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Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season (1999)

21 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I hate to knock a feel-good family movie that has good intentions and positive messages to convey. But the main problem with “Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season,” sequel to the terrific 1997 family drama “Shiloh” and based upon the novel “Shiloh Season” by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, is that it felt the way you couldn’t label about the first film (or at least, most people couldn’t say about it), and that is “preachy.” This just felt to me like generic, wholesome fluff with nothing too memorable to gain from it.

The original film, “Shiloh” (which I loved), had its morals and messages too. But they were in a film that was written more intelligently and with more subtlety than what the filmmakers of this sequel were going for. I don’t mind that messages from the original film are carried over a little further if it’s done right. But throughout the movie, I felt as if I was being had—as if I was being hammered with the ultimate lesson this movie had to deliver. And I never felt that way about the original film. And I know what you might be thinking—“It’s a kid’s movie! They’re supposed to hammer the message down hard on the kids watching it!” A) It’s supposed to be a family movie, not a “kid’s movie.” B) I don’t think kids like to be manipulated by what they watch as much as their parents like to imagine.

Maybe I’m being a little too harsh. After all, at least these issues are addressed in this movie, and they are ethics that kids can identify with. (I give credit to the original “Shiloh” novels for that.) The “Shiloh” stories are about protectiveness, determination, and helpfulness in the tale of a boy protecting a dog from its cruel owner (the original film) and seeing if the owner can change his cruel ways (this film).

“Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season” brings back the characters from the original film, including young Marty Preston (Zachary Browne, taking over for Blake Heron) who is still learning life lessons while protecting his dog, the cute, adorable beagle Shiloh, which Marty earned from its mean owner, Judd Travers (Scott Wilson, reprising his role from the earlier film). Judd is so unpleasant that even the local women are secretly talking about boycotting him away from town. He gets drunk constantly, he shoots what he doesn’t care is in season or not, and has a resentful attitude toward Marty for now having his dog.

Someone is pulling pranks on Judd—letting loose his hunting dogs, scratching his pickup truck, and knocking over his mailbox. Judd thinks Marty’s to blame, and this leads to many confrontations between Judd and Marty, and Judd and Marty’s dad, Ray (Michael Moriarty, also reprising his role from the earlier film).

Also back is the character of Marty’s mother (Ann Dowd), who does what she’s required to do, same as in the original film. There’s also Doc Wallace from the original film (again played by Rod Steiger) who is still around to give helpful advice, and while the character does seem like more of a fortune cookie this time around, he does manage a couple convincing helpful scenes with Marty. New characters include Marty’s rapscallion school chum David (Joe Pichler) and his new middle school teacher, Miss Talbot (Dawn McMillan), who knows how to teach the right ethical lessons to her class.

Of the acting, Scott Wilson is the most interesting performer in the cast, but that’s probably because his Judd Travers has always been the most interesting character in these stories. He has the role of a pathetic man—mean and lowly only as a way of not showing how he really feels. He was kicked around as a child, and now he kicks his dogs around and he’s a lonely man who feels better when he’s drinking or hunting. That doesn’t leave much for society to bear with him; he’s seen as a mean SOB. But can he change? Is anybody truly cruel forever? Can a troubled past keep a man troubled for the rest of his life? For all the machinery that this movie is composed of, Wilson manages to give a solid performance here.

Mainly, what it comes down to with the teachings of the morals & ethics for “Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season” is whether or not you buy it. I guess I didn’t for the most part. It does have its moments, when it’s mainly focused on the Judd Travers character, and the ending kind of works. But it’s too wholesome and generic, and not convincing enough to accept what we’re supposed to take from it.

The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999)

20 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Rage: Carrie 2” is the supposed sequel to the 1976 thriller “Carrie,” but it very clumsily tries to establish a connection to the original film. Maybe if it were a remake, it wouldn’t be too bad. But the film itself still suffers by the weak attempt to “continue the story,” odd choices of camera angles and cinematography, and just a carbon copy of the original film.

The protagonist is Rachel (Emily Bergl) who, like Carrie, is among the “bottom-feeders” in her high school. She’s a loner—her home life is an unhappy one with foster parents (her birth mother is locked away in an institution) and she has one friend, a fellow loser named Lisa (Mena Suvari). But soon, her world is torn apart when Lisa, heartbroken after losing her virginity to a complete jerk, commits suicide by jumping off the roof of the school building. It’s then that Rachel realizes her power to move things with her mind. She mostly does it when she gets angry or nervous.

Rachel has no one, until friendly jock Jesse (Jason London) finds himself attracted to her and asks her on a date, which she accepts. They see each other for quite a time, making his snobby ex-girlfriend jealous. So she, her friends, and a few jocks come up with a plan to mess with her. But with Rachel’s developing (and deadly) telekinetic abilities, they’re in for a real surprise that can only end in bloodshed…

What doesn’t work at all is the forced connection between Carrie and Rachel. Obviously, they’re both telekinetic, but then it turns out that they’re related—Rachel is Carrie’s half-niece. Sue Snell (Amy Irving, reprising her role as one of the survivors of the massacre at the end of the original film) is a school counselor trying to find some answers regarding Rachel’s power and sees her mentally insane mother (nicely played, given the circumstances, by J. Smith Cameron) to ask some important questions. These scenes are weakly written and serve no purpose. Why not try and make this movie a “re-imagining” rather than a sequel?

The camerawork and editing are all over the map. There are insane closeups, move-ins, “funhouse-mirror-type” imagery added to scenes, and also black-and-white shots that serve no purpose other than…being shot in black-and-white. This makes the violent climax hard to watch and really jumbled into a muddled mess, when it should have been either as chilling as or better than the climax in the original film (at least, in that climax, the only gimmickry was a split-screen effect).

There are some things that the movie does do right. In particular, Emily Bergl does a good job at portraying this high school outcast looking to belong. And the relationship between Rachel and Jesse is well-developed and the actors do show good chemistry together. You can see that Jesse genuinely likes Rachel, and is not in on the joke or seeing her because someone asks her to. (That’s an upgrade from the original film, which used the relationship between the girl and boy as a pity date.) I was more interested in this opposites-attract relationship than with any of the telekinesis stuff. And there are some nice touches of foreshadowing, like a song called “Backstabbing Liar” being played just before Rachel is about to be humiliated.

“The Rage: Carrie 2” is just a mess. There’s too many things going on, only very few to care about, and despite winning performances by Emily Bergl and Jason London, there’s nothing really memorable about it. While the original film wasn’t perfect, it knew how to set up the horror aspects of a teenage girl’s powers taking over. “The Rage: Carrie 2” just knows how to set up an unpleasant orgy of carnage.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

11 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Sixth Sense” is more of a psychological thriller than a traditional ghost story. It has its gruesome moments, its tense moments of terror, and even some ghosts, but they exist to serve the story and its characters. This is a call back to those original ghost stories that featured ordinary people in unbelievable situations they couldn’t quite understand. Probably one of the more notable aspects of the stories was that children were more attentive of the ghosts, while the adults are more skeptical. “The Sixth Sense” is about a little boy who claims he can “see dead people.” And he really does.

The story begins with a child psychologist named Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) who is celebrating with his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) after he receives an award for his work. But he encounters an intruder, who is actually a patient from many years ago, now completely cracked and believing that Malcolm failed him. The intruder shoots Malcolm before pulling the gun on himself.

Cut to the next fall, when Malcolm has somewhat recovered from the encounter. I use the term “somewhat” because he seems more dedicated to his work while his life at home with Anna seems to have no special meaning anymore. He works on a new case—a small, odd boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who seems to have the same problems that Malcolm’s earlier patient did. He hopes to get it right this time as a form of redemption.

Cole reveals his deep secret to Malcolm, that he sees ghosts. They frighten him, never seem to go away, and are even capable of physical harm towards him. Malcolm doesn’t quite believe the kid’s stories and thinks he might be intensely disturbed. But Cole knows things that others shouldn’t know and Malcolm can’t deny the truth.

One of the great things about “The Sixth Sense” is that it eases us into the scary stuff. There’s always a great deal of tension underlying the story, from one scene to the next. It takes its time to develop the characters and the terror that most of them experience, and then delivers the payoffs. The result is chilling and quite fascinating in the way it continues straight with the story, instead of resorting to mindless violence and smoke-and-mirrors.

We don’t see the ghosts right away—it would have sucked away the film’s credibility. But we can feel that they’re there because of certain strange occurrences (for example, the mother leaves the kitchen for a few seconds and comes back to see every cupboard door mysteriously opened). When we finally do see them, they are as frightening as Cole makes them out to be and we feel his fear. But then the story asks a question you rarely hear in a ghost story—what do the ghosts want from him? Why do they make themselves visible to him? Ghosts are not just there to be seen by people who delight in seeing them. Ghosts don’t just appear to scare people. They want something they weren’t able to finish in the time they were alive, so they can rest in peace. Malcolm uses his attempt at understanding to convince Cole that the best way to be rid of them is to help them.

I haven’t mentioned the writer-director—I have to. It’s M. Night Shyamalan, who proves with this movie that he can write and direct the best sort of thrillers. He doesn’t care about simple gimmicks to keep the story going and get the audience invested. Instead, he uses rules, clues, and sensibility to cover those two important qualities. I also love the way he stays focused on characters in a single scene, just letting the scene play out. He lets the actors feel their characters and thus make the relationships between them feel natural—Malcolm and Cole, Malcolm and Anna, and Cole and his mother (Toni Collette).

The acting is first-rate. Bruce Willis, in my opinion, delivers his best work here. He’s been appealing in action movies, but in “The Sixth Sense,” he delivers some serious acting chops and is more than capable of delivering a dramatic role. He has a real quiet sensitivity and a true sense of trust that makes you believe in him. Haley Joel Osment is a very good young actor and a lot of the story rides on him. He fully succeeds in getting the motions of Cole exactly right. He’s odd, yes, but he’s scared, reactive, and believable. We feel for this kid and just hope that he doesn’t have to be scared anymore. Osment proves he can play heavy scenes with older, more experienced actors. Also, Toni Collette is great as Cole’s mother Lynn, in the way she reacts to her son’s behavior—her final scene with Cole is especially heartbreaking and wonderfully acted by both Collette and Osment. Of the rest of the supporting cast, both Olivia Williams as Anna and Donnie Wahlberg as Malcolm’s former patient Vincent deliver solid work.

There’s a twist ending at the end of the movie, which I would not dare give away, even if you already know it from other people who saw this movie and blabbed about it. For those who don’t know the twist, it will most likely surprise you as it did me. What’s great about it is not that you didn’t see it coming, but that there were a lot of hidden clues throughout what was leading up to it that you can understand the second or third time you watch it. This is a movie that has you thinking, asking questions, talking about it—I love that kind of movie.

Actually, now that I think about it, the more I watched this movie, the more unnerved I become because I know what is going to happen. I especially get nervous when I think about the connection between Cole and Vincent. I understand the full meaning of Vincent when he delivered his final words in a shouting, panicked manner, and worry about what would happen if Malcolm failed Cole—would Cole have ended up like Vincent? And without giving too much away, there’s an element of coldness throughout the story. Whenever someone says it’s getting cold, I let my guard up, even when I know what’s happening.

“The Sixth Sense” is a masterful thriller—great screenplay, credible performances, skillful direction, involving story, and some truly scary moments that amount to something. There’s hardly a moment where it steers wrong and it serves as one of the very best thrillers I’ve ever seen.

Dogma (1999)

5 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When “Dogma” was released in 1999, it was met with outrage even before it came out. Because of its subject matter—which looked like satire of religion and belief—“Dogma” caused organized protests and much controversy in many countries. It also (as I’m reading from the film’s Wikipedia page), the controversy delayed release of the film and led to at least two death threats against the film’s director/writer Kevin Smith.

Well, you know what, guys? God has a sense of humor. And that’s exactly what Kevin Smith’s disclaimer that comes before the film states, along with saying that ten minutes or so into the film might offend most people, and that the film is a work of comedic fantasy, “not to be taken seriously.” If you don’t want to see a comedic fantasy revolving around Catholic belief, then for the love of God (excuse me), don’t see it. If you can’t stand the profane language that runs throughout the movie, don’t see it. Don’t take it too seriously.

OK, so there’s basic news provided in this movie, stating that Jesus was black, there was a 13th apostle left out of the Bible, God’s a woman, She’s a skee-ball fanatic, Jesus had brothers and sisters (apparently, Mary didn’t remain a virgin), and are you still with me? I figured you’d have just stopped reading after that last piece of “news.” If you stayed, congratulations—you’re not ignorant.

Me being a born-again Christian, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about watching this movie, but I didn’t express rage before I saw it…I had enough sense, even at the age of 16, when I first watched it. Is it offensive? Yes, I should say that right off the bat, it is offensive, though that’s mainly due to the constant use of the “F” word and sex jokes. But the movie is also strangely intriguing and, I’ll have to say, very funny. Kevin Smith has always had an ear for dialogue and uses it to mix the Bible with the modern times. The result is “Dogma,” a dialogue-heavy but weirdly entertaining movie about…(sigh) a possible loophole in God’s plans.

I’ll tread easily here to save my own soul.

The movie’s story features two fallen angels named Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon). The two were banished to Wisconsin after thousands of years ago, Loki was the angel of death until Bartleby talked him into quitting (and giving God “the finger”). Now in the present day, they come across a loophole that could allow them back into Heaven. But that’s a huge problem, as explained by the Metatron (or the Voice of God, to be more accurate). The Metatron (Alan Rickman) explains to a cynical Catholic woman named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) that if the two angels succeed, it would prove God to be infallible. When that happens, existence could be nothingness.

Bethany, dubbed the “last scion,” is sent on a crusade to New Jersey in order to keep that from happening. Helping her are a group of misfits—the 13th apostle named Rufus (Chris Rock), ticked off about his exclusion from the written word because he’s black; “prophets” Jay and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith’s running characters in his movies, again played Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith himself); and a muse in the form of a beautiful woman (Salma Hayek)…who has writer’s block.

The screenplay is full of ideas surrounding Catholic beliefs and it features many memorable lines, such as when Bethany asks Rufus if he knew Jesus Christ, and Rufus responds, “He owes me 12 bucks!” There are rules for angels, who can take human form and retract their own wings (oh, and they have no genitalia—Metatron states in a deadpan matter, “I’m as atomically impaired as a Ken doll”). There are many issues of religion as to how no one’s truly wrong as long as one has faith, as well as certain misreadings of the Bible that Rufus likes to point out. There’s even a scene in which Loki goes back to his original duties to try and please God—he and Bartleby go to a family-franchise studio and state the executives are idolaters but are in fact terrible human beings themselves. Instead of a fiery sword, Loki uses a gun. And there’s the constant difference to be noticed between Jay and Silent Bob. Jay’s a loudmouth who never shuts up about wanting to sleep with Bethany (or anything else, what little there is for him to talk about); Silent Bob is more sensible, but rarely utters a word.

The script is all over the map with its ideas and even provides villains for our heroes. You’d think Bartleby and Loki would be the only conflicted characters for Bethany and company to come across. No, the Devil isn’t involved in the story, but there are a group of demons—a muse-turned-demon named Azrael (Jason Lee), three rollerblading hockey punks, and a monster made entirely out of excrement—making sure that Bartleby and Loki do achieve their goal because they’d rather not exist than go back to Hell.

Strangely enough, even with everything that goes on in this story (and with the movie’s running time of 130 minutes), I was interested and wasn’t bored for a second. I listened to the movie. I realized that Smith isn’t a blasphemer—he creates a satire here, but like most great satires, they do wind up providing morals.

Smith may not be a director in respective terms, but he’s a darn good writer.

All of the actors are game for this material. Linda Fiorentino’s deadpan cynicism—her character believes God is dead in the beginning of the film—makes for an interesting heroine. Chris Rock is solid as the comic relief character—you know, aside from Jason Mewes’ obnoxious Jay character. Alan Rickman is fantastic and shows a great deal of game, particularly when he shouts lines like, “Stop a couple of angels and thus negating all existence—I hate it when people need it spelled out for them!” Ben Affleck and Matt Damon show enthusiasm, and even George Carlin, in a small role as a Catholic priest, has some nice moments.

The disclaimer followed by the story’s beginning states that within ten minutes or so, people would probably be offended. It does start out to live up to that promise—there’s a statue of the Buddy Christ (Jesus with a smile, a wink, and a thumbs-up), Loki telling a nun why he doesn’t believe in God (he claims to be an Atheist by using “The Walrus and the Carpenter” as his source), and then there’s that loophole (which, don’t worry, is resolved—I won’t say how). But the disclaimer also states not to take it seriously because it’s all for comedic fantasy, as noticed in the discussion—that also comes in the beginning—of dogmatic law and church law is defined and compared to each other. Just relax and enjoy the show.

The Mummy (1999)

27 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Mummy” is a special-effects action movie that is not by any means a great piece of work, hardly anywhere in the same league as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It’s trash, yes, but it is good trash that entertained me from start to finish. I had a good time with this silly action flick.

Actually, beneath the action/adventure elements, there is a great deal of comedy—so much that you have to wonder if the filmmakers were intending on creating a parody of these action-adventure stories. To take “The Mummy” seriously would be as ridiculous as anything the story has to offer. As a thriller, it doesn’t work. As a campy, special-effects filled, funny action movie, “The Mummy” does work. I wasn’t bored in the two hours of the film’s running time. I was very entertained.

The film begins with a flashback to (“insert year here”) BC with heavy-handed narration from a very deep voice within scenes that explain the back story to us. We all love it when that happens, don’t we? We also love it when the narrator informs us that a mummy will rise.

Then we flash forward to many centuries later to the early 1920s in Cairo. A clumsy British librarian named Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and her immature, pickpocketing brother Jonathan (John Hannah) have found a map that leads to the lost city of Hamunaptra in Egypt, also known as “The Land of the Dead” (whoa, not a good sign). Joined by American adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), they decide to take a trip down there to retrieve a lost treasure within its tombs. But also racing to retrieve the treasure is a band of American fortune hunters, led by a nervous traitor named Beny (annoyingly played by Kevin J. O’Connor with a less-than-convincing Arabic accent). Threatening to kill both teams to protect the treasure is a band of black-robed horsemen.

While down there, Rick, Evelyn, and Jonathan come across an ancient sarcophagus and a book known as the “Book of the Dead.” (Uh-oh.) And wouldn’t you know it? They open the book, unleashing the ten plagues of Egypt, although I only counted less than 10 that actually happen in this movie—I’ve seen fireballs, locusts, blood flowing in rivers, earthquakes, and flies. There are also many, many flesh-eating beetles, although I’m unsure if they’re part of the plagues or if they just live in the caves. Also unleashed from the grave is the mummy Prince Imhotep, which starts out as a disgusting skeleton, but can reproduce organs just by taking them from the rival American team. Once he is complete, he will raise his dead girlfriend and rule the world. Of course Evelyn is captured by the mummy, which causes Rick to set out and “save the girlfriend, kill the bad guy, and save the world.”

All of this is good dumb fun. As I mentioned above, there is also a great deal of comedy within the action/adventure stuff. One of the best moments is at the beginning, in which we get a glimpse of Evelyn’s clumsiness—she accidentally knocks over a bookshelf and the rest of the shelves come crashing down, much like the domino effect. Another funny bit is when she hears a strange noise in the museum: “Abdul? Mohammed? Bob?” There are many other funny moments like those; I won’t give away all of them. There is also a heavy amount of action that didn’t bore me, mainly because we have a likable hero in this series of battles with mummies, most of which are comical. Brendan Fraser plays Rick as a low-rent Indiana Jones and he has fun with the character and performance. Also fun to watch is Rachel Weisz as his could-be girlfriend—she projects a great deal of comedic timing.

The special effects work very well. That really does look like a decomposing mummy threatening to kill the main characters and conquer the world. But a flaw in “The Mummy” is that it seems like a half-hour too long. “Men in Black,” which also featured special effects and a comic undertone, featured the best it could with a half-hour too short of running time. But “The Mummy” maybe needed less of a good time. But even during tidbits of the final climax, such as when Jonathan is stumbling trying to help “save the day,” I wasn’t bored. To sum it up, I was entertained by “The Mummy,” even when the dumbness took over the thriller aspects. It’s a fun ride that I do not regret taking.

Election (1999)

5 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Election” is one of those movies that is even better the second viewing. I saw it once and wasn’t all that impressed. Then days later, I saw it again and was ultimately surprised by how much this film really is. This is a sharp, smart satire about high school with more to it as well. It’s about a high school teacher who is not perfect and gets himself in a weird situation during the student body election. And I have to ask, how often do teachers get as much good treatment as teenagers in even the best teen movies? Let alone a satire of teen movies?

We not only get one narrator, but four different narrators telling their sides of the story in this movie. One is that teacher I mentioned above. His name is Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). He gets involved with his students some of the time and is deeply dedicated to his work.

But there is another main character that really gets our attention—a student named Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). To say she’s an overachiever is an understatement. She doesn’t just conquer all; she waves goodbye as she moves from regular student to obsessive, perfect student. She always has her hand up in class, leaving the teacher wishing someone else would raise a hand. She is always perky, neat, seemingly good-natured, and so-called “perfect.” But in truth, she’s a snobby wench. Her overachieving personality and unpopularity to her peers may remind the audience of a female politician. Mr. McAllister doesn’t like Tracy. She was involved as a “victim” in a sex affair that involved McAllister’s best friend, who was also a teacher. And now, she’s running unopposed for class president.

McAllister will not have this, so he decides to encourage another student to run for president against Tracy. His choice is one of the more popular and most sincere students named Paul Metzler (a third narrator played by Chris Klein). Paul was upset because of his broken leg that will not allow him to play football again and now, McAllister brightens his spirits up a little bit and convinces him to make a difference as student body president. Tracy is appalled. She will not stand for this. But what’s worse? Paul’s adopted sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell, the fourth and final narrator) is an angry lesbian whose former lover left her for Paul. So she decides to run for president as revenge.

This leads to a great scene in the gym, in which the whole school watches as the candidates give their speeches. Tracy’s speech is delivered with as much pep as possible, Paul is completely honest but his delivery is monotone, and then everyone is surprised by Tammy’s speech, simply saying that she doesn’t care about any of this and calls it a “pathetic charade.” That gets a huge round of applause from everybody except the other candidates and the teachers because…let’s face it, the students are bored by this “pathetic charade.” I know I was (and I’m sorry for saying so). That’s a great scene.

We follow all of these characters on their sides of the storyline. Mostly, we stay with McAllister. One of the darker sides of the story doesn’t even take place on school grounds. He begins to have an affair with the wife of his original best friend, who was thrown out of the house. It’s totally wrong and he’s just as bad as his friend was with Tracy. But he goes through with it and later, his life and career is all downhill. One of the strangest things about this movie is just how frank it is about sex. We get one too many bizarre sex scenes, one of which features McAllister imagining he’s having sex with Tracy (!). That frankness is a bit uneven and loses the film its fourth star from me.

But the other stuff is great. It’s all nicely directed and well-written by Alexander Payne. There are some big laughs, some touching moments, and despite everything, McAllister is someone to care about. The acting is solid here. Matthew Broderick has come back to high school after movies in the 1980s, such as “WarGames” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” where he played a high school student in each. As a teacher, he seems strangely more comfortable here than in anything else he was in recently. Chris Klein is likable as the jock that really wants to make a difference in school. He doesn’t play Paul as the stereotypical jerk who gets the hot cheerleader friend and puts everybody down. He’s just a nice guy who is completely honest about his campaign. Jessica Campbell is very good as the budding lesbian who can’t take it anymore. But it’s really Reese Witherspoon who really should have gotten an Oscar nomination for this performance as the overachieving Tracy Flick. She is absolutely fantastic here. Watch the scene in which she tries to fix her banner in the school hallway, which winds up destroyed, and watch how she reacts to one little thing becoming a mess. The way she reacts to her imperfect deeds is an absolute classic. Oh, and she thinks she knows how everything works in the world. Well, she doesn’t but she thinks she does.

We’ve all known students like Tracy, Paul, and Tammy, so we care what happens to them. Because of this, we actually care what will be the outcome of the election. They are well-developed and not just comic foils for a terrific script but real people.

There are laughs in “Election,” but this is a dark comedy, so you get the kinds of laughs you would expect about the frankness of sex I tried to explain about above. The ending is a bit overlong but it makes up for the perfect touch of irony that is developed. Director/co-writer Alexander Payne doesn’t go for the cheap laughs or cheap shots or even cardboard characters—he just wants to tell a story. “Election” is a satire that is bright, alive, sharp, funny, and endearing.

The Iron Giant (1999)

4 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

1999 brought a string of first-rate animated features, four of which in particular stood out among the rest, in my opinion. One was “Princess Mononoke,” a feature of Japanese-style animation. Another was the computer-generated “Toy Story 2.” But definitely not the least of these movies are hand-drawn animations Disney’s “Tarzan” and Warner’s “The Iron Giant.” “The Iron Giant” is the subject of this review, and it’s a wonderful movie—well-crafted, entertaining, funny, charming, witty, wonderfully-drawn, and just a joy to watch.

“The Iron Giant” mixes certain elements from science-fiction thrillers from the 1950s (such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) and brings to a level not unlike a “boy and his pet” story. In this case, it means that a giant metal robot man from outer space crashes down to Earth and is befriended by a young boy who vows to keep him hidden from the government and the Army. This giant robot could have been a threat to society (and we see that it can become a deadly weapon when it reacts to being fired upon, even by a toy space gun), like in the traditional sci-fi thrillers. But with help from a well-meaning little boy, he becomes a harmless being that learns as it goes along its journey on Earth. The boy describes him as Superman, in that he too has crash-landed on Earth without knowing why and using his power for good instead of evil—although, there’s another comic book character called Atomo which resembles the giant in every way except that he’s the villain instead of the hero. Will the giant continue the path of the hero?

The movie takes place in the mid-1950s, suitably enough. The hero boy’s name is Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal). Hogarth lives in Rockwell, Maine, and would like to have a pet, which his mother (Jennifer Aniston) won’t allow. One night, while Mom is working late, he’s watching cheesy monster movies when his TV antenna suddenly disappears, which Hogarth suspects as the workings of “invaders from Mars.” So he goes outside to investigate, when he finds the giant robot. The robot is about fifty feet tall and can only eat metal. When it tries to eat a power station and is nearly electrocuted by the wires, Hogarth arrives in time to save him, thus beginning the friendship between the two.

“My own giant robot! I am now the luckiest kid in America!” Hogarth proudly exclaims.

The giant won’t hurt the boy, and Hogarth believes he isn’t here to hurt people. He takes it upon himself to teach him certain things, like how to speak, and also to try and keep it a secret. But unlike E.T., however, hiding a fifty-foot metal man is not going to be an easy task. This leads to many funny moments; my favorite being a scene in which the giant’s disembodied hand scampers around the house like a puppy dog as Hogarth desperately tries to get it out before his mom notices.

But as he finds somebody to trust with his secret—a beatnik junkyard-owner/artist named Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), whose junkyard cars provide food for the giant—Hogarth also comes afoul of a sneaky, conniving, dastardly government agent named Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), who knows of the giant and is constantly questioning for Hogarth to find out what he knows about it.

This Kent fellow is a caricature of a G-man if I ever saw one. He doesn’t care about human nature, and even states out loud that if he doesn’t understand it, then it must be killed. He brings forth the U.S. Army to come and take out the iron giant, and doesn’t listen for a moment when Dean and Hogarth try to explain that it’s harmless if not fired upon. This is a heavy caricature of a government agent we’ve seen in other movies, but at least he knows it. And he does have a great final moment of comeuppance, which I won’t reveal.

The giant learns about friendship, the boy learns about tolerance, and everyone learns a certain expense that should or should not be made. “The Iron Giant” is a family film that teaches us all of these important lessons without ever being too preachy. And there’s a very strong anti-violence notion that comes midway through the film and continues in the final act, as the giant realizes that “guns kill” and just because the giant was possibly built for destruction doesn’t mean he has to be a weapon because as Hogarth puts it, “You are who you choose to be.”

The iron giant himself , voiced by Vin Diesel, is a lovable character. He’s well-designed and instantly appealing. This is a nice, gentle hunk of junk that we all come to care for and even feel sorry for. That’s saying something when you can make a robot lovable.

“The Iron Giant” is a delightful family film—wonderfully-crafted, nicely-animated, and surprisingly smart. It’s rare to come across a family film of this caliber, and when it comes around, it’s always welcome. I loved this movie.

American Pie (1999)

31 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Many people would call the 1982 raunch-o-rama box-office hit “Porky’s” a treasure (not me); many others will call it more sick and inappropriate than funny (like me). That brings to what could be considered the “Porky’s of the 1990s”—a movie called “American Pie.” This is a better, brighter, and funnier movie than “Porky’s” and people need to look to see that because there is a difference between cruelty and humor.

The teenagers in this movie are nicer and more appealing than anybody in “Porky’s”—also, they look and feel like high school teenagers when it seemed disturbing to look at the “teenagers” in “Porky’s.” The movie focuses mainly on four high school boys who make a pact to lose their virginities by the end of the senior year. They are nervous Jim (Jason Biggs), who doesn’t know what approach to take toward girls; slow-thinking but good-natured jock Oz (Chris Klein, also good in “Election”); Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), who has a girlfriend (Tara Reid) but is afraid of commitment; and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), the smart one who is so wound up that he never uses the school’s bathroom. They’re all best friends and they’re all virgins. They make their pact when a less-popular student loses his virginity to a popular girl.

Right away, you see how fresh the movie is—how many high school movies nowadays allow their central characters to be virgins? The four teenagers in this movie look and feel like real teenagers because they’re insecure about themselves and about women. And they’re inexperienced in sex. But they’re willing to have sex before graduation day and target the prom to lose their virginities after. In his part of the pact, Oz even joins the glee club to get closer to girls. This is dangerous for his social image because he also has lacrosse to think about. A refreshing move is that Oz doesn’t care much about that.

Jim has his eyes on an attractive foreign exchange student named Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth). After finally convincing her to come to his house, Jim is totally embarrassed when his webcam is turned on and pointed at him and Nadia as they get kinky in Jim’s bed. Everyone with a computer is watching…

Most of “American Pie’s” humor takes place in the form of vulgar gags, most of which make the movie so close to an NC-17 rating (instead, it is given an R). A couple comedies before this have had such gags—the hair gel scene in “There’s Something about Mary” and the tissue sample mistaken for coffee in the “Austin Powers” sequel. This time, in “American Pie,” semen has become main ingredient—for beer and for a pie, hence the title (which has nothing to do with the popular song). This is funny because the characters are not part of the joke. Here, they’re embarrassed, and we feel their embarrassment—how could we not? They don’t know what they’re doing, so it’s funny. Most gross-out gags in movies are not funny because we see them coming and they live to gross us out. Here, in “American Pie,” they’re here just to make us laugh. I laughed a lot during this movie. Also, the movie seems to be very frank about sex. The R rating just doesn’t give in.

There are three supporting characters that stand out among the other characters. One of them is Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy), who completely understands and tells his son how proud he is of him and that he feels his pain—maybe he’s been there before. I loved his lecture on the birds and the bees, using visual aids. When he finds his son doing something very unusual to the apple pie they were supposed to eat for dinner, he just says, “Well…we’ll just your mother we ate it all.” This is one of the best movie fathers in any teenage comedy. Another character that stands out is Kevin’s girlfriend’s best friend (Natasha Lyonne, whose deadpan comic timing is wonderful here). Finally, there’s the irritating (but also very funny) Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott). He’s enough of a sleazeball for us to want to slap him in the face, but enough of a smartass for us to laugh at him. He never shows any sign of sympathy for any of the other characters and would love to create misery for his own amusement. And I won’t dare say how he gets his comeuppance at the end of the movie, but let’s just say Finch now understands why “The Graduate” is a classic film.

“American Pie” has as many laughs as “Animal House” and a lot more laughs than “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” And like I said, it’s a much better film than “Porky’s” because it’s OK to be raunchy, crude, and vulgar…as long as it’s funny instead of cruel.

October Sky (1999)

25 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“October Sky” has the feel a smart feel-good sports drama, mostly in the notion in that it’s not just about the sport, but about life’s ambitions and relationships. (“Hoosiers” was a great example of showing that.) But if you don’t care that much for athletics, then “October Sky” is even better for you. The “sport” in this movie is rocket-building, which doesn’t make very exciting competition. But that’s OK, because the rocket stuff isn’t competitive in the slightest. The characters in “October Sky” do what they do because they love doing it and they want to share it with people once they get it right, and hope that the people they love will approve of their goals.

“October Sky” is based on a novel by Homer Hickam and relates to the true story of Homer and his three friends who were experimenting with rocketry when they were high school teenagers in the autumn of 1957, when the Russian satellite Sputnik was first launched. Seventeen-year-old Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives in small coal mining town Coalwood, West Virginia. On the night Sputnik is seen soaring over Coalwood, Homer is amazed by the sight that man has put right up there in space, so much so that he decides he’s going to build a rocket.

His first attempt is not a successful one—it’s a flashlight with a fuse that of course explodes, and blows up part of Homer’s fence. So, Homer—who is a bright student, but science and math are his weak subjects—enlists the help of science nerd Quentin (Chris Owen) to help him and his two friends Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O’Dell (Chad Lindberg) build their own homemade rockets. Their first rocket together isn’t as successful as they imagined—they launch it, all right, but it makes its way through town, nearly hurting someone. So the boys make their own launching post eight miles outside of the coal mine and spend their days together making more rockets, hoping at least one of them will them will soar.

On Homer’s side is an encouraging, supportive teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), and his mother (Natalie Canerday) is fine with this new hobby as long as Homer doesn’t blow himself up. But Homer’s father John (Chris Cooper), who runs the mine, doesn’t believe in Homer’s dream. He thinks of it as foolish and believes he should just get his head out of the clouds and down into the mine to work. This is a town that feels like a dirty prison and the only ones that get out of here are those who get college sports scholarships. The rest are stuck to work and mine coal. And so John believes that conducting these rocket experiments, entering and winning the national science fair, and hoping to get into college is just a waste of effort, and doesn’t want Homer to even try it.

And this is where the real tension of “October Sky” lies—not merely with the boys trying to create a successful rocket, although you do really hope that they do. It’s with Homer having different dreams than his father. And his father is not a bad person—he does what he does (confiscating the rocket equipment, forbidding Homer to use it near company property) because he’s doing what he believes is best for his son. He thinks his son just needs to face reality. And he makes sacrifices at work—he looks out for his fellow workers, fights for their jobs, and when we first see him, he even saves a life. He wants Homer to follow in his footsteps. So what we have is a legitimate realistic movie confrontation between a boy and his father—not the one-dimensional arguing that you see in most movies that have this element. It’s characterized on both sides of the confrontation and played very convincingly.

The stuff with Homer and his friends building the rockets has its own whimsy and entertainment value without getting tedious (although you can sometimes predict which rocket is going to explode, during a montage, and that gets kind of old). The boys are excited about doing this, and we’re excited for them. And when they finally get one up there (and good timing too, because everyone in town is watching) midway through the movie, it’s a glorious, joyful moment.

Of course, there must be a central conflict that nearly makes Homer change his mind about what he’s doing and it’s a pretty substantial one. It starts after Homer and friends have made their first successful launch—a forest fire is said to be caused by one of the boys’ faulty rockets and so they’re forbidden to continue with their experiments again. Actually, that’s somewhat obvious, but then John injures an eye in an emergency down in the mine and has time off for recovery. Taking his place is Homer, who learns the responsibilities his father had to go through and ponders about whether he should work down there full-time. But Miss Riley convinces Homer that he should do what he dreams of doing, and that also gets Homer thinking.

This leads to Homer and his friends rejoining to work on rockets again and enter the national science fair, but first they have to figure out, using trigonometry that they learned during all of this, whether or not it was their rocket that started that fire.

“October Sky” is a wonderful movie that has deep values within it. It has a real go-for-it, feel-good spirit in the sequences with the boys making their rockets, and a real connection between a father and son that comes rare in the movies. It’s helped by intelligent writing and more-than-capable acting by Jake Gyllenhaal who gives a winning performance as Homer, Chris Cooper who is excellent and three-dimensional as John, Laura Dern as encouraging Miss Riley, Natalie Canerday as Homer’s loving mother, and Chris Owen, William Lee Scott, and Chad Lindberg as the three friends (Scott, in particular, has some pretty funny moments, even though his fake Southern accent is somewhat forcibly thick).

I will not forget “October Sky” any time soon. It’s a delightful movie that deserves to be seen by everybody. Forget that it’s a mainstream movie that doesn’t feature tired action or forced melodrama, and enjoy it for what it is—a nicely-done, well-acted, free-spirited movie that is likely to satisfy even the most stubborn of audience members.

NOTE: Here’s a fun fact I came across—“October Sky” is actually an anagram for “Rocket Boys,” the title of the autobiography this movie is based upon.

The Straight Story (1999)

23 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I get into what a treasure “The Straight Story” is, that it’s based on a true story, and it features the best performance from veteran actor Richard Farnsworth, let me express a surprising thought from the opening credits. Let’s see, there was the “Walt Disney Pictures” logo, followed by a starry sky, the first text appeared—“Walt Disney Pictures presents.” But then, something unusual happened—not that the director was credited before the title and lead actors’ credit (in a late-‘90s Disney film), but who the director turned out to be. David Lynch. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was—“A Film by David Lynch.”

I contained my surprise and my interests. I never would have believed that David Lynch, one of the oddest, revealing, visionary filmmakers around (see “Twin Peaks,” see “Blue Velvet”), would make a G-rated family film for Disney. But I guess every filmmaker wants to try something new every now and then, much like how Francis Ford Coppola wanted to try something new after such gripping masterpieces as “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” would make something like “The Outsiders,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” or (to a much lesser extent) “Jack.” Then again, it’s not like Lynch hasn’t ventured into different territory before “The Straight Story” (see “Dune,” for example), but this is about as new as he could venture.

And for the record, I want to make something perfectly clear. Just because a film is rated G, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a children’s film. Actually, I think “The Straight Story” was more aimed for adults than children who, despite the Disney distribution, could be bored out of their minds. Oh, you can show it to them, but they might not care much for it. However, if you do, I’m sure they’ll remember it more fondly as they get older and more mature, and thank you for showing it to them. “The Straight Story” is an excellent movie. It’s touching, effective, interesting, colorful, brilliantly-executed, wonderfully-acted, and with a real feel-good spirit to it.

You read that last part right—this is a feel-good movie. While Lynch’s “Eraserhead” featured nightmarish elements and “Blue Velvet” had extreme views on happiness and bleakness, “The Straight Story” features sincerity and positive elements that make this something special and of course make you feel glad you watched it. It’s practically impossible not to love this movie.

Like most feel-good stories, “The Straight Story” is based on a real event that occurred in the life of a real person. The story follows a 73-year-old man named Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who lives in Laurens, Iowa with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek). Alvin has a hip problem (that requires to walk with two canes), has bad vision, and is dealing with the fact that he just doesn’t feel as young as he did. One day, he hears that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke, and decides that he must go see him. With no driver’s license and poor eyesight, he is going to make the trip from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin (about 320 miles) with his own John Deere lawnmower and a homemade trailer. (I’m sure this was probably Lynch’s hook to direct this movie—an unusual road trip with a slow-moving lawnmower.)

As unusual and possibly as silly as that might sound, Lynch plays the story straight (forgive the pun) with a real sense of sincerity in the way that Alvin makes the trip in about six weeks, stopping at night to camp out in nearby fields and meets some good-natured, interesting people along the way (as you see in just about every road movie). That’s not to say there isn’t quirkiness involved, but it’s more measured than you might expect.

“The Straight Story” showcases Lynch’s talent as a filmmaker in just about every scene, mainly because he is in constant control. Every shot is perfectly set up and has a purpose, and everything in the foreground and background is focused upon interestingly. Some of the best examples are the earlier scenes that give us an atmospheric look at the South, which from the standpoint of a person who has lived in a rural area most of his life, is captured perfectly.

There are many masterful sequences during this six-week trip, which is shown almost episodically. One of which has to do with a young female hitchhiker who shares a campfire with Alvin, who manages to give her helpful advice. We don’t know what happens to her later, after she has left the following morning, but we can imagine that she made the right choice. Then, there’s a scene in which a frightened woman breaks down when she accidentally hits another deer on the street (and it was her thirteenth accident). This scene has nothing to do with anything else, but you can feel the sadness the woman must be going through, even if the scene only lasts about two or three minutes. And there’s a particularly well-edited, tense sequence that sort-of serves as the sole action sequence, as it features Alvin losing control of the mower and speeding down a hill, nearly getting himself killed, into a town where more people come into his life, most of which are good-natured, helpful individuals.

The setting of the town is possibly the best of Alvin’s stops. We see more memorable side characters, including a bickering pair of brothers (which symbolize the past relationship of Alvin and his own brother who the trip is for) and a retired John Deere employee who lets Alvin camp out in his backyard while he fixes the lawnmower’s transmission. (By the way, if you’re wondering, Alvin won’t come into the house, even to use the phone.) And this is also where we get a heartbreaking monologue, delivered perfectly by Richard Farnsworth, as he tells the story of being a sniper in World War II and the fatal mistake he made. It’s a great scene and an excellent monologue—one I’ll never forget.

Richard Farnsworth is perfectly cast as Alvin Straight. With his kindly voice and sweet manner, Farnsworth is one of those actors whose presence helps make the movie. He has the right spirit, the perfect sense of conviction, great clarity, and real effectiveness. We’re with him throughout this movie and he is believable and likable from the first minute to the last.

“The Straight Story” is a wonderful film. It features an artist in top form while stepping into new territory, a veteran actor in his best (and unfortunately, last) performance of his career, and a nice respectful feel to it. If David Lynch has to show that he doesn’t have to resort to shock tactics to get people’s attention, especially to studios, this is the film that is a prime example of him as a more-than-capable filmmaker.