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Batman and Robin (1997)

14 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

14 May

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Of all the boring, deplorable slasher-movies to resurface in the mid-1990s, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” at least has an advantage of having an interesting story. (In fact, it sounds more interesting than it actually is.) Here’s the setup: four young friends celebrate the 4th of July when they get into an accident. That night, they accidentally hit a man on a dark highway with their car, and kill him. Unwilling to face manslaughter charges, they decide to take the body and dump it off a pier and into the sea, and never speak of it again. Exactly one year later, they’re reunited in their hometown when they receive notes that say “I know what you did last summer” and are stalked by a mysterious figure. Who is it? Was it someone who saw what they did that night? is it the same person, revealed not to be dead? Is it one of his relatives or friends? One thing is for sure—whoever it is wants to pay them back.

That sounds like a good idea, and you can develop dramatic tension with that premise, as well as suspense. For example, the guilt that these four people feel since that accident must be a huge amount of such, and that it drifted them apart makes it more complex. And there is a character—the victim’s sister—that is probably the most interesting person in the movie. She’s a recluse who lives alone in a country house and apparently has not fully come to grips with her brother’s death.

I wish the movie had been more about her. It would have been more interesting than how it is now, because as it is now, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” is just a bore. It’s a typical slasher movie. The characters are not developed in a way that you care for who lives and who dies. The situations are laughably bad. And the killer in this movie is a fisherman with a slicker, hat, and hook (in a fishing town it’s said that a lot of people wear slickers, but in the middle of summer, I don’t think so). There’s more to do with setups and slashings than much else, story-wise. The large-breasted heroine screams at the most inopportune moments, especially in the climax. And it ends with a particularly uninteresting twist that didn’t make a lot of sense to me (though to be fair, that’s probably because it was a weak twist to begin with).

What else can be said about a film like this? It’s just a dumb, insipid slasher-movie with hardly anything to offer, except a subplot involving that character I mentioned above. She’s played by Anne Heche and she does give a solid performance. I want to know her story. Better yet, I’d like to rewrite the entire screenplay so that this admittedly-interesting story can be delivered in a much more involving way than it is now. I guess I give actors Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Ryan Philippe credit for trying to make something out of their lazily developed characters, but they needed better material to work with here.

Good Burger (1997)

20 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Good Burger” is more targeted for the young Nickelodeon crowd than the cynical adults and teenagers who would rather be watching something like “Austin Powers” for their lighthearted entertainment. Though, to be fair, I wouldn’t mind anyone enjoying this film, despite my negative review. It’s like this—I can’t recommend the movie to anyone over the age of 11 or 12, but I can see why it can be entertaining even for them. It’s likeable, good-natured, at times pretty funny, and entertaining. However, it’s also sporadically funny, occasionally stupid, at (some) times mean-spirited, and thus making it inconsistently entertaining.

“Good Burger” is based on the popular sketch on the Nickelodeon comedy series “All That,” though even those who aren’t affiliated with the sketch will catch on quick (there’s nothing too important to remember that isn’t caught up with in the movie). It stars Kel Mitchell as Ed, an unbelievably dim-witted counter guy working at Good Burger, a small-town fast food joint employed with as much diversity as possible—including a vegetarian; an aging old man (Abe Vigoda); and a large weirdo named Spatch (Ron Lester) who swats a fly on his forehead with a spatula and then eats it. And apparently, Ed is the only one who can work the cash register, as we see in an opening scene, Ed is late and everyone else is calling for him.

Good Burger has some serious competition right across the street—the exaggeratedly huge Mondo Burger, managed by neo-Nazi Kurt (Jan Schwieterman), who plans to take Good Burger down by selling more burgers. (These burgers, I might add, are also ridiculously large. It even weighs Spatch’s spatula down.)

Kenan Thompson (Kel Mitchell’s partner-in-crime on Nickelodeon’s “Kenan and Kel”) plays Dexter Reed, a teenage slacker who is looking forward to spending summer vacation without the annoyance of a summer job. But bad luck occurs when Dexter winds up hitting the car of his teacher Mr. Wheat (Sinbad, portraying a Shaft wannabe—by the way, I love the part where he spins briefly to the tune of “Shaft”), even without a license and borrowing his mom’s car. Dexter needs money to pay for the car, and so he meets Ed, who gives him the job of Good Burger’s delivery boy.

With Mondo Burger becoming more popular every day, and Good Burger slowly going out of business, Dexter comes up with the idea to put upon their own burgers a special, delicious, secret sauce, invented by Ed. Ed’s sauce becomes a big hit, which of course makes Good Burger Kurt’s personal enemy.

“Good Burger” is not for everybody, simply because it’s mostly a kid movie. There are so many contrivances that only the Nickelodeon crowd will appreciate—a bizarre opening-credit sequence in which Ed unwittingly causes mayhem on his way to work (a baby and a basketball are switched at one point); the slapstick-induced sequence in which a sexy Mondo Burger spy named Roxanne attempts to seduce Ed, which ends painfully; and let’s not forget the whole deal late in the film about how Kurt has Ed and Dexter committed to an insane asylum, from which they must escape via stolen ice cream truck, as the bad guys give chase. This movie is all over the map.

Oh, and there’s also an attempt to have a genuine moment, involving a backstory about Dexter’s late father. How can you take this scene seriously when it’s clumsily fitted into a movie with a scene such as the one where Ed shoves grapes in his nostrils and constantly chants, “Bloobity bloobity bloobity”?

But there are some things I do like about it. Foremost is Kel Mitchell as Ed. While a lot of the script’s jokes aren’t very funny on paper, Mitchell’s delivery of them is just priceless. Mitchell portrays Ed as just so dumb, but does playfully so that it’s hard not to like him. Kel Mitchell is the real reason to check out “Good Burger.” He is immensely funny and likeable.

Here’s an example of Ed’s behavior—he’s asked what would look great on a corndog, to which he responds, “A turtleneck?” And also, whenever the shake machine is broken, he actually gets inside it to fix it and emerges in pink goop. My favorite moment, though, is at the end, when we see just how amazingly bright Ed is when he has to be.

Kenan Thompson, as straight-man to Ed’s antics, is an effective foil—first, Dexter is confused by Ed’s behavior, then he’s annoyed quickly, then he decides to take advantage of him so that he gets most of the money Ed makes for his sauce (Ed is oblivious to this, of course), and then he decides to tolerate him, as they both set out to see exactly what Mondo Burger is up to with their food (is Mondo Burger using illegal food additives?). And Thompson has a few funny moments as well, particularly when he’s stammering while coming up with the right thing to say in certain situations. And there’s also a sweet romantic subplot involving him and a co-worker named Monique (Shar Jackson), who dates him because of how Ed takes to him as a buddy. (“Whomever he likes can’t be all that bad,” she admits.)

I can’t necessarily recommend “Good Burger,” but I do give the filmmakers (particularly director Brian Robbins and co-writers Kevin Kopelow, Heath Seifert, and Dan Schneider—the third one portrays Good Burger’s manager) credit for the film’s good nature and I have to admit that I find myself going back to the film every now and then to see the parts that I like. Maybe I could recommend the film just for myself. But then again, I started watching this movie when I was a little kid, obsessed with Nickelodeon. Maybe you could call it nostalgia. But I don’t know. There are some movies out there that I loved when I was a kid that have not held up at all now (like “Angels in the Outfield,” for example), so what does that say?

I don’t know, but I’m giving “Good Burger” a negative review, but also an affectionate review.

Scream 2 (1997)

14 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Just as the terrific Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson horror film “Scream” featured characters who had seen other horror films and knew the basic formula, its sequel “Scream 2” not only brings back the survivors of the original film’s killings but also features characters who have seen a movie that was based on those killings (the title of that movie is “Stab”). Now they all trapped in another slasher nightmare in which a killer is out to make a real-life sequel.

This leads to two intriguing conversations about sequels. One takes place in a college film-class the day after the first murder has been committed, at the “Stab” premiere screening. The teacher argues that the movie influenced the murder, one student states that movies aren’t responsible for people’s actions (and indeed, if you recall in the first film, “Movies don’t create psychos—movies make psychos more creative!”), and another, film-buff Mickey (Timothy Olyphant), describes it as a “classic case of life-imitating-art-imitating-life.” Is it possible someone’s out to make an actual sequel to “Stab,” which was based on true-life slashings? “Stab 2?” actual-survivor Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) asks. “Who’d want to do that? Sequels suck.” Of course he forgets about “The Godfather Part II.”

The other discussion occurs midway through the movie, as it turns out someone really is making a “sequel” to the original murders, as the body count continues to increase. Randy and visiting survivor, police deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette), discuss “rules of the sequels”—the body count is always higher and deaths are bloodier (“carnage candy”). Who could be the killer? Whomever it is is already in their lives, so who can be trusted before they can they start to turn on each other? (Of course, they don’t—“If I’m a suspect, you’re a suspect.” “Good point; let’s move on.”)

“Scream 2” deserves credit for knowing that it’s an attempt to cash in on the success of the original “Scream” because that’s exactly what the killer of this “story” is attempting to do: increase the terror brought upon by the release of “Stab.” Not many sequels are as good as their predecessors, but “Scream 2” is about as good—it maintains the effective mix of scares and laughs in Kevin Williamson’s screenplay. (And if a scene needed to be scary, Williamson reportedly added in his script, “Wes Craven will make it scary.” A sad yet accurate distinction.)

Yes, there is a new slasher sporting the same black cloak and white-ghost mask, and he stalks a bunch of college freshmen, particularly Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the heroine from the first movie. Randy is her classmate, and is still as knowledgeable about horror films as he was in the first movie. Dewey has come to aid in campus security once he hears about the murders. And Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), the bitchy news reporter from the first film and who has written the best-selling novel based on the original killings, is here as well, along with a new cameraman (Duane Martin) after her original cameraman…well, never mind.

New characters include—Sidney’s dull, dim-witted, hunky new boyfriend Derek (Jerry O’Connell); the aforementioned Mickey (“the freaky Tarantino film student”); Hallie (Elise Neal), Sidney’s sassy roommate; Cici (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a sorority girl who may not last very long; and Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf), a reporter who rivals Gale for the inside scoop. Mainly suspected is Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), whom it turned out was wrongfully accused of the murder of Sidney’s mother two years ago. He wants his time to shine (fame for redemption) and practically stalks Sidney to help him out.

One of the strengths of the two “Scream” movies is that the characters are not cardboard cut-out caricatures just here to be killed off; they’re genuine characters that we come to care about. Even Gale, who can be beastly when she’s desperate for a story, shows signs of humanity so that she isn’t a one-dimensional snob. It’s hard not to care for these people.

The dialogue is still very smart the second time around—particularly engaging are the “sequel” discussions; a scene in which Gale’s African-American cameraman wants to bail (“I don’t want to be the news; brothers don’t last long in situations like this!”) while Gale attempts to calm him down; and in the prologue in which two black characters (played by Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps) discuss the lack of African-Americans in horror films.

I forgot to mention the prologue earlier—these two I just mentioned have come to the free premiere screening of “Stab” where so many horror-movie fans are excited and happy to be there, while also wearing the same killer costume that the actual killer wore. They’re all pumped and cheering in the murder scene of “Stab”…until they notice that Pinkett is at the front of the screen, having been stabbed by a real killer and dying and screaming in pain—that, of course, stops their cheer and laughter. That’s a very clever move; horror-movie fans want more violence and then they notice real-life violence and realize how wrong it was that they were cheering about.

And give Craven a lot of credit for openly parodying “Scream,” particularly when he gets to allow Robert Rodriguez to direct his own version of the Drew Barrymore shocker-opening from the original, and making that the opening scene for “Stab.” (The “Casey Becker” role is played by Heather Graham this time.) And there’s also a clip featuring Tori Spelling in the “Sidney Prescott” role that we see later on a TV. I wish there were more of those “Stab” scenes, and I also wish there could have been some acknowledgement that this horror film “Stab” has become exactly what “Scream” itself was lampooning.

The resolution of the killer’s identity is as effective here as it was in the original film. Actually, I think it’s even more thought-provoking. While it does have its wink at the audience (“Didn’t see it coming, did you?”), it also has a uniquely interesting argument about the killer that I wish I could give away in this review. But I wouldn’t dare ruin the surprise for you. Let me just say that the effect that young killers leave on certain people, especially those closest to them, leaves more a drastic impact than you might think.

Wes Craven really knows how to play with the horror genre, as much of an admirer of the genre as he is. With this, and also with “Scream” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” Craven can come up with enough clever ideas to make an entire TV miniseries dedicated to designing parallels between plot and reality. “Scream 2” allows him to take that notion for a sequel—if he had just taken it a step further, the movie would have been great. As it is, “Scream 2” is still pretty good.

George of the Jungle (1997)

23 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I wasn’t a fan of the original animated TV series “George of the Jungle.” In fact, I never saw it. All I know about it is its catchy theme song that goes “George—George—George of the Jungle.” But the show’s film adaptation of the same name “George of the Jungle” is so fresh and funny that I don’t think I want to watch the show. I should probably quit while I’m ahead.

One of the best things about the movie “George of the Jungle” is the casting of Brendan Fraser. He’s the type of guy who might be seen posing as Tarzan on a GQ magazine cover, but he’s also convincing as a doofus. He plays George, who was separated from his human family as a baby and raised by apes in the jungle. He has grown to manhood as king of the jungle. The running gag is that George loves to swing on vines, much like Tarzan, only he crashes into trees, even after someone warns him, “Watch out for that tree!”

Exploring his jungle is a young woman named Ursula (Leslie Mann) and her self-absorbed fiancé Lyle (Thomas Haden Church) as they hunt for a legendary White Ape (which is probably George). They are attacked by a lion, and when Lyle is knocked unconscious when running away, George comes to the aid of Lyle’s lovely fiancée in a very funny scene in which George fights with the lion. When I heard the boxing bell ring three times before the fight, I laughed and knew I was in for a treat. This scene is a real treat—George clotheslines the lion, spins it on his finger (“George not even trying hard”), and even body slams the animal. The way it’s handled is cartoonish, but very funny.

When George takes Ursula back to his tree house, he introduces her to his “brother”—a walking, talking, and even intelligent ape named Ape (voiced by John Cleese). Then he introduces her to the funniest creature in the movie. This is George’s “dog” Shep, who is really an elephant who thinks he’s a dog because George trained him to be a dog. When I saw this elephant run and bark over to George, I laughed and laughed and laughed and had trouble stopping. The scene gets even funnier when George plays fetch with Shep by throwing a huge log to where he can fetch it with his trunk.

“George of the Jungle” is full of good cheer and delivers with humor and charm. The charm of the film comes from the funny moments and also the love story that develops between George and Ursula. George has never seen a human female before so this attraction to her is all too new for him. It’s sweet the way their relationship becomes something more. And the movie really is funny. I love the elephant and the ape has more comic timing than the gorilla from “Congo” (you know, the gorilla trained to speak sign language and drink martinis). It’s also funny the way the script kids itself with the flimsy material. I love how the narrator kids with the characters and the storyline through most of the movie. Here’s an example:

NARRATOR: They reacted with awe. CHARACTERS: Awwwwwwww… NARRATOR: I said “awe.” A-W-E. CHARACTERS: Ooooohhhh… NARRATOR: That’s better.

The movie does start to head downhill when George is taken to Ursula’s jungle—the city of San Francisco. George has never seen anything outside the wildlife before so he attempts to fit in but of course it’s not easy. The whole episode of that concept is funny at first, kind of like a “Crocodile Dundee” situation, but then it starts to grow a little tedious and the energy doesn’t quite pick up until George is forced to go back into the jungle and rescue Ape from poachers.

“George of the Jungle” is alive and suitably silly. It has many funny gags and a lot of charm. Even if the whole “fish-out-of-water” subplot doesn’t exactly work, the rest of the film is still fun to watch.

Jungle 2 Jungle (1997)

14 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Jungle 2 Jungle” is the American remake of a notably terrible French comedy called “Little Indian, Big City,” and it should be noted that if you’re going to remake a movie, it’s probably best to remake a terrible one and make many adjustments for an improvement. While “Jungle 2 Jungle” isn’t necessarily a good movie, it does have its moments, which is more than I could say for the original film. This one is more mediocre than it is god-awful.

Tim Allen, the likable funnyman from TV’s “Home Improvement” (and fittingly enough, this movie is directed by John Pasquin, who has directed many episodes of that show), stars as…well, let’s face it—Tim Allen.

OK, his name is Michael Cromwell, but you’re never going to call him that.

He’s a stockbroker who wants to marry his materialistic girlfriend (poorly played by Lolita Davidovich). But in order to do so, he needs to finalize the divorce from his ex-wife Patricia (Jobeth Williams), who ran out on him thirteen years ago because he didn’t listen to her very much. Allen (er, Michael) is supposed to meet her at the airport in Venezuela, but is instead taken to a semi-Westernized Panari tribe in Canaima National Park, whom Patricia has been living with all this time. Upon arriving, Patricia reveals the news that Michael has a thirteen-year-old son named Mimi-Siku (Sam Huntington).

While staying with the tribe for a little while, Michael attempts to bond with his son after all these years of him not knowing about him. Mimi-Siku (whose name means “cat piss”—it was stupid in the original film and it’s as stupid in this remake) goes through a rite of passage that makes him a man (consider it the Panare equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah) and is given a task to go to New York City and bring back fire from the Statue of Liberty, which means Michael has to take him back to the city with him.

And thus, we have the comedic fish-out-of-water tale. Michael takes Mimi to the city, as Mimi has a hard time fitting in. He dresses the same as with the jungle tribe, shoots a bow and arrow at any pigeon that comes around, climbs alongside buildings at many stories up, scales the Statue of Liberty, and mistakes a lot of things for something else. He also has brought along his giant pet spider that attacks anyone who screams at it. (How Michael was talked into letting him bring that along is beyond me.) It traps the girlfriend in the bathroom because she can’t stop screaming at it and Mimi even sets it loose on his dad’s screaming boss.

And there’s also a dart blowgun that knocks people out instantly…how that got past airport security is beyond me. But it, along with the spider, is used for joke setups—only one of which I found kind of funny. I normally am not all for animal abuse, but the case of the girlfriend’s cat being hit by one of the darts and falling down like a rock got a laugh out of me.

With the exception of different locations (it’s New York City instead of Paris, France this time), the story is pretty much the same as the original. But certain aspects are deftly improved from the original—I laughed at a few good jokes, despite how predictable most of them were. And I surprisingly found myself invested in the family drama. Allen and the kid share a few good conversation scenes together, and there’s also a scene in which they’re dancing to street performers that I surprisingly enjoyed, despite its corniness.

What doesn’t work well is a whole subplot involving Allen and his partner, well-played by a nervously paranoid Martin Short, making deals (and misunderstandings) with the Russian Mafia, led by a cartoonish David Ogden Stiers. This leads to an uninspired climax in which they must fight them off when they take Short’s family hostage, after the Mafia thinks they’ve been cheated—the spider and blowgun come in handy here, of course.

Most of the comedy in “Jungle 2 Jungle” is more desperate than funny, particularly the slapstick humor (save for a few slight chuckles). And there are occasional repeats of the same joke, mostly involving the spider. They’re overused.

Also, I have to ask—with all these misunderstandings involving Mimi in the city, why is Michael the only one responsible for him, when Patricia should have come along to make sure he’s given the proper care? I guess it’s because she has to be with the tribe, but this is her 13-year-old son that’s going to a strange place. Sort out your priorities, lady.

“Jungle 2 Jungle” has a few good moments and has learned from the original’s mistakes in some certain ways, but the film is never as clever as we’d like it to be and fails in comparison to other fish-out-of-water stories; in fact, there were times when I was thinking that its main intention was to rip off “Crocodile Dundee.” This isn’t “Crocodile Dundee,” but I wish it wasn’t supposed to be.

Shiloh (1997)

9 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Shiloh” could be seen as a “boy-and-his-dog” story, but it’s actually more than that. This is actually a nicely-done coming-of-age story, based on the novel by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, about a young boy who would like a dog, but must learn life lessons like taking responsibility and growing up in order to prove that he deserves a dog.

It is also a terrific family film. It’s thoughtful, well-crafted, and avoids the types of lame, dumb formulas that most family films of the 1990s (or any decade, for that matter) seemed to think would work as high-quality family entertainment. And when you look at the family-film list for 1997, you notice what a lackluster year it was for the genre, with only very few gems such as “The Education of Little Tree,” “Fairytale: A True Story,” and “Shiloh” (arguably the best family film of ’97). These three family-oriented movies had one major thing in common—they were suitable for all ages, not just for kids. Adults can get as much out of it as children do. A lot of that has to do with quality character development and intelligence brought from the screenwriting.

“Shiloh” is about an eleven-year-old loner boy named Marty (played by Blake Heron), who lives in a small rural community in West Virginia with his family. It’s a lazy summer, and Marty is looking for odd jobs to do around town in order to pay for a bicycle. “Dad says if I want it, I gotta pay for it,” Marty says resentfully. While wandering around his home, he realizes he is followed by a beagle with a cut over its eye, and finds a kind of connection with the dog, even giving it the name of “Shiloh” after the name of the bridge where he found it. But it turns out that “Shiloh” is the new hunting dog of Judd Travers (Scott Wilson), an isolated hunter with an acid attitude. Marty’s dad (Michael Moriarty) has Marty do the right thing and return the dog to Judd, while Marty is reluctant about doing so because he believes Judd has mistreated poor Shiloh.

A few days later, Shiloh runs away again and finds Marty again. This time, Marty decides to keep Shiloh hidden from Judd and a secret from his parents. With help from his friend Samantha (J. Madison Wright), Marty fixes up an old shed nearby for the dog to live, and even sneaks away food for it.

Of course, this can’t be a secret forever, and Marty must figure out what to do about all dilemmas that follow. And “Shiloh” is surprisingly mature about its lessons and themes, and treats its subject matter wisely. This is especially true in the way that there are no easy answers or solutions to the problems presented here; it’s merely morals vs. ethics. Marty’s dad accuses Marty of lying and not doing the right thing, while Marty believes that if he does “do the right thing” and return the dog to Judd, he’ll beat it to near death. In that case, what is the right thing? Marty has already learned to take responsibility while caring for the dog at this point, and now he learns that if he really wants Shiloh, he has to fight for it. Somehow he must bargain with Judd, which is no small task, given how revolting he is.

This leads to what is also successful about “Shiloh”—its character development. Judd Travers, in particular, has his reasons for being nasty. A lot can be said about him in certain lines of dialogue—for example, when Judd finds that Marty has named his dog Shiloh, he chuckles and says, “I don’t name my dogs. When I want ‘em, I whistle. When I don’t want ‘em, I give ‘em a kick.” You can tell right there that Judd may have been treated the same way as a child, and it goes even further when Marty tells him that having a dog is like having a kid, and if you don’t treat it right, it’ll run away. Judd states he never ran away when he wasn’t being treated right—he mentions many welts on his back every now and then in his childhood.

The kid Marty does not have all the answers to everything and must learn as he goes along, making “Shiloh” an effective coming-of-age story about growing up and learning about property, honesty, and accountability. He protects the dog, not caring whose property it is, and lies to his parents, until his mom (Ann Dowd) discovers the secret of Shiloh, and Marty begs for her not to tell Dad because he believes he wouldn’t understand. While the mother doesn’t lie to her husband, she can’t stand to have her son’s heart broken if the dog is given back. She serves as the film’s sympathetic figure that appears the background when needed.

The father is not a one-dimensional overbearing individual. He’s a man of principle, is angry that his son lied to him, and believes that the dog should belong to its rightful owner. But at the same time, he understands Marty’s attachment to Shiloh and tries to find some ways to support him.

Among the characters, there’s also the town doctor (Rod Steiger) and his wife (Bonnie Bartlett), who manage to patch up the dog after it gets into a dogfight (thus revealing Marty’s secret, I forgot to mention) and give Marty some helpful advice about what he could do to keep it.

Everything comes together when Marty strikes a bargain with Judd only to discover, after days of doing manual labor for him, that he’s been stiffed. “All I had was your word,” Marty tells Judd. “Ain’t that worth somethin’ to ya?” Marty has learned his lesson of honesty, now knowing what his father felt like when he found out that he was lied to. And then there’s the main question of whether or not Marty will get the dog, and more importantly, whether or not he truly deserves the dog. And what will Judd ultimately do?

I have to admit; I haven’t seen “Shiloh” in quite a long while. I watched it just recently and wrote the review to see how it holds up. It turns out it really holds up. The themes are more realistically handled than I remember; the writing is very smart; and it’s a most pleasant surprise in the poorly-stated “boy-and-his-dog” film genre (oh, and did I mention this was released the same year as “Air Bud” too?). And of course, give credit to all the actors for giving credible performances. “Shiloh” is a lot better than I remember—it’s a great family film that I won’t forget anytime soon. If you (or your kids) haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Chasing Amy (1997)

3 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Kevin Smith is a great screenwriter—he doesn’t just write dialogue; he creates characters that actually have something interesting to say. His characters are quirky, three-dimensional, and fun and when they talk, it feels like regular everyday people talking. Even Smith realized this when he tried to create an action comedy with slapstick and special effects in his less-than-successful 1995 film “Mallrats.” In fact, he even calls himself a horrible director and actor, but a great writer. He’s better off writing—his direction is not special in a certain sense. But with his movies, we don’t really care because his direction lets the characters breathe and talk through his writing. He did it with his debut “Clerks,” a low-budget comedy, directed by him, with a fantastic script, written by him. Then when “Mallrats” was released, it was such a disappointment that during the screening for his next movie “Chasing Amy,” Kevin Smith even apologized for it. And in the end credits of “Chasing Amy,” this quote is used—“And to all the critics who hated our last flick—all is forgiven.”

“Chasing Amy” is linked with “Clerks” and “Mallrats” with some of the writer/director’s trademarks like pop culture references (discussions of “Star Wars”) and a touch of “Jaws” (in “Chasing Amy,” two characters discuss their scars…from what, I won’t give away). It also has raunchy and vulgar humor and here, it almost goes a little overboard with its frankness of sex. But I have to give credit for not wimping out during these discussions, especially when the main male character asks how the main female character, who is a lesbian, is able to have sex with women. Some people may laugh out loud—others may cringe. But there are many other big laughs, great surprises, and a heart that comes along in the midst of this story.

The premise of “Chasing Amy” may sound like another dumb sex comedy, but Smith handles it more intelligently than you could possibly imagine. Two comic book artists—laid-back Holden (Ben Affleck) and his brash roommate Banky (Jason Lee)—are signing autographs at Comic Con for their latest creation—a comic book about stoner superheroes called “Bluntman and Chronic.” They meet another comic book artist—a woman named Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams)—and Holden has a crush on her. But then he finds out that she’s a lesbian. But even though she’s gay, he falls in love with her and tries to have a loving relationship with her. This premise may sound confounded, but it’s handled so maturely that you have congratulate Smith for creating something so fresh.

I mentioned above that the characters are fun to watch and that they talk like regular people rather than characters—even though they are playing characters—and they do. Holden and Banky create comic books—what do I know about comics? Very little. But it’s great to listen to these guys talk about their work because that’s what they love doing. These characters are so well-developed. I loved the relationship that Holden and Banky have as great friends (although for Banky, it may be a little more). And then there’s the discussions Holden has with Alyssa (sometimes, Banky has his own conversations with her). This is the heart of the movie. Watching these two talk and relate to each other is great to watch and fun to listen to. These two have great chemistry together. But then there comes the more serious scenes which are even better. Holden tells Alyssa that he loves her in one scene and Alyssa doesn’t have a clue about how to respond. Is it possible for her to have second thoughts on her sexuality? Could Holden have a chance with her? One of the very best things about “Chasing Amy” is how unpredictable it is. If you can answer those questions right away, I bet you would be only close but with very little dice.

The script is full of wonderful dialogue. There’s a supporting character—a gay black man named Hooper (Dwight Ewell)—who has a whole speech about racism involved with the “Star Wars” trilogy and his own opinions on the sexuality of Archie and Jughead. And then there’s Jay and Silent Bob, returning from “Clerks” and “Mallrats” and played again by Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith himself, who has their own conversation with Holden. Once again, Jay is a foul loudmouth who can’t shut up. But here’s a surprise—Silent Bob finally opens up and gives his own speech about who the titular Amy was and why she was worth chasing. And also, have you ever wondered what lesbians thought about sex and virginity? Well, those discussions are here too.

“Chasing Amy” is one of Kevin Smith’s best films—funny but also intelligent. When it gets into serious mode, we are brought right into it. We believe everything that is happening on screen because it is handled so maturely and delicately. It’s helped by a fantastic script, a touch of comedy, drama and romance, and its ensemble of great actors. Ben Affleck, who plays Holden, is a nice guy for us to follow, Jason Lee goes as far as he can go with Banky without making him so obnoxious that he’d be unwatchable, and Joey Lauren Adams, who is a real discovery, embodies a really complicated character who is forced to think about her own self and creates a surprising amount of range and wit. Minor missteps for this movie can be forgiven and so can Kevin Smith for “Mallrats.”

Con Air (1997)

2 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Con Air” is an energetic, thrilling action flick that delivers what audiences (and secretly, most critics) want from a film like this—absurd action, impressive pyrotechnics, over-the-top villains, a reckless good guy, and dumb, dumb, dumb authority figures. They always have to be dumb in these movies, don’t they? They never listen to the sensible one who knows what’s going on, and so that person tries his hand at helping to solve the situation with the hero.

But I digress. “Con Air” stars Nicolas Cage as the hero—ex-Army Ranger Cameron Poe, who has served eight years in prison on a manslaughter charge, after accidentally killing a man who threatened his pregnant wife). Eight years later, he is going home on parole to see his wife and meet his daughter for the first time. He and his prison buddy Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson) catch a flight, which also carries a load of the most deadliest criminals in America, on their way to a new Alabama prison. These sick thugs include the insane Cyrus “the Virus” (John Malkovich); black militant Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames); and 23-time rapist Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo) who hopes to make the female guard Bishop (Rachel Ticotin) his 24th. (“It would’ve been Johnny 600 if they knew the whole story.”) There are many more of these creeps on board, including intellectual-type serial killer Garland Greene (Steve Buschemi) who is quite the possibly the scariest man on the flight in his ways of looking at the world.

Unfortunately, they get loose, kill the guards hostage (except Bishop, who is now a hostage and the subject of Johnny 23’s taunts), and overtake the plane, with Cyrus in charge. Cameron and Baby-O pretend to be involved in the scheme, while Cameron tries whatever he can to secretly inform the authorities of what’s happening. Once word gets through, on the ground, we meet U.S. Marshal Larkin (John Cusack), a good guy who tries to resolve the condition peacefully, while a S.O.B. Federal agent (Colm Meaney) wants nothing more than to blow the plane out of the skies.

“Con Air” shares the common aspects that producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s (and his late partner Don Simpson’s) other action films had—fast editing, macho style, swift camera shots, and a booming soundtrack. While it’s not as smart or as intriguing as 1996’s “The Rock,” for example, the fun comes through and “Con Air” becomes a wild ride. Unfortunately, its weakest part is its final act, in which pure, nonsensical action completely takes over and becomes less interesting as the plane must ultimately land, and Cameron must finally square off against Cyrus.

What leads up to that is quite a kick, as action and comedy have an effective blend with each other. The criminals each have a sickly sardonic edge to themselves, and there are some grotesquely funny sight gags (including a corpse that falls from the plane and causes a traffic accident—and just when the driver had washed his car!). And how about those one-liners, especially including Cyrus’ whisper to the psychotic Garland when he first meets him (“You’re your work!”). There are also real moments of tension, when the criminals are so close to getting caught or when Cameron is almost given away one time too many. And I don’t even want to bring up the sequence in which a little girl may or may not become Garland’s latest victim.

The actors are game for their roles. John Malkovich is very menacing as the insane, predatory Cyrus the Virus. Among his backup, Ving Rhames is suitably nasty as Diamond Dog who plans to make his move against Cyrus soon enough. Steve Buschemi is absolutely mesmerizing as Garland Greene, the serial killer with reason and a soft voice that makes him even creepier—this character could have been just a cardboard cutout version of Hannibal Lector, but Buschemi makes it his own. John Cusack is game for his role of second-hero (though most of his role requires a lot of desperate shouting over the phone).

Also, Dave Chappelle, as a convict nicknamed Pinball, has some very funny lines that we’d like to expect from the great comedic actor.

I didn’t forget to mention Nicolas Cage as the hero Cameron Poe. But he is admittedly one of the least interesting parts of the movie. As much fun company he was as the hero in “The Rock,” here, he just seems rather bored and would rather be somewhere else. I understand that’s what any good-guy would feel like in a situation like this, but you know you’re in trouble when Steven Seagal is more exciting in “Under Siege” than Nicolas Cage is in “Con Air.” He’s not charismatic, nor is he very convincing with his too-thick Southern accent.

That aside, “Con Air” is a neat series of action scenes, witty dialogue, and I cannot believe I forgot to mention lots of explosions! And need we forget that while Cyrus’ cohorts walk away from explosions in an abandoned air field, Cyrus alone is man enough not to look back? Well, there you go.

In & Out (1997)

16 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“In & Out” stars Kevin Kline as a high school English teacher who is neatly-dressed, reads Shakespeare, watches Barbra Streisand movies, and is somewhat of a wimp. Those four traits are thrown in the way of his masculinity when everyone in the movie thinks he’s a homosexual.

It begins as Kline’s character Howard and his fiancée Emily (Joan Cusack) are watching the Oscars, rooting for one of their former students, who is one of the Best Actor nominees. He’s apparently so successful that Glenn Close spends so much time talking about how great he is, and then just says the other actors’ names as if they’re not important. (By the way, who would have thought Steven Seagal would be nominated alongside Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, and Michael Douglas? Nice joke, though.)

Anyway, the actor—a goof named Cameron Drake, played by Matt Dillon—wins the Academy Award for playing a gay soldier, and in his speech dedicates it to Howard, “who is gay.” This comes as shocking news to everyone, including his fiancée, his parents (Wilford Brimley and Debbie Reynolds), his students, and the high school principal (Bob Newhart). But Howard keeps telling everyone that he isn’t gay. His students want to believe him, but they consider the facts about his personality and aren’t so sure. He hasn’t even made love to his fiancée in the three years they’ve been engaged—even the Parish priest he goes to believes he’s gay. The premise may sound like dark-comic indie-crowd fare, but “In & Out” is a jolly PG-13 mainstream comedy that’s about as innocent as it can get, given its subject matter. The result is a mostly funny and well-acted, though flawed, comedy.

When Kevin Kline turned into Jim Carrey is beyond me, though I suppose winning the Oscar for his nutty character in 1988’s “A Fish Called Wanda” helped a lot. The movie’s funniest scene is when he proves his masculinity to himself by playing a self-help tape, but can’t resist those distracting showtunes thrown in as tricks. The tape shouts back as if it’s talking right at him. Kline’s very funny here. He’s well-suited with Joan Cusack as his fiancée who has lost about 75 pounds working out to Richard Simmons’ workout videos, and now feels her world falling apart when she thinks she doesn’t know as much about Howard as she thought.

In a movie that has a solid cast and interesting character development (including Matt Dillon as the actor, who had no intention of ruining Howard’s life and whose intentions are revealed later), the best performance in the movie goes to Tom Selleck as a celebrity gossip TV journalist who believes Howard is gay and arrives to this small town in Indiana to make a documentary about his eventual coming-out. Selleck is perfect in his role—effectively convincing throughout as this dedicated TV personality out to get the real story. There’s not a moment when he steers wrong.

“In & Out” has humor and heart, but what didn’t work for me was the ending. It bogs down into a cornball confrontation that interrupts a high school graduation ceremony to allow Howard to win the people’s respect again. It involves everyone shouting “I’m gay” to get at the principal, who just can’t find a good explanation for firing Howard other than he’s gay. It was too uplifting that it wound up as just cloying. But give the scene credit for not taking place in a courtroom.

There are a few slight problems such as the cheesy feel-good music that tells you what to feel when the actors are doing a well-enough job of that. And also, I could see a few things coming a mile away. But what I couldn’t see coming were the movie’s best jokes—a bachelor party that goes unexpectedly, a hilarious snap at Barbra Streisand, that self-help tape scene I mentioned above, and some terrific one-liners. All of the actors are solid, the writing is sharp, and the movie has an overall positive feel to its subject matter. “In & Out” is a certified crowd pleaser.