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My Favorite Movies – Holes (2003)

2 Oct

By Tanner Smith

Director Andrew Davis is best known for action films like “Code of Silence,” “Under Siege,” and “The Fugitive”…but my introduction to his work (and still my personal favorite of his films) was his 2003 Disney adventure flick “Holes,” based on the Louis Sachar novel of the same name. I’ve loved this movie since I was 10 years old, and it’s still in my personal top 100 even today. So I’m gonna talk about it!

What is it about this movie that still appeals to me as an adult? Honestly, it’s the same thing that appealed to me as a kid. It’s a wonderful mix of legend, charm, mystery, fate, and whimsy–and all around just a clever story (wonderfully adapted for the screen by author Louis Sachar himself). Add to that some of the most convincing juvenile ensemble acting in any movie (right up there with “The Goonies” and “It”), some legitimate intimidating threats, and damn good directing by Davis, and this is a movie that both kids and adults can enjoy!

Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf) is the young hero of the story. He seemingly comes from a century-old family curse, which his family blames on when he’s falsely accused of a crime, stealing a famous athlete’s shoes (really, they just landed on his head) which were supposed to be given to charity. His punishment is serving time at Camp Green Lake, which isn’t as fun as it sounds–it’s really a desert bunkhouse surrounded by thousands and thousands of holes. He has to join his bunkmates (each with their own quirky nicknames–X-Ray, Armpit, Magnet, etc.) in digging one hole per day–five feet deep, five feet wide (though really, it just has to be as long and as deep as the shovel being used–that’s the system the boys use anyway).

Why is this? Well, Mr. Sir (Jon Voight), a boorish ominous supervisor, tells Stanley: “You take a bad boy, you make him dig holes all day in the hot sun, and it turns him into a good boy. That’s our philosophy here at Camp Green Lake.”

I think it’s right about here, early on, that Stanley suspects that something is up, that they’re obviously looking for something–the audience is already thinking it, I’m sure. (I was.) But Mr. Sir is so imposing and Stanley’s counselor Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson) seems like a good listener but is always easy to brush something off and the number-one rule is not to upset the Warden (Sigourney Weaver)–and if Mr. Sir can get upset, I don’t think any of these kids want to cross the Warden! So, I let it pass and enjoy the ride.

There are also parallel stories told in flashbacks. One story shows us how the curse began and another, which is probably the most heartbreaking arc of the story, involves a schoolteacher (Patricia Arquette) who becomes an outlaw whose legacy’s trail of blood leaves clues for our present-day heroes to find, making for a fascinating mystery to be solved. It’s wonderfully smart and creative and intriguing to see how these pieces fit together in each timeline.

There’s also a lot of time dedicated to showing Stanley fit in at camp. He soon earns the respect of his bunkmates–X-Ray (Brendan Jefferson), Magnet (Miguel Castro), Squid (Jake Smith), Zigzag (Max Kasch), Armpit (Byron Cotton), and Zero (Khleo Thomas)–and is even given a nickname of his own (“Caveman”). The way these kids interact feels like these are real kids joking with each other. And they’re all acted greatly. There’s also a real heart brought to light when Zero, often ostracized by the rest of the group, helps Stanley, who in turn teaches him how to read. Their partnership that develops as the movie continues is one of the highlights of the movie.

That’s another thing I love about “Holes”–even as there’s a lot going on here, it takes its time with the character interactions and the progressing adventure and the compelling mystery, and it doesn’t feel forced. Something else I love is that despite the fantastical material, it all feels downplayed, making for a convincing feel in style and tone. Even the villains, played by Weaver, Voight, and Nelson, could have easily played their roles over-the-top, but they’re kept in check too–it’s like they knew they were still making a Disney movie but a different kind of Disney movie.

Oh, right. I forgot about the yellow-spotted lizards. This is the one thing that doesn’t hold up as well, particularly when they use poorly-rendered CGI lizards to chase and/or bite some of the characters. I can easily tell which lizards are real and which ones are fake, which kind of takes away the fear factor a little bit.

But that’s really the only nitpick I have with this movie. I even like Henry Winkler as Stanley’s father who tries to find a cure for foot odor–I bring this up because most people tend to see this arc as too silly, but I didn’t mind it.

I love “Holes.” I love both the book and the movie. I’ve watched it a thousand times before, and I’m sure I’ll watch it a thousand more times in the future.

Oh, and I even like the rap song performed by the young actors. I know some of you who grew up with this movie are humming it right now…

My Favorite Movies – Lost in Translation (2003)

7 Jun

By Tanner Smith

You ever have that experience where you get away from everything for a while, take a nice little fantasy journey, and then you come back to reality a little more enlightened? I love that experience. And this movie is like the cinematic version of that feeling.

The universal acclaim of Sofia Coppola’s sophomore feature “Lost in Translation” was INSANE–critics loved it, audiences loved it, I even think it would’ve won the Best Picture Oscar if “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” had come out the following year!! But that should say something–everyone got something from this film.

And this is the kind of personal-story film that works differently for people. Some will immediately identify with being isolated from your normal routines. Others will identify with the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. Others will feel the connection between two lost souls who find each other in a strange way. And so on.

Whatever the case, I think the reason the film is so beloved is because people have found many things to like about it.

This is one of Bill Murray’s best performances, right next to “Groundhog Day” and “St. Vincent.” Here, he plays more-or-less a version of himself that seeks something simpler for a little while. And he finds it in Scarlett Johansson, in what is probably her breakout role as a young woman who, like Murray, is an American tourist in Tokyo not knowing what to do or why she’s there. In each other, they find friendship and engage in conversation that strengthens their bond and distracts them from the moment they will inevitably separate and go back to their own regular lives.

Sounds a bit like “Before Sunrise,” doesn’t it?

The way they connect on a personal level is truly moving in a film that is both smart and perceptive. And every time I watch it, I feel like I’ve taken a nice trip–one I wouldn’t mind revisiting anytime.

My favorite scene: as much as I love the scenes between Murray and Johansson, my favorite scene is the filming of a commercial Murray is appearing in, which includes the crazy intensity of a director who only speaks Japanese (his translator isn’t very helpful to Murray). I’ve met some directors in my time who are as intense as this guy.

Revisiting: The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)

30 Apr

By Tanner Smith

The Battle of Shaker Heights–it’s not one of my “favorites,” necessarily, but there is a place in my heart for it (right next to movies like “The Wackness,” Click, and “Clerks II”).

This was the winner for the second Project Greenlight contest for screenwriting and directing. As with the first contest winner (2002’s Stolen Summer), the making of 2003’s “The Battle of Shaker Heights” from its conception to its premiere screening was chronicled heavily for HBO’s reality series Project Greenlight. I own this collection of “Project Greenlight 2” on DVD, complete with the finished movie.

But way before I even knew about Project Greenlight, I first saw the movie on cable-TV. when I was 12 years old Because it starred Shia LaBeouf and I was a diehard “Even Stevens” fan (it was made just as “Even Stevens” ended and Shia had just done “Holes”), I was hooked from his appearance alone. It was one of the first “indie” films I ever took interest in (and then shortly came the “Napoleon Dynamite” craze). A few years later, I bought the Project Greenlight 2 DVD set and checked out what went on making the film.

I’ve seen a lot of BTS docs as a kid, on DVD extras for movies like “The Goonies,” School of Rock, and “Back to the Future.” But this was different–it showed the ugly side of making a movie for a studio. There were producers breathing down the directors’ necks. The directors were pains in the asses. The writer is either in or out of the loop. There was hardly room for compromise a lot of the time. There’s a lot of passive-aggressiveness amongst the crew. (And strangely enough, despite the film being made for Miramax, Harvey Weinstein stays out of the picture.) It was like, “DAMN! THAT’S what it’s like to make a movie?!”

It made me upset…yet at the same time, I binged the entire series and saw it through because I was still intrigued by it all.

Anyway, back to the movie. Shia LaBeouf stars as a sullen teenager named Kelly, who is a war reenactor. The battles are his way of escaping everyday life, which he finds boring and unfulfilling. He makes friends with Bart (Elden Henson), who comes from a privileged WASPy home and wants to do something for himself. Kelly and Bart’s friendship sparks a developing change in Kelly, which begins as Bart suggests they use their tactical skills to stage a payback operation against Kelly’s bully Lance (Billy Kay).

Speaking of whom, this is my favorite exchange between Kelly and Lance:

LANCE: “Why are you d*cking with me, you little d*ck?! You wanna play, d*ck-face?” KELLY: “Wait…you just used ‘d*ck’ as a noun, adjective, and a verb. That’s impressive.”

Kelly also develops a crush on Bart’s older sister Tabby (Amy Smart), who is soon to be married (like Kelly cares about that). Kelly tries to be smooth and confident around her, but Tabby, being the smart artist that she is, doesn’t take him too seriously. Kelly’s of course too blind to realize he should be with his cute, friendly co-worker Sarah (Shiri Appleby), and that blindness could lead to a bit of trouble. Where this story goes is pretty easy to figure out, but both Shia LaBeouf and Amy Smart still play it really well.

There’s also Kelly’s parents–his mother Eva (Kathleen Quinlan), who’s a commercial artist, and his father Abe (William Sadler), who works with drug addicts and has been clean for five years. In the film, these characters seem underdeveloped. But in the Project Greenlight show, we see more of who these people are, and the Abe character in particular is the most compelling character in the story. Miramax, worried about whether they could market a comedy or a drama, insisted upon numerous cuts to the film, which resulted in the more emotional parts of the movie left on the cutting room floor.

Screw you, Weinsteins.

The film we got isn’t great, but it is good, in my opinion. LaBeouf shines in the lead and it’s really his character and his journey that makes the movie worth recommending. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the studio kept their dirty little hands off a product they should’ve believed in in the first place.

But, and I’m not giving credit to the Weinsteins in the slightest here, that might have something to do with the film’s pair of directors Kyle Rankin & Efram Potelle were extremely difficult to work with! I get that they were amateurs getting their big break to make a studio-funded film, but these guys seriously needed to try harder in being professional. Watching the show again recently, I sided with producer Chris Moore, who had to keep telling them again and again that they needed to learn compromise.

I had to look up both directors to see if they had done anything since. They had made a few projects, though not together and not of much note. It’s actually shocking to see that Rankin directed “Run Hide Fight,” the controversial action thriller film I heard about recently. As for Erica Beeney, the screenwriter for whom I always felt sorry, she wrote “Captive State” a couple years ago.

“The Battle of Shaker Heights” didn’t define anyone’s career, but it’s still a decent flick and I like to pop in the DVD every once in a while. And that’s about as good a recommendation as I can give, when it’s all said and done.

My Favorite Movies – School of Rock (2003)

27 Apr

By Tanner Smith

When an indie director takes on a mainstream project, two thoughts cross my mind–is the director going to compromise with the studio (because studios often give tough ultimatums and can ruin careers) and/or is the director going to put their all into it rather than treat it simply as a work-for-hire?

Well, Richard Linklater knew he had to branch out from the artistic spotlight at some point–thankfully, writer Mike White, actor Jack Black, and the Paramount studio called him on-board to make their feel-good comedy blockbuster into something more noteworthy.

The result is “School of Rock,” which is a hugely entertaining comedy that managed to overthrow most of its competition in 2003 just because of how much fun it is and even how sweet its tone is.

I loved it at age 11; I still love it to this day.

This actually wasn’t my intro to Jack Black. I caught some of Shallow Hal on cable TV, but before that, I knew Jack Black as the villain from…”The Neverending Story III” (yes, I did watch that thing as a kid). Watching him in “School of Rock,” I recognized just how talented he truly was, carrying a film and taking center-stage and just inviting his audience to share the joy and excitement with him.

In the film, he plays Dewey Finn, a wannabe hardcore rocker who, as the trailer put it, “would have sold his soul for rock n roll…but nobody was buying it.” He’s very certain that his band is going to become successful once they win a big upcoming battle-of-the-bands competition, but the rest of the band sees him as an embarrassment because he’s too extreme in his performances. So, he decides to start his own band…but he needs members to join. He starts to see an opportunity rise when he poses as his roommate (Mike White), who is a substitute teacher, to sub for a prestigious elementary prep school where students are ordered to conform–it turns out many of his students are musically talented, so he decides to use his time prepping the kids for an exclusive class project: “Rock Band.” And so, he gets the kids ready for the competition as he teaches them to lighten up and not worry so hard about following or breaking rules.

If ANYONE at that prep school had done so much as check Dewey for ID, we wouldn’t have a movie, so let’s just move on.

Richard Linklater gets to make a family movie and this just feels the type of family movie he would make. The kids feel real, the numerous conversations about music and how it can reach people feel natural, and Jack Black’s character’s personality of try-hard hardcore (try-hardcore?) rocking is a way of life rather than just a plot gimmick. Even the uptight principal, played wonderfully by Joan Cusack, feels real–in any other movie, she’d be the villain; here, she gets drunk does a Stevie Nicks impression because she’s not such a stick-in-the-mud after all. (This family movie knows the difference between a villain and an antagonist.)

And yes, I call “School of Rock” a “family movie.” This is a great film for both kids and adults to enjoy. There is very little reason for the MPAA to rate this movie PG-13.

The film’s screenwriter was Mike White, who wrote the part specifically for Jack Black after having worked with him on the film “Orange County.” And thank God, because this was the role that gave Jack Black plenty of time to shine after taking hilarious side roles in movies like High Fidelity. (He did have a leading role in “Shallow Hal” before “School of Rock,” but I don’t think that one gave him a lot to work with. This one definitely did.)

Something else I love about this movie is that it takes music seriously. When Dewey is practicing with the kids and teaching them basic lessons in “rock,” he’s able to mold their talents into something they didn’t expect, and in doing so, they find their own artistic flairs and self-expressions. That’s what art does to people, and this movie shows that particular lesson with music.

The song they ultimately perform at the battle-of-the-bands competition is a fun song. (With any music film, you need memorable music to make it work.) And the scene itself stays true to its tone, even when the kids’ angry parents force themselves into the front row…or at least, it stays true to rock-n-roll.

My favorite scene: after Dewey has heard the kids play for music class, he’s gathered all his instruments and immediately puts the kids at work as soon as they return to the classroom. He duels with the guitar player, Zack, who never played electric guitar; he has the piano player, Lawrence, play “Touch Me” by The Doors on keyboard; he teaches the cello player, Katie, to play bass; and…OK, the audition for the drummer, Freddy, is a little weak (just a few taps on the drums and cymbal), but the kid already plays percussion and likes to hit things, so let’s have him learn as he goes. Fair enough.

“School of Rock” is one of those movies where I can’t just watch the movie–I have to watch all the DVD extras too. And there are some GREAT ones, such as the making-of documentary, the kids’ first experience at the film’s premiere, and my personal favorite, an MTV “documentary” about Jack Black’s daily routine (which includes a collab session with his Tenacious D partner, Kyle Gass).

I love this movie. It’s smart, it’s funny, and it rocks.

Shattered Glass (2003)

5 May


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


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


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


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


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


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.