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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

1 Nov

The Silence Of The Lambs 1

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The first time you see Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” always brings a shiver up my spine every time I watch the film. FBI trainee Clarice Starling has been asked to go to the prison where Lecter is being held, has heard about his sick nature, and has been warned not to approach the glass that separates his cell from the world. With much buildup given to her (and to us, as an audience), Clarice walks through the basement cells toward the last one on the left. When she arrives, there he is, standing in place and looking at her as if he were expecting her.

Hannibal Lecter is a psychotic serial killer who had been known to eat the remains of his victims. He was also a respected psychiatrist until his capture and imprisonment, and so whenever people like Clarice comes into his world, he delights in using his intelligence to play with their minds. That makes him one of the most interesting, fascinating villains to be found in any thriller.

“The Silence of the Lambs,” based on the novel by Thomas Harris, opens with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who is still in training at the FBI academy but is very bright and observant. Those characteristics and more convince the head of the FBI, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), to send her on a potentially dangerous mission—maybe not dangerous physically but possibly mentally. He wants her to visit the infamous Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and find out if he knows anything about a serial killer called Buffalo Bill, who skins his victims.

So, Clarice goes to the institution where he’s being held, and already, he’s enjoying himself by playing with her mind. He assumes immediately, and accurately, that she comes from a “white-trash” community and the FBI is her main escape. She responds by testing him, by seeing if he can use that same psychiatry on himself. His response is a line most often quoted from this movie:

“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” This is of course followed by the infamous sifting through his teeth (which was actually improvised by Hopkins).

Lecter does agree to offer a profile on Buffalo Bill, in exchange for quid pro quo. Clarice must reveal some things about herself, even traumatic events from her past, and then he in return will deliver a new piece of information about the killer. And so, he is having Clarice search within herself and playing with her psyche as each visit to Lecter reveals more and more.

Clarice is as tough as she can be during each situation such as this, and sometimes she even manages to play a mind game with Lecter as well, but there are times when she can’t help but react with frightened awe at Lecter’s interpretations. And we can’t either. The scenes involving Clarice and Lecter together are brilliant. They’re written intelligently and acted beautifully. Jodie Foster is quiet but attentive and very strong as Clarice, making her an appealing heroine to follow. Probably the best thing about her character visiting this intelligent, twisted killer is that because she is forced to reveal things about herself to this man, the character becomes multidimensional with each time they see each other. You understand where she came from, you know what led her to where she is in life, and you do feel like you do know her. Therefore, when she is put in real danger at the end of the film, during her ultimate encounter with Buffalo Bill, you root for her to get out of it.

And then there’s Anthony Hopkins, who is hands-down the most memorable aspect of “The Silence of the Lambs.” His performance in this film is nothing short of brilliant. He makes the role his own, making Lecter as frightening as he is smart and gracious. He’s the epitome of evil personified. It’s the performance that practically defines an actor’s career, and Hopkins’ chilling portrayal of Hannibal Lecter is always going to be remembered.

“The Silence of the Lambs” continues with Clarice as she joins the FBI in the pursuit of Buffalo Bill and it intersects with the subplot of Buffalo Bill, whose real name is Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), who is definitely not as sophisticated (or as clever) as Lecter. He’s a transvestite who is so intrigued by women that he’s even gone as far as to making a suit made out of women’s skin. He has already taken five victims, and in this film, he is holding his latest victim captive for days until he will finally kill her off and remove her skin as well. And so, there’s a race against time for the FBI to discover who the killer is and where he is so they can save the woman. I won’t go into the truly sick hobbies that this guy likes to perform when he’s alone, but I will say that it’s beyond disturbing. Granted, the scenes with Buffalo Bill aren’t as brilliantly written as the exchanges between Clarice and Lecter, but then again, what can be? This is a more traditional sick killer type, and I thought the contrast between him and the sophisticated Lecter is kind of interesting because you know there are different types of personalities for serial killers.

“The Silence of the Lambs” builds up to a climax in which Clarice does eventually find out who the killer is, and actually finds herself trapped in his house, and there’s a truly frightening sequence in which she is wandering through a dark room with her gun in hand and trying to find a way out, all while Buffalo Bill is watching her with night-vision goggles. That is a truly unnerving, suspenseful sequence. But if there’s a flaw in this climax, for me anyway, it’s that there’s no psychology involved. We don’t know much about the past of Jame Gumb, so there’s really nothing to discover that would pay off. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Clarice used something from his past against him to save herself and bring him down?

Another problem I had with the film is the imposing music score that indicates danger, mainly because I thought it was a little too much. I could already tell there was danger coming because of that score, so there weren’t that many surprises there. (Though, to be fair, most of the surprises that the music brings with them, I didn’t see coming.)

Something else to be said about “The Silence of the Lambs” is that it’s very well-made. Directed by Jonathan Demme and photographed by Tak Fujimoto, this film has a great look and a creepy atmosphere, along with a consistently creepy tone that is apparent throughout. In keeping with the spirit of the novel it was based on, the film is something unusual: a thriller that relies more on essence and sensibility than cheap thrills and blood and gore. It’s well-crafted (especially in the scenes involving Lecter and Clarice, with neat visual tricks thrown in to raise the tension) and smart and very skillful.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

21 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In 1984, we had “The Terminator,” a violent yet effective sci-fi/action thriller which featured Arnold Schwarzenegger as a killer cyborg from the future sent back in time to kill the mother of the future leader of America who will lead the human race in a fight against the machines that learned to overrule us and take over the world. That film was a huge hit critically and commercially so a sequel was expected. So, in 1991, there is “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” a sequel just as thrilling as the original and somewhat better, thanks to solid acting, excellent special effects, and gripping action sequences.

In “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the future is out to kill young John Connor again while he is still a child. The kid is ten years old (the movie is probably set in 1995) and separated from his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton), now confined in a mental institution because of her accurate warnings of a nuclear holocaust in 1997 which will follow in the machines ruling the world. Sarah was chased by the Terminator in the original film, when John wasn’t even born yet. Not even John believes his mother’s warnings.

But two Terminators have traveled back from the future—one to protect young John from the other. The twist here is that Schwarzenegger plays a good Terminator this time. He has been reprogrammed by John of the future to be the protector of John of the past. Out to kill the kid is a T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a Terminator even more advanced than Schwarzenegger.

The Terminator and John save Sarah from the mental hospital and together, they race to prevent the nuclear war from ever occurring and therefore will stop the machines from taking over. This is where tension really mounts and director/writer/producer James Cameron dares us to relax during all of this. There is a fresh father-and-son relationship between John and the Terminator—sometimes, John plays the father. He orders him not to kill people and the Terminator doesn’t. Amazingly enough, having this Terminator to not kill people works.

This movie is jam-packed with action sequences, all of them very impressive. The opening chase scene in which the T-1000 tries to run down the kid with a semi (the kid is on his dirt bike through the alleys of Los Angeles) is done skillfully. I know it’s a cheap move to show a kid in peril but the scene is so well-made that throughout the whole movie, we fear for this kid, well-played with convincing energy by Edward Furlong. There are many scenes like that; the stuntwork is impressive, the chase scene near the end is handled well, and the special effects are just plain excellent. You really have to see this movie to understand that this T-1000 is really one of the best movie villains in any action movie. Played by Robert Patrick, he just looks like an out-of-town tourist who took the bus instead of a taxi. But underneath that human body is liquid metal, which causes him to change shape. He becomes liquid to fit through small spaces, his arms transform into knives and stabbing weapons, and he is very hard to kill. Very impressive special effects here—you shoot him, it leaves a hole which closes back up; you slice him apart, he comes back together again; you blow him to pieces, the pieces form back together like mercury. No matter how many times you try to kill this thing, he is repaired and ready for more action.

The acting is strong here. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to find the right balance between humor and tension. His lack of emotions—he doesn’t understand why humans cry—make him an interesting case for an action hero. He plays it almost like a straight man in a human drama. I like how he reacts to the kid telling him how people talk. Then when the action occurs, Schwarzenegger is convincing as a heroic machine doing what he was programmed to do. Naturally, there must be a showdown between the Terminator and the T-1000. With these two machines squaring off against each other, Schwarzenegger still has that balance. He’s enjoyable to watch in this movie. Linda Hamilton has a strong presence as Sarah. She’s a strong action heroine to go along with Schwarzenegger’s lack of emotions and the kid’s energy. They become an unusual but effective family unit.

I can see a lot of money spent into this project, all of it put to good use. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is an extraordinary action movie, complete with actual character development, a splendid villain, spectacular visual effects, and well-executed action. 

L.A. Story (1991)

2 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve never been to Los Angeles, California. I’ve heard many things about it—some positive (lovely location, great beaches, movie stars) from those who vacationed there, and some negative (evil place, smog-filled land, snobby materialistic people, lot of traffic) who only hear rumors about it. But it does seem like there are a lot of things to pick on it for, and that’s exactly what Steve Martin does for his screenplay “L.A. Story.”

“L.A. Story” is a lighthearted romantic fantasy-comedy that stars Martin, who also wrote the script, as a man who lives in L.A. and learns to start small and work his way up to something big and better, if only he keeps an open mind. He first starts on his journey to find that special something when his car suddenly stops on the freeway and he finds himself near a magic giant electrical traffic warning billboard that actually talks to Martin through lettering and tells him that he can improve his life.

When we first meet Martin’s character—a weatherman named Harris K. Telemacher—he seems like he could use a change. He’s stuck doing the goofy weather reports that have little to do with actually stating the weather; he has a snobby girlfriend (Marilu Henner), who walks all over Telemacher and apparently will never open a car door for herself and always has Telemacher open it for her; and he finds himself in the midst of a lifestyle that many successful people follow, which is sitting in the sunshine and ordering cappuccinos (with lemon twists for some). So when he encounters this magical sign that gives him a riddle to solve about his life, he keeps an open mind and decides to see what’s in store for him.

For starters, there’s a ditzy Valley Girl named Sandee (Sarah Jessica Parker) who works at a clothing store and spells her name “SanDeE*.” She’s an incredibly bouncy, carefree, like-totally energetic chick who is a lot of fun to be around and she and Telemacher share an interesting, energetic relationship. But there’s someone else out there for him—an attractive British journalist named Sara (Victoria Tennant), who is in town to do a story on L.A. lifestyles. Telemacher believes she might be the right one for him. But the problem is, she’s already seeing someone.

But hey, when has that ever stopped anybody in a romantic comedy?

With the sweet, romantic stuff aside, there are a lot of big laughs to be had throughout “L.A. Story.” Most of them have to do with the exaggerated lifestyles of people in Los Angeles. Everything is so eccentric, you have to wonder when everything is going to stop. Highlights include—Telemacher driving his car to work on sidewalks and through backyards (as neighbors smile and wave as he passes); a magnet gone awry in Telemacher’s weatherman job; people acting casually during an earthquake, except for Sara who is unnerved by this occurrence; the snobby materialism of Telemacher’s ex-girlfriend; and Telemacher realizing that the first day of spring means it’s “open season” on the expressway, and loading a gun before bullets start flying early. There are plenty of jokes like that, most of them very funny stuff. Even in the romantic elements, there’s something to look to and laugh at—for example, when Telemacher and Sandee wander the streets at night, a robber with a gun politely says, “Hi, I’ll be your robber for the evening,” and Telemacher just gives him his wallet like that!

The only problem I have with “L.A. Story” is that most of this energetic comedy doesn’t quite mesh well with the “fantasy” aspects. It sometimes feels like we’re in two different movies, except of course for those occasions where we’re laughing at the billboard sign’s pieces of advice. The final act is when everything finally pays off, and luckily, when we really feel the mood that the movie is attempting to convey, and the Capra-esque ending is underway, the laughs come back and we’re satisfied.

Steve Martin is good as always—sharing a great gift of mixing comedy with sincerity. But he also displays real chemistry with Victoria Tennant, who is just lovely as Sara (I really shouldn’t be surprised since the two were married during production). The real pleasant surprise of the cast is Sarah Jessica Parker, who is simply hilarious and plays the Valley Girl down to a T.

“L.A. Story” has its inconsistencies, but it has enough material to make us smile and laugh. Martin proves again to be a game comic actor and writer, the romance is rather touching, and the screenplay contains plenty of jokes, most of which very funny. And there’s a lot of Los Angeles to take in from this movie. I hope to vacation there sometime.

Defending Your Life (1991)

29 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Everybody has their own visions of it, and Albert Brooks decides to share his vision in a film he wrote, directed, and starred in called “Defending Your Life,” a film with wonderful ideas about life after death.

Just imagine if you will. You just bought a new convertible and decide to give it a drive around the city. You listen to the radio and you’re just so happy. But then something drops on the floorboard of the passenger side and you bend down to pick it up while the vehicle is in motion. And then, as luck would have it, an oncoming bus hits you. Whoops. That’s funnily tragic, but then you wake up in Judgment City. That’s exactly what happens to Brooks’ lead character Daniel Miller in the first few minutes of “Defending Your Life.”

You see, apparently there is no heaven or hell (although there isn’t the decision that there isn’t a God). There is only Judgment City. And what a place it is. This city could just be heaven, though nobody wants to admit it. It makes you smarter the longer you stay there and it has the best-tasting foods you could imagine. And get this—apparently, you can eat as much as you want and never gain one ounce of weight. The restaurants are all-you-can-eat. Its one downside—a lackluster comedy club.

Well, there’s another downside. If you’re a Little Brain (which residents call those who have just died and came here), then you have to “defend your life.” It’s like being put on trial for your fears in life on Earth. It’s explained that because people use so little of their brains, their lives function mainly on fear. If the Judgment court has decided that you’ve conquered your fears, then you get to stay in Judgment City and become as smart as them. Otherwise, you’re sent back to Earth as a reincarnation to try again to get past fear.

Daniel has a defense attorney, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), who explains all of this to him. He is called into a room where Diamond defends against a tough prosecutor (Lee Grant), as we see flashbacks of Daniel’s life. The court uses these clips to show whether Daniel has fear or just dignity, and Daniel gets chances to explain himself.

This is an inventive premise and there are many delights in how it’s all played out. But “Defending Your Life” is also a love story. Daniel roams around the city and meets a wonderful, sweet woman named Julia, who has a smile and manner that only Meryl Streep can deliver. Indeed, Streep plays Julia and her romance with Daniel is beautifully handled. They have warm conversations and enjoy each other’s company—a very sweet romance.

The ending of “Defending Your Life” is dramatically satisfying with the right emotional payoff. “Defending Your Life” is a success in fantasy mixed with romance. It has an inventive premise that delivers on its product and just got more intriguing as it went along.

Hot Shots! (1991)

26 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Now here’s something strange—we have a parody film called “Hot Shots!” that mostly lampoons elements from a movie I didn’t like, which was “Top Gun,” and I liked this parody. Weird, how I’d prefer this ridiculous but often very funny film over the movie it borrows elements from, which had great-looking dogfights, but a boring human story. Maybe the filmmakers of “Hot Shots!” knew that some people felt that way, and made fun of that material and more. But whatever they did, it worked for me.

Charlie Sheen plays (and plays with) the Tom Cruise role in “Top Gun” for “Hot Shots!” and his poker face makes him right for the role of Topper Harley. Whenever people look at him, he just likes to show how tough he is by tightening his lip and keeping his eyes open. But when he isn’t trying to act tough, he’s just a macho buffoon, like he’s supposed to be in a film that is like films such as “Airplane,” “Naked Gun,” and not to mention “Top Secret.” These films are funny by giving us silly humor that makes us laugh rather than roll our eyes. In fact, some of the filmmakers of this film also made “Airplane” and the “Naked Gun” movies. You can’t stop yourself from laughing at a good joke and there are plenty in “Hot Shots!”—most notably, a scene in the beginning of the film in which Sheen, playing a young test pilot, passes by an attractive woman on horseback on his way to the air base and he copies her movements on his own motorcycle. That is truly hilarious and we would expect him to bump into a tree branch or fall off or run into that old comedy cliché of someone being distracted and then running into something, killing the infatuation. But he doesn’t and thank goodness he doesn’t—that joke of running into something while distracted is too old to be funny anymore.

Another good running gag is the vision of one of the test pilots, played by Jon Cryer—his vision is distorted by a bad case of “wall-eye.” He keeps missing something he reaches for.

That is all I wish to say about this movie, other than the fact that I laughed a lot during this movie. There are some parody scenes that aren’t that funny, but the funniest moments are when we’re caught by surprise. There are plenty of those moments in “Hot Shots!” We also get strong supporting, comedic work by Lloyd Bridges and Cary Elwes, not to mention as much work as we can get in a movie like this from beautiful Italian actress Valeria Golino as the love interest. But like I said, Charlie Sheen’s poker face will make you laugh.

Toy Soldiers (1991)

25 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How can I knock an action-thriller with good acting, great cinematography, intense action sequences, and an overall energetic, “go-for-it” spirit? “Toy Soldiers” has all of that. The action is well-staged, the acting is decent, the instrumental music score helps give the film its energy. But the main problem is that it’s utterly predictable and gives us nothing new. It’s the screenplay that really sinks “Toy Soldiers.” It’s as if a computer wrote this on a special sort of software that automatically creates screenplays—it’s written entirely in standard clichés.

Here’s the story. A Colombian terrorist’s drug-kingpin father is held by American government, and so he and his band of desperadoes, armed with dozens of explosives and weapons, take over a boarding school and make ransom demands. This boarding school is the home of the sons of some of the most powerful people in America—most of them are troublemakers. A small group of the students come up with a daring plan to outwit their captors.

Actually, the setup is interesting and the premise could make for a fun action movie, given the right talents in pre-production. But like “Red Dawn,” a film similar to this, the whole movie comes off as mechanical.

Everything feels familiar in “Toy Soldiers.” The kids’ joking-around in the opening scenes is mechanical, the authorities all act like they’ve seen countless other action movies and react the same way these sort of characters do, and the action feels like we’ve seen it all before in better movies. And do I even need to say who plays an army sergeant? No, because I already know you’re thinking of R. Lee Ermey.

The actors do their best, but even they’re let down by the script. And they are very talented actors. Louis Gossett, Jr. is the school dean who aids the FBI in a raid, Denholm Elliott is the kindly headmaster who tries to calm down the students (he even gives a history lesson in the quad, where they’re all being held), and as the kids, we have young actors Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton, and Keith Coogan, along with newcomers T.E. Russell, George Perez, and Shawn Phelan. The only character that’s interesting in this movie is the head terrorist Luis Cali, played by Andrew Divoff. Although to be fair, I think that’s because villains are usually the more interesting characters in action movies.

Being a screenwriter myself, I wish I could’ve gone back in time and wrote the entire script from scratch and handed in my own draft. I would have kept the actors, the director, and cinematographer. I just would have given crisper dialogue, added a little more satirical wit, and just gave the young heroes more to do. A good movie could have been made here. “Toy Soldiers” wasn’t it.

Hook (1991)

25 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” is the answer to the question, “What if Peter Pan grew up?” And who better than Spielberg to make it, since he specializes in fantasy and practically has the gift of eternal youth? And while there are some neat, interesting parts in “Hook,” Spielberg unfortunately relies on art direction and “whimsy” clichés to tell a compelling story. Half of the movie is good and half of it is…not.

The setup is the best part of the movie. It starts in modern-day America, as Peter Banning (Robin Williams) is a hard-edged lawyer and a workaholic father. He’s able to make time for his six-year-old daughter Maggie’s school play of “Peter Pan,” but misses his ten-year-old son Jack’s little-league baseball game. (He sends somebody to videotape the game.)

Peter takes his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall) and kids to London to visit Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith), who adopted Peter when he was an orphan child. The kids sleep in the same room where the original “Peter Pan” story took place. (Starting to see a connection here?) But that night, the kids are visited by one of Spielberg’s visual trademarks—the strange, blinding light and smoke outside the window. When Peter, Moira, and Granny Wendy go up to investigate, the children are gone, with a kidnap note left behind by the villainous pirate Captain James Hook. It’s then that Granny Wendy asks Peter, “Don’t you remember who you are?” She also says it’s time to return to Neverland.

Of course, Peter thinks Granny Wendy is loony and doesn’t realize that he is the real Peter Pan, grown up. But he gets a little more convincing from a visiting Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts, a little too kind to play the once-jealous fairy), who takes him to Neverland, which is still “second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.” (Didn’t make sense then, doesn’t make sense now.)

And so here we are at the magical Neverland, which looks…like an obvious movie set. The original Neverland was a secluded, bright, wonderful place. This Neverland is too cluttered to be magical. There’s too much thrown in here; the art direction is all over the place. It’s a disappointing, unconvincing “fantasy land.”

Anyway, we meet Hook (Dustin Hoffman), his sidekick Smee (Bob Hoskins), and his band of “scurvy” pirates. Hook demands a new war between the pirates and Peter Pan. But seeing as how Peter Pan has grown up and forgotten to fly, it seems pointless. He still keeps the children held prisoner, and so Peter must learn to get back to his original form.

Helping him get back into shape, if you will, are Tinker Bell and a band of playful, wild orphan children called the Lost Boys. And another problem here is that the child actors playing the Lost Boys don’t do very good jobs. They’re either slow on delivery or very flat. It makes the conflict in which Hook tries to make Peter’s kids love him so they’ll forget about their father look much more interesting. (And this subplot does have its moments, such as when Jack realizes that Hook is more of a father than his own father.)

What do I like about the movie? To begin with, I like most of the key actors. Robin Williams is believable as Peter Banning and strangely, equally credible when he’s playing Peter Pan (when he’s not completely obnoxious). Dustin Hoffman is a hoot as Hook. He chews the scenery and treats every one of his scenes with pleasure. He’s fun to watch. Bob Hoskins has a few funny moments as Smee, and Maggie Smith is sweet as Granny Wendy.

I love the setup to the story. It shows a great deal of promise. It’s nice to see the “Peter Pan” in-jokes that make “Hook” feel like a legitimate sequel to “Peter Pan.” And there are some neat little arrangements that I really enjoyed, such as Peter asking his son when he’s going to stop acting like a child. He is a child and Peter must become one to save him.

There were some really funny moments among the pirates, including a “scurvy” cameo by Glenn Close who is sent to a trunk full of scorpions as punishment for not agreeing with Hook.

What I didn’t like about the film, aside from the art direction, were the scenes of strained whimsy, such as when Peter’s daughter sing as schmaltzy little tune that Spielberg thinks is cute enough to be magical, when it’s really forced. Also, the moments in which Peter realizes his own true identity is hurt by many plot holes in Peter Pan’s back story—for example, if he went to Neverland as a baby so he’d never grow up, then why did he grow to be 12 years old?

The final climax is obligatory and leads to many false endings. I’m really tired of these false endings; they slow things down and don’t amount to much, other than just stalling so that the hero can have more chances to defeat the villain.

To tell the truth, it’s the final half of “Hook” that lets the movie down. The first half actually has its clever moments with an intriguing setup and a likeable feel, not to mention game performances by Williams and Hoffman. But “Hook” is much ado about nothing. Maybe if Spielberg actually made his own retelling of the original “Peter Pan” story, we’d have something better. But as it is, it’s ambitious, but cluttered.