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Signs (revised review with spoilers)

8 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I would issue a “SPOILER ALERT,” but how many people who read my blog don’t know about “Signs?”

When I first reviewed M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 hit “Signs,” I was naïve enough as a young reviewer (I think I was about 17 when I wrote the review) to try not to give away any spoilers for a film that was already getting a heap of backlash. “Signs” is a film that was receiving a lot of love before it was getting a lot of hate. And I didn’t even acknowledge the backlash in my review; it was one of the worst reviews I’ve ever written that, for some reason, I decided to post in my blog years later when I started it. Rather than go in-depth about a film that everyone was picking on left and right, I was heavily inspired by Roger Ebert’s review. He gave “Signs” the same star-rating I did (four stars out of four), and he kept it spoiler-free in his review. (I wish I could explain to 17-year-old Tanner Smith the difference between taking inspiration from someone’s work and ripping it off.)

Anyway, “Signs” is a film that gets a lot of criticism that I think is unwarranted. I’m keeping the four-star verdict for this “Revised Review,” because Shyamalan’s “Signs” is one of my personal favorite movies.

I’m not kidding—I love “Signs” un-ironically and wholeheartedly. So now, I’m going to give it the Smith’s Verdict treatment that it deserves.

The film centers on a rural-Pennsylvania family (“20 miles outside Philadelphia,” a caption states)—widower father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and Graham’s two children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). One morning, they awaken to find that in their cornfield are mysterious shapes bent from several of the crops. From above, they look like crop circles. If this were a prank, it’d be one thing; but apparently, it’s happening all over the world and it all seems to be a warning sign for a global invasion from an otherworldly force. Aliens are coming, it seems, and Graham isn’t sure whether to believe it or not, but the others are more than willing to accept the possibility. Before long, the looming danger draws closer and the family has to survive the night…

OK, here goes—it turns out there really are extraterrestrials that come to Earth and mean harm towards mankind. Let’s start off with the ultimate masterstroke in telling this particular alien-invasion story: it keeps the focus on just one part of the world, with one family knowing as much as they can possibly know, from listening to the radio broadcasts, watching TV broadcast news, and even encountering some aliens themselves. Therefore, we as an audience only know what they know. Unlike in “Independence Day,” which featured a large variety of characters in different parts of the world witnessing the extraordinary events as they unfold, in “Signs,” we’re given the absolute minimum of the attack. And I think that’s great—sometimes, less is more.

Unfortunately, this is probably the source of a lot of the complaints & questions people have about “Signs” that they just won’t let be. The aliens have trouble with wooden doors. Water seems to be the only thing that can hurt them. Why would they come to a planet mostly covered with water? Why didn’t they bring any weapons? Because we know so little about the invasion itself, aside from what the group of characters only hears about, many of us are too quick to assume that these are mere plot holes that can’t be filled. But I think they can be…

For one thing, the criticism of the water being the thing that burns the aliens like acid has never been warranted, in my opinion. Think of it like this—if we were on a whole other planet in a whole other galaxy, we could come across something that could be very lethal to us; something that is a natural resource to the planet’s inhabitants. I never understood why people find it hard to believe that the aliens would have a deadly reaction to something they haven’t encountered before.

As for the question of why they would attack Earth, a planet that is mostly composed of water, I refer you to a scene in which the characters listen to a radio broadcast, in which a witness believes that they didn’t come to take over our planet but rather to harvest humans. They couldn’t care less about our planet; they just want as many of us as they could get before they left. And they seemed to have left in a big hurry, leaving only their wounded behind, most likely because of the water. Again, we don’t know for sure because we’re only limited to what we see on this family’s farm, but if some of the aliens landed somewhere where it rained, for example, that’d be enough for a slaughter, a distress call, a retreat, anything.

The final encounter in the film comes when a wounded alien has made its way to the house and nearly kills Morgan with its poisonous gas (luckily, Morgan, having suffered an asthma attack prior, didn’t inhale it because his lungs were too closed up). This is the alien that Graham encountered the previous day at a neighbor’s house, before removing its fingers with a carving knife. So, obviously, because its brethren scattered quickly and left their wounded behind, the alien, after having busted out of the house pantry where he was locked up, must have followed the closest crop circle and found its way to this house. It’s a desperate act that people have also questioned.

Oh, and what about the wood? These things seem to have trouble with wooden doors. (“Scary Movie 3” even mentioned this at one point: “They mastered space flight, but they can’t get through a wooden door?”) But here’s the thing—they have no weapons to aid them. It’s possible that they didn’t find any use for them, because they were only here for us, not for our planet. And here’s the other thing—they did get through the doors! When the family is holed up in the basement, how do you think the aliens ended up outside the door? They busted through the doors upstairs (and the boarded-up windows too—you can see the broken planks near the end of the film). And more importantly, the wounded alien at the end was the same alien that was locked in a kitchen pantry before…so, he obviously broke out. (It’s going to take some effort, guys.)

Something else people love to complain about is how everything seems to come together at the end, with Graham, a former preacher, suddenly gaining his faith back after it seems his wife’s dying words were warnings for the future, leading up to this moment in which Merrill must kill the alien with his treasured baseball bat. (“Merrill…swing away.”) People complain that it’s an unneeded premonition that is forced rather than revealing. Maybe Shyamalan was going for a way for God to provide help, thus restoring Graham’s beliefs (and there’s even a scene early in the film about how there may not be coincidences in the world). But I never saw it as that big a deal. I just saw it as Graham figuring out the best way to save the day while considering the possibility that this is no coincidence. Everybody has their reasons to believe.

And while I’m on the subject, people also complain about Graham leaving the cloth because he originally lost his faith after his wife died. He’s a flawed man, as you can see as the film continues. There are moments, particularly when he talks with Merrill (and especially their conversation about hope and fear), that indicate not only is he not so sure about whether or not we’re all alone in the world with no one to look after us and protect us, but also that he was never entirely sure even when he was a priest. No one is perfect. That’s what I got out of it, anyway.

I will give the critics a little bit of credit—it is a bit odd that the concept of crop circles, something that was dismissed as a big hoax in real-life (and even mentioned in this film at one point), is something that the aliens in this film actually decided to perform (for use of navigational purposes). Kind of coincidental, isn’t it? But then again, don’t some people wonder what would happen those crop circles really were from otherworldly sources? It is the movies, after all—what’s wrong with some wish-fulfillment?

I’ve already mentioned in my previous review how effective the acting is from all four principal actors, how striking the production design is (right down to the stained cross on the wall, which I did not recognize before), how deeply unsettling it is the way Shyamalan uses silence to elevate tension, and how wonderful James Newton Howard’s music score is. But they deserve mentioning again because I think just about everything about “Signs” works. As with “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” “Signs” was a case of a filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan putting his faith into his audience and telling a story using both big and little elements to both satisfy them and make them ponder. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of people didn’t fall for it. But I did, and I’m all the more glad that I took the time to truly think about all the things I mentioned in this review, rather than let the questions linger on in my mind before I decided I didn’t like “Signs.” I love “Signs,” and I will continue to love “Signs” to my dying day. It’s one of my favorite movies, and I will shrug off any more complaints I read about it. To those complaints, I say: it’s not a problem if it can be explained.

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Frailty (revised review with spoilers)

8 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! This is a new review for the 2002 Bill Paxton thriller “Frailty” in which I’m going to talk about my feelings toward the ending.

Previously on Smith’s Verdict’s original “Frailty” review…”I won’t give away the ending to ‘Frailty,’ but I’ll admit that I didn’t see it coming. It manages to surprise us and mess with our expectations and it brings about new fascinating details about certain plot elements that kept us wondering. And yet, these new additions to the elements still keep us wondering because they also bring about something new to think about! Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.”

A funny thing about this film is that I enjoy it while I’m watching it. And then when I think about one of the bigger twists (of which there are about three), I understand it, but I wonder if it was even necessary. Watching the movie again with that in mind doesn’t necessarily damage my viewing, but it does bring things to a new perspective that I’m not entirely sure was needed.

To recap, “Frailty” is a chilling story of a calm, loving father (Bill Paxton, who also directed the film) who live a normal, happy life with his two young sons, Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), until he awakens them one night to tell them about a “vision from God.” Apparently, demons are walking the earth in the guise of regular people and it’s their duty, as “God’s hands,” to destroy them. Fenton doesn’t know how to react to this, but Adam believes Dad and wants to help him. Fenton is even more frightened when Dad makes a list of demons to destroy: people’s names. Dad has three useful tools: an axe, a pair of gloves, and a metal rod—“weapons from God.” Fenton can no longer doubt Dad’s motives when he brings home his first victim—a woman Dad claims is a demon whom he kills right in front his sons. Fenton believes Dad has lost his mind and can only watch in terror as he claims more victims, becoming a serial killer with Adam helping and supporting his father wholeheartedly. The story is told in flashback as one of the sons (grown up as Matthew McConaughey) explains to FBI agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) after revealing his brother is the one responsible for the killings which still continue.

The idea of a seemingly calm, sane father suddenly brought to the point where he kills people “in the name of God” is scary enough; the idea of wanting his young sons (one is 10, the other is 7) to assist him in his deeds is horrifying. And the film builds more tension from the kids’ perspectives and thoughts on the matters at hand—one wants to stop Dad, while the other joins him. It leads to a truly tense sequence in which Dad takes drastic measures with Fenton and locks him in his homemade dungeon for a week, hoping he too will get a vision from God. It leads to a tense climax in which Dad believes Fenton will ultimately follow in his footsteps and destroy a demon himself. Instead, Fenton brings it to a stop by turning the axe on his own father, killing him. Adam finishes the job himself, indicating that Adam will follow in his father’s footsteps and destroy more demons. Adam promises to bury Fenton someday in the same rose garden where they buried the other victims.

But wait. Earlier in the film, the McConaughey character, who has originally labeled himself as Fenton, claimed that the brothers’ promise was for Fenton to bury Adam. As he and Doyle explore the rose garden, that’s when he reveals his true identity—he is not truly Fenton but Adam. He has continued his father’s legacy. That’s one twist. Another twist is that all of this has been a means to capture Doyle, who is his next victim.

Now, this is a very effective twist, as is the realization that the real Fenton has grown up to become a serial killer and that Adam has “destroyed” him as a demon. It’s Adam’s belief that that’s why Fenton didn’t go along with him and Dad; because he was a demon. This would make for a disturbing portrait about what growing up with an influential, apparent serial killer could do to someone. And then comes the bigger twist…

Are these people really demons, or just chance victims of Dad’s delusional mind? Is the angel real or was it just a bad dream? We see one of Dad’s visions, of an angel visiting him and giving him his first list of demons, and it does seem slightly exaggerated, making us believe that it’s all in Dad’s mind. But then in the ending, what little ambiguity was left is suddenly thrown out the window, as it becomes very clear that the people whose lives Dad claimed were actually murderers and not innocent victims. We are shown their evil deeds, as well as Doyle’s murder of his mother. Dad and Adam were truly following God’s will. People find it shocking that “the axe murderer is working for God,” but the realization that the victims were never “human” but actual “demons” for God to demand be destroyed lest the Apocalypse come does make sense to those who strongly believe in God and it may actually be a relief to those same people, who would object to murders being done to “serve God’s will,” to get clarification. In that respect, it does bring everything around for a shocking revelation that I didn’t see coming. But at the same time, as “Frailty” was doing such a great job being a disturbing horror film with effective ambiguity up until that point, it is kind of disappointing that the film would feel the need to explain everything.

I originally gave the film a four-star ending, even with the ending, because I thought even with that in mind, it was still an intelligent, scary horror film with a theme of religious delusion taken very far. And the bigger twist isn’t even bad; it’s just that I feel like it would work better as a film without it. If we were to ask questions after seeing the film (without the twist) whether the angel was real or not and whether the people were really demons or not, it would bring forward interesting discussions about what it would say about religious fanaticism, delusion, and even about God’s will. As is, “Frailty” is a four-star film up until that shocking revelation. With it, in hindsight, I can still recommend the film but not as strongly as I did before, because even with it, there’s still a little ambiguity about whether or not there truly were demons or people who turned the wrong way and committed these deeds. Were they really destined to be that way? Were they truly demons? If they were demons, did they know it? Were they aware of their destinies to be destroyed? We saw their horrific wrongdoings but not their “demon form,” if they have forms under human skin. If God really is guiding these murders of the guilty, what does that mean?

But then again, maybe they are just demons and I’m thinking too much about it.

There are too many good things in this film for me not to recommend it. Different people are undoubtedly going to have different outlooks on the ending and what it all meant. I don’t think I can rate it three stars anymore. I wanted to rate it four. I wanted to love it as much as most critics did, including Roger Ebert and author Stephen King. And up until the final act, or at least until the bigger twist, I do love it and I do think it’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. But with that bigger twist, it’s still a good horror film with something deep to talk about. It could’ve been deeper and it could’ve been better, but I have to review the film for what it is rather than what it isn’t. I still recommend it.

Y tu mamá también (2002)

17 Sep

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

Describing the premise doesn’t necessarily describe the film. In the case of “Y tu mamá también,” its basic premise can be described like so: two horny teenage boys embark on a road trip with an attractive, older woman and learn a thing or two about life, friendship, sex, and each other. To call this film a “teen drama” in that regard is to call “Hoop Dreams” a “basketball movie.” It’s technically true, but doesn’t give enough reason to see the movie.

“Y tu mamá también,” a Spanish film whose title translates as “And Your Mama Too,” takes place in the summertime in Mexico. Teenage best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), one from a rich family, one from a working-class background, are bored with their routines after their girlfriends left for vacation in Europe. They attend a wedding where they meet a stunning, lively young woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdu) and attempt to flirt with her, which leads to inviting her to come with them to a supposedly-secret beach called Heaven’s Mouth. What they didn’t expect was her accepting the invitation. So, they quickly pack up the car with supplies (including condoms, of course), get a map to the beach they didn’t even think existed, and pick her up to embark upon the adventure of a lifetime.

While on this car trip, the horny teenagers continue to attempt impressing this older, sexually progressive woman with how cool they are and how they’re in control of their own sexuality. Luisa likes to cheerfully tease Tenoch and Julio about their attitudes and methods of living, while also luring them into eroticism. She does this because her husband has been cheating on her and she feels the need to be desired. What makes Luisa the most interesting character in “Y tu mamá también” is that while doing this, she feels like teaching them something about sex as well. To them, sex is like a sport they win with their girlfriends and they take it (and them) for granted; maybe Luisa can change that and make them see sex as something more special.

Just listen to the premise—two teenage boys embark on a road trip with an attractive, older woman and learn life lessons along the way. This could’ve been made into a conventional mainstream comedy-drama, especially seeing as how this film was released in the early-2000s at a time when most teen films that came out were about grossout gags (sometimes involving a pie). But listen to the dialogue, written by director Alfonso Cuaron and his brother Carlos…or rather, read the English subtitles over the Spanish dialogue. It looks and sounds like real people talking. The way “Y tu mamá también” is filmed also makes it feel more real, with shaky camera movements and numerous long takes. That, and the film has one of the most frank depictions of sex I’ve ever seen, with characters talking about it in a realistic manner and even showing a lot in graphic detail. There’s plenty of nudity to please any male and/or female who’s tired of reading subtitles. You don’t see this very often in most films, or least of all, “teen dramas.”

Being a film with a road trip device, it’s a long journey and a worthy destination. Along the way, we as an audience see a lot of Mexico that they drive through. They go through small poor villages, pass police checkpoints, and also come across a roadblock of people stopping oncoming vehicles so they give donations to their queen, who is a girl dressed in white, representing the Virgin. The boys think nothing of it, but Luisa probably sees more to it, as she compliments and embraces the oddities they come across, especially when they finally reach the beach and come across more quirky characters. Why? That’s something I can’t answer right now without giving away something important, but let me just say watching the film again, knowing what you know from the first viewing, makes it more of a story about how you face your own mortality, and how no one should take life for granted.

Throughout the film are times when the sound cuts out and an omnipresent narrator states many background details about the characters and the places they come across on their trip. We realize while listening to it all how much of Mexico we’re seeing and what a message it’s conveying about its unfortunate peasantry left by a successful economy. It becomes even more apparent when the characters arrive at the beach and meet a fisherman named Chuy, and we learn that this “unspoiled paradise” will be purchased as a tourist attraction and Chuy will work as a janitor.

And what exactly do Tenoch and Julio learn after all this? That’s not really for me to say, but after seeing the ending of “Y tu mamá también,” it might make you want to see it again. Seeing it once doesn’t quite cut it. I would say that it’s one of those “coming-of-age” films that really has more to say than what its premise might suggest, but honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film quite like “Y tu mamá también.”

The Ring (2002)

31 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Have you heard about this videotape that kills you when you watch it?”

Yes, “The Ring” is about a VHS tape that brings certain death to those who view it. After you’ve been subjected to many disturbing images, the telephone rings. When you answer it, you’re told you have seven days to live.

There are many horror films in which so much disturbing, unnerving imagery has been subjected to us and when it’s over, we’re all relieved to be in the real world again, alive and well. But “The Ring” actually suggests that the mere act of watching this weirdness can kill you. Already, I like this horror film for that concept.

“The Ring,” based on the Japanese horror film “Ringu,” is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. It has an atmosphere that can hardly find comparison; it’s spooky in all the right parts; it takes you on an intriguing mystery that answers some questions but not all, so that you can fill in some of the blanks yourself after you’ve seen it; and it has a great share of effectively scary moments that are tense and very frightening.

After the cursed tape has taken the life of a teenage girl (in a very creepy prologue) seven days after she’s watched it, the late girl’s aunt, reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), decides to look further into her reasons for dying. After hearing about the tape from high-school gossip and discovering that the girl’s three friends have died the same night that she did (presumably seeing the tape as well), Rachel happens upon the tape and decides to watch it, only to seal her doom.

With seven days and counting (as titles inform us of the countdown), Rachel believes that something supernatural is afoot here and decides to bring in her ex-boyfriend Noah (Martin Henderson), a video geek, to help figure this out. Together, they decide to view the images as a series of clues leading to the tape’s origins and set out to solve the puzzle before seven days are up. Things get even worse when Rachel’s eight-year-old son, Aidan (David Dorfman), watches the tape as well, sealing his fate as well.

The plot thickens as Rachel and Noah are brought to research the life of a woman whose daughter may be connected to the surrealism of it all, and are also brought to the place it originated where they find more answers. The fun thing about “The Ring” is that with all the images that stay in your head no matter how hard to try to forget about them (it’s an effectively executed, creepy show of images on that tape), you find yourself trying to figure out all this as the characters are. There’s hardly an instant when you’re ahead of the characters in solving this puzzle. And it’s fascinating to watch each new development continue to be thrown into the mix, while it’s also creepy at the same time because it’s more unnerving as the mystery grows and comes full-circle.

“The Ring” is great to look at. With nifty camerawork, creepy visuals, and an effectively grim tone, this is a very well-made ghost story. And somehow, that it takes place in Seattle which is mostly dark and gloomy makes it all the more effective.

Critics are rather split about the twist-ending, but I didn’t have a problem with it. Sure, it brings more answers that I would have liked to have come up with myself, but on the other hand, it is quite intriguing to see some version of a possible answer. And let’s face it—it’s here to give us the “money-scare,” the “money-shot” that every horror film must have in order to give audiences nightmares for days, if not weeks. “The Ring” has a hell of a good scare at that point. If everything else was a whimper, this ending was a scream. And I liked that the ending came an unexpected time, when it seemed as if everything was going to be all right.

And once again, there are as many questions that arise as there are answers that are revealed. I didn’t mind so much, because I was caught up in this mystery and wanted a few things to figure out for myself.

Naomi Watts makes for an appealing heroine—not only beautiful, but also resourceful and bright and caring for those around her. I also liked that it’s a reporter that is the protagonist of this ghost story, because she has that gut feeling to go out and investigate the strangeness that’s going on here. (Though, whether or not she actually does write this story for the Seattle Post is open to wonder.) Martin Henderson is good as her partner, and he and Watts share convincing chemistry as their relationship mends through this experience (of course). Brian Cox has a memorably creepy cameo appearance as a farmer that knows too much and is hesitant to tell.

Not everything about “The Ring” works, however. My main problem with the film is the character of Aidan. One thing I neglected to mention is that Aidan is actually psychic. He can see the same kind of surreal imagery that Rachel is trying to figure out. The problem I have with this kid is that he’s just too creepy, and with no emotional involvement to balance anything out. This kid doesn’t act like a regular kid—he acts like a carbon copy of the kid in “The Sixth Sense.” There’s never a sense that he cares for anything in the slightest; so why should I care if the kid lives?

And there are some little things that bugged me a bit, but they’re mostly nitpicks, such as why is the ghost able to call via telephone and how the lid of a well can create a ring that can be seen from inside? But I guess this is the kind of film where you don’t ask such questions and just be wrapped in the atmosphere and mystery of “The Ring.” There are many standout moments that unnerve, others that frighten, and others that inspire. That is why this is one of the most effective supernatural horror films I’ve ever seen.

Stolen Summer (The Project Greenlight Movie) (2002)

28 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Stolen Summer” was filmed out of competition for the “Project Greenlight” contest, sponsored by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Chris Moore (under their production name Liveplanet). Aspiring writer-director Pete Jones’s screenplay “Stolen Summer” was chosen to be made into a film for Miramax, under the condition that Jones allow pre-production, production, and post-production to be filmed by a documentary crew for the HBO TV series that went behind-the-scenes of the project. The series, “Project Greenlight,” showed Jones as was able to direct his film with help from more experienced crew members, as they got together to make it with the small budget they were given. Throughout the series, we were with the people as they talked through their problems of filmmaking and we were able to understand what they were going through because the complications were just part of a first-time project. “Stolen Summer” was given a limited theatrical release (of course, with the tagline “The Project Greenlight Movie”), and anyone could tell you it’s not as compelling as the TV series that showed it being made. But how is it as a movie itself? How do I put this delicately? It’s not very good.

There’s a reason people like to mention the term “afterschool special” with a mocking sense. ABC Afterschool Specials may have tackled subjects that should have been faced in order to deliver lessons for kids, but they were also clumsily-handled, broadly-written, overly-dramatic, and as a result, easy to make fun of. What makes it more distracting is the notion that buried not too deeply beneath the surface of these TV movies, there were elements of moving stories to be told. But as they were told, for the most part anyway, they were relentlessly manipulative and not subtle in the slightest.

Unfortunately, the same can be said about Pete Jones’ “Stolen Summer.” I’m not denying that Jones has talent as a filmmaker, but this does somewhat reek of “first-project” status. And this film does have that “afterschool special” feel—it’s trying to be a heartwarming tearjerker while also trying to teach something, but it’s all too generic and so wholesome in spirit and tone. As a result, it’s somewhat flat.

The plot: Set in Chicago in the mid-1970s, second-grader Pete O’Malley (Adi Stein) is out of Catholic school for the summer just after a nun tells him to walk along a path towards Jesus and away from the Devil. Pete takes this warning a bit too seriously, as he sets out on a “quest” to make sure he gets into Heaven. He makes a goal to help someone else get to Heaven as well, and so he decides to convert a Jew to Catholicism, as he believes that Catholicism is the true path to Jesus and Heaven. He meets the rabbi of the local synagogue, Rabbi Jacobson (Kevin Pollak), and also makes friends with his son, Danny (Mike Weinberg), who is dying of leukemia. Pete is convinced that Danny is the perfect subject for conversion, so he decides to help him get to Heaven by proving his worthiness to God.

Is this really what a Catholic-school second-grader would think about when faced with the subjects of religion? Actually, it might be. Pete is just a kid; he reacts to these two religions—Judaism and Catholicism—as a test he wants to take, and he learns more about both of them as the film continues. He’s just a kid; he doesn’t know how it all works, or much of how life works for instance, but he’s impressionable.

Now, this part is more of a personal feeling—Pete’s talks with his Irish-Catholic father (Aidan Quinn), the Rabbi, and the Catholic priest (Brian Dennehy) can be either be seen as very charming or just too cute to the point of annoyance. I’m afraid I fall into the latter category, although I did find a few one-liners regarding certain elements of the religions to be amusing. For example, when Pete wonders if the priest gets paid to do what he does, and curiously asks if he takes from the collection—his response: “No. *chuckles* Why, did anybody tell you that?” Other than that, I felt that some of these scenes lacked a little tact, and while they’re not entirely offensive, they’re still not entirely in good taste.

The talks that Pete’s parents share with each other about Pete’s crusade, and also the talks that the Rabbi shares with his wife about the same subject, are the most interesting part of the movie, and even more so when both fathers confront each other about what this is doing for them (people question Pete’s lemonade stand in front of the synagogue; Pete’s father believes Pete is too young to be thinking about this sort of thing, etc.). Even though these scenes are somewhat broadly-written, they are admittedly assisted by capable actors to go through them. Aidan Quinn is quite good as Pete’s fireman dad, Joe, who was raised to work hard and take no nonsense. This character could have been portrayed as a stereotypically cynical Irishman, but Quinn’s performance is credible enough to make the character more of a human being. Kevin Pollak delivers solid work as the friendly Rabbi Jacobson who lets Pete continue with this “quest” because it still gives his own son Danny a possible last chance to act like a normal kid. At the same time, he’s worrying about how much time Danny has left, and even breaks down and cries (and prays) in one certain scene. Pollak has a lot to do with this role—he’s able to pull it off. Also good is Bonnie Hunt as Margaret, the mother of the O’Malley children (there are about eight, including Pete of course, if I didn’t lose count), who plays the role with a sardonic wit. Hunt has arguably the most truthful bits, especially in the beginning when she gets the family ready for church, and when one of her unruly sons mouths off, she points him forward assuring him that she isn’t going to hit him, and then smacks him in the head. Also quite strong is “American Pie” alum Eddie Kaye Thomas as Patrick, the oldest O’Malley son who tries to find a manageable way to work despite his father’s decisions to keep him away from college (he believes Patrick will wind up sleeping late and smoking pot, like most college students he heard about).

Actually, I realize that the reason that “Stolen Summer” doesn’t work so well is because of the central story of the kids and how almost everything has to be played around it. I would rather see a story more based around the people I mentioned in the previous paragraph—Joe, Margaret, Rabbi Jacobson, Patrick (and also the priest, well-played by Brian Dennehy). Played by these game actors, they’re able to step out of the material they’re given and manage to make their characters their own. And they do have a genuinely effective scene every once in a while. But the big problem I have with the story of the two kids, I’m real sorry to say, are the young actors playing them—Adi Stein and Mike Weinberg. I hate to criticize child actors, but these two just aren’t very good here, and because a lot rides on these two to pull off as much generic material as their older, more experienced co-stars are able to, much of “Stolen Summer” sinks when it should have floated.

“Stolen Summer” right from the opening lighthearted piano score to the generically hopeful final shot just has that feel of an afterschool special. The actors are fine (for the most part, as I’ve said) and a couple of scenes work, but it’s too manipulative and tries way too hard to get its audience teary-eyed after watching it.

The Good Girl (2002)

25 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Good Girl” is a story about a woman in crisis—stuck doing the same routine with nothing new in her life. She works at the local discount store in her hometown—as you’d expect, she hates her job. Her husband is a loser—a slacker who would rather sit on the couch and watch TV with his best buddy than be with his wife. Nothing is as it should be, and she goes about her day in a constant state of quiet and imprisonment.

The woman’s name is Justine and she’s played by Jennifer Aniston, an actress you wouldn’t expect to play the part, given her mostly-TV-based career, but proves herself to be more than capable. Aniston is nearly unrecognizable as Justine—you never see her as Rachel from “Friends”; you see her as Justine.

Justine’s working-class lifestyle is, as she puts it, like being in prison on death row. Her job as a retail clerk at a Wal-Mart knockoff, called “Retail Rodeo,” doesn’t mean anything to her and she feels crippled by it. Then there’s her husband Phil (John C. Reilly), who’s not a bad person, but a lazy, pot-smoking slacker who spends most of his time watching TV with his friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). He’s not abusive and does care for Justine, but he just doesn’t seem like the man Justine married years ago.

Then, Justine meets Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a 22-year-old loner-poet who joins Retail Rodeo and keeps to himself, reading “Catcher in the Rye” (he says he’s named after the protagonist, but he really named himself after him). Justine sees that Holden is having the same problem as herself—feeling suffocated by routine. She draws herself to him, and they spend a lot of time together. This leads to an affair that these two felt desperate to have. But the more time they spend together, the further Justine notices that maybe Holden isn’t too well—he has an unstable mentality and impulsively says things like, “I want to knock your head open and see what’s inside” (which he thinks is a romantic come-on).

The screenplay for “The Good Girl” was written by Mike White (who also co-stars as a religious security guard); he creates a grim (though realistic) outlook on life, credible main characters, and quirky side characters that seem like people you would see working at a retail store. That particular third element includes a supporting character that steals the show—a profanity-spewing, deadpan-sarcastic co-worker played by Zooey Deschanel. Her spin on the “attention shoppers” announcements is hilarious. Moments like those inside the retail store make for effective satire.

Those expecting a lighthearted comedy starring Jennifer Aniston in her typecast-“Rachel” phase should just keep looking (or go rent “Picture Perfect”). “The Good Girl” displays Jennifer Aniston’s true acting talent—credible, dynamic, and effective. Those three adjectives describe the whole movie in general.

Like Mike (2002)

21 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Like Mike” is an entertaining movie that brings a kid’s fantasy to life. A lot of kids dream to be like Michael Jordan—though I think I can omit the word “like” and just say they want to be Michael Jordan. Kids even wore Air Jordans because they thought these sneakers contained a special super power that made them like Mike. “Like Mike” is a movie in which that actually happens, and more.

“Like Mike” is about a thirteen-year-old kid living in an orphanage and hoping to be adopted by a loving family some day. His name is Calvin Cambridge (rapper Lil Bow Wow), who has an undying optimism and a real love for basketball. The problem is, he’s not very good at it—he’s small and not very coordinated. In the film’s opening scene, he’s humiliated on the group home’s back court by his enemy Ox (Jesse Plemons).

Calvin comes into possession of Michael Jordan’s old sneakers he wore when he was a kid (that would explain why they fit Calvin perfectly…or not). How does he know it’s Michael Jordan? He’s told the shoes belonged to the “tall, bald basketball player,” and the initials “M.J.” are written inside the tongue. Who else could it be? But Ox throws the sneakers so they hang by their laces over a power line. That night, Calviin goes to retrieve them during a thunderstorm. Lightning strikes and somehow Calvin and the sneakers are magically linked together so that when Calvin puts them on, he’s “like Mike.”

When Calvin and his friends Murph (Jonathan Lipnicki) and Reg (Brenda Song) receive tickets to an L.A. Knights basketball game, Calvin wins a contest at a halftime show and is called down to the court to play a game of one-on-one with Knights player Tracey Reynolds (Morris Chestnut). Because of the sneakers, Calvin is unbeatable. He scores twice (one of those shots from forty feet away) and then on the final shot, stuns everyone watching by actually dunking the ball after flying up to the hoop! This gets the attention of the Knights owner’s representative (played by Eugene Levy, who scores a few laughs) who convinces the coach (Robert Forster) to sign him onto the team. At first, it’s for public appearance to sell a lot more tickets. But Calvin does end up on the court and becomes the youngest NBA superstar. (Actually, because of his amazing skills in flying and dunking, he makes Michael Jordan look bad compared to him.)

The story, of course, leads to many, many games in which Calvin helps the Knights win and leads them to the finals. And of course, once someone very unreliable finds out about Calvin’s magic sneakers, this becomes a major complication. It’s the orphanage’s sleazy caretaker Bittleman (Crispin Glover) who signs to be Calvin’s legal guardian and get about half of Calvin’s investments.

However, this does bring the question, why would he later bet on the Knights to lose the Big Game, when he has enough money already? Why bother stealing Calvin’s sneakers so they’ll be sure to lose? And who appointed this man as the caretaker of an orphanage? He’s so evil that he even nearly burns Murph’s only picture of his late mother while interrogating him to find the sneakers in the first place. What a slimeball.

Another complaint I have is that among the cameos by real-life NBA players, such as Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan isn’t among them. OK, I guess the one-line joke about “losing to the Bulls” is supposed compensate for that. But I kind of missed him. I wonder what the movie would have been like if suddenly he realized Calvin’s secret and recognized his sneakers. Wouldn’t that be very interesting?

For what it is, however, “Like Mike” is an entertaining movie. A lot of credit must go to Lil Bow Wow, whose energetic charisma brings a lot of charm to the screen. He’s able to carry a movie. He’s confident, relaxed, funny, and convincing, as well—he plays this fantasy as if it were real.

I also enjoyed the kid’s relationship with Morris Chestnut’s Tracey Reynolds. At first, Tracey is annoyed by this kid after being beaten by him, and even more irritated by having to room with him. But they do form a nice friendship together that eventually turns into a father/son type relationship, which is obligatory but still nicely handled and well played by the two actors.

“Like Mike” isn’t terribly original with its standard scenes involving the bully, the relationship with an adult mentor, the orphanage situations (potential parents only want to adopt the smaller children), and the Big Game. But it does have a few things going for it, like a winning performance by the right young actor, a nice attempt at playing to a kid’s fantasy, and a sharp wit to the script as well.