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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.

Wayne’s World 2 (1993)

19 Apr

waynes world

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

After the success of the first “Wayne’s World” movie, you’d think they couldn’t come up with a sequel that works, like maybe there wouldn’t be enough charm and humor to carry over. But fortunately, “Wayne’s World 2” does work. It’s a funny sequel with the same endearing characters and some very funny jokes. It’s not quite up there with its predecessor, but it’s still an enjoyable film that made me laugh.

Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) are back and they now live in an abandoned doll factory after moving out of their parents’ houses. They still do their cable access show, “Wayne’s World,” and still know how to party. But also, they are still insecure about their careers. That’s good—if they were, they’d be too confident and possibly unlikable. Wayne’s girlfriend Cassandra (Tia Carrere) is also back and even hotter than she was in the original. (As Wayne would say—schwing!)

One night, Wayne has a dream in which Jim Morrison (Michael Nickles) and a weird naked Indian take him to a desert to tell him the purpose of his life. So, Wayne decides to put on a concert in his hometown of Aurora, Illinois, called “WayneStock.” Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Rip Taylor are among the choices for the concert, but it doesn’t seem like they will sign on. This is not going to be easy.

But the movie isn’t all about music. The plot thickens a little bit when a blockhead record producer Bobby (Christopher Walken)—who is promoting Cassandra and her band—has his eyes for Cassandra and tries to steal her away from Wayne. Cassandra doesn’t take Bobby seriously but Wayne has his own thoughts about the two of them together. Garth, on the other hand, is timid towards a really hot babe named Honey Hornee (pronounced Hor-NAY) who happens to be played by Kim Basinger. I love the scene where she invites him over for dinner and puts the move on him—Garth is scared and when the two finally kiss, Garth is floating in the air.

And then there are a lot of big laughs here. The funniest scene in the movie is a fight scene in which Wayne does battle with Cassandra’s father—their voices and dialogue are badly dubbed and every time an arm moves, a whooshing sound is heard. And I also liked the Village People/”Y.M.C.A.” reference, the jokes about the Doors and the naked Indians, and the character of an old roadie (Ralph Brown) who now tells the same boring stories again and again. I also liked the bit where a “better actor” (Charlton Heston) is brought in to replace a “bad actor,” as well as a quick satire of a famous “Jurassic Park” scene.

Wayne and Garth are still likeable and funny without being mean-spirited. One aspect of their comedy is their vocabulary—they say “Excellent!” a lot, they go “Schwing!” whenever a babe passes by, they say they’re going to “hurl” on some occasions, and Wayne even lets out “lung butter.” It’s hard not to like these guys—they live in a world all their own, but they’re definitely not nerds. The movie shows that too—early in the movie, when the guys go to an Aerosmith concert, they run into two nerds and they are nothing alike. There are a lot of laughs in “Wayne’s World 2”; it’s a fine sequel.

Matinee (1993)

11 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Where do I even start with this movie? “Matinee,” directed by Joe Dante and written by Charlie Haas, is a wonderful comedy with so many things going for it, and most of it surprisingly meshes really well with each other. What do we have? We have the Cuban Missile Crisis, young love, nostalgia, a schlocky filmmaker/showman, the premiere of his latest B-movie, several teenagers (including a jealous boyfriend), and even manages to bring in legitimate family drama as well. How are Dante and Haas able to pull all of this off in one terrific movie?

The movie is set in Key West, Florida in the fall of 1962—a time when B-movies represented innocence and imagination (and great silliness). Anything can happen in these movies, mostly thanks to gamma rays and radiation that manages to turn insects into gigantic monstrosities that terrorize cities. But suddenly, all that “nuclear stuff” doesn’t seem too innocent now that America has learned from President Kennedy that Cuba is armed with nuclear missiles, and the U.S. Navy is blockading against an oncoming Russian fleet. This of course gets the people in a panic, especially those in Key West, which is just 90 miles away from Cuba.

Enter exploitation filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), who specializes in grade-B horror movies and theatrical gimmicks. With the panic going on in Key West, Woolsey sees this as the perfect time and place to premiere his latest schlocky production, a monster movie about a man who mutates into a giant ant—“Mant!”—due to, you guessed it, radiation. For teenage army-brat Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), whose father is on one of the Navy blockade ships, the film’s premiere date is going to be a great day since he is a monster-movie fan. He sees Woolsey as a hero.

Gene is so much a fan of monster movies that he recognizes a B-movie actor when he sees one—that’s why he’s the only one to recognize one of the people who publicly denounces “Mant” a couple nights before its premiere, an out-of-work actor hired by Woolsey to further publicize the movie. (You see, it turns out that boycotters only make people further want to see the movie—I guess times haven’t changed since 1962.) Gene calls Woolsey up on the con and in exchange for keeping the secret, Woolsey shows Gene around the theater for a behind-the-scenes tour to see what tricks he has in store for his audience on Saturday afternoon.

While this is going on, there are numerous subplots in the real world—one involves Gene as he and his family (his mother and little brother Dennis) cope with the knowledge that the man of the house is now in the danger zone; another involves Gene’s new buddy Stan (Omri Katz) as he asks the “nice girl in the class,” Sherry (Kellie Martin), out on a date for Saturday, only to be threatened by a hoodlum (James Villemaire) who used to date Sherry; and another involves Gene as he befriends Sandra (Lisa Jakub), the daughter of a pair of beatniks who defend the “Mant” premiere. Sandra has her own ways of acting out—particularly, she’s the only one in school who states aloud that the classic “duck-and-cover” protection against the nuclear bomb won’t save anybody. (This even gets one of the kids in the hall to whisper, “That girl’s a Communist!”)

Everything leads to the final half-hour of “Matinee,” in which every plot development comes together. Gene, his little brother, Stan, Sherry, and Sandra end up seeing “Mant” on Saturday afternoon, there’s a large crowd because of the publicity, and Woolsey can use many of the surprises he prepared for this event—there are buzzers in the seats and a new process called “Rumble Rama” that has the theater shaking like it’s in an earthquake. He’s giving his audience a real show, and he’s loving every minute of it. Thankfully, so is a head studio executive who admires Woolsey’s childlike spirit.

And it’s easy for us to care so much for Woolsey throughout the movie. It’s obvious that this guy loves to make his movies, no matter how bad or laughable they might be, and he just wants to put on a show. John Goodman does a fantastic job at playing Lawrence Woolsey with a sense of enthusiasm and demented zaniness. How can you not love the bit in which he notices a stuffed alligator at a busted gas station, and immediately has an epiphany? (“She-Gator, Alli-Gal, GAL-a-Gator!”)

My favorite scene involves Woolsey telling Gene about his theory of “the first monster movie.” The way he puts it, a caveman is chased by a mammoth and barely makes it back to his cave alive. So he wants to tell people about the experience, and he draws a picture of the beast on his wall. But when he realizes people are coming to see it, he knows he has to make it look scarier (“make the teeth longer and the tusks bigger”). “Boom! The first monster movie,” says Woolsey. “That’s probably why I still do it. You make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off, everything’s okay, the lights come up…” It’s a wonderful scene that gives an even bigger sense of what this guy’s all about.

By the way, the movie-within-the-movie (“Mant”) is quite a treasure. We see a lot of clips from the movie on the screen (or screen-within-the-screen), and it’s a worthy parody of those actual B-movies of the time. There are silly creature effects, a lot of “scientific” exposition, and inane lines of dialogue, such as when the mant’s worried wife tries to tell the Army general that “Bill” is only a shoe salesman, not a monster—the general replies, “Would you let THAT fit you in a pump?” It’s a joy to watch, when we’re able to.


Also funny is a one-scene parody of ‘60s children’s movies, about a man that turned into a shopping cart and shakes up crooks (who wear ski masks and fall down in comedic fashion, while being covered in paint and having quirky-happy music playing in the background).

Anyway, about the movie’s final act involving the big premiere, I can only reveal that everything that could go wrong does go wrong in ways you couldn’t begin to expect. (I won’t even go into how the jealous hoodlum boyfriend gets into the mix.) There are so many things happening all at once, and it kept my attention throughout. I was laughing and smiling at the creativity of the screenplay; everything set up before has paid off ultimately.

John Goodman does a great job, as I already mentioned. And the other actors do good work as well. The young actors (Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Kellie Martin, Lisa Jakub) are very likeable and appealing. And Cathy Moriarty, as Woolsey’s girlfriend and leading-lady in his film, is excellent as the bored, deadpan, busty blonde who always complains about how his man is too much of a dreamer to face the reality that their careers are “going nowhere.” (Of course, this doesn’t stop her from dressing up in a nurse’s uniform at the premiere and getting kids to sign “medical consent forms” in case they get too scared.) Also funny is Robert Picardo as the overly-nervous theater manager, who has a radio by his side in case the bombs come falling (he even has a fallout shelter in the theater basement designed just for him).

“Matinee” is chuck-full of surprises and pleasures, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s fun, amusing, imaginative, dramatic when it needs to be (particularly when it comes to Gene’s family), and rather brilliant.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

8 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“If I ever say these are the best years of my life…remind me to kill myself.”

Those are surprisingly revelatory words spoken by high school senior Randy “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) to his stoned friends on their first night after high school. After a night of partying, drinking, smoking joints, and hanging with friends, Pink—a football jock—finds himself hanging with who the school coach dubs the “wrong crowd,” smoking marijuana on the 50-yard line at the school’s football field. He says these words and it’s possibly the one time any of the teenagers in this movie notice that they feel like something is missing.

But that’s not unlike teenagers. We were caught in states of confusion. We ignore them by simply hanging out and talking about other stuff without having to get too serious, just to have a good time. Only occasionally did we acknowledge what problems we had. As time goes by and we get older, we block out the pain and just remember the nostalgia.

This is probably why Richard Linklater, writer and director of “Dazed and Confused,” decided to set this film in the 1970s instead of the 1990s, when it was made. He’s recalling his own nostalgia and it comes through in this film, which is essentially plotless—it’s just chronicling these small-town teens on the night of the last day of school. They hang out. They party. They drink. They smoke marijuana. They talk. That’s it. That’s the movie. It doesn’t matter if the hero gets the girl, the nerd gets his moment, the bully gets his comeuppance, and whatever high-school-movie cliché you can mention. It has truthful elements to it.

Linklater introduces us to one set of characters and we hang around with them as they hang out with each other. Then we move to another set, stay with them. Then another. We get plenty of time to watch them develop, although I have to admit I think there were too many people to keep track of. Most notable are the aforementioned Pink, who is troubled that the coach insists that he sign a paper that keeps him off drugs and alcohol (and away from the “wrong crowd”), and thus invading his independence; Slater (Rory Cochrane), a stoned-out-of-his-mind party animal; Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), a graduate from years back, still hanging around high school kids because they remind him of his best moments in life (which causes Pink to say the aforementioned quote); and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), a freshman who is one of many to be harassed by the seniors as a cruel, time-honored initiation tradition (requiring wooden paddles to smack them on the rear), but ends up lingering with Pink and the guys.

“Dazed and Confused” gives us a lot of characters in the mix, although admittedly, only a few of them are likable (Mitch, in particular, is possibly the most identifiable and his tale is engaging, while a lot of the other teenagers grow kind of annoying with their mean-spirited talk). Linklater, however, apparently cares about each of them.

I don’t expect anybody who went to high school in the 1970s to enjoy this film at their next high school reunion. Or maybe they will, as the film does capture the nostalgia of that time as well (the rock-n-roll soundtrack makes perfectly clear of that). I was born in the early ‘90s, went to high school in the late 2000s, and what I got out of this movie was a miniscule but effective legacy of these “cool” high-schoolers.

NOTE: I have to wonder—if the ‘70s looked back on the ‘50s in “American Graffiti,” and the ‘90s looked back on the ‘70s in “Dazed and Confused,” should I expect the 2010s (would that be the ‘10s, the teens) to look back on the ‘90s?

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

17 Feb

Batman Mask of the Phantasm phantasm

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” was the only theatrical release based on the animated series of “Batman” (entitled “Batman: The Animated Series”). The series was dark and complex, which is what also could be said about this movie. It’s strange and very intriguing in the way that this movie (and the series) was able to strike the right notes for kids and adults. But “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is a gripping thriller that both would enjoy.

Actually, I just realized what is special about both this movie and the series—it treated the kids like adults!

“Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” digs deeper into Bruce Wayne’s past, as we discover that he almost had a normal life before becoming the Dark Knight himself. This is brought back to him by the arrival of an old flame, Andrea Beaumont, with whom he restarts a romance. At the same time, there’s a new villain in town—a mysterious vigilante who is killing off Gotham City’s crime bosses. This villain, who can appear and disappear with a puff of smoke, is called the Phantasm and is also mistaken for Batman. So while trying to deal with his life as Bruce Wayne, Batman is also on the run and out to clear his name.

The animated series was mostly known for its Gothic stories and character development, as hard choices and haunting memories come into place. Such is the case here. The flashback sequence in which we see events that lead to Bruce Wayne becoming Batman is very well-handled and quite complicated. It shows the fantasies of what might or should be, and then reality takes its toll in a harsh way that leads to tough decisions that ultimately must be made.

The new villain, the Phantasm, is a welcome addition. With a dark cloak, glowing eyes, a mask that also alters voice, and a lot of smoke to fool during encounters, the Phantasm is one tough customer. As the story progresses, there is more to be told about the Phantasm’s story, and during the film’s harrowing final act, that story comes full-circle in a way I wouldn’t dare give away. The Phantasm isn’t the only villain, however. We’re also fortunate enough to have the Joker, slimy as ever. And the scheme that these villains follow through with is surprisingly well-put into detail. Maybe I wasn’t too enthralled by evil schemes in some of the live-action Batman movies, but this one was quite intriguing.

The climactic final act is phenomenal. It’s not just because of the crafty animation style that makes it worth watching; it’s everything that has been set up before, and is now paying off. I love action-thrillers in which the climax really means something after all that’s happened before.

It’s a shame that this animated Batman movie was a box-office bomb. (Reportedly, this had to do with Warner Bros.’ inept marketing campaign.) It has since gained a cult following on home media release, and for good reason. It’s a pretty strong film. Even Siskel & Ebert, in 1995 (the year “Batman Forever” was released), admitted that they regretted missing this film in the theater, saying they enjoyed it more that “the current Batman adventure.” Much like the animated series this was based on, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is intelligent, spectacularly-drawn, and quite dark and intricate.

The Good Son (1993)

12 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Good Son” is a thriller that features a good nephew, but not a good son. But as the parents see it, it’s the nephew that concerns them more than the son, whose deeds are surprisingly unnoticed by them. Of course, he seems like the sweet innocent kid that the parents would like to think they’ve raised him to be. But instead, the boy—named Henry—is a diabolical little demon that makes his cousin Mark’s life a living hell while also causing great harm to family members, innocent bystanders, and a dog.

As if poor Mark didn’t have enough to go through already. He’s already lost his mother after making a promise that he wouldn’t let her die. His father leaves him in his time of need at his brother’s house on an island in Maine for a couple of weeks so that on his business trip, he’ll have enough money for them both to be set for life. Mark gets along well with his aunt and uncle, and their two children—one of whom, of course, is the little demon spawn named Henry. Henry and Mark become good friends and hang out around the island. But later on, Mark has his suspicions of Henry’s true nature as Henry kills a dog with an invention he made that shoots nails and screws. He becomes even more convinced that the kid is sick when he throws a man-size dummy on a highway, causing multiple cars to crash into each other.

Henry’s sole explanation as to why he’s this way is revealed only to Mark, as he tells Mark that he was as scared as he was before he found ways to get away with doing certain things. But those “certain things” wind up harming innocent people. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the screenplay had been written so that another part of Henry’s influence was watching violent action movies? Wouldn’t it make a more effective, chilling message if movie violence were the cause of the development for a child’s sociopathic mind?

But no—Henry is just plain evil at a shockingly young age, and I suppose that’s enough reason for us as a movie audience to be frightened by him. Henry is played by Macaulay Culkin, the sweet, charming kid from the family hit movie “Home Alone.” He’s playing against type in “The Good Son,” but sometimes it works, and other times it doesn’t. In the first half of the movie, he does very well at keeping the balance between guilt and innocence. He just seems like the kid whom everyone his age would like to be friends with, but he still gives hints about his true nature that would fool them. The development that leads Mark to really see his true nature is handled effectively as well. Mark befriends Henry, they hang out together, Mark is suspicious of him after a while, and then he sees something that really convinces him that Henry is not a “good son.” But the problem is that Culkin isn’t convincing when playing sinister. He speaks in a monotone voice and with a deep, twisted philosophy that a James Bond villain would have—only to Mark, of course. Where did he learn to talk like this? His parents are good-natured, he doesn’t watch TV, and he’s already stated that he doesn’t read comic books. This can’t be natural, but to be fair, I think this has more to do with the writing rather than Culkin himself.

Culkin does seem like an innocent child whom you wouldn’t suspect of any wrongdoing, so that gives him an edge. And when Mark tries to tell people about the boy’s psychotic antics, no one believes them. They don’t want to—they want to believe that Henry is the good little boy that he only pretends to be. And soon, it is Mark they all come to fear. But here’s the main problem with “The Good Son”—with his sophisticated speech that I’ve already mentioned, Henry doesn’t seem much like a kid. No kid talks the way he does. And it’s hard to believe that later in the movie, the parents and even a child psychologist can’t tell that this little robot is lying.

The script has many problems like that. One in particular is with that scene in which Henry and Mark watch the cars pile up after the dummy falls onto the street. We see a brief news report about the incident, but the dummy is never mentioned. Neither are the two kids who were in plain sight on the bridge above. There’s another moment in the middle of the movie that is inexcusable. It’s when Henry takes his little sister (played by Culkin’s real-life sister Quinn) to go ice-skating on a frozen pond and then pushes her onto some thin ice, which she falls through. Get this—she falls through the thin ice and yet her rescuers walk on it fine…and use an axe to break through it and save the girl! What conveniently thin ice.

Elijah Wood, as Mark, gives the film’s best performance. He’s the kind of kid that Henry’s parents see Henry as, and Wood has a natural screen presence that doesn’t bore us or make us want him to go away. It’s so hard not to feel sorry for Mark in this truly messed-up situation.

The ending is the more suspenseful piece of filmmaking to be found here. It involves the two boys and Henry’s mother (Wendy Crewson) on top of a cliff. Without giving too much away, it leads to a masterful climax. But then immediately following it is the film’s final line, which is completely unnecessary and kind of sick, the way it asks about the mother’s choices. To sum up “The Good Son” is like this—Elijah Wood’s performance is effective, the setup is good, the photography is lovely (the way it captures the island as if it were a painting), and the climax is suspenseful; but the writing is devoid of substance and reality. And the question that it all comes down to is, “Do we really want to see Macaulay Culkin in an R-rated movie about a young killer?”