Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

10 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here at Smith’s Verdict, I (Tanner Smith) try to bestow through words an enlightened point of view on the films I choose to review. (Or, at least, that’s what I try to do nowadays—do you know how many of my earlier reviews I would like to rewrite/revise?!) With that said, let’s talk about what many critics and audiences declared one of the worst films ever made—John Boorman’s “Exorcist II: The Heretic.”

How badly was this film received? Within ten minutes of its Chicago critics’ screening, the crowd chased the executives away in anger. At a theater in Hollywood Blvd., the audience threw things at the screen (at least these people actually stayed through the film to the end). On the night of the premiere, audiences straight-up laughed at the film, as they couldn’t take it seriously. And among the critics who slammed it harshly, Gene Siskel wrote in his review for the Chicago Tribune, “’Exorcist II’ is the worst motion picture I’ve seen in almost eight years on the job [as a film critic].” (I feel sorry that Siskel saw worse films in his remaining 22 years of life ‘til his death in ‘99.) Is it truly worth the hate it receives? Let’s take a look…

It should be noted that despite taking the opportunity to direct a sequel to “The Exorcist,” one of the greatest (and most profitable) horror films of all time, director John Boorman did not care for the original film, calling the original script “rather repulsive.” For the sequel, he set out to make a film in his own vision—one that would take risks while sending the audience on a journey that was “positive, about good, essentially” (according to Boorman in an interview). So, where did he go wrong and did he succeed in some way(s)?

Before I answer that, I’ll talk about the story. Four years after the exorcism of Regan O’Neil, which resulted in the death of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) (oh, and also the death of Father Kerras, but never mind about him until “Exorcist III,” if you can help it), a preacher struggling with his faith, named Lamont (Richard Burton), is sent to investigate what truly happened back then, after Church authorities declare they don’t want to acknowledge that demons and Satan exist. The now-teenaged Regan (Linda Blair) is monitored by a psychiatric institute because she claims she doesn’t remember anything from the experience. Psychiatrist Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) believes her memories are simply repressed and has a method that can help find them.

OK, this is where you really have to suspend your disbelief when this method is introduced—it’s a device that can apparently cause two people to go under hypnosis and visit each other’s minds…I’m not entirely sure that’s how that works.

Tuskin wants to use the machine to find out what really happened to Regan. While continuing his investigation, Lamont becomes involved and tries questioning Regan, which Tuskin doesn’t see as doing as much good as harm. Things get even more complicated when Lamont hooks himself up to the machine with Regan, which leads to more questions needing to be answered.

So, you can probably spot the first point in which “Exorcist II: The Heretic” goes downhill. This machine, a “synchronizer,” seems highly implausible, especially after the first film had such a gritty, realistic feel to it and made the supernatural elements feel more plausible with each scene. The way this device is set up feels more at home in a science-fiction film. I would believe in hypnotherapy as an attempt to solve the problem of interpreting Regan’s past trauma, but not this thing. In fact, this was the very thing I mentioned before that caused audiences to give up and laugh at its premiere. It seemed to start out fine, with an exorcism prologue that is creepy enough for audiences…and then it cuts to Regan being introduced to Tuskin’s machine. Odd segue, eh?

Is that the only problem with “Exorcist II: The Heretic?” Well…no. As much as there is scientific babble about how the machine “synchronizes brain waves,” there’s a lot of spiritual babble as well. Much of it is actually kind of fascinating (which I’ll get into later), but for the most part, it’s either not written well or not delivered well. It’s a little difficult to understand what the film is saying for the most part because of confusing dialogue. I think I have some idea of what the film was building up to, but I’ve seen the film twice now (once out of curiosity, twice to review it) and I can say this: when Tuskin delivers one of the final lines of dialogue, “I understand now but the world won’t,” I was confused because I was still a little lost, much like “the world.”

It also doesn’t help that Richard Burton, who takes up a good chunk of the film’s spiritual aspects, delivers his lines like he’s talking in his sleep. Burton looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than in this film. His character is supposed to be a troubled priest seeking answers beyond his comprehension, but the way Burton plays it gives off the impression that he could use a drink. Hearing him say the central demon’s name “Pazuzu” multiple times out of what is supposed to be fear just comes off as silly. (But to be fair…the demon’s name is “Pazuzu.” I dare you to say that name at least twice without cracking up.)

And while it has its talk of the spirit world, the demon world, exorcism, and so forth, “Exorcist II: The Heretic” also shows a little of the “terror.” But the problem there is, as “The Exorcist” proved successfully, less is more. There are many laughable visuals in the film, most notably a giant locust that flies around Africa in search of a new victim. And there’s also James Earl Jones in a locust costume…need I say more?

So I’ve talked about the confusion the film generates, the ridiculous plot device that’s literally a device, and Richard Burton’s embarrassing performance. Is there anything positive to say about this film that most people called one of the worst of all time?

I think so. For one thing, I admire that the film is a continuation (even if four years after the original event is a little too long) and they don’t try the same things the original did. The narrative allows more to be discovered, such as when Regan develops somewhat of a psychic ability and has an interesting conversation with Lamont about it and about how it can used to someone’s advantage before it can be used for evil. And when Lamont goes from place to place, country to country, finding out more than he expected, I was interested to find out more of what was beneath the surface of the mystery (even if the name “Pazuzu” is off-putting). And there are some chilling moments, such as the prologue and Lamont’s encounter with James Earl Jones’ Kucomo. But those chilling moments make way for conversations that sound false and moments that seem silly rather than frightening (such as loud chanting when the characters are in Africa). “Exorcist II: The Heretic” isn’t trying to be a horror film, necessarily, but more of an odd, unusual, spiritual journey in which characters find themselves facing against the Devil. And considering one of these characters (Regan) spent an entire film (the original “Exorcist”) with a demon inside her, that journey is all the more fascinating, especially when she develops her psychic gift (or is it a curse?). It almost feels like she’s being tested by God to make the right choices.

But sadly, Boorman doesn’t execute that intriguing element well, and it leads to a confusing climactic scene in which, again, I’m not entirely sure what happened and what was learned from it. I just know…there were a lot of locusts.

“Exorcist II: The Heretic” is a very strange film, but it’s not one of the worst movies ever made. There are parts I find interesting to watch and other parts I find maddening to watch, as well as parts that are simply absurd (such as when Regan casually says the line, “I was possessed by a demon”). I think if the plot was tighter, the people behind the making of the film were more confident about what they were trying to accomplish here, and, like I said, hypnotherapy was involved in the story (instead of that ridiculous machine), people would think differently about it. As is, it’s a mess, but it’s an intriguing mess.

Serenity (2005)

9 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Out (2017)

24 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In the horror film “Get Out,” a white woman, Rose (Allison Williams) takes her black boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), to the countryside to introduce him to her family. They’re all accommodating, seemingly well-meaning white people who try to make Chris feel welcome, but something feels wrong. Things start off as awkward when Rose’s liberal parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) and jock brother (Caleb Landry Jones) deliver one cringe-inducing (albeit benign) race-related comment after another. But when Chris meets the only other black people in town, he notices odd behaviors about them, which causes discomfort that only raises when the family’s friends gather at the house for a picnic…and that’s all I’ll say about “Get Out.” If you haven’t seen the trailer, just see this movie—the less you know about the story, the better.

That’s as much of the story as I’ll describe here, so I’ll just continue with the review. “Get Out” is the debut feature of writer-director Jordan Peele, best-known for comedic acting & writing, especially for the sketch comedy series “Key & Peele.” I’d say it’s an interesting departure for Peele to make a film like this, but then again, a good chunk of the first 45+ minutes of “Get Out” reminded me of a prolonged “Key & Peele” sketch, in which race relations (or lack thereof) is a factor and there is humor to be found in the sheer awkwardness/discomfort of one moment after the other. And the humor is also there to offset the more uncomfortable moments that leave audiences believing there is something wrong here but not knowing what it is, what will happen, when it will happen, and so on—to get to its ultimate final act, the audience has to endure one awkward moment after another as they try to determine what’s really happening here. The best way to relieve tension in these scenes is with laughter.

“Get Out” is a great mix of comedy and horror. It’s not downright satiric nor does it become overly serious; it’s just the right amount of both that entertains and also makes nearly every stomach in the theater churn. Peele is a bright-enough filmmaker that he’s actually able to approach the material with as much discretion as possible to make it work. He also doesn’t go too deeply into the subject of race relations and the pomposities and resentment that can sometimes come into play. He does have something to say about it all, but overall, it’s used to craft a unique story that I think Peele does a brilliant job putting together.

He gets great aid from his actors as well. Daniel Kaluuya is easily relatable as a man feeling out of place without knowing precisely why. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener as both funny and chilling, whenever they need to be each (or both). And I can’t neglect to mention the comedic highlight of the movie, and that is Lil Rey Howery as Rod, Chris’ best friend who is able to conduct his own detective work when Chris calls him via cellphone with clues. He provides the film’s biggest laughs himself.

What does all the oddness and awkwardness amount to? I won’t give it away here, but what I will say is much is revealed with effective twists, and while the final act may be paced a little too slow, I have to credit it for making me even more tense as I was A) waiting for answers and B) desperately wanting Chris to make it out the messed-up situation once those answers were revealed (and C) making me want to see the movie again, now that I have the answers). As is the case with the best slow-burn thrillers, I can’t wait to see “Get Out” again, knowing what I know now. And in addition, I also can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele comes up with next.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

21 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING!

In 2001, one of the most highly anticipated movies in renowned filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s career was to be released. Why was it so heavily awaited? Because it was Spielberg’s attempt to bring his own version of a Stanley Kubrick film to life. The late Kubrick, director of such stylistic, mostly bleak & calculating films as “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange,” admired (and maybe even envied) Spielberg’s vision (and vice versa, I believe). So, when Kubrick brought his idea of a “sci-fi version of ‘Pinocchio’” to light, he wanted Spielberg to direct it. Both directors went through years of collaboration (and arguments about which of them was better to direct the film), and Kubrick wrote a 90-page story treatment. When Kubrick died in 1999 (the same year his film “Eyes Wide Shut” was released), Spielberg decided to bring Kubrick’s vision to life himself.

The result was “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” a film that many audiences & critics saw as an ambitious mess upon theatrical release. They saw it as a clash of two different directing styles from a director trying to mimic another director’s trademarks. Spielberg was traditionally seen as a sentimentalist/optimist, and for him to go more artful and deep by way of Kubrick (who seemed to have a dim point of view about human nature) caused people to scratch their heads. (We’ll get to the ending…)

The story is set in a distant future and centers around David (Haley Joel Osment), a robotic (or “mecha”) child who is the first of his kind—a mecha programmed only to love, invented after its creator (William Hurt) discovered a robot can feel pain. David is brought home to Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) by her husband Henry (Sam Robards), who works at Cybertronics (the mecha factory) in New Jersey. David is a test project for Cybertronics and somewhat of a substitute for Monica and Henry’s natural son Martin (Jake Thomas), who is in a coma. David and Monica form somewhat of a bond, but complications arise when Martin awakens and gets David into trouble, causing things to go awry and Monica to get rid of him. But rather than take David to be dismantled, she instead leaves him in the woods where he and his robotic toy bear (named “Teddy”) have no choice but to brave the world they aren’t familiar with. This includes becoming part of an event that destroys mechas (called a Flesh Fair), a travel through Rouge City (imagine Las Vegas if it was taken over by “The Fifth Element”), and a journey to an underwater Manhattan. By his side is Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a mecha designed for prostitution purposes who David meets at the Flesh Fair.

Where the “Pinocchio” aspect comes into play is when Monica has already read the story to David, who has become genuinely fascinated by the concept of The Blue Fairy. When he is taken out into the world because he feels his “Mommy” doesn’t love him anymore because he’s a machine, David embarks on a journey to find The Blue Fairy and wish to become “a real boy.”

Think about what I just wrote—“David [a mechanical child constructed by man] is ‘genuinely’ fascinated” and “he ‘feels’ his ‘Mommy’ doesn’t love him anymore.” Why would a machine care or feel about anything other than what it was designed to do? For that matter, how can “love” be programmed at all? I don’t know, but in science-fiction, there’s always the reasonable answer of machines learning just as humans do, the more times interaction is a factor. David could have simply developed more than he was programmed to, by simply watching, listening and learning. That reasoning would also help explain why Gigolo Joe, who when we first see him seems like he’s being framed for murder of one of his clients, runs away when he could have stayed with the body, because after all, why else would a robot feel the need to save himself? And then later, when he joins David on his quest, he can’t help but express cynicism about the concept of a real Blue Fairy.

But then again, it can be argued that these emotions are simply part of the coding, because after all, artificial intelligence is simply that: artificial. All these machines can do is run programs that may fool us by being like them. So, perhaps, rather than actually learning and thinking, these androids are advancing in their programs—David furthers along his journey because he’s programmed to love and he’s taking it to the highest degree; Gigolo Joe is cynical and self-preservative because he’s supposed to behave like anyone would in a city like Rouge City.

I don’t know; no one knows for sure. But this kind of thing is fun to think about and discuss with fellow audience members. Far be it for me to bring up a lesser movie, but there is a line of dialogue in an ‘80s family film called “D.A.R.Y.L.” that actually sums up this film’s idea perfectly: “A machine becomes human when you can’t tell the difference anymore.”

What turned many people off when they first saw this film was the fact that it’s not always easy to determine the concepts of a robotic child programmed to “love” and it left them with more questions than answers… Isn’t that a good thing? Shouldn’t entertainment leave audiences wanting more? Well…that’s not the only thing. As I mentioned above, Spielberg and Kubrick were on opposite sides of the directing field, so audiences were uneasy with one trying to replicate the other. They felt Spielberg’s vision contradicted with that of Kubrick’s. But what really confused and angered many audiences about the film was its epilogue. Let me explain:

David and Teddy are trapped in a vehicle underwater where they find a statue of The Blue Fairy at a submerged theme-park attraction. David stares at The Blue Fairy as time goes on and on, wishing his dream of becoming a “real human” will come true. Does this make him less human or more human? It could be argued…both. 2,000 years later, humans are extinct and now-highly advanced mechas roam the world. David and Teddy are found and are thought of as special, as they are the only surviving mechas to know humans, thus giving them understanding to their existence. They reward David by bringing Monica back to life, so he can spend a single day with her as her son. Monica tells him she always loved him, David feels more or less real, and they lie peacefully together in bed as David’s journey to become real has finally come to a close…

It’s a highly sentimental (and as some would say, “schmaltzy”) ending that broke the film for most audiences, especially those who thought it was unnecessary, false, and went against what Kubrick would have originally intended. They put the blame on Spielberg because they believed Kubrick would have ended the film with David underwater wishing and praying, and Spielberg added on the extra half-hour to give David a happier ending. Even film critic James Berardinelli of reelviews.net stated in his original review, “There is no doubt that the concluding 30 minutes are all Spielberg.” What they didn’t realize until later was that the whole story was from Kubrick, and that included the much-maligned ending. Spielberg has gone on record saying that he tried his best to bring his late friend’s vision to life as best as he possibly could, even when his collaborators thought it wouldn’t work. He felt that if he didn’t do it, he’d be betraying him, and he simply couldn’t do that.

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There is a lot you can read into this—like Kubrick wanting to make the Spielberg movie he always wanted, Spielberg understanding Kubrick more than we thought, and so on. And even if the movie doesn’t work for someone, it can’t be argued that there wasn’t a lack of understanding behind the scenes.

And thankfully, people who didn’t particularly care for “A.I.” before have since revisited the film, which resulted in softened views and opinions. Roger Ebert only gave it a slight positive review upon initial release (only to include it in his Great Movies collection ten years later). Doug “Nostalgia Critic” Walker has softened up on it, as seen in his 40-minute video review of the film. English film critic Mark Kemode even apologized for maligning the film severely, years after he first saw it.

There’s something special about “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” whether it be in front of me or behind the scenes. The visuals are outstanding, Spielberg’s ability to duplicate the style of visual storytelling Kubrick was also known for is remarkable, the concepts of what makes someone human are fascinating to think about and discuss with people, and the story of Spielberg working hard to make his late friend’s wish come true is something to be admired. I thought differently about this film too, when I first saw it like many other people. But also like those people, upon second viewing, I found myself with a deeper appreciation for it that has me coming back to it every once in a while.

NOTE: If you think for a moment that Spielberg was defending himself for the ending by putting all the blame on the late Kubrick, think about two things. One is, it makes sense that Kubrick would end a sci-fi film with human extinction (which is essentially what it adds up to, being in a world dominated entirely by super-advanced robots) because if you look at many of his films, you can see a pattern containing actions of the worst of humanity (possibly even a reflection of what he saw in the world he lived in). The other is, Kubrick was Spielberg’s dear friend to the end. Spielberg tried his absolute best to bring Kubrick’s vision to life, by copying styles and atmosphere Kubrick himself was infamous for. Why would he add on anything more than what Kubrick originally intended? Think about it.

La La Land (2016)

17 Feb
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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” Chazelle’s follow-up to the award-winning “Whiplash,” is both in the tradition of the old-fashioned Hollywood Musical and yet at the same time, it’s not quite. It’s in the tradition in that it features singing and dancing as well as stellar cinematography and choreography, it tells a compelling story while doing so, it has the feel of a musical like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “West Side Story” among others, and it enchants the audience. But Chazelle doesn’t rely on all that to make the film great. In fact, he actually moves past the traditional old-school Hollywood-happy-ending to continue the story for an additional half-hour or so, and in doing so, he delivers something far more compelling in the final act than audiences would have expected.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. “La La Land” is the best musical (or at least, best non-animated musical) to come around in a long time. It’s more energetic, nostalgic, and heartfelt than other musicals from the past decade or so (like “Les Miserables” and “Chicago”), while at the same time, it’s something more.

“La La Land” is gloriously made. You could swear Chazelle copied the entire rulebook of moviemaking from the 1950s-1960s. It’s wonderful to look at, with magnificent color pallettes, masterful camerawork that continues for long takes and doesn’t stop moving, and of course, being a musical, fun choreography for the lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, to shine through. You’d think this film was made in that popular era of musicals—even though “La La Land” is set in modern times, it doesn’t feel like it. (And that’s not a bad thing.) The opening scene alone is a masterstroke of nostalgia and effervescence—a musical number on a jammed freeway, where drivers, rather than express anger at their shared predicament, sing and dance together.

The story takes place in Los Angeles and focuses on two struggling artists—jazz musician Sebastian (Gosling) and actress Mia (Stone). They meet in the opening traffic jam (well…sort of; watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean). As time goes on, they spend more and more time together until they eventually fall in love and share a relationship.

It’s basically a love story in which boy meets girl, but here, we see something that you don’t often see in most boy-meets-girl stories—the complications of maintaining the relationship when you’re pursuing your own personal dream. They learn this the hard way when Sebastian can’t play the type of old-school jazz he wants to perform and he works for modern jazz performer Keith (John Legend) just to make some much-needed money. This causes a rift between Sebastian and Mia’s relationship as Sebastian isn’t happy doing what he does, Mia is still struggling in her pursuit of her own dream, they don’t see each other very much anymore, and hearing him talk about how upset he is about his job is too much for her.

Can I just say how ingenious the commentary is, with the Keith-jazz subplot alone? Sebastian wants to cling to his jazz heroes of the past by playing in their style, but Keith, who plays jazz for a more commercial demographic to bring in modern audiences, lets it down harshly that if artists (such as jazz musicians) don’t update for the future, that means people who celebrate the past too much will kill the art. That can actually be a bold statement for “La La Land” itself, because while Chazelle does use many elements of past inspirations for his craft, he tries his best (and succeeds) at bringing in a new way of delivering his own art—taking the things that inspired him, using what modern techniques he learned as a budding filmmaker, and blending them both resulted in something as beautiful as “La La Land.”

The back half of “La La Land” is nothing short of brilliant. If Chazelle really wanted to cling to the traditions of the past, he would’ve ended the film early on and given the audience a lovely happy ending. But no—the film continues for another 30-45 minutes to show the harsh truths of what happens after the couple thinks they’ve had their “happily ever after.” It shows how hard it is for two people who have different goals and ambitions, as well as the even harsher truth that all dreams come with a price. And when trying to be the best at what you can do is not as easy it seems and even harder than people say it is.

There is something I am curious about: what did Chazelle have to go through before he made it big as a filmmaker? Thinking about the films he’s made so far, I notice a pattern. In “Whiplash,” there was a young drummer who got brutally pushed to his limits to be “great,” and it showed the pain the poor kid had to go through to achieve recognition. In “Grand Piano,” which he wrote, Elijah Wood played a pianist who was threatened with death if he hit a wrong note while performing a difficult piece at a concert. And now, we have “La La Land,” in which Chazelle’s characters pursue their dreams, just as his previous characters in “Whiplash” and “Grand Piano” had pursued theirs, and their happy ending is not at all what they expect, and they don’t know how to feel about it. With this pattern, I have to wonder if Chazelle’s films are autobiographical at all…

I don’t want to make “La La Land” sound very depressing, because really, what I just wrote was all in interpretation. The ending, which I won’t give away, is actually rather beautiful and thought-provoking (while it may be upsetting for some audiences who expect something they’re more used to). In fact, it could serve as a short film by itself. It stirred an emotional response from me and my girlfriend when we first saw it—we left the theater talking about it immediately after.

The songs are all great, two in particular stay fresh in my memory (“Audition,” which is Mia’s theme, and “City of Stars,” which Sebastian sings to himself when pondering the future), but it’s Gosling and Stone’s movements, energy, and acting that overcome and astound me. Gosling and Stone aren’t the best singers, but that’s not important—what’s important is how they play every single number, which they do to the best of their abilities. These are performances that make other actors jealous.

There’s no other way to put it—I love “La La Land.” I love everything about it. I love the mixes of the past and the future. I love the energy put into it. I love the rich necessities that make the story more compelling. I love the performances. I love the style and look of it all. I simply love it. It is the best musical I’ve seen in a long time.

The Invitation (2016)

17 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s something to be admired about the Slow-Burn. It’s when you know something is coming (but you’re not exactly sure what), and you’re allowing yourself to be patient enough to ride it all the way through. And then, when the ultimate resolution arrives, it makes you look at the whole film a different way, thus making you want to see it again. (I keep using “you,” but I really just mean myself. But judging by the Internet reception of the film in question, I’m not alone in this.)

Not many recent thrillers have the Slow-Burn, which is why I deeply appreciate the time and effort that was put into Karyn Kusama’s masterful thriller “The Invitation.”

“The Invitation” is a psychological thriller about the dinner party from hell. It begins as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) arrive at a party at Will’s old house in the Hollywood Hills…and they were invited by Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), whom Will hasn’t seen in about two years. (Awkward…) She is now remarried to David (Michiel Huisman), whom she met at a grief-support group meeting. (Little hints at characterization are flashed throughout the film, giving us somewhat of an understanding at Will and Eden’s past.) Also at the gathering are old friends, who join in on Eden and David’s way of establishing “new beginnings.” But there are two mysterious strangers (strangers to the guests, not to the hosts)—Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). These two are part of a cult that helps deal with trauma, and they have an interesting recruitment video to show the guests…one that ends quite disturbingly. This gets Will (and us) a little on-edge and paranoid, especially when he notices little things the others don’t catch on to.

What are these strange people getting at? What’s the secret to Eden’s newfound calmness after tragedy? Why does David keep locking the doors? Is there something to fear? What’s really happening here? Is Will imagining things or should everyone run for their lives? Without giving anything away, “The Invitation” manages to answer these questions in a major way.

It requires a lot of patience and attention to get to where “The Invitation” ultimately builds up to, and I’ll admit my patience was tried a little with each possible answer they could give us to rising questions (without giving us the actual answers most of the time). But somehow, I knew the answer wouldn’t be as rational as characters would like Will to believe (or the audience to believe, for that matter), so I stayed with it, wondering what would happen, when it would happen, and how it would happen. And as much as I would love to talk about the back half of the film, when everything in the story goes to hell, I will leave it for you to discover, because believe me…it is worth it.

I Spit On Your Grave (1980)

7 Feb

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No Smith’s Verdict rating

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If it weren’t for the works of the late beloved film critic Roger Ebert, I wouldn’t be writing in this blog today. It rarely happens when a person’s impression on a film leaves its own impression on me; but Ebert’s no-nonsense trademark style of writing inspired me as a youngster to write my own film reviews and try to leave my own impression on readers. (Have I succeeded since then? Well…local Arkansas film-folks appreciated my Little Rock Film Festival reviews, if that counts.) Even when I disagreed with him about certain films (particularly “Jack,” “The Hitcher,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” among others), I could still understand why he felt the things he felt in stating his opinions.

With that said…Ebert, if you’re watching me from heaven, I hope you can understand why I’m writing about the movie you called the absolute worst in your whole lifetime of watching/reviewing movies: “I Spit On Your Grave.”

Meir Zarchi’s “I Spit On Your Grave” (originally released in 1978 under the title “Day of the Woman”) is a horrifying rape-revenge story as simple as this: a woman is brutally raped by four men (which is an understatement of the whole horror genre but I’ll get to that later), but she survives and exacts revenge on them by being far more brutal. That’s about it…

“I Spit On Your Grave” is not a film I hold in high regard. It’s not a film that makes me feel easy. It’s not even a film I would watch again anytime soon. But it’s not the worst movie ever made—it’s competently made, it took many chances and risks, and it’s one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, in the way that it was intended to be. It may be the film Roger Ebert hated the most, but it’s not the absolute worst.

That doesn’t mean I recommend it, especially to those with a weak stomach. But slamming it because it’s “disturbing,” which is what it was always meant to be, is not something I want to do.

Around the time this film got a wide release in 1980, there was a long wave of slasher & exploitation films that involved “women in danger,” which made Ebert and fellow film-critic Gene Siskel so mad they dedicated an entire episode of their TV show, “Sneak Previews,” to the “epidemic.” They both felt that these films (such as “Friday the 13th,” “Silent Scream,” and especially “I Spit On Your Grave”) were misogynistic messages against independent, free-spirited women; they do their own thing and are punished severely for it…by death. (When “Halloween,” which they say started that “trend,” did that sort of thing, it was a cautionary message for people who needed to make their priorities higher than sexual.) Here, in “I Spit On Your Grave,” we have a woman going through the most horrifying rape scene in film history. Did I say “scene?” My mistake. It’s an entire half-hour long sequence that begins with the woman (Camille Keaton) sunbathing in a canoe on the river and is suddenly interrupted by two rowdy men who come along in a motorboat, tie her and drag her to land, corner her to two other men, one of whom rapes her. Does it stop there? Nope. She runs into the woods, the guys catch up, and she’s beaten and raped again. Does it stop there? Nope! She staggers back to her cabin nearby, attempts to call for help via telephone, but the guys are already there waiting and they beat her and rape her again. It’s one of the most unpleasant, horrifying sequences ever put on film, regardless of the time it was made and released.

(Fun fact: According to IMDb, one crew member quit during filming of the second rape scene, and the film’s makeup artist quit the film halfway through, because she had been gang-raped before and this felt all too real for her.)

The rape scenes go on too long, but I think the reason for that was to make the viewer more uncomfortable and to show the gravity of the horrific situation. I’m not sure it was meant to be tedious, but the point still comes across in showing us why this woman would go through such extreme measures to get back at these brutes. Speaking of which…

Two weeks after the attack (and after the woman was left for dead) is when the woman decides to exact deadly revenge against the four men (one of whom is an otherwise mild-mannered mentally-retarded man constantly egged on by the three brutes). She hangs one, mutilates another, plunges an axe into another’s back, and mangles the last one with a boat motor. It’s all pretty graphic and disturbing, and if it wasn’t for the extremities of the extended rape scenes, it would seem all too gratuitous rather than comprehensible.

There’s an important scene in which the ringleader of the four men, Johnny (Eron Tabor), is held at gunpoint by the woman. He tries to defend his and his friends’ actions by saying things like “you were asking for it!” and “any man would’ve done the same thing!” And when the woman is threatening him to take off his clothes, Johnny retorts, “I don’t like women giving me orders!” And what happens to this guy? She fools him into taking a bath with her, and…well, never mind what she does to him. The point is, while Siskel and Ebert may have used this film to further campaign against the “women in danger” films of the era, the real target of “I Spit On Your Grave” is the chauvinist, violent nature. And nowhere is that clearer than when Johnny, who has a family, is fine with being disloyal and brutal toward women without thinking of the consequences. He sounds pathetic in justifying his actions to this woman who was just minding her own business before, especially when he thinks he’s speaking for the entire male gender. And the consequences he experiences are extreme to say the absolute least.

When the woman has her revenge, she shows no mercy. She even kills Matthew (Richard Pace), the mentally-slow one of the bunch. Harsh, yes. But it’s to show consequences in following peer pressure.

“I Spit On Your Grave” knows what it wants to do, and it’s not meant to appeal to everyone. The whole film feels raw, like we’re not watching a movie and it’s actually happening (well…with the exception of some bad, noticeable ADR in some spots). The camerawork is simple and the editing isn’t too flashy. Also, there’s no music soundtrack; it’s all diegetic sound, which works to the film’s advantage. It actually helps make the disturbing scenes all the more disturbing because it feels real. There’s a tense moment when the woman thinks she got away from the rapists, only to hear the sound of a harmonica playing; the closer she goes, the louder it gets, to be revealed that it’s one of the rapists sitting on a rock and playing the instrument.

Now, let’s look at Ebert’s review: He called the film “a vile bag of garbage” and stated that “attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life.” Well, it didn’t make me feel happy, that’s for sure—but then again, when a violent film as raw as this shows the fringes of such violence, that can make anyone feel uneasy. He slams the “moronic simplicity” of the story and the technical mistakes, such as the “poorly recorded” sound. Understandable. And…wait a minute here—he says the violence is “interrupted only by an unbelievably grotesque and inappropriate scene in which [the woman] enters a church and asks forgiveness for the murders she plans to commit.” […] Roger, I’m trying to understand what you were trying to say there, because that scene seemed to me like she was going against her conscience by stooping to the level of the rapists (or below that level) and is hesitant about going through with it at first, hence why she begs forgiveness. Would you have preferred if she just went ahead and murdered them?

But then he goes from criticizing the film to criticizing the audience he saw it with, who were apparently rude, offensive, and vocal in their enjoyment of the film. He repeats some of their comments like “That was a good one!,” “That’ll show her!,” and “Cut him up, sister!” I don’t think he made any of this up, as there are some audience members who get a kick out of movie violence, but just after writing about this, he mentions how he left the theater “feeling unclean, ashamed, and depressed.” What he doesn’t express is whether or not that was the cause of the movie itself or the audience with which he saw it. But maybe it was both.

He concluded his review by calling the film “a geek show” and “an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures.” I know he’s trying to say that as a mark against the film, but he ultimately described the film itself. (There’s even an exact quote excerpt of the latter statement seen on the back of the DVD box.) There have been many films that explored more deeply “the most diseased and perverted darker human natures,” the best of which came long since this film. It causes viewers to squirm, others to protest, and the rest to try and interpret why it is the way it is.

“I Spit On Your Grave” is disturbing, and it’s meant to be. To make a film with a message against over-the-top violence is to actually show over-the-top violence in great detail. Did it entertain me? No, but I don’t think it was supposed to. Did it make me think? Yes, hence the length of this entire review. Will I see it again? Well…no, probably not. Do I recommend it? Eh…only if you really want to check it out.

I’m not giving the film a Smith’s Verdict rating, but I’m not praising it or slamming it either. It is what it is, and I just reviewed it as such.

Note: If you’re wondering what film I hate the most, it’s Tom Green’s “Freddy Got Fingered.” I won’t even waste time in reviewing that thing.