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Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

29 Aug

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Francis Ford Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” is a film that tells a sweet-natured story from the concept of going back in time to a certain point in your life when you feel you could do things dissimilar to the way you did before, knowing what you know now. It begins at a high-school reunion, at which 40something Peggy Bodell (Kathleen Turner) practically relives her past—not only is she reunited (and catching up) with her old friends and acquaintances from the glory days of high school, but she also imagines what things would have been like if she hadn’t married her boyfriend at the time because she was pregnant shortly before graduation. “If I knew then what I know now,” Peggy tells her friends. “I would have done things differently.” She is divorcing her disloyal husband, Charlie (Nicolas Cage), who has been cheating on her and hasn’t been there for her or their two kids.

Peggy and her friends look back on high school memories and notice how times, as well as their classmates, have changed. It turns out Peggy doesn’t quite know the half of it, as she will experience her senior year for a second time. This happens when Charlie shows up at the reunion, she doesn’t know how to deal with the situation, and she suffers a heart attack (I think) and passes out. She then awakens in her 18-year-old body in the year 1960—twenty-five years before. Her 43-year-old mind is still intact, but everything else around her has changed. She relives high school, she hangs out with her friends, she dates Charlie again, she eats with her family for breakfast and dinner, and she even hears her grandmother’s voice again, which almost breaks her heart.

Peggy knows what will happen in the future, but no one else does. With this knowledge, she isn’t quite sure about how to deal with what may or may not affect her life, if she can help it. To start with, she is cold and somewhat distant towards Charlie, who can’t understand why she is acting silly lately. But she also recalls the fun she has with Charlie and relives some of those moments, including “parking.” Though, this particular parking moment is different, seeing as how she is the one who wants to go all the way, while nervous Charlie wants to get his car to start so he can take her home.

Peggy can also say the things she could have said to her parents long ago. She’s nicer and more helpful around the house. And she can even experience life with the people she may not have wanted to or was afraid to have been affiliated with—those include young, Hemingway-bashing beatnik Michael Fitzsimmons (Kevin J. O’Connor), with whom she shares pot, and math-science whiz Richard Norvik (Barry Miller), who is the only one she tells about her predicament of time-travel (she is also able to reveal inventions to him that haven’t been invented yet, to see what he can do for the future—“think ‘high-tech,’” Peggy tells him).

What it comes down to is whether Peggy will change her destiny as well as other people’s destinies, so that if and when she returns back to her old self in her present time, things will have been different from when she left. And one question I’m sure many people will be asking after watching “Peggy Sue Got Married” is whether or not Peggy really did travel back in time. Was it a dream? Did it really happen? I don’t think it really matters whether or not it really did happen, because if you ask me, “Peggy Sue Got Married” is more about an experience rather than much else. It’s the experience of reliving and revisiting what it felt like to be young again and trying to understand whether or not things were better off for you then. You know how people will say that high school is the best time of your life? What if they were right? If there is a way of knowing what will happen to you in the future, or in Peggy’s case, if there was a way of reliving those days because you have already lived the future, wouldn’t you find a way to make it feel as good as it can be? The point here is that it doesn’t matter whether or not you change events in your life—it’s how you can deal with events that are inevitable. And without giving away the ending, Coppola and co-writers Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, found an effective, subtle way of presenting that message and making a satisfying conclusion and presenting an answer to the question of whether or not Peggy really did time-travel. Some things, you just have to figure out for yourselves, and I admired that about this story.

The theme of nostalgia is present throughout “Peggy Sue Got Married” even before Peggy has her flashback experience. The high-school reunion at the beginning of the film presents what it feels like for these people to find themselves back in the good ol’ days. They’re not only there to provide setups for certain payoffs when Peggy goes back (hell, one character, in a wheelchair, is never even seen again after this opening)—they set the tone for the rest of the film.

And what would you feel/say if this ever happened to you and you weren’t sure of whether or not it was a dream? What if you answered the phone and suddenly there was the voice of your grandmother on the other end of the line? This is a voice Peggy hasn’t heard in many, many years, and there she is on the phone, making a casual call to say hello. What would you say? You couldn’t tell her what would happen to her, but you would know it, and it’d be hard to say anything.

“Peggy Sue Got Married” is a great film when it comes to the theme of nostalgia and the way it presents its story to a puzzling payoff (but in a good way), and it’s also very well-made as you can tell certain Coppola shots (there’s one such optical effect in the very first scene that I’m wondering how it was done). But there’s one very important element to its success, and that is the lead performance by Kathleen Turner. Turner is nothing short of excellent in this film. I don’t know how she was able to play this part in two different ways—as an adult and as a teenager—but she pulls it off in a spectacular performance. Sometimes she’ll even go back and forth between adult and teenager and we can catch on even though we’re just not sure how she did it. How did she change back and forth in certain scenes? Did the lighting help? Did Coppola have anything to do with this? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to watch Turner play one shot as an adult and then another shot as a teenager, because she knows her character inside and out, and she knows how each side would react to any kind of situation being thrown her way.

I know no one who has seen this movie and are reading the review will not stop reading until I say something about Nicolas Cage’s performance as Charlie, the boy Peggy will later marry and then divorce. Yes, Cage’s performance is slightly odd (but nothing as odd, to understate it, as most of his roles to come later after this) and he would only do this movie if his character’s speech impediment matched that of Pokey’s (and he was almost fired from the movie entirely because of this). But to be honest, I don’t really mind him very much here. Sure, his voice can be a little grating, but Cage gets what it’s like to be an awkward high-school teenager, and he gets the body language down as well as Turner does.

And the other actors, for the most part, had to play young and old versions of their characters—from 1986 and from 1960. They deserve credit too, in their early roles before their profile careers in film and TV, particularly Jim Carrey, Joan Allen, Catherine Hicks, Lisa Jane Persky, and Kevin J. O’Connor. Barry Miller, known at the time for his roles in “Saturday Night Fever” and “Fame,” acquits himself admirably in the role of nerdy Richard; it’s a shame his acting career didn’t go much further. Also in one of her early roles is Helen Hunt, as Peggy’s teenaged daughter. (And also look out for future director Sofia Coppola as Peggy’s kid sister.)

What have I left out? Only a handful of wonderful, delicate scenes that you’ll just have to see for yourself. “Peggy Sue Got Married” is a superb movie with sharp direction from Francis Ford Coppola, an appealing concept, and to top it all off, a great leading performance from Kathleen Turner.

Hoosiers (1986)

2 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I never played high-school basketball. I was the oddball that played “b-ball” from 4th grade to 6th and then decided to focus on other things, like the school band and choir. But I never backed down from a little game in P.E. class and also, maybe going to a game wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do on a Friday night, but back then, what else was I going to do? And truth be told, I somehow found myself enjoying the game—it’s alive, intense, uplifting (when it can be), and entertaining, and you really find yourself rooting for the home players. That statement can be used to describe “Hoosiers,” which is my favorite film about basketball and is as much fun as attending a high-school basketball game.

“Hoosiers” is based on the true story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that, in the early 1950s, surprised everyone by not only progressing to the Indiana State Championship, but also winning. Despite that story to back it up, “Hoosiers” doesn’t use the “based on a true story” caption early on to manipulate us, and that’s probably a good thing, because much of the movie is focused on how the triumphant underdog concept can fully come through. This is a movie that is all about heart and you could see through the writing, direction, and acting that everyone put their all into this. The result is a wonderful movie.

Right at the opening credits, you can tell we’re in for something special, and nothing has necessarily happened yet. The first few shots are of a car going down rural streets of the Midwest in the autumn season, with fallen leaves swirling around by the wind. Assisted by a nice, soft music score by Jerry Goldsmith, you truly get a sense that you are there. And since we already feel at home in these shots, we feel throughout the rest of the movie that we’re in a good place to be.

Making that long trip is Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), who has come to the small town of Hickory, Indiana to coach the local high school basketball team, the Hickory Huskers. This would prove as a challenge for quite a few reasons. One is, he’s being asked to replace a coach that everyone in town knew and loved, and so he’s constantly being tested at just about each turn by a local—it doesn’t help that he bans parents and other supporters from practices either. Another is, there aren’t many players on the team—indeed, there are seven and their star player, Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis), is taking a year off from sports to focus on his academics. And also, this is Dale’s chance to redeem himself from a mistake he made coaching many years ago, and if he screws up now, his coaching career is over for good. This is a changed man, and he’s out to prove it. He uses disciplinary tactics to further boost the team’s confidence and athletic ability, and though they don’t start out very well, he is able to make them into a team that can play good basketball.

One of the things that further increase the townspeople’s displeasure is that Dale hires the father of one of the boys, who is Shooter (Dennis Hopper), the town drunk, to come on as an assistant coach. While his worst moments show him as a drunken buffoon that sometimes embarrasses his son, his best moments show how much he knows about basketball, which is why Dale decides to take a chance and bring him on and give him a chance of redemption as well.

This decision, along with quite a few losses, lead to a petition signed for Dale’s resignation. Just as a clear verdict is about to be brought up, Jimmy steps up and says that he’ll finally play again…but only for Dale. (This is one of the best scenes in the movie—it’s the perfect “up-yours” to cynical people.) Soon enough, they all play better and start winning, and their successful run eventually leads to a spot in the State Finals, which is incredible for a small school.

With Dale redeeming himself, Shooter shaping up and getting himself a new, respectful image, and a small school about to show all of Indiana who they really are, “Hoosiers” is not only a film about basketball and the community that celebrates it—it’s mainly about redemption. And in that respect, this is a powerful film because the relationships that these people have in this town make it all the more worthwhile because of who they were and who they will become. By the time the movie is over, with the Big Game and the ultimate win, you feel like these people have truly done well for themselves and are happy for them, just as you’re excited at the success of this basketball team. The basketball scenes are riveting and well-shot, but they’re not the center of the film. It wasn’t supposed to be. But with this theme of redemption, it works even better as a sports underdog story.

And you do get a feel of the game itself—the coaching tactics, the basketball drills, the sense of the gym, the excitement of the crowd, the thrill of the game, etc.—which is why “Hoosiers” is regarded as, for good reason, “one of the best sports films ever made.”

The rock of the picture is the performance by Gene Hackman, who is excellent here as Coach Norman Dale, giving him full characterization and a three-dimensional portrayal. He has the competitive spirit down to a T, but he has a real human side to the character as well. He nails the quiet moments as well.

Dennis Hopper, as Shooter, was honored a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance in this film, even though the actor himself believed he should have been nominated for “Blue Velvet,” released that same year. This must have come as a surprise for most people who believe that weaker individual characters are often ignored by the Academy, and while that wasn’t what he played in “Blue Velvet,” that’s definitely what he played in “Hoosiers.” Shooter is a loser, to be sure, and in need of gaining self-respect and respect from his son. But Hopper makes us care about him and want him to change that it is a sympathetic portrayal of such a man, and I think the Academy made a good choice in voting.

There’s another character in this movie—Myra Fleener, played by Barbara Hershey. She’s one of the few Hickory locals who have experienced big city life before moving back here because it’s where she has what she needs. She’s a bit cold toward Dale because she doesn’t trust him to stay away from Jimmy, as she sometimes looks out for him ever since his father died, so that he doesn’t push him into playing basketball again, before Jimmy decides for himself he wants to play again. But of course when she does see the true man Dale is, she realizes she can trust and possibly love him. This is admittedly one of the weaker aspects of the movie, as it does sort of make her into a regular love-interest for our protagonist, but I’ll let it slide because she does have a reason for starting out the way she does. And Hershey does a fine job in the role.

I’m also glad that actual young athletes were trained to be actors, instead of the other way around, because this way, you get natural performances from the young men who play the team players. They may not be the greatest actors, but the script allows them to stay within the limitations of their range.

I’ve tried, but I don’t think I can think of a better basketball movie than “Hoosiers.” You know how they say, “It’s not if you win or lose, but how you play the game?” That serves as an effective metaphor for this story of redemption on and off the court. This is a well-made, effective, wonderful movie that earns its title as “one of the best sports films ever made.”

Top Gun (1986)

5 May

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Top Gun” was one of the highest-grossing films of the 1980s and is considered to be a nostalgic staple of the decade, as it is still being quoted and referenced by movie buffs to this day. And around the time it was released in the summer of 1986, this movie practically ruled the world. The soundtrack (which included Berlin’s Oscar-winning ballad “Take My Breath Away” and Kenny Loggins’ awesome “Danger Zone”) was known by all; lead actor Tom Cruise became a huge Hollywood star; and the film had many quotable lines such as “I feel the need—the need for SPEED!” Also, it was the top-grossing film of the year.

But truth be told, I’ve always found “Top Gun” to be overrated. I was bored by a good majority of the material. There are many reviews of action-packed summer blockbusters from critics that want more human-interest story than high-energy action. This is an unusual case in that the human-interest element of “Top Gun” is a bore, in comparison to the action sequences, which are admittedly top-notch.

To be fair though, I think this had something to do with test audiences feeling there was too much action in the original cut, and not enough of the romantic angle between lead actors Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis. So, in a last-ditch effort to please audiences, Cruise and McGillis were called back to film a couple more scenes, including an overly-stylized sex scene. At first, I thought these scenes were Scott’s attempt to cash in on thematic elements originated from 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman”—not only with an academy of hotshot military men (in case, Navy Fighter Pilots) and their misadventures (in addition to the mystery of a heroic father, the rivalry with a fellow group member, etc.), but also with a steamy, complicated romance between the most eager of the group and an attractive young woman. In some way, I believe they were, but the additions didn’t help much. I wouldn’t mind so much if they were interesting, but while the actors are talented and appealing, they just aren’t given juicy material to work with. Everything is basic and obligatory, without a moment in which you can’t predict what’s going to happen.

But what am I talking about? The film isn’t about the human-interest story, you might say. It’s about the action. Well, when a good chunk of human-interest story demands as much attention, it can’t be ignored for what it is. What it is didn’t work for me at all. But the aerial sequences—Wait. I’m getting way ahead of myself here. For those who don’t know what “Top Gun” is about (so few of you, I’m assuming), I’ll do you a favor:

Tom Cruise plays an ace Navy pilot, whose code name is Maverick. In a terrific opening scene, we see him fly upside-down a few inches above a Russian-built MiG and take a picture of the enemy pilot, before flipping the finger and flying off. That stunt impresses Navy personnel, which leads to Maverick and his co-pilot, Goose (Anthony Edwards), selected for the Navy’s elite flying academy, which engages in numerous aerial dogfights. (The best graduate from the school is labeled “Top Gun,” hence the title.) And this is where many of those obligatory elements come into place—Maverick has a father whose identity is a mystery to him but not to some important people; he runs afoul of a pompous pilot, Iceman (Val Kilmer), who becomes his rival; and Maverick falls for a pretty young woman, Charlie (Kelly McGillis), who is actually one of the instructors.

OK, enough of the plot. Let’s get to the brilliant aerial dogfight sequences. First of all, I should state that creating scene upon scene set in the air can’t be easy to do. It’s a true challenge to pull off, and even if you manage to make it seem convincing, there’s a danger that the audience will be disoriented from dizziness. But these are actually well-choreographed and pretty exciting in the way that we follow these pilots every step (or flight) of the way. You really get the sense of what it’s like to be in one of these experiences. They’re the only reason to see “Top Gun,” which unfortunately hardly has a clue about how a romantic couple might act. The scenes set on the ground needed to be rewritten; as it is, it’s extremely predictable and hardly investing. The scenes between Maverick and Goose have more sexual tension than Maverick and Charlie. (Rimshot)

I was hardly surprised by anything other than the aerial scenes in “Top Gun.” Those scenes are well-crafted and brilliant. But in the scenes set on the ground, in which the characters talk to each other, it really brings the film down. “Top Gun” may be fun to some people, and the scenes set in the air are a good deal of fun. For me, I was wishing for more.

Platoon (1986)

2 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” is arguably the strongest, most powerful war film to released in cinemas. I know I’m making a bold statement by saying that, seeing as “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Full Metal Jacket” are held in high regard when it comes to the genre. But as great as those films are, “Platoon” gets my vote as number-one mainly because of one important detail—this is not a war movie based on opinion. It doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong; “Platoon” doesn’t work that way. Instead, “Platoon” is all about experience. It’s the middle-ground. We see in great detail what it really meant to be serving in the Vietnam War. What happened? Why did it happen? How did it feel? Those answered questions are what really make “Platoon” into a great film. You do see what happened, you do understand why it happened (even if you don’t approve most of it), and you do know how it felt when it did happen. Vietnam vets are going to see this film as a flashback to the times they fought in the actual war; those who were born long after the war are going to be given a history lesson that they’ll never forget.

Oliver Stone is the writer and director of “Platoon,” and he makes it as somewhat of an autobiographical look at his experiences in the Vietnam War. He bases his main character upon himself from when he was an infantryman in Vietnam, and also bases his supporting characters upon those he served with in the war. Arguably, this is why “Platoon” is so strong in the way it deals with experience—it’s Stone’s experience. He went through it, he wrote about it, he made a film, and he just tells it like it is.

Charlie Sheen stars in the “Stone” role as Chris Taylor, a fresh-faced newcomer to the Vietnam War. The film begins as he first arrives after basic training and meets his fellow soldiers. Some of them respect him for not having gone through what they have, while others have him do some of the harder work (e.g. digging foxholes). But he does manage to survive a few ambushes and gain the respect of most of the infantrymen.

Two of Chris’ sergeants are Barnes (Tom Berenger), an angry, straightforward veteran who is scarred physically and emotionally and pushes his men to be as brutal as the war made him to be, and Elias (Willem Dafoe), who still remembers that his men are still human beings. Chris is unsure of which one to follow, as he tries to be as gruff and fierce as Barnes but then remembers his human side which he recognizes in Elias. And so there’s an interesting question of which one Chris will pledge his loyalty to in order to survive his experience in the war. On top of that, there’s already an hint of tension between both sergeants, and midway through the film, that tension ultimately erupts into a projected anger that splits the platoon apart.

The characterization of both sergeants is fascinating in the way they seem to represent the loss of innocence and the true casualties of war. Barnes isn’t merely an effective killer; his mind is at the point in which his human side is practically gone. War has overtaken him as it becomes a part of his existence. And yes, Elias would act decisively at times too, but never to the point where he loses his humanity. I think the sequence that makes it clear what war is about and how it affects people is the sequence in which the platoon enters a Vietnamese village and discover that the villagers are hiding supplies for the Viet Cong, and the body of one of their men is found nearby. The platoon reacts extremely, killing innocent civilians and torching the village. Barnes nearly shoots a little girl before Elias comes in to help, and another girl is being raped by some of the platoon until Chris comes to stop them. (“She’s a person, man!”)

By the time the film has ended, Chris will have been a changed man after coming into this world as an innocent, rich college dropout (who volunteered for this duty) to committing as many mindless and violent acts as Barnes.

Those who have seen news reports and read articles in the paper about such behavior have probably questioned and debated why these American men would act this way. Here

The acting is a crucial element to “Platoon’s” success. If we didn’t believe in any of these characters, the film would fall apart because it would have lost the harsh credibility. You could argue that Charlie Sheen didn’t really belong in this role, that he seems a little too clean to be in this performance. But the truth is, his character doesn’t belong in the platoon at first, and slowly but gradually he does find his way in the platoon. Sheen delivers effective work as he grows into the role of Chris Taylor.

Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe provide two great performances as opposing figures of war. They’re both intense and fierce, one probably more than the other. They’re great in this film, and so are the other cast members, which include John C. McGinley as a not-so-eager sergeant; Kevin Dillon as a scared kid who acts tougher than he really is; Francesco Quinn as Rhah; Mark Moses as Lt. Wolfe; Forest Whitaker as Big Harold; Johnny Depp as Lerner; and more.

The combat scenes add to the realism of the film, because unlike most movies about war, these scenes don’t have the distinction of being planned out. Nothing feels as if something is going to turn out in a certain way, because like real war, it’s unpredictable what will happen, such as who will live and who will die. What’s more interesting is that this movie was released at a time when Hollywood seemed to promote war as a fun shoot-em-up entertainment, such as the “Rambo” movies. After seeing “Platoon,” I think some people felt a bit differently in that there’s hardly an exaggeration that “war is hell.”

“Platoon” doesn’t care about the politics, the symbolism, or the basic conflicts of the Vietnam War. It just tells the story as an experience, like a nightmare that was based upon war flashbacks. Death surrounds these soldiers, overtaking several of them. And it really did happen. Nothing in “Platoon” seems forced in the slightest—it effectively gives us a tale of war, survival, mental state, and as Chris puts it in a voiceover narration describing the war, “Hell without reason.” Nothing is as clear as what we feel throughout “Platoon”—that alone is the main reason I think it works so well.

Mona Lisa (1986)

2 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Mona Lisa” tells the story of a man and woman who start out hating each other before coming to like each other. But unlike most movies that share that premise, “Mona Lisa” delivers in a slap-in-the-face way that it’s not so easy. This is not merely a romance. In fact, it’s hardly a romance. The best way to describe it is to remind of how most of us thought of someone of the opposite sex as not only beautiful and cryptic, but also unattainable. It’s like a crush from afar. Whomever that is, you see that person as a mysterious figure—you don’t know that person’s story or that person’s history, and that notion draws you in further. Only for the most part, you find out more about that person and find that you weren’t very pleased by that person’s personality. But until then, that person is like Da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa. In “Mona Lisa,” George (Bob Hoskins) feels the same way. His representation of the Mona Lisa is a young, beautiful prostitute named Simone (Cathy Tyson). She’s attractive, mysterious, and unreachable—but who is this person, really?

George is a foot soldier for the London underworld, working for the smooth boss (Michael Caine) who may have been the reason he served a long term in prison. Now that he’s released, and with hardly a way of connecting to his family (including a teenage daughter he never got to know), he is hired by the boss’ henchman to chauffer a young, tall, black, striking local prostitute, Simone. Their first meeting is not hopeful. George is repulsed by her profession; Simone sees him as a cheap bastard. They argue frequently, day and night, until they realize that they enjoy (and are entertained by) each other’s arguments. They form somewhat of a friendship with each other, and Simone sees something in George that could help her with a certain thing. She tells him a story that ends with her subtly asking for help, which he does offer once she’s finished her story. But what he learns causes trouble for himself and Simone.

“Mona Lisa” is more of a drama and a thriller than it is a romance, but more importantly it is an effective character study of George. Here is this conflicted criminal, working for such a sleazeball like Michael Caine’s character, who puts himself back in the underworld even though he should be reformed after a stint in prison. But he still would like to get to know his young daughter, despite his ex-wife’s objections. And then there is his fascination with Simone, as he finds himself able to love. Although, the relationship between George and Simone is purely platonic—there’s not a scene in which they sleep together, which is what you would expect in a film like this. But the main problem is that most of what Simone tells him isn’t true, and she is actually using him to get to someone else that she loves—this upsets George; his feelings are hurt; and worst of all, he doesn’t know how to cope with his feelings. Bob Hoskins was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance here; it’s easy to see why. He’s brilliant in the role, effectively delivering a credible, sympathetic character to follow throughout the film. He’s ably supported by a luminescent Cathy Tyson, a menacing Michael Caine, and strong support by Robbie Coltrane as George’s friend who gives George a place to stay.

“Mona Lisa” is a great film with solid acting, some good surprises here and there, and a great deal of atmosphere in the way the writer-director manages to capture the essence of the streets of London, both night and day. And it delivers a concept about love that is not only heartbreaking, but even more so, it’s true.

RAD (1986)

24 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: GP (Guilty Pleasure)

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I rarely review a movie with a “GP” rating—in fact, this is actually the second movie for me to give that rating (the first one was “Troll”). True, “RAD” is bad (shut up about the rhyme) and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but there’s so much energy within its sports film clichés and stock characters that I very much enjoyed it. Whether you get the same enjoyment out of this movie as I did or you’re extremely annoyed by it, I’m sure we can all agree that at the very least, “RAD” is a lot better than the movies directed by former stuntman Hal Needham after the most entertaining “Smokey and the Bandit” nine years ago. I will take “RAD” over the “Smokey and the Bandit” sequels, the “Cannonball Run” movies, and “Stroker Ace” any day.

“RAD” (you know, when you give a movie a title like that, are you even trying to make it sound like a good movie?) is about BMX biking. The movie lets us know that right from the opening credits, which feature a lot of bike stunts during an ‘80s rock song. The protagonist of the story is a high school senior nicknamed “Cru” (Bill Allen) who lives for the wheel. He and his friends are paperboys (well, one of them is a papergirl) just so they can show off while delivering papers.

The Mongoose bicycling company, led by the sinister Duke Best, is creating a new bike-race track in Cru’s hometown. Duke Best wants the finest BMX bike racers to race in this new track—called “Hell Track”—for a big event to make lots of money. Funny, how unsubtle this man is at being greedy, and no one can tell. Cru wants to race in it, but needs to finish a qualifying race first. Unfortunately, his mother is less interested in his biking skills, and more interested in making sure he takes his SATs on the day of the qualifying race.

The town is visited by the famous BMXers who aren’t impressed this small town—“I’m surprised the street’s even paved,” one of them says sneeringly. But one of the bikers is a pretty number named Christian (Lori Loughlin), who of course becomes Cru’s new girlfriend after they share a dance…with their bikes. I have to admit this is a nicely-choreographed sequence, but the problem is that it is choreographed.

So, in “RAD,” we have the unexpected hero, unsupportive mother, the nasty antagonists, the supportive girlfriend, and of course, the big race. Every sports film cliché is thrown in here. (Oh, and did I mention that the mother is played Talia Shire of the “Rocky” movies?) But I liked “RAD” for these reasons—I enjoyed the bike stunts, Cru is likable (despite being played by a not-so-good young actor), his girlfriend is good-looking, and I just had the same feeling I had for this movie that I did for the fourth “Rocky” film, which was also silly and cliché-driven.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

23 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Ferris Bueller is a bright high school senior who does everything he can possibly think of just to miss a day of school. He pretends to be sick, fools his parents, and then spends his day off cruising around Chicago with his girlfriend and his best friend. While in Chicago, he does whatever he wants.

No wonder Ferris Bueller, the main character in the fine teenage comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” is the most popular guy in school. He has a lot of self-confidence and uses it to do whatever he wants. He has this philosophy: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Ferris, played by Matthew Broderick, states this philosophy right to the camera. Just like Woody Allen’s characters, Ferris Bueller has the freedom to break the fourth wall and speak his mind. At first, it seems like skipping school is all Ferris has on his mind, but there is something more. He’s trying to gain his best friend some self-confidence of his own. His best friend, a wound-up teenager named Cameron (Alan Ruck), is sick and excused from school. He is also in a miserable living environment because his father cares more about his prized possession—a restored red Ferrari—than he does for his own son.

Ferris talks Cameron into helping him steal the Ferrari so they can pick up Ferris’ girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) from school (the excuse: dead grandmother). Together, the three of them spend the day in downtown Chicago—they go to the top of the Sears Tower, see the Board of Trade, have lunch at the Gold Coast, attend a game at Wrigley Field, go to the Art Museum, and see a German-American Day parade in which Ferris leaps aboard a float and has the street dancing to “Twist and Shout” (not a German song, but never mind). The marching band even backs him up on that last one. And a word about that Wrigley Field game—they arrive in the middle of the game and get box seats in the back. I know most kids would rather sit in the bleachers, but do you really think they could find seats in the bleachers when the game is midway?

Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane see the sights of Chicago (all except the Navy Pier, which is a lot of fun—I’ve been there a couple times). But Ferris isn’t just doing this for him—he’s showing his best friend Cameron a good time and how to gain self-respect and self-confidence. In that way, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is not only fun, but it’s sweet. When writer/director John Hughes (“Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink”) focuses on the teenagers, the film really does work. But what doesn’t work so much are the stuff with the adults. The parents aren’t given much to do, except be oblivious to Ferris’ scheme to skip school. Actually, that’s fine. But the school dean Rooney (well-played by Jeffrey Jones) is given a fair amount of screen time and while he’s very funny in the first half while he’s in his office at school, he’s reduced to many slapstick comedy situations once he leaves the school to hunt down Ferris and use him as an example to other students. Those slapstick comedy scenes don’t work, compared to the scenes involving Ferris and his friends. Another adult character is the dean’s secretary (Edie McClurg)—she’s funny and given the right amount of screen time. And she doesn’t leave the school. She’s in her element here.

There’s another character I should mention—Ferris’ twin sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey). Jeanie is trying to bust Ferris, just as much as Rooney. In the end of the film, she develops a brief but interesting relationship with a drug addict played by Charlie Sheen.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is a pleasant comedy with a brilliant protagonist and a nice theme of living life to the fullest. We should all be like Ferris Bueller.

Soul Man (1986)

11 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Whites passing for blacks” is not a subject easily done in movies. In the case of “Soul Man,” it just doesn’t work. This is the premise: a UCLA graduate can get into Harvard Law School, but he needs a scholarship and there’s one just right for him. The only problem is he’s not black and that’s a requirement. So he buys some special “tanning pills” and uses them, changing the color of his skin. So he gets the scholarship and passes for black.

Given this premise, “Soul Man” actually sounds like a semi-interesting idea for a movie. A man sees the world as someone else. Also, it sounds good as a comedy and we’ve seen it work in comic situations—remember that hilarious SNL skit in which Eddie Murphy posed as a white man? But it sounds even better as a comedy-drama. Unfortunately, “Soul Man” is reduced to idiotic TV sitcom situations and misses the entire point of this premise. It’s not race that needs to be showcased as much as ethics. This person is lying to everyone he meets and pretending to be someone he’s not…by masquerading as a black man.

C. Thomas Howell plays the now-black student. You probably know him as the protagonist in 1983’s “The Outsiders.” He’s a talented actor, but he just doesn’t have much to work with here. His character Mark Watson changes his skin color and gets a perm (though I think he looks more suntanned than black). He faces many situations at Harvard. His landlord isn’t pleased with him renting an apartment, a sex-crazed white woman has a father who doesn’t want him dating her, and then we get a lot of offbeat humor, in which stereotypical moments ensue. The basketball teams fight over who should pick Mark, they call him “Marcus,” he keeps running into a bunch of jerks who make racist jokes whenever he walks by, and he impersonates Stevie Wonder’s movements in order to disguise himself from somebody he knows. (And by the way, this is not by any means the real Harvard as much as it is a movie Harvard.) But he does meet two interesting characters. One of them is his black professor (James Earl Jones) who shows no pity. The other is a black fellow student (Rae Dawn Chong), whom Mark starts to like.

His interactions with these two people could make “Soul Man” very interesting and it makes you want to overcome its other scenes. But it just doesn’t have the wit that it needs to work. This is described as a comedy, yet its drama is a lot more interesting than anything that is supposed to be funny. Every joke here is predictable—you can see the punch line coming from a mile away.

And then once the first half is lacking in potential, the second half comes along and it’s just horrible. We get a Groucho Marx-type sequence in which the mad white woman is in Mark’s room, Chong is in the living room, and the parents (who do not know he’s black) are in the kitchen. So Mark is forced to go from place-to-place, sometimes changing his appearance in order to do so. At this point, I lost all hope for the movie.

It gets even worse when it reaches the courtroom scene, in which the wrong sort of dialogue is said in Mark’s defense when we all know this is a criminal offense. James Earl Jones should have confronted Mark about his lie. But no, he drops all charges after Mark apologizes. And I wanted Rae Dawn Chong and Mark to talk about this—just really talk about this situation.

Rae Dawn Chong and James Earl Jones give the best performances in this movie because they portray real characters. But I couldn’t identify with C. Thomas Howell as the main character Mark.

“Soul Man” is a trashy comedy that could’ve gone one way but ended up going another way—and that was the way I hated to see it go through.

The Hitcher (1986)

7 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Usually in horror movies of the 1980s, there is either lack of motivation or too much for the menacing figure that stalked the young hero (or heroes). Arguably, it makes the film more unnerving if there is no motive, but in the case with “The Hitcher,” there may be a motive that hardly anyone could have expected when about to watch it. And it’s a strange, creepily effective motive—to be stopped. The psychopathic title character, the “hitcher,” does his murderous deeds by way of causing misery for a young man’s life, because what he really wants is for this young man to stop him before the situation gets even worse.

I didn’t get this until the second time I watched “The Hitcher.” The first time I watched it, I just thought it was a pointless exercise in violence and gore. There are many gruesome murders and disgusting moments that involve a severed finger in some French fries and a dog licking the dripping blood of his murdered owner. Oh, and there’s also a scene in which the hero’s girlfriend is tied hand and foot between two huge trucks, and the hero has to make sure the hitcher doesn’t take his foot off the clutch of one of them, or the girl will be split in half.

But I digress. The second time I watched “The Hitcher,” my opinion of the film strangely changed. The violence and gore was one thing, but the escalating tension is clearly evident throughout. In that sense, I admired “The Hitcher” more and found it to be an effective thriller.

“The Hitcher” begins as a young man, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), goes driving at dawn, and picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer, chillingly charismatic). “My mother told me never to do this,” he tells the hitcher with a grin. Soon enough, he learns he should have taken his mother’s advice, because it turns out this brooding, tranquil stranger is a sick, murderous mind. He tells Jim that he mutilated the previous driver who picked him up and that he’s going to do the same to him. Before he can do anything to him, Jim manages to eject him from the car. But unfortunately, Jim hasn’t seen the last of the hitcher, who keeps appearing and murdering innocent people. And worst of all, Jim himself is framed for the murders as the hitcher continues to make his life a living hell.

One of the most intriguing things about “The Hitcher,” in my opinion, is that we know very little about the hitcher. He has neither a backstory nor a grudge. We just know he’s a sick, murderous mind that is like an ongoing force that seemingly can’t be stopped. And from what we can gather, he doesn’t want to kill Jim; he just wants to ruin his life. But there’s a unique twist here—it’s declared in nonspecific terms that the hitcher is doing this to Jim so that Jim will ultimately stand up and put an end to all of this madness by killing the hitcher. That’s as psychotic a motive as they come, especially considering that the hitcher is doing these terrible things in order for this to happen. And this includes tying a young waitress, Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to two trucks by her hands and feet.

“The Hitcher” may be gory and violent, but it has a great amount of suspense and mounting dread to keep it interesting, effective, and unnerving. The ending of this movie is a final showdown, but it’s more than you’d expect, in an unsettling way. It’s fierce, but it’s also psychological with a certain symbolic final shot that makes you question what really just happened. This is because you realize you never really understood the relationship between Jim and the hitcher, and that climax says a lot by displaying very little.

I’m actually surprised that I like “The Hitcher” more the second viewing. Its central elements are subtler than I originally thought, and the more I thought about it, the more fascinated I was with it. Others can easily dismiss this as just another deplorable slasher-flick. I think it’s better than that.

Aliens (1986)

31 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If 1979’s “Alien” is considered a science-fiction thriller, or rather a haunted-house movie set in space, then 1986’s “Aliens”—sequel to “Alien”—would be considered just a relentless series of sci-fi action sequences. And there’s not a thing wrong with that. “Aliens” is a gripping, adrenaline-fueled powerhouse of thrills, tension, and action. It throws just about everything it can think of right at you and hardly backs down.

Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ellen Ripley from the original “Alien.” She was the lone survivor of the terrifying events in “Alien”—when an alien creature found its way on a space ship and killed off the rest of the crew before Ripley was able to kill it. Now, a salvage crew has found the ship with her (and the loyal cat Jones) in cryonic sleep. Ripley is brought back to Earth, where she realizes how much time has passed and that her daughter is now deceased. She is also met with skepticism when she delivers her story about the alien. But an agent from the corporation—Burke (Paul Reiser)—has his suspicions when contact is lost on a vacation-planet, which also turns out to be the same planet where the alien was discovered. He plans to send a military team to check it out, and goes to Ripley to act as an advisor.

Reluctantly, she agrees, but only if none of the alien creatures of brought back to Earth.

That’s the setup to “Aliens,” which leads to absolute madness once Ripley, Burke, and the team reach the planet and discover just exactly what is living there. What they encounter are some of the nastiest, vicious, slimiest alien-monsters you’ll come across. And give special praise to Industrial Lights and Magic for making distinctive, realistic creatures that are so convincing that at times, you could actually be terrified of them, which is mainly the point of a monster movie.

Then the action picks up once the crew is forced to fight for their lives against an ever-growing army of aliens. With director James Cameron coming off the action-packed “The Terminator,” and Ridley Scott—director of the first “Alien” movie—not returning, it seemed necessary to let Cameron come in and see what he can do. Like “The Terminator,” Cameron uses a hostile, limited scenario to set up his action sequences before letting them upon us with suspense, tension, and just as important, a brisk pace. These are some pretty nifty action scenes.

Sigourney Weaver, reprising her role from the first “Alien” movie, is fantastic and makes an interesting heroine to follow. She plays Ripley as a psychologically distraught woman, stuck with the remorse of how everything on Earth has changed except for her, and now she’s forced to fight for her life, as well as the life of her surrogate daughter, on that planet. And speaking of the “surrogate daughter,” I forgot to mention the little girl that the team finds lost and alone on that planet. Her name is Newt (a nickname, I hope) and she’s put under the team’s protection as the aliens attack. This is where the human-interest part of the story kicks in—the mother/daughter relationship between Ripley and Newt. While the camaraderie among the rest of the crew is fun to watch, this relationship is the most touching in the film. I can think of many action films that don’t contain heart with its human characters amongst all the action and effects (and if the filmmakers realize that, they just force it anyway), but “Aliens” is not one of them.

The supporting actors do game jobs and their characters are fun and memorable. There’s Burke whom I’ve already mentioned, faced with the choice of doing the right thing while constantly…not. Then there’s the rest of the team—in particular, there’s Apone (Al Williams), subdued Hicks (Michael Biehn), smartass Hudson (Bill Paxton), and unflustered Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein). My favorite was Bishop (Lance Henriksen)—the quiet android on the ship that Ripley doesn’t trust, seeing as how the android on her last expedition tried to kill the crew himself in “Alien.” Ripley is on edge around him, though Bishop tries to keep his good nature and trying to remain trustworthy. Truth is, though, he may turn out to be more human than the actual humans, kind of like Mr. Spock in “Star Trek.”

From beginning to end, “Aliens” has us invested in its story. From the introduction to the discoveries to the many chases to the supposed final struggle to its twist ending, by the time this movie is over, we are exhausted by everything that has been thrown at us, but glad to have taken this journey. This is one wild ride.