Archive | June, 2013

Frances Ha (2013)

30 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Independent writer-director Noah Baumbach is usually not one for conventional or even entirely-pleasant elements when it comes to his stories—his films “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding,” and “Greenberg” are certainly proof of that. Somehow, he manages to take what sounds like a simple story (parents get a divorce, squabbling sisters reunite at a wedding, etc.) and make it his own. Sometimes, you don’t know how to feel, and the laughs come from certain originality that comes with an odd sense to it, I called his “Margot at the Wedding” an “acquired-taste” film in that you either get into the appeal (or lack thereof) of the material and execution, or you don’t.

With “Frances Ha,” Baumbach has learned to relax with his filmmaking and the film, as a result, is gentler and fairly easier to watch that his previous films. The tone is a bit lighter, but with that same sense of gritty documentary-style camerawork and interaction so you know that it’s still a Baumbach film (except that this one is presented in black-and-white for some reason). And it actually has a charming leading character instead of the usual intentionally unlikable “protagonists” we usually find in his films (see Margot, for example). That character is the excitable, quirky Frances Halloway, played the ever-charming Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the screenplay for the film with Baumbach.

Gerwig is generally known as a “mumblecore queen,” but she has gained notice in more mainstream projects (and hopefully will continue to do so, if she wants people to forget she was in the “Arthur” remake). And playing the lead role in “Frances Ha,” she follows a trend I notice a lot recently in indie films—that trend being that actors/actresses write their own leading roles and they wind up showcasing their true talent that was evident but not fully realized in supporting roles they were saddled with previously. That was the case with Zoe Kazan in writing and acting in “Ruby Sparks” and Rashida Jones co-writing and acting in “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” Now, Greta Gerwig co-writes “Frances Ha” with Baumbach and delivers her best performance as an actress, showing further cases of immense appeal and range. Her Frances “Ha” Halloway is a cheerful, high-spirited 27-year-old dancer who has a bit of trouble growing up and can’t seem to deal with the real world of adulthood. She gets excited over the simplest things, such as taking the check on a restaurant date…but having to run all over the city to get money because her credit card is maxed out. (That was the moment early in the film when I realized I loved this woman.) As things get deeper into impending adulthood, she finds she can’t quite deal with it regularly and does/says things out of the ordinary that make her seem…well, “crazy.” But you love her anyway.

So what’s the “simple” story that Baumbach has to put original touches into for this one, and for this character to go through? Frances is a dancing-company apprentice who works in New York and wants to be a real dancer. So she tries to fulfill her dream, even though the road to that fulfillment is a bumpy one. Blah blah blah, right? Wrong. Frances is among thousands in a big city that is seeking an artistic life, but doesn’t have the financial consistencies or the attention or time for her own life to reach her goals. Meanwhile, her best friend from college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), with whom she does everything together (they even at one point acknowledge themselves as a “lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex”), suddenly moves out of their apartment to a new place in Tribeca. Frances can’t quite pay the rent (nor does she believe she can live alone), so she moves in with two rich, likable schmucks, Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), at their apartment. They’re not the only new ones to come into her life, though, as she meets other interesting people who come into her life and then abruptly leave her life. Even when Sophie returns into Frances’ life, she brings the news that she’s moving to Tokyo with her new fiancé, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), whom the two used to mock before.

Can Frances continue through life with each new change coming her way? Maybe so, but it’s kind of a rough movement. This is not the kind of life she and Sophie used to imagine themselves living in the future. And as the future appears to be the present, it’s harder for even them to understand. Reality takes its course, and maybe there’s hope for them, but it’s a long way down the road.

I’ll be honest—I don’t see the purpose of “Frances Ha” being presented in black-and-white. It’s not set in a past time, and somehow, seeing a MacBook and an iPhone in a black-and-white movie has an odd effect on me…and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Is “Frances Ha” supposed to come off as a new version of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan?”

Huh. Actually, given the tone and structure of this film, that would actually make sense.

The screenplay for “Frances Ha” is quite appealing. The conversations these people have are worthy of “Seinfeld,” as well as Woody Allen, in that the littlest things lead to some interesting conversations. And there are certain oddities in phrases and terms, such as a lame text that is supposed to be a come-on (and it becomes Frances’ playful greeting to Sophie when they meet again) and the description that Benji constantly uses for Frances when she describes the direction her life is going—“undateable.”

Not a lot happens in “Frances Ha.” It’s more of a series of events surrounding this woman—some brief in a montage, others stretched out to get the point. But its emotional aspects, as well as its stellar central character, really make “Frances Ha” a memorable experience. It’s small, but it works very well.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

30 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How the hell am I supposed to feel towards many story elements within Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums?” It’s unusual, bipolar, and twisted…and I loved every minute of it. This is a very original, effectively deranged comedy that toys with audience’s emotions, delights in eccentricity, is wonderfully deadpan, and presents a memorable group of quirky characters. It’s smart and sophisticated, while you can also add “devilishly clever” to the adjectives.

This film is sort of like the flip-side of the usual feel-good family comedy-drama; if anything, it’s more like a satire on the genre. The family in this film is as dysfunctional as a movie family can get. First and foremost is Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), and yes that is his real name. Royal is the family patriarch who has left home abruptly and has lived in a hotel room on credit for years. He has left his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), whom he has not divorced yet, and three children who have each grown up to be neurotic people with conflicts and issues. They are: Chas (Ben Stiller), who become a financial prodigy at a young age and is now afraid of more-or-less of everything; the adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) who was successful as a young playwright and is now married to an older man (Bill Murray) who hardly ever takes the time to know her; and Richie (Luke Wilson), a former tennis player who is in love with Margot (whom, let me remind you, is not blood-related to him). (Wait, what?)

There are other characters in the story, including Chas’ two young, personality-free sons (who seem to dress in the same identical athletic-wear every day); Royal’s loyal Indian servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) who…tried to murder Royal on one occasion (wait, what?); Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who also co-wrote the film with director Wes Anderson) who writes Western novels that get mixed reviews and is like a member of the Tenenbaum family; and Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), an accountant who proposes to Etheline after 10 years with her as a client. This proposal gets the attention of Royal, who hasn’t seen his family in years, and so he decides to win back Etheline. How does he do it?…By faking a terminal illness. (Wait, what?)

So now the Tenenbaums are all together under the same roof, and it’s not pretty. With each odd personality trait and with a lot of resentment towards Royal, this is not a happy family in the slightest. Will they learn to love and respect one another?…Well yes, but it’s a bit of a bumpy ride getting there.

One thing I notice about Wes Anderson’s films are that each character is understated and he directs his actors in such a way that these people have all but lost their effervescence at some point in their lives. As a result, the actors are effectively deadpan for the roles. Even a character as broad as Royal is given the “whatever-seen-it” attitude. Thus, when the dramatic changes occur (such as Royal’s transformation from jerk to semi-respectful again), they’re interesting in the way they’re portrayed which is not over the top but with a suitable amount of wit, quirkiness, and understatement.

There are laughs in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but the film is never “hilarious” in the sense that you fall out of your seat, rolling with laughter. The humor comes from cleverness in its satirical elements. And that’s another oddity of “The Royal Tenenbaums”—it seems to wallow in the task of making sure the audience is uncertain on how to feel during certain scenes. When you think you know how a scene will pay off, it suddenly turns around on you. it’s like there are some parts serious, some parts funny, in both the characters and the screenplay. How far does it go? Not too far, which is refreshing of itself. However, there are a few moments that took some serious bravery on Anderson and Wilson’s part, including the killing of a dog and the risky (or it is risqué?) relationship between Margot and Richie.

“The Royal Tenenbaums” is wonderfully offbeat and effectively deadpan. It’s a most unusual type of comedy in that it has a dark tone and a lot of weirdness to the story and characters. All of the characters are memorably original, the oddness is always present and strangely enough always welcome, and the film itself is intensely (entertainingly) silly. It’s weird, but I love it.

Adventureland (2009) (revised review)

28 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This is a “revised” review of “Adventureland.” I wrote my original review of the movie three years ago, and back then, I only kind of liked it. But oddly enough, I found myself watching it again recently—but that’s not the odd part. The odd part was that I watched it three times in the past week and found myself admiring it more each time. It happens sometimes—you feel one way after watching a certain movie, and you either love or hate it with subsequent viewings.

So I’m writing a new review on “Adventureland.” But I’m not going back to the original source. I’m starting from scratch.

I think I know what it was back then. I think at the time I watched “Adventureland” on DVD for the first time, knowing that Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig were among the cast and also that it was directed by Greg Mottola whose previous film was the hilariously vulgar “Superbad,” I was expecting a “Superbad-esque” comedy. And it didn’t help that the trailers and TV spots marketed the film to be a slapstick-filled, crudely-funny, wacky comedy. There are laughs to be had, a few sex jokes to be tossed around, a few beers to be had, a few joints to be toked (as well as pot-cookies to be consumed), and an annoying character that constantly hits the main character in the nuts…but “Adventureland” is actually more mature and insightful than the original trailer would like you to believe. It’s a comedy, but it’s based around realistic situations, truthful characters, and, surprisingly, a lack of cheap laughs. Crudeness and profanity are left at a minimum here. Artificial humor doesn’t seem to be at work here, and no laughs are forced (well, for the most part—like I said, there’s a groin-flicking d-bag, but he’s not overused). The mature themes of “Superbad” (growing up, knowing those you’re comfortable with, respecting the opposite sex, etc.) are more at work with “Adventureland,” with no distracting partying-cop characters to hang with the McLovin character.

So maybe I was expecting something a little broader, along the lines of “Superbad,” mainly because of deceptive marketing. The first time I watched “Adventureland,” there was at least something there to keep me entertained enough to like it. The second time I watched it, I noticed something a little more about the heart of the film. Now, with a few more viewings, I find myself admiring it even more for what it is rather than what I may have expected it to be. The truth of the matter is that “Adventureland” has a unique, effective balance between humor and honesty that doesn’t feel the need to be so crude in order to gain an audience along the lines of the Judd Apatow crowd. (Remember—Judd Apatow did not direct “Superbad.”) Instead, it’s a nicely-done coming-of-age romance with sharp writing, a smart sense, and realistic, appealing characters. Most of the characters are in their early-20s, which is unusual for a film like this, but remember that young adults can come of age in comedy-dramas too. And they’re real people too—not stereotypical cardboard cutouts of what we expect from such a film that the marketing would like us to think. The characters are treated with respect and dignity, and they’re three-dimensional as well.

Also noticeable is how much attention to detail is given to the undignified employment of a second-rate amusement park. In this case, that park is called Adventureland. It’s 1987, and the rides at Adventureland may be fun, but a few key characters work games. In a wonderful sequence early in the film, we’re introduced to the technical aspects of the games, all of which are rigged to be unwinnable—there’s a ring toss with rings that have the same width as the tops of target-bottles; there’s a series of mannequins with hats glued onto their heads so that players can’t shake them off with balls; there’s a basketball hoop that has been hammered into an oval shape; and so on. The idea is that no one can win the best prize in the park, which is a Giant Ass Panda (an oversized stuffed panda), because there aren’t many of those left. The other prizes are just disposable little stuffed animals with make squeaking noises. I’m not sure, but it seems as if the rules of this park comes from firsthand experience. I wonder if director Mottola, who also wrote the film, worked at such a place in the ‘80s.

James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is a recent college graduate who lands a games-job at Adventureland for the summer, because his father lost his job and so his parents can’t pay for graduate school in New York City. The job basically requires him to run the game booths for minimum wage, and it’s not very exciting. But he does meet some interesting people, including Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s maintenance man who is in a band and is said to have jammed with such rock stars as Lou Reed…and also plays the field despite being married. There’s also deadpan intellectual Joel (Martin Starr), who shows James the ropes and has something particular in common with James: awkwardness around women. That leaves Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva, astonishingly beautiful), the park’s main attraction (in a way), and Em (Kristen Stewart), a friendly girl-next-door type whom James befriends. James makes friends with his fellow employees at Adventureland, and due to his supply of joints, he also becomes popular among them. And he even finds himself falling for Em. But there are two problems that arise. One is that Lisa P. actually kind of likes James, much to his surprise (and everyone else’s, frankly), so he decides to go on a date with her, since he and Em aren’t “exclusive.” Another is that Em is actually Connell’s secret lover.

It’s a very complicated love story in that James and Em obviously like each other and share undeniable chemistry, but James is too impressed with himself dating the kind of woman who usually wouldn’t give him a chance, and Em is still in the middle of her affair with Connell and not sure how to end it. It’s complicated, and believably so. These are real people who make mistakes and of course learn to realize them, though sometimes after it seems like things may not turn out so nice. One of the most refreshing things about the Connell/Em subplot is that Connell is not characterized as a grade-A douche-bag. When he discovers that James has feelings for Em, he doesn’t try and ruin chances of a possible romance between the two. Although he does give certain advice that sort of unnerves James (which further leads to James going through with a date with Lisa P.), he’s not a jerk. We don’t forgive him for cheating on his wife, but the character is three-dimensional. Any other movie, he might be the villain who deserves a comeuppance. Here, he’s not entirely sympathetic, but he’s not dislikable either.

This goes back to what I wrote earlier about how these characters seem and feel like real people. James likes to think he’s smart and sophisticated, but he’s not as bright as he seems and he notices that as the film continues. Em comes from an uneven home, but she sometimes causes the problems with her stepmother. They’re not too bright, but they’re not too dim either. They feel like they’re patterned after real people. When James and Em are together, it feels real—awkward, but not terribly so; sweet, but not overdone; and funny, but within the context. The same kind of realistic conversational setup can be seen in James’ talks with Joel or Connell. And what about the affair? How is that handled? Without giving it away, it’s handled convincingly and refreshingly.

Jesse Eisenberg has been unfairly labeled as a “Michael Cera copycat” in this movie, but that’s really not fair. If anything, Eisenberg has a further amount of awkwardness to offer, and on top of that, a drier comedic wit. Every word he says, you know he’s trying to be careful in saying it, lest he say anything stupid, and thinking hard and quick about it first. He delivers a convincing portrayal of a geek, never overplaying it. And then there’s Kristen Stewart, also unfairly labeled, though for her it’s because of the “Twilight” movies. For goodness sake, leave Kristen Stewart alone. Stewart can act, and can act very well. Her performance in “Adventureland” is a demo I can immediately think about. Stewart plays Em as an appealing, fully-realized, modest girl-next-door type that would take a chance on James, and who James would fall for. She’s great here. Of the supporting cast, Ryan Reynolds is solid in a role that could have been too easy to play. Martin Starr is a great deadpan.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the adults who run the park. Personally, I find these two to be a distraction. Don’t get me wrong—at times, I find them funny (hell, even Hader’s porn-star mustache gets a laugh out of me); other times, they just seem unnecessary. They just come off as desperate needs for comic relief, and they’re not needed for that because we already have Joel and a few other (stoned) employees for that. I feel bad saying this, because I love these two comic actors—they were fantastic on SNL.

“Adventureland” doesn’t rely on crudeness, profanity, and vulgarity to attempt to get a story going. There are a few moments of such, but they’re far from overused. More importantly, this movie is actually about something. It’s about the routine experiences of a summer job, finding ways to keep it interesting through the people you meet and the misadventures you have, and with characters that grow a convincing bond together. It’s about structure and about character, and I loved spending time with these people. I wondered what would become of these people years down the road.

This is a coming-of-age comedy-drama that doesn’t disgust, doesn’t overdo its sweetness, doesn’t rely on cruelty for humor, and overall, doesn’t rely on familiar territory to keep it going. I liked this movie the first time I watched it; I love it even more now. Who knows? Maybe down the road, I’ll grow to forgive the film of the unnecessary Hader-Wiig characters and even grant it a four-star rating. Hey, it could happen.

Ruby Sparks (2012)

28 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Ruby Sparks” is like a wake-up call to all hopeless romantics. Those searching for the “perfect one.” Those who ignore the notion that the Honeymoon Stage will end. Those who are only interested in a specific vision of said-“perfect one.” It’s not so easy, and I’m sure many people would agree with me. Relationships take time and practice in order for it to work. Certain problems can either be dealt with or ignored, depending on how much you care for a future with this person.

Take Calvin, the protagonist of the romantic-comedy “Ruby Sparks.” Calvin (Paul Dano) is a twentysomething author whose first novel, which he wrote just after high school, was very successful. But now, he has a bad case of writer’s block, is asocial, lives alone in his apartment with his dog, and has been through a nasty breakup. He’s also a hopeless romantic, hoping to find the “perfect girl” which his married brother, Harry (Chris Messina), says doesn’t exist. One day, his inspiration appears in a dream—a muse in the form of a beautiful woman named Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay for the film). She can’t possibly be real, says Harry. He may be right, but Calvin doesn’t want to believe that. So he decides to write a book about a fictional version of him in a relationship with Ruby. He falls in love with the character of Ruby, as he doesn’t want a real woman—he wants the “perfect woman.”

Then something magical happens. And when I say “magical,” I mean you just go with it, just like with “Groundhog Day” or “Stranger than Fiction.” Ruby has suddenly appeared into Calvin’s home, and also into his life. Calvin at first thinks he’s going crazy and just seeing her as a manifestation of his hope for “the one.” But no—it turns out that other people can see her too. She’s very, very real. She believes she’s real and has all of the personality traits and memories that Calvin has given her, so they’re actually in a relationship together.

But that’s not all. Calvin realizes that he can also change anything about her just by typing on his typewriter. He convinces Harry of this by having her speak fluent French without knowing it. When he realizes this, he finds he can’t help but try it again when he realizes that the relationship between him and Ruby has somewhat turned downhill, as they don’t see eye-to-eye on certain things, she becomes more independent, and he doesn’t see her as the “perfect woman” anymore. So he decides to make a few changes…

I’ve heard of authors falling in love with their characters, but this is ridiculous. And that’s part of the reason I adore this film. “Ruby Sparks” is that rare “magical” look at the creative process, in that the creator is passionate about a creation, in this case an author and a favorite character. What serves as inspiration for a new novel? Maybe a dream that represents a manifestation of something that a person yearns for, hopes for, wants to know more about, etc. Think of how an author must feel having to kill off a favorite character to bring the story to a more dramatic quality and effect. With “Ruby Sparks,” we have Calvin, who creates this character and has this magical event occur in his life that actually brings that character to life. He feels the responsibility to keep the character consistent to his original thoughts. But when she’s real, he can’t deal with it and tries to make things the way they were. But it’s not easy. He could have dealt with certain little issues by talking with Ruby, but instead, he changes her personality. First he makes it as if she’s miserable without him; she’s clingy beyond belief (she won’t even let him go to the bathroom without her). Then he brings her an endless amount of joy; she becomes an annoyance pretty fast. Every change he can make goes very wrong and he can’t seem to fix it. Can it be fixed? Should it even have been trifled with? What are Calvin’s responsibilities as his creator? Does he have the right to twist Ruby’s persona in order to satisfy his desires? The fantasy aspect of “Ruby Sparks” delighted me in the way it mixed romance and the creative process with a magic element. And I love how Kazan’s screenplay never explains how Ruby can exist. I don’t think I needed to know. It’s quite intriguing that way, and I was with it every step of the way. Even when it takes a tragic dark turn (which I might add, is very well-handled) later in the film, I was with it, wondering how it was going to play out.

I’ve always seen Paul Dano as an actor who can either be very solid or very annoying. Here, he’s very likable and identifiable, and his low-key performance makes the story even more effective. This is probably the best work I’ve seen from the actor whose résumé also includes memorable titles such as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood.” Zoe Kazan, Dano’s real-life girlfriend, makes her writing debut and was previously seen in supporting roles in indie films such as “Me and Orson Welles” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” in which she also appeared with Dano. As an actress, she has an ethereal presence and an immense appeal. As a writer, she’s even better, knowing how to keep the narrative flowing, how to restrict myth from reality, and how to develop each character, even the supporting characters who could have been typical romcom walking clichés, but are given much personality and three dimensions.

Speaking of which, the supporting cast is just great. Chris Messina plays the type of role that is usually the wisecracking buddy, but the character is able to give helpful advice that makes sense. Annette Bening is a riot as Calvin’s hippie mother, and Antonio Banderas is even better as her lover; I have to wonder how a movie centering around them would play out. Steve Coogan is a sleazy author. Elliott Gould is a helpful shrink that Calvin turns to when he has writer’s block. The actors add light and color to what could have been thankless roles.

I mentioned before that “Ruby Sparks” does take a dark turn, and indeed it does, once the gravity of this bizarre event fully grabs hold of Calvin. This is a sequence that some viewers are divided upon. They either love it or hate it. As for me, this is the kind of descent into darkness that most romantic comedies don’t have the nerve to take a chance on. Without giving much away, it fits very well with the magic aspect and opens Calvin’s eyes to what he was looking for and what may or may not be real. It’s bleak, but effectively so.

“Ruby Sparks” is quite the unusual romance film. With Kazan’s screenplay and husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (whose previous film was “Little Miss Sunshine”), the aspects of the romantic comedy have been deconstructed into something that seems much like the typical one at first, but then develops into something more and ultimately, much deeper than you might expect. I admire that “Ruby Sparks” took chances in its story and characters, and to me, it pays off in a most refreshing way. I love this film.

The Iceman (2013)

27 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It seemed somewhat inevitable that the story of notorious serial killer/mob enforcer Richard Kuklinski, known for killing over 100 people in the ‘70s and ‘80s, be told in a feature film. Based on the book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer” by Anthony Bruno, director Ariel Vromen’s film “The Iceman” tells this story chronologically and the results are quite effective, if somewhat underdone.

Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is presented as a man of two personalities—loving husband and father with a wife and two daughters, and dangerous killer with hardly a hint of remorse. Neither his wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), nor his two daughters suspect his murderous deeds, although Deborah at one point is convinced that something is not quite right with her husband, because sometimes he comes off as emotionally distant. (“Richard!” “What happened to ‘Rich’?” “I don’t know!” A great exchange.)

Even while first meeting Deborah, whom we see him woo in an opening scene set in the early ‘70s, Kuklinski is a vile killer. Soon after his date, he’s mocked at a bar, which causes him to slit the scorner’s throat. Now, I must admit, at first I thought that was too unneccesary in showing that Kuklinski was to be a killer, but it is hinted that Kuklinski has already killed before that moment, so it makes a little sense that a simple thing could set him off.

Years later, Kuklinski has gone from dubbing porn films for the mob to executing hits for Roy De Meo (Ray Liotta) of the Gambino Family. (And I’m guessing Deborah doesn’t ask many questions about his job as long as he pays the bills and gives her and the kids a nice suburban house in Jersey.) But due to the escape of a witness to one of Kuklinski’s hits, Kuklinski is laid off, leading to him working with another hitman, Mr. “Freezy” (Chris Evans, hardly recognizable). But it turns out this partnership causes trouble with the mob, and so the lives of Kuklinski and his family are in jeopardy.

What helps make the portrayal of Kuklinski so chilling is that it seems that anything can cause him to turn to a new kill. And you already know how much this guy sickly enjoys doing what he does, so it’s quite uncomfortable when seeing him in a calm mood with his family. Granted, he’s never violent towards his family, but it’s still unnerving when you know what he does. How much does he enjoy killing? When assigned to kill a sleazebag who begs and prays for mercy, Kuklinski uses this for his own entertainment, allowing him a minute to pray and see if God will stop him. What an…iceman.

Michael Shannon is this movie. With the wrong actor giving the wrong type of performance this role requires, “The Iceman” would have been a much lesser product. I can’t think of any other actor doing a better job at playing the role than Shannon. This guy is freaking excellent. His portrayal of a homicidal killer is never sympathetic, but it comes across as deeper and more insightful than you might imagine. It’s emotion versus habit with him, only the “habit” happens to be constant murder. This may be the closest thing we get to a three-dimensional killer (go ahead—insert “Dexter” joke here), and Shannon nails it with this performance.

“The Iceman” has its flaws, though. Winona Ryder, despite trying, can’t seem to do much with the clichéd role of a hitman’s concerned wife. The mob aspects aren’t fully realized, so there were times when I was wondering which connections were consistent with whom or what. And I sort of wanted a few more scenes that got into the backstory of Kuklinski’s incarcerated brother (Stephen Dorff).

Oh, and by the way, was anyone else wondering why Jimmy Hoffa is never mentioned?

“The Iceman” presents the tale of Richard “The iceman” Kuklinski in a chilling, effective way with a great leading performance by Michael Shannon. It’s straightforward, doesn’t cheat in presenting past-and-future events (the story is told in order), and suitably unsettling. Even if I may forget certain other aspects about it, there’s no doubt that by the end of this year, I’ll still remember Michael Shannon’s performance and his portrayal of a real-life bloodthirsty killer.

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)

27 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I love Rashida Jones. Everything she’s in, I’m always curious about; I’m not going to lie. Jones has a very appealing personality that comes with undeniable talent that mixes wit with sweetness; you can’t help but pay attention to her because when she doesn’t make you laugh, she makes you smile. It’s impossible for me to dislike her. I loved her in “The Office”; she’s very funny in “Parks & Recreation”; and she’s fresh and appealing in comedies such as “I Love You, Man” and “Our Idiot Brother.” I will watch her in just about anything. Sometimes, though, I feel she’s underused, which is why I was delighted to find that she takes the lead role in a script that she co-wrote. That film is the romantic-comedy-drama “Celeste and Jesse Forever.”

As you can tell by the title, Jones plays the “Celeste” in that titular couple. Who’s “Jesse?” Andy Samberg. Right away, I’m hooked—Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg together. I’ve always been a fan of Samberg’s “SNL” work and especially his hilarious, collaborative Lonely Island shorts (and he “killed” as a host on the 2009 MTV Movie Awards), so pairing him with Jones had me curious but also interested. What really surprised me was that Samberg had impressive range as an actor, something I never found in “Hot Rod” or “I Love You, Man” which required him to play broadly comedic roles. Here, he’s pretty good and delivers the type of solid (even subtle) performance the role needs, especially considering…

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself here. I just admire these two comic actors so much that I already liked the film before I even saw it. What do I think of the film itself?

Well first, I’ll just state that it exceeded my expectations by not being a mainstream romantic-comedy with two likable leads and a series of comedic antics and dramatic conflict (we already had “The Five-Year Engagement” for that, I guess). Instead, while it is good-hearted, the film, written by Jones and Will McCormack and directed by Lee Toland Krieger, presents more of a nonconventional look at what happens after the end of a relationship.

The story: Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg) are a likable couple who married young and find themselves at a crossroads now pushing the age of 30. To keep from hating each other, they separate, awaiting divorce, but remain close friends. They still hang out together, laugh at each other’s jokes, and despite the separation, they still live on the same property. They’re still in love with each other, but they won’t admit it. Celeste and Jesse are happy with this friendship, however, although their friends, Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), think it’s weird that these two are still close with one another, despite getting divorced. Celeste states that the reason she wants to divorce him is because Jesse is not the right husband for her, since she is a successful career woman and he is unemployed and a bit of a slacker.

Jesse runs into a woman he shared a one-night stand with, Veronica (Rebecca Dayan). It turns out that she’s pregnant with his baby and he decides to stick with her, meaning that the friendship between him and Celeste is on hold for long periods of time. Once reality sinks in, Celeste realizes that she loves Jesse and wants him back, but she probably can’t get him back. As time goes by, Celeste’s life spins out of control and she finds himself incapable of being the way she was when Jesse was around.

This is not the typical romantic-comedy in which two people meet, fall in love, endure certain problems (usually a villain that gets in the way of things), and they get married. While that is overdone, I think maybe I would have liked to see the meeting of Celeste and Jesse, oddly enough. But to be fair, it’s probably because Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg make such an appealing couple that I would have loved following the story of how they met. The early scenes in which they’re together are wonderful, as the two play off each other perfectly with the right amount of timing. But anyway, instead of the usual romantic-comedy clichés, we have the couple reaching the end of their relationship, long after they were married. This is not a film about how the most important thing is to love and be loved, though it is acknowledged that love is powerful; it’s mainly a case of these two people dealing with the poignancy the regret of this situation. There may be a second chance, there may not. This worked especially well for me, because I never knew from one point to the next what was going to happen, which is unusual because I usually pretend to predict the outcome of a romantic-comedy. I didn’t know if they would get back together or even if they would be happy at all (though to be fair, there is that suspicion that the latter is probable in some way).

The second half of “Celeste and Jesse Forever” shows Celeste as she turns from being a happy, controlled businesswoman to being an out-of-control neurotic—it’s like the indie-cred version of “Bridesmaids,” which also featured a neurotic woman struggling to seek control of her life. This puts Rashida Jones center-screen—a leading role. I’m not even surprised when I realize she’s excellent here. She has great range as an actress, she delivers her lines naturally, and I hope that more screenwriters and directors create another role with her abilities in mind so that she herself doesn’t have to create a character for herself (I mentioned before that she co-wrote the screenplay).

Does everything about “Celeste and Jesse Forever” work? Well, not quite. I found a few things to be distracting, like the subplot involving a teen-queen (played by Emma Roberts) who comes into Celeste’s life, and a few unnecessarily harsh moments that sort of drag. But if I’m going to pick on one supporting character, I should name a few others because they do have their funny moments—Celeste’s gay boss (Elijah Wood), whom I was glad was not portrayed in a broad, stereotypical fashion (in fact, the film even cracks a few jokes at the stereotype the character could have been); Skillz (McCormack), the local pot-dealer; and the newlywed couple played by Graynor and Olsen. I have to be honest and say that I’m generally not a fan of Graynor’s usual airheadedness (sue me; I didn’t find her very charming in “Nick and Noah’s Infinite Playlist”), but I thought she acquitted herself nicely here.

“Celeste and Jesse Forever” has its funny moments, but the laughs come from authenticity rather than forced dirty humor you usually find in romantic-comedies desperate for a laugh. This is a romantic-comedy that seems real and credible, with interesting characters and a genuine feel for both Celeste and Jesse. It may not be “forever” for these two, but maybe they’ll remain “just friends.” (Oh boy, here we go again…)

Trainspotting (1996)

24 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television., choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. […] Choose your future. Choose life.”

The narrator/main character of Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting”—Renton (Ewan McGregor)—has rebelled against the comfortable lifestyle his family has, as he finds it very uninteresting, and instead escapes into the world of drugs. Particularly, heroin is what he and his buddies turn to whenever they need something to “care” about. His friends are even less ambitious than Renton, in that they are all sociopathic, amoral, and even more warped than Renton—they are Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), who constantly talks about Sean Connery movies; Spud (Ewan Bremner), a simple-minded, inoffensive addict; Tommy (Kevin McKidd), a nice, honest young man whose personality changes once he hears about the joys of heroin; and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a psycho who delights in causing great harm people, even dropping a glass on a young woman’s head.

George Carlin once said this about how one feels about drugs—“They make you feel like wanting more drugs.” And indeed, the addiction is very strong with the characters in “Trainspotting.” Renton knows that heroin leads to misery and bitterness, but is constantly drawn back to it because of the hit. At one point early in the film, he even locks himself in a room with soup, ice cream, milk, Valium, water, three buckets (one for urine, one for feces, one for vomit), a TV set, and porn, in order to withdraw himself from the drug. But soon enough, he does get back to heroin. After a series of odd events, he nearly dies of an overdose, leading to a harsh, forceful intervention and withdrawal after which, much like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” (that is, if Alex was holding and using), he must either cope with the realities of a clean life or give in to madness, pain, and misery yet again.

All of this is told in a bold, stylistic way that makes “Trainspotting” admirable for its look and feel, while at the same time uneasy to watch for the same elements. That makes it all the more effective in how “Trainspotting” frames its characters and their issues—these characters are pretty much horrible people, but “Trainspotting” does deliver and show comeuppances and consequences for each of them. They may embrace their lifestyle, but how long will it last until it hits them back? It leaves room for tragedy and even a little redemption. And it was a smart move not to show the world of drugs from one side of the argument—in order to understand what drugs can do to a person, the film shows things clear and in detail (sometimes strangely and eerily giddy in such) from the characters’ sides. And the best thing about the story—it doesn’t preach in delivering what it has to.

Thanks to a unique visual style and a clever framing device, “Trainspotting” is a very compelling film—not only is it well-acted and well-done in getting its point across without preaching, but it is lively and energetic. Much like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Danny Boyle creates “Trainspotting” with something that needs to be said about a certain controversial subject and results to all sorts of tricks and such in order to make people remember what they’re supposed to get out of it. in that sense, the film is very successful and quite grippipng.

Rabbit Hole (2010)

24 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Rabbit Hole” is like the next “Ordinary People” of the early 21st century, and to me, that’s a good thing. This is just as emotionally involving and well-made as that 1980 Best Picture-winning family drama. And it’s odd, because this could have been as stale and overdone as most modern melodramas, but “Rabbit Hole” is smarter, more efficient, and better-acted than you might expect.

“Rabbit Hole” is a film about grief, particularly coping with the death of a little child. Already, that sounds like a made-for-TV schlocky, overdone melodrama. But “Rabbit Hole” mostly gets it right. The actors are great in making the characters seem real so that we can feel their pain and be convinced about their plight. And the writing is quite intelligent, based on a play by David Linday-Abaire, who also authors the screenplay here. Even if it seems all too real for people who have suffered a deep loss, and at times it is quite uncompromising, the emotions within the credible drama are evident and effectively done.

“Rabbit Hole” centers around Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), ordinary people doing their best to deal with everyday life after the accidental death of their four-year-old son, who was chasing a dog out in the neighborhood street and was struck by a car. Becca is attempting to move on, while Howie stays up all night watching home-movies that feature the boy. And the boy’s bedroom looks as if it’s still there waiting for the boy to come back. They’re enduring a good deal of grief as they’re practically restarting life since the incident, and a group therapy session doesn’t help much, as Becca is bitter enough to notice that these “mourners” are merely self-righteous for the sake of earning sympathy. Also, the couple’s marriage seems to be slowly but surely falling apart, and Howie turns to Gaby (Sandra Oh), who listens to him in sympathy, and he lets her because Becca won’t. Oh, and Gaby’s husband recently abandoned her.

Meanwhile, Becca finds someone to talk to—the last person one would expect for her to have conversations with: Jason (Miles Teller, very good), the teenager who drove the car that killed her son. She notices him and the emptiness in his eyes, and realizes the guilt he feels about that day. So she feels that if she makes him feel better about it, she herself will feel better about it.

Granted, this is not easy, and no one will feel 100% better about such a tragedy, but it does help to talk to someone.

There’s also a subplot involving Becca’s sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), who is unexpectedly pregnant. This leads to quiet denial from Becca who notices her sister’s irresponsibility and questions whether or not she’s able to raise or take care of a kid. And there’s also Becca and Izzy’s mother (Dianne Wiest), who herself has suffered a tragic loss—her son and Becca and Izzy’s brother.

As you can tell, every character is going through some sort of emotional conflict, and they’re finding (or trying to find) ways to cope with each situation either by themselves or through each other. They are not the same people they used to be because an experience such as becoming a parent and in this case losing a child will change a person in such a way that life could no longer be the same. It’s how they’re able to continue through life that really matters and makes them who they are now. These feelings are well-developed and lead to a lot of truly effective, sometimes heartbreakingly so, sequences that ring true and make us understand what they’re all going through.

The acting is an important asset to the success of “Rabbit Hole.” If we don’t believe what these characters endure, we don’t care, which is what makes “Rabbit Hole” all the more powerful in its acting in that we do care. Nicole Kidman delivers one of her best performances, as she delivers a highly credible portrayal of a woman enduring emotional pain and with a force that makes it all believable. Aaron Eckhart is good here too, as a man who has his own issues in dealing with his son’s death (and he’s clearly not on the same page of coping as his wife is). Of the supporting cast, Dianne Wiest delivers her best work in quite a while; Sandra Oh is appealing; Tammy Blanchard is convincingly rebellious; and Miles Teller is credibly vulnerable.

I also admire that “Rabbit Hole” isn’t necessarily about the little boy’s death—it’s about the reactions to it eight months after, and the recovery that can be developed at that point. With the exception of one (very brief) pushover, we don’t even get any flashbacks recalling the tragic incident. We just have Becca and Howie and their explorations of grief after it. That was a smart move, and the right approach to this material.

Not everything about “Rabbit Hole” works, though. For instance, I never really bought the grocery-store scene in which Becca confronts a nearby strict mother who won’t buy her kid Fruit Roll-Ups, despite his constant asking. The payoff to that scene just seemed quite forced to me. And it’s obvious to us that young, artistic Jason’s homemade comic book is supposed to symbolize the guilt he feels since that fateful day (it’s about parallel universes and what it’d be like for a character to experience a different personality within himself), but it’s not supposed to be revealing late in the film, which it is.

But everything else about “Rabbit Hole” works—the character interactions, the dealings/copings with grief, the story-framing, the acting, the writing, etc. Does it end pleasantly? Well, it depends on how you see it or what you get out of what led up to it. What I got out of it, without giving much away, was that it’s as redemptive as I would have liked to be, without being manipulative or dishonest. It worked for me.

Margot at the Wedding (2007)

22 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” is one of those “acquired-taste” films—particularly independent comedy-dramas that either enthralls you with what it presents or makes you angry if not annoyed. And while grittiness and documentary-style filmmaking takes a huge part of the films’ craft, what is mostly singled out is how unlikeable the characters can become. “Margot at the Wedding” does indeed feature characters who say and do mean, hurtful things to each other, and the film has divided critics because of this (I especially remember a 2007 “Ebert & Roeper” review with guest-critic Michael Phillips’ enthusiastic review of the film, followed by Roeper’s quite negative response). Now where do I stand on viewing the characters, and therefore the film?

Well, you saw the “Smith’s Verdict” rating above, so it’s not exactly a mystery that I personally love this film.

Noah Baumbach is the writer-director of “Margot at the Wedding” and it’s evident from his earlier film “The Squid and the Whale” how intelligently he handles the characters and situations he goes through. He doesn’t give the characters (or the actors playing them) one-note roles; they’re fully realized and have some redeemable qualities that can either be ignored or acknowledged depending on how much you’re able to accept them as real people. And since he sees them as real people, he finds it important that film audiences view them as real people; so thanks to specific direction and long, moving shots, a documentary-style of filmmaking is handy.

The characters in “Margot at the Wedding” are a family so dysfunctional that the family in “The Squid and the Whale” (divorced parents and two struggling sons) looks happier by comparison. Nicole Kidman plays the title character, Margot, a bitter woman who writes short stories, cares for her young son Claude (Zane Pais) after an ending marriage, and is, on her worst days, a neurotic, self-important bitch. It’s clear that in order to keep her own unsteady ego, she constantly hurts and insults those closest to her—even her own adolescent son, who does nothing to hurt anybody and is probably the most innocent character in the entire movie. (Watching this movie, I felt the same sympathy for this kid I did for the teenage son trying to survive a broadly-crazy family in “Arrested Development.” This kid does not deserve the type of mental scars parents’ battles can bring.)

Margot and Claude come to the Eastern shoreline family house of Margot’s sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black). Already, this reunion between siblings is sensitive and it only starts to get worse when Pauline confides in Margot with a secret: she’s pregnant. So of course, Margot tells Claude who in turn tells Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) and her teenage babysitter Maisy (Halley Feiffer), and Pauline has to tell Malcolm before he hears it from someone else. And of course, because Margot is in the middle of separating herself from her husband (John Turturro), she starts an affair with Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), Maisy’s father. Oh, and because Margot can’t cause enough damage, she constantly states that marrying Malcolm is a mistake, thinking him to be a loser, despite everyone else, including Claude, seeing him as a nice good-guy type. And then she snaps at the rude behavior of Pauline’s next-door neighbors, which starts another conflict.

Yes, it’s clear that Margot is mostly an unlikeable, fixated, selfish woman who manipulates her family and others around her, with Pauline being the butt of manipulation for the most part. Her positive qualities are her genuine love for her son (despite a questionable decision later in the film) and at times a certain respect for her sister—if she wasn’t going through a failing marriage, she’d probably be happy for Pauline and more respectful for Malcolm (though to be fair, Malcolm does have a flaw that is revealed midway through the film).

It’s brilliantly ironic that the happiest occasion—a wedding—provides the course of problematic, emotional scarring for this dysfunctional family. It’s almost like an opposite version “National Lampoon’s Vacation” movie; drained of energy, showing the real deal, and hardly any room for compromise. Margot is a mother who is blatantly honest in her observations and hurts those around her, whether intentional or not, and for the most part it is, just so she can come off as “sophisticated.” This is the kind of thing that Baumbach has to be praised for—showing skill in leaving discomfort with realistic situations and characters who talk like natural people would talk. Sometimes, there’s wit; other times, there’s honest truth; mostly, it all sounds very natural. It’s as if Baumbach knows to draw the fine line between appalling and truthful, and at times you get laughs from the darker wit-aspects.

Kidman delivers one of the best performances of her career, showing no fear in making Margot as pathetic as she doesn’t like to believe she is and somehow finding a way to show that the character is not a one-note caricature—there are times when she does care for those around her. Jennifer Jason Leigh presents an appealing Pauline, who is a nice woman but also flawed herself in how she defends herself from Margot’s remarks. And you really buy Kidman and Leigh as sisters, as they bicker but also have genuinely-sweet moments together when there’s nothing to fight about. The supporting cast is good, especially the young actors who deliver personality and appeal. But Jack Black, usually known for broadly-comedic roles, is probably not as successful as he could be in a role like Malcolm, but he’s not terrible at all—it’s the quiet, low-key moments that he’s able to pull off, while he can’t quite handle the louder moments.

Like I said, people will either get into “Margot at the Wedding” or you’re put off by the Margot character and how good Kidman is at making her unlikeable. With an unhappy universe in which the film takes place, is it effective? For me, it is. It spoke to me and I admired it for the characterizations and craftsmanship…

I’m just thankful Margot is not my mother.

The Hangover (2009)

22 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

(Originally reviewed early 2010)

“The Hangover” is a very satisfying type of comedy. It’s funny and well-made, but also with the feel of a mystery thriller. The plot: Four men throw a bachelor party in Las Vegas and have a crazy night, as it seems, but they can’t remember a thing and can’t figure out why there’s a tiger in their Caesar’s Palace suite bathroom, whose baby is in their closet, why one of them is missing a tooth, and most importantly where the groom is. The marketing campaign that asks these questions lets you know right away that this movie is going to be quite something. And then the movie opens: the wedding is being prepared, the bride is wondering if the groom is going to show up, she gets a call from a friend of the groom’s saying that there won’t be a wedding.

We then flash two days earlier. The groom is a clean-cut young man named Doug (Justin Bartha, the National Treasure movies). He’s getting married to a nice woman who has a pudgy, strange, bearded brother named Alan (Zach Galifianakis). So his friends—vulgar schoolteacher Phil (Bradley Cooper) and sensitive dentist Stu (Ed Helms)—throw him a bachelor party in Las Vegas, taking Alan along for the ride. They check into a Caesar’s Palace suite and have drinks on the roof of the building.

Then, the next morning, they wake up in their suite and find themselves with the important questions: Where is Doug? Why is there a tiger in the bathroom? Whose baby is in their closet? Why is Stu missing a tooth? Why did the valet bring them a police car?

The rest of the movie is about them trying to piece together the mystery and figure everything out. They can’t remember a thing that happened that night because it turns out that Alan drugged them all with roofies. Their journey to figure everything out leads them to a violent encounter with Mike Tyson, a visit to a Vegas wedding chapel, a crude police station, and a nasty run-in with a Chinese mobster.

All of this is just flat-out funny. I laughed a whole lot during this movie. And it helps that the characters feel somewhat real as they possess personality problems. Phil is a schoolteacher who likes to steal his students’ money (to fund the trip), Stu is trying to get along with his snobby girlfriend, and Alan is just plain…strange.

I mean it. This character has to be seen to be believed. Zach Galifianakis turns in a great comic performance—the kind of breakout role that made John Belushi a star in “Animal House.” He’s short, bearded, awkward, clueless, and just wants to be liked. And he delivers some great lines, such as when Stu notices a woman wearing his grandmother’s “Holocaust ring”: “I didn’t know they give out rings at the Holocaust.” And also, he’s so sincere the way he says things like, “Is this the real Caesar’s Palace? Did Caesar live here?” I especially loved his “wolf-pack” speech he gives on the roof with his new buddies.

“The Hangover” is a mystery-comedy, which I didn’t even know existed, and director Todd Phillips (“Old School” and “Road Trip”) and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore take no mercy in taking us along for the ride and laughing with it too. “The Hangover” is a hilarious movie with a terrific story and weird characters.