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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.”

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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.