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My Favorite Movies – Gremlins (1984)

3 Dec

By Tanner Smith

“Die Hard” is technically a Christmas movie, but I’ll watch it anytime. “Gremlins,” however…even though it was initially released in the summertime, it just feels right to watch only in Christmastime. (That’s probably just me though.)

I DO think of Christmas when I think of “Gremlins.” The pleasant small-town setting looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. Christmas tunes are either hummed by characters or played in the playground. It even begins with the adorable little creature Gizmo being given as a Christmas present.

But I guess I can see why some people don’t like to associate “Gremlins” with the holiday season. The little red-eyed monsters attack Santa Claus, they tie up the dog outside in Christmas lights (poor pooch), and then there’s that random hella tragic speech about how the female lead found out there was no Santa Claus!

But that’s kind of why I love to watch this movie each Christmas too. I already have “Home Alone,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story,” “Arthur Christmas,” and whatever “Christmas Carol” adaptation I feel like watching–why not a twisted horror-comedy about little monsters raise hell in a quiet little town on Christmas? I need a little variety! (And hey, why not a little dark comedy like “Bad Santa” or “The Land of Steady Habits” to go along with it? Those take place on Christmas too.)

“Gremlins” is a Spielberg production directed by Joe Dante (who made another favorite of mine: “Matinee”). It begins with a Spielbergian touch as young adult Billy (Zack Galligan) cares for his new pet, a strange big-eyed little creature called a Mogwai, named “Gizmo.” Right off the bat, Gizmo is freaking adorable–he reminds me of my late beloved Shi Tzu puppy.

But there are rules that come with owning a Mogwai: keep it away from bright lights (and sunlight will kill it), don’t get it wet (just let it clean itself like a cat), and NEVER feed it after midnight. (Whatever you want to say about how it’s “always ‘after midnight'” is pretty much moot–“Gremlins 2: The New Batch” already had fun with analyzing the concept.) When all three rules are broken, that’s when Gremlins gets more fun, as Dante goes with a sci-fi thriller approach, paying homage to 1950s monster films.

Oh, not just with the small town being invaded by otherworldly beings–Dante literally throws in Robby the Robot and the infamous Time Machine at random spots of the movie! (Dante always likes to fit in references to such in each of his films.)

“Gremlins” has a body count–don’t show this to kids unless you’re sure they can take it. When the Mogwai multiplies into more of them, they become vicious fanged beasties with scaly claws instead of furry paws. And they do kill people, and many of the Gremlins themselves get killed in pretty grisly ways too, especially when Billy’s mother (Francis Lee McCain) defends herself against some of them in her own kitchen. There’s also an intense scene in which Billy is nearly sliced by a Gremlin with a chainsaw. This film is rated PG, but this was back when PG didn’t just mean “Practically G” and also it paved the way for the PG-13 rating (along with Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” which came out the same year as “Gremlins”). If you want to show this to your younger family members, keep that in mind.

I guess you could say “Gremlins” is a lovely bit of coal to fit into your Christmas stocking–and I enjoy it as such.

My Favorite Movies – The Terminator (1984)

5 Jul

By Tanner Smith

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is one of my top 15 favorite films of all time…but before I get to that awesomeness, I want to talk about THIS awesomeness: James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi-horror sleeper hit “The Terminator!”

The film no one expected to become a classic hit gave birth to one of the scariest and most badass villains in the history of cinema: the Terminator, played memorably by Arnold Schwarzenegger. What’s more terrifying than a killer? A killer that can’t be reasoned with, is heavily persistent, and won’t stop for anything at all until they kill you!

The Terminator is a cyborg sent from the future to exterminate the would-be mother of who would grow up to become the leader of a human resistance against a hierarchy of defense-network computers turned against mankind. (Or, as another fighter from the future states, it’s “one possible future, from your point of view.”) Schwarzenegger plays him as a ruthless killer–a machine with no purpose other than to hunt and kill his target. And what’s worse? He seemingly can’t be killed, seeing as underneath his living human tissue is a metal endoskeleton!

Yikes! Someone’s out to kill me, they have lots of weapons, and they can’t be killed–I’d be running for my life and saying my prayers constantly!

Plus, as director James Cameron pointed out, Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent adds to the effect–it does sound like a machine computing and processing, in a sense.

The Terminator’s target is Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a meek, mild-mannered waitress who simply can’t believe it when she learns she’ll give birth to the leader of the world, a killer robot is stalking her, and her only hope is a fighter from the future human resistance, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who lays down so much info on her in one night. It’s a lot to take in, and what I love about Sarah’s arc in this movie is how much the adrenaline of the chase between the Terminator and her and Reese gets her to grow. By the end of the film, she fights back and even gets to order Reese to keep going because they’re not finished yet.

If the Sarah Connor of this movie turned into the Sarah Connor of the sequel in just one movie, it wouldn’t be believable–but here, it makes sense. She doesn’t become a full-on badass, but she does accept what she has to do to become said-badass.

Even though “The Terminator” is more of a horror film than an action film, there are still some really well-executed chase sequences to be found here, especially for its low budget. I especially like when Reese and Sarah are on foot while the Terminator now has a huge truck. (I remember as a kid being like, “Holy sh*t! How are they gonna get out of this??”)

Now…I have to share this one tidbit about the film I really hate: “You Got Me Burnin’,” the song in the Tech Noir club. Man, is it bad. The singer sounds like the Heart lead vocals on absinthe. And for whatever reason, the people who picked the song list at the theater I worked at thought THAT would be nice to listen to every once in a while!

But that’s just a nitpick, really. “The Terminator” is still great–great monster, clever script, likable heroes, intriguing story, one of the best the ’80s had to offer!

Now, its sequel, on the other hand? That’s one of the best the ’90s had to offer! (I’ll get to it soon…)

My Favorite Movies – Amadeus (1984)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

One time, I watched Amadeus with a friend who hadn’t seen it before. He’s such a movie buff that he thought he could guess exactly what was going to happen with Mozart and Salieri in this movie, and I kept having to tell him “no” or even lie and say “yes” just to see how he’d react. This is just one source, but it could show that what “Amadeus” isn’t is “predictable.” What it is is one of my all-time favorite films.

It’s funny, because I’m not that big a fan of classical music. Not that I dislike it (far from it); it’s just that I don’t listen to it that often. (There’s a difference.) But I still adore this movie both as a story about the creative process and a character study about an ingenious but immature artist and a mediocre but hard-working one who’s very envious of the other. Either way you look at it, it’s still an engrossing film (so engrossing that I constantly forget how long it is because it moves at a brisk pace–I can easily watch this 160-minute film in one sitting).

“Amadeus” isn’t entirely historically accurate, but so what? It’s historical fiction that captured the spirit of Mozart, so it can’t be taken that seriously. I learned that Mozart did put more effort into his work than this movie may have given him credit for, and it’s unlikely Salieri really wanted to murder him. But again, so what? It’s Salieri telling the story anyway, thus the film dabbles with the “unreliable narrator” element brilliantly, which makes it one of the more uniquely beautiful and innovative historical-fiction films ever made.

I haven’t seen the director’s cut, but frankly, I don’t want to. The film is perfect as it is and it doesn’t require additional material. I don’t need to see it either. It’s like Mozart would want it–if something is good enough not to be changed, don’t change it.

My Favorite Movies – Stop Making Sense (1984)

13 May

By Tanner Smith

Here’s one that’s just 88 minutes of pure unadulterated music. And I LOVE IT!!!

It’s Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and it’s just a showcase of the band performing 16 songs live as the cameras are right on stage with them. This is as intense a concert film as you could get as we the audience are not only marveling at the awesomeness of this ambitious band’s performance art, but we’re right there in the action too. There are no backstage interviews with the members of the band nor is there any footage of setting up for the concert–once David Byrne steps out with his guitar and rhythm recording to perform “Psycho Killer,” it’s off to nonstop music we go.

This is the film that made me a fan of the Talking Heads. I admired how much they put into their music–elements of punk and rock and pop and ska and r&b and overall just a wonderful mix with original talent.

I haven’t seen this film on a big screen–I would love for that opportunity to happen once in my lifetime.

My favorite scene (or music number, in this case): “Girlfriend is Better,” complete with the “big suit.” There are other songs I like better, but that’s just a funny-looking suit.

I don’t have much else to say about it. It’s just awesome!

Stop Making Sense (1984)

18 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For most people, it’s hard to find a better concert film than Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense.” At the time of its release, it was declared the “greatest concert film of all time” and was also notable for being the first movie made entirely using digital audio techniques. The techniques worked and the movie also had non-intrusive camera movements that also worked in its favor, capturing the fierce, dynamic energy of a fun rock concert. It’s hard to deny the film’s technical drive.

This is especially important, because what really distinguish a concert film from an album are the musical performance and the cinematography. And “Stop Making Sense,” capturing the high spirits and exhilarating impact of a riveting Talking Heads concert, has a lot going for it that cause audiences to praise it as much as they do.

For those who don’t know, the Talking Heads were a most influential and popular rock/funk group from the late-‘70s to the early-‘80s. Their music, which includes popular singles such as “Burning Down the House” and “Girlfriend is Better,” contains a large amount of types, such as rock, ska, and so forth. And oddly enough, for the time their songs were created, they hardly feel dated and are as enjoyable today as they may have been back when they were topping the pop charts.

The film was filmed over the span of four concerts in four days, with the first day being a dry run/rehearsal so director Demme and his crew can figure out where to position the cameras, and the other three days being the actual filming days, leaving the final version to be a showcase of the concert from all three performances. And strangely, for a musical documentary, the whole hour-and-a-half running time is directed at the stage and the band. No backstage footage. No interviews. Even the concert audience is rarely seen. It’s just David Byrne, his band, and the music—that’s it. And really, that’s all the film needed.

I love how the film begins. It’s low-key, beginning with a solo effort (with help from a cassette tape) from Byrne (“Psycho Killer”), a duet with Tina Weymouth (“Heaven”), and a few other numbers before the entire band is brought on stage with “Burning Down the House.” From there on in, the pieces are in place, the tempo picks up, and we’re in for a concert film that’s almost like an aerobics video, including the band jumping around on stage to the rhythm of certain songs. It’s the visual energy of the band that makes the film fun to watch. (Oh, and there’s also a number (“Girlfriend is Better”) in which Byrne sports an oversized suit that makes his head appear smaller. It’s strange and funny to look at.)

Even in 2015, “Stop Making Sense” is still an impressive concert film and still probably the best of its kind. Because the technical aspects are so well-done and the music still holds up, it’s as extraordinary today as it was in 1984 when it was released. I’ll tell you how well it worked for me—I wasn’t even that familiar with the Talking Heads upon seeing the movie for the first time, and it still delighted me.

That Sinking Feeling (1984)

27 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How can I properly describe, in detail, the charm of Bill Forsyth’s “That Sinking Feeling?” Well, to begin with, in its droll, matter-of-fact way, it’s quite funny and appealing. It has an odd premise—a bunch of bored teenagers band together to plan a heist and steal some kitchen sinks. And its humor is offbeat (and also quite broad, particularly when it features characters in drag). But “That Sinking Feeling” is presented in a way that is engaging and peculiarly true-to-life and makes it interesting to watch.

The film is set in a Scottish small town called Glasgow, where a group of unemployed, broke, bored young people live. They’re so bored that one even tries to kill himself…by drowning himself with his breakfast of Corn Flakes and milk (that is darkly hilarious). But he comes to realize, “There’s got to be something more to life than committing suicide.” And there is, as he notices a stainless-steel sink being sold for 60 pounds. He rallies his friends and some other teenagers in town to come up with a plan to rob the local sink factory.

Most of the film is showing the kids preparing the robbery. They learn complicated hand signals that aren’t as easy to learn or remember for a crucial point. They gain inside information. They get an idea to distract the building’s night guard…by having two of the boys dress in drag. You might be asking yourself why they didn’t just get their girlfriends to do it, and at times this subplot can get pretty disturbing, but watching one of the boys slip in and out of character when he should or shouldn’t is worth sitting through it.

There’s also the matter of the truck they need to store the sinks in after they’ve robbed the place. One of the kids has concocted a “sleeping potion” so that the driver of a bakery truck will pass out with enough time for the amateur thieves to borrow it for a while. And surely enough, the potion works and the driver is immobile and snoring the whole time…though he doesn’t seem to wake up.

Watching a couple of Bill Forsyth’s other films made around the time this was released (“Local Hero,” “Gregory’s Girl”), you can tell that this is a director who likes to tell stories and execute them with gentle goofiness, with some parts practicality and other parts black comedy. Early on in “That Sinking Feeling,” which he made before those two other films, you can definitely see that in the scene in which one of the kids is expressing himself to a statue of a war hero, and just when he gets angry at himself and the statue, he awakens a bum who was sleeping at the nearest bench. And just a couple scenes later, he and two other boys his age are conversing in a car, talking about contemplating suicide (one tried to drown himself with Corn Flakes and milk), and it’s soon revealed that they’re in a wrecked car in a vacant lot instead of a parked car somewhere public.

The film is full of great, droll moments like that and some funny lines of dialogue—my favorite line comes from the nurse who states that the comatose driver will wake up in the year 2068, with the plus that he’ll be rich with hospital benefits! There’s also a nice payoff to a foot chase, as one of the kids is chased by a cop who turns out to be an old friend, and they eventually engage in friendly conversation, asking how “the gang” is doing. (“I’m not in a gang!” the kid exclaims.)

The actual heist itself isn’t as interesting as the buildup to it; actually, what happens after it is more interesting and funny, particularly how not just Scotland Yard is baffled by the heist, but also the plumbers (and because the police find a woman’s shoe, they suspect a female gang is involved). And things don’t necessarily work out the way the kids plan, but…eh, screw it, they’re easygoing enough not to care about it nonetheless.

“That Sinking Feeling” is an effectively low-key film with honest portrayals of people with too much time on their hands and enough idle speculation and funny dialogue to pass off to one another. It’s an original piece of work with likable characters, a nicely-done execution, and a scheme that is absurd enough for us to laugh and even care because we come to care about these kids.

The Flamingo Kid (1984)

19 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Flamingo Kid” is a movie that fascinated me in how non-formulaic it is. When you get down to the basic premise, it’s about a kid from a poor neighborhood takes a job at a beach club, where he idolizes one of the fanciest locals who shows him a new way of looking at life that is against what the kid’s father wants for his son. Before the summer is over, the kid will know which path to ultimately take and will learn a few valuable life lessons. I don’t know how director/co-writer Garry Marshall did it, but he managed to take this old-school idea and form it into a treasure of a movie that is not only solid and entertaining, but also original in show, very well-constructed, and more effective than you might expect.

“The Flamingo Kid” is about a young man from Brooklyn who lives with his family in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. His name is Jeffrey (Matt Dillon), and he’s a good kid about to leave for college. But for now, summer is here and his working-class father (Hector Elizondo) has set up a job for him in an office. But when Jeffrey’s friends bring him to assist in a card game at a classy beach club in Long Island, Jeffrey decides he likes the place and is even offered a job as a valet, which he accepts.

By the way, the scene in which Jeffrey sits with his family at dinner, and tells his father that he’s decided to work at the beach instead of taking the job that his father has set up for him, is one of many pleasant surprises in this movie. This could have ended up in a screaming match between father and son, but it resolves in a civilized manner (though not without cynicism). I liked that scene.

Jeffrey parks cars at the beach club, but is soon moved up to “cabana boy.” While serving people, he becomes friendly with a sexy young woman (Janet Jones) with whom he forms a nice relationship, and he also meets a flashy car dealer, Phil Brody (Richard Crenna), who is also a master at gin rummy, which is often played with the locals. Brody comes to like Jeffrey and decides to teach him a few things he learned in life.

And here we have two opposing sides of Jeffrey’s coming-of-age journey. On the one hand, you have a hard-working father who wants what’s best for his son, because he knows that dreaming doesn’t get you far in life, as he found out in his time. And then there’s Brody, who hasn’t gone to college and mainly has the beach club, the game of gin rummy, and his car dealership as his necessities in life (he also believes that “you are what you wear,” which is his excuse for always wearing fancy clothes). Jeffrey comes closer to joining Brody’s side, as he now feels that his old neighborhood has grown very boring and is fascinated by what goes on at this beach club. When he tells his father that he’s decided not to go to college and work at Brody’s dealership, his father doesn’t believe in this “easy money” type of career and becomes impatient with Jeffrey. His advice doesn’t come clear for Jeffrey, who is constantly led to listen to Brody’s ideas. (And it doesn’t help that Brody is easy to believe.) And so the film is about how Jeffrey will learn over the course of the summer to respect his father and see what kind of man he is, and also see what kind of man Brody actually is.

Despite what I’ve just described, this material is not entirely predictable and portrayed in a way that both sides of this kid’s life each have a way of making it seem that they’re both right, instead of the movie just taking the easy way through with just one person clearly knowing all. Because of that and how effective it is in handling the growth of the Jeffrey character, “The Flamingo Kid” is a very well-done coming-of-age story. It’s able to tell the story of this young man’s journey in a successful, credible way that doesn’t feel rushed or contrived at all; it’s played just right, which is a most pleasant surprise.

But I don’t want to make “The Flamingo Kid” seem kind of dreary, because it really is entertaining and also very funny. It has a great share of comedic moments, particularly when it comes to seeing Brody’s lifestyle, a few side characters and their antics on the beach, and also with Brody’s wife (Jessica Walter), who is posh and conceited and so stuck-up that she even shows her disapproval of a “parking attendant” having dinner with the family with suspicious looks as she sips her wine. There are more moments like that are worthy of some good chuckles or laughs.

I forgot to mention that “The Flamingo Kid” takes place in the 1960s, and the film pays good attention to detail in giving it that ‘60s feel. Indeed, this does feel like one of those fun ‘60s beach-movies at the time, when a kid goes to the beach and meets the people who spend most of their time there and know (and envy) each other very well. Also, the ‘60s soundtrack is appropriate with some good, timeless, memorable songs.

The characters in “The Flamingo Kid” are all richly developed and complete, and they’re played by really good actors. Richard Crenna, in particular, is excellent here as Mr. Brody. He plays it in a proper manner that makes his vulgar moments and his manipulative moments seem all the more fascinating while also occasionally making for some good laughs. He’s smart and wise, but maybe to an extent, which of course Jeffrey will come to learn. It’s a nicely-developed character that Crenna pulls off successfully. Hector Elizondo is a three-dimensional working-class father who truly knows best. But it really comes down to Matt Dillon in the lead role. He’s terrific in this movie—he’s natural, believable, subtle, and likable. The character is bright, but doesn’t quite know all the answers about life, which is what he’ll learn (and he does learn, in a fresh way), and here’s a surprise—he’s able to teach the adults a thing or two as well. His performance in this movie reminded me a little of James Dean in a sense.

I really love this movie. It’s very well-put-together in the way it presents the environment that these complete, three-dimensional characters inhabit; the actors do solid work; no scene is too short or too long, which surprised me; there are some very effective funny moments; the ‘60s nostalgia is present while also telling a timeless tale; the writing is great; the ending works so well; and so on. It’s just an all-around entertaining movie that I have nothing but kind words for. Garry Marshall and co-writer Neal Marshall (no relation) have crafted a wonderful summer movie that really leaves an impact.

The Stone Boy (1984)

8 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I am of two minds about Christopher Cain’s family drama “The Stone Boy.” On the one hand, it is somewhat slow and not without unnecessary scenes (and one particularly unneeded subplot). But on the other hand, it is a poignant, well-acted film that provides an effective portrait of grief after death and how a family is able or sometimes unable to cope with the situation. The more I keep thinking about the latter half of my mind to come up with a clear verdict for this review, the more I am won over by how well it works as a drama—enough so that I can give it a solid recommendation.

When you feel overwhelmed with grief and despair, you seek understanding and comfort from those closest to you. But when your own family and friends can’t seem to help you feel better, what else can you do but turn to people you don’t know very well, thinking they’ll be able to help? It’s a sad, morbid thing to think about—that those closest to you can’t seem to help you in your time of need. But I suppose when you hear what you want to hear from anyone who will listen, that’s at least something to feel good about. In “The Stone Boy,” a young boy, named Arnold (Jason Presson), is somewhat responsible for the death of his older brother, Eugene. He and Eugene got up early one morning to pick peas in a patch near their family’s farm; Arnold brought a shotgun to shoot some ducks, but it got caught in a barbed wire fence as Eugene tries to help Arnold free it, only for the gun to accidentally go off, killing Eugene.

It wasn’t Arnold’s fault, but his reaction to it confuses his family in a scary way. You see, after the accident, Arnold stayed with the body for a long time in shock (maybe the gravity of what just happened is too much for him, or maybe he thinks he’s having a bad dream and he’ll wake up anytime). How long he stayed out there with the body of his dead brother is never specified, but after this, he goes on to pick peas and put them in a pail, and bring them home, where his family is waiting for him. “Eugene’s dead,” Arnold uncomfortably says.

Arnold’s father, Joe Hillerman (Robert Duvall), keeps his feelings bottled up inside and can’t even bring himself to comfort Arnold. He advises his wife, Ruth (Glenn Close), to leave him alone, believing that “maybe he’ll realize what he’s done” if he’s left alone. Arnold’s older sister, Nora (Susan Blackstone), doesn’t know how to feel toward him. So basically, the family is assuming that Arnold will handle his grief on his own. The only one that will listen and who understands Arnold’s mental scars and confusion about what has happened is his kind grandfather George (Wilford Brimley). He and Arnold share many times together, and Arnold feels more at home with his grandfather than with his parents and sister.

To be sure, Joe and Ruth are not cruel people, and they know that they should be more attentive toward Arnold and give him the comfort he needs, instead of using him as an excuse feel sorry for themselves after this tragedy. But when they think about their late oldest son and Arnold being somewhat involved in his tragic death, they can’t seem to comfort themselves, let alone their guilt-stricken surviving son.

Meanwhile, there’s Uncle Andy (Frederic Forrest), who understands how sorrow and guilt feels…although nevertheless, he’s a lout who can’t seem to control himself. This becomes apparent when he seduces Eugene’s distressed girlfriend (Cindy Fisher), even though he is married. And it’s also apparent that this isn’t the first time he’s cheated on his pregnant wife Lu (Gail Youngs), as the next day she suspects something going on and hysterically talks with Ruth about it. She blames Arnold for all of this, even smacking him about three times in anger. Lu is fed up with her husband, as she packs up and leaves for Reno, Nevada to start a new life.

Now, I grant you that “The Stone Boy” might have been a little better if this subplot was trimmed or cleaned up a bit, because the whole thing with the Forrest character slows down the film’s pacing. I could have used less of his actions and more of how the family is attempting to cope with this tragedy, because there is already something deep and credible here. However, I feel the need to accept in some way, mainly because it is the reason for more grief that traces back to the tragedy. It delivers more to think about, particularly when Lu blames Arnold for causing some sort of trouble that led to Andy cheating on her with Eugene’s girlfriend. Lu’s story is actually pretty interesting, as she herself feels guilt and grief for certain things about her life, hence why she runs away to start a new life. Eventually, she is able to accept Arnold’s apology for what she thought he did to her; but she can’t give him much more than that because she remains a mess. Will she change? Who knows? But the movie isn’t about that. It’s about how everything can and should lead to reconciliation among this family.

“The Stone Boy” is very well-made. You get a sense of the South on this small Montana farm, but more importantly, you can actually feel what these characters are going through—particularly in that scene midway though the movie in which Lu takes out her anger on Arnold; you can get a clear sense of her anger there, and you feel sorry for the kid who is being treated this way. That’s not an easy task for a drama, for us to feel something for both sides of two certain characters that you can sympathize and empathize. And the film is aided by a great cast. Jason Presson is effective and sympathetic as the boy who is indeed treated as if he’s made of stone. Wilford Brimley is great as always, playing a kindly confidant—the kind of grandfather we’d all like to have. Robert Duvall and Glenn Close are solid, and are well-suited for admittedly difficult roles. And Gail Youngs is very good as Lu. Also good is Linda Hamilton in a small role near the end, as a young mother with a baby—she meets Arnold on a bus, and she gives him the kind of absolution and understanding that the kid needed for so long.

“The Stone Boy” does move at a somewhat-slow pace and there are a few moments that seem to drag when we just want to move back to something more interesting. However, its central themes about not knowing how to open up about a loss and what needs to be said and done in order to make yourself or someone close to you feel better about themselves make up for those parts, and provide enough satisfying, compelling dramatic moments that are strong enough to make an impact. You feel for these characters and hope that things turn out well for them. And that is one of the main reasons that “The Stone Boy” works.

Ghostbusters (1984)

20 May


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Ghostbusters” is a highly enjoyable comedy. It features three elements that make it inventive (the casting of SNL/SCTV alumni, state-of-the-art ILM special effects, and a B-movie plot) and a sharp screenplay with some very funny dialogue to make it work. We have Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis as a team of paranormal investigators/”ghost exterminators,” and a whole lot of special effects. But because it’s Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis as the three heroes in a special-effects summer blockbuster, the effects do not overshadow them in the slightest. They instead assist them. And rightly so, because these three make for very funny company—they’re like a group of college buddies who know the score of their own jokes. I could listen to these guys talk and watch them interact with each other for hours, and they do plenty of that in “Ghostbusters,” even in some heavy-duty FX sequences when they should try and be serious.

Murray plays Peter Venkman, Aykroyd is Ray Stantz, and Ramis is Egon Spengler. They are parapsychologists working at Columbia University, but are somewhat of a misfit group. Stantz and Spengler are more serious about their work, but haven’t necessarily stumbled upon anything yet. Venkman, on the other hand, is a class-A goofball who likes to tease his research students with shock therapy. But one day, the three encounter a ghost for the first time at the local library, and after they are fired from their jobs at Columbia, they decide to start their own “ghost-catching” business. They call themselves “Ghostbusters” and are able to create a special sort of technology that can allow them to “contain” apparitions. Their first bust is a green, disgusting blob (“Slimer”) at a hotel, and once more and more ghosts appear, the Ghostbusters are on call to contain them.

One assignment that has them busy is Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), whose refrigerator apparently to be haunted by a demonic spirit known as “Zuul.” As Stantz and Spengler discover, the penthouse apartments of her building are the source of the paranormal activity happening around the city, which means that something big is about to happen—something of apocalyptic proportions. And if that sounds completely ridiculous for a comedy, you really shouldn’t care, because the movie is all about laughs in the face of the situation. Dana does become possessed by Zuul, after being attacked by two beasts that serve as a dark lord’s pets (or something like that), so when Venkman arrives for their date and notices the change in her, he decides to mess around with the situation. He says things like, “That’s a new look for you, isn’t it?” and when he asks “Zuul” if he can talk to Dana to which he gets a response in a deep demonic voice, he responds, “What a lovely singing voice you have.”

And the rest of the movie goes on like that, which is fascinating in the way that these actors are game and funny enough to make a movie like this work. This of course leads to a climax in which the Ghostbusters must stand up against a shape-shifting god of destruction, and the film never allows the special-effects to reduce the actors. There are still plenty of funny lines said by the heroes to keep things interesting and funny, and the special-effects come to their assistance in the final battle whose key to its success is an effect that is an absolutely hilarious visual gag. (Those who have seen the movie know what I’m talking about.)

Also, I should add that the Ghostbusters don’t act as if this is the “grand adventure” they’re supposed to be doing in the way other characters act in other special-effects movies. Instead, it feels as if they’re just simply winging it and making things up as they go along, which is a clever move. Sure, they’re intelligent and bright, but they don’t always know what they’re doing and they are genuinely funny.

The dialogue in “Ghostbusters,” with a screenplay written by Aykroyd and Ramis themselves, is utterly hilarious. I could listen to these characters speak even longer than the film’s running time if I thought they could come up with enough wit, irony, skepticism, and merry goofiness to keep going. I don’t know how many people who’ve seen this movie can’t quote less than ten memorable lines from the movie. Or how about 20?

Bill Murray is excellent in this movie. He’s hilarious throughout, as his Venkman is more the wise-guy of the group. His deadpan delivery practically makes this movie, as he gets most of the best lines—his reaction to Dana telling the Ghostbusters about her refrigerator being haunted by Zuul: “Generally, you don’t see that kind of behavior in a major appliance.” Dan Aykroyd is enjoyable as the cheerful scientist who takes every bit of phenomena with joy. Harold Ramis, probably the drier wit of the group, is suitably witty as the smartest member. All three are terrific in their low-key, funny performances. The supporting cast is game as well. Sigourney Weaver does what she’s required to do, and having to act possessed and ultimately come on to Murray in a seductive manner is quite amusing. Even better are Rick Moranis as Dana’s nerdy neighbor who has his own encounter with the supernatural; the calm, cool presence of Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore who joins the Ghostbusters later in the film (he says he’ll believe in the supernatural “if there’s a steady paycheck in it”); and Annie Potts as the Ghostbusters’ deadpan secretary. There’s also William Atherton who is beyond over-the-top as Walter Peck, an environmentalist who wants to shut the Ghostbusters down and will take no bullcrap, even as Murray puts him down.

“Ghostbusters” is a sly, very funny and enjoyable movie that is fun to watch and even more fun to listen to. I tell you, I could quote practically the entire movie with a few friends if the time came. This is one of my favorite comedies; I’ve seen it a hundred times before, and I’ll probably see it a hundred more times in the future.

Gremlins (1984)

7 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In “Gremlins,” a young man is given a special Christmas present—a little furry creature that comes with three very important rules. The rules are: keep it away from bright light (especially sunlight), don’t get it wet (don’t even give it a bath), and the most important rule of them all—don’t ever feed it after midnight. But then again, it’s always “after midnight,” isn’t it? Maybe they just mean midnight to 6am is when the little Mogwai (as it’s called) shouldn’t be fed.

Those three rules are said right at the beginning of “Gremlins,” as the kid’s father (Hoyt Axton) buys the rare creature from a shop in Chinatown. His son, Billy (Zach Galligan), is amazed and excited by his new pet, which he names Gizmo. Gizmo is unbearably cute in its appearance (with his big eyes and ears) and many talents, which include singing (or rather, humming). You wouldn’t believe that this cute little thing could cause any trouble, but as if inevitably, Gizmo is accidentally wet and produces some more of the little creatures. And those things are fed after midnight, and that’s when things get very dangerous…

The Gremlins of the title refer to the form that a Mogwai transforms into after being fed “after midnight.” They’re more vile, vicious, hateful little beasts with claws and scales. They run amok in Billy’s hometown, causing all sorts of mayhem and injuring/killing many people. So Billy and his girlfriend, Kate (Phoebe Cates), along with Gizmo, must race to stop them.

There’s a great contrast between how wholesome the town in this movie is and how it will ultimately be ravaged by the little monsters by the time this movie is over. It’s a Capra/Rockwell-esque sort of town—snowy, pleasant, and yet with a hint of darkness underneath (for example, Kate has a grim overview of Christmas, stated in full detail later). That the story takes place around Christmas makes it even more transforming.

The characters are well-suited for a town like this. Billy is a nice, innocent young man—he’s very polite and looks out for his family; not exactly the hero-type, but he’ll do what he has to do. His father is a zany inventor with inventions such as a handheld toiletry compartment (toothpick, toothbrush, toothpaste, attachable razor, shaving cream, etc.)—my favorite was the “peeler juicer” that is supposed to make quality orange juice if it doesn’t cover the kitchen in orange pulp. There’s also a cranky old man who complains about “foreign technology”; a wide-eyed little kid who is intrigued by the Mogwai and wants one of the copies; and an old ruthless hag whom Billy works for at a bank. Oh, and let’s not forget the blithering sheriff who doesn’t listen to Billy’s warnings at first until he sees something that makes him believe. They’re all basic movie characters—they’re not supposed to upstage the Mogwai or the Gremlins, who are made up of convincing mechanics and special effects.

“Gremlins” starts out light and innocent before it becomes a well-made hellraiser with a few laughs as well. Mind you, there are also some truly disgusting moments—in particular, there’s a scene in which Billy’s mother disposes of some Gremlins in her kitchen by stabbing one to death, throwing another one in a blender, and stuffing another in a microwave, causing it to explode. (That scene alone pushed the boundaries of a PG rating—nowadays, this film would be rated PG-13.) It all leads to a climax in a department store in which Billy, Kate, and Gizmo square off against the Gremlin leader. I love how Gizmo uses a little toy car to come to the rescue when Billy is attacked with a chainsaw.

The executive producer for “Gremlins” was Steven Spielberg, and so while it may seem like another “E.T.” at the beginning, it’s far from it. Another “E.T.” wouldn’t have every possible thing you could imagine going wrong on Christmas Eve. This is a witty, fun B-movie with a dark sense of humor.