racer, but an Italian one. He has it in his head that he can simply be Italian and drives his father (Paul Dooley, who is easily the standout of the actors in this movie) to near madness. His mother (Barbara Barrie) is more passive, but his father can hardly seem to stand to further hear Italian opera, eat “ini” foods (zucchini, fettuccini, etc.), and listen to his son talk in an Italian accent, saying words like “ciao” and calling him “papa.”

Dave has his own racing bike and trains for a big race against some Italian champions, who are coming to town for a big race. But in the meantime, he sincerely tries to win his father’s respect again (and even works at the car lot where his father cons college students into buying lousy used cars). And he also is hopelessly in love with an attractive college student named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), who really believes that he’s an Italian exchange student. That’s how far Dave has taken his Italian interests.

Dave’s friends each have some sort of ambition in life. The former high school football jock Mike (Dennis Quaid) would love to play college ball, but may just stick around town. He likes to say he isn’t interested in playing college ball, but he really is. The tall, goofy Cyril (Daniel Stern) has very little ambition in life, but wallows in knowing so. And the short-for-his-age Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is secretly planning to marry his girlfriend. But for them, it really does feel like something is missing in their lives and we wonder, as much as they do, what really is in store for them in the future.

A lot happens in “Breaking Away” and most of it is with offbeat humor and characterization. All of the characters are fully realized and have their own quirks and personalities. The dialogue in the screenplay by Steve Tesich mixes realism with comedy to make it seem like these are everyday jokes that young people trade amongst each other in reality. We know the film is scripted, but it doesn’t seem so, even though the dialogue includes some weird humorous lines of dialogue.

But the film has moments of cheerfulness, including one sequence in which Dave races a semitrailer truck on his racing bicycle, along the highway. That scene is wonderfully directed by Peter Yates, who knows how to direct action scenes (one of his films is “Bullitt”). That scene, and a few others, takes a hint at potential disaster that doesn’t occur. They’re well-directed moments of pure pleasure. And then, we get to a big bicycle race—not with Dave and the Italians, but with the four cutters and the college students. This would have been impossible to direct, even after the scene I mentioned before with the truck, but it’s shot and directed with as much high energy to make us want to cheer for the cutters to win the race.

On to the acting—this is a wonderfully acted ensemble piece. Dennis Christopher is likable and gets our attention in his misadventures, whether it’s with his father, with his new girlfriend, or with bicycle racing. He’s great here, and so are the actors playing his friends—Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley. They effectively capture the lack of confidence they have in their lives as they watch, with resentment, what college students have for themselves. Paul Dooley is hilarious in the role of Dave’s father who just can’t seem to take anymore of Dave’s Italian attentions to family. He rants and raves, even yelling to the cat that his name is “Jake” and not “Fellini,” as if he’s about to explode. It’s a very funny running joke. But he’s also a “cutter” just as much as his son and his friends. There’s a cute scene in which he and his son walk around a college campus and he and his son talk about what has been, what could be, and what could have been—these are two generations of Bloomington natives talking about their thoughts of a big university. And last but not least, Barbara Barrie, as Dave’s mother, is sweet and loving, but she also has to play straight to Dooley’s outbursts. When that is done, she’s quite funny too.

“Breaking Away” is a wonderful, endearing movie—one of the best coming-of-age films I’ve ever seen. It made me feel good inside and it has a sincerity that comes with quirkiness, realism, and high spirits. Count that with the acting, writing, and direction and “Breaking Away” is a small masterpiece.

Time After Time (1979)

31 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here’s a wonderful premise for a movie. H.G. Wells, author of “The Time Machine,” has actually created a working model of a time machine, only to have Jack the Ripper come in and use it to escape into the future—our time. And so, Wells must use the device to travel into the future to track him down, finding himself amongst this strange world of automobiles and fast food, among other things. That’s a great idea for a movie and that movie is “Time After Time,” which is just about as delightful it sounds.

The first twenty minutes takes place in London, England, 1893. Jack the Ripper (David Warner) is on the loose, murdering women he meets on the street. He’s also one of the guests of a special dinner party hosted by H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), who knows nothing of his friend’s deeds. He shows his guests the time machine, kept down in his basement, and explains every detail to them (and to us). He announces that he plans to use the machine to travel into the future, which he’s sure will become a social utopia.

Soon, Scotland Yard detectives search the house for the Ripper, who makes a quick and easy escape via the time machine. So, Wells decides to follow him to the year 1979 and somehow track him down and take him back to 1893.

He awakens in the history museum in San Francisco, California, inside the model of the time machine at the H.G. Wells display. Though the city is not exactly what Wells thought of when he expected “utopia,” he finds joy in exploring this new territory (and new time) and solving every riddle he can come across—he sees a newspaper headline “Colts Maul Rams,” attempts through the banking system to get some money, orders a “Big Mac, fries, and a tea to go, please,” and in the movie’s funniest bit, tries his hand at hailing a taxi.

The main joy of “Time After Time” comes from the fish-out-of-water portion that takes up a lot of the movie. It’s great to see this bright, intelligent Englishman from the past exploring the cultures of America’s future. Because Wells is so smart, innocent, and quick-witted, it’s easy to sympathize with him as he goes through all of this. The screenplay by Nicholas Meyer (who also directed this film) also has a share of sly wit in the dialogue, such as a scene in which Wells is told by his lunch date that she likes his suit—“Is that what they’re wearing in England?” she asks. “It was when I left,” he says. It also allows some social commentary in which Wells meets the Ripper in a hotel and is taught why he belongs there and Wells doesn’t—he shows him violence on TV and proclaims that he’s home. “The world has caught up with me and surpassed me,” the Ripper explains. “90 years ago, I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

The screenplay also allows a romance to take place amongst the comedy of the fish-out-of-water tale and the quick action of H.G. Wells’ pursuit of Jack the Ripper. It occurs between Wells and a helpful, flirtatious banker named Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who later in the movie finds herself about to be the Ripper’s latest modern-day victim.

The romance is written well, and so is the character of Amy, I suppose. But the problem I have with this movie is Mary Steenburgen’s performance. Steenburgen speaks her lines in such a flat, artificial matter that you have to wonder how this fun actress was directed to play the role. She’s just too awkward and uncomfortable in this movie. That’s a strange criticism, because I would have expected Steenburgen, a wonderful actress, to be one of the best things in the movie. Now, she’s my least favorite element of the movie.

But the two lead actors—Malcolm McDowell and David Warner—own the screen. McDowell is wonderful in this role of the intelligent H.G. Wells. And he’s funny when he doesn’t know he’s funny, which means he owns the comedic moments. David Warner is suitably menacing as Jack the Ripper, playing it straight.

If I am going to complain about Mary Steenburgen’s performance, I should point another quibble I have with this movie. There’s a crucial plot point that is so obviously set up at the beginning, only to have us wait and wait until it pays off at the end. And since we know the outcome of the plot point, there’s no surprise.

But “Time After Time” does have a lot to like about it—particularly Malcolm McDowell and the fish-out-of-water story. This is a fun movie about time travel with an appealing lead character and a sharp-witted screenplay.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

27 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Muppet Movie (1979)

23 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When we see the Muppets, do we really need to wonder where the puppeteers are when they’re controlling the Muppets’ actions and moving mouths? I personally don’t care, since the Muppets have great personalities. But the opening scene in “The Muppet Movie” had me wonder where the puppeteer was. That scene features Kermit the Frog in a swamp surrounded by water and playing the banjo. Since Kermit is on a rock and surrounded by water, where is the puppeteer controlling him from? But as the scene progressed and Kermit continued to play, I didn’t care. I just watched Kermit in his original habitat.

If you haven’t already guessed, “The Muppet Movie” tells the story of how the Muppets got started in fame and fortune. This is as interesting as superhero origin story. We all wanted to know how our favorite superheroes became our favorite superheroes and now, since the Muppets hit close to our hearts, we can see how they became such successes. “The Muppet Movie” is the answer to the question fans of the Muppets would have loved to ask, but haven’t quite thought about it.

Kermit the Frog used to live in a swamp (of course). One day, after playing his banjo, he is met by Dom DeLuise as a Hollywood agent who informs Kermit that Hollywood is holding an audition for frogs. And so, Kermit is off to Hollywood. He needs a driver so he meets Fozzie the Bear, originally a bartender. They drive a Studebaker and make their way into Hollywood (Fozzie proclaims, “A bear in his natural habitat—a Studebaker”).

Along the way, they come across the other Muppets—such as Gonzo (originally a plumber) and Miss Piggy (who hasn’t changed much since they meet her after she wins a beauty pageant). But they are also chased by a ruthless fast food magnate, who wants Kermit to sign on as a trademark for a frog-leg fast-food franchise. He even hires gunmen and an unreliable sidekick (Austin Pendleton) to hunt him down. This subplot may frighten younger viewers, so parents should take that into consideration.

As if predictably, Kermit and Miss Piggy fall in love, but they run into many ups and downs during this road trip. Along the way, the Muppets become friends and encounter all sorts of special guest appearances, including Mel Brooks, Bob Hope, Carol Kane, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Telly Savalas, Orson Welles, and, in their last film appearance before their deaths, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The best joke in the film—Fozzie meets Big Bird hitchhiking on the highway and offers a lift; Big Bird responds, “No thanks. I’m on my way to New York City to sneak into public television.” The movie is full of clever, funny moments like that—as rich as anything in “The Muppet Show.” But “The Muppet Movie” has a great big surprise and that is…we see the Muppets’ feet. There’s a scene in which Kermit really seems to be riding a bicycle and all I’m thinking is, “How’d they do THAT?”  And of course, there has to be a musical number every 20 minutes. The problem is that the songs are not particularly interesting or memorable.

In “The Muppet Movie,” we get to know these characters better than we could in their original TV show. The Muppets are appealing, great to look at, well-managed, and with great comic personalities. I loved watching these Muppets in their own origin story.

Over the Edge (1979)

19 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This had to happen sooner or later. Kids are pushed over the edge by their parents. They feel alienated and condescended by authority. At least, that’s what psychiatrists would conclude about the outrageous behavior the kids pull off in the movie “Over the Edge.” The marketing for the film tells it appropriately: “They were old enough to know better but too young to care.”

“Over the Edge” is a depressing and quite genuine film about the lives of troubled youths who live in a Denver suburb called New Granada, still in development. The kids spend their days at the local recreation center while the adults—parents, cops, and schoolteachers—try to find a way around the “youth problem,” since they feel that the kids are in the way of their paradise. One cop, in particular, practically stalks these kids each day to try and catch something on them. This is Deputy Doberman (Harry Northup), who is not really a bad guy but a deputy who knows more about the law than about human nature.

The kids have their own fun avoiding the adults during the day—going to parties, having a little hash or speed, playing with a gun they stole from someone else’s home, and talking about sex. It should be added that most of these kids aren’t bad. They just feel unwelcome by the adults, especially when they close down the rec center so the Texas investors who visit New Granada won’t think the suburb is invested with youths. That’s really low.

The main character is a good kid named Carl (Michael Kramer). He hangs with tough guy Richie (Matt Dillon) and has other friends who are into dope, hash, and speed. His parents love him and think that he’s hanging with the wrong crowd. (And Carl, like most kids in his situation, can’t fully explain under so much pressure.) He has a crush on a girl named Cory (Pamela Ludwig), who is said to have a sexual reputation which may not be true, and she has feelings for him. Soon, they become very close with one another.

But disaster strikes and Carl winds up in a nasty situation when Doberman shoots one of his best friends. This leads up to the climactic, violent ending, in which the kids are over the edge and ready to strike back at the adults. They don’t perform physical harm to the adults, but they make them suffer by showing them what they can do when pushed over the edge. The ads for this movie apparently found the climax promotable and made the whole movie sound like a youth version of “The Warriors.” I’m serious—this ending is ultimately violent. There are destroyed cars, exploding gas tanks, and more.

The ending may be a bit unconvincing but what leads up to it is exceptionally brilliant. We get to know these kids, we feel for them even when we shouldn’t, and we care about what happens to the kid who is doomed to be shot and killed (not saying who it is). “Over the Edge” gives a great portrait of teenage life. The kids are portrayed in a convincing way—they have adolescent values and real emotions. This is helped by great performances by the young actors. Michael Kramer is convincing as the trouble teenaged lead. Matt Dillon is convincingly tough as Richie and he has the best line: “I only got one law: a kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.” Pamela Ludwig shares some terrific scenes with Kramer. Their scenes together seem so wonderfully crafted; everything they say and do make them right for each other. There’s another kid, played by blond-haired, wide-eyed Tom Fergus, who steals every scene he’s in.

Actually, if you think about it, maybe these adults have gone too far. Maybe they deserve to see what they’ve stooped their kids into doing. Maybe. But the scary thing is that there are kids in the real world who are like the kids in “Over the Edge.” They’re old enough to know better but too young to care.

Rocky II (1979)

27 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here is a sequel that works—one that delivers the goods and doesn’t deliver just the same material that you’ve seen in the original. This is the sequel to the Oscar-winning film “Rocky,” which starred (and was written by) Sylvester Stallone in a knockout performance as the boxer Rocky Balboa who also has a life aside from fighting. In that movie, what made the movie really special was that great leading performance, as well as the supporting performances of truly original characters. Now, here’s “Rocky II”—the characters are back and just as fresh as they were before. “Rocky II” probably isn’t as great as the original film (I gave that four stars), but it’s still an effective movie.

Sylvester Stallone directs and writes this sequel, and reprises his leading role again. Rocky Balboa is a true original—his personality and his actions are unlike any other movie character that came before. He talks street-smart and ends a lot of his sentences with “ya know,” and he’s really a nice guy. He also has a sense of humor in the way that sometimes, he doesn’t know he’s funny. And when he fights in the boxing ring, it’s just something he feels like doing for a hobby. He’s not a bad guy at all. Stallone lives and breathes this character and makes him just as lovable as he was in the original “Rocky.”

“Rocky II” picks up where the original film left off. If you recall, in the original film, Rocky Balboa (“The Italian Stallion”) had the chance to fight the heavyweight-boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). If you don’t recall, the last scene of the original film is played as the opening scene of this film. Rocky doesn’t win the fight—in fact, he barely survives it. His intensity, and willingness to keep going, had people cheering for him. Those qualities also got his girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire) to say, “I love you.”

In “Rocky II,” Apollo is very disappointed in everyone’s praises for Rocky that he demands a rematch. But Rocky is more interested in raising a family. He and Adrian wind up married and Adrian winds up pregnant. Rocky isn’t regretful of any of this—he is excited about it. He wonders what the kid will be like, if it’s a boy or a girl.

Rocky also has to get a job to support Adrian and his child, not born yet. Being the “Italian Stallion” who refused to go down in the fight with Apollo, Rocky has an opportunity to star in many commercials and get paid big bucks. Unfortunately, he has a bit of trouble reading. There is a great comic scene in which he reads off the cue cards in deadpan—he’s not messing with the director; he’s just sincerely screwing up.

But Apollo, being the pompous man that he is, demands a rematch. He goes out of his way to humiliate Rocky to the point where Rocky has to accept. This leads to more training with Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the gym owner who trained Rocky in the original film. This also leads to more support from Adrian and her mildly-annoying (but mostly funny) brother Paulie (Burt Young), who is still loyal but somewhat bitter; however, there is a scene in which he is more resentful, but I will not give away why.

The characters are given room to grow and they make up for the probability that the film is not particularly well-shot. Though to Stallone’s credit, he’s trying. There are some great lines of dialogue (some written by Stallone, the others improvised by him) and moments of humor and touching sadness. They, along with the characters (especially Rocky), make “Rocky II” a worthy sequel.