Archive | January, 2013

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

31 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Beauty and the Beast” may just be the greatest animated movie I’ve seen. It’s certainly the finest I’ve seen, but it deserves a spot on any list of all-time great movies. I really think it’s that good. It’s a wonderfully told, great-looking, joyfully-animated movie that has the same magic as other great Disney animated features such as “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” and “The Little Mermaid,” but the movie may just be something more.

The “beauty” of the movie’s title is a beautiful young woman named Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara), who lives in a French provincial town where she is the oddball and everybody knows it. The locals can’t believe that a woman of her beauty keeps to herself, cares for her inventor father Maurice (Rex Everhart), is obsessed with books and stories, and wants “more than this provincial life,” as her opening song suggests. The town’s handsomest man—a narcissistic, buffoonish hunter named Gaston (Richard White)—believes he should have the town’s most beautiful girl and sets out to marry Belle, who is repelled by him.

Maurice goes on a journey through the mysterious forest nearby and loses his way, leading him to the dark castle of the Beast. The Beast is a monstrous, uncompassionate, half-man/half-wolf creature who takes Maurice as his prisoner. When Belle finds him, she begs to take his place. We already know the origins of the Beast, explained in opening narration over a series of pictures on stain-glass windows. The Beast was a handsome but horrid prince whose cruelty got him into trouble with a witch, who transformed him into the Beast and everyone living in the castle into household objects—the butler is now a candlestick and the maid is now a teapot, for example. The only way to reverse the spell if the Beast can love and be loved in return before a magic rose, held in the west wing of the castle, wilts away.

Belle and Beast start off unpleasantly. His attitude is hostile towards her and she finds life in the castle very dreary. But with help of the helpful live objects, they learn to accept one another. As their relationship develops further, so does their romance as they realize they start to love each other, despite their differences. But Gaston will not stand for it as he rallies the whole town to come to kill the Beast and take Belle back.

“Beauty and the Beast” provides a pair of memorable, three-dimensional characters to follow, making this romance into a wonderful tale. Belle is not like all the other Disney animated heroines, and hardly like any animated heroine as far as I’m concerned. She’s independent, bright, strong-willed, kind, free-spirited, and is beautiful but doesn’t flaunt it. She doesn’t care about how she looks and doesn’t share Gaston’s logic (or lack of logic) that beautiful people should be together. All the other women in this movie are dim-witted and constantly swooning over men. Belle just keeps her nose in the books and doesn’t bat an eye when confused passersby notice her as the odd one in the neighborhood. When Gaston comes on to her, she turns him down, not taking any of his bull. And when she sees the Beast, she’s admittedly frightened of his appearance, but lets down her defense and sees the Beast for whom he could be, and who she could help make him to be. Belle is a perfect leading character for this story, and the animators do great jobs at creating her facial expressions—happiness, sadness, fear, anger, skepticism, and concern.

Now the Beast—there’s something monstrous and frightening about his giant stature, long brown fur, giant fanged teeth, beast-like walk, and deep roaring voice, but there can also be something worth caring for. The Beast learns he can genuinely love and even makes his own sacrifice to show his true nature and win Belle’s heart.

The supporting characters are memorable—every single one of them. The father Maurice is enjoyable in how curious he is about everything (his reactions to the enchantments of the castle are winning). The household objects that have personalities really take advantage of their screen time. There’s a candlestick named Lumiere (Jerry Orbach) who has a sophisticated manner and a welcoming personality (although I have to ask—why is he the only one in this movie with a French accent?); a clock named Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers) who has a nervous, uptight personality and likes to keep things in control; a kindly teapot named Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury); Mrs. Potts’ young son Chip (Bradley Pierce), now a little teacup; and a footrest that acts as the castle’s dog. All of these characters deliver many wonderful moments, including an exciting musical number called “Be Our Guest” in which they make Belle feel right at home.

Then there’s the villain Gaston—I love this guy. His idea of logic just cracks me up with laughter. He doesn’t know he’s being ridiculous in thinking that since Belle is the most beautiful woman in town, he should marry her. Everyone else in that town thinks the same way, and besides, he’s the town hero. He could be the lead character of another movie—he’s charming, good-looking, and heroic. But here, he doesn’t get his way and the more he resorts to, the more of a beast he becomes, leading to a necessary line delivered by Belle about the Beast—“He’s no monster, Gaston—you are!”

The voiceover work is perfect. Paige O’Hara gives likeability and personality to Belle; Richard White is deliciously despicable as Gaston; Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Angela Lansbury are all fantastic; and then there’s the actor voicing the Beast—if you told me Robby Benson, the wimpy, wispy actor from films such as “One on One,” provided the voice for the Beast, I wouldn’t have believed it. In fact, I didn’t even know that it was Robby Benson until I saw the credits. And to be honest, he’s excellent in this movie!

Now that I’ve talked about the memorable characters, I should get to an important topic—the animation. This is some of the best looking animation I’ve seen in a movie. It’s amazing that the animators pay attention to every detail. There’s a great, polished look to the film that helps make it inviting. The settings are drawn perfectly, especially the castle which looks unbelievably amazing. There’s a neat gothic exterior that looks like something out of the best haunted-house movies—it’s just incredible. And I should also point out a central sequence in which Belle and Beast dance in the ballroom—using computer-generated backgrounds with hand-drawn characters, there’s an extraordinary shot that works as a crane shot, moving all over the room as the two dance. It’s moments like this that make this look as real as live-action.

Then there are the songs/musical numbers—music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, both of whom worked on the music for “The Little Mermaid.” These are some of the best, most memorable songs in any Disney movie, and the production numbers are well-drawn, well-timed, and outstanding. There’s the opening number “Belle,” the villain’s theme “Gaston,” the joyous “Be Our Guest,” the observant, lighthearted song “Something There,” and the lovely, slow, noteworthy title ballad “Beauty and the Beast.”

It’s hard to resist loving “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s a perfect mix of characters, romance, music, enchantment, and animation. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this movie—kids will love its energy and spirit; adults will get even more from it. It’s a great family film that provides great entertainment.

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Amadeus (1984)

31 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Amadeus” is a film that gives a positive answer to the question “is a film about an artist as interesting as his or her work?” The answer is yes, as “Amadeus” is a historic-fiction period drama/portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and is also a high achievement in cinema history. This is one of those movies that, like most of the actual Mozart’s work, is just perfect. It’s a compelling story, a powerful drama, and a showcase of great talent.

“Amadeus” occurs through ten years of Mozart’s life, mostly spent in Vienna from the year 1781 to 1791. The film chronicles his successes and failings, but it covers more than just Mozart’s talent. It’s also an amazing portrait of creativity and envy. For you see, this film is not merely about Mozart and his work, but more of how envious the most miserable of colleagues in this craft can be to the point of trying to destroy him.

The envious one is Mozart’s rival Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) whom we first meet in the 1820s as an old man who attempts suicide while exclaiming that he killed Mozart. He is sent to an insane asylum where he gives his confession to a priest. As we see in flashback, Salieri looks back on his days as Court Composer for Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) in Vienna. Mozart was Salieri’s idol, as he recognizes greatness in Mozart’s work, even when he was a young lad. Salieri himself is actually a mediocre composer, which he doesn’t realize and no one seems to point out because the Emperor himself is tone-deaf—he wouldn’t know a great music piece if he played it himself.

Salieri meets Mozart and is utterly shocked and dismayed when he realizes that Mozart is actually just an immature child stuck in a man’s body. He simply can’t believe that one of the greatest music creators in the world, if not the greatest, behaves wildly—chasing women, making inappropriate remarks, and having very little manners. But he truly is a genius and Salieri can’t deny it. However, Salieri is saddened and confused that God would display this great talent to this “creature,” as he calls him. As Mozart grows more and more famous and infamous, Salieri becomes more envious and wants nothing more than to plot Mozart’s downfall. But what always sets him back is the power of his music.

As you may have guessed, the most complex character in “Amadeus” is not Mozart, but Salieri. This is the one telling the story; this is the one who is envious the genius brought to this spoiled brat of a man; this is the one who is caught in a mixed bag of emotions; this is the one who has ignored all of the things that Mozart has enjoyed in life, just to be noticed for his own music, but alas he’s a second-rate composer. He even goes as far as pretending to be his late (disapproving) father’s ghost to work hard on the grandest opera the world has ever known, putting Mozart to a large amount of stress. And as Mozart is lying there, suffering and pretty much close to death, Mozart begs Salieri to help him finish the composition, while Salieri plans to steal it and claim it as his own.

That piece, by the way, is of course “Requiem,” and the scene is probably the most touching in the movie, because Mozart is willing to go all out with his creativity and genius, even on his deathbed. And a great touch added to it—as the piece is written, the actual music (imagined) is developed right along with it.

Mozart is an interesting portrayal. As I’ve said, he’s an immature child trapped in a man’s body. He can be loud and obnoxious, especially with his trademark braying laugh, as he could be considered to be trapped in a state of arrested adolescence. He’s mainly like a modern-day rock star—easing his way into this world and just having the time of his life. Sometimes, he’s nervous—such as when the Emperor orders for a piece to be shortened because the music has “too many notes,” and especially when his father, whom he’s devoted to, judges him. (Even when his father dies, Mozart is still haunted by him.) But sometimes Mozart can be unpleasant. There are moments when he’s either cruel to his wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) or just unfaithful to her, though he does love her, and there’s also a scene in which he flat-out mocks Salieri’s work without knowing he’s present.

Tom Hulce plays the complicated role of Mozart and does an excellent job at playing him like Salieri sees him, as thus how we see him. Sometimes he’s likeable, sometimes he’s rude and obnoxious, but when you get down to it, he is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

F. Murray Abraham is perfect as Salieri. He’s not a standard villain for Mozart; he’s a classic, tragic figure of envy. Though we wouldn’t prefer to stir through his sort of measures, we understand the pain he’s going through. And I also have to give him credit for playing both the young and old versions of the character—thanks to some great makeup work and equally great acting by Abraham, I never would have guessed this was F. Murray Abraham playing the older Salieri. But it is. Great work!

Is “Amadeus” completely historically accurate? Maybe not. But what should it matter when this much heart is put into the story and film? Maybe some parts were exaggerated; maybe other parts were stretched out. Either way, it’s known as “historic fiction,” and not to be one-hundred-percent accurate. It’s just a movie. And it’s an excellent one too.

American Pie (1999)

31 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Many people would call the 1982 raunch-o-rama box-office hit “Porky’s” a treasure (not me); many others will call it more sick and inappropriate than funny (like me). That brings to what could be considered the “Porky’s of the 1990s”—a movie called “American Pie.” This is a better, brighter, and funnier movie than “Porky’s” and people need to look to see that because there is a difference between cruelty and humor.

The teenagers in this movie are nicer and more appealing than anybody in “Porky’s”—also, they look and feel like high school teenagers when it seemed disturbing to look at the “teenagers” in “Porky’s.” The movie focuses mainly on four high school boys who make a pact to lose their virginities by the end of the senior year. They are nervous Jim (Jason Biggs), who doesn’t know what approach to take toward girls; slow-thinking but good-natured jock Oz (Chris Klein, also good in “Election”); Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), who has a girlfriend (Tara Reid) but is afraid of commitment; and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), the smart one who is so wound up that he never uses the school’s bathroom. They’re all best friends and they’re all virgins. They make their pact when a less-popular student loses his virginity to a popular girl.

Right away, you see how fresh the movie is—how many high school movies nowadays allow their central characters to be virgins? The four teenagers in this movie look and feel like real teenagers because they’re insecure about themselves and about women. And they’re inexperienced in sex. But they’re willing to have sex before graduation day and target the prom to lose their virginities after. In his part of the pact, Oz even joins the glee club to get closer to girls. This is dangerous for his social image because he also has lacrosse to think about. A refreshing move is that Oz doesn’t care much about that.

Jim has his eyes on an attractive foreign exchange student named Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth). After finally convincing her to come to his house, Jim is totally embarrassed when his webcam is turned on and pointed at him and Nadia as they get kinky in Jim’s bed. Everyone with a computer is watching…

Most of “American Pie’s” humor takes place in the form of vulgar gags, most of which make the movie so close to an NC-17 rating (instead, it is given an R). A couple comedies before this have had such gags—the hair gel scene in “There’s Something about Mary” and the tissue sample mistaken for coffee in the “Austin Powers” sequel. This time, in “American Pie,” semen has become main ingredient—for beer and for a pie, hence the title (which has nothing to do with the popular song). This is funny because the characters are not part of the joke. Here, they’re embarrassed, and we feel their embarrassment—how could we not? They don’t know what they’re doing, so it’s funny. Most gross-out gags in movies are not funny because we see them coming and they live to gross us out. Here, in “American Pie,” they’re here just to make us laugh. I laughed a lot during this movie. Also, the movie seems to be very frank about sex. The R rating just doesn’t give in.

There are three supporting characters that stand out among the other characters. One of them is Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy), who completely understands and tells his son how proud he is of him and that he feels his pain—maybe he’s been there before. I loved his lecture on the birds and the bees, using visual aids. When he finds his son doing something very unusual to the apple pie they were supposed to eat for dinner, he just says, “Well…we’ll just your mother we ate it all.” This is one of the best movie fathers in any teenage comedy. Another character that stands out is Kevin’s girlfriend’s best friend (Natasha Lyonne, whose deadpan comic timing is wonderful here). Finally, there’s the irritating (but also very funny) Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott). He’s enough of a sleazeball for us to want to slap him in the face, but enough of a smartass for us to laugh at him. He never shows any sign of sympathy for any of the other characters and would love to create misery for his own amusement. And I won’t dare say how he gets his comeuppance at the end of the movie, but let’s just say Finch now understands why “The Graduate” is a classic film.

“American Pie” has as many laughs as “Animal House” and a lot more laughs than “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” And like I said, it’s a much better film than “Porky’s” because it’s OK to be raunchy, crude, and vulgar…as long as it’s funny instead of cruel.

Explorers (1985)

31 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Explorers” is a family-friendly gem that is sort of let down by its final act. This film has a great setup that doesn’t leave a strong payoff—in fact it’s real silly. But that doesn’t mean I won’t recommend the film. It’s just that maybe it deserved a little more than what it had to offer. Besides, maybe the journey is the most important part of the movie.

The film is a kid’s science-fiction fantasy directed by Joe Dante (“Gremlins”) and it features three young boys as the central characters. One is a dreamer; one is a young scientist; and the other is a loner that the other two boys befriend in the beginning of the story. The dreamer, Ben (Ethan Hawke), has been having these strange dreams that involve a circuit board. Intrigued by the dream, he draws what he can remember of the circuit board on a sheet of paper to see what his genius friend, Wolfgang (River Phoenix), can make of it.

Don’t ask me how, but with the aid of Ben’s dream, Wolfgang is able to create a solid sphere that can break through a brick wall and can be controlled by Wolfgang’s computer. Loner Darren (Jason Presson) is in on the secret as the boys realize that, when enlarging the sphere, they all can fit inside this thing and use it as a force field…and also are able to fly around in it. So, they get this idea to make an aircraft out of an old Tilt-a-Whirl.

If you think this sounds like a silly idea, you’re not far off. It is a silly idea. But the strange thing about “Explorers” (and yet so wonderful about it) is that it takes this idea seriously but not too much. I love how everything develops as the kids are figuring what to do with this new discovery. It helps that the kids are fresh and likable. It’s fun to watch them as they go on.

But that’s only the first half of the movie. When the second half approaches, the boys have already flown above town in their own homemade spaceship and are reaching signals from what could be another planet. (Some of these signals come from within their own dreams.) But what happens when they actually do go into outer space, I probably shouldn’t give away. But I will say this—these boys are bright enough that we want them to find something really interesting; their find isn’t up to it. I suppose it’s fine and fun for younger kids, but for others who really get into this film from the start, it’s kind of disappointing.

I don’t want to sound too harsh, because the payoff is kind of amusing if not what one might expect. Maybe this is why I’m recommending the film. And besides, what really matters is the journey, and “Explorers” is a very fun journey. It’s a delightful, entertaining watch.

Raising Arizona (1987)

31 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Where did a comedy like “Raising Arizona” come from? This movie is all over the map and to call the comedy offbeat would be an understatement—everyone in this movie is either foolish or insane, the screenplay’s dialogue for the characters is quirkily poetic, and it’s hard to figure whether it takes place in reality or another dimension (though I’m close to picking the latter). But I loved this movie mainly because it’s consistent—consistently funny and crazy.

In a 13-minute pre-opening credit sequence that is pure montage and narration, we meet our main characters—an ex-convict named H.I. “Hi” McDonough (Nicolas Cage) and his wife Edwina “Ed” (Holly Hunter), who takes police mug shots. Actually, in a funny twist, that’s how they met. Hi meets Ed as she takes his pictures when he’s first convicted. Then the second time he’s convicted, he notices some sadness in her life and begins to charm her. Then the third time he’s convicted, he actually proposes to her. (You see, Hi has a tendency to rob convenience stores, which always lands him in jail.) When Hi is released, again, he decides to start a clean wife and actually marries Ed. They live in a trailer out in the boonies, near a small town in Arizona. They want to have a child, but can’t because Ed can’t conceive and adoption is out of the question since Hi is a repeatedly-convicted ex-felon. But then they hear of popular furniture dealer Nathan Arizona’s newly-born quintuplets and decide that that’s too much for him and wife to handle, so…they decide to borrow one of them.

Sheesh, so much story put into the first thirteen minutes, before the credits appear. But I thought it was quite enjoyable because of how it never seemed to stop. With Hi’s “poetic” voiceover narration of the sequence and just the over-the-top delivery of the characterizations of Hi and Ed make for a zany experience that I quite enjoyed. And that sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which is equally zany.

For example, the following scene is in which Hi sneaks into the babies’ room to steal one of them. He inspects them all to see which one seems right, and they all run (or crawl) amok around the room, while Hi tries to control them while also attempting not to make any noise while Arizona is downstairs. The wide-angle shots, low-angles, and closeups add to the wackiness of a situation that…to tell the truth, could be very disturbing. Somehow Nicolas Cage makes “baby-stealing” seem less creepy. It’s strange.

Another overly-executed sequence is when Hi and Ed go to a convenience store to buy the baby (whom they call “Junior”) a pack of Huggies. The big mistake Ed makes is letting Hi go in while she stays in the car with the baby. Of course Hi robs the clerk, and this leads to a chase scene that is…well, not boring. Madness ensues during the chase, as Hi goes through streets, backyards, and a supermarket while being chased by the crazed clerk, armed police, and even a pack of snarling dogs!

“Raising Arizona” was the second movie written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who obviously know how to make exciting movies. They certainly showed that in their debut film, “Blood Simple,” a completely different film than this one. They use unique camera angles and quirky characters to tell their stories, and the results are quite effective.

All of the characters in “Raising Arizona” are memorable. Nicolas Cage’s Hi is charmingly dangerous with some sincerity in him, Holly Hunter’s Ed is ultimately stubborn to the point where she seems somewhat psychotic, Trey Wilson’s Arizona is suitably flamboyant, and then there are these folks—two escaped convicts (John Goodman and William Forsythe) who are dumb as posts, Hi’s boss Glen (Sam McMurray) who gladly tells bad joke after bad joke, and Glen’s perky wife (Frances McDormand). They’re all enjoyable to watch and the Coen Brothers cast game actors who really go for it with their roles. I should also mention that their dialogue is not normal. These rural folks all talk like they’re in a Shakespearean play, with countryside jokes put in for good measure. How weird is that?

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention Randall “Tex” Cobb as Hell’s Angel type who may be just a bounty hunter, but Hi describes him as a demonic being who rides on his motorcycle with a blaze trail following. He becomes an important asset to the story when Arizona hires him to get the baby back. This subplot is very silly, to tell the truth, but it’s also a lot of fun and as wacky as the rest of the movie.

“Raising Arizona” is a weird, preposterous and yet mostly hilarious and well-put-together offbeat comedy with a lot of material, aided by flashy camera work and eccentric characters. It’s weird, goofy to say the least, and very entertaining.

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.”

Source Code (2011)

30 Jan

© 2010 Vendome Pictures

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If I said “Source Code” was a mix between “Groundhog Day” and “Inception,” people might think I copied Richard Roeper’s first comment in his review. Good thing I actually checked out his review before I wrote mine. Actually, I’m thankful because I realize that saying a title is a mix of something and something, where does that leave the title I’m really referring to? Think about that. But seriously, “Source Code” is a strange, bewildering, and terrific science-fiction thriller with so many ideas, all of them intriguing.

As the movie opens, a man named Colter Stevens awakes from a nap and finds everything around him strange. So right away, we’re interested because he’s wondering the following: Why is he on this Chicago commuter train? Who is this lovely woman who apparently knows him? Why is she calling him “Sean?” And more importantly, why does he see another face looking back at him in the mirror of the restroom? All he knows is that his name is Colter Stevens and he’s a helicopter pilot. All we know is that he’s played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

It’s a mystery that I’m already interested in seeing solved. Without giving too much away from the story (actually, going by what the TV spots show), the train explodes with him on it. But wait! He awakens in a secret Army lab without a scratch. How can this be? Colter knows he’s himself again (and not “Sean”) and the people holding him know him as well. A scientist named Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) talks to him and tells him that the train was destroyed by a terrorist bomb and is not the only one. Apparently, a bigger explosion is set for the middle of Chicago. Where does Colter fit into this? Well, the brain of one of the unfortunate souls on that train saved memories of the last eight minutes on the train before the explosion.

OK, so I can’t say why Colter himself is involved because it would give something in the plot away. What I’ve just written is the first fifteen minutes of the movie. But let me continue to say that the rest of the movie (I’m only setting a small description) features Colter as he relives the final eight minutes on the train before the explosion to find the bomb and identify the bomber. He has to do this until he gets it all right. And of course, with these multiple trips, Colter is experiencing it all over again, while the passengers always feel like this is the first time this happened.

So with that last statement, there’s the “Groundhog Day” distinction. With the futuristic technology that allows space travel, there’s the “Inception” distinction. There’s nothing wrong with that at all—this is fun. I’m excited and riveted. I’m racing along with the likable Colter, trying to piece together everything. Even if this technology doesn’t exist, it does seem plausible enough for this movie. This is the kind of science fiction film that is set with ideas. It’s not just special effects that are brought to the screen that impress us—it’s a sense of wonder and mystery that wins us over.

There’s a human element to “Source Code” in that Colter thinks about what it’d be like to have less than eight minutes to live. He wants to contact his father, with whom he hasn’t spoken in a long time. He also feels sympathy for the female passenger named Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), “Sean’s” close friend who has had a crush on him for the longest time. Soon, through these multiple trips, Colter begins to care for her and feels like he should save her and change fate. He also gets to know some of the other passengers, including a comedian preparing for a show in Chicago, and sees that he can’t just let them die.

Jake Gyllenhaal is a solid lead—it should also be mentioned that he’s solving a more complicated mystery here than in “Donnie Darko.” We believe what he’s going through, mainly because we know as much as he does to begin with, but he’s also a stable anchor for a protagonist, showing a blend of cockiness and confusion. Michelle Monaghan is also good as the beautiful train passenger who is also living the same event over and over but just not noticing it and wondering what is going on with her friend lately (each time). How can you not like Michelle Monaghan? She’s a lovely woman and shows a lot of credibility as an actress. That can also be said for Vera Farmiga, who takes over with her strong presence every time she’s on screen.

“Source Code” is a powerful, ingenious thrill ride. Why wasn’t this released in the summer is beyond my understanding. Maybe it’s the length of 93 minutes, while other summer blockbusters are close to or over two hours in length. Maybe it’s the title, I don’t know. I do know that I wasn’t bored—there wasn’t one moment when I was checking my cell phone for the time. I was intrigued by everything on screen. I’m not quite sure I figured out everything that was resolved in the final half, but I will see it again to see if I can solve everything along the way.

NOTE: I have seen “Source Code” several other times since I wrote this review. I still have a bit of trouble trying to analyze every sci-fi element. I decided, let it be. It’s thrilling sci-fi. Deal with it.