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Signs (revised review with spoilers)

8 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I would issue a “SPOILER ALERT,” but how many people who read my blog don’t know about “Signs?”

When I first reviewed M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 hit “Signs,” I was naïve enough as a young reviewer (I think I was about 17 when I wrote the review) to try not to give away any spoilers for a film that was already getting a heap of backlash. “Signs” is a film that was receiving a lot of love before it was getting a lot of hate. And I didn’t even acknowledge the backlash in my review; it was one of the worst reviews I’ve ever written that, for some reason, I decided to post in my blog years later when I started it. Rather than go in-depth about a film that everyone was picking on left and right, I was heavily inspired by Roger Ebert’s review. He gave “Signs” the same star-rating I did (four stars out of four), and he kept it spoiler-free in his review. (I wish I could explain to 17-year-old Tanner Smith the difference between taking inspiration from someone’s work and ripping it off.)

Anyway, “Signs” is a film that gets a lot of criticism that I think is unwarranted. I’m keeping the four-star verdict for this “Revised Review,” because Shyamalan’s “Signs” is one of my personal favorite movies.

I’m not kidding—I love “Signs” un-ironically and wholeheartedly. So now, I’m going to give it the Smith’s Verdict treatment that it deserves.

The film centers on a rural-Pennsylvania family (“20 miles outside Philadelphia,” a caption states)—widower father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and Graham’s two children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). One morning, they awaken to find that in their cornfield are mysterious shapes bent from several of the crops. From above, they look like crop circles. If this were a prank, it’d be one thing; but apparently, it’s happening all over the world and it all seems to be a warning sign for a global invasion from an otherworldly force. Aliens are coming, it seems, and Graham isn’t sure whether to believe it or not, but the others are more than willing to accept the possibility. Before long, the looming danger draws closer and the family has to survive the night…

OK, here goes—it turns out there really are extraterrestrials that come to Earth and mean harm towards mankind. Let’s start off with the ultimate masterstroke in telling this particular alien-invasion story: it keeps the focus on just one part of the world, with one family knowing as much as they can possibly know, from listening to the radio broadcasts, watching TV broadcast news, and even encountering some aliens themselves. Therefore, we as an audience only know what they know. Unlike in “Independence Day,” which featured a large variety of characters in different parts of the world witnessing the extraordinary events as they unfold, in “Signs,” we’re given the absolute minimum of the attack. And I think that’s great—sometimes, less is more.

Unfortunately, this is probably the source of a lot of the complaints & questions people have about “Signs” that they just won’t let be. The aliens have trouble with wooden doors. Water seems to be the only thing that can hurt them. Why would they come to a planet mostly covered with water? Why didn’t they bring any weapons? Because we know so little about the invasion itself, aside from what the group of characters only hears about, many of us are too quick to assume that these are mere plot holes that can’t be filled. But I think they can be…

For one thing, the criticism of the water being the thing that burns the aliens like acid has never been warranted, in my opinion. Think of it like this—if we were on a whole other planet in a whole other galaxy, we could come across something that could be very lethal to us; something that is a natural resource to the planet’s inhabitants. I never understood why people find it hard to believe that the aliens would have a deadly reaction to something they haven’t encountered before.

As for the question of why they would attack Earth, a planet that is mostly composed of water, I refer you to a scene in which the characters listen to a radio broadcast, in which a witness believes that they didn’t come to take over our planet but rather to harvest humans. They couldn’t care less about our planet; they just want as many of us as they could get before they left. And they seemed to have left in a big hurry, leaving only their wounded behind, most likely because of the water. Again, we don’t know for sure because we’re only limited to what we see on this family’s farm, but if some of the aliens landed somewhere where it rained, for example, that’d be enough for a slaughter, a distress call, a retreat, anything.

The final encounter in the film comes when a wounded alien has made its way to the house and nearly kills Morgan with its poisonous gas (luckily, Morgan, having suffered an asthma attack prior, didn’t inhale it because his lungs were too closed up). This is the alien that Graham encountered the previous day at a neighbor’s house, before removing its fingers with a carving knife. So, obviously, because its brethren scattered quickly and left their wounded behind, the alien, after having busted out of the house pantry where he was locked up, must have followed the closest crop circle and found its way to this house. It’s a desperate act that people have also questioned.

Oh, and what about the wood? These things seem to have trouble with wooden doors. (“Scary Movie 3” even mentioned this at one point: “They mastered space flight, but they can’t get through a wooden door?”) But here’s the thing—they have no weapons to aid them. It’s possible that they didn’t find any use for them, because they were only here for us, not for our planet. And here’s the other thing—they did get through the doors! When the family is holed up in the basement, how do you think the aliens ended up outside the door? They busted through the doors upstairs (and the boarded-up windows too—you can see the broken planks near the end of the film). And more importantly, the wounded alien at the end was the same alien that was locked in a kitchen pantry before…so, he obviously broke out. (It’s going to take some effort, guys.)

Something else people love to complain about is how everything seems to come together at the end, with Graham, a former preacher, suddenly gaining his faith back after it seems his wife’s dying words were warnings for the future, leading up to this moment in which Merrill must kill the alien with his treasured baseball bat. (“Merrill…swing away.”) People complain that it’s an unneeded premonition that is forced rather than revealing. Maybe Shyamalan was going for a way for God to provide help, thus restoring Graham’s beliefs (and there’s even a scene early in the film about how there may not be coincidences in the world). But I never saw it as that big a deal. I just saw it as Graham figuring out the best way to save the day while considering the possibility that this is no coincidence. Everybody has their reasons to believe.

And while I’m on the subject, people also complain about Graham leaving the cloth because he originally lost his faith after his wife died. He’s a flawed man, as you can see as the film continues. There are moments, particularly when he talks with Merrill (and especially their conversation about hope and fear), that indicate not only is he not so sure about whether or not we’re all alone in the world with no one to look after us and protect us, but also that he was never entirely sure even when he was a priest. No one is perfect. That’s what I got out of it, anyway.

I will give the critics a little bit of credit—it is a bit odd that the concept of crop circles, something that was dismissed as a big hoax in real-life (and even mentioned in this film at one point), is something that the aliens in this film actually decided to perform (for use of navigational purposes). Kind of coincidental, isn’t it? But then again, don’t some people wonder what would happen those crop circles really were from otherworldly sources? It is the movies, after all—what’s wrong with some wish-fulfillment?

I’ve already mentioned in my previous review how effective the acting is from all four principal actors, how striking the production design is (right down to the stained cross on the wall, which I did not recognize before), how deeply unsettling it is the way Shyamalan uses silence to elevate tension, and how wonderful James Newton Howard’s music score is. But they deserve mentioning again because I think just about everything about “Signs” works. As with “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” “Signs” was a case of a filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan putting his faith into his audience and telling a story using both big and little elements to both satisfy them and make them ponder. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of people didn’t fall for it. But I did, and I’m all the more glad that I took the time to truly think about all the things I mentioned in this review, rather than let the questions linger on in my mind before I decided I didn’t like “Signs.” I love “Signs,” and I will continue to love “Signs” to my dying day. It’s one of my favorite movies, and I will shrug off any more complaints I read about it. To those complaints, I say: it’s not a problem if it can be explained.

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Heavyweights (Revised Review)

26 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yep, it’s “Revised Review” time again! And I would say it’s “Guilty Pleasure” time again, except I hold no guilt in liking “Heavyweights” whatsoever. It’s one of my childhood favorites, and when I wrote my mixed review (saying I liked it until the end), I thought I was telling myself I had outgrown the silly humor, the clichéd plot, the overdone stereotypical characters, and the conventional sports-movie ending. But I should’ve told myself, “Come on! You enjoy many parts of this movie, you love watching it every once in awhile, and even the ending isn’t that bad. At least give it three stars for being something you like!”

It is true; I do enjoy watching “Heavyweights” every once in awhile. I loved it as a kid and watched it over and over and over again, so much so that I had most of it memorized by the time I realized the clichés and the stereotypes and whatnot. Because of that, I thought I wasn’t supposed to cut it too much slack as a film critic. How silly I was, because while “Heavyweights” does have those familiar elements to it, there’s an edge that makes them more enjoyable than in something like “The Mighty Ducks” (which featured some of the same actors and crew members three years earlier). (Maybe since-accomplished Judd Apatow, providing one of his first screenwriter credits in his career by co-writing this movie, had something to do with that edge.)

So, because of that, I’m giving it three-and-a-half stars instead of three, because I just like “Heavyweights” that much!

The main character of “Heavyweights” is an 11-year-old overweight boy named Gerry (Aaron Schwartz). His parents send him, against his wishes, to a fat camp called Camp Hope, which is advertised to make overweight boys lose weight and have fun in the process. Gerry is bummed about it until he makes friends with his cabinmates, including Josh (Shaun Weiss) and Roy (Kenan Thompson in one of his early roles, just before Nickelodeon’s “All That”), who are not serious about losing weight. (They even hide food in secret compartments in their cabin.)

But before the first day at camp is even over is when the trouble starts. The friendly owners of the camp (played by Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller—I dunno, are they wasted cameos?) announce that their positions are taken over by self-assured fitness guru Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller), who is determined to make the kids lose weight quickly. Why? So he can make a quick buck with an infomercial about weight loss. He makes life at camp a living hell for the kids, and so the kids fight back and take control of the camp and their lives.

From this point forward, I would like to issue a SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen the movie before, check it out and then come back to read the rest of this review.

Everything builds up to an ultimate confrontation between Perkis and the kids (in which, in a neat little twist, Perkis’ parental issues come into play as he lashes out at the parents: “PARENTS! YOU’RE ALL THE CAUSE OF MY…THEIR PROBLEMS!”). But the movie continues with the kids earning their self-respect, going up against the athletic bullies from the camp across the lake (“Camp MVP”). This is what I complained about before, in my original review. But I really don’t have that much to complain about anymore. It’s dealt with quickly, isn’t boring, and it has its share of funny jokes here or there (such as when one of the jocks mistakes the Mona Lisa for Cher). Yeah, the big race is predictable. Yeah, the ultimate happy-ending is a bit much. But did I complain about the slow-clap at the end of one of my favorite movies, “Lucas”? No way. So why should I complain about this final act when, really, my problems with it are mere nitpicks?

This is what happens when a kid tries to become a serious film critic—he lets nitpicks of a silly, fun film get the better of him in a “serious review.”

“Heavyweights” is full of memorable, colorful characters, which is part of the reason I keep coming back to revisit the film. The kids are entertaining to watch and played by good comic actors, and the adults just have as much fun. Tom McGowen plays a good-natured counselor character named Pat, who is downgraded to janitor upon Perkis’ arrival because Perkis sees his weight as less of a motivator for the kids. Leah Lail is the attractive new nurse who becomes the apple of Pat’s eye; she doesn’t have as much to do as the rest of the cast in terms of humor, but she is likable enough. Paul Feig (yes, Paul Feig of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Bridesmaids” fame) scores a few laughs as a skinny counselor named Tim. And then there’s Ben Stiller as Tony Perkis and Tom Hodges as a buff, foreign counselor named Lars. Man, are these two lots of fun to watch—very funny and memorable at the same time. Stiller plays the part of Perkis with a few parts Fonzie and other parts Wayne from “Wayne’s World” and much original talent—a mixture that would fit him well for a similar role in “Dodgeball” nine years later. Even in the smallest comedic moments, such as when he jogs in the woods near his cabin, he’s wonderful. (“Come on, you devil log!” he exclaims as he stops to lift a log in his path.)

I mentioned that Judd Apatow, in the early stages of his career (which would lead to bigger and better things), is one of the writers of the film, and it actually makes sense. For what could have otherwise been a deplorable, standard summer-camp romp for Disney, Apatow gives the material a much-needed edge with a lot of witty one-liners, an awareness of itself, and colorful characters that don’t get dumbed down (for the most part). He and Paul Feig went on to create “Freaks and Geeks,” and honestly, I think I like “Heavyweights” almost as much as my favorite episodes of that series.

Yes, there are some things that are overdone. For example, there are some slapstick pratfalls that get more groans than laughs from me. And I guess it should bother me that the idea of satirizing the infomercial-weight-loss concept isn’t stretched out to its full potential (and accidentally treating the overweight kids as the problem, if you really think about it—none of the kids end up with serious pain as a result of the “system”). But I can’t sit here and let my original review of “Heavyweights” remain on smithsverdict.com without some redemption from me, a person that genuinely enjoys the movie and will probably watch it again now that I’ve talked about it some more. It even made it go out and buy the Blu-Ray, which has tons of bonus material about the making of the film, a commentary with cast & crew, an hour-and-a-half of deleted/extended scenes, and even more.

Any film that gets me excited about extensive bonus features on the Blu-Ray doesn’t deserve a mixed review.

The Dirties: What Does This Underrated Indie Flick Say About Media and Society?

18 Jun

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By Tanner Smith

WARNING: This editorial contains spoilers for the film in question, “The Dirties.”

In 2013, an independent Canadian film called “The Dirties” premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. Since then, filmmaker Kevin Smith helped with distribution by way of his company, Kevin Smith Movie Club, and it has since been released on home media and video-on-demand. Those who have seen it are rather split about it—some say it’s a fresh, compelling take on bullying while others either call it either a self-praising “meta-mockumentary” or an irresponsible look at a risky topic that shouldn’t be touched upon. That topic in question is “school shooting.”

There’s no doubt that whenever those two words are mentioned, people’s minds are at unease. People recall numerous horrifying occurrences in which students were killed by gunmen on campus, which then leads them to wonder why they happened to begin with. The answers from media and society are usually unclear, so people come to their own conclusions, mostly having to do with mental disorders or TV/film violence. “The Dirties” is a controversial film that raises similar questions but also manages to deliver its own interpretation as well.

The film is told through the perspective of a video camera and is about a teenage movie buff named Matt (played by writer-director Matt Johnson) wanting to make his own movie. He buys wireless microphones to use and has someone film him and his best (and only) friend, Owen (Owen Williams), presumably all the time. The movie he wants to make is a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which he and Owen exact revenge on a gang of bullies in their high school, whom they dub The Dirties. When that movie is complete, Matt comes up with an idea to make another movie—a more realistic one in which he actually brings a gun to school and shoots The Dirties. Owen doesn’t take Matt’s idea seriously at first, but he starts to question his sanity when he not only continues to play-act in front of the camera (as if living his own movie), but also has blueprints of the school and has been firing guns for target practice.

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The main character of Matt is trying to become a movie star of his own creation. He’s constantly making film references that no one else understands, tries to become the thing he’s referencing, and as the film goes on, he thinks less of what famous people would do and what he would do, since he has become what he usually references. And thanks to the obscure cameraman (whose identity is never revealed), he’s never alone. This is a modern problem in today’s society, that today’s kids film themselves and act in front of the camera. But Matt, who faces issues of bullying and alienation, actively puts himself on camera 24/7, and so he’s always trying to perform and he can’t seem to break out of it. Even when Owen acknowledges what he’s doing is insane, Matt can’t bring himself back to reality and instead wants to further his own interpretation of reality and continue making his movie.

Owen, meanwhile, would rather try something else than keep making a movie with Matt. He wants acceptance among his peers, which is something Matt clearly quit trying to achieve. He longs for the attention of a girl he likes; he wants to make new friends; he wants to try something new. The biggest turning point in his life is when Matt is so obsessed with his art that he never talks to Owen like a real person anymore and, even scarier, actually seems serious about conducting his own school shooting.

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When looking for someone or something to blame for school shootings, media and society sometimes like to point the finger at violence portrayed in TV and movies, suggesting that watching it can make someone want to commit destruction. But this film shows how that’s actually never the case. What it tries to address is the issue of youth psychology and how it’s never always how we interpret it. According to filmmaker Johnson in an interview with cinema-scope.com, “The news always tells you the story of the kid starting at the last chapter of his or her life: that kid was a loner, or whatever. Which is really irrelevant to what happened. If you actually wanted to know what happened to the kid, you look at the first 200 pages of his life.”

That leads into the film’s ending. Some people complain that the film ends anticlimactically with no clear reasoning or logic. It ends with Matt, after having shot The Dirties in the school hallway and scared away his classmates, finding Owen cowering in a corner. He says, out of breath, “What are you doing? It’s me.” The scene cuts to black, the end credits roll, and that’s the end. But if you really think about it, it ends where the typical news story would start. The news story would start where the tragedy ends, but the film is a representation of what happened beforehand, which no one would want to talk about.

“The Dirties” may be one of the most important films of recent years, delivering a compelling portrait of disaffected youth and a descent into sociopathic behavior. It accurately portrays kids with real issues—being bullied, isolation, moving on, drifting apart, and even at some points, being bullies to each other and eventually to their own bullies. When the promising sociopath feels like a real person, instead of a standard, cold, distant, ruthless, cold-hearted killer, that makes it overall tragic; when a funny, artistic, even empathetic guy is also bullied and more, that can cause him to take drastic measures for vengeance.

“The Dirties” is not merely an unflinching portrayal; it’s also a cautionary tale. The back half of the film is laced with misfortune (albeit with an underlying comic tone, brought on by Matt trying to keep things lighthearted). One scene features Matt telling Owen he thinks he might be a “psychopath”—is this a cry for help or more play-acting? Whatever it is, Owen doesn’t listen. Shortly after, Owen has moved on and become just another face in the halls and another member of society the film specifically criticizes—his mind is elsewhere and he doesn’t see Matt as a friend in distress. So, in a way, it’s Owen, Matt’s best and only friend, who actually drives Matt to do what he ends up doing in the end of the film. As Owen fears for his own life when he sees what Matt has become, Matt doesn’t understand what’s changed and why he can’t see him for what he is, hence the line, “What are you doing? It’s me.” It’s a truly sad moment. We know what’s really going on, but no one else does. Even Matt doesn’t see the trouble in what he’s done.

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It’s a challenging concept when the victim is the one with the gun, at least in this film. Many people who see the film arguably miss the point of it (or they’re too busy questioning the identity of the cameraman), but those who don’t can’t help but wonder: Who’s really to blame for occurrences like this? Are they portrayed the exact opposite way? Etc.

More people should seek out “The Dirties,” which is available on demand. It’s the kind of film that will force them to ask questions and find answers they’re uncomfortable about, and it also emphasizes the importance of reaching out and helping those who need assistance and companionship. If society chooses to ignore or mishear cries for help, even from their own friends, it can lead to damage to themselves and/or others. That’s the theory Johnson tried to portray in “The Dirties,” and it’s hard to argue that it’s far off.

My original review: https://smithsverdict.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/the-dirties-2013/

Red Dawn (2012) (revised review)

16 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I hinted in my “Revised Review” of Project X, a film I changed my mind about, that I would re-review another film that I changed my mind about: the 2012 remake of the popular ‘80s action-flick Red Dawn.

It’s strange because in my original review of this movie, I stated I liked it but merely as a fun action-flick. Here’s what I said:

“I understand the film’s flaws. I get it, OK? The war element is defined in an improbable way. The characters aren’t developed enough. The shaky-cam gimmick that they use gets old, as it usually does. The pacing is a bit rushed. The ending feels more like the end of a first-entry in a franchise (which there probably won’t be). I get it. I don’t care. I know that’s weird of me to say, but…I don’t care. I was entertained.”

Well, maybe that’s how I felt when I first saw the movie, but the second time around, I realized I was being played for a sucker.

In the original film, made in 1984, the Soviets invaded a portion of the United States, causing a group of teenagers, dubbed the Wolverines, to fight back as guerillas. With the Soviets no longer a feasible threat, the North Koreans are the villains in this remake, though that’s because originally, it was going to be the Chinese before it was changed when the producers realized they’re too important for this. They try to explain in a prologue why North Koreans would want to invade us, but it’s a little hard to swallow, especially since Americans today are worried about terrorists in the Middle East. I don’t think we have to worry about North Korea as much.

Anyway, the film takes place in Spokane, Washington, the night after a big football game which cocky quarterback Matt Eckert (Josh Peck) accidentally lost for the team due of his arrogance. (Hmm, I smell a foreshadowing arc.) The same night, his older brother, marine Jed (Chris Hemsworth), comes to town. The following morning, the brothers are awoken by the sights and sounds of paratroopers dropping from the sky. Jed and Matt manage to escape the invasion with some other local kids, including Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Daryl (Connor Cruise), Toni (Adrianna Palicki), and Danny (Edwin Hodge), and hide out in the mountains. There, Jed decides to fight back against the invaders after they’ve executed his and Matt’s father. He trains the kids to be soldiers and execute guerilla attacks. They manage to get under the villains’ skin as a threat rather than a nuisance and try to have them eliminated.

Admittedly, the early parts of the film are the only good ones, and the idea of a group of people under attack by an invading force at which point they must become soldiers and fight back still appeals to me. That’s what appealed to me about the original Red Dawn, which I already said in my review wasn’t completely successful but did still stick with me in some ways. (I actually do like the first hour of that film, which I’ve seen more times than the rest of it.) I felt that those kids were portrayed as real, scared kids pushed to the breaking point, but here, the kids are just video-game characters about to make their next move. Aside from about two or three characters, hardly anything stands out about them to make me care.

Of the two actors playing the only characters with some sense of character development, I did like Chris Hemsworth. I think he’s a solid actor and he’s even very strong here. But then there’s Josh Peck. In my original review, I criticized his performance and character who has an ego and a very selfish way about him (which I guess was part of his development) while I also stated “the performance kind of grew on me after a while.” I think I was too kind to him because I didn’t want to dislike the movie on the basis of his character. But man, is he obnoxious here. His mumbling speech and mannerisms grated on me and his character is such a boor. It especially doesn’t help that much of what happens to some of the other characters in this movie is entirely his fault.

Then there’s Adrianne Palicki, who has a nice role as a potential love-interest for Hemsworth. There’s a scene midway through the film where they do share some chemistry together and I would’ve liked for that to keep going, but it’s just another poorly developed element to the film. Meanwhile, actors like Josh Hutcherson are given close to nothing to work with and blend into the background.

Another reason this movie doesn’t work as well is because it has enough potential for a longer film than its hour-and-a-half running time will allow. At best, it feels like a pilot for a TV show with an ambiguous ending. The action isn’t very thrilling either because it’s yet another victim of the “shaky camera” gimmick that tries to make the action exciting but instead leaves audiences aggravated because they can’t see anything very well. And even the story itself is boring, because with the exception of the ending, which I won’t give away, the kids always have the higher ground and manage to get the enemy at the right time almost always.

I can’t say that I think the original “Red Dawn” was a great film or even that good (again, except for a few parts), but it still felt relevant at its time, either as a cheesy action flick kids could relate to or as propaganda stating that everyone should carry heavy artillery in case the Soviets invade. And that’s the point—in the time it was released, everyone felt that a Russian attack was pending. With this remake, released in 2012, we’re in a different place and it’s more of an unplayable video game than anything else. I may have liked it when it came out, but in addition to its appeal lacking after a second viewing, it’s meaningless and unremarkable.

Project X (revised review with spoilers)

13 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are some reviews I wish I could take back if not remove them from the site altogether. There are times when I consider taking them down, but I can’t hide from the truth—I used to feel this way towards that movie and this “revised review” represents how I feel now. I originally did it with Adventureland and War Eagle, Arkansas, finding more things to praise and talk about with those titles. Then I wrote a new review for Jack, which I originally disliked and then liked after a few more viewings. Then, recently, I wrote a new review for Frailty, talking about the ending and why I don’t think it works so much now as I thought I did then. Now, I wonder—which is more embarrassing? Taking back a negative review or a positive one by reversing the feeling?

I don’t know, but I honestly can’t sit here and say that I recommend the Red Dawn remake and “Project X” anymore. It’s time to make a change.

Okay, let’s get through this quick. What’s the story? Three unpopular high-school seniors—Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown)—decide to throw a party at Thomas’ house while his parents are out of town. By throwing a “game-changer,” they believe they’ll make a name for themselves. They have someone follow them around with a camera to document history in the making: a party no one will ever forget. But as the night progresses, things spiral out of control and the party gets even wilder.

Yes, I did give “Project X” three stars in my original review, mainly because at the time, I thought this was a teen film that was going the extra mile in its debauchery and praising the overblown final act, in which the teens’ “game-changing” house party turns into a nightmare that is brought to a stop as a crazy drug dealer attacks the whole neighborhood with a flamethrower. I admit I got a laugh out of the craziness of the event (hell, I even saw it as a teenage horror film when it got to the flamethrower) and I could argue that perhaps I was ready to recommend the film, regardless of how it was made or even what it all meant. But then, I watched it again and the effect was wearing off. I was noticing more parts that were distracting. I knew there were parts of the movie I didn’t like, but watching them again only made the experience worse. The more I thought about it, the less I liked it. And the less I liked it, the more I hated it. So now that I’m writing this review, let’s rip it a new one!

To start off, the setup is preposterous. The party is thrown on Thomas’ birthday to bring out the illusion (brought on by Costa, but I’ll get to that little f*cker later) that it’s Thomas’ birthday party. Why are Thomas’ parents out of town on his birthday? Because it’s their anniversary! A forced setup if ever I heard of one!

Now, let’s get to the craftsmanship. The first-person perspective of the camera filming everything doesn’t work—it cheats a lot, as does a lot of “found-footage” movies recently, adding shots that couldn’t have been filmed from one camera. And aside from the main characters, people hardly address or complain about being filmed wherever they go (even in the boys’ locker room!). And of course, the cameraman (a Goth kid named Dax, played by Dax Flame) has to document everything, so that there will be a nice flowing narrative in editing, which would explain why there’s an extended sequence involving the boys visiting a drug dealer to buy “supplies” for the party and then steal a garden gnome for “decoration.” The garden gnome is smashed during the party and it turns out it was filled with ecstasy, which everyone goes crazy for (and on). But I’m getting ahead of myself—the craftsmanship is awful. When the film switches to the party, where everyone has pocket cameras and cellphones, we get many different perspectives, which results in a lot of unpleasant shots that glorify heavy amounts of debauchery. It’s not fun to watch and it adds to the unpleasantness of the whole experience. It also doesn’t help that it has numerous montages, set to pop songs, of everyone getting wasted and going crazy at the party, which gets tiresome and not amusing in the slightest. This is a problem with having the party take center-stage instead of be a destination: there’s very little that can be done with it. We get the familiar, predictable payoffs such as Dad’s nice car ending up in the pool and not much else. You know you’re in trouble when the “comedic highlights” involve a little person being shoved in an oven before punching guys in the testes and a nagging neighbor punching out a 12-year-old “security guard” after being tazed by him.

Now, let’s get to Costa…oh, Costa. This guy is probably the most obnoxious, annoying, offensive, crude, vulgar, pushy, creepy, insecure teenage douche bag I’ve ever seen in a teen film! In any other film, this would be funny. But here, with his constant spewing of profanities, over-the-top ranting, and homophobic and/or sexist remarks, he is not funny; he’s just repugnant. Eric Cartman, he is not. And it’s all the more depressing when you see that he’s such a negative influence on Thomas. He pushes him to do things such as invite more people to the party, take drugs, get drunk, and even the party is happening because Costa made Thomas do it. He keeps pushing Thomas to take the extra step because he manipulates him into going along with it, always stating he can handle everything when he really can’t. Thomas’ life would be a lot better without him around.

Hell, without Costa around, Thomas would adjust to high-school nicely. He’s friends with a pretty, jocky type named Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton) who Thomas clearly has feelings for (and vice versa). She comes to the party where they have a couple nice little chats and Thomas confides in Costa that he thinks he might have a shot at being with her and he’s falling in love. But then, Costa screws everything up by telling him that he had plenty of chances with Kirby and he should instead take a shot at “getting lucky” with a popular girl who he wouldn’t have had a shot with before. I don’t know if I’m angrier at Costa for his behavior, Thomas for not standing up for himself, or the filmmakers who have no deliberate payoff other than “Costa might be right.”

Even if the writers (one of which is Michael Bacall, who, to be fair, has written some funny movies previously) don’t believe in Costa’s behavior, the movie doesn’t support that notion, as Thomas comes out of his shell and starts acting as everyone else at the party because, for once, he feels popular. The movie never addresses the lack of importance of high-school popularity, especially for a senior. When it’s over, it’s over and the “fame” you felt in the halls is done for.

I’ll get to what I really hate about this after I talk about the “arbitrary climax.”

The arbitrary climax…is still a lot of fun. It’s like an intense zombie film, with the druggie, demanding his gnome back, burning down parts of the neighborhood with a flamethrower and the police trying to stop him (one cop even shoots at his pack, blowing him up), along with everyone running for their lives as houses burn and helicopters drop loads of water onto everybody. The shakiness of the camera adds some intensity to it. That is the only cool part of this movie—I’d be lying if I said I’ve seen another teen film where the party ends in a more epic fashion.

And now, let’s get to the biggest complaint I have with this movie. After all this madness and mayhem, there are no consequences! The kids have made it out alive and they go home to face the music. Are Thomas’ parents angry that he trashed the house, destroyed Dad’s car, and scared the whole neighborhood? Hard to tell, especially since all we get is a scene in which Thomas’ father, who even called Thomas a “loser” in the beginning for behaving nicely and never getting in trouble (what father is this?), actually respects his son for taking chances! I’m not even kidding—they bond over it! This is followed by the next day at school, where their classmates congratulate the three guys for the party, and Thomas manages to convince Kirby to take another chance on him, even though there’s no reason why she should. And then we get the inevitable captions, explaining what happened to everyone after the big night. Thomas and J.B. get into a little trouble, while Costa, the one who started it all and can have everything blamed on him, gets off scot-free! In fact, he even tells a news reporter that he’s planning another party! No one goes through heavy consequences or even learns anything from this experience!

Oh, and here’s a real shot to the movie’s gonads—the druggie survived after being blown up!

Now that I’ve labeled just about everything there is to know about this detestable film, let’s compare this to another “raunchy teen flick”—“Superbad.” Why does that movie work and this one doesn’t? Easy—that movie doesn’t glorify that kind of behavior; this one does. That movie shows its teenage characters learning how important it is to be themselves around their crushes; this movie declares it’s okay to be as harsh and as chauvinistic as possible because it will gain popularity and babes. That movie has likable characters; this one doesn’t. That movie shows the harsh side-effects of partying; this movie doesn’t. “Superbad” was about teenagers who thought they had to party hard in order to gain respect, and what they learned was they didn’t have to. That movie was like an anti-partying movie—do you think those guys are going to want to act that way after their crazy night? I don’t. After “Project X,” I have no doubt these kids will find themselves in deeper. They’re doomed.

I may have been way too kind to “Project X” before, but not anymore. This movie just plain sucks.

Frailty (revised review with spoilers)

8 Jun

frailty

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! This is a new review for the 2002 Bill Paxton thriller “Frailty” in which I’m going to talk about my feelings toward the ending.

Previously on Smith’s Verdict’s original “Frailty” review…”I won’t give away the ending to ‘Frailty,’ but I’ll admit that I didn’t see it coming. It manages to surprise us and mess with our expectations and it brings about new fascinating details about certain plot elements that kept us wondering. And yet, these new additions to the elements still keep us wondering because they also bring about something new to think about! Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.”

A funny thing about this film is that I enjoy it while I’m watching it. And then when I think about one of the bigger twists (of which there are about three), I understand it, but I wonder if it was even necessary. Watching the movie again with that in mind doesn’t necessarily damage my viewing, but it does bring things to a new perspective that I’m not entirely sure was needed.

To recap, “Frailty” is a chilling story of a calm, loving father (Bill Paxton, who also directed the film) who live a normal, happy life with his two young sons, Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), until he awakens them one night to tell them about a “vision from God.” Apparently, demons are walking the earth in the guise of regular people and it’s their duty, as “God’s hands,” to destroy them. Fenton doesn’t know how to react to this, but Adam believes Dad and wants to help him. Fenton is even more frightened when Dad makes a list of demons to destroy: people’s names. Dad has three useful tools: an axe, a pair of gloves, and a metal rod—“weapons from God.” Fenton can no longer doubt Dad’s motives when he brings home his first victim—a woman Dad claims is a demon whom he kills right in front his sons. Fenton believes Dad has lost his mind and can only watch in terror as he claims more victims, becoming a serial killer with Adam helping and supporting his father wholeheartedly. The story is told in flashback as one of the sons (grown up as Matthew McConaughey) explains to FBI agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) after revealing his brother is the one responsible for the killings which still continue.

The idea of a seemingly calm, sane father suddenly brought to the point where he kills people “in the name of God” is scary enough; the idea of wanting his young sons (one is 10, the other is 7) to assist him in his deeds is horrifying. And the film builds more tension from the kids’ perspectives and thoughts on the matters at hand—one wants to stop Dad, while the other joins him. It leads to a truly tense sequence in which Dad takes drastic measures with Fenton and locks him in his homemade dungeon for a week, hoping he too will get a vision from God. It leads to a tense climax in which Dad believes Fenton will ultimately follow in his footsteps and destroy a demon himself. Instead, Fenton brings it to a stop by turning the axe on his own father, killing him. Adam finishes the job himself, indicating that Adam will follow in his father’s footsteps and destroy more demons. Adam promises to bury Fenton someday in the same rose garden where they buried the other victims.

But wait. Earlier in the film, the McConaughey character, who has originally labeled himself as Fenton, claimed that the brothers’ promise was for Fenton to bury Adam. As he and Doyle explore the rose garden, that’s when he reveals his true identity—he is not truly Fenton but Adam. He has continued his father’s legacy. That’s one twist. Another twist is that all of this has been a means to capture Doyle, who is his next victim.

Now, this is a very effective twist, as is the realization that the real Fenton has grown up to become a serial killer and that Adam has “destroyed” him as a demon. It’s Adam’s belief that that’s why Fenton didn’t go along with him and Dad; because he was a demon. This would make for a disturbing portrait about what growing up with an influential, apparent serial killer could do to someone. And then comes the bigger twist…

Are these people really demons, or just chance victims of Dad’s delusional mind? Is the angel real or was it just a bad dream? We see one of Dad’s visions, of an angel visiting him and giving him his first list of demons, and it does seem slightly exaggerated, making us believe that it’s all in Dad’s mind. But then in the ending, what little ambiguity was left is suddenly thrown out the window, as it becomes very clear that the people whose lives Dad claimed were actually murderers and not innocent victims. We are shown their evil deeds, as well as Doyle’s murder of his mother. Dad and Adam were truly following God’s will. People find it shocking that “the axe murderer is working for God,” but the realization that the victims were never “human” but actual “demons” for God to demand be destroyed lest the Apocalypse come does make sense to those who strongly believe in God and it may actually be a relief to those same people, who would object to murders being done to “serve God’s will,” to get clarification. In that respect, it does bring everything around for a shocking revelation that I didn’t see coming. But at the same time, as “Frailty” was doing such a great job being a disturbing horror film with effective ambiguity up until that point, it is kind of disappointing that the film would feel the need to explain everything.

I originally gave the film a four-star ending, even with the ending, because I thought even with that in mind, it was still an intelligent, scary horror film with a theme of religious delusion taken very far. And the bigger twist isn’t even bad; it’s just that I feel like it would work better as a film without it. If we were to ask questions after seeing the film (without the twist) whether the angel was real or not and whether the people were really demons or not, it would bring forward interesting discussions about what it would say about religious fanaticism, delusion, and even about God’s will. As is, “Frailty” is a four-star film up until that shocking revelation. With it, in hindsight, I can still recommend the film but not as strongly as I did before, because even with it, there’s still a little ambiguity about whether or not there truly were demons or people who turned the wrong way and committed these deeds. Were they really destined to be that way? Were they truly demons? If they were demons, did they know it? Were they aware of their destinies to be destroyed? We saw their horrific wrongdoings but not their “demon form,” if they have forms under human skin. If God really is guiding these murders of the guilty, what does that mean?

But then again, maybe they are just demons and I’m thinking too much about it.

There are too many good things in this film for me not to recommend it. Different people are undoubtedly going to have different outlooks on the ending and what it all meant. I don’t think I can rate it three stars anymore. I wanted to rate it four. I wanted to love it as much as most critics did, including Roger Ebert and author Stephen King. And up until the final act, or at least until the bigger twist, I do love it and I do think it’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. But with that bigger twist, it’s still a good horror film with something deep to talk about. It could’ve been deeper and it could’ve been better, but I have to review the film for what it is rather than what it isn’t. I still recommend it.

Jack (revised review)

28 Sep

427

Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This is a first for “Smith’s Verdict.” I’ve changed my mind about certain movies over time, but this is the first time I’ve had to revise a negative review and make it a positive one. And it’s not a movie I expected to change my mind about either—Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack.” But recently, I was able to rent the DVD for free at a local library in Conway, Arkansas, and I watched it for the parts I liked (I did acknowledge, in the original review, parts I liked about it), and then something strange happened: I found myself watching the whole thing, from beginning to end…then I watched it again…and then a third time all the way through. And that’s when I realized—there was more for me to like about it than I thought, enough for me to write this now-positive review of a movie that I know a lot of people hate and that even I took some shots at in the other review.

“Jack” is about a 10-year-old kid whose growth disorder causes him to appear four times his actual age, causing him to look about 40. Played by Robin Williams, Jack Powell has led a very sheltered life by his loving parents, especially his mother (played very well by Diane Lane), kept mostly out of society and out of public school. But his private tutor, Mr. Woodruff (Bill Cosby in a nice small role), suggests that maybe he’s ready to join the 5th grade and be with other kids his age. Reluctantly, the parents agree, and so Jack begins school, where of course he is seen as a freak because of his adult appearance who towers over all the other kids, is hairier than most of the kids’ fathers, and breaks his desk on his first day in class. But some cool 10-year-olds realize they can use Jack to their advantage in a schoolyard game of basketball, and they also discover they can use him to fool parents into thinking he’s the school principal. And soon enough, he’s invited to join their treehouse club because he looks old enough to buy them Penthouse magazine.

Yes, “Jack” was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and maybe that’s what caused people to be distracted while watching this movie, because they expected something more than this. It’s like Roger Ebert said in his review of Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money”—“If this movie had been directed by someone else, I might have thought differently about it because I might not have expected so much.” It’s like comparing it to directors’ previous work instead of seeing it as a movie even of itself. I think Coppola just liked making any kind of movie—it’s not like he wasn’t allowed to make a comedy-drama for Disney, starring Robin Williams. “Jack” is well-directed, and Coppola keeps his actors in check (good for comedic actors such as Williams, Cosby, and Fran Drescher), and the film is well-shot with a few Coppola trademarks (fast-moving clouds, POV shots, and a couple others I may have missed). It just happens to be in a sentimental comedy-drama, but I think it’s a good one. “Jack” does a very good job of balancing comedy and drama, as the second half of this film confronts Jack’s mortality, as it should; first you have fun while setting up characters and make us like them, and then you give us the inevitable by easing us into it.

But the first half has its moments of sadness as well, such as when Jack is starting school and, at one point, accidentally breaks his desk as he sits in it. I know a lot of people saw this as a predictable joke, but I don’t think it was necessarily intended as a joke. In context, it’s more upsetting than it is funny, because everyone is laughing at him, not with him. Jack’s status as an outcast only grows until he’s ultimately welcomed on the basketball court by the other boys, and then he has friends and feels like he’s living life the way he wanted to. When the film reaches the back half, Jack has realized how short his life is and must learn to accept it so he can live like everyone else. Nowhere is that clearer than in the ending of the film in which Jack has graduated high school, now looks like an old man, and gives a speech about how he is ready to accept his fate now he has led a full life and acknowledges everyone else to do the same. “Jack” doesn’t take the easy way out; sure, we don’t see him die, but we know he doesn’t have that much longer to live after the movie’s story is finished. We can accept it because he did accept it, and that makes for a touching, heartbreaking resolution by itself.

The film is also very well cast, thanks to Coppola’s usual casting director, Fred Roos (how often do you see a mention of a casting director in a review?). Robin Williams is brilliantly cast as Jack. He’s a master of body language and perfectly captures what it’s like to be a 10-year-old in a 40-year-old man’s body. Watch his hands, watch his head movements, notice his vocal inflections, and you can see Williams really working it here, as if he channeled all the way back to when he was 10. It’s a performance up there with Tom Hanks in “Big” or Judge Reinhold in “Vice Versa.” There are a few instances where he does step out of character and into Williams’ usual adult standup persona, and it can be a little distracting, but mostly he’s excellent in the role.

The supporting cast is pretty solid; I admire the acting in this film. Diane Lane has a difficult role to pull off, as the loving, concerned mother of a boy she knows people don’t accept right away. She’s not a bad person, and she knows some of the things she does isn’t fair; everything she does is for the wellbeing of her son. Bill Cosby is suitably soft-spoken as the tutor and gives a well-written speech to Jack, describing him as “a shooting star.” “You’re a shooting star amongst ordinary stars,” he says. “A shooting star passes quickly, but while it’s here, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever want to see.” Brian Kerwin, as Jack’s dad, doesn’t have as many good moments as Lane’s mother character does, but he does solid work as well. Jennifer Lopez is very good as Jack’s caring teacher. The actors playing the kids are all excellent, especially Adam Zolotin as Jack’s best friend Louie and Todd Bosley as a geeky kid who steals a few scenes here or there. And then there’s Fran Drescher as Louie’s trampy mother who makes her moves on Jack without realizing how old he really is (and I’m guessing she never does)…okay, so I still don’t think this subplot works very well, but oddly enough, I don’t mind her as much as I did before. She’s not that obnoxious here.

Now, I’m going to take a moment to look through my original, negative review and go through my criticisms one by one and see if I can respond to them now. Let’s see…I can now call it “an engaging drama” which I couldn’t call it before…I don’t think it’s “one of the clumsiest lost opportunities I’ve ever seen” as it does a lot with both comedy and drama…”The low point of the movie is a subplot involving Louie’s trampy mother…[the scene in which she meets Jack who poses as the principal] is uncomfortable with the misunderstandings…[the bar sequence] doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie. Take it (and Fran Drescher) out of the movie, and you wouldn’t miss a thing.” Well, I’ve already said I don’t Fran Drescher as much as I did before, and now I think I’ll defend the “principal” scene on the grounds that I think it works okay because Williams still plays it like a 10-year-old kid and it’s mildly amusing, and I’ll defend the bar scene in the sense of Jack feeling like he doesn’t belong in the adult world after he believes he doesn’t belong in the kid world either. But come on, did they really have to throw in a bar fight? And maybe I could’ve done without the whole thing about Drescher hitting on Jack and never finding out who he really is.

Then there’s the scene in which Jack asks out his teacher to a school dance and she has to turn him down. That was the part I criticized the most because I didn’t know how to feel. Well…I think it works fine now. It’s handled delicately and Jennifer Lopez plays it in an endearing manner, and it’s a rather heartbreaking moment.

Oh jeez, sometimes I can’t believe my own writing. Now I found the part in the original review where I wish “Jack” focused on Jack’s mortality. I just went into two-paragraph detail about how the film handles Jack’s mortality well enough that it’s effective and satisfying, so it’s best to say I didn’t pay enough attention to the movie to begin with.

I can’t dislike “Jack” anymore. I think the film is cute. Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s sad, other times it’s endearing, and only a few times did I find it annoying. “Jack” isn’t a great movie, and maybe it could’ve benefitted from a few scenes in which the ones learn more about girls their own age after reading Penthouse magazine and being curious about the opposite sex or, if writers James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau were really risky, Jack could’ve had a relationship with a girl his age (ew, that would mean Robin Williams and a pre-teenage actress have to play a 5th-grade couple; never mind). But I do think “Jack,” as it is, is quite good. It’s good-natured, it has effective moments of drama, it’s acted wonderfully, it’s funny, and I’m now glad I have more than a few good scenes to enjoy next time I watch it. And thus presents the last time Smith’s Verdict shall be taken seriously.