Tag: river phoenix


Explorers (1985)
★★ / ★★★★

Constantly wondering of the kind of places and lifeforms outside of Earth, Ben (Ethan Hawke) dreams about a circuit board one night and draws it out the moment he wakes up. On the way to school, he shows the image to his best friend, Wolfgang (River Phoenix), who reckons himself as a scientist. Soon enough Wolfgang is able to built it and discovers that the chip creates a force field capable of traveling long distances at high speed.

“Explorers,” written by Eric Luke and directed by Joe Dante, generates a sense of wonder during the first half but offers a disappointing final thirty minutes when the junior high students actually meet the long-awaited extraterrestrials. It works best when Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren (Jason Presson) are interacting—trying to figure out what to do with their discovery—because the characters have different and colorful personalities that children and pre-teens can relate with.

Ben is the dreamer, Wolfgang is the pragmatist, and Darren lives in the moment. Sometimes these personalities clash but not in a way that it creates big drama and impedes the story’s forward momentum. The clash is often dealt with humor and so we get a chance to appreciate their friendship despite their disagreements. The script is written in such a way that we believe there is a good reason why the boys are friends.

There is a misplaced romantic subplot between Ben and a girl classmate. I found it to be forced, silly, and cheesy. Although I believed that the dreamer is at an age when he is beginning to notice the allure of the opposite sex, not once is the girl given anything interesting to do or say. As a result, she comes across more than an object than an actual person with real thoughts or ideology. It is most amusing when Wolfgang rolls his eyes every time his friend goes girl-crazy.

The special and visual effects are dated based on today’s standards but they retain a level of charm nonetheless. One can argue that such a quality works for the film as it ages because the story is more about imagination than showcasing the most crisp, first-rate images. When I was a kid, I did not care whether a movie or television show looked old; what mattered was the energy, the story, whether the characters encountered a lot of surprising dangers and last-minute saves.

The aliens ought to have been more interesting. Although there is irony in the eventual crossing of paths between extraterrestrials and human children, the tone is far too comedic. Gone is the sense of wonder and curiosity established in the former half. The personalities of the trio feel diluted instead of more concentrated. They are overshadowed by the creatures instead of them getting a chance to ask questions and to explain how humans are like divorced from what the aliens expect.

Still, the picture is imaginative enough to be worthy of seeing at least once. Children, especially boys, who are interested in spaceships and aliens are likely to enjoy the little adventure that the main characters go through.

I Love You to Death

I Love You to Death (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★

Joey Boca (Kevin Kline), a pizza parlor owner, confesses to a priest that he had cheated on his wife, Rosalie (Tracey Ullman), about a dozen times—“give or take”—in the past two weeks. Joey claims that although he loves looking at women and being physically intimate with them, it does not mean that he no longer feels anything for his wife, readily available for his every need.

When Rosalie is returning books to the library, she catches her husband feeling up another woman behind a shelf and hears talk of going to a private place to mess around. Heartbroken and outraged, Rosalie informs her very Yugoslavian mother, Nadja (Joan Plowright), of what she has just witnessed and the duo plot to kill Joey for his indiscretions.

Loosely based on a true story in Allentown, Pennsylvania, “I Love You to Death,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, is so vibrant in its portrait of husband and wife that the darkly comedic elements work wonders when it probably should not have if the level of humor and timing had been off by a degree. And given its subject matter, it certainly easily could have been exploitative but underneath its twists and turns, it has a heart that the material is not afraid to acknowledge.

While its premise is reasonably thin, some may say gimmicky, it is a joy to watch because the actors seem really excited in playing their roles. Plowright is especially hilarious as Joey’s mother-in-law who looks for ways to antagonize him. She delivers her brilliant one-liners with such precision that we forget about her character’s age and the stereotypes that go along with it.

One of the best scenes is an argument the two share in a restaurant as Joey insults Nadja in Italian and Nadja curses at him in her native language. The neat thing is that although most of us would not be able to understand their remarks, it matters not: we feel their distain for one another by reading their facial expressions, intonations in their voices, and the way they use their hands as if they wanted to grab and pummel each other.

After one failed attempt after another in getting rid of Joey the adulterer scum, the mother-daughter’s plot becomes increasingly complicated as familiar and not-so-familiar faces begin to visit the house to finish off what they started. Devo (River Phoenix), an employee in the pizzeria, has a crush on Rosalie and claims he would do absolutely anything to win her affections. Devo is an interesting ingredient because Phoenix downplays his character’s sense of humor. Instead of attempting to match Nadja’s wit and sass, he is more about playing up ideas in his head with very poor execution.

However, the film hits a few snags in terms of pacing. When drug addicts, Harlan (William Hurt) and Marlon (Keanu Reeves), enter the equation, they are quite amusing initially. But as they spend more time in front of the camera, they begin to overstay their welcome because their type of humor relies more on slapstick rather than irony.

Finally, while the majority of the picture embraces a light-hearted tone, there are moments when it is dead serious. While the level of seriousness may vary for everyone, for me, I started to consider that maybe it is time for Rosalie and company to send Joey to the hospital when blood starts to flow.

“I Love You to Death,” written by John Kostmayer, is effective because absurd and bizarre elements are matched by enthusiastic performances. Philandering spouses will get a kick out of this.


Dogfight (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix) and his Marine friends (Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield) are going to be shipped off to Vietnam the next morning, so they figure they deserve to have some fun. After some deliberation, they decide to play a game called “dogfight” in which each player is required to put in fifty dollars in the pot, look for the ugliest girl he can find in San Francisco, and ask her if she wants to go to a party. There, the winner, one who brings the homeliest girl as a date, is to be announced. Birdlace chooses Rose (Lili Taylor), a waitress at her mom’s cafe and an aspiring folk singer.

There is something genuinely sweet, without having to result to sentimentality, about “Dogfight,” written by Bob Comfort and directed by Nancy Savoca. With such a mean-spirited premise, on the level of cruelty of Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men,” it is most surprising that, slowly, the picture unfolds into a sophisticated romance between two unlikely people: Birdlace, generous in uttering a curse word after every other sentence, and Rose, an opinionated young woman who welcomes love–but not desperate to find it.

The picture has familiar elements, but the writer puts a realistic spin on the events. To spare Rose from humiliation, Birdlace tells his date that maybe they should not attend the party he mentioned earlier, that they should do something spontaneous and go somewhere else to have fun. In most movies of similar breed, it is often that the protagonist realizes that his action is wrong only after the deed has been done. Here, since his change of heart happens earlier than what most of us come to expect, we are allowed to clearly see the point in which his conscience comes knocking hard. While putting lipstick on Rose’s lips, purposefully doing a terrible job to make her appear uglier, something inside Birdlace clicks: applying lipstick on a person is not like spraying graffiti on a wall.

A wall does not have feelings but people do. It occurs to the Marine that perhaps waitress is worth getting to know beyond her physicality. When she inevitably discovers the truth, she is, understandably, outraged. But the screenplay does not get stuck in showing or communicating to us that Birdlace is sorry. Instead, the focus is on what it means to be a young people willing to make a connection, to forge a friendship that will last, and to love the person in spite of and especially his flaws. And with love comes forgiveness. People forgive, some more easily than others, and the film is loyal to that perspective. We may not be ready to forgive Birdlace for participating in the game but Rose is.

During one beautiful night in 1963 San Francisco, Birdlace and Rose go out to dinner and do things that potential couples normally do: tease, flirt, laugh, kiss, and maybe even argue about politics. Their date, a rewarding experience for both, is occasionally interrupted by scenes of Birdlace’ buddies participating in all sorts of activities like getting tattoos of bees, a symbol of their camaraderie, and receiving fellatios from a prostitute in a movie theater. The screenplay does the unexpected once again. Instead of treating the trio with condescension since they neither seem to exhibit remorse toward the women they lured nor are they punished for their actions, the film spends time on the essence of the bonding among the three Marines. There is a sadness to it because it is very possible that not all of them will make it back. They have reason to be scared and acting out is a way of coping.

“Dogfight” avoids glamorous trappings about men meeting women before heading off to war. It is interested in the nuances between the said and unsaid, genuine and forced smiles. It utilizes silence to say a lot–loudly, proudly and clearly through Phoenix and Taylor’s charming and vulnerable eyes–about how being open-minded might lead to self-discovery and human connections one would not have otherwise if one opted to remain within one’s bubble.

Running on Empty

Running on Empty (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★

During the Vietnam War, Annie (Christine Lahti) and Arthur (Judd Hirsch) bombed a military research facility that created napalm. They believed that by the time the bomb had exploded, the facility was empty. However, there was a janitor inside and he ended up blind and paralyzed. Annie and Arthur, with their two-year-old son, Danny, go on the run from the FBI. Sixteen years later, they are still fugitives, now a family of four, and have recently moved to New Jersey with new identities.

Written by Naomi Foner and directed by Sidney Lumet, “Running on Empty” is a coming-of-age film with plenty to say about family and responsibility–responsibility to each other and with oneself. It is an effective drama because the family, whose members genuinely love one another but are constantly on edge unmitigated by their unique situation, is on the verge of a potential separation for the sake a young man’s future.

Danny (River Phoenix) has an aptitude for music. After playing a piece on the piano for his music teacher, Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley) is so impressed, he books his student an audition in Juilliard. And they want him. But there is a problem. Since the Pope family, known as the Manfields in New Jersey, has moved so often and had to change their names each time, Danny has no school record which is required for his admission.

The film is not blind to its characters’ realities and they are written smart. No judgment is placed on Annie and Arthur either as activists or radicals. They feel bad about the fact that they have ruined a man’s life because of their beliefs but their decision to bomb the research center is not given some sort of pat justification so we can root for them or like them more. Instead, the screenplay focuses on the home and how their bombing continues to change their children’s lives–oftentimes for the worse.

Annie and Arthur struggle to be good parents, taking whatever jobs they can, while keeping in mind that stability is something that they can never provide for their children. As a family, they must adapt quickly with the changes or risk going to jail. Sometimes it is scary, like how Danny and his little brother (Jonas Abry) attempt to evade the FBI in the beginning of the film and meet their parents at a designated spot if they happen to get compromised. And since it is a drama, there is no glamour in people constantly running from the law as, for example, what we expect from an action-thriller. The focus is on the pain in the attachments formed under threat of being broken in a moment’s notice.

A major subplot involves Danny falling for his music teacher’s plucky daughter, Lorna (Martha Plimpton), who has dreams of becoming a writer in New York City. She talks about her hopes for the future, going to college, and everything she is excited to accomplish. Danny listens in silence, head down, knowing that he, as long as he stays with his family, cannot share any of it with her. Nor does he have a chance of forging his own path. There is sadness there because, in a way, he has to choose between his family and his future.

The most moving scene is of Annie meeting her father (Steven Hill) in a French restaurant to ask if he might consider taking Danny so he can have a shot in leading a normal life. They have not seen each other in fourteen years. It is very moving because the reunion works as a foreshadowing in what Annie and Danny might end up having–secret meetings, unable to see each other for a very long time–if her father were to accept.

“Running on Empty” is elegant in construction plot-wise, the way it executes simple scenes, and the manner in which it highlights important yet understated emotions. Notice the scene when Danny and Lorna are at the beach. Lorna’s body tends to stay in one place, but Danny cannot help but lead them forward. With him, there is almost a subconscious discomfort in settling down.

The Bubble

The Bubble (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★

This movie showed my limited knowledge of the Israeli culture, which I think is a great thing because I’m that much more aware by the end of the day. I was surprised by how much the characters are aware and admire the American and European cultures. I enjoyed the references such as the play (which was also turned into a movie) “Bent,” competitions like “American Idol,” to actors like River Phoenix. And those are only some of the references that are talked about; some are posters on the walls and some can be seen on their television sets. In a way, these characters use foreign media to escape the unstable politics of their country. On top of that, the characters deal with finding romance–whether it’s a woman (Daniela Virtzer) searching for a man, or a man (Ohad Knoller) searching for another man (Yousef “Joe” Sweid). For an LGBT picture, it’s very political. I imagine casual moviegoers who want a typical boy-meets-boy story will be very frustrated with this because politics and romance get an equal amount of screen time. But that’s the reason why I was consistently interested in what was going on in the film: the LGBT characters are complex in a different way. It’s nice to see how the characters show their love for country by voicing out how much they oppose the war instead of supporting it. From some of the people I met, they think that the only way to show love for your country is to support its agendas–whatever they may be. This is one of the more meaningful, sensitive, intelligent, and challenging LGBT movies I’ve seen in a while.