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Shattered Glass (2003)

5 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How far does ambition go in the workplace? Or, in the case of “Shattered Glass,” how far does ambition go in journalism? “Shattered Glass” is a film based on true events in the late-‘90s, about a young writer, named Stephen Glass, who strived to get so far in the reporting business that he actually fabricated more than two dozen stories for the New Republic just so he could get ahead. He didn’t just bend the rules; he flat-out made up the facts as he went along and attempted to cover his tracks with elaborate stories and hoaxes. Why did he do it? Maybe he thought he would impress his fellow staff writers if he could write the most riveting stories, so he created stories about a drunken Young Republicans hotel-gathering and a computer hacker’s convention featuring a young hacker who sold computer companies his knowledge to get rid of other hackers, in exchange for anything he wanted.

You could say these stories are too good to be true, and that’s probably what Stephen’s co-workers think. But Stephen has notes for fact-checkers to verify, they love Stephen’s enthusiasm as he talks about his stories, and more importantly, they love him. Even when his wispy, whiny personality seems to annoy people, all he has to do is ask the question, “Are you mad at me?” They can’t stay mad at him.

That’s the way writer-director Billy Ray sees it in “Shattered Glass,” which stars Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass.

Christensen portrays Glass effectively, as a naïve kid who desperately wants to be liked by his peers and co-workers and will even flat-out lie to everybody to gain sympathy, even when he is caught by his editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard in an excellent performance), by accident. When is Stephen Glass telling the truth in this film? It’s hard to tell, because he’s a convincing liar. He always plays an innocent. Is he an innocent? There are times near the end, when he creates a sob-story when he knows he’s about to be fired from the New Republic, that it’s so unsettling to watch him like this. But it’s all so fascinating, and Hayden Christensen turns in a solid performance.

One thing we don’t see in this film is how good Glass is as a journalist. You have to wonder from watching this film if he ever wrote a story he didn’t make up himself. If so, why is that? Is it because he kept thinking he could get away with it? That he could continue to fool people? Is he just addicted to lying? What we do know is that when Glass is ultimately caught, he doesn’t see it as a big deal by that point.

This really did happen. Stephen Glass did in fact create these stories. The New Republic published fiction and didn’t even know about it until Internet journalist Adam Penenberg (played by Steve Zahn) checked the facts himself, brought the attention TNR editor Chuck Lane, and exposed the article, causing Lane to fire Glass. It’s almost hard to believe, but sometimes the most impressive stories are the ones that are true. Maybe if Glass looked around some more, he wouldn’t have had to imagine his articles.

“Shattered Glass” is a terrific film that shows the pressures of journalism as well as the questions of limited ambition in such a workplace (Glass’ opening narration about his job is one of the most truthful speeches I’ve heard, especially now that I’ve worked at the University of Central Arkansas newspaper, the Echo, for two semesters now). It’s also very well-acted. I’ve said how good Hayden Christensen is as the title character, but I can’t forget Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane, who’s really the hero of the story. In the beginning of the film, he already has enough to worry about—he’s not popular among his co-workers, and is even less so when he replaces the original editor Michael Kelly, whom everyone loved. He’s not very charismatic, is constantly under pressure with deadlines and all that fun stuff with journalism, and now he has to deal with this “kid” (because, really, that’s what the others see Glass as: a kid), and hope that he’s wrong about his suspicions because he knows that if he fires him, no one will want to listen to his reasons why. Sarsgaard is great here; he does an excellent job at balancing out his ethics and wants. He, along with many other aspects (the script, the execution, the rest of the actors) make “Shattered Glass” definitely worth looking into.

Jeepers Creepers II (2003)

3 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Every 23rd spring, for 23 days, it gets to eat.” Yes, apparently, “Jeepers Creepers II,” the sequel to the modest horror-movie hit “Jeepers Creepers,” went with that angle that is just as ridiculous now as it was then. That’s apparently the main rule for a fiendish winged half-man/half-beast known as The Creeper. And I have to admit—it is a neat monster. It’s fast, dark, tall, ugly, vicious, and ruthless. And it doesn’t talk or wisecrack, so it only has a snarling personality.

But it’s a really bad move to make us root for the villain in a horror film just so we can say how intriguing the villain might be. “Jeepers Creepers II” has a nice monster, but it has it entrapped in a nothing story with extremely unlikable, annoying “heroes” that we just want to see die faster so that the movie will be over and we can move on with our lives. (And maybe the most dedicated fans of this movie, which I’m hoping are a very limited few, can make pieces of online fanfiction that is more interesting than what they had to watch to get started with.)

Yeah, “Jeepers Creepers II” is well-made (for the most part, anyway), but it’s boring, stupid as hell, and contains the dumbest, most unpleasant group of characters you’ll ever find in a horror film or a mindless action-adventure. Never before have I wanted a whole group of protagonists to die faster than they do in this movie. They’re that obnoxious.

The film starts out in a suitably unnerving way, as a young boy sets up scarecrows in the middle of a wheat field and then notices one that seems unfamiliar. He sees the claws, and then bam! It springs into action, grabbing the boy, and running off with it as his father and older brother give chase before it ultimately flies away. (Why it didn’t just fly away before is anyone’s guess.)

And then, we’re introduced to our heroes. No, it’s not Jack Taggart (Ray Wise), the farmer who was the dead boy’s father and now seeks vengeance in a mere subplot. Instead, we’re forced to follow a group of jackasses—a high-school football team on the bus ride home from a big game. The Creeper causes the bus to have a flat tire (by using one its…ninja-stars? What were those again?) and picks off the driver, coach, and assistant coach, leaving the team and a few cheerleaders to fend for themselves.

How stupid are these kids? Well, let’s do bullet-points for all the idiotic actions they perform.

  • Even though the Creeper is super strong and fast, and has even removed the head of one of their teammates, they still slowly look upward to see if it’s still out there.
  • It never occurs to them that they should stay low in that bus.
  • When they get out of the bus (yes, they get out of the bus), they do nothing but stand on the road until they see it coming. When they can’t get back in, what do they do?
  • They run out into an open field instead of hide under the bus!

And let’s not forget Scotty, the jackass homophobe who angrily takes charge and decides to split the group in two, seeing as how The Creeper only saw a few of them earlier, and thus those it hasn’t seen will live. One thing he forgets (that, by the way, someone does bring up but not soon enough) is that The Creeper saw him too, so that whole scene in which he tries to take charge, resulting in him making an even bigger jackass out of himself, was completely pointless.

It’s pretty easy to hate Scotty, but there are others on that bus who are equally loathsome, including Scotty’s girlfriend who always says the wrong things; one kid who assumes another is gay (which is interesting, considering how many gay undertones there are in this movie); and there’s even a cheerleader who is actually psychic so she can explain the motivations of The Creeper. I haven’t mentioned any names of the actors playing the kids; I’ll cut them a break. What I won’t cut a break, however, is the screenwriter for writing so much atrocious dialogue that forces us to listen to these “heroes” go on and on and never shut up. I’d much rather see what Jack Taggart has to do with anything, but he’s unfortunately a supporting character who’s able to show up for a somewhat-kickass climax, in which he packs a quite lethal weapon: a post-puncher turned spear-thrower. Why not follow this guy instead? Anybody but these detestable jerks!

You get the point—“Jeepers Creepers II” is a horror film with not much of a story and no one to identify or sympathize with. I guess the idea of characters being trapped on a bus by a vicious villain that won’t stop is kind of intriguing, but when you have to spend an hour and a half with people you don’t like, and just wish they would get it sooner, it takes the fun out of everything it could have had going for it.

P.S. By the way, why is this thing called The Creeper when it does everything else aside from “creep,” like fly, stare, and…lick the glass on one of the bus windows? (What?)

Hulk (2003)

9 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s take a look at 2003’s “Hulk” from a 2013 perspective and find out what summer-movie audiences really seemed to hate about it. When Ang Lee’s film adaptation of the Marvel comic book series “The Incredible Hulk” was released in the summer of ’03, audiences walked out very disappointed and practically calling it a sad excuse for a summer-blockbuster. What was the cause of the hate? What went wrong?

Was it the numerous conversations within the characters? Isn’t it important for characters in superhero-movies to talk about their plight?

Was it the dark, depressing storyline? I think we’ve grown used to that by now, what with the releases of Christopher Nolan’s rebooted “Batman” films, for instance.

Was it the poor rendering of a CGI-Hulk running around and smashing things in his path? Well…fair enough. But haven’t we seen worse CGI? And aren’t we always aware that CGI is used in these movies? Granted, this Hulk looks more like Shrek on steroids, but he does interact with the real world very well—he smashes objects, encounters people, blends into shadows, etc. And in closeups, he doesn’t even look fake.

My guess is that “Hulk” was a superhero movie that was ahead of its time. Surely, CGI would progress in these films, but in the years since this film’s release, we’ve gotten used to action films of this type having many complex issues and dark material (see “The Dark Knight,” for example). With “Spider-Man” and “Daredevil” (both films based on Marvel comic book characters) already released before this one, people thought they were going to get just good solid entertainment with hardly anything more. I don’t think they were prepared for “Hulk.”

But wait a minute, you may exclaim. What about Tim Burton’s “Batman” films? Those came out more than ten years before “Hulk” and they were pretty dark for comic-book movies! Well since then, the superhero-movie genre was declared dead, not only with the Shaq vehicle “Steel,” the Pamela Anderson striptease “Barb Wire,” but even with Joel Schumacher’s embarrassing “Batman & Robin.” Then, “X-Men” was released in 2000, and it seemed like the superhero-movie was back, high on entertainment, low on much else, but entertaining nonetheless. So audiences figured we’d get more and more of these as they went along, and it would take a more iconic figure (like Batman) to make people ease into darkness.

I wonder what would happen if those people watched “Hulk” again nowadays because, to get straight to the point (if you didn’t figure it out already), I think “Hulk” is pretty good. It’s inventive, it’s involving, and well-executed. And more importantly, it’s successful in its character development and even how it represents the green behemoth himself, the Hulk. How Ang Lee sees the Hulk is probably different from the comic-book story (I admit never having read it), but all the more intriguing. Hulk is more of a tragic figure in this movie—a victim of unfortunate circumstances and consequences of a world he didn’t make. He can’t help but let out the rage in the physical form of a gigantic beast.

The Hulk is the rage that comes from within Dr. Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), a scientist working on a complicated radioactive experiment. He works with his ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), whom he’s still friendly with. Their experiment is still is the staging process, but things get even worse as a laboratory accident exposes Bruce to radiation. It doesn’t kill him, but it does enhance something inside of him, which isn’t clear until he transforms into the Hulk—a giant, green-skinned monster with great strength and speed. He discovers he is able to transform when he’s angry and can change back when his rage dwindles down.

Bruce also learns that there’s more to him than that, as he gets in contact with an old man who turns out to be his father, David Banner (Nick Nolte). He knows of Bruce’s ability and plight, and has also passed it on to him to begin with, by experimenting with his own DNA code and passing along transformed genes to his son. He then tried to kill him before being taken away for 30 years. Betty’s father, General Ross (Sam Elliott), knows of David’s history and keeps an untrusting eye on Bruce before realizing what he has become and takes him away. But that may turn out to be a mistake…

So, while Bruce is locked up and experimented upon, he becomes the Hulk again and runs amok, leaving General Ross and his men to decide whether to kill him or help him.

Remarkably for a supposed summer-blockbuster, “Hulk” is very somber in tone. There’s some good action and some intriguing entertainment values, but for the most part, it’s pretty dark. There’s a tragic backstory involving David and what he may have attempted to do with Bruce (to end his “curse” early), as well as the philosophy of who’s human and who’s not, which is something that any science-fiction story likes to use. But more importantly, the characters talk about their situations at hand. They discuss their plight and how it’s affecting them all. That’s kind of refreshing. The film’s audience in 2003 may have found the conversations too “talky”—so what? I felt for the protagonists even more because of that. Probably the strongest moment is when Bruce and Betty discuss this transformation alone in a cabin before Bruce is taken away. Bruce reveals that it scares him most when he realizes that he likes it when he completely loses himself into being the Hulk. It’s a revealing moment and it sets the mood for the rest of the movie, in that Betty knows how her father and the authorities will treat him and hopes to be able to soothe him.

I don’t even want to call “Hulk” a superhero-movie. It’s more of an Incredible Hulk version of the classic monster movies, such as “Frankenstein,” “King Kong,” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Elements of all three titles are evident here in a modern light. I think more of those titles than I do of “Spider-Man” or “Daredevil.” With “Frankenstein,” we have the creation gone wrong, the belief that humanity will never accept the unusual, and the creature unfairly hunted by those who don’t understand. That last one also resembles “King Kong,” in that Hulk is seen as a monster and hunted by the authorities. Also resembling “King Kong” are the action sequences, in which Hulk fights off mutated dogs that were part of David Banner’s genetics experiment, and an extended sequence in which Hulk battles Army tanks and helicopters (those scenes resemble Kong’s battle with dinosaurs and his last stand). As for the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” aspects, it pretty much explains itself. Bruce is Jekyll. Hulk is Hyde. Simple.

I mentioned before that I didn’t want to call “Hulk” a superhero-movie. But I can’t deny that it is a comic-book movie. Ang Lee goes all out to give it the look of a comic-book. He positions many shots to look like comic frames; he uses mobile camera movements to keep the flow of the mood; and more frequently, he uses multiple split-screens that show one area or another while keeping in the same scene. Watch this movie, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s very clever.

Oh, and should I also mention that the credits are also in that Comic Sans font that is used in descriptions of…comic books?

As for the action, it’s pretty good too. That lengthy sequence in which the Hulk battles the Military is exciting and intense. And because of everything that’s happened before, we always root for the Hulk to escape this situation.

The acting is across-the-board solid. Eric Bana is great as Bruce, giving us a complicated character to like and root for. Jennifer Connelly is appealing as Betty, who is stronger than you might think in this “girlfriend” role—she’s better than that. Sam Elliott is not entirely villainous as General Ross—he gives the character a more human side than you might expect. He’s very stubborn, yes; but he’s not evil. And then there’s Nick Nolte who is just perfect as David Banner. This is a mad scientist done right. Not manic or campy in the slightest—just a deranged, self-centered lunatic who cares more for how his experiment progressed with his son, rather than rekindling a relationship with his son.

OK, now what about the Hulk himself? Yes, I know he’s entirely CGI and people have attacked this creation as looking very fake. It’s easy to make fun of this Hulk, apparently. And I have to admit, it is the least interesting element in the movie. That might be because while in closeup, it looks very real and like I said, it interacts with the real world fine. But when you see it in faraway shots, it does look quite fake with herky-jerky movements and a cartoon-like look.

But for the most part, I really like “Hulk.” I know I’m in a minority on this, but hopefully that’ll change if people actually give this a second look. When you really think about it, comic-book movies have improved into being movies for people who don’t like comic-book movies (and thus, making them like even more comic-book movies, ironically). “Hulk” was one of the first to share that label, while other fans of the superhero-movie genre were left disappointed by the heavy dramatic situations and the dark storyline. Times have changed. It’s time to watch this movie again. Hopefully you’ll see it a different way.

Daredevil (2003)

6 May

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In the Marvel Comics superhero universe, Daredevil would seem like their answer to DC’s Batman. While the Devil isn’t as wealthy or as smooth as the Dark Knight (and on top of that, he’s blind), he does have a similarly tragic backstory, has impressive stealth and skill (not just for a blind man; for anybody), and is still human when all is said and done. He’s vulnerable and he’s experienced so much, and yet has more to overcome and grow from as well.

Mark Steven Johnson’s film adaptation, “Daredevil,” shows this. It moves back and forth between the human and hero side of Matt Murdock/Daredevil, and manages to give its audience a good sense of his plight. There’s a scene early on in which he walks through his apartment after a night out, and he listens to a voicemail by an old flame that indicates that he is closed off from people and has this new identity that is continuing to haunt him each night.

The film opens with Matt Murdock’s backstory. Matt (played as a teenager by Scott Terra) gets into an unfortunate accident involving toxic chemicals. He loses his vision, but his other four senses have been enhanced in such a way that he develops radar sense that allows him to be more alert. This new sense is now his sight and he uses it to develop new talents that do him well. As his father is killed by one of the local mobsters, Matt ultimately devotes himself to bring criminals to justice, even if it means dressing up in a tight leather suit and a mask as an adult.

Many years later (whatever happened in that time is hardly explained, so I’m not sure how long Matt has been Daredevil), Matt (now played by Ben Affleck) is a lawyer by day and a vigilante by night. He apparently is kept busy defeating evildoers, as most of them work for the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), the biggest crime lord in New York. Kingpin wants to see Daredevil caught and killed, and so he sends in his chief minister—a bald Irish villain named Bullseye (Colin Farrell), who “never misses a shot” and has a target tattooed to his forehead.

Meanwhile, Matt starts a relationship with an athletic, tenacious woman named Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), who has enough fight in her system to playfully engage with Matt upon their first encounter. She has been trained by her father (Erick Avari) to “not be a victim,” and it seems her skills may come in handy when she is next on the target list for the Kingpin. Something happens midway through the story that gives her motivation to follow the same mission as Daredevil—to seek justice/vengeance.

“Daredevil” gets a lot of things right. In particular, the origins of Daredevil, which are shown in a 15-minute prologue, is very well-done. The action scenes, for the most part, are exciting, although my favorite is the foreplay fight between Matt and Elektra after they first meet; they show off their skills by trying to knock each other down. The Kingpin is sort of an obvious villain (which he’s supposed to be), and so Bullseye is the more intriguing, creepier badass. The look of Hell’s Kitchen is genuinely dark and disturbing, making it look as peculiar as Gotham City. And there are some genuinely sweet moments between Matt and Elektra in their relationship. In the film’s most touching scene among these two, Matt has Elektra stand in the rain so that the sounds of the raindrops falling on her face can give Matt a clear-enough image of what Elektra looks like. That’s a very good scene. Also, Ben Affleck is quite solid as the hero—nothing great, but still enough for us to root for him. Jennifer Garner is even better as she radiates enough energy and determination as Elektra.

But there are more than a few missteps that keep “Daredevil” from the type of superhero movie that fans can “marvel” at (in a matter of speaking). For one thing, Matt Murdock is not particularly good at hiding the fact that he’s a vigilante, even though he tells criminals in court (in front of everybody) that he “hopes that justice will find you” and this is followed by those same criminals falling in the hands of the mysterious Devil. The idea is that, like most superhero stories, no one is supposed to know about Matt Murdock’s alter-ego, but Matt (or rather, the way Affleck plays it) is not particularly subtle and it just leads to question of how no one can figure him out. This is especially hurtful in that a nosy reporter (Joe Pantoliano) is able to figure it out quite easily. Now, granted, I know that people wouldn’t suspect a blind man that can be the superhero that prowls the city at night. But Matt doesn’t keep his abilities a secret either, so it’s still in question.

Also, I found myself wondering just what are the extents of Daredevil’s abilities anyway? He can apparently jump from building to building. First of all, how is he able to know where to land without the sound to assist him? Second, have his joints been enhanced in such a way that improves his jumping abilities? That’s not as clarified as his other senses.

And then there are the obligatory, “Batman-esque” lines of dialogue such as, “Can one man make a difference?” Instead of giving it the proper motivation it needed for a story such as this, it just feels like uninspired comic-book-speak.

The execution is all over the place as well. The editing feels like overkill, as there are many music-video tricks that are overused; it makes it pretty distracting at times.

Also, I feel like so much was cut out of the final product before the film’s release date, which is why certain sequences feel unevenly paced. It’s 100 minutes in length, and yet it feels like there’s enough room for more development in certain areas. I hear there’s a “director’s cut” on DVD somewhere; I think I might check it out sometime. The truth is, I don’t see this as a bad film. It has enough elements for a good superhero film. But the way it is, “Daredevil” is merely action-packed entertainment with not much else to offer, except for an admittedly-engaging dark tone. Movies based on Marvel superheroes would only get better as years go by, and while “Daredevil” isn’t among the worst, it’s not as impressive it could have been.

Elf (2003)

25 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Movies with fish-out-of-water stories—sometimes they work, depending on the execution, central characters, and settings. Sometimes they don’t work. “Elf”—which features an elf who visits New York City on Christmastime—does work. It has a lovable main character, a pleasant setup, and a sense of holiday cheer.

The main reason “Elf” works so much is because of Will Ferrell’s performance as the lead character—a human named Buddy who thinks he’s an elf. Well actually, that’s the first ten minutes. For the entire movie, he realizes for the first time that he’s a human and sets out to find his real father. You see, Buddy was an orphan baby who crawled into Santa Claus’ bag and was accidentally brought back to the North Pole. There, he was adopted by Papa Elf and raised to live with the elves. This makes him several feet taller than the others, it’s difficult for him to create toys with the other elves, and he has to sleep in three small beds put together. He’s about 30 years old now and he doesn’t know that he’s indeed a human, not an elf. So he decides to go to New York City to find his birth father.

It turns out his birth father is an uptight publisher named Walter Hobbs who works in the Entire State Building, neglects his wife and pre-teen son, and is basically a Scrooge. He’s not thrilled about this strange man in an elf costume that seems to stalk him. But when Buddy mentions his college girlfriend (Buddy’s birth mother), Buddy is able to convince his father to let him live in his family’s apartment. He gets on Walter’s wife Emily’s good side, as well as the son named Michael who becomes Buddy’s best friend.

He also tours around the city to discover everything new to him and pays many visits to a department store, where he is able to spot out a fake Santa Claus in one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Also at the store is a beautiful worker named Jovie who eventually develops a relationship with Buddy.

A lot happens in “Elf,” which is just flat-out funny and very charming. And a lot rides on the performance of Will Ferrell as Buddy. Will Ferrell is absolutely amazing—he’s very likable, delightfully annoying, and so full of good cheer. This is not the Will Ferrell people were used to seeing on SNL. He’s also a great physical comedian in which he tries to blend in (or, forgive the pun, fit in) at Santa’s workshop, tries to figure out a mall escalator, or even wearing that ridiculous elf costume! He has a great personality that makes it impossible to dislike his character.

And then there’s the delightful (and much unexpected) supporting cast. We have James Caan as the Scrooge of a father, Mary Steenburgen as the sweet Emily (I really love how she gets used to the fact that Walter had a child out of wedlock and that the child is a full-grown man who thinks he’s an elf—and also, the way it seems strangely credible), and Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, the beautiful, fun love interest. Oh yeah, and Papa Elf is played by Bob Newhart, who narrates the story in deadpan delight—he’s wonderful here. We also get a nice cameo from Peter Dinklage as a business dwarf who doesn’t like being called “elf” (there’s also a nice cameo from “A Christmas Story” star Peter Billingsley as the head elf Ming Ming). What a cast there is!

If that’s not enough, the movie is well-made and fantastically-written. It was directed by actor Jon Favreau and written by David Berenbaum. We get walk-ons by the characters from the cheesy animated Christmas TV specials (including that snowman that still slides instead of walks and talks like a bluesman). And there are so many gags in which Buddy is in the city for the first time and checks out everything that it’s hard to stop laughing or even smiling. The whole movie is like that—laughs and smiles. The movie is full of in-jokes, surprises, and satire. Half of it is for kids and the other half is for parents. This is a great family entertainment.

If there is a problem with “Elf,” it’s that the ending feels somewhat rushed. It’s not the ending I would’ve gone with if I was in charge of production…then again, if I was in charge, I’m not sure I would make “Elf” as pleasant as it is by Jon Favreau and acted with a lovable, highly-charismatic persona by Will Ferrell.

NOTE: I have a confession to make—I was almost about to rate this movie three stars. But while I was writing this review, I quickly changed it to three-and-a-half stars. That’s how charming the movie was for me.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

22 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I had a feeling this was too good to be true. While I thoroughly enjoyed the first two Terminator movies, I really wished I could’ve loved this third movie as well. But it’s heavy-handed and filled with subplots involving the government that are boring when they should be thrilling. Skynet is about to call on Judgment Day in a matter of hours and machines are going to destroy us, just like everyone in the first two movies said they would. Why am I bored? That’s what’s mainly wrong with this movie, entitled “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” It does have heavy-handed, thrilling action sequences and chase scenes but it has too much going on with the story and I was not as thrilled as I was with the previous Terminator films.

Stars Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, and even director James Cameron are missing in action for this third movie. But Arnold Schwarzenegger is back as the Terminator, playing a good guy again. His mission is to protect John Connor, now in his early 20s. As you remember from the second movie, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the conflict was to stop Judgment Day from ever occurring, thus stopping the machines from rising. But the Terminator has returned many years later and said, “You only postponed it. Judgment Day is inevitable.” Sure, don’t give us a happy ending to the series. We just wanna see Ah-nold in the saddle again. You remember, the previous films were about something. This third one is more concerned with action. And there is plenty of it here.

We also get plenty of Arnold’s deadpan one-liners, mostly all of which work as comedic timing. But the emotion that was in the second film that I loved so much is missing here. Here, we have John Connor and the Terminator racing against time to survive or stop what’s coming and not much else. Also in the mix is a young veterinarian named Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), who recognizes John from her childhood. You see, John “lives off the grid” now, running away from everything in the world after his mother died of leukemia. Nick Stahl is John this time. But he just plays him as a guy with an action-hero physique and not as a guy who lives off the grid. Edward Furlong, who played John in the second film, really gave John Connor the credibility of the character that is supposed to save the human race if the machines rise. You see, this is why John always has to be protected.

This time, he has to be protected by the T-X (Kristanna Loken), an evil Terminator that can control other machines so they can run by themselves and destroy everything. She has the outward appearance of a female blonde model but she’s an evil machine. One of the problems with this movie is that she’s a particularly compelling villain, even though she looks icy beautiful. I realize that the whole point is that these Terminators are machines and therefore can’t show emotions. But when the machines begin to rise and attack John and Kate, they make for some pretty effective villains. The special effects are outstanding here. The machines look realistic and director Jonathan Mostow gives a good look to the film. He loves to blow things up real good. The best chase sequence in the film involves every vehicle you can think of. One little problem is that he doesn’t have a flair for darkness, much like James Cameron had. And he may be a bit too fond of chase scenes. This movie is less interested in what made the previous films intriguing and more interested in action.

The ending is a letdown. It raises all sorts of questions that need to be answered and in many ways, it’s anticlimactic. Why, after all of these action sequences and chase scenes, did they just decide to end that way?

Despite the clever action, amazing special effects, and good performances, especially by Schwarzenegger, Stahl, and Danes, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” just seems like a fanboy’s script and is not as intriguing and thrilling as the previous films, which I thought were great. It just seems like an unnecessary sequel with a few good things but not the potential of the predecessors.

School of Rock (2003)

17 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“School of Rock” is a fun family movie that actually rocks! This is a terrific entertainment for people of all ages—but why is the movie rated PG-13? The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) gave the movie that rating for “rude humor and drug references.” This is harmless enough for kids and adults all around, and there probably isn’t a kid in the world who wouldn’t be entertained and delighted by this entertaining and delightful rock-fest. I mean it—it’s that good.

The key to the film’s success is in the film’s star Jack Black, who knows just what to do to get some big laughs. He’d already made his mark with memorable parts in “High Fidelity” and “Shallow Hal.” He is so hilarious with his sweaty charisma and loud but talented comic timing. Here, he delivers an exuberant and gleeful performance that helps make “School of Rock” wildly entertaining.

Black plays Dewey Finn, an energetic, 30-year-old slacker with a passion for rock n roll. Dewey is kicked out of his rock band for being too showy. He shares an apartment with a nerdy substitute teacher (Mike White, who also wrote the film), who has the strange name “Schneebly.” Dewey needs to come up with some money to pay his rent so when a prestigious prep school calls for his roommate to be a sub for a few weeks, Dewey goes to the school and masquerades as a teacher for a fifth grade class that is rewarded for following the rules. Dewey can’t believe how stiff these kids are.

When he hears them practice in band class, he realizes that they can really play. So he comes with a half-baked idea—turn the kids into a rock band and enter them in a “Battle of the Bands” contest to win the prize. Dewey turns the school days into lessons of rock music and culture and they practice music. The kids have fun with their Peter Pan teacher as they “create rock fusion.”

The kids transform from ten-year-old robots to ten-year-old rockers—Zack (Joey Gaydos, Jr.) plays the electric guitar, Freddy (Kevin Clark) bangs it out on the drums, and preppie Summer (Miranda Cosgrove) is assigned as band manager.

The whole movie, from start to finish, is a lot of fun. I can’t think of another comic actor to carry this movie better than Jack Black. He has this sweaty but charismatic personality that makes us laugh but also makes us like and root for him. I liked that the movie didn’t go for the basic stereotype—even the strict principal of the school, played by Joan Cusack, likes to party. I like how Dewey takes her out for a drink (he has to have a relationship somewhere in this movie) and she does a Stevie Nicks impersonation. The kids are all good comic actors—they’re not condescended upon, which is a good thing. Writer Mike White is suitably wimpy as Dewey’s roommate, and Sarah Silverman is funny as Mike White’s girlfriend who knows a slobbish loser when she sees one. But overall, Jack Black is this movie.

Also, this movie takes music seriously. We truly believe that Dewey knows a lot about rock music and truly the best scenes in the movie are the ones in which Dewey teaches these kids how to rock. They talk about music and it seems very real. These kids are played by actual musicians so they know how to play already. But they’re also good actors in which they act like this is the first time they picked up an electric guitar, keyboard, or bass. I also should point out that they really create some memorable tunes in this movie. I liked the songs they performed, even the bad one Dewey writes midway through the film. The best song comes in a heartwarming ending in which the School of Rock performs at the Battle of the Bands competition.

“School of Rock” is just a great entertainment for people of all ages. It’s a showcase of fun led by the lovable Jack Black who brings us in on all the music and all the fun. His Dewey Finn is an original character and Black makes it his own. I love “School of Rock” because of the performances, the music, and the clever script. It just rocks!

Bad Santa (2003)

17 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Bad Santa” is not your typical Christmas movie and that’s an understatement indeed. This is the vilest Christmas movie since “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” But there are differences between the two. One is, “Bad Santa” is a comedy; “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was not. Another is, “Bad Santa” is supposed to be funny; “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was unintentionally funny. Name a Christmas movie like “A Christmas Story” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Elf.” Those films are made for children and families. “Bad Santa” is not for everyone; in fact, it may hardly be for anyone. This is a cruel, vulgar, vile, profane film set around Christmastime with a crude, vulgar, and profane mall-Santa Claus. This movie is not for children or for the faint of heart—and especially not for those who don’t enjoy the shot of a drunken Santa vomiting on a wall while the title “Bad Santa” fades into place.

The title character is Willie and is played by Billy Bob Thornton. This is the role Thornton was born to play. He’s a smoking, drinking, vulgar sex fiend who is unfriendly to everyone and has respect for himself. He is not afraid of anything, especially not of looking like a complete idiot. Thornton does not call off any bets in making this guy extremely unlikable. This would be a mistake if the movie wasn’t so funny.

Every Christmas Eve night, Willie and his assistant “elf” Marcus (Tony Cox, brilliant) knock off a department store and then prepare for their next heist next Christmas. But in order to be able to get inside the department store, Willie has to dress up like Santa Claus for the children. He would make the Santa in “A Christmas Story” look like a buffoon. He drinks, swears in front of the kids, and even wets himself in the Santa seat. And so Marcus is the one who has to pick up the pieces that Willie leaves behind. About now, he is starting regret helping this guy out again…and again…and again. He is really ticked off at this guy.

Willie’s unusual behavior (for a Santa) catches the attention of the mall manager (John Ritter), a sleazy store detective (Bernie Mac), and an attractive bartender (Lauren Graham) with a Santa fetish and a catchphrase that should never be uttered on TV or in another Christmas movie, for that matter. He also attracts an overweight, friendless little boy named Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly)—the kid is a cross between Joe Cobb (of the Little Rascals) and Ralph Wiggum of “The Simpsons.” This kid is even weirder than Willie and stalks him everywhere to the point of saving him from a mean dwarf and inviting him to his house, where he lives alone with his senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman). Willie’s attitude doesn’t change around this kid, but the kid just doesn’t leave him alone. And he thinks he’s really Santa. This is not the cute kid you see in other Christmas movies—this kid is a creepy little tyke.

This is not a heartwarming film—it’s as crude as you could get. And yet it works because the actors are game and the script is hilarious. We also don’t get the kind of happy ending you would expect in a Christmas film—in fact, nothing you’d expect in a Christmas film is found here. Billy Bob Thornton is excellent as Willie, with a mix of hopelessness and grisliness that is very welcome and hilarious. Tony Cox, John Ritter, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham, Brett Kelly, and Lauren Tom (as Marcus’ wife) are very funny as well.

“Bad Santa” is R-rated—like I said, it’s definitely not for children. And if you decide to check it out, I have to share this quote from Richard Roeper when he reviewed this movie—“Don’t see it with someone you don’t know very well.”

Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003)

10 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” is an inspired idea for a comedy, or even a serious drama. It’s about a washed-up former child actor who attempts to get a comeback. This is actually an interesting story idea. There are a lot of former child stars whose careers ended too quickly, and for a movie about them, you can play off on the notion that they’d want a comeback. Unfortunately, “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” is not that movie. It’s a false attempt that could have been funny if it wasn’t so smarmy.

Dickie Roberts (David Spade) is a former child star famous for his starring role in a ‘70s TV sitcom. Now he’s working as a valet parker at a restaurant. He desperately wants a comeback and keeps telling his friends that it’s going to happen. And he thinks he can catch a break if he auditions for the lead role in the new Rob Reiner film. But Reiner (yes, the Rob Reiner playing himself) tells Dickie he’s all wrong for the part, which is just a normal person—something that Dickie never got the chance to be. Reiner says he’d have to relive his childhood, just like how actors research their roles.

And that’s what Dickie does—he hires a family in the suburbs to let him stay with them, so that he can learn what it’s like to be a kid. The two kids of the house—Sam (Scott Terra) and Sally (Jenna Boyd)—call him “Stranger Danger” and give him a hard time at first. But they befriend him, as do their mother Grace (Mary McCormack), and they help him get ready for the audition in time.

The main problem with the movie is the character of Dickie Roberts, former child star, himself. Played by David Spade (who also co-wrote the screenplay), he’s a creepy, irritating menace who is supposed to be our hero. Spade can be funny, but he just tries too hard to generate laughs. He thinks the best way to make Dickie into a lovable character is to play him as narcissistic as possible. When the movie gives us scenes in which we’re supposed to sympathize with him, it doesn’t work because of what followed. (To be fair, at least Spade tries to make us care in those scenes, particularly the scene in which he tells his agent Sidney about a memory he had with his real father—not David Soul.) Bottom line—I wanted to smack him.

The movie starts out promisingly with a mock E! Hollywood story telling the biography of Dickie. When he was a little boy, his materialistic actress mother (Doris Roberts) made him audition for everything, until he got his big break at age 6 as the center of a TV show. His catchphrase: “This is nucking futs!” (Aw, ain’t that cucking fute?) This opening skit alone is pretty funny, as we learn of rumors that David Soul (Hutch from “Starsky and Hutch”) is Dickie’s father, and get a cameo from “Eight is Enough” regular Dick Van Patten, talking about the danger of being a child star, having worked around eight…which is enough. And it’s followed by a Celebrity Boxing stint in which he gets beat up by Emmanuel “Webster” Lewis, which is also funny. But then, we get a better look at Dickie’s personality and the film becomes less funny.

The screenplay is full of sitcom clichés, mainly involving Dickie and the two kids. Dickie goes through all the motions—he tells off the school bullies, helps Sally make it into the pep squad, and aids Sam in impressing the girl next door. But even sitcoms aren’t as distasteful as the scene in which Sally auditions for the squad—you see, this is followed by a very disturbing bit in which her rival dirty-dances to “Bad” by Britney Spears. Ick!

And of course, Dickie and Grace must fall in love because that’s what happens in comedies like this. Grace’s husband George (Craig Bierko) will grow to become a jerk and leave her for Dickie’s slutty ex-girlfriend Cyndi (Alyssa Mulano), so that Dickie and Grace can be together. How convenient.

There are some things to like about “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.” For one thing, I really enjoyed the cameos that are scattered throughout the movie. I already mentioned Rob Reiner, who gamely plays…himself. He has some funny moments, which include his Nicholson impression. And there’s a scene in which Dickie plays poker with his friends, all former child stars—Leif Garrett, Barry Williams, Danny Bonaduce, Dustin Diamond, and Corey Feldman, all playing themselves. I liked that scene—their conversations were nice to listen to. (But dude, if I found out that Barry Williams really does carry around so many “Brady Bunch” props to bet on, I’d give him a psychiatrist’s number.)

And the best sequence in the movie comes during the end credits. It’s a video featuring a ton of former child stars, having their own song about how they’re not who they were anymore and would rather move on to other things. (Gee, if only Dickie took that route.) Among these welcome attractions are Maureen McCormick (don’t ever call her “Marcia” again!), Butch Patrick (Eddie Munster), the three Brady brothers, and Todd “Willis” Bridges (“You wanna autography, well I’m-a tell you this, don’t ask a brother when he’s takin’ a piss!”), to name a few.

There’s another laugh I got from this movie. It’s a visual gag in which Dickie tries out a Slip-n-Slide for the first time in his life. Only, on his first try, there’s no water yet. Maybe it’s because I wanted inflicted pain among this guy, but I laughed out loud.

Mary McCormack is charming in her lazily-written role as Grace and does what she can with it. I liked the two kids, who do suitable jobs. Jon Lovitz is very funny as Dickie’s agent Sidney who gives a liver if it means getting Dickie an audition. He has some of the best lines in the movie. Craig Bierko and Alyssa Mulano, however, are horribly miscast.

What’s more insulting? Just like in every other Adam-Sandler-produced film such as this, this movie tries to add a heavy dose of sentimentality for the ending. When is Sandler going to learn that it doesn’t mix with overdone slapstick comedy? OK, fine—Dickie gets what he wants, he learns the value of family, and everyone lives happily ever after. Even Dickie’s friends, who—and I’m not going to lie; this part was appealing—get roles in Dickie’s new sitcom about his life (Leif Garrett plays Dickie.) I would rather see a movie about that, or just the series. I want to watch these former child stars. Not Dickie Roberts.

Final Destination 2 (2003)

9 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The original “Final Destination” was a good movie about teenagers trying to outsmart Death itself. They try to cheat Death’s design so that they will not die immediately in bizarre freak accidents. The twist was that Death seemed to be a fan of Rube Goldberg and that element gave a comic element. The serious element was that the teenagers talking amongst themselves about outsmarting this ordeal. So it wasn’t long before the obligatory sequel took place. And here it is, entitled “Final Destination 2”—the most thought-provoking horror movie title since “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.”

Boy, is this movie a mess. It’s the same situation as before, the original cast (with the exception of two original cast members) is out of sight, the characters are dumb this time around, and the supposed horror is laughable beyond belief. You could call this movie a comedy instead of a horror movie. During the first half, the horror doesn’t work. And when horror doesn’t work in a horror movie, it’s pretty much doomed by the time the second half develops into more silliness.

One of the teenaged survivors of the original film—Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), who has since developed a strong persona and physique that resembles Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2”—is back, respectively, to provide information for survivors of yet another freak accident that should’ve taken the lives of many teenagers (and a few adults) if the new main character hadn’t seen it first and intervened. Earlier in the film, the cute, smart Kimberly Corman (A.J. Cook) is driving down a highway with her obnoxious best friends in tow (two of them smoke pot and crack jokes, the other complains constantly). Suddenly, a terrible thing happens and there is a massive road collision that kills them and a few other people on that highway. That, of course, turns out to be just a vision for Kimberly to see. She blocks the on-ramp, saving the drivers behind her, and then the worst occurs on that highway. But, just like in the original movie, Death is not finished with those survivors yet and plans to finish them off right away in the exact order they would have died if they weren’t saved from the accident.

And just like that, many survivors die or come close to death in bizarre, horrific ways. One almost chokes in a dentist’s chair, one is flattened by a plate-glass window, one is decapitated by an elevator door, one is even killed by an airbag, and so on. There’s one particular sequence that brings the show to a halt. It shows one of the survivors as he gets his hand stuck in the sink drain, the microwave explodes, the frying pan on the stove starts a fire, he gets his hand out of the drain, fails to put out the fire, tries to escape through the window which is locked, he breaks it open, goes down the fire escape, tries to get the ladder to come down with him, lands on the sidewalk where a lot of glass is dropped, and he seems safe…but he’s not.

These deaths are so improbable that even Rube Goldberg would’ve had a thing to say about them.

Then there’s the basic question which is, “Do you care if the characters’ lives are in jeopardy?” My answer for the original was yes. My answer for this sequel is no. The characters are unpleasant to watch (with the exception of Larter and Cook, who shine despite the bad dialogue in the script) and I think they all deserved what they got. If I don’t care about the characters who I’m supposed to root for, I have no interest in them.

Then there’s that situation in which a woman who also survived the crash is pregnant and if she has a baby, the design will be ruined. But the question is, will the baby die? Or will the woman die? Or will Death double back on the other survivors after sparing one?

I did like A.J. Cook. She has a natural presence on the screen and although her character is a dud, she’s great to look at. She also has a voice that demands attention, but doesn’t often ask for it. Too bad she attempts to drown herself at the end before she has a chance to do something better with the character.

“Final Destination 2” is a mess. The original “Final Destination” wasn’t like this at all. I hope to see a better sequel from this supposed series. This is just flat.