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Pleasantville (1998)

12 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Pleasantville” is a wonderful fantasy that is funny, great-looking, effective, well-acted, and very clever. First, it parodies those old TV black-and-white sitcoms, such as “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver,” then it gets even better as it continues with its own sitcom plot and transforms into a strong story with a message of the power of change.

“Pleasantville” is the name of a TV black-and-white sitcom that features the same happy family we’ve seen in those other old sitcoms. They live in a small town called “Pleasantville.” Every day is the same—father comes home from work and yells in a pleasant tone, “Honey, I’m home!” Dinner is always on the table when Father comes home. (Making dinner is all Mother does, apparently.) The kids are pleasant too. In fact, everyone around them is pleasant and happy.

‘90s teenager David (Tobey Maguire) watches the reruns of “Pleasantville” and knows the show very well. We’d think that teenagers wouldn’t be interested in a show like that, but David feels left out of place in the 1990s and is more at home in the dream world of “Pleasantville.” His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), however, is right at home here—she’s popular and has experience with sex. One night, while their mother squabbles with their divorced father, David and Jennifer fight over the remote control for the TV, which breaks. To the “rescue” is a mysterious, friendly TV repairman (Don Knotts), who supplies them with a new remote that will “put you through the screen.” They click it and find themselves magically transported into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville. Horrified by her complexion, Jennifer exclaims, “Look at me! I’m pasty!”

So far so good—the idea of having modern-day teenagers in a wholesome, pleasant 1950s TV world is clever. The script has fun with the kids learning about this new world—everyone sticks to the script; no one does anything different; every breakfast is no choice of pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, and a ham steak; the basketball team never misses a single shot, no matter where they aim; the books in the library are blank; nothing burns (the firemen only rescue cats from trees); everyone sleeps in twin beds; and there is nothing outside of Pleasantville (the school history class is only about Main Street and Elm Street and it begins where it ended again). No one has ever even heard of sex. David has seen all of the episodes, and so he knows this world well. Jennifer, on the other hand, finds this world mysterious and creepy. “We’re stuck in Nerdville!,“ she exclaims.

David and Jennifer attempt to cope with this world until the TV repairman feels pleasant enough to send them back home. Their names are now Bud and Mary Sue, their parents’ names are Betty and George Parker (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), and Bud works at the soda shop with Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels). But any change can alter this universe and who knows what’ll happen? And there are changes, starting when Jennifer goes on a date with the cool guy in school and gives him his first sexual experience. That’s when things start to spread around town, and things and people slowly turn into Technicolor.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that “Pleasantville” is great-looking and I wasn’t exaggerating. Almost every shot from that point on is amazing to look at because writer/producer/director Gary Ross and his cinematographer John Lindley use special effects to show a black-and-white world mixed with characters in color. Some of them are still in black-and-white so they interact with the ones in color. How does it happen? As it turns out, whenever anyone in this pleasant world experiences any change of any kind, they turn color and the world becomes more like ours. One of the very best scenes involving this technique is the scene in which Betty, now turned color, is assisted by David to put grey makeup on her face. That scene is very well done. Also, there are bits where things in color are reflected onto the black-and-white characters, like a fire and the moonlight over a river. I was absolutely bedazzled by the effects in this film.

People are ready for change, and the more serious subject of the film are the questions they ask of who they are, what is their purpose, what will happen next—questions they’ve never thought about before. Mr. Johnson becomes interested in art and Betty does something for herself for once. But George is distraught—he’s used to getting dinner on the table when he comes home and distraught when he comes home and the house is empty. His routine is ruined. Finally, the Mayor (the late J.T. Walsh, in his last performance) announces to the remaining “true” citizens of Pleasantville, “Something is happening to our town.” He’s right.

Even David and Jennifer have the ability to change. For example, Jennifer is less interested in keeping her sexual reputation, and wondering what else there is to do. She even starts to take up reading (although, she has to wait until the words appear back in the library books).

The writing is fantastic. The directing is great. Credit Gary Ross for making this movie like it is. In lesser hands, the movie would’ve been as bland as the show it lampoons. Ross delivers the goods here.

The performances are terrific. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are good and convincing as the bewildered teenagers. William H. Macy is delightfully deadpan as the father, Joan Allen is fantastic as the mother, and Jeff Daniels is also good and funny as Mr. Johnson.

“Pleasantville” is also thought-provoking. It’s a magical piece of work that allows us to think about who we are and why we’re here. Can we, as individuals, make differences? I loved every moment of “Pleasantville”—it’s a clever, well-written, great-looking, solidly-acted, fantastic, satirical, fun feel-good movie. (Good Lord, is that enough adjectives?)

A Simple Plan (1998)

26 Jan

Simple Plan

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The title of the thriller “A Simple Plan” represents a form of irony. There is no simple plan. Every time the characters think they’re following a “simple plan,” things just get more complicated and difficult as they go along. The plan ends with disastrous results. Nothing is simple in this movie.

The film takes place in the winter in a small, rural Midwestern town. The protagonist Hank (Bill Paxton) is a nice, bright man living a happy life with his wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda). He has everything he believes a happy man should have, which he states in an opening narration—a lovely wife, a decent job, and people who like and respect him. Then one day, something happens that changes his life. As he, his mentally-slow brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their rowdy, drunk friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble through the woods, they come across the wreckage of a crashed plane, where they find a duffel bag filled with money—millions of dollars in cash.

Amazed by this discovery, the trio is split about what to do with it. Hank wants to do the reasonably smart thing and turn it in to the authorities to let them handle this. Lou believes that nobody has to know and that they should all keep the money. Jacob has no opinion—he’ll just go along with whatever his brother and friend agree on. Lou acts as the devil on Hank’s back—“It’s the American Dream in a gym bag and you wanna walk away from it.” Hank tries to counter by saying, “You work for the American Dream. You don’t steal it.” Lou and Jacob think that since the money probably belonged to some drug dealers, then it’s no problem if they keep the bundle for themselves.

Reluctantly, Hank agrees to hide the money until they’re sure no one’s looking for it or the plane. Then they’ll all split it. In the meantime, Hank keeps the money in his house and lets his wife in on the secretive “simple plan.” Sarah becomes Hank’s silent partner in keeping the money hidden and making sure that no suspicion is present.

This seems like a relatively harmless and, for lack of a better word, simple plan. Hank is undoubtedly the most responsible in the group and as long as Jacob and Lou keep it a secret (and they will, if they want to keep the money), nothing should go wrong. But Sarah suggests that Hank return $500,000 to the plane, so that whoever’s looking for the money won’t be suspicious if they find the plane. OK, a little roadblock. Easily fixable, right?

Wrong. Everything you think can go wrong with this plan goes wrong from that point on. There are consequences, mistrusts, further complications, and the whole situation just becomes a disaster that Hank has to face. Oh, and just when you think everything is finally going to go right, they still have a way of turning around. The money is still around and it will always be a problem. Hank’s right—“You don’t steal the American Dream,” no matter how easy it may seem at this moment.

“A Simple Plan” is an ingenious thriller that plays with tension and storytelling. The screenplay was written by Scott Smith, based on his novel, and it’s brilliantly written in the way it handles this bizarre situation and its further implications. The director was Sam Raimi, who wonderfully portrays the small-town life in the surface of the growing tension between the characters. He keeps the suspense alive. He also uses a snowy backdrop for a chilling atmosphere, much like how the Coen Brothers handled their environment in “Fargo.” (Incidentally, Raimi asked the Coens for advice in filming in this weather.)

“A Simple Plan” faces its moral implications head-on. In order to keep the plan a secret, a character has to do something horrible to help it remain a secret. And then, the characters are forced with the crisis of what they’re going to do, and their decisions bring additional complications for them to handle. The characters deal with it, they talk about it, they have discussions, etc. And we, as an audience, are involved and brought along to follow the story, wondering how they’re going to get out of this.

The performances are flawless. Bill Paxton brings an everyman quality to the role of Hank, and he’s easily identifiable. This is why when paranoia and deception sometimes takes over in his mind to the result of a horrible deed, we feel sorry for him. We’re hoping that things will turn out okay for him. Brent Briscoe is suitably slimy as Lou, who winds up demanding his share of the money soon enough. Bridget Fonda is ultimately solid as a woman who starts to take charge of the situation for the good of her husband.

But in an ensemble cast of flawless performances, one that will undoubtedly catch the most attention is Billy Bob Thornton as Hank’s dim-witted but good-natured brother Jacob. Thornton is absolutely perfect in this film. Playing Jacob by walking a fine line between gentle and psychotic, Thornton delivers a striking portrayal of a slow-minded man who learns to think faster than he has before, and actually has his moments of revelation as well—probably more than what can be said for the other characters who attempt to go on with this secret. Thornton is always appealing in this role, and sometimes even quite haunting.

“A Simple Plan” is a superb thriller with greatly effective storytelling and great acting. It’s an involving story from beginning to end—suspenseful, tense, stylistic, complex, and plausible. And just remember—if you think you can get away with something like thievery, just remember to think about what you’re getting yourself into. There is no simple plan.