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My Favorite Movies – Christine (1983)

13 Oct

By Tanner Smith

John Carpenter reportedly didn’t put as much passion into the 1983 Stephen King adaptation “Christine,” because he was still going through depression brought on by the overwhelmingly negative reception of “The Thing,” a film he put his heart and soul into…

I honestly couldn’t tell, because I think “Christine” is one of his best films.

Seriously, I love this film. And it’s a film about a killer car–you’d have to be a very skilled director to make something like that work. Even though this was basically a work-for-hire, Carpenter didn’t treat it as such…or maybe he did, and it still turned out well despite that.

I think part of the reason the film works is because of two things. One is the lead character, Arnie (Keith Gordon), who is already a creep and a dweeb before his influence from the malevolent presence inside the car turns him into a jerk with aggressive tendencies. That not only makes his story more interesting but also more tragic in how his story ends. He’s basically made a deal with the devil, to get the girl and look cool, and in exchange, he’ll do what he feels needs to be done (or what Christine tells him needs to be done).

And another important reason it works is because of the slow buildup to the true terror that occurs midway through the film. We’re already put in a realistic setting, and the characters of Arnie and his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell) feel real enough, and because of that, we’re more able to accept when the supernatural takes over and the car has a mind of its own that goes on a killing spree against Arnie’s bullies.

And when the car does spring into action, it makes for some pretty awesome chase sequences. My favorite scene is one in which Christine chases the bully Moochie–I especially love when Moochie stops and looks back where he was being followed, only to find that it’s coming another direction.

Stephen King has always been good at revenge stories, which is why it’s satisfying when so many of the crappier people in “Christine,” based on his novel, get their comeuppances. But did that one guy seriously have to get inside the car? It’s almost like he was asking to be squashed to death. (Actually, Darnell’s death in the book was crazier than that…look it up if you want.)

And there’s the climax with Christine going up against a bulldozer–simply put, it’s awesome!

I’m not going to lie–“Christine” is my second-favorite John Carpenter film. “Halloween” is first obviously, and “The Thing” and “Starman” are fighting for the number-three spot, while “They Live” and “Big Trouble in Little China” fight to squeeze into the top-5…it’s difficult, guys. I love “Christine”…probably even more than the King book.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)

25 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s often that the final chapters of trilogies are usually the weakest (with a few exceptions, of course), with examples usually being “The Godfather Part III” and “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.” The possible answer as to why that’s usually the case is the filmmakers/storytellers played their cards too early and what brilliance they crafted before pale in comparison due to less innovation and so few new things to offer. In the case of “Return of the Jedi,” the last chapter of the original “Star Wars” trilogy (and the end of the series, for that matter, until “The Force Awakens” is released next month), its success rides on seeing familiar characters gain resolution and its failure comes from what it takes to get to said-resolution. It’s sad to say this is kind of a “hokey” film with quite a few silly and/or disappointing moments but just enough good moments in it that keep it from being “bad.”

Let me put it this way—would I care about “Return of the Jedi” if Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Chewbacca, C-3P0, R2-D2, and Lando Calrissian were replaced by characters we were newly introduced to? My answer is “no,” and that is my biggest problem with “Return of the Jedi”—it only feels like a “Star Wars” film because these characters are still involved. I’ll get to my biggest issues with the film soon, but for now, I’ll list some positive things about it.

For one thing, the actors have truly grown into their roles. In particular, Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker has grown up and is not the whiny farmer boy he was in the first “Star Wars” film—Hamill does a good job showing Luke’s maturity and delivers a strong performance. Luke’s conflict (knowing Darth Vader is his father and wanting to save him without turning to the dark side) is a fascinating one and it’s portrayed very well. His resolution is also very satisfying, without giving anything away.

For another positive aspect, the first 40 minutes are exciting, as Luke, Leia, C-3P0, R2-D2, and Lando rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, a big, disgusting blob who is a crime lord for the planet of Tattooine. It’s a tense opening half with a truly nasty antagonist and a mysterious intenstine-like monster in the sand of the desert.

There’s also the Emperor, played by Ian McDiarmid. McDiarmid plays the Emperor as evil incarnate—a cunning, devil-like ruler who knows just what to say in order to manipulate people and get what he wants (it’s no wonder Luke’s father was able to turn to the dark side; this is also made clearer in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” released many years later, but I’ll get to that later). And he’s clearly enjoying every minute of it. He may even be more intimidating than Darth Vader ever was. The scenes in which he tries to win Luke over to the dark side are very tense.

And of course, the characters are the friends and enemies we have come to know. Han and Leia still have good chemistry, C-3P0 and R2-D2 are still funny, Chewbacca is still loyal, Lando gives us another human hero to root for, and Darth Vader is still imposing (though not as much as in the previous films).

And now for the negative things I have to say about “Return of the Jedi”…

Is it any surprise that among them are the Ewoks? Many people seem to hate these indigenous teddy-bear-like creatures, and I can see why. They’re unbearably cute and were probably only brought in to bring more kids in after the dark turn the series took with “The Empire Strikes Back.” That’s another problem with this film—after the complex darkness introduced in the previous film, it’s disappointing that this film decided to play the “cute” route.

Another big issue I have with the film is the resolution involving the love triangle between Luke, Han, and Leia. Luke’s relationship with Leia is unbelievably forced, as if George Lucas didn’t want to think too much about how this small conflict could be resolved with Han getting the girl, so he took the easiest way out, worthy of soap-opera status. (Though, I do love Han’s reaction upon hearing from Leia who Luke is in relation to her.)

Then there’s the final battle between the rebels and the Empire. It’s underwhelming; you don’t feel nearly as much weight as you should, given what was being built up all this time.

On top of all that, the special effects don’t hold up as well today. There’s too much obvious green-screen action and not enough practical effects to satisfy. The central chase sequence in which enemies chase heroes through a forest with hovercraft is not entirely convincing and it’s distracting enough to notice the white outlines on actors’ bodies.

But with that said, “Return of the Jedi” is undoubtedly the weakest entry in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but it’s still a fun watch. It doesn’t have the same sense of enjoyment as the original “Star Wars,” but it’s still, in a way, a worthy chapter in the trilogy, if not the best one to go out on. It still has the familiar characters, some good sci-fi action, and enough entertainment to make the running time of two hours and 11 minutes go by quickly. It’s enjoyable even if it might not be what most “Star Wars” fans were expecting.

Staying Alive (1983)

12 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What has happened to Tony Manero? By the end of “Saturday Night Fever,” you feel that this Brooklyn wiseass has smartened up and matured enough to know there’s more to life than being a jerk and being king of the dance floor at a disco. But in its sequel, “Staying Alive” (named after the popular Bee Gees song), which catches up with Tony about five years later in Manhattan, Tony is someone we hardly recognize. And it doesn’t help that a boring, recycled plot with a PG rating replaces the hard R-rated edge of “Saturday Night Fever.” The result is a quite lame movie that didn’t need to be a sequel to “Saturday Night Fever” because we’re not seeing Tony Manero grow up; we’re just seeing John Travolta as a Broadway dancer in a series of one heavily-edited music-video-style sequence after another so that the whole movie feels like another version of “Flashdance.”

This is what Tony Manero (played again by John Travolta) has reduced to—a wimp who has lost his edge in the same way that Rocky Balboa lost his edge with “Rocky” sequel upon “Rocky” sequel. And wouldn’t you know it—this sequel was directed and co-written by Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone has made Tony into a naïve bore whose occasional smartass moments don’t define him in the slightest and apparently hasn’t learned a damn thing since the first film (remember—five years ago) about women, since he is trapped in yet another story in which he falls in love with the wrong girl instead of the girl he only sees as a pal, and then he will learn the only person who matters. And what’s worse is that he and Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes) are so good together, despite the fact the Jackie is all too patient and should probably just forget about Tony already, that you just want to smack Tony for not only going to score with the other girl, a snobby, experienced British dancer named Laura (Finola Hughes), but constantly staying sweet and making promises he can’t keep to Jackie who deserves better.

What about the real story? It’s dreadfully dull, as it involves Tony getting a job dancing for a stage play called “Satan’s Alley,” and desperately trying to give the audience something to remember about him. And that’s about it—it’s all too simple. Love triangle, rehearsals, coming of age, blah blah blah. It’s pretty tired stuff. And it doesn’t help that the film barely goes five minutes without a new song, a heavily-edited montage, or usually both. There’s no substance; it’s all style. And the worse part is the big explosive climax in which Tony does perform in the play. And this play, this “Satan’s Alley” which is assumingly about an ascension into heaven, is ridiculously bad. This payoff is a play that I would walk out of very quickly. It’s incomprehensible and just plain outlandish.

Oh, and the dancing sucks too. It’s below par when you think of Broadway dancing. And there isn’t a single moment that comes close to capturing the excitement and energy of John Travolta’s solo disco dance in the previous film, because we can guess that Travolta doesn’t have what it takes to be a Broadway dancer and he’s usually shot from the waist up. He may dance disco, but not much else.

“Staying Alive” forgets what “Saturday Night Fever” was all about. The previous film was not about dancing; it was about a complicated character that danced. This time, there is dancing all throughout, and there is a character who is not so complicated this time around. It would not matter in the slightest if Tony Manero was the focus here because the character is completely lost, and not even the charismatic John Travolta could bring him back. “Staying Alive” is one of the worst sequels I have ever seen.

Scarface (1983)

31 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Scarface” is one of the more fascinating films I’ve watched recently. But I’m not entirely sure why that is. And for that matter, I’m not even sure whether or not I like it. On the one hand, it’s an ambitious, gloriously-shot, high-quality, riveting crime-drama epic that managed to keep me invested in the storyline, even with a running time of two hours and fifty minutes. On the other hand, it’s also an over-the-top, sometimes cartoonish-silly, inconsistently-acted “Godfather” wannabe with a lead character who is a blowhard that becomes an even bigger blowhard (oh gee, talk about a three-dimensional character arc) and is acted with an inconsistently interesting leading performance by Al Pacino.

And yes, I know that Pacino’s role of Tony Montana in “Scarface” is as iconic as they come—his exaggerated, over-the-top Cuban accent and mannerisms are usually imitated for fun, as is his most infamous line of dialogue, “Say hello to my little friend!” But let’s be honest—when I say “usually imitated for fun,” you know what I’m talking about. The Pacino performance is so over-the-top that it seems like he’s doing a parody of this type of macho gangster character who is a jerk from the start and an even bigger one the more powerful he becomes. Everything about this “character” seems overly exaggerated—it’s a live-action cartoon, to say the least. It’s a one-note performance that I don’t think was written that way, but Pacino just felt free to do whatever the hell he wanted to do with it. He’s a heavy scenery-chewer, he’s aggressive even when he should just calm down and think for a moment, and it doesn’t help that he snorts cocaine constantly through most of the film. I know that last part is supposed to emphasize why he behaves this way, but he was already aggressive at the start of the movie, and he gradually progresses to “asshole” status. Pacino’s character of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” is more of a character than Tony Montana, because at least he had something to start with before becoming what he had to be known for. (And I don’t think that’s the only “Godfather” comparison people would think back to when talking about this film and that.)

Maybe some of the reason for how over-the-top Pacino is in this role has to do with director Brian De Palma. Maybe De Palma wanted him to keep going on like this, to keep the intensity of the film alive, as the director always likes to keep things intense with his work. And indeed, his filmmaking here is not subtle at all, but it is interesting enough to keep me invested. I can also say the same for Oliver Stone’s screenplay, which is written a lot better than it’s being executed here. You can follow everything fine and you can see a genuine arc here. Maybe if a more low-key actor (not too low-key, just consistently intriguing enough) was cast as Tony Montana, “Scarface” would be a more credible film, so maybe that’s the thing—maybe Pacino was miscast.

But let’s be honest—Pacino’s hammy acting is the very reason why the performance stays in your mind. That’s why it’s iconic, that’s why people love to imitate him, and that’s why Tony is so memorable. And truth be told, when I mean to say that Pacino’s performance is “inconsistent,” I mean that Pacino does manage to pull off a few scenes credibly without having to go over-the-top (though, to be fair, I think the best of those are the ones that don’t feature him talking). So he has his good moments and his bad moments, which is why I call his performance “inconsistent.”

“Scarface” is about the rise and fall of this gangster Tony Montana, as it opens with him coming to America from Cuba along with his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) and ends with him high in power and paying the ultimate price that comes with the position. Tony and Manny come to Miami find themselves a job working for crime boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) after finding that washing dishes and flipping burgers at a diner doesn’t cut it for them. Their new job working for Frank requires shipping cocaine. But after a deal goes wrong, Tony and Manny make it out with the stash and money, which impresses Frank and causes him to make Tony one of his more reliable men to carry out missions for him.

Tony, of course, wants to try for something even bigger with his work. This means attempting to put himself higher than Frank and also taking Frank’s woman Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). And when he becomes a little too much for Frank, enough for him to send two henchmen to try and kill him (in one of the film’s best scenes), this is enough reason for Tony to kill Frank, take Elvira, and take control of all the cocaine in all of Miami. And surely enough, Tony Montana is risen to power and, wouldn’t you know it, unbearable enough to make enough enemies to try and gun him down.

I mentioned before that “Scarface” is impressive in how its story is told, and while it may come off as “standard” the way I’m describing it to you, it is sort of standard. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have room for surprises, and with De Palma’s direction, there are some neat, nifty twists to the usual stuff and an interesting look at the more violent aspects of the film. Indeed, the blood and gore keeps things interesting, especially in the ending which has Pacino at his most overzealous. Is it intended to be serious? Sure. But sometimes it almost seems like a parody of gangster-picture endings. Either way, it’s interesting to watch, if you can stomach it. Other fascinating scenes involve heavy amounts of violence, one of which involves a chainsaw that is used in an interrogation scene.

The supporting cast can’t get away untouched. Aside from Pacino’s acting, there are some performances that seem rather off. Michelle Pfeiffer is fine as Elvira (and has one particularly satisfying moment when she exclaims just how “boring” Tony has become), but Steven Bauer (the only Cuban actor playing a Cuban character, by the way) is bland, Robert Loggia isn’t the slightest bit convincing as the former Cuban drug lord, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as Tony’s sexy sister who is off-limits to anyone if Tony can help it, is awful with a never-convincing Cuban accent. That last one, I neglected to mention, has a weird relationship with Tony, or maybe it’s just how Tony is afraid to see her. I won’t go into detail about it, but let’s just say her final moment in this movie is beyond bizarre.

There is a fascination to the character of Tony Montana in that he just keeps going and going until he gets what he wants, and then when he ultimately does, he falls because he just doesn’t know when to stop. That, I believe, was the intention of the character, and possibly in how Pacino played him. When I think about it, in that respects, the performance sometimes works. I recommend “Scarface” because despite what I’ve said about Pacino, he is still fun to watch, and the film itself is beautifully shot and edited, even if it is over-the-top. It stuck with me, and it may stick with me even more after a second viewing.

Risky Business (1983)

4 May


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In a time when the teen-movie genre was leaning towards being sex comedies for commercial appeal (and no, I won’t bring up the gimmick-setting “Porky’s” again—everyone else is thinking of it anyway), “Risky Business” was like a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t as mature and as slice-of-life as “Tex,” released the year before. But it managed to be charismatic, funny, well-executed, surprisingly insightful, and even romantic rather than lustful, unlike the sleazy teenage sex comedies that were released around the same time as this one. This film is unique and yet still entertaining to teenagers.

But “Risky Business” is mainly well-known for ascending the fame of Tom Cruise. When this was released in 1983, Cruise was regarded as an actor to watch out for—a true movie star. After this movie’s release, his image was everywhere, and his fame would grow and grow and continue to do so.

Cruise plays Joel Goodsen, a suburban Chicago high school senior who always does the right thing, listens to his parents, and has his eyes set on higher academics. But like most teenagers, Joel is worried about his future. In the film’s terrific opening scene, Joel explains to the audience this reoccurring dream he has in which he’s tempted by a beautiful woman before realizing he missed his college-board exams. That’s a common fear among teenage boys—nervousness about taking those tests and worrying that they won’t get to college. Most of us have that going through our mind, along with sex, hence the beautiful woman in the dream.

Joel’s friends are the horny set of teenagers you find in most teenage sex comedies, but they’re still funny and actually pretty likeable. One is Miles (Curtis Armstrong), who gives Joel the advice to just take some chances and “make your move.” Joel starts to take this advice when his parents go out of town for the week—first, he sneaks a drink from the liquor cabinet before taking his father’s Porsche out for a spin. But then thanks to Miles’ persistence, Joel gets in touch with a call-girl named Lana (Rebecca De Mornay). She’s beautiful, sexy, and sweet—and Joel falls for it immediately. After an intimate night, he owes her $300 the next morning. While leaving her alone in his house, he discovers that an important ornament is missing. From here, things take a turn for the unusual and out-of-control status, as Joel encounters Lana’s pimp Guido (Joe Pantoliano), his dad’s Porsche winds up in Lake Michigan, and Joel’s house turns into a brothel for his friends to pay for a night with Lana’s friends/fellow-prostitutes…and also at a time when a Princeton representative (played by Richard Masur) arrives to interview Joel. (I love his line upon meeting Joel, “If this is at all an inconvenient time…”) Joel must get himself out of each and every situation before his parents come home soon.

Joel and Lana’s relationship grows as the movie progresses, and it’s a common male fantasy that a sex expert would fall for a regular guy. That’s only part of “Risky Business’” widespread appeal, which also manages to work in some economic satire in the ways Joel and his friends start a business venture with the “new brothel.” The film is highly stylized, particularly with Joel and Lana’s first sex scene to make it seem more erotic, and has a tempting electro-pop soundtrack that adds to the magnetism of situation after situation.

As for the romance between Joel and Lana, they do share good chemistry together and trust each other with meaningful conversations (though usually followed by sex). But there’s a problem here that helps Joel to grow up after this experience, making “Risky Business” an effective coming-of-age tale—their romance can’t last very long, as Lana must still do her job once this is all over. But there’s no denying that she genuinely does feel something for Joel, which if you think about it makes it even more difficult. (Watch the film’s original ending on the DVD and you’ll see what I mean.

Tom Cruise is this movie. He delivers a highly-magnetic performance with a great deal of charisma and an “average-guy” image, making us like and believe in him throughout the movie. It’s far from difficult to understand why Cruise became a star since then. As for Rebecca De Mornay, she’s very good here as well. Playing a hooker with a good heart, it’s a thankless role, but De Mornay plays it in such a way that makes it far from predictable. She’s not entirely pleasant, despite a pretty face, but she does have her moments of affection that make her not only believable but also complicated. She’s terrific in this movie.

“Risky Business” is a terrific teenage comedy that still holds up today. It’s funny, erotic, appealing, perceptive, and features an impressive leading performance from Tom Cruise that would further lead him to Hollywood stardom.

A Christmas Story (1983)

15 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“A Christmas Story” is a delightful holiday movie that recaptures something that is so rarely done well in movies like this—childhood. This movie knows exactly what it’s like to be a child and how the world around the child is imagined. It brings innocence, fantasy, and humor to the screen. In treating the whole film with all three of those elements in a delicate way, it turns out as a modern-day classic. Today, it’s considered one of the most beloved holiday movies, if not the most beloved holiday movie. On Christmas Day, the TV channel TBS even shows it nonstop for the whole 24 hours.

The movie is told as a childhood memory as the old narrator looks back on his ninth Christmas season with joy. In the early 1940s, he was a young boy named Ralphie Parker, who knows the one Christmas gift he wants to find under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning—an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action 200 Shot Range Model Air Rifle (or in other words, a Red Ryder BB gun). His mother is not going to get him one, as she warns, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” So Ralphie continues his crusade, dropping hints on his father and writing a school theme about what he wants for Christmas.

We get a great deal of Ralphie’s family life as we view their comfortable routines around Christmastime. We have the father—or as he’s known, the Old Man—fighting a faulty furnace. We have the mother using subtle tactics to get her youngest son Randy to eat. We also see her trying to fit the kid into a winter coat that he has outgrown. We see them all go out to buy a decent Christmas tree at a…just-decent price.

The narrator, Jean Shepherd, who wrote the source material for this film—a collection of short story memoirs entitled “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”, tells everything with a satirical reflection. Also, “A Christmas Story” is very funny because it remembers many events in childhood and slightly exaggerates them for comedic effect. Some are basic but taken further, like when the mother has Ralphie’s mouth washed out with Lifebuoy soap after he says a swear word. First of all, that moment when he cusses is censored with “fudge” and there’s no doubt that he heard the real word from his father. Second of all, following the scene where Ralphie’s mouth is blocked with soap is when the mother tries it herself out of curiosity and gags on it. That’s a great moment, but third of all, there’s Ralphie’s daydream in which he has become blind from “soap poisoning” and his parents feel guilty about objecting him to that punishment in the first place. Wonderful.

Then there are scenes that show something that a kid shouldn’t do but is curious about. Most particular is an early scene in which one of Ralphie’s school chums puts his tongue on a flagpole for a dare. Of course, it sticks. It’s painful to watch, but show it to any kid and they’ll get the idea never to do something like that. But there’s something all too familiar that brings us to what is arguably the funniest scene in the movie. It’s a trip to see a mall Santa Claus. It may seem like a delightful visit, but in truth, it can be unnerving and sometimes downright disturbing. That’s how Ralphie’s visit to Santa to ask for the BB gun goes—a complete nightmare. Santa looks all too red in the face, and his “ho-ho-ho’s” need toning down, while the “elves” are complete jerks. And when a kid goes up to see Santa before Ralphie and his brother, he screams in terror.

Peter Billingsley is perfect as the little protagonist Ralphie. He’s an energetic, adorable kid who tries desperately to get what he wants and thinks he can outwit the adults around him. Billingsley, with his smile, glasses, and wide eyes, is an absolute natural—he doesn’t seem to be acting at all. The parents are very well-drawn-out and wonderfully portrayed by Melinda Dillon as the mother and Darren McGavin as the Old Man. Dillon’s mother character may be overly controlling, but she’s also loving and caring. Her best moment, in my opinion, is how she cares for little Ralphie after he beats the school bully Scut Farkas in a fit of rage. She knows he’s hurting because of the bully’s verbal abuse and his rage was out of his control, so she nurtures him rather than scolds him. McGavin’s father character is an absolute hoot while his performance is flawless. He’s a gruff middle-class businessman, but he loves his family and finds joy in the small things that he feels are important. I love the scenes that show his desire for a leg-lamp he won in a contest, and how the mother uneasily reacts to it. When she unplugs the lamp as the family goes out, she tells the Old Man it’s to save electricity. We all know the real reason.

The movie’s time range is from a couple weeks to Christmas to the Big Day itself. And who would have thought that a story about a kid wanting a BB gun for Christmas could be suspenseful? With the spirit of this movie, it’s hard not to wonder whether or not he gets the gun on Christmas Day. However, it is hard to believe that the director of “A Christmas Story” was Bob Clark, the director of the previous year’s sleazy, smarmy, unpleasant comedy “Porky’s.” Then I came across this piece of information—apparently, the box-office success of “Porky’s” (which is a surprise to me) gave Clark permission to direct whatever movie he wanted to make. So he made “A Christmas Story,” a treasure of a movie that is so loveable and wonderful that it’s easy to forgive Clark for “Porky’s” (and even “Porky’s II: The Next Day,” released the same year as “A Christmas Story”). In my eyes, “A Christmas Story” is a perfect movie.

The Man with Two Brains (1983)

11 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

So it’s 1983—Steve Martin, in the few years since his big break in 1979’s “The Jerk,” is either a guy you love or you hate. In movies like “The Jerk” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” he comes across as a comic actor who REALLY doesn’t know when to quit or control himself. In 1983’s “The Man with Two Brains,” he has toned down just a little bit (emphasis on “little bit”).

Martin plays Dr. Hfuhruhurr, a brain surgeon. Right away, you can see what kind of movie this is and know right away that his character’s last name is going to be mispronounced as a running joke throughout the movie.

Hfuhruhurr accidentally hits an attractive temptress (Kathleen Turner) who ran out in the middle of the road, chasing after her latest victim who is fed up with her (after she cooks one of his own goldfish). Hfuhruhurr has no idea what kind of woman she is and performs an operation that saves her life. Later, they get married but their sex life is dull, mainly because…there is no sex. That drives Hfuhruhurr crazy.

In an attempt to finally make love, he arranges for a honeymoon in a strange hotel. How strange? The elevator doesn’t hit the bottom floor, so Hfuhruhurr has to climb out halfway down. There’s also a mysterious Elevator Killer that kills people before they reach the top floor. But that’s just the beginning. There’s a secret laboratory in which Dr. Necessiter (David Warner) is conducting the strangest experiments ever. An example is there are several brains in jars that are kept alive, even though their bodies are dead. And that brings us to the second half of the film, which is ultimately silly yet funny and kind of charming in a bizarre way—Hfuhruhurr falls in love with one of the brains (voiced by an uncredited Sissy Spacek) while tired of his married life with Turner and discovering he can speak to this brain via telepathy. So he puts lips on the jar to make “her” more human.

The second half of “The Man with Two Brains” is the best thing about this movie. I must admit, when the movie started, I felt the movie was trying to be more like “The Jerk” in the way Martin behaves and the script was giving us some tired gags (with the exception of one big laugh involving his superior and his fingers close to his own face). But once we are in that laboratory, “The Man with Two Brains” becomes both funny and sweet. And I love the sincere goofiness of the situation in which Hfuhruhurr is in love with this brain while he still has Kathleen Turner’s character, who is a complete tramp.

Kathleen Turner and David Warner have a lot of fun with their roles and Steve Martin, as Hfuhruhurr, has learned to tone down his scene chewing and becomes a more likable person. It’s about time someone told him that behaving like his character in “The Jerk” was not a good career move. “The Man with Two Brains” is funny and goofy and though I was unsure of where it was going, it came back with a good second half—so good that I’m giving the movie three stars.

Class (1983)

4 Apr

class 1

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t understand why most critics seem to have a grudge against the adult drama and the teenage comedy in the film, “Class,” which seems to have both. I think, with this storyline, they needed both. I didn’t have much of a problem with the dramatic parts like those who didn’t like “Class” did. I thought they sort of fit.

The storyline is this—a shy 17-year-old virgin named Jonathan (Andrew McCarthy) moves into a boarding school. His roommate and best friend Skip (Rob Lowe) gives him some money to go into the city to find some excitement. Jonathan goes to the city and finds excitement, alright…in the form of an attractive (and much older) woman, played by Jacqueline Bisset. As the days go by, he and the woman have an affair together. Jonathan is suddenly the stud at school now (word gets around), but there’s a problem. A huge problem…

And that’s all I’m going to say about that. Even though the advertisers went out of their way to make sure everyone who saw this film in cinemas knew the secret that comes midway through the film, I won’t give it away here. I myself knew what the secret was, but that was on the fault of the advertising, not the movie itself. It’s very discreet in setting up the twist.

“Class” is like a prep-school retread of “The Graduate,” but it has more comedy in the scenes involving Skip, Jonathan, and their friends as they pull practical jokes on each other. Those scenes are pretty funny. Also, the film has a solid characterization of students and teachers. Then we have the more dangerous stuff. The scenes involving Jonathan and the Bisset character are handled delicately, after a gratuitous sex scene that shows up in almost every teen movie in the 80s. Jonathan is proud of his popularly at the prep school (while the woman thinks he’s attending college) and likes being around this gorgeous, nice woman, so it’s not just about losing his virginity. But then when she founds about who he is (and how young he is), he really misses her. Then when the secret is revealed, Jonathan is caught up in complications that he can’t seem to handle.

To be sure, this isn’t a great movie. Sometimes, it seems like the Jacqueline Bisset character is a bit confused. Also, the film is somewhat inconsistent with some of the comedy and drama, and the ending comes off as flat—this film doesn’t have a real payoff. But most of “Class” did work for me. Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy are both good, appealing young actors and most of the scenes involving them and their friends are funny (they’re more appealing than the teenagers in “Porky’s”). The drama works nice, save for the moments I criticized above. So I recommend “Class” with three stars out of four.

Superman III (1983)

2 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When you cast a likable comedian like Richard Pryor in a movie, you better have good use of him. Write a good character for him and give him room to breathe more than what the script limits him to, so he’ll feel comfortable. If all that’s done, then there shouldn’t be a problem. And at first, there seems to be promise. There’s a funny opening scene in “Superman III” in which Pryor—playing a down-on-his-luck dishwasher named Gus—faces the unemployment line, and it seems like this could be something special.

Then came the Rube-Goldberg-esque chain of accidents that goes through the opening credits (or is it the opening credits going through the chain of accidents?), and Superman must finally come in to save the day. Look at the credit-sequence and look back at Pryor’s introduction—would you connect these to a Superman movie?

So it seems like “Superman III” is going more for comedy this time around, hence the appearance of Richard Pryor. There isn’t a real sense of human interest that we felt in the previous “Superman” movies. Actually, this could be described as what the first Superman movie could have been—the first Superman movie and its sequel “Superman II” had real charms by mixing this fantasy with reality and without becoming shallow and silly. That was saved for this third entry, apparently.

There’s not only more comedy, but also more action. There are more action sequences and special effects to be found here, and they’re not put to good use. They don’t seem all that exciting and just feel like they’re stretched out. The one exception is a scene midway through the film in which for reasons too complicated to explain, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) ends up fighting his own alter-ego Superman. This is actually kind of interesting because it does show Clark Kent confronting his demons in this expressive way and it has us wondering what Superman would (or could) have been like without Clark Kent’s humanity. And speaking of human interest, there’s a new romance introduced here. Since Lois Lane is off on vacation and Clark has gone back to Smallville for his high school reunion, a romance develops between him and a former pal named Lana (Annette O’Toole). It’s sweet, but not as interesting as the previous film’s relationship with Superman and Lois.

The villains aren’t as interesting or as memorable as Lex Luthor and his minions. Here, Robert Vaughn plays a mad billionaire who wants to use satellites to control the Earth’s crops and become even richer. And in case you’re wondering, I did use that description from Roger Ebert’s review of the film. I needed help because I couldn’t remember a darn thing about Vaughn or his scheme.

But back to what I was saying about Richard Pryor. When you get past the opening scene aforementioned and see his character Gus more and more, you realize that he doesn’t create a character to care about. Maybe that’s because this role wasn’t meant for Pryor. Gus is trying to play a likable schmoe to play off the villains (his character is forced to help the Vaughn character with his new-found computer skills) and he just comes across as a man/actor/comedian searching for a laugh. I don’t know whether to place the blame on the writer, the director, or even going on an unfair note to blame Pryor, but Gus just isn’t funny, nor does Pryor make the best attempts. Maybe if he really was despicable and less innocuous, it could somehow make things better and more interesting for Pryor. The strange thing is, it seems like Pryor has as much time on screen as Superman, if not more time on screen.

“Superman III” is just a muddled mess of a movie, trying to jam many things into one movie and not making the best effort. And to think I got through this review in just one page.

The Big Chill (1983)

2 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m not entirely sure why I love “The Big Chill” enough to give it a four-star rating, so I’m going out on a limb trying to explain why. It’s a film about a reunion of old friends and…that’s about it. We’re basically just in the company of these people as they reminisce their past and consider their present selves. The screenplay is entirely in dialogue for these conversations to take up the whole film. There’s hardly any payoff to be had. And it seems more like an exercise than an actual mainstream drama—an exercise in writing and directing a movie with eight of the brightest up-and-coming actors at the time.

But the exercise worked. I found myself invested in the goings-on of these people. I liked watching them and listening to them.

The friends, veterans of the activist 1960s, reunite briefly in 1983 to attend the funeral of their friend who has committed suicide. They’re all between laughter and tears. The men, especially, crack jokes at their deceased friend’s expense and one of them takes notice of this and asks, “Are we afraid to express our feelings?” Well apparently, they’re not afraid to express their feelings, since they acknowledge that they are survivors of the 1960s and their lives have indeed changed in their 30s.

The friends are suitably diverse—Sam (Tom Berenger) is a TV star and a nice guy; Karen (JoBeth Williams) is a housewife bored by her husband Richard’s (Don Galloway) devotion; Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is a toady journalist who previously wanted to be a novelist; Meg (Mary Kay Place) was once a dedicated public defender who abandoned her lesser clients to succeed further as a lawyer. The ones who fare better than the rest are Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close)—they married, live a suburban lifestyle, and have good paying jobs (he’s a shoe-retailer; she’s a physician). The most complicated of the group is Nick (William Hurt), a drug addict who was a radio psychologist, and a Vietnam veteran. His life has no ambition.

Completing this group is a newcomer to the group—their deceased friend’s girlfriend Chloe (Meg Tilly). She’s pretty (and about a decade younger than the rest), but she’s not very big-picture. The death of her lover hardly phases her—there’s one scene in the beginning where she tells Karen that Alex’s death caused a real mess, but Chloe assuredly states “It’s OK—we cleaned it up.” There’s another funny bit in which she says she’s disappointed to ride from the funeral in an ordinary car instead of a limousine. She’s unconcerned about the passing of time that the others are concerned about, and when everyone is eating at Harold and Sarah’s dinner table and feeling bad for their loss, notice that she’s the only one that’s eating.

Oh, and she also exercises quite often. Call me immature, but…her flexibility does it for me.

All of these actors do great jobs and they all share a convincing camaraderie that comes through to their characters. In particular, the actors that stand out the most are Tom Berenger as this nice guy embarrassed by his starring role in a TV show, William Hurt as the aimless (and impotent) Vietnam vet, and Meg Tilly who has fun as this dizzy broad, who when you really think about it is actually the narrative’s center (she’s the observer and reactor to the others).

“The Big Chill” also has a very funny screenplay. To keep the drama from being monotonous, there are many great one-liners for everyone in the cast to deliver. One of my favorites is the funeral’s reception, in which Michael states, “They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can’t come.” (I’m sorry to say I used that line at my own grandfather’s funeral. Very sorry.) These jokes come across as pretty frank, too. It’s like the humor that these people give from the screenplay are reflecting their emotions between laughter and tears, like I mentioned before.

Actually, this is why I love “The Big Chill” the way I do. It’s not just a drama about the reunion of a group of friends who talk about their past and present; it’s a comedy as well. The laughs are there to serve as comic relief, keeping the film from what could have been monotonous. I cared about these people, the actors are perfect, the screenplay is great, and by the end of the movie, I feel like I was in the company of people I’ve gotten to know, and I’m not as bored as I, or you, might think.