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In the Army Now (1994)

8 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Pauly Shore may have played some unforgivably irritating characters, but in “In the Army Now,” in which he’s “in the army now,” he shows what he can accomplish when he’s kept in check. Well, we see that he can be a charming, less irritating, and, yes, even funny personality. His character may not have grown in “In the Army Now,” but he, as an actor, has.

Pauly Shore plays a salesman named Bones who has just been fired. So he and his roommate (Andy Dick) need to find a job and fast. They decide to join the Army Reserves because they hear you can get paid for doing practically nothing. So they go through the Military Haircut, in which Pauly Shore loses his precious curly hair (I love his reaction to his hair being gone afterwards), and then it’s off to training camp. But luckily, they’re trained by a sexy female drill sergeant (Lynn Whitfield). Then, Bones and his buddy Jack are joined by Lori Petty and David Alan Grier on a water purification team. But pretty soon, they’re called to Libya to supply water to the Special Forces during a Desert War.

“In the Army Now” has the ingredients of a fresh comedy. But “In the Army Now” is not in the same league as “Stripes,” which has a similar theme (that was a better movie starring Bill Murray). This movie is trying to be another star vehicle for Pauly Shore and a new, hipper version of “Stripes.” It works well right up until the hour-point, in which Shore and his friends are lost in the Libyan Desert and forced to strike a Libyan military base. That’s a shame because the jokes were funny and the characters were charming. I would’ve wanted them to keep on their own base and still be who they were. But then when they hit the desert, the movie turns on autopilot.

The sequence at basic training is fun—the biggest laugh comes when the female drill sergeant adjusts Bones’ pants after Bones dishevels his own uniform—but there really doesn’t seem to be a payoff. What I think is the best thing about “In the Army Now” is that these characters are nice people and a lot of fun. They’re funny and charming at the same time. Lori Petty, in particular, has a charisma that seems genuine as a G.I. Jane who is tough and sexy. And David Alan Grier is probably the funniest person in the movie.

“In the Army Now” has a fresh and funny movie in its first hour. With its final half, it seems as if the screenwriters stopped trying and gave us a typical “war hero” ending. I wanted more comedy that worked—not a lame vulture joke, not an impossible way of describing how you can get more water by filling up jacket sleeves with water, not Pauly Shore saying, “We’re the few! The proud! The water boys!” I wanted “In the Army Now” to have more charm. And Pauly Shore showed that he could improve as a comic actor…if only he continued along this path instead of the dreadful “Bio-Dome.”

North (1994)

22 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: Zero Stars

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How in the world did this happen? How was this movie made? How did anyone think this idea could possibly work for a family film? How were all of these talented actors sucked into performing in it? The answers to all of those questions at once could make for a movie actually worth seeing. “North” is not worth seeing for any reason. It is a very bad movie—one of the worst I’ve ever seen. It is unfunny, manipulative, limp, very unpleasant to watch, and worst of all, it’s for kids. That meant kids were suckered into seeing this because they saw the trailer and expected it to be a delightful little romp—I feel sorry for those kids, but there’s comfort in knowing that there were much better films suitable for them out there.

“North” stars Elijah Wood as a young boy named North, who feels that his parents don’t appreciate him. The parents (Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, very odd casting if you’ve watched episodes of “Seinfeld”) are too busy arguing to even notice him. North hires a lawyer (Jon Lovitz) and goes into court in order to divorce himself from them and search for new, loving parents. This idea is contrived enough, but the way the movie goes through with it is shocking enough (this is just the beginning)—the parents are comatose with shock after realizing what North is planning to do and are set in display in the courtroom, unable to move or speak. This leaves Alan Arkin to overact horribly as the Judge and grant North the wish to find new parents. And if North doesn’t find new parents soon, he’ll be sent to an orphanage. Are you still with me?

North interviews different sets of parents, each of them taking place in truly awful sequences (about as awful as Alan Arkin’s overacting, the courtroom scene itself, and Jason Alexander’s pants-inspecting jokes). Many talented actors are victims in these sequences—Dan Aykroyd and Reba McIntire are Texans; Kathy Bates is an Eskimo; and so on. Not only are these sequences painfully unfunny—they’re unforgivably inaccurate, and not in a funny way. Aykroyd and McIntire are Texans who dress like Cowboys on Ice and give in to nonstop stereotyping dialogue about their daily routine, which is “dig for oil, bust a few broncs, rope some doggies, and eat, eat, eat!” (There’s also a painful musical number midway through this bizarrely unfunny scene.) And whose idea was it to cast Kathy Bates as an Eskimo with blackface? There’s also a set of Hawaiian parents who give off one of the most unpleasant lines in movie history (I won’t share the line, but it has to do with why the parents can’t have children). These characters are brought in strictly to become comic caricatures. They are badly written, broad, and ultimately desperate. There is no redeeming factor to any of these characters.

I have to wonder, did the writers mean to make jokes this bad? These jokes are horrible. Consider the courtroom scene where North’s original parents are comatose with shock—their lawyer says, “The defense rests.” Is it possible the script was written by a smart computer? It would surely explain the artificiality of the writing. This is the bottom of the barrel in Hollywood screenwriting.

Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention two other characters who play big roles in the movie. First, there’s Winchell, played by a nails-on-the-blackboard annoying Matthew McCurley. Winchell is the editor for the school newspaper who has become the most powerful man (or boy) in the world since North’s case hit mainstream—kids order their parents now, threatening to divorce themselves too. When North finally realizes what he must do to make things right, Winchell sends a hit man out to kill him. The other character worth mentioning is a man played by Bruce Willis. The man seems to follow North around everywhere, like a guardian angel. He appears in many forms—the Easter Bunny, a cowboy, a beach comber, an Eskimo, and a Federal Express driver (product placement plug). North believes this guy looks familiar every time he sees him. Well, he is. Is he funny? No. Is he insightful? Not for a minute.

Elijah Wood should not have been saddled to play a role that no actor could have possibly pulled off. He’s not to blame. The blame has to go to the director of the film, who is Rob Reiner. Reiner has made some terrific movies (“This is Spinal Tap,” “The Sure Thing,” “Stand by Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Misery,” “A Few Good Men”) and must have thought “North” could have worked as a movie. But I don’t think he, nor any other gifted filmmaker, could have made this lame story idea into something enjoyable. “North” is an unholy mess, to say the least.

NOTE: This movie is so bad that I’m actually going to save you the trouble of finding that line said by the Hawaiian parents about why they can’t have children. Here it is—“Hawaii is a lush and fertile land. There’s only one barren area on our islands. Unfortunately, it’s my wife.” I feel dirty just writing that. I wonder how the screenwriter felt while writing that.

Lassie (1994)

17 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s strange how 1994’s “Lassie” is not an adaptation of the TV series of the same name, or a remake of the film “Lassie Come Home” for that matter, and yet the dog in this movie shares the exact same characteristics of the infamous smart canine in the original media. How do I know it’s not an adaptation? Because the young hero’s younger sister watches the original show on TV (even though her brother would prefer her to watch MTV—“You’ll thank me when you’re older”). But here’s the thing—the dog in this particular “Lassie” (which, let me remind you, is not supposed to be a remake or adaptation of the original media) is exactly like Lassie! She’s a collie, she’s unbelievably smart for a dog, and it doesn’t help that it’s given the name Lassie, either. Why not just say it’s a modern retelling of the original “Lassie” media? Maybe it is, but why bother mentioning the original at all in this film?

Aside from that questionable element, I’ll admit that I really liked this version of “Lassie.” It’s cute, it’s innocent, and surprisingly well-executed and very well-acted. That, and it features a very smart dog, of course named Lassie.

Lassie has just adopted a city family that has moved to a small farm in the hills of Virginia, after her original owner died in a car accident. She’s given her name by the little daughter Jennifer (Brittany Boyd) watches the “Lassie” show on TV (of course). The family decides to keep her (“for a while,” according to Dad) as they move out into the country. The family’s troubled teenage son Matt (Thomas Guiry) is bored and would rather stay in bed, listening to his Walkman. But Lassie, being the good dog that she is, knows how to get him in the great outdoors. She snatches Matt’s headphones away and leads him to an old swimming hole near the house, with a rope swing that he enjoys using.

The plot thickens when Matt’s dad (Jon Tenney) loses his job. Matt, who grows to love his new home, gets the idea of raising sheep on the land between their farm and the rich Garland farm. The family, with the help of kindly Grandpa (Richard Farnsworth, always welcome) and of course Lassie (to help move the sheep), fixes up the own farmhouse as they all grow more accustomed to rural values.

But of course, there’s a problem in the form of the evil Garland clan. Sam Garland (Frederic Forrest) is a mean-spirited man who has raised two teenage boys who are just as nasty. They’ve made a hefty profit from raising sheep themselves, and are not too thrilled that their new neighbors are taking their sheep (though it’s explained that sheep have to be at a certain part of the spread to be considered property).

Oh, and did I mention they all wear black hats? Or that they have a nicely-decorated house? Or that the boys have fun by racing their ATVs at the sheep to frighten them? Did I even have to mention all that?

Aside from those clichéd characters (and an overwrought climax in the final act, partially caused by the two boys’ behavior), there’s a lot like about “Lassie.” One is how the film captures the essence of the countryside—the beauty of nature, if you will. The dog is a good sport, and the bond that the boy grows with it is in the great tradition of boy-meets-animal stories. And “Lassie” also needs to be credited for its family drama, particularly with the relationship between Matt and his new stepmother Laura (Helen Slater). Laura is sweet and warm; she loves Jennifer very much and would love for Matt to accept her as a new mother figure. But to Matt, the empty space left by his late mother can’t be filled by anyone and thus has trouble accepting this new woman in this family’s life. Eventually, Matt and Laura do share a nice moment together, when Laura tends to Matt’s wounds after being beat up by some local boys. Matt doesn’t want to call Laura “Mom,” but doesn’t want to call her “Laura” anymore either.

Despite being clichéd, “Lassie” works for the most part. It’s enough to grow on me, and worth another viewing. It’s just a cute, good-hearted, feel-good family movie that I can’t bring myself to hate. There’s a lot to like about it.

Stargate (1994)

5 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Imagine you are one of many people who step into an ancient mystic stargate that is said to take you a million light years across the universe.

What would your reaction be? Awe? Amazement? Surprise? All of the above? My reaction would be “all of the above.” But unfortunately, the only reaction to the characters in the sci-fi action/thriller “Stargate” is “What a rush.” They step into the stargate, go through a weird trip in space and time, and find themselves inside a pyramid on a distant planet. They don’t even seem surprised that the stargate didn’t kill them on entry. They just walk about the land as if thinking, “OK, we’re here. What now?” How about taking in some of this discovery?

“Stargate” is a big-budget sci-fi romp that seems empty, despite the top-notch actors, the amazing sets and the nifty special effects. It’s the script that doesn’t take chances or even seem at all like this is going to be fun. Directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich, “Stargate” doesn’t seem to have thrills within its thrilling, mysterious storyline. This is one of those movies where the marketing is a lot more compelling than the actual film that is being marketed. The trailer for this movie showed that there is a mystical, otherworldly stargate that can send people from one world to another. It never showed where the stargate took them or what they found when they got there. This way of marketing left moviegoers wondering what was in store.

But sadly, the discovery is a disappointment. We learn that this distant planet (which looks a lot like Egypt, but the three moons indicate that it isn’t) is home to the human race that were left behind when the Sun God Ra created life on Earth, as well as the stargates. The stargates have been destroyed since and the people are slaves living in the desert. So you can probably guess by what I’m saying in this paragraph that, yes, aliens did create the Egyptian pyramids.

OK…so what?

The aliens themselves seemed too human to be interesting—that’s because they are humans who speak only Ancient Egyptian. Their ruler—the Son God Ra—is definitely not much better. Ra takes human form because it seems to suit him, but he looks more like a showgirl at a costume party and did not seem like any kind of a threat. And then when he talks (in his own language, of course, with English subtitles), his voice is distorted—it didn’t even seem like the voice fit him. Oh, and here’s a hoot—Ra is played by Jaye Davidson from “The Crying Game.”

As “Stargate” opens (in, as a caption informs us, “Egypt 1928”), Egyptologists discover the arch-like, mystic-looking stargate. We then flash to the “present day” (another caption—there are captions like that here) in which a nutty Egyptologist named Daniel Jackson (James Spader, complete with glasses and long blond hair) is brought into a top-secret government facility that has been storing the stargate all this time. He is hired to decode the hieroglyphics that could activate the stargate. Of course Jackson is able to but here’s my question—after all this time of trying to unlock this big secret, couldn’t they have found someone better than a young Egyptologist whose methods have been described as “nutty” through all these decades?

But I digress. Jackson joins the tough-as-nails Col. Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) and a team of soldiers armed with automatic weapons as the group steps into the stargate and arrives at this strange world. And it was, I might add, indeed a “rush.”

It’s here that many clichés are used—O’Neil shows a young alien a few modern conveniences, the aliens fear the newcomers but learn to accept them, and such. But the most overused is this—Jackson is mistaken for a god because he wears around his neck an ancient Egyptian heirloom given to him for “good luck.” Eventually, there must be a heavy-handed, special-effects filled, action-packed climax in which the humans and the aliens must fight against Ra and his henchmen. But the characters are so under-developed that I didn’t care for them when they had to fight for their lives. Plus, it’s a copout that the writers had the bright idea of having a stargate that could send people who step into it to travel one million light years away from home, but could only think of shooting everybody when they got there. Another thing I must mention about the story—Jackson claims that he knows how to get back home. Not once do any of the soldiers ask how he knows—he just knows because it’s convenient enough.

The actors do what they can with nothing roles. I like Kurt Russell and James Spader, but their characters are underwritten here. At least they tried. Jaye Davidson cannot be taken seriously as the ruler of the universe.

“Stargate” is a movie that is empty in its storytelling. The sets, cast, and special effects are there but the story needed a lot of adjustments. Why not have more interesting characters step into this intergalactic stargate and discover something wonderful and even more mysterious about the secrets of the known universe? Or even the unknown universe? The possibilities are endless. But all “Stargate” can think about is blowing stuff up. And in the way of something more interesting in the background of the plot, that’s not interesting.

Body Snatchers (1994)

3 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Body Snatchers” is not necessarily a full adaptation of the famous novel of the same name, written by Jack Finney. In some ways, it’s a sequel to the 1978 film adaptation “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (which itself was a remake of the first film adaptation from 1956). That’s one way you could look at this 1994 version, in that we’re secluded to one particular setting that could show that the events in the original 1978 film are just continuing with the characters in this one.

For the few who don’t know who (or what) these “body snatchers” are, they’re pod-like alien beings that come to invade Earth by cloning humans and taking their place (and destroying the originals). The scary thing is that anyone on Earth could be one of these aliens. It could be your mother, father, sibling, lover, friend(s), mailman—anybody. There is one giveaway—they may look normal, but what keeps these duplicates indistinguishable from normal people is their complete lack of emotion.

“Body Snatchers” takes place on a military base, which is probably the perfect place for these “body snatchers” to hide. For one thing, they have easy access to weapons and armored vehicles. And also, the soldiers there are already practically emotionless to begin with. Who would suspect these stone-faced people to be pod people if you didn’t already think they sort of were? That’s a clever move that this movie makes.

Teenager Marti (Gabrielle Anwar) has moved to the base with her family. Her father (Terry Kinney) is an E.P.A. consultant brought along to study these drums of toxic chemicals put on the base. Marti, like most teenagers, is bummed about the move, but more unnerved by a visit to a gas station on the way, where she is grabbed by a runaway soldier (Forest Whitaker) who screams hysterically, “They’re out there!”

He’s right—the body snatchers are taking over the base, unloading pods in a nearby swamp. The soldier warns “they get you when you sleep,” meaning that the pods unleash tentacles that trace around people’s bodies and snake into noses, ears, and open mouths so that they drain their life forces. Then the pods are grown into perfect clones of those people, who have been literally drained of their lives in the process.

Marti’s stepmother (Meg Tilly) is the first of the family to fall victim to the body snatchers, and the only one who knows is her five-year-old half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy) who, in an effectively disturbing scene, has witnessed her mother’s lifeless body crumble before his eyes and the new duplicate walk out of the closet, naked. Andy can’t get Marti or Dad to believe that this person isn’t Mommy. But then things get really crazy as the stepmother, along with just about everyone else on the base, goes after the three of them.

Now to be honest, I wasn’t really enjoying the first half of “Body Snatchers” very much. Gabrielle Anwar, who was luminous as Al Pacino’s dance partner in “Scent of a Woman,” comes off as sort of bland in the lead role of Marti. And Terry Kinney, as her father, is worse. One would suspect that he already is a body snatcher just by looking at him, even though he isn’t supposed to be. A lot of moments seem rushed and others seem painfully obligatory. And also, Meg Tilly doesn’t have much of a character to show enough dimensions for us to know the difference between her human form and her alien form. But to be fair, there are a couple genuinely creepy moments that kept me interested in seeing if the movie could top them. One is a scene featuring Andy in a daycare center, as every other kid has the same drawing (of tentacles spreading) except him. And another is the scene I just mentioned, in which Andy sees a newly-formed alien in the form of his mother.

Then about forty-five minutes into the movie, “Body Snatchers” really comes alive with a tense, suspenseful second half in which Marti, her father, Andy, and her helicopter pilot boyfriend (Billy Wirth) are on the run from the pod people. The structure is very clever, the horror continues with further suspense, we feel the characters’ fear, and the visuals are stunning.

Frightening moments include—shots of the pod people giving chase in packs (it’s always frightening when groups of people go after one small group); a scene in which the boyfriend finds Marti in a shed full of pods ready to take over (her body double is already formed as the boyfriend must save the real Marti); and a sequence involving an attack on a helicopter.

There are many other unnerving moments, mainly those including the few human characters left having to pass themselves off as a pod person in order to blend in and attempt an escape from the base. For example, when the young pilot boyfriend is confronted by duplicates of his friends, he forces himself not to show an emotion. But then there’s a line that would get any teenage boy angry and you have to wonder, can he keep pulling this off so he’ll still convince them? This scene is carried over in a scene where Marti is looking for Andy—if she asks the wrong person to help her, she gives herself away. Who can be trusted?

This is the strength of “Body Snatchers”—the situations are well-established so that the terror generates convincingly.

I may have complained about Meg Tilly, but how can you not love the scene where she widens her eyes and lets it clear to Kinney, in a disturbingly calm manner, that there’s nowhere to run or hide. Tilly owns that moment, as well as a following point when she points her finger at the escaping family and screams hysterically—by the way, that’s the signal for the body snatchers to give chase.

Even if the characters aren’t well-developed and some parts of the story come off as pretty obvious, “Body Snatchers,” mainly in the second half, works as a horror film. It’s suspenseful, has a few shocking surprises, and keeps you interested in the story’s outcome. That’s good enough for me to recommend “Body Snatchers.”

Pulp Fiction (1994)

23 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who must truly love movies. And he obviously loves making them. It’s as if someone gave him a computer and a camera, and he started right away on a script and film, aching to make a movie (much like a kid that plays with his toys). You can definitely see in “Pulp Fiction,” which he co-wrote and directed, that he wanted to get every shot and every story detail just right to create a masterpiece.

Well, he definitely succeeded there. And if he hasn’t, then he definitely didn’t bore me with “Pulp Fiction,” a movie about…basically, everything from gore to violence to sex to drugs to whatever. Tarantino couldn’t possibly bore anybody with “Pulp Fiction”—he’s too gifted a filmmaker to do so. He does many complicated things with “Pulp Fiction” and it’s amazing how he’s able to pull them all off. This movie shows us one series of characters and situations, then another series, then another, and then it almost blends them all and the movie sort of doubles back on you before it’s over. These characters live in a world of crime and danger, but also excitement and intrigue.

John Travolta is Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson is his partner Jules. They are hit men working for a crime boss to carry out assignments that end in death for the people they are assigned to visit. But what Tarantino does is sensational—he allows these characters to talk before and during their assignments. For example, on their way to visit somebody they’re supposed to receive a mysterious briefcase from, Vega and Jules discuss why they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in Paris a “Royale with cheese” because of their metric system. And just when it seems like action is going to happen, it’s delayed and what happens? They still talk, giving pointless conversation, but also comic timing and somewhat realism. I loved listening to these characters talk. And throughout this movie is plenty of great dialogue written by Tarantino and Roger Avery.

It’s interesting how these characters are played out. Vega doesn’t clean up after himself, probably because he doesn’t know how, but he knows plenty of people who are able to help him out, some of them involuntarily. There’s another complicated character—a boxer named Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) who was ordered to throw a fight, but doesn’t, so he leaves with his sweet girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros) right away. Of course she doesn’t understand why. And then there’s the watch that Butch was given which becomes an important part of Butch’s story. The story of that watch is told in a flashback through a monologue by Christopher Walken and gives the film its biggest laugh. Then there’s the outlaw couple played by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer who also talk before robbing a restaurant in the beginning and end of the movie. And then there’s the wife of the crime boss (Uma Thurman) whom Vega is paid to take on a night of the town. This results in a wonderfully tense sequence in which Vega is forced to take her to his friend’s house after she overdoses on heroin. He has to give her an injection of adrenaline straight into her heart. His friend (Eric Stoltz) says, “You brought you here! You give her the shot!” That scene is sensationally well-written and well-crafted. I could watch that scene over and over again. And almost all of the scenes in this movie are inventive and original. Another great thing about this movie is I never knew from one point to the next what was going to happen…and then something bigger happens.

“Pulp Fiction” is a great film to watch and a great film to listen to. It’s truly a film that shows what a great filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is, and how great it came to be in the years since. I loved every minute of “Pulp Fiction.”

Milk Money (1994)

13 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Is “Milk Money” for kids or adults? I think a better question is—is “Milk Money” trying too hard to let itself off easy? Either way, it stinks.

This is either a charming family film, a romantic comedy, a thriller, or all three. I can’t tell, because it switches back and forth. What’s the premise? Well, a trio of pre-teen boys go to the city to see a naked lady and she winds up living in their suburban home, where she hides from gangsters and falls in love with the single father of one of the boys.

Wow. With a premise like that, I’m surprised you’re still reading this.

The boys—shy Frank (Michael Patrick Carter), neat-freak Kevin (Brian Christopher), and cool Brad (Adam LaVorgna)—are about twelve years old and go to middle school, where they learn sex education. (By the way, isn’t 9th grade when you’re supposed to start taking that class?) In an opening scene, we see them talk about stuff they find in their mothers’ and sisters’ rooms, like a diaphragm. They notice the girls in their school, and they also watch porn, to look further into their curiosity.

The boys come across some money and they ride their bikes into the nearby city of Pittsburgh, where they hope to find a prostitute naked and pay her for it. This is where they meet “V” (Melanie Griffith), who takes her shirt off for $103.

Right away, you can probably tell how uncomfortable this is. The scene in which she takes her shirt off to the boys is creepy. OK, we don’t see any nudity except from the back, since this movie is rated PG-13, but that doesn’t make the scene any less creepy to see the boys’ reactions—one of which has his eyes closed. (“I can’t do it—I wanna be a gentleman!”) How does the movie try to force itself out of the awkwardness? By cutting to the boys walking down a nearby alley, with cigarettes in the mouth—the cigarettes aren’t lit and there’s cheerful music playing over the scene. This is far from less-than-awkward.

The boys’ bikes are stolen, so V gives them a ride home. But as V drops Frank off at his house, her car stalls and she’s forced to stay in the suburbs—specifically, Frank’s treehouse. Frank’s dad Tom (Ed Harris) is led to believe she’s a math tutor, helping a friend with his homework. And of course, there are many misunderstandings and misreading of double meanings, neither of which are more painful than funny. This sets up the romantic angle of the film, as V and Tom start to fall for each other, with Tom not knowing until later that she’s a hooker living in his son’s treehouse until her car is fixed. It’s more unfortunate that Griffith and Harris don’t share much chemistry together, so it’s harder to buy into their supposed romance.

But wait a minute—it turns out the broken-down car belongs to V’s pimp (Casey Siemaszko) who has hidden a load of money in the trunk (V doesn’t know this). So, an angry gangster, who has killed the pimp, is looking for V because he knows she has the money and thinks she stole it. This leads to an action climax to show that the film surely just does not care about what it’s supposed to be about. We have it all—the gangsters crashing the kids’ school dance, the kids getting away by driving a car, and can you believe that car actually blows up?

The worst scene in the movie is when Frank brings V to class for his sex ed presentation. Tell me if this makes any sense—Frank locks the teacher out of the classroom, surely doesn’t get graded for this, sneaks V in through the window, uses her as a visual aid for a reproduction assignment, and doesn’t even get punished for it.

What were these writers thinking when they wrote “Milk Money?”

The three young actors—Michael Patrick Carter, Brian Christopher, and Adam LaVorgna—are fine, despite given clichéd writing to their characters. Ed Harris does what he can with his role and even manages to give the character some dignity—he’s a high school science teacher trying to save some wetlands. But Melanie Griffith, who used to be an exciting comic actress (see “Working Girl”), is pretty bad. She fails miserably at her dramatic moments and her comic moments are merely OK.

“Milk Money” is a mess. When its writing isn’t embarrassing, it’s very much clichéd. The film pretty much fails when the setup makes itself known, the stuff with the gangsters is completely unnecessary, the romance isn’t convincing, and it tries to make itself into a charming family comedy when really it’s a mashup of stuff for kids and adults. Well, let’s face it—“Milk Money” isn’t for either. It’s made for rocks.

The River Wild (1994)

11 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The River Wild” is predictable. I’ll admit that. You can guess more-or-less where the film’s story is going to go. But that doesn’t make it a bad movie. Actually, I think it’s a terrific action-thriller. It has top-notch acting; it features a fully-realized main character played with more than the right amount of gusto by Meryl Streep than it deserves; it’s shot wonderfully in the great outdoors, the Salmon River in Idaho; and it has its share of tense moments. I enjoyed watching “The River Wild.”

So what do I mean by predictable? Well, here’s the setup:

Meryl Streep plays Gail, a former river guide and rafting expert who decides to take her son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello) on a whitewater rafting journey for his birthday. Her husband Tom (David Strathairn) is a workaholic architect who is reluctant to go on this trip. But he shows up at the last minute, though he is more concerned with getting work done than enjoying the outdoor life and spending time with his family. Gail knows the territory well, and even once braved the challenge known as the Gauntlet, which is said to be the most dangerous set of rapids. (She tells her family that one person was killed and another was paralyzed for life.) Also on the river are Wade (Kevin Bacon) and Terry (John C. Reilly), who are not so experienced in this sort of thing and have lost their guide. They meet Gail and family who decide to let them come along and join them. Roarke is able to befriend them because Wade seems like a nice guy. But the further they go downstream, the more distrust Gail and Tom feel towards Wade and Terry. And things get more ominous when Wade shows Roarke a loaded gun, and Tom plans to confront Wade…

So from reading that setup, you might have already guessed where this is going. Wade and Terry are on the run; they know that Gail knows the river, so she can help them escape; they make their true presence known, as they’re midway through; Gail, Tom, and Roarke are held hostage; and the way Wade and Terry want to go is through the Gauntlet. I was almost about to give a “SPOILER ALERT” for this review, but what’s the point?

The plot is thin and predictable as they come.

But there’s more than enough to make up for that. First and foremost is the fine acting by the cast. They aren’t caricatures or one-note figures thrown in for marketable reasons; they’re well-developed characters played by great actors. Meryl Streep is wonderful as to be expected, and is really the backbone of this movie. She’s physically fit, which is something you rarely see in her other roles, and she plays the character as smart and as tough as we would like to see in this role. Streep captures Gail’s energy and terror perfectly. She has the makings of a strong female action hero.

Kevin Bacon is well-cast as the ruthless Wade, delivering an effective mix of menace and charm. David Strathairn is convincing as an uptight workaholic suddenly pushed to his limits. John C. Reilly is good as Wade’s sidekick whose hesitance, especially when the group is shooting the rapids, makes for some comedic moments.

“The River Wild” also has top-notch production values important to the film’s success. The cinematography is outstanding and the suitable music score is effective assistance. The climax of the film, in which the group inevitably race down the aforementioned dangerous Gauntlet, is exhilarating. Watch this movie on a big screen—you might feel like you’re experiencing this with the characters.

I’m not going to lie—I think that maybe “The River Wild” would have been more effective if it was just about this woman bringing her family to see the beautiful river before it’s “polluted,” and trying to settle things with her distant husband along the way. (And just drop the whole thing about the two guys and the thriller aspects.) That would have been an interesting family drama, and there could have been a lot played off from that.

But while reviewing for “The River Wild” for it is rather than what it isn’t, I still think it’s an effective thriller. Is it familiar? Yes. But it’s also well-executed and delivers the goods.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

26 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” is the seventh entry in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” horror movie franchise, with director Wes Craven back in the saddle after the original film ten years before. I liked Craven’s original film, and I thought the five sequels that followed were dull, standard slasher films (though with a few good twists thrown in, particularly in the third movie), all of which Craven had little to do with. But Craven has returned for a seventh film, and it’s the best one in the series.

The “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise has been popular mainly because of its villain—the serial killer with knives for fingers and a dark comic personality: Freddy Krueger. But wait. If Freddy died in the sixth film—actually entitled “Freddy’s Dead”—then how can he come back for a seventh film? It’s the same reason killer Jason Voorhees came back for more “Friday the 13th” sequels. The public wants him back, so the character keeps coming back. Horror movie monsters can transform into cultural phenomenon to the point where maybe they create their own existence in reality that forces the writers to create a new script for them.

That’s a crazy idea, but “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” is centered around that idea. What if Freddy wasn’t a horror movie character, but more like a real thing? What if he didn’t like, as much as his fans, the idea that his character was killed off? This movie plays with that concept and has a lot of fun with it. The result is a quite intriguing horror film.

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” brings Freddy back to life, as he haunts the nightmares of a few people who worked on the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” film. Most notably troubled is Heather Langenkamp, who played the heroine Nancy in the original film. She gets strange, harassing phone calls from a caller who sings the haunting “Freddy” song (the one that goes, “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you”). Her son Dylan (Miko Hughes) has an odd habit of sleepwalking and murmuring, “Never sleep again,” while also putting himself in great danger. Robert Englund, who played Freddy in the films, is having nightmares and painting weird pictures.

And Wes Craven himself has been having nightmares too, and is writing a script for a new screenplay. When things start to go very wrong, and Heather actually starts to believe that Freddy might be alive in the real world, she asks Craven about what he’s writing. It turns out that what he’s writing becomes real in Heather’s life. Craven believes that the only way to stop Freddy is to make another movie, and because most of the story involves Heather’s original character, Heather is the focus. This means she has to fight Freddy as Nancy again. Only this time, there’s no shouting of “cut” for reshoots. This is real, or as real as you can be in a dream where if you die in the dream, you die for real.

By the way, Heather is asked to play Nancy for another “Nightmare” movie even though she clearly died in the third movie. But if they can bring Freddy back to life, I don’t see why Nancy doesn’t have a fighting chance.

The idea of “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” being a horror film within a horror film is unusual, but I’ll take this concept over just another standard story of Freddy just invading people’s dreams. While “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” follows the “Nightmare on Elm Street” tradition in that it plays with visions of fantasy and reality (in fact, the contrasts grow kind of tiresome after a while, because they seem kind of obvious at times), and while it also keeps the blood and gore consistently horrifying (and the special effects are top-notch), it’s mainly focused on the people who know the tradition by heart because they love to watch horror films. What effect do they have on these people? This includes the actors, who are pleased by the cult following that the series has brought onto the public, and then are horrified by the evil force that the series has generated upon them as well. This affects their own lives.

Having these people play themselves (more or less) in this movie is quite fun. Heather Langenkamp actually shows more dimensions as herself than as Nancy in the original film. She had to, if she was to remain credible. She’s game as an actress who appreciates the fame, but concerned about why she is famous. Wes Craven is terrific, playing himself as a bright filmmaker who knows more about what’s happening and keeps most details a mystery in order to keep the “story” going. Bob Shaye, head of New Line Cinema (which released this film and the predecessors), is gamely satirical as himself stating reasons why there should be a new movie—it’s what the fans want. Robert Englund seems like a fun guy to talk to, despite his reputation as a movie monster. And John Saxon, who played the father in the original film, has a chance to be Heather’s “counselor” in reality when things go wrong and Heather warns him about Freddy.

There are darkly comic moments in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,’ such as in an early scene where we see the making of a “Nightmare” movie, with an animatronic Freddy glove and it comes to life and slaughters the special-effects guys (that’s a dream sequence, foreshadowing events in the movie—very clever). But also, there are some genuinely frightening moments in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” Most of them have to do with Heather’s young son Dylan, who is constantly put in harm’s way. One scene has him on top of a jungle gym, possibly being manipulated by Freddy, and about to fall as Heather races to get to him. Then there’s the scene in which Dylan is sleepwalking and makes his across a freeway, nearly being hit by cars and trucks. These are done very well; they’re sincerely creepy moments.

Freddy Krueger himself has updated. While he’s best known as a twisted killer with many one-liners that give him a dark-comedic personality, he actually comes across as legitimately frightening here. He’s more threatening and less comical. He’s more of a monster here than in the other movies. Also, and here’s a nice touch, his appearance is somewhat different than in the films—not too much, but you can tell the difference between the movie-Freddy and the movie-within-the-movie-(reality)-Freddy. Robert Englund is game too and has fun contrasting his actor role with his Freddy role. You can take the campiness of his original Freddy; this is the more frightening Freddy here.

Oh, and I should also mention that Freddy Krueger is listed in the end credits as playing himself. Mwahahaha!

Another positive element to mention for “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” is that it’s unpredictable. There are many neat tricks and twists to be found throughout this story (or story-within-a-story, if you will). And there are some neat omens, like the constant earthquakes in the earlier scenes and even the earlier dream sequences that foreshadow some important deaths. You’re wondering how is this going to pay off, and it does.

Though admittedly, some of the “meta” elements can get confusing, especially at the very end, “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” as a whole is a hip, funny, and scary horror film. It’s odd that the two “Nightmare” movies with Wes Craven turned out to be the most successful. I honestly don’t mind Craven working on another “Nightmare” movie. Just hope he’s not doing it because of crazy nightmares, though.

The Client (1994)

23 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s easy to see why John Grisham writes best-selling novels. His stories may not be particularly new, but his characters are fresh, original, and three-dimensional. It helps to have memorable, compelling characters to follow in any story. This is true of his book “The Client,” which was adapted into a film in 1994. The film—named “The Client”—is just what you’d expect. The story is told in a credible-enough way right before it drifts into improbable territory at the end, in which all of these appealing, three-dimensional characters are thrust beyond their credibility. There are enough things to praise in “The Client” that I’m going to recommend the film for its strengths.

As the movie opens, the eleven-year-old hero Mark Sway and his little brother are playing in the woods near their trailer park in Memphis, Tennessee (Grisham’s usual Southern setting). A black car drives into the woods and the brothers sneak over to see an overweight lawyer get out of the car, stick one end of a garden hose into the exhaust pipe, and another end in a window. Mark realizes what he’s attempting to do and tries to stop him, but is caught by the lawyer (named Jerome “Romey” Clifford) who puts him in the car with him and tells him why he’s committing suicide—he also tells him something he definitely shouldn’t know that involves the Mafia and the whereabouts of a missing dead body.

Mark escapes and the lawyer offs himself. When Mark calls the police and sneaks back to watch them take away the body, he gets caught and is questioned. But this is a smart (though frightened) kid who knows that if he tells them that he was in the car and that Romey told him what he knows, he and his family will be in danger by the mob. He tries to cover his experience by lying, but there’s evidence against him. Also, there’s an FBI agent named Roy Foltrigg, known to the public affectionately as “Reverend Roy” because of his tendency to quote scripture during court. Luckily, the kid is smart enough to know that he needs a lawyer. And he finds one—a tough-as-nails female lawyer named Reggie Love who only costs a dollar for Mark. But can Mark keep his secret?

If the story isn’t enough to suck you in, the characters and their performances from the actors really are. Brad Renfro, as Mark, is a natural actor—there doesn’t seem to be a moment when he’s acting. He’s a tough Southern kid who is very resourceful and wise for his age. Then, there’s Susan Sarandon, who plays Reggie Love. She’s as tough as lawyers come, but has her own demons to conquer—she has a troubled back story. Sarandon is great here. And then, there’s Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Reverend Roy in an over-the-top performance. How can you not like him when he snaps in court? “What hubris is this?! Speak, child, now! Lyin’ lips are an abomination to the Lord!”

The film falls short of being a great thriller and winds up being only good. Oh, there are great sequences in the movie, to be sure. Three, in my opinion, are most memorable. The first one comes right at the beginning, when Mark is stuck in a car with the suicidal lawyer who plans to do away with the kid before himself—there’s great tension with the music and the atmosphere, particularly. Another great sequence is the first meeting of Mark and Reggie—Renfro and Sarandon share a great rapport with each other in almost every scene when they’re together, but this is the strongest, I believe. The third great sequence is the courtroom scene in which Mark must finally decide whether or not to tell what he knows—Ossie Davis is especially good as the judge in this scene, as he cuts through Reverend Roy’s bull. These sequences are spectacularly well-handled and well-shot. But the major flaw with the movie is with the villains—generic mobsters, led by Barry the Blade (Anthony LaPalgia). They want to silence the kid, to kill if necessary…and that’s about it. Nothing exciting or original there; nothing of substance. Also, the final half isn’t believable—it’s just a “Hardy Boys” scenario in which Mark and Reggie are sneaking around the boathouse in New Orleans searching for clues. No points for guessing correctly whom they encounter.

“The Client” is a good film, but not as great as it leads up to be. I wouldn’t place the blame on John Grisham, who wrote the source material. I can possibly place the blame on Akiva Goldman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Getchell. They should’ve known that the final half wouldn’t be as credible as what came before it. Maybe purists of Grisham’s novels would’ve thanked them for making something different. (Then again, I could be wrong.) But I can still go back and rewatch “The Client” and see it for its strengths rather than its flaws.