Archive | March, 2015

Sounder (1972)

23 Mar

Sounder

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

As I begin my review of this wonderful film called “Sounder,” I would like to talk about my favorite scene. It’s late in the film, as its pre-teenage hero, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), visits a school where one of the class tells a story about how he saved his sister from drowning in a creek. The other students think he’s lying; they know he can’t swim. The boy insists the story is true. But David Lee believes, and he speaks for him. He believes the boy had to jump into the water even though he couldn’t swim was because he had to, in order to save his sister from drowning. It’s just like how he, his mother (Cicely Tyson), and his two younger, smaller siblings had to look after the crops after his father (Paul Winfield) has been sent away to serve a one-year hard labor sentence. No one believed they could do it, but they did. Why? Because they had to; otherwise, they wouldn’t survive. After putting it that way, the rest of the class applauds him.

The film is set in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, filled with ordinary people doing what they could with what they had. And for a family of poor black sharecroppers in Louisiana, who are the central characters in “Sounder,” they had to work harder, even in the midst of family crises. This is the ethical center of the film: ordinary people faced with needs and rising to the occasion. It’s somewhat easy to root for heroes who have superpowers, lead armies, give big speeches, etc. But it’s so much easier to root for central characters who are not meant for great purposes other than looking out for each other and doing what they can to make their situations better, while also searching for and finding that special feeling within themselves to keep going.

“Sounder” is a slice-of-life film that focuses on such characters. In rural Louisiana, a family of black sharecroppers go through a crisis they have to push themselves out of somehow, and the film shows how they all grow in the process. The oldest son, David Lee, comes of age; his mother is more determined than before; and his father, having served a jail sentence (this is for stealing food for the family early in the film), has valuable advice for David Lee after his return home. The film is about truth and development, centered on real, fully-realized characters who love and try to help each other. As a result, it becomes one of the most moving, effective family films I’ve ever seen—I take it back; maybe not just “family” films, but films in general.

The film is episodic in its storytelling, showing us time after time in a series of events that make up the ethical center. The closest thing that happens on an action level is a sequence in which David Lee and his hunting dog, Sounder, set off on a journey to find the prison camp his father was sent to. He doesn’t have any luck when he gets there, but he does come across a black school where he attends a class and is taken in for a couple of nights by the friendly schoolteacher, who invites him to live with her while he attends her school. It’s here where that scene I mentioned in the first paragraph comes into place.

Another favorite scene comes near the end. The payoff is very effective in a simply moving way. David Lee’s father finally comes home, and David Lee never wants to be without him again, so he doesn’t want to leave to go to the school. But his father insists that he should. Angry and sad, David Lee runs away. But his father catches up to him and gives him a speech about how he shouldn’t get too used to this place; otherwise, he won’t leave and his future will be aimless. It’s a very realistic moment between father and son, and the father’s words are perfectly chosen.

Simply put, “Sounder” is an excellent film with a simple yet affectionate story of growth, love, and hope. The acting is great, especially from Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson (she brings a lot of subtlety to her role as a nervous but determined mother); the emotions and themes are mature and well-presented; and it’s a film for the whole family to see. Kids can get much out of it, adults can get even more, and all will see that this is a truly wonderful piece of work.

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Batman and Robin (1997)

14 Mar

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

The best thing I can say about “Batman and Robin” is that it looks good. The sets, the locations, and even some of the effects help make Gotham City into a colorful, weird, wacky world that looks great. It seems as if director Joel Schumacher and his crew put almost every ounce of their budget into the production design. But unfortunately, this brings me to the film’s first failing: it’s overdone in its colors and cartoonish imagery to the point where it doesn’t even look like it should be Gotham City, meaning it doesn’t look like it belongs in a “Batman” story. But at least it matches the tone, which is more lighthearted and goofy (even more so than Schumacher’s 1995 predecessor to the saga, “Batman Forever,” which was a hit with audiences by playing to a younger demographic) to the point where it seems like a big-budget version of the campy 1960s TV series starring Adam West. Gone are the dark, complex aspects that made the original Bob Kane comic book series and Tim Burton film adaptations so compelling, because now we have a special effects extravaganza with no interest in diving into Batman’s world but instead showering us with exaggerated visual style and lots AND LOTS of cheesy one-liners (most of which centered on ridiculous unfunny puns). Even if you’re a fan of the series this is clearly trying to resemble, I still wouldn’t recommend “Batman and Robin.”

The film on its own is soulless and not much fun. You’d think such an outrageous environment our heroes live in wouldn’t be in a film this dull. There’s so much asinine action that it’s hard to tell what’s going on half the time and, more importantly, why. The characterization is close to nonexistent. The dialogue is godawful with all those lame wisecracks, puns, and double meanings constantly scattered all over the film and spouted out by all heroes and villains. And there’s a whole subplot that would be emotional if it wasn’t centered around a character with very little screen time and nothing in terms of character interaction. That character is Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Gough), who seems to be dying from McGregor’s Syndrome. Not much is made of this subplot. It doesn’t seem to be psychologically hurting Bruce except for a couple moments when it’s simply referred to but hardly discussed. And it leads to a payoff that’s too easy to spot coming so that the whole thing not only becomes less heartfelt; it’s pointless.

George Clooney dons the cape and mask as Batman and the similar dark attire as Bruce Wayne, and if people thought they knew very little about Michael Keaton’s portrayal, I can’t imagine anyone knowing any more about Clooney’s. Clooney has the sardonic side down and has a great amount of dry wit, and to be fair, it’s not his fault the performance doesn’t work. He’s got nothing to work with.

Some of the film’s “dramatic conflict” (I use quotations to emphasize weakness) revolves around the rivalry between Batman and Robin (played by Chris O’Donnell). I liked Dick Grayson/Robin in “Batman Forever”; the character was interesting and his story was effectively handled to be taken even a little seriously. But here, constantly alongside Bruce Wayne/Batman, there’s no depth or growth in his character. Instead, he’s just an egotistical brat who mostly whines throughout the movie about how he gets very little respect as Batman’s sidekick. I guess we’re supposed to feel sorry for him, but I was wondering when Bruce Wayne would kick spoiled Dick Grayson out of Wayne Manor. And to make matters worse, he’s an idiot. That can only explain how he constantly must be reminded by Bruce that he shouldn’t fall for Poison Ivy, an obvious villainess. This is why Gotham residents will always call on Batman first instead of Robin.

Speaking of Poison Ivy, she’s one of the two main villains in “Batman and Robin.” Played by a lanky Uma Thurman doing her best to imitate Jim Carrey’s Riddler from the previous film, she’s a perfume-dispensing femme fatale who loves plants more than people (and even has a man-eating plant in her hideout) and contains a special poison that makes men fall for her and even kills them with her lips. She teams up with Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger, completely over-the-top), a scientist turned madman who wears a special freeze suit that helps him survive being permanently doused with some sort of “ice chemical.” He carries around a gun that freezes things and people, and his mission is to (what else?) take over the world. These two villains pair up to take down Batman and Robin and recreate their world in their opposing visions (I wasn’t quite sure what they were going to do with plants and ice; you tell me that).

Oh yeah, and I should also mention Alfred’s niece, Barbara (Alicia Silverstone). I’ll neglect the fact that she doesn’t have a British accent despite having lived in London, but she doesn’t have the slightest bit of personality. Her line readings are very stiff and there isn’t much for her to play with either, even when later in the film, she suits up as Batgirl.

When “Batman” is done right, it’s dark, gritty, and complex, but it’s also creative, clever, and compelling. “Batman and Robin” doesn’t even qualify for any of those six adjectives. It’s a goofy, clunky, colorful mess of a movie that reportedly even the makers of the film weren’t very proud of. In fact, there’s a DVD audio commentary by Joel Schumacher in which he talks about what went into making it and why he made the choices he made, and almost midway through it, he acknowledges the harsh criticism he received from fans and apologized for not pleasing them. He even takes the blame himself, stating that he, as director, had full responsibility. If a film is so disappointing that even the director can’t deny it, that’s saying something.

Focus (2015)

2 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Focus,” a caper comedy/thriller written and directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, is a film that really plays to the strengths of its star, Will Smith. After some poor recent choices in his career, he takes center stage in “Focus” as Nicky, a master con artist with many tricks of his sleeve, all of which require a lot of focus and incomparable skill. This is the kind of Will Smith performance we love to see: charming, charismatic, compelling, a little frivolous but with some dark undertones within him. His character here may also have an underlying gambling problem, which isn’t addressed directly in the film, but it is there and I noticed it, which made me consider what his character was thinking. He seems to want a bigger score with higher stakes each place he goes, whether it’s New York City, New Orleans, or Buenos Aries.

But of course, getting into the characters’ mindset is not an easy task for a film about slick con artists, especially when they’re in a story with so many twists and turns that you may have to see the film twice in order to understand some of its revelations. On top of that, each character is constantly lying in one way or another. So it’s difficult to know where the lies end and the truth begins, leaving the audience guessing and wondering where their words and crafts will get them next.

Thanks to a clever screenplay, “Focus” does a consistently good job at conning the audience. I must admit I didn’t see many of its twists coming. I was on the edge of my seat, awaiting what the next reveal and what it was going to mean and lead to. Granted, the third-act twist, as unpredictable as I thought it was, may be too much for someone who’s willing to sit down and think about it, in that it may be somewhat irrational, but I don’t think it damages the film. Even better is its depiction of how the characters manage to pull off their schemes—one of the best sequences is when a large number of pickpockets pull off a difficult routine in a busy New Orleans street; it’s very well-choreographed.

The first half is better than the second, as we get into the world of these scheming individuals, particularly Nicky who shows his new apprentice, Jess (Margot Robbie), what more to do with her abilities, while he’s also falling for her (or is he?). It’s fascinating to watch acts of thievery being committed this sneakily and in a fast-paced manner, while also showing that’s it very hard work. It’s also great to see a battle of wits and chance coming about, particularly in a fabulous sequence in which stakes are constantly raised at a football game where Nicky encounters a sneaky gambler (B.D. Wong). That may be the most riveting scene in the film, and its payoff is nothing short of brilliant. The second half may not be as intriguing as the first, but it does allow for even more situations for Nicky to get in and out of.

“Focus” is an entertaining film from start to finish and it’s anchored by clever writing and a top-notch performance from Will Smith, who is in eager need of a hit after years of bad or uneven career choices. This might be that film.