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The Up Series (1964-2013)

16 Sep

neil

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “7 Up” project began in the mid-1960s as an episode of a British investigative current affairs program called “World in Action.” The near-40-minute episode, entitled “Seven Up!,” followed 14 children, all age 7, who were interviewed. The purpose of the program was to present “a glimpse of Britain’s future” and ended with the infamous quote, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The participants were chosen to represent different social classes in Britain in the 1960s.

Seven years later, when the children were 14, researcher-turned-director Michael Apted directed “7 Plus Seven” (or “14 Up!,” as it’s also known) with follow-up interviews. And because Apted believed that human lives reform in some manner within seven years, he would continue to follow these same participants (for the most part; a few dropped out, since there was no long-term contract requiring them to participate in each film) at ages 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and 56. (As of now, it’s unclear whether the series will continue at age 63.)

Watching these films as a whole, spanning five decades from “Seven Up” to “56 Up,” is a marvelous experience, capturing the truest essence of life possible for a documentary. It’s not only one of the best documentary projects of all time; it’s a real sociological study. It represents the lives of these people, they talk about what has changed every seven years and what hasn’t, and while we see the changes in each character, we still see who they were and get a sense that they are who they are. It’s like when you look at a photograph of yourself as a child—you know that you are the child and the child is you, but it’s difficult to comprehend the connection due to how much time has passed since the photograph was taken. And so, when each of these people in the “Up” series are shown as children and as adults, you notice the changes in each of them, but you also recognize some of the characteristics in them as children.

These are ordinary people—Tony, Suzy, Neil, Nick, Bruce, Jackie, Lynn, Sue, Symon, Paul, Andrew, John, Charles, and Peter. We don’t know them (though we feel like we do, through the films) and we can’t necessarily say that we at times are like them, because as the entire project indicates, no one is the same as another. But we do recognize parts of ourselves in some of these people that allow us to identify with them, want to know more about their lives, and become engrossed in everything else they have to say. Originally, the project was conceived as a way to make a political point about social class, but as Apted learned more about his subject’s lives, he lost sight of the bigger picture. But that’s fine, because the audience did too. He grew close to his subjects, so we did too.

The individual films in the series are all special in their own way. Some are more exciting and interesting than others, but there are hardly any downsides. The first two (“Seven Up!” and “7 Plus Seven”) are fairly standard, but that’s not bad at all. It starts to get very interesting at around “21 Up,” which shows the growth and maturity of the subjects as they prepare for the rough road of life. After “28 Up,” which some a couple fascinating changes (which I’ll get to in a moment), it becomes clear what the (new) purpose of the project is.

Now let’s talk about the participants. Jackie, Lynn, and Sue are all from the East End of London. While Lynn has a family and career, Jackie and Sue each married young, became single mothers, and later divorced their husbands. Andrew, John, and Charles, each representing the rich upper class people who usually map out the lives of children. These three pretty much followed the path that was already set for them by their parents and society. Of these three, Andrew is the only one who has participated in all of the films, Charles quit after 21, and John skipped 28 and 42. Symon and Paul lived in a children’s home run by charity—since then, Paul emigrated to Australia and has lived there with a wife and children ever since, and Symon has gone through a divorce and remarriage. (It’s also reported that his ex-wife didn’t care for the project, while his current wife does. He and his wife are now foster parents.) Nick grew up on a farm but didn’t see himself working on it in the future; he instead grew up to study science and become a professor and nuclear physicist in the United States. He married before 28, though everyone who saw the film apparently felt the marriage was doomed, due to her commentary. Because of this, she didn’t return for 35 or 42, and by 49, Nick was divorced and remarried. Bruce was a quiet boy who wanted to be a missionary and became a teacher and traveled to places such as Bangladesh. One of the more pleasing developments in the series is when he is 35 and regrets not having been married and in “42 Up,” he is a newlywed. He’s now a devoted husband and father. Neil and Peter were middle-class boys living in Liverpool. Peter skipped 35, 42, and 49, and returned in “56 Up” (mainly to promote his band). (I’ll get to Neil in a moment.)

Of the 14 participants, three stand out most to me (and a lot of other people, for that matter). One is Tony, also from the East End. He’s a favorite because he’s so open and charismatic and one of the biggest supporters of the project, which means he’ll most likely stay with it till the end. He dreamed of being a jockey at age 7; at 14, he was an apprentice at a horse-racing stable; at 21, he talks about a race where he had a photo-finish, from which he keeps a photograph as a souvenir, but he had to move on from being a jockey and instead concentrated on being a taxi driver; at 28, he owned his own cab, got married, and started raising a family. One of the most poignant moments in the series comes from “42 Up,” when he sits with his wife and confesses an affair he had; a real rough patch in their relationship. But they still stayed together after his wife forgave him. A particularly funny moment in the series is in “56 Up” when he tells an anecdote about how he was recognized for the series by someone who wanted his autograph instead of Buzz Aldrin’s (Aldrin was Tony’s fare).

Suzy, who comes from a wealthy background, was always reluctant about doing the films, as she was forced to do it in the first place by her parents. She’s always said she would stop participating, but she kept coming back (probably because she feels obligated to do so after so many years). Suzy was a very shy girl growing up, and by 21, she formed a very negative opinion about marriage. The most dramatic change in the series is from her from age 21 to 28. When you see her in “21 Up,” she’s bitter, chain-smoking, and nervous. But then in “28 Up,” she’s cheerful and happy and married with children; a remarkable transformation.

And last but definitely not least, there’s Neil, from a Liverpool suburb. Neil is the most complex person in the series and his story is consistently captivating and unpredictable. As a child, he was happy and excited, though you have to wonder what his home life was like, since he is also saying things like “I don’t want to have any children because they’re always doing naughty things and making the whole house untidy.” I don’t know many 7-year-olds who would talk like that, especially while smiling (like he does), so it may be indicated that Neil’s happiness was hiding something. By 21, he was living in a squat after dropping out of school after one term. By 28, he was homeless and living in Scotland; in “28 Up,” he provides the most heartbreakingly frank statement about why he will never have children: he’s afraid the child will inherit the most negative traits from him. Many people thought Neil would be dead by 35, but he was still alive, though his life had hit rock bottom. But luckily, by 42, he was able to put his life back together; he’s been involved in local council politics as a Liberal Democrat and he’s even made friends with Bruce, who let him live with him for a while.

This is what the most compelling documentaries contain: real human drama. You don’t find movie characters as fascinating as Neil.

Another special thing about the “Up” series is that with each film being released every seven years (and it still remains to be seen whether we will see “63 Up” in 2020), it allows the audience to think back about themselves and how their lives have changed in the past seven years. That reason (and more) is what truly makes the “Up” series special—it’s documentary filmmaking at its best.

Magnolia (1999)

28 Jan

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

“We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us.” The meaning of that quote in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” is at the core of the film, which is a series of tales that involve grief, regrets, resentment, and sadness among their central characters. Yes, “Magnolia” is an ensemble piece (and a three-hour long one at that) with many different storylines surrounding different characters (only some of whom interconnect) while maintaining a consistent theme to make the characters’ stories parallel. This is a risky move for any filmmaker to make, but Anderson not only manages to pull it off; he really manages to pull it off. The three-hour running time is enough time to allow each character to develop and have their full story told; the characters’ stories are interesting enough to keep us invested; the filmmaking is riveting; and here’s the true test of how effective it was for me—I was so empowered by each story being told in this three-hour epic that I rarely even noticed what time it was. This is an example of a wildly ambitious project that works wonderfully.

“Magnolia” takes place in one day in rainy Los Angeles and presents a slice-of-life look at many different people. I suppose it’s best to begin by describing each character. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is a child genius and a star contestant on a popular TV game show, “What Do Kids Know?” He’s a very smart kid who has every answer and the potential to win the ultimate money prize on the show, and his father couldn’t be prouder; in fact, winning the money seems to be the only thing to get his dad’s attention. The show’s host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), has terminal cancer and learned he has two months to live. He wants to try and reconnect with his daughter, a cocaine addict named Claudia (Melora Walters), but she believes (though he doesn’t remember) he molested her as a child. Meanwhile, Claudia meets a friendly but incompetent police officer, Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who looks past the fact that she’s strung out on drugs and just wants to date her and possibly start a relationship.

We also meet a former champion on the show, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who has grown up and is unhappy with how his life turned out. He seeks to gain attention from someone he loves—a bartender with braces—by getting money for “corrective oral surgery” so he himself can get braces on his teeth. At the same time, we have the producer of the show, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), stricken with cancer and on his deathbed. His second wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), is a young woman trying to deal with her imminent loss, and she even admits that she never really loved him and only married him for his money; this self-revelation causes her to think suicidal thoughts. Earl has a dying wish to see his estranged son. His nurse, Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), tries to fulfill that, discovering that the son is actually Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a magnetic guru who aids men in the conquering of women—his mission statement: “Seduce and Destroy.” (Aaron Eckhart’s character in “In the Company of Men” would envy this guy.) Earl abandoned Frank when he was a boy and Frank has never forgiven him, and Frank had to take care of his mother who died of cancer.

All these characters are different but also kind of similar too. The central theme of “Magnolia” could be either parental cruelty and its lasting effect on both the parents and their children or the effects of spiritual and physical cancer and looking back on life in sorrow and guilt. Two of these people, Earl and Jimmy, are dying physically, and maybe even more, such as self-destructive Claudia and depressed Linda, are not too far behind. Along with Claudia, the rest are hiding some deep mental scars brought on by the sins of the parents and have their own defenses—Frank uses his misogynistic self-help to mask his insecurities; Donnie is loving and surely losing; and the boy genius, Stanley, is being pushed by his father to keep answering correctly and go on to win the grand prize. It starts to become too much pressure for him. There are so few who try to help, the two in particular being Jim and Phil. A policeman and a nurse—the only figures who represent care and hope in these people’s lives. But they’re only available for about two or three of the people in question; the others could benefit from their help. (What makes it more upsetting is that the connections Jim and Phil make with the people they come across probably won’t last long.)

For a three-hour ensemble drama, “Magnolia” is perfectly-paced. As strange as that sounds, it was enough to keep me involved in each one of these characters’ stories. There’s a lot that happens in this film (obviously, given its running time), so I can’t say too much about the plot in this review. Even the least interesting storyline (to me, it’s the subplot involving Donnie) has something worthwhile to keep me watching. It not only helps to establish these characters in a strongly realistic portrait of how real people with similar problems behave and interact. It also helps to have a top-notch cinematographer (Robert Elswit, Anderson’s usual DP) to photograph the film beautifully; to edit it energetically; and to add a few eccentric moments, such as when all “dying” characters sing along to an Aimee Mann song playing on the soundtrack (“It’s Not Going to Stop”). But there’s also something that happens near the end…but I’ll get to that later.

Every actor/actress in this terrific ensemble cast does a spectacular job. Newcomer Jeremy Blackman is terrific as a kid under tremendous pressure; I felt for this kid at a crucial point when he realizes this game isn’t fun anymore. Julianne Moore does a great job at making Linda into someone who is always sympathetic even in times when she can be unlikable. Jason Robards delivers arguably his best scene in any film he’s been in: a heartbreaking bedridden monologue about how many regrets he has in his life now he’s at death’s door. John C. Reilly radiates a soft gentleness to his policeman character, and he and Melora Walters share a nice, offbeat relationship together. Philip Baker Hall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and William H. Macy are equally effective. And then there’s Tom Cruise—this may just be the best performance I’ve ever seen from this top-notch star, playing Frank with much charisma with much sadness hiding underneath. It’s a spellbinding portrayal.

It’s hard to pick my favorite scene—is it the prologue involving urban legends?; is it Stanley’s breakdown on the air?; is it Earl’s monologue about regret and guilt?; is it Frank’s tearful reunion with his dying father?; is it the beautiful sequence in which all “dying” characters (figuratively and literally) share a musical number?; is it the extraordinary, completely out-of-nowhere occurrence near the end of the film? How about the whole thing?

If you’ve seen the film, you’re probably wondering what I make of said-“extraordinary, completely out-of-nowhere occurrence.” This was a sequence that took everyone by surprise in its original release, caused many debates, and even split many audiences and critics in their overall opinion of the film (some say it was a work of genius while others say it was an unbelievable copout; if you haven’t guessed, I belong to the former group). If you don’t know what it is, I won’t reveal it here, but I will say this—nothing in the first 2 hours and 40 minutes of this film will prepare you for it. I certainly wasn’t prepared for it. It may be a copout for some people who thought it ruined a perfectly good setup of effective human conduct and communication, but to me, it only raised the film to a new level that I was fascinated by it. I found myself thinking more about it the second time I watched the film. (I also realize that without the prologue that indicates that even the most improbable things can happen in life, this ending would have made no sense at all.)

P.T. Anderson’s “Magnolia” is simply a wonderful piece of work—a very well-put-together ensemble drama that quite frankly, I would even rank higher than Robert Altman’s best works. I cared about each character, I felt like I knew each of them rather than just some of them, and again, I was engaged by all their storylines, which to me is its biggest accomplishment. Maybe I understand it or I was in the right mood for it when I first watched it, but “Magnolia” was a tremendous film for me to experience.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

1 Jul

watching-movie

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I guess the best way to start this review is by saying whether or not those who aren’t fans or haven’t seen an episode of the hit animated TV series “South Park” will enjoy this movie version, “Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” Well, a typical “South Park” episode contains a lot of fearless satire (mostly on current issues or trends or sometimes both) with a lot of toilet humor, vulgarities, and usually some mean-spiritedness surrounding it. And if you can get into all that to get to what its creators Tray Parker & Matt Stone address (usually at the end of the episode to make up for everything else) and if you can laugh at it, then you get what you can expect when you see a full-length movie. It’s essentially like watching three or four episodes of “South Park.”

The main difference? It’s a theatrical release, which means the things that Parker & Stone really wanted to include in their material to make the humor full-circle, like heavy amounts of profanity and sexual references, are welcome…to a certain extent, I think. This film isn’t rated NC-17 by the MPAA and instead rated R, I believe, simply because it’s animated. Times have sort of changed since the X-rated “Fritz the Cat.” But there you go—many uses of the F-word every minute in this under-90-minute film.

Aside from that, “Bigger, Longer & Uncut” is essentially like watching a long episode of “South Park,” and if you like “South Park,” you’ll probably like this movie. Simple.

The animation is still bad but consistently so. The humor is still nonsubtle and crude and rude. The targets of such humor are savaged, and there are MANY here (the MPAA’s rating system, Canada, wars, religion, small town America, among others). Stan and Kyle learn an important lesson that they practically address to the audience. And more importantly, Kenny still dies and Cartman is still a pain in the ass. But he’s a hilarious pain in the ass if that makes sense!

What’s the story? Well, it’s quite full. It all begins as our four young heroes, Stan (Parker), Kyle (Stone), Cartman (Parker), and Kenny (Stone), sneak into an R-rated movie in which Canadian stars Terrence & Phillip tell dirty jokes, sing profane songs, and drop the f-bomb left and right. This new vocabulary and behavior fascinates them to no end, as they swear up a storm in front of their friends who then see the movie themselves. Soon, everyone in school has seen the movie and are spewing profanities all around. Kyle’s overbearing mother starts an organization that tries to prohibit profanity and decides to strike against Canada since it was made in their country. They make a citizen’s arrest against Terrence & Phillip themselves. When Canada strikes back by bombing the Baldwin brothers, American goes to war. Their next step: execute Terrence & Phillip at a public gathering. How to attend: join the US Army.

Of course, Kenny dies, as he does in most episodes. (Every occurrence is followed by this—Stan: “Oh my God! They/he/you killed Kenny!” Kyle: “You bastard(s)!”) Here, Kenny imitates a risky action done in the Terrence & Phillip movie and gets killed in the process. Does he go to Heaven? Nope. He’s sent down to Hell where he of course comes across a gigantic Satan. He’s scary at first, until Kenny notices he’s weak when next to Saddam Hussein, who happens to be Satan’s lover in a homosexual relationship. Kenny also finds out that if Terrence & Phillip are killed, Satan and Saddam will rise and rule the world. He makes a ghostly appearance to Cartman to warn him. Can Stan, Kyle, and Cartman stop everything before time runs out?

“South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” is also a musical, much like a Disney animated musical but with swear words. Most of them are catchy and edgy, with hilarious lyrics all around. Where else will you find a musical in which Satan sings about dreaming of a life like everyone else on Earth? There are a lot of songs in this movie, including one that is a follow-up to a popular Cartman song done on the show, but of course with more F-words and an ironic twist.

And speaking of Cartman, he is just hilarious here. Cartman is generally everyone’s favorite character on the show because he’s so loud and obnoxious and despicable…usually, that would make him very unbearable, but somehow (I’m not quite sure how) Cartman has the right amount of cruelty, vulgarity, racism, and loudness to make us laugh at him. And a masterstroke in writing is that midway through the film, after he’s spewed so many profanities, he’s given a chip in his brain that will shock him if he utters another f-bomb or s-word. It drives him crazy when he can’t say what he really wants, and I love how angry he gets about anything, let alone not being allowed to swear.

What’s really funny about the satire is that everything that happens here happened because of profanity in a movie that kids wouldn’t see unless they snuck in to begin with. And it has a point. There’s a line Kyle’s mom says that pretty much sums up what the antagonists are doing—“Remember what the MPAA says: Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words!” Yeah, really think about that.

That’s one of the joys of “South Park”: that Parker & Stone can look at something and how people react to it and come up with exaggerated versions of it or them. It’s kind of like they’re projecting what these people are acting like to them. And if they imagine them saying something about it, then it’s pretty much what they allow their characters to say.

There isn’t much more I can say about this film’s humor without giving stuff away, and this film practically demands you not to know too much. You may find the movie funnier that way anyway. I guess the best way to recommend “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” to those who haven’t seen the show is by saying if you’re easily offended, you shouldn’t see this movie. As for me, I laughed out loud quite a lot during this movie and found myself chuckling even more. I found the film to be funny all the way through and I’d watch it about 20 or 30 more times, like my favorite “South Park” episodes.

Light It Up (1999)

30 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are times in a high-schooler’s life in which he or she just wants their voice to be heard, and no one is listening. And when the school is as messed up as the one in “Light It Up,” you can kind of understand the anger and confusion the students feel when they just want to state what they want or maybe even need. Things can get worse when authority figures don’t give them the type of attention they need, and that tends to lead to extreme measures. That’s what happens in “Light It Up,” which is about how six high-school students who stage a hostage situation in their own school in order to get their points across.

Now, despite how that sounds, this is far from an exploitative thriller or a hostage-negotiation film. While some of those elements are present, they’re not what are important to the story. Instead what the film focuses more on is character development and getting its message across. People who want to boycott a film like this need to consider what they haven’t seen more than what they’ve heard, because “Light It Up” is an effective urban drama.

It begins with a typical day at a ramshackle Queens high school, except for a newcomer on campus—the new security guard, former cop Dante Jackson (Forest Whitaker). Jackson is ready to take force to get these kids in line. And he’s ready to jump into action when a group of students start to protest when their favorite teacher, Mr. Knowles (Judd Nelson), is suspended. When a couple of the students try to reason with the principal, they are suspended too. When they argue, Jackson is there to break it up. But the situation becomes dangerous when a kid he apprehends gets ahold of Jackson’s gun and it accidentally fires, hitting Jackson’s leg. When Jackson pegs it on the kid and tries to take him away, another kid grabs the gun and holds Jackson at gunpoint. So he, the kid, and four others hole up in the school’s library, holding Jackson hostage.

The group is led by star-athlete Lester (Usher Raymond). On his side are Ziggy (Robert Ri’chard), an innocent artist who inadvertently started all this; class-brain Stephanie (Rosario Dawson); pot-dealer/class-clown Rivers (Clifton Collins, Jr.); pregnant loner Lynn (Sara Gilbert); and Rodney (Fredro Starr). Rodney is the only gang member among the group, but the media has already labeled the others as being criminals. When the kids realize the gravity of this situation, they decide to use it to their advantage. As they negotiate with the H.N., Audrey (Vanessa L. Williams in a thankless role), they decide to make global news as they make their demands. Their demands to be heard and to improve their school surprise everyone, but also earns support from most of the public.

As the film continues, we get to know these kids in ways that Jackson never even bothered to do before he labeled them immediately as bad people. Ziggy comes from an unwelcome home, which is why he secretly lives in the school. The main reason he freaked out in the first place was because Jackson was going to call his parents to take him home. And when Jackson sees the scars on Ziggy’s back, he sees why Ziggy wasn’t going to have it. And also when he sees Ziggy’s true gift for drawing and painting, he can also see his pure innocence. Rightfully so. This is a kid you don’t want bad things to happen to.

Lester is a strong leader, but there are layers of depression and tragedy hidden that he doesn’t like to talk about. The reasons for that come through when he finally lets out his reasons for hating the police. Stephanie is the type of smart, intelligent student you wouldn’t expect to find in a situation like this, but any situation in which she can help somebody is one she can’t say “no” to easily. Lynn’s plight is obvious (unexpected pregnancy and a jackass boyfriend who wants no part of it), but it’s still effective enough. Rivers doesn’t have much, but his presence is welcome to lighten things up a bit. Actually, I take it back. If he wasn’t the only one on drugs, I don’t think he would have taken things seriously, and there are times when he does; he’s not dumb and he’s very reliable. Rodney is the closest thing to a criminal-type, is only there to hide from a gang that would like their way with him, would like to shoot Jackson if he had the gun and not Lester, and also has a hard time controlling himself.

We even get to know Jackson a little bit, as we find out why he’s a security guard at a public school instead of a police officer on the beat. We see that he lives in a cruel, difficult world just like these kids do. And he realizes that too, so there’s also room for him to grow in this film.

When the film focuses on these characters’ plight and growth, “Light It Up” works. The actors all do solid jobs, especially Forest Whitaker, Usher Raymond, and Robert Ri’chard. And even when the script goes for certain clichés that I’m not sure could be helped, the situations are kept fresh for the most part. You could argue that sometimes it preaches, but these are issues that need to be addressed. In that case, “Light It Up” is also an effective parable that speaks about the American inner-city public school system. The questions asked early on in this film are legit, and authority is too uptight and too unfocused to answer them.

And I should also mention that “Light It Up” is also a nicely-done thriller as well. The situations with these kids, the gun, and their hostage is tense, and the film knows that. Sure, the outcome of the hostage situation may be predictable for some, but there are moments when you find yourself not knowing exactly how certain situations, particularly in the final act, will play out. For all you know, somebody could die.

There was true effort put into “Light It Up” that made it into an effective, well-acted film that works as a coming-of-age story, a thriller, and a cautionary tale.

The Haunting (1999)

2 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You know how Robert Wise’s 1963 low-budget haunted-house movie “The Haunting” was an effective chiller by showing very little while creating atmosphere, thus scaring audiences without the visible presence of illustrative mayhem? You want to see that effectiveness thrown out the window for a remake?

To start with this review of Jan De Bont’s 1999 remake of “The Haunting,” I probably can’t talk about this one without also talking about another horror film that was released the same year as this one—“The Blair Witch Project.” “The Blair Witch Project” was a little film that managed to scare audiences the same way Wise’s original “Haunting” did, with its same minimal concept: showing very little. That film was one of the most inventive horror films to come around in a long time, whereas this 1999 version of “The Haunting” is unintentionally silly, and unbelievably so. It’s amazing how far this movie misses the mark on why the original film worked as a frightening experience.

The movie starts out fine, strangely. The setup is actually well-done and surprisingly intriguing enough to suck us into the story. We meet our protagonist, Eleanor (Lili Taylor), who is more of an insecure person nearing a nervous breakdown than a mentally-tortured oddball like in the original. This surprisingly works, as Eleanor is a character with actual complexity and Lili Taylor does a consistently good job of playing her. Eleanor has spent years looking after her invalid mother until her death, and is now being thrown out of her apartment because of rights in a will. Not knowing what to do, she responds to a newspaper ad seeking research subjects for a sleep study at a secluded manor called Hill House. Run by Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson), the true purpose of the study is to study psychological responses to fear—he picks Hill House because the house is seemingly haunted and telling stories about its history may bring the response he needs for the study. His subjects are Eleanor, Theodora (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Luke (Owen Wilson).

While I’m complimenting the setup (except that this “insomnia-study” seems a little too contrived, especially seeing as how in the original, the people knew what they were getting into from the start), I should really praise the overall look of Hill House. The production design here is outstanding. The locations and sets look fascinating, and they’re definitely enough to keep our attention for good chunks of the film. There’s a particularly terrific scene in which Eleanor and Theodora explore a good chunk of Hill House and find all sorts of surprises inside. Everything is so rich in detail that it nearly (nearly) puts the original film’s haunted-house splendor to shame.

And one more thing to be said—the first supernatural occurrence that the characters experience in Hill House, with Eleanor and Theodora reacting to something forceful pounding outside their bedroom, is creepy enough. But that’s only the first one, and the film goes downhill real fast after that point. After a nicely-done setup, “The Haunting” takes a brutal nosedive into something unworthy of the original film. And the best way to start with just how much it doesn’t care about its predecessor is to mention the overall use of computer-generated imagery. It makes its first appearance midway through the movie, as we experience all kinds of ghosts who make all kinds of appearances to frighten Eleanor, such as a face appearing in a pillow. And from that point, the film has lost me. It gives us wall-to-wall CGI effects (and particularly bad CGI too) and also thrusts us into a badly-written, horribly-crafted second half that only gets sillier and sillier.

Has director Jan De Bont (“Speed,” “Twister”) ever heard of subtlety? I mean, come on—really? Did he really think that “The Haunting” would be more effective if he just showed what the original film didn’t? This was his biggest mistake for the film—showing all, making it all lose credibility once the effects start to pop up. And it only gets worse with a story that somehow involves Eleanor having some sort of connection with the ghosts (or rather, the cheap-looking “good ghosts” whose only purpose is to chant Eleanor’s name in singsong and whisper “solemnly” for her to “find” them) and the other characters (Markway, Theodora, and Luke) are amazingly slow to catch on, and then when they do, all sorts of crazy things happen—crazy enough to make us laugh sometimes. But I couldn’t laugh; I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Lili Taylor, like I said, does a consistently good job at playing Eleanor, and Catherine Zeta-Jones does fine as Theodora (though to add to the non-subtlety that the movie offering, the character’s possible bisexuality, only implied in the original, is…not so implied; in fact, it’s blatantly obvious, though I guess it had to do as much as possible to exploit Zeta-Jones’ body). But Liam Neeson is stiff as a board and Owen Wilson is given nothing to do, except point out what is happening right in front of us (I miss Russ Tamblyn’s one-liners).

The ending is the biggest slap to the original film’s face. If you thought the film was bad enough already, this is just horrible. The psychological tension of the original film is thrown out the window for more CGI, more crappy storytelling, and bad filmmaking. It’s just dumb, dumb, dumb. To call it a disappointment would be understating it.

The original Robert Wise film “The Haunting” is my personal favorite horror film, which is why it hurts me to find just how much this remake doesn’t work. “The Blair Witch Project” shows more respect towards the original than this film does. That film at least left its scary aspects to the viewer’s imagination, which made it scarier because it was what we didn’t see rather than what we did. Maybe Jan De Bont should have thought of that before showing and telling all.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

6 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Mix William Shakespeare with John Hughes, and you get “10 Things I Hate About You.” But despite how insipid that may sound, it’s more entertaining and funny than you might expect. This is a charming, amusing high-school comedy that takes elements from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and brings them to the modern times of late-‘90s high school comedy-drama. The results are an amusing, smart script and talented actors to follow.

The “Shrew” is commonly known as Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles), a high school senior who is a nonconformist (which we immediately figure out in an opening scene where she listens to old hard rock while other girls listen to the hipper tunes) and antisocial. She’s hostile towards certain people, argues in her English class, and is sometimes referred to as “the wild beast.” Her younger sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), on the other hand, is the exact opposite of Kat. She’s popular, pretty, and superficial. She wants to date, but her strict father (Larry Miller) won’t allow her to unless Kat does. The shy new kid Cameron James (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has an instant crush on Bianca, finds out about this rule. So he and his friend Michael (David Krumholtz, very funny) decide to find a date for Kat. They hire the slick, rich, vain pretty-boy Joey Donner (Andrew Keegan), who also wants to date Bianca, to hire somebody to take her out. He chooses a possible candidate in Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), the school’s mysterious bad-boy, paying him to date Kat. But this proves to be complicated as Kat immediately thinks nothing of Patrick, other than disgust, and on top of that, Patrick actually starts to fall for Kat. So with some help, he attempts to “tame the shrew.”

If the story sounds like an updated (for 1999) version of “The Taming of the Shrew,” that’s exactly what it is. But not only that—there are many references to Shakespeare throughout the movie. A few lines of the original source are said jokingly (“I burn, I pine, I perish” is what Cameron says when he first notices Bianca); Michael dresses up in Shakespearean-era wardrobe to impress a girl he likes (who also reads “Macbeth”); the high school is called Padua High; sonnets are used as rap lyrics by the English teacher, played by Daryl “Chill” Mitchell; and so on and so forth. It’s all pretty clever in how the film knows that it’s in a Shakespearean story and yet doesn’t go so far that it becomes annoying. It works and delivers a few laughs.

The characters are some of the more interesting individuals you can find in a high-school comedy. Kat is not a one-dimensional “shrew” used as a tool to get the story going; she has reasons for being rebellious and actually does have feelings, which are stated in some early stages, but revealed further as the film continues. Of course we all know early on that Patrick will turn out to become a nice guy underneath the tough exterior, but a refreshing take has it so that Patrick can use it to his advantage. He’s not so much of a blowhard—there’s more to him than meets the eye, which even Kat comes to find. Bianca realizes her conceitedness that popularity brings her to being part of, and discovers she genuinely likes Cameron, who tries everything just to date her. At first, Cameron is a bit selfish and kind of a dork, but when he realizes certain flaws about Bianca’s personality, even he becomes three-dimensional. Michael is kind of an outcast on campus, but at least he knows his place in high school and uses it to his advantage. And then there’s the villain, Joey. I usually hate cardboard-cutout bullies that spoil everything in romantic comedies, but this kid cracks me up because he knows he’s a villain and has fun with his persona. (He’s also a model, which leads a very funny line after being hit in the nose: “I’m shooting a nose-spray ad tomorrow!”)

All of the actors play their parts well. Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger share undeniable chemistry, Larisa Oleynik brings more than meets the eye with her part, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is likable, David Krumholtz is funny, and Andrew Keegan is suitably slimy. Adult actors include Larry Miller as Kat and Bianca’s strict father, who gets a few funny lines every now and then; Daryl “Chill” Mitchell as the wisecracking English teacher; and Allison Janney who is funny as the sex-obsessed guidance counselor (by the way, she only gets two scenes early on and is never seen throughout the rest of the movie—why?). They add to the charm and humor of “10 Things I Hate About You.”

NOTE: I think the Allison Janney character had scenes that were cut out of the movie to give it the PG-13 rating. There are already lines of dialogue that include double-entendres and sexual references (and a drawn penis on Michael’s face), so more of Janney’s sexual talk would probably grant the movie an “R.”

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

14 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s one thing for a thriller/horror film to claim that it’s based on a true story. It’s quite another to make us believe that statement. You know how Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio play frightened people into believing something terrible was really happening? How can you transfer that same kind of reaction to film? I mean, let’s face it—whenever we see that a narrative thriller, especially a ridiculous-sounding one, is captioned “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events,” we roll our eyes in disbelief. How can a film be so effective by introducing itself with a disclaimer that it was based on true events, and then making us start to believe it?

“The Blair Witch Project” provides a successful answer to that query. It opens with the ominous statement, “In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.” From then on, the entire film is presented as home-video camera footage, in chronological order as if we’re seeing actual found footage leading up to something horrible for three characters who act and feel like real people.

This is great. I knew that “The Blair Witch Project” was fictional, but it’s such a harrowing experience that it manages to take the audience off guard. I know it took me off guard quite a few times. The illusion that this is a documentary-in-the-making is consistently applicable. With this unusual way of showing the film’s story, this is a brilliantly effective horror film and a prime example of independent filmmakers taking advantage of a miniscule budget.

The footage in the film was shot with two cameras—a color video handheld camcorder and a 16-mm. black-and-white camera. The former is used by aspiring director Heather (Heather Donahue) to document the making of her documentary in production, using the latter. With the aid of cameraman Josh (Joshua Leonard) and soundman Mike (Michael Williams), Heather decides to make a documentary about the mythical, legendary Blair Witch, said to haunt the woods near small town Burkittsville, Maryland. All three pack camping gear and prepare for hiking and sleeping in tents in the woods.

We first see them goofing around like normal college students. They playfully make fun of each other, mug for the camera, and joke around, while also filming the opening scene (at a cemetery, where Heather delivers the opening monologue, telling part of the supernatural legend) and interviewing the townspeople who state what they heard about the Blair Witch, whether they believe it or not—one of which happens to believe she had an encounter with the witch. Then it’s off to the forest, where they explore where the legend supposedly takes place. It’s here where a seemingly planned trip to make a film is surely damaged once the three become lost.

There’s most likely something supernatural occurring here, as many clues are left for the three characters to discover, including strange piles of rocks and creepy stick figures hanging from trees. And let’s not forget something going bump in the night, like distant noises and the tent shaking. But what really makes the terror in “The Blair Witch Project” so effective is that it gives an intentionally disorganized production setup that really gives us the feeling of being there with the people that this is happening to. On top of that, the film never shows the monster. This is one of the most successful of thrillers, particularly those based upon ghost stories—our imagination is more creative than anything else. It’s what we don’t see that scares us. (See 1963’s “The Haunting” as another example.) Sounds, darkness, or both can become effective elements in horror. We’re all afraid of things we can’t see because we don’t want to see them. Say, for example, you’re alone in the dark and you suddenly hear some sort of noise. You’re immediately scared and you wonder if you really want to know what’s out there, if anything. “The Blair Witch Project” taps into our fear of everyday things such as darkness, wildlife, and lack of direction. It uses this fear to its advantage. Also, because you don’t see a lot of the action and you’re stuck with growing fear of the unknown, “The Blair Witch Project” can be seen as a psychological thriller rather than just a ghost story.

The acting is excellent. Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard were all unknown actors who also used their real names to add to the illusion that the film was real, and also improvised quite a lot to make lines seem more natural. (I even read somewhere that at the film’s premiere, there were “missing” posters for all three actors, “presumed dead.”) The effect works. I cared very much for what was happening to these three and was worried for them, since I knew that they weren’t going to make it out of this terrifying situation they brought themselves into. In particular, Heather Donahue delivers a heartbreaking monologue to the camera in one of the final scenes, stating with quivering fear that she apologizes to the families of her companions for bringing them out into the place where they’ll all probably die. That scene is extraordinarily acted.

“The Blair Witch Project” is a nearly perfect horror film, but I have to wonder if anyone really would leave the camera on for so long after everything that has been experienced. But then again, I am a filmmaker as well and if I knew that something strange was going to happen, even something potentially life-threatening, I’d probably want to keep rolling in order to let people what happened. So if I’m not going to pick on that very much, I should also mention that while the film is an hour and twenty minutes, I have to admit that the pacing can be very awkward, especially in the setup leading up to the middle part of the film which at times seems pretty slow-moving.

But for the most part, “The Blair Witch Project” is a truly scary experience that shows just how much of an impact a shoestring-budget film can bring to an audience. My best piece of advice: don’t see this film right before an overnight camping trip in the woods.