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Bad Boys (1983)

1 Mar

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

The Outsiders (1983)

7 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Outsiders” is a film based on a best-selling young adult novel written by S.E. Hinton, who specializes in teenagers as complex characters (also read “Tex”). Francis Ford Coppola made this beloved book (beloved particularly by junior high and high school students) into a film at the request of a junior high English class who all signed a letter, asking Coppola to adapt this book. The result is a mixed bag.

The narrator is a fourteen-year-old “greaser” named Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) whose friends are all greasers. Greasers are the social outcasts on the north side of Tulsa, Oklahoma—most of which are hoods and they all have greasy hair. “Socs” (pronounced “soeshes”) are the rich kids from the south side of town—most of which have fun jumping greasers. There’s a conflict among them and occasionally, they throw rumbles to fight each other.

Ponyboy is basically a nice, smart kid—he reads books, keeps his mouth shut, and tries to stay out of trouble. His best friend is Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio), a scared sixteen-year-old greaser who was beat up terribly by a soc long ago. Both wind up in a nasty situation after Ponyboy and Johnny pick up a couple of soc girls and their boyfriends catch them. This results in the murder of one of the boyfriends (committed by Johnny, who wouldn’t hurt a fly before) and the scared kids are forced to run away.

There are many characters among the greasers. There’s Two Bit (Emilio Estevez), a likable scalawag who has his fair share of screen time. There are Ponyboy’s older brothers Darrel (Patrick Swayze) and Sodapop (Rob Lowe). And last but certainly not least, there’s Dallas Winston (Matt Dillon), the rebel without a cause. Dallas helps Ponyboy and Johnny hide out after the murder.

All of the actors are great in their roles—the central trio of Howell, Dillon, and Macchio are convincing. But the problem comes with the story and development. The story is not particularly convincing and most of the characters aren’t developed properly. I didn’t really buy the conflict between the greasers and the socs. And some of the greasers who are in the film’s advertising don’t even have time to breathe—they just appear briefly. I bought the friendship between Ponyboy and Johnny, but not so much of the relationships with Ponyboy and his brothers. Here’s another thing wrong with the movie—Ponyboy talks about his brothers a lot more than he talks with them to the point where he just seems like annoying exposition. Sodapop just seems invisible throughout the movie. And then, there’s the plot thread in which Ponyboy is possibly going to be taken away from Darrel and Sodapop and must go to juvenile court for running away. That element is dropped and never spoken of again. It didn’t matter much because I didn’t care much about the brothers anyway.

I also didn’t like the music composed by Carmine Coppola. It’s all over the map here and, along with Francis Ford Coppola’s direction, seems like “The Outsiders” is trying this generation’s “Gone with the Wind.” I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t distracting.

So I can’t recommend “The Outsiders” mainly because of its execution. I like Ponyboy, Johnny, Dallas, and Two Bit. I like Coppola’s direction. I love the book—the original making of this film was to cover the whole novel, which tells the story better. Apparently, Warner Bros. thought it’d be too long for the young audience’s interest and asked for the film to be cut from nearly two hours to an hour and a half, which isn’t enough time to tell this story. I’ll just quote Roger Ebert and argue that a good film isn’t long enough. And I’ll also say that “The Outsiders” needed more material to be a better movie.

Cujo (1983)

4 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Reportedly, Stephen King was drinking rather heavily when he wrote his novel “Cujo,” about a rabid killer dog, and apparently has no recollection of writing it. I don’t know what mood he was in when he wrote the novel, but he must’ve had it pretty bad, for him to drink so much. What other excuse would there be for Stephen King to create such an uncomfortable story? I realize the point of horror stories is to unnerve and scare, but “Cujo” goes too far by basically taking a friendly, gentle dog and turning it into a vicious killing machine. Being a dog lover myself, I speak only from a personal standpoint. And that’s pretty much how this review of the film adaptation of the same name is going to be. If you think you’re going to be annoyed by my objections, I suggest you stop reading.

I can’t necessarily knock the novel, as I haven’t read it. But I can knock the movie instead. The idea for this story is one of the cruelest for a horror story, possibly worse than a story about a psychotic killer child. It begins in a cruel way, as the lovable 200-pound St. Bernard named Cujo (what kind of name is that, anyway?) playfully chases a rabbit across a field behind his owner’s house, at the end of a dead-end road. Next thing he knows, he gets his head stuck in a small cave full of bats and actually getting himself bitten by one of them.

Cujo isn’t feeling very well and hasn’t gotten his rabies shots. As days go by, he seems to get worse and worse. And here’s one of the problems with logic in the movie—neither Cujo’s young owner nor his parents seem to notice the nasty bat bite on the poor dog’s nose. If they did, Cujo wouldn’t get rabies and we wouldn’t have a story. And surely enough, Cujo becomes rabid and vicious. He kills the man of the house, mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter), and a friend (Mills Watson). This leads us to the second half of “Cujo,” in which Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace, giving the best performance in the movie) and her five-year-old son Tad (Danny Pintauro) drive out to the house, in the middle of nowhere, in a faulty Ford Pinto. Surely enough, they are trapped in the car by the newly-formed beast, because the car’s alternator dies.

This is actually the part of the movie that is admittedly suspenseful. I consider myself a sucker for movies that feature characters limited to one spot—the claustrophobia and vulnerability aspects make for effective terror. Donna and Tad are trapped for days, knowing that Cujo will somehow make his way into the car to get them. The owner is dead, the others have left, the mailman isn’t coming around anytime soon (because mail is supposed to be on hold for a while), and no one knows where they are…except Cujo. This is a convincing setup and has some tense, frightening moments. It’s just too bad we had to see this formerly cute dog transformed into a monster in order for it to come about.

What does “Cujo” really amount to? Is it telling us to make sure that our dogs have all of their shots? Well, that’s effective enough, but you’d think that that would have happened already. Basically, “Cujo” requires its characters to be idiots for all of this to happen in the first place, and even the protagonists aren’t all that bright, as Donna just continues to stand around while trying to escape, even after given enough time to see if the coast is clear.

As hard as it is to admit, the dog isn’t consistently convincing. Sometimes it’s vicious enough, but other times it just looks like a dog playing around with snarling-dog sound effects. It doesn’t matter how bad they make the dog look after it transforms into the killer dog, drenching him with blood and foam (speaking of which, I felt sorry for the dog having to go through all of that). Whatever Stephen King was thinking when he wrote “Cujo” and inspired this movie, I can only say that this deserves to be put down.