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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.

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Little Manhattan (2005)

18 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As “Little Manhattan” opens, we’re reminded of how it was back when we were little kids when it came to boys and girls. Before we even started school, we got along okay. But then, after the first few years of grade school, boys and girls lived in a universe separated of each other. Also, it was feared that if a girl touched a boy, it would lead to “cooties.” But as you get a little older, you get a little wiser, as boys start to see girls in a different way.

Deny all you want, but that’s how it was back when we were all little and cute and not too bright. “Little Manhattan” reminds us of how it was, guided by a narration from the film’s main character—a ten-year-old kid named Gabe who lives in Manhattan and has fallen in love for the first time in his life.

Gabe (Josh Hutcherson) is a good kid who confused about love at first. His parents are going through a divorce and he doesn’t understand how it all works. With basketball with his friends and football with his dad, he doesn’t understand girls yet. Then, he asks his dad if he can take karate class. When he starts taking that class, he is surprised when his sparring partner is the pretty eleven-year-old Rosemary Telesco (Charlie Ray). After a few “spars” together, they start to become friends. This is unusual to Gabe, and there’s a sweet scene set in a clothing store, where Rosemary tries on a dress with Gabe accompanying her; Gabe wonders why he is looking at her as if she were the most beautiful thing in the world.

To Gabe’s surprise, he and Rosemary spend more time together and he becomes very interested in her. As the movie progresses their relationship, Gabe questions what is happening to him and why he is falling in love with Rosemary. But when things go great, Gabe learns that Rosemary is leaving for summer camp and won’t be back until the end of summer. Gabe takes the news a bit too far and almost ruins their relationship from being so frustrated.

“Cute” would be the best way to describe “Little Manhattan”—actually, the film barely gets away with being so cute. But it strangely works. The two child actors are very good. Josh Hutcherson has enough credibility and energy to carry this movie successfully. There is another sweet scene with Gabe and Rosemary on a date to a fancy party with Rosemary’s parents. Gabe gets the nerve to hold Rosemary’s hand and through his narration, he’s afraid that his hand is too sweaty and she’s disgusted. There is a lot of the kid’s narration through about 60-70% of “Little Manhattan,” and it works. Charlie Ray is quite good as Rosemary. She plays the character as a smart-for-her-age eleven-year-old girl. She has an effective scene in which Gabe finally tells her he loves her and she is confused. She isn’t quite sure what love is. These two young actors are forced to carry the movie and they do it well.

“Little Manhattan” is a sweet and smart family treasure. After a few dumb family movies that are supposed to be truthful, this one hits the nail right on the head. This movie captures the memories of falling in love for the first time, and captures the true mentality of falling in puppy love. It also has a harsh but truthful subplot in which Gabe copes with his parents’ oncoming divorce, which constantly has Gabe questioning the true meaning of “love.” And the scenes with Gabe and Rosemary together are sweet, and the actors share convincing chemistry together. “Little Manhattan” is a sweet story about young love with two appealing leads and an enlightening view on love.

NOTE: Now, I have to admit—I had my doubts during the first shots of the movie, which show a lot of vomit as a symptom of “cooties.” But don’t run away from those first shots—stay a while so the movie can get to its story.

Sky High (2005)

14 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Sky High” is a pleasant surprise. It’s a smart, funny, utterly enjoyable family movie about superheroes and a school for superheroes. I never thought I would praise a movie with that admittedly-cheesy idea, but there you go. I would say that “Sky High” is intentionally cheesy and very well done. There’s a lot for me to admire about it.

Michael Angarano stars as Will Stronghold, the fourteen-year-old son of the world’s greatest, most infamous superheroes—the invincible Commander (Kurt Russell) and high-flying Jetstream (Kelly Preston). Will’s “superparents” look forward to Will eventually joining them in helping save the world. There’s just one problem—Will doesn’t have any superpowers of any kind. But because of his parents’ reputation as the greatest superheroes on the planet, Will is accepted at Sky High School—a secret high school for the new generation superheroes (the school also hovers in the sky, hence the name—get it?). Will and his friends—Layla (Danielle Panabaker) who can communicate with plants, Zach (Nicholas Braun) whose body can glow in the dark, brainy Ethan (Dee Jay Daniels) who can melt himself at will, and Magenta (Kelly Vitz) who can morph into a guinea pig—are freshmen and because of their unimpressive powers (or shortage of powers), they are listed as “sidekicks.” You see, like all high schools, there are cliques—the cooler clique at Sky High is the “heroes,” the students who have very impressive (I dare even say “super”) abilities.

As the ads for this movie made quite clear, Will does eventually get his powers (he’s super-strong, like his father)—he becomes part of the “heroes” and has a chance with the girl of his dreams, Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). But he is neglecting his old friends and becoming more of a neglectful jerk.

This film contains elements from other films (such as “The Incredibles,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and a touch of “Harry Potter”), but has its own touches as well. They all work in this film, which lampoons the superhero genre while also becoming a member of it as well. I like the lesson it delivers that popularity is overrated and friendship is more important. (It’s not new, but it’s usually welcome if done right.)

I really like the writing here—a lot of in-jokes, suitable character names (such as “Warren Peace,” the name of the bully at the school), and lines such as “I’m not Wonder Woman, you know,” said by the principal of Sky High, coincidentally played by Lynda Carter (OK, maybe it’s not much of a coincidence after all).

There are some parts comedy, some parts action, and some parts drama. Each of them work well and it helps that the film continues at a consistently interesting pace. The special effects are impressive, the colors in the film are bright and good to look at around the school, the soundtrack is great (I like how Spandau Ballet’s “True” is used in certain scenes), and the film is innocent and for everyone—kids and adults. The PG rating is just right for “Sky High.”

“Sky High” also has an appealing cast—Michael Angarano is an appealing lead, Danielle Panabaker and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are effective as Will’s romantic-triangle subjects, Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston are brilliant as the superheroes who save the world in costume on duty and have secret identities as mild-mannered real estate agents and Will’s loving parents, Bruce Campbell and Dave Foley are amazing as two fun faculty members, Steven Strait strays far from the bully stereotype and becomes someone easy to like (when you don’t get on his bad side, that is—he’s a suitable bully for this movie), and Kevin Hefferman is just fantastic as the overweight school bus driver Ron Wilson. All of these actors look like they’re having a great time making this film.

“Sky High” is just a ton of fun. There are a lot of laughs and even more moments when I had a smile on my face. This is a fun movie with a sharp wit, a sense of humor, an eye for its fictional surroundings, and, again, a great sense of fun.

Hostage (2005)

18 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Hostage” could be seen as another entry in the “Die Hard” series, seeing as how it is an action-thriller starring Bruce Willis, but you’d be wrong. On the one hand, it’s gripping, suspenseful, and well-made. On the other hand, it’s grim and dark (as opposed to the excitement among the violence in the “Die Hard” movies) with a much more conflicted Willis character than his infamous action-hero character John McClane. Instead of being the “fly in the ointment,” the “monkey in the wrench,” or the “pain in the ass,” Willis plays a troubled person stuck in a situation he was hoping never to fall into, after a similar terrible experience a year ago. (No, this isn’t a sequel.)

The film opens as LAPD hostage negotiator Jeff Talley (Willis) is called upon for a scene in which a madman endangers a mother and child. After trying to play it calm, his method doesn’t work, resulting in the deaths of each. One year later, we see that Talley has left the city and joined the police force in Bristo Camino, where he is police chief. He feels extreme guilt over the lives he could have saved that year ago and finds himself better off serving in a community where nothing much happens. His biggest concern as of now is dealing with his unhappy wife Jane (Serena Scott Thomas) and daughter Amanda (Rumer Willis, Bruce’s real-life daughter), who only live with him “part-time.”

Meanwhile, an accountant (Kevin Pollak) is driving his kids (teenage Michelle Horn, grade-schooler Jimmy Bennett) home from school when he is spotted by three teenage thugs who decide to steal his car. They follow him home and sneak in to steal his keys. The intruders are Dennis (Jonathan Tucker), his brother Kevin (Marshall Allman), and their companion Mars (Ben Foster). When they’re inside the house, what seems like a simple robbery turns into something else, as the accountant is knocked unconscious, the two kids are held hostage, and Mars shoots a patrolling cop, thus bringing the whole police force on the scene and leaving Talley to have to deal with it. Talley does what he can until someone else takes over in authority, but it turns out that there are darker matters at hand, as members of the mob hold Talley’s wife and daughter hostage. They will let them go if Talley deals with the situation involving the other hostages.

OK, so maybe I could have done without this second plot thread, as the scenes involving the three interlopers and the two young hostages are tenser. By comparison, this other element is still pretty tense, but doesn’t do the credibility of the rest of the film that much service. As a result, the final (inevitable) showdown between Talley and these other criminals just seems sort of ordinary. I will give credit, though, that they do connect with the story of the accountant, who is also there for the showdown as well. So, it’s not pointless. But it is somewhat unnecessary.

How “Hostage” handles the messed-up situation involving the three guys and the two hostages is quite effective. For one thing, they don’t make the little boy (Bennett) into a whining boor—he’s resourceful and quick enough to grab his sister’s cell phone, sneak through the air ducts, and make secret calls to Talley (after seeing him on TV), to give him helpful information. Although, I have to ask—how come nobody checks up on the kid to make sure he hasn’t escaped his room?

What I really liked is the original treatment given to the three teenage crooks. Dennis is the hothead of the group, making sure he’s the one in charge of the situation and covering the fact that he’s a scared kid. Kevin is the nervous conscience who didn’t want to go along with this plan in the first place, and is stuck with nothing to do about it, other than hope no one gets hurt. Mars, on the other hand, is a complete psycho. He has a tendency to act first and think later, and he has a criminal record. The reasons as to why things go from bad to worse are because of his actions.

Bruce Willis is outstanding, playing a much different version of the heroic cop that made him a noticeable action star in the “Die Hard” movies. You can totally buy him as this tortured cop looking for redemption and finding it in yet another near-tragic position. He completely sells the drama portrayed with this character. You enjoy spending two hours watching him sort through everything that occurs in “Hostage,” a gripping, nicely-done thriller.

Red Eye (2005)

7 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Red Eye” is a psychological thriller that handles such elements of the genre the right way, while also admiring Rachel McAdams. She has turned so well into a movie star and as the Woman in Peril in “Red Eye,” the camera and script never let us stray away from seeing how plausible, convincing, and (let’s face it) beautiful she is. The Woman in Peril is a hard character to pull off in a movie like this. The wrong actress could easily overact to the terror happening to her character. But not Rachel McAdams—she remains convincing all the way through. Her weapons against a terrorist who made her red-eye flight miserable are a pen, a cane, and a hockey stick. Well of course, those are common weapons of choice.

McAdams plays Lisa Reisert, a hotel desk manager who catches a red-eye flight to Florida after bad weather cancels out her regular flight. Taking over her job temporarily at the hotel is her friend, who is not exactly qualified to handle situations that require…well, much thinking. At the bar in the airport, she meets a charming young man named Jack Rippner (get it?) and strikes up a conversation with him. And then they wind up sitting next to each other on the plane.

This sounds like the opening for a romantic drama. But Jack is definitely NOT the charming young man she met at the airport. Once the plane takes off and the two sit together, his personality transforms into something quite sinister. Jack is a terrorist and he tells her (softly) that her father is taken hostage and will be let go when she makes a call to the hotel to schedule a government agent to be booked in a different room than he already was. Then he will be assassinated. Lisa tries to find a way out of this nasty situation and goes through many threatening confrontations and conversations. It’s almost a wonder why these go unnoticed by the stewardesses, but then again this is a busy flight. The airplane scenes are handled in a plausible way.

Cillian Murphy plays Jack. He’s handsome, but his looks come with a warning. The way he handles Lisa in many moments in which she tries sneakily to get out of this situation is so sinister, it too is convincing. Cillian Murphy does a good job of switching tones in his personality. First he’s pleasant and polite. Then he’s…how many times do I have to use the word “sinister?” You get the point, I hope.

Now the final half of the film is your standard killer-in-the-house climax. I would’ve wanted something a bit more original. Who knows what you could do in an airport terminal? But still, McAdams remains plausible and convincing. I loved that her character was not dumb but a woman who is bright and thinks of what she would do; we feel for her. She has presence and credibility—she’s not one of those thriller victims are simply running around and screaming. She’s given something very specific to do and her scenes with Murphy are very effective. These two are great together.

Craven’s previous work included slasher films such as “Nightmare on Elm Street” and the “Scream” movies. Here, he gives us as little blood as possible and moves on to psychological tensions. The final half of the film may be a bit too conventional but for the most part of “Red Eye,” he succeeds in making a psychological thriller that works.

Castle in the Sky (2005)

20 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Castle in the Sky” is an animated family film made by the sensational style of Studio Ghibli and written, directed, and supervised by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is responsible for great animated films such as “Princess Mononoke” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” “Castle in the Sky” is among his best work. It’s ingenious, exciting, and a truly fine action-adventure.

The best thing about “Castle in the Sky” is how it continues its storytelling with many twists and turns. We get from one place to another, to another, to another, and it’s all linked together so that we aren’t wondering if it could’ve gone different ways. It begins on an airship, where a girl named Sheeta (voiced for US dubbing by Anna Paquin) is being held by a man named Muska (Mark Hamill). A gang of air pirates (complete with their own personal small jets) invades the ship, seeking the crystal that Sheeta wears around her neck. Sheeta tries to hide from the pirates by hanging out a window, but she slips and falls to the ground. But a miracle occurs—because of the crystal, she falls incredibly slowly so that a boy in the village down below can catch her with ease.

The boy is named Pazu (James Van Der Beek). He’s an adventurous young man who hopes one day to save his late father’s good name by finding Laputa, a floating island said to be hidden by a thunderstorm, which his father claims to have seen. People called him crazy; Pazu wants to prove that he was right. Pazu and Sheeta befriend each other and Pazu tells Sheeta about his dream to find Laputa, which it seems has a connection with Sheeta’s crystal.

In a well-drawn, riveting action sequence, the air pirates invade the village and chase after Sheeta and Pazu on the nearby railroad tracks. You can feel the intensity coming through the screen as the chase continues. By this point, we are sucked into the story and intrigued by the execution—the animation is excellent; full of color and life.

The rest of the story is the adventures that these kids have—facing Muska who turns out to be a government agent working with the Army; encountering the air pirates and later befriending them (the bumbling pirates, led by their anxious, fed-up mother, gamely voiced by Cloris Leachman, provide most of the film’s comedy); and of course finally reaching Laputa itself and engaging in a battle over it. What do they find when they finally get there? I shouldn’t say. One of the pleasures I had with this film was that I didn’t know what was going to happen, or what I was going to find. But I can say that I wasn’t let down by the outcome. I can think of many adventure movies that run out of steam before their final act, but not “Castle in the Sky.” This is an engaging, imaginative, vigorous action-adventure from beginning to end. Indiana Jones would have been proud of these two adventurous young characters.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

19 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Harry Potter may still be wide-eyed to every new magic element he observes around him, but he has gotten used to a lot of Hogwarts activity. He joins in with his friend Ron and his brothers as they chant for their favorite seeker in the famous Quidditch team (as we learn, Quidditch is a wizard-national sporting event now not just confined to Hogwarts) or when he’s learned almost every spell he can use with his wand. At age 14, he’s almost gotten used to Hogwarts School, but nothing can prepare him for what he has to encounter in the fourth “Harry Potter” film, entitled “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

Not only is he for some unknown reason (unknown until the end of the film, anyway) chosen for the extremely dangerous Tri Wizard Tournament, but he later discovers that Lord Voldemort is on the rise. Even scarier, especially for a 14-year-old, is working up the courage to ask a girl to the Yule Ball.

It seems as though the “Harry Potter” series is getting darker and darker with each new installment. It really makes me wonder what will be in store for us in the final installment. This film ends with a setup to something even bigger. It also includes the line near the end muttered by Dumbledore, “Dark and difficult times lie ahead, Harry.” The foreshadowing is terrific.

But way before that, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) are in their fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with only three years to go after this. Things are changing, for sure. Harry is having nightmares of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) returning after many, many years; Ron is more nervous than usual; and Hermione is becoming a beautiful young woman (though still the intelligent bookworm). This year, there is a Tri Wizard Tournament to be held at Hogwarts, in which champion wizards from different schools (and different countries, I might add) compete for victory. Their names are drawn from the enchanted Goblet of Fire which chooses the winners to compete in the tournament. One is a tough-looking Quidditch seeker, another is a nice guy, and the other is a beauty queen—they are all 17 years old, which is a requirement for this tournament. But something weird is happening—Harry Potter’s name is drawn from the Goblet of Fire. He’s only 14 and he didn’t put his name in the goblet, but there’s nothing he can do about it.

So now he’s fighting for his life in this tournament—he fights a fire-breathing dragon, he must stay underwater for an hour to retrieve something from vicious (and ugly) merpeople, and go through a treacherous hedge maze that Jack Nicholson would have lost his mind in. He also befriends a weird new teacher who teaches defense against the dark arts (isn’t there always a new teacher in that class?)—This is Mad Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), a mysterious man with a robotic left eye that works as a zoom lens. But his biggest worry is finding a girl to ask to the Yule Ball. The scenes in which Harry and Ron attempt to find dates are so refreshing that it almost outshines the excellent action sequences with the dragon and the mermaids. It resembles the best of high school comedies…with young wizard crushes.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” has finally earned a PG-13 rating in the series. The tone is darker than usual and the action is more intense. But as they were with the past three films, the action sequences are amazing—particularly the sequence in which Harry battles a dragon. The computer animation again works very well.

This is not a stand-alone film—the film reaches its final half in which Lord Voldemort makes himself seen for the first time as a whole (we only saw his face in the first film). We are not disappointed—he is pale, bald, ominous, and threatening. Ralph Fiennes makes an intriguing, terrifying villain that will make Voldemort even more so in later installments. He sets up his plotting for later installments in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione may eventually have to fight him in an epic battle. That’s one I can’t wait for. What I’m really concerned about is what will happen until that battle.

Oh, I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention another funny new character—Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson), the gossip columnist for the Daily Prophet who doesn’t stop until she gets her story. Richardson really makes the most of her limited role; she’s fantastic. I should also mention a nice touch at the Yule Ball—a sweet little relationship between the gentle half-giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Madame Maxine (Frances de la Tour), who is even taller.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is a solid entertainment—it nicely blends fantasy with teenage comedies. The characters are growing and it will be nice to see them continue to grow until the “Harry Potter” series is over.