Archive | February, 2013

Transformers (2007)

28 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Michael Bay is a director with maybe too much ambition with his work, to say the least. He doesn’t even hold a good track record with his films (examples are “Bad Boys,” “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” and “Bad Boys II”). He has many trademarks of his own—swift camera movements, frantic editing, two-and-a-half hours of running time, colorful stereotypes, intense slow motion shots of characters, tight close-ups, intense music cues, and even more notably, over-the-top visuals. He made one terrific film so far out of all of those elements—a solid thriller called “The Rock.” Now here’s Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” which almost serves as a parody of Michael Bay’s earlier films. We get just about every trademark from Michael Bay, with a handful of CGI metal robots called Transformers, based upon a popular toy franchise by Hasbro.

This is a totally preposterous and goofy-fun movie in which good Transformers and evil Transformers fight on our world, and a group of central human characters are caught in the middle of the war and race to aid the good Transformers (called Autobots) in holding the key to Earth’s survival.

These Transformers are marvelous creatures to behold. They fold and unfold like Rubik’s cubes from automobile to giant robot and then back again. Both races of robots are drawn to Earth because decades ago, the fearsome leader of the evil Transformers (called Decepticons) named Megatron crash-landed there. It is said now that he holds the All-Spark, a cube that is the key to the rebirth of their dying home planet Cybertron.

The central human characters are introduced in different subplots. We meet armed services, including Sgt. Lennox (John Duhamel) and Tech. Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson), who are attacked by a helicopter that transforms into a Decepticon. These guys are under the impression that this ten-foot-tall metal robot can be put down easily with automatic gunfire, and much later, they’re fighting a scorpion-like Decepticon in the middle of the desert. Then we meet the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) who is trying to figure out what exactly attacked the armed forces, with help from computer whizzes, including the beautiful, Australian blonde Maggie (Rachael Taylor) and optimistic hacker Glen (Anthony Anderson, overacting but funny). The political satire of this movie is that the Secretary of Defense is seemingly running the country while the President is relaxing on Air Force One, asking for a Ding-Dong.

There’s another character that is crucial to the story. His name is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and he’s a teenager who just bought his first car—a rundown yellow Camaro with racing stripes and apparently, a mind of its own. He uses it to try and pick up the popular girl in school named Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox, not entirely convincing as a high school student, but wow, is she great to look at) and the radio pretty much plays what Sam is thinking, kind of like Herbie the Love Bug. But it turns out that the car is actually an Autobot named Bumblebee. His job is to protect Sam from the Decepticons because apparently, he holds the key to Earth’s survival—a pair of glasses with a sort of map imprinted in the lenses that leads to the All-Spark (I would like to explain why there is a map on the glasses, but I’m almost getting exhausted trying to piece together the plot myself).

Oh, and I should also mention the character of the secret ops guy (John Turturro) who runs a top-secret government facility called Sector Seven and is holding the now-frozen Megatron underground. He has the priceless line, “Do you want to lay the fate of the world on a kid’s Camaro?”

All of these character plotlines lead down to the big epic battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons. And that’s when I started to grow tired and bored. I loved the setup—the characters were colorful and appealing, if not fully-developed, and the action sequences in which the armed forces shoot up Decepticons in the desert is fun. And these Transformers look great. Created by Industrial Lights and Magic, they are truly sights to behold. In their true forms, you can still see the outside parts of the automobile they transformed from—hubcaps, windshields, and all metal. Their movements are incredible and their transforming is amazing. There is also a spiderlike robot that creeps around Air Force One, hacking into the computer for information about the All-Spark. I loved watching these creations but even so, it was hard to pay much attention to the big battle in the final half. The robots fight each other in the big city, causing millions of dollars damage to buildings and cars. The military is firing at the Decepticons. The music is extremely intense. I’m thinking, “OK, OK, calm down a little bit.”

This, I think, is Michael Bay’s weakest point—giving us never-ending epic battles that don’t catch our attentions. The movie is 144 minutes. By the way, I have to ask—why does Michael Bay always love his films to be two-and-a-half hours long? Does he think one of his films will be the next big epic, this side of “Titanic?”

The CGI is impressive in the climax, but I think if the scene was trimmed down in the editing a little bit, this movie would’ve been something great. Instead, “Transformers” is only something good and worthy of three stars.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

28 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I can’t deny it—Will Ferrell is a very funny guy. Watching him run naked on a street in “Old School” or acting like a man-child in a tight elf suit in “Elf,” I can see that Will Ferrell is not afraid to take chances in making us laugh. He has a goofy, likable presence and proves he can carry a movie well with his gift. With “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” he brings his goofy charm to a new (maybe even unhealthy) level. He plays Ron Burgundy, a self-absorbed, legendary top news anchor residing in San Diego. His catchphrase: “You stay classy, San Diego.” He’s the main character in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” a vulgar, slapstick, satirical comedy that is very funny and is helped by Ferrell and the strong supporting cast. However, the laugh ratio is only half as funny as Ferrell’s previous films, but it’s still a pretty good ratio.

“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” takes place in the 70s, a time before cable and VCR—a time when everyone listened to the news, only men were allowed to anchor the news, and everyone was as classy as a clown on his day off, so to speak. While “This is Spinal Tap” was a satire about rock music, “Anchorman’s” satirical subject matter is broadcast television in the 70s. First, we get a narration by Bill Curtis, and then we see the typical TV intros to the “Channel 4 News Team,” in which Ron Burgundy and the three other team news members seem like one big happy family. There are also these silly news stories they have to cover, such as a waterskiing squirrel and a Panda Watch to make sure the news is able to capture on camera a panda giving birth.

The other news team members are Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), and Champ Kind (David Koechner). They get together with Ron to talk about vulgar subjects, swap manly stories, and, yes, even sing “Afternoon Delight” when they’re alone. They are all talk when it comes to women, while they are secretly terrified of them. And then they start to get cold feet when a striking blonde woman named Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) is hired by Ed, the station’s news manager (played by the always-reliable Fred Willard), to bring “diversity” to the station. They have a problem because she’s a WOMAN and only MEN are allowed to say the news. The dumbest of them, Brick, warns the others that, “women’s periods attract bears.” Ron and Veronica are attracted to each other, but as co-workers, they keep getting involved in many brawls.

This is a funny movie that almost comes close to being tedious when we see the ridiculousness of this news team one time too many. But they’re a likable and funny bunch. After all this, Ron does turn out to be a nice guy. And Veronica, while trying to keep her reputation as a serious anchor on the line, still loves this dim person.

It’s also funny for the obvious reason—the actor’s improvisations are funny. Every comic actor knows that they can come up with better lines of dialogue than most of what the script has to offer, and so they just go all out. And also, there are many scenes that are very funny and quite memorable. One features Brian as he tries to impress Veronica by wearing cologne that smells “worse than the time the raccoon got in the copier.” And then there’s the brawl in an alleyway involving every news team in San Diego, complete with cameos by actors I will not give away. You’ll know them when you see them, don’t worry. Oh, I should also mention that this brawl has a heavy amount of violence. Mostly, it’s played for laughs.

Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner make for some effective comedic foil, Christina Applegate is fantastic as the sort-of Cameron Diaz type of comedic female role, and Fred Willard, as if predictably, is invaluable. But it’s really Will Ferrell who scores big time here. He becomes this character and makes him into such a great comedic presence. He makes “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” his own movie.

Tomorrow, When the War Began (2012)

28 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

To tell the truth, the idea has always fascinated me. Imagine being a teenager, and you and your high-school friends are the last line of defense against an army of soldiers who invade your home. It’s a great characteristic of the term “unlikely heroes” in that the heroes are all teenagers with hardly any experience in military tactics. 1984’s “Red Dawn” is a classic example of that idea—in that film, a high school football team became America’s guerilla force when foreign armies invaded.

But now it’s time for teenagers from Down Under to take charge in “Tomorrow, When the War Began.”

Based on the first entry in the “Tomorrow” novel series, “Tomorrow, When the War Began” introduces a group of Australian teenagers who ultimately decide to turn the tables on the foreign army that has taken over their home.

It all begins when they skip the Australia Day festival to go on a camping trip in a remote land dubbed “Hell.” Why is it called Hell? Well…they say it’s because people give uninviting names to places they don’t understand, but let’s be honest—they call it “Hell” so they have fun with saying what a paradise “Hell” is. They even share a toast, “To Hell!”

One night, they notice military aircraft racing over them and don’t think much of them until they all return home to learn that the electricity is out, their houses are empty, the phone lines are down, and their families and friends have been taken, some of which executed, by a faceless enemy. The only lights on in town are the hospital and the fairgrounds, where the people are held.

Who is this army? Why do they pick this place to invade? I don’t know. They don’t address it. If they did, they did it briefly. Unlike in “Red Dawn,” there’s no movement of Communism to be found here—in fact, we never even have a scene featuring just the enemy. We just stay with these teenagers as they’re forced to do whatever they can to survive their attack and find some way to strike back.

This is fun. This is just what I wanted in this idea—teenagers banding together to fight an army. The idea is fun and there are some well-crafted action sequences for us to endure throughout the movie, as the teens use their limited resources to fight. For example, in the middle of the film, three of the kids are being chased by enemy soldiers in these really nifty armed buggies, and having to escape by driving a garbage truck. But it’s OK, because the farmer girl can drive a tractor! How hard can a big truck like this be?

Oh, and what do they do to slow the enemy down? Dump the rubbish, of course!

“Tomorrow, When the War Began” doesn’t require a lot of thinking on our parts. The best way to enjoy this movie is to accept it as a film about teenagers who know their home better than these heavily armed, totally overpowering foreign soldiers, and use that to their advantage. The climax is quite fun, as they come up with a plan to blow up the Heron Bridge so nothing more from the enemy will be deposited (easily) from outside. The funniest part of this sequence—two of the girls talk about their crushes, turn off their two-way radios in embarrassment, and are unable to hear their friends’ warnings that a few soldiers are approaching their way. In this way, it’s interesting to see a culture brought into something that they were clearly not prepared for, and that could describe the whole movie.

And give it some credit for actually having a conscience about the issue of killing human beings in order to stay ahead. Is it right to kill in battle? Who’s to decide, really?

Almost all of the young heroes look as if they stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, but they’re all pretty good actors and make decent, ironic use of their characters’ stereotypes (for example, one’s a Christian pacifistic girl who will eventually pick up a gun when she has no choice). In particular, Caitlin Stasey, as the protagonist Ellie, shows a great mix of anger and vulnerability. The other actors are Rachel Hurd-Wood (“Peter Pan”) as Ellie’s best friend Corrie, Lincoln Lewis as the cowardly Kevin, Deniz Akdeniz as bad-boy Homer, Chris Pang as Ellie’s romantic interest Lee, Ashleigh Cummings as the aforementioned Christian pacifist Robyn, and Phoebe Tonkin as rich-girl Fiona.

Oh, and I forgot to mention their school chum Chris (Andy Ryan), whom they meet midway through the film. He’s a stoner character who is of absolutely no purpose except to display poor comic relief. This character is not only useless; he’s also very obnoxious.

The ending is weak, obviously setting up for a sequel. The book series this is based upon has seven entries and this ending to the first adaptation is obviously so confident that it will spawn a sequel. That is probably my biggest pet peeve when it comes to adapting “firsts” in a series of books, because just setting up for a sequel doesn’t automatically guarantee one. As I’m typing this, plans for a sequel to “Tomorrow, When the War Began” aren’t exactly in demand. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Silent House (2012)

28 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For about the first forty-five minutes, the thriller “Silent House” delivers what you expect to find in a thriller—a sense of creepy atmosphere, a legitimate fear aspect, some good scares and unnerving moments, a main character to root for, and a large amount of tension. “Silent House” has all of that and it makes for one of the best, most intense horror movies I’ve seen recently. Unfortunately, that’s only the first half of “Silent House” which means there’s a second half to the movie that will undermine what it had going and end on a scene that is not only anticlimactic, but also very disappointing and unbelievably stupid. And it brings the movie down with it.

It’s a shame too, especially considering the talent in front of and behind the camera. First, let’s start with the technical style. “Silent House” has been shot using long takes that can create what appears to be one unbroken shot, thanks to some clever editing. This is undoubtedly a callback to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” which used the same technique. And thanks to today’s technology, we have an upgrade—in fact, the film’s opening shot (or rather, start of the shot that consists of the whole movie, practically) is spectacular, as it starts from high above our protagonist and then eases its way down to join her as she walks and continues to follow her from there.

This inventive technique is handled effectively because we are with our protagonist the entire time. No time-lapses or motioning over to something less important—our attention is focused on who it should be focused upon: our female protagonist. Her fear becomes our fear. However, this style does manage to wear out its welcome once we realize we’re in the middle of a project with a shaky handheld camera. Very shaky indeed.

The setting is an old country house in the middle of nowhere where most of the action takes place, thus giving us the hint of claustrophobia. There’s no cell phone service, no electricity, and most of the windows and doors are padlocked. (Don’t say nobody tries to escape from the house when things go wrong.) A young woman named Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen, showing extraordinary work here), her father (Adam Trese), and her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) hope to sell it sometime soon. But later that day, Sarah and her father are alone in the house and when Dad investigates a strange noise coming from upstairs, Sarah hears a loud thud and calls for him, with no answer. Soon, she realizes that there is someone in the house and that “someone” has Sarah’s father, is looking for her, and there is hardly a way for her to escape.

This is the part of the movie that is very frightening. We follow Sarah to many hiding spots throughout the dark house and we know just as much as she does that someone is following her and will find her if she doesn’t keep moving. It’s so tense and unnerving that you need to chuckle a little bit to relieve the tension. This whole first half is borderline “Halloween” territory. I mean it—it’s that good.

As underwhelming as the second half is, I have to give it credit for one utterly fearsome sequence that comes later in the film. It’s when Sarah is surrounded by complete darkness and has to use her Polaroid camera to create a little flash of light so she can see where she is. We know that once in those flashes of light, we’re going to see something shocking and we don’t want to see it. That was a disturbing scene that worked.

“Silent House” would have been great, if not for the disappointing ending. It’s supposed to shock us with something we haven’t picked up on before, but the result is clumsily handled and very weak. If you’re willing to accept it for what it is, and if you’re a hardcore horror fan, “Silent House” will probably please you. It didn’t do much for me, except for the first half. After that, you’re on your own.

The Manhattan Project (1986)

28 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Manhattan Project” is probably mentioned, if at all, in the same league as “WarGames” and “Real Genius”—you know, the kind of comedy/thriller in which intelligent teenagers are able to make the kind of scientific advances that intelligent adults would be envious of. In my opinion, however, “The Manhattan Project” is probably the best in this category. Some people have called this one the most preposterous (and boring) of the lot. I never saw that. I believed what was happening in the story, and was entertained by the events that occurred once the “science experiment” element was underway. I wasn’t bored; I was invested.

One major advantage that “The Manhattan Project” has for itself is its young hero. He’s very smart, like the other kids in the movies I mentioned. But he’s still a kid—he can get envious, he can be zealous, and he doesn’t always make the wisest choices. Whatever bad choice he makes isn’t because he’s smart, but because when all is said and done, he’s still a kid.

By the way, I like that he’s not labeled as a “geek” or a “nerd” because of his brain—though, that’s because he mostly uses his intelligence for mischief. In an opening scene, he pulls a prank on the jerkiest nerd in his high school, using what random (or are they random?) substances in chemical lab.

The kid is Paul Stevens (Christopher Collet), a 16-year-old boy-genius. He’s self-aware in the way of making sure he isn’t known for being as much a nerd as the very one he pranked (if he was, the other kids in the class wouldn’t have cheered him on like they did). And he observes and listens closely to everything he finds interesting. In the case of the movie’s plot, it’s the “medical company” in his hometown of Ithaca, New York, that interests him. Paul’s mother (Jill Eikenberry) is dating one of the workers of this new development—Dr. John Mathewson (John Lithgow)—and Paul decides to check it out for himself. Dr. Mathewson gives him a tour, showing him “one of the sexiest lasers in the entire free world” (I’m serious—that’s what he calls it, trying to relate to the kid), but what Paul quietly realizes is that the place is actually a laboratory for testing plutonium.

Feeling like he’s been duped, Paul decides to expose the lab. His aspiring-journalist girlfriend Jenny (Cynthia Nixon) suggests writing an exposé on the matter, but Paul has something more extreme in mind. His plan is to sneak in, grab some plutonium from the lab, and use it to create his own atomic bomb, which he will enter in the upcoming science fair!

If that doesn’t make front-page news, I don’t know what will!

And surely enough, Paul does build a nuclear bomb and plans to unveil at the science fair. But the government agents bent on keeping their secret find out about it, and so Paul and Jenny are on the run, viewed as young terrorists. Now it’s up to Paul’s smarts to get them out of trouble.

One of the best things about “The Manhattan Project” is that it shows the action in such a way that it makes it all seem plausible. Take the heist sequence in which Paul sneaks into the lab to steal a bottle of plutonium—this sequence lasts almost a half-hour, showing every little detail that made it work credibly. Then there’s a montage showing Paul put together for his bomb (mostly with household appliances). The whole midsection of “The Manhattan Project” is all about showing the process…and I am aware that this is probably why people found this movie “boring.” Funny, I would’ve thought they wanted more explaining. (Though, if that happened, I worry kids would have tried making their bomb from household objects.)

The only thing that didn’t seem plausible to me was that Paul and Jenny planned their heist so quickly that it all goes well without a hitch.

The writing is very smart. It treats its characters cleverly with enough ingenuity. I actually barely began to talk about probably the most complex character in the film. Not Paul, but Mathewson. While this is in many ways Paul’s story, it’s Mathewson that has the strongest emotional arc in “The Manhattan Project.” As the movie opens, he’s showing off his new creation and is very proud of his work. But as the movie progresses, he sees more clearly that he is no better than the Army and government who try to silence Paul to protect this secret—if not by reason, then by force. He knows there must be a way to protect Paul and also a chance for self-redemption. It also leaves for some tense sequences in which you figure out along with the characters how they’re going to get themselves out of each situation that comes.

The screenplay is also smart in the way it develops this relationship between Paul and Mathewson, especially since Mathewson may having an affair with Paul’s mother, and how they deal with that as well. And also, it pauses every now and then for moments such as when Paul has to help Mathewson with a specific mathematic formula. Moments like that are pleasurable in such a way that they give the characters more dimensions than you’d expect just from hearing the film’s premise.

The ending is probably when the movie is at its most predictable, in which the bomb is finally armed, after a series of complicated events. However, it is pretty inventive in the way it has smart people helping other smart people, not with force, but with reason just like Mathewson would like to do.

With strong acting by the principal actors (Collet, Lithgow, Nixon, Eikenberry, and also John Mahoney as one of the government types), smart writing, and intriguing moments that combine everyday conflicts with a “what-if” science-experiment element, “The Manhattan Project” is a tense, fun, well-crafted (not to mention, underrated) thriller.

Stephen King’s It (1990) (TV)

27 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ** (Part 1: *** – Part 2: *1/2)

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I make it almost a rule not to review made-for-TV movies, let alone TV miniseries’. But the three-hour TV miniseries “It,” adapted from Stephen King’s best-selling 1986 novel, has become so popular (for good and bad reasons that I shouldn’t go into) that I decided to give it a shot. It’s hard to review a movie like this, especially when it is split into two parts and one part is far more interesting than the other. But here’s my shot at it.

In part one of the miniseries, events are being set to take place in apparently part two. “It” begins with Mike Hanlon (a quite effective Tim Reid), the librarian of a small town in Maine called Derry (notice that a lot of Stephen King’s stories take place in Maine), who is at the crime scene of the murder of a little girl. Apparently, this is not the first child murder or disappearance. Mike knows that something is terribly wrong and comes to a conclusion. What is it? We have to wait and see.

Mike spends Part 1 of the story calling his childhood friends, telling them to come back to Derry and explaining “It’s back.” They know what he means. With each friend Mike calls, we experience different flashbacks that seem to be in chronological order. The flashbacks tell the story of the “Lucky Seven”—seven young outcasts who become best friends and stick by each other. There’s Bill (Jonathan Brandis); Ben (Brandon Crane); Eddie (Adam Faraizl); Richie (Seth Green); Stan (Ben Heller); Beverly (Emily Perkins); and Mike (Marlon Taylor), who is the last to join the club after the other kids save him from a sadistic bully named Henry Bowers (Jarred Blancard). All seven of these kids keep to themselves in the barren areas of town, building a dam. These scenes are intersected with scenes in the future as each friend (grown up to become successful individually—for example, Bill is a best-selling author) remembers their experience with the “it” that Mike refers to when he calls.

Who or what is “it?” Well, It is a clown named Pennywise (played by Tim Curry)…or is it? You see, Pennywise kills kids after either using his image to fool them or taking the shapes of their fears. Pennywise is some kind of creature that reads minds and becomes your fears before it eats you. And only children can see it, and not adults. Why? (“You grow up,” young Bill says. “You stop believing.”) Each of the seven kids is silent about their own experiences with “it,” which scares them like a cat-and-mouse game, until it finally frightens them all at once. They realize that they have to stop it, so they venture into the sewer tunnels to kill it.

This first part of the “It” miniseries is very interesting in the way it draws you into the story. The kids are all very good actors, especially Brandon Crane who avoids the “fat kid” stereotype as the overweight, sensitive Ben. And their characters are interesting as well. Also, Tim Curry, as the clown, plays it so over-the-top that it’s almost funny when being frightening at the same time. It’s unnerving just to think about a clown coming after these kids. Tim Curry is great as Pennywise. And also, the scenes in the tunnel in which the kids are finally faced with Pennywise is interesting because it’s fun to see them come together and confront their fears. Is it a great climax? Well, no. But this is more about feeling than about gimmick.

This brings us to Part 2, in which all of the adult versions of the Lucky Seven reunite in Derry Maine—Bill is played by Richard Thomas, Ben is John Ritter, Eddie is Dennis Christopher, Richie is Harry Anderson, Stan is Richard Masur, and Beverly is Annette O’Toole. They have forgotten most of their experiences with Pennywise and became successful, but when Mike calls them back saying it’s come back, they have new experiences that make them remember. This is fine, but we also get a series of ludicrous back stories that really slow the movie down. These back stories take a long time to be explained and the viewer is left shaking his or her head. And then when it tries again for horror (like when Pennywise comes back every now and then), it’s just dull instead of frightening. Also, the characters that were compelling as children have become dullards this time around. It doesn’t help that half of these adult actors are badly miscast. And then when the apparent final climax arrives, it’s just silly, silly, silly. It also has one of the worst creature effects in the history of TV movies.

You’d think that with a strong first half, you’d have a second half to be just as strong, especially when the running time is 192 minutes. But “It” doesn’t succeed. The first half (with maybe only the flashbacks) could have made a whole movie and I would’ve recommended it as a whole—I liked the kids, Tim Curry was fun, and there were a couple scenes that scared me, believe it or not (like the scene in which young Bill mourns the death of his kid brother and something creepy happens). But the second half is bogged down to horror clichés, dull plotlines, horrible special effects, and melodrama. Not even the presence of reliable actors Tim Reid and John Ritter could help.

So in conclusion, “It” is a mixed bag—strong first half, insipid second half. I have not read the novel so I can’t quite make comparisons to that. But there are a lot of Stephen King book-to-film adaptations that hardly capture the flavor of King’s stories (examples are “Cujo” and “Children of the Corn”). This is one of those adaptations, although I guess I should be kind enough to say that this is in the same league as “Cujo” and better than “Children of the Corn.” Oh, and don’t get me started on “Pet Sematary.” That’s a review all its own.

Jack’s Back (1988)

27 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning: Possible Spoiler Alert

1988—a century since the serial murders committed by Jack the Ripper. This time around, someone is repeating those same murders—a copycat killer. It doesn’t really help that the obvious killer’s name seems to be “Jack.” If that premise sounds like it’d never work as a film, “Jack’s Back” is surprisingly effective in never giving us the obvious, expected elements. This is a gripping thriller—not an exploitation film.

The poster and trailer don’t make “Jack’s Back” seem as interesting as it is. The poster, in particular, has this tagline: “One hundred years ago, in the city of London, a man shocked the world by raping, murdering, and mutilating women…He was never caught.” The marketing for this movie must have thought we were dumb. It’s an insult to movie audiences’ intelligence.

James Spader stars in “Jack’s Back” as two characters—twin brothers who are linked to these new murders. One brother is a medical student named John and the other is a rebel named Rick who runs a shoe store and has been in trouble with the law in the past. (This may be a spoiler, since we don’t find out until the first half-hour that there is another brother.) It’s interesting how Spader creates two different personalities.

John discovers one of the murderer’s victims and Rick is a prime suspect. How could they think Rick is a suspect instead of John? Well…(possible spoiler alert) John is killed a half-hour into the film. This is after John discovers of the murderer’s victims. John was seen leaving the room while chasing after the possible murderer named Jack. Since John and Rick are twins, Rick is suspected for the murders.

And so as the movie’s second half comes into place, Rick is chased by the police and races to clear his name. To his aid is a possible love interest—an attractive medical student named Christine, played by Cynthia Gibb. But she may be the killer’s new target.

“Jack’s Back” does a great deal in interesting us with his many plot gimmicks (there’s an unexpected surprise in the plot every ten or twenty minutes) and the idea of someone copying the Jack the Ripper murders is creepy on its own. And then there’s the ending, which I wouldn’t dare give away. (No spoilers beyond the half-hour mark of the film will be exposed here!) This is a hard move to make for a thriller and it doesn’t do a great job, but a good one. What really makes this movie worth watching, aside from the interesting plot gimmicks, is the performance by James Spader. He’s a great actor who makes his twin-brother characters seem extremely different. And because he plays two good guys, this doesn’t mean he has to be dull or boring. For example, John (who is supposedly the better one of the two brothers) has his share of one-liners and kidding charisma—he’s not the stuck-up, serious medical student you’d expect. And with Rick, he’s not the delinquent we’d expect him to be. He’s just a good guy who gets into trouble at times because he can’t help himself at times. But when he rises to the occasion, we do like him. James Spader is fantastic in this movie.

Cynthia Gibb is also good as the love interest. Her timing with Spader is very effective. Both Spader and Gibb play three-dimensional characters who don’t dumb down their roles. That’s a very tricky performance for one, let along two, in a movie that is a thriller.

“Jack’s Back” is a thriller through and through. What’s surprising is that most of the time, it’s not as routine as we’d expect. I enjoyed “Jack’s Back”—I enjoyed the performances from Spader and Gibb and the contrivances of the plot.