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Serenity (2005)

9 Mar

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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

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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

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!!!

“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

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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

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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.

Bad News Bears (2005)

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

2005’s “Bad News Bears” is the remake of the beloved 1976 kids-sports comedy “THE Bad News Bears.” You know the drill—alcoholic former baseball-player Morris Buttermaker is roped into coaching a Little League team, mostly composed of losers. They start the season terribly, but through many practices and hard work, they gain a winning streak and eventually make it to the championship game where they must play against their arch-rivals.

It’s a bit odd, and kind of disappointing, that Richard Linklater is as faithful to the source material as you could practically follow it about the same as the original film (save for a few altered bits for comedic effect). I say that because Linklater is one of the most creative, insightful filmmakers around, what with films such as “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset,” and “School of Rock” (all of which are very different films). I’m surprised he didn’t add that amount of creativity for this remake. I know some people prefer that remakes stay faithful to the original, but really, you could watch both movies and notice a great lot of similarities in element. It doesn’t feel like a Linklater film in that sense.

But to Linklater’s credit, he does get the majority of what made the original film special. In fact, he actually updates from it for the modern time. Buttermaker is more of a sex fiend than a grump this time around (and even manages to sleep with one of the kids’ mothers), and also uses his attitude and personality to get a strip joint, “Bo-Peeps,” to sponsor the team (so some of the women who work there stop by the games to cheer them on—they’re the loudest, most excited people in the crowd). The profanity that the original was known for is also updated, in that being a PG-13 movie, everything but the “F” word is said constantly. That’s pretty surprising; you’d think it would have been toned down, but nope. Another noticeable update, which you could probably tell from other concepts I mentioned—this remake is darker in tone and very un-PC.

What really makes “Bad News Bears” entertaining throughout, and what makes it worth watching rather than just watching the original, is the lead performance from Billy Bob Thornton. In a role originally portrayed by Walter Matthau as a grumpy drunk, Thornton doesn’t imitate Matthau in the slightest. Instead, he makes the role all his own. He’s crude, brash, nasty, deceitful, and creepy. But Thornton does manage to make us like him, just as he made us like his character in “Bad Santa.” And while Matthau’s advice to the kids in the original was more heartwarming than funny, Thornton’s advice to the kids in this remake is absolutely hilarious. Since the kids’ parents are never around, he has to be the surrogate-father to most of the members of the team, including an Armenian kid whose father doesn’t approve of his playing sports. What’s his advice? Lie. Say, “Guess what, Dad! We won today! He’s not gonna know the difference—he’s from Ricky-Ticky-Taffy or wherever it is, you know?”

And Thornton’s one-liners are very funny. Here’s my favorite: “You can love baseball, but it don’t always love you back. It’s kinda like dating a German chick, you know?”

Greg Kinnear plays an opposing coach, played in the original by Vic Morrow. Kinnear can play a nice guy in many movies, but in my opinion when he really shines is when he’s just playing a downright jerk. Here, he’s a winning-obsessed coach who doesn’t care what it takes to get his team to win, and also tries to intimidate Buttermaker and some of his team members when he gets the chance (but ultimately fails at it).

As for the kids, they’re good comic actors and play their stereotypical roles (mostly copied from the original) to a T. Timmy Deters, as the little tough guy Tanner Boyle, is a riot, and so is Troy Gentile as a wheelchair-bound smart aleck who always reminds Buttermaker that he’s in a wheelchair and yet still goes out to play the infield in the climactic big game. But of course, there’s the case of the role of Amanda, the girl pitcher played memorably by Tatum O’Neal in the original. Here, she’s played by Sammi Kraft, who acquits herself to the role effectively. And there’s also Kelly Leak, the rebellious bad-boy originally played by Jackie Earle Haley. Here, he’s played by Jeffrey Davies, who unfortunately is not as good.

While I give “Bad News Bears” a mild recommendation, I still find myself asking why it was made and why a director like Richard Linklater would be on board to direct it. Was it money? Were they hoping to cash in on the summer sports comedy? Well, however it worked, “Bad News Bears” is still an entertaining remake.

NOTE: Upon closer investigation of the film’s credits, I learned that the script is co-written by Bill Lancaster, who wrote the original 1976 screenplay. That would explain how faithful this remake is.

Zathura (2005)

21 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Zathura” is a fun entertainment for the whole family. You could call it the outer space version of “Jumanji.” However, when “Jumanji” had a bit of a mean edge toward younger viewers, “Zathura” is a complete family film. It’s a smart and funny kid-adventure that will keep parents entertained as well. I really like the energy that went into this movie.

“Zathura’s” plot somewhat resembles “Jumanji,” which is obvious as the children’s books both movies were based upon were authored by Chris van Allsburg. “Zathura” features two young squabbling brothers who discover an old game. They begin the game and are suddenly put upon an incredible journey through the game world.

The movie opens with the brothers—ten-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and six-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo)—competing for the attention of their divorced dad (Tim Robbins) on a boring Saturday. The boys fight almost all the time—Walter can’t even seem to tolerate Danny’s existence. (Their constant arguing grows kind of tedious but that’s the point. They behave just like realistic sparring brothers.) Dad has to go to work for a while, leaving the boys supervised by their teenaged sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart)…that is, supervised from under the covers of her bed.

In the basement of their house, Danny finds an old game called “Zathura,” a cool-looking, retro board game that seems to have a mind all its own. It has a futuristic look to it and it looks to be just a simple race to a black planet with a huge “Z” marked on it. How to play: Wind the key, push the “GO” button, wait until the timer winds to one number between one and nine, let the little ship move up how many spaces the timer says to go, and read the card that pops out of the game when it stops. Danny brings the game up to the living room, hoping to get Walter to play with him (but Walter would rather watch ESPN), and does just that. But when he gets Walter to read the card that pops out of the game, saying “Meteor Shower—Take Evasive Action,” the two brothers are surprised when a couple of small meteors zoom down into the room! Then, more meteorites attack and pulverize the room, with Danny and Walter racing for shelter.

And right away, you know what kind of adventure this is going to be; during the meteor attack, the kids are untouched. So, right away, you know that nothing is going to happen to them and it’s just going to be fun. You just sit back and enjoy the inventiveness that comes with each danger that both boys come across.

After the meteor attack, the kids look outside and get a fantastic view of not a pulverized neighborhood…but Saturn! The kids are in space now, as their house is floating around, because of that game. After reading the instructions, they learn that in order to get back home, they have to finish the game. With each spin, the boys are put into more adventure and danger—their sister Lisa is frozen in cryonic sleep for five turns; a short-circuited robot runs amok; and alien battleships use their house as a collision course! Eventually, the boys are aided by a mysterious stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard), who guides them through whatever else might happen.

“Zathura” is a smart and funny children’s adventure that will keep the parents entertained as well. There are some good twists at the end, there’s some humor put in, there are moments of suspense, and the special effects aren’t all wall-to-wall CGI but like the robot and the lizard men that invade the house, they’re made the old-fashioned way to look more real. And “Zathura” is just a ton of fun. This is genuine fantasy and that explains why the astronaut hasn’t grown a beard after flying around for years (or light years), and how the kids are able to breathe when they step into space to see Saturn outside. And I loved the way the game looks. It’s an ingenious contraption that moves spaces for you and makes its own cards when the space is reached.

“Zathura” is the third film directed by Jon Favreau who also directed “Made” and “Elf.” Favreau is like Ron Howard—an actor who may have be born to direct, as he clearly knows and loves movies. He does a nice job here, and the movie looks good and bright, whereas “Jumanji” looked a bit too dark and mysterious. “Zathura” isn’t as menacing or as emotional as “The Polar Express,” but it works well as an exciting space opera. “Zathura” is a fun adventure and I was happy to go along with it.