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Angel Heart (1987)

1 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Angel Heart” is a thriller that starts out as a film-noir private-eye tale and then suddenly turns into a bizarre horror movie about something far more supernatural than neither its hero—nor us—could come to grips with until we start to really think about what has just happened once the movie is over. Nothing was as simple as we were led to think it was. We’ve seen the private eye in this movie go from place to place, looking for his subject and encountering many weird things along the way. But its ending brings things to a whole new perspective that “Angel Heart” becomes more shocking than we were led to expect. And heck, we’ve seen many dead chickens!

It’s a strange, unsettling horror movie that starts out as a regular film noir piece. We get the street-savvy private eye—a Brooklyn private detective named Harry Angel (charismatically played by Mickey Rourke)—getting an assignment to find somebody and receive pay for doing so. But his client is someone quite unusual—a strange man named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) who has a neatly trimmed black beard, an elegant black suit, long fingernails, and slicked back hair. All that’s missing is a sign saying “I am the Devil” because his appearance and manner would make people believe that he is evil personified. Anyway, Cyphre assigns Angel to find a missing person for him, for about five grand. Angel accepts the assignment and finds himself in a mad, mad world. His leads are stale and unreliable, more bodies pile up wherever he goes, and the police begin to suspect him for murder.

OK, that all sounds standard enough for a private-eye story, except for the curious De Niro character. But I didn’t mention the voodoo ceremonies in which people dance around crazily and sacrifice chickens, hence the aforementioned “dead chickens.” All of this is weird enough, but trust me—we’re at the tip of the iceberg. But for the sake of keeping things spoiler-free, it’s probably best you don’t know too many details of the plot.

I should bring up the infamous bloody sex scene in the movie. The most memorable, disturbing scene is the controversial one—a sex scene featuring Rourke and Lisa Bonet as a young New Orleans woman whose mother knew the missing person. This scene was almost given an “X” rating by the MPAA ratings board. I wouldn’t blame them—it’s freaking insane. It starts out as an erotic sex scene (with multiple shots of Bonet’s bare breasts), only with a few leaks of rain near the bed. But then instead of rain leaking on them, it’s blood. Rourke and Bonet, I think, don’t notice that they’re being soaked in blood and the whole scene is edited in such a bizarre way as the sex gets even more graphic as it goes along.

The story for “Angel Heart” leads up to a shocking, revealing final act that is just insane. It’s one of the strangest, disturbing, chilling endings I’ve ever seen in a movie. I did not see it coming, nor did I want to know once it was revealed to me. Everything that followed didn’t really prepare me for it, which is why it was so shocking. What else I can say about it is that director Alan Parker tries everything to keep you interested and how he handles the ending is going all out to make it his own. The result is a messed-up movie, but a memorable one. That alone grants “Angel Heart” a recommendation.

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987)

27 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Wouldn’t it be nice if one small boy reached out for people to listen to him about the way the world is with nuclear weapons, and a high-profile NBA star immediately followed? Of course with the NBA star following this kid’s way of reaching out to the world, the public would be telling the story to the world, making them both heard…but not exactly followed. In the case of “Amazing Grace and Chuck,” the kid is a Little League pitcher named Chuck (Joshua Zuehlke) who is disturbed by what he sees on a tour of a nuclear missile base. He is so disturbed that he makes a vow that until the bombs go away, he won’t pitch Little League baseball.

Chuck doesn’t have a big plan. No, he just says he “can’t play because of nuclear weapons.” This makes him the object of mockery by his classmates and some of the adults in town. His parents try to convince him that this won’t solve anything. But Chuck doesn’t care—he just won’t play.

When someone stops doing the thing that someone does best because of the existence of nuclear weapons, you can expect it to be on the news. Chuck’s story reaches Boston and catches the ear of a Celtics star named Amazing Grace Smith (Alex English). He comes all the way down to Chuck’s hometown out west to meet with the kid and announces that he’ll do the same thing—that is, he’ll quit playing basketball until the bombs go away. And so, the national news is all over this story. People are upset by Amazing’s decision, including Amazing’s agent (Jamie Lee Curtis).

But when a movement like this (as short as it is) goes public, both sides of the world have a little bit of conflict that may grow into something bigger. Before anything (that includes the movie itself) can go too far, the President of the United States (Gregory Peck) speaks with Chuck and tries to convince him to quit this protest. Now this is where the movie is really surprising. This is the point where the movie is supposed to give up on itself and give us cheesy situations and corny dialogue. A movie is in trouble when the President needs to tell a kid to stop what he’s started. But the surprising thing is, Gregory Peck plays the President so well that there isn’t a false note within the performance. He is utterly convincing in this role.

The script doesn’t let him or the kid down either. Something I should have mentioned earlier—Chuck is quiet through most of the movie. He speaks only when he needs to (there are rare moments when he wants to). Eventually, everyone notices this when Chuck is silent through the final half of the film. This works for many reasons—1) We don’t get any scenes of the kid whining about how this is turning out. 2) In being quiet, power is given. 3) He is also quiet when with the President. There are no arguments between the kid and the President to force the President to change his mind about things. There are no big explanations, there aren’t a lot of questions answered, and there is hardly any corny dialogue. And strangely, it works. This is a fresh script.

I also liked the friendship between Chuck and Amazing, the relationship between Chuck and his father, and the exchange of angry words between Amazing and the father, who is jealous that Amazing is seemingly taking his place as role model. I also felt that the Jamie Lee Curtis character was credible.

Just because I felt the relationships between the central characters and Gregory Peck as the President were credible, the story is not entirely credible. This kind of thing about a world peace movement started by one little thing doesn’t happen as easily. But “Amazing Grace and Chuck” is a pleasant little movie that doesn’t expect us to believe that this is realistic. We can buy it as fantasy certainly. But still…wouldn’t it be nice? And that’s the question that the film ends with.

Three O’Clock High (1987)

26 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Three O’Clock High” is a movie about the events leading up to a fight, and then the actual fight itself. It sounds like a plot for a Western, but has been brought to life as a high school movie. That’s actually a nice move and has potential for a charming movie, but the fight is far from charming.

You could call this movie a mix between “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and “Risky Business.” It features a nervous, bright high school senior named Jerry (Casey Siemaszko) who is having “one of those days.” He’s late for school, his car has a flat tire, and he takes his mom’s car (with the license plate SUPRMOM). But it can only get worse, and it does. Everyone is spreading rumors about the new kid in school named Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), a mean-spirited bully who’s said to have raped a teacher, killed a student, etc. Jerry, who works for the school newspaper, is asked to write a piece about him. Unfortunately, his questions make Buddy angry and he challenges Jerry to a fight in front of the school at 3:00. Jerry has six hours to get out of fighting Buddy and in that duration, he gets mixed up in all sorts of situations that involve breaking the rules.

There are ways of avoiding the fight, and they all go wrong. Unfortunately, a lot of these situations are not only pointless, but also questionable. There’s a subplot involving a switchblade intended for a frame job—Jerry’s nerdy friend Vince has an idea to plant it into Buddy’s locker as an attempt to get him kicked out of school. The plan goes wrong, but what I want to know is where and how did this guy get a switchblade? This is the editor of the school newspaper—does he just carry around a switchblade every day at school? This is a school full of high school stereotypes—did he convince one of the “burnouts” to lend him one? And in a short amount of time, no less? Why didn’t we see that story?

What’s the story with the bully? Is he a complete and total psychopath like everyone says? Is there another side to him? We hear about his violent nature; is it true? It must be. There’s nothing else in the entire duration of the movie to say otherwise. At least when a character like this was introduced in the high school comedy-drama “My Bodyguard,” the hero managed to befriend a bulking so-called monster because they both learned how to get along with each other. This bully in “Three O’Clock High” isn’t falling for any of that. He will fight Jerry no matter what it takes—he even manages to find Jerry’s car (how he did that, I don’t know) and destroy everything under the hood just so he doesn’t get away.

“Three O’Clock High” is a well-made movie—the use of unusual cinematography, camera angles, zooms, and closeups are quite interesting and make the movie about as well-made as a movie about a high school fight could be. Also, the way it takes a Western plot and takes it high school is quite interesting as it constantly builds up the entire six hours waiting for it. And it does have its memorable, funny moments. I especially liked a sequence in which Jerry tries to get in trouble so he could get detention and thus not go through with the fight. How he handles his book report is very funny. He acts rebellious, smokes, and even kisses his teacher who’s somewhat turned on—“Now that’s what I call a book report,” a student exclaims. There are moments like that, and I could forgive the stupid parts of the movie and recommend it based on those. But I’m not recommending the movie because the final climax involving the fight is too grim and so brutal that it breaks the spirit of the whole thing.

It’s a pretty intense fight, but there’s nothing fresh or funny about it, and the final blow just about did it for me. Should I even mention the brass knuckles? Everyone was cheering, but my jaw was dropped.

Russkies (1987)

23 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Russkies” is a good-natured film that has a cute setup and some nice ideas to follow through with it, right up until the ending climax that made the film seem desperate.

The movie, set in Key West, Florida, at a time when the Cold War is still going on, features three pre-teenage boys who find a Russian sailor. The Russian is stranded after being washed ashore and the boys are the first ones to find him. The boys—Danny (Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix), Adam (Peter Billingsley, “A Christmas Story”), and Jason (Stefan DeSalle)—have been reared by military families and raised on a series of anti-foreigner comic books called “Sgt. Slammer,” so naturally, their first instinct is to believe that this Russian radio operator is a Commie spy. They’re able to hold him at gunpoint with the Russian’s own gun and threaten to turn him into the authorities, but soon enough, they discover that Mischa—the Russian, played by Whip Hubley—is actually a nice guy and decide to let him hang around with them.

This is good stuff—the way these kids interact with this stranger is handled in a fun way and not a disturbing way. The kids are well-cast and Whip Hubley has appeal and a certain credibility as a Russian—sometimes, he’s not entirely convincing as a Russian, but close enough mostly. And it is nice to see how Mischa reacts to America—he eats Big Macs, gets used to Jeans and collar shirts, plays video games, rides go-carts, and even develops a relationship with Adam’s sweet older sister Diane (Susan Walters)—but also would love to return home somehow.

While the setup is fun, “Russkies,” unfortunately, has a dim-witted payoff that is implausible and seems like a pale imitation of the climax in “E.T.” Without going into much detail, much of it involves a sadistic drunken fisherman, the kids’ idiot parents, and two real Russian spies in a boat chase for separate reasons. I did not need this climax and I particularly did not need a mean drunk to be the real bad guy here.

What “Russkies” has that makes it work are fun scenes set in the kids’ point of view, mixing comic books with comedy and adventure. They are what I liked about “Russkies,” but the rest of the film has run out of ideas and energy, and so I can’t recommend it.

River’s Edge (1987)

22 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s one thing to make a teen drama. It’s quite another to make a teen drama inspired by a true story. The fact that the film “River’s Edge” is inspired by a true story makes the film even more disturbing. The film features teenagers who drink, do dope, and have no real purpose in life. Just the way these kids are depicted is unnerving enough, but the main storyline is about one of those teenagers killing another of their own without any remorse. Why? She was talking too much. And it’s a true story. A high school student, in real life, did strangle his girlfriend and showed the body to his friends. What’s worse? The friends never said anything about it to the authorities for quite a while until one of them finally confessed.

“River’s Edge” is not a forgettable film. It’s a disturbing, unnerving, creepy portrait of stoned teenagers who think they mean well but really they’re just confused. The way they act is unsettling for any parent. There is one kid who more heartfelt than the others, but he still smokes dope—his mother also thinks he’s stealing her dope. The kid scolds his younger brother, who is a 12-year-old, sadistic little creep who just dumped away his little sister’s beloved doll. “You’re stupid enough to pull a stunt like that, but then to go and brag about it…”

Not much later, the kid and his friends are taken to the side of a river to see the naked dead body of a girlfriend of one of the teenagers. The film is not really about the girl’s killer (Daniel Roebuck), who couldn’t care less about what could happen to him if anyone else finds out. The film focuses its attention on the group’s self-appointed leader Layne (Crispin Glover), who has obviously taken one shot of speed too many. Layne wants to protect his friend and orders the others not to say anything. But the sensitive kid, Matt (Keanu Reeves), doesn’t want to wait much longer. Also, there’s a girl named Clarissa (Ione Skye) who asks, “She was our friend. Shouldn’t we feel sorry for her? Are we supposed to just ignore it?”

What’s even more haunting about these kids is that the young actors portray them all convincingly. Is this what America’s youth will be reduced to? It is too late for the kids in this movie—they are so far into drugs and alcohol that they can only fear their own futures and their pasts. In particular, Crispin Glover’s performance is quite memorable—the way he uses body language and that weird voice of his to try and get his point across is electric. And then there’s Joshua Miller as the sadistic kid brother Tim. This kid is definitely not likable and a beating would be a celebration for his deeds…but he is all too real, and you know he’ll be as messed up as the older kids.

Another great performance is given by Dennis Hopper as Feck, a drug dealer who supplies the kids with dope and befriends the young killer because they both have something in common. They both killed their girlfriends. Feck shot his in the head out of passion. But his way of living and hiding out soon comes to question in his own mind when the kid comes clean about why he strangled his girlfriend to death.

“River’s Edge” was directed by Tim Hunter, who also directed “Tex,” which also featured troubled teenagers. In this movie, Hunter gives the teenaged characters not much room to grow (it’s unclear if they can grow) and surrounds them with a crisis even bigger than what they’ve already been exposed to. It’s a despairing, horrifying, yet effective portrait of adolescents who just don’t care much for what’s happening around them.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

19 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I suppose the “buddy-cop picture” is a genre. You know the story—two mismatched cops who work together to solve a case and form a bonding friendship along the way. There have been many of this type of movie, but “Lethal Weapon” is the best. “Lethal Weapon” is an action-packed thriller that does feature a pair of mismatched cops working together to solve a case, but also features character development and wry humor. But of course, it does have its dose of adrenaline within itself so that the film has a share of characters, comedy, and action.

Danny Glover stars as police sergeant Roger Murtaugh, an uptight family man with just a few weeks left until retirement. He’s “over the hill” now and constantly says he’s getting “too old for this sh—.“ Mel Gibson co-stars as Sergeant Martin Riggs, a loose cannon who lost his wife in a tragic accident. He blames himself for her death and even considers killing himself. Because he doesn’t think he has much to live for, he’s suicidal in the way that he doesn’t fear anything.

Murtaugh and Riggs are paired up and assigned to investigate the seemingly apparent suicide of the daughter of an ex-Vietnam War compatriot (Tom Atkins). But soon, it seems like that this death was an element of a drug smuggling plot. The leader of it is mercenary General Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and his right-hand man is the menacing, torturous Joshua (Gary Busey). Murtaugh and Riggs get into more than they expected.

But it’s not just about that, even though this plot detail is crucial (not to mention easy to follow). It’s also about the characters. We know and see clearly how Murtaugh feels about getting closer to retirement, and we also see the pain in Riggs’ eyes when he’s not making people believe he’s crazy. Then, we have the scenes in which Riggs interacts with Murtaugh’s family. They have dinner together and Riggs has a playful flirtation with Murtaugh’s teenage daughter (Traci Wolfe). But we also see how he envies Murtaugh’s home life.

A word about Riggs’ attitude—he loves to make people think he’s crazy by throwing himself in every dangerous situation he can get into as a police officer. When we first see him, he’s walking through the line of fire during a madman’s gunfire attack onto a school playground and standing dead center in the playground, opening fire at the madman. That’s when we know that he may be crazy until we see him at his home—a trailer near the beach—and realize that he thinks that he has nothing to live for due to blaming himself for the tragic death of his wife. So he does anything that no one else would do—this leads to a scene midway through the film in which he deals with a man threatening to jump from a building. This scene is played for comedy, and the payoff at the end of the scene is just fabulous.

The bad guys are genuinely threatening. Even if McAllister is a standard villain, Joshua is a real creep. This guy is so frightening that if he was in charge of the whole operation, there’d be a higher body count for this film. He proves himself to be a worthy antagonist for Riggs to encounter in the end, which is what they do, but that’s all I’m going to say about that, except this—the final action climax is the least interesting part of “Lethal Weapon” when compared to the character development and wry humor that came before it, even though other action scenes were also featured within the previous acts as well.

The action scenes are brought to life by director Richard Donner, director of “Superman.” His choreography and cinematography is outstanding in the scenes involving a shootout and an armed helicopter. When the lengthy climax comes into place, the action is exciting for a while but comes close to wearing out its welcome. But because we care about the characters and have an interesting bad guy, it’s not totally worthless.

Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are perfectly cast as the two heroes. They have great onscreen chemistry and become characters rather than caricatures. Mel Gibson is no stranger to action films (remember, he is Mad Max), so the real surprise is Danny Glover who previously acted in dramas like “The Color Purple.” He’s up to it.

“Lethal Weapon” has just what an audience wants in an action picture—action and comedy. First you can laugh, then something big happens, then you can relax again after that. It’s an action-thriller with a sense of humor and a sense of pace. That’s what makes the film special and different from most buddy-cop pictures.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

19 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Prince of Darkness” is a thriller by John Carpenter, who clearly knows how to set up a story for such. His eye for relativity and terror in the more ordinary settings and situations is what made the thriller “Halloween” so special. And “Prince of Darkness” does have an intriguing idea and a promising setup—using scientific experiments that result in bringing the Devil back to life. You can play a lot to that. But unfortunately, the movie results in predictable jump-scares, too much mumbo-jumbo, and a climax in which a possessed person bangs a person’s head against a wall when he should be tearing it off. It doesn’t become exciting or suspenseful. Heck, it doesn’t even become cheesy. It just becomes boring.

It’s about a priest (Donald Pleasance, from “Halloween”) who enlists the help of a physics professor (Victor Wong) and his students to work on something peculiar in the basement of his church. Pleasance believes that the Devil’s return is near and it must be prevented. Wong (in on the theory) arranges for experiments that could stop the Prince of Darkness from appearing, without telling his students what they’re really doing. But who can ignore the big green thing in the giant glass tube that seems to be growing? Oh…may it be a life form?

So here we have a potential battle between certain science and the chaotic supernatural. But unfortunately, that’s not what we get. What we get is a horror movie, in which the evil force possesses each of the good guys and the ones that are left are forced to fight for their lives. When we hear about the Prince of Darkness about to rise, we expect something very interesting. But it turns out to be a washout. I don’t want vicious zombies taking over here. I want a fear of Armageddon. But no such luck. And of course, there’s a violent conclusion, followed by a twist ending that I really don’t follow very well.

Also, the movie’s pacing is poor. Everything moves so slowly, and not even a rock music score can keep it going. In fact, the music, co-composed by Carpenter himself, is quite terrible and hardly ever shuts up.

The setup is promising as the characters are introduced and the theory of the differences between our world and the supernatural is quite intriguing. But “Prince of Darkness” shows itself as pretty thin and lazy very quickly once we get into the story’s “conflict.”

NOTE: The opening credits lasts for nine minutes—that’s got to be some sort of a record, right?

White Water Summer (1987)

12 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I review “White Water Summer,” I want to say something. When I was a young teenager, and I rented this from a local video store, I fell in love with it. I felt like I just had to watch it again, rent it again, and soon enough I bought it on DVD. And yet it’s one of those cases that really get to you when you look back on it, especially for a review, because this is one of those “childhood faves” that just don’t hold up as well as you liked it to be.

I realize now that when I was a kid, I mostly liked the soundtrack. It’s a sad thing to admit, but while the movie itself is watchable and mostly even memorable, it’s the soundtrack that always stood out. But mainly, that was because there are several montage sequences in which a different hit from the ‘80s is playing over the action. What have we got? We’ve got “Life in a Dangerous Time,” by Cutting Crew. We’ve got “On the Western Skyline,” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. We’ve got “Aphrodisiac Jacket,” by The Cult. And I even stayed during the end credits because of “Be Good to Yourself,” by Journey (and this was my introduction to the band, and hence my introduction to “Don’t Stop Believin’”). Each of these songs stays fresh in my mind because of this movie. I admit, I even hum “On the Western Skyline” to myself when I think no one’s listening.

Now on to the movie, “White Water Summer.” How does it hold up? Not as well as I would like it to be. The film is nicely-shot (the director of photography was John Alcott, who previously worked on several Stanley Kubrick films), and that’s possibly a given considering the film mostly takes place in the great outdoors and the essence must be captured. And there are some genuinely tense moments that come with the characters and the environment they’ve put themselves into. Other than that, “White Water Summer” is somewhat unfocused, even annoying at times, and ultimately put on autopilot for the climax (or rather, anti-climax).

“White Water Summer” stars Kevin Bacon as Vic, a wilderness guide who leads a group of teenage boys on a month-long trek in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains. The only boy who isn’t full on-board is city-boy Alan (Sean Astin). He’s annoyed by Vic’s life lessons, and his defiance constantly has him and Vic butting heads with each other. The main problem that ensues is that Alan’s insolence only makes Vic’s aggressive lessons even more aggressive, and thus Alan is a target in extreme obstacles.

“White Water Summer” wants to be a film about taking time from your normal life and embrace the beauty in the isolation nature has to offer. After seeing this movie, I’m not sure anyone would want to go camping again. There are many hazardous obstacles that the boys and their guide come across and barely survive. One is a dangerous rope bridge over a 200-ft. gorge—the ropes they hang on to seem sturdy enough, but the bridge is mainly just a series of planks nailed onto one another. With such a thin footing, they have to cross with one foot directly in front of the other and never let go of the ropes. This is part of the safely-guided nature trail the kids signed up for?!

To be fair, that sequence is quite a nail biter. It’s nicely shot and really gives you a sense of vertigo. As a person who’s terrified of heights, I found this to be an effective sequence. And I really winced when the inevitable close-call (in that Alan nearly falls off the damn thing) happened.

There’s another sequence in which Vic takes the boys on a rough climb on a mountain called Devil’s Tooth. When they run out of rock, they are forced to pendulum across to the nearest surface rock. This is also well-shot and I was fooled into thinking that the real actors pulled off this stunt, and not stunt doubles. It seems fun, because they think it’s fun…everyone except Alan, who unfortunately slips and hangs on for dear life while he dangles on the edge of a rock face.

It’s here that the movie turns Vic into a villain, and the plot turns from a coming-of-age wilderness story into a standard rescue story. Aside from a little whitewater rafting that serves as the film’s climax (and it’s one painfully-dull sequence), I don’t think any of the boys have learned much about the wilderness, except that it’s best to stay within the confines of your home in the suburbs or the city. OK, you could argue that Vic learns more about patience when dealing with a city kid who has no interest in the wild life. But what about Alan? He states in a painfully-forced (and incredibly obnoxious) cutaway narration (in which Astin is a couple years older) how much he hates camping until we just want to deck him, especially because we’ve already seen the point he was trying to make.

The outcome of the climax is painful. It’s too coincidental, comes right out of nowhere, and the movie stops rather than end properly. And just as a joke, they show end credits before older Alan interrupts by saying, “You hear music, you see credits, you think it’s over?” I was hoping.

What I get out of “White Water Summer” now is beautiful photography, good-enough acting from Kevin Bacon, Sean Astin, and the other three young actors (Jonathan Ward, Matt Adler, K.C. Martel), and a kick-ass ‘80s soundtrack. But when you get down to it, the movie never comes to a coherent point. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, and what it is is adequate at best.

Less Than Zero (1987)

10 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I wouldn’t be a fair critic if I reviewed “Less Than Zero” based only on the novel of the same name that the film is based on—so I guess in that sense it’s fortunate for me, because I hadn’t read the novel. But I heard that this film had very little do with it, save for its title and subject matter. I’m reviewing “Less Than Zero” as a movie. I thought it was a sad, effective portrait about how cocaine—and having more of it—can mess your life up. It features the same kind of rich, white, young yuppies seen in “St. Elmo’s Fire,” which I thought was kind of terrible in the way that the characters were portrayed. “Less Than Zero,” in my opinion, is better because it shows that these characters actually know what they’re getting into and just can’t deal with the reality of facing the future.

The three leads of the film are high school graduates who are best friends and have grown up together in Beverly Hills, California. In an opening scene, we see that they’re happy that things are working out great for them. Two of them are going to school in Harvard; the other is being set up in the recording industry. The latter one’s deal is supported by his rich father. All three of these kids come from rich families.

Cut to six months later, when suddenly, things aren’t the way we saw them in that scene. Clay (Andrew McCarthy, “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Pretty in Pink”) has had his first semester at college without his girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz), who, as we see in a flashback, decided to stay because she “wasn’t ready.” We also see that Clay hasn’t contacted Blair or his best friend Julian (the one getting the recording job, played by Robert Downey Jr.) since he caught them both in bed together on Thanksgiving. Blair calls Clay and asks him to see her—she knows that he’ll be home to see his family for Christmas. So Clay returns home and gets reacquainted with old friends at local parties. He meets up with a terrified Blair who tells Clay that Julian is in trouble. She tells him that Julian disappears for quite a time and wakes up not knowing where he is. And now, Julian is in debt by the local cocaine dealer, a suave young man named Rip (well-played by James Spader).

Julian is hooked on cocaine and hasn’t had things going for him since he started with it. He’s been kicked out his parents’ house, lost the recording studio, spent all of his money, and is constantly in a state of confusion. He tries to keep his cool when around the visiting Clay. But Clay knows something is wrong and that Julian may be on the path to self-destruction, if he hasn’t self-destructed already. So what can he do? How can you get someone to stop when he has a drug addiction?

This is where “Less Than Zero” gets disturbing, but it’s also tragic and effective. I didn’t think the film was dumb or dull. I thought the story played itself out just right in how these characters are developed into people who started out with everything and could possibly end up with nothing if they continue along this path. “St. Elmo’s Fire” tried to cover this issue, but not to good effect. The people in that movie didn’t seem like real people to me. “Less Than Zero” seems more realistic.

The film’s performances are terrific. Andrew McCarthy is suitably nice as the young man who finds his friend’s life going down the drain. The beautiful Jami Gertz is quite good, playing a frightened girl who has cocaine problems of her own. But the best performances come from Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader. Downey Jr. gives a frightening portrayal of a young man who took the wrong path and is currently on the brink of losing everything he had, which could also mean his own life. And the best thing—his acting is so subtle. The less-than-subtle way of showing this character’s self-destruction goes to McCarthy’s observations of it. Downey Jr. does such an excellent job as this character that it almost seems real and in that case, frightening. Spader starts out as suave and cool, but then develops into an intimidating personality. But the truth is, he’s not really a bad guy; in fact, he’s kind of reasonable. We can see that in the scene in which Clay tries to tell the guy to lay off of Julian. He gets the response; “I’m not the problem. Julian is the problem.”

The film’s ending took me by surprise. I didn’t expect it to go the way it did, but it was like a kick to the gut. I won’t give away the ending, but I can say it is tragic. “Less Than Zero” is a cautionary tale of what can happen when addicted to cocaine (or any other drug, for that matter) and it works.

Can’t Buy Me Love (1987)

10 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Among the “teen movies” that came around during the mid-‘80s, 1987’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” is a stupid one. Not just stupid because of the lazy storytelling and unfunny dialogue, but because its teenage characters are stupid. This is a disgrace to the genre of “teen movies,” if there ever was such a genre. (And let’s face it—there is.)

The film’s main character is a geeky outcast named Ronald Miller. The only reason he’s labeled a nerd and a geek is because he doesn’t play football, tell raunchy jokes, act nasty even in public (one of the football players has a—excuse me—gas problem, ho ho), or date the most popular girl in school. Instead, he spends most of his days playing poker with his friends and mowing lawns to save up for an overly expensive telescope. (Really? A telescope? Is it really worth it?) He mows the lawn of the school’s queen bee, named Cindy, who is completely irresponsible, shallow, and selfish (but she’s beautiful—that’s all that counts in this high school, right?). Her first scene shows her mother disappointed that she used her credit card on the most expensive wardrobe—her mother asks, “Why can’t you be as responsible as Ronald Miller?” Cindy scoffs, “Mom, get real.”

One of Cindy’s acts of irresponsibleness leads her to a desperate need for a thousand dollars, which Ronald conveniently happens to have. He’s desperate to become popular in school so he offers the money to her in exchange for her pretending to be his girlfriend for a month, hoping that it will make him popular.

Let me stop there—what springs her need for cash is that she stole her mother’s suede jacket and wound up accidentally spilling red wine on it at a back-to-school party. This is unrealistic and (broken record) stupid. Or maybe the filmmakers wanted to highlight the expensive items they could possess (i.e. the jacket).

So the plan works (again, stupid) and Ronald is among the elite crowd and ditching his “nerdy” friends. But the way these popular students are portrayed is insulting. They’re portrayed as cruel, mean-spirited jocks that look ready to go for the kill whenever the “nerds” stand up at a high school dance. And they’re also dumb and witless, to be added. Ronald becomes one of them—a snobbish jerk who forgets the better deal of high school life and everyone looks to him as the popular guy in school. There’s one scene set at a high school dance in which he performs a dance move which he learned from “African Hour” instead of “American Bandstand,” looking like a complete idiot. The elite crowd doesn’t know what to think, but then they state, “Since he’s doing it, let’s do it too.” And it’s the nerds who have a big laugh (I have to admit, that one bit was kind of funny).

What about the parents? With the exception of Cindy’s mother, the parents are either uncaring or missing. Then again, this is a “teen movie.” They don’t have much to do in this genre anyway, with the exception of “Sixteen Candles,” with that scene in which the father and daughter have a nice little talk.

The actors who portray Ronald and Cindy—Patrick Dempsey and Amanda Peterson—do give off some appeal, but they deserve a whole lot better in script and role. Their characters would fit in with no problem in a dumb high school sitcom, which is exactly how “Can’t Buy Me Love” functions.