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My Favorite Movies – Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

7 Oct

By Tanner Smith

Napoleon Dynamite is very much an indie filmmaker’s dream. Talk about the little indie film that could! Here was a little movie made in a Mormon community by people who just wanted to make a nice, down-to-earth, funny movie…who I doubt would have even suspected that it would become the pop-culture phenomenon that it was!!

No joke–this movie was EVERYWHERE for a while! Everybody was quoting it, they were telling all their friends about it, and there was a TON of merchandise sold that was based on it–“Vote For Pedro” t-shirts, Napoleon’s PE t-shirt, flipbooks of Napoleon’s finale dance, quote books, and even the shooting script was available in bookstores!

How did this happen?? When I was 12 years old at the time of the movie’s release, I only heard about it because everyone in school was talking about it, and so I jumped on the bandwagon. But what did THEY get out of it? What about “Napoleon Dynamite” spoke to them in such a way?

My guess is because it’s like nothing they ever saw before. It’s a story about a high-schooler, which we’ve seen many times before, but this one was so different (and so funny) in the way this particular high-schooler and his friends and family were portrayed. We can laugh at them, quote them, even sort of identify with them in ways we don’t want to admit.

Napoleon (played memorably by Jon Heder) is not very likable. He’s a sadsack high-school student who would make a nerd look cool. (I think that’s how the late Roger Ebert described him.) He can’t even get in with the nerd crowd because he can be pretty obnoxious when he’s not unbelievably awkward. He’s not one of those “movie outcasts” that everyone picks on because he’s different–he’s an outcast because he deserves to be! There’s something very sad and yet so very funny about that idea alone. And that’s why I love this movie. As much as I love a good coming-of-age teen comedy/drama, there’s something very refreshing about this sort of anti-coming-of-age teen comedy/drama, in that it takes most conventions we’re familiar with and tones them way down to the point where we get laughs from the mere lack of cliche.

There’s also a bunch of colorful supporting characters, such as Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) who constantly dreams of living in the past (I love how he keeps checking his biceps when he has his arms crossed), Napoleon’s brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) who at least has a better chance at finding love than Napoleon does, Napoleon’s buddy Pedro (Efren Ramirez) who is just as emotionless as Napoleon, and the ultra-shy Deb (Tina Majorino) who at least isn’t afraid to talk with her mouth full. Oh and there’s also the very quotable, macho Rex (Diedrich Bader), who has a couple scenes as a would-be martial-arts instructor…I don’t know WHY he’s in this movie, but I’m glad he is.

There’s hardly a story in “Napoleon Dynamite”–it just rides on the characters themselves, which helps make scenes memorable. Who doesn’t remember what a liger is because of this movie? Who doesn’t remember Napoleon complimenting Deb’s poofy sleeves on her dress at a school dance? Who doesn’t remember Deb’s method of taking glamour shots? Who doesn’t remember how Napoleon wins Pedro the election for class president? And so on. It’s mainly an episodic slice-of-life where we spend an hour-and-a-half spending time with odd, quirky characters. And that’s why I think a whole lot of people latched onto it back then.

My favorite scene: the dance scene! We’ve spent pretty much the entire movie watching this sadsack loser with no energy, and now here we are seeing him present a TON of energy! It’s a wonderful payoff.

“Napoleon Dynamite” 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.

My Favorite Movies – Before Sunset (2004)

14 Mar

By Tanner Smith

“Before Sunset” was a sequel that hardly anyone asked for, but Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy were going to make it anyway! (God bless those three.)

Taking place nine years after Before Sunrise, Jesse (Hawke) is on a book tour, promoting his novel which is an account of the one night he spent with Celine (Delpy). His last stop is a bookstore in Paris, and guess who’s there!

Yep–Jesse and Celine finally meet again after nine years. And Jesse only has about an hour before his plane leaves, so that gives them another reason to walk and talk. They catch up, talk some more about life and how things are different now that they’re older, and still feel that same connection they felt nine years before. Is this a second chance?

That’s really all there is to it. The conversation Jesse and Celine started in the mid-1990s picks back up again in the mid-2000s–except this conversation takes place in real time. A lot has changed, some things haven’t changed, and of course it’s always great to listen to these two people talk. (We also see a lot of Paris, France as these two walk-and-talk through it–the cinematography from Lee Daniel is remarkable here.)

I love when films bring back the same characters to actually continue their story instead of remind us constantly that we should be watching the original movie they’re best known for. What’s the same with Jesse and Celine? What’s different about them? What’s to talk about here? Well…there’s a lot. And it all feels real and natural; and it’s beautifully written and acted by Hawke & Delpy.

The ending of “Before Sunset” is PERFECT. Honestly, it’s one of my absolute favorite endings, without a doubt. And it makes the movie for me.

Now, I have a confession to make–I caught “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” a little late, in 2012. BUT it turned out to be the right timing to prepare myself for Before Midnight, which opened in June 2013. Each film takes place nine years after the other and I was very curious and excited to see Jesse and Celine again after “Before Sunset.” The result…well, it’s my favorite film of the 2010s, if that answers your question.

The “Before trilogy,” as it’s called, is a wonderful, delightful, moving, insightful experience of time and humanity. It will always have a very special place in my heart.

My Favorite Movies – Super Size Me (2004)

6 Oct

By Tanner Smith

Back in my university days, I was studying the art of documentary film. I developed a true fondness for cinematic non-fiction such as “Hoop Dreams,” the “Up” series, “Life Itself,” “Streetwise,” “The Thin Blue Line,” “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II,” “Paradise Lost,” “Touching the Void,” “Roger & Me,” “Trouble the Water,” among others–all of these films took great measures in making real-life stories into compelling cinematic art.

One of my absolute favorites then and now was and is Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” a documentary that told a serious message in a thoroughly entertaining way. I think it was this film that taught me that when it came to documentary filmmaking, entertainment can be just as important as telling a compelling story. Likable people become dramatic characters, performance art helps illustrate points, the narrator could be a wisecracker, and so on.

Morgan Spurlock puts himself at center-stage in his own movie, “Super Size Me,” in which he decides he’s going to go on a month-long diet of nothing but McDonald’s–if McDonald’s doesn’t sell it, he can’t eat it. And if he’s given the option of Super Size, he HAS to take it. (Since this film’s release in 2004, McDonald’s has gotten rid of the Super Size Option–though, they claim the film had nothing to do with that decision.)

Spurlock is a very likable guy, so I have no problem following him on this journey to see what would happen if he stays on this ridiculous diet for a full 30 days. And more importantly, he doesn’t shy away from showing what eating fast food day after day does to a person with no balanced diet. For example, one day, he’s sitting in his car, going to town on his Super Size double quarter pounder cheese meal, enjoying a sugar high, and unable to finish it before he has to upchuck. This is only the beginning…

He frequently visits three physicians to keep track of what this food is doing to his health. What happens is he gains close to 25 pounds, his liver malfunctions, his sex drive is low on energy, and he has heart palpitations.

There’s a reason my mother, who is a high-school Family and Consumer Science teacher, likes to show this film to her classes.

We also join Spurlock on certain detours, as he visits people who are also affected by fast-food effects and also takes a look at public schools to compare cafeteria lunches. The message is clear–we as Americans consume too much fast food, which doesn’t do well for our health, and we need to either have a more balanced diet or swear off it entirely. If not for Spurlock’s vision, drive, and biting wit, “Super Size Me” would simply be a PowerPoint presentation not worth spending too much time talking about. (I’m looking at YOU, “Forks Over Knives.”)

Plus, the experiment is a great hook–it’s one thing to be told fast food is bad for you; it’s another to see it demonstrated.

And yes, I know the effect is not the same for everybody–there have been people besides McDonald’s spokesmen that argue that this diet allows weight and cholesterol reduction. And I know Morgan Spurlock is aware of this too–but c’mon, it’s his movie. His main goal isn’t to keep his audience away from McDonald’s but simply to show what heavy consumption of McDonald’s COULD do to people, like what it did to him. He’s showing us in a lighthearted way an understanding of what we’re eating.

Btw, check out “Super Size Me’s” DVD extras–there’s another experiment Spurlock tries out, with different burgers and fries; watch what happens with McDonald’s fries after a while…

My Favorite Movies – Mean Creek (2004)

27 Apr

By Tanner Smith

I don’t have a lot of depressing movies in my “Favorite Movies” collection, but…wow, has “Mean Creek” done a number on me.

I remember first seeing this film on TV when I was 13. The best way to describe its effect on me back then would be: it mentally scarred me. And then the second viewing convinced me this was going to be that certain arthouse film I decide to show my friends. I showed it to my best buddy and it messed him up too. Then he kept telling everyone in school about it…though only about two or three more kids in school actually checked it out. Not that we were intending to create a “cult following” out of this film but admittedly it felt good knowing about something that wasn’t getting a lot of attention (from Manila High anyway) that we felt we had to share with people.

“Mean Creek” is a film about teenagers who have had misfortunes in their lives that make them outcasts that are now suddenly faced with a moral dilemma within the biggest crisis in their lives. And it all begins as a revenge prank on a school bully. It’s as if it’s saying what could start out as a merry joke on someone else’s expense could end up being the very thing you regret the most in life.

Josh Peck is nothing short of brilliant as George, the bully in question. This is probably the most disturbing teenage-bully character I’ve ever seen in a film, but he’s also the most three-dimensional as well. Sometimes he can be seen as lonely and pathetic in the ways he tries to fit in and find friends, but other times he can be very mean and obnoxious. And it’s his loud mouth that becomes his fatal flaw in a scene in which he becomes so angry that he shouts hurtful putdowns to each of the other characters one by one. It’s just such a great performance with a lot of levels to it.

And I can also say the same for Scott Mechlowicz as Marty, who is bruised by his father’s suicide, abused by his older brother at home, and has a lot of anger built up inside that he is eagerly awaiting to take out on George. He’s the one who doesn’t want to back out of the plan to humiliate George and even tells him the truth about what he and the other teens were going to do to him, because he wants to hurt him. And then when the inevitable climax occurs and he tries to keep everyone in control in what he believes is the best thing for everyone, even he can’t help but feel miserable about what he’s done.

That’s another reason “Mean Creek” works so well: it’s an “anti-revenge” story. Many films centered on characters seeking vengeance never allow time for the characters to truly think about what they’ve done after they either humiliate or destroy the person who’s wrong them. This film does. The last half-hour or so of “Mean Creek” is arguably the best element in the film because it shows the kids dealing with what they’ve done and the effects this revenge has had on all of them. They talk about it, they think about it, they consider the consequences, they realize the guilt from keeping quiet, and so on.

I think the reason this film got to me when I first saw this film at age 13 was not entirely because I felt so bad for the bully (though I did) but because I was wondering myself what I would do in that situation, and how I would feel. Would I go with my peers? Would I tell anyone what I’ve done? How could I go through life knowing everyone I know would suddenly look at me in a different way and never forgive me for this? And what if I didn’t have much to do with it but I wasn’t able to stop it either? Or what if I could’ve stopped it but I didn’t?

There’s another film that came out recently that tackles with the same type of subject matter, called Super Dark Times. I like that film a lot too–I think the reason I hold “Mean Creek” in a higher regard was superficially because of the effect it had on me when I first saw it.

My Favorite Movies – Shaun of the Dead (2004)

26 Apr

By Tanner Smith

“Shaun of the Dead” is a great film because it works wonderfully as both a zombie-movie and a satire of a zombie-movie. The zombies still pose a threat, there’s still a lot of the zombie-movie survival conventions, and there’s still a lot of bloody action–the twist is that it’s all happening to a couple of slackers who don’t even realize there’s a zombie attack until it affects their daily routines.

Shaun (Simon Pegg) has no direction in his life, and his buddy Ed (Nick Frost) is even less ambitious. These jokers wouldn’t know a zombie if she popped up in their backyard…hey, is that a zombie girl in their garden? Anyway, they become more wary of the mayhem that’s happening in town, and they race to find shelter with Shaun’s mother (Penelope Wilton), Shaun’s ex Liz (Kate Ashfield), and Liz’s flatmates Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran). Their plan is to “wait for all this to blow over”…but it’s not as simple as that.

And as funny as “Shaun of the Dead” is (and it’s VERY funny), it also tackles the hardships of surviving such an experience, such as the harsh sacrifices that have to be made.

But even with that in mind, it is fairly consistent in how funny it is. It’s not camp nor is it unintentionally laughable; it’s just funny. Much of that has to do with some of the best timing I’ve ever seen in any comedy. (Actually, something writer-director Edgar Wright is known for is quick comic timing in all of his movies.) And it has fun with the premise of a zombie invasion, while paying heartfelt homage to George Romero zombie flicks.

It’s also a film with a cautionary message about getting too used to routine. Shaun would’ve stayed ignorant in his cycle if the dead didn’t walk the earth. The zombies are essentially representative of those who are so desensitized to life that they have nothing more to do in life (or…death).

Among the comedic highlights in the movie include Shaun and Ed’s first encounter with the zombies, the group pretending to be zombies to be unnoticed, and the jukebox bar brawl. Though, I do have to ask…why did they bring out their LP collection and throw some at the zombies? I know they’re not the sharpest tools in the shed, but…they didn’t really think that was going to work, did they?

But whatever, it’s still funny to hear their tastes in music–what album would YOU get rid of during apocalyptic times?

Secret Window (2004)

1 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“You stole my story.”

That is how Stephen King’s novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden” (part of his “Four Past Midnight” collection) begins, with a quote that directly accuses the protagonist, an author, of plagiarism. It’s that one simple quote: “You stole my story.” Right away, King has us–we’re hooked. And that’s why he’s one of the greatest writers, if not THE greatest.

The novella’s film adaptation, simply titled “Secret Window,” gets the audience on-edge when the accuser, John Shooter, is played with a terrifying presence, with a radiation of danger and malevolence as well as an off-putting Southern drawl and sh*t-eating grin, by John Turturro. From the moment he uses that line, “You stole my story,” I am immediately unnerved by this guy. No wonder author Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) is freaked out by this hat-wearing stranger who shows up at his door and claims he “stole his story.”

Anyway, that is where the story gets going, with this reclusive author Mort Rainey, who’s already going through mental-health issues mostly caused by a divorce from his cheating wife (Maria Bello), and now he finds that this stranger shows up with a manuscript that seems very similar to a book he wrote. It’s not enough that Shooter pesters Mort, however. He turns out to be very dangerous, killing his dog and threatening to kill him and those around him if he doesn’t get recognition.

“Secret Window” is a strange film for me, because while there are many parts of it that I find very slow, and like a lot of people, I’m not so sure I completely buy into the ending, there are still several moments in it that captivate me, particularly the story involving these two writers who are pretty much at each other’s throats most of the time before one of them gets very aggressive. All of that is very intriguing, and I’m always interested when Shooter pops back up again.

But that becomes a problem for most people who see this movie–that aspect of the overall story goes in a direction that makes it a lot less interesting. I won’t give it away here, but…I don’t know, I agree with people’s complaints about it, and yet at the same time, it is still interesting to me (but not as interesting as it could’ve been).

What “Secret Window” truly is is a parable for what writer’s block can do to a person when they’re lacking influence/inspiration on top of feeling a lot of stress, and on that basis, it is an intriguing type of story that only King could come up with.

I still like to watch “Secret Window” again for the setup in particular. Depp is delightfully quirky on top of playing a complex character, the domestic-dispute stuff between him and Bello is interesting enough, and again, I loved the dynamic between Depp and Turturro and the things that come from that. And I will say this about the twists of the final half…the very last revelation is very chilling in just how WEIRD it was. I’ll never forget it, and I think it made the overall film close enough for me to say “Yeah…it is a solid film. I’ll watch it again later.” I think it’s Stephen King’s writing that made it work no matter how crazy things became as a result of the twists in the final act.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

7 Oct


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


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


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


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?