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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.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

10 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Well here it is—a movie that tries to warn us about what would happen if we mess up our lovely planet any longer. We use up our resources, we’re partially responsible for global warming, and we may be headed for a nightmarish, cataclysmic future. “The Day after Tomorrow” is a movie that tries to warn us of that, and it cannot be taken entirely seriously, but it’s an entertaining, touching, and scary apocalyptic drama from Roland Emmerich, who apparently loves the planet in many ways to destroy it. In his previous movies, he blew up the White House (“Independence Day”) and set a giant lizard monster loose on Manhattan (“Godzilla”). Now he brings upon the Ice Age in North America. It may be as scientifically accurate as “Godzilla” (those who are new, that means “inaccurate”), but “The Day after Tomorrow” works for me.

We all hope that North America doesn’t freeze over, but if it does, you might want to move away from national monuments because Roland Emmerich has a tendency to destroy those. The very best things about “The Day after Tomorrow” are the special effects. Tornadoes rip through Los Angeles and rip apart the Hollywood sign. A tidal wave crashes through New York, barely putting the head of the Statue of Liberty underwater. All the buildings in the major cities freeze up and their windows crack. Snow nearly buries all the major cities. They look so real, they’re scary. Oh, and there are also shots seen from a space station of the Earth with violent storm fronts.

And we all know from previous disaster movie experiences that the characters the camera and story focus on are going to survive and the rest—billions of the rest—are going to perish in the catastrophic events that occur due to global warming finally threatening humanity. We meet Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), a climatologist who sees it all coming when his computer models the new ice age. Then we are introduced to his teenage son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is headed to New York for an academic decathlon with his schoolmates Laura (Emmy Rossum) and Brian (Arjay Smith). Then we meet another kid in the same competition—a nice kid named J.D. (Austin Nichols). Then we meet Jack’s divorced wife Dr. Lucy Hall (Sela Ward), who is treating a young cancer patient. And then there’s Jack’s friend Jason (Dash Mihok) and an old Scottish meteorologist named Prof. Rapson (the always reliable Ian Holm). The movie switches tracks on who to follow and when Sam and his friends are trapped in a library in New York, Jack and Jason are forced to walk across the snow to rescue them.

Jack tries to warn many people. Of course they ignore him. Here’s a lesson we can all take—US government, if a scientist, geologist, or, in this case, climatologist tells you that the world is headed for disaster and there’s a chance for evacuation, then for goodness sake, just listen to the guy! What if he isn’t crazy? What if he just knows what he’s talking about? Just listen, Vice President Becker (Kenneth Walsh)!

But can Jack and Jason really trek across the snow from Philadelphia to New York? Well they believe they can. And we can too. It’s ridiculous, I know, but the movie has enough good energy to make us almost believe it. And then, there’s the whole plan of evacuating everyone to Mexico. But if North America was to really freeze over, would Mexico really be a safe place to be? And also, is it really worth trying to get your passports when a tidal wave? And then there’s a scene in which Sam and his friends encounter wolves that escaped from a zoo which is also ridiculous.

I am recommending “The Day after Tomorrow” for three reasons. 1) The special effects are downright fantastic. 2) All of these characters are likable and we actually want them to survive. And 3) The movie works as a cautionary tale. It delivers a pro-environment message that I think worked well, despite the possible scientific inaccuracies. I am not quite sure I believe that global warming is real but I do not want to start a statement of my own about it so let’s just leave it at that. I do know that if North America does freeze over, I’ll have only one mind on my mind: stay alive. And thank goodness “The Day after Tomorrow” doesn’t go for the easiest ways out. There are no groups of scientists or astronauts racing to stop it from happening. Nothing could have prevented this from happening. We did this to ourselves. All the main characters have to do in this movie is stay alive. And when the movie ended, I just had to smile. The music builds up, (possible spoiler alert) we see the characters moving forward to new lives (end of possible spoiler alert), and we feel like it’s going to be all right again.

Mean Creek (2004)

28 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Mean Creek” is a powerful, disturbingly effective film about how even the smallest thing leads to big magnitude, and how it’s dealt with. It’s also about troubled kids who feel alienated and are soon dealt with the biggest crisis of their lives. Now, they have to deal with it. It reminded me of “River’s Edge,” in which burnout teenagers had to deal with the fact that one of their own killed another one of their own. They were told by their leader not to tell anyone, but how could they not? In “Mean Creek,” it shows kids who all have problems and it also shows that every action comes with a consequence.

As the movie opens, a nice kid named Sam (Rory Culkin, Macaulay’s youngest brother) is beat up by a schoolyard bully named George (Josh Peck), a bipolar kid who has been left back in school because of a learning disability. Sam’s brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan), who smokes weed and drinks a lot as a way of escaping his own insecurities (that’s what I believe, anyway), decides to teach George a lesson in ultimate humiliation. Sam decides to go with it as long as they “hurt him without really hurting him.” Rocky enlists the aid of his two best friends. One is Clyde (Ryan Kelley), who resents the fact that he lives with gay fathers. Another is Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), who lives with his abusive brother who lets out his anger on him whenever their late suicidal father is mentioned. So now, Marty is aching to take out his own anger on George.

The boys invite George to a seemingly harmless boat ride—Sam pretends to make amends by inviting him to his “birthday party” and then the others are going to pull a practical joke on him. So Sam, Rocky, Clyde, Marty, George, and Sam’s girlfriend Millie (Carly Schroeder) head upriver but the unusual thing is that George is acting kind of friendly. Sam, Millie, Rocky, and Clyde see that George isn’t such a bad guy after all, but that he’s just lonely and wants friends. They decide to call off the plan, but Marty is determined to move forward. He wants to create pain and misery for George and when he finally tells George the plan, it leads to a big tragedy.

You probably already know what is going to happen already. “Mean Creek” is not a thriller and there aren’t any surprises either. This is pure drama happening here, and after that climax, the final half of the movie shows how the kids deal with it. They talk about it, they discuss it, they predict the possibilities of what will happen if they tell or not, and they all regret their actions. Their lives will never be the same again. The final half is excellent because it’s just so chilling and so convincing and deeply moving.

“Mean Creek” mainly a dramatic character piece. It doesn’t go over the top; it feels real. The six young actors playing the kids are all credible. There are no weak elements to their performances and there’s no sense of miscasting. Rory Culkin is good as the early teenager who is involved with a huge situation. Josh Peck is brilliant as the troubled fat kid willing to let out some anger on the kid—there are many levels to Peck’s performance. Scott Mechlowicz is chillingly convincing as the tough guy who soon becomes the leader of the group and makes the decision of not telling the authorities about that terrible day. Trevor Morgan, Ryan Kelley, and Carlie Schroeder deliver strong work as well.

“Mean Creek” is the writing/directing debut for Jacob Aaron Estes and he makes a wise choice of keeping his classic camera movements and angles to a basic minimum. He doesn’t direct it like a big-shot mob-movie director. He lets his own script do the work and that’s the right move for this film.

NOTE: This movie is deservedly rated R by the MPAA for violence, profanity, teen drug use, and teen alcohol use. There is one scene in particular that shows young Peck use the f-word practically a hundred times in one scene. This movie isn’t for everybody, especially those who are fans of Nickelodeon’s “Drake and Josh.” But I kid.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

23 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

No, I don’t believe that “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” was based on a true underdog story. More accurately, it could be labeled as an underdog story that is much funnier that how we usually see underdogs in movies. The underdog team that we follow in “Dodgeball” is a band of underdogs who get better at playing the movie’s sport and play in the Big Game. Among the guys on the team are a guy who thinks he’s a pirate and another guy who didn’t know that there even was such a guy on the team.

What is the sport these underdogs play in the movie? Well, it is dodgeball. It’s that game we’ve all played in school in gym class where you try to hit the opposing team with rubber balls. The best way to win is to get all the bigger guys on your team, and if you have enough guts to catch a ball before it hits the ground, then the player who threw that ball is out and a person from your team comes back into the game.

OK, enough of the refresher course. Back to the first movie about dodgeball called “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”…

The reliably-funny and fast-talking Vince Vaughn plays Peter La Fleur, an Average Joe who manages a rundown gym called “Average Joe’s.” Among those who hang around there are the pirate character I mentioned earlier, the person who didn’t know there was a pirate guy around, a geeky teenager, and an overweight loser who reads a magazine called “Obscure Sports Quarterly.” Peter’s rival is the ridiculously pompous White Goodman (Ben Stiller), who runs “Globo Gym,” an over-the-top fitness program with the slogan, “We’re better than you and we know it!”

Ben Stiller’s performance has to be seen to be believed. Imagine Fonzie of TV’s “Happy Days” and make him more energetic and in spandex. Though the performance almost runs out of steam towards the end, it’s still very funny.

Anyway, White wants to close down the “Average Joe’s” gym to create a new building for his corporation of fit sadists. So, Peter and his group challenge White and his band of monsters to a Las Vegas Dodgeball Tournament, televised by ESPN 8 (“The Ocho”).

What follows is a great line of gags and jokes that I will not reveal, but I have give notice to Rip Torn, who portrays the coach for the team of misfits. He’s an old coot in a wheelchair, but also a veteran of dodgeball. His methods are very unusual but downright hilarious. They involve a sack of wrenches. Two other characters draw our attention: Christine Taylor (Ben Stiller’s wife) is an attractive bank employee who joins the good guys in the tournament and may (or may not) have a thing for Peter. And Gary Cole is very funny as the commentator on the tournament. It’s the funniest sports commentary since Fred Willard’s commentary in “Best in Show.”

Every character in this movie is either funny or fun to watch. And this movie really is funny. The strangest thing about Vince Vaughn’s performance is that he doesn’t do a lot to be funny. He plays a straight man that happens to deliver some one-liners when he has to. Some of the gags are great, including one in a scene where White pumps himself up before meeting a woman (not giving away the gag). There are cameos that come in and out and those bits are funny too. And another great thing about this movie is that during the Big Game (of course, it’s obvious that the “Average Joe’s” team is going to play in the Big Game), I wasn’t bored. I was with these guys, getting hit with dodgeballs with these guys, and I was glad to go along for the ride with these guys. And I laughed along the way.

“Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” is a very funny movie; full of fun characters to watch, very funny moments here and there, and a satire on overdone sports movies. And I guess I can say nobody throws a wrench like Rip Torn.

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

17 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There is a chaos theory that even the smallest thing, such as a butterfly’s wing fluttering, can cause disarray. That theory is quoted at the opening of “The Butterfly Effect,” a weird and disturbing film that intrigued me with interest and weird plot elements that are as strange as “Donnie Darko.” (And I mean that as a compliment.)

“The Butterfly Effect” is a thriller right from the start. As the movie opens, a man runs into a room and writes a message saying that he may be dead if anybody finds it, but he can “save her” if he can “go back to the beginning.” Then the movie flashes back to thirteen years earlier, to that man’s childhood at age 7.

The kid’s name is Evan Treborn and there is something very strange going on. He blacks out certain memories that may have been horrible. He doesn’t know why he holds a large knife at one point, he doesn’t know why his clothes are off in the basement of his friend’s father’s house, and he doesn’t know why his institutionalized father tried to strangle him on his visit. The thrilling aspect of this opening is that we don’t know why, either. We just have to wait and see…

Then the film flashes forward six years later. Evan is thirteen years old and has a crush on his friend Kayleigh, whose father is an abusive pervert and whose brother Tommy is a sadistic little snot. Evan has more blackouts this time—he doesn’t know why his friend Lenny went into shock after they, Kayleigh, and Tommy tried to blow up a mailbox with a blockbuster; and he doesn’t know why Tommy acts up whenever he’s asked about what happened that time. But he has another thing to worry about when he and Kayleigh really become close with each other, which leads Tommy to violence.

Then, the movie pushes forward seven years later. Evan is now a college student (and played by Ashton Kutcher) and hasn’t had any blackouts since he was thirteen. But something strange happens when he reads the journals he kept since his first blackout. He discovers that by reading the journals, he can experience the memories that he blacked out. But soon, he also discovers that he can change the way things turn out. When Kayleigh (Amy Smart), who has grown depressed, commits suicide, Evan decides to go back and change things to prevent that from happening.

But every time Evan tries to go back and fix things, he ends up making them worse—when he first changes things, he and Kayleigh are happily together, but he ends up killing vengeful Tommy (William Lee Scott) and going to prison; then he changes things and ends up making Lenny (Elden Henson) a murderer and Kayleigh a hooker; and he even brings a remarkably drastic change to himself after a disastrous alteration.

The gimmick here is that Evan can read the journals and go back to those memories, change things, and go back to the present where things have changed. But is it always a parallel present? Is it an alternate universe? “The Butterfly Effect” doesn’t fully explain how that works, but I guess we’re supposed to figure it out ourselves. That’s what makes it so interesting. This is a compelling and intriguing thriller—as good as “Donnie Darko” and way better than “Final Destination 2,” which have similar elements (also, “FD2” was written by the writers of this one).

Ashton Kutcher—whom I still haven’t forgiven for “Dude, Where’s my Car?”—isn’t who I would’ve picked for the lead character. He’s been just plain goofy in everything else he’s in and the question is, “Can this guy really take on a serious role?” Well, yes, he can. Kutcher is very good in this movie. We believe him when he goes through this weirdness, and he just plays the character as just a confused college student, which is very refreshing. Amy Smart gives a good performance as Kayleigh, who goes through a lot of personalities in these different parallel worlds while Evan stays the same. First, she’s a nice waitress, then she’s a sorority chick, then she’s a dirty hooker, and she also shares a scene with Evan near the end of the film where she shares how she really felt about Evan when they were younger kids and things can be different.

The ending is most upsetting, but I won’t give it away.

“The Butterfly Effect” works on the level of making us question the consequences for own actions. With its weird and intriguing plot, its good performances, and its grim look, “The Butterfly Effect” is a very good thriller that is effective and holds our interest.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

15 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Remember in “Superman II,” when Superman thought about living a human life, rather than a superhero life, just so he can have a relationship with Lois Lane? She must’ve been quite a woman—indeed, she was and you couldn’t blame Superman for wanting to retire from being Superman. Being a superhero is like carrying a burden with you. You can’t do the things you’d love to do some of the time, you can’t reveal your secrets to anybody because your enemies may come after them to get to you, and you think you’d be better off as a socialite rather than an independent, mysterious figure.

Peter Parker wonders the same thing in “Spider-Man 2.” For about two years now, he has led a double life. First, he’s Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the nerdy but likable college student. Then he’s Spider-Man, the web-slinging, costumed vigilante. Much like Clark Kent in “Superman II,” Peter realizes the burden he’s carrying as Spider-Man. It interferes with Peter’s life—it makes him late for class, it causes him to be fired from his pizza-delivery job, it alienates him from his friends (including Mary Jane and best pal Harry Osborn, played by Kirsten Dunst and James Franco), and never gives him a chance to live. He can never have what he wants while leading this double life. Maybe it’s time to give up being Spider-Man.

That central theme is one of many great aspects of “Spider-Man 2,” a thrilling, awesome, and—when it needs to be—touching superhero movie. “Spider-Man 2” has action, drama, and light comedy to keep it interesting. Thanks to a well-thought-out screenplay, masterful direction, and good acting, this is a top-notch superhero movie. It has interesting likable characters to watch and root for, and stellar action sequences that actually mean something. I can think of a few other superhero movies (or other action movies, for that matter, but I’ll keep the references short in this review) that share both of those elements—the first two “Superman” movies, Tim Burton’s “Batman,” 2008’s “Iron Man,” and especially Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy (those last two references were released after this movie, of course). The original “Spider-Man” only had the interesting, likable characters, but was a little short on the action scale.

The villain in “Spider-Man 2” is also interesting—even more so than the Green Goblin in the original film. He is nicknamed Doc Ock (and played by Alfred Molina) because of his mechanical, artificially-intelligent limbs attached to his spine. He was a brilliant scientist on the brink of a breakthrough before something went terribly wrong and his machine was destroyed, the robotic arms took lives of their own (it’s not as silly as it sounds), and his wife was killed in the process. Therefore, he became the villain Doc Ock, recreating the machine that could harness the power of the sun, robbing banks to pay for some of the equipment. This is where he becomes Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis, as they fight for the life of Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who is caught in the middle of all this and (it should be added) not afraid to strike at her captor with her umbrella.

This subplot involving Doc Ock is interesting—Doc Ock is being manipulated by the artificial intelligence of the mechanical arms. He’s not a monster; he’s just becoming one.

The action scenes are riveting. One sequence, in particular, is a standout—it involves Spider-Man in a desperate race to stop a runaway train before it runs off track. I don’t know how they managed to pull it off, but I don’t care. I just loved watching it. I was hooked, interested, and on the edge of my seat. The special effects are outstanding and much better handled than in the original. And while we’re speaking of top-notch special effects, I did believe there were metal arms attached to Doc Ock throughout the movie. Odd thing to praise, but OK.

The drama also works in “Spider-Man 2.” I already mentioned the central theme of the movie, which was Peter wants to give up his superhero life. Also noticed are the scenes in which Peter copes with the guilt he feels because of his uncle’s death. Then there’s the scene in which he finally tells Aunt May why it was his fault that Uncle Ben is dead. Also realized is the subplot involving Harry as he wants nothing more than for Spider-Man to be destroyed for killing his father, who, if you recall, was the Green Goblin in the original film. There’s a great sense of revelation in James Franco’s face in one particular scene.

“Spider-Man 2” is a rarity—a superhero-movie sequel that is better than its predecessor. I liked the first film fine (I gave that three stars), but I felt that there were some elements about it that were either overplayed or not played well enough. This sequel is just what I was looking for, and had just the right upgrades I felt it needed. The effects have upgraded, Spider-Man is just as interesting as the always-likable Peter Parker, and the villain is a complex character. It’s a highly satisfying sequel, and a great superhero movie.

Open Water (2004)

14 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Open Water” is one of those movies that uses what limited resources it has and yet somehow causes a strong effect on you. That effect is the experience of not merely watching a movie, but letting it happen to you. And in a horror film such as this, it works even stronger—you constantly have to make sure you’re in the theater or living room or wherever you’re watching it, just to make sure it’s only a movie.

Oh yes, “Open Water” feels realistic—the characters seem credible, the atmosphere is their atmosphere (becoming our atmosphere), and the scares are genuine. Nothing happens when we expect it to, and that’s what keeps the tension rising.

The movie, loosely based on true events, tells the story of a couple (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) who vacation in the Caribbean and go scuba-diving in the middle of the ocean. But when they surface, they’re met with the shock that the boat has left without them. There’s nobody around. They’re all alone. They’re just drifting in open water.

But it gets worse—the ocean is infested with things like jellyfish and worst of all, sharks. The man remembers only what he saw on TV documentaries featuring sharks, and warns the woman not to kick around or swim too much, because of the risk that a shark could come along and eat them. However, things get complicated and more deadly once the sense of anger and hopelessness has caught up with these people. There’s the sense of isolation brought upon by being left behind and forgotten—that sense is obvious throughout the movie.

“Open Water” was made on a shoestring budget, and you can easily tell by the film’s quality (or lack thereof). But luckily, most is made of filmmaker Chris Kentis’ limitations. He hired two good, convincing unknown actors to play these two characters we sympathize with, and it should also be noted that his use of digital cameras is effective in underwater shots. Also, his screenplay for this movie is composed of dialogue that sounds like realistic conversation given the circumstances. All of these elements make for a credible experience—a truly effective thriller.

The Village (2004)

14 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

After the success of M. Night Shyamalan’s previous psychological thrillers “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “Signs,” you can forgive the filmmaker for wanting to break new ground in his storytelling. In this case, he creates “The Village,” which is set in a late-19th century American village called Covington. With this new setting (he usually sets his movies in modern-day Philadelphia, which is probably where this movie was made), M. Night Shyamalan creates a story that is part fable, part “Twilight Zone.” The result is an interesting (if not groundbreaking) thriller.

Covington is surrounded by woods—the people in this village are isolated from the rest of the world and live in fear of creatures in the woods, simply known as Those We Don’t Speak Of. As far as we can tell, they are vile creatures who don’t take kindly to intruders in their woods. One of the village elders (played by William Hurt) informs everybody that a truce has been made with them some time in the past—the people don’t step into their woods, and Those We Don’t Speak Of don’t attack.

Of course, that plot point must evolve into something bigger. But there is also a love story in this movie, in which the shy Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with the blind Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard). Their romance is an interesting one which must be tested with bravery, endurance, and sacrifice—I’d say why but I am trying to keep from revealing any sort of plot twist. Let’s just say that Ivy has to go into the mysterious woods for important purposes.

There are a lot of plot revelations here—one, in particular, is even more upsetting than the twist ending in “The Sixth Sense.” Everybody who goes to see a movie made by M. Night Shyamalan expects a big plot twist—I don’t know what people are going to think of this one. The twist Shyamalan usually brings to his movies delivers surprising plot developments, and in “The Village,” he outdoes himself to the point of somewhat unreliability to the early storytelling. I would not even think of giving away the secret. But even though I didn’t really buy it, I did accept it. You have to suspend your disbelief for this movie.

Some of these villagers may be a bit bland, but they are believable—including William Hurt as Ivy’s father, Adrien Brody as the village idiot, Judy Greer (whom you might recall from episodes of “Arrested Development”) as Ivy’s sister who spotted Lucius first but accepts the fact that he loves Ivy more, and Sigourney Weaver as Lucius’ mother. Joaquin Phoenix is good as Lucius, but the movie really belongs to newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, who shines throughout.

“The Village” may not be one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best, but it’s effective and creepy enough at times that I can accept it. You always want to admire Shyamalan for his filmmaking style—his pacing may be slow to some people, but what he really does is give us time to absorb what is happening here. And despite the marketing, “The Village” is not as much about invading creatures than it is about sacrifice and discovery. I like that “The Village” didn’t show much of the creatures, which makes them creepier, except for when you actually see them up close. By then, they look almost like costumes you would make at a first-time costume design class. But we can accept this too…I will not say why.

Saw (2004)

11 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a new unique serial killer in the horror movie genre these days and he’s labeled only as the Jigsaw Killer. Jigsaw is known as a mysterious person who kidnaps people and brings them to his deadly traps that they can get out of by doing inhumane (mostly gruesome) deeds. The victims are people he sees as being wasteful of their lives and his games are their ways of redemption, if they make it out alive. Jigsaw never kills any of his victims—he sets it up so that they can either live or die by these tests. Do they have the will to survive, is his key question.

He cuts a jigsaw puzzle piece into the flesh of his unsuccessful subjects, hence the nickname Jigsaw Killer. Nobody knows his true identity—his only distinguished manners are his deep, raspy voice and his demonic-looking clown puppet doll that “speaks” for him on video. As if that wasn’t creepy enough, he’s rigged to ride a tricycle to “congratulate” his survivors.

The Jigsaw Killer is one of the more distinctive villains in horror movie history—ranking with Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector and the killer from “Seven.” He makes himself known in the film “Saw,” a slick, suitably gruesome, tense thriller that is both psychological and gory. There’s blood and gore, but there’s also emotional tension and stress that keeps this from being a freak show.

Two men—Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director James Wan) and Lawrence (Cary Elwes)—awaken to find themselves chained by their ankles to pipes in a long-forgotten bathroom. Trapped, with a dead body lying in the middle of the floor, the two try to figure out why this happened and what they should do. They have instructions from their captor, as it’s all part of a game. If they don’t play it by Jigsaw’s rules, one or both of them will die.

Riddles and tools have also been left for Adam and Lawrence, including a gun, a tape recorder, and two hacksaws. What are the hacksaws for? “He doesn’t want us to cut through our chains,” Lawrence declares somberly. “He wants us to cut through our feet.”

The danger grows beyond the bathroom for Lawrence, as he learns his wife (Monica Potter) and daughter have been captured as well. Lawrence’s clear instruction is to kill Adam, or they’ll die. Meanwhile, the killer is being tracked by Detective Tapp (Danny Glover), looking to avenge his late ex-partner Sing (Ken Jeung) who fell victim to the killer. And we also get flashbacks to other bizarre occurrences set up by Jigsaw, including a drug addict (Shawnee Smith) who survived her “game” and claims that it actually helped her to see the finer things in life. And there’s a creep named Zep (Michael Emerson) who works as the hospital, where Lawrence is a surgeon, who may or may not be the killer.

A lot of these elements being thrown at us make “Saw” an overstuffed picture. Actually, I could have done without the subplot involving the detectives and the many twists that continue on. And I hated the rough editing that occurs whenever we flash back to a victim—the frantic fast-motion editing does nothing for me in those scenes. But the real tension comes from the two men in that bathroom and how they’re going to find ways to save themselves. “Saw” does a great job at keeping the suspense alive during these scenes. Also, the scenes of the drug addict getting over her near-death experience are effectively done. This sets the status for this intelligent psychopath who chooses his victims by what they do and how they act, and he puts them into these games as a bizarre act of irony and as a way of possibly surviving by doing horrible things that they could do if they had the willpower.

Really think about it—if you were given the choice to die or cut off your chained foot, what would you choose?

“Saw” is not only psychological; it’s also very gory. Those with weak stomachs should stay away from this film, because there are many disturbing images displayed in “Saw.” Enough to keep an R rating, but others that are a mere inch from an NC-17—in particular, the drug addict is forced to retrieve something from her dead fellow captive’s stomach with a knife, and we actually see the intestines as she pulls them out. Tell me that’s not NC-17 material.

The ending is unforgivable albeit effective. It’s a shocking development that reminded me of what I’ve endured and that the film did indeed work for me. “Saw” is a well-crafted thriller that introduces a new memorable killer to the cinema and terrifies in doing so.