Archive | February, 2013

The Artist (2011)

24 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Artist” may be the subject of many cynics who haven’t even seen the movie yet. There’s no point of trying to figure out why. It’s clear that people without a high outlook on film (early film, in particular) aren’t interested in seeing a silent film in black-and-white. Yes, “The Artist” is the first silent film released in cinemas since Mel Brooks’ 1976 satire “Silent Movie.” And it doesn’t just pay homage to the silent film—that would be understating it, really. It really does tell a story with emotions, movement, and music…and it happens to be presented in black-and-white, filmed in 1.33:1 ratio, and mostly without a sound or line of dialogue. Oh, there are subtitles—83 of them, if I counted them all.

“The Artist” does start out as homage to silent film, and a wonderful one at that. It starts with the lay-about opening credit cards and even begins the story in 1927 as a silent adventure film is shown within this silent film. This film within the film is wonderful on its own. It has the same energy and spirit that most adventure films back then. It stars George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the world’s number-one silent-film star, who knows his fame and wallows in it. He seemingly has more power than the directors and producers who cast him.

After the film’s premiere, George poses for a photograph with an attractive fan—a young dancer named Peppy Miller (the radiant Berenice Bejo). Peppy decides to try acting and appears as an extra in George’s next film. But it turns out that Peppy is about to have the same amount of fame that George has. You see, silent films are making way for “talkies” (sound movies), which, for George, means his career is over. His executive producer (played by John Goodman) breaks the news that the studio is all about sound now.

George doesn’t realize what’s to become of him until he funds his own film, which ultimately flops. Peppy’s new starring role in a talkie, however, gets everyone talking (forgive the pun). She’s a star now—she’s headlining the newspapers, people are raving about her radiance, and she’s become America’s sweetheart. She stars in film after film, but George is in financial trouble, even going as far as to selling all of his possessions. He also fires his loyal chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell), leading to a heartbreaking goodbye: “But I don’t want another job,” as a subtitle (and Cromwell’s face) states. But since George got Peppy interested in acting and is also responsible for her beauty mark above her lip (brushed upon, mind you), Peppy still cares for George and tends to him when he most needs help.

The first half of “The Artist” is lovable—I can’t tell you how much I was enjoying myself. I was laughing quite a lot (some of them came from the antics of George’s well-trained dog), but mostly, I was smiling. The orchestral music that plays throughout, composed by Ludovic Bource, is a definite tribute to music telling a story. But the music isn’t only what helps make the film come alive. If it did, I’d be criticizing the acting. But all of the actors are forced to carry their character’s emotions, use excessive body language, and make it all credible. And because the film is shot in this 4:3 ratio, it gives the actors opportunity to make use of their limited space.

Then the second half develops into something stronger, as George Valentin’s life goes down the drain. It’s telling a story. I cared about this suave, likable guy and was hoping that he can catch another break to get his life on track. All this man knows is the entertainment value he put into his work and the appropriately-named Peppy would like nothing more than to bring it back for him, while her own fame is increasing. This is all very strong and very well put together. There’s one scene in particular that really got me—it’s midway through the movie and George has realized what little he has in life anymore, so he tears apart all of his films and burns them. The music and acting bring about the sheer intensity of the scene. And that’s not the end of the film. I wouldn’t give away how everything turns out, or even if everything works out, but it’s all very fitting for the film.

True effort was put into “The Artist” to make it into something special. Everything, from the script to the execution to the acting to the music to the overall spirit, adds to the charm and whimsy of this treat of a movie—enjoyable, entertaining, and beautiful. I love this movie.

Rocky (1976)

24 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Rocky” is a true underdog story, inside and out. By that I mean the movie is about a novice boxer getting a shot at the title, and this involving, excellent film beat the odds and became the little film that could. It was written by Sylvester Stallone, who had many rejected screenplays, but caught the attention of United Artists with his screenplay for “Rocky,” which was mainly inspired by the 1975 Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner fight. Stallone set to attach himself as the star, while United Artists wanted to go with James Caan. So, the skeptical United Artists gave the production a smaller budget, around $1 million. And then when the finished film was released, it received great reviews, word-of-mouth, and ten Academy Award nominations, winning three (Best Film Editing, Best Director, and the coupe de gras—Best Picture). “Rocky” had beaten the odds.

“Rocky” is a great film that deserved all the attention it got, and the respect that it continues to get, as one of the best sports films of all time. But while “sports film” can technically by the accurate term for “Rocky,” it’s also a great portrait of a hero, and a tender love story. Either way you look at it, it’s very effective.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a small-time boxer who boxes for money to make ends meet. He lives in a small apartment in inner-city Philadelphia and works as a collector for loan shark Gazzo (Joe Spinell). Rocky could’ve been a great, well-known fighter, but blew it all away. But all that’s on his mind is winning the heart of Adrian (Talia Shire), the shy sister of his friend Paulie (Burt Young). She works at the pet shop, sold Rocky a couple of turtles and goldfish, and is amused by Rocky’s at-least-attempt at humor. But she’s painfully shy and isn’t sure about going out with Rocky.

After some harsh action by Paulie to get her out of his house, Adrian goes on a date with Rocky on Thanksgiving night. They hit it off really well as Adrian finds that Rocky is a good person and steps out of her shell to give him a chance. One of the more tender scenes in the movie is when Rocky arranges for ten minutes of ice-skating (she skates, he jogs alongside her) and talks about how his father told him to develop his body rather than his brain—Adrian says that her mother told her the opposite thing; to use your brain rather than your body. She then asks Rocky why he fights, he replies, “’Cause I can’t sing or dance.”

Meanwhile, world heavyweight champion fighter Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) decides to schedule a New Year boxing event with a true underdog to go against. While looking for possible candidates, he picks Rocky only because he likes his stage name “Italian Stallion.” Rocky is asked to do it. At first, he doesn’t believe that he’s going to be the opponent of the heavyweight champion—he thinks he’s going to be a sparring partner, until he realizes that the winner of this fight gains the World Championship title. Rocky doesn’t care that much about winning, but about gaining self-respect for his future by giving the fight his all and winning Adrian’s heart. With help from boxing coach Mickey (Burgess Meredith), Rocky goes into training in preparation for the fight, while also developing his relationship with Adrian further.

The film is about using your chances to your advantage, standing by your loved ones, overcoming your regrets and lost opportunities, and pushing your potential to the best you can achieve. Now, if that makes “Rocky” sound very corny or cheesy, it’s not like that at all. Just about everything—every story element, character trait, etc.—is done right; handled delicately with a true affection for the characters, an emotionally involving feel, and many twists and turns as the film progresses. We care about the setups and payoffs involving the characters, thus making us care about the relationship and the big match. A lot of credit for that must go to Stallone for making us feel emotionally involved in everything that’s going on, and also for turning in a truly excellent performance as the hero Rocky. He’s tough and uses brawn instead of brain, but is truly a good guy with a heart of gold and hardly an ounce of cruelty. We can easily sympathize with Rocky.

The nitty-gritty look of Philadelphia helps make “Rocky” seem credible, as Rocky walks along the sidewalks at night, passing by some quirky characters who sing at the curb as well as some creeps that he, at one point, tries to keep a twelve-year-old girl from hanging around (her response—“screw you, creepo”). And the supporting characters like resentful Paulie and relentless Mickey complete the circle with blends of anger and spirit.

By the time we reach the final fight that’s been set up, it means everything. In the end, it doesn’t matter who wins and who loses—as clichéd as it is to write, it’s how it’s being played. Even if Rocky loses the fight, he gains more in life. That’s one of life’s simplest lessons that “Rocky” gets across—there’s more important things in life than winning. And it doesn’t merely rely on sports-film clichés to get that message across.

With a captivating hero and a sharp screenwriter (both the same person), nicely-portrayed supporting characters, and emotional involvement, “Rocky” is a triumph. It’s the little film that could…and ultimately did.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

24 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Spike Lee is a director that tackles controversial subjects and brings them to independent films that go beyond the usual mainstream prospects. He loves to speak valuable issues through film and brings everything he can get to the screen—even if it’s light comedy to contrast the heavier material. Lee is a prominent voice in American cinema and his third film, “Do the Right Thing” (following “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze”), was the one that made him known as the risky filmmaker with the eyes and the ears.

Oddly enough, “Do the Right Thing” is also the angriest and most aggressive of Lee’s films—showing racism head-on. He shows it like it is, rarely flinches at the subject at hand, and doesn’t resort to political correctness or sermons. He tells a story—he sets up the characters and allows set-up events to play out around them.

The film takes place in a 24-hour period in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, on the proclaimed hottest day of the summer. We meet many of the neighborhood locals as they go about their daily lives. Most of them meet at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which has been around for about 25 years. The owner Sal (Danny Aiello) has seemingly gotten used to working in a neighborhood mostly composed of African-Americans, and believes that whites and blacks can live together in harmony, though there are some hints of racism partially present. His two sons work with him—Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). While Vito is easy-going and color-blind, Pino is a hot-headed racist who mostly uses vulgarities about the black customers that come in for pizza.

We also meet other characters such as—Sal’s pizza delivery boy Mookie (Spike Lee) who is hostile and bored, but responsive when he wants to be (there are times when he offers Vito advice not to listen to Pino all the time); Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an old gentleman whom everyone else constantly ranks out because he’s constantly drunk; Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the strict, self-proclaimed “high-and-mighty” elderly woman that Da Mayor tries to court; and Tina (Rosie Perez), Mookie’s girlfriend who cares for their toddler son Hector. Others start up the conflict of the story—particularly Mookie’s friend Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and mild-mannered, boombox-carrying giant Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). Buggin Out notices that the pictures all over Sal’s pizzeria wall are all of Italian celebrities, and not one “brother,” and attempts to boycott the restaurant. He gets Radio Raheem to help him and this leads to a long day that ends with the occurrence of something alarming.

The film has just been a slice-of-life picture up until this final act, in which a fight occurs, a character dies, chaos ensues, and there’s a full-scale riot.

The title comes from a quote by Malcolm X—“You’ve got to do the right thing.” Let’s look at the facts here—Malcolm X is considered a leader and one of the greatest, most influential African-American leaders in history; a character named Smiley is going around trying to sell pictures of Malcolm X, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the film is centered around racial tension in the projects. I suppose we’d like to think that racism is toning down in our society, but as Spike Lee shows in “Do the Right Thing,” it’s always going to be present and it can sometimes spin things out of control. And it can be brought back to this simple statement—because of this, everyone in this movie fails to do the right thing. What is the right thing? Who does it? The way I see it, nobody does. That’s what makes it ironic and all the more credible and disturbing. We even have a character that we have come to like performing an action that makes the violent situation even worse than it already was. (By the way, props to that, because in a more mainstream movie, I bet someone we’ve come to hate would’ve done the exact same thing.)

This is what Lee sees and that’s what he brings to the screen, while having his own understanding of what’s happening. This film is not trying to offend races—it’s not anti-white, nor is it anti-black. It just shows how misunderstanding and racial tension would/could lead to violence.

The oddest thing about the movie is actually the most interesting—amongst the angry, aggressive tone that’s felt throughout the movie, the filmmaking is so lively. The camera focuses on many images, a rocking soundtrack is present in a lot of scenes (Public Enemy’s high-powered “Fight the Power” serves as the film’s anthem, especially in the opening-credit sequence, featuring a young woman dancing in the street), the colors stand out, and just a thrilling sense of entertainment. How can you describe a film like this? It’s so angry, so aggressive (sorry for repeating myself here), and yet so damn entertaining. Also, the performances each have a high power to them—particularly Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, and Spike Lee himself (he’s actually a pretty good actor).

So maybe there isn’t a solution to the racism problem in society that we can find in “Do the Right Thing,” but there’s not supposed to be. What Lee is trying to do is bring the problem to realization, if it hasn’t been realized already. This is a film that’s trying to say something and throwing all it can to make you listen. That’s a film to be duly noted, in my opinion.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

24 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“A Fish Called Wanda” is one of my favorite comedies—I think it’s one of the funniest, brash, offbeat movies I’ve ever seen, along with some of the Monty Python films. (Though, oddly enough, some of the Monty Python troupe takes part in this film, so there you go.) Every time I watch this movie, I laugh and laugh and laugh. But how often is it that among all the laughs and funny performances from the actors, there’s actually a highly imaginative story to go along with it? Then by definition, there’s a great movie here—good story, characters, actors, and of course, laughs.

It’s a caper story set in England and centered around a band of jewelry store robbers, consisting of the ringleader/mastermind George (Tom Georgeson), his stuttering, animal-loving friend Ken (Michael Palin), and two American recruits—Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her psychotic and quite idiotic lover Otto (Kevin Kline). They pull off the heist, but Wanda and Otto make an anonymous tip to the police. George is arrested, but not before hiding the loot. So to let himself off somewhat easily, he suggests giving away the location of the jewels to his barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese), resulting in Wanda planning to seduce Archie.

Archie Leach is a mild-mannered lawyer living an unpleasant home life with his materialistic wife (Maria Aitken) and spoiled daughter. When Wanda comes into his life, it’s a more interesting case of romance and excitement, making things more complicated since Wanda was his client’s aide, and especially because Otto is a jealous man (whom Wanda tells Archie is his brother) who constantly spies on the two of them and also takes some extreme action.

These are wonderfully nutty characters in “A Fish Called Wanda” and the actors are more than game. Everyone in the cast has his/her moment to shine while the audience is laughing out loud. Comedian John Cleese, who also wrote the screenplay and is also a “Monty Python” alum, is at his best as Archie Leach, making an appealing, unlikely hero and giving some big laughs along the way. His reactions to many of the zany, bizarre situations are hilarious. Kevin Kline is excellent as Otto, a man so deranged that he doesn’t believe himself to be deranged. This is a guy who reads Nietzsche and thus thinks he’s so intelligent, even though he misreads his style. He’s so stupid that he thinks the London Underground is a political movement. There’s also a running joke in which he’ll repeat the memorable line “Don’t call me stupid” and then go to unforgettable conditions to those who do call him “stupid” (like swing somebody from a window!).

Jamie Lee Curtis is sexy and playful as Wanda. And then there’s Michael Palin, also from “Monty Python,” having a lot of fun as Ken, a stutterer with a love for animals, particularly his pet fish (one of which is named Wanda). He’s the one who has to do away with the old lady who was a witness to the heist getaway, but constantly (and accidentally) winds up killing off her little pet dogs instead.

If you had told me that I would love a movie in which three dogs are knocked off (one of which is pounded into the cement of the street), I wouldn’t have believed you. I guess anything can be funny or maybe I’m just sick. Or hopefully, I’m not sick, because I’m sure that you would laugh at that too. Bottom line: I laughed out loud.

Most of the humor in “A Fish Called Wanda” is the nuttiness involving these zany characters and the physical comedy that occurs during most of their circumstances. I can’t give a lot of the best gags away, because that would defeat the purpose of surprise. I won’t even describe them just to make the review funny. I think I’ve explained just about enough.

“A Fish Called Wanda” is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen—It’s original, inspired, gamely-acted, and…it’s just funny from beginning to end.

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

24 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Well it figures that, in a Disney animated feature, when a father and daughter are having a good time, and the little daughter calls her father the “best daddy in the whole world,” it only makes it necessary for the father to suddenly be taken out of the picture. This way, she can embark on the movie’s adventure. But here’s a surprise (for a Disney animated movie)—the father isn’t dead. He’s just been kidnapped, that’s all.

The main gimmick of Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective,” a very well-put-together family-adventure, is that the main characters are all mice and rats living in Victorian London. It’s like a parallel world underneath our own, which makes sense considering the title character (indeed a “great mouse detective”) lives under the dwelling of Sherlock Holmes. The film draws heavily on traditional Sherlock Holmes elements—of course, for example, the main character, named Basil, is a heroic mouse who has the intelligence and personality of the famous fictional detective.

The aforementioned little girl (or mouse, whatever) witnesses her father being captured by a nasty, peg-legged bat. So with the aid of friendly Dr. Dawson, she tracks down the rodent-equivalent of Sherlock Holmes himself, Basil of Baker Street. She hopes that Basil will be able to help get her father back. While following a series of clues, Basil, Dawson, and the girl (aided by a loyal dog named Toby) set out to rescue the kidnapped parent and stop an evil scheme devised by a villainous sewer rat named Ratigan, whose plan requires the help of the father.

By the way, the father is a toymaker and Ratigan plans to use his inventiveness to create a robotic clone of the mouse Queen, so that it can trick the attendees of a royal event into thinking that Ratigan is now ruler of the land…I am aware of how dumb that sounds, but I’ll let it slide because it’s Disney-magic. The mice talk, yet Toby the dog and Ratigan’s pet cat don’t. Let them do whatever they want.

“The Great Mouse Detective” is quite the entertaining Disney film. It takes us on a wild adventure through this intriguing mouse-world and has sequence upon sequence of pure delight and mystery. It will delight kids, and also keep their parents entertained as well.

While it does feature a little mouse-world mixing with the giant human world, what “The Great Mouse Detective” is really centered around are the characters that go through it and have this adventure. The hero and villain are very enjoyable. Basil (voiced by Barrie Ingham) is a great hero to follow—he’s quick-thinking; he’s intelligent; he’s observant; he’s energetic; and he’s narcissistic yet still very likeable. You can tell that from the first moment he arrives on screen that you’re going to enjoy watching this guy (or mouse) on this film’s journey. And the villain is great. Ratigan is voiced by Vincent Price, whose sliminess is very existent in his voiceover work for this character. Ratigan is brilliant, dastardly evil, and enjoys every second of what he does. He’s enjoying what he does so much that even we as a result can’t help but enjoy it as well. The hero and villain of “The Great Mouse Detective” are very appealing, and they play off each other perfectly as two intelligent minds trying to outwit each other.

Dawson, who becomes Basil’s loyal sidekick, is also very likeable. With nervous mannerisms, a distinguished quality to himself, and a loyalty that leads to bravery as the journey continues, Dawson is an effective equivalent of Holmes’ partner Dr. Watson.

But being a Disney animated feature, the animation deserves credit, especially since this is apparently the first time Disney used computer-generated animation. What really stands out among this animation is the climax, in which Basil and Ratigan have a showdown in the clock tower. The way this sequence is animated is just so fascinating, and the way it’s put together makes for a quite intense fight scene.

“The Great Mouse Detective” constantly gets overlooked when it comes to mentioning Disney animated films, but it really is a small treasure. It may be the mouse version of the Sherlock Holmes story, but don’t let that throw you off. It’s an entertaining movie with terrific animation, interesting characters, and a good sense of fun.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

24 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is a vulgar comedy with different stories featuring different high school teenagers, but it’s a little more honest than most “teensplotation” films in the 1980s. You know the type—the vile and nasty movies featuring horny teenagers as subjects of immature sex jokes and a lot of nudity (“Porky’s” is the prime example). “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” differs from most elements of those films, though not all. There are sex jokes and a lot of nudity, but the teenage characters are written with a little more drive. This is a character-based teen film, and some of the characters are quite likable.

We have the shy freshman girl—Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—who has decided to lose her virginity this year. Then, we have Stacy’s older—and more experienced—best friend Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), who has a long-distance relationship. Then, we have Stacy’s older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold), who is spending his senior year working at fast-food places and keeps getting fired for going just outside the book. Then, we have the smooth-talking Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), who thinks he knows it all when it comes to sex. Then, we have Damone’s friend Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), a virgin who has eyes for Stacy.

Each of these characters has his/her own misadventure through sex. Stacy loses her virginity to an older guy and wonders if sex will be better the second time around. She gets advice from Linda, who is also the subject of Brad’s sexual fantasies. Mark has a crush on Stacy, and asks Damone for advice. But little does he know that Damone is all talk—that’s especially true in the scene in which Damone and Stacy do it together and Damone asks, “Did you feel it?”

But my favorite character—and also, the more standoutish character—is the “surfer dude” Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn). Spicoli is a surfer and a slacker, always a nuisance in his history teacher’s eyes. His history teacher is the uptight Mr. Hand (Ray Walston). Throughout the film, Mr. Hand and Spicoli continue to have a feud and this leads to many memorable confrontations, each funny and an indication as to the matter of Mr. Hand being the one to give Spicoli a reality check.

All of the young actors are fantastic. In particular, Sean Penn is absolutely perfect as the afore-mentioned dude who is rumored to have been “stoned since the third grade.” And Jennifer Jason Leigh shows freshness and a credible innocence that her character is supposed to go through—she’s great in this movie. But she is also subject to most of the nudity in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”—this film came close to an NC-17 rating, but got an R. Also, there’s a scene featuring a topless Phoebe Cates is sure to be the subject of many male sexual fantasies.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” doesn’t have a consistent tone, however. It’s hard to tell whether the film is trying to be up or down about the sex scenes. Sometimes, it’s also hard to watch Leigh, who looks so innocent throughout the film, go through some heavy stuff, like getting an abortion after Damone “knocks her up.” There’s a better movie to be made with all the actors, but “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” isn’t a total failure.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

24 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Safety Not Guaranteed” takes a neat idea and uses it for an independent film that starts out as cynical as its characters (and as many other smart-aleck indie films I’ve seen lately), but then turns into a pleasant, involving experience once the characters have become more involved in the mystery of the situation.

What is the situation, the neat idea? It’s a “classified” ad in a newspaper. And a most unusual one at that—it reads: “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You will get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.”

How can you ignore an ad like that? You can’t help but be the least bit curious about the person who placed that ad in the paper. Sure, you wouldn’t actually try and track him or her down; you’d think about doing it, but you’d never actually do it. “Safety Not Guaranteed” plays that angle, as three Seattle magazine employees decide to track down and report on whoever placed that ad—is it a joke or is it for real?

The slacking reporter, named Jeff (Jake Johnson), volunteers to take this story and brings two interns with him to Ocean View, Washington. The interns are Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Sonl). Darius is a disillusioned college grad and Arnau is an Indian-American studious biology major. They all drive down to Ocean View to do some digging, but since Jeff is more focused on hooking up with a high-school girlfriend, the interns do most of the investigative work.

Finding the guy comes off as pretty easy—Darius and Arnau spy on the post office until someone opens the Box posted in the ad. The man who placed the ad is a mid-30s grocery clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Darius has her own simple way of approaching him—by answering his ad, convincing him that she’s the right one for him to “travel back in time with,” and find out what his deal is. It turns out that Kenneth is dead serious about time travel and Darius manages to get him to trust her because she’s quirky, aggressive, challenging, and quick. And as Darius finds out more about Kenneth, she finds herself more intrigued and fascinated and just wondering, just like us, what exactly is going to happen with this time travel plan.

Who is Kenneth? Why does he want to travel through time so bad? Why does he want a partner? Can he really create a time machine? Is that what’s going on in his secretive shed? Is there really someone following him, like he says? All of these questions aren’t given simple answers. There are some answers, mind you, but director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly handles them subtly and impeccably. But more importantly, they make us care for the characters involved. A crucial example is the scene in which Kenneth reveals why he wants to travel back in time—we can easily relate to his reasons.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” starts out as an oddball road comedy with these three diverse people looking to find something unusual. But once we get into Kenneth’s characterization, whatever it may be, and further into the sweet relationship that develops between Kenneth and Darius, the movie does become a more involving, more pleasant movie that deals with its characters and their situations in a paranoid and quirky yet intriguing and investing way.

Darius becomes less of a deadpan cynic and shows moments of vulnerability that really make us care about her. The same can be said for Jeff and Arnau. Jeff, in particular, starts out as a typical unlikeable jerk, looking to hook up and also to get Arnau laid before the trip is over, until we go through a subplot involving him and his old girlfriend (Jenica Bergera). When he notices that the years haven’t been kind to her, he still enjoys being with her and realizes that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Arnau becomes less of a stereotypical Indian-American sidekick and has his own life-changing moment as well. Actually, the whole movie could be like these three, particularly Darius—sardonic on the outside, sweet on the inside. It starts out as a grim, cynical indie flick and turns into a pleasurable story.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” can be seen as a star vehicle for Aubrey Plaza. Usually known for her deadpan-sarcastic, comic supporting roles on TV’s “Parks & Recreation,” as well as movies “Funny People” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Plaza tries a lead role this time and succeeds. She proves a real acting talent when she’s calmed down and displays a true sense of vulnerability.

Mark Duplass, as Kenneth, hits the right notes with his performance. He’s a misfit and an oddball, but also earnest and somewhat relatable. You can tell he means everything he’s saying and just want things to go well for him. Even when it seems like he’s possibly gone off his rocker, it’s hard not to empathize with him. What should also be noted is that not once does the movie make fun of him—even in the “training montage” in which Kenneth gets Darius prepared for their trip through time, we’re still with him instead of making fun of him. He’s taking this whole thing seriously, and we have to know if he’s on the right path.

Is time travel possible in this movie? I’m not saying. Though I can tell you this—“Safety Not Guaranteed” is not about time travel. It’s about right here, right now. It’s about these characters who become people we care about and these ideas that we’re fascinated by. The end result is quite satisfying—showing little, but leaving a lot to the imagination. I did not correctly guess the ending to “Safety Not Guaranteed” and I find myself thinking about what I’d just seen. As I continue to think about this movie, I find myself liking it more and more. That is the sign of a terrific movie.

NOTE: By the way, is it a coincidence that Darius resembles MTV’s “Daria?” Just askin’.

Paranormal Activity (2009)

24 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Any horror film that forces Steven Spielberg to watch it in the daylight, rather than at night, deserves to be checked out. The story of how the extremely-low-budget independent thriller “Paranormal Activity” got its release is quite interesting—apparently, the film was shown at several film festivals for a couple of years before it was acquired by Dreamworks, who wanted to remake the film with a bigger budget. Spielberg got a DVD copy of the film and watched in his home at night, and was so scared to continue that he waited until morning light to finish it, after which he called the executives, saying, “We shouldn’t remake this—we should release it!” Paramount Pictures picked up the film and released it to the public.

“Paranormal Activity” is a welcome addition to the horror genre—maybe not a complete success, but enough clever moments and more importantly, terrifying moments. No doubt it’s a great movie to see with a crowd, with screams and laughs—it’d be very entertaining, but when you watch it alone in your house, what you have seems like a typical horror film. Not much fun is left. But still, it’s an effective chiller.

“Paranormal Activity” uses the first-person perspective used in other thrillers such as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield.” It pretends to be “found documentary footage” and is seen only in a first-person perspective, from a video camera owned by one of the main characters. And better yet, all of the actors are unknowns, making it more effective—the actors use their real first names for their characters.

This first-person gimmick also creates atmosphere—much like how “The Blair Witch Project” created atmosphere with its first-person perspective in the middle of the woods, “Paranormal Activity” uses the same gimmick inside a seemingly normal suburban house.

Inside this house live a young couple—Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat)—who have just moved in. They’re experiencing a haunting of some sort, so Micah decides to buy a new camera to see if he can record anything out of the ordinary, like an amateur paranormal investigator. He’s excited about this ordeal, but for Katie, this is nothing new, as she has experienced something like this in the past.

Micah films around the house during the day and also sets up a tripod in the bedroom to record them (with the help of a computer) while they sleep. And surely enough, the camera does capture some strange happenings, like a mysterious shadow or a moving door. Micah and Katie keep trying to figure stuff out—Katie even calls a psychic to come down and see what he thinks. He concludes that this spirit is a demon and it only wants Katie, and not the house.

Every night, things get creepier and more tense. It just gets worse as it goes along, and Micah is in no way making things better. He provokes the demon! I’ve seen horror movie characters do stupid things before, but…he brings out a Ouija board to try and communicate with the demon, even though he has been specifically told not to! He’s a brave guy, all right…no, he’s just an idiot. And most of his antics pay off in a way that you just want to smack him. If you don’t yell at the screen, “Get out of the house!,” you might still feel obligated to yell, “Get a clue!”

There are many scary moments in “Paranormal Activity.” As with “The Blair Witch Project,” the fear comes more from what we don’t see. When we hear something going on elsewhere, it comes out of nowhere. We hear someone—or something—walking up the stairs and it fills us with unease. And so on. There are many hints as to what’s going on throughout the movie and it gives the audience time to try and figure out exactly what’s happening. Also, just the idea of something supernatural happening in a typical suburban house at night is creepy enough. There’s something I’d like to mention too—there’s a time code at the bottom of the screen (or viewfinder, if you will) every time the camera records them sleeping. The numbers will speed up, meaning that we’re fast-forwarding through time (usually to a few hours later). When the numbers stop…you know something is going to happen, but you don’t know what. That’s a great idea.

And then there’s the ending, or rather the final image—I won’t give it away, but I guarantee it will make even horror movie fans uneasy.

This is an effective horror film, and a terrific one in that it uses its limited resources to give us something satisfying. Both lead actors are totally convincing their roles (and Katie Featherston can let out a hell of a scream, I tell you that), the setting of one house filmed with one camera is surprisingly fitting, and of course, the scares are there.

Spanglish (2004)

23 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, what would you say if I told you that Adam Sandler starred in a movie that featured a family with a crazy member? You’d just say, “OK. So?” But what would you say if I told you that Adam Sandler does not play the crazy family member? That this movie is not a typical “Adam Sandler comedy,” but a James L. Brooks comedy-drama? “Spanglish” is that movie and it does star Adam Sandler. But Sandler plays a man who is trying to keep everything calm. His wife is played by Tea Leoni, and she isn’t just simply crazy—she shouldn’t even be living in a house with a relatively calm husband and two innocent kids. I feel sorry for those kids living in this household.

There’s a third major character in “Spanglish”—a quiet, sensitive Mexican woman named Flor (Paz Vega). Her husband has died, meaning she has to look after her daughter by herself. She leaves Mexico to live in America. To support her daughter (named Cristine), she goes to work for the Claskys, an American dysfunctional family. She is sucked into the drama that happens in this family. John (Sandler) is a chef who is named the Number One Chef in America, but really doesn’t want a lot of attention. His wife Deborah (Leoni) isn’t making life any easier for him. He is so “stark raving calm,” as Deborah puts it, and Deborah simply waves good-bye to reality as she goes cuckoo. She sounds so desperate about everything, stumbles over things, and has a bizarre sexual encounter (though this movie is rated PG-13). John and Deborah have two kids—one of which is teenaged Bernice (Sarah Steele).

Flor doesn’t speak fluent English (she only knows a few words), but she’s patient and tries her best to go along with this family. Complications arise when Deborah practically steals Flor’s daughter (who speaks fluent English) and takes her shopping. In a brilliant comic scene, Flor expresses her anger to John and asks Cristine to translate into English for her. The comic timing of Paz Vega and Shelbie Bruce (as the daughter) in that scene is just great.

A relationship builds slowly and tentatively between Flor and John. One of the movie’s finer things about it is that the relationship is so nicely developed. It doesn’t start quickly; it simply builds up to it. They spot each other on the street, say “hi” a few times at glances in the house, and have late-night chats after Flor is just learning to speak English. The chemistry between these two is convincing. Also, the relationship between Flor and Cristine as mother and daughter is handled quite nicely. I love the final scene they share together. Without giving too much away, it shows convincingly that all parents fear for their children’s futures. That scene is an excellent curtain-closer for this film, which is well-acted and powerful.

It’s nice to see Adam Sandler in this kind of relaxed performance. He’s a lot better as an actor when he isn’t manic, sadistic, or obsessive. Here, he’s restrained and gives a convincing performance as a guy who just things to be better. (After all, who doesn’t?) Tea Leoni is great at making her character not a monster, but rather an unfit parent and uptight klutz. You have to wonder if she took lessons from Adam Sandler’s previous films and brought more class to the character. Also, Paz Vega is wonderful here. One of the best things about “Spanglish” is that while she speaks Spanish (and she does speak fluent Spanish through the first hour of the film), she isn’t given English subtitles popping up on the screen for us to understand her. We don’t need subtitles. Her expressions and actions say it all. It’s a wonderful performance. Also delightful is Cloris Leachman as Deborah’s alcoholic mother. She starts out as a drunk and ends up being an actually wise person in the ways of relationships. I love the scene where she corners Deborah and warns her about what would happen if she keeps messing up.

“Spanglish” is an effective comedy-drama. This is not simply a sitcom featuring caricatures with phony problems. Real people have real problems. Relationships are complicated. Flor’s “fixing” of the family may not end the way we expect it to be. “Spanglish” is a nice movie with a terrific ensemble cast, a good script, and a good dose of comedy and drama. And after “Punch-Drunk Love,” this is further proof that Adam Sandler can handle serious roles well.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

23 Feb

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

At age 11 (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”), the young wizard Harry Potter and his friends Ron and Hermione spent their first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as they encountered a giant three-headed dog, fought a troll, and played a life-size game of chess. At age 12 (“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”), they solved a deadly mystery that included mutant spiders, a dark underground chamber, and a giant snake. At age 13 (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), they were pursued by a mysterious prisoner of Azkaban (the wizard prison) who turned out to be something more. At age 14 (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”), Harry was faced by deadly challenges (including a dragon, vicious merpeople, and a treacherous hedge maze) before he witnessed the return of the evil Lord Voldemort, the former Hogwarts student who became evil and tried to overrun the wizarding world before he disappeared (but not before killing Harry’s parents). Now Voldemort is back and is slowly but surely gathering other wizards and witches to create an army to finish what he started. So at age 15 (“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”), Harry taught other students how to defend themselves, should they have to fight against Voldemort and his followers. Then at age 16 (“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), Harry and school headmaster Dumbledore discover a way to defeat Voldemort. But Dumbledore is killed, leaving Harry, Ron, and Hermione to eventually, at age 17 (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1”), find hidden objects that contain remnants of Voldemort’s soul. Once they destroy them, Voldemort is vulnerable.

Whew! I tell you, these kids have been on more adventures than Indiana Jones.

Anyway, they’ve destroyed three of these “Horcruxes” so far, now with two more to go as Voldemort and his army grows stronger. Thus, we have the long-awaited cinematic conclusion to the beloved and successful “Harry Potter” film series, adapted from the most-beloved book series by J.K. Rowling. This is Part 2 of the seventh and final book “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” leaving this to be the eighth and final film. The result is a most satisfying conclusion to a wonderful series of films.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” picks up where “Part 1” left off. Voldemort has found the wand that is said to be the most powerful of them all as he seeks out Harry and sends out his army of Death Eaters to overtake Hogwarts. In the meantime, Harry, Ron, and Hermione still have to find the last two horcruxes. They locate one in a scene that’s in the spirit of the previous films’ harrowing adventure scenes (this one involving a dragon) before racing off to find themselves back at Hogwarts.

The only thing I can say about the rest of the plot is this: For those who were upset that “Part 1” may have ended abruptly (by the way, what’d you expect from a “part 1” anyway?), it’s time to watch “Part 2” and witness what we’ve all been waiting for—the final confrontation between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. The previous films have been building up to it and now it’s finally here. I can say that it doesn’t disappoint. It’s dark and epic, just as we wanted it to be.

Every past setup has its payoff and every character has his/her moment (I especially like how Professor McGonagall, played by Dame Maggie Smith, rolls up her sleeves) as Hogwarts becomes a battleground for the students and teachers of Hogwarts versus Voldemort and his large army Death Eaters.

Now, I can’t say exactly what the bolts shot out of each character’s wands do to whoever is hit by them. But I don’t care—they’re lethal. Isn’t that enough? I suppose so.

We get an introduction to Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth Dumbledore (Ciaran Hinds) who helps the central trio back to Hogwarts. Then, we get other sides of characters we already knew, particularly Snape (delightful deadpan Alan Rickman) who has become Voldemort’s assistant. We had our suspicions about him before we found out he was just unpleasant. Now, he’s turned over to the dark side and even killed Prof. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) in the sixth film. Not giving anything away, we discover why Snape wasn’t so fond of Harry from the start and why…he is what he is. As for Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Harry’s slimy bully at Hogwarts who also became a Death Eater along with his father (Jason Isaacs) and mother, we get hints at where he’s going but we get the point nonetheless. We get a more heroic side of the once-nervous Hogwarts student Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and—I swear, I am not kidding here—an actual emotion—though brief, mind you—from Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). And then there’s Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). We know what we already knew from the previous films and that’s all the character needs in the end. Who have I left out? Well, two characters briefly seen in the first film make appearances here (but they’re very crucial)—they’re played by Warwick Davis and John Hurt. Oh, and of course, there’s Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), Harry’s love interest. Well, let’s just leave it at that.

The actors—young and old—have become their roles, as is expected after seven previous films. In fact, you wonder what feature film roles the young actors Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron), and Emma Watson (Hermione) will take on next. To me, they will always be Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They have become their characters in these movies, physically and emotionally. It will be interesting to see what they do next.

So what else is there to say about “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2?” The pacing is brilliant (there isn’t a dull moment here), the dialogue isn’t hurried, and there are pleasant surprises for those who haven’t read the books and are fans of the films (don’t worry—those who read the books may be delighted as well). Even though the epilogue leaves an open door for a continuation, J.K. Rowling informs the public that it won’t happen. So I suppose what is left to say is…goodbye.