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My Favorite Movies – The Mighty (1998)

17 Jun

By Tanner Smith

The Mighty is a film that just gets better and better each time I see it…and I would add “which is more than I can say for “Simon Birch,” though that’s really not fair.

Both “The Mighty” and “Simon Birch” were family films that came out in 1998, and people seemed to argue about which one is better. But why? They only have one similarity: a friendship between two adolescent outcasts with disabilities that they see as for a heroic reason (and even that’s handled differently in both films).

I watched both these movies a lot when I was a kid. “Simon Birch” had enough innocuous charm and likable characters for me to continue watching it, while “The Mighty” felt more natural and in a realistic setting (at least, when it doesn’t show the characters’ fantasies of King Arthur’s knights, but there’s a purpose for that). I’ve watched both movies again as an adult, and…honestly, the stuff that moved me in “Simon Birch” really irritated me now. It also follows an annoying trend I’ve seen in a lot of family movies (I also mention this in my review of The Journey of Natty Gann): everyone in the supporting cast must be a one-dimensional jerk so that we can feel more sympathy for the main characters (however, there were two exceptions–Ashley Judd’s brief role as the mother one of the boys, and Oliver Platt as Judd’s boyfriend who’s a genuinely nice guy). And, I’m sorry to say this, even Simon, the title character, grew kind of annoying. While I don’t hate it, as it does have its worthwhile moments, it’s just a reminder to me that it is possible to outgrow some of the films we watch repeatedly as children.

“The Mighty,” on the other hand, I didn’t watch as much as “Simon Birch” back in the day. I think it was because it was a little too real for me. I mentioned in my review of The Secret of Roan Inish that there are two kinds of family films, one better than the other that most kids won’t want to check out but then will notice how much it grew on them since they watched it. “The Mighty” is a film like that. While it has its lighthearted moments (which are needed to balance out the heavier moments), this film is a little tougher in its issues (not so tough to gain an R rating, of course) and more poignant than one might expect. I can see real people in these characters, and they’re acted wonderfully (especially Kieran Culkin and Sharon Stone); I can feel what they’re going through; I like the philosophies that are used to connect the King Arthur stories to real life; the film even has a way of using sarcasm to say things about the characters’ backgrounds (for example, Kevin tells Max, “My dad was a magician–he heard the words ‘birth defect’ and disappeared.”), which is a risky but refreshing move; the fantasy aspects are not overdone; and so on. In the review, I complained about an unneeded climax involving the late James Gandolfini as Max’s psychotic father who causes Max to ultimately stand up to him and fight his inner demons as well. But I don’t think I mind it so much anymore).

What don’t I enjoy about “The Mighty?” Well, maybe that very catchy theme song by Sting…eh, who am I kidding? I like that too.

American History X (1998)

3 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a scene in Spike Lee’s 1989 racial drama “Do the Right Thing,” in which the black pizza-delivery boy Mookie confronts the white pizza-chef Pino about his racist remarks. Pino claims to hate African-Americans, and yet his favorite actor and his favorite basketball player (and possibly his favorite musician) are all dark-skinned. Mookie calls him out on it. How does Pino respond? “It’s different […] I mean, they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.”

We don’t know why racism is still around, and that scene illustrates the probability that maybe the racists themselves don’t know either. “To me, it’s different.” I can’t be the only one who sees Pino’s “defense” as nothing more than pathetic.

But because of that, we know Pino wouldn’t actually act out on his prejudice against other races, particularly black people. He just comes off as a big mouth. I want to smack him, but I’m not scared of him. I am, however, scared of dumb White Rage group members (of groups like the KKK or the skinheads) because they do act out their rage and try to justify their brutal actions towards members of different races.

“American History X” is a disturbing drama that provokes questions/thoughts about racial hatred and doesn’t try to answer most of them itself. It features characters that follow the hatred with blindness and don’t give a moment’s thought to the world around them (and by the time most of them do, it’s nearly too late).

Edward Norton turns in a powerful performance as Derek Vinyard, one of the most active members of a white supremacist movement in Venice Beach, secretly led by Cameron (Stacy Keach) who stays in the shadows to keep his record clean. Derek is an inspiration to his fellow hate-filled disciples, as he seems angrier and is more charismatic than the rest—they listen to whatever he says, just as he listens to what Cameron says. But one night, everything changes when he kills two black men who tried to steal his car and is arrested by police and thrown in prison for three years. While inside, he faces some harsh truths, the harshest one being, with all the roughnecks and lifers and make up his inmates, he’s the minority. When he’s released three years later, he’s a changed man and wants to present that to his family and friends, but it’s easier said than done, especially since many of his close ones now hail him as a hero for the night he was arrested…

There’s one scene that attempts to give some idea as to where Derek got his hatred (in a flashback to a family dinner scene in which his father (William Russ) declares his cynicism against minorities in town), but overall, the film isn’t about why prejudice is around—instead, it shows how it can harshly affect the lives of a man and his family and friends. And when a change of heart comes, the film shows that it isn’t easy to demonstrate it with mere apologies or simple actions.

I really have to credit director/cinematographer Tony Kaye (who, for the record, has disowned the film for being against his earlier vision) for the genuine, disturbing feel in the scenes that show pure anger. Many of them are hard to watch, such as when Derek argues with his mother (Beverly d’Angelo) and sister (Jennifer Lien) for bringing in a teacher (Elliot Gould) who not only disagrees with his way of thinking but is also Jewish. Many of these scenes (unfortunately) ring true and you feel the angry words that are coming out of Norton’s mouth. (But the problem with these scenes is the unnecessary amount of extremely tight close-up shots that distract from the moment rather than make us feel like we’re in the moment.)

The film is told in non-linear fashion, with past events (Derek’s rise to power, the dinner scene, the murder, Derek’s whole prison experience) presented to us in black-and-white. I would have preferred if these events were told chronologically. In giving us early present scenes from the perspective of Danny (Derek’s younger brother, played by Edward Furlong), we lose track of focus fairly quickly. Danny learning about his brother, whom he idolizes and whose footsteps he tries to follow, isn’t as interesting as Derek’s development. With that said, Derek is a completely developed character. We see what set him off, what his influence was to people, why other people feared him, and more importantly, we understand why his attitude changes and feel bad when it seems he can’t be a more positive influence to the same people he led in the movement. We know a lot about Derek; not so much about Danny or their anxious mother or their liberal sister or the fat man (Ethan Suplee) that joins the movement to get strength he can’t get elsewhere or Derek’s girlfriend (Fairuza Bulk) who simply follows her man or even the black high-school principal (Avery Brooks) that wants to help both Derek and Danny. (I would’ve liked to see a movie about what the principal has to go through.) All of the actors do serviceable jobs, but the entire film rests on the shoulders of Edward Norton.

It is true that Tony Kaye is not particularly a fan of this film (and even tried to credit himself as “Alan Smithee” and even “Humpty Dumpty”), and long since this film’s release in 1998, I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t speaking out as a publicity stunt. I understand where he’s coming from; I empathize with filmmakers whose original vision is altered by producers (and even, in this case, the lead actor himself Edward Norton, who had the script changed midway through shooting). But Kaye shouldn’t be too resentful of the film; after all, it has grown a cult following from people whose eyes were opened by the film’s power (and is also a topic of discussion for most film schools). “American History X” may have its small amount of problems, but it also has its considerable amount of raw power.

Maybe Pino should take a look at this film…

Wide Awake (1998)

13 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Is there a God? If so, why do so many bad things happen to good people?

Those are the questions that always come up from skeptics who either test the concept of organized religion or simply want answers. In the case of 10-year-old Catholic student Joshua A. Beal in the comedy-drama “Wide Awake,” he just wants to know if his late grandfather, who died of bone marrow cancer, is okay. He wants to know if Heaven, the afterlife, and above all, God, are for real.

And he’s serious about it too. Joshua (played by Joseph Cross) is a smart kid who spends his entire fifth-grade year at a Catholic boys’ school on a mission to find truth in what he believes and what he wants to believe. Does he find what he’s looking for? Well, that’s a little difficult to answer. And to the movie’s credit, it’s meant to be difficult to find answers. I don’t think it’s as interested in finding true answers as it is in coping with death. By the end of the film, Joshua has ultimately accepted the loss of his grandfather (played in flashbacks by Robert Loggia in a wonderful performance) and he learns that sometimes things happen and you don’t know why, and it helps to have faith that in the end, things will be all right. That applies in life—you have to find your own proof within yourself that there is someone out there watching out for us and waiting to take care of us after we die. You can’t see it, but you can feel it.

When I was a kid, I liked “Wide Awake.” As I got older, I had a mixed reaction to it mainly because of moments that since overwrought with sentimentality. Watching it now at 22, I got more into the quieter moments that are very effective, and there’s a nice sense of satire in the ways this kid narrates the everyday, mundane things in his school; these were moments that kept me from rating it less than three stars. The overdramatic parts are still there and are admittedly still a little annoying, and there are parts that were supposed to be poignant that seem kind of weird (for example, when Joshua goes into the toy store and admits to his mother that he doesn’t feel the same as he did when he was younger, his speech not only sounds scripted; it sounds like an adult looking back rather than a kid having a “revelization,” as the kid describes it). And then it got to the ending. Without giving it away, it nearly brought the film to a two-and-a-half-star mixed review. It gives the kid an answer to one or two of the questions he’s been asking, but it’s not subtle and a little too much to buy.

But as you notice in the rating I gave it, I couldn’t bring myself to give “Wide Awake” less than a positive review, and that’s because those good moments are the ones that stick out to me, and there’s a good bunch of them that give me reason to recommend the film. It’s overall a nice mixture of humor and drama (both heavy and light).

The characters are likable and the actors playing them do solid jobs. Joseph Cross is an appealing hero, Denis Leary and Dana Delany do good jobs as his parents, Robert Loggia is excellent as his grandfather, the child actors are convincing (especially Timothy Reifsnyder as Joshua’s best friend Dave), and surprisingly, Rosie O’Donnell, as a good-hearted, wisecracking nun who also loves sports (and keeps basketball & football shots next to paintings of Jesus and the Cross in the classroom), gives a terrific performance. I actually kind of wish there was more of her character in the film (the DVD cover suggests there is, but don’t be fooled—if you are, don’t worry; Rosie O’Donnell is not obnoxious in this movie).

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention this was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It was his second film after 1992’s “Praying with Anger,” which I haven’t seen, and after this, he struck gold with the 1999 psychological thriller “The Sixth Sense.” If you follow Shyamalan’s career lately, with duds such as “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender,” and “After Earth,” you probably have a negative idea of this film already. But I thought he did a good job of directing his cast, and he was smart to write this script with gentleness and light humor rather than taking cheap shots at the Catholic school system or forcing us to cry at the more dramatic stuff. Some of his trademarks are present, like having its setting in Philadelphia and revealing somewhat of a twist at the end (which, as I said, doesn’t work at all), but that’s it, so don’t make fun of Shyamalan or this film before seeing it. I recommend “Wide Awake.”

The Mighty (1998)

2 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Of the live-action family films to come out of the ‘90s, “The Mighty” is usually one that would be considered “underrated.” And it didn’t help that it was released the same year as the successful (though shameless) tearjerker “Simon Birch,” of which it shares similar traits. Don’t get me wrong—I like “Simon Birch,” but there are certain things that I notice suffer by comparison to “The Mighty.” Most importantly, while “Simon Birch” relied on manipulative ploys in order for the audience to feel something about its story, “The Mighty” offers more depth and intelligence to its story of young outcasts who become better than their labels whenever they’re together. This is how it creates an emotional impact for audiences; it doesn’t try so hard. It has a theme, sticks with it, and tells it in a sincere way while also being entertaining.

Based on the book “Freak the Mighty” by Rodman Philbrick, “The Mighty” tells the story of a friendship between two junior-high outsiders with certain weaknesses that define them to their peers. They are Max Kane (Elden Henson) and Kevin Dillon (Kieran Culkin). Max is big for his age, is dyslexic, and is repeating the seventh grade…again. His students refer to him as “The Missing Link,” and on top of that, he’s constantly given weird looks because his jailed father (James Gandolfini) is a known murderer who may have murdered Max’s mother. But Max wouldn’t hurt a fly—in fact, he never retaliates nor does he even stand up for himself at all. That lack of anger makes him the target of teasing and taunting by a group of bullies known as the Doghouse Boys, whose anthem towards him is “Killer Kane, Killer Kane, had a son who’s got no brain!”

Kevin has Morquio’s syndrome, which is said to cause bones to stop growing even though his organs continue to expand, meaning his days are probably limited by the time his organs become too big for him. As a result, he has a dwarfish figure and is crippled. But nevertheless, Kevin is a boy genius. When Max first sees him soon after he moves in next door to his grandparents’ house, he’s making an ornothopter—a bird-like model that can fly with the wind. He’s also a bit of a wise-guy persona, as he uses humor as a defense mechanism. When Max is blamed for a cruel joke toward him by one of the Doghouse Boys, Kevin asks him why he lets them “make a chump outta you.”

Max and Kevin become friends, after Kevin tutors Max in reading. Their book is “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table,” which Kevin often refers to constantly. Kevin brings Max into his world of imagination, which sees the real world as a parallel to that which he reads about (only in this case, they’re knights, the dragons are just bullies, damsels in distress aren’t as thankful as they might expect, and so forth). Also, Max often lets Kevin ride on his shoulders so they become one—“You need a brain and I need legs,” Kevin states. This comes in handy when Max saves Kevin from a run-in with the Doghouse Boys, and when they play basketball this way (Kevin is able to dunk the ball into the hoop).

There are more characters involved in “The Mighty,” each of which has their individually effective moments. There are Max’s grandparents, Grim (Harry Dean Stanton) and Gram (Gena Rowlands) as he calls them, who worry for their grandson ever since the death of his mother and the imprisonment of his father. When Max is brought home by the police after saving Kevin from the bullies, their first thought is to assume the worst, that Max has become like his father. (That’s Grim’s first thought aloud, to which Gram immediately responds by telling him to be quiet.) There’s a particularly effective moment in which Max breaks down to Gram after finding out that his father has broken parole, and also that he’s becoming more like him because of the anxiety and anger he feels toward him. Gram must comfort him and reassure him that he isn’t like his father at all. Also among the supporting characters is Kevin’s single mother (Sharon Stone), whose husband apparently left her when he discovered that Kevin was disabled (Kevin tells Max, “He heard the words “birth defect” and left”). Kevin’s mother has made it a point to keep Kevin out of “special schools” that “suit his needs,” and she’s very grateful to Max for being his friend. There’s one scene in which she states how she feels about Kevin playing basketball with Max, after the principal won’t allow it—“Kevin lives in this world of books and ideas…but Kevin would trade it all for a chance to be normal. Max Kane has given him that chance.”

When you really think about it, knowing that he will never be normal represents Kevin’s central inner opponent that he must conquer as a “Knight.” And if that’s the case, and this reality is a parallel to Kevin’s imaginary world, then that means that Max’s opponent is the horrible memory of seeing his father kill his mother. This goes well with a quote that is often used in this movie, “A Knight proves his worthiness through his deeds.” Each one of us has our own demons to battle in life, and it’s how we react to certain situations regarding it that make us who we are. “The Mighty” is a film that mixes imagination with reality (sometimes, the visuals of a fantasy world intersect with the real world, but it’s not overdone), and not once does it ever try to tell us that we should forget about reality; it teaches us to face it as we live our lives, and sometimes fantasy can be an escape-aspect of helping us through our difficulties in life.

And I admire that this story centers around kids, because we all have been through times at the same age as Kevin and Max when we felt like we were outcasts. That sense is seen and felt throughout the film, and is constantly used to turn pain into warmth with this friendship.

Great acting is a crucial element to the success of “The Mighty.” Elden Henson is perfect as the hulking but vulnerable Max; not only does he look right for the part, but also he feels right for the part. He never strikes a false note with this performance. Equally impressive is Kieran Culkin as Kevin, who knows his character inside and out. Gena Rowlands and Harry Dean Stanton do respectable work as Max’s grandparents. There’s also Gillian Anderson, whom I realized I forgot to mention plays a dishonorable, drunken “damsel” that the boys encounter and help retrieve her purse. No presence of Scully to be found here; she’s nearly unrecognizable and not particularly appealing. And there’s also Sharon Stone as Kevin’s mother. This is probably the best work I’ve ever seen from the actress, playing an ordinary single mother who is emotionally vulnerable and attempts to cover it with genuine gratefulness. She’s convincing and very real.

If there’s one thing about “The Mighty” that doesn’t really work, it’s the climax near the end of the film. Max’s father comes and takes him away, and Max is too crippled with anxiety and fear to do anything about it, until a certain part of that night snaps him out of it and causes him to finally let out his anger left onto him by his father. But meanwhile, Kevin figures out where he is, and using his mechanic skills he picked up from reading, he builds a sled that helps take him to where he accurately thinks Max is being held. I know this is supposed to show how further their “Knights of the Round Table” knowledge is being put to the test, but in a film that separates fantasy from reality as often as it keeps it in the same frame, this is pretty improbable. But it’s not so distracting that it harms the rest of the film. Actually, in its own way, it kind of works a bit (even more so than the “daring rescue” in “Simon Birch”).

Despite its occasional emotional, dramatic moments (the heaviest of which comes late in the film), “The Mighty” is not a downer. It has its entertainment values, but more importantly, it knows how to tell its story and theme in such a way that it brings an optimistic view on things in the end. How? Rent the film and see for yourself. You won’t regret it.

Patch Adams (1998)

15 May


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Patch Adams” is one of the most manipulative films that is said to be “based on a true story.” And it is based on a true story (albeit very loosely)—the life story of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams. I’ll get to the fact-vs.-fiction aspects later in this review, but to get straight to the point, even if it wasn’t loosely based on the life story of a fascinating individual, I still wouldn’t recommend “Patch Adams.” It’s not only manipulative in the ways of delivering melodrama; it’s forced, obvious, and very clichéd. Its main purpose is to bestow upon movie audiences an emotional tearjerker by using cheap maneuvers.

Robin Williams stars as the title character, Patch Adams. As the movie begins, he is a mental patient in the Fairfax State Psychiatric Ward. During his time there, he finds he is able to help his fellow inmates, and decides to become a medical doctor. When he’s released, he enrolls in the Virginia Medical University, where he is the oldest first-year student, at age 40-something.

But because this is a contrived feel-good melodrama that shows almost every other character as one-dimensional, Patch questions the methods that are being taught that involve emotional detachment from patients. Patch believes that in order to treat a patient’s disease, it’s important for a doctor to reach and connect with the patient. To prove his points, he shows a few students a few methods of his own, such as seeing patients (even though only third-year students are allowed to deal with patients) and pulling all sorts of antics to cheer them up and make them laugh. But of course, while a few fellow students follow him on this, Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton) doesn’t approve of Patch’s “excessive happiness” and seeks to throw him out of medical school.

By the way, I’m not even kidding—that’s literally what he calls Patch’s behavior and his reason for such untraditional behavior.

The depiction of the other doctors in “Patch Adams” is one of the most manipulative parts of the movie. They’re simply plot-tools to make us hate them and like Patch. This movie acts as if bedside manner is nonexistent and there’s apparently no difference between being a doctor and a complete jerk. And this movie also acts as if Patch Adams was the first person to invent such methods as a doctor-patient relationship. OK, I guess it sort of makes sense that emotional detachment keeps some doctors from being too involved to the point where they can’t let themselves go any further with the patient, because of such a relationship. But here’s a tip for the stuck-up jerkoffs in this movie—at least learn the patient’s name for starters.

Patch uses all sorts of tricks and treats to make patients happy. And to be honest, he’s quite good at it. He’s a good clown…but wait a minute! This unstable, out-of-control, “excessively happy” man is supposed to be a doctor? If he really wants to reach people and cheer them up, why doesn’t he just skip the psychiatrist concept or medical doctor angle and just become a clown that is assigned to come to hospitals and bring joy where it’s needed?

Oh wait, I forgot—it’s because, as Patch believes, laughter is the best medicine, so I guess that counts…?

And it doesn’t just stop at the hospital either. His mission is to make everyone around him see things his way by using these same methods. He shows a no-nonsense woman, Carin (Monica Potter), the joys of laughter when using an enema bulb for a red clown nose; he brings his friend, medical student Truman Schiff (Daniel London), with him on his “unorthodox” exercises; and he even builds a giant papier-mâché pair of legs that reach an apex at an entrance for a gynecologists’ convention. (Class act.) Oh, and I’m pretty sure Patch’s stuffy bore of a roommate, Mitch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), will crack a smile once the movie is over.

Robin Williams is fit to play the part, but that really isn’t saying much. That’s because “Patch Adams” is pretty much an ideal example of the “Robin Williams formula” in which Robin Williams plays a quirky free-spirit that is up against the villainous establishment-types, and while he’s rebellious and confident “poet” of a protagonist, he manages to get his way in the end, usually after an obligatory big-speech.

Speaking of which, there is a big-speech. And yes, it takes place in a courtroom. And wouldn’t you believe it—this scene ends on an unbelievably forced, painful note with the child cancer-patients walking into the room with big red clown noses to appeal to the jury that seeks to finish with Patch’s medical career quickly. Give me a break. (And why are all of those kids even out of bed?!)

Now, a word about the real Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams. Despite what this movie would like you to believe for the sake of a typical Hollywood tearjerker, this Patch Adams goes beyond just being a clown. This guy knows what he’s doing. His methods are untraditional in some sense, but always in a way of hard work. And he treats his patients with respect and individuality, compared to the fictional Patch Adams in the movie which pretty just portrays him as more or less…a clown.

But here’s where the fact-vs.-fiction really shoots the movie in the foot—not just with the inaccurate portrayal of a fascinating guy, but also of his friends. In particular, the character of Carin, we all know is there for a romantic love-interest and is simply there to die because that will lead to a crisis that will need to be resolved. Here’s something that maybe you didn’t know—Carin was loosely based on a real person, but she was never romantically interested in Patch in the slightest at all. In fact, Patch had a best friend whose life was lost in a tragic incident just like Carin’s was, but it wasn’t in the same way as was shown here. And if you could believe it, that friend was not a “she,” but a “he.” Why did they change the gender and make the friend into a love-interest for Patch in the movie? Because every feel-good movie needs a relationship and a crisis, so the filmmakers decided to kill two birds with one stone. This movie makes me want to puke.

“Patch Adams” definitely does not earn its corniness or melodrama. It’s so obvious, so clumsy, and such a miscalculation in a “based-on-a-true-story” subgenre if ever I saw one. Do yourselves a favor, and look up the actual Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams. Don’t rely on this movie to tell you about him.

Godzilla (1998)

25 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, I can assume that you read the “Smith’s Verdict” star-rating of “Godzilla” before reading this review. I can also assume that you think I’ve lost my mind for giving it a three-star recommendation. Well, it may be possible that I have indeed lost my mind for recommending this sci-fi action/adventure romp. But to me, this is a guilty pleasure to be sure. Sure, there are problems and most parts of this movie are cheesy. But mostly though, it’s a fun thrill ride that I, for one, do not regret taking. But if you think this movie is going to be a waste of your time, don’t worry—there are better movies out there.

To be accurate enough, this movie is a lesser movie than you would expect from its clever marketing. The trailers showed as little they possibly could with the story, as well as keeping the monster out of sight. You had to see the movie in order to see the monster Godzilla (or Gojira, as it is accurately named—shut up). The good news is the monster looks creepy and enormous enough to destroy Manhattan. The bad news is that it only comes out either at night or when it’s raining (it rains a lot in this film), as if attempting to hide how computer-generated it is. Sometimes, this works. But other times, you have to wonder—is this turning into the story of Noah’s ark?

But you don’t have to be an idiot to enjoy a movie in which a likable cast is chased around Manhattan by a 300-foot lizard-like monster. Matthew Broderick, who stars as nerdy worm expert Dr. Niko Tatapoulos, is not particularly impressive, but he gives a sort-of nerdy appeal to the role. He is teamed with Maria Pitillo who plays his ex-girlfriend Audrey, Jean Reno as a French government agent named Roache, and Hank Azaria (best known for voiceover work in “The Simpsons”) who provides comic relief as a wisecracking cameraman nicknamed “Animal.” These characters are not particularly well-developed, but I have to say, I didn’t care. To me, it was just fun watching them figure out every preposterous thing about Godzilla. And of course, it’s fun to watch them outsmart Godzilla’s multiple babies which look a lot like raptors (it’s clear that Godzilla is both male and female) and even outrun Godzilla in a taxi cab in the final half (they even wind up inside his mouth at one point).

I admire the element that director Roland Emmerich (who also co-wrote this movie with Dean Devlin) uses in the way that he and Devlin do not seem to care about character development. They only care about destruction and bring us the top-notch special effects. Godzilla destroys many parts of Manhattan and the military attempt to stop him—Madison Square Garden is destroyed, the Chrysler building is ruined, and the Brooklyn Bridge falls down. The characters (including Harry Shearer as a corrupt news reporter) may not be particularly interesting, but they are fun to watch. But two characters that should’ve been taken advantage of are part of missed opportunities. Those two characters are Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) and his associate Gene, both of whom are, of course, parodies of the popular film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The resemblances are uncanny and the “thumbs up/thumbs down” trademark is even used. But if these two critics are parodied in a monster movie because they didn’t enjoy Emmerich’s two previous movies “Stargate” and “Independence Day,” then Emmerich should have had the sense to have the monster maim or kill them.

Another problem—there are many shots that resemble famous shots from “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park.” We get the flying scenes from “Star Wars’ and the raptor attack scenes in “Jurassic Park.” You have to wonder if the filmmakers were going for the same kind of wonder those two hits delivered. Oh and then of course, there’s the element of a monster loose in New York that is taken from “King Kong.” But while King Kong was 30 feet tall and was able to climb the Empire State Building. Here, the filmmakers don’t have the advantage of having a creature ten times as large to knock over the building. They already blew up Madison Square Garden—why not the Empire State Building?

“Godzilla” is not for everyone. Or rather, it’s not for anyone who isn’t looking for a dumb thrill ride. But I was drawn into it and I can’t shake myself out of this positive review. But believe me when I say this—there ARE better movies out there.

The Waterboy (1998)

24 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

1998’s “The Waterboy” has a story that would’ve made a great starring vehicle for Adam Sandler, who—let’s face it—hadn’t had accurately good movies in his career before this. I mean, what can you say about “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore,” except that Sandler played a jackass in both movies and was short on charm? Well, in “The Waterboy,” Sandler does play a nicer guy—a simple, stuttering, nervous, dim 30-year-old man who still lives with his mother and is the waterboy for a college football team in Louisiana. This is a role that Adam Sandler could use his true talents for comedy and charm.

But there is a problem and a big one at that. Right when Adam Sandler’s character Bobby Boucher speaks, our interest in him really deteriorates. He speaks through his nose, through whining, and with an accent that apparently he and the filmmakers found funnier than I did. Nobody in Louisiana talks this way. It’s an insult to Louisiana, but also an insult to us because when Sandler talks, his voice has the fingernails-on-a-blackboard effect. Is that supposed to be funny?

Bobby is fired from his job as the waterboy and goes to find a new job. He goes to a different college and asks the football coach (Henry Winkler) to be his waterboy. He gets hired and like everybody else, the football team picks on him because he’s so dim. There’s another strange person who hangs around the field—a country man named Farmer Fran (Blake Hunter). The difference between Bobby and Farmer Fran is that you can understand what Bobby is saying when Farmer Fran is simply muttering. Is THAT supposed to be funny?

Ah, forget it. Let’s move on.

The plot gets underway when Bobby realizes that when he really gets worked up, he can become a great offensive tackle. The coach lets Bobby play on the team but Bobby doesn’t quite understand the rules of football, even though he’s been to many, many games before, serving water to the players.

Filmmakers, if you want your comedy to be fresh and entertaining, use different ways of forming a sports movie; have fresher jokes. Don’t give us something we’ve seen before. The only difference of these particular football games, which are quite boring indeed, is that we’re given an idiot for a player. That’s not enough. We need more ideas so we’re caught up in the games. This is basically a formula sports movie with, worst of all, boring football games. And of course, at the end, there’s the typical Big Game, in which there is no suspense whatsoever—nothing to hold our attention.

Oh, and I forgot to mention Kathy Bates as Bobby’s mother who is possessive and manipulative and kept her son practically trapped in his cabin at the bayou. She has fun with this role but when you put it with everything else that happens in this movie, it really doesn’t mean anything.

Henry Winkler has no good chance with this movie, I’m sorry to say. He seems better than all of this. Overall, “The Waterboy” is a movie that tries to be funny but is just conventional—nothing new, just a few stupid characters. Adam Sandler’s Bobby Boucher is one of the most annoying characters ever to hit the screen. I’ve seen magazine reporters on TV with more appeal than this character.

Armageddon (1998)

18 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

1998’s “Armageddon” shares the same premise as “Deep Impact,” which came out the same year as this one. Both movies are about a giant asteroid about to crash to earth and wipe out mankind. But if there’s one thing to be said about “Deep Impact,” it’s that it’s a much better film than this loud, obnoxious, boring, distasteful action movie/special effects extravaganza.

“Armageddon” is the best title for this movie. As Gene Siskel, of “Siskel and Ebert,” put it, “Armageddon is appropriately titled because while watching it, you’ll feel as though you’ve been in combat—visual combat and aural combat.” He gave this film a thumbs-up, but my review is much closer to what Ebert thought of it.

The movie is about the threat of an asteroid that is said to be the size of Texas that could wipe out the whole planet. “Nothing could survive, not even bacteria.” Billy Bob Thornton plays a NASA chief who has to find a way to save the planet. He comes up with a solution: hire a bunch of oil drillers to go up into space and drill to the core of the sucker and then blow it up. Bruce Willis plays the leader of the drillers Harry Stamper, who is said to be the world’s greatest driller (what a distinction). He has his own team with him and they’re all different types of people (so we can tell them apart) and they’re just a ragtag band. Included in the team are a sex-obsessed weirdo (Steve Buscemi), a bass-voiced giant (Michael Clarke Duncan), and the boyfriend of Harry’s daughter, whom Harry disapproves of, shown in a completely over-the-top tantrum beginning. The boyfriend is played by Ben Affleck.

I guess “Armageddon” is supposed to be entertaining because there are nonstop special effects, little human story, and shots that don’t even last twenty seconds. This doesn’t even feel much like a movie rather than an overlong trailer, to say the least. Once the characters are up in space, the movie just drags on and on and on and it got very boring. I kept waiting…and waiting…for something to make sense.

Then, the movie was over. The second half of this movie is full of very tightly-edited scenes of sci-fi action and it all felt like a dead zone as it ran for an hour and a half. There are a lot of action scenes and they don’t really pay off or add to anything.

The characters here are dull, with the possible exception of Liv Tyler. She plays Harry’s daughter and gives a piece of realism to the human story, as much as there is. But Bruce Willis is wasted here as the dull leader of the drillers. The same can also be said for Billy Bob Thornton, who is forgettable here. Ben Affleck isn’t likable here in the slightest—he’s just a jerk.

The movie has very cheesy clichéd scenes that have been done to death. We get the slow-motion walking shots by the heroes, the over-the-top save-the-world speech, and farewell scenes that are not touching or effective just overdone. I wouldn’t mind so much if I wasn’t so bored already.

The movie runs about two-and-a-half hours. Why? I’m guessing action-director Michael Bay would like this movie as a popcorn movie or maybe he didn’t even want it that way. Whatever he wanted to do, he failed doing it. On the comic relief side, there is hardly any humor that is intentional and that’s also not a good sign. Some of the jokes that the characters say at the beginning are missing punch lines. Just when it feels like there might be one, the scene cuts to another. The worst part is that the movie hardly stops to take a breath once in a while. Does Bay think that the audience has an ingenious attention span?

See if you buy this—the planet is in huge jeopardy, right? An asteroid the size of Texas is going to crash down and wipe out humanity, so the heroes have to blow it up. Well, if the asteroid is that big, then wouldn’t even a piece be enough to wipe out the United States? And also, the characters are drillers who must be trained to be astronauts. Wouldn’t be easier to have astronauts train to be drillers?

“Armageddon” is a special-effects mess.

Antz (1998)

5 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Woody Allen in a voiceover role—it had to happen sooner or later. His fast-paced comic timing is what made him famous in the first place, and you just had to imagine him in a recording studio, performing for an animated character. “Antz” is the film that finally used this method.

“Antz” is the second computer-animated film after Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story” three years before. And speaking of which, I’d say that Dreamworks (the studio behind “Antz”) was in a hurry to give Disney a run for its money, seeing as how Disney/Pixar made a similar “insect epic” (as I think you’d call it) called “A Bug’s Life,” released the same year as “Antz.” Both movies feature ants on incredible adventures. But I’m not comparing the two, because they are both very good movies. I’ll just talk about “Antz,” a delightful movie with a sharp script and a visual brilliance.

The story involves an ant named Z (Woody Allen), who’s as neurotic and cynical as Allen’s other characters. There are two types of ants in his world—workers and soldiers (and of course, there’s also the royal family). Z belongs in the former category, helping to continue building the anthill. He wants to be more than the group—he doesn’t want to continue being insignificant. Then one night, at a party, he dances with Princess Bala, is completely lovestruck, and dares to find a way to meet her again.

His plan is to impersonate his soldier friend Weaver, because soldier ants get to serve for the royal family and thus Z will be able to see the princess again. But he couldn’t have picked a worse time, as it turns out the ants are at war with a colony of termites. In a battle, Z hides as the other soldiers fight. But when he’s the lone survivor of the battle, he’s mistaken for a war hero and sent to honor the royals. But when his identity as a worker is revealed, Z runs away and takes Bala with him. Together, they embark on a quest to find “Insectopia,” which is said to have mountains of food, while enduring many obstacles along the way.

The story is nothing special—a loner is suddenly in the middle of a grand adventure and must be the one to thwart a villain (in this case, it’s the evil General Mandible, who won’t stand for workers’ newly-formed individuality). But the scope of the film is just marvelous. Because the ants are so small and we see from their point of view, the world around them must be grand. An anthill is like a palace, a thermos is a big round tower, a magnifying glass’ sun glare becomes fatal, a apple’s worm turns into a roller-coaster ride, and in the film’s most exciting sequence, a pair of sneakered feet become an imminent threat. Visually, “Antz” is impressive and I could forgive the shortcomings of its story and just enjoy this great new world—ours, seen by little eyes.

This is not necessarily a “kids’ movie.” At its best, it’s a comedy. Like I said, Woody Allen’s vocal performance the neurotic worker ant Z is wonderful. There are great visual jokes, such as when Z and others are being chased by a magnifying glass and the reveal of Insectopia (a garbage can). Although, some of which are somewhat brutally funny, such as a death scene with Z and the disembodied head of a friendly soldier. The dialogue is consistently funny, such as when Z asks about how the soldier ants can’t just compromise with the termites and “try influencing their political process with campaign contributions.”

And Z knows that the story is nothing new—he refers to it as a “basic boy-meets-girl, boy-likes-girl, boy-changes-underlying-social-structure” tale.

The vocal cast is very game. In addition to Allen, we also have Sharon Stone as Princess Kala, Sylvester Stallone doing solid work as Z’s dim-but-trusty friend Weaver, Gene Hackman as the villain, Christopher Walken hamming it up more than Hackman as the general’s second-in-command, Jennifer Lopez as Weaver’s love interest, Danny Glover as a friendly soldier that Z meets before the battle, and Anne Bancroft as the ant queen. I think I should also the clever move of having the characters share similar faces to the actors showcasing their voices.

Even though most people easily compare this to “A Bug’s Life”, I think they should just enjoy “Antz” for what it is—a nice, visually-impressive comedy that will entertain adults, who will laugh at certain mature bits of humor, as well as children, who will dig the story and the cool visuals.

NOTE: This movie is rated PG, but only for casual swearing (very unusual for an animated film).

The Borrowers (1998)

15 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Borrowers” is based upon a series of books (by British novelist Mary Norton) centered around a premise that has always fascinated me ever since I was a child. You know how little things around your house seem to go missing? We naturally think we merely misplaced them and can’t remember where we placed them before, but what if there was another reason? What if there are little people living under the floorboards or within the walls, and they pilfer these objects when we don’t notice? These tiny people are known as “Borrowers,” as they “borrow” (kind term for “steal,” in their case) their survival needs—just little things lying around the house. The idea is intriguing and any book or movie centered around it interests me.

Now to be sure, this 1998 film adaptation “The Borrowers” from director Peter Hewitt is very, very loosely based on its source material. The only elements that remain the same are the central idea and the “Borrower” characters. But I don’t care how little it has to do with the book; as a stand-alone movie, it’s a charming, entertaining family film. It has fun with its premise, has top-notch special effects, and is flat-out entertaining.

The four-inch Borrowers that serve as the central characters of the movie are the Clock family—Pod (Jim Broadbent), his wife Homily (Celia Imire), and their two children Arrietty (Flora Newbigin) and Peagreen (Tom Felton). They live under the floorboards of the Lenders’ house, unbeknownst to the Lenders who serve as their human “beans” who unknowingly provide them with things to borrow, but will squish them once they see them. At least, that’s how it goes. Arrietty goes exploring the bedroom of Pete (Bradley Pierce), the child of the “beans,” and winds up being seen. But when she finds that the boy doesn’t want to hurt her, she’s able to convince her parents to let him help them out of the house, which is about to be demolished.

However, on the way to their new location, Arrietty and Peagreen are accidentally separated from Pod and Homily. The kids make it back to the house in time to notice that an evil lawyer, Ocious Potter (John Goodman), has in fact cheated the Lenders out of their house by lying about the will for the house never showing up. It turns out Potter has found it and wants to destroy it. But the Borrower kids mess with his plan by “borrowing” the will in hopes of saving the day. So Potter, along with an exterminator (Mark Williams), comes after them.

This leads to several events in which the kids are placed in more danger by the gigantic bean, but always have the upper hand in comic fashion. Actually, you could call this movie “’Home Alone’ with tiny people” in the way these four-inch children (later joined by another young Borrower, named Spiller) constantly outsmart the normal-sized lawyer in a sort of live-action cartoon violence. Potter is covered in burning insecticide foam; he’s slightly electrocuted; he has a needle stuck in his behind; and so on. Neither of these is terribly harmful, compared to the “Home Alone” movies, but they are enthusiastically exaggerated and still force chuckles out of the ingenuity of the idea that these “little” kids always have the upper hand on this guy.

This fantasy-adventure is brought to life with sensational special effects and amazing-looking, greatly-imagined sets. The sets that make the everyday world, with everyday items all around, look giant. Most of the charm comes from these set pieces alone. And the more complicated effects, integrating the humans with the Borrowers (including one complicated shot that looks like a steadycam shot of Pete looking down and talking to Arrietty who is standing on a table), are competently well-done.

There are many creative, adventurous sequences that follow as the plot continues. Most of these involve little Peagreen. One has him clinging for dear life onto a dangling light bulb, as Potter turns on the light and is ready for the bulb to burn his hands so he can fall. And Arrietty has to save him with a tape measure.

Another, quite possibly the most exciting scene in the movie, is the sequence in which Peagreen ends up in an empty milk bottle and taken to a dairy plant. Arrietty and Spiller (Raymond Pickard) must race to save him before it fills up with milk and is capped shut.

All of this is good fun, and it moves at a brisk pace. I admire the visual imagination and the creative storytelling that went into this film. Although, a minor drawback is that because it’s so fast-paced, that it’s kind of easy to miss something in the plot. We never even see Arrietty convincing her family to trust a previously-feared human “bean” to let him help them; they’re just in the back of the moving truck, and Pod just sort of trusts Pete. Other little details like that get kind of annoying, but I didn’t mind all that much.

Solid characterizations are given to the Borrowers and the beans, and they make the film more successful than it already is. And the characters are well-played by an ensemble of game actors. John Goodman is clearly enjoying himself, playing the nasty Potter who will stop at nothing to get his way; Flora Newbigin is excellent as the feisty, teenage Borrower Arrietty; Jim Broadbent is entertaining as Pod, who winds up barking orders at the human-sized Pete in order to find his and Homily’s children; and Mark Williams (as Potter’s henchman “Exterminator Jeff”) and Hugh Laurie (as a patrol cop) are on hand for effective comic relief.

Director Peter Hewitt has shown in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” that he’s game for visual imagination and creative storytelling, and he’s just as solid in exhibiting it this time, though maybe on a larger scale (so to speak). “The Borrowers” is a delightful, entertaining fantasy-adventure that makes great use of its fascinating premise and delivers the goods.