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The Up Series (1964-2013)

16 Sep


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


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


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

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


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


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.”

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

25 May


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What if you saw the same movie so many times that one of the characters (who is practically the main reason you keep seeing this movie in the first place) actually starts to notice you? That’s what happens to Cecilia (Mia Farrow) in Woody Allen’s delightful fantasy-comedy “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” During the Great Depression era, in a distressing time in her small-town life, Cecilia finds solace in the cinema, feeling the magic of the movies. The movie she goes to see is “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” an adventure movie about an archaeological explorer named Tom Baxter. After Cecilia sees the film several times, in a fabulous scene, Tom notices her seated in the audience, breaks the fourth wall, and starts up a conversation with her. He has apparently noticed her watching all this time, and so he literally steps off of the movie screen and into the real world, as Cecilia decides to show him around town.

This is fantastic! It’s great wish-fulfillment for movie buffs alike; what if this happened to you? What if your favorite actor/actress (or rather, your favorite actor/actress playing a character) suddenly emerged off the silver screen just to talk to you and be with you? “The Purple Rose of Cairo” wants to play that, and the way it goes along with this idea is thought-provoking, fun to watch, amusing, and sweet. This is a movie that truly loves movies and is made with skill and delight by the great writer-director Woody Allen.

The movie has fun with the simplicity of this woman and this movie character in how they can develop a romance with no setbacks whatsoever. Tom knows that things aren’t so simple as in the movies, but his presence is a relief to Cecilia who sees him as a way of making her bleak, unfair life feel better. There are problems, though. In the movie’s funniest subplot, the rest of the characters in the fictional film are still lingering about on the screen, waiting impatiently for Tom to return so the movie can keep going. Audience members that pop in complain, stating “they didn’t do this last time I saw the movie.” And also, the theater owner has called the studio that distributed the film, stating the problem that the character is missing. And so what do the studio executives do? They bring in the actual actor of that character of Tom, Gil Shepard (both roles played by Jeff Daniels, by the way), and send him to that town so that he can convince his character to go back into the movie. He encounters Cecilia, who understands the situation…and then they develop a sort of romance themselves!

I love how creative Allen gets with the storytelling here, with the love triangle between Cecilia, Tom, and Gil; the other characters lingering on the screen; the decision that Cecilia must make between the two men now in her life; and so on. “The Purple Rose of Cairo” is a wonderful film from beginning to end. Even in the ending, which people have questioned Allen about, there’s something to be said about the sudden frankness of the situation. Without giving it away, there’s not a “happily-ever-after” in a traditional sense; it resolves itself as a reality sense. But there’s still one element of comfort—the movies. When Allen was asked why he didn’t film a happy ending for the film, his reaction was simple enough: “That was the happy ending.” The more you think about that while watching this film and pondering the details these characters go through, the more intriguing it is. “The Purple Rose of Cairo” is pure movie-magic.

Weird Science (1985)

19 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Weird Science” has its pleasurable elements. It mixes teenage male fantasies with “The Bride of Frankenstein” and adds some science, as well as magic. It’s a movie written and directed by John Hughes, who specializes in putting people (mostly teenagers, like “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club”) in mostly realistic situations while writing some very clever dialogue for his characters to say to keep the comedy and drama in the same rhythm. “Weird Science” has some clever dialogue, but the realism is replaced with more of a fantasy. I don’t mind that, but the premise doesn’t quite follow up to its own potential.

Anthony Michael Hall (Hughes’ typecast geek) and Ilan Mitchell-Smith play two dorky buddies named Gary and Wyatt who fantasize about becoming popular and winning the girls of their dreams. One night, they watch “The Bride of Frankenstein” and that’s when Gary gets the idea of creating their own girl. But not by digging up any dead girl and reanimating her, as Frankenstein did. They create a girl on Wyatt’s computer by hacking into main computer systems and simulating a woman that they can create and fill knowledge into. But as in “The Bride of Frankenstein,” lightning strikes and things go way beyond what they expected. Before you can say “it’s alive,” the girl (no, WOMAN) they created is real enough to stand in their doorway (looking almost impossibly stunning) and shower with the boys.

This perfect woman is played by Kelly LeBrock, complete with beauty, sensuous lips, and a heavy British accent to go along with it. Named Lisa, she is no ordinary woman. She is not a dumb bimbo or the cover of this week’s Playboy. She actually has a brain. She’s intelligent and sensitive to the boys’ needs. She also has magic powers (she can get a car, change the boys’ suits at parties, make anything happen). Lisa realizes the boys’ insecurities and spends the movie attempting to make them feel better about themselves.

Of John Hughes’ latest teenage movies, this is probably the least in the entries. The movie starts out with a lot of clever ideas, but the problem is the movie doesn’t really seem to go through with them. The performances by Hall and Mitchell-Smith are engaging and Kelly LeBrock is perfect as Lisa. I just wish they were involved in a better story. A supporting character that is supposed to be funny doesn’t fit here at all—that is Bill Paxton as Chet, Wyatt’s nasty, sadistic older brother. He doesn’t fit in this movie at all, except to provide nasty jokes. His come-uppance (or rather, his punchline from Lisa) is also nasty and not very funny.

“Weird Science” has plenty of good ideas that could’ve made it a better movie. But because it does have its moments, I would say rent it.

D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)

17 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If there’s a kid who can win video games at the first try, hit home runs in his first baseball game, and even correct test answers before they’re given, you can already guess that there is far more to this kid than meets the eye. “D.A.R.Y.L.” is a sweet little movie about a boy who is the perfect kid. The kid’s name is Daryl and he is just one sweet, caring, and very talented little boy.

As the movie opens, Daryl (Barret Oliver, “The Neverending Story”) is found in the woods. He lost his memory; he doesn’t remember his family, his friends, his school, but he remembers his name and how to speak. He’s taken in by a nice couple who have fostered young children for quite some time now. Mary Beth Hurt is Joyce Richardson, a loving piano instructor; and Michael McKean is Andy, Joyce’s husband who coaches a local little league team. Joyce and Andy take a care to Daryl and the kid across the street, named Turtle, becomes his good friend. Daryl surprises his new family and friends by being extremely nice without forcing himself, getting a high score on “Pole Position” on the first try, and hitting home runs at Andy’s little league team’s game.

But once everything goes perfect, Daryl’s real family comes along to take him back. As they take Daryl away from his loving foster family, it becomes discovered by the audience (this is not necessarily a spoiler) that Daryl is in fact a government experiment. Daryl is taken back to the lab he was created in. What is he? Well, “D.A.R.Y.L.” stands for Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform. That’s right—the perfect kid is in fact…a robot (or a cyborg, to be more specific).

The D.A.R.Y.L. experiment was originally planned and funded by the military to be a soldier of advanced proportion. A scientist freed him because he knew that there was more for him to learn. Daryl has absorbed more about love and interaction to his family and other kids and the military consider him a failure. Their decision—to have him “terminated.” However, Dr. Stewart (Josef Sommer), one of Daryl’s designers, knows that Daryl is more than what he was created to be, so he decides to free him and take him back to the Richardsons…with the authorities hot on their trail.

“D.A.R.Y.L.” opens with some genuine sweetness. It’s a great portrait of the world’s greatest kid moving in with a new family and making a great impression. Also, the friendship between the kid and Turtle is sweet—there’s a really good scene where Turtle gives Daryl some advice about grownups. There’s also another great scene where Daryl believes he upset Joyce because he’s so perfect, so he strikes out at the game on purpose.

Then, the movie escapes that mode when Daryl is taken back to the facility where he was created and soon targeted for determination. It turns the movie into a thriller and surprisingly enough, it works. We fear for the kid’s life while he’s being chased by the government. As a thriller, “D.A.R.Y.L.” surprisingly works because it feels like there’s really something at stake. It helps that Barret Oliver plays the kid with credibility, and Josef Summer is quite solid as his protector.

People may complain that “D.A.R.Y.L.” doesn’t quite live up to its opening but not me. I liked where “D.A.R.Y.L.” went, although I sort of wonder how I would’ve went from the wonderful beginning if I made the movie myself. But mind you, that’s not a criticism but more of a thoughtful self-question. “D.A.R.Y.L.” is a nicely-done movie.

Secret Admirer (1985)

15 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The ‘80s comedy “Secret Admirer” features teenagers and a lot of them, as did “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Porky’s,” “Valley Girl,” “Sixteen Candles,” and a few other titles I could mention (the worst of them being “Porky’s”). But rarely in a movie like this do you see adults who are given the same amount of screen time. In fact, if you split the scenes with the adults and teenagers apart, and then time them, you’d have almost the same length of each. The adults are the parents of the teenaged main character and his crush. They’re here because of a conflict that was the teenagers’ own business in the first place but became something more—something almost tragic. Read on and you’ll see why.

C. Thomas Howell plays Michael, a teenager who has the hots for the popular girl in school Deborah (Kelly Preston, who spends the duration of the film dressing like a slut—the movie’s target audience will love that), who is dating the tough college guy Steve. Michael’s best friend is Toni (Lori Loughlin), and she likes Michael more than a friend. But of course, Michael doesn’t catch on (they never do in these movies). Toni sends Michael a love letter, anonymously, but Michael believes that it’s from Deborah. So he decides to send his own anonymous letter to her and have Toni deliver it to her, much to Toni’s reluctance.

Now I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with their parents? Well, Michael’s little brother finds the letter that was written to Michael and brings it to the breakfast table. After he leaves, the mother (Dee Wallace-Stone) finds the letter, reads it, and suspects that her husband (Cliff de Young) may be having an affair. Then one of Michael’s letters to Deborah winds up with Deborah’s parents and each parent (played by Leigh Taylor-Young and Fred Ward) is suspecting that they’re both having an affair with Michael’s parents (de Young is in Taylor-Young’s night class). Then all of the adults are brought together at a bridge party and slapstick, cartoon violence ensues.

It’s satisfying to see adults put in the same length duration as the teenagers—their scenes are separate from the scenes that show Michael trying to score with Deborah. But why did they have to be treated like idiots? And why did they have to be victims of unfunny comic scenes? Why are they treated like this? But to be fair, they are well-acted—especially Fred Ward, who has a presence that is part-Terminator, part-goofiness.

I was interested in the teenagers’ story until it got to the predictable final half, in which everything is settled and redeemed after an hour of complication. Of course Deborah turns out to be a slut that Michael doesn’t want to bother with anymore. Of course Michael realizes how much Toni feels for him. Of course they’re going to wind up together. I wish I could tell you that how they wind up together was unpredictable…but it wasn’t.

The teenagers are well-played. C. Thomas Howell has an appealing personality, Kelly Preston is suitably attractive and sour, and Lori Loughlin (the best of the bunch) is wonderful and fetching. Then there’s another teenager, played by Casey Siemasko, who is a slob and a party animal who puts himself into the wrong situations every time he tries to smart off. Even he has some appeal.

I wish I could’ve seen these people in a different movie. “Secret Admirer” undermines their uniqueness and talent, which is too bad. I will say this though—this is a much better film that any of the “Porky’s” movies. But of course, that’s not saying much.