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A Cry in the Wild (1990)

27 Jul

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“A Cry in the Wild” is a Corman-produced low-budget film adaptation of the popular novel “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen… Is it one of my favorites?

Well, it might be. There are some things that could have been improved, a few little details I could have done without, and I’m not entirely sure its emotional impact weighed down on me as much as it should have. But when I think of what it did right, especially in keeping with the spirit of the book “Hatchet” (which I read in middle school), “A Cry in the Wild” is an overall involving, moving, and thrilling adventure.

This film was made around the time low-budget pioneer Roger Corman, best known as a trailblazer for independent film, wanted to branch out and start making films that were more aimed at children. (What followed were many straight-to-video family films that I rented as a kid–needless to say, they don’t hold a candle to “A Cry in the Wild,” no matter how crazy and “guilty-pleasure-y” some of them might be.) So, he brought on Corman graduate Mark Griffiths to direct it and the original novel’s author Gary Paulsen himself to write the screenplay. (One major change from book to film: it’s a bear that antagonizes the lead character instead of a moose, simply because, according to Paulsen, moose are too dumb to train for a movie. Way to think smart in adapting your own source material.)

Our lead character is a teenage boy named Brian (Jared Rushton). A child of divorce, Brian is on his way to his father in Canada via a single-engine plane (flown by a pilot played by the ever-reliable Ned Beatty). But when the pilot has a heart attack and dies, Brian crash-lands the plane into a lake in the forest. Now stranded in the Canadian Wilderness (and bear country) with nothing but a small hatchet (which his mother had brought him as a gift before he left), Brian must learn to survive using his wits and everything around him that could possibly help in some way. He builds shelter, finds food, makes fire, and deals with threats such as a porcupine, a bear, and even a tornado. (There’s also a white wolf that seems ambiguous as to whether it’s a friend or foe–for some reason, this film has sequels known as “the White Wolves collection,” neither of which has anything to do with Gary Paulsen’s sequel novels to “Hatchet.” Not for me.)

All the while, Brian deals with flashbacks involving his parents’ divorce. The “Secret” that haunts Brian works well enough in the book, but in the film, it doesn’t feel entirely necessary–mostly because the payoff isn’t strong enough to warrant the drama, in my opinion.

The dramatic emotional weight is more felt when Brian struggles to survive in a world he didn’t make. A lot of the film is told in silence as Brian learns how to hunt, how to fish, how to build, and ultimately how to survive, using his one hatchet. (When he nearly loses the hatchet late in the film is a moment where I genuinely gasped.) It doesn’t always work, such as the few moments when Brian speaks his thoughts (mainly for the audience)–and as good as he was in other movies like “Big” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” Jared Rushton isn’t always able to carry our attention for very long. However, because he is a kid, it’s not impossible to feel something for him when he’s figuring things out for himself within those quiet moments (and there are more of them than of the latter). Thus, it’s easy to feel happiness when he’s finally able to avoid extremely irritating mosquitoes after building his first campfire. Rushton can even provide funny moments when the time is right, such as when he refers to a thieving raccoon as a “monkey man.” (“Better keep away from my berries, pal.”)

It is easy to feel more intimidated by a bear than a moose on-screen, but there is one moment where Brian and the bear wrestle in the lake–I think Brian gets away too easily. It kind of takes away some tension when the bear attacks Brian’s shelter later in the film.

Eh, nitpicks. What do I love about the film, apart from the quiet moments of survival? I mean, this isn’t “Cast Away,” obviously–but I’m always a sucker for movies about people figuring difficult things out all alone.

…Actually, come to think of it, that might be it. Maybe I just enjoy “A Cry in the Wild” for making the most of its low budget, an author adapting his own novel in a way that best suits it, embracing the ingenuity of such a project, and giving us a survival drama story that is never boring, a bit uneven, but overall affecting. Could a better movie have been made from the source material? Maybe–but I’ll take what I can get. And I truly enjoy “A Cry in the Wild.”

My Favorite Movies – Misery (1990)

28 Jan

By Tanner Smith

There are so many obsessed fans out there who have been familiar with their favorite artist’s work for so long that if they try anything different from their usual craft, they get confused and/or angry and complain they “can’t” do that! (I use quotations because who the hell are we to say what artists can and can’t do?)

There are even people who FREAK OUT online when the new “Star Wars” movies and the last season of “Game of Thrones” don’t meet their expectations or standards–they even demand that they do it all over again.

Yeah, THAT’LL happen, you dorks.

Many fans are hard to please because they just want the same things they love over and over again…even though they already have the same things they love and they can go back to them whenever they want!

And in “Misery,” famous author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) faces his worst nightmare: having his life in the hands of an obsessed fan (his “number-one fan”) who forces him to write a new novel that meets HER standards. It’s a great allegory of creating art for the public versus creating art for yourself. He’s clearly not happy doing this, but it’s not his career he has to worry about if he doesn’t continue; it’s his life, literally! This sick, psychotic lady, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates in an Oscar-winning performance), keeps him sick, forces him to burn his latest book and write a new one, and even smashes his ankles so that he doesn’t get away when his broken legs mend! And he’s got no choice but to comply with her every demand and please her because he knows that it takes one little thing to turn her from sweet and kind to loud and violent, which is definitely where the suspense comes from in Bates’ performance.

James Caan’s performance is great too, as he has to play a guy who has to keep calm and keep acting like he’s ok in front of this psychopath. He knows if he slips up, he could get himself killed by his caretaker. And when he’s alone is when he shows the mental torture he’s suffering.

My favorite scene: I love the ending to this film and how Paul finally manages to obtain the upper hand with Annie, using her own methods against her. It’s a moment of sweet vengeance before things get really violent.

There’s a lot of great stuff here, and it all comes from an author who’s had his own share of physical & mental tortures (Stephen King), a director who gets his work (Rob Reiner, who also made “Stand By Me,” another King adaptation), and two brilliant performances from Caan and Bates. And it’s one of my top 100 personal faves.

My Favorite Movies – Home Alone (1990)

16 Nov

By Tanner Smith

It’s the hugely successful family comedy that didn’t get many positive reviews from critics at the time–well, it still remains a holiday classic to this day, so I wonder who brainwashed who?

I grew up with “Home Alone” and I still watch it every holiday season. It’s hilarious sometimes, heartwarming other times, and altogether a delight to watch every time.

And believe it or not, this is actually one of the first instances that pop into my head when I think of “character development.” Look at Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) at the beginning of the film and then look at him at the end of the film–this 8-year-old little bratty pissant has learned self-preservation and the value of family. It’s intriguing to see this kid’s coming-of-age journey in between.

I can see someone (let’s say an adult) watching this movie for the first time and thinking to themselves, “This is an annoying self-entitled little puke–why am I watching a movie about him?” And…yeah, in the early scenes, Kevin can be a bit much for the audience to handle, let alone his large family. But that’s just because most of us would rather forget how annoying and bratty we were at that age.

Then the kid is accidentally left alone in his large suburban household, after his extended family left for a vacation to Paris in a hurry. Well, now what’s to do? Easy answer: jump on the parents’ queen-size bed, eat all the junk food, go through your older brother’s private collection, watch violent movies, and do things your parents would never let you do before (like ride a sled down the stairs and out the front door)! That’s the first day alone–but on the second day, he needs a new toothbrush, so it’s time to steal some hidden money from the house and go out to buy one. And on the third day, he goes grocery shopping and even does some laundry because he knows when there’s play, there’s also work to be done.

Kevin is smarter than maybe even he thought, which also comes through when he learns of the constant reappearances of two burglars, Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), outside the house. He comes up with clever ways to fool them into leaving–turning on all the lights, setting up a fake house party with mannequins (seriously, how many mannequins are in this house??), and matching firecrackers with a TV-movie shootout. (“Keep the change, ya filthy animal!”)

But the charade doesn’t fool the “Wet Bandits,” as they’re called, for long, as they learn the kid’s home alone and decide to rob the house with him inside. So, Kevin sets up elaborate traps all around the house for them to fall into…bringing us to the hilarious sequence late in the film in which Harry and Marv get beat up…BAD!

This whole extended sequence is the comedic highlight of the film–it’s a kid’s wish fulfillment to take down the bad guys, and this takes it to the extreme. It’s been proven that many of these pranks would actually KILL someone in real life (go watch the “Honest Action – Home Alone” video on YouTube for a health professional’s opinion)–but in a movie, seeing irons and paintcans bounce off their heads and knock them to the ground is a riot to watch because Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are hamming it up big-time and play it as jerks who have it coming–it’s like a Three Stooges short or a Tom & Jerry cartoon in that the harder the hits, the funnier they are.

Eh…except when Marv steps on a nail. That was too much for me. (OUCH!!)

Obvious joke is that Kevin has become the Jigsaw Killer, to which I say, “Go see ‘Better Watch Out’ for a twisted version of ‘Home Alone’–the kid in THAT movie makes Macaulay Culkin’s sociopathic character in ‘The Good Son’ look like the Nutcracker Prince!”

What else is there to love about “Home Alone?” There’s actually a lot.

For one thing, I already mentioned that it was heartwarming. The way Kevin’s mother (Catherine O’Hara) practically threatens violence in her complicated journey to get back home to Kevin on Christmas Eve is funny but also very sweet. And of course, there’s the scene that even made George Costanza cry in one episode of “Seinfeld”–the church scene, in which Kevin has a moving heart-to-heart with an elderly, formerly intimidating neighbor (Roberts Blossom).

John Williams’ music score is also great, with a lot of memorable orchestral themes making for the best music composition I’ve ever heard in a comedy.

Director Chris Columbus’ work is often what could be labeled as “workmanlike,” but he deserves credit here for his uses of the colors red and green in the backgrounds and foregrounds to give the film a Christmas atmosphere. That’s another reason I love to watch this film around Christmas–it just FEELS like the type of film to watch during the season.

And of course, there’s young Macaulay Culkin, who was in the spotlight for a long time after this movie, which sadly didn’t do his life and career any favors. (Though, at least he seems happier now.) His work here in “Home Alone” is absolutely genuine, giving us a very bratty but also very innocent character to follow throughout the film. By the end, we’re happy that Kevin has learned his lesson…until “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.”

“Home Alone 2″…is basically the same movie except set in New York. You could call it “Home Alone 2: The Search for More Money” (of which it made a bundle, because of course). Culkin and Columbus even make fun of what a pointless sequel it is in “Home Alone’s” audio commentary. But with that said, I do enjoy watching this sequel every year too. It has enough fresh humor and a certain charm to it that makes it fun for me to watch… Just don’t expect me to call it a legit good film–let me put it this way: it both “is” and “isn’t” “22 Jump Street,” at the same time. But if the people who made it can mock it and have fun with it at the same time, why shouldn’t I?

“Home Alone” is another holiday treasure written by the late, great John Hughes (“Planes, Trains & Automobiles”). I’ll probably watch it about 4-5 times by Christmas Day. (And that goes for “Home Alone 2” as well.)

The Witches (1990)

30 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Kids often have that feeling that the grownups are out to get them, and in “The Witches,” the children have much to fear from the women of the world—particularly those with gloves and purple eyes. As an elderly woman tells her grandson (and as a result, the audience) a story about real witches, they apparently look like real people walking the streets. If you look closely at them, you can see the purple haze in their eyes. They have square feet, so they wear plain, ordinary shoes. And whenever a witch is near a child, she often holds her nose, since clean children have a distinct odor.

They’re out to destroy every child in the world. And they’re everywhere, in every country.

The story is told early on in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Witches,” based on Roald Dahl grim children’s story of the same name, as the Norwegian grandmother, Helga (Mai Zetterling), tells her American grandson, Luke (Jasen Fisher), all she knows about witches. When she was a little girl, her friend was taken by a witch and imprisoned in a painting until her image aged, withered and vanished. (Helga kept seeing her image move as years went by. She also lost a finger due to an encounter with a witch.)

That’s a very chilling opening sequence, told in flashback and with effective atmosphere, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which is like a well-told children’s bedtime story that would probably scare little kids and give them nightmares. But I think kids like to be scared (or else they wouldn’t go out for Halloween or watch scary movies that their parents forbid them to) and “The Witches” would probably delight them. Though, granted, some of them might want to prepare themselves first, as there are some disturbing elements in this movie.

Helga takes Luke on a vacation to England, where they stay in a fancy hotel. At this particular hotel is where all of the witches of England have an annual secret meeting, including the Grand High Witch, the most dangerous, fearsome one of them all. These witches pose as a children’s charity group hosting a convention at the hotel. They’re led by Miss Ernst (Anjelica Huston, having a lot of fun playing the role), a tall, striking woman with a distinctive manner and accent that lets us know immediately that she can’t be trusted. She is indeed the Grand High Witch, as Luke realizes as he stumbles upon the witches’ meeting and overhears their secrets, as well as their secret plan. Their plan is to use a magic formula to hide in sweets—when children eat them, they are transformed into mice.

Luke is discovered (a little too late, conveniently—I thought they would’ve smelled him earlier, since witches have a keen sense of smell) and he is forcibly turned into a mouse (a talking mouse too—OK, maybe it’s a little too convenient now). Luckily, he’s able to convince his grandmother who he really is, and so they come up with an idea to stop the witches before they carry out their plot.

The late Jim Henson produced “The Witches”. He and his special-effects crew bring their genius and talent to work in the sequences in which Luke, in mouse form, and his friend Bruno (Charlie Potter), also turned into a mouse, run about gigantic pieces of furniture and, even in close-ups, are able to make us believe that they really are talking mice with specific actions to perform. For kids, this is a fun adventure to take with the boy-mouse, and for adults, it’s an interesting visual look that impresses. It’s the best of both worlds.

It’s here that “The Witches” turns into a romp and loses of its tenseness that was set up in the aforementioned opening scene. But it is a good deal of fun, and it’s hardly predictable, as we can’t exactly see how everything will play out. It’s also a race against time, which makes things more exciting for the final act of the movie.

I admire how grim Nicolas Roeg made “The Witches” to be, given that it’s a family film that could have been played relatively safe. While it has a certain sensibility to it, the implications of the story are very grim and the imagination contains what could become or what might have become. If there is one problem, it’s probably the ending, but this is coming from someone who has read the book. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say some kids may enjoy a happy ending after all the grim stuff is over with. Mostly though, “The Witches” is quite fascinating.

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

8 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s a bit odd that of the Disney animated features to spawn a theatrical sequel from, 1977’s “The Rescuers” would be followed with a follow-up, about thirteen years after the original. But nevertheless, Disney’s “The Rescuers Down Under” was released in between two of their biggest hits at the time, “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” While those two are well-known, “The Rescuers Down Under” is somewhat often forgotten by most people. Oddly enough, they remember the original “Rescuers” movie, which is ironic because that one seems a bit mediocre to me. This sequel, however, is something I see as a true upgrade in comparison. It’s a nicely-done, well-animated family-adventure that would delight children and even impress some adults as well…if only they would just check it out.

The original “Rescuers” was about two brave little mice—Bernard and Bianca—who are part of some sort of secret tiny rescue squad (I don’t know; it’s for kids, mainly) as they go and rescue a little girl from nasty villains. “The Rescuers Down Under” brings them back, as they travel to Australia to rescue a kidnapped little boy. While the original didn’t exactly have as much energy as “terminal cuteness,” this sequel is all over the place. There’s a great deal of drive and spirit put into this production from the animation to the story. Granted, the story is nothing special, but the aspects involving the main adventure, and the way they’re executed, truly are.

The story begins in Australia (where, by the way, only a couple side characters have Australian accents) as the little boy, named Cody, comes across a rare species of gigantic eagle. The eagle is caught in a trap and Cody frees it. However, he is found by a poacher named McLeach (voiced by a delightfully-game George C. Scott) whose goal is to capture endangered species and sell them off. The eagle is his latest target and he learns that the kid knows where its nest is, so he kidnaps him to gain some answers. The news gets to America, as Bernard and Bianca (voiced again by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor) are called upon to rescue Cody. With the help of Wilbur the albatross (John Candy), they make their way Down Under and set out to rescue the boy.

I’m surprised by how much I cared about what was going on in “The Rescuers Down Under,” even now that I’m an adult watching this. I think a lot had to do with the energetic animation, but I’ll get to that later. There are little things with the characters that did a great deal of assistance in that area as well—for example, all throughout the movie, Bernard is trying to propose to Bianca, but is constantly interrupted by something each time. I felt bad for this guy (er, mouse)—all he wants to do is pop the question, and every time he does, either something tries to kill them or he’s interrupted by their guide, an adventurous kangaroo mouse named Jake (Tristan Rogers).

But now, let’s get into the action. And you can’t necessarily talk about the action without talking about the animation of this film. Animation always allows freedom to create something inventive, exhilarating, and never seen before. Nowhere is that even clearer than in the opening scene in which Cody frees the eagle. Cody falls off the cliff that the eagle was on right after he frees it, and the eagle rescues him and then lets him ride for flight. This is a truly great-looking sequence—as the boy is clinging to the back of this soaring giant bird, the animation is alive and fully realized. And it gives a great sense of flight, as well as when Bernard and Bianca are riding on the back of Wilbur (who, in comedic fashion, is not the best flier). The flight scenes are a lot of fun, and there are some other well-done action scenes such as chases and races against time that are also fun, particularly in the final climax.

All in all, “The Rescuers Down Under” is a fun little movie. When you hear the story here, you don’t hear anything special—just an adventure with little mice, much like the original “Rescuers.” But the animators put their all into this production with spectacular animation and a good sense of fun.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

22 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

While “Back to the Future Part II” was more of a zany screwball comedy and not really with the human emotions aspect that made “Back to the Future” the great film that it is, “Back to the Future Part III,” the final chapter of the “Back to the Future” trilogy, is actually closer to capturing that emotion that the original film had. While it has moments as goofy (though also as fun) as in the second film, there is still something good and moving within the human-interest story that is found here. As a result, it’s still not quite up there with the original film, but it’s still a terrifically entertaining movie that winds up having more on its mind than just slapstick and action.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. “Part III” begins where “Part II” left off, as teenage time-traveler Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) has returned to 1955 to settle things so that his present-time of 1985 will be fixed after a mishap. His companion, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd), accidentally ended up going back in time to the Old West in 1885. After sending a 70-year-old letter to Marty to be delivered at that particular point in time, Marty enlists the help of the 1955 equivalent of Doc Brown to restore the time-traveling DeLorean motorcar so that he can get back to the future. But Marty soon discovers that Doc is destined to be shot by a bandit, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), who of course is an ancestor of Marty’s bully in the other two films, Biff Tannen. So once the DeLorean is up and running, Marty decides to travel back in time to 1885 and rescue his friend before that happens.

Now in the Old West, Marty reunites with Doc, but runs into a problem—after a run-in with some Indians, the DeLorean’s fuel line is torn, and so without gasoline, Marty and Doc must come up with another way to bring the car up to 88mph in order for the “time-circuits” to operate and bring them back to the future. Their scheme includes pushing it with a freight train and hoping it bring it up to enough speed that it works. But there’s also another problem. Doc has fallen in love with a local schoolteacher, Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen). Upon meeting her, he is instantly attracted to her, and the feeling is mutual. The feeling is so much so that Doc sometimes forgets that he owes it to himself not to interfere with history again, even if it means going back to the future and leaving Clara behind. Marty has to be the one to talk some sense into him, for a change.

This element of “Back to the Future Part III” is the sweetest and most interesting of the film. Lloyd and Steenburgen are great together and exhibit convincing, appealing chemistry. It gives Lloyd a chance to show further dimensions in his character of intelligent Doc Brown, and Steenburgen’s Clara is not a one-dimensional floozy for Doc to fall for; she’s an odd, quirky woman who is able to capture Doc’s heart with no problem. She’s easy to like and even easier to fall for. This is the kind of performance I was hoping to receive from Steenburgen in a similar time-travel comedy/adventure, “Time After Time” with Malcolm McDowell.

Oh, and I forgot to mention Marty’s encounter with the big, bad bandit himself, “Mad Dog” Tannen. This encounter leads to Marty standing up to him when he threatens Doc and Clara, and Mad Dog challenging him to a shootout. (Although, instead of high noon, it’s high eight a.m.) Marty thinks this won’t happen, as he and Doc are expected to leave for home before that time. But of course, something has to go wrong, and Marty must ultimately face up to the jerk once and for all.

“Back to the Future Part III” is essentially a Western, and it’s an immensely entertaining one. Even if this Western world is more of a “movie-Western” than an “actual-Western,” it’s still enjoyable to see the standard stuff you usually see in Westerns. (You even see Pat Buttram as a regular in a bar.) It’s a fun Old West world that, much like “Back to the Future Part II”’s futuristic design, the production design for this Western town is impressive.

“Back to the Future Part III” concludes the “Back to the Future” trilogy, and ends on a satisfying note that pays off everything that was set up and is creative in its storytelling. It makes you want to rewatch the entire trilogy from the first film to the last to view the full experience as a whole itself.

And that’s just what I do with the entire “Back to the Future” trilogy. Yes, the first film is my favorite movie of all time, and the sequels are somewhat lesser in tone, but they are still fun to watch and I like them without comparing them to the original so much. They may not be as good, in that case, but they are still highly enjoyable, energetic romps.

Darkman (1990)

26 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sam Raimi’s “Darkman” is a rarity in the movies—a superhero story that didn’t used to be a comic book series at first. It feels like it could be a comic book series, or a graphic novel series, and has fun with its energetic story and appealing “origin story.” Every superhero requires an origin story—how the hero gained his or her powers or skill—and “Darkman” is a doozy from the start. It gets stranger as it goes along, but that’s what makes it so entertaining. It’s engaging from beginning to end.

“Darkman” opens with criminals making deals and killing off those who disappoint. One bad guy in particular has a weird habit of breaking (severing) his victim’s fingers and keeping them as trophies in a small case, like a jewelry box. Strange enough, but then we’re introduced to our protagonist—a scientist named Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) who is developing a new type of artificial skin to help burn victims. The experiment isn’t going very well, as the skin disintegrates after being exposed to light for 99 minutes.

We know that these two plot elements are going to come together soon enough. That they’re both equally strange story aspects keeps you curious about how they’ll be handled once the meat of the story kicks in.

Anyway, as dumb luck would have it, just as Peyton discovers that the best way the skin can stabilize if it stays in darkness (apparently, this synthetic skin is photosensitive), this is when his laboratory is invaded by mobsters who know he has an important document that proves that a real-estate developer is bribing members of the zoning commission (and wouldn’t you know it—Peyton’s girlfriend Julie, played by Frances McDormand, is an attorney who was responsible for the document).

Are you getting all of this? Are you still with me? If so, you’re a bright reader.

So the bad guys blow up Peyton’s lab and Peyton is horribly burned alive. He survives the tragic ordeal and escapes from the hospital, but his face and hands are horribly disfigured. Oh, and a lot of his nerves are severed, so he can’t feel pain. To exact revenge on the people who did this to him, he creates a new lab in a condemned building to make new masks. He makes one of his original face so he can be with Julie again, though not telling her of his condition. Other masks are created for his enemies—he can observe them and study them, and then use the masks to become them one-by-one, in order to thwart them. The problem is he has only 99 minutes with each mask.

This leads to some fun comic scenes in which Peyton keeps his cover while impersonating these people. And give credit to the actors for imitating Liam Neeson imitating them. In particular, there’s Larry Drake, who plays a mobster who catches Peyton in disguise. Playing against himself (if you will) is a challenge and it confuses us as well as the henchman who is trying to figure which one is which. (My favorite moment in the film is when they’re both held at gunpoint and one of them shouts, “Shoot him!” while the other shouts “Shoot him!”)

“Darkman” has fun with its creative storytelling and unique visual style—the kind that Raimi has specialized in the “Evil Dead” movies (particularly the second one, which had an appealingly bizarre visual taste). “Darkman” has that hazy, dim comic-book look resembling a dark Batman tale and goes about with neat, tricky shots of people or objects popping into the frame and out and intriguing camera angles that keep action scenes not only exciting but also comic. Nicely-handled special effects help as well.

Liam Neeson, as the conflicted hero Peyton, is solid. He makes an interesting individual to follow in this superhero tale and does great work at showing the lighter and darker sides of this person who has lost his looks, restored his intelligence, but also struggles with the feeling of revenge, whether or not he can control it. At one point, he’s on a date with Julie at a fair and gets angry for a simple thing such as a worker stiffing him from a prize, and his anger which comes from previous experience with his enemies, comes through in an effective way. Neeson is well-cast here, and so is Frances McDormand as Julie, who is consistently appealing and shares some good chemistry with the hero.

One major problem I have with “Darkman” is that Peyton never really becomes Darkman. It’s said at the beginning that Peyton’s masks are only stabilized in darkness, and yet he’s constantly using them in the daylight. This means that this never becomes a crucial point of the plot and so the film doesn’t have a clear motivation. Maybe “Darkman” should have begun right at the end, when Peyton realizes who and what he is.

But then again, now that I think about it, maybe I didn’t want “Darkman” to be so simple that Peyton would actually use his replicating inventions in the dark when it’d be easier. If he did that, we wouldn’t have a constant troublesome conflict of having to be rid of a mask after 99 minutes before he gets caught. And of course, this means “Darkman” wouldn’t be as much fun.

And that’s what “Darkman” is—fun. It’s an intriguing mix of superhero origin story and unique visuals. It’s its own creation for film, not based on a comic book, and it’s quite an effective thrill ride.

The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter (1990)

18 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Every once in a while, a family-adventure movie will be released and fail miserably because of its showing to “try” and make a family-adventure movie. If you’re confused by that statement, I’ll put it this way. A family-adventure movie should store a moral—the moral in this movie is taken the wrong way. A family-adventure movie should have amazing visuals—there will be no amazement. A family-adventure movie should have a young hero—the young hero is an idiot. What movie shares all of these traits? “The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter.”

This is the sequel to 1984’s popular fantasy-adventure movie “The Neverending Story,” which I admired for its compelling characters, interesting plot, and surprisingly-legitimate drama, as well as its amazing visual look and neat adventure elements. If you recall, the movie featured an imaginative young boy named Bastian who read a book called The Neverending Story and discovered that he will become the hero that will save a very real fantasy world called Fantasia from being consumed by nothingness. That movie was about ideas and had a subtle way of teaching young children to read.

The message is the same in its sequel, “The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter,” but it’s all over the map. How so? Because people stopped reading books, the library in town suddenly disappeared. That’s sort of convenient, in the way that the actor playing the mysterious librarian is the only actor returning for this sequel.

This time, the young hero Bastian is played by Jonathan Brandis. And here’s the movie’s first problem—he’s not very good in this movie. It’s a one-note performance that requires him to be cheerfully dim and a poorly-written character who is a terrible role model for kids. This kid is such an idiot. If you think I’m being too harsh, keep reading. Fantasia will thank you for it.

Bastian, while thrust into Fantasia to fight the Emptiness (the human form of lost ideas), has the power of a necklace called Auryn to wish for anything. What he doesn’t know is that the Emptiness has created a machine that will erase one of Bastian’s memories every time he makes a wish. And right there, you see the big character flaw—he doesn’t know that! There are many scenes in which his and his best friend Atreyu’s (Kenny Morrison) life is at stake and he doesn’t even think about making any wishes. And when he finally wishes for a weapon to fight the Emptiness’ silly-looking giant minions, what does he wish for? A spray can!

And why was this kid chosen to save Fantasia? Because the Childlike Empress (even more annoying and dim than Bastian) knows he’s the most imaginative kid in the world and is the one who can save this world that can’t survive without the pure imagination of human beings. Well, that was in the first movie. In this sequel, they picked the wrong kid.

By the way, the Emptiness is annoying too. This time, it’s in the form of a woman who wants to—you guessed it—destroy the world. But then, where would she and her minions go? Earth? What are they going to do there? I don’t know and also, I don’t care because this woman is as over-the-top as any other over-the-top villain or villainess in bad adventure movies.

Other characters are back too—Atreyu, Falkor the Luckdragon, and the Rockbiter (this time, accompanied by an annoying rock-son)—and they make some good company. But the hero is unappealing, the plot is uninteresting, the message is taken too literally, and there’s no wonder here. Fantasia just looks strange this time around. It makes me wonder what the filmmakers were thinking when they made “The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter.”

Home Alone (1990)

15 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Home Alone” is essentially based upon a kid’s fantasy of staying at home by himself without any adult supervision. Kids are fascinated by that special moment in their lives. The parents tell the kid to be careful and take responsibility; but let’s face it, when we were left alone for the first time, we raided the kitchen for junk food, watched violent R-rated movies, jumped on our parents’ bed, and went through our older brother’s secret stuff.

That’s what the young protagonist in this movie does when he’s left home alone in his suburban house in Chicago. His house is his own playground. But he isn’t left alone at his own will—he was accidentally left behind when his crowded family left for a Christmas trip to Paris. One morning, everyone in the McAllister house is rushing out of the house to make the plane that they forgot about the little eight-year-old named Kevin. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) is confused at first, but then he realizes the beauty of the situation. He goes crazy, running around and playing. This is intersected with a subplot involving the family as they realize the mistake they’ve made and the mother (well-played by Catherine O’Hara) tries to get home to her son. She goes from airport to airport to get from Paris back to Chicago.

But there’s a problem back at the house—in another subplot, two burglars named Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) have targeted the house for their next big hit. Kevin fools them numerous times to make them think he’s not the only one home. He should call the police, right? Well, the phones aren’t working because conveniently enough (actually, it’s a little too convenient) there was a storm the night before that trashed the phone lines. So he should go to a neighbor then, right? Well, the only neighbor that’s home at Christmastime is an old man who is described by Kevin’s older brother as a serial killer who kills people with his snow shovel.

So, of course, it’s up to Kevin to ultimately defend his house from the two bad guys and this brings us to the final half of the movie, in which Kevin sets up many booby traps around the house using many household objects—blowtorches, irons, paint cans, Micro Machines, and glass ornaments.

So you could say that “Home Alone” is inconsistent. With the touching family issues that follow when the family realizes they accidentally left Kevin alone, and the fun that a kid has when he’s left alone, there’s also a lot of slapstick humor, particularly in the final half when the burglars are breaking into the house and Kevin uses his traps to beat them up…badly. I would have to agree that it is inconsistent, but to be honest, I didn’t mind so much. The humor works for the most part, there are touching moments that work, and I thought the slapstick was just hilarious. I just love that this eight-year-old kid is able to take down these two men. But this is a plucky, resourceful kid—he stands up for himself, has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, and isn’t just running around screaming. And the traps are very inventive—how often does it happen when an iron comes crashing down when trying to turn on the light?

Macaulay Culkin turns in an excellent performance as Kevin. He’s resourceful, but he’s still a kid. He gets happy, sad, angry, whiny, and witty—Culkin shows great emotional range. He never takes a step wrong as a genuine child, and that’s because he is one. Catherine O’Hara plays her part of the mother wonderfully in scenes that are funny and touching. I love it when she just snaps at a Scranton airport clerk and says, “Even if I have to sell my soul to the devil himself, I am going to get home to my son.” As for Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, it’s just fun to watch them get their butts handed to them. They play caricatures, to be sure, but goofy enough to make us laugh.

Another touching performance comes from the most touching scene in the movie. The performance comes from Roberts Blossom, who plays the neighbor who was said to be a killer, and the scene is when he and Kevin meet in a church. It turns out he’s a kind old man who has great respect for family, but has gotten into an argument with his son some years ago and they haven’t been on speaking terms since. (He’s at the church to watch his granddaughter sing in the choir, even though his son forbids him to come.) This is why he’s reclusive and rarely talks to people. Kevin learns something about family values from him. He realizes that he does miss his family and would just like to spend Christmas with them.

“Home Alone” is a small treasure that is entertaining and well-meaning…once you get past the paint cans being hurled at your head. With a likable young hero, some goofy slapstick, and a real sense of family connection when all is said and done, “Home Alone” is a charming family comedy.

Misery (1990)

12 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Misery” is the film adaptation of the popular Stephen King novel that played to the obsessiveness of artists’ fans. Let’s imagine that you are very famous for your work—in this case, you’re an author—and you happen to be in a situation where you’re with someone who states is his “number-one fan.” Man, the phrase alone is creepy. “Number-one fan” indicates a real obsessiveness to you because of your work. You’re admittedly flattered for a while, until you realize just how much this obsessiveness goes for being a “number-one fan” and you realize that maybe you’d rather like to bid a polite farewell and continue on.

But in “Misery,” adapted to the screen by director Rob Reiner (his second Stephen King adaptation after the wonderful “Stand by Me”) and screenwriter William Goldman, the author Paul Sheldon can’t leave.

Paul (James Caan) is a successful author, whose series of novels centered around a popular character named Misery Chastain has garnered a great deal of recognition. But feeling that he’s had enough of writing these books, he has just finished a manuscript of a different novel, while up in the mountains. But just when he leaves, a blizzard hits and he is in a car accident that breaks both of his legs.

Paul wakes up in a bed in the remote home of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a seemingly kind and gentle nurse that nurtures Paul to health. She informs him that the roads are closed, that the phone lines are down, that she’s been nursing him for a couple of days while he was unconscious…and that she’s his “number-one fan.” Paul doesn’t really have a problem with this, since Annie has been nothing but kind to him and is flattered to hear her kind compliments toward his creativity.

But soon enough, just as Paul starts to get a little curious about how obsessive this woman is (she even has a pig named after Paul’s central character), Annie shows a dark side just as she realizes that Paul has killed off Misery in the final book. She turns from kind, gentle soul to shouting, crazed psychopath just like that. “You murdered my Misery!” she exclaims in anger. And just after that outburst, she lets Paul know in a matter-of-fact tone, “Don’t even think about anyone coming for you…because I never called them. Nobody knows you’re here. And you better pray nothing happens to me…because if I die, you die.”

As Paul realizes that his life is in the hands of a sure lunatic, and he can’t escape because of his broken legs, Annie forces Paul to burn his new manuscript and write a new Misery novel, bringing the character back to life and pleasing her. And he has to ease himself out of certain situations in order to keep Annie from going crazy…especially when something inevitably brutal starts to occur.

“Misery” is a tense thriller that plays well with this situation. The film has a good deal of chilling moments with this scenario, mostly having to do with Annie’s constant moving back-and-forth between personalities. She can be an angel at one point, and then a demon the next. But then she switches back again. This is what makes the performance of Kathy Bates so frightening. It’s not that Annie is a psycho-in-disguise (in fact, the shouting can go a bit over-the-top on certain occasions)—it’s the fact that anything can set her off. You never know when she’s going to do something mad, but you’re constantly on edge whenever she seems nice, because you just know that the transition is going to come again.

The film also gives us a character that could possibly be Paul’s rescuer, in a subplot involving the local sheriff named Buster (Richard Farnsworth), who believes there may something more going on here than the media can cause to believe. They think he’s dead; Buster has a different idea. Can he fit all the pieces of the puzzle together before it’s too late? Richard Farnsworth has a warm, friendly screen presence that makes him easy to like. Other supporting characters are Buster’s wife, nicely played by Frances Sternhagen), and Paul’s literary agent (Lauren Becall, in a credited “special appearance”). They all have their little moments.

But what it all comes down to in the acting department is the performances by Kathy Bates and James Caan, since the characters of Annie and Paul are the central conflicted characters. Bates’ role is undeniably tricky, as I’ve described, since her differing personalities switch to and fro—she owns it big time. But James Caan takes a role that is relatively simple—either being bed-ridden or in a wheelchair while reacting to his captor’s behavior. Caan doesn’t play it like that. He plays it even riskier—playing it brighter than you’d expect. This is a smart man who knows he has a lot to go through and relies on his limitations and wits in order to try and get himself out of this situation. Caan and Bates make a great acting duo.

“Misery” is also great as a work of craftsmanship. The cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld makes the whole film watchable, due to the focusing of little things in contrast to the big things. Every shot in this movie has purpose. Rob Reiner, as director, and William Goldsman, as screenwriter, bring about a certain element of personal gain from this story, which is pretty much all Stephen King, and it’s surprising to see exactly how much the two are able to capture and bring forth to the screen.

All of these elements and a good story help us to pay attention to “Misery” the whole way through. It’s involving, tense, sometimes gruesome (especially the film’s most horrific scene, in which Annie “hobbles” Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer to make sure he never escapes), and very well-acted and well-executed. “Misery” is an engaging thriller that works on almost every level.