Archive | 2005 RSS feed for this section

My Favorite Movies – War of the Worlds (2005)

3 May

By Tanner Smith

I KNOW, I KNOW!!! Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” isn’t a great movie. I’m as annoyed by Dakota Fanning’s Rachel as much as the next person. I’m not entirely sure why Tim Robbins’ crazy survivalist had to be there. And the arc with Justin Chatwin’s Robbie could have been handled a lot better. I KNOW! I’m not going to try and defend this movie like I always seem to do with Signs, a superior alien-invasion thriller. I’m aware of this movie’s faults……

But every time I watch this movie, all the good stuff in it is so freaking good that they make the movie worth seeing again and again!

Maybe I’m a little biased towards “War of the Worlds” because of my first viewing of it at age 13. My family and I saw it in a theater, on the biggest screen with the best surround-sound in the old Malco cinema in Jonesboro, AR–to me, it was INTENSE! Everything was blowing up, everyone’s running for their lives, I felt like I was there in the middle of it…honestly, I can’t think of another theatrical experience like it–it just blew 13-year-old Tanner away!!

I remember stepping out of the theater with my family afterwards and being relieved that everything was still here, we were still alive, everything was OK.

So what is it about Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” that makes it so powerful?

Well, for one thing, Spielberg keeps the perspective on ground-level. We’re with Ray (Tom Cruise) every step of the way, so we see the horrible invasion through his eyes. We don’t even learn how far this attack has spread until HE finds out. It makes it feel more real that way. A lot of the time, we don’t even see the action–we just see the aftermath of it, such as an airplane that has crashed into the house where Ray and the kids were sheltering. There are also dead bodies floating along a river and a passing train whose cars are ablaze. This is like a dark version of “Close Encounters,” to reference another Spielberg film.

In addition to the twisted parallels of “Close Encounters,” there’s also this key difference of father figures–in “Close Encounters,” Richard Dreyfuss abandoned his family to pursue the aliens; in “War of the Worlds,” Tom Cruise tries to keep his family as far away from the aliens as possible.

The first attack, of which Ray is right in the middle, recalls some images of 9/11, made especially clear and terrifying when Ray returns home and realizes he’s covered in the ashes of the deceased. Spielberg, soon after making this movie, also made Munich, which was his way of trying to comprehend the war on terror–“War of the Worlds” is more about trying to survive it.

“Munich” is a great film–“War of the Worlds” may not be great, but I still love it.

My favorite scene: Ray and his kids manage to get the only car operating and escape the second wave (and again, we’re kept with the characters, at the car, so what we see of the action is very limited). Ray tries to explain what’s happening, Robbie tries to calm a panicking Rachel, and all while we’re focused on them riding in a speeding car, this all takes place in one shot! Spielberg, you madman.

My Favorite Movies – The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

16 May

By Tanner Smith

I’m going to begin this one by mentioning my favorite scene because it’s seriously, undoubtedly, unquestionably the movie scene that makes me laugh the loudest!

It’s the body-waxing scene, which just thinking about it makes me crack up. This was originally written as a brief part of a “makeover” montage, but the idea of Steve Carell getting his chest waxed for real was too good of an idea to pass up. Damn right it was! Carell’s reactions upon painfully going through this process, as well as the reactions of everyone watching him, are more enough to make me laugh out loud…but it’s when we see the aftermath that I just SHRIEK with uncontrollable laughter!

I love watching the behind-the-scenes doc extra about the making of this scene because it reassures me that nothing about it was faked.

OK, so it’s a hilarious scene. What makes the movie, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” overall so special?

For one thing, there are plenty more funny moments, such as exactly how Andy’s (Steve Carell) friends (Romany Malco, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen) find out Andy’s a virgin (because he compares a woman’s breast to “a bag of sand”), Andy’s attempt at “dating” himself, his dangerous drive home with a drunk girl (Leslie Mann), difficulties with condoms, Jane Lynch as Andy’s boss who introduces the term “f***-buddy,” and unconventional dating advice when trying to pick up Elizabeth Banks as a horny bookstore employee.

A lot of the comedy is sexual and apologetically R-rated, and it just keeps coming with gag after gag–even when a gag fails, it’s quickly forgotten about.

But that’s not the main reason “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” is one of my favorites (it’s a good reason, but there’s more to it than that). What truly stands out about “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” is that it’s more like a bait-and-switch–you come in for the hilariousness…and stay for a genuinely touching love story.

No joke–when shy, sincere, innocent Andy begins dating sweet-natured Trish (Catherine Keener), it’s beautiful. These two are freaking precious together! There’s great affection felt between the two, and it’s clearer to Andy (than it is to his buddies who have been trying to get him laid) why he’s been waiting so long to have sex–as corny as it sounds, he was waiting for the right one.

If there’s anything better than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s a comedy that can make you feel.

One last thing I’ll say about it is that sometimes editors know what they’re doing. The “unrated” DVD version of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which features about 17 additional minutes of footage, just isn’t as funny. It feels like filler and hurts the pacing.

The original theatrical “rated” version, however? One of my favorite comedies of all time.

My Favorite Movies – Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

9 May

By Tanner Smith

Remember that “South Park” episode where everyone caught the “smug?” A cloud brought on by George Clooney’s Oscar acceptance speech that threatens to make everyone in South Park think they’re better than everyone else?

Well, I’ve never seen “Syriana,” the film for which he won the award and gave that “extremely smug” speech. But I have seen Clooney’s other 2005 film, Good Night and Good Luck, which he himself directed and co-wrote. And as highly left as it is, I very much doubt it could be seen as smug. (Well…except maybe for people like Rush Limbaugh, who probably saw the film as nothing more than blatant leftist propaganda during the film’s initial release.)

Here’s the thing though–I don’t think you have to be a liberal to know that Senator Joseph McCarthy was a corrupt thug. He was an a**hole, people were scared of him, and he used his power to assure that anyone who disagrees with his politics were shamed by their country. Even his defenders would probably say he went over the top.

“Good Night and Good Luck,” set in the mid 1950s, is a film that reminds us that McCarthyism was just as present in 2005 as it was in 1940s-1950s. (It’s still present in the 2020s.) And it’s also a film that reminds of how to handle bullies like that, as we too have certain power of the people–back then, it was TV; today, it’s social media, for example. How do you go up against someone who uses blunt verbal force and trigger words to scare people? You use calm rationality AND (this is most important) carefully chosen words.

“Good Night and Good Luck” is a dramatized account of the public struggle between McCarthy and CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow (played brilliantly by David Strathairn). Murrow dedicated episodes of his popular TV news program “See It Now” to attack McCarthy’s persecution of men he views as un-American. Now, this was at a time when the media was afraid to go against McCarthy, in fear of themselves being targeted and labeled as “Communists” as well. Murrow was warned that McCarthy won’t stand for this public attack. But as Murrow carried on with his crusade, he managed to discredit McCarthy’s most damning allegations, resulting in the Senate investigating McCarthy and McCarthy’s reign of terror come to an end. (MIC DROP!)

The scene in which Murrow responds to McCarthy’s counter-attack is my favorite scene in the film. McCarthy was given permission to put himself on the show to correct any errors Murrow made in previous episodes–instead, he accuses Murrow of being a Communist (and even calls him “the leader and the cleverest of the jackal pack”) and cites some supposed evidence to support this claim. Well, how’s Murrow gonna get through this one?……….

Well first, he brings up that McCarthy never mentioned any errors made from previous shows. Then, he looks at McCarthy’s accusations against him one by one. He claims one to be false and the other to be true–but there’s more to the latter. Apparently, a late Socialist author dedicated a book to Murrow after being moved by his wartime broadcasts long ago, and Murrow states, “He was a Socialist. I am not. He was one of those civilized individuals who did not insist upon agreement with his political principles as a precondition for conversation or friendship.”

I’m gonna type that again because it bears repeating even in this day and age:

“He was one of those civilized individuals who did not insist upon agreement with his political principles as a precondition for conversation or friendship.”

Like I said: carefully chosen words.

The dialogue in “Good Night and Good Luck” is pitch-perfect. It’s all calculated, calm, and forward (except when Murrow’s crew gets together to chat–then it’s as natural and sloppy as real conversations). And when you’re fighting a battle this controversial, that’s especially important.

Oh by the way, all of McCarthy’s footage in this film is genuine real archive footage of the man himself. No actor played Joseph McCarthy. This is literally the way he talked and the way he behaved. And here’s a funny story–test audiences didn’t believe it was really him; they thought the “actor” playing McCarthy was too over the top! That’s just too funny.

How far do you go in journalism and when do you go beyond just reporting the news? That question is asked throughout “Good Night and Good Luck,” and I think its lesson is to know what you’re against so you can know what you’re for and to use your means of expression for something more meaningful rather than, as Edward R. Murrow put it about TV, “wires and lights in a box.” And that about sums it up.

Now, please…don’t be smug.

My Favorite Movies – Munich (2005)

7 May

By Tanner Smith

No matter how many times I watch this movie, I ALWAYS tense up every time it gets to the part with the bomb, the phone, the wrong person answering the phone, and the desperate race to stop the bomb from detonating! Everything about this scene is masterfully done–the editing, the sound design, the directing, everything about it raises the suspense of this already-tense scene to “Good God get me out of here” levels!

Director Steven Spielberg made “Munich” soon after “War of the Worlds” in 2005. (Actually, it might have been made right after “WotW’s” release–the time it took to plan, shoot, edit, and release Munich was SIX MONTHS!) “Munich” was Spielberg’s attempt to understand the war on terror by using a parallel story from the 1970s–in this case, it’s the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, where a Palestinian terrorist group attacked and killed Israeli athletes. A team of covert, ex-Mossad operatives are assigned to assassinate all involved in the massacre.

Even though James Bond himself (Daniel Craig) plays one of the assassins, this is as far from a Bond movie as you could get. (Actually, as cold as Craig’s James Bond could get, his hotheaded character here is more bloodthirsty!)

Eric Bana stars as Avner Kaufman, the leader of the team. For Avner, patriotism is most important, which is why he decides to leave his pregnant wife for seven months to partake in this mission that takes him and his team across the globe. But as the mission goes on, things get more complicated, especially when his conscience starts to get the better of him. By the end, Avner isn’t so sure what has been accomplished here.

While the fictional setting is the 1970s, it matched the world of the 2000s. When “Munich” ends with a striking image (of what, I’ll leave you to discover if you haven’t seen it already), it all becomes clear what Spielberg has been saying with this film from the start.

Of Spielberg’s most serious endeavors, “Munich” may not be the best (that still goes to “Schindler’s List,” in my opinion), but it’s definitely one of his most accomplished. One of the things that drew controversy amongst this film’s release was Spielberg’s decision to attempt to understand both sides of the war against terrorism without easy answers. But that’s the point he’s making here: there are no easy answers when it comes to questions like when vengeance becomes disadvantageous, when a patriot with the best intentions at heart loses a good part of himself, and whether a war on terrorism can truly be won. So many of these questions, people don’t even want questioned.

But that is why “Munich” is as powerful as it is.

And that’s all I’ll say about it…but I will share this quote from “Knocked Up,” when Seth Rogen and his friends talk about how awesome “Munich” is: “That movie was Eric Bana kicking f***ing ass! You know, every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed–‘Munich’ flips it on its ear! If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in ‘Munich’.” I bet Seth Rogen was starstruck when he co-starred with Eric Bana two years later for “Funny People” (which was also shot by Spielberg’s frequent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski)!

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

21 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Based on a true story.” The Hollywood studio system loves to use those five words in an attempt to sell their products even further outside their target demographic. Even if the films they’re promoting only sound slightly similar to events that have taken place one way or another in reality, they will find some way to include that old familiar saying. (They may even remove a word and alter the tag to “inspired by true events.”) When it comes to horror films, particularly those that delve into the supernatural, using that tag creates a very thin line between what audiences are willing to believe and what they’re choosing to ignore. Take “The Conjuring,” which was marketed as “based on a true case files of the Warrens”—are we really supposed to believe that the events portrayed in that film really happened the way the filmmakers interpreted it?

That is why something as unique as Scott Derrickson’s (“Sinister,” “Doctor Strange”) underrated courtroom-drama/supernatural-thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” cannot be ignored.

From that title, what do you expect to see in this film? Exorcism. Demonic possession. Death. All sorts of odd, ominous, spiritual elements going bump in the night. And a girl named Emily Rose, who indeed is part of an exorcism. If the film were as simple as that, it’d be just another supernatural-horror film. But it’s not as simple as that. Why? Well, let me explain the story first.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is loosely based on a German woman named Anneliese Michel, who in the mid-1970s underwent a Catholic exorcism not long before her death. She had already been diagnosed with epilepsy and given many psychiatric treatments, neither of which proved effective. As her condition got worse and she claimed to hear voices (among other things), her family believed her to be possessed by a demon and thus called for two priests to perform the deed. When she died of dehydration and starvation, her parents and the priests were found guilty of negligent homicide. Since then, there have been posthumous notes that point to her being under the influence of a demonic being.

So then lies the question of whether or not Anneliese truly was possessed. Are the simplest answers always the true ones? Is the way I described the event sounding more credible? I believe that there are things in this world that we may never fully comprehend and that things are never as simple as all that. Maybe she was really sick, as her psychiatrists have testified. But what about the priests and the exorcism? The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t take the concept lightly, as far as I know; so, they must’ve had some idea that something was more wrong than trained professionals have thought. Then there’s the audiotape of the exorcism, which was handed in as evidence during the trial—it’s pretty unnerving and points more toward the possibility of something supernatural overtaking this girl, but it also could have been evidence of enabling the psychiatric torture she must have been going through also.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” knows this. How do I know it knows this? Because it chooses a brilliant method in telling the story—instead of going for a straightforward approach in telling this story, in which one side of the belief system is obviously right, it looks at it from both sides. This is a masterstroke of storytelling for this kind of film, because it allows us, the audience, to decide for ourselves what we choose to believe. The best part is the film doesn’t cheat in ways that make everything so easy for one to believe something in particular. It shows why something must have happened this way or why it also could’ve happened another way. One way is the simpler way of explaining, but is it the most true? That’s the beauty of it—we’re the judges.

The protagonist of the film is defense-attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), who has been brought on as the lawyer of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson). Father Moore is a priest on trial after the death of a teenage girl named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) following an exorcism he attempted onto her. The church doesn’t want the public attention, and so, he’s advised to plead guilty to reckless endangerment. But Father Moore doesn’t wish to plead guilty, because he wants Emily’s story to be told, not caring in the slightest about the consequences for himself. Thus, we get an intriguing court case, in which Bruner, an agnostic, is forced to carry through the ordeal and defend her client, and the prosecutor, a churchgoer named Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), has to prove against what can’t be easily proven. Emily Rose was possessed. Emily Rose was sick. Father Moore made things worse. Father Moore did too little. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there a “right”? Is there a “wrong”?

Taking influence from “Rashomon,” we’re told the story of Emily Rose through various perspectives, each being told from witnesses taking the stand in court. They all contradict each other, so that we see the supernatural side of things (and get our traditional modern supernatural horror movie this way) and then see what can easily be proven to non-believers. It’s a “look-at-it-this-way” scenario each time we cut back to the courtroom, and it really works.

Bruner represents the general moviegoer—someone who needs proof in order to believe in something. Father Moore assures her that “demons exist whether you believe in them or not,” and the further she dives deeper in this case, the more complicated things get. By the end of the film, she isn’t entirely a believer, but she has found herself open to more possibilities. This results in a remarkable, telling closing-statement that is so well-crafted, I found myself rewinding the film and listening to it several times. (I’m not kidding.)

Belief and proof do not always interconnect. There are differences between facts and possibilities. And what makes “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” special is that it stands by those two statements from beginning to end. That, plus the top-notch acting (especially from Linney and Carpenter), makes up for most of the film’s problems (such as the slow pacing and some standard horror tropes). The good outweighs the not-so-good here, and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a film that I think more people should talk about. “Based on a true story”? You be the judge.

Serenity (2005)

9 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s talk about the one-season cultural-favorite TV show called “Firefly.” Created by the always imaginative Joss Whedon (who was also the mind behind the beloved TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” before he went on to delight even more audiences with the “Avengers” movies), “Firefly” is an entertaining series that was ahead of its time, and it’s a shame it was cancelled after only 14 episodes (only 11 of which aired from late 2002 to early 2003). Set in the distant future, after an intergalactic civil war, “Firefly” followed the adventures of a rebel spaceship crew. They pick up a young doctor as a passenger, who brings on board his telepathic younger sister to protect her from the government that has secretly been training her as a weapon. The main story arc of the show revolves around keeping the girl protected before ultimately welcoming her as part of the “family” the crew has created for themselves. Undoubtedly due to the series’ witty sense of humor and flair for adventure, the series grew a large fan base.

After “Firefly’s” cancellation, neither the fans nor Whedon and his devoted cast were ready to let go. So, Whedon wrote a screenplay that served as a continuation of the series and sold it to Universal Studios. That screenplay became the exciting 2-hour-long sci-fi adventure known as “Serenity,” which delighted “Firefly” fans and, even better, got more people to find the series and check it out themselves.

You don’t have to have seen “Firefly” to understand the background of the setting and the characters (though, if you have, it helps enrich the viewing experience even further). The prologue sets up the story nicely and effectively, as we learn we are in the distant future, after mankind left an overpopulated Earth to colonize a new solar system. The Alliance from the central planets is an all-powerful, authoritarian-like government that seeks to govern everyone. A schoolteacher explains it to one of her pupils, a little girl who refers to the Alliance as “meddlesome”: “We’re not telling people what to think—we’re just trying to show them how.” That pupil grows up to be River Tam (Summer Glau), a 17-year-old telepath who is forcibly manipulated by the Alliance to become a psychic assassin. Her brother, Simon (Sean Maher), rescues her and they both find refuge onboard the Firefly ship, called Serenity.

Serenity is captained by Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who was among the Independents of the outer planets who fought the Alliance in a civil war. Now he, along with his crew which includes second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres), pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), enforcer Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite) cruise through the galaxy, looking for as many jobs as possible on different planets, in order to keep flying and surviving. River’s ability to read minds becomes useful during heists, and thanks to Simon’s medical training, he proves his worth as well. But having them both on board becomes riskier when River’s mental state becomes even more questionable and dangerous, as it seems she can turn into a killing machine when an Alliance-approved advertisement sends her a subliminal message. The situation gets worse when it turns out the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has been sent by the Alliance to capture River and return her. But the crew gets defensive and faces off against him and other galactic baddies to protect River and solve a prolonged Alliance-involved mystery.

“Serenity” is very entertaining as a space-opera (and it keeps in the tradition of the series with delightfully witty lines of dialogue), but it’s also surprisingly thought-provoking. It raises questions such as what it means to live in society, what rules to follow and/or break, and when one finds individual freedom. The main problem with the Alliance is that they want to control everyone and make them think the same as they do. The Serenity crew make their own decisions, but they’re mostly bad decisions. But the film is very clever in showing what the world can be like “without sin,” as it’s described later in the climax, and it means that it’s important to have compromise rather than complete control, because taking away free will makes for an unhealthy environment, which is something the Alliance doesn’t want to believe.

The Operative is a most intriguing villain (not seen previously in the series). He represents the morally-wrong mindset of the Alliance as one person: a man who will do anything to create “a world without sin.” But in continually doing his deeds, which involve brainwashing and even killing people, he loses more of his humanity. What’s even more interesting about this character is that he knows what he’s doing is wrong (he even admits it to Mal at one point), and yet he continues to do it because he believes in a higher goal.

The Operative provides an effective contrast for Mal. In the series, Mal befriends another Serenity passenger, a pastor named Book (Ron Glass, who reprises the role briefly but still significantly in the movie), despite Mal not having faith, which is an “elephant in the room” when these two are alone together. So, it continues in “Serenity” that he still hasn’t found his faith, but by the end of the story, he has come so far in his renegades with his crew that he ultimately believes in himself, and he believes that everyone should find their own self-worth and that alone is worth fighting for.

I’ve said enough about the natures of both the protagonist and the antagonist without giving away spoilers, but I should probably mention the Reavers, who were introduced in the series as cannibalistic savages that dwell just outside of civilized space. They’re in the film too, and they play a crucial part in the climax…and all I’ll say is that knowing the origin of Reavers makes the themes all the more stronger.

As you could tell from my lengthy analyses, there’s a lot to be found beneath the surface of “Serenity.” (And to be fair, you would probably have to see the movie more than three times to find more than is easily delivered to you…like I did.) But the film is still a ton of fun, whether you look deep enough or not. The central characters, the Serenity crew, are appealing and they share great chemistry together—think the trucker/outlaw equivalent of the USS Enterprise crew. And the script is littered with numerous funny lines of dialogue, most of which are delivered by Jayne, the mercenary of the group who is just as dumb, impatient, and rough as Animal Mother in “Full Metal Jacket” (maybe that’s why Adam Baldwin got the part in the first place). Among my favorites is his very first line: “We’re gonna explode? I don’t wanna explode!”

Here’s a humorous exchange between Mal and Jayne in the middle of an argument: “You wanna run this ship?!” “YES!” (pause) “Well…you can’t.”

The action is also nicely handled (which is no surprise, considering how bombastic the action is in Whedon’s “The Avengers,” seven years after “Serenity”), from the fistfights to the spaceship battles. But “Serenity” isn’t about action and space battles—it’s about story and character, which it has an abundance of. It’s sad to say that “Serenity” wasn’t a box-office success, because I would’ve loved to see a film franchise that continues the adventures of these likable characters with wit. But if “Serenity” is the ultimate conclusion to “Firefly,” it’s a damn great one. To put it another way, I would much rather have this movie than nothing at all after the 14 TV episodes that came before it. “Serenity” is one of my all-time favorite science-fiction films and a more-than-worthy successor to a beloved (albeit short-lived) TV series.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

28 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Good Night, and Good Luck” is filmmaker/actor/activist George Clooney’s dramatized portrait of CBS’ battle against Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, when anti-Communist McCarthy would accuse any of his detractors of being traitors to the country. CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow (played by an excellent David Strathairn) decides he can’t stand by any longer while McCarthy lies, scares, and destroys freedoms in the name of defending them. So Murrow, with help from producers (including one portrayed by Clooney) and fellow reporters, devotes episodes of his show, “See It Now,” to publicly criticize McCarthy’s methods. Of course, McCarthy fights back, but as powerful as he may be, he doesn’t have the resources to back up his statements. Murrow’s counterstrike leads to Senate investigating McCarthy, which then leads to a sigh of relief from those running from accusation. The story is bookended by the 1958 “Salute to Edward R. Murrow,” during which Murrow talks about the importance of morals and ethics when it comes to media.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” is not a conventional biopic or historical melodrama—it plays 100% straight, with one key focus, a documentary-like approach in execution, and no off-topic subplots (save for a little subplot involving a married couple in the workplace who may or may not be targeted, but that doesn’t distract from the plot in the slightest). Clooney knows what’s really important to be presented by this film: the struggle between Murrow and McCarthy, which is powerful enough on its own. And I can’t commend Clooney enough for using actual newsreel footage of the real McCarthy, instead of hiring a lookalike actor to portray him. (The black-and-white cinematography works in the film’s favor also.)

If “Good Night, and Good Luck” was resonant in 2005 (when it was originally released), then it’s even more significant now, in 2016, sadly. McCarthyism still lives—politicians spread bad publicity about their rivals; they condemn those who question certain political beliefs; and many issues are exploited for any sort of gain, whether they be for debates, news channels, or even tabloids, just to gain attention. The thing is, we may live in a different time than what is portrayed in this film, but watch it again and you’ll find enough parallels to see that we still haven’t learned our lesson and thus we’re doomed to repeat history. That is why “Good Night, and Good Luck” is as important now and it was when it was first released into theaters.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

30 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith


“The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.” –Yoda

It can be argued that “Revenge of the Sith” is the most complex story in the “Star Wars” franchise, delivering the tragic end of Jedi student Anakin Skywalker and the becoming of the dark lord Darth Vader. Though, I won’t go as far as to say it’s the best film in the series, as it does have its problems that keep it from the status of either the original “Star Wars’ or “The Empire Strikes Back.” But it is still an important chapter in the series that, in a way, improves the other chapters.

“Revenge of the Sith” is the entry in the saga that fans have waited for since the late-1970s. How did Anakin become Darth Vader? In 2005, with George Lucas’ third prequel, they finally got their answer. Anakin was not merely seduced by the power of the dark side of the Force but influenced into believing the dark side can help him save the one he loved, only to pay a hefty price in the end as he became the ruler of the evil Empire we know from the original trilogy. His passion and fear was exploited by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, who turned him away from the Jedi. The Jedi themselves can’t be ignored either, for they played a part in the creation of Darth Vader by making poor decisions.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The film begins with one of the best extended action sequences in the history of the franchise, as Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) are on a mission to rescue Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his droid ally, General Grievous. This takes up the first half-hour of the film. It’s thrilling, it looks great, and even has time for some humor and banter between our two heroes. (I also give it extra points for our favorite droid, R2-D2, managing to take out enemy droids with his resources—I don’t care who you are; that is awesome.) What they don’t know is that it was all staged to give Palpatine a chance to connect with Anakin in order to manipulate him. Palpatine works like the devil, doing a very good job getting to Anakin and feeding his inner demons. This is a crucial time in Anakin’s life—his secret wife, Padme (Natalie Portman), is pregnant, which is going to be an issue seeing as how Jedi are forbidden to fall in love. Anakin also has visions of Padme dying in childbirth and fears for her life. At the same time, the Jedi council have their doubts about Anakin as a Jedi, despite Yoda claiming he is “the Chosen One.” Thus, when Anakin has to make decide what to do for Padme as well as his own life, Palpatine is there to lure him over to the dark side…

Manipulation. Betrayal. Tragedy. Irony. All that and more help make “Revenge of the Sith” become, in my opinion, one of the best “Star Wars” films. Even if we know how it will all end (with Anakin turning evil, the Jedi facing defeat in the war, Obi-Wan confronting Anakin, and Anakin becoming Darth Vader), the joy comes from seeing how everything will play out. It leads to an ending that is all the more tragic in that the very thing he swore to protect has died (in childbirth, having given birth to Luke and Leia, the heroes of Episodes IV-VI) and now he has joined the Empire as a dark lord. To add on to that final nail in the coffin, Palpatine makes Anakin believe it was his fault, and by default, the Jedi’s fault too!

Palpatine is one of the most joyfully despicable villains in film history. Fans are quick to make fun of him for his cackling and screaming (and his infamously silly “NO…NO…NO!!!” scream), but when he’s not doing any of that nonsense, he’s cold and calculating, manipulating Anakin cunningly and effectively. He’s able to use Anakin’s fear, guilt, hopes, etc. to see the Jedi in a different way and lose sense of who he is and what he’s fighting for. He’s responsible for the Empire’s most horrifying ally and you can see he’s able to make anyone join him if given the right amount of time with that person.

George Lucas has always been a masterful storyteller, even if his direction and writing still don’t work as strongly as they should. Some of the dialogue is better than in the previous prequels, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones,” with the exception of some (thankfully-) brief romantic banter and moments when they simply bellow how they feel (I’ll get to Darth Vader’s big reaction at the end later), but his direction still shows some weaknesses occasionally. He’s much better at directing darker material than comedic moments and when it comes to directing actors, he has a lot of responsibility he sometimes isn’t able to follow through with. (I’ll get to that latter element in the next paragraph.) The bigger moments in the film are very well-handled and give fans probably more then they expected to see, especially after seeing what Lucas did wrong with the previous two films.

Hayden Christensen is often criticized for his performance as Anakin Skywalker. But I think it’s unfair, because personally, I think Lucas has had some trouble directing actors to say dialogue properly in these movies. Christensen does his best when reciting these lines, and honestly, he’s better as the tragic figure than as the whiny teenager Anakin was in “Attack of the Clones.” But there are times when he is unable to successfully pull these lines off (especially when he yells) and he comes off as dull. I can’t blame it on him, because he’s not the director—Lucas should have given more guidance to this performance, as well as the other actors’ performances, for that matter. Even Ewan McGregor, who is usually known as the best actor in the prequels, has his offbeat moments as well (remember the close-up on his eyes, during which he taunted and grunted sporadically?) that can be blamed on mediocre directing. That can also explain McDiarmid’s silliness in certain parts of the film. And so, I’d leave Christensen alone—he’s trying, he’s acted well in other films (like “Shattered Glass”), he’s better here than in “Attack of the Clones,” and when his character turns to evil, it’s very believable.

And yes…let’s get to that infamously laughable reaction from Darth Vader upon learning of Padme’s death. He stands himself up and shouts “NO!!!” Audiences were laughing and/or groaning at this response…but I didn’t mind it that much. Yes, it can seem silly out of context and it is another example of Lucas allowing his characters to shout how they feel rather than physically show it. But when you really think about the situation and what Anakin went through to try and save Padme (really think about it—the very reason he joined the dark side in the first place was to protect the woman he loved), it’s hard to blame him for having that reaction. It is a bit perplexing for one of the most badass villains in cinema history to do something Anakin Skywalker would do (hey wait a minute!), but when you think of the dread he must’ve been feeling, it’s a sensible response.

Overall, I feel that “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” is a good film. It’s leaps and bounds above Episodes I and II and arguably even better than Episode VI (which is a fine chapter in its own right). It’s suitably dark, full of several little moments that make up for the film’s weaknesses (Anakin’s reaction to Padme being pregnant; the scene in which Palpatine uses a story to further influence Anakin; moments that lead into Episode IV, which the film obviously brides into; and more), and adds plenty of depth to all the other chapters of the series. And you can tell this is the “Star Wars” film Lucas has wanted to make for a long time and it’s the story fans wanted to see. The result is not a perfect sci-fi film but a compelling one nonetheless.

NOTE: I forgot to mention the final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan on a river of lava… It looks like a video game level. There, I said it. This review’s already pretty long, so I’ll just say I’ll forgive the film for that flaw.

Batman Begins (2005)

28 May


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne; as a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol…I can be incorruptible.”

That’s a crucial line of dialogue said early on in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” and yes, it is said by billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne to his loyal butler, Alfred. Wayne has traveled the world and seen many faces of evil and corruptibility. Now he returns to Gotham City to introduce a new image in the name of justice, which is of course…Batman.

As the title suggests, “Batman Begins” digs deep into the origins of Batman and the psychology of Bruce Wayne. This is the Batman movie that people have been waiting for, after two movies directed by Tim Burton and two others directed by Joel Schumacher. Burton’s movies were very dark in tone, but they focused more on the villains than on the Dark Knight himself (which I thought worked extremely well to the first film’s advantage, but that’s another story) and Schumacher’s movies were much, much campier. Fans hated his “Batman & Robin” and it seemed as if the story of Batman was dead. Christopher Nolan took things from scratch about eight years later, and decided to tell his version from the eyes of Bruce Wayne/Batman. While not exactly having the noir-look of the original Burton film, Nolan’s “Batman Begins” is still very dark, very tense, and very exciting. “Batman Begins” is a serious, gritty, hardcore version of a superhero origin-story. It shows the origins of Batman in an unbelievably realistic way (well, realistic for its world, anyway).

As the movie opens, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is rescued from an Asian prison by a vigilante group known as the League of Shadows, led by Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanbe). We see in flashbacks why Bruce is haunted by his past, as is revealed when he falls into training with the League. He fears bats due to childhood trauma and has watched his parents be gunned down and killed by a street thug; years later, as the culprit is finally put on trial, he attempts to kill him, but someone beats him to it. Now he has been wandering the world, picking fights wherever he can until he is picked up by the League of Shadows, whose main purpose is to restore balance to a world that seems inconsistent due to the high rise of crime. After much training under Ducard, Bruce becomes a powerful weapon. But once he sees that…well, the League of Shadows is freaking demented in their morals and ethics (according to a line of dialogue, they “burned London to the ground”), Bruce bails and makes his way back to Gotham and bring an end to the city’s crime wave. But he decides not to do this as Bruce Wayne, but as a menacing alter-ego. Enlisting the help of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and an inventor who has some ingenious tools and contraptions (such as what will be the Batmobile), Bruce becomes Batman, with a black costume & mask and an aerodynamic cape. He also enlists the help of a good cop, Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), in his crusades as Batman, and makes two enemies in the process—the crime lord, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), and a crazed psychiatrist (Cillian Murphy), who has a drug that makes people go crazy (he uses this to be his clients in his asylum). Oh, and he’s also known as the Scarecrow.

Elements of Batman’s history have been reconstructed by Nolan and co-screenwriter David Goyer so that it all becomes the film’s focus—how the Caped Crusader/Dark Knight came to be. Things were sort of hinted at in the other movies, such as the deaths of Bruce’s parents, but we see everything in great detail—how Bruce became a fighter; where he got his weapons and armory; where the Batmobile came from; why Bruce chose bats as a symbol of fear; how the Batcave was created. More importantly, there’s a clear understanding of Bruce Wayne. We know who he is and why he does all of this. In the Burton film, it was hinted at. Here, you know everything. While to me that may seem like an inconvenience, as I felt in the original film that less was more, but here it’s all solidly handled and very riveting.

Christian Bale owns it as Bruce Wayne/Batman. It would have been hard to rival Michael Keaton’s definitive Batman, and it’s an even bigger risk seeing as how this is essentially all about the Bruce Wayne character, but Bale is very good here. He’s sympathetic and a solid heroic figure to follow and root for. And he also makes Batman his own performance as well (though that gruff voice gets a little tiresome after a while).

Bale is more-than-ably supporting by an excellent supporting cast. The cast members in this movie—Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson—don’t seem to be playing their roles as if they knew they were in a “superhero movie.” They get the reality of this world, and play their roles straight to great effect. Oldman, in particular, is surprisingly convincing as Lieutenant Gordon, who, hey, could one day become Commissioner Gordon if he keeps on Batman’s side.

The story is very involving and gets even more so with a hell of an evil scheme, devised by the Scarecrow, to vaporize the city’s water and insert the “crazy drug” in it so people will inhale it and go crazy. All depends on how fast and easily Batman will be able to stop a fast-moving elevated train carrying the drug from getting to the center, which happens to be Wayne Tower. This scene, along with many other action scenes, are tense and kinetic. This is another Nolan strength—keeping the action adrenaline-fueled and knowing how to keep it from being boring or repetitive.

Oh, and there’s also Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), a lawyer who was Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend and now has the possibility of being a romantic-interest. At first, I thought her character was superfluous, but she does grow to become essential to certain things that are what Batman is meant to do, and meant to protect. And it’s obvious her role is meant for further development in a sequel (lucky there was one, but I’ll get to that some other time).

In addition to being entertaining, “Batman Begins” works on a dramatic level. The psychological elements involving the Bruce Wayne character work perfectly and the film is consistent in tone. The characters are strongly-developed. The look is suitably dark. The story is very strong. The action is far from distracting. “Batman Begins” is a strong film—one of the best involving a superhero I’ve ever seen.

And it would only get better one movie later, but that’s another review…

The Island (2005)

9 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

To be completely honest, I had no idea what Michael Bay’s “The Island” was about when I first watched it. I didn’t know the premise, except that it took place in a dystopian future and, being a Michael Bay film, it would feature a heavy dose of action. That’s why as I watched “The Island,” not knowing what was going to happen, I became fascinated by each twist and turn that it would deliver.

I found myself enjoying “The Island” and its clever, intriguing story that involves a lot of science-fiction elements and gripping action sequences to keep its status as a summer-blockbuster. Michael Bay is usually known for overkill in his movies, such as “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” and the two “Bad Boys” movies. But “The Island” is more on the same dosage of entertainment as Bay’s best film, “The Rock.”

Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t a great movie. Some of the story developments are somewhat dumb, others are unresolved, and the character development is hardly solid. But most of them do work, enough to be intrigued by the creativity of such. The action is well-executed with some original touches to keep them interesting (for example, one chase scene involves a load of heavy barbells to hold off company). The production design is impressive. The actors look like they’re having fun. And the twist that comes midway through is actually pretty good, and allows for some very interesting moments of thought (quite unusual for a Bay picture).

The film begins as a sci-fi parable in a sterile, technologically-advanced, futuristic environment that features inhabitants who are survivors of a “contaminated” world outside. The residents wear entirely white clothing (while the supervisors wear entirely black) and go about a certain system that requires them to remain obedient. Big-screen TVs scattered throughout this sealed bubble announce a Lottery that declares a winner to go to the only safe place left on Earth—the “Island.”

Now, even though I didn’t know what was going to happen, I can tell you that even a grade-schooler could tell that something is not right with this futuristic society. And thankfully, our hero, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), conveniently starts to ask the right questions to his supervisors and his friends. This is somewhat of a surprise to Merrick (Sean Bean), one of the supervisors, since the people in the white suits aren’t supposed to think very deeply about these sorts of things.

Lincoln’s friend, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), has been chosen to go to the Island, but Lincoln still isn’t so sure of this system and how it works. When he discovers the truth, however, he and Jordan escape into the outside world…

It’s going to be hard to go into the second half of “The Island” without having to give away spoilers. But I will give away only one certain spoiler, and that is that the world seems fine for a future that is supposed to be “contaminated.” The world has not changed; it’s this society that has been created within it for mysterious reasons involving the Government.

Period. That’s all I’m going to describe. The less you know about the story, the more you’ll get into it. It really depends on whether or not you buy into it. I did. I thought it was very entertaining and quite intriguing. That’s not to say there aren’t problems, of course. Like I said, not everything pays off and some points are admittedly ridiculous. But there are enough aspects that I found rather fascinating.

I liked the relationship between Lincoln and Jordan. Unusually for these action movies, the romance is not so complicated. It’s nice that these two are already friends before the action takes place, and it doesn’t subject us to that clichéd forced romance in which a man and woman hate each other and then start to love each other as the action continues. I thought the relationship in “The Island” was refreshing, and I liked Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson in their roles.

But being a Michael Bay film, there are all sorts of action—we have chases, shootouts, showdowns, fistfights, etc. with explosions, noise, and “permanent sunsets.” (Did you ever notice that each of Bay’s movies seem to take place at sunset most of the time?) Aside from the obligatory climax in which Lincoln and Jordan must ultimately make things right after all this peril and adventure, I was hooked by the action sequences. I already mentioned the barbells in the chase scene; that was a very original touch.

“The Island” starts out as a sci-fi parable, turns into an entertaining action flick, and as a whole, it’s quite a good movie.