Archive | November, 2013

Light It Up (1999)

30 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are times in a high-schooler’s life in which he or she just wants their voice to be heard, and no one is listening. And when the school is as messed up as the one in “Light It Up,” you can kind of understand the anger and confusion the students feel when they just want to state what they want or maybe even need. Things can get worse when authority figures don’t give them the type of attention they need, and that tends to lead to extreme measures. That’s what happens in “Light It Up,” which is about how six high-school students who stage a hostage situation in their own school in order to get their points across.

Now, despite how that sounds, this is far from an exploitative thriller or a hostage-negotiation film. While some of those elements are present, they’re not what are important to the story. Instead what the film focuses more on is character development and getting its message across. People who want to boycott a film like this need to consider what they haven’t seen more than what they’ve heard, because “Light It Up” is an effective urban drama.

It begins with a typical day at a ramshackle Queens high school, except for a newcomer on campus—the new security guard, former cop Dante Jackson (Forest Whitaker). Jackson is ready to take force to get these kids in line. And he’s ready to jump into action when a group of students start to protest when their favorite teacher, Mr. Knowles (Judd Nelson), is suspended. When a couple of the students try to reason with the principal, they are suspended too. When they argue, Jackson is there to break it up. But the situation becomes dangerous when a kid he apprehends gets ahold of Jackson’s gun and it accidentally fires, hitting Jackson’s leg. When Jackson pegs it on the kid and tries to take him away, another kid grabs the gun and holds Jackson at gunpoint. So he, the kid, and four others hole up in the school’s library, holding Jackson hostage.

The group is led by star-athlete Lester (Usher Raymond). On his side are Ziggy (Robert Ri’chard), an innocent artist who inadvertently started all this; class-brain Stephanie (Rosario Dawson); pot-dealer/class-clown Rivers (Clifton Collins, Jr.); pregnant loner Lynn (Sara Gilbert); and Rodney (Fredro Starr). Rodney is the only gang member among the group, but the media has already labeled the others as being criminals. When the kids realize the gravity of this situation, they decide to use it to their advantage. As they negotiate with the H.N., Audrey (Vanessa L. Williams in a thankless role), they decide to make global news as they make their demands. Their demands to be heard and to improve their school surprise everyone, but also earns support from most of the public.

As the film continues, we get to know these kids in ways that Jackson never even bothered to do before he labeled them immediately as bad people. Ziggy comes from an unwelcome home, which is why he secretly lives in the school. The main reason he freaked out in the first place was because Jackson was going to call his parents to take him home. And when Jackson sees the scars on Ziggy’s back, he sees why Ziggy wasn’t going to have it. And also when he sees Ziggy’s true gift for drawing and painting, he can also see his pure innocence. Rightfully so. This is a kid you don’t want bad things to happen to.

Lester is a strong leader, but there are layers of depression and tragedy hidden that he doesn’t like to talk about. The reasons for that come through when he finally lets out his reasons for hating the police. Stephanie is the type of smart, intelligent student you wouldn’t expect to find in a situation like this, but any situation in which she can help somebody is one she can’t say “no” to easily. Lynn’s plight is obvious (unexpected pregnancy and a jackass boyfriend who wants no part of it), but it’s still effective enough. Rivers doesn’t have much, but his presence is welcome to lighten things up a bit. Actually, I take it back. If he wasn’t the only one on drugs, I don’t think he would have taken things seriously, and there are times when he does; he’s not dumb and he’s very reliable. Rodney is the closest thing to a criminal-type, is only there to hide from a gang that would like their way with him, would like to shoot Jackson if he had the gun and not Lester, and also has a hard time controlling himself.

We even get to know Jackson a little bit, as we find out why he’s a security guard at a public school instead of a police officer on the beat. We see that he lives in a cruel, difficult world just like these kids do. And he realizes that too, so there’s also room for him to grow in this film.

When the film focuses on these characters’ plight and growth, “Light It Up” works. The actors all do solid jobs, especially Forest Whitaker, Usher Raymond, and Robert Ri’chard. And even when the script goes for certain clichés that I’m not sure could be helped, the situations are kept fresh for the most part. You could argue that sometimes it preaches, but these are issues that need to be addressed. In that case, “Light It Up” is also an effective parable that speaks about the American inner-city public school system. The questions asked early on in this film are legit, and authority is too uptight and too unfocused to answer them.

And I should also mention that “Light It Up” is also a nicely-done thriller as well. The situations with these kids, the gun, and their hostage is tense, and the film knows that. Sure, the outcome of the hostage situation may be predictable for some, but there are moments when you find yourself not knowing exactly how certain situations, particularly in the final act, will play out. For all you know, somebody could die.

There was true effort put into “Light It Up” that made it into an effective, well-acted film that works as a coming-of-age story, a thriller, and a cautionary tale.

Return to Oz (1985)

30 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Talk about not being in Kansas anymore, Toto.

I know “The Wizard of Oz,” one of the greatest fantasy films of all time, had its dark moments too (and I will never forget the horrific scene involving the flying monkeys and what they do to poor Scarecrow), but look at what its 1985 sequel threw at its young audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids who saw this movie weren’t having nightmares based on the film’s images, or even running from the theater while screaming. We’re talking severed heads (which are very much alive), rocks with moving faces on them, and creepy menaces called Wheelers.

What’s weird is that this movie was clearly intended for children. Its plucky little protagonist and the quirky creatures she befriends along a journey through the fantasy world of Oz (though it doesn’t look as incredible as it did before; the Emerald City is a ruins now and what I guess was originally Munchkinland looks like it was replaced by a nature reserve) to be sure of that. But while it has its suitably silly fantasy-story moments, it has more moments that are bleak, disturbing, and even terrifying that you wonder if they weren’t originally going to make a horror film, or maybe a horror-comedy like a parody of “The Wizard of Oz.”

But on one hand, I think what scares some kids about this movie will delight others. Some people could argue that scaring kids is an irresponsible and somewhat too-easy move to pull in order to keep the movies edgier. But on the other hand, you could argue that kids rather enjoy being scared. That’s because when they’re scared by what’s happening on the screen, there’s the chance they could be further sucked in by what’s happening on the screen. So, I won’t pan “Return to Oz” for being dark. (However, I do wonder what the hell they were thinking when the film opens with Dorothy being locked in an insane asylum and about to undergo shock therapy to cure her insomnia!)

But aside from nifty Claymation effects and an admittedly interesting villain known as the Nome King, there really isn’t much to “Return to Oz.” It’s just Dorothy and her friends off to find the Scarecrow from the original movie and adventures happen to them. I like some of the side characters, like a talking hen and a mechanical assistant called Tik Tok. But there’s also a scary-looking, towering, naïve pumpkin-head who sees Dorothy as a mother-figure, which is kind of creepy. The delight of Oz is barely existent. And when they find the Scarecrow, there’s hardly any time to get reacquainted with the beloved character. Some of the set pieces aren’t taken enough advantage of, such as a sandy desert that swallows those who step onto it. Dorothy is not interesting in the slightest, not that I blame Fairuza Balk because the role is thankless to begin with. The pacing is slow. There’s hardly a development, nor a solid resolution. And to sum it up, “Return to Oz” isn’t a very exciting return, except for the grim scenes that are actually more interesting than anything else in the movie.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

24 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There have been many stories in categories of science-fiction, action, drama, or all of the above that a similar element—the future sucks. There’s usually a dystopian society that runs under more strict, controlling, even violent procedures, and there’s usually a main character, or main characters, that have figured out the answer and use it to bring down this society that has turned the future into a hellhole. We’ve seen it all before. And it’s also used in quite a few young-adult novels, so it’s becoming more and more popular with each generation.

But “The Hunger Games,” Susanne Collins’ book series, finds many twists and turns with the sort of “dystopian future” tale that can either compel or bore audiences. In this case, Collins found a way to appeal to beyond the books’ supposed target demographic by giving her stories original ways to bend around the familiarities and give us some effective political and social commentary as well.

And it helps that with each book in this series of three stories, the themes deepen, the commentary is more active, the emotional conflict is more compelling, and you have something special with this series. That’s essentially a way to describe the film adaptation of the second book, “Catching Fire.”

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” picks up about a year after the original “Hunger Games” left off, as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) prepare to go on a victory tour after winning the Hunger Games, which if you recall required them to be the last two of 24 young people to survive. But just because they won doesn’t mean there aren’t any ramifications for their futures. For one thing, they haven’t left the arena without any deep emotional scars that can come from killing in order to survive (and win). Katniss in particular has trouble coping and even functioning half the time. And also, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is angry and wants Katniss dead. Why? Because Katniss’ actions in the Hunger Games, including her idea of both her and Peeta winning, has made her into a symbol of hope and rebellion. Some of the 12 districts have begun to rise against the system, bringing it to a halt. In order to maintain his power and put an end to revolt, Snow believes Katniss should die.

As Katniss and Peeta embark on their tour and witness the rebellion of these districts, Snow is even more angry and decides to bring their district to the ground slowly but surely. Armed forces come in (dressed as…Stormtroopers?) and attack the villagers, including Katniss’ best male friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Worse yet, in order to ensure her doom, Snow arranges for a new game in which Hunger Game victors are forced to face each other. Katniss and Peeta end up in an arena yet again to fight for their lives, and for their freedom. This time, Katniss and Peeta have allies, such as athletic Finnick (Sam Claflin), angry rebel Johanna (Jena Malone), and intelligent Beetee (Jeffrey Wright).

The final hour of this two-hour-25-minute film occurs in the dome in which the game takes place. But these games are rather different from the original story in two ways. One is, there’s a lot more at stake than Katniss’ own life. She has to question the loyalty of her allies, before they may or may not become each other’s enemies later; she has to question what awaits her and her loved ones if she does survive; she has to wonder if she will put her life down to save those closest to her, such as Peeta. What will come out of this if either Katniss or Peeta live? Will it further raise the rebellion? If so, what will come from it?

And unfortunately, for those who haven’t read the books, those answers won’t be revealed until the last two films in the film series, each based on the third book “Mockingjay.” The film ends with a cliffhanger that may anger some, but keep most anxious to see what’s going to happen on November 21, 2014.

The other reason these games are different, at least on an entertainment level rather than an emotional level, is the series of adventures that these characters come across. More obstacles chase after them, each more dangerous than the last. These sequences are very exciting and tense (even the scenes with the gigantic baboons are thrilling to watch)—even more so than the tricks in the original film. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a rousing action film in that sense.

It’s also an intriguing film to look at. The visual style of the film, from the poor districts to the Presidential palace, is consistently brilliant and fun to watch, with all sorts of colors and visual effects that really stand out.

And it works with its drama as well. The stress disorder that Katniss feels is legitimately effective, and it not only causes her to think about what she had to do to survive the Hunger Games, but also causes the audience to consider what they were watching as entertainment! You understand Katniss’ plight and you wish for the comeuppance of those who want to strike her down because she already has too much to deal with, including keeping her family and friends safe. Even the smaller elements work well, including (surprisingly) a love-triangle involving Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, who is also in love with Katniss and watches with disdain and Katniss and Peeta continue a charade of romance in order to keep their fans happy. (Hopefully, it stays that way in the next film.)

Once again, this “Hunger Games” film is graced with a top-notch cast. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss; even more so than in the original film because of the emotional complexity she has to bring to her character. Josh Hutcherson is again likable as Peeta; Woody Harrelson is great, reprising his earlier role as the drunk but helpful Haymitch; Liam Hemsworth’s Gale has more screen time than before and has room for more development; and Donald Sutherland plays President Snow like a despicable villain we desperately want to see comeuppance brought onto. Of the new additions to the cast in this story, I’d say Jena Malone is the strongest (let’s face it—you would like to say what she says about her situation when she’s interviewed for TV), but let’s not rule out Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is terrific in the role of the new gamemaker.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a terrific film and I hope that this film-franchise continues strong so that the next two films can further deepen the elements that made it not only entertaining but also thought-provoking. As far as young-adult-novel film adaptations go, “The Hunger Games” is by far the strongest in a long time. I eagerly await the next entry.

The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)

20 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Is it a requirement in a lot of family films that a majority of side characters must be a jerk so that the nice, plucky protagonist can give us more reason to like and root for him/her? It seems like a common device in a lot of family films I’ve seen—people who won’t listen to reason and are very cruel to the young hero, and thus we root for escape so the journey can continue. Take Disney’s “The Journey of Natty Gann.” The main reason (or one of the main reasons) its plucky heroine, Natalie “Natty” Gann, runs away from home to travel cross-country in search of her father is that her caretaker who’s fed up with her calls an orphanage, reporting an “abandoned kid.” She does this despite already being told that Natty’s father will soon send for her! I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s low even by Disney-animated-villain standards. But Natty escapes her caretaker and sets off to find her father.

“The Journey of Natty Gann” is set during the Great Depression and begins in Chicago. People are out looking for work quick, and Natty’s widower father Sal (Ray Wise) is lucky enough to get himself a logging job. But there’s one major problem—the job is in Washington and his transport leaves very soon. Natty (Meredith Salenger) is playing with her friends at this time, and so Sal has to leave without saying goodbye. He leaves a message to her saying he will send for her as soon as he makes enough money, but until then, she is left in the care of a bad-tempered hotel caretaker (Lainie Kazan) who treats her like dirt. It’s all she and Natty can take from each other, so Natty decides to travel by railroad to the West Coast to be reunited with Sal.

Along the way, she is befriended by a wolf who accompanies her after she gives him food. The wolf in turn brings her a rabbit to eat when she is alone in the wilderness. The wolf becomes Natty’s protector and friend, defending her from vile, cruel people they come across (again, that aforementioned rule comes into place—there’s even a pedophile thrown in at one point for no reason other than the wolf has to protect Natty from him). But they do come across another companion later in the film—a teenage drifter named Harry (John Cusack) who joins them. He does this begrudgingly so, but he does prove to be a good guy to travel with.

We see more of Natty with the wolf than we do of her and Harry. He only appears at the beginning of her journey and then much later, he comes back into the film and accompanies her and the wolf until he must part. As moving as the scenes involving Natty and the wolf are, I have to admit I was kind of hoping for more of this relationship between Natty and Harry. True, their relationship isn’t quite romance-intended, and it seems more like a sibling relationship in the ways they both hate and like each other; but the human companionship and them trying to relate with one another and gain a friendship is very interesting, especially considering what Natty has already been through on her quest. Probably a personal complaint, but I just wish Natty and Harry had more screen time together. I liked this guy and I felt he was underused.

But like I said, the scenes with Natty and the wolf are moving and effective. The wolf is cute enough so that its moments on screen can cause people to say “aww.” And the girl-and-her-wolf angle works well in the girl-versus-nature element that comes midway through the film, as Natty is learning to survive after taking a detour through the woods.

“The Journey of Natty Gann” is a good-looking movie. The cinematography by Dick Bush is top-notch; the film looks remarkably like the period it’s set in; the railroad scenes are incredible; there’s a good sense of atmosphere. It’s just terrific to watch.

Another strength to the film is the leading performance by Meredith Salenger as Natty Gann. She portrays Natty as a girl who is suitably witty, appealingly spunky, sharp, sometimes standoffish, but doesn’t take “no” for an answer. She’s absolutely terrific here. The supporting cast includes a few that stand out—one is Cusack, who is very likable here; another is Ray Wise, who turns in a solid performance as Natty’s father whom the film catches up on from time to time; and Barry Miller who has a brief role as a quick-thinking street-smart would-be-entrepreneur that runs with a gang of young runaways.

Not everything about “The Journey of Natty Gann” works. The aforementioned “everyone’s-a-jerk” rule follows through with scenes that are rather painful to watch, including a character who gives Natty a ride and turns out to be a pedophile. That scene was just creepy and unnecessary. There’s also a dead-spot for me that I usually fast-forward through—it’s a 15-minute long sequence in which Natty is mistakenly tossed in a girls’ orphanage and has to escape. And sometimes, the film is a little too desperate for its audience to cheer. After a well-done adventurous scene in which the wolf must jump onto a moving train to join its human companions, the film does it again to try and make us cheer again. It didn’t quite work for me the second time. (But I’ll admit, I was glad he made it the first time—that was a terrific scene.)

However, the things that work in “The Journey of Natty Gann” work really well. It’s a nice cross-country adventure, it has a good, smart protagonist, and its setting is more than convincing. And it’s also interesting in that it’s Depression victims that are involved here, and for the most part, they act the way real Depression victims probably could have acted. Kids who see this film (though I’m not sure how many did, as this is one of Disney’s most overlooked, along with “Tex,” when it comes to their live-action films) might be fascinated by this portrait of the Depression Era and how these smart, independent young people learn to survive it. “The Journey of Natty Gann” is an entertaining, well-made journey indeed.

City of Ember (2008)

15 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I begin, let me state that while I like this film adaptation of Jeanne DuPrau’s science-fiction fantasy novel “The City of Ember,” I can’t help but wonder how more effective it would be if the prologue was omitted from the final product. Let me explain—it’s not that we don’t need somewhat of an explanation for some of the elements given to the film (even though some elements, we have to figure out for ourselves—I’ll get to one specific example later); it’s that there could have been a great surprise twist that would have made sense and, more importantly for a sci-fi film, would have been intriguing.

As “City of Ember” opens, we’re given a prologue (with the voice of Tim Robbins narrating the setup) that lets us know right away that the action is going to take place in an underground city that was built to protect the survivors of a catastrophe that has gotten the best of Earth, so that new generations will live on. A box is given to the first Mayor of the City of Ember—inside the box are rules and instructions that will help the people of Ember to come back to the world, 200 years later. (A timer is set on the box to be opened in a specific 200 years—by the way, you ever wonder if that box’s batteries run out after a couple weeks or something? But I digress.) As time passed, the box was unfortunately abandoned and forgotten until finally, on its 200th year, it opens.

Do we really need to know right away that Ember is an underground city? Wouldn’t it have been a great twist if it were revealed to us, while being revealed to the film’s heroes, that Ember was underground the whole time? With this prologue, we’re now ahead of the protagonists instead of wondering along with them what else is out there among this “post-apocalyptic” world. It would have been more interesting to try and figure out where Ember was, but it’s set up early on that it’s underground.

Aside from that missed opportunity, “City of Ember” is a nicely-done sci-fi family adventure film with a unique visual look, an interesting setting, a cast of characters we can root for, and a mystery that keeps you invested. And no, that mystery isn’t where Ember is—it’s how to escape from it.

The box with instructions is found by two Ember children—teenagers Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway)—who ultimately use the written guides to find an exit. And just in time, too—the city’s generator that provides the city’s light and air is broken, leading to frequent malfunctions for Ember. Not only that, but the food storerooms are running empty and the water supply is low. Lina and Doon follow complicated, enigmatic clues that lead closer and closer to a safeguarded path to a place outside of Ember. But while on this journey, they come across a treasonous plan of Ember’s corrupt mayor Cole (Bill Murray), meaning they must work fast in order to ultimately figure everything out.

The setting of Ember is fun to look at, with one of the most fascinating movie sets I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of a George Orwell/Terry Gilliam type of city, with its claustrophobic setting, its color palette, which mostly consists of browns and golds, and even somewhat-retro technology without the updated present-day luxuries we’re used to. There are no computers in this world, which is kind of odd, but there are messengers running from place to place to deliver a new message to somebody from a customer. Everything is much more mechanical, with all sorts of gears and motors. There’s a fitting metaphor for how life has drained long since our modern technologies somewhere in here, and I think that’s what makes it all the more intriguing.

The last third of the film shows the two kids on their journey to find an exit from Ember. This leads them to a secret passage that leads to a couple of waterwheels and an old control room, where it all seems like a Rube Goldberg invention. Again, we have more visual effects to admire and the sets are very impressive. This city of Ember is a very inventive vision and has just what a sci-fi film such as this needed.

Oh. Yeah. I should mention the gigantic mole-like creature that is loose in the pipes down below. It only has a couple of scenes on-screen, but its presence is never explained in the slightest. Why is there a giant mole in this world? Did it have something to do with the end of the world? If it was due to radiation that Ember was created, was this a side effect? There’s also a cat-sized moth that Doon comes across and helps after it’s broken its wing. It seems to fly up to the surface; that’s a clever way of establishing some sort of radioactive-related theory. But still, it’s kind of a confused way of letting us take it seriously when a random giant mole is scattering around the city.

By the way, here’s something odd—the novel doesn’t even mention the giant mole or moth at all.

There are some problems I have with “City of Ember.” One is a few scenes go on a little longer than they should and some parts feel like filler to fill in the hour-and-a-half running time. Another is that the CGI ranges from passable to…in the case of the moth in particular, not very good. And the dialogue could have used a little work, particularly from Doon’s mentor, vague old Sul (Martin Landau, cashing a nice paycheck), and his father (Tim Robbins) who mostly speaks through trailer-type dialogue. And then unfortunately, there’s Bill Murray. As big a fan I am about Bill Murray, I really don’t believe his performance here. Murray just seems to be phoning it in and I couldn’t buy him for a moment.

But “City of Ember” has more things for me to appreciate that I enjoy watching the film and recommend it. The two young leads are appealing; the setting is unbelievable and very imaginative; there are clever twists and turns to the story here and there; the adventures are fun; and what’s probably most refreshing is that unlike most post-apocalyptic stories, this one is more centered on hope rather than misery. And that’s what made the ending of the film all the more satisfactory (even if it is ambiguous).

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

13 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is undoubtedly one of the most well-known, popular Christmas films, but it really is something more than that. To call this film a treasure would be to understate it. It’s not only a celebration of storytelling and filmmaking, but also a celebration of life. It’s about acknowledging what you have, knowing that things can be good, and how you couldn’t imagine your life going another way. That its important final half occurs during Christmastime just raises its emotional level.

I love this wonderful movie, and I still find it hard to believe that it was obscure when it first released in 1946. Even though it was nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), it received mixed reviews and barely made back what it cost, despite the box-office popularity of filmmaker Frank Capra. But as time went by and it hit public domain, it did find its audience as movie-lovers fell in love with what this beautiful film had to offer.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a masterpiece in storytelling. The structure of the film is just brilliant. It begins with shots of a quiet, snowy small town called Bedford Falls on the night of Christmas Eve, with voiceovers from people praying to help George Bailey. The prayers reach Heaven, as God assigns a “2nd-class” angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) to be George’s guardian angel. But first he has to show him (and the audience) who George is and what led him to contemplate suicide…

George grew up in Bedford Falls, but had big dreams of seeing the world and becoming a world-famous explorer. But as he grew to adulthood, he had to give up those dreams, as well as college, to take over the Bailey Building and Loan Society after his father passed away. George continues through his life in Bedford Falls, always putting human need above anything else such as wealth, always supported by his family and friends. His main problem: a ruthless banker named Potter (Lionel Barrymore) works the opposite way, using his riches to drain the spirit of Bedford Falls. Potter wants to hit the Bailey Building and Loan because it’s the one place in town he doesn’t own, and he knows if he can buy George out, he’ll run the whole town. As Potter constantly thinks of a new way to get his hands on the institution, George thankfully finds a way to foil him.

This is essentially the first two-thirds of “It’s a Wonderful Life”: giving us insight into George’s life, showing events from his childhood to his adulthood. We know what he was expecting his life to be, and are as heartbroken as he is when things don’t work out the way he planned. While there are many comic, upbeat moments (such as the infamous swimming-pool scene where George dances with his first love, Mary), there are also some grim moments in between, particularly those that lead to George standing on a bridge, about to jump off and end his own misery.

After all this buildup, we finally get to Clarence being sent to Earth to help George however he can. This is what this film’s admirers remember most from this movie: the final third of the film. Clarence jumps into the river under the bridge so that George can save him. When George does save him and Clarence introduces himself as his guardian angel, George doesn’t believe him and only sees him as an oddball. But Clarence has a way of proving himself and also showing George how wonderful his life truly is: by making it so that George can see what Bedford Falls would have been like if he was never born. It’s in this alternate reality that George makes some shocking discoveries about how things would have turned out without him around—everyone is much worse off. Potter owns the town; George’s uncle, Billy, is committed; George’s brother, Harry, is dead; his wife, Mary (well-played by Donna Reed), is single and lonely; his children are gone; and so on.

And so George learns that each contribution he could give is helpful to others, that things in life can work out though not always in ways expected, and that the greatest values in life are family and friends. It’s no wonder that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of the very best “feel-good” movies (in fact, you could make the argument that it’s the absolute best)—its story is told in such a way that when the payoff ultimately occurs, it really means something and strikes emotional chords with audiences.

Everything about “It’s a Wonderful Life” works. The story, the characters, the filmmaking, the message, and the acting all make this film all-around, for lack of a better word, “wonderful.” I watch it numerous times every Christmas, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t watch it about 8-10 times this season.

Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog (1995)

12 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There were moments in the family film “Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog” that really surprised me. For one thing, I was shocked to discover that this film about a boy and his dog braving the wilderness alone for a three-week journey was not a harmless picnic. The boy is resourceful and quick-witted, and the dog is truly wonderful, but man do they go through some pretty rough stuff. By the end of this trek, the boy is tired and weak and he and the dog have already been through what is absolutely no fun camping trip. Moments in this film ring true when it’s focused on the outdoor scenes. Even in the inevitable material such as when the boy and his dog encounter a wolf and a cougar, there’s a surprising level of suspense that keeps it interesting.

But those moments are so few in “Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog,” which despite the title is more about the boy finding his way home than it is about the dog. The boy, named Angus (Jesse Bradford), has been taught by his father (Bruce Davison) some of the basic rules of wilderness survival. These tactics come in handy when he is a boat accident that leaves him, and his new dog Yellow, in the Canadian wilderness. They must rely on their courage and skills for about three weeks, enduring violent rainstorms, a pack of wolves, starvation, freezing temperatures, and a curious cougar, all while Angus’ father and mother (Mimi Rogers) continue to pay ($200,000 a week) for searches.

It’s hard not to recommend a film like this, especially since it has moments that make it a little more mature than most boy-and-his-dog stories, and it is well-made with nicely-done photography of the island that the boy is stuck on. Jesse Bradford is quite good in the leading role too. I think my problems mainly had to do with everything else. The scenes with the worrying parents are too corny for my taste; sometimes the tone of the film is too innocuous to be anything but predictable; and I’m sorry to say this, but the dog is too perfect. The dog always knows what to do and how to do it, and the kid suffers worse than he does. I know that’s weird of me to say, as I am a dog person and truly wouldn’t want any harm to come to this dog, but to make this dog so perfect loses the film some of its credibility.

By the way, where did the dog come from anyway? Angus finds him at the beginning of the film, and we know nothing about where the dog came from in the first place. Isn’t that strange?

The last fifteen-or-so minutes of the film are the most boring because it drags on for far too long, as we know that somehow, as Angus continues to blow that dog whistle in the hopes that Yellow will find his way home, Yellow will finally come. How did Yellow manage to find his way back to Angus? Why didn’t we see that story?

I don’t know what else to say, except that it sort of feels like perhaps this film was done in a hurry. Many parts of the film feel a little too rushed, without much time to let everything sink in. Some of the time, scenes are glanced over and forgotten. It’s kind of embarrassing for me to give a film like this a mixed review, considering that it has moments that are more mature than in most boy-and-his-dog stories. But “Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog” could have been better.

Yellow (Short Film)

11 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember a time back in high school when I realized how much I loved my best female friend and I couldn’t deny it anymore. When I found this out, I immediately turned to my best male buddy and told him how I felt. Then I asked for advice, hoping he would say that telling her would be the right move to make. What was his response? Don’t tell her.

I asked why. He said it was because she and I were great friends since grade school and if she didn’t feel the same way about me, it would make things very awkward and lead to our separation. That wasn’t something I wanted, so I let it be for a while. But as time went on, I told some other people (my parents, my sister, and some other peers) how I felt about her. Some said I should go for it; others weren’t so helpful and even said some discourteous comments that I probably shouldn’t reveal here.

I eventually did tell her, one day during our senior year. Of course, she said she only saw us as “just friends” and didn’t see this relationship going any further than that. I asked her to forget what I said; she agreed…but things weren’t the same between us at all. We stopped having lunch together, she stopped answering my phone calls, and we spent very little time together, until eventually we drifted apart.

Telling a close friend of the opposite sex you love them isn’t an easy decision to make, whether you’re in high school or not. Maybe that’s why I admired Jasmine Greer’s film, titled “Yellow,” as much as I did—because it knows that. It’s a 13-minute short about an earnest young man named Max (played with convincing sincerity by Brian Roberson) who spends a few days trying to convince himself that “today’s the day” to tell his best female friend the truth: that he loves her. He’s unsure about what would happen and turns to those around him for advice. But no one is fit to offer help—not his weird roommate (Jason Willey, hilarious) who uses a “Temple of Doom” reference as a metaphor for how it’ll turn out (badly), and definitely not his oblivious family (his mother played by Jeri Shire, his grandfather played by Tony Gschwend, and his uncle played by Alan Rackley) who have little to give other than rude remarks. His older sister (Krystal Kaminar) is the only sane one in the family, but by the time he calls her, he’s lost his confidence yet again to listen to new advice.

“Today’s the day,” Max keeps telling himself as he builds up confidence before losing it. Is it “the day?” Max knows he won’t know for sure unless he just lets it out, but if he does let it out, will it be the beginning of something more for him and this girl or will it be the end of a solid friendship? Questions like this run through Max’s mind as he expresses in thought (and through voiceover) his nervousness. He’s so nervous that he doesn’t even know what color tie he should wear at work—black or yellow?

Midway through “Yellow” is my favorite scene in the short, and it involves Max’s encounter with a friendly, attractive co-worker (Brittany Reed) in an elevator at work. Her action, in a way, mirrors Max’s goal. His reaction imagines the anxiety and confusion for the reaction for that goal. It’s a well-written, suitably awkward moment that feels true and is an effective prelude to the film’s final scene.

I don’t want to make “Yellow” sound so wholesome and melodramatic that no one would be interested in seeing it, because it is actually very funny. The comedy comes from the situation—the film has a goofy sense of humor, but it also knows how a young man in this setting would talk and behave. The film is fresh and cheerful in that it uses human comedy as it’s found in this situation. It also helps that writer-director Jasmine Greer doesn’t hate her characters—she never condescends to Max, and the side characters are portrayed as suitably weird instead of overly or scornfully so. There’s the semi-annoying slacker-roommate character played by Jason Willey (we all have a friend like him in our lives); Max’s jackass boss played by Scott McEntire who mocks Max’s yellow tie (I love his sarcastic dialogue about if the tie has superpowers); the three family members Max calls for advice are people who just might say the things they say, as they have experienced love long before; and that attractive co-worker, Myra, has her quirks as well.

We don’t see Max’s potential girlfriend until the end of the film, but when we do, it’s hard to question why Max didn’t just decide to give Myra a chance. They have a sweet moment together and surprisingly, the way it’s developed and presented is enough for us to care. You could argue that because the film waited until the end to introduce this girl that Max has been obsessing about throughout the film, it’s hard to care about whether or not their friendship goes further. But somehow it worked for me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Maybe it was because she seems much kinder than everyone else in Max’s life, and so it was a relief that there really is a tender moment that Max shares with someone, finally. Oddly enough, these two do feel right together. And so I did find myself wondering whether Max would ultimately tell her how he felt about her or just keep the friendship they share together.

Telling your close friend of the opposite sex you love them is a tough decision to make. It can go one way or another, for better or for worse. I felt that Max’s anxiety was legit and I cared about what would happen for him. That’s how effective “Yellow” was for me. It’s an insightful, well-written, and often very funny short film.

NOTE: The film can be seen here:

The Kings of Summer (2013)

11 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a good film somewhere within Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ debut feature “The Kings of Summer”—it just needs to be found. This would like to be the next “Stand by Me”—a coming-of-age teenage story about how a seemingly-fun, unusual journey teaches its young characters to grow up and face reality. And sometimes, the film gets that angle right with some nicely-done, beautiful sequences and good acting by the principals, but it lets itself down by now allowing itself to truly go into some of these issues (and when they do, they overdo it) and giving us awkward, forced, sitcom-style filler to surround the worthy material. So, while I give it some points for trying, the film as a whole is mainly a mess.

The film is about a high school student named Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), who lives with his jerk of a single father (Nick Offerman). His mother has died, and his older sister (Alison Brie) isn’t around anymore (she moved out when she got the chance). His friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), has a home life that is suffocating for him, with his ridiculously-hovering parents always around him. When Joe and a weird kid named Biaggio (Moises Arias) get lost on their way home from a party, they find a beautiful wooded area that Joe decides he wants to live in. So he brings Patrick in on his plan to run away from home to build a house in the middle of the woods. Joined by Biaggio, they go through with the plan and live there in their own makeshift cabin for a good chunk of the summer. But when Joe’s crush, a girl named Kelly (Erin Moriarty), gets involved in this new world they’ve created, things get complicated when she and Patrick develop their own relationship.

There are moments in this film, even among the moments that I thought were either forced or painful, where I thought it was going somewhere. There are beautifully-executed montage sequences, all of which involve the boys building the house (this sequence has a most appropriate use of the MGMT song, “The Youth”), exploring the great outdoors, or simply thinking about which situation they get into. And the final act, in which the boys’ friendship is tested and Joe can’t bring himself to come back to civilization until a key moment arrives, kept the story from being predictable, which was refreshing. So there are moments in the film that do work well, thanks to the direction and the acting. But the script is all over the map. There are many painful, artificial attempts at humor, most of which involve the adults. The adults in this film are so dim and clueless, and they speak and work entirely in sitcom manner. Aside from Joe’s jackass father and Patrick’s overly-hovering parents, there are also two incompetent cops called in to investigate the boys’ “kidnapping.”

These moments hurt the serious material and make “The Kings of Summer” very inconsistent. I’m aware that you do need comic relief when you deal with issues that are heavy (dealing with difficult home life, dealing with first love, finding out who you are as a person, knowing how to solve your problems), but this is pushing it. Besides, the film already has the character of Biaggio for that. This kid is beyond weird—the things he says are beyond disturbing (“I don’t see myself as having a gender” or “I can read; I just can’t cry”)—but the deadpan delivery given by Moises Arias makes it work and makes us laugh. (I would say that the fact that Biaggio is essentially a one-note caricature is another problem, but it didn’t bother me as much as the other attempts at humor.)

Mainly, what “The Kings of Summer” wants to deliver is a message that growing up and becoming a man doesn’t mean just doing whatever you want to do, and that friendship (such as the one between Joe and Patrick) can be tested and fought unless there’s some form of ground they can find with their emotions (Joe kind of becomes an emotionally bully later in the film). And while I like the young actors and Vogt-Roberts’ direction, and there are images that stick in your mind for a while, “The Kings of Summer” mostly suffers from an over-written, uneven script that takes its topics and either does little with them or ignores them.

S For Sally (Short Film)

5 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Melanie Addington’s “S For Sally” is an unsettling short film about a mother who is concerned about her daughter Sally’s disturbing behavior. How disturbing? In an opening scene, she stands in the doorway to Sally’s bedroom, shocked by the things Sally says when she plays with her dolls. “You’ll have to die like the others,” she says. “They should all die.”

Sally’s mother, Mona (Jennifer Pierce Mathus), has good reason to be unnerved by her daughter’s behavior. (As do we, for that matter—that was a quite upsetting opening scene.) But weirdly enough, what’s more disturbing is how Mona’s husband, Phil (Rhes Low), reacts to Mona’s expressive thoughts. “Something is very wrong with our little girl,” she tells him. How does he respond? He’s bitter and cold, as if he’s heard this many times before (at one point, he tells her, “We’ve been through this”).

What person acts like this? What does he know about it? Does he notice it as much as Mona does? And what about Sally’s school teacher whom Mona and Phil talk with at a parent-teacher conference? She seems as calm as Phil, bringing Mona to reveal Sally’s behavior, only to have the teacher say in order to comfort her, “It’s not the school that can help.” It’s even more unsettling when the reverend Mona visits isn’t much help either.

There’s a consistently creepy tone throughout “S for Sally” that makes the film both unsettling and convincing. It’s effectively done and well-made, making the unnerving moments in this film even more so. There’s hardly a way of knowing exactly what’s going on in this family’s life until the film reaches its twist ending. Yes, there is a twist ending here, and to my surprise (without giving anything away), it worked for me. It made me want to analyze what I’d just seen in the last 12 minutes, and so I watched the film again; the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated the film.

We’re as confused as Mona about what’s going on here, and since we follow her throughout the course of this 12-minute film, I’m obligated to talk about the performance. To start with, I really like Jennifer Pierce Mathus as an actress. I’ve admired her in side roles in short films such as Daniel Campbell’s “Antiquities” (already reviewed by me) and Christy Ward’s UCA thesis film, “tree.” She has a true presence that can’t be forced. It’s nice to see her in a leading role such as this. She’s excellent here as this concerned mother, not once striking a false note.

With a suitably dark tone, skillful direction by Melanie Addington, and a standout performance by Jennifer Pierce Mathus, “S For Sally” is an effectively unsettling short film.

NOTE: The film can be seen here: