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Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

7 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Vote for Pedro.” I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t immediately get that reference.

“Napoleon Dynamite” is certainly a strange film. I tend to refer to it as the “anti-teen-movie” or the “anti-coming-of-age-movie.” It’s a slice of life centered around some particularly strange characters who live in worlds all their own. These people are so off-putting that they’re the very reason people either love it or hate it. If you can’t tell by the Verdict rating, I belong to the former group.

The title character is a high-school teenager who would be classified as a “nerd” due to his outward appearance (thick glasses, odd fashion sense, and hair that must’ve taken hours to look bad), deadpan monotone, and asocial behavior, but you might be far off. This kid, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), wouldn’t even fit in with the other nerds at school because he’s so repellent and aggressively obnoxious. This isn’t one of those high-school dramas that portray teenage outcasts as tragic figures; we see more than enough of Napoleon to realize he probably deserves to be an outsider.

And yes, he is the protagonist of “Napoleon Dynamite,” and in any other movie, he would be one of the worst movie characters in history. But with this film, it strangely works, because the film itself is so low-key and with a good amount of biting satire that it’s easy for me to admire the decisions director-writer Jared Hess and his wife, co-writer Jerusha Hess, make with it and their characters. They have conveyed a tone in this film that really works because everything is underplayed and so is everyone. Let me put it this way—the comedy in “Napoleon Dynamite” works not because the actors are playing their parts or the material for laughs but because they aren’t, and as the movie goes, their characters grow on us. (State a quote from this movie, and there’s no doubt many people won’t know who or what you’re referencing.)

Who else in this group of strange characters can we count off? Well, there’s Napoleon’s older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), who is almost as asocial as he is. He still lives with Napoleon and their grandmother, and his daily life revolves around an Internet Chat Room. (Their grandmother gets very little screen time, but I’d like to know more about her, especially considering what we see of her social life.) Then there’s Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a pathetic 30-something ex-jock who constantly lives in the past and hopes to relive his glory days of playing football; after Grandma is hospitalized, Uncle Rico stays at the house with Napoleon and Kip (anything to get away from his trailer), and he and Kip go into business as door-to-door salesmen, selling the most bizarre products.

Pedro (Efren Ramirez) is Napoleon’s only friend. He’s the new kid in school and has as much trouble fitting in as Napoleon. What’s so strange about their friendship is that they are often together and exchange words with each other, but they rarely show any emotion whatsoever. Then there’s Deb (Tina Majorino), a shy, awkward girl who has a crush on Napoleon for…reasons, I’m sure. Pedro asks her to the upcoming dance, so Napoleon, having been stood up by his date, has to cut in for one dance.

There isn’t much that happens in “Napoleon Dynamite.” The closest thing it has to a story is introduced in the back half, in which Napoleon and Pedro start a campaign for Pedro to become Class President, with Napoleon as Pedro’s campaign manager. His opponent is a stuck-up popular girl, Summer (Haylie Duff), who Pedro once asked to the dance. (By the way, I love how she responds.) But even that doesn’t have much of a focus, nor does the buildup to the dance or hardly anything else. It just leads to a payoff where Napoleon ultimately gains some kind of victory (though not on the account of anything you might expect, keeping in consistency). “Napoleon Dynamite” is mainly an episodic slice-of-life where we spend an hour-and-a-half spending time with odd, quirky characters, particularly the sadsack loser Napoleon. Strangely enough, there are even side-spots which we’re not even sure why they’re there in the first place. For example, Napoleon and Kip visit a steroid-built dojo owner named Rex (Diedrich Bader), who shares his unorthodox advice on how to defend yourself. What does this have to do with anything? I’ve never figured this out, but it just adds to the “stuff-happens” element that the film offers.

The film doesn’t force us to hate these characters, because it doesn’t necessarily mock or even hate them. It shows its heart near the end and we can appreciate any hint of redemption these people might have in their lives. The film isn’t about that, mind you, but it does show a bit of hope seeping underneath the surface.

As someone who is generally a fan of coming-of-age/slice-of-life movies, I find “Napoleon Dynamite” to be very funny and even more admirable in the way they go against what this type of film usually offers and delivers. Maybe that’s why people seem to be split on it. Some people look at it like I did—a charming, unusual comedy with amusingly disconcerting characters. Others have seen it a different way, because they’re turned off by the film’s characters and tone, they don’t find it funny, and/or they expected something different and more generic. The former group has turned the film into a cult classic. I’m happy to call myself a part of that “cult.”

Going to the Mat (2004) (TV)

8 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Far be it for me to review a “Disney Channel Original Movie,” though to be honest, I have certain nostalgia for a lot of them (no matter how stupid I found a lot of them to be later on), having grown up watching the Disney Channel. But there is actually one that I can find myself reviewing and recommending because I genuinely find it to be a solid family-oriented sports film. That is “Going to the Mat,” released to the small screen in early 2004.

The story: Jace Newfield (Andrew Lawrence) is a blind teenager who has moved from New York City to a small town in Utah. Fearing the students at his new school will mock him for his blindness, he attempts to impress them all by bragging about his old home and making fun of jocks before they have a chance to tell “blind” jokes. However, it turns out that no one cares much that he’s blind because they’re already turned off by the notion that he’s acting like a jerk. He has two friends—Vincent “Fly” Shu (Khleo Thomas) and Mary Beth Rice (Alessandra Toreson)—who tell Jace that the best way to fit in around here is to be a jock. Music isn’t going to impress anyone, as Jace is a good drummer, mainly because the music teacher, Mr. Wyatt (Wayne Brady), is also blind. So finding a sport seems to be a new priority. Mary Beth suggests wrestling, as her father (D.B. Sweeney) is the coach. With Fly accompanying him, Jace tries out for the wrestling team. Of course, the other members of the team give him a hard time and think he’s on the team to play the “freak” angle for the local newspaper (which is not the case, as the coach is a no-nonsense guy). But Jace is determined to earn his spot on the team and works hard to improve on the wrestling skills throughout the course of the season.

What really stands out about “Going to the Mat” is the message. It’s probably obvious, but it’s actually very effective as well. It’s all summed up in one line, said by Jace later in the movie after he’s already scored a couple points for the team—“You know what really ticks me off, when people tell me how brave and courageous I am for doing things that sighted people do every day.” That’s a good, solid point. Just because a person is blind doesn’t mean he can’t do everything that sighted people can. And this is a problem that Jace didn’t have to deal with in New York City, as he was able to find ways to do what his friends did. Note the opening scene. He’s playing in a band in front of a large audience and they get good reception. In this scene, you wouldn’t even guess that Jace was blind as he plays the drums. But the next scene shows signs of his blindness, as he plays baseball with his friends. Jace is up to bat, and the ball that they use is a special one that makes beeping sounds for Jace to use his other senses to hit it when it’s pitched to him. Then, Jace goes to pitch the ball and sound is used here as well—the thudding sounds a fist makes when the catcher hits the mitt, giving Jace a target. All throughout this scene, they’re just having ordinary conversation; nothing except how they play the game is made of Jace’s blindness, even when Jace needs assistance as they grab a snack nearby. This is a really good scene; it’s executed and acted pretty realistically for a “DCOM.”

Anyway, now that Jace is in these new surroundings and having to prove himself because most people see him as a blind guy. One of the team is angry because Jace is taking his place (though to be fair, it’s because the coach doesn’t want the kid to hear himself before a big meet), and just sees the whole thing as a joke. Jace has to work even harder not only to score points for the wrestling team, but also to fit in with those that gave him a hard time from the start. And eventually, he does manage to succeed in earning respect, as well as points. What fascinates me about “Going to the Mat” is that this is actually a credible situation—maybe a little too credible for a DCOM (in that maybe it could have had a theatrical release instead).

Fly is also able to earn respect. He joins the wrestling team along with Jace, and is also picked on because of his short stature. But as Jace gets better with wrestling, so does Fly. Both boys are able to beat the odds and relieve themselves of the “underdog” status. This is something that sports-movies usually love to play off of—the underdog angle. There’s a ne’er-do-well group of misfits who try out for a certain sport and improve until they are able to earn regard from everyone. Surprisingly, while there are a few clichés present in “Going to the Mat,” the film doesn’t necessarily dwell on them. Jace and Fly’s “underdog” story arcs are played convincingly so that it’s easy to follow along their practice. The coach doesn’t take any bull from anybody, but he isn’t the one-dimensional jerk—in fact, he’s far from it. The bullies are surprisingly well-developed characters, particularly the wrestling-team captain, John (Billy Aaron Brown). While he does give Jace a hard time, the two grow to form a nice friendship because Jace is able to help him with his Spanish-class grade in order for John to continue being on the team. In return, John helps Jace practice. Even Mary Beth, which is what could have been the thankless role of high-school love-interest, is three-dimensional—kind, but not dim; helpful, but within limits; falls for Jace, but knows there’s a bit of a risk, seeing as how her father is Jace’s coach. Also, it’s refreshing that she knows a lot about wrestling.

Andrew Lawrence stars as Jace, and it’s a solid, charismatic performance. He’s completely convincing as a blind kid seeking to fit in. He’s tough, but sensitive too. He’s cocky and brave, but also knows when to keep his mouth shut and focus. And he doesn’t back down, though he knows his own limitations of his disability. He’s very good here and he’s also another very important reason why this film works. Khleo Thomas is not as successful, as he is sort of a generic best-friend character, but he is likable nonetheless. Alessandra Toreson is good as well, Billy Aaron Brown is a convincing jock, and Wayne Brady is also solid as the blind music teacher who informs Jace that it’s not sight that makes you who you are—it’s obvious, and the speeches are kind of hokey at times, but they’re effective at getting the point across.

Also, I’m kind of glad that the ultimate wrestling match at the end of the movie is a playoff match and not a final. It doesn’t even matter whether Jace wins or loses; it’s how Jace is able to handle it against one of the best high-school wrestlers in the state. In the end, he gains respect and no one sees him as just a blind person anymore. Yes, it is predictable, but I didn’t mind so much.

I’m not sure whether or not this is based on a true story, but to tell the truth, it wouldn’t really surprise me. What does surprise me, however, is how serious the story is treated. Maybe it’s not treated too seriously, for the sake of keeping kids invested. But there’s nothing handled in a dumb way, so I wouldn’t imagine many adults rolling their eyes at the film (like they would do with many other DCOMs). I liked “Going to the Mat” as a kid; watching it now, it turned out to hold up surprisingly well.

Catch That Kid (2004)

21 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Catch That Kid” is a heist movie featuring twelve-year-olds robbing a bank. And to get right off the bat, this is not a great movie, by any means. It has its dumb moments, the techno George Clinton music is overdone, most of the comedy is beyond over-the-top, and some scenes go beyond sensible reasoning. But the energetic spirit, the respectable elements of the heist genre, and a spunky leading performance from Kristen Stewart turn out to be enough for me to enjoy it. So I’m giving it a marginal recommendation. It may be too much for you to handle; I got a kick out of it.

Just because George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and the rest of the “Ocean’s Eleven” cast can pull off a heist doesn’t mean three pre-teenagers can’t do it any better. And it’s a clever and complicated one too. They have to thwart a new, high-tech security system in order to break into a bank vault and steal thousands of dollars.

It’s for a good cause, to be sure. It’s to pay for a ridiculously expensive operation that will heal the ill father of Maddy (Kristen Stewart). Maddy is a plucky girl who loves to climb the water tower. Her mother (Jennifer Beals) forbids it, but she got it from her father (Sam Robards), who once climbed Mount Everest and had a nasty fall. Nevertheless, Maddy isn’t discouraged and when we first see her in the movie, she’s scaling the town’s water tower. But her father’s injury causes a certain paralysis that causes a certain life-threatening disease (at least, I assume that’s what it is). There’s an institution that has experimented with this disease, but their insurance won’t cover the expense.

Now, in reality, I’m sure there’d be a heavy charity event for this apparently rare disease. But no—Maddy’s mother, who has installed the new bank security system, has to ask for a loan from the bank president Brisbane (Michael Des Barnes, teeth-gnashingly over-the-top) who of course turns her down. So, Maddy decides that she will break into the bank and steal the right amount of money to pay for the operation. Well OK, that’s a good cause. But how exactly does she plan to use the money without anyone, especially her mother, wondering where it came from? I’m not sure you’re supposed to ask questions like that in a movie like this, anyway. So forget it.

Maddy rallies her two best friends—Austin (Corbin Bleu) and Gus (Max Thieriot)—to help her with this mission. Austin is a computer nerd, Gus is a mechanic at the local go-cart track, and both are rivals for Maddy’s affections. In fact, Maddy actually has to lie to each of them, saying she has feelings for them in order to get them to help her.

Maddy has her mother show her around the bank so that she and her co-worker Hartmann (John Carroll Lynch) can give away some details that will ironically become great use to her in a heist. There are things to watch out for—high-powered motion sensors, vicious security Rottweilers, and a nasty chief security guard with a stun gun. What are the kids’ getaway vehicles? Faster, more silent go-carts enhanced by Gus’ mechanical skills. How do they keep surveillance? Hacking into the bank’s computer via Austin’s computer skills. And can Maddy really scale the bank vault suspended 100 feet in the air?

As you can tell, this is not an easy mission. It’s a hard, complicated heist and these kids have the skills to succeed. Well-executed by director Bart Freundlich, the heist that takes up most of the second half of “Catch That Kid” is quite entertaining. It respects the heist movie genre and gives some pleasant surprises as well.

There are some stupid moments in the movie, though. For example, how in the world is Austin able to create a digital hologram of the building the kids are going to break into? I don’t care how smart he is; he’d have to be the head of Apple in order to create that. And a lot of the physical comedy—crotch shots and flatulence—belong to that weirdo chief security guard played by James Legros who really lets it all out with this performance, but really overdoes it big time. Also, when the kids leave the bank on their go-carts, the police come after them immediately. What would make them sure that kids with go-carts automatically makes them believe they robbed a bank? And there’s a central element that occurs during the heist that really bugged me when it should have been exciting—it features Maddy holding on for dear life up near the vault; I didn’t believe for a second that she was really hanging in the air.

I’m willing to forgive the movie for all of that, mainly because of the film’s energy and the performances from the actors. Kristen Stewart is a real star ability—she’s plucky, fun, and instantly likable. She’s at the center of the movie, and she owns it. Max Thieriot and Corbin Bleu are fresh and appealing as her two friends, and their adolescent rivalry for Maddy’s affections are handled and performed realistically.

I also like that “Catch That Kid” is attempting to create something realistic from this “spy-kid” material. As a result, it’s never boring and a good deal of fun. You may disagree, seeing as how it may be seen as a dopey kid-adventure (which I don’t see it as). But I’m not here to agree with you. I’m merely here to state my review.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

18 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are many moments in zombie horror movies in which I have to stifle laughter. That is why “Shaun of the Dead” is such a pleasurable film, because I can laugh as loud as I want. Why? Because “Shaun of the Dead” is a British zombie comedy—it is supposed to make you laugh out loud because it’s intentionally funny. It’s obvious that the director Edgar Wright has studied the old great zombie movies, as well as the bad ones, to create a spoof, while at the same time producing a semi-serious horror film.

“Shaun of the Dead” is one of the funniest and brightest comedies I have ever seen. This is one of those great comedies where the film stops once in a while to give us a few chuckles after a big laugh, then starting over again with a big laugh and then a few chuckles so we can get hold of ourselves. I love the energy and wit that was put into this film. I’m even going to give it a four-star rating—I think it deserves it.

Simon Pegg is brilliantly cast as the main character Shaun, a lazy twenty-something whose best friend Ed (Nick Frost) lives with him, much to the discomfort of Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). He likes his life just fine, as does Ed, who is probably lazier than Shaun. But Liz wants to do something different. Shaun doesn’t see it her way and the two break up. Darn. If only there was a way for Shaun to redeem his self-esteem…

Shaun and Ed wouldn’t know a zombie if she popped up in their backyard. A female zombie does appear in their backyard, but they think she’s drunk, realizing later what’s really going on. But as it turns out, the whole town is flooded with the slowly-moving flesh-eaters who can only be killed by “removing the head or destroying the brain.” Of course, you have to believe what you hear on the news in a desperate situation. Which album would you throw at a zombie’s head?

“Purple Rain.” “No.” “Sign o’ the Times” “Definitely not!” “The ‘Batman’ soundtrack.” “Throw it.”

Shaun and Ed pick up Liz and her roommates—David (Dylan Moran) and Dianne (Lucy Davis). They also take along Shaun’s mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton) and stepfather Phil (Bill Nighy). (Hmm…Barbara? I wonder if Ed will make a “Night of the Living Dead” reference anytime soon, using that name.) Anyway, Phil has a zombie bite but it’s OK because he “ran it under a cold tap.” The deadpan manner in which Bill Nighy delivers that line is one of many pleasures in this movie.

The movie has fun with its premise. If you think about it, zombies are not effective villains anymore. They move too slowly to be menacing and are too dumb to be diabolical. “Shaun of the Dead” sees them as targets for British humor and also overshadows them with actors who have fun with the goofiness of the premise and their characters. Also, the zombies are seen as metaphors for those who “sleepwalk through life.” One of the joys of this film is that the movie basically starts out as a sitcom and midway through the film changes tone. The zombies invade and the sitcom characters must escape their same, dull, boring routine and learn to survive the invasion. If the zombies hadn’t invaded, Shaun would have still been a lazy slacker, playing video games with Ed.

The movie isn’t just biting satire. There are plenty of other big laughs, as well as smiles, as when Dianne teaches the rest of the group how to act like zombies in order to blend in. Other great scenes: Shaun and Ed look through old LPs and decide which ones to use to decapitate a zombie; the group fights a zombie at the pub while a cheesy Queen song is played; Ed’s “Barbara” line (you’ll see). There is also a large amount of gore, but not enough to make you queasy.

And taking us through it all is Shaun, played with a solid, straight-man performance by Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the film. We’re supposed to like Shaun and identify with him and we do. Pegg’s great. Nick Frost, as Ed, is a great supporting actor—goofy yet sincere at the same time.

You’d get what you’d expect in “Shaun of the Dead” but you’d also get more. The movie never steers wrong. It’s hilarious, good-looking, and well-acted—did you ever think a zombie movie could contain all three of those adjectives?

Collateral (2004)

13 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Collateral” is a thriller that works as film art, a case of casting-against-type, and an experimental genre picture. It’s a chillingly entertaining film that is trickier than you might expect, but intriguing enough to follow along with.

The film’s two lead actors are Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx and they both play against type. Cruise surprisingly plays the villain—a contract killer named Vincent who kills without mercy or remorse; he figures that out of more than a million people in Los Angeles, what’s a few dead bodies going to matter? Foxx, usually displaying comedic talents, plays the straight-arrow hero—an L.A. cab driver named Max who on one crazy night winds up as collateral for Vincent. Both actors do great work, playing against the usual types that they’re accustomed to, and playing off of each other.

Here’s the premise—Vincent hails a cab in L.A. and as luck would have it, he gets Max’s. Vincent needs Max to make five stops for him, which Max doesn’t agree to…until Vincent brings $600 into the mix. But Max finds out too late that Vincent isn’t out selling real estate for the night. On Vincent’s first stop, a dead body—killed by Vincent—drops on Max’s cab from four stories up.

“I think he’s dead,” Max exclaims, frightened. “Good guess,” Vincent states before inspecting the body. Pause. Max nervously asks, “You killed him?” Vincent puts it straight, “No. I shot him—the bullets and the fall killed him.”

Now Max is taken hostage by this sophisticated, psychotic hitman for four more stops. He’ll get paid if they both survive the night. Max doesn’t want to go through with assisting a killer, but he has no choice. Vincent is smart, alert, violent, and extremely dangerous. He kills and goes on, and doesn’t care about anybody in this city. Max keeps trying to stop Vincent, with no luck. Even when Max tries to get away, Vincent is always one step ahead of him. The next time he pulls something like this, he could be dead. How can he stop him?

The two men are paired together for most of the movie, but this is not a buddy movie. The two are talking about what’s happening and what’s going on with each other’s lives at this point, and yet they’re still at odds with each other, even if they don’t want to admit it. The conversations are quite fascinating in how Vincent can see through Max’s talk—Max is always talking about opening a limo company, even though he’s been driving a cab for twelve years. He’s a dreamer, and not necessarily a doer. And of course, there’s the issue at hand that comes into the conversations, and that’s well-handled as well—tense and vague.

Tom Cruise is disturbingly convincing as Vincent and his character is given more dimensions than you might expect. He brings a lot more to the role of antagonist than just playing the bad guy. He is a killer, don’t get me wrong. But he’s interesting in the way that he has his own perceptions of life and humanity and isn’t afraid to let anyone know it. He knows what he’s doing is murder, but he doesn’t care and he doesn’t feel guilty. He just thinks it won’t matter in the slightest, as long as he is not caught. Without giving anything away, his final scene, the payoff for this character, shows an enormous amount of gravity.

Even though Jamie Foxx was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, this is really his character’s story. He is the lead—we’re with him to the very end. Jamie Foxx has been known for his comedic roles in TV and movies (including “Booty Call”) and his work here is a pleasant surprise, showing a great deal of unexpected dramatic range and depth with his performance. Throughout the movie, we’re rooting for him to survive this crazy night.

(My guess is that the Academy had already nominated Foxx for Best Actor for his starring role in “Ray,” which he did win for, and didn’t want to forget that he was in something else of note that year.)

I’ve gone on enough about the unique premise and great acting by the two leads. Michael Mann, who loves to bring style to his projects, directed “Collateral.” Here, he has the unique visual style that makes the night seem bright and Los Angeles come alive. Los Angeles feels like a character of itself, which shows that Mann really knows this city at night. Sure, it looks nice during the day, but note how mysterious and somewhat beautiful and bright the city looks at night.

There’s also a great deal of humanity in the other characters of the screenplay, written by Stuart Beattie. For example, in an opening scene, taking place before the madness, we see Max pick up an attractive fare—a lawyer, played by Jada Pinkett Smith—and they have a real conversation with each other; not just small talk. It’s a sweet scene and it’s carried over later in the movie as Vincent gives Max some advice about his love life, after seeing the woman’s phone number. And she does become an important asset to the film’s climax, without giving too much away. And there’s a light-comic scene in which Max is forced to visit his ill mother (Irma P. Hall) in the hospital, with Vincent accompanying him. The mother embarrasses Vincent with stories about Max, but her dialogue is also revealing in developing further Max’s character traits.

My favorite is a nightclub owner (played by Barry Shabaka Henley) who meets Vincent and Max and shares a memory he had when Miles Davis came into the club one night. He tells the story with such warmth that we hope nothing bad happens to this person, and we’d like to know more about him. Max feels the same way, smiling as he tells the story, and Vincent actually fools us into thinking that nothing bad is going to happen. But no—this is the nightclub owner’s final night. Max can’t believe it, and neither can we.

This shows that “Collateral” is a thriller that is more about the characters than about the actual plot. Cruise and Foxx’s characters come alive and the supporting characters are interesting as well. We don’t just wait for the big climax to come along so that they can all shoot each other. Situations happen to these characters—mostly with a purpose, sometimes without. And that’s what make “Collateral” as great as it is.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

12 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” is based on a series of children’s books with warnings on the back saying not to read them because they are very depressing and disturbing. But of course, who could resist a warning like that? The movie, adapted from the first three books, opens with such a warning. It opens as a cartoon elf skips along its garden as flowers bloom (as a cheesy song plays) and it stops suddenly, so the film’s narrator, who is Lemony Snicket (voiced by Jude Law), states that the movie that will be shown, instead of this happy-go-lucky cartoon, is a dark and depressing tale about three orphaned children and a villainous actor. Snicket warns us to stop watching the film, but how can we not? The warnings on the back of the books and at the beginning of this film are incredible buildup.

The focuses of the story are the three Baudelaire children with different hobbies—one’s an inventor, one’s a reader, and one’s an odd biter. Despite these different traits, they have each other. One day when they are by the river near their mansion, they are met by Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), the overweight and clueless manager of their estate, who grieves to inform them that a fire has destroyed their mansion…and killed their parents.

The children—the eldest inventor Violet (Emily Browning), her intelligent brother Klaus (Liam Aiken), and their toddler (“biting”) sister Sunny (Kara and Shelly Hoffman)—are left in the custody of their fourth cousin three times removed (or is he their third cousin four times removed)—an hamming, creepy actor who goes by the name Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). Count Olaf lives in a big, creepy mansion, shows no love for the children, and makes them do terrible chores all day. He desperately wants the family fortune and attempts to kill the kids for it, leaving the car stopped on the railroad tracks with them locked inside of it. The kids survive by using their wits and traits, but that’s only the beginning.

Before I go any further, let me warn you about Jim Carrey’s performance as Count Olaf. He overacts in this movie and he barely gets away with being a distraction to the kids, who are really the main focus of the film and are very smart and likable. However, I can say that most of his shtick is quite entertaining, especially when he shows that the character is such a bad actor. But when he delivers a few pop culture references in a movie that seems to be set in the early 1900s and when his “Ace Ventura” side takes over in a few scenes, it’s mostly distracting. But let me be fair and say this—this is the role that Jim Carrey was born to play.

After Olaf fails to kill the children, the kids are sent by Mr. Poe, who doesn’t see the act as a sign of attempted murder but as irresponsibility, to live with other relatives. But as they get comfortable in their new homes, Count Olaf arrives in disguise to try and take the children back. First they are sent to their friendly Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), who has a bizarre obsession with snakes and weirdly unknown creatures. Uncle Monty knows what family is all about and wants to really relate to the children.

Then there’s Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), a paranoid, neurotic woman who is afraid of…pretty much everything. She lives alone in a house dangerously perched on the edge of a cliff over a leech-infested lake. (How could she not be afraid?)

Both of these relatives have a secret that the kids would like to know more about. All they have to go on is a spyglass. As they go from relative-to-relative, they find out more about it. However with Count Olaf coming along, overacting, and ruining everything from Monty to Josephine, it’s just more than these children can bear, to say the least. But when Count Olaf is around those times, Mr. Poe is such an idiot that he doesn’t see under his disguises. He simply dismisses the kids as imaginative half-pints.

“Lemony Snicket” keeps the darkness of the books. The kids have moments where they grieve over their parents’ deaths, the “unfortunate events” they run into are life-threatening (though almost predictably, they use their wits to survive), and their surroundings are rarely sunny. Count Olaf follows them everywhere they go and all he wants is their fortune and nothing else, even if it of course means killing them.

The kids are a fresh and likable bunch. Violet, played by Australian actress Emily Browning, is a bright 14-year-old girl who invents things frequently and knows that there is always something to make something out of. Klaus, played by Liam Aiken, is a smart young man who remembers everything he reads. Sunny, played by two-year-old twins Kara and Shelly Hoffman, bites and does nothing else except babble unintelligible words that are some of the funniest lines in the movie (English subtitles show what she says). The movie wants us to follow these kids and to root for them to outsmart their wicked relative. The actors playing the kids are a wonderful group and they really keep the movie going.

I’d say the main problem with “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” is that it’s not so much a series of unfortunate events as it the same unfortunate event repeated, as the kids are passed around from relative to relative as they know Count Olaf is close by to mess things up again, and they use their wits to get out of a tricky situation every time. And there’s also a nasty, creepy addition near the end in which Olaf threatens to make things worse unless Violet agrees to marry him so he can inherit the Baudelaire fortune. I’d say to see what Roald Dahl would have done if he wrote the books this movie was based on.

While there are certainly dark currents under the surface of this fantasy, the director Brad Silberling doesn’t let them overtake the film. Yes, bad things happen—people die and children are in jeopardy. But there’s a dry wit that balances out and also a sense of fun in how the kids use their abilities to discover a new way to survive whatever comes next. “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” is a strange, dark film, and I recommend it for being just that.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

11 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Harold and Kumar go to White Castle” features two stoner minority characters named Harold and Kumar that do go to White Castle, but not without a bunch of misadventures along the way. This is an enjoyable comedy with two likable leads and funny situations.

Harold and Kumar are two roommates who smoke more pot than I think any other stoner duo could handle (hello, “Cheech and Chong”). Harold Lee (John Cho) is a hard-working, Korean-American accountant who is shy towards women. Kumar Patel (Kal Penn), an Indian-American slacker, is way more outgoing than Harold—he’s a party animal whose parents are in the medical profession, yet he knows a lot about medicine although he’d rather smoke pot all day. In his introduction, Kumar is interviewed by a dean of medical school (Fred Willard) and impresses him at first until he calls Harold and tells him his plan to be “blitzed out of their skulls tonight” right in front of the dean. That forces the dean to reject him.

So, Harold and Kumar are getting stoned one night and when they get the munchies, Kumar states that he wants the “perfect food.” That’s when a commercial for White Castle appears on the TV screen and hypnotizes them into a slider obsession. Kumar says there is a White Castle nearby, so they decide to drive there and eat. Unfortunately, the White Castle has been replaced by another burger joint. The guy at the drive-thru (Anthony Anderson) tells them that there is a White Castle about forty-five miles ahead.

So, the guys drive to get those sliders and along the way, they get involved in all sorts of adventures—they save a man’s life, wind up in jail by racist cops, encounter a mechanic with a really bad complexion, and come across a hitchhiking Neil Patrick Harris.

Neil Patrick Harris plays himself in this movie, and Harold and Kumar know him best from his “Doogie Howser” persona. There are some jokes about the show in this movie, particularly about asking if he had sex with “the hot nurse.” Harris is hilarious in this movie and way weirder than these guys. He wants sex, he wants to roam free, and he even steals Harold’s car. (“Did Doogie Howser just steal my car?” Harold asks.) He steals his car for a good reason too—so that when they meet again, Harold can ask, “Dude, where’s my car,” and reference the director Danny Leiner’s previous directorial effort, “Dude, Where’s my Car?”

HAROLD: Dude, where’s my car?

KUMAR: Where’s his car, dude?

While there are a lot of laughs in this movie, one particularly distasteful moment occurs when the boys arrive at Princeton and share a bathroom scene that is so disgusting that it makes you cringe. I was afraid of where the film was going after that scene. Also, there are a lot of racism jokes in this movie—a running gag keeps the boys running into American jerks who tease the boys’ backgrounds—and most of them are not that funny. Luckily, the movie redeems itself with the likability of these two characters, some big laughs that come unexpectedly, and a nice subtext that if you want something, you just have to go for it.