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Wayne’s World 2 (1993)

19 Apr

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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?”

Free Willy (1993)

11 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The pre-production meeting for “Free Willy” probably went like this:

Quick! We need a family film with a save-the-whales message to give the kids! How do we do it?

What do you mean, “How do we do it?” Why don’t we just make a documentary about the danger that whales face?

Because A) Documentaries don’t make money unless they’re narrated by Morgan Freeman, and nobody will know how cool his voice is until next year when “Shawshank Redemption” is released! And B) Come on, we’re Warner Bros. Family Entertainment now. Let’s make a sweet, charming family-adventure…and make money off of it!

OK, OK, I gotcha. So how about this—we tell the traditional story of a boy and his dog. People eat this stuff up—we’ve had a boy and his dog, a boy and his raccoon, and a boy and his alien. Why not have the whale be boy’s best friend?

Hm, that could work. But we need a certain thing to make sure that people are going to see it…maybe a pop star to sing the theme song!

Michael Jackson?

THAT’S IT!

Yes, “Free Willy” tells the usually reliable boy-and-his-animal story, only it’s an unusual relationship between a young street kid and a killer whale. And while that does seem out there (and sometimes it is) “Free Willy” is innocent and charming enough to make for a winning family entertainment.

Jesse (Jason James Richter) is a young boy living on the streets after being abandoned by his mother and escaping from an orphanage. When he is caught spraying graffiti at an aquatic theme park, he is forced as part of his probation to clean up the mess he made. The main attraction at the park is an orca named Willy, with whom Jesse strikes up an unusual friendship. Soon enough, he finds that Willy is able to respond to the sound of his harmonica. He’s even able to train Willy to do certain tricks that the whale’s trainer Rae (Lori Petty) hasn’t been able to do, and so he’s hired as a co-worker.

Jesse lives with a pair of foster parents (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson), who are both patient and loving towards Jesse. But Jesse doesn’t take to his new home very well, and rebels by giving insults and sneaking out at night. Jesse just doesn’t comfortable with these because he would rather be with his own mother, who would just as soon not want him around. This is how he relates to Willy, who was taken away from his family in the nearby ocean. Both Jesse and the whale are homeless and maybe unable to make the best of their surroundings.

There are not many surprises in this movie—just look at the poster, trailer, or DVD cover and you know how the movie is going to end. And it relies on many clichés and formulas, although while some of these are acceptable because they still work, it’s pretty easy to make fun of the rest of them. The most particular of these elements is the villainous park owners, played by Michael Ironside and Richie Riehle. How can you not laugh when Ironside (who I suppose always has to play the villain) states out loud that they’re both about “making money?”

And while whales are undeniably beautiful creatures (which the movie reminds you right from the beginning, in an opening sequence that stretches out the action of whales jumping), Willy (played by “Keiko”) is probably the least interesting element of the movie, because he’s mostly seen as a big blob for Jesse to interact with, and I can barely see the whale’s eyes to connect with him myself.

And by the way, is it me or does Willy understand English? There are moments in which he nods for “yes” and shakes his head” for “no.”

But despite that, “Free Willy” is a solid family film, mainly because of its dramatic elements with Jesse trying to cope with his foster parents. It also works with how Jesse is able to redeem himself by changing from delinquent to hero, because of having this friendship with Willy whom he wants to help out. This is a gentle movie about a young boy discovering himself, and the relationship between Jesse and his foster parents ring true.

The acting is one of the strongest assets of the movie. Jason James Richter is naturally winning as Jesse—if his performance didn’t work, the whole film might fall apart. Lori Petty is strong as reliable, helpful Rae; August Schellenberg is quite solid as Haida-native handyman Randolph who knows a thing or two about orcas; and Michael Madsen as the foster father Glen is excellent, portraying a three-dimensional individual as he tries patiently to give Jesse a good home while also trying to relate to him. Also good is Mykelti Williamson as Dwight, Jesse’s social worker.

The whale effects are outstanding. Sometimes they would use a real whale (Keiko), but other times, the filmmakers would use animatronic whales. To be honest, I could never tell the difference between which whale was real and which whale was mechanical.

“Free Willy” has its heart in the right place, and the “save-the-whales” message is quite clear, but not so over-the-top that adults will be groaning in annoyance. It’s shot nice, the special effects are convincing, the actors are good, and as I said, the family-drama aspects are well-developed. It’s a charming film.

NOTE: Yes, as I mentioned above, Michael Jackson sings the film’s theme song, “Will You Be There.” It’s a touching song, and this was back when MJ was still king of pop and so if he told people to see this movie, they would. And that’s mainly why this movie was a box-office hit.

Alive (1993)

7 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Alive” is based on the true story from 1972 of a chartered plane carrying friends, families, and members of a Uruguayan rugby team that crash-landed in the Andes. For a little more than two months, before they were finally rescued, the survivors struggled to survive the cold and also resorted to cannibalism, eating parts of the dead, to keep from starvation. The story was made into a best-selling novel by Piers Paul Read, and has been adapted into the uplifting drama “Alive.”

“Alive” opens with one of the most frightening, convincing plane crash sequences you’ll see in a movie. It’s perfectly executed and captures the intense fear of being on a falling plane. It starts out just unnervingly, as the plane goes through some turbulence, but then it gets crazier and more terrifying as the plane surely is crashing down. It’s unforgettable, as sights such as seats with people still in them being hurled outward through a gaping hole where the back cabin used to be. At that point, we’re hooked and wondering what’s going to happen next.

The survivors are stuck on a mountain slope in the Andes and they do what they can to stay alive until a rescue team comes for them. They ration what little food they have, use seat covers as blankets, go inside the fuselage at night and curl up next to each other to stay warm. But with the continual freezing weather, food running out, and a rescue that has been called off, they realize they must do whatever they can to survive, even if that means eating the flesh off of their dead.

The subject of cannibalism is horrid and “Alive” doesn’t shy away from the horrific reality of the situation. It confronts it realistically. The characters talk about it with credible unease and tension. Some are even afraid to say the word “cannibal,” and when one does, it makes the situation even more uneasy. When one does eat, no one asks how it tastes, so no one says what it tastes like—someone eats for the first time and then leans his head down in disgust and holds out the cutting tool used to slice some meat and says quickly, “Someone take this.” When they’re all used to it, though, they manage to crack a few awkward jokes, like “If you eat me, be sure to clean your plate.” This is all done genuinely, with the characters reacting with authentic horror at the situation and then trying to relieve the tension.

“Alive” is something of a “triumph of the human spirit,” as an ordinary group of people is pushed to their limits to survive an extreme situation. The film has a bright look, an uplifting tone, and constant talk about religion and God that make “Alive” more of an inspirational survival tale than a dark thriller confronting the horror of cannibalism. This is why the true event is sometimes remarked as “the Miracle of the Andes.”

One problem I have with “Alive” is that with a large group of people as the film’s central characters, only a few of them can have enough screen time to be considered independent while the others just blend into the film. The only actors I can think of that have a significant amount of screen time are Ethan Hawke as reckless Nando; Vincent Spano as take-charge Antonio; Josh Hamilton as reasonable Cannessa; Bruce Ramsay as optimistic Carlitos; and Kevin Braznahan as pessimistic Roy. Another problem I have with “Alive” is the ending. This is supposed to be the big dramatic payoff, but it just felt sort of rushed and looked over without really gathering a lot of much-needed weight.

But for the most part, “Alive” is very much indeed alive. It’s well-crafted, well-acted, and quite effective. Instead of becoming a mere adventure story, and the final half does venture into that territory (though respectively), “Alive” becomes a more visionary tale about survival and experience that works.

The Sandlot (1993)

30 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Sandlot” presents a kind, innocent, comic portrait of boyhood, baseball, and summertime. It’s told as a baseball announcer narrates this story in flashback, looking back on his sandlot days with his friends in the early 1960s. These are just kids being kids—having fun and misadventures.

In the early 1960s, Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry), who will grow up to be the narrator of the story, is a shy kid who moves to a new neighborhood in a new town, with his mother (Karen Allen) and his stepfather (Denis Leary) with whom he’s trying to connect with. Smalls would love to play baseball, but is so ignorant of the game that he can’t throw a ball, he can’t catch, and he doesn’t even know who Babe Ruth is. His stepdad tries to teach him to play catch, but he winds up a black eye after being hit with the ball.

Smalls tries to fit in with a local sandlot team of eight players, figuring he could be the ninth. The leader Benny Rodriguez (Mike Vitar) takes Smalls in and teaches him to catch and throw. Now he’s in with the team and they have their own adventures. One of the highlights is when one of the kids—nicknamed “Squints” (Chauncey Leopardi)—tries so hard to gain the attention of the sexy lifeguard at the town swimming pool, even risking probable drowning. The outcome is most hilarious.

But the second half of the movie leads the kids into more fearsome territory, as Smalls swipes his stepdad’s Babe Ruth-autographed baseball—a family heirloom—to use to play in a game. When he’s up at bat, he accidentally hits into the neighbor’s yard, behind a fence past left field. It’s then he discovers who Babe Ruth is and realizes he must get the ball back. However, it’s not so simple to just hop over the fence and get the ball, because the yard is guarded by a dog so ferocious that it’s even labeled the “Beast,” who is said to have killed trespassers and even ate a kid who hopped over there once. This leads to the kids desperately attempting many strange schemes to retrieve it before it winds up in the Beast’s possession. They try everything they can think of in a series of more funny misadventures—including a kid-sized harness, a series of vacuum cleaners, and even an Erector set.

There’s a nice comic rhythm within the kids’ misadventures and a sense of innocence throughout. This doesn’t resort to the usual clichés you see in family movies, let alone baseball movies. “The Sandlot” is an effective feel-good family movie that provides entertainment and nostalgia for childhood. This movie was directed by David Mickey Evans, who also gave us the deplorable “Radio Flyer,” which tried to capture this same sort of delight, but ultimately failed. With “The Sandlot,” he hits a triple, if not a home run.

There are little problems with the movie (like how Babe Ruth is misspelled by one of the kids who know his statistics), but so what? Evans remembers what it was like to be a kid—awkwardness, nervousness, friendship, free-spiritedness, etc. This is a movie kids can relate to with its sense of fun and adventure, and adults can see it as a nostalgia trip. Even if you didn’t grow up in the 1960s, you still feel the spirit of things here.

There’s a lot of baseball that these kids play in this movie, and it still proves to be America’s pastime. The kids play mostly for practice, as Benny believes he’ll go on to play in the major leagues in the future (which he may be). And there’s one quick game in the middle of the movie that comes as a pushover, since there is no big game at the end, which is a pleasant surprise. The movie isn’t about winning or losing. It’s a coming-of-age story about growing up and facing your fears.

There’s also a welcome cameo by James Earl Jones, a blind former baseball player who remembers the game fondly. It adds to the conception that is the greatness of baseball.

The kids are appealing comic actors and hold the screen nicely—even Chauncey Leopardi as know-it-all Squints, who can get grating at times with his constant screaming in eagerness, gets points for being a convincing know-it-all. They add to the charm and humor of “The Sandlot.”

Rookie of the Year (1993)

26 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Rookie of the Year” is a pleasing family sports picture that plays to every Little League baseball player that would love to be the star player, but is mostly benched because he’ll screw things up if he plays. This movie is the story of one of those boys who has a miraculous change of skill that ultimately gets him to pitch for the Chicago Cubs. Of course, it’s not a true story; it’s pure fantasy wish-fulfillment. What kid obsessed with baseball doesn’t wish they could play in the major leagues?

“Rookie of the Year” is about a kid named Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas), who is probably the worst Little Leaguer in history. He gets called out to right field and tries to catch a fly ball—but he trips, stumbles about trying to find the ball with his cap rim covering his eyes, and then throws it over the fence behind him when he finally grabs it. That’s it—this kid is bully meat for the rest of his life…or is he?

Things start to change for Henry once he trips in the schoolyard and breaks his pitching arm, forcing him to spend the summer in a cast that lifts his arm likes he’s always raising his hand. When the cast is off, the arm is healed in such a way that his tendons are actually tightened closely to one of the bones. When Henry and his friends Clark (Robert Gorman) and George (Patrick LaBrecque) attend a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, where they catch a home run ball in the bleachers. Henry throws it back and everyone is amazed to discover that Henry’s arm is so powerful that Henry is actually able to throw the ball from the stands to home plate.

The kindly Cubs owner (Eddie Bracken) and the slimy General Manager (Dan Hedaya) want to sign Henry onto the team, as it seems he can throw the ball faster than anybody else. Manager Sal Martinella (Albert Hall) gives the kid a tryout and immediately is called upon to play for the Chicago Cubs. Henry pitches several games and becomes an immediate celebrity.

One of the strengths of “Rookie of the Year” is Thomas Ian Nicholas as Henry Rowengartner (his last name is constantly mispronounced by Sal as a running joke). Nicholas gives Henry an appealing personality. He’s openly curious, bright, and excited, and his reactions to almost everything that happens to him is priceless. And then there’s the way he deals with certain games where he’s put on the spot. He has many schemes and tricks up his sleeve that come in handy in two particular game sequences that are both funny and bright. One is when he’s actually called up to bat, and tricks his way around running the bases (he has a small strike zone, causing him to take the base in the first place). Another is the obligatory Big Game—this one, in particular, can’t only be praised for the young actor, but also for the script. It starts out the usual way that all Big Games are supposed to be, but then something happens—I won’t give away what—that forces Henry to rely on his wits to help the team win the game. He plays it like a smart-aleck kid, mocking the other players and at one point “daring” one of them to run.

The whole movie is bright in that way, and has a good amount of clever, funny moments. Most of the comedy comes from a loopy pitching coach, played by Daniel Stern (who also directed the movie). He has an unusual way of speaking and a tendency to hit himself in the head with baseballs after practicing hitting them. The funniest bit in the movie—Stern gets himself caught in a tiny, cramped little closet area in a hotel, and no one is around to help. We see an above shot of just how tight the area is, as Stern looks straight up and says, “Little help now.” That was hilarious.

But the movie also has its dumb moments too. The final pitch, without giving anything away, is handled in a too-corny way. And John Candy, uncredited as a Cubs announcer, tries way too hard to imitate the appropriate voice for a Harry Carey type. I don’t like to criticize John Candy, but I was hoping for something more from him. Other stuff is obligatory, but kind of overdone—the basic example is not the Big Game, but the faltering relationship between Henry and his friends when Henry becomes too busy to hang out with them.

However, there are quite a few nice parts too. Gary Busey is very good as an over-the-hill pitcher who starts out grumpily with Henry, but eventually gives him advice and encouragement. There’s also another appealing character on Henry’s side—Henry’s strong, supportive mother, well-played by Amy Morton. And the scene in which Henry steps onto Wrigley Field for the first time captures the magic that a kid would feel if living this position.

“Rookie of the Year” is unlikely, which is the point for a fantasy. But it’s entertaining, funny, creative, and features a nice leading performance by Thomas Ian Nicholas. It’s a nice film for the whole family to enjoy.

Last Action Hero (1993)

23 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Last Action Hero” has an engaging idea for satire of action films. Unfortunately, it also has too much of a good thing that it adds on to more ideas that wear out the movie’s welcome. At 130 minutes, the movie does feel too long—probably because of everything they added when the movie could’ve ended a lot sooner without many complications. Don’t get me wrong. There are complications in action movies—otherwise, the films would have no purpose. The problem with “Last Action Hero” is that there are too many complications that become less thrilling and more…well, complicated. Maybe if the movie had been tightened in the editing process, we would’ve had a better movie.

The movie is about a kid named Danny (Austin O’Brien), who is a big fan of action movies featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has a great advantage of seeing these movies for free—he’s friends with an old projectionist named Nick (Robert Prosky). How these two are great friends is never explained but do we need to know? Anyway, Nick lets Danny see a print of Schwarzenegger’s new big film “Jack Slater IV” one night. This is the fourth movie in Schwarzenegger’s “Jack Slater” series, in which a cop gets involved in crazy adventures, much like Bruce Willis’ character in the “Die Hard” movies. Sensible, considering the director of the first “Die Hard” film is John McTiernan, who also directed “Last Action Hero.”

Nick gives Danny a “magic ticket” and during the beginning of this exciting new movie he gets to see, Danny’s ticket works so well that it brings the kid through the screen and into the action. He winds up in Slater’s car and becomes involved in a chase scene.

One of the pleasures of this movie is that Schwarzenegger’s Jack Slater believes that he and his whole world is not fictional, but real. Danny tries many times to prove that Slater is Schwarzenegger, but Slater doesn’t believe him. Danny also points out many clichés in this film world—unattractive women are nonexistent (by the way, I love the explanation Slater gives Danny—“This is California”), everybody has a 555 number, LAPD police stations are more pleasant, there are cameos by many famous actors (particularly Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick, who literally have walk-ons as their more notable career roles), and Slater can’t say a certain word because the movie is PG-13. And so on. Oh, and there’s also a reference to the Talking Killer, in which the killer always explains so much of the plot when he only seems closer to winning. The best moments go to Austin O’Brien who has fun as this kid who knows more than anybody else in this world.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has fun with his role. This is a cop character who would check dead bodies for cigars to smoke before sending the coroners on their way, and also a person who plays chicken with the bad guys and always wins. He even kids his own persona (“I’ll be back,” “Trust me,” etc.). He’s fun to watch in this movie. And of course, he deserves credit for parodying his own image.

The gimmick is fun in “Last Action Hero,” but it’s all over the place from beginning to end. The story is never fully developed and we don’t care much for the fate of Slater, since he is established as a fictional character. (“You can’t die till the grosses go down,” Danny assures him.) There are also many scenes that would’ve done better on the cutting room floor. For example, there’s a scene in the beginning where the kid is robbed, only to have a small payoff involving a handcuff key, midway through the film that didn’t work at all. There are other scenes like that (most frustrating a cameo by Death, played by Ian McKellan) and also there are one too many climaxes that seemed to keep the movie dragging.

There are good things in this movie, like the moments with the kid I mentioned above. The action is impressively hectic, especially when Slater has to stop a chemical explosion from going off at a funeral, and there are a few amusing bits—I liked the bit where the kid is shocked to find that Sylvester Stallone is The Terminator, and another bit in which Tom Noonan shows up innocently after his character The Ripper (a skuzzy-looking villain in “Jack Slater III”) shows up at a Hollywood premiere (don’t ask).

But as a whole, “Last Action Hero” feels a little uneven, especially for action fans. Some may like this movie and younger ones may identify with the kid. I liked parts of “Last Action Hero” but not enough to grace my satisfaction.