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The Cobbler (2015)

13 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t like to hate on movies (anymore), particularly indie comedy-dramas (“dramedies”) that dabble in magical realism. I find them fascinating—I love “Ruby Sparks,” about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl suddenly brought to life; I admired “The One I Love,” about a couple being forced to examine their relationship through their ideal selves; and “Birdman” won Oscars for reasons, obviously. With “The Cobbler” being given a down-to-earth tone by the deeply talented Tom McCarthy, who made such wonderful low-key dramas such as “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” and the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” and guided by an admittedly interesting premise, you’d think this would be a sure-fire sleeper…

What IS the premise? Adam Sandler plays Max Simkin, who works as a cobbler in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His life isn’t anything to brag about—he cares for his ailing mother (Lynn Cohen), he cares very little for the shop (or his customers), he ignores the prying of the barber named Jimmy (Steve Buscemi) who works in the shop next door, and he’s just a miserable sadsack. Oh, if only something magical could come along to live his life some purpose. And thankfully, something unexpected happens once he brings out an old stitching machine to repair local thug Ludlow’s (Method Man) shoes, and he tries them on. Suddenly, whoa! He looks in the mirror and he sees Ludlow staring back at him! It turns out the stitching machine is magic—if you repair someone’s shoes with it, and then put on the shoes, you become the literal owner of the shoes. (Of course, the shoe sizes have to match Max’s, which luckily, they do.)

Max uses the ability to become other people for some exciting reasons, such as living as someone else for a day because anyone else’s life is more interesting than his own. But then, it gets WEIRD… Here’s an example: Max wears the shoes of his late father (Dustin Hoffman) and transforms into him so that he can have a romantic dinner with his mother to make her happy… I don’t want to know what happened after that dinner, but I hope he let his mother down gently (not in the way you’re thinking!).

As if that wasn’t creepy enough, he also becomes a handsome Brit (Dan Stevens) so he can score with his beautiful girlfriend…in the shower (where he has to keep the shoes on—ha ha). That’s not charming—that’s really, really disturbing. I don’t think the crazy Adam Sandler of his own Happy Madison comedies would attempt to go this far.

Adam Sandler is a very likable, charming fellow (when he wants to be) and can be very funny (again, when he wants to be). And he’s a really good actor, as established in non-Happy-Madison-related productions such as P.T. Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” James L. Brooks’ “Spanglish,” Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.” (Not that he’s not a good actor in the Happy Madison movies—it’s just that you don’t see those movies for acting ability.) But here, when I should be feeling for this self-loathing, life-hating, poor guy, I’m instead questioning his morals and ethics when he does so many creepy things once he obtains this magical ability. It’s so uncomfortable that it actually makes “The Cobbler” harder to watch than most Happy Madison movies…MOST of them.

When he does use the machine to serve a good cause (saving the community his shop is set up in), I care very little because what leads him to it and what occurs as a result is laughable in all the wrong ways. The story gets more ridiculous as it goes along, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re given a twist at the end that had me facepalm myself and say, “Are you kidding me?!”

“The Cobbler” should have been a sweet fable about a guy learning to be more comfortable with himself as he becomes other people. It had a great lead and a great director, but the script just needed a lot of rewrites in order to make it work. Thank God McCarthy bounced back with “Spotlight” just a few months after this film’s release. Otherwise, it would’ve destroyed him. And Sandler still has a few good ones to deliver, so I’ll be on the lookout for those.

Batman and Robin (1997)

14 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The best thing I can say about “Batman and Robin” is that it looks good. The sets, the locations, and even some of the effects help make Gotham City into a colorful, weird, wacky world that looks great. It seems as if director Joel Schumacher and his crew put almost every ounce of their budget into the production design. But unfortunately, this brings me to the film’s first failing: it’s overdone in its colors and cartoonish imagery to the point where it doesn’t even look like it should be Gotham City, meaning it doesn’t look like it belongs in a “Batman” story. But at least it matches the tone, which is more lighthearted and goofy (even more so than Schumacher’s 1995 predecessor to the saga, “Batman Forever,” which was a hit with audiences by playing to a younger demographic) to the point where it seems like a big-budget version of the campy 1960s TV series starring Adam West. Gone are the dark, complex aspects that made the original Bob Kane comic book series and Tim Burton film adaptations so compelling, because now we have a special effects extravaganza with no interest in diving into Batman’s world but instead showering us with exaggerated visual style and lots AND LOTS of cheesy one-liners (most of which centered on ridiculous unfunny puns). Even if you’re a fan of the series this is clearly trying to resemble, I still wouldn’t recommend “Batman and Robin.”

The film on its own is soulless and not much fun. You’d think such an outrageous environment our heroes live in wouldn’t be in a film this dull. There’s so much asinine action that it’s hard to tell what’s going on half the time and, more importantly, why. The characterization is close to nonexistent. The dialogue is godawful with all those lame wisecracks, puns, and double meanings constantly scattered all over the film and spouted out by all heroes and villains. And there’s a whole subplot that would be emotional if it wasn’t centered around a character with very little screen time and nothing in terms of character interaction. That character is Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Gough), who seems to be dying from McGregor’s Syndrome. Not much is made of this subplot. It doesn’t seem to be psychologically hurting Bruce except for a couple moments when it’s simply referred to but hardly discussed. And it leads to a payoff that’s too easy to spot coming so that the whole thing not only becomes less heartfelt; it’s pointless.

George Clooney dons the cape and mask as Batman and the similar dark attire as Bruce Wayne, and if people thought they knew very little about Michael Keaton’s portrayal, I can’t imagine anyone knowing any more about Clooney’s. Clooney has the sardonic side down and has a great amount of dry wit, and to be fair, it’s not his fault the performance doesn’t work. He’s got nothing to work with.

Some of the film’s “dramatic conflict” (I use quotations to emphasize weakness) revolves around the rivalry between Batman and Robin (played by Chris O’Donnell). I liked Dick Grayson/Robin in “Batman Forever”; the character was interesting and his story was effectively handled to be taken even a little seriously. But here, constantly alongside Bruce Wayne/Batman, there’s no depth or growth in his character. Instead, he’s just an egotistical brat who mostly whines throughout the movie about how he gets very little respect as Batman’s sidekick. I guess we’re supposed to feel sorry for him, but I was wondering when Bruce Wayne would kick spoiled Dick Grayson out of Wayne Manor. And to make matters worse, he’s an idiot. That can only explain how he constantly must be reminded by Bruce that he shouldn’t fall for Poison Ivy, an obvious villainess. This is why Gotham residents will always call on Batman first instead of Robin.

Speaking of Poison Ivy, she’s one of the two main villains in “Batman and Robin.” Played by a lanky Uma Thurman doing her best to imitate Jim Carrey’s Riddler from the previous film, she’s a perfume-dispensing femme fatale who loves plants more than people (and even has a man-eating plant in her hideout) and contains a special poison that makes men fall for her and even kills them with her lips. She teams up with Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger, completely over-the-top), a scientist turned madman who wears a special freeze suit that helps him survive being permanently doused with some sort of “ice chemical.” He carries around a gun that freezes things and people, and his mission is to (what else?) take over the world. These two villains pair up to take down Batman and Robin and recreate their world in their opposing visions (I wasn’t quite sure what they were going to do with plants and ice; you tell me that).

Oh yeah, and I should also mention Alfred’s niece, Barbara (Alicia Silverstone). I’ll neglect the fact that she doesn’t have a British accent despite having lived in London, but she doesn’t have the slightest bit of personality. Her line readings are very stiff and there isn’t much for her to play with either, even when later in the film, she suits up as Batgirl.

When “Batman” is done right, it’s dark, gritty, and complex, but it’s also creative, clever, and compelling. “Batman and Robin” doesn’t even qualify for any of those six adjectives. It’s a goofy, clunky, colorful mess of a movie that reportedly even the makers of the film weren’t very proud of. In fact, there’s a DVD audio commentary by Joel Schumacher in which he talks about what went into making it and why he made the choices he made, and almost midway through it, he acknowledges the harsh criticism he received from fans and apologized for not pleasing them. He even takes the blame himself, stating that he, as director, had full responsibility. If a film is so disappointing that even the director can’t deny it, that’s saying something.

Devil’s Knot (2014)

20 May


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I can probably see why filmmaker Atom Egoyan agreed to direct this film. It is a compelling subject matter that he touched upon in one of his earlier films, “The Sweet Hereafter.” That 1997 film was about how a community struggles to come to grips with an unspeakable tragedy while expressing anger and grief. Egoyan probably thought he could make something as strong if he created a fictionalized version of the 1993-1994 “West Memphis Three” trials. But Egoyan is in a no-win situation with this material. A fictional film based on this material would be extremely difficult to pull off, and I’m afraid that Egoyan’s attempt, titled “Devil’s Knot,” is an okay-try but hopelessly redundant.

I can’t think of anyone seeing this movie who won’t know about the West Memphis Three or the child murders at Robin Hood woods in West Memphis, Arkansas. That’s one of the biggest problems with this film. The WM3 trials have been big world news and the subject of a trilogy of documentaries called “Paradise Lost.” Those documentarians went into the courtrooms, caught the trials and testimonies from the defendants and witnesses on camera, and also captured how the town reacted to the murders and to the trials, as well as the possibility the defendants were in fact innocent. They were three teenage boys who dressed in black, listened to heavy metal, and research the Wicca religion, and so the townspeople and the police linked the boys to the grisly murders of three little boys, claiming they performed devil-worshipping sacrificial rituals. They were found guilty and spent 18 years in prison. It was one of the most documented and publicized crime stories in our history, and we all know about it thanks to the news, sponsors representing the three prisoners and demanding their freedom, and the “Paradise Lost” documentaries.

And there was even a documentary released in 2012 (“West of Memphis”) that had the advantage of telling the whole story in hindsight. What we know is that these three kids were punished for crimes they didn’t commit and lost 18 years of their lives in prison. What we don’t know is who killed those three little boys.

Everything we know about the West Memphis Three is in “Devil’s Knot,” which tells a fictionalized version of the original 1993-1994 trials of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelley Jr. There is nothing new to be said here. We’ve seen this all before, we all know how it goes, and there is no new true insight to be found in this pointless film.

The strange thing is, I would have given the film a slight pass if it wanted to tell about how the victims’ families try to go about their day after their little children were taken away from them. Egoyan can capture this well (again, see “Sweet Hereafter” for example), and he does have a few scenes that focus on the mother of one of the murdered boys, Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), and her husband, Terry Hobbs (Alessandro Nivola). But they’re so few and cast aside for scenes involving a private investigator, Ron Lax (Colin Firth), trying to put some pieces together. And just when you think Egoyan and the film’s writers, Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, are going to try and come up with new insights for these characters, they’re cast aside for everything we’ve seen before. The smartass behavior of Damien Echols. Jessie Miskelley’s recanted confession. The ranting of John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand), the adoptive father of one of the victims. The false witnesses. The dumb police. The modern-day Salem Witch Trials parallels. The tedious police interrogations. Been there, done that. I’m not saying new theories as to who would’ve murdered Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore would’ve been necessarily acceptable; I’m just saying that, in my opinion, there is no reason this film should exist since it’s telling us what we already know.

The actors do their best to play familiar characters (er, people). Reese Witherspoon acquits herself nicely as a grieving mother, though her main role is to look on with grief and then concern; the actors playing the three suspects (James Hamrick as Damien, Seth Meriwether as Jason, Kristopher Higgins as Jessie) are just right for the roles; Mirelle Enos is fine as the mother of a little boy who testifies with a possibly false story; and Dane DeHaan does a nice job as Chris Morgan, another possible suspect. But Colin Firth is wasted in the role of the private investigator; he has nothing to work with here, even when the film tries to give him a superfluous back story with an ex-wife living in the town.

The courtroom scenes offer no surprises; elements we’ve heard about are introduced and then dropped, such as a man covered in blood and mud; and again, we’ve been through this before. And then at the end, when the film decides to wrap itself up quickly, it gives us text upon text upon text reminding us what happened since the suspects were found guilty.

Mainly, what it comes down to is no matter how hard any filmmaker could try, a fictional retelling of the West Memphis Three story cannot give us anything more compelling than what we already know. If you want to see a film that goes into great detail and depth about this story, the answer is obvious: watch the documentary “West of Memphis” instead.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

28 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What should have been a fresh new start to the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, in terms of its setting and tone, instead turns out to be a mess of a movie that should put it to an end. It’s the spin-off, or possibly the fifth film, in the franchise, entitled “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” and instead of taking place in a lily-white suburban house, it takes place in a working-class Latino neighborhood in Oxnard, California.

It still uses the “found-footage” gimmick, which of course is a given for the franchise, but this film feels kind of like a “fan-video” instead of an actual film, as if someone watched the other four movies and then decided to make their own version with their own camera. That would explain why some of the acting is stilted in scenes where the characters are supposed to be shocked by new, supernatural discoveries (an example is when one of the characters has a bite on his arm; “Dude I think it’s a bite or something”). That’s probably not a fault to the actors, who at least try to work with the material they’ve been given, but to the writer-director Christopher B. Landon (who, to be fair, has written a better thriller in the past, 2007’s “Disturbia”). He doesn’t give them much to work with.

The story centers around two post-high-school boys, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) who fool around with a new video camera. They film themselves riding laundry baskets down some stairs, taking tequila shots with Jesse’s grandmother, all that fun stuff. Jesse lives in the apartment above Anna, who is found murdered, presumably by a former classmate of Jesse’s. Jesse and Hector bring their camera as they sneak into the apartment to investigate. They find signs of witchcraft, including a spellbook, and even some pictures of Jesse. What does this mean?

As time goes by, strange things happen around Jesse, as Hector films it all. He is suddenly super strong, as he defends himself against two ghetto thugs, and has other abilities that transform him. But the problem is, he is changing into something that is taking away the better of him and turning him into something dangerous.

This is admittedly a good story, and with better material, this could have been an effective horror film, if you kept the characters and locations, dropped the “found-footage” gimmick (as well as the “Paranormal Activity” title, for that matter), and made some major alterations in the script (alterations to what, I’ll get to in a bit; there’s a lot that needs to be addressed). Show the process of this transformation, show how it’s really affecting the character and his family and friends, and really, just take that premise and start over with that.

There’s one sequence that’s oddly both unsettling and entertaining (“Chronicle”-like, if you will); it’s when Jesse discovers he can’t fall because an invisible force always catches him. Hector films him falling backwards with something supporting him, and it even works when he falls off a chair. Of course, when Hector tries it, he falls to the ground. Jesse and Hector upload the footage to YouTube, where of course the YouTube commenters respond negatively, claiming it’s just smoke and mirrors. That was a good scene.

But that’s one good scene among one stupid scene after another. The choices these characters make are so stupid they date back to old standard horror-movie clichés. The camera has a light on it so the characters can see in dark places they explore. But when they’re being chased and don’t want to be seen, the damned light is still on, giving away their location!

And the worse thing is, they never come to the authorities about everything that’s happened, even though, since they’ve been recording everything that’s happened, they have video footage that can make their story check out. Not once does it ever occur to them to bring the police into the situation. Even when they discover that a wicked coven is involved, they bring in a would-be gangster and his huge friend to check the place out.

Actually, that scene in which they’re attacked by the witches who have some plan in mind (apparently, it’s to create an army of possessed people; I think I may have missed something) has the biggest unintentional laugh in the movie, as the gangster fights them off with a shotgun. Give the film some credit for having someone finally use a gun to try and fight off the supernatural, but I have to ask the question, “Was this meant to be a PARODY of the ‘Paranormal Activity’ movies?”

I want my answer to be “yes,” because there is no way I could possibly take a horror film seriously when it brings in a Simon game to answer questions for the invisible demon that’s haunting the main character. That’s right. I am dead serious. Instead of a Ouija board, the characters use a Simon game to communicate with the spirit. Guys, save it for “Scary Movie 6.”

What about the scares, you might ask. Aren’t there any good scares? The main jumps are of the “it’s-only-a-cat” variety. While those are fine, they can be a bit much. The main scares for me came when Jesse, now evil, discovers he is telekinetic and even tortures his dog. Being a dog-person, that made me feel uneasy. And there were some other good scares in the final act, I’ll just say. But there’s also those scenes that should be scary but are really not because of the way it’s executed, such as when the characters are hiding from someone or even when they use the old cliché of going to check on someone whose back is turned to them. Of course something bad is going to happen when that person turns around. We’ve seen this stuff before.

I did like the two lead actors, Andrew Jacobs and Jorge Diaz. They’re likable in a goofy way, share great chemistry as two buddies, and are fun to watch as they react to every dangerous situation they come across.

It’s no wonder the studio decided to release this film in the first weekend of January (the worst opening date you could think of) instead of giving it an October Halloween release. It’s as if they know they don’t have anything special and didn’t want many people to see it. Hopefully, someone else take this premise and make something better and smarter with it. As it is, “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” is a mess. And what’s worse is that all of these “Paranormal Activity” movies kept giving us the impression that everything was building up to something. I don’t think I care to find out what it is anymore. (Or maybe I will when the sixth film comes out.)

Oh, and there’s something else I should add that should clarify exactly how silly this franchise has gotten. Without giving anything away, there is time-travel in the final act of the film. There you go.

Reality Bites (1994)

11 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A film that shows the plight of post-college graduates can be made well, if the makers of it just take their time to really dive into what it’s like to accept the reality of growing up and facing real life. Joel Schumacher’s horrid “St. Elmo’s Fire” was not that film, and unfortunately, neither is Ben Stiller’s “Reality Bites.” Instead of presenting its characters as real, reasonable people, “Reality Bites” presents them as shallow, callous, and all-around terrible.

Now, to be sure, there are people like that in the world, and I’m not saying you can’t like a film with unlikeable characters. But the story framing of “Reality Bites” is all wrong, trying to make the film into a quirky romantic comedy (even with old clichés to assist it), and that can only mean that no serious consequences are necessary for their behavior. And I hated it even more when I realize that nothing about them has changed and that these are supposed to be our sympathetic heroes all along.

These are nonconformist Gen-Xers in the mid-‘90s whose plights are centered around two common rules for them—don’t sell out and don’t give in to The Man. Would that explain why Winona Ryder’s Lelaina Pierce isn’t the best employee working for a local morning television show? Would that explain why Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer lost his twelfth (yes, twelfth) job and is now living with Lelaina and her friends, sleep-around Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and closeted Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn)? Would that also explain why he spends his time playing guitar at a coffee house when he’s not lounging on the couch, spewing pretentious “insight?”

Of the four characters I just mentioned, the only two characters that have legitimate dramatic conflicts in their lives are not the two main characters, Lelaina and Troy, but Vickie and Sammy. And because the film is too focused on the former two to care about these two more interesting people, they get little to no resolution. Vickie has a series of one-night stands that leads to her confronting a very real risk of catching the HIV virus. What happens then? The test comes out negative, and we’re not sure of whether or not she’ll continue with these flings. Then there’s Sammy—very possibly gay. He hasn’t come out of the closet yet because of how his conservative parents might react. What’s his resolution? I don’t know, because Lalaina’s documentation doesn’t follow into Sammy’s parents’ house where he goes to tell them. I guess we’re supposed to assume it went well and now Sammy will starting seeing men.

Oh yeah, there’s a story here, isn’t there? “Lalaina’s documentation,” as I forcibly brought into the review just now, refers to Lalaina constantly videotaping her friends goofing around or discussing their current situations. (Hello, Mark Cohen from “RENT.”) She uses a regular home-video camera with bad video quality so the film can try and make it seem “real.” Maybe if they were worried about reality with this angle, they would know that not many filmmakers shake the camera as much as Lalaina does, except for those who are either starting out in this field or don’t know how to frame a shot.

This documentary has a chance to aired on TV, when Lalaina meets a nice yuppie who happens to work for an MTV-like station. This is Michael Grates, played by the director himself Ben Stiller. He is a good man—he’s smart, he’s attentive, he’s nervous, he’s pretty much everything that Troy is not, which the film tries to make us think is a bad thing. Why? Because Lalaina has to choose between the two of them, even though it’s very obvious (to us, anyway) who the right guy is for her. Michael is supposed to be “the other man” for Lalaina to leave, so she and Troy can get together.

The most frustrating aspect of this film is that it had a chance to avoid that cliché and it just didn’t ignore it. Here’s what happens—Michael takes Lelaina’s finished documentary to the station network; it’s edited severely in a stylized montage that Lelaina doesn’t recognize as her “artistic vision”; she’s mad because Michael sold out to The Man; and she leaves him so she can be with Troy. (Actually, I think the network improved the documentary!) Ben Stiller sold his own character out.

“Reality Bites” is essentially hipster trash. It has nothing to present aside from superficiality and callousness, the very things that the characters claim they don’t want to be involved with. This film didn’t make me care about the problems of post-college graduates; it just made me think of rewriting the screenplay myself and thinking of what I would personally add. Now, I’m just wondering where I would begin.

The Haunting (1999)

2 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You know how Robert Wise’s 1963 low-budget haunted-house movie “The Haunting” was an effective chiller by showing very little while creating atmosphere, thus scaring audiences without the visible presence of illustrative mayhem? You want to see that effectiveness thrown out the window for a remake?

To start with this review of Jan De Bont’s 1999 remake of “The Haunting,” I probably can’t talk about this one without also talking about another horror film that was released the same year as this one—“The Blair Witch Project.” “The Blair Witch Project” was a little film that managed to scare audiences the same way Wise’s original “Haunting” did, with its same minimal concept: showing very little. That film was one of the most inventive horror films to come around in a long time, whereas this 1999 version of “The Haunting” is unintentionally silly, and unbelievably so. It’s amazing how far this movie misses the mark on why the original film worked as a frightening experience.

The movie starts out fine, strangely. The setup is actually well-done and surprisingly intriguing enough to suck us into the story. We meet our protagonist, Eleanor (Lili Taylor), who is more of an insecure person nearing a nervous breakdown than a mentally-tortured oddball like in the original. This surprisingly works, as Eleanor is a character with actual complexity and Lili Taylor does a consistently good job of playing her. Eleanor has spent years looking after her invalid mother until her death, and is now being thrown out of her apartment because of rights in a will. Not knowing what to do, she responds to a newspaper ad seeking research subjects for a sleep study at a secluded manor called Hill House. Run by Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson), the true purpose of the study is to study psychological responses to fear—he picks Hill House because the house is seemingly haunted and telling stories about its history may bring the response he needs for the study. His subjects are Eleanor, Theodora (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Luke (Owen Wilson).

While I’m complimenting the setup (except that this “insomnia-study” seems a little too contrived, especially seeing as how in the original, the people knew what they were getting into from the start), I should really praise the overall look of Hill House. The production design here is outstanding. The locations and sets look fascinating, and they’re definitely enough to keep our attention for good chunks of the film. There’s a particularly terrific scene in which Eleanor and Theodora explore a good chunk of Hill House and find all sorts of surprises inside. Everything is so rich in detail that it nearly (nearly) puts the original film’s haunted-house splendor to shame.

And one more thing to be said—the first supernatural occurrence that the characters experience in Hill House, with Eleanor and Theodora reacting to something forceful pounding outside their bedroom, is creepy enough. But that’s only the first one, and the film goes downhill real fast after that point. After a nicely-done setup, “The Haunting” takes a brutal nosedive into something unworthy of the original film. And the best way to start with just how much it doesn’t care about its predecessor is to mention the overall use of computer-generated imagery. It makes its first appearance midway through the movie, as we experience all kinds of ghosts who make all kinds of appearances to frighten Eleanor, such as a face appearing in a pillow. And from that point, the film has lost me. It gives us wall-to-wall CGI effects (and particularly bad CGI too) and also thrusts us into a badly-written, horribly-crafted second half that only gets sillier and sillier.

Has director Jan De Bont (“Speed,” “Twister”) ever heard of subtlety? I mean, come on—really? Did he really think that “The Haunting” would be more effective if he just showed what the original film didn’t? This was his biggest mistake for the film—showing all, making it all lose credibility once the effects start to pop up. And it only gets worse with a story that somehow involves Eleanor having some sort of connection with the ghosts (or rather, the cheap-looking “good ghosts” whose only purpose is to chant Eleanor’s name in singsong and whisper “solemnly” for her to “find” them) and the other characters (Markway, Theodora, and Luke) are amazingly slow to catch on, and then when they do, all sorts of crazy things happen—crazy enough to make us laugh sometimes. But I couldn’t laugh; I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Lili Taylor, like I said, does a consistently good job at playing Eleanor, and Catherine Zeta-Jones does fine as Theodora (though to add to the non-subtlety that the movie offering, the character’s possible bisexuality, only implied in the original, is…not so implied; in fact, it’s blatantly obvious, though I guess it had to do as much as possible to exploit Zeta-Jones’ body). But Liam Neeson is stiff as a board and Owen Wilson is given nothing to do, except point out what is happening right in front of us (I miss Russ Tamblyn’s one-liners).

The ending is the biggest slap to the original film’s face. If you thought the film was bad enough already, this is just horrible. The psychological tension of the original film is thrown out the window for more CGI, more crappy storytelling, and bad filmmaking. It’s just dumb, dumb, dumb. To call it a disappointment would be understating it.

The original Robert Wise film “The Haunting” is my personal favorite horror film, which is why it hurts me to find just how much this remake doesn’t work. “The Blair Witch Project” shows more respect towards the original than this film does. That film at least left its scary aspects to the viewer’s imagination, which made it scarier because it was what we didn’t see rather than what we did. Maybe Jan De Bont should have thought of that before showing and telling all.

Patch Adams (1998)

15 May


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Patch Adams” is one of the most manipulative films that is said to be “based on a true story.” And it is based on a true story (albeit very loosely)—the life story of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams. I’ll get to the fact-vs.-fiction aspects later in this review, but to get straight to the point, even if it wasn’t loosely based on the life story of a fascinating individual, I still wouldn’t recommend “Patch Adams.” It’s not only manipulative in the ways of delivering melodrama; it’s forced, obvious, and very clichéd. Its main purpose is to bestow upon movie audiences an emotional tearjerker by using cheap maneuvers.

Robin Williams stars as the title character, Patch Adams. As the movie begins, he is a mental patient in the Fairfax State Psychiatric Ward. During his time there, he finds he is able to help his fellow inmates, and decides to become a medical doctor. When he’s released, he enrolls in the Virginia Medical University, where he is the oldest first-year student, at age 40-something.

But because this is a contrived feel-good melodrama that shows almost every other character as one-dimensional, Patch questions the methods that are being taught that involve emotional detachment from patients. Patch believes that in order to treat a patient’s disease, it’s important for a doctor to reach and connect with the patient. To prove his points, he shows a few students a few methods of his own, such as seeing patients (even though only third-year students are allowed to deal with patients) and pulling all sorts of antics to cheer them up and make them laugh. But of course, while a few fellow students follow him on this, Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton) doesn’t approve of Patch’s “excessive happiness” and seeks to throw him out of medical school.

By the way, I’m not even kidding—that’s literally what he calls Patch’s behavior and his reason for such untraditional behavior.

The depiction of the other doctors in “Patch Adams” is one of the most manipulative parts of the movie. They’re simply plot-tools to make us hate them and like Patch. This movie acts as if bedside manner is nonexistent and there’s apparently no difference between being a doctor and a complete jerk. And this movie also acts as if Patch Adams was the first person to invent such methods as a doctor-patient relationship. OK, I guess it sort of makes sense that emotional detachment keeps some doctors from being too involved to the point where they can’t let themselves go any further with the patient, because of such a relationship. But here’s a tip for the stuck-up jerkoffs in this movie—at least learn the patient’s name for starters.

Patch uses all sorts of tricks and treats to make patients happy. And to be honest, he’s quite good at it. He’s a good clown…but wait a minute! This unstable, out-of-control, “excessively happy” man is supposed to be a doctor? If he really wants to reach people and cheer them up, why doesn’t he just skip the psychiatrist concept or medical doctor angle and just become a clown that is assigned to come to hospitals and bring joy where it’s needed?

Oh wait, I forgot—it’s because, as Patch believes, laughter is the best medicine, so I guess that counts…?

And it doesn’t just stop at the hospital either. His mission is to make everyone around him see things his way by using these same methods. He shows a no-nonsense woman, Carin (Monica Potter), the joys of laughter when using an enema bulb for a red clown nose; he brings his friend, medical student Truman Schiff (Daniel London), with him on his “unorthodox” exercises; and he even builds a giant papier-mâché pair of legs that reach an apex at an entrance for a gynecologists’ convention. (Class act.) Oh, and I’m pretty sure Patch’s stuffy bore of a roommate, Mitch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), will crack a smile once the movie is over.

Robin Williams is fit to play the part, but that really isn’t saying much. That’s because “Patch Adams” is pretty much an ideal example of the “Robin Williams formula” in which Robin Williams plays a quirky free-spirit that is up against the villainous establishment-types, and while he’s rebellious and confident “poet” of a protagonist, he manages to get his way in the end, usually after an obligatory big-speech.

Speaking of which, there is a big-speech. And yes, it takes place in a courtroom. And wouldn’t you believe it—this scene ends on an unbelievably forced, painful note with the child cancer-patients walking into the room with big red clown noses to appeal to the jury that seeks to finish with Patch’s medical career quickly. Give me a break. (And why are all of those kids even out of bed?!)

Now, a word about the real Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams. Despite what this movie would like you to believe for the sake of a typical Hollywood tearjerker, this Patch Adams goes beyond just being a clown. This guy knows what he’s doing. His methods are untraditional in some sense, but always in a way of hard work. And he treats his patients with respect and individuality, compared to the fictional Patch Adams in the movie which pretty just portrays him as more or less…a clown.

But here’s where the fact-vs.-fiction really shoots the movie in the foot—not just with the inaccurate portrayal of a fascinating guy, but also of his friends. In particular, the character of Carin, we all know is there for a romantic love-interest and is simply there to die because that will lead to a crisis that will need to be resolved. Here’s something that maybe you didn’t know—Carin was loosely based on a real person, but she was never romantically interested in Patch in the slightest at all. In fact, Patch had a best friend whose life was lost in a tragic incident just like Carin’s was, but it wasn’t in the same way as was shown here. And if you could believe it, that friend was not a “she,” but a “he.” Why did they change the gender and make the friend into a love-interest for Patch in the movie? Because every feel-good movie needs a relationship and a crisis, so the filmmakers decided to kill two birds with one stone. This movie makes me want to puke.

“Patch Adams” definitely does not earn its corniness or melodrama. It’s so obvious, so clumsy, and such a miscalculation in a “based-on-a-true-story” subgenre if ever I saw one. Do yourselves a favor, and look up the actual Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams. Don’t rely on this movie to tell you about him.

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

14 May


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Of all the boring, deplorable slasher-movies to resurface in the mid-1990s, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” at least has an advantage of having an interesting story. (In fact, it sounds more interesting than it actually is.) Here’s the setup: four young friends celebrate the 4th of July when they get into an accident. That night, they accidentally hit a man on a dark highway with their car, and kill him. Unwilling to face manslaughter charges, they decide to take the body and dump it off a pier and into the sea, and never speak of it again. Exactly one year later, they’re reunited in their hometown when they receive notes that say “I know what you did last summer” and are stalked by a mysterious figure. Who is it? Was it someone who saw what they did that night? is it the same person, revealed not to be dead? Is it one of his relatives or friends? One thing is for sure—whoever it is wants to pay them back.

That sounds like a good idea, and you can develop dramatic tension with that premise, as well as suspense. For example, the guilt that these four people feel since that accident must be a huge amount of such, and that it drifted them apart makes it more complex. And there is a character—the victim’s sister—that is probably the most interesting person in the movie. She’s a recluse who lives alone in a country house and apparently has not fully come to grips with her brother’s death.

I wish the movie had been more about her. It would have been more interesting than how it is now, because as it is now, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” is just a bore. It’s a typical slasher movie. The characters are not developed in a way that you care for who lives and who dies. The situations are laughably bad. And the killer in this movie is a fisherman with a slicker, hat, and hook (in a fishing town it’s said that a lot of people wear slickers, but in the middle of summer, I don’t think so). There’s more to do with setups and slashings than much else, story-wise. The large-breasted heroine screams at the most inopportune moments, especially in the climax. And it ends with a particularly uninteresting twist that didn’t make a lot of sense to me (though to be fair, that’s probably because it was a weak twist to begin with).

What else can be said about a film like this? It’s just a dumb, insipid slasher-movie with hardly anything to offer, except a subplot involving that character I mentioned above. She’s played by Anne Heche and she does give a solid performance. I want to know her story. Better yet, I’d like to rewrite the entire screenplay so that this admittedly-interesting story can be delivered in a much more involving way than it is now. I guess I give actors Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Ryan Philippe credit for trying to make something out of their lazily developed characters, but they needed better material to work with here.

Pearl Harbor (2001)

13 May


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Michael Bay tends to make his big-budget action films an hour longer than they need to be. Apparently, how he and producer Jerry Bruckheimer manage to do that is to keep holding onto whatever eye candy they can create and market from their popcorn movies. Special effects take center while scripts are not usually called upon to serve them. And with “Pearl Harbor,” Bay and Bruckheimer take things a few steps further. This is their “epic” effort, set against a historical backdrop and attempting to tell a compelling human-interest story with a running time of 183 minutes. 183 minutes—if Bay’s earlier action films were an hour too long, then this one is about an hour-and-a-half too long.

Did Bay think he was making “Titanic?” Like that film, “Pearl Harbor” spends a majority of running time with a romantic couple and their conflicts with being together, with a historical event looming and waiting to come around until later in the film, when said-characters would have to endure true danger.

Actually, yes, I am convinced that this was an attempt to cash in on the success of “Titanic.” But the main problem with “Pearl Harbor” is the lazily-written screenplay. The dialogue is laughably bad; clichés in romances and war films are present; and the human-interest story is hardly interesting. So much money went into the look of “Pearl Harbor” that I’m surprised that the rest of it wasn’t used to create a more complex script. As it is, it looks nice, the cast is solid, the special effects are very impressive, and it has the potential to be something better than it is, given the subject matter which is admittedly captivating. Having a story set around the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 is interesting enough if given the right human-interest story. But I couldn’t care less about most of what was happening onscreen. That it runs over three hours in length makes it even more unbearable to watch.

The story centers on bomber pilots Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), who are best friends and practically brothers. Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) is a nurse who passed Rafe in a medical exam for the Air Corps, even though he is dyslexic. Rafe and Evelyn are fools for each other until Rafe announces to her that he’s joining the Eagle Squadron very soon.

Get this—Rafe gives Evelyn the news the night before he’s supposed to leave and denies her a night of romance so that the lust will be a good motivator not to be killed in the war, and return home. Then he tells her not to see him off, stating that if she does come, it proves that she loves him. Sheesh, this is the human-interest story we have to go through? That’s just the beginning. It gets worse as we endure a second romance between Evelyn and Danny, after Rafe is declared dead, killed in battle. And wouldn’t you know it—after all that time, we find that Rafe is still alive, as he comes home and discovers Evelyn’s relationship with Danny. And there you have it—a love triangle that will undoubtedly be interrupted and resolved by one of the key actions of World War II.

An hour-and-a-half into the proceedings is when we finally endure the attack on Pearl Harbor. Admittedly, it’s pretty intense and is told in a somewhat-credible way, given the goofiness of certain situations (such as a stutterer who alerts his fellow soldiers of the attackers, and even a private who runs out to find out what the commotion is all about, while brushing his teeth and wearing a towel). But here’s a major problem with this action sequence—we never got to know any of the soldiers getting killed in the attack. Rafe and Danny are unwinding from an argument the night before, and aren’t in the middle of the attack. And as for Evelyn, she and her giggling friends are attacked at the base hospital, even though I don’t think I’ve read that the Japanese fired on civilians. Everyone else is just an extra. That’s a very bad move to set up these three characters and not put them in real danger for the attack, and even worse not to give us memorable character traits for the ones that are getting killed.

I never cared for the protagonists, or the love-triangle they have to endure. Dramatic tension is cast aside for clichéd writing and uninteresting situations. The romance is recycled from what seems like soap-opera material. When the attack does come is when things are more interesting—even though the poorly-developed characters aren’t in much danger in that central sequence, at least we don’t have to deal with their story for a while. But once that’s done with, there’s still an hour left, with more monotonous characterization and dull conditions. You know you’re in trouble when you find yourself wishing for more over-the-top action in a Bay picture.

The only redeeming aspects of the final hour of “Pearl Harbor” are the moments involving actors playing true-life characters. In particular, Jon Voight (sporting a rubber chin) plays Franklin D. Roosevelt who of course declares that America join the war—he has a particularly “awesome” moment in which he, out of anger, wills himself to stand up from his wheelchair and stand up to Congress. Also entertaining is Alec Baldwin as General Doolittle, who late in the film states every single obligatory war-movie-speech cliché in the book. That is irritating yet funny at the same time.

I can’t really blame Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale because they are admittedly solid in their lazily constructed roles. The blame has to go to Randall Wallace’s screenplay. It lacks dramatic pull, wastes a great chunk of running-time on uninteresting characters, and lacks an element as vital as intelligence. “Pearl Harbor” is overlong, unexciting, and unremarkable. And it just shows everything that “Titanic” did right (whether you like it or not) and what this movie does wrong.

The Happening (2008)

9 May


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I hate to pick on M. Night Shyamalan. I really do. His successful 1999 thriller “The Sixth Sense” is a masterpiece in my eyes. I really like his follow-up thrillers “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” and I find “The Village” to be quite underrated. But as “Lady in the Water” declared his downfall as a filmmaker by just trying too hard to make a complicated, laughable story into something even more so in execution, this is also proven in the follow-up to that film, “The Happening.” For those who thought “Lady in the Water” was inept, “The Happening” is even more so. It’s strange (not in a good way) and just laughably bad.

This is one of the stupidest apocalyptic thrillers I’ve ever seen. See if you follow this—it begins as some sort of neurotoxin hits several people in New York, causing them to freeze in time, take a few steps backward, and then ultimately kill themselves.

Richard Roeper put this best, by the way—“Something wicked this way comes, and when it does, you die.”

Anyway, this airborne silent-invisible killer spreads from city to city. It’s posted by the media as a terrorist attack, but (get this) there’s a different theory that maybe nature has something to do with it, that it’s extremely ticked off at society and has found a way to communicate through the trees in order to spread a toxin in the air that will destroy all of humanity.

Yeah, that’s silly enough. It’s even more laughable as the heroes we follow in “The Happening” actually talk to the trees and plants in an attempt to soothe them and spare their lives.

Our heroes are a high-school science teacher, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg); his emotionally withdrawn wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel, keeping her eyes as wide as she possibly can); Elliot’s best friend, Julian (John Leguizamo); and Julian’s young daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). They leave the city of Philadelphia by train after news of the attack, but then are stranded in a rural area where they must…outrun the wind?

Yep, they outrun the wind and find shelter easily. And get this—they never stay in one spot and hole up! They keep going from place to place without having the intelligence to just hide in one location and wait out the storm. These characters are too dumb for a slasher-movie, let alone a disaster-movie.

The atmosphere is practically nonexistent. There’s hardly a sense of menace in the air (so to speak), so it’s hard to fear for the characters when the threat is near. And characterization is even worse—it’s stilted and forced, and the dialogue doesn’t help either. Speaking of which, say this line without cracking up (I dare you)—“Don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it!” I don’t know about you, but that line kills me.

What was M. Night Shyamalan trying to pull off here? An environmental message within an apocalyptic thriller? Well, if he can’t make trees or plants seem ominous or threatening, there’s hardly anything that can be worth recommending for “The Happening.”