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Jack (revised review)

28 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trainspotting (1996)

24 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television., choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. […] Choose your future. Choose life.”

The narrator/main character of Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting”—Renton (Ewan McGregor)—has rebelled against the comfortable lifestyle his family has, as he finds it very uninteresting, and instead escapes into the world of drugs. Particularly, heroin is what he and his buddies turn to whenever they need something to “care” about. His friends are even less ambitious than Renton, in that they are all sociopathic, amoral, and even more warped than Renton—they are Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), who constantly talks about Sean Connery movies; Spud (Ewan Bremner), a simple-minded, inoffensive addict; Tommy (Kevin McKidd), a nice, honest young man whose personality changes once he hears about the joys of heroin; and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a psycho who delights in causing great harm people, even dropping a glass on a young woman’s head.

George Carlin once said this about how one feels about drugs—“They make you feel like wanting more drugs.” And indeed, the addiction is very strong with the characters in “Trainspotting.” Renton knows that heroin leads to misery and bitterness, but is constantly drawn back to it because of the hit. At one point early in the film, he even locks himself in a room with soup, ice cream, milk, Valium, water, three buckets (one for urine, one for feces, one for vomit), a TV set, and porn, in order to withdraw himself from the drug. But soon enough, he does get back to heroin. After a series of odd events, he nearly dies of an overdose, leading to a harsh, forceful intervention and withdrawal after which, much like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” (that is, if Alex was holding and using), he must either cope with the realities of a clean life or give in to madness, pain, and misery yet again.

All of this is told in a bold, stylistic way that makes “Trainspotting” admirable for its look and feel, while at the same time uneasy to watch for the same elements. That makes it all the more effective in how “Trainspotting” frames its characters and their issues—these characters are pretty much horrible people, but “Trainspotting” does deliver and show comeuppances and consequences for each of them. They may embrace their lifestyle, but how long will it last until it hits them back? It leaves room for tragedy and even a little redemption. And it was a smart move not to show the world of drugs from one side of the argument—in order to understand what drugs can do to a person, the film shows things clear and in detail (sometimes strangely and eerily giddy in such) from the characters’ sides. And the best thing about the story—it doesn’t preach in delivering what it has to.

Thanks to a unique visual style and a clever framing device, “Trainspotting” is a very compelling film—not only is it well-acted and well-done in getting its point across without preaching, but it is lively and energetic. Much like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Danny Boyle creates “Trainspotting” with something that needs to be said about a certain controversial subject and results to all sorts of tricks and such in order to make people remember what they’re supposed to get out of it. in that sense, the film is very successful and quite grippipng.

Kazaam (1996)

25 May

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Smith’s Verdict: Half-a-Star

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Kazaam” was to be NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal’s major starring vehicle, with “Shaq” himself playing, as the marketing suggested, “a rappin’ genie with an attitude…ready for some slam-dunk fun!” This came out the same year as another movie starring another NBA player—“Space Jam” with Michael Jordan. What that movie got right with its iconic figure was to have him actually play the iconic figure. Michael Jordan didn’t have to play a superhero (or a “genie,” for that matter)—he already is one. Here, in “Kazaam,” Shaquille O’Neal is not given the right material to start with—it’s as if the filmmakers took one look at this seven-foot, imposing black man and thought to themselves, “Hey, this guy’s tall, bald, and black—I think he’d make a good genie.”

“Kazaam” is such a deplorable movie. It’s stupid, unimaginative, often unpleasant, and a truly sad excuse for a Shaq vehicle.

Yes, Shaq plays a genie, named Kazaam (isn’t that an odd name for a genie—was “Abra-Cadabra” already taken?). He’s the genie of a magical boombox that is suddenly released by a young city boy named Max. Kazaam is now Max’s slave (I’m not even joking—Max even acknowledges that he “owns” Kazaam) until he grants three wishes for the kid. But meanwhile, he does all right for himself in the city (though where this takes place, I may have missed—maybe New York City? The Bronx? Brooklyn?) and even becomes a hit at a local nightclub as a rapper.

Before I go any further, this needs to be said—Shaq raps even worse than he acts. He has no rhythm, his voice drones monotonously when it should be driving, and his improvised “lyrics” are terrible (“Let’s green-egg-and-ham it!”). And unfortunately, we’re subjected to many sequences in which he raps to impress.

Max (played by Francis Capra), the kid that Kazaam is granting three wishes to, is an unsympathetic little brat. I guess we’re supposed to care for this loathsome little toad because he’s in need of a father figure, and his father is a jerk who is also in the underground pirated-music scene. But Max is irritating and obnoxious all the way through. His interactions with Kazaam mostly consist of showoffish, in-your-face dialogue that gets annoying very fast.

The story is very boring as it goes along with the whole subplot involving Max’s father who is involved in something violent and dangerous involving the latest score. There’s a cassette tape involved that just serves as an uninteresting McGuffin, and there’s also a group of bullies that think they themselves can get rich with it if they grab it themselves. And it gets even more tedious as it goes along.

The special effects that go with Kazaam’s powers aren’t very impressive. They look cheap and not as “magical” as the movie would like to make us believe it is. Notice a flying-bicycle scene that involves a lot of gold-sparks, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Actually, I should probably delete that last sentence, because that would imply that I suggest you check out this movie, which I hope you don’t. It’s hardly worth it.

And about Shaquille O’Neal himself—he’s pretty dull here. I think an acting coach would have done him well (Lord knows he needed one for his free-throws). I think Shaq can be very likeable, and maybe if he had better direction, he would have been the one to save this movie. He’s trying, but he needed to remember that grinning every single minute (just like he did with his TV commercials) doesn’t make one a credible actor. (And again, neither does his rapping-rhyming.) “Kazaam” is a waste of time.

Fargo (1996)

23 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Fargo” is one of the most original films I’ve ever seen. I practically dare you to name one element from another movie from which you can say something from this movie borrowed. Everything—from its premise to its protagonist to its screenplay—feels like you hadn’t seen it before. It takes the scheme-gone-wrong thriller element and provides it with fresh twists in its story and its characters. Crafted by the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen), “Fargo” is a masterpiece—an amazing, well thought-out film that was absorbing and original from beginning to end.

You could say that the minds of both Coen brothers are unusual and somewhat twisted, compared to most filmmakers, but there’s no denying that they have a great deal of ambition that comes through with their scripts. “Fargo” represents all of their trademarks, taken up a notch—quirky humor, dim-witted characters, visual knack, and more.

The film even uses a stylish device as an inside-joke, saying it’s based on a true story when it’s not. There’s an opening caption stating that events similar to those in 1987 were the inspiration for this story, and the characters’ names have been changed. Reportedly, it turned out not to be true and just a sly joke at the concept.

The story begins in Fargo, North Dakota, as a Minnesota car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) meets two thugs, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Jerry has a bizarre, absurd plan for these two to put in motion for him—to kidnap his own wife in his Minnesota hometown and hold her for a ransom of 80 grand. He plans to have his father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell), pay the ransom so that Jerry can receive about 50-percent of it. It seems like a foolproof plan to him—he gives them a car and a plan and simply waits it out. But what he didn’t rely on was the notion that Carl and Geaer are not very good at what they do; in fact, they’re actually lousy, pathetic crooks. They do kidnap Jerry’s wife, all right, but then while driving through Brainerd, Minnesota, they wind up killing a state trooper and two witnesses to the crime.

That’s the first 30 minutes of “Fargo” and believe it or not, that’s just the prologue. We are then met with our true protagonist, a pregnant cop named Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Marge is a grinning individual who lives a good life with what she has—a good husband (John Carroll Lynch) and a nice outlook on life, in that it’s the little things that bring her pleasure. She goes to investigate the murders, as she questions those who may have seen the two killers and takes lead upon lead until she is led to the truth.

Meanwhile, things only get worse for Jerry and the two thugs. Jerry’s kidnapped wife is hysterical and shrieking throughout to the point where her constant freakouts amuse the two. They are obviously having fun doing this, which brings a creepy, sardonic edge to the situation. And as Marge is soon enough led to Jerry, Jerry fully understands that his stupid plan has gotten way out of control, and unless he can do something about it, he’s going to be in big trouble.

The character of Marge is arguably the best thing about “Fargo.” This is just a fantastic, wonderful character to follow. She’s a police chief in Brainerd who happens to be seven months pregnant, and maintains a chipper attitude as well as a heavy Minnesotan accent (her “yeah’s” sound like “ya’s”). She’s very smart, very bright, and able to reconstruct certain events in the investigative situation she’s called to solve. Even if she knows someone is lying to her, she’ll still maintain her cheerful attitude with a smile, knowing something new will come from this eventually. And at the end, you realize she is the character in “Fargo” with the most control and the most ideal outlook on life. She doesn’t focus on just money for happiness; she knows the little things in life are worth having. Everyone else either wants something big, like money for instance, so desperately that all it does is bring them to hell. Marge is the one that stands tall among the rest. I loved watching this character work throughout this film, and Frances McDormand did a wonderful job at portraying her.

William H. Macy is also fantastic as Jerry Lundegaard. His fear and frustration that comes through as the character realizes his big mistakes in hiring the wrong people (and starting the idea in the first place) comes through with a great performance. Steve Bucsemi is wonderfully talkative as the beyond-sly Carl, while Geaer Grimsrud is very droll as the tougher, and bloodier, companion. They’re surprisingly three-dimensional psychotics—pathetic but not willing to admit it yet, if ever.

There are many moments in “Fargo” that create comedy from views on human nature. For example, there’s a scene in which the two thugs have sex with hookers in a sped-up one-shot that immediately cuts to them all in bed together watching “The Tonight Show.” There’s also the behavior of the cops, particularly Marge’s dim-witted male partner who doesn’t understand that the “DLR” on license plates means that they’re “dealer plates.” (I love it when Marge states, “I’m not sure I agree with ya a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.”) Other moments like that provide effective comic relief. There is one scene that comes out of nowhere (actually, I should probably rephrase that because every scene seems to come out of nowhere in order to keep it all going). It involves Marge meeting up and having dinner with a high-school classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). She is simply there to have dinner with an old friend, while he obviously has something else in mind. After the dinner, she learns from another high-school friend (a woman) that Mike has lied about everything to her in order to get closer to her. At first, I didn’t see the purpose in this scene, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it made sense. You see, this is sandwiched between Marge’s two meetings with Jerry. In the first meeting, Marge was unsure of Jerry’s story, but this encounter with Mike served as a sort-of wakeup call for her. This then leads her back to Jerry’s office, where she is determined to find some true answers—and this is the interview that Jerry just can’t take anymore.

“Fargo” is built upon originality and is a true delight that way. It’s well-made, well-acted, well-executed, and just so incredibly detailed without ever getting boring or clichéd. This is a wonderful movie that truly highlights the amazing talent of the filmmaking Coen brothers.

Eye for an Eye (1996)

15 May

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Eye for an Eye” is a confused movie that doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be. Is it a film that tells us vigilantism is bad, or is it a film that shows the necessaries of such? It’s about a woman whose teenager daughter is raped and murdered, and seeks bloody revenge on the man who did it. She gets ahold of a gun, practices shooting targets every day for weeks, gains assistance from other secret vigilantes, and even follows the guy around from place to place.

This is of course still going after the man calls the mother on it and threatens her other, much-younger daughter if she’s seen near him again. But for her, it won’t end. Well OK fine, but what about the police? When the same man rapes and murders another woman, they’re still not able to lock him up, even though they clearly know he’s a killer as much as we do. Give me a break.

Early in the movie, the mother, Karen McCann (Sally Field), has heard her daughter’s attack and murder over the telephone as the daughter tried to call for help. And I have to admit, this is a pretty effectively horrifying scene—that we focus more on Field’s face makes the scene work well, as she does sell it with the proper emotions. That we don’t see the killer’s face in the cutting-back to the attack helps too.

But it’s pretty obvious very quickly who the killer is, as the film never lets us forget that a suspect, a deliveryman named Doob (Kiefer Sutherland), is not merely a suspect, but the true killer. He is vile, mean, cruel, nasty, doesn’t care for anything, and even kicks dogs. And yet even though a supposed-smart cop (Joe Mantegna) knows that he’s clearly the killer, and I’m sure most of the force knows this too, Doob is let off because of lack of evidence. So he’s free to find another woman to stalk and eventually kill, just as Karen is planning to do the same thing to Doob.

Karen joins a support group for parents who lost their children to murderers (and their motto is “You show me your heartbreak and I’ll show you mine”), where she is then introduced to a few members who take it upon themselves to bring justice to those who did their children in. So that’s exactly what she decides to do. But when Doob realizes that he’s being followed by her, he advances toward Karen’s youngest daughter, Megan.

Get this—he’s actually able to walk onto the school playground and join Megan in a playhouse for mud pies. Where are the teachers on duty during this? Does it matter? “Eye for an Eye” is simply an exploitation film and this scene clearly shows you where it stands. It also sets the standards for how deplorable the film is.

The tone for “Eye for an Eye” is inconsistent. First, it wants us to question whether the characters are what we’re supposed to think of them, while what follows are scenes that clearly show the opposite of what we’re supposed to think and feel. And it’s painfully obvious that Doob, with no human or redeemable qualities whatsoever, is simply there for us to hate him. Why try to fool us into thinking otherwise at certain points? He’s clearly the killer here. But it doesn’t matter anymore, since the movie, I guess, tries to “fool” us by ultimately showing another murder committed by him.

Oh, and how about those quirky, lighthearted, comedic moments that come out of nowhere? For example, Karen thinks someone is following her in a parking garage, so she defends herself only to discover that it’s just a man walking to his car. And do I even need to mention the scene in which she has powerful sex with her husband (Ed Harris) after developing new skills?

Here’s a shock—the ending for “Eye for an Eye” is so rushed and so much of a copout that you just have to wonder if the writers had no idea where this story was going, and just decided to give it the conclusion we all knew was inevitable. Well thanks a lot. We waited an hour-and-a-half to get to what we expected all this time with nothing at all to back it up. I should be grateful that it finally just went ahead and ended, but I am past the point where I even care, after what I’ve been through to get to this point. On top of that, morality is thrown right out the window. There’s hardly a resolution, and yet we’ve spent a great amount of running time watching a movie that thinks it’s questioning certain morals and ethics. And this is supposed to be a happy ending. In some respects, it sort of is, but why would they execute it in this manner?

Not even a solid cast with Sally Field, Kiefer Sutherland, and Ed Harris could save “Eye for an Eye.” They’re let down by bad writing and deplorable nonsense. Here’s hardly a sense of moral values, you don’t much for this family’s plight since it’s merely glanced over in the first reel, and it seems like it’s more interested in cheap thrills than telling a complex story. “Eye for an Eye” is a horrible movie.

Twister (1996)

14 May

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Twister” is one of those movies that inspire the question, “When you really get down to it, what’s the point?” This is a blockbuster that just feels like an excuse to showcase some high-quality special effects, and market the hell out of them so that the film will become a hit at the box-office. That’s it—that’s the main purpose I think was in mind when “Twister” was greenlit. This isn’t a disaster movie by most means. The characters aren’t in danger (for the most part, anyway); they’re just scientists studying the “mystery” of tornadoes and racing to get a machine inside one. There’s a romance in an attempt to try and tell some sort of human-interest story, but it just feels like filler until the next tornado effect arrives. And there’s a villain because…Lord knows a massive twister isn’t enough?

Now, to be fair, this is disposable entertainment. It’s energetic enough. The actors are game for the material. And yes, the effects are first-rate. This is a terrific film to look at and admire the technique. The tornadoes look incredible—they’re huge, loud, forceful, fierce, and amazing. And there’s even some room for special effects as humor, such as when a cow is sucked away by the tornado and the characters think another has passed when it’s actually the same one.

It’s obvious that “Twister” doesn’t care much for character, dialogue, or such to make for dramatic situations. And I wouldn’t mind so much, except that I didn’t really find it as witty or as energetic as it would like me to see it as, and thus I ask the question of what’s the point?

OK, fine. I know the point by now. It’s all about showcasing the new effects at the time.

The plot, such as it is, involves a team of tornado chasers, led by Jo (Helen Hunt). She is obsessed finding out the secret of the phenomenon ever since a twister took her father away years ago. Her team’s mission is to try out “Dorothy,” a machine designed to deliver data from inside the vortex. And thankfully, this is the time of one of the big series of storms, so they have to follow tornado among tornado until they reach “the finger of God.” Accompanying her is her ex-husband, Bill (Bill Paxton), and accompanying him is his fiancée, Melissa (Jami Gertz). The rest of the team is mostly forgettable, except for a zany comic relief played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Like I said, there is a villain here because apparently, Mother Nature isn’t enough of a villain here. So we have the slick, slimy Jonas (Cary Elwes), a rival scientist who has his own version of “Dorothy” to attempt with his own team. And yes, this means both tornado-chaser groups are competing against each other, trying to get to each storm first. It’s like tornado-hunting is an aggressive sport now or something.

“Superfluous” is not merely the right word to describe the character of Jonas. He’s not only unnecessary; he’s just annoying. (Cary Elwes’ *bleep*-eating grin and hokey Southern accent doesn’t help much either.) Apparently, Jonas used to be part of Jo and Bill’s team until he went solo and got corporate. Insert product-plug here, I guess.

The plot is completely artificial. Also superfluous is the subplot involving the rebuilding relationship between Jo and Bill. You can easily tell from their first meeting in this movie that they’re going to be back together and Melissa will get the shaft (though not the vortex, thankfully). They banter, they share moments, they catch up on certain topics of conversation, etc. Even though Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt are appealing performers, they’re not able to keep this subplot interesting enough. And Melissa is pretty much just a plot device to keep it going, unfortunately.

Mainly, “Twister” is disposable entertainment that you get into for the effects or don’t get into because there isn’t much else. I don’t hate this movie—the effects are fantastic and there are some effective moments of action and tension. But if it didn’t need a substantial plot, it at least needed enough wit to win me over and keep me invested. It didn’t, so I guess it didn’t work for me because of that. It’s not something I’ll be watching again anytime soon.

A Time to Kill (1996)

14 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I review “A Time to Kill,” I want to state a regular “blog-thought” (if you will). With “A Time to Kill” the next John Grisham film adaptation after “The Client,” I have to wonder—do director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman truly get John Grisham? Or are John Grisham’s novels able to give these otherwise-mediocre-at-best artists the outer limits of material for them to use effectively? I like both “The Client” and “A Time to Kill”—they’re very good adaptations. I dislike more of Schumacher’s and Goldsman’s work separately—with Schumacher, there’s “Batman & Robin,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” among others; with Goldsman, it’s also “Batman & Robin,” as well as “Lost in Space.” But “The Client” and “A Time to Kill,” it’s hard to deny that there is expert direction and good writing within both of them, to me anyway. So I don’t know, maybe they’re better at doing adaptations; maybe Grisham is better suited for them; I don’t know. But there is proof of talent here, in my opinion.

I could do a whole blog entry that isn’t merely a review, going into analysis on why I think “The Client” and “A Time to Kill” work. But for now, I need to review “A Time to Kill,” which is one of the best film adaptations from a John Grisham novel.

“A Time to Kill” is a compelling story with one of the most complicated scenarios that lead to the surface of morality tale. It includes racial tension, deceit, violence, and the hopes for a fair trial. It all begins as a ten-year-old black girl is brutally raped and beaten by two drunken rednecks in a small backwater Mississippi town. The two men are arrested, but the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), is unsure of what to do. Should he trust the justice system to give them the punishment they deserve, or should he take immediate action now, thinking they’ll get off scot-free? He shares his intentions to an old friend, a local, white, up-and-coming lawyer named Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), who doesn’t quite believe that Carl Lee will murder the two men. But then the next day, Carl Lee does show up with a shotgun, killing both men and severely injuring a cop in the process. Now on trial for murder, Carl Lee chooses Jake as his attorney, his logic being he thinks like a jury would and thus would be an ideal “secret weapon.” The main question here is whether or not a black man can receive a fair trial after murdering two white men, for what they did to his daughter, especially in this time in the South. So Jake, along with his old mentor (Donald Sutherland), a divorce specialist (Oliver Platt), and an energetic (and unpaid) assistant, Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), Jake prepares to go up against the local DA (Kevin Spacey) and help Carl Lee.

There are numerous subplots in “A Time to Kill” that bring the film to just barely pass the two-hour-thirty-minute mark. While some of these work in serving the plot, like the scenes involving the NAACP’s legal defense representatives (led by Joe Seneca) and the plight of Jake’s wife (Ashley Judd) and daughter who are now facing threats because of the case. And there’s also developing the relationship between Jake and Roark so they’ll work together—she offers to help, he gently turns her down repeatedly, she then delivers some helpful leads, and he brings her onboard as an unpaid aide. I’m glad these two don’t develop a romance together; their relationship is purely platonic and work-related. But the one subplot that I’m still quite unsure about, and it is an important one, is the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, led by the brothers of the two men killed by Carl Lee. They threaten the lives of Jake, his family, and his friends. Making the Klan into villainous thugs in this film is prominent, but it feels like it’s going way too far to get the story’s point across. I can’t help but think that the film would be just as effective if a smaller, more moderate group in this small town would represent the “prejudice” roles. I don’t know, but to me, the Klan subplot seems like a bit much.

One subplot I missed was the plight involving Carl Lee’s family. We hardly ever see them after the half-hour mark, and I was wondering how they were reacting to this situation. What is Carl Lee’s wife going through? How is his daughter holding up? What about his other kids? Now that I think about it, with most screen time devoted to white characters (with the exception of Charles S. Dutton as the town sheriff, who is black), are the black characters just here to serve as atmosphere fuel?

John Grisham obviously specializes in characterization in relation to court cases, and “A Time to Kill” is no exception. And the way Joel Schumacher sees it is in great respect to the novel in that it doesn’t go for cheap tricks or insane plot twists to keep the audience invested. There are a few twists, but nothing bizarre. Mainly we just have this controversial trial that searches for answers to the question of whether or not Carl Lee can get a good jury and a fair trial, given what he did. In the end, there is no clear answer. I’m not even sure there can be a clear answer.

The acting in “A Time to Kill” is top-notch. Samuel L. Jackson is excellent as Carl Lee, with a great mix of grief and anger. Sandra Bullock does some of her most appealing acting as Ellen Roark. Kevin Spacey is suitably slimy as the DA, Ashley Judd is convincingly frightened as Jake’s wife, Charles S. Dutton is great as the no-nonsense sheriff, and Donald Sutherland and Oliver Platt deliver strong support as well as comic relief. But what it really comes down to is the performance of Matthew McConaughey as the hero, Jake Brigance. McConaughey is great in this role—he exhibits a powerful presence with his charisma and intensity.

It’s easy to predict the verdict at the end of the story, but “A Time to Kill” is more concerned about how it happens. It produces a good, solid story arc for Jake as he starts out as a rookie lawyer, uses professional tactics to show up the DA, and when all else fails, in a powerful speech near the end, he plays the trial with pure emotion and has the jury truly think about Carl Lee’s situation as if it were happening to them. There’s more to it, but I won’t go into it for the sake of this review. “A Time to Kill” is well-made, powerfully-acted, involving, and thought-provoking. I kind of wish Schumacher and Goldsman made more Grisham adaptations after this.

The Crucible (1996)

22 Apr

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NOTE (from 2019): I wrote this review 10 years ago, when I was 16…obviously, I didn’t get it. I did revisit the film recently–it’s better than I remember it…though I’m still not quite sure I’d recommend it.

Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve read the original play “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller for English class in the eleventh grade. Maybe it was just my sixteen-year-old mind, but I didn’t find it riveting or powerful at all. I just found it dull with unbelievable characters and a dreadfully confusing storyline. (OK, I didn’t say that, but you get the idea.) So why should the film adaptation of “The Crucible” be any different? It’s an obnoxious, dull experience that didn’t move me in any way.

It starts to go wrong at the first scene. The setting is Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, the year of the Salem Witch Trials. So with the guidance of women in Salem, how in the world did they get out of their homes unnoticed to share a ceremony in the woods in the middle of the night? This is a Puritan society and these women dance naked together around a fire. The scene is mentioned in the play, but put offstage. That was a wise decision. It made us ask if what they were talking about was true. And since we see this scene early on, I was bored already.

And then the story develops, like the play, into a series of false accusations of witchcraft, religious hysteria, and sexual lust. The town minister’s niece Abigail (Winona Ryder) is accused by an ill little girl of practicing witchcraft, and soon, the whole town is in an uproar. At the center of the story is a good man named John Proctor (Daniel Day Lewis). When Abigail was his servant girl, he committed adultery with the wench. Soon after, Abigail was thrown out by John’s wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen) and she never lets John forget their moment. She is out to cause misery for this man and John regrets their affair. He would love saucy, little Abigail to go away.

And so would I. Winona Ryder is a good actress, but she doesn’t create a credible presence here at all. She is painfully miscast here. And sadly, so is Daniel Day Lewis, who looks like he would rather be somewhere else, and is not particularly compelling as the lead role.

Soon, a witchhunter—Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield)—is brought to town to judge the trials of witchcraft that just about everybody, including Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison, not believable here at all), believes to have been practiced by the midnight frolickers. But as these trials continue and evidence is disappearing, Danforth’s patience is tested. He wants someone to be punished, whether someone is guilty of witchcraft or not.

All of this leads to a climax that I didn’t buy at all because I knew which of the characters are guilty and innocent, and frankly, I didn’t really care. There are only two characters in this movie that I find credible, three of which are well-acted—Joan Allen as Elizabeth Proctor; Paul Scofield as Judge Danforth; and Karron Graves as Mary, one of the women suspected of using witchcraft. They do very well at remaining plausible in this improbable situation. The other characters are stiff, unbelievable, and annoying. How annoying? About 85% of dialogue in this movie is panicked shouting. I wanted to yell at the screen to the characters, “Shut up!” That’s how “The Crucible” worked for me. I never wanted to yell that to any other movie, even though there are much worse movies than this one.

Bio-Dome (1996)

22 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: Zero stars

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Obnoxious” is the word to describe “Bio-Dome.” Actually, I think the word “obnoxious” was invented specifically for “Bio-Dome.” Other words that come to mind are ugly, stupid, unfunny, lack of charm, unappealing, and dumb. It is possible to make a movie about two likable lunkheads (examples are the Wayne’s World movies and the Bill and Ted movies), but with “Bio-Dome,” I wanted its star lunkhead duo to get shot.

These two dorks are Bud and Doyle, played by Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin. Here are two of the most annoying movie characters ever to hit the screen. They’re dumb and obnoxious and SOMEHOW live in a nice house together and have attractive girlfriends. Their girlfriends are tree-huggers who want the boys to join them in cleaning up waste near a lake. The boys would rather hit each other in the heads with books.

Meanwhile a team of environmentalists is planning on being hermetically sealed within the Bio-Dome, an environmental facility that will close them in for one year. Bud and Doyle wind up locked in with them and shenanigans ensue, not one single one of them funny.

The joke, I think, is that these two are so disrespectful towards nature and make life in the Bio-Dome miserable for the scientists. But worse yet, they make us miserable, trying to be funny but just falling flat on their faces (sometimes literally). I have to ask—did any of the filmmakers or the actors find any of them funny? Apparently they thought one joke of theirs was funny and expanded it to make this piece of trash. And the joke is…I’m repeating myself here, NOT FUNNY!

Pauly Shore was just starting to gain critics’ attention in the movie “In the Army Now.” Before then, he was just as obnoxious as fingernails scratching along a long blackboard. Now he’s at top obnoxious mode as Bud in “Bio-Dome.” This character is so obnoxious, so unwatchable, that I wanted to punch a hole in the screen to let off some steam. And Stephen Baldwin is not much better as Doyle. I hear he’s the brother of Alec; I can almost hear Alec mocking him.

Nothing in this movie is redeemable. I feel sorry for anybody who could possibly find anything that’s thrown at the screen the slightest bit funny. “Bio-Dome” is an obnoxious piece of trash that needs to be taken out.

And compacted.

Scream (1996)

7 Apr

Drew Barrymore in Wes Craven's "Scream"

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When asked why she doesn’t like “scary movies,” teenage Sidney Prescott’s answer is blatant: “What’s the point? They’re all the same—it’s always some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who’s always running up the stairs when she could be going out the front door.” And surely enough, she herself is attacked by a serial killer and does attempt the front door to escape, but whoops! The door chain is difficult to get rid of in a hurry! So what does she do in desperation? Run up the stairs, of course.

That’s only one of many clever moments in “Scream,” a horror movie in which the characters have actually seen other horror movies. It’s a satire of the genre that does what all great satires do to succeed—it contains self-referential humor to gain the comic aspect it’s going for, but it also actually becomes what it’s supposed to be satirizing so that it balances out. As a result, there are as many scares in “Scream” as there are laughs, thanks to a clever, witty screenplay by Kevin Williamson, and nifty direction by Wes Craven who clearly has a true affection for the horror genre.

The film begins with a 12-minute prologue featuring teenage blonde Casey (Drew Barrymore) alone in a big house, preparing to watch a horror movie on TV when her boyfriend arrives. But she gets a mysterious phone call, asking what her favorite scary movie is; Casey plays along, thinking it’s a prank, and they talk for a while. What’s her favorite scary movie? “Halloween—you know, the one with the guy in the white mask who walks around and stalks babysitters.” But then things turn dark when Casey realizes that the person he’s talking to can see her, and as she tries to get him to quit calling her, he realizes that his intentions are deadly. He tells her to play his movie-trivia game in order to live—“Name the killer in ‘Friday the 13th.’” Of course, she gets it wrong (“Jason didn’t show up until the sequel,” the phone voice reminds her), and she and her boyfriend are murdered by someone sporting a Grim Reaper costume (white mask and black rope) and a knife.

Right there, you see how all out “Scream” goes. This prologue is all characterization, dark wit, suspense and ultimately a double-murder, so that we’re on edge for the rest of the film while sticking around to see what else is going to be thrown at us.

It turns out that was just the beginning, as our focus switches to the killer’s real target, a troubled high school girl named Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) whose mother was raped and killed exactly one year earlier. Now it seems like the killer is still out there, assuming the accused man was framed in the first place, and is out to kill Sidney just one year since that tragic incident. And if this is sounding at all like the plot for a horror film, it is the plot for a horror film, as the killer who menacingly stalks and calls his victims is seemingly creating a real-life horror movie of his own.

There are many refreshing aspects of “Scream,” and one of them is the whodunit element. The characters are all developed in a way that A) you actually care for who lives and who dies, and B) it really is hard to tell who the killer is. It could be this person; it could be that. The movie keeps you guessing. When the ultimate resolution comes, it’s actually pretty satisfying.

Among these characters are aggressive news reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) who is covering the story and will do anything to get what she wants; Sidney’s boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), who is the first person accused of being the killer; police deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette), who isn’t taken seriously because of his young age; Stu (Matthew Lillard), the high school’s goofball; and Sidney’s friend Tatum (Rose McGowan), the one character you want to see get slaughtered fast (she’s too cold to be likeable; even Gale manages to gain more sympathy than her). My favorite was video-clerk Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), the resident teenage movie buff who describes everything occurring as standard horror-movie stuff. He’s the one who knows the score on this horror film within a horror film (if you will). Some of the best scenes are ones in which he tries to explain the “very simple formula” of it all, and also there’s the scene in which he explains the basic rules of surviving a horror movie—don’t have sex, don’t drink or do drugs, don’t say “who’s there,” don’t investigate a strange noise outside, and never, ever say “I’ll be right back.” One of the most inventive moments of parody comes when Randy, alone in a house watching “Halloween,” is yelling at the screen, “Look behind you!” As he’s saying this, what he doesn’t realize is that the killer is sneaking up on him from behind.

I love the numerous movie references that are scattered throughout; particularly, fans of the horror genre would love to hear these characters talk about their favorite films. We have “Halloween” (of which footage is shown in similarity with what happens in the actual story), “Psycho” (“Did Norman Bates have a motive?”), “Prom Night,” and even director Craven’s own “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (“The first one was scary, but the rest sucked,” one character notes), among many others. Craven even manages to take a shot at his own status, having one of the characters call him “Wes Carpenter” (it’s said that some people confuse him with John Carpenter of “Halloween”).

What makes “Scream” an entertaining horror movie is that the characters themselves have seen horror movies. They know better than to make the same stupid mistakes that the standard stereotypes in the genre make; instead, they make new stupid mistakes so that the plot can keep going, and the killer can be satisfied with the way his sick, demented plan comes into place. Everything comes together in the final act, in which everything is revealed and there is still a good deal of clever moments; I won’t give it away, but the notions the revealed killer bring up are effectively creepy and clever in the way that he knows that they too belong in a horror movie.

“Scream” is a treasure in the horror-film genre. I liked the setup, I liked the self-aware characters, I love the clever wit that is scattered throughout with horror-film in-jokes and self-parody, and while it may be violent, it needed to be in order to make itself known as a legit horror movie and not just a spoof that seems “fake.” Thanks to Craven’s apparent love for the genre, and a crafty script by Kevin Williamson, this is a neat horror movie that even those who aren’t as fond of the genre might have a good time watching.