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My Favorite Movies – Before Sunrise (1995)

14 Mar

By Tanner Smith

Here’s one from my personal top 5: Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” which is hands-down my favorite romance film.

“Before Sunrise” is a film about two people in their early 20s–an American man named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy). They meet by chance on a train, start up a conversation, and form a nice connection–one that sadly has to end because Jesse has to get off in Vienna to catch a plane back home. But, in one of the best pickup scenes in movie history, Jesse convinces Celine to get off the train with him so they can spend the night talking some more:

“Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me, so think of this as time travel, from then, to now, to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.”

And it works! She gets off the train with him, and they spend the whole night just walking and talking, about numerous topics like philosophy, religion, love…all while they’re falling a little bit in love, which makes it all the more tragic that this might be the first and last time they spend together.
And, well…there are two sequels, so it’s safe to say they do see each other again (although it’s way down the road).

A lot of “Before Sunrise” is driven by dialogue, and what dialogue it is! I mentioned in my post about The End of the Tour that if you have the right actors playing the right characters saying the right dialogue, it can be some of the most powerful films I could ever pay attention to. That’s exactly the case here (and with the other two movies, “Before Sunset” and Before Midnight). Director Richard Linklater and his co-writer Kim Krizan wrote the initial script, but Hawke and Delpy actually rewrote a lot of it themselves, though they weren’t credited. (They did share credit with Linklater, however, in co-writing the sequels together.) That should tell you how much Hawke and Delpy care about their own characters and what they’re saying.

But what is “Before Sunrise” truly about? What do we learn about Jesse and Celine (and about ourselves as an audience) as we listen to them talk throughout the night? Well, through what we learn about the two (such as Jesse getting over a harsh breakup shortly before this fateful night), we could take away the theme of Jesse’s self-discovery through someone else. And perhaps Celine feels the same being around him. And maybe the two feel a strong connection in each other–maybe not a sense of “love” necessarily but more a sense of “fulfillment,” which leaves open room for a relationship (which makes the other two films all the more intriguing).

My favorite scene: this is one of my top five favorite movies, so it’s hard to pick just one to talk about. I love the pickup scene, I love the scene in which they imagine what they’ll each their friends about each other, I LOVE the ambiguous ending in which they go their separate ways and keep thinking about each other! But I guess if I have to pick one…there’s a scene in which Jesse and Celine are in a listening booth at a record store, and they listen to a song while trying to avoid eye contact. The body language from both Hawke and Delpy in that scene is nothing short of brilliant.

I love this movie. It’s a beautiful piece of art and I never get tired of listening to these two people talk about whatever they want. And I also love “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.”

I don’t have a lot of new material to add to “Before Midnight,” so you can reread my decade-end retrospective here (I called it my favorite film of the 2010s and I still stand by it). But “Before Sunset”…I’ll get to that one real soon.

My Favorite Movies – Heavyweights (1995)

11 Jul

By Tanner Smith

If you know me, you know I’m a fan of Judd Apatow’s work. I love The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, “Trainwreck,” and Knocked Up. (I’m sure some day, I’ll come around to loving “This is 40”–I’m not there yet though.) I love many of his productions too, like Superbad, Bridesmaids, Pineapple Express, The Big Sick, Walk Hard, and “Begin Again.”

…I often have to remind myself that Judd Apatow, the same Judd Apatow, wrote one of the ’90s live-action Disney movies I frequently watched over and over as a kid.

No joke–Judd Apatow co-wrote (w/ director Steven Brill) Heavyweights, a 1995 Disney comedy about boys running wild on a fat farm!

The comedy in “Heavyweights” is obviously gentler than what Apatow is most famous for, but it’s also edgier than you saw in most family-oriented comedies in the 1990s. The kids aren’t your basic cookie-cutter kids like you would see in something like “Major Payne”* (which came out the same year); they feel like real, wisecracking, mischievous kids–Apatow knew how to write for them.

For what could have otherwise been a deplorable, standard summer-camp romp for Disney, Apatow gave the material a much-needed edge with a lot of witty one-liners, an awareness of itself, and colorful characters that don’t get dumbed down (for the most part). He and Paul Feig went on to create “Freaks and Geeks,” and honestly, I think I like “Heavyweights” almost as much as my favorite episodes of that wonderful series.

Plus, there’s a deleted scene on the Blu-Ray in which the boys are joking about the possibility of getting boners while getting inspected by the attractive nurse–now THAT’s an Apatow scene!

Best part of the movie? No question about it–it’s Ben Stiller as Tony Perkis, the extreme fitness guru who aims to turn the fat camp into a business opportunity. Seeing this movie as an adult, I recognize its wonderful satire as we realize what this guy is all about, which is to use the kids as profit for an infomercial, while the kids themselves are not at all serious about losing weight.

Stiller is having a ton of fun here and he has a lot of the best lines that I love to quote from time to time.

There is, however, a problem that I notice upon watching this movie nowadays. Late in the film, the kids fight back against this guy, who turns out to be a sociopath–and I’m not sure how to take that. It bothers me a little bit that the idea of satirizing the infomercial-weight-loss concept isn’t stretched out to its full potential (and accidentally treating the overweight kids as the problem, if you really think about it—none of the kids end up with serious pain as a result of the “system”).

But…eh. I’ll let it pass. At least the kids learn something about self-confidence at the end.

My other favorite character in “Heavyweights” aside from Tony Perkis? Lars, played by Tom Hodges. He’s one of Tony’s assistants, who speaks with an Austrian accent (gee, I wonder who he’s supposed to remind us of), and he delivers some real good laughs as well.

I thought I outgrew Heavyweights as I got older (I even gave it a mixed review before)…who was I kidding? Not only did I still watch it often, but I also bought the Blu-Ray because it had a whole lot of vintage behind-the-scenes material and retrospective modern interviews as bonus features.

It’s just a funny movie. What else can I say about it?

*I’m not dissing “Major Payne”; it’s just that Damon Wayans is better than anything or anyone else in that movie.

Heavyweights (Revised Review)

26 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yep, it’s “Revised Review” time again! And I would say it’s “Guilty Pleasure” time again, except I hold no guilt in liking “Heavyweights” whatsoever. It’s one of my childhood favorites, and when I wrote my mixed review (saying I liked it until the end), I thought I was telling myself I had outgrown the silly humor, the clichéd plot, the overdone stereotypical characters, and the conventional sports-movie ending. But I should’ve told myself, “Come on! You enjoy many parts of this movie, you love watching it every once in awhile, and even the ending isn’t that bad. At least give it three stars for being something you like!”

It is true; I do enjoy watching “Heavyweights” every once in awhile. I loved it as a kid and watched it over and over and over again, so much so that I had most of it memorized by the time I realized the clichés and the stereotypes and whatnot. Because of that, I thought I wasn’t supposed to cut it too much slack as a film critic. How silly I was, because while “Heavyweights” does have those familiar elements to it, there’s an edge that makes them more enjoyable than in something like “The Mighty Ducks” (which featured some of the same actors and crew members three years earlier). (Maybe since-accomplished Judd Apatow, providing one of his first screenwriter credits in his career by co-writing this movie, had something to do with that edge.)

So, because of that, I’m giving it three-and-a-half stars instead of three, because I just like “Heavyweights” that much!

The main character of “Heavyweights” is an 11-year-old overweight boy named Gerry (Aaron Schwartz). His parents send him, against his wishes, to a fat camp called Camp Hope, which is advertised to make overweight boys lose weight and have fun in the process. Gerry is bummed about it until he makes friends with his cabinmates, including Josh (Shaun Weiss) and Roy (Kenan Thompson in one of his early roles, just before Nickelodeon’s “All That”), who are not serious about losing weight. (They even hide food in secret compartments in their cabin.)

But before the first day at camp is even over is when the trouble starts. The friendly owners of the camp (played by Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller—I dunno, are they wasted cameos?) announce that their positions are taken over by self-assured fitness guru Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller), who is determined to make the kids lose weight quickly. Why? So he can make a quick buck with an infomercial about weight loss. He makes life at camp a living hell for the kids, and so the kids fight back and take control of the camp and their lives.

From this point forward, I would like to issue a SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen the movie before, check it out and then come back to read the rest of this review.

Everything builds up to an ultimate confrontation between Perkis and the kids (in which, in a neat little twist, Perkis’ parental issues come into play as he lashes out at the parents: “PARENTS! YOU’RE ALL THE CAUSE OF MY…THEIR PROBLEMS!”). But the movie continues with the kids earning their self-respect, going up against the athletic bullies from the camp across the lake (“Camp MVP”). This is what I complained about before, in my original review. But I really don’t have that much to complain about anymore. It’s dealt with quickly, isn’t boring, and it has its share of funny jokes here or there (such as when one of the jocks mistakes the Mona Lisa for Cher). Yeah, the big race is predictable. Yeah, the ultimate happy-ending is a bit much. But did I complain about the slow-clap at the end of one of my favorite movies, “Lucas”? No way. So why should I complain about this final act when, really, my problems with it are mere nitpicks?

This is what happens when a kid tries to become a serious film critic—he lets nitpicks of a silly, fun film get the better of him in a “serious review.”

“Heavyweights” is full of memorable, colorful characters, which is part of the reason I keep coming back to revisit the film. The kids are entertaining to watch and played by good comic actors, and the adults just have as much fun. Tom McGowen plays a good-natured counselor character named Pat, who is downgraded to janitor upon Perkis’ arrival because Perkis sees his weight as less of a motivator for the kids. Leah Lail is the attractive new nurse who becomes the apple of Pat’s eye; she doesn’t have as much to do as the rest of the cast in terms of humor, but she is likable enough. Paul Feig (yes, Paul Feig of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Bridesmaids” fame) scores a few laughs as a skinny counselor named Tim. And then there’s Ben Stiller as Tony Perkis and Tom Hodges as a buff, foreign counselor named Lars. Man, are these two lots of fun to watch—very funny and memorable at the same time. Stiller plays the part of Perkis with a few parts Fonzie and other parts Wayne from “Wayne’s World” and much original talent—a mixture that would fit him well for a similar role in “Dodgeball” nine years later. Even in the smallest comedic moments, such as when he jogs in the woods near his cabin, he’s wonderful. (“Come on, you devil log!” he exclaims as he stops to lift a log in his path.)

I mentioned that Judd Apatow, in the early stages of his career (which would lead to bigger and better things), is one of the writers of the film, and it actually makes sense. For what could have otherwise been a deplorable, standard summer-camp romp for Disney, Apatow gives the material a much-needed edge with a lot of witty one-liners, an awareness of itself, and colorful characters that don’t get dumbed down (for the most part). He and Paul Feig went on to create “Freaks and Geeks,” and honestly, I think I like “Heavyweights” almost as much as my favorite episodes of that series.

Yes, there are some things that are overdone. For example, there are some slapstick pratfalls that get more groans than laughs from me. And I guess it should bother me that the idea of satirizing the infomercial-weight-loss concept isn’t stretched out to its full potential (and accidentally treating the overweight kids as the problem, if you really think about it—none of the kids end up with serious pain as a result of the “system”). But I can’t sit here and let my original review of “Heavyweights” remain on without some redemption from me, a person that genuinely enjoys the movie and will probably watch it again now that I’ve talked about it some more. It even made it go out and buy the Blu-Ray, which has tons of bonus material about the making of the film, a commentary with cast & crew, an hour-and-a-half of deleted/extended scenes, and even more.

Any film that gets me excited about extensive bonus features on the Blu-Ray doesn’t deserve a mixed review.

Living in Oblivion (1995)

16 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith


I have somewhat of an understanding of the behind-the-scenes world of independent filmmaking. I document behind-the-scenes video footage of short films being made, I acted in a small role in an Arkansas indie production (Juli Jackson’s “45 RPM”), and I make my own short films as well. There’s still a lot for me to learn if I’m going to be an accomplished filmmaker (though, being an accomplished film critic would be nice too). Maybe that’s why when a film about filmmaking catches my attention, my curiosity and fascination are provoked. There are parts that feel familiar to me, others that feel new to me, and the rest of the material mostly captivates me. Two of the best films I’ve seen show that are Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” and Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night.” Then there’s Tom DiCillo’s “Living in Oblivion,” one such film about filmmaking that actually feels the most familiar to me. In my book (or blog), that’s an accomplishment.

What’s even better (and what would bring in those who aren’t that familiar with the craft) is that it’s also a comedy. It’s wonderfully written—the dialogue rings true in a funny way and the situations ring similarly true in a Murphy’s Law sort of way. Anything that can go wrong on a movie set does go wrong one way or another and it’s funny seeing these characters, a film crew, react to them. It’s lively, clever, and flat-out funny.

The film divided in three parts, each one showing the shooting of a different scene for an independent film. Director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi) is under stress trying to put together a film on a low budget and trying to get this scene complete. But the production is plagued by all sorts of problems—his leading actress, Nicole (Catherine Keener), is losing faith in herself and her acting career; his leading actor, hotshot Chad Palomino (James LeGros), has an ego too big for the production; his director of photography, Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), is suffering emotional problems; the technical crew is having problems with the new fog machine; actors can’t remember their lines; a pint-sized actor (Peter Dinklage) is angry at his role as a dwarf in a dream sequence; and more.

Good comedy is based on cause and effect; someone has to suffer and that’s where the laughs come from. “Living in Oblivion” has a great collection of funny moments in which this guy is trying his hardest to get these scenes off the ground and everything seems to be working against him, leading to further complications he has to keep getting out of. It’s a relatable conflict but also very funny.

They say “art imitates life.” In the case of this film (in addition to the film-within-the-film), it’s art imitating life imitating art imitating life by way of a perceptive, smart screenplay and even better (for me, anyway), instantly recognizable characters. I’ve come across at least some of these types of people on a film crew a few times before. Even if you don’t know about how the film world works, you can empathize with the issues being faced by people trying to get something done with their art. This goes to show that even with an independent feature film on a shoestring budget, there are as many problems to face as those you hear about in the makings of big-budget studio films.

But there’s a big problem I have with the film (and this is where spoilers come in) and it has to do with the segues into the next vignette (or “scene”). They’re dream sequences. A scene is shot, things go wrong, and a character wakes up from the experience, as it was all a dream. To me, this doesn’t work for three reasons. 1) It’s not clever when it happens repeatedly and it’s groan-inducing when you see that reveal, 2) these dreams are so damn precise and surprisingly accurate, considering the different people having these dreams, and 3) it’s not clear whether or not these scenes were even part of the film-within-the-film, so it left me confused. To me, it just came across a pretentious way to be “artful.”

Even with that distraction, I greatly enjoyed “Living in Oblivion.” It made me laugh with joy and it made me smile with recognition. I wanted more of this film actually! When it ended, I couldn’t believe it was really over. I wanted more of these characters and another scene for them to shoot together. That’s the power of this wonderful film about filmmaking.

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

12 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret of Roan Inish (1995)

21 May


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Secret of Roan Inish” represents that special type of “family film” that is often ignored by most kids who would rather see juvenile comedies or superhero blockbusters. The other type of family film is that kind that doesn’t go for what’s hip and new with the younger audiences; it does its own thing and takes its audience seriously (and as a result of that, the adults enjoy it as well, and they don’t regret seeing it with their kids). And most kids won’t want to check it out; they’ll just see it as a quiet, boring film with nothing entertaining on the screen. But the adults will see it as a tender, involving film that tells an interesting story in a soft manner that the most deplorable “family films” don’t have the courage to do. While the kids aren’t always going to race to see it over something like “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie” (released the same year as “The Secret of Roan Inish”), they at least deserve the option. It’s there for them; they just have to be there for it, in return.

With that said, “The Secret of Roan Inish” is a real treasure of a movie. This isn’t merely a great “family film”—it’s a great film, period.

Based on the children’s book by Rosalie K. Fry, “The Secret of Roan Inish” is the story of a young, motherless girl named Fiona Coneelly (Jeni Courtney) who is sent to live with her grandparents in a small fishing village in Ireland. The grandparents (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan), along with a young cousin of Fiona’s, Eamon (Richard Sheridan), live near Roan Inish, which is a Gaelic name for “seal island.” Then Fiona starts to hear the stories tossed around by the family and the locals—legends that seem to have a connection with Fiona and her family. Apparently, the seals that inhabit the land are not what they seem, which is why it’s said that no fisherman would dare to harm them. They are said to be “selkies”—seals who transform into women. There’s also the story that Fiona herself may have been the half-child of a selkie who fell for Fiona’s father and then left because she “couldn’t stay away from the sea.” Is it true? And what about Fiona’s long-lost baby brother, Jamie? Years ago, he drifted out to sea in his cradle and was left for dead. Is he really dead or have the seals been caring for him since then? With each story and each question, Fiona sets out to find some answers.

“The Secret of Roan Inish” tells this story with the right balance of magic and realism, as director John Sayles tells the story with complete seriousness with the mystic elements more in the background. They’re there, but they’re framed in a way that further assist the story. As a result, the story is absorbing and the audience buys into the magic. The appearance of solid, three-dimensional characters helps too. Each character is believable and the actors (especially the fierce youngster Jeni Courtney and the wonderful accomplished Irish actor Mick Lally) do credible jobs at portraying them. And I found myself caring about the story and what the characters go through, which also includes possible eviction from the grandparents’ home, and Fiona and Eamon working to fix up an old cottage at Roan Inish to stay.

In other hands, I think “The Secret of Roan Inish” would have been more of a fantasy in that it probably would have been more fanciful and simpleminded. So I’m real glad that John Sayles had the courage to make it the way he sees it done. This is a wonderful movie. Even if you see it as a family film, it’s not shallow in the slightest. Kids might enjoy it, if they choose to check it out, and I think adults might like it even more. For a film about a seal-woman, “The Secret of Roan Inish” feels credible and very enthralling.

Congo (1995)

23 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you’ve seen “Congo” and read the above verdict, you might think I’m going ape. How can I recommend a movie with silly scenes, cheap gorilla suits, and a ridiculous Romanian character played by Tim Curry? Because I was entertained, darn it. “Congo,” despite its flaws, is an entertaining and funny jungle adventure story, loosely based on a novel by Michael Crichton.

Its villains hardly show up at all and when they do, it’s only briefly. Then, they barely have enough screen time during the climax of the film to become scary villains. But knowing they’re there is enough. The villains, who live in the Congo jungle, are killer gorillas, said to be a new, dangerous species that hunt and kill. As the movie opens, they make a victim out of Charlie (Bruce Campbell), whose father (John Doe Baker, chewing up the scenery) is a megalomaniac tycoon who sent Charlie to the Congo to find a rare diamond that will bring power to the industry’s newest weapon, which will “dominate the communications industry!”

Sent by Baker to find Charlie (but mostly bring back the diamonds) is Karen (Laura Linney), Charlie’s fiancée. When Karen confronts Baker when the diamonds seem more important to him than his son, he doesn’t care. She travels to the Congo with a primatologist named Peter (Dylan Walsh), who has taught an ape named Amy how to communicate by sign language to power a voice synthesizer…and also to drink martinis. He is going to the Congo to set the ape free, since she keeps painting pictures of the jungle.

Another character is thrown into the mix: a Romanian sinister figure named Homolka (Tim Curry). He’s along for the ride to find the city of Zinge (I’m unsure about how to spell it), which is said to hold many diamonds.  Now, Curry’s performance is the kind of performance you wish had a laugh track to go along with it. Every time he talks with that ridiculous phony accent—listen to the way he keeps saying the word “gorilla” and you’ll know what I mean. In fact, even before he says anything, the way he looks—the way he glowers—gets a laugh.

The best performance in the movie is given to Ernie Hudson. He plays their guide, Monroe Kelly, the “great white hunter who happens to be black.” He delivers his lines in such a calm and droll manner, that he comes across as a potential Clark Gable type. He’s terrific in this movie. And so is Linney, for that matter. She plays a female character that is strong and lends a helping hand for her male cohorts.

Anyway, once the group is in the jungle, the movie is good, dumb fun. They will go through many adventures—nearly get eaten by hippos, encounter a ghost tribe, run through a volcano, and be attacked by the killer gorillas. And they will say lines like, “Let’s get out of here while we still can” and “If you run—“ “He’ll chase me, I know.” Not to mention, “Why are they bringing out parachutes?” We also get some funny moments by Amy the gorilla, whose voice (through he synthesizer) sounds like a schoolgirl’s. I laughed when she drank the martini and moved the killer gorillas away, just by calling them “ugly.” It’s a good thing these moments are provided because I knew, right from her first shot, that it was a person in a gorilla suit playing the part.

Another dumb moment in the film: the group is informed that a ghost tribe is trying to bring a dead man back to life by performing a ritual. They go and watch and the tribe wave and point, while chanting, at the same spot. When they stop, Karen asks, “Where’s the man?” Where do you think, lady?

The climax of the film is  well-done. It has stunning visuals, great sets, awesome cinematography, and a real sense of adventure that you’d feel in an Indiana Jones movie (in fact, the director of “Congo” was a producer of the “Indiana Jones” movies).

Michael Crichton, whom I’ve said wrote the source material for “Congo,” was reportedly unhappy with they did with his book. I wouldn’t blame him—this is not in the same league as many other film adaptations of his books, like “Jurassic Park,” for example. Sure, “Congo” is trash. But it’s good trash. There’s such a thing as good trash, then it’s “Congo.”

Jumanji (1995)

2 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Jumanji” is an unusual family movie. It has a fantasy-adventure plot mixed a few elements of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That’s not bad, but the film contains images and scenes that could frighten younger kids. The film could have been rated PG-13 because it really has that PG-13 feel of it.  Older kids may be entertained by “Jumanji” and maybe some adults as well.

The movie is based on the short children’s book by Chris van Allsburg. It opens in 1869 as two boys bury a crate in the ground in the middle of the night. One asks the other, “What if someone digs it up?” The other prays for them in a dark tone. Then the movie flashes forward a hundred years later to a nice little town called Brantford, New Hampshire. A young boy named Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) finds that same crate, opens it, and finds an ancient board game called Jumanji. He takes it home and plays it with a friend. But there’s something unusual about this game—the pieces stick to the board and move by themselves, and then in a mystic manner, a message appears in the middle of the game. The game is magical and has a mind all its own. Unaware of the game’s awesome power, Alan rolls the dice and is sucked into the game with his friend being chased by bats set free from the game.

Now, the movie flashes forward twenty-six years later, Alan’s big house is bought by a woman named Nora (Bebe Neuwirth), who wants to fix the place up for a bed-and-breakfast. She moves in with her adopted niece Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and nephew Peter (Bradley Pierce). Judy and Peter find that same game Jumanji in the attic and begin to play. But when playing, they unleash Alan, now a grown man played by Robin Williams, from the jungle within the board game. Alan is shocked to realize that his parents are dead and the whole town may as well be—everything is closed and practically broken.

But there’s not much time for sympathy; before Alan was set free, a few of Jumanji’s jungle animals have been set free. They are roaming around, hurting people, and slowly but surely destroying the town. Now Alan, Judy, and Peter must finish the game in order to make everything back to normal again. They find Alan’s friend Sarah who started playing the game with him, also now grown up to be played by Bonnie Hunt, and she reluctantly agrees to help.

That leads to one scary event after another as the jungle creatures of Jumanji pop out after every player’s turn. What happens could scare younger children, but others may have a good time with the film—just when you think, “What could possibly happen next,” something bigger happens. The game takes the heroes on an adventure of disastrous proportions, but the destruction will not stop until the game is over.

“Jumanji” is full of ambition—in fact, so full that it gets so close to wearing out its welcome. The special effects are quite special and the heroes react as if they weren’t special effects—that is the effect that is most special, when the cast acts right with them. Also, the second half when everything comes out of the game is a good deal of fun. Among the inhabitants of Jumanji are a rhino stampede, wild monkeys, a lion, giant live pod plants, and giant spiders. Also from the game is a rifle-wielding people-hunter named Van Helt (Jonathan Hyde, who also played Alan’s uptight father) who wants to hunt Alan and kill him.

However, the movie is not just wall-to-wall special effects extravaganza. The movie also has an “It’s a Wonderful Life” feel to it in the way that when Alan is rich and young, the town is lovely. Yet when he returns, he sees what the town is like without him around (his rich shoe factory owner dad spend every cent trying to find him after he disappeared and went broke). Then maybe when all this is over, he can change it all back to perfection. It took me a while to come to that point and it did. That’s what makes “Jumanji” actually kind of innocent and heartwarming to balance out the darker material. The characters are innocent enough for us to root for them and the actors do a good job portraying them. Robin Williams tones down his manic comedic persona and manages to effectively it straight—he’s very likeable here as a result. Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, and Bradley Pierce are also good as Williams’ allies. I can also say the same for David Alan Grier, who gives comic relief to this movie as the freaked-out patrol officer.

“Jumanji” isn’t for everyone, or anyone who may get creeped out by a lot of moments in this movie that could scare them. There are some parts of the movie where you’ll crack up but other parts where small children could possibly hide in their parent’s lap while trying to watch it. Like I said, this is a PG-13 movie and if you see this movie and see what happens when giant mosquitoes attack, Van Pelt hunts Alan, or when a giant pod attacks Peter, you’ll know what I mean. Those creepy moments with Joe Johnston’s direction remind us of those creepy moments from those real old children’s movies. “Jumanji” is a good movie with good fun, a fast-paced thrilling edge, and a heartwarming subplot that makes it more special than you might think.

The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)

27 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Children sometimes like to pretend their action figures are alive—they play their games with this imaginative concept and treat their tiny figures as if they were real people. But because these kids know their toys are not truly living, they feel free to subject them to all sorts of playful tricks in an imaginary war for them. But what if these toys actually did come to life? They wouldn’t be toys, though. They would be real, three-to-four-inch high people. Throw them around in these previously-harmless games, and they will be injured or worse. These kids would then have to learn responsibility in the case of looking out for these new companions, because they truly are new companions. That’s how “The Indian in the Cupboard” manages to teach lessons to kids without feeling the need to preach. It’s an interesting concept for a family film, and it’s put to good use.

Based on the popular novel by Lynne Reid Banks and adapted by “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Matheson, “The Indian in the Cupboard” joins that special class of family films that truly know its target audience and treat them with enough intelligence as well as entertainment value that also manages to teach something. There’s as much focus to the story as there is to the (required) special effects. As a result, the kids are not only entertained, but they feel they learned something from the movie. And adults, or rather parents of these young children, won’t be bored by it.

“The Indian in the Cupboard” begins as a boy named Omri (Hal Scardino) is celebrating his ninth birthday. He gets a skateboard and the latest toys, but also a little plastic Indian figure and an old cupboard. Omri finds a key that fits the cupboard lock and puts the Indian inside it. He learns, to his amazement, that once he sticks a figurine in the cupboard, turns the key in the lock, and opens the door, that figurine comes to life. That’s what happens with the Indian, who is now a living, breathing, four-inch tall Iroquois native named Little Bear who sees Omri as a giant and reacts with awe and fear. Omri and Little Bear (Litefoot) soon befriend one another, as Omri realizes just how real Little Bear really is. “He talks, he eats, he trusts me,” Omri writes in his classroom story about the ongoing experience.

It’s here that the lesson of responsibility comes into place. Omri knows that this previously plastic toy is now suddenly alive because of this cupboard, and at one point feels free to try this new discovery on other toys (RoboCop and Darth Vader, in one brief scene), but once he does this, he realizes that this is not a game to play. This is a dangerous, delicate new thing that Omri must be careful with. He must also make sure that Little Bear is safe while he decides to stay in Omri’s world for a while—once Little Bear is out of Omri’s sight, he is attacked by a bird, and so Omri uses the cupboard to bring a British wartime medic, Tommy (well-played by Steve Coogan), to life for help. That also brings into the question of overusing this gift just because he can—Omri learns that if he’s going to do it again, there has to be a good reason for it. At one point, Little Bear even points out, “You should not do magic you do not understand!” “The Indian in the Cupboard” is effective at stating that everyone must be responsible for their actions, even a child.

Midway through the movie, Omri’s friend Patrick (Rishi Bhat) is let in on the secret, but Patrick is defiant and decides to use the cupboard himself, despite Omri telling him this is too much responsibility for him to handle. Patrick brings to life a cowboy figurine (and his horse) that becomes a cranky, emotional cowboy named “Boo-Hoo” Boone (David Keith) that of course sees Little Bear as a “stinkin’ savage” and so the two are at war with each other. So while Omri has to convince Patrick that having this four-inch person around is something to think further about, he also has to make sure the cowboy and the Indian get along. A clever, nice touch.

The visual effects in “The Indian in the Cupboard” are outstanding. Mixing the young actors (Hal Scardino and Rishi Bhat) with miniature people are seamless and well-done. They look like they’re right there in the frame with each other. Also, the effects aren’t flashy; they’re executed in a surprisingly plausible manner (notice how in some shots, the little people are out of focus in comparison to the “big” kids), which helps make it easy to suspend disbelief. There’s another fantastic effects shot that shows Little Bear in the palm of Omri’s hand, and it looks so convincingly real.

What it really comes down to with “The Indian in the Cupboard” is its messages of ethics and relationships. The themes of ethics are present in this movie, but they’re not thrown at your face. We see Omri’s growth and learn along with him, which also makes this more of a coming-of-age story than anything else. The relationships are present not only with Omri and Little Bear, but with Little Bear and Boone who do sort of become friends, despite their differences. They’re both tense yet interesting relationships to follow.

I don’t want to make “The Indian in the Cupboard” seem like so much of a family drama with special effects, because the movie is also a good deal of fun. There are little touches that help make the film interesting and fun to watch (as they follow along with the morals and ethics), including the character of Tommy who is fascinated by what happens to him (though he believes it’s a dream, to be sure) whenever Omri has to bring him to life for help. And of course, having a cupboard that can bring anything to life is undeniably fascinating—I love the bit in which Omri offers Little Bear a plastic tepee on his first night, and then uses the cupboard to make it into a real one. There’s also a crucial scene in which Omri and Patrick are forced to keep an eye out for a loose pet rat and make sure it doesn’t get to Little Bear and Boone, and there comes a satiation later in which Little Bear must go underneath the floorboards of Omri’s bedroom in order to retrieve the cupboard key, while the rat might also be loose down there. (Though, I’m not going to lie—I kind of wished there was an action sequence in which Little Bear fights off the rat. Instead, we’re subjected to seeing the boys as they listen for danger. But that’s a minor nitpick.) The best way to describe “The Indian in the Cupboard” is saying it’s smart, entertaining, and downright magical.

Kids (1995)

13 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The kids in the title of the film, “Kids,” refer to rebellious, aimless, pathetic, sex-crazed, drug-addicted, loudmouthed teenagers who care about nothing except sex, drugs, alcohol, skateboarding, and each other’s company. These are city kids who may seem like clean-cut kids to some people’s eyes (emphasis on the “some”), but are really some of the worst sort of young people around. And “Kids” is an ugly portrait of them.

This may seem like a documentary, but it isn’t. The social interaction and the way the camera lingers around it may have viewers mistake it to be reality. But the 19-year-old Harmony Korine, who has an ear for how inner-city children talk, wrote this film with dialogue, and the director Larry Clark directs the young actors and keeps his camera movements to frenetic quietness. But at times, it’s very disturbing, especially in the scenes involving sex.

The central character is a boy about fifteen or sixteen years old named Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick). At first, he looks like a normal kid and seems sincere and kind of nerdy. When we first see him, he’s making out with a girl in her bedroom and he talks her into having sex. At first, the girl says she’s afraid of having a baby, but Telly coaxes her by saying that with him, she wouldn’t have to worry about it and that she would love it.

It’s after that (and yes, we do see it) that we know that Telly is obsessed with deflowering young virgins. Not only that—13-year-old virgins. After he leaves his latest victim’s house, he walks the streets with his buddy Casper (Justin Pierce) and tells him about his philosophy of virgins and that he might be getting addicted to deflowering virgins. He doesn’t believe in condoms, either.

Casper is another kid who doesn’t care about much. He’s constantly stoned and drunk, and seems to envy Telly’s track record with sex. Their friends aren’t any better—together, they talk nonstop about sex, smoke weed, and drink. There are younger kids with them—they try to fit in by acting like big-time sex addicts too. But we also see just how dangerous they can be, as they beat a kid closely to death with a skateboard.

We experience a 24-hour routine day with these kids. But while all that’s going on, we get something close to a plot with a girl named Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), who is the only sympathetic character in the movie. Jennie has only had sex once, whereas her friends have experienced it multiple times and talk in as much detail about it as the boys, though they have very different opinions. Anyway, Jennie goes with a friend named Ruby (Rosario Dawson) for an HIV test. Ruby has had sex with eight guys and tests negative, but Jennie has only had sex with Telly and tests positive.

Just when you didn’t think it was possible to dislike Telly more, we find out that he is HIV positive and is spreading the virus around as he continues his one ambition in life. As for Jennie, her life collapses around her. And now, she spends the day trying to find Telly and save another girl from a fate similar to hers.

The young actors are all too real at playing these rebellious youths, particularly Leo Fitzpatrick as Telly. The hatred of Telly has to be credited to Fitzpatrick for a real tough performance. This is every parent’s nightmare.

“Kids” is not a film to enjoy, but it’s taken as a wake-up call to the world, as most critics of this movie say it is. Everything seems real, and that’s an unnerving aspect of viewing these kids. Even more unnerving is that if you watch this film and then watch a documentary about inner-city children, you won’t notice much difference. It’s hard for me to believe that “Kids” was even scripted with dialogue, but it was. And it’s hard to believe that the kids are actually young actors, but they are. “Kids” is not an enjoyable film—it’s uneasy to watch at times, but mostly, it’s a powerful, deep look at how these kids may slowly but surely be wasting their lives away.