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Stop Making Sense (1984)

18 Sep

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

5 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Indiana Jones could be considered a James Bond type, in that he goes through a series of improbable adventures that are great, deadly fun for audiences. He proved that first in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which became a huge hit because of its style, taste for adventure, and a new hero named Indiana Jones. Then because of its success, it was inevitable in that there would be a sequel—“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” delivers gripping action, suspense, and great fun and Steven Spielberg never shies away from creating a movie with a series of climactic battles and daring adventures, rescues, and escapes. This movie features a temple, human sacrifice, magical stones, a mine-car roller-coaster, and much more. I heard in an interview with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg that they used everything they couldn’t use in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to bring “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” to life. I can only imagine what a movie with all of those elements in both films would be like.

In an opening scene, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is caught in a trap in a night club in Shanghai and flees with his enemy’s girlfriend—an American singer named Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), whose main purpose in this movie is to accompany the hero in his adventure and mainly just scream a lot (and that’s exactly what she does—boy, can she scream). Indy, along with Willie and his energetic, pint-sized partner Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), are forced to jump out of a plane (on a life raft) and wind up in India, where they come across a ruined village. The children from this village and a magic rock that keeps the village safe are missing and the elders believe that an evil tribe called the Thuggee Cult is responsible for this.

And so, Indy, with Short Round and Willie (really not thrilled about this adventure) in tow, sets out to Pankot Palace to try to piece together this puzzle. This leads them to the discovery of the underground Temple of Doom, in which the Thuggee Cult sacrifices nonbelievers to their evil deity into a fiery pit. As is the case for movies like this, it’s the hero’s job to sneak in, grab the treasure, and sneak out without being seen. But it’s not going to be easy here. The second half of this movie, which involves the heroes in the Temple of Doom and trying to get out, delivers a great deal of suspense, danger, adventure, terror, and an excellent chase sequence in a mine. They are always inches away from certain death.

“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” delivers just what you ask for. You accept what you can get from this movie—I accepted it, therefore I give it four stars. This is just as much fun as any of the earlier Sean Connery-James Bond pictures. It’s interesting how the first half is about explanation, wonders, and weirdness—especially a dinner scene, in which chilled monkey brains and soup with eyeballs floating to the top are served—and how the second half pays them off with a breathtaking series of adventures.

The set design for the Temple of Doom is just outstanding. It looks almost like how hell could be pictured, with all the fire and caves. This set alone is arguably more impressive than any set piece in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

I loved “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” for what it is—a great thrill ride. Like I said, there’s nothing more or less within its own storytelling and its characters—Willie stays whiny, Short Round stays energetic—but it’s a fun, escapist movie that is a strong sequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

NOTE: I should also mention that it is darker than the predecessor, much like how “The Empire Strikes Back” was darker than “Star Wars.” This is PG, but it shows children being abused and used as slaves in that Temple and hearts being ripped out of people’s bodies. This is not for small children.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

12 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you…3, 4, better lock your door…5, 6, grab your crucifix…7, 8, gonna stay up late…9, 10, never sleep again…”

There’s a true boogeyman haunting the dreams of young people, and his name is Freddy—Fred Krueger, to be exact. With a horribly burned face and sporting a dirty red-and-green sweater, a Fedora, and gloves with knives for fingers, he’s the man of your (bad) dreams. But if he kills you in your dream, he actually kills you in reality, which pits the kids who dream about him into real danger. That’s the basic idea for Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” a surprisingly-effective slasher film with the most intriguing premise of the lot and more to offer than such films as “Friday the 13th.”

The movie is about a group of typical teenagers whose dreams are invaded by the supernatural boogeyman, Freddy (Robert Englund). It begins as Tina (Amanda Wyss) wakes up from one of these shockers only to find evidence that…maybe it wasn’t a dream.

Dun-dun-DUNNNNNN!!!

Tina tells her friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) about the dream, only to discover that she too dreamed about the same “creep.” (And one look on Nancy’s boyfriend Glen’s face indicates that he had the same dream as well.) That night, as she enjoys a rousing night of pleasure with her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri), she then falls victim to Freddy and is ripped to shreds. (This is yet another example of how sex leads to death in horror movies.) Rod is sent to jail on a murder charge, although Nancy doesn’t quite believe he did it, as her nightmares only get worse and worse. She becomes convinced that Freddy is responsible for her friend’s death, and finds that she, Glen (Johnny Depp, in his first big-screen role), or Rod may be next. So the best way to stay alive is not to fall asleep.

The “nightmare” gimmick is usually not an effective element for a horror film because you see very often a scene in which a character dreams of certain doom and then wakes up in a cold sweat. Come on, who are they trying to fool, especially when it usually occurs early in the movie? It’s a tired, predictable, overdone gimmick that just doesn’t work anymore. But “A Nightmare on Elm Street” centers an entire movie around that element, in that even though you know for sure (and the characters know for sure) that there are many dream sequences, that is where the terror happens: in the notion that the doom in the nightmare becomes the doom in reality. But also, there are some parts (especially in the final act) in which no one, particularly the audience, surely knows what is real and what isn’t. The movie walks that fine line between fantasy and reality mostly, and that’s where the chills come from—uncertainty, suspense, and toying with expectations.

There are enough necessary (sometimes unnecessary) jolts and chills to make horror-film buffs tense, but it’s also a story that makes you really think about the situation. There’s a lot that people can read in the psychology of this idea (such as the notion that Craven based this idea from children who died in their sleep), and also how the gimmick can work in this movie. That way, audiences are attentive and interpreting.

The horribly-scarred Freddy Krueger has of course grown to become an iconic figure in the horror-film genre, thanks to his taking center-stage in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels. Unlike “Halloween’s” Michael Myers/The Shape or “Friday the 13th’s” Jason Voorhees, Freddy does not wear a mask and is not silent. He has a sick, twisted personality that goes with his sick psychoticism. This is a truly an iconic horror-movie villain. But he’s not the center of this original “Nightmare on Elm Street” film, necessarily—he’s just more like the looming demon waiting to strike. We get part of a backstory, but that’s all we know about him in this movie. This makes it more effective, but the less we know about the killer that was Freddy Krueger, the more creepy he is. (The sequels, however, go into more detail stating more of his story and why he’s able to haunt dreams, which doesn’t make him scarier.)

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” is more about Nancy and how she tries to figure out how to save herself, even if it means trying to stay awake. Her police lieutenant father, Donald (John Saxon), is too much of a hardass to pay attention because he’s more concerned about keeping the small community, where they all live, safe from danger. Little does he know that his own daughter’s subconscious is the greater danger. But Nancy’s mother (Ronee Blakley) actually does know something about Freddy and eventually tells her what happened to him and why he’s after certain young targets. Nancy decides to fight back and find a way to bring Freddy out of the dream world and into the real world so he can be stopped.

There are some effectively chilling sequences that occur in these nightmares (one of the most memorable involves a bathtub transforming into a bottomless pit), and like just about every good horror film, the terror is present thanks to a good deal of attention to atmosphere. The lighting is effectively done whenever the dream calls for a certain way. The special effects are good. And the music score is efficiently eerie for the movie.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” is an effective horror film. The ideas are interesting, the tension is existent, and Nancy as a heroine is not a dumb, screaming idiot (she’s smart and resourceful), therefore able for us to like and root for her. I’m not quite sure I follow the ending, but I guess the point is to leave things open for interpretation. Craven does the material well, as it really seems he gets the genre and knows what his audience wants while also giving them something more in return. It’s a nicely-done chiller.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

11 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It would just be one thing to make a documentary about a rock band with a few issues. It’s quite another to make a mock-documentary about a fictional rock band with more than a few issues.

“This is Spinal Tap” is a mock-“rockumentary” about a British band called Spinal Tap who, according to an introduction, has been pretty famous back in the day because they’re the loudest band on earth. But now back on tour for their newest album, they are just loud. How are they the loudest band on earth? Well, when most bands crank their amps’ volumes up to 10, they take it up to 11.

Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) explains the amp to filmmaker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner, the film’s director). “Most amps go to 10?” “Exactly.” “Does that mean it’s louder?” “Well, it’s one louder, right?”

“Why don’t you just make 10 louder, and make 10 be the top number, and make that a little louder?”

Baffled by that notion, Nigel just replies by restating, “These go to 11.”

Nigel’s ideas aren’t logical and DiBergi realizes that a little too late. Nigel obviously lives in a world of his own.

“This is Spinal Tap” is one of the funniest, original, and most intelligent movies ever made. Spinal Tap does not exist, although the actors playing the band wrote and performed their own songs for the fictional band. But it could. While on tour in America, their career is heading downhill. Back in the day, the arenas were packed. But now, not many people care. Some may have forgotten about them. But who’s to blame for the reason that Spinal Tap is a bad rock-n-roll band?

Director DiBergi narrates throughout the documentary. He likes Spinal Tap’s music and follows the group on tour, asking them questions about themselves. I was chuckling when they explained what happened to their old drummer (“He choked on vomit…but it wasn’t his own vomit.”). But I was laughing when I found out that that drummer wasn’t the only Spinal Tap drummer who died. Apparently, they have a new and clever way of killing off all of their drummers. Maybe the other guys don’t kill him—maybe it’s a “drummer curse” that occurs when a new drummer is brought to the band, which means that the current drummer in this movie is not going to last very long.

Bad luck happens with the band when rhythm guitarist/lead singer David’s (Michael McKean) girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick) arrives to join the tour. Gigs are cancelled, the lady and the band’s manager Ian (Tony Hendra) have an argument which results in him quitting, the cover for the new album stinks, and a gig at a military base is a disaster with all of the planes roaring off outside. The events that occur in this movie—even the quiet moments, such as when the group visits Elvis’ tombstone—are funny and original; even more funny is that they’re all played naturally.

Other funny scenes—the band gets lost on a gig on their way to the stage (not to the place but to the stage); bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) is trapped in a womblike stage prop but keeps his cool while the others perform and a stage crew member tries to get him out; a set designer is assigned to create an 18-foot replica of a Stonehenge element but instead creates an 18-inch replica that the band is forced bring out dramatically…and embarrassingly.

That last scene mentioned is very funny because the band members don’t know what the thing will look like and when they see it finally, on stage, their surprised reactions are hilarious.

“This is Spinal Tap” is a great, funny movie not just because of the really funny scenes but because Spinal Tap aren’t mean-spirited, and the way that they are going about this film is not cruel. The appeal of this movie is how it shares the pleasure of just being themselves. They love to rock, they love to entertain—they probably go out there every performance just to hear and feel the beat.

American comic actors Christopher Guest and Michael McKean give respectable British accents and heartfelt performances. Guest, McKean, Shearer, and Reiner co-wrote the script themselves—they went through improvisational stages and wrote the Spinal Tap songs (most memorable are “Sex Farm” and “Hellhole”). “This is Spinal Tap” is also Rob Reiner’s directorial debut. I love the way he puts background information and glimpses of style into almost each frame of the film.

You could call “This is Spinal Tap” a spoof. But the laughs aren’t coming from sight gags such as “Airplane!” or “Top Secret.” But it’s more of a satire in the way that this movie feels like a real documentary with the dumb questions and the ridiculously funny answers. This is a really rare, specific type of satirical comedy to do. It’s a brilliant satire on documentaries, stage decorations, rock music, and troubles with rock bands. “This is Spinal Tap” rocks!

Night of the Comet (1984)

10 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Night of the Comet” is a B-movie about the end of the world. Sure, logic is thrown out the window. Yes, there are many silly moments in the story. But in the end, “Night of the Comet” is just a good-natured, highly-enjoyable B-movie. I could call it a guilty pleasure, but I hold no guilt on this. I had fun, and chances are other viewers will have fun too.

The film’s hokey narration explains that a comet is hurtling toward Earth around Christmastime—this is the same comet that wiped out the dinosaurs and caused their extinction. In Southern California, we see that people are throwing a midnight comet-party, expecting a light show to bring jolliness to this holiday. But it winds up disintegrating almost the entire Earth population.

Why does the electricity stay on? Why do the cars still work? Why do survivors evolve into zombie-like monsters to eat the other survivors? Your guess is as good as mine. Through the course of the movie, we follow two valley girls—sisters Reggie (Catherine Mary Stuart) and Sam (Kelli Maroney)—as they realize that they’re one of very few people still around after the comet has struck. There’s one good guy named Hector (Robert Beltran), whom the sisters rival over, but everyone else is either a violent zombie or a sadistic looter. There are other people, who are part of a think tank to figure out what to do with the survivors and find a cure for the “infected,” but are they to be trusted?

This movie, like most B-movies, doesn’t care about logic or even humanity at large. But like the appealing ones, it simple takes joy in sharing the adventure of the heroes with us. I liked these protagonists and I liked the way they speak; it’s the typical valley-girl speak spoken with pluck. An example is when Sam is being attacked by gunmen in a supposedly-abandoned shopping mall, mocking these “wimps” saying they can’t shoot anything.

“Night of the Comet” has a nice comic touch that makes it enjoyable. The actors are fun, the dialogue is suitably corny and funny, and I appreciate the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Even its final climax in which the characters race to thwart the think tank’s plans has its good moments. It’s an entertaining B-movie.