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Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

18 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Size change in fiction has always fascinated me. It’s interesting to imagine the world you live in from a different perspective. What would it look like if you were bigger? Or smaller? Disney’s 1989 smash hit “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” took it to the extreme, shrinking its heroes to ¼ inch in height so that an ordinary backyard becomes a treacherous jungle for them to trek through.

How does this happen? Well, brilliant but hapless scientist Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis) invented a machine that could shrink things down to microscopic size if he could get it to work. One of the neighbors’ sons, Ron (Jared Rushton), accidentally hits a baseball through the window and it somehow fixes the machine’s problem upon hitting it, causing it to work all too well, shrinking Ron, Ron’s older brother Russ (Thomas Brown), and both of Wayne’s own kids, Amy (Amy O’Neill) and Nick (Robert Oliveri). They’re too small to get Wayne’s attention, and they get swept up and taken out with the trash. So now they must travel miles worth of enormous backyard, where they come across many dangerous obstacles—bees, sprinklers, lawnmowers, and more.

Will they be saved? Will they be restored to normal size? Well, seeing as how it’s a family adventure by Disney, don’t feel bad in correctly assuming the answer to both questions is “yes.” Just have fun with this comedic, thrill-packed adventure and enjoy what it has to offer, which is a darn good time.

The thing that intrigues me the most about “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is its visuals. For a film released in 1989, many of the effects hold up surprisingly well. The sets are outstanding, with oversized props and glorious attention to detail. The jungle-like backyard looks unwelcoming. The animatronics, such as a giant friendly ant and a monstrous scorpion, look convincing—the ant especially will steal your heart…or at least it stole mine. At one point, one of the miniature kids is thrown into a bowl of Cheerios and milk, and it looks amazing. Even some of the blue-screen effects, such as a dangerous ride on top of a soaring bee, look nice. (Though, not all the blue-screen shots are well-done, such as when the kids are falling through the air—it’s a bit awkward. But those are so few and far between superior effects.)

If “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” were all about the look, it’d be fine, but I was engrossed by the human characters walking through it all. The kids are all likable and are given room to develop and…”grow” (forgive the pun). Russ starts as a meek wimp who quits the football team and the behest of his former-jock father, Big Russ (Matt Frewer), and as the film continues, he becomes a swashbuckling hero and an unofficial leader of the minute group. Amy is a popular but shallow teenage girl who just wants to “get home, get big, and get to the mall,” but throughout the journey, her priorities change for the better. Nick is a pre-teenage version of his father, and all he wants is to be heard by his father; he gets his chance by providing an important clue by the end of the film. My favorite development came from Ron, who starts off as a bratty 12-year-old jock and is still a wise-guy by the end of the film but much friendlier. All four young actors do good jobs, but Jared Rushton as Ron impressed me the most.

But the film’s main comedy comes from the two sets of parents—Wayne and Diane Szalinski (Marcia Strassman) and Big Russ and Mae Thompson (Kristine Sutherland). Rick Moranis is delightful as Wayne, goofy enough for us to laugh at him but more than likable enough too. He’s a perfect everyman. (Honestly, I like Moranis’ work here a little more than his goofier roles in “Ghostbusters” and “Spaceballs.”) And speaking of “goofy,” Matt Frewer is surprisingly effective as Big Russ, a man who goes through his own change while worrying about his missing kids. Most of the laughs come from Wayne’s inventive method of searching the yard for the kids without even touching the ground, Big Russ’ reactions to Wayne’s bizarre behavior, and the byplay between parents trying to work together but simply can’t (er, they can, but they…won’t).

Oh, and there’s also the Szalinski family’s dog, Quark, who of course knows more than the human characters. Simply put, this dog is a delight. Anytime the camera is on him, he’s a natural actor.

The film is a ton of fun but it isn’t great. I get that it’s just supposed to be a fun adventure, but sometimes I think things turn out a little too well for these kids. Also, I’m not so sure James Horner’s music score is the best fit for this material—it’s a little too foreboding and overly serious at times. It makes scenes that are already intense (such as when the kids are about to be sucked into a lawnmower) overly so.

And I have to ask—where in the world did that killer scorpion come from?! It leads to a neat-looking fight between the scorpion vs. the ant and the kids vs. the scorpion, but seriously, where did that thing come from?

But whatever. “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is loads of fun and in the great tradition of Disney. Much of it still holds up today as it did in 1989 when it was originally released, and I have fun watching it now as much as I did when I was a kid watching it over and over.

Casualties of War (1989)

24 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War” is based on a real-life incident that occurred in Vietnam in 1969—a small unit of soldiers kidnapped a peasant girl, took her along on their reconnaissance patrol through the jungle, raped her, and then ultimately murdered her. One of the five soldiers on patrol was against the plan from the start and didn’t know the sergeant was serious at first when it was mentioned originally, and it was his testimony at a court martial that brought the men to military justice.

Michael J. Fox plays the outspoken private Eriksson. Prior to the event, Eriksson had only been in combat for three weeks; not nearly enough time, apparently, for him to lose his sense of human nature. His fellow infantrymen, Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn), Corporal Clark (Don Patrick Harvey) and Private Hatcher (John C. Reilly), are more hard-edged and brutal, with only one thing on their minds: wiping out as much VC as they can. One of their platoon members, who was essentially their comic relief (and probably would have prevented the forthcoming event from happening in the first place), is killed in an ambush, and shortly afterwards, Private Diaz (John Leguizamo) serves as replacement.

Meserve is a leader. He’s capable of valor and a strong soldier. But he has lost his moral standards—one even wonders if he had them to begin with, as we don’t know anything about his background. (That wasn’t a criticism—I like that the character raises questions.) When he wants to do something, anything, he is able to get his squad to follow along. That leads to the event. After he is denied access into a nearby village to visit a prostitute the night before the platoon is supposed to go on patrol, Meserve involves his men in a plan to sneak in late at night to kidnap a simple peasant girl and take her with them as their sex slave. Eriksson doesn’t realize he’s serious until the kidnapping takes place.

In the field, Eriksson questions what the squad is doing, while Clark and Hatcher are up for anything. Diaz is the only other standout, but soon enough, he follows along, mostly because he’s intimidated by Meserve. Meserve is in complete denial, not seeing how wrong his actions are; to him, he’s captured a Viet Cong as a prisoner and he and his men are going to “have a little fun with her.” And Clark, the most bloodthirsty of the group, doesn’t care about justifying his actions—“What happens in the field stays in the field,” he says. When the moment of the rape arrives, Eriksson protests, and Meserve verbally abuses him in every way possible—he’s a Viet Cong sympathizer, he’s a homosexual, and so on. But unlike Diaz, Eriksson doesn’t give in and refuses to act in the rape. The next day, he tries to help her, and he even has an opportunity to escape in order to help her. But he himself is afraid of what would happen, and before long, the inevitable occurs, as the other four men pump bullets into her.

I know I’ve given away large chunks of the film by describing the event and the story it was based on, but writing about it and actually seeing it are two different cases here. To see this movie is to feel the weight of the situation happening all around them; that situation being the dehumanization of war. Eriksson has moral values, but they aren’t important in front of Meserve’s power, which is the only thing that matters in the field. When you have morals and ethics, you have to have the power to bring them forward and have your fellow men back you up. “Casualties of War” is a film that examines the realities of this situation and that’s what makes it so effective. Late in the film, Eriksson even says the film’s message aloud: “Everybody’s acting like we can do anything and it don’t matter what we do. Maybe we gotta be extra careful because maybe it matters more than we even know.” Not only does that apply in the battlefield, but it also applies in life.

What I could’ve done without are the scenes at the beginning and the end. The opening scene shows Eriksson looking back at the central story, so those who don’t know the story now know he’s going to survive. The closing scene feels like a tacked-on feel-good ending that didn’t really work very well. (When I watch the film on DVD, I usually stop the movie at the moment I think it should end, which is when Meserve, Clark, Hatcher, and Diaz glare at Eriksson as they’re taken away to military prison.) The framing doesn’t work.

The acting is solid all-around. Michael J. Fox is credible as a man holding on to what he has left inside. Sean Penn turns in a brilliant performance as a young man (about 19, I think) who was probably a bully back home and a bully with a gun in combat. Sometimes, he overplays his demeanor in which he’s able to mock anyone who’s against his methods, but I didn’t mind, because it also shows how pathetic he can be, while also showing why someone would be intimidated by him. Though, if we’re going to be honest, I wasn’t always that intimidated by him personally. Who is intimidating throughout is the character of Clark, played excellently by Don Patrick Harvey—this guy has “psycho” written all over him, and it’s a credit to Harvey’s acting that he’s able to pull off even the most subtle methods of the role. (Something subtle in a Brian De Palma film?! Why, I never!) Character actors John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo are featured in their first feature roles, and they both do equally good jobs.

It was a good decision on director Brian De Palma’s part to move from the hugeness of his previous film, “The Untouchables,” to a smaller story about the human condition in a war film. Some of his filmmaking trademarks are at work here—two things in focus even as one is far away from the other; long wide shots of conversation (sometimes at weird angles); and especially, a chilling point-of-view scene that usually makes it in each of De Palma’s works. But unlike most of his films, they don’t distract from the story, written with a terrific script by playwright David Rabe.

In combat, human values are usually replaced by animal instincts. That’s what “Casualties of War” is saying—just because each of us can be blown up at any time, that doesn’t mean we should be less human; if anything, we should be more human. This story, with the event at its center, is a reminder of that.

Roger & Me (1989)

9 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Michael Moore once said in an interview that his agenda with making his documentary films that expose big-time corporations and those associated with them is not unlike the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” in which the Wizard is exposed for being a frail man pulling strings. You know the scene—the one in which the mangy dog, Toto, pulled a curtain to reveal that the terrifying entity before our heroes was nothing more than one man putting on a big show. In a way, Moore is Toto, regular American citizens are Dorothy and her friends, and the corporations, politicians, etc. are nothing more than people pulling strings to inspire fear and power.

Whether you like him for making valid points and satirizing material while criticizing them at the same time or hate him for his fudging of the facts, speaking a little out of turn and very directly (remember his controversial Oscar acceptance speech?), or even his snarky personality, it’s hard to deny he’s a daring performance artist, putting himself in the story and showing us what he sees. Some of the ways he handles the material in his movies don’t work for me and I think he tries a little too hard getting his points across, but I can’t hate on the man for making entertaining films while at the same time delivering his points of view. I think “Bowling for Columbine” is a fascinating documentary and “Roger & Me,” the subject of this review, was a great way to get his name across to the general public.

“Roger & Me” was Moore’s debut feature, released in 1989. He originally funded the film by selling his house and hosting weekly bingo nights—anything to make a film about the hardships within Flint, Michigan. Moore was a native of Flint, the birthplace of General Motors. When GM closed many plants, laying off thousands of workers, the muckraking reporter Moore made this film as a response. But if you know Moore’s reputation today, you wouldn’t be surprised to find that this isn’t a bleak documentary about hardships. It’s not only cross and has a point to make—it’s also funny.

Moore narrates the story with his droll sarcasm and stars in the film himself, as he tries repeatedly to get an interview with Roger Smith, the chairman of GM. Every now and then, we’re treated with a sequence in which he thinks he’s going to walk into a building and meet Roger until he is immediately escorted out by security. Before he would even get a chance to get even closer than one floor toward Roger, he speaks with a spokesman from GM. When asked about the layoffs, the spokesman says they’re “necessary.” (Spoiler alert—he gets laid off by the end of the movie. Now there’s an up-yours I’m sure Moore was happy about.)

Moore goes everywhere in Flint. He encounters people with their own businesses (including a woman who chooses color coordinates for people and a woman selling rabbits for “pets or meat”), he meets several former GM workers now working at Taco Bell (some of whom are losing that job too), he looks into a poor attempt to turn the town into a tourist attraction, he goes to wealthy events, he visits an Amway party, he meets celebrities (including Pat Boone and Ronald Reagan) who try to cheer up locals, and he meets the most notable side character in the movie, a deputy sheriff who evicts several unemployed auto workers who couldn’t make their payments. And that’s only half of the material Moore works with in this movie, if you can believe it.

What is Moore trying to say with “Roger & Me?” He’s trying to put across the message that to big corporations, profits are more important than human lives, and something needs to change. This film is his angry way of showing that the best way he can to the public—actually addressing the problem.

Moore’s methods of telling the story of “Roger & Me” have been questionable (there was even a very unkind article from Film Comment about them). Some say it’s too good to be true (which I suppose is the criticism of most documentaries). Apparently, the amusement park was built before the closings and not in response to them; there were less layoffs than the film suggests; Roger Smith wasn’t reading “A Christmas Carol” at the same time of a crucial point; and so forth. Well…so what? Maybe the film was a little manipulative, took some cheap shots, and fudged some of the facts, but A) we all know that, B) Moore knows that, and C) the purpose is both entertain and enrage us. (Besides, anyone could figure out the “Christmas Carol” thing was a setup, just as much as we figure out Moore had staged beforehand his attempts to meet Smith. It would be too good to be true.) I still really like the film. I admire it for its balance of humor and pathos and the way Moore’s cynicism and skillful timing blends everything together. So what if Moore took some liberties? Not every documentary can be objective and even entirely factual. The film as a whole is emotionally true.

Batman (1989)

23 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In the late-1980s, “Batman” was the most anticipated movie to come around. Warner Bros. was hoping that this would make people forget that they distributed the “Superman” sequel-bomb “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” released in 1987, and so they turned from DC Comics’ Man of Steel to its Caped Crusader. And people were excited to see a dark, live-action film adaptation of Batman that didn’t have the campiness of the 1960s “Batman” TV series or the in-jokes that the comic book series had, but it did have the promising director of “Beetlejuice,” Tim Burton. Sure, there were some uncertain comments from people who even wound up petitioning not to have Michael Keaton star as Batman (but I’ll get to that later), but nothing was going to keep people from seeing “Batman.” And so, in the summer of 1989, it was released in cinemas and became a box-office hit, leading to become the highest-grossing film of the year. And honestly, I can definitely see why. “Batman” is a solid entertainment. It’s dark, it’s brooding, it’s suspenseful, much like the Caped Crusader himself.

Yes, this “Batman” is dark and not necessarily for younger kids. This is more in the spirit of an old-school film noir, with Gotham City as its backdrop. There is a lot of crime, and fascist crime bosses, but there is also someone out there on a crusade to foil it. This is Batman, a dark-costumed vigilante whose presence scares criminals and angers local Mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). Gotham City locals don’t really know of any “bat man,” outside of robbers and murderers, but there are rumors about him. Reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) describes him as a man-sized bat who is indestructible, and wants to find out more about him. In comes Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a reporter/photographer who is interested in his theory. To get some answers and an inside scoop, she believes that eccentric billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is secretly Batman, and so she decides to romance him.

Meanwhile, Grissom’s right-hand man, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), is set up by Grissom on a mission that leads the cops to him. Along comes Batman, who corners Jack and tosses him into a vat of acid. Jack survives, but his facial nerves are severed, leaving a permanent smile. This also changes his personality so that he’s more gleeful and also more psychotic. He calls himself The Joker, overtakes the Mob, and begins his own reign of terror in Gotham City.

Despite being called “Batman,” the title character himself is more or less kept in the shadows for the most part. We don’t get his standard “superhero origin story” here; instead, the origin story that the movie delivers is of the Joker, the movie’s villain and Batman’s arch-nemesis. (I think the movie could have been titled “Joker,” in a way.) After all, we see how this Jack Napier becomes Joker and what will lead to his downfall in the film’s inevitable climax. And so, most attention is brought onto the Joker in this movie, as well we see a lot more of him than of Bruce Wayne/Batman. While this may seem like a flaw, it actually makes it all the more solid. Batman is known for being dark and mysterious; the less you know about him, the more interesting he is. You want to find out more about him, and there are some good details that indicate what he’s been through and what he’s going through, but had there been anymore, the fascinating mystery may have been gone. And so in the sense, I’m glad Batman wasn’t the main focus of this story.

I know having a villain as practically the “star” is a risky move to pull in a movie like this. But Jack Nicholson is so enjoyable as the Joker that it doesn’t matter how sick and psychotic he is; you just watch him go throughout his schemes, while still knowing that Batman is still the one to root for.

What we do see of Bruce Wayne is very interesting, and Michael Keaton is excellent in portraying Bruce as an odd billionaire with dark secrets and a tragic past. When Keaton plays Bruce Wayne as he socializes with people, you wouldn’t really believe that he is secretly Batman. He keeps his pain inside, not making it anyone else’s problem but his own. And when Keaton is Batman, he practically “breathes” cool. He’s intimidating, purposeful, and rock-solid, which makes his performance of Bruce Wayne all the more interesting. As the movie develops and you start to see more of this character than before, you understand what Bruce is going through—this is his problem that hardly anyone else can handle and so, he’ll deal with it by himself. Although he does have a couple people to turn to (including Vicki, who becomes his romantic-interest who discovers his secret, and his loyal butler Alfred, played by Michael Gough), he tells only what they deserve to hear and leaves everything else for him to handle. This leaves him with a few strengths for us to notice about the character, making it even more fascinating that this is our hero. When all is said and done, Michael Keaton is a great choice for Batman. I know that back then, he was known for his broad-comic persona in films such as “Night Shift” and especially “Beetlejuice”; but here, he’s absolutely brilliant. You may not see as much of him as the Joker, who practically hungers attention from the audience with the manic Nicholson performance, but there’s always that sense that this is Batman and he knows what he’s doing. I’m glad that that ridiculous petition to remove Michael Keaton from the role was ignored—seriously, what were those people thinking?

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Jack Nicholson owns it as the Joker; it’s not only menacing, but also funny. You can tell he’s not just doing for a nice paycheck, much like how Marlon Brando must have felt when he played Jor-El in “Superman.” You can tell he’s just having a good time and that energy that he brings to the screen is always evident.

Kim Basinger plays Vicki Vale, whom Bruce falls for while she is attempting to gain a scoop on Batman for Knox’s story. While many critics felt that this character was pointless and a misstep, I thought she fit into the story really well. She is the one who aids the audience into discovering Bruce’s secret (and also the reason Bruce wants to admit the truth to somebody for the first time), and she is an interesting character. Sure, she screams a lot (whether she’d be menaced by the Joker or reacting to one of Batman’s surprise gadgets), but she was kind and polite while also having her limits. And when she’s captured by the Joker in the climax so Batman can save her, she still manages to fool Joker into thinking he’s winning. Basinger is game in a role that would have had her doing a lot less.

We still have the traditional Batman gadgetry, such as a self-guiding grappling hook that aids Batman up the side of a building. But more importantly, we also have the awesome-looking Batmobile and the Batplane (even though the Batplane looks more like a model in some shots, it’s still pretty awesome). Those visuals are well-handled, but the look of Gotham City itself is a true marvel. Director Tim Burton is best known for specializing in gothic production design in his films, and this is no exception. Gotham City looks kind of like Manhattan if it was redesigned to look like a carnival funhouse—it’s just incredible to look at.

The action sequences are set up and executed with such flair and energy that it makes the film all the more exciting to endure. It’s engaging and well-crafted, although I will admit that I thought the final climax went on a bit too long. That is the main reason I’m rating this film three-and-a-half stars instead of four, but just be impressed I’m even rating it that (I’m surprised to find that not many people seem to like this movie very much, because of how little of Batman is seen—oddly enough, I found that to be the most intriguing factor). But to the credit of that climactic half-hour, it does allow for some psychological turns as well as physical force. You see, in the middle of the battle, Joker and Batman attempt to turn one another off by admitting that they created each other, as Batman threw Jack into the acid that made him this way, while Jack was the one who killed Bruce’s parents long ago (this is why Bruce would become Batman). That’s pretty clever.

Another thing about “Batman” I want to praise is the music. And no, I’m not talking about the dated Prince soundtrack. I’m talking about Danny Elfman’s memorable, fantastic score. Whenever I think of Batman, this is the music I’m going to be thinking of every time. It’s terrific in the way it keeps with the dark tone of the movie and yet maintains a consistent quirky side to it, making us remember that this is a superhero movie after all. Elfman nails it here with his score.

“Batman” is told with a more adult approach, than one might have expected at the time, and that makes it interesting and all the more solid. With a dark look, a fantastic production design, and convincingly troubled characters played by great actors, this is an enjoyable, good-looking, terrific film that is respectful to the superhero-movie genre and delivers some truly great surprises.

Back to the Future Part II (1989)

22 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I said in a previous post that “Back to the Future” is my all-time favorite movie. I truly love it because it kept me invested and entertained throughout, while also playing to certain emotions that it’s hard to fully describe how much it worked. So with that being the movie I can watch a hundred times and never get tired of, that must mean I hate the sequels by comparison, right? I mean, they are more broad and definitely goofier in tone than the first film, so with the strong way I feel towards the first film, I should necessarily hate the sequels, right? Well…I don’t. No, I really don’t. I think they’re very entertaining films in their own way, not necessarily in comparison to the original. They’re just fun action films that maybe don’t have the emotional impact of the original, but still some good treats that make them enjoyable. They’re imaginative, fun movies that I do enjoying watching every now and then, but for different reasons than the first.

Let’s start with “Back to the Future Part II.” “Back to the Future Part II” picks up right where “Back to the Future” left off, as teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) has just returned home (to 1985) after a trip to the past (in 1955) via a time-traveling DeLorean motorcar invented by zany scientist Doc Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Marty’s reunion with his girlfriend, Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue, replacing Claudia Wells this time), is quickly interrupted by Doc Brown and his DeLorean as Doc frantically asks Marty to accompany him to the future and handle a situation involving his children.

So, Marty and Doc travel to the Hill Valley, California of the year 2015 so that Marty can impersonate his own teenage son and prevent an incident that would jail his son and ruin the family’s life. They succeed, but Marty now has a new goal. He buys a sports’ almanac that covers statistics for fifty years, and comes up with the idea that if he bets on the winner of a sporting event back in his own time, there’s no way he can lose. Doc talks him out of it (“I didn’t even invent the time machine to win at gambling; I invented the time machine to travel through time!”), but it turns out that old Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the bully from the original film, was listening in on the idea, and winds up stealing the almanac and the time machine to go back in time and use it to change history. Once Marty and Doc are back in 1985, their hometown is a hellish area where Biff is rich and corrupt and married to Marty’s mother (Lea Thompson).

And so as Marty finds out that this present-Biff got the almanac from the old-Biff when he was actually young-Biff in the year 1955, he and Doc go back to 1955 and race to retrieve the almanac and set things right with the time-space continuum. Are you getting any of this, by the way?

One of the pleasures of “Back to the Future Part II” was just how much time-travel is used. It was fun watching these characters that we’ve grown to like from the first film now in the middle of a runaround through time. First, they travel to 2015; then, they go back to 1985; then, they go back to 1955 to fix a future that wouldn’t have been altered if Biff didn’t switch it to appear this way in 1985 after first traveling back from 2015…wow, describing it like that makes it even more confusing, now that I think about it. But I got into the spirit of it and wound up having a good time.

Now, it is true that the relationship between Marty and his father, George McFly, which one of the most refreshing things about the first film is missed here (in fact, George is hardly ever seen, and when he is, he’s played by a different actor than Crispin Glover). And also, when you get down to it, this sequel really is just a romp. It’s more of a complicated comedy than anything else. But in its own goofy way, it is a ton of fun. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are very game and appealing in their well-known characters, and Thomas F. Wilson has a ton of fun playing all versions of Biff—young (1955), middle-aged (1985), and old (2015). He’s an amusing villain as well.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of an actor playing different roles (and yet the same role), I might as well mention that Michael J. Fox not only plays Marty, but also his 2015 counterpart, his teenage son, and…even his teenage daughter (yeah, it’s as creepy as you’d expect).

The look of the futuristic Hill Valley in the year 2015 is incredible. Even though it’s 2013 and we’re not even close to half the things that are invented here, it still makes for a good fantasy and a nostalgic imagination-fuel that the filmmakers must have felt. They apparently went all out to make this world look credible, and it is a marvel with many things to behold. There are flying cars, hence a “skyway” (a highway in the air). There are holographic movie ads (“Jaws 19,” with a CGI shark that “attacks” passersby). There’s even a nostalgic diner called “Café 80s,” which is chuck-full of ‘80s material—there are video waiters that look like either Michael Jackson or Ronald Reagan, there are multiple TV screens that play old ‘80s sitcoms (like “Cheers” or “Taxi”), and there’s even a “Wild Gunman” arcade game that kids in the future call a “baby’s toy,” much to Marty’s surprise. Oh, and let’s not forget the wardrobe—Nike sneakers that lace themselves up to fit; a jacket that is able to fit anyone; and a multicolored reflective cap. Oh, and how about the hoverboard? There are literally so many surprises to be found in this future world that it’s hard not to admire the production design and creativity behind these props and sets.

“Back to the Future Part II” is a different movie than the original film in that it’s more of a screwball comedy. But it’s still a good, enjoyable movie that I recommend for what it is rather than just focusing on the comparisons to the first film. It’s not as emotionally involving, but it is still good fun.

Little Monsters (1989)

25 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What a mean-spirited movie this is! For a supposed “family movie” that markets it as a fantasy for children who like to pull pranks on their grade-school enemies, “Little Monsters” takes this fantasy the wrong way. I think kids may be frightened by most of the images and situations depicted in the film.

Fred Savage, of TV’s “The Wonder Years” fame, plays Brian, the eleven-year-old protagonist in “Little Monsters.” He’s unhappy because he and his family—his bickering parents (Daniel Stern and Margaret Whitton) and younger brother Eric (Ben Savage, Fred’s real-life brother)—have moved to a new town and house. He’s the target of the pudgy school bully and to make matters worse, he’s blamed for pranks set around the house, which he didn’t set up in the first place. Eric believes that a monster that scared him the other night is responsible and pays Brian to spend a night in his room.

It turns out that Brian’s kid brother is right and something is going bump in the night. So he sets a trap for the monster, a fast-talking, blue-skinned, horned loudmouth named Maurice, played by Howie Mandel. Maurice sees something good in Brian and introduces him to the monster world.

Well, it turns out there’s a parallel dimension under beds in which the monsters are kids who were trapped there. Now, they have their own fun, eating junk food, playing video games, breaking lamps with bats and baseballs, and pulling pranks on innocent children. Maurice seduces Brian into this world, which is referred to as “every kid’s fantasy.” But I can tell you that even the unruliest of children would be turned off by this world. The people in this world are monsters, all right. But they’re mainly disfigured children who run amok. I guess the filmmakers were trying to create a subtext that kids act like monsters, like in “Pinocchio,” when kids act like jackasses and become them. But this is just painful to watch. On a productive note, the monster world isn’t impressive. It’s badly lit (because the monsters turn to clothes when exposed to light), has cheesy digital effects whizzing by every few seconds for no good purpose, and on top of that, the whole world is made entirely of boxes.

About the pranks—this is horrific to watch. Brian and Maurice pull cruel pranks on innocent little children for only the reason of fun. And then the filmmakers have the nerve to show the kids’ parents yelling at them—I was cringing all through that sequence. Then, there’s the scene in which Brian and Maurice stop by Brian’s bully’s house. They drink his apple juice…and then Maurice pisses in it! Then guess what happens…

Then there’s the character of Snik, the villain of the movie. He is repulsive, nasty—a nightmare fodder for children. And he’s not a kid—he’s played by Rick Ducommun. He’s here to set up the climax in which Brian must choose between this world and his world.

One positive thing I can say about this movie is that Howie Mandel makes a convincing monster. But that’s very faint praise indeed.

Field of Dreams (1989)

6 Apr

fieldofdreams

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Baseball and the movies usually blend well together. With movies like “The Natural” and “Bull Durham,” among others, the love of the game is evident and well-portrayed. “Field of Dreams” is no exception—in fact, it’s a magical movie. It reminds us of why people love baseball and why it’s America’s pastime.

“Field of Dreams” is a fantasy. It features a man named Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner), who, along with his wife Annie (Amy Madigan), has gone through the fast lane long enough and moved to Iowa to run a family farm. Ray and Annie have a young daughter (Gaby Hoffman) and they all enjoy sitting on the porch and enjoying the relaxation and quiet. But then, Ray begins to hear a mysterious voice in the cornfield. The voice is soft and personal and its instructions aren’t particularly clear—“If you build it, he will come.” Who’s he? What should Ray build?

Then, Ray begins to envision a baseball field in the place of his cornfield. Unsure of whether or not the voice came from his head after stressful work, Ray does the unthinkable and actually plows underneath the corn to build his own baseball diamond.

And what an image it is! To see a baseball diamond right there in your own backyard right next to a cornfield. It’s a wonderful, unforgettable image.

Then suddenly, onto the field walks the ghost of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) of the 1919 Black Sox, who promised until the day he died that he would play the best he could. “Is this heaven,” he asks Ray. “No…it’s Iowa,” Ray responds. And then comes along the rest of the baseball team to come and redeem themselves by playing on the field.

There are problems, to be sure. The decision to keep the field on the farm may put Ray and his family into bankruptcy. And no one else besides Ray, Annie, and their daughter can see the dead baseball players practicing on the field, so a banker (played by Timothy Busfield) believes that they’re all going crazy. But Ray believes a miracle will occur, as the voice is heard again, telling Ray to travel east to meet a famous controversial writer for support, named Terence Mann (James Earl Jones). Terence doesn’t believe Ray’s story about the voice until he has his own experience.

I suppose that’s all I should say about the plot because as the movie progresses, it becomes more imaginative and thus more involving. Just the idea of having these baseball players from the past playing right there in your backyard is intriguing enough, but then the story gets deeper as it goes along with a character who never had a chance to play with the pros and a speech about how much baseball means to people. That speech is so heartwarming and so true, and strongly spoken by James Earl Jones late in the movie, that it exhibits the attitude that the movie is going for with the love of the game—innocence. These ballplayers aren’t merely at the field to impress anyone or prove something to themselves, but merely to continue to play the game they love. They’re stuck in a time when baseball was a game and not just an industry. That makes “Field of Dreams” not merely a great fantasy film, but an effective baseball movie.

The acting in “Field of Dreams” is first-rate. Kevin Costner makes a likable protagonist that you want good things to happen to, and he makes a good couple with Amy Madigan—they’re great together. Ray Liotta does a convincing job playing the legendary Shoeless Joe. James Earl Jones is phenomenally good as the writer who knows a thing or two about the National Pastime. And I can say the same for Burt Lancaster who portrays a character who deserves a second shot at the game as well, after he quit the game early to study medicine.

I won’t give away the ending to “Field of Dreams,” but let me tell you it doesn’t end with a “big game” climax. It’s an ending in which the themes like family values, redemption, reunion, and innocence all come together with the promise of something better to come in the future.

It’s hard to describe how good “Field of Dreams” really is. It’s a wonderful fantasy film about following your dreams and it’s also effective in how it handles baseball and captures the love of the game. It’s a positive movie too—this is not for cynics or disbelievers. The tone and spirit of the movie is modest, but not making the story too sweet that we can’t get invested in it. “Field of Dreams” entertained me, intrigued me, and in the end, it moved me.