Archive | April, 2013

Vice Versa (1988)

25 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For some reason, in the mid-to-late-1980s, there were a certain trend that comedies would seem to follow—body-swap. Ever since 1987’s “Like Father, Like Son” (featuring Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron as a father and son who transfer minds) was released to box-office success, Hollywood executives thought the idea of two people switching bodies and taking over each other’s identities would be the next best thing for mainstream comedies. But truth be told, most of them aren’t very good—I hated “Like Father, Like Son,” I don’t care for “18 Again” (with George Burns), and don’t even get me started on “Dream a Little Dream” (with Jason Robards and Corey Feldman). There were two movies released in 1988 that stood out among the rest, in terms of quality, laughs, and entertainment. One was “Big,” in which Tom Hanks in an Oscar-nominated performance was a child in an adult’s body. That movie was one of the top-grossing movies of the year and is still a truly treasurable movie. The other is one that most people seem to forget about, but it truly is entertaining—it’s “Vice Versa.”

“Vice Versa” was released just a few months after “Like Father, Like Son” and it features the same gimmick. The minds of a father and son are magically transferred into each other’s bodies, so that the kid is inside his father’s body and has to go to work, and Dad is inside the kid’s body and has to go to school. But only the gimmick is the same. “Like Father, Like Son” was a terrible movie; “Vice Versa” is a good one, because it has a screenplay that truly gets the situation and has clever, funny scenes that make it entertaining. And two game actors were picked effectively to help serve it.

Judge Reinhold plays Marshall Seymour, a hard-working, divorced Chicago department store executive who is spending Christmas holiday with his 12-year-old son, Charlie (Fred Savage). But Marshall barely has enough time to spend with his son, and Charlie can’t help but admit that Dad has it better than him. Both make the mistake of wishing aloud that they could trade places with each other, while looking at an ancient Tibetan item. The item has mystical powers and winds up transforming them into one another—the kid becomes his father and vice versa.

Charlie (as Marshall) goes to work in the department store with wide eyes and an awed expression on his face, a childlike (if you will) way of talking to people (especially at a board meeting), and plays the drums in the music section. Marshall (as Charlie) endures the 7th grade as he takes simple tests but has to wait for everyone else to finish before he can do anything else, ducks school bullies, talks back to his teacher, and even takes a shot at hockey practice even though he can’t ice-skate.

There’s an advantage for each of them during all of this. In one of the best scenes, Charlie (again, as Marshall) gets to say the things he couldn’t say to his school teacher, and in another terrific scene, he even takes revenge on the school bullies. And then there’s Marshall (again, as Charlie) as he gets to say the things he didn’t have the courage to say as his previous self to his girlfriend, Sam (Corinne Bohrer).

This is all fun, entertaining, and well-done. What doesn’t work so much is a subplot involving two smugglers who try to steal the Tibetan item that caused this mess in the first place. They threaten Marshall (who is really Charlie at this point), but that doesn’t seem to work. And then they kidnap Charlie (who is really Marshall at this point), and can’t believe how calm he is about his situation. (OK, the reaction of one of the kidnappers after a firm and direct ransom phone call is pretty funny.) And this of course leads to a chase scene in which the adult in a kid’s body chases the crooks on a cop’s motorcycle so they don’t get away with it.

But what really makes “Vice Versa” work are the performances by Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage as the personality-switched main characters, who are more than able to convince us that they are someone else most of the time. In particular, Reinhold is wonderful as a child inside a grown man’s body, and he performs greatly with body language. He slumps over while he walks, he can’t be still like a kid wouldn’t be at the still age of 11, and of course when he gets excited, he celebrates with an exuberant boilermaker (he jumps up and swings his arm in the air after he gets even with the bullies in a wonderful moment).

“Vice Versa” seems to be forgotten whenever “body-swap” is mentioned to some people, but I find it to be a delightful movie with funny writing and even-more-so solid performances. I will take this over “Like Father, Like Son” any day.

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Let the Right One in (2008)

25 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I get the feeling that “vampire movie” is a genre. Like any genre, we can try and ignore it but it just keeps coming back, for better or worse. Films like “Let the Right One In” make me optimistic about it, though. Yes, “Let the Right One In” features a vampire, as did “Twilight,” and yes, the vampire falls in love with a human, as does the vampire in “Twilight.” But one of the joys about “Let the Right One In” is how less exploitive it is about the vampire standards than “Twilight.” In fact, the human that the vampire comes to like doesn’t even realize that this strange person is a vampire until more than an hour into the film.

The vampire girl and the human boy are both reaching adolescence (“How old are you,” the boy asks. “Twelve…but I’ve been twelve for a long time.”), but despite their age, this film is not intended for children. It is deadly grim. The deeds these kids perform may even give adults nightmares. The girl has to kill in order to feed on human blood and the boy would like to exact serious revenge against a sadistic bully. At night, he practices by stabbing a pole and repeating what the bully says to him. And then there’s that scene that involves a swimming pool that puts you on edge—I won’t give away what happens in that scene, but having a vampire on your side may come in handy, just so I’ve said it.

The boy’s name is Oskar and the girl’s name is Eli. They are both lonely, strange, and in need of a better existence but of course, nothing is very simple. A great connection and friendship builds between the two. And for us in the audience, the connection moves us—we feel empathy for these kids, we feel sorry for them, and we may not like the dirty deeds these kids perform but understand why they do them.

I haven’t even tried to describe this film, which is very well-made. The setting of the snowy small town in Sweden sets a dark and creepy mood for the whole film and director Tomas Alfredson knows how to stage a scene. He keeps his camera focused on one thing so what happens in the background is what we’d really like to see—it’s what we don’t see that scares us. Consider the scene where Eli’s adult apartment-mate kills a man and fills a pitcher with blood coming from the wound. Do we see the actual act? No. That shot of the victim being killed is obscured by a tiny tree among others near an icy pond. And then there’s that scene in the swimming pool I mentioned earlier—with the scene I just told you about, you’ll understand just how great the payoff looks.

But how can I really describe just how deadly grim this film is? I guess I can’t. But the vampire element is definitely not exploited enough and I love that. This movie is described as a “vampire movie,” but what really is a vampire movie? One about self-discovery and relationships between human and vampire? Or one about exploitation and a heavy amount of lust for blood and sex between human and vampire? What we really have is a relationship that occurs between these two lonely twelve-year-olds who perform deadly deeds and try to get by in this cruel world. I love this movie a little more than “Near Dark,” also a so-called “vampire movie” about self-discovery. Still, “Let the Right One In” features a vampire, and if the term “vampire movie” is in fact a genre now, I can say that “Let the Right One In” is one of the best.

Elf (2003)

25 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Movies with fish-out-of-water stories—sometimes they work, depending on the execution, central characters, and settings. Sometimes they don’t work. “Elf”—which features an elf who visits New York City on Christmastime—does work. It has a lovable main character, a pleasant setup, and a sense of holiday cheer.

The main reason “Elf” works so much is because of Will Ferrell’s performance as the lead character—a human named Buddy who thinks he’s an elf. Well actually, that’s the first ten minutes. For the entire movie, he realizes for the first time that he’s a human and sets out to find his real father. You see, Buddy was an orphan baby who crawled into Santa Claus’ bag and was accidentally brought back to the North Pole. There, he was adopted by Papa Elf and raised to live with the elves. This makes him several feet taller than the others, it’s difficult for him to create toys with the other elves, and he has to sleep in three small beds put together. He’s about 30 years old now and he doesn’t know that he’s indeed a human, not an elf. So he decides to go to New York City to find his birth father.

It turns out his birth father is an uptight publisher named Walter Hobbs who works in the Entire State Building, neglects his wife and pre-teen son, and is basically a Scrooge. He’s not thrilled about this strange man in an elf costume that seems to stalk him. But when Buddy mentions his college girlfriend (Buddy’s birth mother), Buddy is able to convince his father to let him live in his family’s apartment. He gets on Walter’s wife Emily’s good side, as well as the son named Michael who becomes Buddy’s best friend.

He also tours around the city to discover everything new to him and pays many visits to a department store, where he is able to spot out a fake Santa Claus in one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Also at the store is a beautiful worker named Jovie who eventually develops a relationship with Buddy.

A lot happens in “Elf,” which is just flat-out funny and very charming. And a lot rides on the performance of Will Ferrell as Buddy. Will Ferrell is absolutely amazing—he’s very likable, delightfully annoying, and so full of good cheer. This is not the Will Ferrell people were used to seeing on SNL. He’s also a great physical comedian in which he tries to blend in (or, forgive the pun, fit in) at Santa’s workshop, tries to figure out a mall escalator, or even wearing that ridiculous elf costume! He has a great personality that makes it impossible to dislike his character.

And then there’s the delightful (and much unexpected) supporting cast. We have James Caan as the Scrooge of a father, Mary Steenburgen as the sweet Emily (I really love how she gets used to the fact that Walter had a child out of wedlock and that the child is a full-grown man who thinks he’s an elf—and also, the way it seems strangely credible), and Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, the beautiful, fun love interest. Oh yeah, and Papa Elf is played by Bob Newhart, who narrates the story in deadpan delight—he’s wonderful here. We also get a nice cameo from Peter Dinklage as a business dwarf who doesn’t like being called “elf” (there’s also a nice cameo from “A Christmas Story” star Peter Billingsley as the head elf Ming Ming). What a cast there is!

If that’s not enough, the movie is well-made and fantastically-written. It was directed by actor Jon Favreau and written by David Berenbaum. We get walk-ons by the characters from the cheesy animated Christmas TV specials (including that snowman that still slides instead of walks and talks like a bluesman). And there are so many gags in which Buddy is in the city for the first time and checks out everything that it’s hard to stop laughing or even smiling. The whole movie is like that—laughs and smiles. The movie is full of in-jokes, surprises, and satire. Half of it is for kids and the other half is for parents. This is a great family entertainment.

If there is a problem with “Elf,” it’s that the ending feels somewhat rushed. It’s not the ending I would’ve gone with if I was in charge of production…then again, if I was in charge, I’m not sure I would make “Elf” as pleasant as it is by Jon Favreau and acted with a lovable, highly-charismatic persona by Will Ferrell.

NOTE: I have a confession to make—I was almost about to rate this movie three stars. But while I was writing this review, I quickly changed it to three-and-a-half stars. That’s how charming the movie was for me.

Little Monsters (1989)

25 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What a mean-spirited movie this is! For a supposed “family movie” that markets it as a fantasy for children who like to pull pranks on their grade-school enemies, “Little Monsters” takes this fantasy the wrong way. I think kids may be frightened by most of the images and situations depicted in the film.

Fred Savage, of TV’s “The Wonder Years” fame, plays Brian, the eleven-year-old protagonist in “Little Monsters.” He’s unhappy because he and his family—his bickering parents (Daniel Stern and Margaret Whitton) and younger brother Eric (Ben Savage, Fred’s real-life brother)—have moved to a new town and house. He’s the target of the pudgy school bully and to make matters worse, he’s blamed for pranks set around the house, which he didn’t set up in the first place. Eric believes that a monster that scared him the other night is responsible and pays Brian to spend a night in his room.

It turns out that Brian’s kid brother is right and something is going bump in the night. So he sets a trap for the monster, a fast-talking, blue-skinned, horned loudmouth named Maurice, played by Howie Mandel. Maurice sees something good in Brian and introduces him to the monster world.

Well, it turns out there’s a parallel dimension under beds in which the monsters are kids who were trapped there. Now, they have their own fun, eating junk food, playing video games, breaking lamps with bats and baseballs, and pulling pranks on innocent children. Maurice seduces Brian into this world, which is referred to as “every kid’s fantasy.” But I can tell you that even the unruliest of children would be turned off by this world. The people in this world are monsters, all right. But they’re mainly disfigured children who run amok. I guess the filmmakers were trying to create a subtext that kids act like monsters, like in “Pinocchio,” when kids act like jackasses and become them. But this is just painful to watch. On a productive note, the monster world isn’t impressive. It’s badly lit (because the monsters turn to clothes when exposed to light), has cheesy digital effects whizzing by every few seconds for no good purpose, and on top of that, the whole world is made entirely of boxes.

About the pranks—this is horrific to watch. Brian and Maurice pull cruel pranks on innocent little children for only the reason of fun. And then the filmmakers have the nerve to show the kids’ parents yelling at them—I was cringing all through that sequence. Then, there’s the scene in which Brian and Maurice stop by Brian’s bully’s house. They drink his apple juice…and then Maurice pisses in it! Then guess what happens…

Then there’s the character of Snik, the villain of the movie. He is repulsive, nasty—a nightmare fodder for children. And he’s not a kid—he’s played by Rick Ducommun. He’s here to set up the climax in which Brian must choose between this world and his world.

One positive thing I can say about this movie is that Howie Mandel makes a convincing monster. But that’s very faint praise indeed.

Godzilla (1998)

25 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, I can assume that you read the “Smith’s Verdict” star-rating of “Godzilla” before reading this review. I can also assume that you think I’ve lost my mind for giving it a three-star recommendation. Well, it may be possible that I have indeed lost my mind for recommending this sci-fi action/adventure romp. But to me, this is a guilty pleasure to be sure. Sure, there are problems and most parts of this movie are cheesy. But mostly though, it’s a fun thrill ride that I, for one, do not regret taking. But if you think this movie is going to be a waste of your time, don’t worry—there are better movies out there.

To be accurate enough, this movie is a lesser movie than you would expect from its clever marketing. The trailers showed as little they possibly could with the story, as well as keeping the monster out of sight. You had to see the movie in order to see the monster Godzilla (or Gojira, as it is accurately named—shut up). The good news is the monster looks creepy and enormous enough to destroy Manhattan. The bad news is that it only comes out either at night or when it’s raining (it rains a lot in this film), as if attempting to hide how computer-generated it is. Sometimes, this works. But other times, you have to wonder—is this turning into the story of Noah’s ark?

But you don’t have to be an idiot to enjoy a movie in which a likable cast is chased around Manhattan by a 300-foot lizard-like monster. Matthew Broderick, who stars as nerdy worm expert Dr. Niko Tatapoulos, is not particularly impressive, but he gives a sort-of nerdy appeal to the role. He is teamed with Maria Pitillo who plays his ex-girlfriend Audrey, Jean Reno as a French government agent named Roache, and Hank Azaria (best known for voiceover work in “The Simpsons”) who provides comic relief as a wisecracking cameraman nicknamed “Animal.” These characters are not particularly well-developed, but I have to say, I didn’t care. To me, it was just fun watching them figure out every preposterous thing about Godzilla. And of course, it’s fun to watch them outsmart Godzilla’s multiple babies which look a lot like raptors (it’s clear that Godzilla is both male and female) and even outrun Godzilla in a taxi cab in the final half (they even wind up inside his mouth at one point).

I admire the element that director Roland Emmerich (who also co-wrote this movie with Dean Devlin) uses in the way that he and Devlin do not seem to care about character development. They only care about destruction and bring us the top-notch special effects. Godzilla destroys many parts of Manhattan and the military attempt to stop him—Madison Square Garden is destroyed, the Chrysler building is ruined, and the Brooklyn Bridge falls down. The characters (including Harry Shearer as a corrupt news reporter) may not be particularly interesting, but they are fun to watch. But two characters that should’ve been taken advantage of are part of missed opportunities. Those two characters are Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) and his associate Gene, both of whom are, of course, parodies of the popular film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The resemblances are uncanny and the “thumbs up/thumbs down” trademark is even used. But if these two critics are parodied in a monster movie because they didn’t enjoy Emmerich’s two previous movies “Stargate” and “Independence Day,” then Emmerich should have had the sense to have the monster maim or kill them.

Another problem—there are many shots that resemble famous shots from “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park.” We get the flying scenes from “Star Wars’ and the raptor attack scenes in “Jurassic Park.” You have to wonder if the filmmakers were going for the same kind of wonder those two hits delivered. Oh and then of course, there’s the element of a monster loose in New York that is taken from “King Kong.” But while King Kong was 30 feet tall and was able to climb the Empire State Building. Here, the filmmakers don’t have the advantage of having a creature ten times as large to knock over the building. They already blew up Madison Square Garden—why not the Empire State Building?

“Godzilla” is not for everyone. Or rather, it’s not for anyone who isn’t looking for a dumb thrill ride. But I was drawn into it and I can’t shake myself out of this positive review. But believe me when I say this—there ARE better movies out there.

Groundhog Day (1993)

24 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Bill Murray is one of the funniest men…period. In any movie he appears in, he can make us smile and laugh. His deadpan voice, improvised one-liners, and his facial expressions are worth any price of admission. He raced to kill a gopher in “Caddyshack,” joined the army in “Stripes,” and helped catch ghosts in “Ghostbusters.” And now, he’s repeating the same day over and over again in the movie “Groundhog Day.” In this movie, he plays a role that could’ve been played by almost any other actor, but Bill Murray successfully makes the character convincing, funny, and even touching and also helps make the movie magical in a sense.

In “Groundhog Day,” Murray plays selfish, Scrooge-like, Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors, who is asked to cover Groundhog Day (February 2) in a small town called Punxsutawney. Nothing special—the groundhog sees its shadow, the townsfolk are upset because this means a longer winter for them, and Phil is miserable, as well as making people around him miserable. This includes his attractive co-producer Rita (Andie McDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). When he can’t go home due to a blizzard, he spends another night in Punxsutawney and when he wakes up…it’s Groundhog Day all over again.

And it will Groundhog Day again tomorrow too…and the same after that and so on. The idea is that for everybody else in town, it’s just the same as before. Only Phil is repeating the same day over and over again. Nothing he does will matter because he will wake up the next day and everything will be the same again, so there is literally no tomorrow for him—he is trapped in the same day, like a time warp.

This is a genius idea, developed by co-writer and Murray’s usual co-partner Harold Ramis (“Ghostbusters” and “Caddyshack”) and put into the situation with Phil. As he figures out what is going on, we follow him throughout. He (and we) realize that he can find out one thing and then use it the next Groundhog Day. He uses this on Rita as a seduction technique in a great scene—he finds out her favorite drink and what she likes to drink to. “I like to say a prayer and drink to world peace,” Phil says. Rita stares at him baffled and raises her drink, “To world peace.” We also realize that he won’t die. He tries many attempts at suicide, and he wakes up and it’s Groundhog Day again. But then, he realizes that he can change himself and become a better person and maybe—just maybe—he can actually wake up to February 3. And even Rita is surprised when one Groundhog Day, she begins to like him.

This is a truly endearing comic fantasy—ingenious, well-acted, and wonderful in the whole element of the time warp. It reminds me of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which a person sees the error of his ways and realizes what could be if he stuck it out longer (in this case, if he COULD stick it out longer). And through it all is Bill Murray, who is phenomenal as Phil. This is truly one of Bill Murray’s very best performances. He starts out as a Scrooge and becomes a better man towards the end and he’s very convincing in his change. He’s very funny in the first half, endearing in the second, and just great throughout. Also, his relationship(s) between him and Andie McDowell works because it’s low-key—he’s funny, she’s serious, so the only way it could work is if the relationship(s) was low-key.

“Groundhog Day” also delivers a good message. Just because we’re known to be unlikable doesn’t mean we have to stay that way; it’s our choice. And a supernatural force is helping Bill Murray realize that.

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

24 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Simpsons” is one of the best TV shows to come around and I’m sure I’m not the only one who believes that. And with “The Simpsons Movie,” here is a triumph. We have waited for this film for a long time and now that it’s here, I am not disappointed. Not one bit. In many ways, “The Simpsons Movie” is a triumph. It’s funny all the way through. And I never thought I would ever say this about “The Simpsons,” but “The Simpsons Movie” is also well-animated. Watch the sequence with the angry mob carrying torches and you’ll see what I mean. The animators spent a long time trying to satisfy fans of the popular TV series and they didn’t disappoint us. I loved the look of this film and I also loved the energy put into it with the script and voiceovers.

Even the Simpsons are surprised to see themselves in a movie. As they watch a movie, they wonder who would be dumb enough to watch something they can get on TV for free. Who would be so dumb? “Suckers.” He’s pointing straight at us.

Of course it has to have a plot but even so, the movie satisfies. It delivers satire with a capital S. On second thought, make every letter capitalized. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has declared the Simpsons’ hometown of Springfield a crisis zone. The lake is polluted and young Lisa Simpson is going door-to-door to convince people to help prevent people from dumping in the lake again. (One house even flees.) Things take a turn for the worse when the lovable dope himself—Homer Simpson—dumps a silo of pig droppings into the lake. The EPA takes action and imprisons the townsfolk in a gigantic glass dome (threatening their lives but what do the government care, right?). Wait until you see who the president of the United States is.

I could easily give away the big laughs of the movie but that wouldn’t be fair. In a way, this movie is like “Airplane.” One gag happens after another, usually one gag funnier than the last. I won’t spoil the biggest laughs in the movie but they feature a skateboarding scene inspired by Austin Powers and a unique way to go fishing. There are more big laughs—those made me laugh the hardest…I think. I was laughing loudly through a lot of this movie—those two scenes made me laugh the loudest, I think.

The Simpsons don’t just become action heroes, though that’s what they become when they race to save Springfield from certain doom. They remain the same American family that we all know and love. Bart is still mischievous and devilishly clever. Lisa is still the squeaky-voiced voice of reason daughter. Maggie is still an accident, sadly, but she finds her worth (hasn’t she always?). Marge is still toughing it out and dealing with her husband’s idiocy. Her voice has yet to improve—but really, does it have to? And Homer Simpson—what a lovable goofball he is. Just watching this guy stand around will bring a smile. Watching him act around, while being voiced by Dan Castellaneta, will always bring a laugh. It’s impossible to dislike him.

What else can I say? I love this movie. I love the biting satire, I love the fact that the animators and screenwriters were trying so hard to make us laugh, and I love the Simpsons themselves. The polished writing and the stylish animation help a lot as well. “The Simpsons Movie” relives the glory days of the great TV show. To those who disagree with me, eat my shorts.