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Short Circuit 2 (1988)

28 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This is not how it goes. Sequels are not supposed to succeed far above their original films. But that’s the case with “Short Circuit 2,” a far better movie than its predecessor “Short Circuit.” The only thing that movie had going for it was a cute robot with an appealing comic personality. The problem was it was sidelined with an idiotic plot and Steve Guttenberg. But now, with “Short Circuit 2,” the robot—now named Johnny Five—is in a movie worthy of him. Yes, I called the robot “him.” Why? Because the robot is alive. Johnny Five has a mind of its own. You might recall in the original film, he got struck by lightning and was brought to life magically.

“Short Circuit 2” also features Fisher Stevens, whom you might remember from the original film as the Indian man named Ben. He’s the one who helped Guttenberg construct Johnny Five in the first place. Ben is now selling goods on the streets of New York—in this case, he’s selling six-inch lookalikes of Johnny Five. They’re real treats to have. The attractive Sandy (Cynthia Gibb), who is a worker for a toy company, notices these little robots and is very impressed. She and Ben strike a deal—if Ben can make a thousand of these little robots by the end of the month, they will be marketed and purchased. Ben agrees, and to his reluctance, he gains assistance from a wise-cracking street hustler named Fred (Michael McKean) and gets himself an abandoned building to gain a factory to work inside. But things don’t go well and burglars keep trying to get in because there’s a tunnel under the floor of that building that may lead to a bank vault. Are you still with me?

Anyway, Johnny Five is sent in a package to Ben and Fred to help. He does a spectacular job too. But Johnny Five is always hungry for more “input” and when he realizes he’s in a city, he constantly comes out of the factory to explore. In one funny scene, he comes across a street gang and unwittingly helps them steal lots of car radios. I like the way he imitates a crazed car salesman when he shows the gang the radios he stole. You see, Johnny Five can get a lot of input from reading books in just a few mere seconds. But mostly, he just imitates what he sees on TV. This is charming. Don’t we all imitate what we see on TV every once in a while?

Of course the people in the city make fun of the robot. This is where “Short Circuit 2” gets its seriousness. Johnny Five, since he has a mind of his own, feels left out of society. He has thoughts and feelings and now he feels that as a robot, he’s not human. And nobody in the city is treating him like a human. All he wants is respect. Don’t we all?

But since this is a robot, you have to ask yourself this question—“Do you care if the creature’s life is in jeopardy?” The answer is yes. Johnny Five unwittingly helps the burglars get to the bank vault (he trusts their leader) and the leader of the burglars sees Johnny Five as a witness that can identify them. That brings us to the intense showstopping scene in which Johnny Five is being smashed by the bad guys. That scene shocked me and frightened me, so I really did care for this robot’s “life.”

“Short Circuit 2” isn’t just about that robot. The characters of Ben and Fred are actually kind of interesting. Ben is an Indian man waiting to become an American citizen and Fred is trying to get rich but he knows what’s right in the end—the refreshing thing about his character before that point is that he’s not a bad guy. Then there’s the crush Ben has with Sandy, who of course feels something for him too. There’s a funny scene where Ben is given help from Johnny Five (with Johnny Five flashing sentences on a billboard) in order to talk to Sandy on their first date.

There’s another scene I want to mention. When the burglars lock Ben and Fred up in a freezer of a Chinese restaurant, Ben has access to a phone but can’t talk on it. So he calls Sandy and uses the numbers to match tones of popular songs. Those songs work as a map for Sandy to follow and find Ben. That’s a fun scene.

“Short Circuit 2” is a much better film than the original “Short Circuit.” The filmmakers really put some thought into it, there’s a fun tone to it, and that robot is just so darn likable. It’s great to look at and funny to listen to. Voiced by Tim Blaney, the robot has an appealing personality. Johnny Five is finally in a movie that is worthy of him.

License to Drive (1988)

27 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“License to Drive” seems like it’s going somewhere special. It has the premise of a kid failing his driving exam yet he still wants to drive. You would expect something fresh to come from this idea. But you’d be wrong. Instead, “License to Drive” gives us an entire second half of complications, out-of-control, near-death car accidents (none of which fatal but they’re still not funny), and a long chase sequence. That’s too bad too, because the first half is quite amusing.

The movie stars Corey Haim as an average teenager named Les. Like many high school students, he has a crush on the pretty girl in school—in this movie, she has the nice name of Mercedes—and really wants to drive. But of course, he isn’t focused enough in studying, and his wild, reckless best friend Dean (Corey Feldman, who co-starred with Haim in “The Lost Boys”) isn’t very motivational—“You’ve been a passenger in a car all your life—you don’t need to study.” Les does, however, have a brainy twin sister who studies very hard. When it’s time to take the test, his sister passes, but Les is unfortunate enough to fail. Even more unfortunately, he already scheduled a date with Mercedes (Heather Graham) that he certainly can’t bail on now. So Les asks (right to the camera, breaking the fourth wall and letting us know that we’re in for a different movie), “An innocent girl, a harmless drive, what could possibly go wrong?” There’s always a line like that in these movies.

I wish “License to Drive” hadn’t driven down that route, so to speak, because the first half is most enjoyable. Corey Haim plays a different character than he plays in “Lucas.” While his character in “Lucas” was more original, his character in “License to Drive” is more the same as any other teenager. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because we can identify with him as he goes through his high school problems—wanting to impress the girl, living with his family, and taking the driving exam. Haim is appealing here. Even more so are his family, with Carol Kane as the pregnant mother (I love the bit where she fixes herself a full plate of mashed potatoes with ketchup all over them and says as her teenaged kids look in disbelief, “For your information, this is exactly what I ate when I was pregnant with all of you and you turned out OK.” That’s a great line.) And Richard Masur who is a riot as Les’ overreacting (well, not really overreacting but he shouts a lot) father. Then there’s the scene in which Les takes the test. First, he must take the computer exam (kind of odd, considering he was supposed to take that long before, but oh well). We feel the pain on Les’ face as he tries to get questions right. This scene captures feelings of desperation and the want to drive. Les fails but since his twin sister passed (and with the computers conveniently crashing after Les hits the computer in frustration), he is allowed to take the driving part of the exam. This is the funniest scene in the movie. His driving instructor, played by James Avery, is a military man who uses a cup of coffee (filled to the brim) instead of a clipboard. He tells this scared kid that if that coffee spills on his pants, he fails.

Well, that’s pretty much my review of the first half of the movie, which deserves three-and-a-half stars. But then the long second half approaches us and the film has gone downhill. Les is willing to steal his grandfather’s Cadillac to take Mercedes on a date. Only problem is, he has no license. So the script calls for all sorts of incidents to occur—none of them particularly funny, which is what the main purpose is with this movie being a comedy.

It’s sad to see a movie with comic potential go downhill like this. I really liked the first half of this movie—it had insight, good humor, appealing characters, and true moments of fear of looking like an idiot while trying to impress your dream girl. But they all go through the wrong lane (OK, enough driving puns) as “License to Drive” approaches a dead end (OK, I lied).

Maybe cars themselves are not very funny. What can you do with a piece of metal and machinery that could possibly be funny? Crashes aren’t funny. Cars spinning out of control aren’t funny. Chases aren’t funny. So what can be done with cars as humor? I wish the writers of “License to Drive” took more time thinking of an answer to that question.

The Rescue (1988)

26 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If a teenager can hack into the defense network system (“WarGames”), build his own atomic bomb (“The Manhattan Project”), and fly a jet into enemy territory to save his father (“Iron Eagle”), then why shouldn’t four teenagers and a younger kid be able to sneak into North Korea and save their Navy SEAL fathers from a Korean prison, while making little attempt to disguise themselves?

That’s the central story element of “The Rescue,” a gutsy, well-shot movie that has high spirits and a likable if unspectacular young cast. The whole idea of the movie may be preposterous and that’s most likely the word that almost every other film critic used in their negative reviews of this film. But strangely, I got into the movie. So what if it’s preposterous? So what if (spoiler) everything works out for these kids? It’s a teenage adventure movie—leave it at that and enjoy.

Four Navy SEALs stationed in South Korea are sent on a mission to destroy a disabled U.S. submarine in enemy North Korean waters. They succeed, but are captured and sent to a North Korean prison. A month passes and the imprisoned SEALs are scheduled for execution.

Teenagers Shawn Howard (Ned Vaughn) and Adrian Phillips (Christina Harnos) each have a father that is a prisoner. They use a friend’s homemade listening device to eavesdrop on a discussion of a rescue mission to go in and get the men back. But they are shocked to know that the plug has been pulled on the plan. They and the friend—Max Rothman (Marc Price, TV’s “Family Ties”), the son of the SEAL head—tell the news to rebel J.J. (Kevin Dillon), another son of a captured SEAL. J.J. comes up with the idea of stealing the government rescue plan and taking matters into their own hands. They’ll get a boat, escape the border patrol, find the mission operative, and get their fathers back. They have an unexpected ally—Shawn’s ten-year-old brother Bobby (Ian Giatti), who followed them to help.

“The Rescue” could be made as a silly kids’ movie, but it’s not dumb and it’s not boring either. A lot of that has to do with the masterful direction by Ferdinand Fairfax, who shoots with a great visual style. The climax is surprisingly well-handled, despite the preposterousness of the situation. But I felt involved—at one point, when the plane they use to escape in loses both engines and comes close to a nose dive, I even held on to my own stomach. That’s really saying something about the look of the film.

The young actors are fine and likable—even Marc Price, who was so obnoxious as the neighbor Skippy in “Family Ties,” is likable. Kevin Dillon (seen in “Platoon” and “The Blob”) is a convincing rebellious hero, Ian Giatti has a special enthusiasm that comes with the age, and Christina Harnos is spunky and has some karate moves to use on some (get this) Korean gangsters. The only problem is that their characters aren’t fully developed and neither one is given a chance to stand out.

So what if all of these kids have it easy with one too many close calls? It’s entertaining as a PG fantasy—you know nothing bad will happen to these kids, but let the direction by Ferdinand Fairfax guide you. “The Rescue” isn’t a great movie, but I liked it enough to recommend it. It’s a high-spirited teenage adventure film—deal with it.

Mystic Pizza (1988)

24 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Mystic Pizza” is a coming-of-age story featuring three young women who fall in love. It’s usually in movies like this where young people meet somebody attractive and go through many lengths to get what they want, but in “Mystic Pizza,” they don’t merely fall in love; they learn about their own standards for love. It’s a nice, well-acted movie that deals realistically with these issues, but with a certain charm that keeps it from containing a gritty feel.

The title “Mystic Pizza” refers to the local pizzeria in a fishing town called Mystic, Connecticut. The three central characters work there as waitresses—Daisy Arujo (Julia Roberts), her sister Kat (Annabeth Gish), and their friend Jojo (Lili Taylor). Their boss is the sassy but friendly Leona (Conchata Farrell), whose pizza contains a special secret sauce that has people coming for more—she won’t even tell her employers what’s in the sauce. (We never find out, either.)

The girls have their own adventures/issues with romance. As the movie begins, Jojo is about to be married to her loving boyfriend Bill (Vincent Philip D’Onofrio) when she passes out from stress right there at the altar. She loves Bill, but just isn’t ready for a big commitment, like he is. (Huh—that’s also a change in the movies. Usually, it’s the guy that won’t commit.) As the movie continues, she tries to romance Bill many times, but Bill believes that they should wait til marriage before they get physical. Would Jojo stoop so low as to marry Bill just to have sex with him? Actually, no. But she would like more passion in their relationship.

Daisy is playing pool and drinking beer at a local hangout when she notices Pretty Boy walking in and asking her to play a set with him. He’s rich, nice, handsome, and has the name Charles Gordon Windsor (Adam Storke). (Oh, and he can also shoot three dart bullseyes in a row after having shots of tequila.) He tells Daisy that he’s currently in law school, but eventually comes clean and says he was kicked out for cheating on a final. (Huh—no wonder he can shoot darts so well; he’s had time to practice.) Daisy is the most standoffish of the three women and possibly the more slutty, but she’s not dumb and can read people well. She takes a chance on this rich boy, but then she learns something she didn’t need to know about him, in a scene near the end when Charles actually stages a dramatic dinner scene with her invited to the family dinner—he accuses his family of being snobbish and actually pulls out the tablecloth from under the dishes. It’s then that Daisy notices that maybe Charles is just looking for someone to look up to him, which isn’t exactly what she needs.

Meanwhile, Kat is babysitting the daughter of a 30-year-old Yale graduate named Tim (William R. Moses). He’s a nice, smart man whom Kat falls in love with, which can cause problems because not only is he twelve years older than her, but he’s also married. The wife isn’t around, so she won’t have to worry about it until later. But she does restrain herself from expressing her feelings towards him. He starts to like her too, for her intelligence (she’s been accepted at Yale). However, by the time she comes home, she realizes she doesn’t know how to handle the situation as it is.

“Mystic Pizza” follows these three couples through a long summer where everyone would just rather not be stuck in Mystic, but you make do with what you have. Lessons are learned, certain secrets are revealed, and hearts are broken. What Kat, Daisy, and Jojo learn is that they have each other and their job at the pizzeria.

The acting is wonderful, especially by the three lead actresses. Lili Taylor displays a comic presence in the way of her odd relationship with Bill—there’s human comedy in how she reacts to certain things, like how she nearly freaks out after Bill expresses his true feelings (she comes to work three hours early, and nervously unstacks the table chairs). Julia Roberts is a true beauty and has a fierce amount of energy—watch the scene in which she tries to imitate the hitchhiking scene from “It Happened One Night”; it’s pure delight. Annabeth Gish is my favorite of the performers, portraying Kat with intelligence but also with a little vulnerability. The supporting cast is solid, but it’s Conchata Ferrell as the pizzeria owner and Louis Turenne as an uptight food critic who really shine.

“Mystic Pizza” is an interesting, nicely-handled drama with good performances and a lighthearted screenplay. It shows that love may not be easy, but at least you know what you want. It succeeds in delivering that message.

Working Girl (1988)

22 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Working Girl” is an entertaining spin on the traditional story of a plucky young woman making it big in business, but only by bending the rules. The story is updated to 1988, when the movie was made, and made into a very funny, engaging comedy.

Melanie Griffith stars as Tess McGill, a secretary working on Wall Street at a mergers and acquisitions department. She’s a bright woman—smart and aggressive with some good ideas about how to make money in this business…if only she was in a position to state them. And even if she did, it’s unlikely that anyone would listen to her, since she has the verbal wit of a precocious little girl.

Tess gets a new job and a new boss—a woman her age named Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver). They get along fine and Tess even shares some of her ideas with Katharine, who seems interested in what she’s saying. However, when Katharine breaks her leg (in one hilarious short scene featuring an unexpected scream) and is to be in traction for weeks, Tess is in possession of her computer files and comes across one of Tess’ own ideas, which Katharine was stealing to claim as her own.

Angered by her boss’ deception, she decides to create a little deception of her own. She is going to pose as a firm executive and meet up with another executive named Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) to bring new ideas to life. They meet at a bar, without saying each other’s names (Tess says who she’s waiting for, and Jack decides to have some fun with this), and they get drunk and wind up in the same bed the next morning. Only at work does she realize who this guy is. However, despite Tess’ silly behavior that night, it turns out to be OK, since Jack likes Tess and he will take her ideas seriously.

So, you know the drill. Tess is continuing with the masquerade, keeping it a secret to Jack, despite their growing relationship. It’s only a matter of time before Katharine is able to come back to work and become a risk to Tess’ breakout, revealing the lie. And yes, we do get that obligatory “liar revealed” scene, in a boardroom with a lot of people, no less. It ends with shocking discoveries, a villain’s smirk, and walkouts, leading of course to scenes in which the heroine must question what to do now and…of course find a solution that will bring her back on top. The story is traditional, but updated with a quick-witted screenplay. However, a weakness with the film is that that “liar revealed” cliché is still played out just as idiotic as it almost always is in movies. But the movie saves itself with a line from Harrison Ford’s character that should have been used minutes ago, and leads to a climax that’s both suspenseful and satisfying.

While Melanie Griffith has received third billing in the credits (with Harrison Ford first and Sigourney Weaver second), this is really Tess’ story being told here. We see from her point of view and it’s really her journey that’s being shown here—her pluckiness, her mistakes, her ideas, her victories, etc. Griffith is an effective casting choice—fresh, likable, and funny. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford does fine work and shares good chemistry with Griffith, and Sigourney Weaver is great as the kind of villain (or villainess) you love to hate. Of the supporting cast, Joan Cusack, as Tess’ best friend Cyn, has some of the funniest lines in the movie, particularly in the scene when she poses as Tess’ secretary—“Anything I can get for you? Coffee, tea, me?”

If I’ve made “Working Girl” out to be a well-acted update on this standard story, I should also point out that this movie is really funny. There are hilarious one-liners delivered greatly, a lot of which centered around Tess’ naivety—for example, when she first meets Jack (without knowing who he really is), she states, “I have a head for business and a body for sin.” How can you not love that?

Promised Land (1988)

15 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How many of us after we graduate high school turn out exactly the way we planned? How many of us remain the way we used to be in the good old days of high school? Not many, that’s for sure. There’s always that thing called the present that pushes us forward in life where we just have to carry on and realize that we’re not the same people we used to be. “Promised Land” is an indie drama that understands that and tells the story of two high school acquaintances—one of which has moved on, the other doesn’t want to.

The film begins at the last high school basketball game of the season and star Davey Hancock (Jason Gedrick) makes the winning shot. Hancock is going to college on an athletic scholarship, leaving his cheerleader girlfriend Mary (Tracy Pollan). But two years later, we see him as a police officer in his hometown and we learn that he was denied the scholarship to a better player. He was even less successful in his academics, and so he dropped out and moved back to town. Hancock still recalls his glory days of basketball and even plays around in the office with his co-worker Baines (Googy Gress), even though he makes sure Baines never scores (even when Baines does, fairly, Hancock calls foul). As for Mary, she’s going to college and plans to major in the arts. Hancock still likes to see her, but she is reluctant to continue a relationship with him since she is moving on with her life while Hancock is still stuck in the past. She may be successful than he’ll ever be.

Danny (Kiefer Sutherland) was the academic “nerd” with the nickname “Senator” because he was destined to become a successful politician. But now, he has become a drifter since he quit high school and moved to try a better life with a good job. Instead, he became a loser. His girlfriend Beverly (Meg Ryan) is a crazy young woman who is overbearing, wild, and unpredictable…Danny winds up marrying her. And when he does, Beverly just can’t stop laughing. Even though the trampy Beverly is a little more for Danny to handle, the two fit together because they are both lost souls looking to connect with each other.

The film goes back and forth between Danny’s story and Hancock’s. Even though Hancock’s tale is convincing enough to be grittily pathetic, a little of that goes a long way to the point where I didn’t really care that much for this true loser who just can’t go on through life. It’s the story featuring Danny and Beverly that is more interesting, as Danny plans to drive with Beverly back home to see his family on Christmas. Danny is as much a loser as Hancock, for different reasons, but you still care for him because he’s trying something new and not everything is working in his favor. And Beverly constantly makes Danny’s life complicated whenever she has an extreme idea, to the point where Danny is wondering if he’s with the right person and if he can tolerate her any longer. But as he realizes, he needs her to fill a void in his life—for better or worse.

There’s a lot of symbolism to be found in “Promised Land.” The production work is impressive with objects like hood ornaments, a statue with a broken wing, snow angels, the early chants in the last big game, etc. that indicate something coming. While this can become somewhat pretentious, I have to admit I admired it.

With only one exception, the acting is solid. Kiefer Sutherland delivers a good, convincing depth to his role—his scenes with his sickly father, nicely played by Oscar Rowland, are truly heartbreaking. Tracy Pollan does nice work as Mary. Googy Gress is more than comic relief as Hancock’s buddy. And Meg Ryan is joyfully effervescent as Beverly—she steals the show with her zaniness. But the one exception to an otherwise-strong cast is Jason Gedrick as Hancock. While he’s OK in his earlier scenes, he wears out his welcome as the film continues. When forced to carry an emotion, he’s pretty bland.

“Promised Land” leads to a tragic ending that I didn’t really buy the first time I watched it. But watching it again, I realized how everything was leading up to this, when you really think about it, inevitable payoff. In that way, it’s actually pretty damn effective and paints a good portrait of irony, frustration, and security in small-town life.

“Promised Land” is a well-acted, well-executed drama about believing in the American Dream, but have yet to see evidence of it. Maybe it’s there and they just didn’t look hard enough for it, or they just gave up on it because of their life experiences and their fears of failure that led to nothing. There are people like this in the world. “Promised Land” does a nice job at portraying them.

The Blob (1988)

13 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The 1980s have had a thing for taking those silly B-movies from the 1950s and reconstructing them as slick thrillers with a lot of ambition and some pretty nifty special effects—examples include “American Werewolf in London,” “The Thing,” “The Fly,” and “The Lost Boys.” “The Blob,” a remake of the 1958 B-movie of the same name, is one of those movies—it takes the premise of its predecessor and upgrades the effects as well as add a good deal of dark comedy. But mainly though, it is merely through-and-through a monster movie.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I kind of liked this version of “The Blob” for the same reasons I enjoyed “The Thing.” There aren’t any complex characters like in “The Fly” or a unique visual style like in “The Lost Boys”—it’s all just “icky” creature effects, good ol’ suspense, and occasional comedic relief. As a monster movie, “The Blob” is sick and yet fun at the same time.

The original 1950s film starred Steve McQueen in one of his first screen roles as a good kid who discovers that a gelatinous mass is eating its way through a small town and increasing in size as it continues to eat people. In this newer version, Kevin Dillon stars as a tough kid who may as well have escaped from the 1950s. He’s a greaser sporting a leather jacket, an odd-looking mullet, a motorcycle, and a criminal record.

A meteorite crashes down from outer space, as an old man explores the crater to check it out. He pokes at a jello-like substance, which then attaches itself to his hand and doesn’t let go. Brian and two other teenagers—the football star and the cheerleader—comes across the old man, trying to cut off his own hand with a carving knife. They take him to a hospital, but it’s then that they discover that this “blob” attaches itself to a person, eats him or her, and gets bigger as a result. And it’s headed toward town.

This is a cheerfully weird premise and I liked going along with it, especially with the discovery that it has no limits of space—for example, I loved the scene in which it sucks a diner worker through a sink (yes, a sink). Its only weakness is cold, but once it gets big enough to devour main street, I don’t think a fire extinguisher is going to help much. The result, I wouldn’t dare give away, but I can tell you this—it’s not how the original film ended; it’s more entertaining than that.

Looking back on the film, I realize that this movie isn’t on the same strength as the other movies I’ve mentioned in the first paragraph. It is indeed a monster movie with updated effects. The plot developments are as silly as in the original film and the characters aren’t three-dimensional in the slightest. And it should be noted that this is not an actors’ movie. Neither of the actors in “The Blob” are necessarily required to act, but they are an appealing bunch—including Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith, and Donavan Leitch as the film’s young heroes. The blob itself does look pretty good, as disgusting as it is. It’s gross, but it’s suitably gross. And the script does have a sense of humor—there are some very funny moments in the movie. One in particular is the reveal of Smith’s father, who works at the general store where Leitch went to buy condoms (he’s taking Smith on a date). Another is when Leitch’s wise-guy friend goes further than second-base with his date, and finds himself in for a surprise when he unbuttons her blouse. (Not to give anything away, but…he’s dead.)

Where the movie steers wrong is with the forced plot element that the Government was responsible for the Blob all along, the ruthlessness of the superior trying to keep it contained (to kill the heroes if necessary), and an ending that just doesn’t work at all. These elements make this “Blob” less than impressive. What I liked about the film is the premise, the effects, the actors with game, and the notion that anything goes with this particular creature. It’s a fun, sick monster movie.

Big (1988)

10 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If “Back to the Future” brought up the idea that teenagers don’t think their parents were ever young and that their parents never think they’re old, then “Big” brings up the idea that teenagers should embrace their youth and shouldn’t hurry to become old.

“Big” is a wonderful comedy-drama and it comes with a surprising story idea that has been done in so many other movies around the time this movie was released. It’s a body-swap movie—a movie in which one person turns into somebody else, and sometimes it’s vice versa. This string of movies started in October 1987, when “Like Father, Like Son,” a bad reimagining of the OK 1977 Disney comedy “Freaky Friday,” was released. Then, in early 1988, two other movies were released around the same idea—the terrific “Vice Versa” and the bland “18 Again!” One can imagine the pleasantly surprising success of “Big.” With a funny, intelligent screenplay and an excellent performance by Tom Hanks as a young boy’s mind inside an older man’s body, “Big” is a triumph—a most appealing comedy that’s amusing, insightful, and a lot of fun.

Josh Baskin (David Moscow) is your typical, average 13-year-old boy. He hangs out with his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton), hates doing household chores, and has a crush on the tall popular girl in school, but is too nervous to talk to her. He gets his chance to talk to her while in line for a carnival ride, but he’s embarrassed when he’s told he’s too short to ride the ride. While walking in misery, he comes across an arcade game—a strange fortune-telling machine that isn’t plugged in, but still seems to work, as it asks Josh to make a wish. Josh wishes to be “big” and gets a fortune saying his wish is granted.

The following morning, he’s surprised to realize that his wish has come true. He no longer looks like 13-year-old Josh anymore; he’s 30-year-old Josh (played by Tom Hanks), though he still has his 13-year-old mind. When his own mother doesn’t recognize him, Josh turns his buddy Billy for help. Billy believes that this strange man really is Josh and helps him find the same game to wish himself back to normal.

Josh goes to New York City to find the game anywhere he can, but has to wait six weeks for a list of all carnivals and arcades so he can track it down. This means he’ll have to live in the city, so he has to find a job and he gets one, working as a data processor for McMillan Toys. He meets the boss (Robert Loggia), who likes his energy and enthusiasm around the office, at FAO Schwartz, where he’s pleased to see how much Josh knows about toys and moves him up to Vice President of Product Development. Billy can’t believe Josh’s good fortune—they pay him to play with toys and report on them, to which Billy playfully replies, “Suckers!” I wouldn’t blame him; it’s a kid’s dream come true.

As Josh continues with his job, he meets a co-worker named Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), the floozy who, as hinted, has slept with almost everyone at the company. She plans to do the same with Josh, but is genuinely attracted to his child-like innocence as he invites her over to his new apartment, that has what every kid would want in his own place, which include a free-Pepsi machine (by that, I mean the machine is rigged), a pinball machine, and a giant trampoline. Josh falls for Susan and Susan is surprised to feel the same way towards him.

That human-interest story is surprisingly well-handled. They lead to sweet, lighthearted moments in which we feel for the characters and realize what exactly was missing from the other body-swap movies released around this time. Credit for that must go to the writers Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (Steven Spielberg’s sister) for taking their time to develop the characters as well as the situations. There are a lot of great scenes in the movie that either lead to laughs or smiles. Examples—the scene in which Josh gives an idea for a toy in a board meeting; Josh’s response to Susan first saying she wants to spend the night with him (“OK…but I get to be on top!”); Josh and Susan jumping on that trampoline in Josh’s apartment, and more. There are also moments of convincing drama, such as Josh’s first night in the city and Josh calling his mother to hear her voice because he misses her.

Also, the movie has no real villains. I mean, sure, there’s a co-worker—Susan’s ex-boyfriend named Paul, played by John Heard—who wants to humiliate Josh for getting all the attention. But it isn’t pushed further; he’s just an office jerk. And that’s actually kind of refreshing. “Big” doesn’t need a villain. The only conflict that should be focused upon is developed in the final act. The final act is when Josh is too much in tune with his new body, new job, and new girlfriend, and then Billy comes along to remind him of who he really is and why he came to the city in the first place. This brings the question of whether or not Josh will make the decision to wish himself to be young again or stay the way he is, losing his teenage/young adult years.

Before “Big” was released, most people have labeled Tom Hanks as just OK in the early 1980s. Many critics thought he was bland in comedies like “Splash” and “The Man in One Red Shoe” (and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see what they meant). But in “Big,” he gives a star-making performance. Tom Hanks is brilliant as a young boy trapped in an older man’s body. He behaves like a kid, talks like a kid, and has the innocence of a kid. Therefore, the audience is convinced that they’re watching a “big” kid. The way Hanks acted in this performance was very clever—the director Penny Marshall rehearsed many of Hanks’ scenes with the young actor David Moscow’s scenes, so that Hanks could observe how Moscow would act in those scenes and copy him. The result is Tom Hanks’ excellent performance.

The supporting cast members do nice jobs. In particular, Elizabeth Perkins is convincing as Susan, Jared Rushton is appealing as Billy, and Robert Loggia, with a twinkle in his eye, is wonderful as the boss who admires this strange man’s energy. In the best-looking scene in the movie, Josh and his boss play/dance to “Heart and Soul” together on a giant carpet piano in the middle of the toy store, as everyone watches. It’s a wonderful scene—good-looking, funny, and played wonderfully, while Hanks and Loggia perform without stunt doubles.

“Big” is a treasure of a movie—pleasant, enjoyable, funny, well-written and well-acted.

Jack’s Back (1988)

27 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning: Possible Spoiler Alert

1988—a century since the serial murders committed by Jack the Ripper. This time around, someone is repeating those same murders—a copycat killer. It doesn’t really help that the obvious killer’s name seems to be “Jack.” If that premise sounds like it’d never work as a film, “Jack’s Back” is surprisingly effective in never giving us the obvious, expected elements. This is a gripping thriller—not an exploitation film.

The poster and trailer don’t make “Jack’s Back” seem as interesting as it is. The poster, in particular, has this tagline: “One hundred years ago, in the city of London, a man shocked the world by raping, murdering, and mutilating women…He was never caught.” The marketing for this movie must have thought we were dumb. It’s an insult to movie audiences’ intelligence.

James Spader stars in “Jack’s Back” as two characters—twin brothers who are linked to these new murders. One brother is a medical student named John and the other is a rebel named Rick who runs a shoe store and has been in trouble with the law in the past. (This may be a spoiler, since we don’t find out until the first half-hour that there is another brother.) It’s interesting how Spader creates two different personalities.

John discovers one of the murderer’s victims and Rick is a prime suspect. How could they think Rick is a suspect instead of John? Well…(possible spoiler alert) John is killed a half-hour into the film. This is after John discovers of the murderer’s victims. John was seen leaving the room while chasing after the possible murderer named Jack. Since John and Rick are twins, Rick is suspected for the murders.

And so as the movie’s second half comes into place, Rick is chased by the police and races to clear his name. To his aid is a possible love interest—an attractive medical student named Christine, played by Cynthia Gibb. But she may be the killer’s new target.

“Jack’s Back” does a great deal in interesting us with his many plot gimmicks (there’s an unexpected surprise in the plot every ten or twenty minutes) and the idea of someone copying the Jack the Ripper murders is creepy on its own. And then there’s the ending, which I wouldn’t dare give away. (No spoilers beyond the half-hour mark of the film will be exposed here!) This is a hard move to make for a thriller and it doesn’t do a great job, but a good one. What really makes this movie worth watching, aside from the interesting plot gimmicks, is the performance by James Spader. He’s a great actor who makes his twin-brother characters seem extremely different. And because he plays two good guys, this doesn’t mean he has to be dull or boring. For example, John (who is supposedly the better one of the two brothers) has his share of one-liners and kidding charisma—he’s not the stuck-up, serious medical student you’d expect. And with Rick, he’s not the delinquent we’d expect him to be. He’s just a good guy who gets into trouble at times because he can’t help himself at times. But when he rises to the occasion, we do like him. James Spader is fantastic in this movie.

Cynthia Gibb is also good as the love interest. Her timing with Spader is very effective. Both Spader and Gibb play three-dimensional characters who don’t dumb down their roles. That’s a very tricky performance for one, let along two, in a movie that is a thriller.

“Jack’s Back” is a thriller through and through. What’s surprising is that most of the time, it’s not as routine as we’d expect. I enjoyed “Jack’s Back”—I enjoyed the performances from Spader and Gibb and the contrivances of the plot.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

24 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“A Fish Called Wanda” is one of my favorite comedies—I think it’s one of the funniest, brash, offbeat movies I’ve ever seen, along with some of the Monty Python films. (Though, oddly enough, some of the Monty Python troupe takes part in this film, so there you go.) Every time I watch this movie, I laugh and laugh and laugh. But how often is it that among all the laughs and funny performances from the actors, there’s actually a highly imaginative story to go along with it? Then by definition, there’s a great movie here—good story, characters, actors, and of course, laughs.

It’s a caper story set in England and centered around a band of jewelry store robbers, consisting of the ringleader/mastermind George (Tom Georgeson), his stuttering, animal-loving friend Ken (Michael Palin), and two American recruits—Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her psychotic and quite idiotic lover Otto (Kevin Kline). They pull off the heist, but Wanda and Otto make an anonymous tip to the police. George is arrested, but not before hiding the loot. So to let himself off somewhat easily, he suggests giving away the location of the jewels to his barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese), resulting in Wanda planning to seduce Archie.

Archie Leach is a mild-mannered lawyer living an unpleasant home life with his materialistic wife (Maria Aitken) and spoiled daughter. When Wanda comes into his life, it’s a more interesting case of romance and excitement, making things more complicated since Wanda was his client’s aide, and especially because Otto is a jealous man (whom Wanda tells Archie is his brother) who constantly spies on the two of them and also takes some extreme action.

These are wonderfully nutty characters in “A Fish Called Wanda” and the actors are more than game. Everyone in the cast has his/her moment to shine while the audience is laughing out loud. Comedian John Cleese, who also wrote the screenplay and is also a “Monty Python” alum, is at his best as Archie Leach, making an appealing, unlikely hero and giving some big laughs along the way. His reactions to many of the zany, bizarre situations are hilarious. Kevin Kline is excellent as Otto, a man so deranged that he doesn’t believe himself to be deranged. This is a guy who reads Nietzsche and thus thinks he’s so intelligent, even though he misreads his style. He’s so stupid that he thinks the London Underground is a political movement. There’s also a running joke in which he’ll repeat the memorable line “Don’t call me stupid” and then go to unforgettable conditions to those who do call him “stupid” (like swing somebody from a window!).

Jamie Lee Curtis is sexy and playful as Wanda. And then there’s Michael Palin, also from “Monty Python,” having a lot of fun as Ken, a stutterer with a love for animals, particularly his pet fish (one of which is named Wanda). He’s the one who has to do away with the old lady who was a witness to the heist getaway, but constantly (and accidentally) winds up killing off her little pet dogs instead.

If you had told me that I would love a movie in which three dogs are knocked off (one of which is pounded into the cement of the street), I wouldn’t have believed you. I guess anything can be funny or maybe I’m just sick. Or hopefully, I’m not sick, because I’m sure that you would laugh at that too. Bottom line: I laughed out loud.

Most of the humor in “A Fish Called Wanda” is the nuttiness involving these zany characters and the physical comedy that occurs during most of their circumstances. I can’t give a lot of the best gags away, because that would defeat the purpose of surprise. I won’t even describe them just to make the review funny. I think I’ve explained just about enough.

“A Fish Called Wanda” is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen—It’s original, inspired, gamely-acted, and…it’s just funny from beginning to end.