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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.

Child’s Play (1988)

16 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are many horror-slasher movies with villains that are scary and villains that look scary. “Child’s Play” has a villain of both sides. At first, this “doll”—you read right, it’s a “doll”—looks nice and friendly (and it’s called a Good Guy), but then he was inhabited by the human soul of a serial killer…and now, he looks and acts like someone’s worst little nightmare! With a blade in his hand, a different, scary smile, and a voice that could be Jack Nicholson’s (but it’s actually Brad Dourif’s), we have Chucky…

You know those three heavy musical notes that play in the movies and on TV that are played when someone says something that scares people? Those would fit great if I gave my review on an Internet video.

I don’t really like Freddy Krueger (of “Nightmare on Elm Street”) as a villain; I just see him as a comedic scarface trying to be the big shot. And Jason Voorhees (of the “Friday the 13th” sequels) is still a hard person to figure out. Even the Shape (you know, Michael Myers of the “Halloween” movies), who I thought was scary in the original “Halloween,” tires me with his ridiculous sequels. But Chucky, whose name when he was human was Charles Lee Ray, scares me in appearance and in spirit. This little guy is everybody’s worst little nightmare.

“Child’s Play” begins with Ray, a notorious voodoo-educated serial killer, getting shot by a cop and dying. He’s not ready to die. He screams a revenge threat at the cop and tries to get out of the toy store he’s in so he can find somebody to use his voodoo knowledge on so he can possess the person, but instead he finds one of the Good Guy dolls, a nice, friendly-looking, red-haired doll. After a freak accident, we can assume that he’s now the doll…

The doll, nicknamed “Chucky,” is bought by Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) as a present for her six-year-old son Andy (Alex Vincent). The doll comes off as just a doll, staying quiet and whatever the Good Guy dolls are supposed to do. But when Andy’s babysitter is pushed out a who-knows-which-story window, Andy can only say “Chucky did it.” It’s the truth, but his mother and the police don’t believe him and start to be concerned about him. Nobody believes him until his mother discovers that Chucky is talking even though he doesn’t have any batteries in him.

Then, the police don’t believe Karen when she tells them that Chucky is alive. But the movie kicks into more horror when the cop barely escapes Chucky’s wrath and especially when we learn that Chucky needs to possess Andy or else be stuck in the doll’s body forever.

Why is “Child’s Play” worth recommending? Because it’s well-made, contains very good performances from Hicks and Vincent as the scared family, and the villain is a psychotic doll. How else can I explain Chucky except for telling that every time I see his picture on a poster or a cover of a video box, a shiver crawls my spine?

I also like the plot gimmick they use here, such as when Andy tries to tell his mother and the police, they don’t believe him. And then, when his mother founds out the truth by discovering no batteries in him, she tells the police and they don’t believe her either. Then, the cop—Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon)—is attacked by the little devil and barely survives.

And also, that scene in which Karen finds out the truth is a real scary scene.

She’s walking in with the doll, very depressed. Then, she leaves the doll in the living room and goes into the kitchen. She’s about to throw away the box, when…uh-oh–batteries fall out. Then, she slowly walks into the room, cautiously picks up the doll, opens the battery case, and sees nothing…then the doll turns its head and says in a child’s computerized voice “Hey, wanna play?!” The mother screams and drops the doll then Chucky really makes himself known…

That is one creepy scene and also, one of the great things about the movie is the good-looking demonstration of the mad slasher genre. When you think the killer is dead, he really isn’t. You could shoot him multiple times, stab him multiple times, and even burn him to a crisp…he still isn’t dead. The way they do it here is quite interesting.

The director of the film Tom Holland delivered the goods in 1985’s “Fright Night”; he does it here too. He knows how to make an audience go for horror films and he treats them right. Both movies mix some funny dialogue with some flat-out horror and work. Although the gimmick of the “child-in-jeopardy” is sort of cheap, it works here because the little boy played by Vincent isn’t just screaming for his mommy. He has something to do and he stands up to the little devil. Once again, I really like the way the filmmakers made that doll from a nice-looking cute doll to a more horrifying, ugly thing. “Child’s Play” is a well-made horror film with an actually scary villain.

Die Hard (1988)

8 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One can praise “Die Hard” for its slam-bang action sequences and its two great performances of two very interesting characters. That’s exactly what I am doing—solid three-and-a-half star rating based on those elements. The action scenes are half routine and half original, so when you put them both together, they’re amazing. And then you have the star of the picture—the hero in action who will go through many lengths to accomplish the impossible. A masterstroke here is that the character is believable as he goes through one situation after another—he’s a New York cop named John McClane who visits a 30-story building in Los Angeles and winds up fighting twelve terrorists who have taken over the whole building and are holding many people (including his wife) hostage. The odds are against John McClane here and as the movie’s poster puts it well, that’s just the way he likes it.

That’s one of the two very interesting characters I mentioned already. The other is the villain. Of course, all of the best action movies have compelling villains and Hans Gruber, the leader of the terrorists, is one of the absolute best. This is a man who is well-dressed, has a neatly-trimmed beard, and is not your typical out-of-control maniac—he’s a somewhat well-behaved German intellectual who has his own delusions of authority. He would like to get his way because he believes this is the right thing to do. He doesn’t call himself a terrorist, though not much is said in the defense of his hired team of gunmen who really are maniacs out for blood. Actually, Hans believes he is superior to these misfits, but seeing as how they are packed with machine guns and explosives, it’s probably smart not to say that to them.

Hans has taken control of the Nakatomi building with a controlled plan of robbing millions of dollars in negotiable bonds from the building vault. The terrorists hold party guests hostage on the party floor, but they overlook John McClane who was invited by his almost-divorced wife, now taken hostage. John hides in one of the higher floors of the building and becomes a one-man army against these terrorists. He sneaks around, gets information, finds a way to inform the police (and the FBI become involved later), and fights as many of the terrorists as they come.

All of this is a ton of fun! The action is very impressive, the stunt work is excellent, and the special effects are first-rate. There are shootouts, chases, close calls, and explosives being thrown down an elevator shaft. But more importantly, the action scenes are never boring. For one reason, it’s because of its technicalities. For another reason, the pacing is excellent. Director John McTiernan has paced this movie very well. And for another, it’s because Bruce Willis, as John, makes a great hero. He has a charming personality with wit and priceless one-liners to burst—we definitely know that when the action stops (and it does, so the action doesn’t go forever). And he has an everyman quality—Willis is so great at making John believable. We root for him as he takes down these terrorists and he holds our attention throughout.

In between the action is Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber—mostly, he stands by and makes sure that the plan is not altered. He has his men go after the “fly in the ointment” while he makes sure everything is still under control and negotiates with the police and the FBI, who are mostly as ignorant as can be. We know that Hans is no ordinary terrorist. This is a man who wants to get things done and doesn’t want time to mess around, like the wild animals he sends after John.

Despite all I’ve said, I am not giving “Die Hard” four stars. I apologize, but there is one character who didn’t really work. When you have good supporting performances by Bonnie Bedelia as John’s wife, Reginald VelJohnson as the cop who communicates with John via radio, and William Atherton as a slimy news reporter, there is one really dull character that just doesn’t work. That character is the police chief, played by Paul Gleason. This guy has no purpose in this movie except to say one stupid thing after another. This character is unnecessary and annoying and he almost made me give the movie three stars instead of three-and-a-half.

Put him aside and you have a nearly-perfect action movie. “Die Hard” is fast-paced, well-shot (great camerawork by Jan de Bont), wonderfully-acted, and intensely action-packed. I really enjoyed it and if the movie had put away that character of the police chief, I would’ve loved it even more.

Running on Empty (1988)

5 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Children, and even teenagers, sometimes feel like they’re being punished for crimes they didn’t commit. In the case of Danny Pope, they don’t know the half of it. Here’s this kid who has not only moved from place to place, but also changed his entire identity countless times, along with his family. He’s living in a world of secrets and hiding. He can pretend to lead a normal life, every time he moves to a different place and engages a new identity, but he never truly will. And it’s all because of his parents.

Danny has kept an enormous secret with the family. Before he was even born, his parents were radicals in the ‘60s. They blew up a napalm laboratory, nearing killing a janitor whom they didn’t know would be there. Since then, they’ve been living underground, hiding from the authorities and raising Danny and his younger brother to their same lifestyle. Every time it seems like their identities are discovered, the Pope family moves away to create new ones.

The Pope family are the central characters in the film “Running on Empty” and it tells the story of how Danny (River Phoenix), now a high school senior, would love to live a normal life, for once. He’s a gifted piano player and has finally shown his gift in this new town to his music teacher at school. With the teacher’s help, Danny gets a scholarship to the Juilliard School. But he can’t accept it, because then he would have to abandon his lifestyle and leave the family.

For Danny, this is his chance to actually become an individual. Why must he pay his parents’ mistakes? Why shouldn’t he go out and live his own life, now that he’s turning 18? For his parents, it’s a real complication. His father Arthur Pope (Judd Hirsch) is a real hard-ass who has kept the family in line for years and is not about to mess it up now. He either doesn’t understand Danny’s plight, or simply doesn’t want to understand. Then, there’s the mother Annie Pope (Christine Lahti), who has made her mistakes and barely regrets them because she did what she felt she had to do, back in the time when radical politics were hers and Arthur’s lifestyle along with others in the ‘60s. What she does care about, and what causes her heart to break, is the fact that Danny would be sacrificing his future if he stays hidden, paying for mistakes that she made. She doesn’t know if she can handle it. The big issue is that if Danny comes clean and goes to college, he can’t see his family again because he may just have the FBI following his every move—who knows?

This is all powerfully well-done and very effective in the way this family’s lives are developed and how their plight is legitimately told. We see it right away in an opening scene in which the family must leave another town—they leave their dog on the side of the road and drive away, and it feels like this isn’t the first time they’ve done this. Then there’s the situation of Danny gaining more than he did in previous lives—not only with his music and the college scholarship, but also with his first girlfriend (Martha Plimpton). She’s the daughter of the music teacher and together, they form a trusting relationship in which there are hardly any secrets, leading to the scene in which Danny finally confesses and tells her everything she wanted to know about him—how it begins: “My name isn’t Michael…It’s Danny.”

The emotional high point of the film comes during the question of whether Danny will go to the school. The film’s strongest scene features Annie arranging to meet her father (Steven Hill) for lunch—she hasn’t seen her father for years, since she disappeared from his life completely. Now she must ask him to take her son away from her so that he can live the future that she has denied herself. It’s a very heartbreaking scene.

“Running on Empty” is an extremely moving drama about choices and about consequences. It’s well-acted, especially by Christine Lahti and River Phoenix (who, despite his character’s story being told, was only given a Best Supporting Actor nomination), and well-executed, with direction by Sidney Lumet and a great screenplay by Naomi Foner. This easily could have been a throwaway melodrama made for TV, but it’s smarter than that. It’s played in a realistic way and is specific in exactly what it’s trying to convey. It’s a great film.

Permanent Record (1988)

29 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The term “teen movie” could easily be described as a comedy or drama about teenagers and just that. But only the bad “teen movies” are just that. But the best of this genre (I guess “teen movie” could be considered a genre) features more intelligence than expected—movies like “Tex” and “Lucas,” among others. Here is another movie to add to that list. It’s called “Permanent Record” and it’s about an event that a group of teenagers must cope with. It’s a movie so good that it’s unfair to even put it in a list with other “teen movies.” (OK, I’ll stop with the quotation marks.)

The first shot of the movie rings true. It’s a shot of a group of teenage friends who hang out together with their cars on top of a high bluff overlooking the sea. They have their own conversations and we see that they’re good friends. The camera pans all throughout the friends as they talk and mess around with each other. This shot isn’t forced and there doesn’t seem to be any acting (but we know these kids are played by actors).

One of these characters catches our eye as the first half of the movie unfolds with not necessarily a plotline. This character is a high school student named David (Alan Boyce), a model student. He gets good grades, is a nice guy, is a talented guitar player, helps compose the music for the school production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and has just received a scholarship from a great music school. He has about everything going for him. But something is wrong. He feels that he is too busy for the scholarship, but the principal reminds him that it’s not for another two years. He is also a bit impatient when teaching his best friend Chris (Keanu Reeves) to play guitar. Chris can be good at it, but he doesn’t focus enough and that almost makes David mad.

This first half is great because it shows that David, Chris, and their friends are teenagers who are bright and thoughtful. They are not like most teenagers you see in other movies. And their high school days are not routine. They’re well-written and insightful. The way David’s crisis gets worse is so subtle. We don’t need dialogue to see what’s really going on in this kid’s life. And it really hits us hard when the second half occurs right after Chris sees David on top of that high bluff from the opening shot, then he looks again and he’s gone.

Many of David’s friends believe that David’s death was an accident. But soon, Chris receives a letter from David before he died—a suicide note that explained that David wanted everything to be perfect and it wasn’t. Chris is convinced that David has indeed committed suicide and tells everyone because they deserve to know. But knowing that this model student committed suicide is even worse than trying to deal with his death. Nobody knows how to feel anymore and the rest of the movie is about Chris and David’s other friends as they express rage, cry over his death, and feel sorrow. Was there anything they could’ve done to stop him from killing himself? “Permanent Record” features the kind of realism and emotion expressed by realistic teenagers over a friend’s death that I looked for and missed in the ‘80s after-school special “A Desperate Exit,” which featured Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Rob Stone. The way these teenagers express their emotions feels authentic and real. Credit director Marisa Silver and her writers Jarre Fees, Alice Liddle and Larry Ketron for creating a story with such subtle realism.

The performances of the teenaged characters are spot on, especially by Alan Boyce as David, Keanu Reeves as Chris, Michelle Meyrink (“Real Genius”) as their friend MG, and Jennifer Rubin as David’s girlfriend Lauren. And another intriguing character is their school principal, played by Richard Bradford. He shows very little, but we somehow know he is a good man who is unlike the mean-spirited high school principals in other movies. Also, the parents are given something in particular to do. They are not entirely absent here. They show up when the time is right.

Everything leads to the heartwarming final scene, in which “The Pirates of Penzance” goes on without David to arrange the music. But David is remembered in a way I will not describe. It’s such a great scene. And because of that scene, there is a sense that life will go on for these kids. But they will also realize that life isn’t perfect. Life is problems, but they have to deal with it in the way that David couldn’t. That message is emphasized at just the right note. It didn’t need to carry out even further. If it had, it would’ve cost the movie its subtlety.