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My Favorite Movies – Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

15 Sep

By Tanner Smith

There are three Batman movies in particular that I hold in such high regard–and they’re all very different in style and tone, but neither of them is any less entertaining or powerful or thought-provoking. I love Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I love Tim Burton’s Batman, and I love Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which I’m going to talk about now.

I didn’t watch “Batman: The Animated Series” as a kid–I was in college when I watched the first season on DVD and I was enthralled by the gritty atmosphere and adult themes and complex ideas that made for the very best episodes. To my pleasant surprise, this was not just a show for kids–in fact, I’d even say it treated kids as if they were adults. And my first time watching the cinematic spinoff, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” which I had bought soon after watching my first episodes of the show, was like watching a fully-realized three-part episode crafted by the show’s best writers (and a bigger budget as well).

There’s a reason “Mask of the Phantasm” has grown a following over time and is even hailed by some as THE best Batman movie of all time: because it is really freaking good.

It was so good that when Siskel and Ebert missed seeing it in theaters, they dedicated a spot to it on a much later show, after they had finally caught it on laserdisc. They thought it was so good that it was worth talking about regardless. Better late than never. I agree with their review, except for one major point: Mark Hamill as The Joker. “I don’t like this Joker’s voice,” Siskel admitted.

I disagree–I always thought Mark Hamill was one of the best Jokers in Batman entertainment. As a maniacal clown, he was both twisted and funny at the same time; he’s like Pennywise fully realized. And I like him in this movie too, especially in his final moments where he’s at his craziest.

So what is it about “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” that everyone including myself loves? Well, for one thing, it’s short (77 minutes, including credits)–that means every single frame of animation counts. Nothing in the story is wasted.

Speaking of which, the story is great. It delves more into Bruce Wayne’s past and how he could’ve had a normal life with the right woman before becoming Batman. It also gives us a compelling mystery with another masked vigilante who is mistaken for Batman, whose name is now sullied as a killer. The more we learn, the more interesting the mystery becomes. (Also, if you look up who does the voice for the Phantasm, it leaves a pretty good clue as to who’s behind it all.)

And yeah, people die in this PG-rated action-thriller–the sight of a smiling corpse (one of Joker’s victims) that the Phantasm finds always gives me a jolt each time I see it! If I had seen that as a kid, WHOA!

My favorite scene: a flashback scene in which Bruce Wayne ultimately becomes Batman and dons the infamous mask. Alfred reacts, “My God!” The music, the shadows, the sheer delivery of that one line from a man who’s raised Bruce all his life and now seeing him become a terrifying figure–it’s all so great!

I’m glad I caught this movie when I did. And I’ll talk about “The Dark Knight” and “Batman” at some point in the future too.

My Favorite Movies – Last Action Hero (1993)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

To quote the Honest Trailer of “Batman Forever,” “Yep, this is definitely the worst movie I’ve seen 40 times.”

Let me be clear–there is SO MUCH about “Last Action Hero” that doesn’t make sense. Like, AT ALL.

And everything that just about every critic has said about it…they’re right. It is a huge mess.

But damn it if it isn’t an interesting, fun, and amusing…huge mess. I can’t even take back my mixed review I posted for it here long ago.

But, dude…Schwarzenegger…the meta humor…the cool stunts…the fun premise…the Hamlet sequence…Charles Dance and his glass eye…that awesome-as-hell moment where Schwarzenegger busts through the skylight between two gunned henchmen and causes them to shoot each other…Tom Noonan as a caveman-like axe murderer…Ian McKellen as Death–THERE’S SO MUCH ABOUT THIS MOVIE TO LIKE!!!

“Last Action Hero,” directed by John McTiernan of “Die Hard” and “Predator” fame, is a heavily ambitious movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie movie about a young boy who is a huge fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and magically finds himself transported inside of one. I first saw this movie as a kid, and that idea alone was what got my interest to begin with.

The kid, named Danny (played with convincing pluck and energy by Austin O’Brien), has an opportunity to see an exclusive sneak preview of the latest in a series of Schwarzenegger films called Jack Slater (in which Schwarzenegger plays the titular LA cop). It’s “Jack Slater IV,” in which Slater is out to avenge the mob murder of his “second cousin” (played by the late Art Carney)–I love that he’s always referred to as his “second cousin,” because action-movie motivations always have to be “personal” in some way. (Btw, I guess he really didn’t mean that much to Slater because he isn’t even mentioned again after the first reel!)

Danny is friends with an old-school projectionist (Robert Prosky) who gives him the opportunity to see the movie late at night while he checks the print. For a gag, he gives him a golden ticket he claims to be “magic.” But soon after the movie begins, the ticket’s magic works all too well, transporting young Danny right into the middle of a chase scene in the streets of LA, where he suddenly appears in the back seat of Slater’s car. This chase scene is a lot of fun and the kid actually makes a good comic foil (and audience stand-in) for all the madness happening all around him, such as the car hurling off a bridge and going upward from an aqueduct.

In the greatest of action-buddy-movie contrivances, Slater’s captain Dekker (Frank McRae) lets Danny be his new partner on the case, since he knows more about it (from watching the movie’s prologue on-screen). This is all while Danny is trying to convince Slater that this is all a movie and he is played by a famous action star named Arnold Schwarzenegger. One of my favorite bits is when they visit a video store where Danny tries to prove it, and he’s shocked to find that Sylvester Stallone is the star of “Terminator 2!”

What about the fact that LA is filled with gorgeous buxom women? “This is California,” Slater retorts. And what about the fact that about over 9 million people live in LA alone, despite everyone having a 555 telephone number? “That’s why we have area codes.” Man, I love that!

The bad guy in the movie is supposed to be Italian mobster Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn), but the one who truly takes center stage is his supposed henchman (er, “lackey”), the sophisticated straightshooter Benedict (Charles Dance), who sports a glass eye. When he gets hold of the kid’s magic ticket is when Danny has to bring Slater into the real world to find him–but this isn’t like the movies (though it’s close enough, I guess). This is where the movie starts to drag, but there are still some interesting ideas here or there.

Oh, but before that happens, we get a thrilling sequence in which Slater and Danny have to infiltrate a mobster’s funeral to dispose of a body that is set to detonate nerve gas. This includes a lot of madness involving a crane that the little kid has to learn quickly how to operate while Slater has to dodge bullets from the guns of just about EVERY GUEST AT THE FUNERAL–but it’s a movie, so the odds are in the heroes’ favor.

Look, I’m not going to lie–this movie’s nuts, man. I didn’t even mention the fact that there’s a cartoon cat in a trenchcoat walking around Slater’s police station like he’s a normal member of the force. Is the cat a character in “Jack Slater IV??” I don’t know what the deal is, but…where was I going with this?

Maybe I just love the spirit of the movie. And the self parody of the action-movie genre. And the ingenuity of the screenplay (co-written by Shane Black).

Or maybe I just love it ’cause it’s fun. Let’s go with that.

My Favorite Movies – Groundhog Day (1993)

7 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I’m sure many of us who live near Kansas City, Missouri (such as myself) wish we could relive February 2, 2020 (the day the KC Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV) again and again…because due to the pandemic, it felt like we WERE living the same day again and again!

The time-loop story angle had been used before but not to this mainstream-comedy scale. The cleverly droll and also heartfelt writing from the late Harold Ramis (who also directed the film) resulted in a screenplay that was so good that of course the Oscars had to ignore it for Best Original Screenplay.

If I may quote Roger Ebert, who gave it three stars initially but then went on to include it in his Great Movies collection, “‘Groundhog Day’ is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable. It unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is.”

Do I even need to go on after that?

We all know how great “Groundhog Day” is, and I certainly know it too–I first watched it as a teen and loved how creative it was, I studied it in a screenwriting workshop, and it’s yet another example of my favorite type of subgenre: the “dramedy.” There are many parts that are funny and other parts that get me right in the feels, and they all feel like they’re part of the same movie.

Bill Murray is great at playing a jerk, but his role as jerko TV weatherman Phil Conners is probably Murray’s most difficult role to date. It’s also his most accomplished, as we go from hating this guy to laughing at him to empathizing with him and then finally to feeling happy for him. He has to repeat this horribly uneventful, mundane day over and over and over AND OVER again (according to Google, Phil endures the loop for over eight years)–Murray has to sell all the various stages of coping with such a strange and aggravating phenomena, especially when there’s no one he can share it with. That makes it all the more funny when he uses this ability to seduce women. But it’s also all the more heartwarming when he realizes that when he tries to copy something that was genuinely romantic before, it just doesn’t work again.

What’s even more interesting about this role is that Phil doesn’t become a different person–but he does become a better one.

Best Murray performances in my opinion: 3) “St. Vincent,” 2) “Lost in Translation,” 1) “Groundhog Day.” (“Broken Flowers” is a good #4.)

The time-loop concept has been used in other movies since–some to very good effect, like “Source Code,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” the “Happy Death Day” movies, and especially “Palm Springs” (the best of the “Groundhog Day” influences). But there is only one “Groundhog Day.” It’s a wonderful masterpiece for both Harold Ramis and for Bill Murray.

My Favorite Movies – Matinee (1993)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

I’m just going to start this one with my favorite scene from “Matinee,” because it’s one of my absolute personal favorite movie scenes, no doubt about it.

Our young protagonist Gene (Simon Fenton) is given the opportunity to help one of his idols, schlock-meister Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), prepare for the big premiere of his new horror film “MANT!,” about a man who becomes a giant ant. Woolsey gives the kid sound advice about the benefit of watching a scary movie: keep your eyes open during the scariest scenes and you can walk out of the theater feeling happy to be alive. He then tells a story about why he makes monster movies, using a parallel story of a caveman who barely escapes a mammoth attack, draws the mammoth on the cave wall and then makes it look scarier to show to his cave friends. “Boom! The first monster movie,” Woolsey explains.

This is then followed by a POV shot through a movie theater lobby, as we hear Woolsey’s dialogue: “The guy tears your ticket in half; it’s too late to turn back now. The water fountain’s all booby-trapped and ready, the stuff laid out on the candy counter, and then you come over here to where it’s dark–there could be anything in there. And then you say… Here I am! What have you got for me?”

I’ve always loved this scene…. Watching it now, in a time when theaters face uncertain futures, it’s kind of bittersweet too.

Joe Dante’s “Matinee” takes place in Key West, Florida in 1962–a time when everyone feared nuclear attack from Cuba (and Key West is only 90 miles away from Cuba!). Well, monster master Lawrence Woolsey sees this as the perfect opportunity to showcase his new horror movie (people are already scared; this will add to it, his logic says)! His previous film was about a psychotic hypnotist named Dr. Diablo–I would’ve loved to see that fake movie! (“They hypnotized you [in the theater]?” someone asks Gene, a big-time horror-movie buff. “I don’t know,” Gene says. “They guaranteed you wouldn’t remember.”)

Gene is a Navy brat whose father is one of the blockade ships outside of Cuba. That scares his mother (Lucinda Jenney) and his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee), who is already a nervous wreck because Gene keeps taking him to see scary movies. A monster-movie matinee may be the perfect distraction.

There are other characters in the mix, like a paranoid theater manager (Robert Picardo) who has a fallout shelter in the theater basement, Gene’s new friend Stan (Omri Katz) who asks out the pretty girl in school Sherry (Kellie Martin), a rebellious would-be radical (Lisa Jakub) whom Gene takes a liking to, the resident bad boy Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire) who doesn’t like that Stan is moving in on his ex-girlfriend (Sherry), and many other colorful characters that it’s hard to keep track of them all! Somehow, all of these story elements and characters come together in a brilliant final act in which Murphy’s Law takes effect on this “MANT!” premiere.

And I love it! The brilliantly clever screenplay by Charlie Haas brings all these characters and all these subplots together seamlessly, which makes the last half-hour or so of “Matinee” all the more entertaining. And I always love revisiting it.

I loved “Matinee” as a kid and I still love it as an adult.

My Favorite Movies – The Sandlot (1993)

17 May

By Tanner Smith

“The Sandlot” is a movie that I’m sure someone will start a fight about if someone else says it’s not an American classic. And I’ll back the first person up.

I’m going to be totally honest here–when I was a little kid, watching this movie about kids playing baseball was more fun to me than actually playing Little League baseball. (I mean, I like baseball–it’s America’s pastime. I just was never any good at playing it.) So why did this movie speak to me back then and why does it still speak to me now?

The simple answer is because of the kids.

These young actors are GREAT together. The way they pal around, trade insults, go on misadventures, and of course play ball together–you just feel like this is a gang of friends just having a great time. What especially makes it work is that they behave like real kids. When you have a film that looks back on childhood memories, it’s so easy to turn the children into idealized versions of themselves where fun little moments are suddenly overly whimsical, making for a certain unidentifiable nostalgia. (I know that’s how it was done in “A Christmas Story,” but that’s part of what made that film so funny.)

You can identify with Smalls, Benny, Ham, Squints, Yeah-Yeah, Denunez, Bertram, Timmy, and Tommy (you’re damn right I remember all their names!!) because they feel like real kids–not romanticized, angelic memories of BEING a kid.

That’s why this film is as cherished and beloved as it is (even by MLB members–the 25th anniversary reunion was even held at Yankee Stadium!)…and then of course, there are all these quotable lines:

“You play ball like a GIRL!!!”*
“You think too much–bet you get straight A’s and shit, huh?”
“L-7 weenie!”
And of course, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!”

I also credit this movie for the reason I never once tried chewing tobacco.

Here’s a random piece of trivia: in the original screenplay, titled “The Sandlot Kids,” the reason Benny invited Smalls to play on the sandlot was because he thought his stepfather abused him–Benny witnessed the two playing catch and saw Smalls get hit in the eye and jumped to the wrong conclusion. No wonder Benny risked his life to get the stepdad’s ball back–he thought he’d kill Smalls otherwise!! Pretty dark, eh?

My favorite scene: the series of events in which the kids try to get the Babe Ruth autographed ball back from the yard guarded by The Beast and they try all kinds of harebrained schemes. I just love that THIS is the conflict for the back half of the movie and not some big game they have to prepare for.

There’s only ONE baseball game played throughout the entire movie, and that’s over and done with in just a few minutes! I love that. The rest of the baseball-playing is just them practicing and scrimmaging just for love of the game, which is ultimately refreshing.

*That’s the one funny moment in the otherwise deplorable “The Sandlot 2,” when they throw that line back at the sandlot kids, one of whom is a girl who exclaims, “Ex-CUSE me?!”

American Heart (1993)

18 Sep

AMERICAN HEART, Edward Furlong, Jeff Bridges, 1993

AMERICAN HEART, Edward Furlong, Jeff Bridges, 1993

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In the mid-1980s, director Martin Bell made the Academy Award nominated documentary Streetwise, which followed the lives of several homeless children in Seattle. One of its subjects was a 16-year-old hustler named Dewayne, whose father was incarcerated for robbery. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Dewayne visits his father in prison and his father assures him that some day, they’ll be a family and go into business together after they’ve cleaned themselves up. And the most tragic moment of the film is when it’s revealed at the end that Dewayne committed suicide just before his 17th birthday.

“American Heart,” Bell’s 1993 fictional film based on this relationship and other aspects documented in “Streetwise,” contains the same spirit of grittiness and honesty. As a result, it’s a well-acted, well-written drama about the universal problems poor people face in the inner city.

Jeff Bridges stars as Jack, an ex-con just released from jail and trying to get his life back on track. Edward Furlong is Nick, Jack’s teenage son who has been staying at his aunt’s farm most of his life. Nick tracks Jack down and wants to stay with him, but Jack tries to send him back, with no avail. Realizing he’s stuck with the kid, Jack tries to make the best of it while also getting a job and making a living without resorting to old habits. He’s not a very good role model and the father-son relationship is edgy. As days pass, they find ways to connect, but problems arise as well, leading to trouble.

Meanwhile, there are three subplots. But each one connects to the main plot (as the best subplots do) in an effective way and they’re all well-done. One involves a relationship between Jack and Charlotte (Lucinda Jinney), a female cab driver Jack corresponded with while in prison. It’s sweet, funny, well-acted, and well-written, especially considering the undercurrents Charlotte adds to Jack and Nick’s relationship, which is already strained. Nick isn’t sure how to feel about Charlotte being there, since Jack is spending more time with her than with him. Another subplot involves Nick falling in with a crowd of streetwise kids and, among them, gets a girlfriend of his own: Molly (Tracey Kapisky), whose mother works as a stripper. The problem here is that Molly helps bring Nick down to her friends’ world of crime and debauchery. But Nick is in love with her and doesn’t care what happens to him. And it’s here where Jack must become a better father to his son. And then there’s Rainey (Don Harvey), who used to work big scores with Jack before he was imprisoned. Jack wants nothing to do with him anymore, but then Rainey goes after Nick, who can’t quite resist what he could get away with.

Jeff Bridges is perfect as Jack. This is honestly one of the best performances this great actor has ever pulled off in a long, successful career. I don’t see Jeff Bridges playing a part; I see a rugged, shaggy, burned-out man who feels hopeless and is constantly trying to get his life together while also keeping track of his son who he hasn’t seen in years. Edward Furlong is just as convincing as Nick, bringing a good sense of yearning and solemnity to the role of a kid seeking a bond with his father.

The script is very well-done. There are some effective lighthearted moments amidst the dark material of the film; the dialogue is perfect; and the back half doesn’t allow the easy way out, in which everything goes right. Not everything does turn out right. That’s life—life’s tough, get a helmet. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

Overall, “American Heart” is a terrific film. The performances are great, the script is fantastic, and the issues are as prominent now as they were in the early-1990s, when the film was made.

Demolition Man (1993)

25 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yes, you read that Verdict right—three-and-a-half stars for “Demolition Man,” the 1993 Stallone/Snipes shoot-em-up/satire that asks the question…how do the three seashells work?

It’s probably the highest rating this movie will get from a critic, but read on.

“Demolition Man” was released in a time where our action films weren’t always about ideas or complex characters (if you think about it, we have plenty of those today; some damn good ones)—they were mostly about iconic figures like Schwarzenegger, Willis, Van Damme, and of course, Stallone shooting stuff up, kicking ass, and taking names. Only a few titles snuck under the radar as films that may have been ahead of their time in terms of story but made up for with the same amount of intense action everyone in the ‘80s and ‘90s was accustomed to. These are films that have some sort of symbolic theme underneath all the violence, such as “Aliens” (holding on to what’s left of being a fighter and (if you’ve seen the director’s cut) even a parent) and “RoboCop” (holding on to what’s left on one’s humanity before being totally under control). And then you have “Demolition Man,” which begins in the 1990s before taking its main story to the 2030s. This was the early ‘90s’ way of predicting what a potential future would be like if America suddenly became politically correct. It’s like if Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, “Brave New World,” starred Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes.

And speaking of which, Stallone plays a rogue LA cop named John Spartan, who, in a brief prologue in 1996, has finally tracked down Simon Phoenix (Snipes, chewing scenery like Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice), the criminal he’s been hunting for a long time. But in capturing him, his actions result in the destruction of a building where Phoenix’s hostages were stored, thus resulting in him serving a 70-year sentence frozen in stasis on a manslaughter charge, while Phoenix serves a life sentence.

Cut to the year 2032, where the city is now the pseudo-utopian San Angeles after a big earthquake caused the merging of LA, San Diego, and Santa Barbara. The city is under the guidance and control of Dr. Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne). Crime is now gone, weapons are taken away, citizens have transmitters in their hands, vices are outlawed, and even the slightest use of profanity costs a fine. This is why when Phoenix is thawed and awakened in this pacifistic world for a parole hearing from which he escapes, the San Angeles Police Department don’t know how to handle his violent behavior. (By the way, I love this line from Rob Schneider as a nervous cop: “We’re police officers—we’re not trained to handle this kind of violence!”)

They say it takes a maniac to stop a maniac. Luckily, Lt. Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), who collects all ‘90s memorabilia (even in her office), knows what can be done to stop Phoenix, having studied John Spartan’s unorthodox cop behavior. So, Spartan is reanimated, the race is on to stop Phoenix from carrying out whatever dastardly scheme he has in mind, and in the meantime, Spartan constantly tries to adapt to this new world where his methods are even more unusual now than they were before he was imprisoned.

As Spartan and Huxley continue the chase, they learn more about a group of rebels who live underground and don’t agree with Cocteau’s fascist ways. They have their own society in the sewer system, where they store all things prohibited from the surface, such as alcohol and meat (though since there are no cows, the meat is from…rats). And it becomes clearer that the overly evangelistic Cocteau, who arranged for Phoenix to escape in the first place (apparently frozen prisoners can be programed certain knowledge during rehabilitation), wants to obliterate the rebel leader (Denis Leary) so that the rebel group will fall and his city will be 100% peaceful. Even Phoenix agrees Cocteau is more of “an evil Mr. Rogers” than a saintly king.

The film certainly has a sharp satirical edge, establishing a society where violence is purged. People speak in overly polite manners, physical greetings (such as handshakes, high-fives, even kisses) are no more, sex is electronic and not the least bit physical (and pregnancy is apparently forbidden unless you have a “license”), and yes, instead of toilet paper, there are three seashells used to…clean one’s self. (Though, seriously, how are they used? That’s never explained.) There are a lot of funny lines thrown in the mix of numerous touches that make up this futuristic society; so many that I’m not sure I can name them all since they’re so clever and more. There’s also a nice running gag about how Huxley is so determined to be as rogue as Spartan that she constantly tries to come up with catchphrases that suit ‘90s-action-film needs but just can’t pull them off.

But even with that, the film is still a ‘90s shoot-em-up action flick—heavy on intense action, violence, wisecracks from our hero and villain, explosions, etc. It’s all pretty standard stuff and for the most part, setting its central focus in 21st-century totalitarian civilization doesn’t change much of it, no matter how funny the reactions from supporting characters may be. That was a complaint among most critics in 1993, when the movie came out. But looking at it from a mid-2010s perspective, “Demolition Man” really holds up, despite those clichés. That’s because the way things are going today with the Internet, social media, and group-focus, you could argue that our society may be headed in the same direction as the society at the center of this movie. There are people out there, especially on the Internet, who either strive for attention and call out other people, who are too sensitive and want nothing even remotely standing in the way of a goal they believe might be passive. This is what’s being addressed in the film, with Cocteau’s followers complying in the attempt for perfection and rebels who want more variety and free will but take extremes for such things. So, at the center of “Demolition Man” is a battle for compromise, because no side is right or wrong. What’s needed to live in this world, as Stallone’s character learns, is balance, and that’s also what Huxley and her fellow officers, as well as the rebels for that matter, learn along the way as well. And as for the ‘90s action clichés and how they’re definitely dated now, that also works in the film’s advantage, having taken our hero and villain from the 1990s to the future, so it kind of works. Watch this movie again and you might see that this film may actually better now than it may have been in the past. It certainly made me think while it also kept me entertained…but how do the three seashells work? Seriously, how are they even sanitized after they’re used?

Fearless (1993)

16 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When you feel for even a moment that you are unbreakable and nothing can kill you, there is always something to bring you back to reality. But how far is that “something” from this fearless state? Take Max Klein. After surviving a brutal plane crash, a new feeling suddenly overcomes him. He is no longer afraid of anything because he feels that no one or nothing can kill him anymore, since he survived the wreck. How far does it go? He finds himself walking along the edge on the roof of a tall building and joyfully dancing about because he believes he won’t fall. And on top of that, he no longer feels true love with his wife, Laura. So how far into this new, potentially dangerous mental state is this going to continue?

In “Fearless,” Max (played by Jeff Bridges) has not merely lost his heart in his faltering relationship with his family. But he has also lost his soul, practically. And the reason he does all of this stuff not merely to prove how far his relieved fear of dying will go, but also because he might be able to snap himself out of it. It’s as if he’s putting himself through real pain (or wants to put himself through real pain) just to snap him out of this inner pain. Because, surviving this horrific disaster now has this man questioning whether or not he deserved to survive and deserves to go on living. In some way, he’s between the living and the dead.

As for Laura (Isabella Rossellini), the main problem with this relationship between her and Max now is that she simply doesn’t understand what he’s going through. Only one person in Max’s life gets it—a young woman named Carla (Rosie Perez) who also survived the crash and has lost her infant child in the incident. She can’t connect with her own husband (Benicio del Toro) and also, along with Max, can’t be reached by the airline therapist (John Turturro). But they do understand each other because they feel more or less the same way as survivors. They spend a lot of time together, as Max convinces her to follow him on whatever he has in mind next. It’s not necessarily a romance between them, but it is emotional for both of them. And through Max, she eventually finds a way to wake up from her own morbid state. Although, with Max, it’s unclear for a long time whether or not he himself can awaken.

Max is not necessarily an appealing leading character in the traditional sense—in fact, there are times when he’s downright horrid. But you do feel for him throughout the movie because of his trauma and what it has led him to. It makes more complex in the sense that he thinks he’s fearless, but we know as well as his wife that he isn’t indestructible. And director Peter Weir shows the film in a way that we as an audience are pulled into this somewhat hypnotic state so that we can find some way of understanding what others can’t. it’s that feeling of omnipotence that most of us look for in movies.

While I really think “Fearless” is a terrific film, I can’t help but feel like it could have been a lot better if it further developed some of the subplots, such as the relationship between Max and his son in contrast to the relationship between Max and a kid who survived the crash and looks to Max as a hero; that pretty much goes nowhere. Maybe if the film focused more on that and omitted some details that would like to make us think they were going somewhere special but don’t, such as the group-therapy session midway in the movie or even the character of a conniving lawyer (Tom Hulce) who serves hardly a purpose in the story.

But its true focus on Max and his fearless state is very effectively handled and it practically is this movie. It’s handled very well with sharp direction by Weir and a strong performance by Bridges. The ending of “Fearless” is absolutely fantastic. Without giving too much away, it truly contains the essence of enduring an out-of-body experience. It’s emotionally-driven and really feels like you’re in that medium of life and death with Max as he goes through his final part of the state. That scene left a big impact on me, and this film as a whole works even better because of it. After watching it, I found myself thinking more about the story. Watching it a second time, I was even more enthralled with everything that was happening. “Fearless” is a movie that I will definitely not forget anytime soon.

Groundhog Day (1993)

24 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Bill Murray is one of the funniest men…period. In any movie he appears in, he can make us smile and laugh. His deadpan voice, improvised one-liners, and his facial expressions are worth any price of admission. He raced to kill a gopher in “Caddyshack,” joined the army in “Stripes,” and helped catch ghosts in “Ghostbusters.” And now, he’s repeating the same day over and over again in the movie “Groundhog Day.” In this movie, he plays a role that could’ve been played by almost any other actor, but Bill Murray successfully makes the character convincing, funny, and even touching and also helps make the movie magical in a sense.

In “Groundhog Day,” Murray plays selfish, Scrooge-like, Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors, who is asked to cover Groundhog Day (February 2) in a small town called Punxsutawney. Nothing special—the groundhog sees its shadow, the townsfolk are upset because this means a longer winter for them, and Phil is miserable, as well as making people around him miserable. This includes his attractive co-producer Rita (Andie McDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). When he can’t go home due to a blizzard, he spends another night in Punxsutawney and when he wakes up…it’s Groundhog Day all over again.

And it will Groundhog Day again tomorrow too…and the same after that and so on. The idea is that for everybody else in town, it’s just the same as before. Only Phil is repeating the same day over and over again. Nothing he does will matter because he will wake up the next day and everything will be the same again, so there is literally no tomorrow for him—he is trapped in the same day, like a time warp.

This is a genius idea, developed by co-writer and Murray’s usual co-partner Harold Ramis (“Ghostbusters” and “Caddyshack”) and put into the situation with Phil. As he figures out what is going on, we follow him throughout. He (and we) realize that he can find out one thing and then use it the next Groundhog Day. He uses this on Rita as a seduction technique in a great scene—he finds out her favorite drink and what she likes to drink to. “I like to say a prayer and drink to world peace,” Phil says. Rita stares at him baffled and raises her drink, “To world peace.” We also realize that he won’t die. He tries many attempts at suicide, and he wakes up and it’s Groundhog Day again. But then, he realizes that he can change himself and become a better person and maybe—just maybe—he can actually wake up to February 3. And even Rita is surprised when one Groundhog Day, she begins to like him.

This is a truly endearing comic fantasy—ingenious, well-acted, and wonderful in the whole element of the time warp. It reminds me of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which a person sees the error of his ways and realizes what could be if he stuck it out longer (in this case, if he COULD stick it out longer). And through it all is Bill Murray, who is phenomenal as Phil. This is truly one of Bill Murray’s very best performances. He starts out as a Scrooge and becomes a better man towards the end and he’s very convincing in his change. He’s very funny in the first half, endearing in the second, and just great throughout. Also, his relationship(s) between him and Andie McDowell works because it’s low-key—he’s funny, she’s serious, so the only way it could work is if the relationship(s) was low-key.

“Groundhog Day” also delivers a good message. Just because we’re known to be unlikable doesn’t mean we have to stay that way; it’s our choice. And a supernatural force is helping Bill Murray realize that.

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

23 Apr

Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Super Mario Bros.” is an exhilarating race against time to get from one level to the other before running out of time, then the player has to start all over again. I am of course talking about the “Super Mario Bros.” video game. Its film adaptation is completely different in the sense that there doesn’t seem to be a race against time. It simply shows us two plumber brothers as they get from one place to the other without that much of a struggle.

That is one of many flaws in “Super Mario Bros.” One might expect that the popular video game’s first film adaptation to be as exhilarating and thrilling. But “Super Mario Bros.” is too busy trying to make itself look good that it winds up not being very good at all.

The plot is incomprehensible. When a meteorite struck the earth, the dinosaurs were blasted into a parallel dimension and evolved into dominant creatures. In the present time, the ruler of Dinohattan—King Koopa—wants to merge both universes and take over the world. But he needs to obtain a special piece of the meteorite and Princess Daisy, who lives in our universe and carries the rock around her neck at all times. So he sends two goofball cronies to capture her. Once Daisy is captured, it’s up to her boyfriend Luigi and his brother Mario, both plumbers, to go into the dimension and save her.

Wow. And all this is done without a strong narrative or well-developed characters. And worst of all, there’s no excitement. Maybe that’s because a) there seems to be no sense of danger with the situations the characters go through. And b) video game movies always strike the wrong note. When you play the Mario game, you control the little figure’s actions. But watching the movie, you just stand by and the character onscreen is not doing what you would do. I wouldn’t mind so much if the movie was just an hour and a half of pointless scenes and sequences and seeing that the filmmakers were trying to keep the movie different from the game.

You might be wondering who plays these characters. Well, some interesting casting choices were made. Bob Hoskins is solid, if unspectacular, as Mario, playing it straight throughout. John Leguizamo is Luigi, completely sincere. First he’s appealing but after a while, the sincerity becomes a bit annoying. Dennis Hopper is the film’s main villain Koopa, evolved from a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s obvious that Hopper just doesn’t care about his acting in this film. He’s so over-the-top that it’s almost embarrassing to watch. Samantha Mathis brings some appeal to the role of college-aged princess Daisy, but I felt sorry for the actress when she was forced to explain how her father was turned into fungus (I’m not even kidding).

The film looks bleak. The setting of Dinohattan is so unspectacular. It looks like actual Manhattan populated with weirder people. The visual effects are admittedly impressive, but even they can’t redeem this stupid script and bleak look. “Super Mario Bros.” was obviously not made for me, but it brings no imagination to kids, who may love this movie. Real little kids.