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My Favorite Movies – Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

23 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Here’s one from my personal top 100. No, top 50. No, you know what? Maybe even top 10! It’s pretty much my definition of “a perfect movie,” and since it takes place around Thanksgiving, it’s declared the ultimate “Thanksgiving movie.” What better time of year to talk about it?

I’m of course talking about “Pieces of April.” What a delightfully droll indie gem with a winning performance from Katie Holmes as a quirky, rebellious young woman struggling to make everything perfect for her dying mother because this might be her last Thanksgiving– No, it’s obviously Planes, Trains & Automobiles. OF COURSE it’s “Planes, Trains & Automobiles!” Why would it be anything other than “PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES??”

Sorry, not sorry. I love this movie. (Btw, “Pieces of April” is really freaking good too.)

Where do I begin with this one? Why do I love it so? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s my idea of a “dramedy”–part comedy, part drama, and overall wonderful. With movies like this, City Lights, and 50/50, among others, I’ve learned that if there’s anything more important than a comedy that makes you laugh…it’s one that makes you feel.

Where does the comedy come in? Well, Steve Martin and John Candy are a great comic duo with differing personalities–Martin’s Neal Page is an uptight, tidy marketing exec; Candy’s Del Griffith is a messy, joyous (and blabbering) traveling salesman (of shower curtain rings). They meet by chance as they try to fly from New York City to Chicago. Del doesn’t have a good first impression after inadvertently stealing Neal’s cab en route to the airport, and it gets even worse when they’re seated together on the plane and Del WILL NOT SHUT UP. When a snowstorm forces them to land in Wichita, Del helps Neal find a motel room to sleep in…and one bed for them to share together.

We’re not even a half-hour in before Neal totally loses his cool with this slob. Del’s a good-natured guy, but he’s just too much for Neal when it comes to being friendly. And Neal blows up and lets him have it; at one point, he states that he could tolerate an insurance seminar before sitting next to Del on the plane and listening to him tell his boring anecdotes again. This kind of thing usually happens near the final act of your typical buddy comedy–but this is not your typical buddy comedy, as writer-director John Hughes will assure you. (This isn’t the only time Hughes toys with conventional story elements in this movie.)

Steve Martin’s long rant is funny…but the scene doesn’t entirely play for laughs. During this rant, we often cut back to John Candy’s face as the character takes it all in with genuine pain–and when Martin is finally done, Candy delivers a heartfelt monologue of his own, resulting in a wonderfully touching moment that makes me forget I’m watching a comedy.

Oh, and the morning after…is always a riot to watch. (“THOSE AREN’T PILLOWS!”)

This is only the first act! The rest of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” includes a lot of great moments that follow, such as Neal trying to lose Del while fate keeps bringing them back together, they take a train, they rent a car, Neal has his infamous profane breakdown in front of an auto clerk, Neal and Del realize THEY’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY on an expressway, they finally become friends and learn a lot about each other on their journey to get Neal home in time for Thanksgiving dinner with his family… There’s just so much going on in this movie, and at barely an hour-and-a-half of running time, every minute counts.

A lot of it is very funny and the rest of it is very endearing. I already mentioned Del’s reaction to Neal’s angry words towards him (which is one of my favorite moments in any film honestly). But there are some more tearjerking moments that come right near the end.

And this movie earns those tears. We’ve spent this entire movie getting to know these two characters, and by the end of it all, we love them both.

Oh, and here’s a delicious piece of irony–if Del and Neal had just stayed at the Wichita airport, they would’ve been able to catch a flight out and make it to Chicago right on time. But where’s the fun in that?

I truly love this movie and I’ll be watching it with my family this Thanksgiving Day. It is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time.

My Favorite Movies – Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

4 Jul

By Tanner Smith

I always liked “Good Morning, Vietnam” and called it one of my “ALMOST-favorite” movies, but now I can’t help but look at it in a whole new way that’s not only fascinating but worth analyzing. Thus, its placement here.

I mean, I don’t spend a whole lot of time analyzing the whole deal with the Vietnam conflict and the contradiction of love in the time of killing. That’s obvious, especially since this film was criticized for being “a comedy about the Vietnam War.” No, I’m talking about Robin Williams and his performance.

I’ll get to that. Anyway, it started when I binged a lot of old “Siskel & Ebert” reviews and came across their review of “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Ebert talked about what intrigued him more about Robin Williams’ performance as radio DJ Adrian Cronauer:

“He plays a guy who is all words. There is a wall between whoever is inside that character and his words. He uses the humor, the standup comedy, the one-liners–to hold people off. And at the end of the movie, curiously enough, we know a lot about the personalities of all of the supporting characters, but that central Robin Williams character is still a complete mystery. There is no glimpse into it. And that, to me, is brilliant, because it shows a certain kind of comic personality that I haven’t seen in the movies before, where the comedians are using the humor to say, ‘Don’t look inside. I’m going to keep you laughing the whole time.'”

Considering what we know about Robin Williams now (or what we concluded, anyway), it’s kind of eerie how spot-on that statement is. If only Ebert knew that was probably the kind of person Williams was in real life…

I’ve seen the movie about 6 or 7 times in my life, and that thought about Williams’ character never crossed my mind. I just saw it as Robin Williams at the top of his game in terms of hilarity–right up there with his Genie character. Listening to Ebert’s analysis about him inspired me to check it out again. So, I did…

Ebert’s right. We DON’T know that much about Adrian Cronauer (and if you know the true story about the real Adrian Cronauer, that’s probably for the best–but it’s a movie; let them take liberties). I think the closest we get is a scene in which Adrian is caught in a traffic jam with soldiers prepared to fight and he gives an impromptu “broadcast” right there on the spot, much to their appreciation. This is after he’s been suspended from the station and descended into a drunken stupor, and now he has this moment in which you could argue he realizes how important his job is at making the troops laugh. You can see a little hint of what he’s about in this scene. And that also leads to a revelation in the final act, in which one of his best friends turns out to be a VC operative and Adrian’s heart is just broken, which he makes clear in one last meeting with him. Aside from that, he just cracks jokes, doesn’t play too serious, and keeps his guard up. He’s still a mystery, and Williams’ approach is something worth thinking about.

I also realize we know less about Adrian than we do about Private Edward Garlick (wonderfully played by Forest Whitaker in one of his early film roles) who befriends Adrian, tries to keep up with him, and supports him–we know Garlick is goofy but by the book too, cracks wise and has a sense of humor but knows when to keep quiet and focus, and gains self-confidence through his friendship with Adrian, even though he too doesn’t know Adrian’s deal–but he does know what Adrian stands for with his radio persona. Garlick is the anchor for the audience–he’s a wonderful character played wonderfully by Forest Whitaker.

And again, I’ve seen this movie before, so I already knew I liked Williams and Whitaker’s performances–it’s just that now I have other reasons to like them.

The film is already highly recommended for being so funny in Adrian’s radio broadcasts and for being a biting commentary about the Vietnam War at the same time (and this came out just after “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket,” which were all about the hell that was Vietnam–this film has a different approach to it but is still pretty effective). And now…I guess I’m going to call it one of my favorite movies now!

My favorite scene: Adrian’s first broadcast starting with “Gooood moorrrrning, Vietnaaaam!” Robin Williams supposedly ad-libbed all of the broadcasts in this film, and it’s amazing to see him go to work here.

I thought Siskel and Ebert’s vintage reviews couldn’t influence me anymore, now that I’m older. I’m glad they can still surprise me after all this time.

My Favorite Movies – The Stepfather (1987)

28 Apr

By Tanner Smith

it’s easy to dismiss “The Stepfather” as just another ’80s slasher film. But it’s more than that if you look underneath the surface.

Terry O’Quinn stars in chilling lead performance as a complicated psychotic, which elevates some of the dumber material. (Among the “dumber material”–a newspaper runs a year-old story about a fugitive killer and doesn’t bother to print a picture of him??) I find this killer more creepy and unsettling than Freddy or Jason (…but no scarier than the crazy aunt from Jack Ketchum’s “The Girl Next Door”–she still faces no competition, in my opinion), because of two things: one is how little I know about him (and when he has his little freakouts, he seems to repeat things that were said to him in his past, but even that’s sort of vague), and the other is what he stands for.

He wants to live a life like the father characters in ’50s-’60s sitcoms because he sees them as pleasant and wholesome, and he can’t live in reality–a world where things can get difficult and sometimes uncompromising. And when he doesn’t like the changes in the new family he marries into…he slaughters them and goes searching for a new one.

How deranged is that?! And what makes it even scarier is that he could fool anybody into thinking he’s a good guy, because HE sees himself as a good guy!!

The suspense of “The Stepfather” comes from how he may react when his new teenage stepdaughter Stephanie not only causes trouble and gets expelled from school (thus ruining his image of a “perfect daughter/Daddy’s little girl”) but also suspects that her stepfather is the killer mentioned in the newspaper. And we know that if Stephanie keeps pushing this further, she and her mother are going to wind up murdered like “the stepfather’s” other victims. And you don’t want anything bad to happen to them.

This is smart, clever filmmaking, and Terry O’Quinn portrays one of the most interesting and creepy antagonists I’ve ever seen. “Who am I here?”

My favorite scene: the creepy-as-hell basement scene, in which Stephanie witnesses one of her stepfather’s manic freakouts…and when he finally notices he’s not alone, he immediately switches back to calm. (“Hi, honey.”)

This is one that I definitely disagree with both Siskel and Ebert on–Ebert gave it a mixed review, praised O’Quinn’s performance but criticized the violence; but Siskel was much more harsh, likening the violence to “Friday the 13th” and “I Spit On Your Grave” (that’s a bit of an overreaction, in my opinion).

“The Stepfather” is one of my favorite thrillers…but seriously, why didn’t they print the guy’s picture in the newspaper? Did the editor think it would ruin the serial killer’s sex life??

Evil Dead II (1987)

13 Oct


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m sure some people are looking at the “Smith’s Verdict” rating and thinking, “What?! This so-called ‘critic’ didn’t give ‘Evil Dead II,’ one of the best movies ever made in the history of mankind, a four-star rating? Or even a FIVE-star rating?! I’m so mad, I’m going to unsubscribe from his blog right now! That’ll show him for giving ‘The Goonies’ a higher rating than this movie!” There is an explanation for that—a selfish reason, but still a reason all the same. “Evil Dead II,” Sam Raimi’s sort-of sequel to his 1981 gory, goofy horror classic “The Evil Dead,” is a hell of a good time—a slapstick comedy in the guise of a horrific supernatural shocker. It is a relentless, outrageous (and yes, also groovy) romp with lots of blood, gore, slapstick, gags, practical effects, crazy camerawork, fast editing, energetic spirit, an awesome hero, and an overall uncompromisingly zany style to it. Since then, it has become a cult classic like no one’s business, with many, many people praising it to high heaven (ironic, considering this movie features many, many demons in it), watching it every Halloween, showing it to their friends, and calling it one of their favorite movies. It was definitely the movie that put Sam Raimi in the spotlight, causing him to make another sequel (“Army of Darkness”) and eventually make more mainstream movies (such as the “Spider-Man” trilogy later on), and I think it’s safe to say it made actor Bruce Campbell the star we know him as today.

The film is technically a sequel to the original film, but it’s more of a remake. It was supposed to take place where the original left off, but the sequel’s new studio couldn’t get the rights to footage from the original for a recap, and so, they shot new footage for a prologue, explaining why Ash (Campbell) is at that creepy cabin in the woods and how the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (or “Book of the Dead”) has brought forth an evil entity that threatens to consume his soul. He barely survives but can’t escape the evil, and he’s left to face off against whatever this force can throw at him in a night of battle against non-stop over-the-top macabre components. Ash isn’t one to give up so easily—even when he is forced to cut off his right hand, which was possessed by a demon, he eventually has it replaced…with a chainsaw. Is that “groovy” or what?

The film is similar in style to the original “Evil Dead” but not necessarily in tone. The original intent of “Evil Dead” was to be legitimately scary, while the main intent for “Evil Dead II” is to be ludicrously comical. Raimi and his crew pull out every trick in the bag to make something so absurd into something so fitting, and it really works. This movie is a lot of fun to watch as a result, and that’s why people love it so much. Absolute slapstick (such as when Ash’s hand punches him in the face or grabs his head to smash against dishes and windows) and one-liners (such as when Ash shotguns a demon who wants to “swallow [his] soul”—“Swallow this”) add to the humor aspects of the movie. “Evil Dead II” can unsettle you if you don’t like nasty, creepy-looking, possessed people or mangled deer heads coming to life and laughing maniacally (yes, that’s in this, if you haven’t seen the movie already) or lots and lots of blood (sometimes in different colors even), but it’s not here to scare you or even to necessarily gross you out—it’s here to make you laugh.

So, what do I think would make “Evil Dead II” a better movie (and by that, I mean a four-star movie rather than a three-and-a-half-star movie)? Well…if it had no one else except Bruce Campbell in it. I mean it—if it was just the ever-awesome Bruce Campbell taking center-stage throughout, fighting off many supernatural beasties (or “Dead-ites”) with no outside help whatsoever, I would’ve given the movie a four-star rating. But instead, Raimi decided to bring in some annoying visitors for the demons to kill. They are Annie (Sarah Berry), whose father owns the cabin; her boyfriend (Richard Domeier); and a redneck couple (Dan Hicks and Kassie Wesley). I get that they’re here to be picked off one-by-one, and they’re supposed to be funny, I suppose. But I wasn’t amused by them and I found them annoying and too dumb for me to care. The stuff with Ash fighting off the forces of darkness is great on its own; if the movie was just about this macho-dude-turned-badass-hero against an army of demons, then I would’ve given it four stars. That’s a compliment to Bruce Campbell, who is so much fun to watch in a movie that is so much fun to watch, despite my nitpick about the other characters.

Summer School (1987)

11 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s “guilty-pleasure” time again here on “Smith’s Verdict” with the 1987 Carl Reiner comedy “Summer School.” There are quite a few Carl Reiner comedies that I very much enjoy without guilt, such as “All of Me” starring Steve Martin. Compared to such comedies to come out of the ‘80s, say the “teenage sex comedies,” “Summer School” is tamer and also sillier, but it’s wonderfully so in the latter category. Parts about it work and make me smile/laugh; other parts are predictable and not particularly funny. But the aspects of the former are enough to make me watch it on DVD, and I’m sure I liked it a little more than the average film critic (I’m assuming). I certainly liked it a lot more than the late Roger Ebert, who had this to say about the film in his overwhelmingly negative review: “It’s a vaporfilm. You see it, you leave the theater, and then it evaporates, leaving just a slight residue, something like a vaguely unpleasant taste in the memory.” Ouch.

“Summer School” was the feature debut of then-TV star Mark Harmon, famous for his role in “St. Elsewhere” at the time before making himself better known in today’s NBC crime series “NCIS.” Here, he plays Freddy Shoop, a California high school gym teacher who doesn’t care for quality education and is a laid-back surfer type who would like nothing better to do for the summer than vacation in Hawaii with his girlfriend. But at the end of the school semester, he has the misfortune of having to teach summer-school Remedial English. “I ain’t no English teacher,” he tells snooty vice-principal Gills (Robin Thomas). “See? Double-negative.” But when his girlfriend leaves him (and by the way, I notice that Shoop is so laid-back that he doesn’t even feel anything when his superficial girlfriend leaves him for Hawaii), the job doesn’t seem so bad when he realizes he’ll be teaching in the classroom next to Robin Bishop (Kirstie Alley), the obligatory sexy teacher who may or may not ultimately fall for Shoop in the end. Until then, she sees Shoop as a fool, and, oh yeah, is dating Gills. Oh boy…

Shoop’s students are the usual gang of rejects and misfits, but they’re not harmless and they have their own quirks and likable qualities for Shoop to care about them. Shoop has fun with them and even schedules field-trips for their pleasure (going to the amusement park, then going to the beach), before Gills informs him that all of the students have to pass the upcoming English exam at the end of the summer term or else Shoop won’t be granted tenure. So in exchange for the students making an effort to learn, Shoop does each one of them a favor (he chauffeurs a couple of them around, teaches one how to drive, and so on). And to become a better teacher, he gains tips from Robin, who let me remind you may or may not be the love-interest (OK, let’s be honest—she is).

Let’s talk about the students. The students are probably the most entertaining parts of the film. With good young actors to play them, they all have their unique quirks and character traits that aid their appeal. Sometimes, they’re a little too real to be funny, but they are still likable. There’s Denise (Kelly Jo Minter), a dyslexic (I’ll get to that later) who also has trouble with driving and needs some teaching for the upcoming test; Eakian (Richard Horvitz), a squeaky-voiced geek who is appealing enough for even the students to like him (he’s also the one who negotiates with Shoop about the favors in exchange for learning); Larry (Ken Olandt), who sleeps during class (and even asks for a cot) because he works as a stripper at night; Kevin (Patrick Labyorteaux), a linebacker who must pass the English exam to get himself back on the football team; Rhonda (Shawnee Smith), a seven-months-pregnant girl who claims to have had sex with Sean Penn and David Lee Roth; and Anna-Maria (Fabiana Udenio), a sexy Italian exchange student whom Chainsaw and Dave lust after.

Who are Chainsaw and Dave? I was saving them for last. They’re my favorite characters in the movie. They are two horror movie buffs, Francis “Chainsaw” Gremp (Dean Cameron) and Dave (Gary Riley). They’re best buddies who do everything together, and provide a lot of the film’s comedic highlights. They’re also masters of gore, as they use latex rubber who stage two grotesque horror-film-like moments, such as “the bunnies from hell” and most memorably, the classroom massacre. In fact, they’re probably too good to be pulling this off, but their idol is Rick Baker (who is the subject of their first assignment, “Who We Admire Most in the World and Why”), so I guess they did their homework for that particular topic. Their favorite movie is also “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which Chainsaw has Shoop arrange a screening for in class.


By the way, that “classroom massacre” scene, in which all the students prank Gills and a visiting grade-school teacher with Chainsaw and Dave’s makeup and effects, is very grotesque. I bet if it wasn’t staged, the movie would have gotten an R rating instead of a PG-13. We’re talking slit throats, saw blade in the head, intestines being played with, and most memorably, a tongue being pulled out. These guys should have taken pictures and mailed them to Rick Baker personally.

Oh yeah, and then there’s Pam (Courtney Thorne-Smith), a surfer-type who fakes menstruation to skip class and go surfing, and who also develops an icky crush on the “spiritual” Shoop. At one point, she even moves in with him. Nothing physical is involved—Shoop doesn’t think of her that way; although, I have to admit that it is kind of unpleasant to see a 16-year-old as kind of a maid for 30-year-old Shoop’s services.

Oh, and by the way, logic does not play in “Summer School’s” favor. For example, three questions about the class’ field-trip to the amusement park. First of all, how did Shoop gain authorization to arrange this in the first place? Gills is an uptight jerk who clearly hates and resents Shoop, and it’s obvious he’s in charge. Second, how was seven-months-pregnant Rhonda even allowed to ride the Go-Carts, let alone a Rollercoaster? Isn’t that some kind of a hazard? Third, come on—Denise can’t even drive a go-cart without taking it off the track? Give me a break. Oh, and then there’s the deal about Denise being dyslexic. How did no one notice at all? “She swept through the system” is the only excuse. Yeah, right.

But then again, this is the same movie in which one of the summer-school students has apparently spent the entire term in the bathroom because his “zipper got stuck.” (Though, that doesn’t help explain the disappearance of many other students seen in that class at the beginning of the term.)

Also, these kids are not bad kids, at least not enough to be considered “delinquents” or “criminals.” I mean, sure, they cause a little bit of trouble, but really, what high-school kid doesn’t? Gills’ labeling of these kids is inaccurate, which I guess is supposed to show how stuck-up he is, but it bugged the hell out of me.

So I’ve listed a few things that don’t work about “Summer School” and quite a few that I like about it. What else do I like about it? Well, Mark Harmon is well-cast as Shoop. He’s funny, likable, and has good comic timing when playing off the students or Kirstie Alley, who is admittedly sharp here despite being saddled with the role of obligatory romantic-interest.

And I also admired the ending, which doesn’t go for the easy way out with the kids passing the English exam after finally studying hard to prepare for it. Actually, a neat surprise here is that some of them don’t, but they all have improved greatly since the previous exam, which boosts the kids’ self-respect and makes Shoop seem like a real teacher, which he has become.

So maybe “Summer School” is a little too safe at times and some of the laughs come cheap, but for me, it is entertaining and appealing enough for me to watch it every now and then. Because not many others feel the same way, I can pretty much call it a “guilty-pleasure.” In other words, it’s at least a B- or a C+. But hey—it’s a passing grade.

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

29 May


Smith’s Verdict: Zero Stars

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Jaws: The Revenge” is one of the worst sequels of all time, if not the absolute worst. When you think of this film’s original predecessor, 1975’s hit “Jaws,” and how good it is, it only makes it look bad when associated with its trashy sequels. “Jaws 2” was unnecessary, but at least it had its moments. “Jaws 3D” was even more unnecessary, and tried to plug Sea World while showing the 3D gimmick of the ‘80s. With the third sequel, “Jaws: The Revenge,” at least you know it can’t get any worse.

This movie is bad. Really bad. At times, it’s laughably so. Other times, it’s just painfully so, which screws it up for the former “times.”

Where do I begin with this movie? Well, how about the fact that Roy Scheider didn’t reprise his role of heroic Police Chief Brody, and the screenwriters decided to cover his absence by saying he died between sequels? How did he die? According to Brody’s wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary) who is now the focus of this “Jaws” movie, “the fear of the shark killed him.” Yes, they try to make you believe that the man who fought a shark twice in two movies died of “fear.” Give me a break.

There are absolutely no characters of interest in Scheider’s place. Ellen is a blank slate—always worrying and complaining, and nearly psychotic in how she believes that sharks hold grudges. Oh, but it’s OK, because apparently she’s right, as a great white killer shark follows her and her family from New England to the Bahamas. Get this—because of the other sharks’ encounters with Ellen’s family (her husband in the first two movies; her son in the third movie), she believes that all sharks swear vengeance against the Brody family. Now, early in the movie, Ellen’s youngest son has been killed by the shark, back on that stupid island which is the absolute worst place for Ellen to be, after all the madness that occurred before (move to Iowa, lady). Now, she and her family—including her other son, Michael (Lance Guest)—go on vacation in the Bahamas. And wouldn’t you know it—the shark followed them there.

I mentioned there are no characters of interest in this movie. Michael’s a basic bore, and his buddy Jake (Mario Van Peeples), with whom he works marine biology field study, isn’t given enough to do to be interesting. There are also many scenes involving a developing romance between Ellen and a British pilot (Michael Caine, who seems to be phoning it in) that makes “Jaws: The Revenge” look like the b-movie version of “Terms of Endearment.” It’s very boring.

And what about the shark effects? They’re easily the worst aspect of the movie. You see a lot of the shark in this movie, and it looks dreadfully fake. How can I properly describe how terrible the shark looks in this movie? It’s never menacing; it’s never threatening; it looks unbelievably unrealistic. One of those “laughable” moments of the movie is a ridiculous attack on a banana boat on a beach.

Everything leads to a confrontation between the shark and Ellen, the pilot, Michael, and Jake as they attempt to kill this thing once and for all. It’s very dull and impressively bad. I don’t just mean that glaring error that shows Michael Caine swimming to safety on a boat, coming over the rail and suddenly he’s completely dry. Get this—the shark appears to stand on its tail fin on top of the water so that it can nab one of the group. And it’s in slow-motion, so it looks even worse.

Oh, and get this—the shark actually ROARS! I’m not even kidding; there’s a roaring sound effect when the shark opens its mouth. What in the world were these filmmakers missing? And what follows is a resolution so clumsily-handled that it’s hard to make something out of it. “Jaws: The Revenge” is so badly-made that I don’t think anything can save it.

Cross My Heart (1987)

21 May


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Cross My Heart” is a romantic comedy that tells its story in the portion of one date—one very awkward date, at that. It begins with a man and woman preparing for a date, which is actually their third, and it becomes an experience that challenges them to question whether or not they’re “right” for one another.

Martin Short plays the man. Annette O’Toole plays the woman. They both have something to hide and lie about, and are unsure of whether or not they should reveal it to the other tonight on their third date. Short has been fired from his job, instead of getting a big promotion like he said he would. O’Toole has a daughter whom she hides from Short. (Oh, and she also smokes.) Short is so desperate to impress O’Toole that he asks his friend for his nice car and stylish apartment just to borrow for the night. So he picks her up, she congratulates him on his promotion, he can’t bring the nerve to tell her the truth, she isn’t revealing her secrets either, and the night is awkward as all lies are destined to be revealed before the date is over.

The film takes place in one night, as Short and O’Toole flirt with one another while still unsure of certain things about themselves and each other. It’s a courageous move to make, and the film doesn’t shy away from everyday, “unnecessary” dialogue to exchange, and thankfully for the most part, Short and O’Toole exhibit convincing chemistry to make us like and care for them. Short is sincere and sometimes insecure, but likable, despite his flaws. O’Toole is sexy and appealing in the way she accepts this man while unsure showing of her own flaws as well.

“Cross My Heart” is mainly an experience such as an awkward date, and the main problem with the movie is that it’s too awkward. You know the lies are going to be revealed sooner or later, and while there are enough suitably funny scenes to play off from that concept, it gets annoying soon enough in that you just want them to get on with that inevitable scene of truth already. This could easily have been resolved if they just revealed their truths and just played off on the idea of dealing with them and moving on with a possible relationship. But no—they keep things even more awkward by trying to keep their secrets. I mean, come on—Short and O’Toole obviously like each other very much; let them talk about what they’ve been keeping from one another.

As a result, “Cross My Heart” winds up clumsy and somewhat mishandled, particularly its last half-hour, which is mainly composed of slapstick and misunderstandings and…for some reason, a woman holding a gun while Short and O’Toole visit Short’s friend after—get this—the friend’s car is stolen. When did this turn into Scorsese’s “After Hours?”

“Cross My Heart” starts out fine, but once you know where it’s heading, it gets annoying pretty fast. Short and O’Toole are fine comic actors and they do work well together, but they needed a better script that delivers the payoff we demand and deserve.

No Way Out (1987)

20 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In a list of what I think are the most compelling thrillers to come out of the 1980s (which would also include “Witness,” “Blood Simple,” and “Jagged Edge,” among others), 1987’s “No Way Out” would definitely be in a high ranking. This film has so many twists and turns in a story that started out simple and progressed to be anything but. The result is an engaging, complicated thriller that is well-acted and engrossing.

Kevin Costner stars as US Navy Lt. Tom Farrell, who is being interrogated by government agents for reasons that will be revealed to us as the main story is told in flashback. Six months earlier, we see him at a diplomatic reception party to meet the secretary of defense, David Brice (Gene Hackman), as he is introduced by his dutiful assistant, Scott Pritchard (Will Patton), who is friends with Farrell. Farrell also strikes up an encounter with a sexy young woman, Susan Atwell (Sean Young), and the two start an affair, even though she is involved with someone else. After Farrell becomes a hero on his next Naval deployment, he is then assigned to work at the Pentagon in Washington for Brice.

Here is where a few of those said-twists begin, and I’ll just reveal only a couple of them for the story’s setup. First of all, it turns out that Susan is actually Brice’s mistress. This leads to the night in which Brice pays her a surprise visit, as Farrell sneaks out the back door before he enters. Brice does notice him walking away, but doesn’t make him out in the dark. Brice demands to know who Susan is seeing, and in a violent rage, winds up killing her. So when Farrell learns of her death, he knows who the culprit is. But he can’t reveal Brice’s name to anybody because A) Brice, with the help of Pritchard, is already covering up the murder by using the rumored identity of a Soviet spy. B) Evidence is going to come back to Farrell, especially after finding a negative Polaroid picture in Susan’s place that could reveal him. And C) Farrell is put in charge of the investigation.

Whew! That’s a hell of a buildup, and it’s only the beginning of the story that has Farrell continually trying to slow down the investigation and find some way to preserve some things he learns about his fellow investigators in order to use them to his advantage, all while setting out to find a way to prove Brice’s guilt and Pritchard’s accessory. The twists don’t stop there, so I haven’t given away too much. “No Way Out” is a compelling mystery that gets more interesting as it goes along, and the more it continues with the story, the more I wound up caring about the characters involved.

The acting is great in this film. Kevin Costner is solid in the lead role and it’s quite complicated to pull off—an innocent man who has a lot of evidence leading back to him and is about to be wrongfully accused of a murder. Unless he can do something about it with his wits and intelligence, he’s a dead man. Costner and Sean Young share good chemistry together, and Young has a good amount of spunk that makes us care for her and not see her so much as a plot device. Gene Hackman is top-notch as usual. Will Patton is excellent as Pritchard, who says he’ll do anything for the secretary of defense, and yet because of yet another twist, we realize there’s probably more to it than that with him. Also terrific is George Dzundza as a wheelchair-bound computer expert whom Costner has to trust without saying too much about the mystery.

There is an even bigger twist that comes near the end that makes us question everything we’ve seen before. This is one that you either buy or you don’t. I did, and I watched the film again immediately after just so I could fully get everything that was shown to me before. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

“No Way Out” is a successful thriller that keeps you on edge all the way through until that final twist. It starts out simple and works its way up to a complicated puzzle that puts the hero’s life at risk, as well as the lives around him. The setup is incredible, the story continues to be investing, the cast is across-the-board solid, and there are enough twists to keep you interested throughout.

Teen Wolf Too (1987)

20 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: 1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Teen Wolf Too” is one of the most uninspired sequels ever made. It’s idiotic, not the least bit amusing, and unoriginal. It’s a sequel to the surprise 1985 box office hit “Teen Wolf,” which I didn’t like but is “Back to the Future” compared to “Teen Wolf Too” (I mean it—it’s that bad). While the original film had clichés that I could list five of, it at least had some amusing bits and a likable Michael J. Fox as the lead. “Teen Wolf Too” has more than a dozen clichés that don’t work at all here and instead of Michael J. Fox returning in the role (if he did, the movie would be titled “Teen Wolf Two” instead of “Teen Wolf Too”), we have Jason Bateman, whom back then was best known for the teenage roles he played in TV shows such as “Silver Spoons” and “Valerie.”

Bateman plays Fox’s cousin Todd who is going off to college. He is embarrassed by his uncle’s constant change in appearance from man to wolf. Todd definitely doesn’t want the same thing that happened to his uncle and cousin to happen to him—especially not in his first year at college. But it turns out he does share the same problem, as he discovers when he gets nervous while slow-dancing with the pretty girl on campus.

One thing you’ll notice right away—the wolf makeup is just plain awful. Bateman looks more like a hairy escaped prisoner from Alcatraz. The makeup in the original wasn’t perfect, since the movie called for the wolf to still be a teenager, but it deserved an Oscar nomination compared to the makeup here. (OK, enough comparisons)

So, like in the original film, Todd shows off his wolf persona to the whole college and becomes popular. Soon enough, he’s able to lead the boxing team to a victory. Yes, we get another “big game” and yes, Todd does get into the ring. If that was lazy enough for screenwriters, it’s even lazier for the filmmakers because I bet the reason they had boxing instead of football was so there would be fewer extras to hire. Worse—it’s boring. At least the Rocky sequels had the same endings but were more watchable.

Also weak are the stereotype characters Todd is associated with—the evil blonde, the nice brunette girl who is right for Todd, the fat guy, the wise guy, and the mean preppy guy. I think somebody should start a new therapy group—“Stereotypes Anonymous.” Hey, there’s a movie idea right here.

Jason Bateman, as the lead, is no help at all with this film. He’s bland and uninteresting. He doesn’t have the kind of charisma that Michael J. Fox carried in the original film. (But of course to his credit, he grew into charisma with “Arrested Development” years in the future.) Kim Darby, as the understanding teacher, is OK but is given nothing to do with the character. John Astin overdoes it as the college dean.

“Teen Wolf Too” is an unnecessary sequel with a lame screenplay, bad acting, and horrible wolf makeup. I never thought a movie could falter on makeup. But it just doesn’t help.

Big Shots (1987)

17 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Big Shots” comes across as a sort-of modern-day retelling of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.” The film features two young boys from opposite sides of the tracks—one (who’s white) is from a nice suburban home (he reminds me of Tom Sawyer in some sense) and the other (who’s black) is a street kid in Chicago (he, of course, reminds me of Huck). They team up to have all sorts of improbable yet enjoyable adventures and also become the best of friends.

We start off getting to know the suburbanite kid named Obie (Ricky Busker), who is about eleven years old. The film opens with him and his father going fishing in a boat on the lake. His father is trying to tell him about the birds and the bees but Obie disgustedly complains, “How come you gotta tell me this sick stuff all the time?” His father replies, “My father never told me at your age.” Obie asks, “Then why do you have to tell me?” In a few days, the father dies of a fatal heart attack, leaving Obie distraught with the only heirloom that his father would love for him to have—his watch. Obie runs away from his safe urban home and drives his bike into the streets of downtown Chicago. It isn’t long before he gets mugged, with his bike and his father’s watch stolen.

He meets Scam (Darius McCrary), a boy about the same age as Obie. He’s a homeless kid who lives in the basement of a hotel, lying to the desk clerk that his father is coming. He’s a smooth-talking, wise-cracking kid with a lot of tricks up his sleeves—like carrying cap guns to pose as threats and lying a lot. He decides to help Obie get his watch back. This leads them to a character named Johnny Red (Paul Winfield), a jive-talking hustler, and a crooked pawn shop owner (Robert Prosky). It also leads them to a series of adventures that would fit in at a lineup of TV cop shows. These two eleven-year-old kids are driving like they’re in a TV cop show. They have a chase scene where they race to escape the oncoming cops after they rob that pawn shop with realistic-looking cap guns.

Those scenes are improbable and ultimately ridiculous. And the movie shows a lot of adventures for these kids to overcome, like driving all the way to Louisiana with a car they stole. They search for Scam’s father but all they have to go on is an old driver’s license. Anyway, the stolen car belongs to two mobsters (Robert Joy and Jerzy Skolimowski) who chase the kids down to get their car back. Why? Because the car has a dead body in its trunk. The kids don’t know that. They just know these two guys are bad news.

Like I said, this is completely ridiculous. What I liked about “Big Shots” were the performances by Ricky Busker and Darius McCrary and the friendship their characters develop. They’re fun to watch, even through the action sequences. And there’s a heart to the story when the kids actually take time to talk about their own fathers—how one of them is dead and the other is gone away. Obie lost his own father and really wants to help Scam get to his—so there’s a sense of redemption. I liked these two kids. Ricky Busker is a bit annoying as Obie at first but as the movie progresses, so does he. Darius McCrary is appealingly wise-cracking as Scam.

I’m giving “Big Shots” three stars. It’s not a great movie but an enjoyable one. If the director Robert Mandel wanted a better movie, he would’ve actually told a story about these two kids instead of surrounding them with all sorts of ridiculousness.