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Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

31 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Twilight Zone” took television viewers where no one else ever imagined being before. Even though it was a TV show, we felt like it really took us through another dimension. Now many years later, here is the attempt to suck us in again with “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” This movie contains four short segments as long as the original “Twilight Zone” episodes, directed by four different directors—John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. But the surprise is that the best known of those four—Steven Spielberg—has made the worst segment in the movie.

There are two bad segments, one good third segment, and one great last segment. So as a whole, “Twilight Zone: The Movie” is only worth recommending for the second half, which doesn’t make for a positive recommendation as a whole.

The movie opens with a nicely-done prologue (also written and directed by John Landis) in which Dan Aykroyd is a hitchhiker and Albert Brooks is the driver that picked him up. They sing many well-known TV show themes before the unexpected (and very frightening) occurs. That’s a great opening scene that lets us know that we’re in another dimension. But then with the two segments that follow, the movie starts to falter.

The first segment features a racist man, played by Vic Morrow, who is taught a lesson the hard way when he finds himself in Nazi Germany and Vietnam. This one is so predictable and unsurprising that it’s weak. At one point, he finds himself at a Ku Klux Klan rally—what is trying to be said here? It also doesn’t help that we know that Morrow died in a helicopter accident during filming.

The second segment is directed by Steven Spielberg. This really brings the movie down. This segment is so whimsical and full of its whimsicality that it becomes…not very whimsical and more condescending. It stars Scatman Crothers as a mysterious old man who visits a nursing home and grants them the feeling of being young again. This segment looks great and its message is good (one lifetime is enough), but it’s just full of itself.

Then we come to the third segment by Joe Dante. The movie redeems itself after the bad segment that came before this. Kathleen Quinlan plays a schoolteacher making her way through a small town when she almost hits a young boy. This boy may look cute, harmless, and heartfelt, but he holds a secret in his house that brings the woman into another dimension where cartoon characters come to life and the boy’s wishes come true…for better or worse. This segment is so weird and offbeat but it’s also very inventive and great-looking. The special effects and the art direction are especially good when the most surreal events happen in this house.

And then at last, we arrive at the segment that is the real reason to see this movie—a remade version of the original “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 5,000 Feet.” This segment stands above the others. Made by George Miller, it’s well-made and powerfully-acted and also, very scary. This segment really gets into the “Twilight Zone” tradition—it really makes us feel like we’re in another dimension. John Lithgow is phenomenal as a man who has a phobia for flying and sees a monster on the wing of the airplane he’s traveling on—or does he?

The two last segments (especially the very last one) makes “Twilight Zone: The Movie” worth seeing. If you want a truly frightening modern-“Twilight Zone” type of experience, skip ahead to about 45 minutes. You won’t miss a thing and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the movie a whole lot more. I just can’t believe that Steven Spielberg would make the worst segment in the movie—maybe he should have watched some more episodes of the original “Twilight Zone.”

Rumble Fish (1983)

14 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There is a clock in each shot. Trickery is used for pivotal sequences. The film is in black-and-white, save for certain random things in color…or are they random? And here we have “Rumble Fish,” the self-proclaimed “art film for young people.” It’s an arty piece of work full of stunning cinematography, unique visual effects, and a lot of symbolism. It’s based on a novel by S.E. Hinton, which apparently no one thought could be filmable except for Francis Ford Coppola, one of the most inventive filmmakers around. But he found a way—the result is not an entertaining film, but a fascinating one nonetheless.

This is Coppola’s second collaboration with Hinton after “The Outsiders.” Apparently right after Coppola and his crew were through with production on “The Outsiders,” Coppola decided to go another round (this time, co-writing “Rumble Fish” along with Hinton, adapting her own novel). Why not?

Like most of Hinton’s stories, “Rumble Fish” is about a band of tough, hard-luck teenagers who get by in their own ways, for better or worse. This one is centered around two brothers—one who can’t live up to the other’s reputation, and the other who can’t live it down. Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) is a hothead who acts tough, but doesn’t have a real gang to follow him or even a real battle to fight. He’s not bright enough to be a leader, but dumb enough to get himself into trouble. He’s no different than Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow), a similarly pathetic thug who calls Rusty-James out.

Rusty-James’ brother is a heroic figure simply regarded as the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). He’s a born leader and a trouper of gang warfare. He’s also very clever and intelligent—everything Rusty-James isn’t. After being gone for a few months, he has returned to give Rusty-James some life lessons. And he better, because their father, a lazy drunk (Dennis Hopper), is of no help at all. In and out of Rusty-James’ life are his sometimes-girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane); his nervous best friend Steve (Vincent Spano); a “Messenger of the Gods” type nicknamed Midget (Laurence Fishburne); and his unreliable friend Smokey (Nicholas Cage) who believes he could be a gang leader. That’s about as much of a story as we get, with the tired and self-reformed Motorcycle Boy here with one simple purpose—to show Rusty-James what he’s constantly getting himself into.

Symbolism in “Rumble Fish” includes clocks in nearly every scene (including two characters standing in front of a giant clock-face) and fast-moving billowy clouds (whether they be in straight shots or in reflections). This is obviously supposed to symbolize that time for Rusty-James is running out before he develops as big a reputation as the troubled Motorcycle Boy. It’s also great to look out—the exaggerated imagery actually amounts to something, rather than giving us something pretty to look at with no substance in the story. Here, I actually felt there was something being said within the imagery. There are also red and blue fish (the only objects shown in color throughout the film) that are supposed to represent the relationship between the two brothers. How the Motorcycle Boy explains what they represent is thought-provoking.

That’s not to say this form doesn’t have its flaws. Sometimes, the symbolism can be a little too obvious, while other times it comes off as pretty distracting. But for the most part, it does work effectively.

There’s one great effects sequence in which Rusty-James has an out-of-body experience after getting hit in the head. He levitates in the air as he literally watches his life drift by. However the filmmakers did that effect that made Matt Dillon float in the air is outstanding work on their part. Watch the scene, and tell me if you see any wires.

As an art film, the imagery and cinematography seems to overshadow the actors, but they hold up on their own. Matt Dillon has played dumb tough kids for quite some time (“Over the Edge,” “My Bodyguard,” and other Hinton film adaptations, “Tex” and “The Outsiders”), but he’s still pretty strong in the role that requires him to change from tough to weak. However, if there’s one actor that stands out among the rest, it’s definitely Mickey Rourke, who is just excellent as the Motorcycle Boy. He has such quiet authority in a role that could’ve been thankless, but he makes it into a sensible, intelligent, intriguing individual. He’s like a veteran actor who suddenly got tired of the fame that his past has brought him, and would rather live it down. Rourke is outstanding in this movie.

“Rumble Fish” is a showcase of allegory, dilemma, and emotion. It’s quite different from “Tex” and “The Outsiders” in that way, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating. It’s original, it moves, and somewhat to my surprise I found myself more invested in the tales of the reigning Motorcycle Boy.

Eddie and the Cruisers (1983)

13 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Eddie and the Cruisers” is a movie about members of a rock band from almost 20 years ago who look back on how they got together, how they became famous, and what led to their end. They were called Eddie and the Cruisers—not a real band (a fictional one), but they seem like one in this movie. They reached their end when the band’s frontman Eddie Wilson disappeared—his car was found in a lake, but his body was never recovered. Some believe he is dead and others believe he is still alive. But if he’s dead, then what happened to the missing songs that were recorded by him? Surely, none of the other band members took them. A reporter (Ellen Barkin) is attempting to create the biggest story of her career by finding out what happened to those missing tapes. So she visits the band’s keyboardist and songwriter Frank (Tom Berenger), who is now a high school teacher.

We get many flashbacks in between the scenes in which Frank meets up again with other former Cruisers. We see how Frank wound up into the band—he suggests some poems for lyrics which were unappreciated at first but accepted eventually, being affectionately dubbed “the wordman.” He himself is unappreciated, as he realizes when Eddie (Michael Pare) shouts out every band member—including bassist Sal Amato (Matthew Laurence), band manager Doc (Joe Pantoliano), and Eddie’s beautiful girlfriend Joann Carlino (Helen Schneider)—except him. But soon, Eddie reconciles with Frank, saying they “need each other.”

It’s fun to see the Cruisers look back on the good old days after all these years. Doc is a DJ who is trying so hard to get the band known again but he’s in over his head. Sal is still in the music business, with a new lineup of Cruisers. Joann also can’t let go of the past and when she meets Frank, she tells him that Eddie is still alive but not showing himself—he’s performing signals he taught her years ago. But is Eddie still alive? And did he take those tapes? Everything builds up to an ending that is probably not an ending you would expect. Not many viewers will even accept it, but I bought it, at least.

Michael Pare is convincing as a rock star performing onstage, Tom Berenger is effective in the lead role as the “wordman” and the soundtrack is terrific. Also, the drama works in “Eddie and the Cruisers,” especially in the scene in which Eddie is thinking about ending it all because the band is not great. He questions the point of having a band if they’re not great. That scene really moved me in such a way that maybe I didn’t need a better ending, but I can make do with what I have right in front of me. “Eddie and the Cruisers” is a good movie—well-acted with a great soundtrack and a sense of biography. I feel like I knew Eddie and the Cruisers right when the movie ended.

Christine (1983)

7 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

John Carpenter’s “Christine” is a nicely-crafted horror film about a teenage boy and his car. The boy is a high school nerd named Arnie who wears thick glasses, is very insecure, and is constantly picked on by the school thugs. The car is a ‘50s Plymouth dubbed “Christine” that Arnie finds rusting in a junkyard. He doesn’t care that its original owner killed himself in the car or that some folks around it have died tragically back in the day—he’s just entranced by the car. He buys it, rebuilds it, and develops a certain bond with it.

Of course, teenagers develop a bond with their first car. It becomes a part of them—they look out for their cars, they make sure not one part of it is scratched, and they even talk to their cars at times. But in Arnie’s case, it’s different. Not only does having this new car affect his social life (in that he actually develops one, finally) and boost his self-esteem (like talking back to people, including his overbearing parents), but it also turns out that Christine—the car—has a mind of its own. It moves on its own and even repairs itself after the bullies trash it to junk.

And so, Christine uses its willpower, without a driver, to chase after Arnie’s enemies and run them down—there’s a great scene in which it forces its way through a narrow alley to get to one of the bullies, and another in which another bully is desperately running down the street trying to outrun the car (set ablaze this time—the guy doesn’t have a prayer). But there’s a bigger issue in its “mind,” I should say—Arnie is dating the prettiest girl in school, which makes Christine so jealous that it takes many measures to try and run her down as well. Arnie himself develops into a real scuzzy personality, letting Christine’s power over him take what’s left of his meekness and replace it with a blend of super-coolness and madness.

It’s a nice work of fantasy and horror—the idea of a guy getting his first car that turns out to be alive is an exciting one. That it goes after its owner’s girlfriend may make the movie sound ridiculous, and it is. But I enjoyed it because with John Carpenter’s direction, the movie wants to play how it would occur if it were plausible. Carpenter also does a good job with the three central young actors—Keith Gordon as Arnie, Alexandra Paul as Arnie’s girlfriend, and John Stockwell as Arnie’s best friend, a likable jock that tries to pull Arnie out of Christine’s spell.

I also liked the use of old songs in the score. When someone tries to break into the garage where Christine is kept, its radio plays “Keep-a Knockin’ But You Can’t Come In” as a warning. And whenever Arnie is alone in the car, the radio plays old love songs. See, the radio only plays songs from the 1950s, since that’s when it was created and uses these songs to speak its mind. That’s a clever idea.

“Christine” is an ambitious, well-acted, well-executed horror movie that takes teenage fantasy as a deal with the devil. Yeah, the story is out there, and there are some things that don’t work (see NOTE), but there are many other moments that had me grinning and invested, right down to the final climax where it’s the ‘50s Plymouth Fury “Christine” versus a bulldozer.

NOTE: I’ve read a few posts on “Christine’s” IMDb message board and one of which, not caring much for the movie, said that there could be a remake that was closer to the original Stephen King novel it was based on. I’ve never read the novel, so I don’t know how close this movie adapts it. However, there are certain clichés that can be found in Stephen King stories and they are found here. One main clichéd element—everyone except for the main characters is a one-dimensional jackass. The bullies are the knife-wielding bores, the parents don’t listen (the mother, in particular, is over the top in authority), and the man who runs the body shop (played by Robert Prosky) is a suspicious old fart (though to his credit, he has a good reason to be suspicious of Arnie and his car). So I don’t know—maybe certain parts of the story were left out of the movie.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

6 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For every life, there lives a desire. For every desire, there is a wish. For every wish, there is a price. That saying alone will let you know what you’re in for when you watch “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” a supernatural thriller that tells a story so compelling you can’t believe the Disney Studios would make a movie as frightening. Maybe they hope the two 12-year-old characters will lighten the mood. But the problem is, terrible events happen to these two kids—spiders surround them, an entire parade searches for them (with kid-sized coffins), and they become involved in a plot to grant people their dreams but take away their lives. This may frighten younger viewers but will probably delight older ones, especially adults because of the darker theme involving one of the kids’ fathers.

The film, based on a novel by Ray Bradbury, begins with a great shot of a train coming towards the camera in the dark. That shot alone tells us that we’re in for something that I don’t think the Disney Studios would want to make again. It lets us know that this is no family film. The film takes place in a small Midwestern town where the two boys—timid, sensitive Will (Vidal Peterson) and the more-outgoing Jim (Shawn Carson)—live. There are many other people in the town, including a cigar store owner who dreams of being rich, a barber who dreams of a thousand gorgeous woman coming to town and being with him, a one-armed, one-legged barman who dreams of playing football, and an old crone who dreams of being beautiful again. Then there’s Will’s father Charles (Jason Robards), who only dreams of being much younger. Will doesn’t particularly like living with an old father. Charles is unsure he can even live with himself.

The mysterious Darks Pandemonium Carnival comes to town and all of these characters (except Charles) arrive. The cigar store owner, the barber, the barman, and the old crone are fortunate enough to meet the Dust Witch (Pam Grier), who knows their dreams and tells their fortunes. It seems that the carnival’s biggest attraction is temptation and these people may be falling into a trap as they are tempted by the Dust Witch to give up something for their dreams come true. They get what they’ve been wishing for but there is a price that must be given—for example, the old crone becomes beautiful but she loses her eyesight. Then, I guess, they become slaves to the force that surrounds the carnival.

Only young Will and Jim realize that something creepy is happening. They run afoul of Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), the tall, mysterious carnival owner who seems to be the ruler of this strange force. He has plenty of tricks up his sleeve and many carnival attractions that are interesting with special effects—including a merry-go-round that can spin backwards through time. He seems to will the ways of the devil, in the way that he can tempt people and then feed on their souls. When Mr. Dark declares that the boys have seen too much, he sends his forces of darkness after them.

It all comes down to the ending in which Charles is finally falling into Mr. Dark’s trap and he must fight it in order to save himself and the boys. Mr. Dark knows Charles’ wish and would make it come true and the temptation is too strong…

“Something Wicked this Way Comes” is a powerful horror film with the right mood of the original novel (although loosely based on the novel) and great performances, especially from Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce. The young actors are just OK (sometimes, they seem to be a bit too precocious to the point of annoyance). There are some parts where the boys seem older, especially in the scene where they’re surrounded by hundreds of spiders—probably because of post-production reshoots. But it’s really Jason Robards that steals the show. He’s got that amazing voice that makes you want to listen to him and believe in him. Also, I love how the carnival’s being isn’t fully explained—there are some tidbits of explanation but not enough so that there’s exposition. Actually, I’d rather not know. Then there are the heartfelt conversations Charles and Will have in the middle of the night occasionally, which feel very real. That relationship between father and son pays off well.

There are times when it seems like the movie doesn’t know which way to go, especially in the final half, but this is a most unsettling movie with a terrifying atmosphere and a grim feel. It’s unlikely that the Disney Studios would want to make a movie like this again—this is not for younger children. If they see this movie, there’s a good chance they’ll have nightmares for quite a while.

Bad Boys (1983)

1 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The opening-credit sequence in “Bad Boys” includes pictures of who I suppose are the actors (or specifically, in this case, the characters the actors portray) as little children. They look like harmless, clean-cut, innocent, sweet kids and they probably were for a time. But they must have gone down the wrong path to become what the title of the movie describes them as—“Bad Boys.” What caused them to be like this? It could be neglect, abuse, or maybe (and most chillingly) they just didn’t care about anything anymore. Any one of those would be good reason as to why these boys act like this. In “Bad Boys,” the bad boys aren’t romanticized, but are more like objects for a cautionary tale.

Sean Penn acts convincingly in a role that made him a star as the main focus of this story—a young Chicago thug named Mick O’Brien. The only thing he’s ever cared for is his girlfriend JC (Ally Sheedy). He hates his life at home and performs felonies all over the city. But one night, something goes wrong with a local drug dealer—Paco Mareno (Esai Morales), also a teenager—and results in the death of Moreno’s younger brother. O’Brien is sent to a juvenile reformatory where the worst sort of teenagers do time and act out violently against each other.

The first half of “Bad Boys” is the best part of the whole movie. While O’Brien is in the reformatory, he learns the ropes, finds out who to trust—including his smart-aleck roommate Horowitz (Eric Gurry), and later becomes respected after pummeling a couple of sadistic thugs nicknamed “Viking” (Clancy Brown) and “Tweedy” (Robert Lee Rush). He learns that in this place, only the strong survive. The strengths of the first half come from the first-rate direction by Rick Rosenthal and the performances from the actors—especially Sean Penn, who is excellent and three-dimensional as the bad boy who seeks redemption in the wrong places.

But when Moreno brutally rapes O’Brien’s girlfriend and is put into the same reformatory as O’Brien, the movie starts to become predictable. It’s obvious that the two are going to duel to the death and that’s exactly how the movie is going to end. On top of that, it’s sort of obvious who’s going to win. Was a fighting climax really necessary?

But you can’t let something like that stop you from recommending a movie that is so strong up until that point. “Bad Boys” works for the most part because it shows realistic situations involving troublesome (and troubled) teenagers together in one building. Like I said, only the strong survive here. But these are people whose adult lives are over before they’ve barely begun. It’s a sad case for these kids because very few of them will get redemption—the rest of them will simply ask for more trouble. Take Horowitz, for example. There’s a scene later in the movie when he sets up a radio to explode in Viking’s face. Sure, Viking was a sadist to begin with and probably deserved what he had coming. But now, Horowitz has a troubling punishment all because of his actions. Only he’d stopped to think. That’s what the audience would think about every central character in this movie at this point. Actually, that’s something else to think about too—after the big climax at the end, everyone else is surprised by the outcome. Since I am recommending “Bad Boys,” I guess it’s fair to say that you should watch the final scene and wonder what the characters are thinking.

“Bad Boys” isn’t a great movie, but it comes so close to it. The performances from Sean Penn, Esai Morales, Eric Gurry, Ally Sheedy, Clancy Brown, Robert Lee Rush, and Reni Santoni (he plays a counselor in the reformatory) are very strong. The direction from Rick Rosenthal is excellent. Why did the movie have to end with a fight climax?

The Dead Zone (1983)

23 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I will admit that David Cronenberg is a gifted filmmaker and is capable of good work, but to be honest, some of his films kind of rub me the wrong way. Sure, I was shocked by the special effects in “Scanners,” but was bored by everything else. And I got into some interesting elements of “Videodrome” such as the “TV-seduction” scene, but was put off by its seemingly complicated invasion story. Really, Cronenberg’s best thriller, in my opinion, is “The Fly.” That film had fascinating, realistic-looking (albeit disgusting) makeup/effects, like most of Cronenberg’s “creature features” (if you will), and it also had characters to care about with empathize with so it made itself into a pretty strong drama—quite unusual for a horror film. I call “The Fly” one of the best films of 1986 (I have a list).

But what comes close second in Cronenberg’s thrillers for me is the film that led up to “The Fly”—it’s “The Dead Zone,” based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. But before I review it, let me state that I have not read the original novel and that this is a review of the film adaptation itself. However, if it’s faithful to the source material, I’ll be impressed. (I’ll explain why later.)

“The Dead Zone” stars Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who is involved in a serious car accident that puts him in a coma. Five years later, he awakens and finds that everything has changed. For example, his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams) is now married and has a child. But in particular, Johnny now possesses a strange ability that is either a blessing or a curse. It’s a psychic ability that allows him to learn of a person’s secrets in time, whether it’s past, present, or future, just by touching them. More people discover Johnny’s “gift” and soon, the local sheriff (Tom Skerrit) asks him to help investigate a series of murders occurring in town.

If the whole movie had been like that, with Johnny constantly using his gift to notice clues, see the future, and then change it for a new future, it’d be exciting. And there are some nicely-done eerie moments. But what makes “The Dead Zone” so good is the characterization. Once the premise has been established for a supernatural thriller, we have a good amount of serious drama and interesting, three-dimensional characters to follow. Johnny is trying to live with this new ability, but also trying to live with his new life. His job is gone, his girl has found someone else, and his life is turned upside-down. As we watch this guy go through the madness that this power and new life brings him, we keep forgetting that this is a supernatural thriller. As a result, you can buy the premise and accept “The Dead Zone” as his story.

Christopher Walken does an excellent job of portraying Johnny. He’s a confused, scared, angry individual doing what he can with his new life—whether with his companions or with his gift. Walken gets lost in the role and it’s a powerful performance. Also good are Brooke Adams as the woman that has married another man, but still loves Johnny (as a result, there’s a touch of fascinating complexity in their scenes together); Herbert Lom as a sympathetic doctor who wants to help Johnny with his gift; Tom Skerrit as the sheriff; and (possibly the best in the supporting cast) Martin Sheen, a populist politician who becomes an important role in the film’s (admittedly) very clever climax.

The story does get back on track with its story of using Johnny’s gift to change the future when it’s predicted with disaster. But then, we’ve accepted the story because we care for the characters, and what follows is very strong because of so. And if this film is faithful to the original Stephen King novel, I guess I underestimated King as a supernatural-horror writer. What I mean is, some of his stories having to do with monsters and psychic abilities have never made a whole lot of sense (sometimes, they’re intriguing; otherwise, they’re laughable). But with “The Dead Zone,” Stephen King got it right. As does director David Cronenberg, who adapted it into a fine thriller. Congratulations to both talented individuals.

Testament (1983)

21 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Testament” is a heavy family drama about the aftereffects of a nuclear war, as experienced by a typical suburban American family. It’s not a science-fiction thriller and doesn’t resort to nonsensical action climaxes—there are no special effects in this movie at all; we don’t even see a mushroom cloud. It’s just a tragic tale about a small-town family trying to get by after a nuclear catastrophe has destructed outside civilization.

The film starts with routine scenes involving the family, letting us see what their lives are like before the disaster. We see the father Tom (William Devane) racing his middle child Brad (Ross Harris) down the street in the morning on bicycles, to get the kid into shape. We see the oldest child Mary Liz (Roxana Zal) practicing piano. We see the loving mother (Jane Alexander), making sure everything is under control in her household, that the kids get to school on time, and that her husband is home on time after work. And we see the youngest (and oddest) child Scottie (Lukas Haas), protecting “treasure” in his bottom drawer and wearing earmuffs to keep from hearing constant bickering. Everything seems fine and normal for this family. But the next day, while the father is out of town, the mother and the kids are watching TV (or trying to get a good reception with the antenna) on a sunny afternoon when suddenly, static appears on the screen and it’s followed by an emergency broadcast with the chilling line, “Ladies and gentlemen…this is real.” And then a bright light flashes, the terrified family huddles together, and when it’s over, everyone is wandering the street in confusion and fear.

The rest of the movie is about how this town, and particularly this family, deals with the effects of the disaster. Soon enough, gasoline is sold out, batteries are important necessities (not just for the kids’ electronic toys anymore), there’s some looting for food and supplies on occasion, town meetings are held at the church asking what they should all do, and life just keeps trying to go on, even when the grade-school play is decided to be held. However, death is constantly overshadowing this town—radiation poisoning is wiping out more than half of the population. The cemetery is filling up fast and pyres are even set up to burn the rest of the bodies. What it really comes down to is that the central characters—this family—are led by the mother to try to keep things positive, even in the most dire of situations.

If there’s a problem I have with “Testament,” it’s the lack of development with the supporting characters that come into the family’s lives and then are killed off by the radiation. In particular, there’s a kid who is left to the family and is so obviously doomed, and we hear that he has become part of the family, but we never see him really interact with them. One exception is a community leader (Leon Ames) who uses a ham-radio to make contact with places outside of town. I felt for this man right to his tragic end. And there’s also a mentally-challenged boy that, again, I didn’t want to see bad things happen to. But everyone else outside of the family is uninteresting.

Jane Alexander is great in this movie. Playing this mother as one of the more gentle, loving people in this fall from society, cherishing her children’s and her own life to the possibly bitter end, Alexander turns in a great performance and provides as the heart of the film. She shows graciousness even in the face of certain doom, making her the emotional center.

“Testament” is a film with a great deal of credibility that makes it all the more tense. There have been many movies about the very threat of nuclear war—this is about a nuclear war that has already occurred and how everybody deals with it. It’s the worst crisis in their lives, and yet there’s a certain sense of hope that things will turn out all right for everybody that’s left. What will become of the rest of these people? The movie doesn’t merely end with the answer to that question, but with a powerful scene expressing what some would consider small optimism.

WarGames (1983)

18 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s a little tough to review “WarGames” without pointing out that this film is more like a time capsule from the 1980s. The technical aspects within the film’s story are really dated with how our computers worked back then, as opposed to the tremendous upgrades decades later. In fact, every year, our technology is growing more impressive, with new and expensive ways to advance our technology. We, as mankind, have gone pretty much to the point where we can’t progress without our computers, which is why many people were paranoid about the theory of Y2K.

But there is that fear that while our technology is advancing as time goes on, it could be getting to the point where it winds up destroying us. (Not that I believe it—how does technology expect to take over mankind if my cellphone keeps acting up on me?) That is why the story of 1983’s “WarGames,” still in the time of the Cold War, is still engaging and thrilling, even if its technical aspects have grown dated. It’s an entertaining film and an effective cautionary tale.

It opens brilliantly with a great teaser scene, in which a launch test brings about the tensions of being in charge of what could lead to a nuclear launch. The two men at the hand (played by Michael Madsen and John Spencer) don’t know that their current job is just a drill and they panic as they confront the possibility that they could be starting an international nuclear attack by order. It’s a brilliant scene—it sucks you in and keeps you on edge. However, the movie that follows doesn’t quite bring about what to expect from this opening.

Fortunately, “WarGames” gets on track as it leads to an action (as a reaction to the two men) that leads to the real story. And we’re already drawn in to see what’s coming next.

NORAD is relying more on computers for evaluating and preparing for nuclear attacks, so John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) and a few other experts are called in to bring in a supercomputer named WOPR. It has a system that plays war games and strategizes appropriate responses to crises.

Enter our protagonist David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), a teenage computer hacker who can break into the school’s computer network from home and change his failing grades to passing grades. Along with his girlfriend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), David is able to sneak into the WOPR system through a backdoor. David and Jennifer find some pretty interesting games in the computer and decide to play one particular war game called “Global Thermonuclear War.” But what they don’t know is that while playing this game, the computer is taking over NORAD and scaring the agents into nearly launching a strike.

McKittrick tracks down young David and forces into an interrogation. David’s story doesn’t sound convincing to him. McKittrick can’t believe that this high-school kid caused this chaos by himself and thinks he might be a spy. But David knows for sure that the computer is continuing to play the game on its own and force NORAD into launching DefCon1, resulting in Armageddon.

The tension that comes with the well-produced 1983 reality is outstanding. The idea that one little act from a high school kid has the possibility of an even bigger problem (for all of mankind, no less) is an uneasy one and “WarGames” handles it effectively, with a mix of intrigue and complexity. The film starts out fun, as David and Jennifer are playing with their computer before coming across all of this. It evolves into something more complex.

There’s also a fascinating sci-fi edge to it, as the computer is learning as it continues to play the game. David at one point asks the computer, “Is this a game or is it real?” The computer responds, “What’s the difference?” It’s thinking on procedural rules, not ethical ones. This leads to a tense climax in which David and the original creator of the machine, Dr. Falken (John Wood) must attempt to force it into learning that this game should not (or cannot) continue. And they have to do it before time runs out…

What also stands out in “WarGames” are the performances, particularly from Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, Dabney Coleman, and John Wood. Broderick has a nice blend of cockiness and innocence that makes us sympathize with David. Sheedy is the kind of girlfriend teenage geeks hope for—cute, fun, and willing to listen to you talk about your computer skills. Coleman is sardonic but ethical as McKittrick, and Wood, showing up late in the movie, has an effective speech about natural selection.

That speech, by the way, is the setup for the climax. Dr. Falken makes that speech to David and Jennifer, after learning that they’ve played with his creation and is willing to accept his fate so that something else will rise after humans. David retorts by stating that it shouldn’t be this way if there’s a way to stop it.

The only thing I don’t like about the movie is the music score. With its overblown orchestral tune, it just sort of grows annoying. That aside, though, “WarGames” has a thrilling story with good acting and execution, and is a genuinely moving thriller. A lot of it may be dated, but it’s more of its time and can’t be complained about.

The Outsiders: The Complete Novel

7 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I gave 1983’s “The Outsiders” a negative but affectionate review, saying that it needs more material to be a better movie. Well, fans of the movie, who were also fans of the novel it was based on, wrote many letters to the director Francis Ford Coppola and they all asked the same question as to why the film wasn’t more like the book. And now, in 2005, there is a much better version of “The Outsiders” with twenty minutes of deleted scenes. It’s called “The Outsiders: The Complete Novel” because it covers more of the original novel. It also makes the story more clear, gives room for the characters to develop, and gives the thought of why in the world didn’t Warner Bros. release this film in the first place?

I love this movie. It reminds me so much of why I love reading the book in the first place. It’s touching, powerful, and a much better film than its original cut. I am even going to give it four stars. I think it deserves that rating.

In a never-before-seen opening scene, the hero Ponyboy Curtis, a fourteen-year-old greaser who lives on the wrong side of the tracks, is jumped by the socs, a gang of rowdy rich kids from the other side of town. His older brothers and buddies come to his rescue. This is great—we are given proper introductions to all of the “greaser” characters and we get a sense of the relationship between Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell) and his brothers Darrel and Sodapop (Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe). With other additional footage, the characters are given room to develop into people we care about. One character in particular who given special treatment is Sodapop. His added scenes—especially one in which he breaks down at the end—remind us that Rob Lowe is a very good actor for dramatic situations, not just deadpan comic effect.

Ponyboy and his buddies—tough, mean Dallas (Matt Dillon) and scared, sensitive Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio)—are hunting for action one night at the local drive-in. While there, Dallas tries, very rudely, to pick up a soc girl named Cherry Valance (Diane Lane). She tells him to go away and then she unexpectedly picks up Ponyboy and Johnny, knowing very well who they are (she tells them, “I’ve met people like Dallas Winston; you two don’t look mean”). Her friend Marcia is picked up by Ponyboy and Johnny’s friend Two Bit (Emilio Estevez), the jokester of the greasers who loves Mickey Mouse cartoons. But soon, there’s trouble. The girls’ boyfriends spot them with the greasers which leads to them hunting Ponyboy and Johnny, finding them alone later that night. While drunk, they come very close to drowning Ponyboy in a fountain and one of them—Cherry’s boyfriend Bob (Leif Garrett)—is murdered by Johnny. This leads to Ponyboy and Johnny being aided by Dallas to figure out what to do about this situation. They hide out in a church for a week, then they become heroes for saving children in a fire, then they return home to resolve issues with the socs.

There are more touches to this director’s cut that really make this film special. The story is better developed, the characters are more complex, and that music from the original film is gone—thank God (I hated that music in the first place). This is a much more faithful adaptation to the beloved book by S.E. Hinton.

Watching this new cut, it’s fun to see all of these actors before they made their big career moves. Matt Dillon is fantastic as Dallas, the rebel without a cause—it’s fun seeing him here and in “Tex” and “Rumble Fish” (all of which were film adaptations of S.E. Hinton novels) as this tough teenager with a lot to do and say. Ralph Macchio (yes, the Karate Kid) is very good as Johnny—he’s just that kid you want to see good things happen to, despite his murderous deed. Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez, and Tom Cruise (yes, Tom Cruise) are all great in their roles. What really surprised me was that C. Thomas Howell, playing the narrator of the film, didn’t go on to bigger and better things like his co-stars. Howell is wonderful here—he gives a convincing, complicated performance as this nice, scared kid who is smart and thoughtful. Since this movie, he’s played pretty much the same character until his career bomb, “Soul Man,” in 1986.

“The Outsiders: The Complete Novel” is a much better film than Warner Bros. thought it to be in 1983 and I loved it.