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Frailty (2002)

16 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Does anyone have the right to enforce their will on us in this world because of what they believe will happen in the next world? It’s a question that can work not only as the foundation for a documentary, but also for a gripping thriller. “Frailty” is such a film, and it’s a special case—an original, chilling story that sets itself apart from the standard serial-killer thriller.

In “Frailty,” here are a series of Texas murders simply known as the “God’s Hand killings.” There are no suspects and hardly any leads to begin with. Then one night, a scruffy young man, Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), appears in the office of FBI agent Doyle (Powers Boothe), who is investigating the continuing murders. Fenton claims he knows who the God’s Hand killer is. The killer is Fenton’s younger brother Adam, who has already killed himself. Doyle is curious about what else Fenton has to say about the killings, and also why Fenton waited until now to confess to anything—he states, “I’m here because I can’t live with what I know anymore.” So Fenton tells Doyle a tale about how it all started.

Seen in flashback sequences, we see Fenton and Adam as children living with their widowed father (Bill Paxton, who also directed the film) in a small Texas town. They seem to live a normal, happy life together, until Dad wakes the boys up one night to tell them about a “vision from God.” An angel has visited him, telling him that demons are walking the Earth and that it’s his and his family’s duty 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, “weapons from God”—an axe, a pair of gloves, and a metal rod. And then when Dad finally claims his first victim, Fenton wants to tell somebody, believing that Dad has lost his mind—“If you do, someone will die,” Dad warns his son. “The angel was very clear on this.” Fenton can only watch in horror as Dad claims more victims, becoming a serial killer with Adam helping and supporting his father wholeheartedly.

Are these people really demons, or just chance victims of Dad’s delusional mind? For that matter, is the angel real or was it originally just a bad dream? You certainly know that there’s something mystical afoot here, and certain things are left open for interpretation. Which is scarier—if it’s all real, or if it’s not? One thing’s for sure—the body count is definitely real.

“Frailty” is a very tense thriller—original and effectively creepy all the way through with the right blend of disturbing atmosphere and expository writing. And it does a great job of keeping the viewers invested all the way through. The situation itself is horrifying, and the story involving the two boys is probably the most disturbing, since they’re caught in a world they didn’t make where their father suddenly wants them to assist him in these murders (although Dad doesn’t call it killing people, but “destroying demons”). Fenton is constantly worried as things get worse, and constantly tries to convince Adam that “Dad’s brainwashed you; he’s a murderer, and you’re helpin’ him.” (Adam of course reacts the way a young child would—“Nuh-uh! I’m tellin’ Dad on you!”) Young Fenton and Adam are played by Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter, both of which are convincing and very effective—with the wrong duo of child actors, “Frailty” would not have worked as well.

Bill Paxton completely sells it with his performance in the film’s most prominent role. He doesn’t play Dad as a villain, but a sincere man who would never harm his children, though he believes that when God tells you to do something, you do it. Paxton is also a pretty good director. After having been directed by some very skillful directors in the past (Sam Raimi, Ron Howard, and James Cameron), this is the directorial debut for the high-profile actor. It seems as if he took lessons from the very people who directed his acting. He knows how to set mood and atmosphere, and uses suspense-tricks that even the late Alfred Hitchcock would have been envious of. For example, there’s one scene in which Fenton is sitting in a car with Dad, who is awaiting his latest victim to walk out of a nearby store. It’s a point-of-view shot—Fenton worriedly eyes back and forth from his father to the store entrance. You can feel that Fenton doesn’t want the man to exit the store, because he knows what will happen. From that shot, Paxton has me hooked and proves himself to be a more-than-capable director. (Also give him credit for having the murders occur off-screen.)

Paxton also does a great job with directing the present-day sequences, continuing the ongoing tension between the two characters of (older) Meiks and the FBI agent. Meiks is obviously going through a deep psychological trauma that came about because events that we see come into place, while he’s telling the story. But there might even be something going on with the FBI agent, who also challenges Meiks, thinking he’s hiding something from him. In that way, it’s more of a challenge of wits that ultimately comes together to put an end to the story. It’s cleverly handled, and keeps its consistently eerie tone.

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 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.

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Big Fat Liar (2002)

13 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I give my review of “Big Fat Liar,” I’ll just share the plot. The hero is a bright fourteen-year-old named Jason Shepherd (Frankie Muniz, “Malcolm in the Middle”) who always stretches the truth to get out of doing his homework. But when he’s caught on his latest scam, he’s forced to write a term paper, or he’ll repeat his English course in summer school, obviously the worst thing imaginable to an eighth-grader. Jason writes the paper—a story about a character that is a “big fat liar”—and is just about to turn it in when he runs into the limo of slick Hollywood producer Marty Wolf (Paul Giamatti), in this small Michigan town for a movie shoot. He likes Jason’s wit and gives him a ride, as well as some advice—“The truth is overrated.” Jason accidentally leaves his paper in Wolf’s hands and is sent to summer school for not having it. Later, Jason sees a coming-attractions trailer for an upcoming summer blockbuster, which shares the same story and title as Jason’s paper. Convinced that Wolf stole his story to create a movie out of it, Jason tries to tell his father. Unfortunately, due to Jason’s lying nature, his father doesn’t believe him. So, with his best girl friend Kaylee (Amanda Bynes) in tow, Jason flies to Los Angeles to confront Wolf and prove Jason was telling the truth. However, as it turns out, Wolf is a nasty, pompous creep, to say the least. Even though Wolf won’t tell the truth, Jason and Kaylee don’t give up and, with help from their limo driver (Donald Faison), hatch a scheme to make his life a nightmare in an attempt to get him to change his mind.

I would have guessed that “Big Fat Liar” was made for kids by kids, as the plot is essentially a kid-friendly plot full of Nickelodeon-style hi-jinks. And indeed, writer Dan Schneider (not a kid) has been associated with many Nickelodeon TV shows. But oddly enough, “Big Fat Liar” is still a quite entertaining film. It’s good-hearted, and quite funny and charming.

Kids will love it because it features smart kids outsmarting the mean-spirited adult world, and in Hollywood, no less. They’ll love the scenes in which Jason and Kaylee play Hollywood as their playground (they sneak through the Universal back lot and have fun in a warehouse full of fun props and wardrobe), and especially the scenes in which they find new ways to menace Wolf. I doubt they’ll get a lot of the show-biz in-jokes the movie has to offer (for example, Lee Majors has a bit part as a helicopter pilot), with the exception of a very funny cameo by Jaleel “Don’t Call Me Urkel” White (they air reruns of his show on ABC Family and Nick-at-Nite anyway). Adults will either enjoy it for its innocent fun, or hate it for being somewhat too tame. As for me…it’s hard for me not to laugh at Paul Giamatti playing this producer Marty Wolf so far over-the-top as a practical cartoon. The way he shouts and spews his lines in a ferocious growl is absolutely hilarious.

Oh, and he spends a half-hour of the movie with his skin dyed blue (and his hair and goatee dyed orange). You see, Jason and Kaylee dump a bottle of blue dye in his swimming pool (and orange dye in his shampoo bottle), so that when he emerges from his morning laps, he is shocked to realize that he has to go to a very important meeting looking like a member of the Blue Man Group. (How Wolf’s speedo (and eyes) isn’t affected by the dye is beyond me, but I won’t question it.) My favorite line, from Wolf to his underappreciated assistant Monty (Amanda Detmer)—“I’m blue,” Wolf complains as Monty replies, “Oh, we all have our off days.”

“Big Fat Liar” is that kind of movie. It’s confident in its goofy storytelling and strays away from becoming too stupid, and has some pretty funny moments. Muniz and Bynes have an easy chemistry and each possess a sharp wit. And of course, there’s Paul Giamatti, who is an absolute riot as the live-action cartoon simply named Marty Wolf. “Big Fat Liar” is a little treasure of a movie.

Spider-Man (2002)

4 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Every superhero must have an origin story and “Spider-Man” is an intriguing one. Spider-Man, of course, is the popular superhero from Marvel Comics. As many of his fans will know, Spider-Man is young Peter Parker when he’s not saving lives. This first film adaptation of the comics tells us how Peter Parker became Spider-Man. The result is quite entertaining.

The best thing about “Spider-Man” is the casting of Tobey Maguire as the hero. I’m not sure they could have picked a better young actor to make Peter Parker likable and convincing (except maybe Jake Gyllenhaal). Peter is a nerdy high school senior who hardly gets any respect. His best friend is Harry Osborn (James Franco), the underachieving son of rich scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). And his crush is Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who lives in the house next to his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). Oh yeah, and she’s currently dating Harry.

One day on a school trip to a lab at Columbia University, Peter is bitten by a spider of unknown species. That’s when things really start to change. He develops arachnid powers. He can see without his glasses, he is suddenly strong, he has spider-like reflexes, he can make webs appear out of his hands, he can climb walls, and he has amazing agility. At first, Peter wants to use his powers for personal gain (fighting a wrestling match for three thousand dollars so he can buy a car to impress Mary Jane—he wins the fight, but he gets conned). But after a serious tragedy occurs, Peter learns that “with great power comes great responsibility.” He creates a suit suitable for his powers and becomes New York’s arachnid superhero Spider-Man, fighting crime and rescuing people in need.

But it wouldn’t be a full superhero movie without a villain to develop powers coincidentally as Peter gets used to his own. Norman Osborn has been creating a new kind of energy source for superhuman strength and a jet-powered one-man glider. But something goes very wrong and Norman develops a sort of “Jekyll and Hyde” double personality. Norman is constantly controlled by something strange and sinister (I don’t know what—the movie calls for a certain suspension of disbelief). He becomes the Green Goblin, complete with that same glider and a horrific-looking metal suit. This is where the movie actually starts to falter.

The first half of the movie is better than the second. It’s so much more interesting to see Peter learn to use his powers accurately (or as accurate as can be). He stands up to the school bully and has enough confidence to have occasional conversations with Mary Jane. But more importantly, he learns that because he has these amazing powers, he has to use them responsibly. The second half is full of action and there are times when I could tell a CGI Spider-Man from a live actor, mainly because at times, Spider-Man moves almost like a cartoon character than a flesh-and-blood hero.

“Spider-Man” was directed by Sam Raimi, who also made the superhero tale “Darkman,” as well as the “Evil Dead” movies. He has fun giving the characters comic-book reactions to Peter/Spider-Man when something amazing happens. How can you not like the moment when Peter quickly rescues Mary Jane after she slips over some apple juice split on the cafeteria floor? He’s able to catch all the condiments on Mary Jane’s lunch tray before they drop to the floor so that Mary Jane can say, “Wow—great reflexes!”

I did enjoy Willem Dafoe’s “Jekyll and Hyde” persona, but as the Green Goblin, he’s not an effective villain. Take the scene where he makes himself known for the first time—in appearance, he looks like he would fit in through an episode of “Power Rangers.” And when he goes over the top, he really goes over the top, although his manic persona does cause a few good laughs.

One of the best things about “Spider-Man” is surprisingly not the action sequences, but the more quiet, simpler scenes that are touching, memorable, and great to watch. Peter’s talks with the supporting characters and the kiss between Spider-Man and Mary Jane are among those (that kiss is the most memorable—he’s upside down and she’s standing in the street, she takes half of his mask off, revealing his mouth and chin, and kisses him). Also, Peter and Mary Jane make a cute couple. But since Mary Jane is someone Peter really cares about, that puts her in more sticky situations than Lois Lane.

I want to say more about Tobey Maguire—he’s brilliant in this movie. He has never, to my knowledge, turned in a bad performance. As Peter, Maguire brings a lot of appeal and emotion depth. He never seems to be overacting. He takes the situation how any average teenager would react if he discovered he was half-spider. We are with Peter throughout this movie and we care for him. Also in times of tragedy, Maguire doesn’t hit a wrong note. I think Tobey Maguire is a part of perfect casting. Kirsten Dunst is suitably spunky as Mary Jane. James Franco, however, is a bit stiff as Harry.

“Spider-Man” is not one of the best superhero movies. But I am giving it three stars because I was intrigued by the origins of Spider-Man and the casting of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. You can enjoy it for what it is.

Signs (2002)

22 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Signs” is an unusual piece of work. It goes into the “science fiction” genre yet it features a limited arrangement of special effects, does not show any signs of authority such as the US Government, strays away from unnecessary explanations for these unusual occurrences, and focuses only on one family during one big event that could mean the end of the world—usually we go back and forth through different characters, but not here. Because “Signs” never takes the easy way out, it becomes one of the most intriguing science-fiction films I’ve ever seen. Produced, written, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the filmmaker best known for the 1999 hit “The Sixth Sense” (which also strayed away from the easy way out, in the sense of being a psychological thriller), “Signs” is quite extraordinary.

Mel Gibson stars as Graham Hess, a former minister who has lost his faith in God ever since his wife died in an accident. He lives with his more faithful brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his even more faithful two kids, 10-year-old Morgan (Rory Culkin, Macaulay and Kieran’s youngest brother) and 5-year-old Bo (Abigail Breslin), in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, surrounded by a cornfield. As the movie opens, the family awakens to discover a series of crop circles in the field behind their house. You know what crop circles are—those geometric shapes drawn into cornfields in the 1970s that created paranoid proof of extraterrestrials, dismissed as hoaxes in the early 1990s. But now, there are crop circles all over the world. This cannot be a hoax. There is absolutely no way that so many people around the world would create such an elaborate prank. It could be real.

The crop circles are shown on the film’s poster and may be just the interpretation of the title. But there is much more to the title of “Signs” than just the crop circles and where they come from. The movie progresses into deep, dark material as it seems like something from the beyond is going to kill us all. The signs in the title refer to signs that maybe there is someone out there watching over us. Graham, however, is skeptical because of his wife’s tragic death—“There is no one watching over us. We are all on our own.” Then again, he is skeptical about the alien theory as well. But soon, nothing really matters except for the safety of his family. That’s one of many important points within this movie—whether or not aliens actually appear in this movie doesn’t matter all that much.

M. Night Shyamalan treats this science fiction story like a horror movie, even using the main element that made Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” effective. That element is silence. Shyamalan doesn’t rely on a heavy score to scare us. He frames shots exactly right, he lets his characters talk about dramatic subjects without even a subtle music score to keep the mood, and even the scariest moments are without music. Also borrowing from “Psycho,” the score from James Newton Howard that reminds us of the music in “Psycho” is there at the necessary points, such as the opening credits and moments of discovery and pain. But the best parts of the movie did not need that score and it isn’t used for those parts—it’s more frightening that way. Through the movie, we hear dogs barking, we jump at the sound of a phone ringing, and we fear during the moment when Graham encounters something (I will only say “something”). Also, an element from “Jaws” is used in the way that the family—these four central characters—is the only thing we care about during all this madness. We care and fear for them. And I also love how Shyamalan is able to use everyday objects for something more. A knife is used as a mirror, many glasses of water that Bo leaves behind because of her fear of water create an uneasy feeling, and then there’s a baseball bat.

In the second half, when everything supposedly pays off, nothing is predictable—you can’t tell what’s going to happen even for the slightest bit. What will become of Earth? What will happen with this family? Are there aliens? Are they friendly or hostile? On the night when “something” is supposed to happen, the bizarre alien theory is not the subject of fear because this family has been through enough already to be scared. “Signs” is thrilling, edgy, suspenseful, intelligent, attentive, and frightening with superb performances by Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, and those two talented child actors Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, a nice blend of science fiction and thriller elements, big ideas, and masterful filmmaking.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

17 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When there is a list of most popular film franchises in the history of cinema, I believe there will be a spot for the “Harry Potter” films, based on the book series by J.K. Rowling. The first film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was a triumph—I even called it a “classic.” And though I give the sequel—the film based on the second book of the series—the same star-rating as I gave its predecessor (four stars), I have to say that this film—entitled “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”—is even better than the first. The first film had a great deal of imagination in its visuals and in its storytelling and this second film has an even greater deal if you can believe it. It is, however, rather dark, just as “The Empire Strikes Back” was darker than “Star Wars.” Like the first film, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” is rated PG and has a great deal of terror in many sequences. About the first film, I wrote in my review that it’s scary but not too scary. However, some moments in this film should have qualified the film for a PG-13 rating—those said moments might give some children nightmares, but delight others.

We’ve already gotten to know the characters in the first film and now we care even more about what they go through here. We again meet young Harry Potter, a year older with a deeper voice and on the brink of adolescence, as you can tell. Then, we again meet his friends Ron and Hermione. They haven’t seen each other in a while—and neither have we, for that matter. Their personalities remain the same, with a few touches put into them. One of the great things about this movie is watching these characters grow in this sequel. And then we again meet those wonderful teachers at Hogwarts School—headmaster Dumbledore (Richard Harris, in his last role), gentle giant and gamekeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), always-mysterious Snape (Alan Rickman), and professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith). But there are new characters brought into this sequel—there is a teacher who explains of mandrakes (played by Miriam Margoyles), bully Draco Malfoy’s (Tom Felton) even-slimier father (Jason Issacs), and a celebrity wizard named Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh) whose incredible resume (he wrote an autobiography called “Magical Me” as well a few other books about himself) brings him to Hogwarts to teach the class of defense against the dark arts. He’s more worried about feisty blue pixies messing up his self-portrait.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is better-treated by his Muggle relatives (if you recall, “Muggle” is the term for humans), but that’s not saying much. He has his own room, as long he stays inside while the relatives throw a party. While he is in his room to keep from interrupting a similar party downstairs, he is visited by a house elf named Dobby—a special-effects creature that punishes himself by beating himself up—who warns Harry not to return to Hogwarts, lest he put himself in danger. It turns out that there is danger. The mysterious Chamber of Secrets, said to be the home of a monster, has been opened and many students (as well as a cat and a ghost) have been petrified by the sight of the monster. There are many questions to be answered and Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the ones who stand alone to find out what is really happening. They band together to find clues and answers to all of the questions that need them. Eventually, Harry finds a diary by a Tom Marvolo Riddle that provides clues in ghostly handwriting and allows Harry to travel back 50 years into the past to find some answers. The kids also encounter a swarm of giant spiders, change into Draco Malfoy’s friends to question Malfoy, and more.

This film is more than well-made with Chris Columbus’ direction—it’s alive. It’s about something. The computer animation is no distraction at all because it makes the movie as visually interesting as the cast and the sets. They blend in very convincingly. Even the Quidditch game is put on a larger scale than in the first film and that’s a great accomplishment—it’s also even more exciting because Harry has to outrun a runaway ball called a Bludger while also trying to catch the Golden Snitch and win the game.

I love how all of the plot elements draw together and how everything is cleared in the end. This film also doesn’t set up for the next Harry Potter adventure. It doesn’t have to. If these two films were the only films in the Harry Potter film series, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was the setup and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” is the payoff. The characters we’ve grown to love are brought into intriguing action sequences, brilliant sets, and a powerful action climax in the third half of the film. There is more than action to be found here—there is a heart and most importantly, a brain. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” is a highly satisfactory sequel.

Red Dragon (2002)

5 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Red Dragon” begins with an unnerving shot of an audience at a concert hall. The reason it’s unnerving is because of the one person we recognize before the camera pushes in on him. There’s a subtle lighting on that shot that isn’t too flashy so that we recognize right away who the guy is, but it just comes naturally. We can see that it’s Hannibal Lector, the infamous, cannibalistic psychiatrist/serial killer played by Anthony Hopkins in the role that won him an Oscar in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” Seeing Lector among people, wearing a suit, is unnerving even of itself, but his emotion of disgust when he studies the one flutist playing the wrong notes is even more so.

That may be because we realize who this man is and understand that “Red Dragon” is actually a prequel to “The Silence of the Lambs.” And it’s also because the director Brett Ratner has a way of showing things as they are and yet keeping an eye for important things, like the best directors of thrillers. It’s surprising that Ratner’s previous work was directing the “Rush Hour” movies.

But anyway, what follows that first scene is something even more disturbing when you’ve studied Lector in “Silence of the Lambs”—Lector is hosting a dinner party. You heard that right—a dinner party. I don’t even want to know what he serves to his dinner guests, but they seem to enjoy it. I don’t even want to think about it.

What follows isn’t as terrifying as its great opening, but it’s still pretty suspenseful. “Red Dragon” is actually a well-put-together, gripping thriller. That comes as a surprise, because while it’s an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name, it’s also a remake of the stylized 1986 thriller “Manhunter,” by Michael Mann. I loved the original film, and that’s why I was surprised to like this remake (or more accurately, re-adaptation) just as much. Sure, it doesn’t have the same amount of style, but not all movies can be the same.

“Red Dragon” follows an FBI Special Agent named Will Graham, who has a gift for deduction (he’s like a modern day Sherlock Holmes). He goes to Lector’s house the same night as the party and tells him, as his psychiatrist, that he’s found an extra clue in the latest killings—body parts are missing from the bodies, like livers and hearts. Soon enough, he realizes that Lector is a cannibal and he’s responsible for the killings. Graham is able to capture him, but after he nearly dies.

Several years later, Will goes into retirement is called back from his family life into the field to track down a new sick serial killer dubbed “The Tooth Fairy.” After finding some clues, Will realizes to know a serial killer is to capture one, so he goes to the prison where Lector is being held to ask Lector if he knows anything about the Tooth Fairy or if he would know what his next move would be, as a psychopath. It’s psychiatry and psychopath mixed in one, just as Lector showed in the previous film. He’ll give his answers only after he’ll share his delusions of the human mind.

These scenes are different from Lector’s talks with Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in “Silence of the Lambs” in two ways. The first way is, Will is too smart to fall for Lector’s delusions. In “Silence of the Lambs,” Clarice pays attention and looks on with frightened awe. But in “Red Dragon,” Will takes none of that. He’ll just get the answers he needs and get the hell out of there. And the second is that there’s a constant battle of wits between Lector and Will. While in “Silence of the Lambs,” Lector grew to care for Clarice (you have your version, I have mine), Lector hates Will in “Red Dragon.” He knows that Will isn’t interested in Lector’s off-subject rambles and is still steamed that Will found a way to get him in this prison, and that stretches to the point that he actually finds a way from inside his cell to tell the Tooth Fairy where Will’s family lives. There’s a great deal of tension between these two.

Edward Norton plays the intelligent, insightful Will Graham and sells the role. Norton has a powerful screen presence shown in countless other movies and he makes a great hero for this sort of movie.

As for the Tooth Fairy, he’s played by Ralph Fiennes in a chillingly good performance. He plays the Tooth Fairy as a tortured soul fighting his emotions the way Gollum fights his double personality. One moment, the Tooth Fairy (or Francis Dolarhyde, as he’s known at his job) is a frightened man tortured by his abusive past. The other moment, he’s a twisted killer who kills as part of his own transformation from a coward to a conqueror. Whatever part of him that’s still human is kept alive by a blind woman (played by Emily Watson) who feels compassion for him.

Anthony Hopkins is still spot-on as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector, the role that won him an Oscar, this fascinating character that has room for more back-story to be told. He’s a psycho, but he’s charismatic and shares his views of the human mind with exact pronunciation and a sense of irony in his wit.

There are other characters in “Red Dragon,” like Will’s wife (Mary-Louise Parker), Will’s boss (Harvey Keitel), and memorably, the reprehensible tabloid reporter (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) who finds out more than he should know and ultimately becomes the Tooth Fairy’s latest victim. What’s engaging about “Red Dragon” is that it takes its time to develop its characters while keeping the gore at a more minimum level than you might expect. There is suspense, intelligence in Will’s way of figuring all of these things out, and Norton has a mighty screen presence that balances out Lector and the Tooth Fairy.

“Red Dragon” is a smart thriller with sharp direction, great acting, and a real sense of tension, not to mention a great, memorable music score by Danny Elfman. It’s an appropriate prequel to “The Silence of the Lambs” and well-drawn-out remake to “Manhunter” and captures the right amount of menace compared to each.

Tuck Everlasting (2002)

4 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Don’t be afraid of death. Be afraid of the unlived life.”

These are the words said by Angus Tuck to Winnie Foster. Winnie is a teenager from a wealthy family who has stumbled upon the secret of the Tucks, a family living/hiding in the woods who hold the secret to eternal life. She has lived with the Tucks and fallen in love with Angus’ young son Jesse, who finally reveals the secret to her and would like to share it (eternal life, that is) with her.

As Jesse puts it, “I’m going to be 17 until the end of the world.” The Tucks didn’t choose to live this full life. They happened upon it—you see, it’s the spring in the middle of the woods that causes those who drink from it to become immortal. The Tucks were able to realize it later. And they do have their regrets. The oldest son Miles, in particular, has a tragic past and would prefer to die—but it can never happen.

Angus—the oldest in the family—tells Winnie that if she chooses to drink from the spring, she will live forever, but there will be things to miss, especially at her young age—much like Jesse, caught in limbo at more than a hundred years of age, but still in a 17-year-old body. So the choice is to live an everlasting life with the Tucks, or live a normal life with her family.

The question of immortality is the main strength of the wonderful family film “Tuck Everlasting,” based on the popular young adult novel of the same name. Maybe the term “family film” is somewhat unnecessary. Younger viewers may not think much of immortality because they already feel like they’re never going to die. But for older ones, it’s a remarkable concept. What would you choose if you were faced between a normal life and an everlasting one? What would you feel? You could say “yes” immediately, but would you think about it first? Some would, some wouldn’t. Winnie is given moments to think about a lot of things and only after does she make her decision. That’s how “Tuck Everlasting” plays out and as a result, the movie is thought-provoking and enchanting.

As it opens, Winnie (Alexis Bledel) is a teenaged rich girl who is tired of being kept inside her huge house with her overbearing parents (Victor Garber and Amy Irving) and wishes for something more in life. She runs away from home, into the woods, where she meets Jesse (Jonathan Jackson) at the spring. Jesse warns her to go away, but Winnie is stubborn and doesn’t leave that easily. It’s then that Miles (Scott Bairstow) comes along, sees her as a threat, grabs her, and takes her back to the Tuck home. Winnie is treated like a prisoner at first, to be sure she doesn’t go back and tell people where they are. But Winnie knows nothing of their true origins at the time, and opens up to their lifestyle.

A romance develops between Winnie and Jesse, and it’s developed nicely. It’s not cloying or forced—it’s sweet and innocent. By the time Winnie must make her choice, you genuinely wonder what will happen for them. Will Winnie stay with Jesse or will she leave him, knowing he’ll outlive her? There’s weight added to the question of immortality.

The Tucks are well-developed and have their own shadows and advantages. Angus and Mae (William Hurt and Sissy Spacek), the parents, are stuck in middle-aged bodies, but remain lively. Miles, stuck in the prime of his life, is the most tragic of the family, with a past revealed later that makes him more like a zombie stuck in a lifelike state without ever dying. Jesse is more like Peter Pan—never growing old, never dying, and forever young.

As if the choice of normality and eternity wasn’t enough, there’s a rising action featuring another character crucial to the story—a mysterious Man in a Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley) who knows the Tucks’ secret and is determined to expose it. And of course, there’s the conflict of Winnie’s parents intent on finding their daughter, also risking the Tucks’ hideaway. These elements may be necessary, but they almost make the final act of the story seem somewhat overstuffed, with all the right payoffs.

But that’s a minor quibble, mind you. Ben Kingsley is suitably menacing in the role and the determination of the parents wanting their daughter back is realistic enough. However, Winnie’s important choice is the element that should address the most concern, in my opinion.

“Tuck Everlasting” is a wonderful film—one that makes you wonder, and provokes thoughts such as, “If you live forever, what do you live for?” That’s at the center of the movie and it’s very engaging.