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My Favorite Movies – Explorers (1985)

13 Oct

By Tanner Smith

I didn’t know it at the time, but one of my favorite movie directors as a kid was Joe Dante. When I was growing up and while I didn’t know the name of the director, I watched a lot of his movies (“Gremlins,” Matinee, “Small Soldiers,” “Innerspace,” among others) and noticed many similarities that I enjoyed watching–goofy lighthearted fun, some dark comedy, referential in-jokes about classic cartoons, and good fast-paced entertainment (oh, and a Dick Miller cameo appearance in each one of his movies).

And the one I watched the most in my childhood was definitely his sci-fi fantasy, “Explorers,” about three kids (two of which are played by a young Ethan Hawke and a young River Phoenix) who are launched into space via their own homemade spaceship and actually make contact with an alien species…

OK, that premise does sound admittedly ridiculous, but surprisingly, this movie manages to tell its story in a plausible way (plausible enough in its setup, anyway). The kids are portrayed as real kids and the film takes its time to show how they’re able to create their own flying spaceship; the first 40 minutes shows how it comes from a simple discovery to a way of getting in touch with aliens who send out signals even in their dreams. Later in the film, they do go up in space and find an alien spaceship.
People are split about this film–they either like it or…I don’t think there’s anyone who hates it, but there are people who lose interest when the kids go into space.

It wasn’t well-received when it was originally released in theaters and that it’s grown a cult following over the years. What people seem to agree on is that while the setup is suitably serious, the payoff is just plain silly. And I would have to agree; it seems writer Eric Luke suddenly remembered he was writing a kid’s movie and decided to throw in a cartoonish punchline to everything being set up before so that the younger viewers will be amused. The weird thing is, the buildup actually promises something more than that, like something along the lines of “Close Encounters,” where the kids stumble upon something big. But they instead find a couple of goofy aliens who love to watch television and impersonate any Earth pop-culture icon that can think of. It is kind of a weird turn that this movie makes. I didn’t mind it as a kid because I liked the aliens and thought they had some funny charm to them.

This is going to sound strange, but I don’t really mind it that much. While I should give it a negative review because the film is kind of inconsistent in that sense, I…kinda like some of the stuff having to do with the aliens. It’s cute, it’s amusing enough, and I love Robert Picardo as the zany alien Wak. On the one hand, it’s a huge disappointment. On the other hand, it’s…cute?

I can’t help it. I have a real soft spot for this film. Is it great? No. Is it silly at times? Absolutely. But there’s something so inventive and charming about it that makes it fun to watch each time. It’s charming with a whimsical spirit to it; I like how it shows step-by-step the construction of the kids’ spaceship; the set design of the alien spaceship looks fantastic; and all three kids are likable. The payoff may not be what its buildup may have promised, and I can understand why people wouldn’t like it because of that. (Even Siskel & Ebert summed it up with a strong point: “One of the things you don’t want to know in a space film is that it’s less interesting up there than it is here.”) But I still enjoying watching this one every now and then.

My Favorite Movies – Runaway Train (1985)

5 Oct

By Tanner Smith

I remember when I first saw this movie about two cons being trapped on a speeding runaway train, I was confused because it was nothing like the action films I had seen before. I think I was expecting something like “Speed” (runaway bus) or “Unstoppable” (another runaway train)–a lot of thrilling action, speeding through the city, likable heroes to save the day, not much to provoke thought, just a hella good time. But that’s not what I got with “Runaway Train”–it took me a while to realize how brilliant it was.

The film stars Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as Manny and Buck, two convicts who escape from an Alaskan maximum security prison and hop aboard the caboose of a train going along the snowy, desolate railroad. (Already, the setting was different than I expected–how many action films take place in snowy, bleak Alaska?) But what they don’t realize is that the conductor has suffered a heart attack and fallen off the train. There’s no one on the train to shut it down as it accelerates and the dispatchers do their best to handle the situation, and Manny and Buck are none the wiser until the train runs through and smashes the caboose of another train. They also meet a worker on the train, named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), who is also powerless to stop the train but at least knows how to slow it down. Meanwhile, the prison warden is aware the convicts are on the runaway train and is hellbent on making sure he gets to them before the train derails…

With the exception of the desolate Alaskan landscape, this sounds like your typical action flick, right? Well, if I told you this was based on an original screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, then you might get an idea as to what’s really on this film’s mind. There is some good action, to be sure (a lot of the stunts in this movie, I can’t believe they had the budget to pull them off!), but “Runaway Train” is more about philosophy and character. It asks questions such as:

What does it mean to be “free”? What makes man different from animal? And why is it that modern technology can solve some logical problems but not problems that require human thought? This film is intelligent enough to provoke those questions.

Jon Voight turns in what I think is his career-best as Manny–make no mistake: this guy is not your traditional hero. He is dangerous and twisted and obviously sentenced to life in prison for good reason, and as the movie goes on, he keeps you guessing as to whether or not he’s worth rooting for. He does know what a normal life is like–when the younger, more excited, less experienced Buck brags about all the outrageous things he’s going to do now that he’s free, Manny lays it all down realistically in a great speech that says everything about what he wishes he could do. But late in the film, I’ll be terrified of what he’s about to do and I’ll see him as the villain, and then suddenly I’ll be invested in him as a hero again because of the choices that he makes. And then, right at the end, without giving away spoilers, his last action becomes one that everyone will want to talk about afterwards.

My favorite scene: the ending. I already said I wouldn’t go into it here, so I’ll just say that no matter how many times I watch this film, this final moment never ceases to amaze me.

So, what did Siskel & Ebert say about one of my favorite movies back when it was originally released in 1985? Well, Siskel didn’t like it; he admired Voight’s performance but criticized Roberts’ manic energy, De Mornay’s seemingly pointless character, and even the shots of the speeding train. Ebert, however, loved it, calling it “a reminder that the great adventures are great because they happen to people we care about.”

I’m with Ebert. And I think I like “Runaway Train” just a little more than he did–it’s one of my favorite movies.

My Favorite Movies – Mask (1985)

22 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I remember watching Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask” for the first time at age 16 on TV and thinking to myself, “Huh…this isn’t like most coming-of-age teenage films…it’s mostly just people living their lives…I like watching these people…I care about them…this story isn’t going anywhere I expect…and I love it…wow…hey Dad, can we go to Hastings so I can buy the director’s-cut DVD?”

“Mask” is a wonderful film based (loosely) on the life of Rocky Dennis, who was a regular kid albeit with a facial deformity. In Siskel & Ebert’s initial review of the film in 1985, Siskel said it best: “Put a regular face on this kid, and you still have a terrific picture.” That was a testament to how much both he and Ebert admired the film’s characters and the filmmakers’ attempts to make them as real as possible.

Speaking of that review, I have to mention something that really bugs me–apparently, in marketing this film, the boy’s face was hidden in the trailers and advertisements. Both Siskel and Ebert hated that ploy too and I hate it too, because it made the kid look like a carnival freakshow, which totally goes against what the movie is about!

Thank God the marketing team behind the delightful 2017 film Wonder, also about a child with an unusual face, knew not to treat it like a gimmick. It’s the little things you have to appreciate to understand how far we’ve come in society.

Anyway, Siskel & Ebert were definitely right because once we’ve gotten past the initial shock of seeing what this kid Rocky looks like (and it’s a first-rate makeup job too), we get to like him as soon as we get to know him a little–and that’s only in the first few minutes; the rest of the film gives us an immensely likable character played beautifully by Eric Stoltz.

As I mentioned above, “Mask” is simply about how Rocky and his tough, messy, but overall loving mother Rusty (Cher) live their lives. We see Rocky getting by in a new school district and making some new friends who are of course turned off by his appearance at first (but like the audience, they accept him because he’s cool). We see Rusty hanging out with her motorcycle-riding friends and feeding a bad drug habit. And it’s even more interesting when it comes to the relationship between this mother and son, especially when Rocky tries to get his mother off drugs and she isn’t having it. We meet other people in their lives, such as Rusty’s complicated lover Gar (Sam Elliott) and a blind girl named Diana (Laura Dern) whom Rocky meets at a summer camp where he counsels. And…that’s pretty much the movie. It’s about how these people relate and go about their days. And because they’re such interesting characters, I’m all in.

Even when I first saw this film at age 16, I had to give kudos to this film for just being a slice of life.

And yeah, I know this is very loosely based on the true lives of these real-life people and Bogdanovich took some liberties in telling their story, but you know what? I don’t really care, because the movie still works as is.

My Favorite Movies – The Breakfast Club (1985)

30 Apr

By Tanner Smith

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” -Atticus Finch, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“We think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us–in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.” -Brian Johnson, “The Breakfast Club.”

High school–what a time. It doesn’t matter how popular you were because you were just as confused and messed up as the rest of us. And the reason we still get movies about the high-school experience even today is because we all still need them–those currently in high school can find something to latch onto and those out of high school are reassured it wasn’t a great time for anybody.

And we have the late John Hughes to thank for it. He wasn’t the first filmmaker to reenact the high-school experience on film–but he was definitely the key influencer, bringing it into the mainstream and reminding movie audiences that, yes, teenagers are people too.

After scoring a big hit with the teen comedy “Sixteen Candles” in 1984, Hughes was able to make something a little more mature and quiet for his next project, which would be “The Breakfast Club.”

Little did he know it’d be arguably his most popular film. EVERYONE saw “The Breakfast Club,” and more importantly, everyone connected with it. And people still love it even to this day.

It was even a major influence on me–my favorite films to make are indie dramedies, and “The Breakfast Club” is an indie dramedy…in spirit. (It was already made for a big studio, so it wasn’t like “Napoleon Dynamite” or anything like that.) Conversation-driven, character-piece, slice-of-life? I’ve just described a bunch of modern indie films…and “The Breakfast Club.”

Like I need to describe the film’s plot to anybody. Five high-school students spend a Saturday in detention together, they’re all very different (a brain, a jock, a recluse, a bad boy, and a beauty), and by the end of the day, they’ve expressed themselves to each other in ways they couldn’t to anybody else.

And that’s about it. This was a cut above the sex and booze-filled antics of the teen films released prior (there are drugs in “The Breakfast Club,” but it’s only pot), and Hughes just let his characters talk and relate to one another. What resulted was something that was perceptive and emotionally true. It’s also funny in how frank and honest it is in these interactions–that’s how the best dramedies are: come for the humor, stay for the drama.

As a result, “The Breakfast Club” is always watchable and consistently entertaining.

It’s also just a great idea to bring in members of five different cliques together and humanize them like this. I get the feeling the dialogue practically wrote itself when Hughes wrote the screenplay. (Hughes is best known for turning out a script in one weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of those.)

My favorite character has always been Allison, played wonderfully by Ally Sheedy. Her story’s as sad as the others’, but she also scores many of the biggest laughs in the movie. (Second favorite is Bender (Judd Nelson).)

And uh…yeah, some scenes are a little…problematic…I’ll neither deny nor ignore it. To say it was a different time isn’t really an excuse. I’ll direct you to Molly RIngwald’s New Yorker essay about it.

I still really enjoy “The Breakfast Club.” Great characters, great moments…and one of the greatest movie endings ever. When Bender walks along the football field and lets out a silent cheer while thrusting his fist in the air, what is he celebrating? Getting the girl? Sticking it to the vice principal? Whatever the case…it was a good day.

Last thing I’ll say is…man, is the TV version of this movie pretty lame. “Flip you!” “Oh my Lord.” “DAMN YOU!” I mean, come on, that’s just hilarious.

The Up Series (1964-2013)

16 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “7 Up” project began in the mid-1960s as an episode of a British investigative current affairs program called “World in Action.” The near-40-minute episode, entitled “Seven Up!,” followed 14 children, all age 7, who were interviewed. The purpose of the program was to present “a glimpse of Britain’s future” and ended with the infamous quote, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The participants were chosen to represent different social classes in Britain in the 1960s.

Seven years later, when the children were 14, researcher-turned-director Michael Apted directed “7 Plus Seven” (or “14 Up!,” as it’s also known) with follow-up interviews. And because Apted believed that human lives reform in some manner within seven years, he would continue to follow these same participants (for the most part; a few dropped out, since there was no long-term contract requiring them to participate in each film) at ages 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and 56. (As of now, it’s unclear whether the series will continue at age 63.)

Watching these films as a whole, spanning five decades from “Seven Up” to “56 Up,” is a marvelous experience, capturing the truest essence of life possible for a documentary. It’s not only one of the best documentary projects of all time; it’s a real sociological study. It represents the lives of these people, they talk about what has changed every seven years and what hasn’t, and while we see the changes in each character, we still see who they were and get a sense that they are who they are. It’s like when you look at a photograph of yourself as a child—you know that you are the child and the child is you, but it’s difficult to comprehend the connection due to how much time has passed since the photograph was taken. And so, when each of these people in the “Up” series are shown as children and as adults, you notice the changes in each of them, but you also recognize some of the characteristics in them as children.

These are ordinary people—Tony, Suzy, Neil, Nick, Bruce, Jackie, Lynn, Sue, Symon, Paul, Andrew, John, Charles, and Peter. We don’t know them (though we feel like we do, through the films) and we can’t necessarily say that we at times are like them, because as the entire project indicates, no one is the same as another. But we do recognize parts of ourselves in some of these people that allow us to identify with them, want to know more about their lives, and become engrossed in everything else they have to say. Originally, the project was conceived as a way to make a political point about social class, but as Apted learned more about his subject’s lives, he lost sight of the bigger picture. But that’s fine, because the audience did too. He grew close to his subjects, so we did too.

The individual films in the series are all special in their own way. Some are more exciting and interesting than others, but there are hardly any downsides. The first two (“Seven Up!” and “7 Plus Seven”) are fairly standard, but that’s not bad at all. It starts to get very interesting at around “21 Up,” which shows the growth and maturity of the subjects as they prepare for the rough road of life. After “28 Up,” which some a couple fascinating changes (which I’ll get to in a moment), it becomes clear what the (new) purpose of the project is.

Now let’s talk about the participants. Jackie, Lynn, and Sue are all from the East End of London. While Lynn has a family and career, Jackie and Sue each married young, became single mothers, and later divorced their husbands. Andrew, John, and Charles, each representing the rich upper class people who usually map out the lives of children. These three pretty much followed the path that was already set for them by their parents and society. Of these three, Andrew is the only one who has participated in all of the films, Charles quit after 21, and John skipped 28 and 42. Symon and Paul lived in a children’s home run by charity—since then, Paul emigrated to Australia and has lived there with a wife and children ever since, and Symon has gone through a divorce and remarriage. (It’s also reported that his ex-wife didn’t care for the project, while his current wife does. He and his wife are now foster parents.) Nick grew up on a farm but didn’t see himself working on it in the future; he instead grew up to study science and become a professor and nuclear physicist in the United States. He married before 28, though everyone who saw the film apparently felt the marriage was doomed, due to her commentary. Because of this, she didn’t return for 35 or 42, and by 49, Nick was divorced and remarried. Bruce was a quiet boy who wanted to be a missionary and became a teacher and traveled to places such as Bangladesh. One of the more pleasing developments in the series is when he is 35 and regrets not having been married and in “42 Up,” he is a newlywed. He’s now a devoted husband and father. Neil and Peter were middle-class boys living in Liverpool. Peter skipped 35, 42, and 49, and returned in “56 Up” (mainly to promote his band). (I’ll get to Neil in a moment.)

Of the 14 participants, three stand out most to me (and a lot of other people, for that matter). One is Tony, also from the East End. He’s a favorite because he’s so open and charismatic and one of the biggest supporters of the project, which means he’ll most likely stay with it till the end. He dreamed of being a jockey at age 7; at 14, he was an apprentice at a horse-racing stable; at 21, he talks about a race where he had a photo-finish, from which he keeps a photograph as a souvenir, but he had to move on from being a jockey and instead concentrated on being a taxi driver; at 28, he owned his own cab, got married, and started raising a family. One of the most poignant moments in the series comes from “42 Up,” when he sits with his wife and confesses an affair he had; a real rough patch in their relationship. But they still stayed together after his wife forgave him. A particularly funny moment in the series is in “56 Up” when he tells an anecdote about how he was recognized for the series by someone who wanted his autograph instead of Buzz Aldrin’s (Aldrin was Tony’s fare).

Suzy, who comes from a wealthy background, was always reluctant about doing the films, as she was forced to do it in the first place by her parents. She’s always said she would stop participating, but she kept coming back (probably because she feels obligated to do so after so many years). Suzy was a very shy girl growing up, and by 21, she formed a very negative opinion about marriage. The most dramatic change in the series is from her from age 21 to 28. When you see her in “21 Up,” she’s bitter, chain-smoking, and nervous. But then in “28 Up,” she’s cheerful and happy and married with children; a remarkable transformation.

And last but definitely not least, there’s Neil, from a Liverpool suburb. Neil is the most complex person in the series and his story is consistently captivating and unpredictable. As a child, he was happy and excited, though you have to wonder what his home life was like, since he is also saying things like “I don’t want to have any children because they’re always doing naughty things and making the whole house untidy.” I don’t know many 7-year-olds who would talk like that, especially while smiling (like he does), so it may be indicated that Neil’s happiness was hiding something. By 21, he was living in a squat after dropping out of school after one term. By 28, he was homeless and living in Scotland; in “28 Up,” he provides the most heartbreakingly frank statement about why he will never have children: he’s afraid the child will inherit the most negative traits from him. Many people thought Neil would be dead by 35, but he was still alive, though his life had hit rock bottom. But luckily, by 42, he was able to put his life back together; he’s been involved in local council politics as a Liberal Democrat and he’s even made friends with Bruce, who let him live with him for a while.

This is what the most compelling documentaries contain: real human drama. You don’t find movie characters as fascinating as Neil.

Another special thing about the “Up” series is that with each film being released every seven years (and it still remains to be seen whether we will see “63 Up” in 2020), it allows the audience to think back about themselves and how their lives have changed in the past seven years. That reason (and more) is what truly makes the “Up” series special—it’s documentary filmmaking at its best.

Streetwise (1985)

24 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The first shot of Martin Bell’s documentary “Streetwise” is a medium-shot of a teenage boy named Rat, drenched with water and staring off into space deep in thought. It’s followed by a faraway shot of him climbing up a side-rail on a bridge and then jumping off. The camera follows his 50-foot plunge into a river. Over this is his narration:

“I love to fly. It’s just, you’re alone in peace and quiet and nothing around you but clear, blue sky. No one to hassle you, no one to tell you where to go or what to do. The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the f*cking world.”

This sets the underlying grim tone for the whole film “Streetwise,” which is a documentary about young street people in Seattle—streetwise teenagers and young adults who lead empty lives. Most of them are homeless. Most of them are con artists. Most of them are seen roaming the busy streets of Seattle, begging for spare change. Some are prostitutes; others, pimps. It’s hard to tell which is worse—that most of them are more or less content with their freedom or that hardly anyone is helping them.

Take Erin (a.k.a. Tiny), for example. She’s a 14-year-old prostitute who cons herself into calling her clients “dates.” She sees her mother every now and then, mostly to borrow money or makeup. But the mother just figures that Tiny’s prostitution is “just a phase she’s going through.” When stating this in the film, she doesn’t seem at all concerned that Tiny might develop an STD or become pregnant by any of these “dates.” And get this—there’s even a moment in which she tells her daughter not to bug her. Why? “I’m drinkin’.”

Then there’s Dewayne, a 16-year-old beggar/thief as well as a drug addict. He doesn’t get any help from his father because he’s in jail. He does wish he was around to look out for him.

Rat, short, 17, and a loudmouth, has no help either. He lives with an older man, Jack, in an abandoned hotel and has about the same daily routines as Dewayne with no guidance, no help, and not much to care for when he finally hops a train to leave the city, which he constantly talks about with his girlfriend, Tiny, who doesn’t want him to leave.

Then there’s Shellie, a 16-year-old blonde prostitute. In probably the most upsetting moment in the film, she has an argument with her mother about what her perverted stepfather did to her when she was little and didn’t know what he was doing. Shellie sounds sad and miserable just talking about it. What is her mother’s response? “Yeah, but he doesn’t do it anymore.”

These are only four of the kids that are the subject of “Streetwise,” one of the most heartbreaking films about troubled youth that I have ever seen. This was based on a 1983 Life magazine article on a group of the homeless and/or abandoned children who roam the streets and become hookers, beggars, thieves, squatters, dealers, junkies, and hustlers. The film came about as an extension of that, as writer Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark team up with director Martin Bell to first gain the trust of many of these kids for weeks, and then bring in their cameras to film their routines, eavesdrop on conversations, and explore the usual flophouses, abandoned buildings, and mean streets that these kids spend most of their days in. We even see how one of them (Rat) manages to get food for free through a trick. He orders a pizza with an odd choice of topping on it, then waits for a while until it’s tossed in a dumpster, so it’s there waiting for him.

These are not all bad kids. They know their ways of getting by, they’re tough enough to manage, they look out for each other since no one else will (one prostitute’s income even pays for the clothes of another streetwise girl), and yes they break the law, but how many legal ways are there for young people to use to care for themselves on the street?

Something I have to wonder about this film is, is any of this staged? There are many moments that are shot and edited like a “real” film, as if these people don’t notice the cameras on them or around them. Do they really want to say what they say, particularly Tiny’s mother when she tells Tiny not to bug her because she’s drinking? Or what about when Tiny breaks down during a tender moment with Rat—I sort of wondered why she didn’t just turn to the camera and ask the people around to go away? Or what about when Dewayne visits his father in prison? It plays kind of like a parody of estranged father-son relationship, as if the father is telling Dewayne what he wants people to hear. But then again, that’s probably what he wants Dewayne to hear too, which actually says a lot considering the other parents you see in this film!

However it was all done, it doesn’t make the finished product “Streetwise” any less effective. At its most tragic is in its ending when we attend the funeral of one of the kids…and it’s so empty. Only a few people, such as the deceased boy’s father, a few social workers, and some strangers, attended the funeral; not even his closest streetwise friends came to mourn. What’s worse is that even though this is a solid example showing the scenario of these kids’ lives, nothing changes after this death. After the funeral scenes, we see these kids one last time, going through their usual procedures. It says a lot about some of their futures.

NOTE: It’s worth noting that Rat and Tiny have made it out of this lifestyle since this film was released in 1985. According to Wikipedia, Rat is married with children and has grandchildren, and Tiny (I’ll just call her Erin Blackwell now) has gotten worse as time went on, until cleaning up and settling down in the mid-2000s with a husband. Another (Lulu, whom I’m sorry I forgot to mention is an 18-year-old angry lesbian who gets involved in the wellbeing of some of these kids in the film, and seen as somewhat heroic) is sadly stabbed to death soon after the film’s release.

Return to Oz (1985)

30 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Talk about not being in Kansas anymore, Toto.

I know “The Wizard of Oz,” one of the greatest fantasy films of all time, had its dark moments too (and I will never forget the horrific scene involving the flying monkeys and what they do to poor Scarecrow), but look at what its 1985 sequel threw at its young audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids who saw this movie weren’t having nightmares based on the film’s images, or even running from the theater while screaming. We’re talking severed heads (which are very much alive), rocks with moving faces on them, and creepy menaces called Wheelers.

What’s weird is that this movie was clearly intended for children. Its plucky little protagonist and the quirky creatures she befriends along a journey through the fantasy world of Oz (though it doesn’t look as incredible as it did before; the Emerald City is a ruins now and what I guess was originally Munchkinland looks like it was replaced by a nature reserve) to be sure of that. But while it has its suitably silly fantasy-story moments, it has more moments that are bleak, disturbing, and even terrifying that you wonder if they weren’t originally going to make a horror film, or maybe a horror-comedy like a parody of “The Wizard of Oz.”

But on one hand, I think what scares some kids about this movie will delight others. Some people could argue that scaring kids is an irresponsible and somewhat too-easy move to pull in order to keep the movies edgier. But on the other hand, you could argue that kids rather enjoy being scared. That’s because when they’re scared by what’s happening on the screen, there’s the chance they could be further sucked in by what’s happening on the screen. So, I won’t pan “Return to Oz” for being dark. (However, I do wonder what the hell they were thinking when the film opens with Dorothy being locked in an insane asylum and about to undergo shock therapy to cure her insomnia!)

But aside from nifty Claymation effects and an admittedly interesting villain known as the Nome King, there really isn’t much to “Return to Oz.” It’s just Dorothy and her friends off to find the Scarecrow from the original movie and adventures happen to them. I like some of the side characters, like a talking hen and a mechanical assistant called Tik Tok. But there’s also a scary-looking, towering, naïve pumpkin-head who sees Dorothy as a mother-figure, which is kind of creepy. The delight of Oz is barely existent. And when they find the Scarecrow, there’s hardly any time to get reacquainted with the beloved character. Some of the set pieces aren’t taken enough advantage of, such as a sandy desert that swallows those who step onto it. Dorothy is not interesting in the slightest, not that I blame Fairuza Balk because the role is thankless to begin with. The pacing is slow. There’s hardly a development, nor a solid resolution. And to sum it up, “Return to Oz” isn’t a very exciting return, except for the grim scenes that are actually more interesting than anything else in the movie.

The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)

20 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Is it a requirement in a lot of family films that a majority of side characters must be a jerk so that the nice, plucky protagonist can give us more reason to like and root for him/her? It seems like a common device in a lot of family films I’ve seen—people who won’t listen to reason and are very cruel to the young hero, and thus we root for escape so the journey can continue. Take Disney’s “The Journey of Natty Gann.” The main reason (or one of the main reasons) its plucky heroine, Natalie “Natty” Gann, runs away from home to travel cross-country in search of her father is that her caretaker who’s fed up with her calls an orphanage, reporting an “abandoned kid.” She does this despite already being told that Natty’s father will soon send for her! I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s low even by Disney-animated-villain standards. But Natty escapes her caretaker and sets off to find her father.

“The Journey of Natty Gann” is set during the Great Depression and begins in Chicago. People are out looking for work quick, and Natty’s widower father Sal (Ray Wise) is lucky enough to get himself a logging job. But there’s one major problem—the job is in Washington and his transport leaves very soon. Natty (Meredith Salenger) is playing with her friends at this time, and so Sal has to leave without saying goodbye. He leaves a message to her saying he will send for her as soon as he makes enough money, but until then, she is left in the care of a bad-tempered hotel caretaker (Lainie Kazan) who treats her like dirt. It’s all she and Natty can take from each other, so Natty decides to travel by railroad to the West Coast to be reunited with Sal.

Along the way, she is befriended by a wolf who accompanies her after she gives him food. The wolf in turn brings her a rabbit to eat when she is alone in the wilderness. The wolf becomes Natty’s protector and friend, defending her from vile, cruel people they come across (again, that aforementioned rule comes into place—there’s even a pedophile thrown in at one point for no reason other than the wolf has to protect Natty from him). But they do come across another companion later in the film—a teenage drifter named Harry (John Cusack) who joins them. He does this begrudgingly so, but he does prove to be a good guy to travel with.

We see more of Natty with the wolf than we do of her and Harry. He only appears at the beginning of her journey and then much later, he comes back into the film and accompanies her and the wolf until he must part. As moving as the scenes involving Natty and the wolf are, I have to admit I was kind of hoping for more of this relationship between Natty and Harry. True, their relationship isn’t quite romance-intended, and it seems more like a sibling relationship in the ways they both hate and like each other; but the human companionship and them trying to relate with one another and gain a friendship is very interesting, especially considering what Natty has already been through on her quest. Probably a personal complaint, but I just wish Natty and Harry had more screen time together. I liked this guy and I felt he was underused.

But like I said, the scenes with Natty and the wolf are moving and effective. The wolf is cute enough so that its moments on screen can cause people to say “aww.” And the girl-and-her-wolf angle works well in the girl-versus-nature element that comes midway through the film, as Natty is learning to survive after taking a detour through the woods.

“The Journey of Natty Gann” is a good-looking movie. The cinematography by Dick Bush is top-notch; the film looks remarkably like the period it’s set in; the railroad scenes are incredible; there’s a good sense of atmosphere. It’s just terrific to watch.

Another strength to the film is the leading performance by Meredith Salenger as Natty Gann. She portrays Natty as a girl who is suitably witty, appealingly spunky, sharp, sometimes standoffish, but doesn’t take “no” for an answer. She’s absolutely terrific here. The supporting cast includes a few that stand out—one is Cusack, who is very likable here; another is Ray Wise, who turns in a solid performance as Natty’s father whom the film catches up on from time to time; and Barry Miller who has a brief role as a quick-thinking street-smart would-be-entrepreneur that runs with a gang of young runaways.

Not everything about “The Journey of Natty Gann” works. The aforementioned “everyone’s-a-jerk” rule follows through with scenes that are rather painful to watch, including a character who gives Natty a ride and turns out to be a pedophile. That scene was just creepy and unnecessary. There’s also a dead-spot for me that I usually fast-forward through—it’s a 15-minute long sequence in which Natty is mistakenly tossed in a girls’ orphanage and has to escape. And sometimes, the film is a little too desperate for its audience to cheer. After a well-done adventurous scene in which the wolf must jump onto a moving train to join its human companions, the film does it again to try and make us cheer again. It didn’t quite work for me the second time. (But I’ll admit, I was glad he made it the first time—that was a terrific scene.)

However, the things that work in “The Journey of Natty Gann” work really well. It’s a nice cross-country adventure, it has a good, smart protagonist, and its setting is more than convincing. And it’s also interesting in that it’s Depression victims that are involved here, and for the most part, they act the way real Depression victims probably could have acted. Kids who see this film (though I’m not sure how many did, as this is one of Disney’s most overlooked, along with “Tex,” when it comes to their live-action films) might be fascinated by this portrait of the Depression Era and how these smart, independent young people learn to survive it. “The Journey of Natty Gann” is an entertaining, well-made journey indeed.

After Hours (1985)

21 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When I first heard the premise for Martin Scorsese’s comedy “After Hours,” I didn’t think much of it. An uptight workaholic has the craziest night of his life? Maybe it’s because I’ve seen too many movies, but I kind of thought it wouldn’t be anything special, because I didn’t think there would be enough creativity or enough courage to really go all out and make it something unforgettable. In other words, I thought it would be relatively safe and I wouldn’t care much about it. But boy, was I wrong. “After Hours” is not only original and funny, but it is also unrelenting, unafraid, riveting, and best of all, unpredictable. This is a great film—one that had me hooked from the start of the mayhem to the end, and that couldn’t make me even begin to guess what was going to happen one minute to the next.

Why tonight? Why did all of this have to happen to him tonight? Why is he in one mess after another? Why can’t he just catch a break and call it a night? Why can’t he just go home? When will this ever end? Those are the exact questions that ordinary, uptight word-processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) asks himself as he takes a cab to SoHo, Manhattan, on a night that starts out as an interesting date with a beautiful woman and transforms into a nightmare that he cannot escape from. It all begins as he meets said-woman, knockout Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), in a café. They strike up a conversation, she gives him her phone number, and as soon as he gets back to his apartment, he immediately calls her up and asks her for a date.

Big mistake. Now, I’ll only reveal just the beginnings of this “wild night” that Paul finds himself in the middle of, because trust me, I want you to be as surprised as I am so that you’ll enjoy the film more. (I’m doing you a favor, trust me.) Paul takes a cab to SoHo, but the ride is so violent that it causes all of Paul’s money to fly out the window. A frustrating start, but no matter. Paul has a date with a beautiful woman and is even roped into giving her sculptress roommate (Linda Fiorentino) a massage after she finishes up a sculpture that looks like a man calling for help. (Very effective foreshadowing aspect here.)

Not enough for you? Of course it isn’t. How could it be? It sounds relatively harmless so far. It’s only keeping me interested so far because I can relate to this guy’s confusion—losing his money, just wanting to move forward with his date, etc. Then, they go to a diner and Paul finds that Marcie is not exactly date-material; he doesn’t like her very much. So he bolts. He wants to catch a subway train home and he only has 97 cents. Not a problem, right? He can just forget all about it.

Wrong. The fare went up and he can’t get a token for the train. He’s stuck there in the SoHo district with no money and no reason to be there. What else could go wrong? You name it. The whole rest of the night only gets worse and worse and worse, in a series of confusion, misunderstandings, violence, craziness that later leads to a huge misunderstanding, a death, and an angry mob.

“I mean, I just wanted to leave my apartment, maybe meet a nice girl. And now I’ve gotta DIE for it?!”

“After Hours” is a hard-edged comedy-thriller with a lot going on, and all of it very original and with a very clever blend of humor and horror. It’s an urban nightmare that never seems to end, as Paul tries to find some way to get himself out of this mess and back home. And being a Scorsese-directed film, you also expect the film to be very well-made, and it is. Scorsese uses all kinds of camera shots to get each point across and also to add to the agitation that the main character is going through. And it’s obvious that Scorsese, as evidenced in some of his other films, has a great eye for big cities—the SoHo district seems like a character of itself. The film is also very cleverly-edited—for example, there’s a scene in which Paul finds himself in yet another messy situation, and after an important line is delivered, suddenly there’s the sound of a mousetrap snap (mousetraps are set all around the windows of a certain character’s apartment). Paul is the mouse. He was curious, and now he’s trapped.

But wait, you may ask. How can I possibly reveal so little of the story for “After Hours,” when I said in the first paragraph that just hearing the premise wasn’t enough to impress me, and so how are you supposed to be impressed? Well, that is kind of tricky, I’ll admit—it took a risk for me to have to do that. My only hope is that you’ll take a chance on the film, as I did, and maybe you’ll be surprised by what it has to offer. It’s a scary, funny, wild ride that I was glad to have taken. I loved every minute of “After Hours.” Take that for what it’s worth.

Code of Silence (1985)

28 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Chuck Norris has pretty much become a human punchline, hasn’t he? Anytime the bearded martial-arts “god” is mentioned, no one can help but crack one of those infamous Chuck Norris jokes (my favorite being, “There’s only another fist under Chuck Norris’ beard”), and yet he’s always labeled as “awesome.” And when I think about it…yeah. He is rather awesome, isn’t he? While he seems like a nice guy (and probably is a nice guy), he can also kick some serious ass with his fighting moves (including a roundhouse kick…to the face?). How is he as an actor though? That’s a little tougher to describe. The reason he was a movie star was because of his image and multiple fights without a stuntman. His acting is not very impressive, as he has a very limited range.

But given a good director, Norris can give a solid performance. And he found one in Andrew Davis, who cast him in the lead role in 1985’s “Code of Silence,” which itself was a breath of fresh air at the time of its release. At a time when Norris was constantly doing schlocky karate flicks, he’s cast here in an intense thriller as he plays a good cop “having a very bad day” (as the tagline states). Norris is surprisingly solid here, and the movie itself is quite thrilling.

The film takes place in Chicago, as straight-arrow cop Eddie Cusack (Norris, even though you’ll never call him “Cusack” in this movie) who is caught up in a Mob war after a sting operation goes wrong, resulting in Italian and Latino mobsters out for each other’s blood. Norris is worried about the safety of a mobster’s innocent daughter, a young artist named Diana (Molly Hagan), and decides to protect her. But she gets kidnapped and Norris decides to save her.

While all that’s going on, there’s also a subplot involving a “code of silence,” which is a police officer’s cover whenever that officer makes a mistake or is corrupt. In this case, there’s a hearing for an alcoholic old officer (Ralph Foody) who has accidentally murdered a young man in action and then planted his weapon on the victim, so that he can say it was done in self-defense. A rookie cop (Joseph Guzaldo) witnessed the incident and attempts to cover it up. Norris decides to back the kid up at the hearing.

It’s interesting how much goes on in “Code of Silence” and how complicated most of it is, and yet how less than obligatory and simple it all seems. It’s as if the usual clichés are downplayed, if still existent at all. Interesting characters, capably performed by good actors, help with that, as well as intense direction from Davis.

The action in “Code of Silence” is very well-done. You can see it fine and are surprisingly invested in what’s occurring on-screen. There’s a solid 15-minute opening scene that is all about the preparation and resolution of a drug-bust (and it does set up the story). There’s a fistfight on top of an elevated train going through Chicago, after which both Norris and the crook dive into the Chicago River. There’s also a nicely-done barfight late in the movie, in which Norris takes down several roughnecks at a time (and even delivers a roundhouse kick to one of them—awesome). The stuntwork in this movie is quite incredible.

There are amusing moments as well—my favorite being a duo of robbers who plan to overtake a bar, only to discover that just about everyone in that bar is packing. And there’s also a crime-fighting robot created by the police to mow down criminals with an advanced armory. This is known as the Prowler, which looks like one of those mobile NASA food-delivery robots if it was packing. It comes to the unexpected assistance of Norris in the film’s climax.

Not everything about “Code of Silence” works, though. You can follow the story fine, but some parts just sort of pass by really quick. And while most of the action scenes are riveting, the others seem rather inexplicable.

But what it really comes down to is the spirit of things with “Code of Silence,” and holding it all together is Chuck Norris, who is solid and surprisingly convincing as a cop. He’s able to show off some fighting moves some of the time, as Davis has him in check, but all in all he has a unique, rock-solid presence. He’s terrific; the whole film is terrific, and it’s arguably the best of the “Chuck Norris movies.”