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My Favorite Movies – Permanent Record (1988)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

“Permanent Record” is an underrated teen-related film from the ‘80s that deserves to be checked out. What’s it about? Teenage suicide…

Yeah, before this taboo subject was satirized in the black-comedy “Heathers” a year after this film’s release, it was centered on two serious teen films in the mid-1980s. One of them was a made-for-TV after-school special called “A Desperate Exit” (or “Face at the Edge of the World,” as it’s sometimes called), starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Rob Stone. Then, a couple years later, indie filmmaker Marisa Silver, along with a team of three writers, approached the subject with more thoughtfulness in “Permanent Record.”

The suicide aspect doesn’t arrive until midway through the film. Up until that point, we get a nice, accurate (sometimes disturbingly so) portrait of a model high-school student who just wants everything to be “perfect.” David (Alan Boyce) is a good boy. He’s a nice guy, gets good grades, is a talented musician, helps compose the music for the school production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and has just received a good scholarship. To his best friend Chris (Keanu Reeves) and other students in his class (including two played by Jennifer Rubin and Michelle Meyrink), David has it made. But something is wrong here. David doesn’t feel like he can handle all his responsibilities and would rather not be depended on for once. The great thing about this first act, aside from first-rate acting & direction, is just how subtle David seems to be taking his crises as they worsen to him.

When you hear the word “suicide” associated with this film, it should come as no surprise that David does kill himself. At first, his friends think it was an accident that killed him. But then Chris receives a posthumous letter from David, saying nothing went the way he wanted, and that’s when things become clear. What isn’t fully clear to them is why he did it. David was the person they wanted to be and he took his own life when he couldn’t handle the pressure. Or was it for something else as well? And will they follow in his footsteps and do the same thing he did? Nothing is spelled out as to why David committed suicide, but it is hinted that when he expected perfection out of life, he felt he was doomed because it would or could lead to failure and despair. Ultimately, it’s up to the survivors to make the right choices and go on living.

There is much in “Permanent Record” that is cheesy and dated, and some of the dialogue is a little off (that, and sometimes Michelle Meyrink’s line readings are a bit stilted). But there is a lot however that does ring true and are executed very well.

Alan Boyce is very, very good as David, capturing the perfect “model student” to a T. He has such a natural charisma that I’m actually surprised he didn’t go anywhere after this. But as it turns out, he’s not the main focus. The main focus is on David’s best friend Chris, played by Keanu Reeves, who, between “River’s Edge” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” was a rising star. His performance in this film is one of his best, playing a confused kid who has to grow up and face reality when he would rather just kick back and party. A scene that shows Reeves’ remarkable ability is when Chris barely witnesses David’s end–Chris is drunk off his ass when slowly but surely realizes the horrible truth that his best friend is gone.

Another performance I want to single out is Jennifer Rubin (probably best known to horror movie buffs as a punk girl from the third “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie) as a shy girl who secretly loved David. Her scenes with Chris as she talks to him about the future she imagined with them and their friends are heartbreaking. The part that gets me the most could have been the most clichéd but I bought it with no problem—it’s a payoff to David’s “lost song” that he wrote before he died that serves as a memorial for him, during the play. There are other teenagers in this movie, including David’s “friend-with-benefits” who never saw their relationship as more than just sex (and therefore, she has no clear answer for why David committed suicide either) and a nerdy boy who tries to belong with the in-crowd which includes David and Chris and such (he ends up helping with the music for the school play). They get their moments to good effect.

Yeah, some of these actors look too old for their parts, which makes it kind of weird whenever Reeves (24 at the time) keeps asking for beer. But the film is well cast and performed.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the best character in the film. It’s not one of the teenagers; it’s actually the high-school principal, played by Richard Bradford. This is one of the best authority characters in any teen film I’ve seen. He’s understanding, he’s patient, and when he’s impatient or tough, we can understand why. How can we understand why? Because unlike most “teen films,” we do see scenes away from the teenagers that give the principal more character. Thanks to the attention given to him, this is quite possibly the most three-dimensional high-school-principal character I’ve ever seen in a teen-related film, and Richard Bradford does a good job playing him.

“Permanent Record” is well-directed with care by Marisa Silver. Silver’s debut film before this was 1984’s “Old Enough,” which was about two 13-year-old girls from opposite sides of the tracks who become friends for a summer. While I don’t think it’s as good as “Permanent Record,” it does show that this director did have a gift of empathy for her characters and the world they live in. (It’s easy to see why she went from film to literary arts.) That’s especially true of “Permanent Record.”

My Favorite Movies – Big (1988)

24 Apr

By Tanner Smith

I wish I could be as gleeful and excited as Josh Baskin when he got his first paycheck at his first job–“187 dollars?!!” Actually, I was once, back when I had my first job–it felt good to earn an honest pay for once.

“Big” has been one of my favorites since childhood–even when I didn’t get a lot of the jokes as a kid, I was still with the movie because it was so likable and appealing and wanted to treat me like an adult. (I think the target audience was both children and grownups–the PG-rating standards were pushed a little bit back when it was made and released.)

I first drawn to it at a young age (I think I was 8 or 9, I forget…) because like most kids, I wished I was bigger or grown up. As I got older, the comedy spoke to me more, so I kept coming back to it for that. Not too long after, I felt like I “got” it, like I knew what it was trying to tell me all that time–and I loved it even more.

The film is about a 12-year-old New Jersey boy named Josh (David Moscow) who is going through the normal average pre-pubescent stages–he’s being nagged by his parents to do his chores, he wants the attention of the pretty girl, he’s too short for the best carnival rides, all of that stuff. He comes across a fortune-telling machine that asks him to make a wish…so he wishes he was “big” (or “grown up”). (He doesn’t realize until after he’s made the wish that the active machine was unplugged the whole time. Spoooooky…)

The following morning, Josh is surprised to find that his wish has come true–he’s now taller, bigger, and played by Tom Hanks. His own mother doesn’t recognize him, but he’s able to convince his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton) of the situation. So, Billy helps Josh lay low in New York City until he can find the machine and wish himself back to being a kid again. But meanwhile, he needs work–so he gets a job working at a toy company. (He gets the job too easily, but remember it’s a fantasy.) He gets the attention of the boss, MacMillan (Robert Loggia), because rather than analyze target demographic surveys and processed datas and all that junk, Josh tests toys the old-fashioned way: he plays with them.

The best scene in the movie, I think everyone who’s seen it agrees, is the one where Josh and MacMillan meet at a toy store and play the carpet piano. Josh starts playing the scales and “Heart and Soul,” and it’s right there in a quiet little moment where MacMillan is reminded of his own childhood and smiles at the memory, leading to a piano duet between the two–first “Heart and Soul” and then “Chopsticks.” Everything about this scene is gold–it’s beautifully shot and choreographed, it’s funny, and it’s charming. I love it.

Anyway, Josh gets a promotion at work and blows everyone away because no one understands toys better than he does–he knows what kids want! (Go figure.) He gets a nicer apartment, he makes a decent living (ah screw it, it’s more than decent–I WANT THAT APARTMENT!), he upholds new responsibilities, and he even gets a girlfriend in a pretty coworker named Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), who has somewhat of a reputation amongst her male coworkers. This strange, interesting man interests her, so she tries to pick him up…

“I WANT to spend the night with you,” she tells him. He doesn’t quite get it: “Do you mean sleep over?” “Well…yeah.” “Well OK…but I get to be on top!” That is one of the jokes that went WAY over my head as a kid!

The more time Susan spends with Josh, the more she loosens up. She doesn’t carry herself as much as the movie continues. Josh has the same effect for other people, including MacMillan, who gets sick and tired of all the business talk around the office. Josh even has that effect on the uptight a-hole executive Paul (John Heard)–when Paul gets ticked off at Josh, he becomes a schoolyard bully (which he probably was as a kid).

It’s an interesting theme, but even more fascinating is Josh’s development as he continues further into the adult world (and his friend Billy has to remind him who he really is). When the time comes where he’s offered the opportunity to go back and live his teenage years before handling all the adult responsibilities…will he take it?

Just writing about “Big,” I’m reminded of the things I love about it. There’s a wonderful delicate balance of comedy and drama. Tom Hanks is phenomenal as the literal man-child. The supporting cast, especially Robert Loggia as the boss and Jared Rushton as the only one in on the secret, is excellent. The final act is emotionally charged. The directing by Penny Marshall is tender-hearted and cheerful. And so on.

And arguably most importantly, it’s THE SCREENPLAY–the only way this script by Gary Ross (who went on to write and direct “Pleasantville,” another favorite of mine) and Anne Spielberg (sister of Steven) could have been ruined is if the original casting choice (Robert De Niro) was put in the lead role. (I love De Niro, but I could never see him as Josh.)

I love this movie. I always have and I always will.

Last thing I’ll say about “Big” is I usually stick with the original cut. The extended version is fine (though I would’ve liked to see that legendary alternate ending), but I think they made the right editing choices for the theatrical cut. If you’re a “‘Big’ completist,” it’s worth checking out–but I don’t think you’ll love it as much as the version you’ve come to know and love at that point.

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1988)

26 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam” is a brilliant documentary that would serve as a companion piece to any of the best narrative films on the subject of the Vietnam War. Watch “Platoon” or “Apocalypse Now” or “Full Metal Jacket,” and then watch “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam” and you will have a complete movie-viewing experience. This is a film that captures and clasps the terror, sorrow and bravery of the Vietnam War, and it’s all done through real, non-reenacted footage and narration of real words from soldiers writing home from Vietnam.

We see the footage of the soldiers’ own home movies, as well as old TV news footage that provided updates on the war, and much of this footage is very brutal to watch. We even see fire fights and soldiers on the verge of death, mortally wounded in the field. While viewing this footage, we hear the soldiers’ voices, in the words they wrote in their letters home. The voices given to these people were given by many different celebrities, such as Robert De Niro, Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, among many others. Some people may be paying attention to who’s providing the voice of whom, but those who do are distracting themselves. I’ll admit I was listening too, but to the credit of the actors & actresses, I found myself not paying as much attention to the voices as much as the words coming from real-life soldiers who either died or were wounded. (Hell, I completely forgot De Niro, Robert Downey Jr., and Charlie Sheen were even part of this process until I looked back at the credits.)

It’s a simple technique used to tell the story of young men who went to a strange new world and either died in the middle of it or were scarred for life in body and/or soul. And it works perfectly for this material, as does the use of popular ‘60s songs to provide the soundtrack.

The ending takes us to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., with one last letter, read by Ellen Burstyn as the voice of the mother of one of the fallen soldiers. It’s a heartbreaking close to say the least; I’ll even admit it got me a little teary-eyed, which is no small feat, to be honest.

“Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam” was originally released on PBS in 1987, but strong critical praise gave it life on the big screen in 1988. Whether you watch it on a big screen or small screen, it’s hard to deny that to experience this film is to feel this film.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

27 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Spoiler Alert…but come on; you know how this story ends already.

God sent his son to spread His message. There are many ways He could’ve gotten his word across to man, but by using his son as a symbol. God so loved mankind that he made his one begotten son into a man. When Jesus rose from the grave three days after being shamed and beaten and crucified onto a wooden cross to die because of his constant spreading the message of love, that message become clear, and that’s what’s being taught in Christian teachings to this day. Renowned director Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” adapted by screenwriter Paul Schrader from the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantakis, is a film that shows just how cruelly difficult it was for Jesus to carry on in becoming that symbol. Because he was both a man and the Son of God, he had the same temptations of man.

Sometimes knowing what he had to be would be hard for him to take in. But not knowing what to do made it even tougher. And with the Devil coming in many forms to steer him away from the path to delivering the message, he would even wonder what it would be like to live a normal life as a man. He had desires, thoughts, feelings; the same as any other man. And he had to resist such temptations in order to carry out his mission. What we can take from this film is that it’s “more difficult to be a good man than God.” (That’s a line Gene Siskel originally wrote in his Chicago Tribune review of this film; I’m sorry, but that’s such a good quote.)

The film (as well the book it was based on, for that matter) makes it very clear that it isn’t based entirely on the Bible and that’s more of an interpretation of what Jesus must have felt in the last days of his life. At the time of this film’s release, many religious groups have attacked the film for it, calling it “blasphemous.” (But then again, religious extremists will fire shots at any film in which God is mentioned in terms of story, like “Life of Brian” and “The Passion of the Christ,” usually when they haven’t even seen the film.) Since then, it has become widely appreciated as one of the finest religious films ever made, because it challenges audiences with questions of faith and belief and gets the message across in a very strong way, by showing what trials and tribulations Jesus had to face before fully carrying out his destiny. It’s a message that can give comfort to any sinner.

Willem Dafoe portrays Jesus—a challenging role to say the least but he pulls it off successfully. He’s a New Testament guy in an Old Testament land (in this case, the location of Morocco), where the message of love and forgiveness is not easily delivered. And it’s not easy for him either. Sometimes he doubts himself and questions whether or not he truly is the Son of God (and when he does believe, he uses it to reproach his mother and the memory of his father—ouch). When the prostitute, Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), is forbidden to attend a wedding, Jesus has to be as calm as possible in order to rationally bring her in. Sometimes, he’ll confide in Judas (Harvey Keitel, possibly the film’s weak link—I didn’t buy him entirely in this role), who is portrayed as a better man than most teachings have made him out to be (and his name becoming a curse doesn’t help either)—here, he’s a man doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do.

It all leads to the most controversial sequence of the film. Jesus is crucified on the cross, in extreme pain, listening to those around him either berating him or screaming in pain, and he starts to hallucinate and imagine what it would be like if he was taken down from the cross and able to live out the rest of his life as a regular human being. He marries Mary Magdelene, has a family, and lives a full life. But he is also shamed by his former followers, who claim he abandoned his mission and say they don’t know what to believe anymore. Jesus soon finds the strength to shake off his temptation and return to the cross, where he will die as God’s son and come back to deliver the last piece of the message.

Scorsese, who was raised Catholic, is hardly a strange choice to make “The Last Temptation of Christ,” since a good chunk of his films are about flawed people seeking redemption. He knew he was taking a big risk with the Christian right, and he even received death threats and had to arrange private, secure screenings for critics before the film’s release. But he’s a skilled filmmaker, as well as a believer, and those who see the film for what it is can appreciate what he put into it.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)

6 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For those who aren’t familiar with director Penelope Spheeris’ trilogy of “Decline of Western Civilization” films, I’ll give a little background. The first “Decline of Western Civilization” film was a documentary about the Los Angeles punk rock scene, featuring concert footage of punk bands and interviews with band members and their audiences, giving a glimpse into the subculture the music created. It filmed through 1979 and 1980 and released in 1981. The film became a cult hit, which led to Spheeris making a sequel, this one about the heavy metal scene of 1986-1988: “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.” (Nearly a decade later, a third chapter was made about the gutter punk lifestyle of homeless teenagers of L.A. ‘90s.)

“The Metal Years” uses the same approach as the previous film—a straightforward, constructive, unblinking view of a subcultural phenomenon. But there’s something different about this approach. While interview subjects in the first film could make wild comments at times, the amount of “out-there” these people bring to their interviews doesn’t merely make “The Metal Years’ an in-depth portrait; it also makes it a comedy, with randomly hilarious moments in which these “metalheads” seeking fame and fortune use their egos to unintentionally embarrass themselves on camera.

The reason for their directness may be because director Spheeris is definitely not afraid to ask these people the right questions. And when I say “the right questions,” I mean the questions we might be afraid to ask ourselves; the kind of questions that would seem “rude” to many other people. Whether it’s about groupies, over-ambition, addiction, ethics, economics, or whatever, Spheeris asks these direct questions to get the honest answers she seeks, and she has apparently earned enough trust from her subjects to receive them. Among the questions are: “What do you think parents think about you?” “Are you in it for the chicks?” “What if you don’t make it as a rock star?” “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”

Among Spheeris’ interview subjects are famous musicians such as Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Dave Mustaine and Paul Stanley, but her initial focus is on unknown bands (some of whom are still unknown today, unsurprisingly), including London, Odin, Seduce, among others; the film has them talk about their desperate quests to stardom and how confident they are that they’ll each make it as a rock star. Many of the answers they give to Spheeris’ blatant questions are fun to listen to just because of how egotistical they are.

It’s nice to get different views on the lifestyle, from those who want to go through certain elements of the lifestyle to those who already have. Among the latter is the somewhat voice of sanity in the form of Ozzy Osbourne, who is seen here as rehabilitated and talking about success while making breakfast in his comfortable home. And there are also those who seemingly haven’t learned much from experience, as Steven Tyler of Aerosmith boasts about his musical and sexual flairs. (By the way, as funny as the movie is, it’s funnier for music buffs looking at this movie from 1988, knowing what they know in 2016.) And then there’s the former, who just desire to be famous, even if it means, according to one subject, “going down in history like Jim Morrison.” They don’t even like to get real jobs because they’re so convinced they’ll be famous sometime soon—they’re that convinced it’s inevitable.

The film is a cult-classic also for its scenes that show rock star excess. There’s a sequence including middle-aged club owner Bill Gazzarri, whose “sexy rock n’ roll dance contest” is now called sleazy and sexist; some of the subjects talk about how women, especially groupies, are portrayed unfairly in the metal scene; Aerosmith talks about spending millions of dollars on drugs; and so on. The most haunting interview occurs late in the film, with Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P., who inadvertently presents the other (darker) side of partying. He’s interviewed in a swimming pool, with his mother sitting in a lawn chair nearby. He slurs and stumbles throughout the interview as he was heavily drunk, admits to being a “full-blown alcoholic,” pours a bottle of vodka over himself, all while his mother watches with discomfort. It’s the most striking sequence in the film.

The film may be dubbed “Part II,” but it can easily be seen on its own. And even if you don’t care about heavy metal of the mid-to-late-‘80s, there’s sure to be something in this documentary that will entertain people today. And when you’re not laughing at these unusual behaviors and straightforward comments, you may also learn some illuminating, interesting information about the pursuit of fame and fortune, which is still relevant in our lives today.

She’s Having a Baby (1988)

14 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“She’s Having a Baby” is a different look for John Hughes—insight into the adult life of relationships and conflict, rather than the high school teenagers’ side of such (see “The Breakfast Club” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” among others). And while the results are somewhat uneven in tone, it’s still a funny and insightful (sometimes both at the same time) film about marriage and commitment. Maybe it tries to be a little too broad to ease up on certain heavier issues by giving us one too many comedic gimmicks, but a few of them did make me laugh, which means they did work. As a result, I find myself liking and recommending “She’s Having a Baby.”

The story for “She’s Having a Baby” begins on the wedding day of a young couple, Jake and Kristy (Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern). Jake, who narrates the story, is very nervous about what he’s about to do, as we see in a daydream sequence that exaggerates what the marrying preacher asks him to do for his wife-to-be before ultimately saying “I will.” This is one of many flights of fancy in this movie that represent certain “ordinary” aspects in these characters’ lives. Daydream fantasy sequences, nightmares, imaginary conversations, and even a musical number involving the neighbors of the suburban neighborhood in which the now-married couple moves.

These moments can sometimes seem distracting, and I’ll admit I was mouthing the words “what the hell” during the musical number. They make the tone of this film inconsistent; whether or not “She’s Having a Baby” is intended to be a comedy, a drama, or a comedy-drama is not necessarily clear. Then again, Hughes has been known for having his share of cheesy moments in his teen films, so maybe it’s the change of pace for the “adult-world” that threw me off a bit. (And for the record, at least Hughes’ film before this, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” starring Steve Martin and John Candy, was intended to be a comedy.)

Anyway, back to the story. Actually, I should switch that term “story,” because essentially, there isn’t much of one. It’s just mainly about this couple as they take up responsibilities of adulthood, even though Jake isn’t entirely willing to. He’s not ready for the responsibility of supporting his wife, becoming a working-class man, and eventually the idea of starting a family. But he knows it’s too late to do anything else, so he reluctantly accepts it. Years pass, as Jake has conned his way into a job at an advertising agency (though he spends nights writing a novel because his work doesn’t interest him), the marriage is going fine even though he and Kristy argue at times and Jake sometimes imagines sexual fantasies, and compared to his best friend’s (Alec Baldwin) adventurous life in New York, he finds his so-called “yuppie” life to be less than satisfying.

And then comes the issue of Kristy wanting to conceive a child and Jake not knowing whether or not he’s ready to be a father. He does give in, ultimately, as Kristy is pregnant. Although, instead of going through the usual ways of pregnancy (because Kristy is never the narrator with her own focus), we instead get a montage that speeds through some of what they go through. If that’s not effective enough, then the last 20 minutes of the movie, involving the baby-making, certainly makes up for it. This is where the risks come with the heavy drama. And strangely enough, this sequence works. Without giving anything away here, it made me feel for Jake, who finally realizes his priorities and finds himself fully ready to be an adult. It’s a well-done final act.

There are some very funny bits in “She’s Having a Baby.” For example, I love Jake’s reaction when Kristy tells him that she’s been off the pill for weeks. There’s also a nicely-written comic scene in which Jake sits with the neighborhood men who go on and on about their lawnmowers, which is intersected with a conversation with Kristy and a couple neighborhood women who go on about other meaningless suburban stuff. There are also some good, funny one-liners, and a few other comedic scenes that I will not reveal in this review in an attempt to make it funnier. Just say you won’t be thinking of the song “Chain Gang” the same way anymore.

Oh, and also the in-laws (William Windom & Cathryn Damon and James Ray & Holland Taylor) are pretty funny as well. They have some very nice, comedic moments.

There are, however, a few scenes that feel uncomfortable. One in particular comes in the middle, as Jake is at a photo-shoot for the ad agency he works with, and he has to pose with a baby whose mother doesn’t seem to be around. As he searches for the baby’s mother, he comes to the woman’s dressing room and becomes infatuated with the women putting on their stockings and underwear and such. As if the sensual temptations of a strange, attractive woman Jake meets at a disco (actually, he meets her in the john—funny), they had to throw this in. I guess it’s to add to Jake’s sudden need for excitement in his sex life, but this is pushing it. (The baby’s awkward reaction shots added to the intense editing of this scene don’t help either.)

“She’s Having a Baby” can be seen as a movie in which Hughes’ young characters have grown up and now have to face reality. In that case, I find the movie to be more interesting and effective in how this couple is developed. Within the fantasy and satire, there is a sense of realism in how these situations are represented and they seem quite believable in principle. “She’s Having a Baby” is funny and serious at the same time, and while it may seem like an uneven production, I liked it enough to care for it.

Lady in White (1988)

14 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

WARNING: This review is spoiler-heavy. Details about the film’s ending (and the revealed identity of the serial killer that haunts this horror film) are mentioned. Despite the Verdict of what seems to be a mixed review, I recommend you check out the film “Lady in White” and get back to this review. (Be advised—this is a negative but affectionate review.)

OK, I’m probably not coming off as “affectionate” in this review when I say that “Lady in White” is “weird.” But I don’t really mind weirdness in horror films featuring ghosts, and so “Lady in White” should delight me. And for the most part, I was delighted. But the more I thought about it, the more I keep thinking about what doesn’t belong and what should be further developed. The result is an intriguing but uneven ghost story.

What do I mean by “weird?” Well, I’m just going by the overall atmosphere of the film, which is almost too well-mannered for its own good. For an old-fashioned ghost story set in the early-1960s, takes place in a small town, and is told from a child’s point-of-view, “Lady in White” is crafted in such a way that it seems all too polite despite its grim subject matter. The result is sometimes interesting, other times uncomfortable. It just makes the darker aspects of it seem all too dark, which I guess is the point, but we have to go through a lot of overly mannered scenes that look like a Norman Rockwell painting coming to life and all of a sudden, there’s blood in certain spots.

Another example of its weirdness is how it sometimes feels like a family sitcom. There are a lot of comic relief scenes with the young protagonist’s Italian grandparents who bicker all the time and deliver a lot of goofy moments. Even early in the film, when no relief is needed, the grandfather is caught smoking and then his pants catch fire. What kind of movie is this supposed to be again?

“Lady in White” follows Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas), an odd, imaginative little boy who lives with his Italian-American father (Alex Rocco), older brother (Jason Presson), and the aforementioned comic-relief grandparents (Renata Vanni and Angelo Bertolini) in an ordinary town with ordinary people in 1962. On Halloween, a couple of Frankie’s classmates trick him and lock in the school cloakroom for the night. When no one comes to rescue him, Frankie is stuck in there for hours in the dark. Then, something strange happens. He sees the ghostly image of a little girl reenacting her own murder in that very room.

That’s one of the interesting things about this ghost story. Apparently, ghosts are forced to “haunt” by “reliving” their own murders, presumably because there’s nothing else they can do, since they died a tragic, violent death. They apparently have to do that because that’s all they can do until justice is delivered to whoever wronged them. That would explain why Frankie sees the ghost girl reenact her own murder. Another interesting element is that the killer is never seen in these reenactments (so the girl is carried away by an invisible force), because the killer is still alive and on the loose.

After Frankie sees the ghost, the cloakroom is then visited by a mysterious stranger who is very much alive and able to harm Frankie. Frankie is nearly strangled to death by the man, presumably the killer. Frankie survives, but sees more visions of the ghost girl and even talks to her sometimes. She wants him to find her mother and find out who her killer is.

So, Frankie finds a few clues to help him uncover the true identity of the serial killer that has also killed many other children, including the child of a grieving woman who has lost all sense of reason since her loss. A black janitor is accused, but Frankie feels that it wasn’t him, so he continues to search. Soon enough, his brother sees the ghost and he is able to help out at a crucial point in the movie. Meanwhile, there are a few more points in the mystery, which includes a ghostly Lady in White who haunts a cottage near some cliffs, and a reclusive woman named Amanda (Katherine Helmond) who may or may not have connections with the murdered girl.

The movie does a good job in telling the story from Frankie’s perspective and there are moments that ring true—while some moments feel fantastic in a playful sort of way, others are more disturbing for the boy, making it somewhat of a coming-of-age story in a sense. It helps that Frankie is very bright (and very odd, like a lot of young kids are) and isn’t just running around screaming—he’s given something specific to do, and he sees it to the melodramatic payoff in which all bets are off and his life is in danger.

Speaking of which, the final 20 minutes or so of “Lady in White” is when it becomes a more traditional horror film, when the film is suddenly afraid of being too polite and actually becomes something even more alarming, intentionally so. Suddenly, everything has become very real and very dangerous, with a very real killer. At first, I didn’t really know how to respond to this, as it seems like the ending to a slasher film. But the more I thought about everything that was built up before, the more I thought about how much I got to know Frankie and his family enough for it to mean something for me when the truly scarier occurrences appear. That’s actually a good type of horror movie—letting us know the characters so that we feel for them when they’re in peril.

But there is one major problem here (and this is where spoilers come in)—this whole film is all about Frankie trying to piece together this puzzle and find out the killer’s identity, and yet to me, it seemed all too obvious who the killer would turn out to be. Why? Because after that deadly encounter in the cloakroom, we see a closeup of a man we haven’t seen yet in the movie—a man with a guilty and remorseful look on his face. That man turns out to be Phil (Len Cariou), who is a friend of the family who sometimes teaches Frankie archery. It’s that shot that really lets the movie down because I could tell right away that something was not quite right with this man. Maybe if we met him before, and had either the father or Frankie interact with him early in the movie, that shot would fool us then, because it would mean anything. But no—he’s the killer. I knew it, I was waiting impatiently for the characters to figure it out, and surely enough, Frankie finds himself in a situation where he finds out too late and he’s probably doomed.

Little problems with the film include an overdone subplot involving racism when it comes to the conviction of the black janitor and the grieving white woman—I can tell there’s some sort of social commentary trying to be said here, but it’s in a different movie. And the subplot involving Amanda seems superfluous—take her out of the story and you wouldn’t miss a thing. Even her “revelation” in the final act seems very forced. Oh, and I almost forgot the narration and the prologue. Let me explain—there’s a prologue that shows an older Frankie, a successful writer who recalls the incidents with the ghosts. He stands by a gravestone and decides to tell his cab driver a story, which makes the film into a flashback. Not only is the narration sound overblown and overly cryptic, but this prologue doesn’t work for two reasons—1) it removes all suspense because we all know that Frankie isn’t going to die in this story, and 2) there’s no epilogue. I’m not even kidding—there’s no epilogue. It just ends with the killer finally meets his end at a cliff, the ghosts of the girl and her mother are reunited (even before the killer finally dies—wait, what?), Frankie is reunited with his father and brother, the camera pulls back from the cliff as it starts to snow (symbolism?)…and that’s it. There’s not even any sort of narration to close us out. I don’t care what explanation you give me; that is just clumsy.

I give “Lady in White” credit for making ghosts into sympathetic figures and getting quite a few things right in the non-horror aspects, particularly involving Frankie and the relationships with his family members, and there are a few good scares in the story without being the main focus for the most part. But the parts that don’t work are a little too distracting for me to give it another watch. However, I say this is an “affectionate” review because even though it didn’t quite work for me, I can see other people getting into this movie despite those scenes.

Vice Versa (1988)

25 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For some reason, in the mid-to-late-1980s, there were a certain trend that comedies would seem to follow—body-swap. Ever since 1987’s “Like Father, Like Son” (featuring Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron as a father and son who transfer minds) was released to box-office success, Hollywood executives thought the idea of two people switching bodies and taking over each other’s identities would be the next best thing for mainstream comedies. But truth be told, most of them aren’t very good—I hated “Like Father, Like Son,” I don’t care for “18 Again” (with George Burns), and don’t even get me started on “Dream a Little Dream” (with Jason Robards and Corey Feldman). There were two movies released in 1988 that stood out among the rest, in terms of quality, laughs, and entertainment. One was “Big,” in which Tom Hanks in an Oscar-nominated performance was a child in an adult’s body. That movie was one of the top-grossing movies of the year and is still a truly treasurable movie. The other is one that most people seem to forget about, but it truly is entertaining—it’s “Vice Versa.”

“Vice Versa” was released just a few months after “Like Father, Like Son” and it features the same gimmick. The minds of a father and son are magically transferred into each other’s bodies, so that the kid is inside his father’s body and has to go to work, and Dad is inside the kid’s body and has to go to school. But only the gimmick is the same. “Like Father, Like Son” was a terrible movie; “Vice Versa” is a good one, because it has a screenplay that truly gets the situation and has clever, funny scenes that make it entertaining. And two game actors were picked effectively to help serve it.

Judge Reinhold plays Marshall Seymour, a hard-working, divorced Chicago department store executive who is spending Christmas holiday with his 12-year-old son, Charlie (Fred Savage). But Marshall barely has enough time to spend with his son, and Charlie can’t help but admit that Dad has it better than him. Both make the mistake of wishing aloud that they could trade places with each other, while looking at an ancient Tibetan item. The item has mystical powers and winds up transforming them into one another—the kid becomes his father and vice versa.

Charlie (as Marshall) goes to work in the department store with wide eyes and an awed expression on his face, a childlike (if you will) way of talking to people (especially at a board meeting), and plays the drums in the music section. Marshall (as Charlie) endures the 7th grade as he takes simple tests but has to wait for everyone else to finish before he can do anything else, ducks school bullies, talks back to his teacher, and even takes a shot at hockey practice even though he can’t ice-skate.

There’s an advantage for each of them during all of this. In one of the best scenes, Charlie (again, as Marshall) gets to say the things he couldn’t say to his school teacher, and in another terrific scene, he even takes revenge on the school bullies. And then there’s Marshall (again, as Charlie) as he gets to say the things he didn’t have the courage to say as his previous self to his girlfriend, Sam (Corinne Bohrer).

This is all fun, entertaining, and well-done. What doesn’t work so much is a subplot involving two smugglers who try to steal the Tibetan item that caused this mess in the first place. They threaten Marshall (who is really Charlie at this point), but that doesn’t seem to work. And then they kidnap Charlie (who is really Marshall at this point), and can’t believe how calm he is about his situation. (OK, the reaction of one of the kidnappers after a firm and direct ransom phone call is pretty funny.) And this of course leads to a chase scene in which the adult in a kid’s body chases the crooks on a cop’s motorcycle so they don’t get away with it.

But what really makes “Vice Versa” work are the performances by Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage as the personality-switched main characters, who are more than able to convince us that they are someone else most of the time. In particular, Reinhold is wonderful as a child inside a grown man’s body, and he performs greatly with body language. He slumps over while he walks, he can’t be still like a kid wouldn’t be at the still age of 11, and of course when he gets excited, he celebrates with an exuberant boilermaker (he jumps up and swings his arm in the air after he gets even with the bullies in a wonderful moment).

“Vice Versa” seems to be forgotten whenever “body-swap” is mentioned to some people, but I find it to be a delightful movie with funny writing and even-more-so solid performances. I will take this over “Like Father, Like Son” any day.

Bull Durham (1988)

23 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

1988’s “Bull Durham” could be taken as both a romantic comedy and a baseball movie, but the truth of the matter is that it knows more about baseball than it does about love. And that’s fine with me. It’s probably one of the very best baseball movies I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t merely have a clear intelligence of the game, but also the players’ mindset. And it would make sense—the movie was written and directed by former minor-league player Ron Shelton. His experience shows.

Consider, for example, the scene in which “Crash” Davis, playing for a minor-league team called the Durham Bulls (fictional team, I believe), first goes up to bat in this movie. A masterstroke in this scene—we hear his inner thoughts. He’s thinking of which pitch to take a swing at, but he’s also thinking about a woman he met the other night, and that’s breaking his concentration and practically driving him crazy.

And later in the movie, we also eavesdrop on the pitcher’s inner thoughts, struggling to find the right way to control his pitches. I should also mention that he’s been coached to breathe through his eyelids like lava lizards.

My favorite moment is the hilarious private conversation the players have on the mound during a game—one of the players needs a “live chicken” to lift the curse put on his glove and nobody else knows what to get as a wedding present for one of the players and a groupie (“Candlesticks always make a nice gift”).

This is some, fresh funny writing and there are a lot of scenes like those. It’s very funny, but also insightful.

But the movie isn’t just about baseball—it’s mainly about a romantic triangle. It begins as the Durham Bulls take in a rookie pitcher named LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) for the new season. LaLoosh has a fastball that can hit the strike zone…but only occasionally. There’s a very funny line said by one of the groupies, describing how LaLoosh pitches, right after a sexual encounter in the locker room—but I’m too much of a gentleman to type it for a family magazine.

Anyway, the Bulls hire veteran catcher “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner), who has been in a lot of minor league teams for years, though never making it to the “Show” (the major leagues), to act as an on-field guide for LaLoosh. It’s not exactly a trusting relationship at first—when they first meet, they’re fighting over a woman they meet at the local bar.

The woman is named Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon) and she’s a lover of baseball and baseball players. She explains in an opening monologue that she’s tried “all the major religions, and most of the minor ones” but only believes in the “Church of Baseball.” She also states that there hasn’t been a ballplayer slept with her who didn’t have the best year of his career. She picks out the two more-promising players of the Durham Bulls this year—Crash and LaLoosh (whom she nicknames “Nuke”). Crash doesn’t give in, leaving the affair to Annie and “Nuke.”

But the problem is Annie is constantly on Crash’s mind.

As the movie progresses, Crash and Annie realize they have similar things in common—they want to help Nuke improve his game, and they can state in great detail the things they believe in and appreciate each other’s principles…more or less. Will this relationship develop into a heavy love affair? One knows there’s one waiting for them.

“Bull Durham” is a sports movie not about winning or losing, but about finding more off the field. It never really seems to matter whether the Durham Bulls are winning or losing. They play the games, they win, they lose, they hang out, and meanwhile there’s an affair between Nuke and Annie, and surprising sparks that fly between Annie and Crash. Things get more complicated when Nuke lets a winning streak go to his head and decides not to sleep with Annie again until the team loses.

All three actors—Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins—are excellent here. Costner, who at the time was proving his stardom with movies like “The Untouchables” and “No Way Out,” is playing a role that isn’t especially flashy and just plays it straight, making it more effective. Susan Sarandon is attractive and sexy, and her character Annie Savoy is more three-dimensional than you might think. She’s bright, complex, and just needs somebody to love. Tim Robbins is perfect as the goofy rookie pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh.

Let’s face it, though. With a romantic triangle like the one featured in “Bull Durham,” you’d see much more problems for them to face and eventually, everything would just fall apart. This is not the movie where that happens. Actually, maybe it would happen like that in reality, maybe it wouldn’t. But either way, when all is said and done, “Bull Durham” is a movie. In the movies, we like to believe that love can be found in the most non-fateful ways.

“Bull Durham” is as nonconventional as a sports movie can get. It doesn’t resort to overblown clichés in the baseball scenes. It knows what it’s talking about and it comes from a great screenplay from Ron Shelton, a man who learned from experience. “Bull Durham” is a grand slam.

Beetlejuice (1988)

15 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Ghostbusters” was a unique piece of work—it mixed comedy with special effects and the macabre. Now comes “Beetlejuice,” an attempt to cash in on the “supernatural comedy” subgenre, but admittedly an amusing, good-looking, eerie horror-comedy with a lot of special effects. It’s a sort-of cartoon look at the way of the afterlife, and I like the energy and originality that was put into this film.

The movie stars Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as a happily married couple named Adam and Barbara Maitland who spend vacation in their idyllic New England country home. They spend a happy life together, until they get in a deadly accident. When they return home, they realize that they no longer have reflections and find a strange book known as the handbook for the recently deceased. They realize that they are ghosts, and when they attempt to leave their house, they find themselves in a strange parallel dimension where giant sand-worms crawl under the ground. So they have nowhere to go.

Adam and Barbara’s peace is destroyed when a New York couple (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara) and their Gothic daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) move into the house and redecorate it. As ghosts, Adam and Barbara try to scare off the unwanted guests but they can’t be seen. Desperate for help, they find Betelgeuse (pronounced “beetle juice”), a bio-exorcist who loves to scare people away, but his methods may actually be dangerous and quite deadly.

Betelgeuse is played by Michael Keaton, who is almost unrecognizable behind makeup. It’s a hilarious performance. Although, if the whole movie were about Betelgeuse, it would be a little irritating after a while. This guy is so manic that a little of this guy almost goes a long way. But it’s just so funny and he nearly stops the show.

But the movie isn’t all about that “ghost buster”—it’s about the relationship between two deceased lovers trying to cope with being dead and experiencing the most unbelievable stuff in the afterlife. When trying to scare off their new unwanted guests, they soon befriend Lydia who can see them because she’s “strange and unusual” and she can understand the weird Handbook. I like the energy and originality and gimmicks that were put into this movie. I love the way the afterlife looks, and how Tim Burton creates the illusion of an afterworld with great special effects, amazing set pieces, and dark cinematography.

Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis do terrific jobs as the couple, and Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder are no slouches either as the New York family. And then, Keaton is there to liven—or deaden—up the party with his crazed performance of Betelgeuse.

“Beetlejuice” is crazy but wonderfully so. It’s a nicely-done mixed blend of comedy and horror. I liked the casting, I liked the production design, and I also liked the visual jokes put into the scenes involving the afterworld (a badly burnt ghost is smoking a cigarette, for example). Even if it goes overkill near the end, it’s still a good deal of fun.