Archive | September, 2014

Jack (revised review)

28 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This is a first for “Smith’s Verdict.” I’ve changed my mind about certain movies over time, but this is the first time I’ve had to revise a negative review and make it a positive one. And it’s not a movie I expected to change my mind about either—Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack.” But recently, I was able to rent the DVD for free at a local library in Conway, Arkansas, and I watched it for the parts I liked (I did acknowledge, in the original review, parts I liked about it), and then something strange happened: I found myself watching the whole thing, from beginning to end…then I watched it again…and then a third time all the way through. And that’s when I realized—there was more for me to like about it than I thought, enough for me to write this now-positive review of a movie that I know a lot of people hate and that even I took some shots at in the other review.

“Jack” is about a 10-year-old kid whose growth disorder causes him to appear four times his actual age, causing him to look about 40. Played by Robin Williams, Jack Powell has led a very sheltered life by his loving parents, especially his mother (played very well by Diane Lane), kept mostly out of society and out of public school. But his private tutor, Mr. Woodruff (Bill Cosby in a nice small role), suggests that maybe he’s ready to join the 5th grade and be with other kids his age. Reluctantly, the parents agree, and so Jack begins school, where of course he is seen as a freak because of his adult appearance who towers over all the other kids, is hairier than most of the kids’ fathers, and breaks his desk on his first day in class. But some cool 10-year-olds realize they can use Jack to their advantage in a schoolyard game of basketball, and they also discover they can use him to fool parents into thinking he’s the school principal. And soon enough, he’s invited to join their treehouse club because he looks old enough to buy them Penthouse magazine.

Yes, “Jack” was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and maybe that’s what caused people to be distracted while watching this movie, because they expected something more than this. It’s like Roger Ebert said in his review of Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money”—“If this movie had been directed by someone else, I might have thought differently about it because I might not have expected so much.” It’s like comparing it to directors’ previous work instead of seeing it as a movie even of itself. I think Coppola just liked making any kind of movie—it’s not like he wasn’t allowed to make a comedy-drama for Disney, starring Robin Williams. “Jack” is well-directed, and Coppola keeps his actors in check (good for comedic actors such as Williams, Cosby, and Fran Drescher), and the film is well-shot with a few Coppola trademarks (fast-moving clouds, POV shots, and a couple others I may have missed). It just happens to be in a sentimental comedy-drama, but I think it’s a good one. “Jack” does a very good job of balancing comedy and drama, as the second half of this film confronts Jack’s mortality, as it should; first you have fun while setting up characters and make us like them, and then you give us the inevitable by easing us into it.

But the first half has its moments of sadness as well, such as when Jack is starting school and, at one point, accidentally breaks his desk as he sits in it. I know a lot of people saw this as a predictable joke, but I don’t think it was necessarily intended as a joke. In context, it’s more upsetting than it is funny, because everyone is laughing at him, not with him. Jack’s status as an outcast only grows until he’s ultimately welcomed on the basketball court by the other boys, and then he has friends and feels like he’s living life the way he wanted to. When the film reaches the back half, Jack has realized how short his life is and must learn to accept it so he can live like everyone else. Nowhere is that clearer than in the ending of the film in which Jack has graduated high school, now looks like an old man, and gives a speech about how he is ready to accept his fate now he has led a full life and acknowledges everyone else to do the same. “Jack” doesn’t take the easy way out; sure, we don’t see him die, but we know he doesn’t have that much longer to live after the movie’s story is finished. We can accept it because he did accept it, and that makes for a touching, heartbreaking resolution by itself.

The film is also very well cast, thanks to Coppola’s usual casting director, Fred Roos (how often do you see a mention of a casting director in a review?). Robin Williams is brilliantly cast as Jack. He’s a master of body language and perfectly captures what it’s like to be a 10-year-old in a 40-year-old man’s body. Watch his hands, watch his head movements, notice his vocal inflections, and you can see Williams really working it here, as if he channeled all the way back to when he was 10. It’s a performance up there with Tom Hanks in “Big” or Judge Reinhold in “Vice Versa.” There are a few instances where he does step out of character and into Williams’ usual adult standup persona, and it can be a little distracting, but mostly he’s excellent in the role.

The supporting cast is pretty solid; I admire the acting in this film. Diane Lane has a difficult role to pull off, as the loving, concerned mother of a boy she knows people don’t accept right away. She’s not a bad person, and she knows some of the things she does isn’t fair; everything she does is for the wellbeing of her son. Bill Cosby is suitably soft-spoken as the tutor and gives a well-written speech to Jack, describing him as “a shooting star.” “You’re a shooting star amongst ordinary stars,” he says. “A shooting star passes quickly, but while it’s here, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever want to see.” Brian Kerwin, as Jack’s dad, doesn’t have as many good moments as Lane’s mother character does, but he does solid work as well. Jennifer Lopez is very good as Jack’s caring teacher. The actors playing the kids are all excellent, especially Adam Zolotin as Jack’s best friend Louie and Todd Bosley as a geeky kid who steals a few scenes here or there. And then there’s Fran Drescher as Louie’s trampy mother who makes her moves on Jack without realizing how old he really is (and I’m guessing she never does)…okay, so I still don’t think this subplot works very well, but oddly enough, I don’t mind her as much as I did before. She’s not that obnoxious here.

Now, I’m going to take a moment to look through my original, negative review and go through my criticisms one by one and see if I can respond to them now. Let’s see…I can now call it “an engaging drama” which I couldn’t call it before…I don’t think it’s “one of the clumsiest lost opportunities I’ve ever seen” as it does a lot with both comedy and drama…”The low point of the movie is a subplot involving Louie’s trampy mother…[the scene in which she meets Jack who poses as the principal] is uncomfortable with the misunderstandings…[the bar sequence] doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie. Take it (and Fran Drescher) out of the movie, and you wouldn’t miss a thing.” Well, I’ve already said I don’t Fran Drescher as much as I did before, and now I think I’ll defend the “principal” scene on the grounds that I think it works okay because Williams still plays it like a 10-year-old kid and it’s mildly amusing, and I’ll defend the bar scene in the sense of Jack feeling like he doesn’t belong in the adult world after he believes he doesn’t belong in the kid world either. But come on, did they really have to throw in a bar fight? And maybe I could’ve done without the whole thing about Drescher hitting on Jack and never finding out who he really is.

Then there’s the scene in which Jack asks out his teacher to a school dance and she has to turn him down. That was the part I criticized the most because I didn’t know how to feel. Well…I think it works fine now. It’s handled delicately and Jennifer Lopez plays it in an endearing manner, and it’s a rather heartbreaking moment.

Oh jeez, sometimes I can’t believe my own writing. Now I found the part in the original review where I wish “Jack” focused on Jack’s mortality. I just went into two-paragraph detail about how the film handles Jack’s mortality well enough that it’s effective and satisfying, so it’s best to say I didn’t pay enough attention to the movie to begin with.

I can’t dislike “Jack” anymore. I think the film is cute. Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s sad, other times it’s endearing, and only a few times did I find it annoying. “Jack” isn’t a great movie, and maybe it could’ve benefitted from a few scenes in which the ones learn more about girls their own age after reading Penthouse magazine and being curious about the opposite sex or, if writers James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau were really risky, Jack could’ve had a relationship with a girl his age (ew, that would mean Robin Williams and a pre-teenage actress have to play a 5th-grade couple; never mind). But I do think “Jack,” as it is, is quite good. It’s good-natured, it has effective moments of drama, it’s acted wonderfully, it’s funny, and I’m now glad I have more than a few good scenes to enjoy next time I watch it. And thus presents the last time Smith’s Verdict shall be taken seriously.

Y tu mamá también (2002)

17 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Describing the premise doesn’t necessarily describe the film. In the case of “Y tu mamá también,” its basic premise can be described like so: two horny teenage boys embark on a road trip with an attractive, older woman and learn a thing or two about life, friendship, sex, and each other. To call this film a “teen drama” in that regard is to call “Hoop Dreams” a “basketball movie.” It’s technically true, but doesn’t give enough reason to see the movie.

“Y tu mamá también,” a Spanish film whose title translates as “And Your Mama Too,” takes place in the summertime in Mexico. Teenage best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), one from a rich family, one from a working-class background, are bored with their routines after their girlfriends left for vacation in Europe. They attend a wedding where they meet a stunning, lively young woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdu) and attempt to flirt with her, which leads to inviting her to come with them to a supposedly-secret beach called Heaven’s Mouth. What they didn’t expect was her accepting the invitation. So, they quickly pack up the car with supplies (including condoms, of course), get a map to the beach they didn’t even think existed, and pick her up to embark upon the adventure of a lifetime.

While on this car trip, the horny teenagers continue to attempt impressing this older, sexually progressive woman with how cool they are and how they’re in control of their own sexuality. Luisa likes to cheerfully tease Tenoch and Julio about their attitudes and methods of living, while also luring them into eroticism. She does this because her husband has been cheating on her and she feels the need to be desired. What makes Luisa the most interesting character in “Y tu mamá también” is that while doing this, she feels like teaching them something about sex as well. To them, sex is like a sport they win with their girlfriends and they take it (and them) for granted; maybe Luisa can change that and make them see sex as something more special.

Just listen to the premise—two teenage boys embark on a road trip with an attractive, older woman and learn life lessons along the way. This could’ve been made into a conventional mainstream comedy-drama, especially seeing as how this film was released in the early-2000s at a time when most teen films that came out were about grossout gags (sometimes involving a pie). But listen to the dialogue, written by director Alfonso Cuaron and his brother Carlos…or rather, read the English subtitles over the Spanish dialogue. It looks and sounds like real people talking. The way “Y tu mamá también” is filmed also makes it feel more real, with shaky camera movements and numerous long takes. That, and the film has one of the most frank depictions of sex I’ve ever seen, with characters talking about it in a realistic manner and even showing a lot in graphic detail. There’s plenty of nudity to please any male and/or female who’s tired of reading subtitles. You don’t see this very often in most films, or least of all, “teen dramas.”

Being a film with a road trip device, it’s a long journey and a worthy destination. Along the way, we as an audience see a lot of Mexico that they drive through. They go through small poor villages, pass police checkpoints, and also come across a roadblock of people stopping oncoming vehicles so they give donations to their queen, who is a girl dressed in white, representing the Virgin. The boys think nothing of it, but Luisa probably sees more to it, as she compliments and embraces the oddities they come across, especially when they finally reach the beach and come across more quirky characters. Why? That’s something I can’t answer right now without giving away something important, but let me just say watching the film again, knowing what you know from the first viewing, makes it more of a story about how you face your own mortality, and how no one should take life for granted.

Throughout the film are times when the sound cuts out and an omnipresent narrator states many background details about the characters and the places they come across on their trip. We realize while listening to it all how much of Mexico we’re seeing and what a message it’s conveying about its unfortunate peasantry left by a successful economy. It becomes even more apparent when the characters arrive at the beach and meet a fisherman named Chuy, and we learn that this “unspoiled paradise” will be purchased as a tourist attraction and Chuy will work as a janitor.

And what exactly do Tenoch and Julio learn after all this? That’s not really for me to say, but after seeing the ending of “Y tu mamá también,” it might make you want to see it again. Seeing it once doesn’t quite cut it. I would say that it’s one of those “coming-of-age” films that really has more to say than what its premise might suggest, but honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film quite like “Y tu mamá también.”

An Ode to Angeline (Short Film)

14 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Ever since the UCA-produced 20-minute short “John Wayne’s Bed,” I consider writer-director Sarah Jones to be one of the most talented independent Central Arkansas filmmakers around. And what’s great about her filmography of short films (made in Arkansas) is each one is different. With “John Wayne’s Bed,” it’s a riveting drama & character study. With “Turn Right onto Madness,” it’s a slasher film. And I hear she has a new documentary, “The Guard Responds,” about the Arkansas National Guard’s response to the tornado that swept through the Central Arkansas communities Mayflower and Vilonia earlier this year.

But of course, there’s also “An Ode to Angeline,” Jones’ 4-minute short that premiered at the Little Rock Film Festival a few months ago. I caught it there along with the other numerous Arkansas shorts I reviewed. I knew I liked it, but I think the reason I didn’t review it then was because…well, because I needed to see it again. Its very brief running time didn’t help much either (though I did end up reviewing Eric White’s “Perfect Machine: Homefront,” which is actually two minutes shorter than “An Ode to Angeline”). There seems to be enough material for at least a 10-to-15-minute short. As it is, it’s a 4-minute “ode,” as the title suggests, and it’s still a pretty damn good one. Seeing it again, I can say it’s a well-made, disturbingly effective short that seemed to have more on its mind and left me with more to think about.

The film is about a man who is obsessed with an unattainable beauty (named Angeline) and expresses his feelings to…well, I can’t exactly say to whom. That’s one of the problems with reviewing a film as short as this. Bottom line is, he wants so badly for her to want him that he wants her to suffer as much as he did/does. And that’s all I can say about the story.

Okay, as you can probably tell from my not-so-subtle writing style, the running time is getting to me. But why should it? I mean, the craftsmanship is evident in the directing & editing; the actor playing the narrator, Johnnie Brannon (no stranger to my Short reviews—read “PM: Homefront,” read “Twinkletown,” read “Still Life,” read “A Way Out,” and holy crap, this guy gets around), is chillingly good; it is an ode, as the title states, and it’s about as long as it should be in that sense. Maybe my problem is I don’t want Sarah Jones to make an “ode.” After seeing what she’s done with the material for “John Wayne’s Bed,” I would’ve liked to see what more she could do with this idea of obsession unleashing the inner beast, which is always fascinating. Keep the cast (which includes Kirby Gocke as Angeline), keep the crew (which includes director of photography Grant Dillion), and branch out more with this concept.

But I keep getting sidetracked here, and I have to review the film for what it is rather than what it could’ve been. I don’t dislike “An Ode to Angeline.” On the contrary, the finished product is very good. It’s very well-shot, the editing is great, the dialogue said by the Brannon character is haunting, and it works as a short thriller. Sarah Jones’ “An Ode to Angeline” is an effective short that shows yet again why Jones is a skilled filmmaker; I look forward to seeing her next film.

NOTE: After finishing this review, I messaged Jones and asked her why she chose to make a film as short as this. She said she wanted to “experiment with telling a story in under 5 minutes.” I can respect that.

Wide Awake (1998)

13 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Is there a God? If so, why do so many bad things happen to good people?

Those are the questions that always come up from skeptics who either test the concept of organized religion or simply want answers. In the case of 10-year-old Catholic student Joshua A. Beal in the comedy-drama “Wide Awake,” he just wants to know if his late grandfather, who died of bone marrow cancer, is okay. He wants to know if Heaven, the afterlife, and above all, God, are for real.

And he’s serious about it too. Joshua (played by Joseph Cross) is a smart kid who spends his entire fifth-grade year at a Catholic boys’ school on a mission to find truth in what he believes and what he wants to believe. Does he find what he’s looking for? Well, that’s a little difficult to answer. And to the movie’s credit, it’s meant to be difficult to find answers. I don’t think it’s as interested in finding true answers as it is in coping with death. By the end of the film, Joshua has ultimately accepted the loss of his grandfather (played in flashbacks by Robert Loggia in a wonderful performance) and he learns that sometimes things happen and you don’t know why, and it helps to have faith that in the end, things will be all right. That applies in life—you have to find your own proof within yourself that there is someone out there watching out for us and waiting to take care of us after we die. You can’t see it, but you can feel it.

When I was a kid, I liked “Wide Awake.” As I got older, I had a mixed reaction to it mainly because of moments that since overwrought with sentimentality. Watching it now at 22, I got more into the quieter moments that are very effective, and there’s a nice sense of satire in the ways this kid narrates the everyday, mundane things in his school; these were moments that kept me from rating it less than three stars. The overdramatic parts are still there and are admittedly still a little annoying, and there are parts that were supposed to be poignant that seem kind of weird (for example, when Joshua goes into the toy store and admits to his mother that he doesn’t feel the same as he did when he was younger, his speech not only sounds scripted; it sounds like an adult looking back rather than a kid having a “revelization,” as the kid describes it). And then it got to the ending. Without giving it away, it nearly brought the film to a two-and-a-half-star mixed review. It gives the kid an answer to one or two of the questions he’s been asking, but it’s not subtle and a little too much to buy.

But as you notice in the rating I gave it, I couldn’t bring myself to give “Wide Awake” less than a positive review, and that’s because those good moments are the ones that stick out to me, and there’s a good bunch of them that give me reason to recommend the film. It’s overall a nice mixture of humor and drama (both heavy and light).

The characters are likable and the actors playing them do solid jobs. Joseph Cross is an appealing hero, Denis Leary and Dana Delany do good jobs as his parents, Robert Loggia is excellent as his grandfather, the child actors are convincing (especially Timothy Reifsnyder as Joshua’s best friend Dave), and surprisingly, Rosie O’Donnell, as a good-hearted, wisecracking nun who also loves sports (and keeps basketball & football shots next to paintings of Jesus and the Cross in the classroom), gives a terrific performance. I actually kind of wish there was more of her character in the film (the DVD cover suggests there is, but don’t be fooled—if you are, don’t worry; Rosie O’Donnell is not obnoxious in this movie).

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention this was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It was his second film after 1992’s “Praying with Anger,” which I haven’t seen, and after this, he struck gold with the 1999 psychological thriller “The Sixth Sense.” If you follow Shyamalan’s career lately, with duds such as “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender,” and “After Earth,” you probably have a negative idea of this film already. But I thought he did a good job of directing his cast, and he was smart to write this script with gentleness and light humor rather than taking cheap shots at the Catholic school system or forcing us to cry at the more dramatic stuff. Some of his trademarks are present, like having its setting in Philadelphia and revealing somewhat of a twist at the end (which, as I said, doesn’t work at all), but that’s it, so don’t make fun of Shyamalan or this film before seeing it. I recommend “Wide Awake.”