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Hoop Dreams (1994)

7 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Following your dreams is not an easy road to take. That’s the overall message of the three-hour documentary “Hoop Dreams.” This film chronicles five years in the lives of two teenage boys (from their freshman year of high school to their freshman year of college) as they pursue a dream that proves to be more difficult than they imagined; that dream is to play professional basketball. At the beginning of the film, they are 14 years old, they’re high school basketball players, and they each have the confidence that they will make it to the NBA in the future. And by the end, they have learned the hardships of inner-city life and it’s never easy to blend your fantasy with reality.

The boys are Chicago youths named William Gates and Arthur Agee. We get to know on and off the court. We meet their families and learn just how hard it is balance basketball with academics and family crises. We learn what great games will mean to each of them. We learn what one injury can mean to a player who needs to keep playing to maintain success. We even see the struggles their families go through to just to survive at home. Through the five years registered on film, we as an audience are caught along a documentary journey that plays like narrative fiction. We get to know these people and hope for the best for them,

And we feel sorry for them when it seems they won’t make it the way they thought they would. Sure, they’re stars on their high-school basketball teams, but that doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to be moved over to the NBA. And we see how hard they have to be pushed in order to be greater than they are in their talent on the court—William, constantly pushed by Coach Pingatore at St. Joseph High School and even suffers a series of knee injuries, even states at one point, “It became more of a job than a sport to play.”

There’s a reason “Hoop Dreams” has gone on to its beloved status as one of the best documentaries of all time (even championed by the late Chicago film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel as the best film of 1994; and Ebert went on to call it the best film of the decade). Its real drama is captivating, and anyone & everyone can identify with these people because we all have dreams and hopes, and sometimes we need rude awakenings, not unlike what William and Arthur go through. We have ambitions and goals, but life gets in the way sometimes and our dreams can get harder to accomplish. To see this film is to feel the poignancy of these characters because you realize these aren’t merely “characters” thought up by a screenwriter—they’re real people being captured on camera by filmmakers like director Steve James to tell an important story about the difficulties of following dreams.

You could see “Hoop Dreams” as a sports movie or a feel-good drama, but “Hoop Dreams” is really a film about the struggles of life. It’s involving, compelling, and made me think more about my own dreams and what it truly means in the attempt to accomplish them. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen; one that deserves to be treasured.

Three Colors: Red (1994)

22 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Red,” the final chapter in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors Trilogy,” was sadly also Kieslowski’s final film before his untimely death. That the film is excellent for reasons I’m about to describe is a testament to the great Polish filmmaker’s magnificent career.

If the first two parts of the trilogy were very good, then “Red” is one I would call one of the best foreign films of the 1990s if not of all time. (Of course, calling a certain kind of film one of the greatest of “all time” would indicate that I’ve seen every movie, which I certainly haven’t.) Having seen it five times now, I’m always convinced with each viewing that I’m seeing a masterpiece. This is a film that explores the themes of fraternity, platonic love, and kismet in such a rich, complex way that it can lead to heavy discussions among movie-loving groups upon seeing it.

The best thing about a certain series is how each chapter has a story from one individual’s point of view. That makes the ideas similar and somewhat connected to other episodes but also causes each separate one to become its own self-contained story. You can watch “Red” as a stand-alone film and get as much about the ending as one would when associating it with the previous “Three Colors” films, “Blue” and “White.” Those who have seen “Blue” and “White,” like me, however, get an even stronger feeling from “Red.” Its ending brings closure to the other films while tying to this one as well. I won’t give it away here, but it brings its complicated, unstable characters together in a brilliant way that makes the central themes of the entire trilogy even more powerful.

But back to “Red”—the story involves a young, beautiful model named Valentine (Irene Jacob), who accidentally hits a dog with her car. She tracks down the wounded dog’s owner, a retired old judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and is surprised to find that the judge is indifferent to the dog and seemingly to her. He tells her she can keep the dog, but the dog runs back home, and this is when Valentine discovers the judge’s secret: he has tapped into people’s phones illegally so he can listen in on their conversations. She’s confused as to why he would invade their privacy; he simply listens in and analyzes what they will do after certain calls. (And sometimes he’s right.) But he doesn’t enjoy it—he hardly enjoys anything anymore, ever since tragic instances caused him to leave the court. He doesn’t even interfere in these people’s lives; he simply listens and lets them go about their day, much like God giving the human race free will (a bit of heavy symbolism, but it’s still there). Valentine is fascinated and somewhat unnerved by her discovery of the judge’s private life, while the judge is interested that someone now knows his secret, and they form an odd friendship. While that’s going on, we see the story of a would-be judge, named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), who is actually a neighbor to Valentine and also one of the people being spied upon by the judge. He’s devoted to his girlfriend, Karin (Frederique Feder), but it seems fate has another idea for them.

I didn’t quite get the parallel story involving Auguste and Karin the first time I saw “Red,” but the more times I watch it, the more I realize how similar Auguste’s present is to the old judge’s past, which I found fascinating to ponder. And I was unsure why exactly Auguste and Valentine would be in the same frame without ever actually meeting (or maybe they will); hell, the film even opens (with a remarkable shot, by the way, of telephone wires crossing) with Valentine making a call and then Auguste answering a call but not from her (instead, she was calling her boyfriend and he received a call from Karin). What does this mean? Again, I have to go back to the ending, which I still can’t talk about, but the more I thought about it, the more intriguing the concept of fate became as I watched it. And while we’re on the subject of fate, that’s what’s been controlling the characters of “Blue” and “White,” as well as the characters of this film, all along. When watching all three films, especially after seeing this one and returning to the others, you start to think about the themes that are apparent in each one, especially the theme of destiny. (It’s also worth nothing that this film loves to play with foreshadowing. Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.)

The color “red” stands for the theme of fraternity, or “platonic love.” Of course, the color is seen in nearly every shot with red objects and filters (and, by the way, the cinematography is absolutely lovely). There are no sexual overtones to be found in the friendship between Valentine and the judge; just interest. She’s fascinated by him, and vice versa. Their relationship is even more interesting when you realize that they’re on opposing sides on views of human nature—he has very little hope for humanity and she keeps her faith, despite him trying to convince her. And sometimes, she even gets to him; the moment that spells that out clearly is the scene where he shows up at a fashion show to see her—something otherwise unexpected for him to do. That’s the beauty of this friendship: you have no idea what’s going to happen. As with “Blue” and “White,” nothing is as simple as it may seem (or…even as simple as the judge might believe it to be; really think about that).

There is so much I’m probably missing in discussing “Red,” and I embrace this film for challenging me and making me think about what’s happening in the film and what it relates to in life. The more I watch this film, the more I learn from it. “Red” is a masterful conclusion to an already riveting trilogy, and even better, Kieslowski’s finest film in an already glorious career.

And I’ll tell you something else I got from the ending, which I still won’t give away: life is precarious and every moment you can cherish should be cherished forever. I love this film.

Three Colors: White (1994)

22 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“White” is the second entry in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors Trilogy.” It works fine as a stand-alone film, but it’s even better when seen as a middle chapter in a trilogy of films about liberty, equality, and fraternity. (“White” is about equality, while its predecessor, “Blue,” is about liberty.) It’s lighter in tone than the previous film, but it’s still droll enough to have you believe it’s a part of this series, while not being as emotionally consistent as “Blue.” But mind you, that’s only a nitpick mostly in comparison to “Blue” and the final film in the trilogy, “Red.”

Polish actor Zbigniew Zamachowski stars as shy, insecure Karol Karol, who has lost everything after his Parisian wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy), left him in humiliating circumstances. Down on his luck, he becomes a beggar at a train station until a fellow countryman, named Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), befriends him and decides to help bring him home to Poland, where Karol owned a hairdressing salon. There, he gets a job, rebuilds his life, and eventually plans revenge against Dominique. But when it comes to that time, will he go through with it? Does he still love her? Does she love him?

One of the problems people have with “White” is that we don’t see very much of Dominique (which is kind of surprising, given that she’s on the poster & DVD cover; you’d think Julie Delpy was the star of the film, which is not the case). What makes this a problem is the argument that the resolution isn’t as successful as it should be. We see so much of Karol and get a good sense of who he is as a person, but we know very little about Dominique. The reason it doesn’t work so well here rather than “Blue” is that in “Blue,” we knew very little about Julie but gradually got an idea of her mindset while following her on her journey in life. Here, we’re too sure of Karol and still pondering about Dominique when she isn’t the main focus. And what we see of her looks like an immensely interesting character we’d like to know more about. Something that could’ve fixed this “flaw” (again, this could be argued) is a few more scenes with her back in France while Karol is in Poland; give us a little more of her and more or less reason she has revenge coming. She doesn’t have enough screen time, in my opinion.

With that said, Karol is fine as a character. We get an accomplished portrait of a man who was happy with his wife, distraught when he lost her, regretful when he dedicated everything to her, afraid when he has to go to some heavy measures just for a job, and ultimately, in a wonderful ending, remorseful when his plan worked all too well. I may have some problems with “White,” but I can’t deny it’s a nicely-done character study. And I guess us not fully understanding his feelings toward Dominique compensates for our lack of knowledge toward Dominique.

While “Blue” was an anti-tragedy, “White” is anti-comedy. By that, I don’t mean it’s not funny but that the humor comes from the irony and the unpredictability of human nature. For example, the funniest scene in the movie is not one that many would predict. Karol makes it home to Poland by smuggling himself in a suitcase. What happens to that suitcase, I’ll leave you to find out.

Again, as with “Blue,” using color to spell out the theme was a bold and effective choice. “White” of course uses white objects in nearly every shot to spread the theme of equality, just as “Blue” used color for the theme of liberty.

“White” might need to be seen twice to fully understand the “equality” theme a little more. I didn’t get it so much the first time, but the second time made me notice more about the story and characters, and therefore made me ask more questions, enriching the experience a third time. Maybe “White” doesn’t have the same impact as “Blue” or “Red,” but it’s still effective in its own way.

Side-note: if you noticed in “Blue,” Zamachowski and Delpy make brief appearances, and likewise, in “White,” Juliette Binoche, the star of “Blue,” has a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo. All three actors appear at the end of “Red,” bringing everything in the trilogy together in a subtle, brilliant way. But I’ll get to that in the Red review.

Three Colors: Blue (1994)

22 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

After Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski created something ambitious with his “Decalogue” film series, which was a collection of short stories having to do with the Ten Commandments in modern life in ambiguous, satiric, and ironic ways, he decided to make something similarly impressive with the “Three Colors Trilogy.” The “three colors” in the title are blue, white, and red—the three colors of the French flag. And each film has to do with one of the three notions of the French motto: liberty (blue), equality (white), and fraternity (red). Writers Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz create three films to show how these ideals function in everyday life, from an individual’s point of view. According to Kieslowski, “When you deal with them practically, you do not know how to live with them. Do people really want liberty, equality, and fraternity?”

The first in the trilogy, “Blue,” is centered around the subject of “liberty,” specifically personal, emotional liberty. The main focus is a Frenchwoman named Julie (played wonderfully by Juliette Binoche), who at the start of the film loses her husband and daughter in a car accident which she survives. She recovers fine but only physically. Emotionally, she’s a wreck as she tries to deal with her loss, while at the same time, she hardly seems to feel anything anymore. At one point, she even seduces and sleeps with a man who is smitten by her, possibly just so she can feel something again. After that encounter, she sets off for a new life. She sells her house, burns her late-composer-husband’s compositions, puts her mother in a home, and goes to live in an apartment building, with no name to herself, no time for love or friendship, and not even any children in the building, as she wishes. But fate runs another course for her—things in the present force Julie to have to face them, and the past is far from at rest, leading to her confronting that too.

There are many movies like this where you could easily predict what is going to happen in a character’s life because the characters are thinking in terms of plot, and therefore, it’s easy to tell where they’re going. But “Blue” is different in the way it conveys real emotion and real pain, and it puts in a lead character who is very complicated and hard to figure out because she has nothing figured out. And therefore, that makes her an interesting person to follow, because we’re not sure what she’s going to do next. For that matter, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in her life that she’ll have to deal with! That’s because despite what she may think of her life (and what we all may think of our own lives), there is hardly any control.

That is what makes “Blue” so powerful. It hardly takes the easy way out and thinks things for us—it has a character who’s always thinking, and so, we have to figure out exactly what’s on her mind when she does certain things. The overall mood and grim atmosphere of the film suck the audience in so that they want to know what goes on with this woman and will follow her anywhere. The slow progression of Julie’s “new life” is fascinating, as we see her cope with isolation and loneliness and contemplate what life has to offer after tragedy.

It’s also worth nothing that “Blue” is a beautiful-looking film. To go with the theme of liberty and the color blue, nearly every shot contains a blue object and is often done with a blue filter as well.

“Blue” is a wonderful film and a very strong first entry in the “Three Colors Trilogy.” Will the second film in the series appear stronger or weaker by comparison? Join me in the review of White for the answer.

Reality Bites (1994)

11 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A film that shows the plight of post-college graduates can be made well, if the makers of it just take their time to really dive into what it’s like to accept the reality of growing up and facing real life. Joel Schumacher’s horrid “St. Elmo’s Fire” was not that film, and unfortunately, neither is Ben Stiller’s “Reality Bites.” Instead of presenting its characters as real, reasonable people, “Reality Bites” presents them as shallow, callous, and all-around terrible.

Now, to be sure, there are people like that in the world, and I’m not saying you can’t like a film with unlikeable characters. But the story framing of “Reality Bites” is all wrong, trying to make the film into a quirky romantic comedy (even with old clichés to assist it), and that can only mean that no serious consequences are necessary for their behavior. And I hated it even more when I realize that nothing about them has changed and that these are supposed to be our sympathetic heroes all along.

These are nonconformist Gen-Xers in the mid-‘90s whose plights are centered around two common rules for them—don’t sell out and don’t give in to The Man. Would that explain why Winona Ryder’s Lelaina Pierce isn’t the best employee working for a local morning television show? Would that explain why Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer lost his twelfth (yes, twelfth) job and is now living with Lelaina and her friends, sleep-around Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and closeted Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn)? Would that also explain why he spends his time playing guitar at a coffee house when he’s not lounging on the couch, spewing pretentious “insight?”

Of the four characters I just mentioned, the only two characters that have legitimate dramatic conflicts in their lives are not the two main characters, Lelaina and Troy, but Vickie and Sammy. And because the film is too focused on the former two to care about these two more interesting people, they get little to no resolution. Vickie has a series of one-night stands that leads to her confronting a very real risk of catching the HIV virus. What happens then? The test comes out negative, and we’re not sure of whether or not she’ll continue with these flings. Then there’s Sammy—very possibly gay. He hasn’t come out of the closet yet because of how his conservative parents might react. What’s his resolution? I don’t know, because Lalaina’s documentation doesn’t follow into Sammy’s parents’ house where he goes to tell them. I guess we’re supposed to assume it went well and now Sammy will starting seeing men.

Oh yeah, there’s a story here, isn’t there? “Lalaina’s documentation,” as I forcibly brought into the review just now, refers to Lalaina constantly videotaping her friends goofing around or discussing their current situations. (Hello, Mark Cohen from “RENT.”) She uses a regular home-video camera with bad video quality so the film can try and make it seem “real.” Maybe if they were worried about reality with this angle, they would know that not many filmmakers shake the camera as much as Lalaina does, except for those who are either starting out in this field or don’t know how to frame a shot.

This documentary has a chance to aired on TV, when Lalaina meets a nice yuppie who happens to work for an MTV-like station. This is Michael Grates, played by the director himself Ben Stiller. He is a good man—he’s smart, he’s attentive, he’s nervous, he’s pretty much everything that Troy is not, which the film tries to make us think is a bad thing. Why? Because Lalaina has to choose between the two of them, even though it’s very obvious (to us, anyway) who the right guy is for her. Michael is supposed to be “the other man” for Lalaina to leave, so she and Troy can get together.

The most frustrating aspect of this film is that it had a chance to avoid that cliché and it just didn’t ignore it. Here’s what happens—Michael takes Lelaina’s finished documentary to the station network; it’s edited severely in a stylized montage that Lelaina doesn’t recognize as her “artistic vision”; she’s mad because Michael sold out to The Man; and she leaves him so she can be with Troy. (Actually, I think the network improved the documentary!) Ben Stiller sold his own character out.

“Reality Bites” is essentially hipster trash. It has nothing to present aside from superficiality and callousness, the very things that the characters claim they don’t want to be involved with. This film didn’t make me care about the problems of post-college graduates; it just made me think of rewriting the screenplay myself and thinking of what I would personally add. Now, I’m just wondering where I would begin.

Ed Wood (1994)

12 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Moviemaking is a pure art. Why should people in Hollywood be in it just for the money? Why not the joy and storytelling of the actual thing? Moviemaking should be about filmmakers appreciating the art and joy of what they do.

That’s why Tim Burton’s comedy-drama biopic “Ed Wood” is a true delight—a wonderful film based on the life-career of filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. If you’re not familiar with that name, he was well known for making some of the worst and most laughable movies of all time, such as “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” But Ed Wood didn’t see them that way when he was making them. He just had stories to tell—somewhat weird, offbeat stories—and wanted to create them on film. He loved doing what he does and despite the roadblocks put in his way, he didn’t give up.

One of the best things about the movie “Ed Wood” is that the title character is played with enthusiasm and energy by Johnny Depp as a 30-year-old enthusiastic, slightly weird optimist whom we can learn to root for. Watching this guy, we don’t care that he’ll make some pretty bad movies, and some bad decisions to make them. We just see him doing what he loves to do. Johnny Depp definitely succeeds in making this guy likable and capturing the true essence of who this guy really is. The character isn’t portrayed in a mean-spirited way and that is one of the many joys of this film.

As the movie starts, Ed is at a premiere party for one of his bad productions (this is a stage play). The scene is laughably bad with the strange dialogue by Ed’s own crew and the lame special effect used in the background. Then, the scene cuts to Ed and his friends celebrating but then reading a negative review towards the play. But Ed, always the optimist, states, “We can’t let the negatives rule over the positives!” Then, once that is done and we see Ed at home, with his girlfriend, and looking for new projects, we see him as a likable character right then.

The movie features Ed as he goes into filmmaking and creates three projects that will become cult classics nowadays—“Glen or Glenda,” “Bride of the Atom,” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Who does he get to play the lead parts in the movies—Ed’s friends, his girlfriend, people who paid him money to get them started in the first place, and the old movie star Bela Lugosi, best known for “Dracula.” He’s really old but Ed, still a big fan of his, knows he can still act. So, he and Bela become fast friends and Ed gives him a part to jumpstart his career again. The relationship between Ed and Bela is handled nicely and believable. Bela is played by Martin Landau, under a lot of makeup, and it’s a good, tough, eerie performance to pull off—he does.

One of the strangest things about Ed is that he always liked to dress in women’s clothing. His girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) is always wandering why some of her clothes are missing. He finally reveals the truth when he makes a movie about a transvestite—“Glen or Glenda.” And he never shot a second take, saying that the first take was “Perfect!!!” Even in the scene where a wrestler-turned-actor named Tor Johnson (“The Animal” Steele) has a bit of trouble going through a door, he still says it’s perfect. “It’s fine—it’s real.” I guess he just liked to film shots.

“Ed Wood” is filmed in black and white. But don’t let that stop you watching it. The black-and-white aspect is appropriate because it captures the zaniness of the idea and it traditionalizes the Ed Wood pictures, which were filmed in black-and-white. Then, for those who have watched the Ed Wood pictures, the scenes in which the movies are being created are satisfying. One of the best moments in the movie involve Ed’s actress asking which color dress she should wear; one of the producers says he’s color blind but he likes the “dark-gray one.”

This movie could have been called “Worst Director of All Time” but instead, it’s called “Ed Wood” because the movie celebrates him more than it mocks him. Johnny Depp does an extraordinary job at playing the filmmaking optimist and proves himself to be one the best actors of our time. He just finds the right balance of making this guy likable and a little weird as well. Also, the actors playing the original characters from back in the real Ed Wood’s day look remarkably like their counterparts—Bill Murray portrays Ed’s openly-gay friend Bunny Breckinridge known as the “Ruler” in “Plan 9,” Max Casella and Brent Hinkley portray Ed’s reliable production assistants, Jeffrey Jones plays local psychic TV entertainer Criswell, and Lisa Marie is Vampira of that old “Vampira Show.” Once again, Martin Landau gives a striking resemblance to the real Bela Lugosi with a terrific makeup job by Academy Award winning makeup artist Rick Baker.

Director Tim Burton, best known at the time for directing “Beetle Juice,” “Batman,” and “Edward Scissorhands” (also featuring Johnny Depp as a man named Ed), as well as for producing “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” has always been known for making unusual yet visually and virtually intriguing projects with characters that some people find touching and fun. Ed Wood is a character that all people will find touching and fun. He’s a young energetic filmmaker who is obsessed with Hollywood. I just love the scene in which Ed is ticked off during one of his productions—two stiff producers want to do things their own way—and Ed meets Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio), who tells him that “visions are worth fighting for”, as encouragement.

But Ed also just happens to dress in women’s clothes sometimes. At one point, someone asks him, “Are you a homosexual?” He proudly replies, “No, I’m a transvestite!”

“Ed Wood” is one of my personal favorite films. It’s a great movie that should be required viewing for every film school because it’s about a guy who loves what he does and will do anything to get a movie done. I mean, I’m not saying, “Hey, go out and make the worst movies ever made,” but rather, “Follow your dreams—don’t let them get away from you.”

The Lion King (1994)

22 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Remember those old Disney animated movies which featured moments that scare little kids (and maybe some older ones too), or at least emotionally scarred them? “The Lion King,” a Disney animated feature released decades after those films, recalls such moments and creates a whole movie with them. One of those Disney animated features was “Bambi,” and everybody mourned Bambi’s mother. Here in “The Lion King,” another young animal character loses a parent. It’s a sad moment. Disney animators can create such appealing animated characters and then have the courage to a) put them in danger or b) kill them off.

“The Lion King” is one of the best Disney animated features I’ve ever seen. It takes elements of “Bambi,” crosses them with “Hamlet,” and turns the characters into lions, a bird, a warthog, and a meerkat (whatever that is). And of course, the makers of “The Lion King” add some ideas of their own.

And also, it adds some very memorable songs. The film features a cute little lion cub named Simba who dreams of being king of the pride one day, as he expresses to his little cub girlfriend Nala in one of the film’s best musical numbers, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” Other great, memorable songs include “Circle of Life,” which establishes the power of the lions’ home and order of the other animals in a great-looking-and-sounding opening sequence. Also, there’s “Hakuna Matata,” sung by Simba’s newfound friends late in the movie, which tells him not to worry about his past. (“Hakuna Matata” means “no worries” in Swahili.) But by far the best song is the film’s love song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” by Elton John and Tim Rice. These songs add to the charm of this wonderful movie.

The story is about guilt and redemption. Simba (voiced by “Home Improvement’s” Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is the heir to his father’s throne. Something goes horribly wrong and he is led to believe that he is the cause of his father’s death. So he runs away and lives with a meerkat named Timon (voiced by Nathan Lane) and a warthog named Pumbaa (voiced by Ernie Sabella) to find peace. But letting go of the past isn’t easy.

The cub’s uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons, with his dry British accent) is the one who made Simba feel guilty. He comes from a long line of Disney villains and he’s definitely one of the best. Scar is the farthest from a buffoon. He’s a slimy, conniving, mysterious, evil lion who travels with a pack of laughing hyenas (two of which are voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin). He kills his own brother Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) and leads his nephew to believe he caused it. This is not a lion to be trifled with. In fact, I don’t know if the scene in which Mufasa meets his demise should even be shown to children under 8. For a film rated G, this film has a rather large amount of violence, including a sequence in which two lions fight to the death. Parents, take that into consideration.

Aside from the drama and the grimness of the story, we get some great comic relief. The hyenas are like angry villagers who don’t get paid enough at their odd jobs. And Timon and Pumbaa are very funny supporting characters, helping Simba get over his problems. How do they help him feel better? By feeding him a grub and singing him a song about no worries.

The animation, as if predictably, is amazing. The best handdrawn animated sequence in the film features a stampede of wildebeests chasing young Simba through a gorge. Amazing, and it looks almost life-like. Disney animators always seem to master handdrawn animation. Remember the ballroom scene in “Beauty and the Beast?” In “The Lion King,” they use lighting and colors to make everything bright and great-looking and doesn’t forget that these characters are not human.

This is truly a great animated film by the Disney studios, telling a tale of redemption and guilt and facing the past. It also adds comic relief and a good deal of fun. The animation is bright, the songs are memorable, the story is great, the characters have depth, and I’d even put “The Lion King” in a class with “Bambi” and that’s a very high class indeed.

Speed (1994)

22 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Speed” has exactly what every action movie should have—a strong, likable hero, a threatening villain, and of course, gripping action sequences that deliver some fantastic special effects. This is the Ideal Summer Blockbuster that doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. It’s a compelling rollercoaster of a movie that doesn’t slow down once it speeds up, if you’ll forgive the pun. Now, of course, there are more than a dozen other action films that feature a lot of action, but not a lot of them are interesting in their characters or even their stunts or effects in their action sequences. “Speed” manages to fix the problem(s).

First, I should say that “Speed” has an extremely clever premise. Imagine if you will: a bomb set under a city bus is armed when the bus speeds up to fifty miles per hour. If the bus drives under fifty, the whole darn thing explodes. What can you do about this situation in Los Angeles traffic? At rush hour? And with a fifty-foot gap in the unfinished freeway?

The bomber is a mysterious psychotic who has everything planned out in his every plot. He’s played by Dennis Hopper, and while it seems like a cliché to cast him as a villain, Hopper is naturally threatening and delivers a great performance.

The bomber wants revenge on reckless LAPD police officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) after he and his partner (Jeff Daniels) foiled one of his plots in an opening scene. They mistook him for dead—they’re wrong. So now there’s a bomb on a bus and Jack is the one who has to get on board and save the hostages…without slowing down or stopping the bus. Of course, Jack makes it onboard the bus and after a passenger shoots the driver of the bus, a female passenger named Annie (Sandra Bullock) is forced to drive.

I love this exchange:

JACK: Ma’am, can you handle this bus?

ANNIE: Oh sure, it’s like driving a really big Pinto.

And so the bus goes through wrong lanes, construction sites, airport runways, and of course, that unfinished freeway. Through all of this madness, Jack thinks fast and comes up with ways of getting out of every sticky situation that comes around. Of course a lot of it is preposterous (I mean, a bus that size can’t really jump a fifty-foot gap in the street). But what’s important is that a lot of it is a ton of fun. There isn’t a dull moment to be found here. “Speed” is kept alive by the charisma of the actors and the intensity of those extraordinary action sequences.

I suppose I should also mention that “Speed” is sort of like a three-act play. In between the bus story are bookends (an opening scene involves an elevator and a closing scene involves a subway train). Why is this necessary? Because we know that we want more in a film like this.

Keanu Reeves shows a great deal of charisma and plays a credible action hero while also displaying recklessness and bravery. He’s a likable guy for us to root for. And who wouldn’t root for him when, after all that’s happened, he puts himself under the bus, trying to dismantle the bomb? Sandra Bullock shows a lot of spunk as the woman who has to save all the other passengers, as well as become Jack’s possible love interest—she and Reeves have good chemistry together. And then you have Dennis Hopper, whose character issues ultimatums and is very sinister. He’s one of the creepiest and most charismatic villains you’ll find in an action film.

“Speed” is a blockbuster through and through and it looks like Reeves, Hopper, and Bullock had a good time making it and I bet director Jan de Bont had a blast making it. He and the rest of the crew spent a lot of money on this film—they’ll get it back. “Speed” is a wonderful action film—one of the best action films I’ve ever seen.

The Neverending Story III (1994)

21 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: 1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

From an abstract entity to the human form of lack of imagination, the world of Fantasia is constantly under siege in “The Neverending Story” and “The Neverending Story II.” While “The Neverending Story II” didn’t work, it did have an interesting danger for Fantasia (the latter of what I mentioned above), especially compared to the danger in “The Neverending Story III.” What threatens Fantasia this time? A group of high school bullies known as the “Nasties.” That’s one of many signs featuring lack of creativity and inspiration that come with the whole movie.

Before I get into all that, allow me to explain the plot. The young hero Bastian Balthazar Bux (yes, he says his full name in this movie) is back, but facing a few problems. He has a new stepmother, has moved to a new place, and has a brat for a stepsister named Nicole (Melody Kay). Coincidentally, the library at his new school stores the Neverending Story, which apparently tells Bastian’s (Jason James Richter, “Free Willy”) story as it still happens. He uses the book to escape the Nasties, who later find the book and figure out the peculiarity behind it. They use it to attempt to take over the world. So Bastian is sent back to the real world along with other characters from Fantasia in a mission to get the book back and save the world.

This doesn’t seem like the third chapter of “The Neverending Story.” It seems like a sequel to a remake of the original film. For starters, the character of Bastian’s father has changed. In the previous film, the father knew about Bastian’s adventure in Fantasia and here, Bastian and dad seem to have no recollection of that. Bastian is searching for his lost Fantasian friends and hiding one of the found ones in his kitchen, and yet he doesn’t tell his father about the problem, despite the father knowing about it all in the previous film. This would have been a very interesting story element—a father and son banding together to solve the problem. But none of that is found or even explored.

The characters from the original films are developed in a backward way here. Falkor the Luckdragon is no longer the loyal and dignified creature he was in the past two films—instead, he’s an idiot. That’s not all—the Rockbiter has turned into a sitcom character, along with his family. I mean, his family lives in a rock house with a rock kitchen and rock TV.

The only element that remains the same as any of the previous films is how dumb Bastian is. In the second film, he had the power to wish for anything and wished for practically nothing (I’m still angry about that spray can). Here, he uses the power again…for nothing. What an idiot kid.

The Nasties are led by a beefy, Khan-like twentysomething (he’d been left back in high school) named Slip. Why do I mention this character? Because the actor playing him—Jack Black—is the only entertaining element in the film. His character is written terribly, but it’s fun to watch Jack Black try to make something out of this stupid, unimaginative movie.

Angels in the Outfield (1994)

13 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Angels in the Outfield” is a sports fantasy that is harmless enough for young kids to enjoy, but not smart enough to please adults. It’s a condescending, overly cute, and ultimately clichéd baseball film that makes the feel-good spirit of “The Natural” look like “Bull Durham.” It may even be insulting to kids who play Little League and/or keep track of major league statistics. They deserve much better than this.

It’s a baseball fantasy story, like “Field of Dreams,” in which a baseball team is redeemed thanks to a miraculous occurrence. It begins as an 11-year-old foster child named Roger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is bummed because his deadbeat father says the chances of them being a family again are about the same as the last-place California Angels winning the pennant. Roger and his best friend J.P. (Milton Davis, Jr.) watch the Angels games and know that Roger’s chances are slim. So that night, Roger prays to God—“Maybe you could help them win a little.”

Roger and J.P. go to a following game where something amazing happens…depending on how you look at it. You see, a group of real angels—visible only to Roger—come down to deliver divine intervention to the game—lifting players in the air to catch fly balls, slowing down fastballs, and even pulling tricks to make the opposing team look foolish.

Divine intervention or cheating? Are you seriously telling me that God is taking sides on a baseball team just because Roger prayed for it? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the players, who seem so worthless in the beginning, to gain some morale and momentum due to a current event that inspires them to play harder than they’ve ever played before? That would work for the kid’s prayer and you’d have a nice underdog story if done right. But no, we have seraphim rigging every baseball game. How special.

Also, the angels themselves are pretty tacky-looking. Putting a human face on a computer-generated glowing body just looks like some of the laziest effects you’ll see in a movie.

Of course, the Angels must make it to the Big Game, like just about every sports film does. The boss angel named Al (Christopher Lloyd) tells Roger that no angels will be helping the team out this time, because “championships have to be played on their own.” (That doesn’t make it any less offensive.) But the main problem is, this Big Game is ineptly shot that it just seems like it doesn’t care how it’s being shown. The preceding games are fast enough, but this game just goes on and on. The only memorable part of the game is when the over-the-hill pitcher Mel Clark (Tony Danza) tells his manager George Knox (Danny Glover) that he can’t do this anymore, and Knox gives him some helpful advice that causes Mel to believe that he can deliver the final strikeout.

Oh wait, I’m sorry. Knox tells him “You got an angel with you right now” and Roger flaps his arms around like wings, as J.P., the Angels, and EVERYONE IN THE STANDS joins in! And then Mel strikes out the player at bat, winning the game. Give me a break.

“Angels in the Outfield” is so heavy-handed that it just makes you want to throw up. It’s too sweet and sappy, trying to compensate for the fact there is absolutely nothing subtle about this film. The angels are just objects—as much as the characters talk about faith, the angels make it so difficult to accept that. So it’s hypocritical and belligerent, making for a maddening experience for those who think. And how can you not groan in disbelief at the press conference in which Knox is being relieved as manager by the team owner Hank Murphy (Ben Johnson). Why? Because Knox believes there are real angels helping his team. My question—why? What is the point? Well…it gives the Angels to stand up for Knox and having one of them say, “I won’t play for anybody but Knox,” meaning he’ll keep his job for the pennant and win the season.

By the way, this scene ends with the worst line in the movie, said by Johnson—“If there are angels out there, I hope they’re on our side.” Un-be-liev-able.

Now for the acting—Danny Glover’s Knox has a lot of screen time, as the crusty Angels manager who befriends Roger and gets his shot at redemption. He looks embarrassed throughout the film, like he would much rather be somewhere else. The same can be said for Brenda Fricker, who is wasted in the role of kindly foster mother for Roger and J.P. Then, there’s Christopher Lloyd, who plays the head angel. He’s fun enough, despite the sloppy writing he’s been given, in the scenes where he talks to Roger about the “rules” of the angels. The two kids aren’t bad—they’re merely adequate—and how often do you hear that Tony Danza gives an actually credible performance in a movie? Danza fits the role of over-the-hill pitcher nicely and is the only character that is believable.

Oh, I forgot to mention the slimy radio announcer Ranch Wilder, played by Jay O. Sanders. This guy is so despicable and so slick that I can’t help but laugh at him.

“Angels in the Outfield” is a mess. The baseball action is unexciting, the human-interest stuff is stale and unconvincing, and the views of religion—or its own rules of religion—are just so maddening that you wonder how this story would go down if it was written by a more spiritual writer? Well, people say Hollywood is full of skepticism and cynicism. That may not be entirely true, but this movie doesn’t prove that it isn’t.