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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Batteries' Sparks an Enchanting Fantasy

December 18, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

It has been a banner week for Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, America's premier acting couple. First, there was Sunday's splendid TV movie adaptation of their stage success, "Foxfire," and now there's "Batteries Not Included" (citywide), a real holiday treat from Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment.

Cronyn and Tandy play Frank and Faye Riley, an elderly couple who have lived their entire married life in one of those fine old apartment buildings in Alphabet City on Manhattan's Lower East Side. A collage of snapshots trace the Rileys' happy life there beneath the opening credits, but the nostalgic sepia of the old photos soon gives way to a full-color present in all its grimness.

The Rileys' now-dingy building stands alone amid a block of bulldozed rubble as starkly as a survivor of the bombing of Berlin. It's slated to go, but Riley (who has an old-fashioned soda fountain-cafe on the ground floor) and several of his neighbors are resisting eviction. A ruthless builder wants the entire block for his skyscraper complex.

The builder backs up packets of moving-expense money with a gang of brutal neighborhood thugs who smash everything they can in the face of resistance. At the end of a day that has seen his restaurant destroyed, Frank sits down at his kitchen table and says to himself, "Please somebody help us."

The next thing we know we're witnessing the arrival of a pair of flying saucers, no bigger than a Frisbee or a hub cap. As they approach, we discover they have tiny headlights and mechanical limbs. They are perfectly adorable little creatures who eat metal, reproduce and recharge themselves by plugging into a household outlet. In an instant, they magically repair all the damage done by the thugs.

Never mind what happens next. Director Matthew Robbins and his co-writers have spun an enchanting fantasy rooted in harsh reality. Robbins has said that when he and his colleagues were developing their story he had "no idea how closely we were addressing a real situation in Manhattan today." Alphabet City, best known recently as a haven for drug dealers who operated out of abandoned buildings, is already beginning to be gentrified. Some of the many surviving structures have been rehabilitated as condos, and surely new construction will soon replace the rubble. But what of the people, mainly poor and Latino, facing the loss of their homes? You can read their pleas scrawled on boarded-up buildings and fenced-in vacant lots.

That Frank and Faye and their neighbors are seriously in need of a miracle doesn't prevent "Batteries Not Included" from being lots of spirit-lifting fun. The guests from outer space are amusing, and their hosts delightful. If it was a pleasure to watch Jessica Tandy play a sharp-witted mountain matriarch in "Foxfire," it's an equal joy to see her bring to life a still-lovely woman who sometimes realizes that her mind is fading. Faye might easily have been pathetic, but the writers and Tandy emphasize the humor in her predicament. Yet they don't skirt the fact that she's increasingly becoming a burden on her devoted, courageous husband, played with warmth and dignity by Cronyn. Not surprisingly, it's Faye who has the first contact with the space creatures, and there's a delicious look of triumph on her face when she's able to prove that she's not been imagining them or their miraculous deeds. The three other holdouts in the building are Elizabeth Pena as a pregnant young Latino woman, desperately hoping for the return of her fiance; Dennis Boutsikaris as a painter who attempts to have the building declared a landmark, and Frank McRae as the building's near-silent superintendent, a massive ex-boxer.

However, the film's key figure is Michael Carmine as Carlos, the leader of the thugs. As hateful as he initially is, Robbins and his writers don't dismiss him but make us aware that he's struggling as hard to get out of Alphabet City as the Rileys and their friends are fighting to stay. Carlos has been developed with considerable care and even humor, and Carmine plays him with fervor and zest.

Not surprisingly, considering that it is a Spielberg production, "Batteries Not Included" is a handsome film, impeccably (and ingeniously) designed by Ted Haworth and enriched by a superb James Horner score that brings a melancholy tinge to its brassy big band sound. "Batteries Not Included" (rated PG) is in the best Hollywood tradition of raising serious questions in a thoroughly entertaining way. 'BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED'

A Universal presentation of an Amblin Entertainment production. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall. Director Matthew Robbins. Screenplay Brad Bird & Robbins and Brent Maddock & S.S. Wilson; from a story by Mick Garis. Associate producer Gerald R. Molen. Camera John McPherson. Music James Horner. Production designer Ted Haworth. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Special effects supervisor Ken Pepiot. Stunt coordinator Thomas Rosales Jr. Visual effects produced at Industrial Light and Magic. Film editor Cynthia Scheider. With Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Frank McRae, Elizabeth Pena, Michael Carmine, Dennis Boutsikaris, Tom Aldredge, Jane Hoffman, John DiSanti, MacIntyre Dixon, Michael Greene.

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).

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