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Aliens (1986)

31 Mar


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.

Short Circuit (1986)

27 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The only success that comes out of “Short Circuit” is a lovable creature. Everything else falls flat—the story, the acting, and the pacing. The creature is a robot called Number Five—it’s the most likable robotic special effect this side of R2D2. Unlike R2, which only has a comic personality by its constant beeping and translations by C-3PO, Number Five has a voice and a personality all its own.

The cute-looking robot comes from an assembly line of other robots, built by the military as weapons. But Number Five is different. After being struck by lightning, its circuits are fried in such a way that he is, in fact, alive in the way that it can think for itself. It is no longer controlled by the military anymore. Needing input, Number Five escapes the facility and wanders the streets.

This will not do. The robot’s creator (Steve Guttenberg) and his assistant (Fisher Stevens, a white man playing an Indian man—stereotypical accent and all) are sent to locate Number Five and bring it back, while also to disassemble in order to “find the bug.” They do not know Number Five is alive—how could anybody begin to fathom that? And soon, the whole military is out to find Number Five and shut it down…permanently.

Number Five finds a woman named Stephanie (Ally Sheedy). She’s a friendly animal lover and she thinks that Number Five is an alien seeking input on Earth. She shows it around the house and gives it an encyclopedia to read (it reads the whole thing in about ten seconds). When she realizes that Number Five is in fact a robot, she is about to turn it over to the military until she realizes that Number Five isn’t a robot at all—it can think, it’s alive. To disassemble it would be to kill it.

And so, “Short Circuit” becomes a similar movie to “E.T.” and not a particularly good one either. This movie is so full of cuteness that it really overstays its welcome. I didn’t like (or rather, I didn’t care the slightest for) any of the science involved, I didn’t think the story went anywhere special, and I certainly didn’t like the people involved. Steve Guttenberg is definitely not the best choice to play this brilliant scientist that created Number Five—he overacts and comes off as annoying, and when he’s not overacting, he’s just bland. Ally Sheedy is no better, partially because her character is so dim and not well thought out. The screenplay has a lot of faults to distracting effect. It’s dumb, obvious, and simple—this movie could play better to small children, but what is it really doing to their minds?

The only creative element of “Short Circuit” is Number Five. Voiced by Tim Blaney and constructed by the ILM Company, Number Five has a great comic personality. The robot is starving for more input and wouldn’t you know it? He watches so much TV that he sometimes mimics what he’s only seen on TV in order to get himself out of sticky situations. And it’s a great-looking robot—almost cute, if you really look at it. Number Five deserves a much better movie.

Lucas (1986)

15 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I have seen many high school movies in which the jock gets the cheerleader, the class brain is harassed, and the football team wins the big game at the end. However, with “Lucas,” it is as if I have never seen it before. What I mean is that this is truly an original high school movie with teenagers not full of lust, selfishness, and hate. Those three traits are what Hollywood filmmakers think every teenager has. For “Lucas,” what we have here is something really special—that very first feeling of falling in love.

Lucas (Corey Haim) is a truly original character. He is a teenager who doesn’t look old enough for high school (“I’m accelerated,” he proudly states), wears thick glasses, is shorter than the other teenagers at school, and is really a sweet kid. Every day, he goes into the fields to look at insects—he does not collect them, only looks at them. He’s also sort of an outcast because his mouthing off about useless information makes him the butt of the football team’s jokes.

One day, Lucas walks near a tennis court and sees her—we all know “her;” she’s that girl we all see for the first time and start to fall instantly in puppy love with. The girl’s name is Maggie (Kerri Green) and she is astonishingly beautiful. Lucas meets Maggie and not only is she beautiful; she is also smart. They soon begin talking. Lucas becomes sort of a guidance counselor to her—saying that sports and cheerleading are just superficial. The two soon become fast friends. They play tennis, they have nice little talks, they even listen to classical music from inside a sewer tunnel. Lucas is deeply in love with Maggie, but she is two years older than him. Maggie sees him as a real good friend and declares him “special.”

Things go great until school starts. Other teenagers are out to make Lucas miserable and Maggie starts to fall for Cappie (Charlie Sheen), the captain of the football team. Then, she considers trying out for cheerleading. Soon, Maggie and Cappie go together to the school dance. That makes Lucas jealous. Therefore, he tries out for the football team to see if he will make an impression.

The film centers on the Lucas character—he’s not like one of those cute-boy roles who just look at the camera as if saying “Aren’t I cute?” He sports thick glasses, is skinny, and has a gift for talking himself into situations where he doesn’t belong. Corey Haim, who plays the kid, is excellent for the part. He gives us one of the most interesting and complicated portrayals of a teenager I’ve ever seen. Haim is wonderful as Lucas. Also, the other two main actors in this movie are Kerri Green (“The Goonies”) as Maggie the loved one and Charlie Sheen as the football captain. They’re both effective as well. Green gives a wonderful performance as sweet, sensitive Maggie and Sheen gives a nice surprise to his character in an especially effective performance. His character of the popular jock is original because he isn’t played as the jerk that practically rubs everything into everyone’s face and wins the heart of the girl with his position in the game. Instead, the original part and the surprising aspect is that he likes Lucas. He protects him from the bullies at school and does what he can to keep him from getting hurt and while he won Maggie away from Lucas, he still cares for the kid’s feelings. Sheen is given the most difficult role in the film and he pulls it off big time. All three performances by Haim, Green, and Sheen really make this film work.

The performances aren’t the only things that make “Lucas” work. There are many scenes in this movie that are just so well-written and so well-directed, it’s just so hard to decide which one is the best. Almost every scene in this movie works with great dialogue, terrific characterization, and excellent performances. The last half of the movie worries us a little because it revolves around the “big game.” Of course when a movie talks about football and has a couple of scenes of football practice, you’d expect a “big game.” And of course, you’d expect the underdog to impress the girl by winning the game and getting the respect he deserves and then, the credits start to roll. But you’d be wrong. As it turns out, the “big game” succeeds far from falling into predictability. What a relief too.

Director/writer David Seltzer has given us a real terrific piece of work. He obviously knows that not all teenagers are full of lust, selfishness, and vulgarity, but that there are a lot that are actually sensitive, innocent, and vulnerable. When the kids in this movie talk, we’re actually interested in what they have to say. “Lucas” is smart, funny, sweet, non-condescending, non-vulgar, and very well-done with the three great performances, well-executed sequences, and a terrific script. I love this movie.

The Boy Who Could Fly (1986)

14 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Boy Who Could Fly” is a movie with a great deal of sentimentality. But that’s the point. This movie didn’t need to hint out the moral to its story—it just says it out loud in the final scene. What you’ll be more impressed with is how magical it seems, given that it takes place in everyday suburban life. It’s touching, it moves, and you feel good by the time the movie is over. You either get into it, or you don’t. I did.

As the title suggests, there is a boy and he could fly. But here’s the real situation—the teenage boy, named Eric (Jay Underwood), is autistic and is constantly sitting out on his windowsill, pretending to fly. Sometimes he will even go to the roof of his own house and pretend. According to a teacher at school, Eric’s parents died in a plane crash and Eric started to pretend to fly at that exact moment, as if he could’ve saved them. Eric lives in an urban home with his constantly-drunken uncle Hugo (Fred Gwynne), who isn’t abusive but more confused because of the alcohol. He claims he has seen the boy fly, but then again, he sees a lot of things. And then there’s the story of how Eric may have flown up to a power pole to hide a neighbor’s BB gun, as well as a situation in which he is sitting at the main character’s window and when the main character turns away and back, he’s back on his own windowsill. Can he really fly? Who knows?

The main character—a 14-year-old girl named Milly Michaelson (played by Lucy Deakins)—is already told the stories about Eric’s parents and Eric’s actual flying. She also sees him pretend to fly while sitting on his windowsill. Since she moved into the house next door to Eric, she can’t help but wonder about him. She suddenly feels like it’s her responsibility to watch out for him—she’s the one who “rescues” Eric from the roof of the house (I used quotation marks because Uncle Hugo says later that he couldn’t fall). As time goes by, she and Eric become close with one another. She seems to be the only thing that can break Eric free of his world of fantasy. First he mimics her every move, then (slowly but naturally) realizes what he’s doing and tries to do his best around her. But the problem is, you never can tell what he’s thinking or even if he’s thinking. He only cares about flying…and right now, he also cares about Milly. At one point, he catches a fly ball that almost hits Milly in the head so you can tell he can set his mind to one thing, even if that one thing is caring for Milly’s wellbeing.

Then something happens. Milly is saved from almost certain death when she slips and falls off the side of the bridge while reaching for a flower. The only one that could have saved her life was Eric, who was with her at the time…and the only way he could’ve possibly saved her is if he flew.

“The Boy Who Could Fly” does a nice job of setting up its story by introducing the characters. Milly has moved into this urban neighborhood (complete with white picket fences and identical houses) with her single mother (Bonnie Bedelia) and little brother Louis (Fred Savage). The father, revealed in a scene with a cameo by Louise Fletcher as a psychiatrist, had committed suicide when he realized he had cancer, leaving the family in dismay. Milly is in high school trying to fit in with the snobby types all around her; her mother is back to doing her job in the insurance company but doesn’t know how to use a computer; and feisty Louis has his own little adventures as he tries to get around the block on his tricycle (bullies and a Rottweiler keep stopping him). We’re also introduced to Milly’s nice teacher (Colleen Dewhurst), who believes Milly can get through to Eric when no one else can.

This seems like the kind of movie Frank Capra would have liked to make—a movie that actually tells a story with compelling characters and a neat storyline. The ending, though, is somewhat preposterous but to be fair, you can already see it coming even if you don’t want to. But I was satisfied, nonetheless. In fact, before I was typing this, I was considering a three-star rating for this. I know now that I would much rather rate it three-and-a-half. That’s the kind of impression this movie left on me.

Another reason this movie works is acting, especially with the lead performance by Lucy Deakins. Deakins is wonderful as Milly. Every line of dialogue she says, you believe her. She’s so warm, empathetic, pretty, sensitive, and believable. I liked Jay Underwood, controlled and convincing as Eric; Bonnie Bedelia, convincing as a housewife mourning her dead husband; and Fred Savage who has a watchable kinetic energy to his performance.

I guess I should tell you the moral (if you want the movie to tell you itself, stop reading): if you believe and love long enough, anything is possible. It’s not subtle, but I got into it anyway because everything leading up to it. It earned its message, and “The Boy Who Could Fly” is a treasure of a movie.

Three Amigos! (1986)

11 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When “Three Amigos” started, I was sure I was in for a treat. I laughed at the very beginning when the three stars of the film called the Three Amigos—silent film stars who dress in strangely designed outfits and hats and cummerbunds; and the three stars are played by Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short—sing the opening song, “The Credo of the Three Amigos.” That opening scene is very funny and it assured me that I was going to enjoy this movie.

Now, if whatever assured me I was going to like this movie was a person, I’d sock him in the nose because once the film actually started after that wonderful opening, I was just plain bored. This is not a good movie—it just didn’t do it for me. It wastes the comedic energies of the three actors, who can be very funny, and bores us with a dull storyline.

The movie takes place in the Old West around Mexico. The Three Amigos wear the same funny-looking costumes in their silent films so that in the movie, everybody either looks at them with respect or confusion. That joke is repetitive and gets lame. When a small village in Mexico is under siege, they’re called upon by the villagers who believe that they really are heroes, bona fide gunfighters. Of course the three guys think they’re making a personal appearance, so they steal their outfits from the Hollywood studio and head out to the village.

They meet the villains and have fun with them and they realize after a long time that they’re facing real danger with real guns. After hesitation, they decide to roll up their sleeves and become the Three Amigos for real. So they go through the desert, searching for the bad guys to challenge them.

Uh…yeah, I’m pretty sure there are better Westerns than this. “Three Amigos” wants to be funny and sweet and there are only three real funny and beautiful moments. One is that opening scene I mentioned above. Another is a scene that satirizes the Technicolor backdrop of the old Westerns with the Amigos singing a song around a campfire with the horses and owls joining in. And the last is right after that scene in which the Amigos encounter a singing bush. Strangely, the best moments in this movie all have something to do with composer/singer Randy Newman, who wrote the songs and performs as the singing bush. All three of those moments are funny. If the film had more of those, the film would be going somewhere nice. But instead, we have actors walking around like they don’t know what they’re doing and in the desert, no less. The plot gets boring.

I’ve seen a lot of “pre-‘Amigos’” Saturday Night Live sketches and I know Martin Short is a terrific manic comedian. This was his first movie. He looks excited to be in a movie, but he seems restrained because he doesn’t do anything manic. He just stands there, looking happy to be there—unlike Chevy Chase, who looks dead throughout the whole film. He doesn’t have many lines and he is barely used. Steve Martin is somewhat miscast as the straight man of the bunch. It pains me that these actors’ comedic energies are wasted in this movie. The script takes no chances with them.

Director John Landis has directed some very funny movies (his films include “Animal House,” “Blues Brothers,” and “Trading Places”); “Three Amigos” is not one of them.

SpaceCamp (1986)

9 Mar

joaquin phoenix SpaceCamp

Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“SpaceCamp” had the misfortune of being released around the time of the tragic 1986 Challenger accident. The movie features a group of kids accidentally sent into space after a failure engine test on a shuttle, and the movie handles it very tensely so you couldn’t help but have flashbacks of that terrible occurrence with the Challenger. So the film wasn’t necessarily dead on arrival, but it certainly was doomed on arrival.

But how does the film itself hold up nowadays? Better, but that’s not saying much.

The movie is about a group of teenagers at NASA Space Camp. On a roll call by their astronaut host Andie (Kate Capshaw), there’s Kathryn (Lea Thompson, “Back to the Future”), a space enthusiast who really wants to be shuttle commander for the camp’s shuttle simulation, but is shifted to pilot; Kevin (Tate Donavan), a ne’er-do-well slacker who only signed up for Space Camp for his own Jeep, and has the hots for Kathryn; Tish (Kelly Preston), a new-age girl with a photographic memory; Rudy (Larry B. Scott) who lacks confidence; and Max (Joaquin Phoenix), the younger kid who is also a “Star Wars” fanatic and loves to spew its references.

In the first half of the movie, we see them go through the standard Space Camp procedures, though not standard to most of us watching it. Actually, this is one of the pleasures of the film—watching certain detail of the technical aspects at this camp has a real appeal. In particular, there’s a flight simulator and a pilot mechanical chair that spins about. I would have liked to see more of these elements, but they make way for moments of teenage melodrama, including a romance between Kevin and Kathryn that isn’t as interesting as what they’re going through with the camp activities.

I’ve heard arguments that the kids aren’t very bright and they make many mistakes. Well…some of these kids are first-timers. What do you expect? But then again, Andie puts a lot of pressure on them, like she expects more from them after what I guess is a week! No wonder they mess up badly in the simulator.

And if you can believe this, the Camp thinks this group is the right one to actually sit inside an actual shuttle during an engine test. How they were chosen after the washout simulator test is beyond me. And on top of that, why would NASA allow real kids to sit inside a real shuttle while real rockets are being fired? Shouldn’t they have taken into consideration that something could go wrong—something like, say…thermal curtain failure?

For those who don’t know, the movie explains that thermal curtain failure is very rare and it means that only one rocket will launch the shuttle and cause it to crash. Surely enough, through the efforts of an annoying robot (voiced by Frank Welker) befriended by Max that takes everything too literally, the thermal curtain does fail and NASA is forced to launch the shuttle, lest the shuttle crashes with the kids inside it.

So the kids, along with Andie, are thrust into space. At first, it seems like a dream come true. In a marvelous scene, we see them float around the cabin and get a great view of the sun setting on Earth. But there’s the issue of getting home without burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. There’s no radio contact and there’s only one tank of oxygen left that won’t leave enough time for them to make the nearest window home. Luckily, Andie is an experienced astronaut and there’s a currently-under-construction space station that’s nearby with plenty of oxygen tanks.

The film has its share of chilling moments that should have been exciting. For a family film, this conflict is too heavy. We have many scenes that come across as unsettling. Like, how about we let the little boy out into space to help get the oxygen tanks from the unfinished space station?! Let’s have him suddenly lose control and fly out into space so Andie can save him! Then let’s have the conflict of hooking up the tank the right way! Then let’s have the final climax in which Kathryn must get the shuttle through the atmosphere without incinerating everyone on board! This is supposed to be a high-powered family adventure, right?

So I’m guessing people didn’t like “SpaceCamp” because it reminded them too much of the risks of being in space rather than being bewildered by the amazing emptiness of it all, not just because of the Challenger accident. While the special effects are impressive and the acting isn’t so bad (Kate Capshaw stops whining for once and Lea Thompson shows a sense of conviction to her role), “SpaceCamp” isn’t as wonderful as we’d like to think a movie about kids going into space would be. Maybe if it was just about a group of juvenile space nuts and their lives at space camp—learning all the technical aspects while also adjusting their social lives—it would be a nice, entertaining movie. As it is, it’s a half-baked adventure.

The Manhattan Project (1986)

28 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Manhattan Project” is probably mentioned, if at all, in the same league as “WarGames” and “Real Genius”—you know, the kind of comedy/thriller in which intelligent teenagers are able to make the kind of scientific advances that intelligent adults would be envious of. In my opinion, however, “The Manhattan Project” is probably the best in this category. Some people have called this one the most preposterous (and boring) of the lot. I never saw that. I believed what was happening in the story, and was entertained by the events that occurred once the “science experiment” element was underway. I wasn’t bored; I was invested.

One major advantage that “The Manhattan Project” has for itself is its young hero. He’s very smart, like the other kids in the movies I mentioned. But he’s still a kid—he can get envious, he can be zealous, and he doesn’t always make the wisest choices. Whatever bad choice he makes isn’t because he’s smart, but because when all is said and done, he’s still a kid.

By the way, I like that he’s not labeled as a “geek” or a “nerd” because of his brain—though, that’s because he mostly uses his intelligence for mischief. In an opening scene, he pulls a prank on the jerkiest nerd in his high school, using what random (or are they random?) substances in chemical lab.

The kid is Paul Stevens (Christopher Collet), a 16-year-old boy-genius. He’s self-aware in the way of making sure he isn’t known for being as much a nerd as the very one he pranked (if he was, the other kids in the class wouldn’t have cheered him on like they did). And he observes and listens closely to everything he finds interesting. In the case of the movie’s plot, it’s the “medical company” in his hometown of Ithaca, New York, that interests him. Paul’s mother (Jill Eikenberry) is dating one of the workers of this new development—Dr. John Mathewson (John Lithgow)—and Paul decides to check it out for himself. Dr. Mathewson gives him a tour, showing him “one of the sexiest lasers in the entire free world” (I’m serious—that’s what he calls it, trying to relate to the kid), but what Paul quietly realizes is that the place is actually a laboratory for testing plutonium.

Feeling like he’s been duped, Paul decides to expose the lab. His aspiring-journalist girlfriend Jenny (Cynthia Nixon) suggests writing an exposé on the matter, but Paul has something more extreme in mind. His plan is to sneak in, grab some plutonium from the lab, and use it to create his own atomic bomb, which he will enter in the upcoming science fair!

If that doesn’t make front-page news, I don’t know what will!

And surely enough, Paul does build a nuclear bomb and plans to unveil at the science fair. But the government agents bent on keeping their secret find out about it, and so Paul and Jenny are on the run, viewed as young terrorists. Now it’s up to Paul’s smarts to get them out of trouble.

One of the best things about “The Manhattan Project” is that it shows the action in such a way that it makes it all seem plausible. Take the heist sequence in which Paul sneaks into the lab to steal a bottle of plutonium—this sequence lasts almost a half-hour, showing every little detail that made it work credibly. Then there’s a montage showing Paul put together for his bomb (mostly with household appliances). The whole midsection of “The Manhattan Project” is all about showing the process…and I am aware that this is probably why people found this movie “boring.” Funny, I would’ve thought they wanted more explaining. (Though, if that happened, I worry kids would have tried making their bomb from household objects.)

The only thing that didn’t seem plausible to me was that Paul and Jenny planned their heist so quickly that it all goes well without a hitch.

The writing is very smart. It treats its characters cleverly with enough ingenuity. I actually barely began to talk about probably the most complex character in the film. Not Paul, but Mathewson. While this is in many ways Paul’s story, it’s Mathewson that has the strongest emotional arc in “The Manhattan Project.” As the movie opens, he’s showing off his new creation and is very proud of his work. But as the movie progresses, he sees more clearly that he is no better than the Army and government who try to silence Paul to protect this secret—if not by reason, then by force. He knows there must be a way to protect Paul and also a chance for self-redemption. It also leaves for some tense sequences in which you figure out along with the characters how they’re going to get themselves out of each situation that comes.

The screenplay is also smart in the way it develops this relationship between Paul and Mathewson, especially since Mathewson may having an affair with Paul’s mother, and how they deal with that as well. And also, it pauses every now and then for moments such as when Paul has to help Mathewson with a specific mathematic formula. Moments like that are pleasurable in such a way that they give the characters more dimensions than you’d expect just from hearing the film’s premise.

The ending is probably when the movie is at its most predictable, in which the bomb is finally armed, after a series of complicated events. However, it is pretty inventive in the way it has smart people helping other smart people, not with force, but with reason just like Mathewson would like to do.

With strong acting by the principal actors (Collet, Lithgow, Nixon, Eikenberry, and also John Mahoney as one of the government types), smart writing, and intriguing moments that combine everyday conflicts with a “what-if” science-experiment element, “The Manhattan Project” is a tense, fun, well-crafted (not to mention, underrated) thriller.

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

24 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Well it figures that, in a Disney animated feature, when a father and daughter are having a good time, and the little daughter calls her father the “best daddy in the whole world,” it only makes it necessary for the father to suddenly be taken out of the picture. This way, she can embark on the movie’s adventure. But here’s a surprise (for a Disney animated movie)—the father isn’t dead. He’s just been kidnapped, that’s all.

The main gimmick of Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective,” a very well-put-together family-adventure, is that the main characters are all mice and rats living in Victorian London. It’s like a parallel world underneath our own, which makes sense considering the title character (indeed a “great mouse detective”) lives under the dwelling of Sherlock Holmes. The film draws heavily on traditional Sherlock Holmes elements—of course, for example, the main character, named Basil, is a heroic mouse who has the intelligence and personality of the famous fictional detective.

The aforementioned little girl (or mouse, whatever) witnesses her father being captured by a nasty, peg-legged bat. So with the aid of friendly Dr. Dawson, she tracks down the rodent-equivalent of Sherlock Holmes himself, Basil of Baker Street. She hopes that Basil will be able to help get her father back. While following a series of clues, Basil, Dawson, and the girl (aided by a loyal dog named Toby) set out to rescue the kidnapped parent and stop an evil scheme devised by a villainous sewer rat named Ratigan, whose plan requires the help of the father.

By the way, the father is a toymaker and Ratigan plans to use his inventiveness to create a robotic clone of the mouse Queen, so that it can trick the attendees of a royal event into thinking that Ratigan is now ruler of the land…I am aware of how dumb that sounds, but I’ll let it slide because it’s Disney-magic. The mice talk, yet Toby the dog and Ratigan’s pet cat don’t. Let them do whatever they want.

“The Great Mouse Detective” is quite the entertaining Disney film. It takes us on a wild adventure through this intriguing mouse-world and has sequence upon sequence of pure delight and mystery. It will delight kids, and also keep their parents entertained as well.

While it does feature a little mouse-world mixing with the giant human world, what “The Great Mouse Detective” is really centered around are the characters that go through it and have this adventure. The hero and villain are very enjoyable. Basil (voiced by Barrie Ingham) is a great hero to follow—he’s quick-thinking; he’s intelligent; he’s observant; he’s energetic; and he’s narcissistic yet still very likeable. You can tell that from the first moment he arrives on screen that you’re going to enjoy watching this guy (or mouse) on this film’s journey. And the villain is great. Ratigan is voiced by Vincent Price, whose sliminess is very existent in his voiceover work for this character. Ratigan is brilliant, dastardly evil, and enjoys every second of what he does. He’s enjoying what he does so much that even we as a result can’t help but enjoy it as well. The hero and villain of “The Great Mouse Detective” are very appealing, and they play off each other perfectly as two intelligent minds trying to outwit each other.

Dawson, who becomes Basil’s loyal sidekick, is also very likeable. With nervous mannerisms, a distinguished quality to himself, and a loyalty that leads to bravery as the journey continues, Dawson is an effective equivalent of Holmes’ partner Dr. Watson.

But being a Disney animated feature, the animation deserves credit, especially since this is apparently the first time Disney used computer-generated animation. What really stands out among this animation is the climax, in which Basil and Ratigan have a showdown in the clock tower. The way this sequence is animated is just so fascinating, and the way it’s put together makes for a quite intense fight scene.

“The Great Mouse Detective” constantly gets overlooked when it comes to mentioning Disney animated films, but it really is a small treasure. It may be the mouse version of the Sherlock Holmes story, but don’t let that throw you off. It’s an entertaining movie with terrific animation, interesting characters, and a good sense of fun.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

18 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Star Trek” has been known as ideal science fiction—it’s an intriguing, fun presentation of ideas and creativity when it’s not filled with action and visuals like the “Star Wars” movies. The “Star Trek” TV show, created by Gene Roddenberry, may have been silly in execution, but you can’t deny that there was effort to try and make it work. There were interesting concepts and fun characters to follow, even if the effects were pretty cheesy.

Then, the movies based on the series came about. The first movie—“Star Trek: The Motion Picture”—had some creativity put into it, but was mostly a dull attempt to become the next visual treat (complete with long effects shots of the ship moving into space…slowly). The second movie—“The Wrath of Khan”—was an improvement, bringing back the imagination, the terror and excitement of the subjected “trek,” and the same chemistry among the characters seen in the series. The Vulcan Spock sacrificed his life to save his friends on the U.S.S. Enterprise at the end of that movie, leaving an open door for the third movie—“The Search for Spock”—that brought Spock back to life, but after the others deal with those menacing alien species known as Klingons.

That brings us to the fourth movie “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” which in my opinion is the most imaginative and most enjoyable in the series.

“The Voyage Home” takes place where “The Search of Spock” left off. Spock is brought back to life on the Vulcan planet and the rest of the crew have to repair a stolen Klingon ship (after the Enterprise was destroyed in the previous movie) to get back. But there isn’t going to be a welcome back, as they’re approaching a court martial for blowing up their ship and disrupting the “peace treaty.” Yeah, ‘cause Klingons are known for peace after blowing up whatever they don’t understand, but I digress.

Now, see if you can follow this. A space probe threatens to destroy the Earth by draining all of its oceans, unless its call is responded to. The Enterprise crew, on their way back home, receives a distress call from Earth and discovers what the call means. Unfortunately, the call comes from the sound of humpback whales, a species extinct in the 23rd century. They have a new mission—to travel back in time to the late 20th century and pick up some humpback whales to bring back to the future with them so they can answer the probe, thus saving Earth.

It’s fitting that “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” would be released the same year as “Crocodile Dundee”—both movies have a plot element known as the “fish-out-of-water” tale. In “Crocodile Dundee,” an Australian jungle guide was brought to venture New York City. In “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” the Enterprise crew—Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. Bones McCoy (Deforest Kelley), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei), Scotty (James Doohan), and Chekov (Walter Koenig)—are in the year 1986 to explore San Francisco, California. When you know who these characters are and become accustomed to them, it’s a lot of fun to see them in strange places. What stranger place for them to explore than…ours?

All of this is good fun. I imagine the writers of “The Voyage Home” must have decided to forget the stuff with the Klingons and the family history involving Kirk (his son died in the previous movie), and decided to have some fun with this series. There are some very funny bits using the fish-out-of-water formula—Sulu, the pilot of the Enterprise, is now flying a simple helicopter; Scotty, the computer expert on the Enterprise, is working simple systems and baffling a curious computer operator in the process; and Chekov…well, let’s just say a Russian in the Cold War era asking where he can find nuclear vessels (to power the ship they came in) is not in good taste.

The funniest bits involve Mr. Spock as an alien come down to Earth. He uses a headband to cover his pointed ears, so people just think he’s some weirdo. He uses his sleeper hold on a punk who has his boombox turned up too loud on a public bus. And he can’t pass off as human—he learns from Kirk that adding profanity in every other sentence is effective; Spock can’t pull it off. He also can’t tell lies, so there’s constant banter between him and Kirk, particularly when they’re asked if they like Italian food—“Yes.” “No.” “No.” “Yes.”

The crew finds a pair of humpback whales held in captivity. A marine biologist (played with great spunk by Catherine Hicks) plans to release the whales into the ocean. It’s Kirk and Spock’s job to find out when that will happen so they can set out to find them and beam them aboard their ship (there’s a special tank for them, in case you’re wondering). This means that Kirk must ask her out to dinner.

This entire portion of the Enterprise crew in 1986 San Francisco is the best part of the movie. The setup is typical and the final climax is the least interesting part of the movie. But when they’re in San Francisco, the movie is a good deal of fun. It’s not just entertaining because of the situations the characters get into, but also because since it’s the fourth movie, there was time to develop the relationship between the crew, after a whole TV series and three feature-length adventures. There’s a sense of easy interaction among these characters; they talk with each other, gently joke with each other, and seem comfortable with each other.

“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” is fun and imaginative without having to resort to a real villain or a lot of action (the sequence at the end is a pushover). Instead, it tells an intriguing story that allows the characters to breathe (with an interesting romance between Kirk and the marine biologist) and enlivens comic situations that could have been silly in the wrong hands. “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” is a fun voyage indeed.

Children of a Lesser God (1986)

14 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When someone going to the movies sees a title like “Children of a Lesser God” on the marquee, I imagine just looking at the title turns them off, not knowing at all what the movie is about. And I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t feel the same way—I did feel the same way having heard the title a few times, not knowing what the film was about. Thankfully, after watching a vintage 1986 “Siskel & Ebert” two-thumbs-up review of the film, I was interested in what they were saying about the film so I was actually interested in the film itself.

“Children of a Lesser God”—how pretentious of a title could you get? That may seem like a downer title for a film, but the truth is, the actual film itself is a true delight.

“Children of a Lesser God” is a love story, and a wonderful one at that. It’s the story of a relationship that develops between a young woman who is deaf and a teacher determined to bring her out of her shell. Along the way, the teacher learns about love and about accepting his lover’s needs.

William Hurt plays the teacher, named James Leeds. He has an impressive resume and is welcome to teach at a school for the deaf, where he’ll teach his students to read lips and speak without using sign language. His methods are somewhat unusual but very effective, like, for example, when he stands on his head and can’t use his hands for sign language so he must speak, or when he uses timing and rhythms to teach music to the students.

On his first day at the school, a beautiful woman Sarah (Marlee Matlin) catches his eye. Sarah works at the school as a janitor, is very bright but also very stubborn, and is completely deaf. He wants to know more about her, and arranges for her to meet with him so he can teach her to speak. But Sarah couldn’t be less interested—she doesn’t believe she needs to learn how to speak. She’s accustomed to being deaf and using sign language all her life and doesn’t feel like she needs to belong in a hearing world. This brings more determination from James to bring Sarah out of her shell, but he also finds himself more and more attracted to her. “You’re the most mysterious, beautiful, angry woman I’ve ever met,” he finally tells her.

James and Sarah do go out on a date together and that leads to trust and respect for each other’s company, but the tension and determination is still there for James and he knows that Sarah will never break. But if she could have a meaningful relationship, would it matter?

A love story, especially one as complicated as this one, wouldn’t work unless there was chemistry amongst the leads. William Hurt and Marlee Matlin play characters who are constantly in a battle of wits, but mostly attracted to each other because of their own qualities. Hurt and Matlin work great together—they’re comfortable with each other and you can feel their chemistry on screen as their relationship continues.

The writing of “Children of a Lesser God” is just fabulous. There are many great moments in the story—not just with the relationship between James and Sarah, but with James and his students. The first scenes in which he teaches them to speak are freshly well-handled. There’s also a scene midway through the film in which they dance and sing to a pop song on Parent’s Day.

My favorite scene in the film comes after a loud party at James’ apartment with James’ students. When everything is finally quiet, James tells Sarah that he’s going to rest his hands and his eyes and just listen to 20 minutes of Bach. He says he hasn’t been able to listen to Bach since Sarah moved into his home, Sarah thinks he blames her, James says otherwise, Sarah says to go ahead, James turns on the music and listens for a moment…he can’t enjoy it. He sees Sarah sitting at a table, staring off into space and waiting. That’s when James thinks, how can he enjoy it if Sarah can’t enjoy it? And then Sarah asks him to “show” him the music like she “shows” him the sound of the ocean waves. He can’t do it. That’s a beautifully-written, wonderfully-acted scene that pretty much states the purpose of the entire relationship—if he truly loves her, he must welcome himself into her world of silence.

William Hurt has been good in movies before, mainly because he acts in roles that are written within his limitations—he’s not terribly exciting or expressive, but he’s mostly charismatic. This is his first role after his flamboyant Oscar-winning performance in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and in an arguably more demanding role, he’s just fine. Marlee Matlin, who really is deaf, has the more complicated role—using facial expressions, body language, and sign language to get her point across. In a silent role, she owns the screen. She’s beautiful, forceful, haunting, and all-around brilliant as Sarah—it’s an excellent performance. And like I said, both Hurt and Matlin have great chemistry together, and I cared very much about their characters. Another good performance comes from Piper Laurie as Sarah’s mother, who hasn’t seen her daughter in quite a long time and regrets that.

When all is said and done, James realizes that he should become part of Sarah’s world if they are together in love and learns a thing or two about respect for deafness and about respect for his lover. “Children of a Lesser God” is a wonderful love story with clever storytelling, great acting, and a subject that really should be taken into consideration. And don’t let that downer title fool you—“Children of a Lesser God” is great.