Archive | May, 2013

The Dark Knight (2008)

29 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If I thought Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” was one of the darkest (and very best) superhero films I ever saw, then I hadn’t seen anything yet. “The Dark Knight” is the follow-up to the film that represented Nolan’s new look at the dark, harsh “Batman” universe, and to get it right out of the way, this is not just one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen; it’s also the best superhero film I’ve ever seen. I don’t even want to necessarily call it a “superhero film.” For a film about Batman, this film is unbelievably tough, powerful, adult, moody…and oddly enough, that all works in the film’s favor. Aside from being extraordinarily well-crafted in story and execution, the tone and staging of “The Dark Knight” reminded me of a Caped Crusader version of “The Godfather,” in terms of uncompromising actions and consequences. I mean it—it’s that great.

“The Dark Knight” is a film about power, chaos, hope, deceit, selfishness, actions, and consequences. It’s a deeper film than one might have expected from a film such as this—not that the original Tim Burton film or Nolan’s “Batman Begins” weren’t dark; it’s just that apparently, they weren’t this dark. It’s the kind of film that provokes thought and leaves you stunned by everything it had to offer. It seems as if Nolan figured that the origins of Batman were already spelled out in the other film, and now it was time to go all out and give him a story that builds upon solid themes and concepts that were implied before.

Batman is a symbol of Gotham City and people’s great hope whenever trouble is near. Although, there are debates about whether or not Batman is a hero or a menace, and it doesn’t help that his presence influences “copycat Batmen” who wear similar costumes, but carry rifles and sport hockey pads. Crime bosses are on edge because of him, which serves as a good purpose for the city’s new D.A., Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), to take them on. Dent is the White Knight to Batman’s Dark Knight—he doesn’t have to wear a mask and knows how to push someone’s limits and handle himself as well. He’s an ideal hero for Gotham City. Thanks to a meeting together brought upon by incorruptible police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Dent and Batman know they’re on the same page in a crusade to stop crime, so they do their parts in order to continue.

But a new threat has made himself known in Gotham. Enter the Joker (the late Heath Ledger in his final film role); a sadistic psychopath with as much taste for theatrics as Batman, only he dresses like a clown and keeps a flamboyant personality that also reads sadism and madness. His mission as the new mob enforcer is to spread anarchy and chaos throughout the city. Knowing Batman stands in his way, he demands that he remove his mask and turn himself in, or else many people will die at his hands.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), Batman’s human alter-ego, is more arrogant than before, but that’s just a cover for everyone around him. The only people he confides in are his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), and Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). Through them, he acknowledges that things are getting even more out of control now that he has all of these duties to handle, and especially now that he must reveal himself as Batman or people will be killed by the Joker. And the Joker does keep good on his word, making things even more complicated and painful.

This is not a superhero film in which despite everything being thrown at the hero, everything turns out right in the end. Mostly, everything just goes wrong, and even more so as the situation continues. Batman may be a heroic figure, but he’s not perfect. He has his flaws and he can’t save everybody, which is especially true in the cases of some important characters. No one is safe in this movie; there’s danger all throughout and consequences for every action, whether they be your own or not. This is what differentiates “The Dark Knight” from pretty much every other Batman film, in that it’s bleaker with hardly any compromises in how situations occur. It’s grim and unpredictable.

Batman is more intimidating than ever and his presence says a lot about what he represents and what he’ll go through to fight for it. He doesn’t take any bull from anyone, even from the city’s most psychotic villains. I won’t say anything about the growling voice that everyone seems to make fun of, because really, it does work at delivering words of menace when they’re needed.

(At this point, I’d like to issue a SPOILER ALERT!)

Anyone who knows the name “Harvey Dent” before seeing this movie already knows that Dent becomes the villainous Two-Face. This becomes an important transition midway through the film, as Dent does become Two-Face as the result of an incident that (SPOILER ALERT!) takes the life of Rachel, because Batman could only save one of them. With half of his face horribly burnt, Dent’s personality changes as well. He’s out for vengeance against those who betrayed him, and goes through many lengths to do it. And this man was supposed to be Gotham’s new hero. This is all very powerful stuff, as he transforms into the very hateful criminals he was trying to protect Gotham from; but due to deceit and false hopes for the city, he only becomes no different than the rest of them. It’s a tragic portrait, and it’s also even more thought-provoking when you realize that this is who Batman could have become if Bruce Wayne were corruptible.

(END OF SPOILER ALERT!)

“The Dark Knight” gave movie audiences a new, truly-intimidating villain in the Joker. This villainous character has already made himself known in so many Batman tales that it seemed inevitable that he would show up to battle Batman. But this representation of the Joker, portrayed by Heath Ledger, is just excellent. Ledger may not have been people’s first choice to play the role, but you never see Ledger in this performance—you only see the Joker. The Joker is not only darkly funny, but he’s also menacing and very scary. He may look like a clown, but there is no humor with him whatsoever. This guy is vicious and twisted, and worst of all, intelligent and enjoying every minute of what he does.

The scariest scene in the movie is seen through home-video footage of the Joker as he tortures and interrogates one of the Batman impersonators—the realism of the footage and the sickness of the Joker will make any audience member silent minutes after this scene is over.

But what about the action? While “Batman Begins” was a bit annoying in its camera-shaking, “The Dark Knight” delivers its action with swift camera movements so that everything is seen and admired. The action itself is exhilarating and some of the best I’ve ever seen in a film. The best action scene comes midway through the film—it’s a car chase through the streets of Gotham, and the situation is made even more intense in that it’s also a race against time for Batman to save somebody. The editing isn’t as quick as most action films like to do; it just shows the action head-on and puts the viewer right in the middle of it.

Oh, and there are also new, improved Batman-gadgetry, invented by Q-like Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). This includes a type of sonar-invention that allows Batman to keep track of everyone in the city via their own technologies. Even Fox can’t help but think that this is wrong on so many levels.

Christopher Nolan has crafted a masterpiece with “The Dark Knight.” It’s strange about how a film about a man dressed as a bat can have the same amount of gravity as a crime thriller such as “The Departed.” But with a clear vision of concepts and ethics, a series of masterful action sequences, an even-more-complex hero, quite possibly the most memorable movie villain in a long time, and even more elements that I don’t even think I mentioned in this review, “The Dark Knight” is the best superhero film I’ve ever seen.

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Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

29 May

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Smith’s Verdict: Zero Stars

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Jaws: The Revenge” is one of the worst sequels of all time, if not the absolute worst. When you think of this film’s original predecessor, 1975’s hit “Jaws,” and how good it is, it only makes it look bad when associated with its trashy sequels. “Jaws 2” was unnecessary, but at least it had its moments. “Jaws 3D” was even more unnecessary, and tried to plug Sea World while showing the 3D gimmick of the ‘80s. With the third sequel, “Jaws: The Revenge,” at least you know it can’t get any worse.

This movie is bad. Really bad. At times, it’s laughably so. Other times, it’s just painfully so, which screws it up for the former “times.”

Where do I begin with this movie? Well, how about the fact that Roy Scheider didn’t reprise his role of heroic Police Chief Brody, and the screenwriters decided to cover his absence by saying he died between sequels? How did he die? According to Brody’s wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary) who is now the focus of this “Jaws” movie, “the fear of the shark killed him.” Yes, they try to make you believe that the man who fought a shark twice in two movies died of “fear.” Give me a break.

There are absolutely no characters of interest in Scheider’s place. Ellen is a blank slate—always worrying and complaining, and nearly psychotic in how she believes that sharks hold grudges. Oh, but it’s OK, because apparently she’s right, as a great white killer shark follows her and her family from New England to the Bahamas. Get this—because of the other sharks’ encounters with Ellen’s family (her husband in the first two movies; her son in the third movie), she believes that all sharks swear vengeance against the Brody family. Now, early in the movie, Ellen’s youngest son has been killed by the shark, back on that stupid island which is the absolute worst place for Ellen to be, after all the madness that occurred before (move to Iowa, lady). Now, she and her family—including her other son, Michael (Lance Guest)—go on vacation in the Bahamas. And wouldn’t you know it—the shark followed them there.

I mentioned there are no characters of interest in this movie. Michael’s a basic bore, and his buddy Jake (Mario Van Peeples), with whom he works marine biology field study, isn’t given enough to do to be interesting. There are also many scenes involving a developing romance between Ellen and a British pilot (Michael Caine, who seems to be phoning it in) that makes “Jaws: The Revenge” look like the b-movie version of “Terms of Endearment.” It’s very boring.

And what about the shark effects? They’re easily the worst aspect of the movie. You see a lot of the shark in this movie, and it looks dreadfully fake. How can I properly describe how terrible the shark looks in this movie? It’s never menacing; it’s never threatening; it looks unbelievably unrealistic. One of those “laughable” moments of the movie is a ridiculous attack on a banana boat on a beach.

Everything leads to a confrontation between the shark and Ellen, the pilot, Michael, and Jake as they attempt to kill this thing once and for all. It’s very dull and impressively bad. I don’t just mean that glaring error that shows Michael Caine swimming to safety on a boat, coming over the rail and suddenly he’s completely dry. Get this—the shark appears to stand on its tail fin on top of the water so that it can nab one of the group. And it’s in slow-motion, so it looks even worse.

Oh, and get this—the shark actually ROARS! I’m not even kidding; there’s a roaring sound effect when the shark opens its mouth. What in the world were these filmmakers missing? And what follows is a resolution so clumsily-handled that it’s hard to make something out of it. “Jaws: The Revenge” is so badly-made that I don’t think anything can save it.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

28 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

With 2009’s big-budgeted reboot of “Star Trek,” director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman introduced a new look at the popular saga originated from Gene Roddenberry’s imagination—darker, more kinetic, very exhilarating, and very action-packed, while also keeping true to the spirit of the original TV series in terms of creativity and of the memorable characters. 2009’s “Star Trek” was a big hit, and so it was inevitable that a follow-up in the same style and tradition would be constructed. Four years later, we have “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which is believe it or not, a bigger, more bombastic sequel than its predecessor.

And to get it out of the way, the first hour-and-a-half or so of this two-hour-and-12-minute sci-fi blockbuster is just incredible. The action scenes are tense and very exciting; the characters are all solid (Spock is pretty badass in this “Star Trek” entry); the villain is great; and there’s good social commentary among all the madness that ensues in this story, and it’s not unlike the best “Star Trek” movies or TV episodes. But then in its final half-hour, it’s as if something went wrong. Usually in big-budget action films with strong buildups, it’s usually the payoffs that are lacking in substance. But here, it’s just a lack of knowing any better. There is twist upon twist, and I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t trying to straight-up copy an easily-remembered sequence from one of the earlier “Star Trek” movies. Then there’s a silly chase scene that results in a fistfight. Then there’s a total copout to what has been built up before with that aforementioned “copied scene.” Then there’s a rushed epilogue so that it’s hard to feel exactly what Abrams and co. were going for.

I didn’t give much away, but you get my point. I was really enjoying this movie, ready to call it one of the best films of the summer so far. I was so into the story and the action and what all the characters were doing and etc. and so on. This was “Star Trek,” and I loved it. Then it all goes downhill in its final act. Abrams and co. deserve credit for the first hour-and-a-half-or-so and why it works so well, in my opinion. But they also have to take the blame for what happens to the movie.

The film starts with a bang in a fabulous scene set on an alien planet. The crew of the USS Enterprise are sent to save the primitive natives of this world from an erupting volcano. In the process, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is in peril and Kirk violates the Federation’s prime directive in order to save him. Because of his insubordination, Kirk is demoted from Captain to First Officer. But shortly after, the Federation is under siege by a fugitive, a rogue Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who murders Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) in his attack. Kirk wants revenge and requests to go after Harrison. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) agrees and puts Kirk back in his ranking, but with simple instructions to track down Harrison and kill him. Kirk rounds up his crew, including Spock, Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) (Scotty, played by Simon Pegg, joins later after being unsure about this mission), and heads to Kronos, the Klingon planet where Harrison is sure to be located.

There’s a lot to like about this movie, and among the chief aspects is the villain. This is not a one-dimensional bad guy. At first, he seems like a standard action-flick terrorist that just wants to blow stuff up. But there’s actual reason to his actions here, and the more they’re developed, the more they make us understand why he’s doing all of this even if we don’t tolerate it. There’s a good amount of depth to how this character is portrayed, and Benedict Cumberbatch plays the role so well.

(By the way, even though most people will know the villain’s true identity before its reveal, I won’t reveal it here. All I can say is that I think it works really well.)

The heroes are all as appealing as their original counterparts (though without the truer sense of camaraderie that will probably be further developed in later installments). In particular, Kirk has a credible story arc about doing what he believes must be done, even if it isn’t the best thing for everyone else around him. Whatever he’ll do, he’ll do it to save his friends and crewmembers. And in a way, he and the villain, without giving too much away, are practically the same person in motivation, which makes things more interesting. But if there’s a flaw in this arc, it’s that its resolution is not strongly-handled, which is one of the many flaws with the film’s final act.

Spock has already been established as half-human/half-Vulcan and constantly walking that fine line between logic and emotion. He doesn’t quite understand why Kirk risked his job and life to go and save him in the opening sequence, and Kirk must convince Spock what the meanings of being human and forming friendship mean. Spock goes through a lot in this movie, continuing to walk that line. And it does pay off in an emotional way, to the credit of the final act.

(By the way, Leonard Nimoy shows up in a brief cameo as “Spock Prime.” While it’s pointless, it results in a great reaction when Spock asks if he knows who the villain is.)

Being a summer blockbuster, “Star Trek Into Darkness” moves with a fast pace that only breaks when it needs to. It stops at the most appropriate times for the audience to breathe and take in what we’ve just endured. And there are some terrific action scenes—along with that opening scene, we also have a desperate battle between Enterprise crew and Klingons (yes, there are Klingons in this movie), and an attempt to get from the Enterprise ship to a space station through space, if only Scotty could open the airlock in time. This is an epic journey that works as a glorious space opera—we have space battles, distant planets, all sorts of conflicts and interruptions along the way, and many surprises along the way.

There are many other old-“Star Trek” references making appearances. There’s a Tribble that McCoy experiments with (and Good Lord, could the payoff to this thing be any more obvious in the final act?); there are a few throwaway memorable quotes (“Shut up, Spock! We’re rescuing you!”); there are models of old Enterprise ships in Admiral Marcus’ office; and (possible spoiler alert) many, many references to the “Star Trek” TV episode “Space Seed.” Also introduced in this rebooted franchise is Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), who, for those who are familiar with the early-‘80s “Star Trek” movies, will become the mother of Kirk’s son. (By the way, for those who say she’s underused in this movie, calm down—it’s just her introduction.)

And then, there’s the final half-hour, which almost completely ruined the whole movie for me. While some parts of it aren’t bad, everything else about it hit the wrong notes, in my opinion. It begins with a segment borrowed from one of the earlier “Star Trek” films, and it’s practically repeated word-for-word (except with a role reversal). I wouldn’t mind this so much, as it is a powerful scene that does pay off with certain character arcs in this movie (and I would have looked forward to it being resolved in a third movie if they just took it easy from here on out). But from that point, it all goes downhill. I can’t help but wonder why they had to go this route (I think it may have been for the fans, but I think some of the most diehard fans might feel let down).

So, do I recommend “Star Trek Into Darkness,” despite a disappointing resolution? Well…it’s a close call, but I suppose I do. A good majority of the movie is entertaining and exhilarating, and I was having a great time up until that point of no return. So marginally, I recommend checking it out. But as a warning, you may feel like watching “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” afterwards (you’ll know why).

Code of Silence (1985)

28 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Chuck Norris has pretty much become a human punchline, hasn’t he? Anytime the bearded martial-arts “god” is mentioned, no one can help but crack one of those infamous Chuck Norris jokes (my favorite being, “There’s only another fist under Chuck Norris’ beard”), and yet he’s always labeled as “awesome.” And when I think about it…yeah. He is rather awesome, isn’t he? While he seems like a nice guy (and probably is a nice guy), he can also kick some serious ass with his fighting moves (including a roundhouse kick…to the face?). How is he as an actor though? That’s a little tougher to describe. The reason he was a movie star was because of his image and multiple fights without a stuntman. His acting is not very impressive, as he has a very limited range.

But given a good director, Norris can give a solid performance. And he found one in Andrew Davis, who cast him in the lead role in 1985’s “Code of Silence,” which itself was a breath of fresh air at the time of its release. At a time when Norris was constantly doing schlocky karate flicks, he’s cast here in an intense thriller as he plays a good cop “having a very bad day” (as the tagline states). Norris is surprisingly solid here, and the movie itself is quite thrilling.

The film takes place in Chicago, as straight-arrow cop Eddie Cusack (Norris, even though you’ll never call him “Cusack” in this movie) who is caught up in a Mob war after a sting operation goes wrong, resulting in Italian and Latino mobsters out for each other’s blood. Norris is worried about the safety of a mobster’s innocent daughter, a young artist named Diana (Molly Hagan), and decides to protect her. But she gets kidnapped and Norris decides to save her.

While all that’s going on, there’s also a subplot involving a “code of silence,” which is a police officer’s cover whenever that officer makes a mistake or is corrupt. In this case, there’s a hearing for an alcoholic old officer (Ralph Foody) who has accidentally murdered a young man in action and then planted his weapon on the victim, so that he can say it was done in self-defense. A rookie cop (Joseph Guzaldo) witnessed the incident and attempts to cover it up. Norris decides to back the kid up at the hearing.

It’s interesting how much goes on in “Code of Silence” and how complicated most of it is, and yet how less than obligatory and simple it all seems. It’s as if the usual clichés are downplayed, if still existent at all. Interesting characters, capably performed by good actors, help with that, as well as intense direction from Davis.

The action in “Code of Silence” is very well-done. You can see it fine and are surprisingly invested in what’s occurring on-screen. There’s a solid 15-minute opening scene that is all about the preparation and resolution of a drug-bust (and it does set up the story). There’s a fistfight on top of an elevated train going through Chicago, after which both Norris and the crook dive into the Chicago River. There’s also a nicely-done barfight late in the movie, in which Norris takes down several roughnecks at a time (and even delivers a roundhouse kick to one of them—awesome). The stuntwork in this movie is quite incredible.

There are amusing moments as well—my favorite being a duo of robbers who plan to overtake a bar, only to discover that just about everyone in that bar is packing. And there’s also a crime-fighting robot created by the police to mow down criminals with an advanced armory. This is known as the Prowler, which looks like one of those mobile NASA food-delivery robots if it was packing. It comes to the unexpected assistance of Norris in the film’s climax.

Not everything about “Code of Silence” works, though. You can follow the story fine, but some parts just sort of pass by really quick. And while most of the action scenes are riveting, the others seem rather inexplicable.

But what it really comes down to is the spirit of things with “Code of Silence,” and holding it all together is Chuck Norris, who is solid and surprisingly convincing as a cop. He’s able to show off some fighting moves some of the time, as Davis has him in check, but all in all he has a unique, rock-solid presence. He’s terrific; the whole film is terrific, and it’s arguably the best of the “Chuck Norris movies.”

Batman Begins (2005)

28 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne; as a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol…I can be incorruptible.”

That’s a crucial line of dialogue said early on in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” and yes, it is said by billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne to his loyal butler, Alfred. Wayne has traveled the world and seen many faces of evil and corruptibility. Now he returns to Gotham City to introduce a new image in the name of justice, which is of course…Batman.

As the title suggests, “Batman Begins” digs deep into the origins of Batman and the psychology of Bruce Wayne. This is the Batman movie that people have been waiting for, after two movies directed by Tim Burton and two others directed by Joel Schumacher. Burton’s movies were very dark in tone, but they focused more on the villains than on the Dark Knight himself (which I thought worked extremely well to the first film’s advantage, but that’s another story) and Schumacher’s movies were much, much campier. Fans hated his “Batman & Robin” and it seemed as if the story of Batman was dead. Christopher Nolan took things from scratch about eight years later, and decided to tell his version from the eyes of Bruce Wayne/Batman. While not exactly having the noir-look of the original Burton film, Nolan’s “Batman Begins” is still very dark, very tense, and very exciting. “Batman Begins” is a serious, gritty, hardcore version of a superhero origin-story. It shows the origins of Batman in an unbelievably realistic way (well, realistic for its world, anyway).

As the movie opens, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is rescued from an Asian prison by a vigilante group known as the League of Shadows, led by Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanbe). We see in flashbacks why Bruce is haunted by his past, as is revealed when he falls into training with the League. He fears bats due to childhood trauma and has watched his parents be gunned down and killed by a street thug; years later, as the culprit is finally put on trial, he attempts to kill him, but someone beats him to it. Now he has been wandering the world, picking fights wherever he can until he is picked up by the League of Shadows, whose main purpose is to restore balance to a world that seems inconsistent due to the high rise of crime. After much training under Ducard, Bruce becomes a powerful weapon. But once he sees that…well, the League of Shadows is freaking demented in their morals and ethics (according to a line of dialogue, they “burned London to the ground”), Bruce bails and makes his way back to Gotham and bring an end to the city’s crime wave. But he decides not to do this as Bruce Wayne, but as a menacing alter-ego. Enlisting the help of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and an inventor who has some ingenious tools and contraptions (such as what will be the Batmobile), Bruce becomes Batman, with a black costume & mask and an aerodynamic cape. He also enlists the help of a good cop, Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), in his crusades as Batman, and makes two enemies in the process—the crime lord, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), and a crazed psychiatrist (Cillian Murphy), who has a drug that makes people go crazy (he uses this to be his clients in his asylum). Oh, and he’s also known as the Scarecrow.

Elements of Batman’s history have been reconstructed by Nolan and co-screenwriter David Goyer so that it all becomes the film’s focus—how the Caped Crusader/Dark Knight came to be. Things were sort of hinted at in the other movies, such as the deaths of Bruce’s parents, but we see everything in great detail—how Bruce became a fighter; where he got his weapons and armory; where the Batmobile came from; why Bruce chose bats as a symbol of fear; how the Batcave was created. More importantly, there’s a clear understanding of Bruce Wayne. We know who he is and why he does all of this. In the Burton film, it was hinted at. Here, you know everything. While to me that may seem like an inconvenience, as I felt in the original film that less was more, but here it’s all solidly handled and very riveting.

Christian Bale owns it as Bruce Wayne/Batman. It would have been hard to rival Michael Keaton’s definitive Batman, and it’s an even bigger risk seeing as how this is essentially all about the Bruce Wayne character, but Bale is very good here. He’s sympathetic and a solid heroic figure to follow and root for. And he also makes Batman his own performance as well (though that gruff voice gets a little tiresome after a while).

Bale is more-than-ably supporting by an excellent supporting cast. The cast members in this movie—Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson—don’t seem to be playing their roles as if they knew they were in a “superhero movie.” They get the reality of this world, and play their roles straight to great effect. Oldman, in particular, is surprisingly convincing as Lieutenant Gordon, who, hey, could one day become Commissioner Gordon if he keeps on Batman’s side.

The story is very involving and gets even more so with a hell of an evil scheme, devised by the Scarecrow, to vaporize the city’s water and insert the “crazy drug” in it so people will inhale it and go crazy. All depends on how fast and easily Batman will be able to stop a fast-moving elevated train carrying the drug from getting to the center, which happens to be Wayne Tower. This scene, along with many other action scenes, are tense and kinetic. This is another Nolan strength—keeping the action adrenaline-fueled and knowing how to keep it from being boring or repetitive.

Oh, and there’s also Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), a lawyer who was Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend and now has the possibility of being a romantic-interest. At first, I thought her character was superfluous, but she does grow to become essential to certain things that are what Batman is meant to do, and meant to protect. And it’s obvious her role is meant for further development in a sequel (lucky there was one, but I’ll get to that some other time).

In addition to being entertaining, “Batman Begins” works on a dramatic level. The psychological elements involving the Bruce Wayne character work perfectly and the film is consistent in tone. The characters are strongly-developed. The look is suitably dark. The story is very strong. The action is far from distracting. “Batman Begins” is a strong film—one of the best involving a superhero I’ve ever seen.

And it would only get better one movie later, but that’s another review…

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)

26 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Web critic James Berardinelli (of www.reelviews.net) put it best when defining a “guilty-pleasure”—“Guilty pleasure (n): a film that a critic shamefacedly admits to liking even though the prevailing opinion, as put forth by serious members of the profession, is that the movie is a piece of crap.” (from his “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” review)

I was 17 years old when “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” was released in cinemas in the fall of 2009. I saw it and, despite many film critics’ opinions of it, found myself very much enjoying it. Even my friends at school were thinking I was crazy for recommending it, although to be fair, some of them were disappointed mainly because they had read the book series this film is (loosely) based on. I hadn’t read the books until a few months later, when I started to read the first four (out of I forgot how many). As a film itself, my opinion still didn’t change. I still thought it was quite entertaining, despite what everyone else said. So…yes, I would call “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” a “guilty-pleasure.”

But for the record, I wouldn’t call this film “flawless.” There are a few things wrong about “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” that I notice with each viewing—flaws that should tick me off to my boiling point and make me create a scathing review of it instead of a semi-positive one. But for some reason, those never seemed to deliver that effect on me. I was never sure why. Maybe I’m a sucker for a coming-of-age story involving the supernatural and this is just a pushover for me. Maybe the good parts about the film overthrow the bad in the end. Maybe I see something here that hardly anyone else who saw the movie did.

OK, enough of that. To get into the review…actually, where do I even start?

Well, first I’ll start with the biggest noticeable flaw in the movie. It’s clearly intended to be the first installment of a franchise, meaning there are so many loose ends, so many elements built up to nothing—just a cliffhanger ending with very little resolution. It’s as if all the filmmakers had in mind for this movie was to set up a possible “Cirque du Freak” franchise. And what makes it worse is that this movie did poorly at the box-office, meaning—guess what—there was no chance of a sequel. I guess we were supposed to read the books to fill in the rest of the story, if we cared enough. But there’s one major problem with that—the first half of the movie is based somewhat upon the first two books, while the second half of the movie was entirely made up on the spot. So those who do read the books to find out what happens after the all-too-ambiguous ending are going to be lost and confused. So mainly what it comes down to is that this movie cannot stand alone.

This sort of confidence that a film based on a popular book can do well worked for “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” and even “Twilight.” (And as I can tell, it’s also working for “Percy Jackson.”) But what about “Eragon?” What about “The Golden Compass?” And now this. Give Fox’s lackluster “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” credit for keeping its story somewhat cohesive. And their “City of Ember,” which I find quite underrated, actually (and for the record, I hold no guilt in liking that one). (How odd is it that I’m defending 20th Century Fox, despite their tendency not to adapt from their source material all that well.)

Well, this “positive” review is not starting out well, is it?

The story involves a high-school teen named Darren Shan (sharing the same name of the author of the original book series). Darren is more or less a “perfect kid.” Darren (Chris Massoglia) listens to his parents, he gets good grades, and he’s popular in school. He does, however, have a weak link in his otherwise-perfect life—a bully-for-a-best-friend named Steve (Josh Hutcherson) who constantly gets Darren into trouble. (Oh, and Darren also has a bizarre fascination with spiders, which is patently explained early on, just as how Steve is obsessed with vampires.) Darren and Steve come across a flyer for a freak show, known as Cirque du Freak, appearing in their hometown. Steve convinces Darren to sneak out of the house at night to check it out.

The freak show is a marvel of talents and grotesque visuals—there’s an overweight man with “two bellies” that crafts a tricycle out of spare parts he swallows himself; a teenage boy with scaly skin and a large snake; a woman who can grow limbs back after they’ve been chopped or bitten off (wait, wha…?); and a bearded lady, among others. Steve recognizes one of the talents—a spider wrangler named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly)—as a vampire (funny how no one seemed to notice that, apparently), and goes backstage to ask to become one himself. But what he didn’t know was that Darren was hiding in Crepsley’s dressing room and stolen his spider (a rare breed that brings certain death with one bite). Darren gets away, but the spider winds up biting Steve (who doesn’t become a vampire, because he has “bad blood”). So he goes back to Crepsley to beg him to help save him. Crepsley accepts, but on one condition: that Darren becomes a half-vampire and work as his assistant while traveling with the Cirque.

As if that setup wasn’t full enough, there’s also a mysterious large man known as Mr. Tiny (played by Michael Cerveris) who apparently has great powers and wants to see a war between good Vampires (such as Crepsley) and evil Vampaneze (vampires who kill whom they need their blood from). He has his sights set on Darren and Steve, because apparently, there’s some sort of prophecy that states that two boys on opposing teams will start the war. So while Darren becomes a vampire, he goes to Steve in order to convince him to turn into a Vampaneze (anybody else think that name sounds silly?). To Tiny’s aid is a vicious Vampaneze known as Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson), who sharpens his fangs with a small cutting tool (OK, that’s kind of cool).

And believe it or not—that’s just the first half of the movie I just described. I haven’t even mentioned Darren faking his own death in order to join the Cirque; the Vampaneze attacking Crepsley and Darren because they know Darren will ultimately do something for them; Darren joining the Cirque and getting to know them; Steve becoming a Vampaneze; and many more. I have to admit this movie is overstuffed. There’s too much going on here, and unfortunately, due to the lack of resolution for the most part, that doesn’t make it fully satisfying, admittedly.

There are also changes in the vampire legend here. Half-vampires are able to walk in the daylight (useful as a vampire’s assistant) and all vampires are able to “flit” (run with super-fast speed with a colorful trail of smoke following them). Also, these vampires don’t kill whoever they feed on, because after all, Crepsley must be the guy to root for and Murlaugh must be the one for us to root against.

I like the character of Larten Crepsley; he’s quite interesting in how he is a man who seems to have been cursed with this identity from the start and sometimes has difficulty coping with it. Therefore, while sometimes he uses the Cirque as a way of pleasure through entertainment, he also has his surly moments as well. He has a romance with the Bearded Lady (Salma Hayek) and his scenes with her allow him to reveal some of what he’s going through—if he gets too attached to her, even though he’ll live much longer than her, what does that leave him with? I thought John C. Reilly did a credible job at playing the role, and also provides some of the movie’s laughs and funniest lines of dialogue.

But “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is more of Darren’s story, as he changes from “Mr. Perfect” to “Vampire’s Assistant.” This is more of a superhero origin tale than a “Dracula” story. While many critics have found Darren to be bland and all too generic, and found Chris Massoglia’s acting to be mediocre, I really didn’t have much of a problem with him. I didn’t mind Massoglia’s acting (though, he is noticeably better in Joe Dante’s “The Hole”) and didn’t think it was the purpose for Darren to be the most interesting person in the movie. Massoglia plays him as an average teenager that goes through all of this madness (or “freakiness”), and while he’s not exactly memorable, he is likeable. And I liked watching him interact with the members of the Cirque, including a girl with a Monkey Tail with whom he shares a little romance with. He also befriends the aforementioned “boy with scaly skin” named Evra (Patrick Fugit). And I’m just going to come out and say it—I hate this character. From the moment he stepped on-screen in the freak show sequence, and complained about how no one will let him play music, I knew I wouldn’t like him. People have a problem with Darren, but this kid is just whiny and obnoxious throughout.

Mr. Tiny is probably the most interesting character in the movie, and Michael Cerveris is completely game at playing him. He says he’s not the villain, but simply wants to be a bystander to a coming apocalypse. But look at him—he reads the Book of Souls, feels joy when he realizes what could happen, manipulates young men into falling into this new prophecy, and the whole idea of wanting destruction says it enough; he’s a villain. And what is he and where is he from? We’re not sure. We know about many things he can do (such as reanimate corpses by crushing them down to half-size—hello, “Phantasm”), but what is the extent of his abilities? That, this guy is downright creepy. He looks like a man preparing to go to the opera; you wouldn’t suspect anything by looking at him. But talk to the man and you know something is wrong. This is an intriguing villain.

Murlaugh is intimidating at first, but becomes just sillier and sillier as the movie continues (though it is fun watching Ray Stevenson overact), while Steve is pretty boring. He becomes a villain late in the proceedings, now a Vampaneze, and his portrayal reminded me of Harry Osborn’s mediocre characterization in “Spider-Man 3.”

Who else is in this movie? Let’s see—there’s Willem Dafoe in what can be described as a cameo in the role of Gavner Purl, a friend of Crepsley’s; Ken Watanbe as Mr. Tall, a seven-foot caretaker for the Cirque; Frankie Faison as the aforementioned “two-bellied” one; and many others. They’re not on screen for very long, but they make the most of their time.

Good Lord, I’m hardly done describing certain things about “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” and this review is already so long. I didn’t even mention the CGI dwarves that bite people at freak-show admission stands…apparently, not many people were bothered by that, as Darren and Steve walk into an auditorium full of people. And what about the climactic confrontation between Crepsley and Murlaugh and between Darren and Steve (one of which has a winning finish)? And the message that was seemed put in at the last minute—“It’s not about what you are; it’s about who you are.” Oh, and what about the extras in Darren and Steve’s high school, who are not the greatest actors as they don’t seem natural in the slightest? Man, this movie is so full!

You know…I realize while writing this unbelievably long review (probably the longest I’ve written) that this movie is not as good as I remember it. It was somewhat obvious when I watched it again before this review. And yet, I still feel somewhat positive towards it. Does that technically mean I should give this a mixed (2.5 rating) review?

What do I like about the movie? Well, there are some appealing characters in the mix—while most of them are barely developed, what we do see of them is entertaining enough. The world they’re in is appealing as well, and the visuals are impressive enough—the production design and the costumes really pop. The (intentional) comedy works well, for the most part (particularly with the freaks). There’s a nice cast that keeps things interesting. I liked seeing Darren learn to fit into the Cirque, this society of freaks, and how he becomes a member. And…I don’t know, I sort of bought into the spirit of things with this movie.

So, like I said, I do kind of like “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” despite its many flaws. You can call it a guilty-pleasure, as I already have. I understand its flaws, don’t get me wrong. It’s somewhat clumsy, especially in how it doesn’t necessarily have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But I did find something to enjoy about this movie, and I’m going to stand strong in defending it whenever it’s brought up in a derogatory manner.

Newsies (1992)

26 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Newsies” is based on a true story. However, it’s a story I couldn’t care less about. Here it is so I’ll set it up for you: In 1899 in New York City, when publishers Joseph Pulitizer and William Hearst raised the price of the newspapers that the homeless, orphaned children are forced to sell, the newsboys went on strike and won.

Not a very exciting idea for a lively family movie produced by the Disney studio, is it? And get ready for this—“Newsies” is also a musical. It was Disney’s first live-action musical, in a long, long time. At the time, it was followed by successful animated Disney musicals “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” with “Aladdin” still to be released soon. And get this—the songs in “Newsies” are actually composed by Alan Menken, who provided the songs for the two titles I just mentioned. With this talent writing the songs for a live-action musical for Disney, you’d expect something great.

But the story is what really let it down. Why the Disney studio, along with director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (responsible for the choreography for such films as “Xanadu” and “Dirty Dancing”), chose this story with their new big production is beyond me. And what’s worse is that they tell the story loosely, which I wouldn’t mind if it meant to add more tension into the mix—but why turn the people into caricatures?

Most of the newsboys are stereotypes, to start with. But then there’s Joseph Pulitzer, played by Robert Duvall. He gets the worst of the treatment, written as a one-note tyrant of the newspaper business and just a slimy villain. Performed by Duvall (under a fake beard), he does an inconsistent job—when he’s not stiff, he’s over-the-top. It’s an off-putting performance.

Before I get into another big problem with the movie, let me make it clear very fast—I like this movie. There’s more to the movie than the story, the stereotypes, and…another bad performance I’ll get to later. There’s a real lightheartedness to it. It’s energetic, it’s fun, it’s upbeat. Most of the characters are likable. And what’s more important for a musical—the movie is at its liveliest when the music arrives. The production values are present and the choreography is impressive, with some outstanding dance numbers (the young actors, in particular, had to endure weeks of training, learning how to dance).

And as the production numbers impress, the songs are quite enjoyable and memorable. In particular, “Carrying the Banner,” which is the opening medley for the newsies, is a pretty appealing tune and the song that appears in the middle—entitled “I’m the King of New York,” sung by the newsies and a friendly reporter (played by Bill Pullman)—is incredibly entertaining. But my favorite is a number featuring Christian Bale, as the leader of the newsies, solely performing and dancing to the song “Santa Fe,” in which he enacts his fantasy of leaving New York and making his own free living in Santa Fe. This musical number is a tribute to the choreography of lone stars dancing in the street—think of the leads in “Oklahoma” or “Singin’ in the Rain.”

OK, here it is, now that I’ve been building this up—the absolute worst thing in an otherwise entertaining movie. It’s a performance by the usually comfortable Ann-Margaret in a most uncomfortable performance as a nightclub singer who acts as the newsies’ chum. But there isn’t a clear description of this character, because she only has two scenes (both of which feature production numbers), and there’s a slight indication that there may have been something going on with the boys that Disney isn’t allowed to show. Ann-Margaret is so awkward and so over-the-top in this role. And here’s the worse part—are you ready for this one? Her character serves no purpose whatsoever to the story, and with her limited number of scenes, you could take her out of this movie entirely and not have missed a single thing.

Oh, and should I add that her second musical number has the worst song in the movie, “Hard Times?” I forgot about this song when mentioning the others. I was hoping not to remember it, because it’s so annoying. But it’s stuck in my head because it’s so catchy. Thanks a lot, guys.

While Duvall and Margaret are both completely off-putting, the young actors do good jobs. Christian Bale has a charming screen presence and turns in a truly fine performance as Jack, the newsies’ bad-boy-turned-good leader. The others—including David Moscow (“Big”) as Jack’s bright new friend David, Max Casella (Vinnie from “Doogie Howser, M.D.”) as the wise-guy Racetrack, and Gabriel Damon as Brooklyn bad boy Spot Conlon—perform good solid work.

So the musical numbers and the likable spirit of things is enough reason for me to recommend “Newsies.” Is it a triumph? As a musical, yes. As a story and as a historical drama, it’s better off being tampered with. While the film does indeed have its flaws, it’s an innocent, enjoyable way to spend two hours.