Archive | June, 2015

Demolition Man (1993)

25 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yes, you read that Verdict right—three-and-a-half stars for “Demolition Man,” the 1993 Stallone/Snipes shoot-em-up/satire that asks the question…how do the three seashells work?

It’s probably the highest rating this movie will get from a critic, but read on.

“Demolition Man” was released in a time where our action films weren’t always about ideas or complex characters (if you think about it, we have plenty of those today; some damn good ones)—they were mostly about iconic figures like Schwarzenegger, Willis, Van Damme, and of course, Stallone shooting stuff up, kicking ass, and taking names. Only a few titles snuck under the radar as films that may have been ahead of their time in terms of story but made up for with the same amount of intense action everyone in the ‘80s and ‘90s was accustomed to. These are films that have some sort of symbolic theme underneath all the violence, such as “Aliens” (holding on to what’s left of being a fighter and (if you’ve seen the director’s cut) even a parent) and “RoboCop” (holding on to what’s left on one’s humanity before being totally under control). And then you have “Demolition Man,” which begins in the 1990s before taking its main story to the 2030s. This was the early ‘90s’ way of predicting what a potential future would be like if America suddenly became politically correct. It’s like if Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, “Brave New World,” starred Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes.

And speaking of which, Stallone plays a rogue LA cop named John Spartan, who, in a brief prologue in 1996, has finally tracked down Simon Phoenix (Snipes, chewing scenery like Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice), the criminal he’s been hunting for a long time. But in capturing him, his actions result in the destruction of a building where Phoenix’s hostages were stored, thus resulting in him serving a 70-year sentence frozen in stasis on a manslaughter charge, while Phoenix serves a life sentence.

Cut to the year 2032, where the city is now the pseudo-utopian San Angeles after a big earthquake caused the merging of LA, San Diego, and Santa Barbara. The city is under the guidance and control of Dr. Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne). Crime is now gone, weapons are taken away, citizens have transmitters in their hands, vices are outlawed, and even the slightest use of profanity costs a fine. This is why when Phoenix is thawed and awakened in this pacifistic world for a parole hearing from which he escapes, the San Angeles Police Department don’t know how to handle his violent behavior. (By the way, I love this line from Rob Schneider as a nervous cop: “We’re police officers—we’re not trained to handle this kind of violence!”)

They say it takes a maniac to stop a maniac. Luckily, Lt. Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), who collects all ‘90s memorabilia (even in her office), knows what can be done to stop Phoenix, having studied John Spartan’s unorthodox cop behavior. So, Spartan is reanimated, the race is on to stop Phoenix from carrying out whatever dastardly scheme he has in mind, and in the meantime, Spartan constantly tries to adapt to this new world where his methods are even more unusual now than they were before he was imprisoned.

As Spartan and Huxley continue the chase, they learn more about a group of rebels who live underground and don’t agree with Cocteau’s fascist ways. They have their own society in the sewer system, where they store all things prohibited from the surface, such as alcohol and meat (though since there are no cows, the meat is from…rats). And it becomes clearer that the overly evangelistic Cocteau, who arranged for Phoenix to escape in the first place (apparently frozen prisoners can be programed certain knowledge during rehabilitation), wants to obliterate the rebel leader (Denis Leary) so that the rebel group will fall and his city will be 100% peaceful. Even Phoenix agrees Cocteau is more of “an evil Mr. Rogers” than a saintly king.

The film certainly has a sharp satirical edge, establishing a society where violence is purged. People speak in overly polite manners, physical greetings (such as handshakes, high-fives, even kisses) are no more, sex is electronic and not the least bit physical (and pregnancy is apparently forbidden unless you have a “license”), and yes, instead of toilet paper, there are three seashells used to…clean one’s self. (Though, seriously, how are they used? That’s never explained.) There are a lot of funny lines thrown in the mix of numerous touches that make up this futuristic society; so many that I’m not sure I can name them all since they’re so clever and more. There’s also a nice running gag about how Huxley is so determined to be as rogue as Spartan that she constantly tries to come up with catchphrases that suit ‘90s-action-film needs but just can’t pull them off.

But even with that, the film is still a ‘90s shoot-em-up action flick—heavy on intense action, violence, wisecracks from our hero and villain, explosions, etc. It’s all pretty standard stuff and for the most part, setting its central focus in 21st-century totalitarian civilization doesn’t change much of it, no matter how funny the reactions from supporting characters may be. That was a complaint among most critics in 1993, when the movie came out. But looking at it from a mid-2010s perspective, “Demolition Man” really holds up, despite those clichés. That’s because the way things are going today with the Internet, social media, and group-focus, you could argue that our society may be headed in the same direction as the society at the center of this movie. There are people out there, especially on the Internet, who either strive for attention and call out other people, who are too sensitive and want nothing even remotely standing in the way of a goal they believe might be passive. This is what’s being addressed in the film, with Cocteau’s followers complying in the attempt for perfection and rebels who want more variety and free will but take extremes for such things. So, at the center of “Demolition Man” is a battle for compromise, because no side is right or wrong. What’s needed to live in this world, as Stallone’s character learns, is balance, and that’s also what Huxley and her fellow officers, as well as the rebels for that matter, learn along the way as well. And as for the ‘90s action clichés and how they’re definitely dated now, that also works in the film’s advantage, having taken our hero and villain from the 1990s to the future, so it kind of works. Watch this movie again and you might see that this film may actually better now than it may have been in the past. It certainly made me think while it also kept me entertained…but how do the three seashells work? Seriously, how are they even sanitized after they’re used?

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Jurassic World (2015)

22 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

22 years since the events of “Jurassic Park,” the theme park with real dinosaurs as its major attractions is finally opened. To talk about why that’s probably the worst idea imaginable, considering everything that happened before, would take too long, so let’s just move on. The park looks great! The visitors’ center has holographic, life-size dinosaurs, children can ride little Triceratops, the dinosaurs are seen by traveling via monorail and giant glass spheres, there’s an underwater dinosaur that eats sharks and splashes a viewing audience, and so on. If I didn’t see the first movie (and even today, I pretend not to see its first two sequels; I think the creators of this movie pretend that too), I’d want to visit this place in the hope that these things don’t suddenly break free and attack me! And of course, in a “Jurassic Park” movie, things must go wrong on the particular day this movie is set.

One of the more brilliant touches added to the story is that people today are so used to seeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a Brachiosaur that they’re just sort of bored by it. Even when tourists are near a T-Rex, some of them are just on their phones and ignoring it. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) compares them to elephants and wonders if there’s something bigger and scarier for today’s generation. Thanks to the gene-splicing done by a research team done by the only remaining cast member in this sequel, Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong, from the first movie), a new creation is awaiting approval to be released to the public—the 50-foot Indominus Rex, who apparently ate its only sibling.

Well, there’s only one way this can turn out, right?

Enter Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a former Navy man who now works as a Raptor Wrangler & Whisperer. No, seriously—he can communicate with Velociraptors using a clicking device and a stern voice. This gets the attention of the obvious villain, the unlikable military-type (Vincent D’Onofrio), who wants to use the Raptors as weapons. But enough about that, Owen says. I gotta check out this Indominus Rex thing!

Claire brings Owen in on the new dino, and of course, he thinks this was a very bad idea. Further proving his point too late is when the creature manages to break out of its paddock, heading toward the park, where thousands of people are! So now it’s up to Owen, Claire, Claire’s assistants at the electronic monitors (including Lowery, played with Jeff Goldblum-style cockiness by Jake Johnson), and even the military to bring this beast down before it causes any more damage. On top of that, Claire’s nephews, teenage Zach (Nick Robinson) and his precocious little brother Gray (Ty Simpkins), are in the park, have escaped from Claire’s assistant, and have separated from everyone else to have some fun. After a T-Rex attacks them, they lose their way in the park.

This is a much better “Jurassic Park” sequel than 1997’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and 2001’s “Jurassic Park III.” It captures the feel of the original while knowing that it’s not enough to give us what made it popular but to add its own inventive elements as well. What do we come to expect? Fun action scenes with some scary dinosaurs. What else do we come to expect? Something new to add on to them. Setting the film in the fully functional park was a good way to start, and even making this new vision of a dinosaur theme park better than what Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond would’ve imagined was a good idea too. There are so many things that can be done with this version, and director Colin Trevorrow and his team of writers take advantage of most of them (if not all of them). They also give the central characters (Owen, Claire, Zach, Gray, Lowery) enough appeal and personality to make us care for them, even if they’re more two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional. This is especially notable since I couldn’t give a damn about most of the characters in the other sequels.

The action scenes are a lot of fun and even almost rival the best in the original. I have two particular favorites—one is a sequence in which escaped Pterodactyls attack the visitors’ center, picking people up, eating them, dropping them, etc., and the other is the intense climactic battle between beast and…beast. (That’s all I’ll say about that.) And of course, being a monster-movie, there’s also room for social commentary and satire—is it worth it to amp up the thrills in an amusement park? And let’s not forget D’Onofrio’s logic in using dinosaurs as weapons: technology will fail, so nature will continue to help us. Maybe this guy should watch “Aliens” and learn something about military-industrial complexes. Oh, and how are the effects? The film uses both CGI and animatronics—while it’s more effective when the animatronics are used (such as a rare tender moments when Owen and Claire comfort a dying Brachiosaur), the CGI dinosaurs are fine. (Just don’t see this movie in 3-D—they look more fake in that process.)

“Jurassic World” is the “Jurassic Park” sequel I was waiting for. It’s fun, inventive, and even works well as a stand-alone thrill ride. This may inspire more sequels to be made, though I don’t think they’re needed. I think the filmmakers have already done for this film what’s left to do with its concept (unless the sequel wants to go for the R rating and do things audiences wouldn’t expect). But for now, be glad there’s fresh, new life brought to a cherished franchise.

Project X (revised review with spoilers)

13 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are some reviews I wish I could take back if not remove them from the site altogether. There are times when I consider taking them down, but I can’t hide from the truth—I used to feel this way towards that movie and this “revised review” represents how I feel now. I originally did it with Adventureland and War Eagle, Arkansas, finding more things to praise and talk about with those titles. Then I wrote a new review for Jack, which I originally disliked and then liked after a few more viewings. Then, recently, I wrote a new review for Frailty, talking about the ending and why I don’t think it works so much now as I thought I did then. Now, I wonder—which is more embarrassing? Taking back a negative review or a positive one by reversing the feeling?

I don’t know, but I honestly can’t sit here and say that I recommend the Red Dawn remake and “Project X” anymore. It’s time to make a change.

Okay, let’s get through this quick. What’s the story? Three unpopular high-school seniors—Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown)—decide to throw a party at Thomas’ house while his parents are out of town. By throwing a “game-changer,” they believe they’ll make a name for themselves. They have someone follow them around with a camera to document history in the making: a party no one will ever forget. But as the night progresses, things spiral out of control and the party gets even wilder.

Yes, I did give “Project X” three stars in my original review, mainly because at the time, I thought this was a teen film that was going the extra mile in its debauchery and praising the overblown final act, in which the teens’ “game-changing” house party turns into a nightmare that is brought to a stop as a crazy drug dealer attacks the whole neighborhood with a flamethrower. I admit I got a laugh out of the craziness of the event (hell, I even saw it as a teenage horror film when it got to the flamethrower) and I could argue that perhaps I was ready to recommend the film, regardless of how it was made or even what it all meant. But then, I watched it again and the effect was wearing off. I was noticing more parts that were distracting. I knew there were parts of the movie I didn’t like, but watching them again only made the experience worse. The more I thought about it, the less I liked it. And the less I liked it, the more I hated it. So now that I’m writing this review, let’s rip it a new one!

To start off, the setup is preposterous. The party is thrown on Thomas’ birthday to bring out the illusion (brought on by Costa, but I’ll get to that little f*cker later) that it’s Thomas’ birthday party. Why are Thomas’ parents out of town on his birthday? Because it’s their anniversary! A forced setup if ever I heard of one!

Now, let’s get to the craftsmanship. The first-person perspective of the camera filming everything doesn’t work—it cheats a lot, as does a lot of “found-footage” movies recently, adding shots that couldn’t have been filmed from one camera. And aside from the main characters, people hardly address or complain about being filmed wherever they go (even in the boys’ locker room!). And of course, the cameraman (a Goth kid named Dax, played by Dax Flame) has to document everything, so that there will be a nice flowing narrative in editing, which would explain why there’s an extended sequence involving the boys visiting a drug dealer to buy “supplies” for the party and then steal a garden gnome for “decoration.” The garden gnome is smashed during the party and it turns out it was filled with ecstasy, which everyone goes crazy for (and on). But I’m getting ahead of myself—the craftsmanship is awful. When the film switches to the party, where everyone has pocket cameras and cellphones, we get many different perspectives, which results in a lot of unpleasant shots that glorify heavy amounts of debauchery. It’s not fun to watch and it adds to the unpleasantness of the whole experience. It also doesn’t help that it has numerous montages, set to pop songs, of everyone getting wasted and going crazy at the party, which gets tiresome and not amusing in the slightest. This is a problem with having the party take center-stage instead of be a destination: there’s very little that can be done with it. We get the familiar, predictable payoffs such as Dad’s nice car ending up in the pool and not much else. You know you’re in trouble when the “comedic highlights” involve a little person being shoved in an oven before punching guys in the testes and a nagging neighbor punching out a 12-year-old “security guard” after being tazed by him.

Now, let’s get to Costa…oh, Costa. This guy is probably the most obnoxious, annoying, offensive, crude, vulgar, pushy, creepy, insecure teenage douche bag I’ve ever seen in a teen film! In any other film, this would be funny. But here, with his constant spewing of profanities, over-the-top ranting, and homophobic and/or sexist remarks, he is not funny; he’s just repugnant. Eric Cartman, he is not. And it’s all the more depressing when you see that he’s such a negative influence on Thomas. He pushes him to do things such as invite more people to the party, take drugs, get drunk, and even the party is happening because Costa made Thomas do it. He keeps pushing Thomas to take the extra step because he manipulates him into going along with it, always stating he can handle everything when he really can’t. Thomas’ life would be a lot better without him around.

Hell, without Costa around, Thomas would adjust to high-school nicely. He’s friends with a pretty, jocky type named Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton) who Thomas clearly has feelings for (and vice versa). She comes to the party where they have a couple nice little chats and Thomas confides in Costa that he thinks he might have a shot at being with her and he’s falling in love. But then, Costa screws everything up by telling him that he had plenty of chances with Kirby and he should instead take a shot at “getting lucky” with a popular girl who he wouldn’t have had a shot with before. I don’t know if I’m angrier at Costa for his behavior, Thomas for not standing up for himself, or the filmmakers who have no deliberate payoff other than “Costa might be right.”

Even if the writers (one of which is Michael Bacall, who, to be fair, has written some funny movies previously) don’t believe in Costa’s behavior, the movie doesn’t support that notion, as Thomas comes out of his shell and starts acting as everyone else at the party because, for once, he feels popular. The movie never addresses the lack of importance of high-school popularity, especially for a senior. When it’s over, it’s over and the “fame” you felt in the halls is done for.

I’ll get to what I really hate about this after I talk about the “arbitrary climax.”

The arbitrary climax…is still a lot of fun. It’s like an intense zombie film, with the druggie, demanding his gnome back, burning down parts of the neighborhood with a flamethrower and the police trying to stop him (one cop even shoots at his pack, blowing him up), along with everyone running for their lives as houses burn and helicopters drop loads of water onto everybody. The shakiness of the camera adds some intensity to it. That is the only cool part of this movie—I’d be lying if I said I’ve seen another teen film where the party ends in a more epic fashion.

And now, let’s get to the biggest complaint I have with this movie. After all this madness and mayhem, there are no consequences! The kids have made it out alive and they go home to face the music. Are Thomas’ parents angry that he trashed the house, destroyed Dad’s car, and scared the whole neighborhood? Hard to tell, especially since all we get is a scene in which Thomas’ father, who even called Thomas a “loser” in the beginning for behaving nicely and never getting in trouble (what father is this?), actually respects his son for taking chances! I’m not even kidding—they bond over it! This is followed by the next day at school, where their classmates congratulate the three guys for the party, and Thomas manages to convince Kirby to take another chance on him, even though there’s no reason why she should. And then we get the inevitable captions, explaining what happened to everyone after the big night. Thomas and J.B. get into a little trouble, while Costa, the one who started it all and can have everything blamed on him, gets off scot-free! In fact, he even tells a news reporter that he’s planning another party! No one goes through heavy consequences or even learns anything from this experience!

Oh, and here’s a real shot to the movie’s gonads—the druggie survived after being blown up!

Now that I’ve labeled just about everything there is to know about this detestable film, let’s compare this to another “raunchy teen flick”—“Superbad.” Why does that movie work and this one doesn’t? Easy—that movie doesn’t glorify that kind of behavior; this one does. That movie shows its teenage characters learning how important it is to be themselves around their crushes; this movie declares it’s okay to be as harsh and as chauvinistic as possible because it will gain popularity and babes. That movie has likable characters; this one doesn’t. That movie shows the harsh side-effects of partying; this movie doesn’t. “Superbad” was about teenagers who thought they had to party hard in order to gain respect, and what they learned was they didn’t have to. That movie was like an anti-partying movie—do you think those guys are going to want to act that way after their crazy night? I don’t. After “Project X,” I have no doubt these kids will find themselves in deeper. They’re doomed.

I may have been way too kind to “Project X” before, but not anymore. This movie just plain sucks.

Frailty (revised review with spoilers)

8 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! This is a new review for the 2002 Bill Paxton thriller “Frailty” in which I’m going to talk about my feelings toward the ending.

Previously on Smith’s Verdict’s original “Frailty” review…”I won’t give away the ending to ‘Frailty,’ but I’ll admit that I didn’t see it coming. It manages to surprise us and mess with our expectations and it brings about new fascinating details about certain plot elements that kept us wondering. And yet, these new additions to the elements still keep us wondering because they also bring about something new to think about! Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.”

A funny thing about this film is that I enjoy it while I’m watching it. And then when I think about one of the bigger twists (of which there are about three), I understand it, but I wonder if it was even necessary. Watching the movie again with that in mind doesn’t necessarily damage my viewing, but it does bring things to a new perspective that I’m not entirely sure was needed.

To recap, “Frailty” is a chilling story of a calm, loving father (Bill Paxton, who also directed the film) who live a normal, happy life with his two young sons, Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), until he awakens them one night to tell them about a “vision from God.” Apparently, demons are walking the earth in the guise of regular people and it’s their duty, as “God’s hands,” to destroy them. Fenton doesn’t know how to react to this, but Adam believes Dad and wants to help him. Fenton is even more frightened when Dad makes a list of demons to destroy: people’s names. Dad has three useful tools: an axe, a pair of gloves, and a metal rod—“weapons from God.” Fenton can no longer doubt Dad’s motives when he brings home his first victim—a woman Dad claims is a demon whom he kills right in front his sons. Fenton believes Dad has lost his mind and can only watch in terror as he claims more victims, becoming a serial killer with Adam helping and supporting his father wholeheartedly. The story is told in flashback as one of the sons (grown up as Matthew McConaughey) explains to FBI agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) after revealing his brother is the one responsible for the killings which still continue.

The idea of a seemingly calm, sane father suddenly brought to the point where he kills people “in the name of God” is scary enough; the idea of wanting his young sons (one is 10, the other is 7) to assist him in his deeds is horrifying. And the film builds more tension from the kids’ perspectives and thoughts on the matters at hand—one wants to stop Dad, while the other joins him. It leads to a truly tense sequence in which Dad takes drastic measures with Fenton and locks him in his homemade dungeon for a week, hoping he too will get a vision from God. It leads to a tense climax in which Dad believes Fenton will ultimately follow in his footsteps and destroy a demon himself. Instead, Fenton brings it to a stop by turning the axe on his own father, killing him. Adam finishes the job himself, indicating that Adam will follow in his father’s footsteps and destroy more demons. Adam promises to bury Fenton someday in the same rose garden where they buried the other victims.

But wait. Earlier in the film, the McConaughey character, who has originally labeled himself as Fenton, claimed that the brothers’ promise was for Fenton to bury Adam. As he and Doyle explore the rose garden, that’s when he reveals his true identity—he is not truly Fenton but Adam. He has continued his father’s legacy. That’s one twist. Another twist is that all of this has been a means to capture Doyle, who is his next victim.

Now, this is a very effective twist, as is the realization that the real Fenton has grown up to become a serial killer and that Adam has “destroyed” him as a demon. It’s Adam’s belief that that’s why Fenton didn’t go along with him and Dad; because he was a demon. This would make for a disturbing portrait about what growing up with an influential, apparent serial killer could do to someone. And then comes the bigger twist…

Are these people really demons, or just chance victims of Dad’s delusional mind? Is the angel real or was it just a bad dream? We see one of Dad’s visions, of an angel visiting him and giving him his first list of demons, and it does seem slightly exaggerated, making us believe that it’s all in Dad’s mind. But then in the ending, what little ambiguity was left is suddenly thrown out the window, as it becomes very clear that the people whose lives Dad claimed were actually murderers and not innocent victims. We are shown their evil deeds, as well as Doyle’s murder of his mother. Dad and Adam were truly following God’s will. People find it shocking that “the axe murderer is working for God,” but the realization that the victims were never “human” but actual “demons” for God to demand be destroyed lest the Apocalypse come does make sense to those who strongly believe in God and it may actually be a relief to those same people, who would object to murders being done to “serve God’s will,” to get clarification. In that respect, it does bring everything around for a shocking revelation that I didn’t see coming. But at the same time, as “Frailty” was doing such a great job being a disturbing horror film with effective ambiguity up until that point, it is kind of disappointing that the film would feel the need to explain everything.

I originally gave the film a four-star ending, even with the ending, because I thought even with that in mind, it was still an intelligent, scary horror film with a theme of religious delusion taken very far. And the bigger twist isn’t even bad; it’s just that I feel like it would work better as a film without it. If we were to ask questions after seeing the film (without the twist) whether the angel was real or not and whether the people were really demons or not, it would bring forward interesting discussions about what it would say about religious fanaticism, delusion, and even about God’s will. As is, “Frailty” is a four-star film up until that shocking revelation. With it, in hindsight, I can still recommend the film but not as strongly as I did before, because even with it, there’s still a little ambiguity about whether or not there truly were demons or people who turned the wrong way and committed these deeds. Were they really destined to be that way? Were they truly demons? If they were demons, did they know it? Were they aware of their destinies to be destroyed? We saw their horrific wrongdoings but not their “demon form,” if they have forms under human skin. If God really is guiding these murders of the guilty, what does that mean?

But then again, maybe they are just demons and I’m thinking too much about it.

There are too many good things in this film for me not to recommend it. Different people are undoubtedly going to have different outlooks on the ending and what it all meant. I don’t think I can rate it three stars anymore. I wanted to rate it four. I wanted to love it as much as most critics did, including Roger Ebert and author Stephen King. And up until the final act, or at least until the bigger twist, I do love it and I do think it’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. But with that bigger twist, it’s still a good horror film with something deep to talk about. It could’ve been deeper and it could’ve been better, but I have to review the film for what it is rather than what it isn’t. I still recommend it.