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The People Under the Stairs (1991)

9 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For a movie director that mostly does horror films, Wes Craven seems like a smart person. His films are not necessarily masterpieces except to many horror fans, but you can see what he shoots for and you have admire him for that. He adds terror and suspense to artistry and imagination. That was the case for “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Serpent and the Rainbow”—“The People under the Stairs” is one of his more satisfying films, in my opinion. It’s a scary, well-acted horror movie with a good deal of imagination.

The main feature is a house full of gruesome surprises, ghoulish children in the basement, passageways in the walls, and a couple, only known as Man and Woman, that are psychotic, delusional, insane, grownup monsters. The people under the stairs in the basement, as the title refers to, are children that they stole as babies and punished very severely when they “heard too much, saw too much, or said too much.” They have stooped to cannibalism after being locked up downstairs for many years—they’re given flashlights to see their ways around and are given dead human meat—don’t laugh—to eat. But the people under the stairs are not the real monsters here—the Man and Woman are not to be messed around with. Anyone who breaks into the house or visits the house to look around (like police or salesmen) wind up murdered by the couple…and then eaten by the people under the stairs. There is no compromising with this couple—they will kill you mercilessly.

And what’s even scarier? They act like it’s their lives’ duty to “punish” people. After they murder mostly-innocent visitors, they say, “May they burn in hell.” They have their own insane delusions of religion and feel like they are supposed to act like this. Also, they have fun while doing this. The Man and Woman are jolly killers, if you can believe this. The Man, especially, is the one who yells at runaways trapped in the house, “Gonna kill yooouuu!!!” At one point, he dances around near the Woman and chants “I got him” multiple times, leaving the Woman to stand not amused and tell him in a firm, clear voice, “Prove it.”

Played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, the performances and personalities of the Man and Woman are so over-the-top that even when you shouldn’t, you laugh at certain moments. At the same time, you are frightened because of their behavior. They kill, they sic their bloodthirsty Rottweiler on those who are loose in the house, and they lock up and abuse their teenage daughter Alice (A.J. Langer) very severely, but not as bad as the people under the stairs. (Still, it’s pretty bad.) Alice is a terrified young girl who would like to get out of this house, away from this crazy couple. But nobody ever gets out of this house—the doors are all locked (the front door even gives an electric shock) and the windows are all unbreakable. Inside the house, there are many passageways from inside the walls that Alice’s friend Roach, one of the people under the stairs who has escaped the basement and is being hunted by the Man frequently. The house is like an amusement park haunted house with many surprises around every corner and secret ways to get through many areas.

The passageways come in handy for the young hero of the film—a thirteen-year-old Ghetto kid nicknamed “Fool” (Brandon Adams) who helps his older sister’s boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames) break into the house to retrieve a hidden gold coin collection to cover Fool’s family’s apartment rent (one little flaw with this plan is that the Man and the Woman are the landlords to begin with, but oh well). Leroy is killed by the couple and Fool is forced to fight for his life—he makes friends with Alice who gives him some help, he is chased by the Rottweiler, he is menaced by the people under the stairs, and does battle with the Man and Woman throughout the film. This kid has so many tricks up his sleeve in the way he outsmarts these evil adults that this could be an R-rated “Home Alone.” It is very violent and gruesome and frightening—this is not for small children. The R rating is well-deserved.

I mentioned that “The People under the Stairs” was one of Wes Craven’s most satisfying films, and it is impressive. The house is a fun house of horrors, Brandon Adams is a likable resourceful hero, Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are a frightening couple, A.J. Langer is suitably sweet and scared as Alice, and there are genuinely frightening moments. I was cheering for Fool all along, I wanted him to escape this madhouse, and this is quite odd because when you have a child in jeopardy, it seems like a cheap move for suspense. But with the craziness of the villains, it almost seems like all bets are off. It’s this bravery (and again, imagination with the story and sets) that earns “The People under the Stairs” a recommendation from me.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

31 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Beauty and the Beast” may just be the greatest animated movie I’ve seen. It’s certainly the finest I’ve seen, but it deserves a spot on any list of all-time great movies. I really think it’s that good. It’s a wonderfully told, great-looking, joyfully-animated movie that has the same magic as other great Disney animated features such as “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” and “The Little Mermaid,” but the movie may just be something more.

The “beauty” of the movie’s title is a beautiful young woman named Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara), who lives in a French provincial town where she is the oddball and everybody knows it. The locals can’t believe that a woman of her beauty keeps to herself, cares for her inventor father Maurice (Rex Everhart), is obsessed with books and stories, and wants “more than this provincial life,” as her opening song suggests. The town’s handsomest man—a narcissistic, buffoonish hunter named Gaston (Richard White)—believes he should have the town’s most beautiful girl and sets out to marry Belle, who is repelled by him.

Maurice goes on a journey through the mysterious forest nearby and loses his way, leading him to the dark castle of the Beast. The Beast is a monstrous, uncompassionate, half-man/half-wolf creature who takes Maurice as his prisoner. When Belle finds him, she begs to take his place. We already know the origins of the Beast, explained in opening narration over a series of pictures on stain-glass windows. The Beast was a handsome but horrid prince whose cruelty got him into trouble with a witch, who transformed him into the Beast and everyone living in the castle into household objects—the butler is now a candlestick and the maid is now a teapot, for example. The only way to reverse the spell if the Beast can love and be loved in return before a magic rose, held in the west wing of the castle, wilts away.

Belle and Beast start off unpleasantly. His attitude is hostile towards her and she finds life in the castle very dreary. But with help of the helpful live objects, they learn to accept one another. As their relationship develops further, so does their romance as they realize they start to love each other, despite their differences. But Gaston will not stand for it as he rallies the whole town to come to kill the Beast and take Belle back.

“Beauty and the Beast” provides a pair of memorable, three-dimensional characters to follow, making this romance into a wonderful tale. Belle is not like all the other Disney animated heroines, and hardly like any animated heroine as far as I’m concerned. She’s independent, bright, strong-willed, kind, free-spirited, and is beautiful but doesn’t flaunt it. She doesn’t care about how she looks and doesn’t share Gaston’s logic (or lack of logic) that beautiful people should be together. All the other women in this movie are dim-witted and constantly swooning over men. Belle just keeps her nose in the books and doesn’t bat an eye when confused passersby notice her as the odd one in the neighborhood. When Gaston comes on to her, she turns him down, not taking any of his bull. And when she sees the Beast, she’s admittedly frightened of his appearance, but lets down her defense and sees the Beast for whom he could be, and who she could help make him to be. Belle is a perfect leading character for this story, and the animators do great jobs at creating her facial expressions—happiness, sadness, fear, anger, skepticism, and concern.

Now the Beast—there’s something monstrous and frightening about his giant stature, long brown fur, giant fanged teeth, beast-like walk, and deep roaring voice, but there can also be something worth caring for. The Beast learns he can genuinely love and even makes his own sacrifice to show his true nature and win Belle’s heart.

The supporting characters are memorable—every single one of them. The father Maurice is enjoyable in how curious he is about everything (his reactions to the enchantments of the castle are winning). The household objects that have personalities really take advantage of their screen time. There’s a candlestick named Lumiere (Jerry Orbach) who has a sophisticated manner and a welcoming personality (although I have to ask—why is he the only one in this movie with a French accent?); a clock named Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers) who has a nervous, uptight personality and likes to keep things in control; a kindly teapot named Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury); Mrs. Potts’ young son Chip (Bradley Pierce), now a little teacup; and a footrest that acts as the castle’s dog. All of these characters deliver many wonderful moments, including an exciting musical number called “Be Our Guest” in which they make Belle feel right at home.

Then there’s the villain Gaston—I love this guy. His idea of logic just cracks me up with laughter. He doesn’t know he’s being ridiculous in thinking that since Belle is the most beautiful woman in town, he should marry her. Everyone else in that town thinks the same way, and besides, he’s the town hero. He could be the lead character of another movie—he’s charming, good-looking, and heroic. But here, he doesn’t get his way and the more he resorts to, the more of a beast he becomes, leading to a necessary line delivered by Belle about the Beast—“He’s no monster, Gaston—you are!”

The voiceover work is perfect. Paige O’Hara gives likeability and personality to Belle; Richard White is deliciously despicable as Gaston; Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Angela Lansbury are all fantastic; and then there’s the actor voicing the Beast—if you told me Robby Benson, the wimpy, wispy actor from films such as “One on One,” provided the voice for the Beast, I wouldn’t have believed it. In fact, I didn’t even know that it was Robby Benson until I saw the credits. And to be honest, he’s excellent in this movie!

Now that I’ve talked about the memorable characters, I should get to an important topic—the animation. This is some of the best looking animation I’ve seen in a movie. It’s amazing that the animators pay attention to every detail. There’s a great, polished look to the film that helps make it inviting. The settings are drawn perfectly, especially the castle which looks unbelievably amazing. There’s a neat gothic exterior that looks like something out of the best haunted-house movies—it’s just incredible. And I should also point out a central sequence in which Belle and Beast dance in the ballroom—using computer-generated backgrounds with hand-drawn characters, there’s an extraordinary shot that works as a crane shot, moving all over the room as the two dance. It’s moments like this that make this look as real as live-action.

Then there are the songs/musical numbers—music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, both of whom worked on the music for “The Little Mermaid.” These are some of the best, most memorable songs in any Disney movie, and the production numbers are well-drawn, well-timed, and outstanding. There’s the opening number “Belle,” the villain’s theme “Gaston,” the joyous “Be Our Guest,” the observant, lighthearted song “Something There,” and the lovely, slow, noteworthy title ballad “Beauty and the Beast.”

It’s hard to resist loving “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s a perfect mix of characters, romance, music, enchantment, and animation. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this movie—kids will love its energy and spirit; adults will get even more from it. It’s a great family film that provides great entertainment.

Point Break (1991)

30 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A young FBI hotshot is on the investigation of a series of bank robberies, in which the robbers wear rubber masks that resemble the Ex-Presidents of the United States (Reagan, Nixon, Johnson, and Carter, not in that order of course). He believes that they might be surfers because one of the robbers has a tan line. So he goes undercover as a budding surfer and falls in with a group of adrenaline junkies who may turn out to be the robbers he’s after.

When you hear the plot for “Point Break,” you’d probably think of it as a spoof of action movies, but you’d be wrong. The movie is taken as seriously as it could be taken, and it’s an effective thriller with a theme of self-discovery and some breathtaking action sequences.

Keanu Reeves is the hero Johnny Utah. He’s a former Rose Bowl star with a bum knee. Now, he’s an FBI agent assigned in Los Angeles to get on the case of the Ex-Presidents’ robberies. The robbers leave no clues behind, but Johnny’s partner Pappas (Gary Busey) notices a tan line on one of the robbers when he watches a surveillance tape of a robbery. Also, a strand of hair is found and after analyzing it, Pappas observes that the strand was polluted with the same hair gel sold on a popular surfing beach. He states, “The Ex-Presidents are surfers!”

So, Johnny goes undercover and learns how to surf in order to get closer to anyone who seems interesting. That’s when he meets Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), the most extreme of his pack of surfers. Johnny also falls in love with Bodhi’s ex-girlfriend (Lori Petty). It becomes clear that they rob banks to support their surfing. Bodhi puts Johnny under his spell and explains to him why surfing and other extreme activities are so important to him. He also explains how he would like to die—by riding a wave driven by a winter storm.

Here we have a tale of a young cop who falls in with a different crowd than who he would usually hang out with. He starts to like his second life of fun and danger. It’s a great seduction story. But also in this movie is a lot of action. We get a footchase all over Santa Monica (through backyards, living rooms, and alleys) and two skydiving sequences. One sequence shows tension in which Johnny’s cover is blown and Bodhi packs his chute. The other is a great action scene in which Johnny becomes so mad he jumps out of a plane without a parachute, grabs onto a person who has one, and puts a gun to his head, threatening him to pull the chute.

Director Kathryn Bigelow is an interesting director for this material. It’s amazing how she directs these action sequences, but even more amazing how she puts the characters in them as realistically as humanly possible. We get to know these characters in the midst of the action. “Point Break” isn’t just a movie about cops and robbers. It’s simply a movie about a young cop who is seduced by a new lifestyle and questions his own values while trying to catch a possible robber.

It all leads down to the big ending in which everything that has been shown before has become meaningful and effective. I will not give it away, but I will say that “Point Break” does not end at the point where you would expect it to.