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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.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)

9 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you’ve seen Joe Dante’s films, you’d know that there are at least three cartoon elements within each of them. His directorial credits include “Gremlins” (mixing humor with horror), “Explorers” (in which aliens turned out to be cartoonish), “Small Soldiers” (what can I say?), and the third segment of the Twilight Zone movie (in which a kid lives in his own cartoon world). Now, with “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” he has made the movie that he has been waiting for—a movie that mixes live-action actors with animated Looney Tunes. The result is a silly, entertaining romp.

The last movie that mixed the Looney Tunes with live-action characters was “Space Jam,” which really highlighted Michael Jordan more than the Looney Tunes. This time, Bugs and Daffy are given a lot to do and they’re really the highlights of this fun movie. But the human actors they star alongside with are no slouches either. They have fun with their roles. Brendan Fraser is DJ Drake, a stuntman who is looking for work. (I love this line he delivers: “I’m a stuntman! Did you ever see those ‘Mummy’ movies? I’m in them more than Brendan Fraser is!”) Jenna Elfman is Warner Bros. executive Kate Houghton, “Vice-President, Comedy.”

DJ and Kate, along with Bugs and Daffy, are roped into a mission. The plot of the movie: the evil Chairman of the Acme Corporation (a hardly-recognizable Steve Martin) has a plan to steal a rare, magic diamond called the Blue Monkey, which will allow him to turn everyone in the world into monkeys. DJ’s actor father (ex-007 Timothy Dalton), who turns out to be a secret agent, is kidnapped by the Chairman and so, it’s up to DJ, Kate, and their cartoon partners to save him and the world.

The movie is just plain fun. It has fun with making the Looney Tunes (Bugs, Daffy, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, etc.) exist in the same world as Hollywood executives. Of course the Looney Tunes would most likely have their own trailers. The film opens with a board meeting, with the Warner brothers (two overweight men with glasses) and Bugs and Daffy discussing the new movie (yes, it’s another “Wabbit season” movie). Daffy is distraught and wants more credit. Other cartoon characters are in the mix too. I like the bit where the cartoon Shaggy and Scooby Doo rip into Shaggy’s live-action counterpart Matthew Lillard while having lunch. And of course, the Chairman has his own animated henchmen, such as Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, and the Tasmanian Devil.

I said that Bugs and Daffy are the highlights of the movie and they bring terrific comic timing, as you’d expect them to have. Bugs is the relaxed, wisecracking straight-man (or “straight-bunny”) and Daffy is the manic loser-duck who just wants to be heard as a hero instead of a second banana. They’re the Looney Tunes I know and love.

This film has a lot of inspired moments—one, for example, involves a chase scene between the two ‘toon heroes and Elmer Fudd that references art (including Munich’s “The Scream”). And who could forget the scene in which the characters come across “Area 52?” (For those who haven’t seen the movie, I wouldn’t dare spoil it for you.)

Director Joe Dante has given us a silly romp involving spies, the Looney Tunes, and a silly villain (played by an enjoyably over-the-top Steve Martin), with a blend of animation and live-action done to complete success with 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” No, this isn’t as wonderful as that one, but it’s still a good deal of fun.

Dreamcatcher (2003)

3 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Dreamcatcher” is based on a Stephen King novel, which like most of his novels are extremely long in detail. Seeing as how “Dreamcatcher” is a theatrical release and not a TV miniseries, special care would have to be given to trim the novel and make the film a reasonable length while capturing the spirit of the novel. So who do they get? Well, director Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote and directed “The Big Chill,” “The Accidental Tourist,” and “Grand Canyon”) and writer William Goldman (who wrote “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and quite a few Stephen King adaptations, like “Misery”) seem like great choices. With that said, how does this great talent behind the screen create a mess like “Dreamcatcher?” This movie is inconsistent in tone, pacing, and style. It’s a lackluster project that starts out one way, enters a different territory, and ultimately is ridiculed for one of the silliest stories you’ll find in a King story.

The story begins with four friends who each possess a psychic gift. As kids, a mentally retarded kid nicknamed Duddits united them with this gift after they protected him from the town bullies. Years later, the friends—Henry (Thomas Jane), Jonesy (Damian Lewis), Beaver (Jason Lee), and Pete (Timothy Olyphant)—still have their abilities and use them as advantages for their jobs. Jonesy has an accident that nearly kills him, and this becomes a compound for a trip to a cabin in the woods, where he and the other three friends fool around and talk about the past. But soon, the entire wooded area is under quarantine by the government, who are on the hunt for…(sigh) alien parasites.

The first half-hour of “Dreamcatcher” is quite interesting, as the development of these friends and their gift comes into place. It seems like it’s going somewhere just as intriguing. But then it gets into the story with the aliens and monsters, and that story takes over as if another movie blended into the one I was just watching. I wouldn’t mind so much except that these aliens and the plot with the friends and their psychic gift just don’t fit together. Maybe they fit better in the novel (which I’ll admit, I haven’t read), but here, they give the movie a real instability. If you want to make a movie that mixes human elements with a monster story, this is not the right way to do it.

There are moments in “Dreamcatcher” that I’m unsure whether or not if they’re supposed to be taken seriously. For example, I think the moment the movie really goes downhill is the scene in which two of the friends discover an infected man dead on the toilet, as a nasty alien worm pops out of him and the friends try desperately to plunge it in the toilet. I’m thinking, this is supposed to be funny, right? And how about when Jonesy’s body is invaded by one of the aliens and speaks in a jolly British accent as it and Jonesy switch personalities to talk to one another? You can tell me; that’s supposed to be funny, right?

The flashbacks that show the four friends as junior-high-school children growing up in (where else?) Maine aren’t particularly well-executed or even well-written. To be fair, that could be because they take up a small portion of the movie, but they’re supposed to give us the origins of this gift, and they just seem rushed. This is particularly strange, considering that “Dreamcatcher” is 136 minutes long. It’s the stuff with the aliens that the movie doesn’t give a rest. We don’t even see the grown-up Duddits (played by Donnie Wahlberg) until the last 15 minutes.

The talented actors put in this movie aren’t enough to save the movie, and you know your movie’s in trouble when the great character actor Morgan Freeman, playing the anti-alien “Captain Ahab” type, can’t save it. This is probably the first time I’ve seen Morgan Freeman give a bad performance. But to be fair, it’s a bad role.

“Dreamcatcher” is ambitious, but a cluttered, unsatisfying mess.

Elephant (2003)

28 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Elephant” is a dark little movie, somewhat based upon the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. It’s a very controversial subject that probably shouldn’t have been made into a film. Gus van Sant probably knew that, but also figured that depicting a school shooting in a film would succeed in frightening audiences. That film is called “Elephant” (why it’s called that, I’m not quite sure).

I don’t think “Elephant” necessarily needed a script and it shouldn’t be considered a docudrama because it doesn’t document nor does it dramatize. It simply watches as students of a high school (not named Columbine High School) go throughout their daily routine until two of them bring guns and shoot up the hallways. Students of the high school were allowed to work as extras for this movie and they blend with the young actors who improvised most of their dialogue. Almost every kid in this film is a non-actor and they are all called by their real first names (Alex Frost is Alex, Eric Deulen is Eric, John Robinson is John).

At many times, we feel like stalkers as we view these kids go throughout their days. A majority of the movie shows nothing in particular happening—just a school day. And since we know that kids are going to shoot up the school, we see certain motives from most of the kids. For example, John is embarrassed because his drunken father causes him to be late for school, a geeky girl named Michelle is embarrassed by her legs, etc. But instead we see two other kids named Alex and Eric. In a quiet scene, we simply observe them as Alex plays the piano and Eric plays video games. We never figure out why they become killers. Maybe they were just had nothing better to do. And once you think about that concept, this is a really terrifying movie. There is not much in this movie that explains why the shootings in this movie took place.

But then again, if Gus van Sant did take the time to fit in an explanation for the shootings, the movie would’ve been more offensive and sadistic rather than frightening. The movie leads up to those shootings with one uneventful day at the school and one of the scariest things about the movie is that it takes place in such a realistic setting. This is just a high school. There is hardly anything different about this school from any other school. And then this terrible event, such as the Columbine High School Massacre, takes place and you get the sense that maybe routines can change and there is no safe place to be. I admire Gus van Sant’s cinematography. He uses Steadycam shots to follow many students through the school day through the hallways, into the cafeteria, and through the school yard. We can’t help but fear that someone is going to come around the next corner with a shotgun.

NOTE: I just discovered why the movie is called “Elephant.” According to imdb.com, Gus Van Sant borrowed the title from Alan Clarke’s film of the same name, and thought that it referred to the Chinese proverb about five blind men who were each led to a different part of an elephant. Each man thinks that it is a different thing. What Clarke’s title actually referred to was the idea of the “elephant in the room.” It’s an idiom for an obvious truth that gets ignored, like an elephant in a room that no one will acknowledge is there.

Bruce Almighty (2003)

13 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Now here’s an interesting premise for a Jim Carrey vehicle—Jim Carrey is given God’s powers. Think of all the possibilities that could come out of that idea alone. Director Tom Shadyac, who also worked with Carrey on “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Liar Liar,” doesn’t use every element that could have made “Bruce Almighty” one of the funniest movies of the decade, but there are still a few good ideas and some big laughs from Carrey’s physical humor.

We get a long opening forty minutes in which we get to know Bruce Nolan (Carrey). He’s a human-interest reporter for Buffalo’s Channel 7 Eyewitness News who doesn’t get much respect or have much luck. On one particularly bad day in which he humiliates himself, loses his job, and crashes his car, he snaps at God. That’s when his pager goes off to an unfamiliar number. But even when the number appears on his pager after it seems to be broken, Bruce can’t help but call. Bruce is led to an empty building where, as it turns out, he is arranged to meet God in person. God (Morgan Freeman) wants to go on vacation so he decides to give Bruce his powers for a few days.

Almost predictably, Bruce does not do a very good job at being God. After all, why waste time with starving children when he can lift a woman’s skirt up and humiliate his snooty co-worker (Steve Carell)? There’s also a funny subplot in which Bruce teaches his non-housebroken dog to use the toilet. And “Bruce Almighty” is never subtle—for example, Bruce’s nice (“angelic,” if you will) girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) works at a daycare center and aptly named “Grace.” Also, some of the soundtrack features songs about religion, miracles, and power (including, of course, Aretha Franklin’s “Are you Ready for a Miracle”).

My question is why couldn’t the filmmakers come up with more ways for this character to explore the ways of being God? Why not have him travel to other planets? Or stop time? I can think of many other ways these great powers can be explored. Unfortunately, the filmmakers of “Bruce Almighty” create an overly dramatic final half that tries for Capra-esque quality, but doesn’t quite make the cut and seems like another movie. There are obvious jokes that are put into the movie and a blooper reel that shows that the filmmakers are desperate to make people laugh. Some of the jokes don’t really work as well as we’d like them to.

Even though “Bruce Almighty” didn’t go where it should’ve gone, I am recommending it because there were more than three occasions (I lost count) where Jim Carrey had me laughing loudly. He’s back to his mugging and body language that made him a star in the first place. After taking dramatic roles in movies like “The Truman Show,” “Man on the Moon,” and “The Majestic,” he’s back to his rubber comic personality. I loved Morgan Freeman’s performance as God—kind of a twinkling, calm version of the Big Man Upstairs. “Bruce Almighty” is a bit of a lost opportunity, but I am giving it a mild recommendation. I did laugh.

NOTE: You know, with all I’ve said, I am aware that I am giving “Bruce Almighty” three stars while I gave other “lost opportunities” lower ratings. Well, those movies did not have Jim Carrey to lighten the mood. As inconsiderate as they may sound for the other movies I’ve reviewed that almost got the same treatment, I’m sticking by this recommendation. But one of these days, I will die and then I’ll allow God to smite that lousy star-rating system.

Phone Booth (2003)

5 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Phone Booth” is among a certain type of thriller that places one character in one location for certain reasons that keep the plot going. Movies like this are fascinating for two reasons—1) It helps to show the talent of the actor playing that one person, since practically the whole movie has to ride on that performance. 2) It’s always interesting to see where the plot is going to go, since we, as an audience, are stuck in this location with the character. In the case of “Phone Booth,” we get a solid performance from Colin Farrell as he is trapped in a phone booth by a psychotic sniper who will shoot him if he leaves.
Joel Schumacher’s “Phone Booth” is pure thriller and very entertaining. It has a brisk pace, tight editing, a running time of 80 minutes, and twists and turns throughout. It even has the brave task of telling the story in real-time. It all begins with our introduction to slick, quick-thinking publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell, sporting a designer suit and a fake luxury watch) making deals through his cell phone while walking the streets of Manhattan. He’s a fast-talker who can make anything up on the spot (he could probably make deals with the Mafia if he could), and he won’t take “no” for an answer. Once business is taken care of, he makes his daily visit to a telephone booth (which, according to the opening ominous narration, he’ll be the last person to use before it is torn down) to call a young actress, Pam (Katie Holmes)—he doesn’t want the call to appear on his cellular bill, which his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) checks every month.

After Stu makes the call, the phone in the booth rings. Of course, he decides to answer it, thus setting in motion the scheme devised by a psychotic. The voice on the other line is tough, derisive, and menacing, and warns Stu that he knows everything he needs to know about him. He wants Stu to confess to Kelly that he wants to sleep with Pam, or he’ll go ahead and do it for him. So, Stu tries to talk his way out of this situation, but it turns out it’s more complicated than it seems. It turns that the caller is a sniper and has a rifle aimed right at him from one of the many windows surrounding the city street. He warns Stu that if he leaves the phone booth, he will be shot unless he does what the voice tells him to do.

And so, Stu is trapped in the phone booth, looking for ways to talk and think himself out of this dangerous fix. Things get even more complicated when the sniper shoots a thug who messes with Stu while he’s in the phone booth, and so the police see Stu as a key suspect. Any sudden movements, and the police will shoot him. The location is filled with panic, as the police captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker) tries to handle the situation. He starts to believe that Stu is not the perpetrator, but a victim of something more than he expected. However, if Stu tells him what’s really happening here, he will be shot (and so will Ramey, as the voice threatens), and so he and Ramey have to communicate nonverbally while keeping the sniper from suspecting anything. That’s a clever move that keeps the tension level rising in this film.

It’s quite intriguing how the film is able to keep Stu inside that phone booth through a majority of the film’s running time. You would think that this predicament could be solved easily, but no—the writer Larry Cohen continues to find ways to keep him in there until the film reaches a suitable ending. Twist upon twist is thrown into the plot, and it just keeps going like that, keeping the suspense alive.

Colin Farrell is forced to carry this movie, and it’s a good, tough performance. He’s very effective in a performance that shows that confusion, fear, and unease can overcome even the most confident of men.

Kiefer Sutherland is the threatening sniper, as he does what he can with his limitations. The villain of “Phone Booth” is for the most part heard but not seen. Sutherland has one of those distinctive voices that you can’t help but listen to, even if he says something that you don’t want to hear.

There are a few things about “Phone Booth” that keep it from being great, however. For one thing, the women in Stu’s life are underwritten roles and it seems like any actress could play these parts. It’s hard to care for who Stu winds up caring for more when both their lives turn out to be in jeopardy later when they’re among the crowd, and the sniper plans to shoot someone else to further his point.

There’s also the hyperkinetic camerawork and editing styles that get pretty annoying after a while—it makes the film look more like a music video, as if director Schumacher wanted to try everything he could to keep the tension alive. Sometimes, it works; other times, it’s pretty irritating. But what really annoyed me, and thankfully went away quickly enough (though that’s not saying enough), was the overacting of a group of street hookers who, early in the central treacherous situation, constantly interrupt and annoy Stu by trying to get him out of the phone booth so they can “conduct their own business.” They never shut up! Their screeching complaining and ranting are enough to wish the sniper would just shoot them dead.

Thankfully, like I said, they’re out of the picture before they get even more aggressively annoying.

“Phone Booth” is a sharp, engaging thriller with a solid leading performance, a very menacing threat, and a story that keeps audiences on-edge. And as a plus, it’s over in just an hour and 20 minutes.

Shanghai Knights (2003)

2 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Shanghai Knights” is the sequel to the 2000 comedic Western “Shanghai Noon,” teaming up kung-fu expert Jackie Chan with smooth-talking, surfer-type Owen Wilson. That film was a modest success, with mainly the likable presence of both actors to make the film consistently entertaining. “Shanghai Knights,” three years later, brings Chan and Wilson back for another crazy adventure, but this time is different in these ways—the film moves to London, England, there are a lot more choreographed fight sequences, and the humor comes from all sorts of historical inaccuracies that recall moments from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” As a result, “Shanghai Knights” is a bit of a mess. It’s dumb and tries too hard at certain points when it loses consistency from the rest of the movie. However, it is also cheerfully goofy and quite funny. Chan and Wilson remain as likable as in the previous film, but also, “Shanghai Knights” delivered more stupid laughs from me than the predecessor did, which I liked fine.

I suppose I should start with the plot, which is arbitrary to say the least. Chan reprises his role as Chon Wang (say it out loud), who is now a sheriff in Carson City, Nevada. (Although, what happened to his Native American wife in the original film is anyone’s guess.) Someone has murdered Chon’s father—the guardian of the Great Seal of China— and Chon hears of the tragedy from his sister Lin (Fann Wong), who has tracked the murderer to London. So Chon goes to team up with his old friend Roy O’Bannon (Wilson) and together, they travel to London to find the culprit and…

Do you even care about the plot? No. Do you get nervous about the tight spots in which Chon and Roy get involved? No. “Shanghai Knights” is merely a source for mindless entertainment. It’s just a setup for comedy, action, or sometimes both. There are many fight sequences in the movie that are choreographed as if they were musical dance numbers (of course, the instrumental score helps to keep the moves in sync). My favorite is a sequence in which Chon is fighting off a gang of thieves in Fleet Street and grabs ahold of an umbrella—cue the “Singin’ in the Rain” music! These sequences are fast, amusing, and just a ton of fun.

It makes things better that Chan does most of his stunts. At least, that’s what I’m assuming, since the outtakes reel at the end show Chan messing up on certain stunt work (though, not terribly). Fann Wong, as Chan’s sexy sister whom Wilson of course becomes interested in, has some feisty moves as well.

Most of the gags come from the use of locations in royal olde England and characters in English literature. We have gags involving an encounter with Jack the Ripper, a visit to Buckingham Palace (they make fun of the royal guards—they don’t like to be touched), and a close call on the minute hand of Big Ben (a la Harold Lloyd). Also making appearances are Charlie Chaplin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes also makes his name known. Neither are those are meant for any type of historical accuracy. The filmmakers know they’re making a silly movie with these references and they just have fun with them. (So what if they add some 1960s pop songs that don’t fit at all?) And I also appreciate the main portion of “Shanghai Knights” takes place in London for evil plotters to make their schemes and moves.

Chan and Wilson are appealing, as is the whole movie. It’s dumb, silly, and thoroughly enjoyable all the way through. Even in the blooper reel, I was cracking up. It shows that the people involved in the making of this movie were clearly having a great time.