Archive | June, 2013

Once (2007)

21 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

John Carney’s “Once” is a “musical” in the most nontraditional meaning possible. For one thing, it tells its tale while grounded in reality so that the usual corniness and improbability found in “traditional” musicals are nowhere to be found. And second, the music/songs come naturally, so that occasionally characters will play a certain song all the way through, but in a reality setting. And strangely enough, all of the songs serve as part of the storyline. In that case, then, it’s one of the most intriguing musicals I’ve ever seen. Although, I don’t think I want to call “Once” a musical. Instead, I’ll just call it what it is: a damn good film.

The minimalist plot focuses on the relationship between two people in Dublin, Ireland. Those characters are an Irish street guitarist (Glen Hansard) and a Czech flower saleswoman (Marketa Irglova). She hears some of his songs and notices his true talent, and they start to spend time together. She also plays piano and accompanies him in singing and playing a piece called “Falling Slowly” in a piano shop. It’s the start of something good, but their relationship is mainly platonic, as he is trying to get over an old girlfriend who left him to move to London, and she is married but has left her husband for a better life for her child. Both connect very well through music. They play music together, he plays her a few tunes, she comes up with lyrics for one of his soundtracks, and she moves him forward to recording a song at a studio, which is what they attempt to do.

All of the songs are memorable and help to move the story along and bring insight into the characters’ lives. For example, the lyrics to “Falling Slowly” state a lot about what the characters have gone through in their lives—singing it together to one another makes it all the more intriguing. That song, by the way, is my choice for the best one in the movie (then again, I’ve always known that—I first heard it when it was performed on the televised 80th Academy Awards, where it won Best Original Song), although another song, “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” is great as well.

This relationship between these two characters is very sweet and well-done, and the actors playing them display a great deal of chemistry. (And they’re talented musicians too, which is an important quality for this craft.)

I mentioned that “Once” is as nontraditional as a musical can get. It also has a low amount of choreography, as opposed to old-school musicals that rely on a heavy amount. Instead, “Once” tells its story in a documentary-style, with tracking shots, awkward closeups, shaky handheld shots, and zooming in and out. At first, I found this distracting, but I never lost the illusion that I was there with these people. Just as I never lost the illusion that there was real heart and passion put into “Once.” It’s a genuine treasure of a movie.

Observe and Report (2009)

21 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

All right, let’s get it out of the way. “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” was released the same year as “Observe and Report” and they each feature a mall cop as a leading character. Whoop-de-do.

But both movies are undeniably different from each other. While they are satirical looks at this sort of “rent-a-cop” occupation, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is a suitable family film in that it’s lighthearted, silly nonsense, while “Observe and Report” is…I mean, holy *bleep*. This movie is like the Bizarro “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” It’s dark, unusual, twisted, demented, crude, and completely *bleep*ed up. Seriously, this is a freaking deranged film. At times, it’s funny in its dementedness; other times, it’s very uncomfortable in such; and mostly, it’s unpleasant. One thing that I can’t deny, however, is that writer-director Jody Hill (of the equally-unusual “The Foot-Fist Way”) isn’t afraid to go all out with how crazily he can develop a story.

Seth Rogen stars as the “mall cop” of the story, but don’t expect a lovable loser from this character and performance. While Rogen has been funny and likable as an appealing schmoe in movies like “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express,” he’s not how people would want to see him usually. And those who do probably won’t know what to make of his Ronnie Barnhardt, Mall Cop. This guy is just an a-hole—a sociopath who has a short fuse, a loud mouth, a tendency to get himself in situations he doesn’t belong…and yes this guy is Chief of Security at Forest Ridge Mall. He’s one of the most disturbed, hateful leading men you’ll ever find in a comedy, and Rogen gets lost into the role, to his credit. Ronnie lives with his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston), works with four other mall cops, including Dennis (Michael Pena) and the Yuen twins (John and Matt Yuan), and constantly keeps an eye on a cosmetics girl he has a crush on, Brandi (Anna Faris), even though Nell (Collette Wolfe), another female worker at the mall (though more good-natured than Brandi is), clearly has an interest in him. When a flasher invades the mall parking lot and some of the indoor stores get robbed as well, Ronnie takes it upon himself to one-up the police, particularly crude Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), and “crack the cases” himself.

How do you properly describe the tone of “Observe and Report?” Well, at least it’s consistently dark, and, since it mostly centers around a detestable mall employee, a connection could further be made with “Bad Santa” rather than “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Both “Bad Santa” and this movie have a darkly-comedic tone that comes with the deeds/actions of a unbelievably socially inept main character and a sense of biting satire. In this case, there are satirical elements to be found, mostly towards Ronnie’s profession (malls, mall-cop, gun use); and there’s also some to be found from the actions of supposed professional police detective Harrison, who at one point can’t take Ronnie’s behavior anymore, calling him “retard” even. Mainly it’s all a series of lowbrow, less sophisticated comedic setups and gags—some of which are funny, others are uncomfortable to watch, and others are somewhat unnecessary (an example of this is an exchange of multiple “f-you’s” from loud to whisper to simply mouthing the words—is that supposed to be funny?). There are so many gags that are very much “out there,” you’ll be wondering if what you’re seeing is really happening or a sick fantasy in deranged Ronnie’s mind.

I don’t think I properly got the point more across as to how much of a creep Ronnie is. It’s hard to sympathize with him, even when Harrison tricks him and leads him to a dangerous part of town where drug dealers attack (led by Hill’s former leading man, Danny McBride). What supplies some of the film’s humor is the way that Ronnie sees himself as the hero of this story, while most of us would think otherwise.

I don’t see the point in some of the side characters. I found Michael Pena to be wasted in the role of Ronnie’s second-in-command, and a twist involving his character didn’t make me laugh or interest me in the slightest. The main joke involving the Yuen twins is that they want to use guns…fine. But then there’s Ronnie’s mother, who is completely incompetent at giving inspirational talks to her son because she’s drunk half the time; Nell, who serves to be the ultimate love-interest once Ronnie realizes that maybe Brandi isn’t the woman for him; and speaking of which, Brandi does go on a dinner date with Ronnie, and it leads to…I’m not going to lie, a pretty hilarious (though so-wrong) sexual encounter. I will always think of Anna Faris as an airhead ever since the “Scary Movie” films, but…damn she’s brave.

“Observe and Report” is about as dark a “dark comedy” can get, and as unusual as such can get. I didn’t laugh much, but when I did, I laughed my ass off. The climax, in particular, is probably the weirdest thing in the movie, but I laughed and laughed and laughed! Is this crazy film worth recommending for those few laughs? Well…not necessarily. But I do have some sort of respect towards both Hill and Rogen for making something as dark and nasty without holding back.

Flipped (2010)

20 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are moments in life we don’t think about very often, and when we do, we like to think how things might have changed if we made different decisions in life. Take childhood, for example. Or rather, the first time we realized we were in love. Take this, for instance—what if you realized too late that you shared the same feelings toward a certain peer that the peer felt for you for the longest time…only to realize that by this time, the peer has lost interest? The timing is off; misunderstandings occurred; and you realize you were probably too blind or dumb to see what was there all along? Before it became a cliché in today’s pop music, it was the kind of thing that Afterschool Specials would have loved to present. It’d be an accomplishment to make an effective movie about such an issue without making it seem like a generic kids’-movie. And an accomplishment is just what Rob Reiner’s “Flipped” is.

“Flipped” involves a crush between two 7th-grade children in the early 1960s. Now I have to admit that at first, I wasn’t sure why this story takes place decades ago, and I thought Reiner wanted to recapture the “Stand by Me” nostalgia-feel. But then I realized something—a majority of junior-high kids in today’s modern age are overexposed with sexual imagery, thanks to the Internet and sheer curiosity aroused by other aspects, such as porn magazines and R-rated movies (particularly teen slasher films and raunchy comedies that feature nudity). I’m not saying that every kid does this or thinks this way about the opposite sex at this age; I’m just saying times have certainly changed.

But anyway, you can’t deny that the feelings that the characters in “Flipped” experience are genuine and familiar to anyone who has endured a childhood crush, especially when the feeling wasn’t exactly mutual. Maybe the “innocence-factor” is a bit forced, but as a story of young love, it’s acceptable in that sense.

The two kids in question are Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) and Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll). When Bryce was 7, he and his family moved to a new house, across the street from Juli’s family. Juli is immediately attracted to Bryce (mostly because of his eyes), but Bryce is desperate to avoid her. (“All I wanted was for Juli Baker to leave me alone,” Bryce states in a voiceover narration.) Juli hardly ever stops chasing Bryce and shadows him all through grade school until junior high. But then at this point, midway through the 7th grade, something strange happens. Bryce is starting to have feelings for Juli, while Juli isn’t so sure about him anymore.

“Flipped” doesn’t cheat by focusing for the most part on one of the two—instead, it has a really clever storytelling gimmick. It plays one situation from the viewpoint of Bryce; and then the scene “flips” so that we can see the same situation from Juli’s point of view. It’s an effective, well-done method to get us to sympathize with both sides. Even when it seems like there’s an unforgivable moment brought upon by one of them, the “flip” manages to tell it from that person’s perspective and make us understand why this happened.

A funny thing about this “family film” is that it’s probably more geared towards older viewers than the younger. Older viewers will recognize the feelings that these children are going through in this movie, particularly the change of a young person’s feelings toward a member of the opposite sex. Whether it’s coming to love them or hate them, it’s a confusing, complicated change in a person’s life. I say it’s more geared towards older viewers because of that nostalgia-perspective angle that “Flipped” delivers.

The acting is spot-on—Callan McAuliffe and Madeline Carroll are two very convincing child actors who capture the immaturity and vulnerability of these characters. The supporting cast, mostly composed of familiar faces, is not entirely memorable, with a couple exceptions—one being John Mahoney as Bryce’s insightful grandfather who notices Juli’s spirit, and the other being Anthony Edwards as Bryce’s father who is a complete and total jerk (this is a character I would rather forget). Other names include Aidan Quinn and Penelope Ann Miller as Juli’s parents, and Rebecca De Mornay as Bryce’s mother—they’re fine, but nothing special.

Yes, I did mention that “Flipped” was directed by Rob Reiner, whose films have never reached that level of worthy filmmaking since “North” almost twenty years ago (I’ll get back to you on “The American President,” though). He needed something that made people remember that this guy once made some impressive, memorable, terrific films such as “Spinal Tap,” “The Princess Bride,” and two particular films that “Flipped” echoes, “The Sure Thing” and “Stand by Me.” “Flipped” is Reiner’s best film in years. And unfortunately, nobody ever saw it, thanks to very poor marketing and a pushed-around release date. More people should give it a watch on DVD; it’s touching, it’s effective, and it’s a satisfying romantic comedy.

The Sitter (2011)

20 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How can I properly describe how bad a comedy “The Sitter” is without saying this first—director David Gordon Green and comic actor Jonah Hill deserve a lot better than this. Actually, I can’t truly blame Hill as he’s doing what he can with a lazily written leading character, and I can’t blame Green for venturing into mainstream comedy after such great indie-small productions as “George Washington” and “Undertow,” and I loved his first mainstream-comedy attempt, “Pineapple Express.” But the problem is there’s nothing to back either of them up, and I can blame Green for at least half of the reasons “The Sitter” fails. It’s not as horrid as his previous comedy “Your Highness,” but that’s very, very faint praise indeed.

I hated this movie as much as any other terrible, unfocused, unintelligent R-rated raunchy comedy that tries so hard to be crude and vulgar for any kind of laugh and mostly falls down dead. (And yes, “Your Highness” falls into that category as well.) Listen—everyone, even the younger characters, are spewing the worst profanities because they love hearing them! Look—there’s a visual that is definitely not pleasant to look at (depending who you are)! Check it out—whatever amusing bit you can find in such an inept piece of garbage is already in the 2-minute redband trailer online! And no I am not going to say this shamelessly rips off “Adventures in Babysitting” and made it R-rated, because I wonder if the writers had even seen that movie. I say that because whether you like “Adventures in Babysitting” or not, it was hard to deny the fun and lightheartedness that was much like a “Ferris Bueller” cousin of a comedy—and “The Sitter” is joyless, tasteless, and worst of all, “laughless.”

Jonah Hill stars as Noah, an ordinary, 20something nice guy with hardly a sense of ambition to him. He’s not confident, he lets his “girlfriend,” Marisa (Ari Graynor), push him around, he lives with his mother, he vegetates in front of the TV, he doesn’t have a job, and blah blah blah he’ll wind up a changed man by the end of the movie, because that’s usually how this works. To make a little money while his mother isn’t able to babysit for a neighbor, he agrees to take the babysitting task himself, taking charge of three kids: neurotic 13-year-old Slater (Max Records), the little girl with too much fashion/makeup on the mind and on the face, Blithe (Landry Bender), and the adopted Hispanic pyromaniac Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) who has a love for fireworks and a tendency to cause mayhem wherever he can. The job isn’t much, as Noah and the kids don’t get off to a good start, and then Marisa calls Noah, asking him to come to the city and pick up some cocaine from her drug-dealer friend, Karl (Sam Rockwell). In exchange, she’ll have sex with him. So being the irresponsible “nice guy” that he is, he brings along his three charges, and wouldn’t you know it—they run into all sorts of misadventures, all of predictable and unfunny.

Actually, I take it back—some of it is not predictable, necessarily. But a lot of it is so weird and deranged and uneven that you wouldn’t care if it was actually predictable, as long as it was funny. And it’s not. It’s just not. OK, I get it already—the Hispanic kid likes to explode toilets with cherry-bombs; why is this funny? Why is it repeated? Oh right, so he can use this need to save the day. Then there’s the Rockwell character (and to be fair, it looks like Rockwell is really trying here) who has an odd hideout with a bunch of bare-chested men skating and dancing to “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”—OK, it’s weird, I’ll grant it that, but it doesn’t pay off. And there are a lot of pedophile jokes for uncomfortable misunderstandings an uneasy conversation about whether or not Slater is actually gay. And then when “The Sitter” stops for drama, it’s the cheesiest load of trite. We’ve seen this all before—first the kids hate Noah, then they realize that Wait a minute! They actually like this guy! This is a PG movie (PG-13 at best) with an R-rated mentality—insipid.

Where’s a blues bar when you need these kids to fall into such and just have a good time?

There’s one laugh I got from this movie and it occurred during the end-credits, if you can believe it. As the credits roll, we’re given information about what happened to these characters after all this madness—I have to admit, I laughed at the fate of Karl’s henchman.

David Gordon Green has made many good movies before, but 2011 was not a good year for him. His two films released that year—“Your Highness” and “The Sitter”—are deplorable messes. He has shown with “Pineapple Express” that he is capable of directing a mainstream comedy, but all I can say is this—Please, man! You made “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” and “Snow Angels!” I know you wanted a mainstream crowd to see your work! Now that you’ve made “Pineapple Express” and everyone knows your name, give them something else to respect you for!

Before Midnight (2013)

16 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Eighteen years ago, in “Before Sunrise,” Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met in their early-20s and were only able to spend one night of conversation and romance. Nine years later, in “Before Sunset,” they were reunited, realizing their mistake of never sharing ways of contact, and thinking this is a second chance for them to be together. That film ended with a delightfully ambiguous ending, though with most of us leaning towards the possibility that they do ultimately end up together. These were two nice, likable people who liked each other and we, while watching them, enjoy their chemistry and could listen to them for another hour-and-a-half. And granted, that extra hour-and-a-half is given to us…nine years later, but still it’s nice to catch up with these two people.

So, nine years since “Before Sunset,” we meet yet again with Jesse and Celine in “Before Midnight.” There’s an indication that every nine years, director Richard Linklater and co-writers Hawke and Delpy will create another “Before” story that will catch up with these two characters in their relationship. We could see them grow old together and it’d be fine because they’re both so appealing together.

However, in “Before Midnight,” that appeal is not entirely seen anymore. This is especially true if this third film is your introduction to the series. To be honest, I think that if you watch this film as a stand-alone story, you’d appreciate more of the craftsmanship and acting than the characters themselves and their relationship. Let me explain—Jesse and Celine are still together and have been for nine years (and they have two daughters and live in Paris, France), and so, instead of the usual nonsense they love to talk about, they instead bicker about issues involving certain things in their lives. And when that happens, and it does get very, very rough as the film reaches its final half-hour, you start to wonder whether or not you want to listen to them anymore—the appeal that was present between the two in the previous films is now gone at this point, as their argument gets more and more ugly. They’re like a married couple—problems that they don’t know how to deal with that they have to talk about, which make them almost seem to hate each other while continuing to talk about them. Will something bring an end to it, will one be able to make amends with the other, is the spark between them still present or is it gone—how will this argument end?

I’m getting ahead of myself here. “Before Sunset” had Jesse and Celine reconnected with each other after nine years of separation. In “Before Midnight,” they’ve spent the past nine years together. Like any long-term committed couple, they have much difficulty coping with life with each other. They’ll sometimes talk a little nonsense every now and then, but there’s a hint that the relationship is harsher than they thought it would be. Happy days, for the most part, are behind them.

Much like the previous films, everything seems very natural in a film that is mostly composed of dialogue. All of these are driven with dialogue throughout very long takes, giving more of the illusion of eavesdropping than arguably any other movie that attempts to be very truthful. It helps that Hawke and Delpy themselves co-write the screenplay along with Linklater, and because they know their characters so well, they’re able to improvise in their conversations onscreen. Linklater simply lets the camera follow them as they interact naturally—a simple yet effective move.

The issues they deal with seem very real. With Jesse, in particular, it’s the feeling of resentment after divorcing his ex-wife to be with Celine, thus not seeing his 14-year-old son from the previous marriage as much as he wants to. He wants to move to Chicago to be closer to him and not miss any important moments that a father should live for; Celine has a new job to think about, and also is not particularly fond of moving away from her home. This leads to the centerpiece conversation, which is essentially a heated argument between Jesse and Celine in a hotel room. It’s quite ugly and not entirely appealing, but it is all too real. This is a couple’s conflict with a very natural feel that can’t be denied. You get the feeling every couple has been through this. And here, having known Jesse and Celine from this “Before” series, there is a real tension of whether or not this argument will be the end of this relationship.

Yes, “Before Midnight” is certainly the darkest tone of this film-series. It’s as realistic as the previous film, but for different reasons. Jesse and Celine may have met in a pleasant chat, but long since then, their relationship has been reduced to bitterness that can come with real life. Sometimes the truth hurts, and in films, it can be told in a powerful way. As a result, “Before Midnight” may not be the most appealing of the series in that sense, but it is all too effective.

Will there be another “Before” chapter in 2022? I wonder.

Greed (Short Film)

14 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I start this review, it’s fair to warn you that SPOILER ALERTS are coming! SPOILER ALERTS are coming! Check out the film on the link below before reading this review.

When watching the 8-minute short film “Greed,” I wasn’t sure how I was going to review it, since it felt like a story we’ve seen/heard before, though shot and acted very nicely. I would recommend it for that skillfulness, but to be honest, it’s the ending twist that really makes the film. It’s the kind of twist that has you think about what you just saw, and unlike a lot of twist-endings I can think of, you actually care to look back because it’s a good film.

“Greed,” which was written and directed by University-of-Central-Arkansas digital-film-major Trenton Mynatt, is a Western, set in the Ozark Mountains in the 1800s. And let’s get this out right now—the look of this short is incredible. Not only is this film shot very nicely, but also you really get a sense of being there with these characters in this desolate environment. Even something as simple as handwritten words on a letter or a knife sharpened against a stone looks great.

But I digress. What’s the story? Well, it’s fairly simple and straightforward…so you would think. It begins in a cat-and-mouse chase that has already begun in a story that I wish could have been made, so the film could be longer and more effective, but you stick with what you got. Anyway, a wealthy man named Jimmy who, along with a small posse, is on a search for gold and also on the run from a malevolent Marshal for mysterious reasons. The Marshal has already killed their guide, so they must move further or else they’ll pay the same price. But a price for what, you ask? This is actually what makes “Greed” original and quite fascinating—the twist. And at this point, I’m obligated to state again—SPOILER ALERT!

Believe it or not, I’ve only described the first three-and-a-half minutes of this eight-minute short, which consists of Jimmy turning on the remaining two members of his group, killing one and leaving the other to die—all so Jimmy can claim the fortune for himself. Earlier, it seemed as if Jimmy and his posse were the heroes and the Marshal was the villain—and while the Marshal isn’t technically a protagonist, he’s not much of an antagonist either. And it all becomes clear at the end, when it’s revealed that…well, let’s just say there’s more to this man than bringing justice. What is the price that Jimmy and his group must pay? Death. For what? Greed—one of the seven deadly sins. It’s a unique, well-executed twist that brings things into perspective and makes you think about what you’ve just seen.

In a certain way, “Greed” reminded me of another UCA-produced short film: Allison (Hogue) Bristol’s “Hitchhiker” (already reviewed by me), which was made the year before. It’s the simple, seemingly-generic story with a fresh manner of execution and a resolution that turns it all around and makes you think maybe it wasn’t so “simple” or “seemingly-generic” after all. (And wouldn’t you know it—some of the people involved in the making of this film were also involved in the making of “Hitchhiker.”) Now that you’ve watched it on Vimeo before reading this part (I hope you did; if not, don’t say I didn’t warn you about spoilers), watch it again knowing what you know now and think about what you see. For example, notice the look on Jimmy’s face early on when he’s reading the letter stating a brother is dead—is it indifference due to his greed, sadness because of the loss, fear because he knows who’s after him? This is what twist-endings were made for—not to merely confuse us or take us off guard, but to make us look back and really reflect about what was set up for it. “Greed” is a short film that worked in that sense.

Check out the film here: https://vimeo.com/43716364

This is the End (2013)

12 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When I heard about “This is the End,” a comedy about Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Jonah Hill surviving the end of the world, and then I heard that these great comic actors were playing themselves (or rather, exaggerated versions of themselves), I wasn’t sure how to respond. But I was thinking—if done right, it would be absolutely fantastic in how wild it all sounds; if done wrong, it would be the most self-indulgent, painfully-obvious, obnoxious piece of crap to come to the big screen in a long time. But just by this concept alone, I realized I had to see this movie! And thankfully, “This is the End” turned out to be as brilliant as it sounds.

It is also, don’t get me wrong, the wildest, most outrageous comedy to come around in a long, long time. I dare you to find another comedy released in the past few years with as much ambition, outrageous aspects, energy, and as a result, as much hilarity to come from such. Practically every scene, as I can recall, has something to laugh at—even moments when I was laughing in spite of myself. I’m not entirely sure what all I get away with revealing among the vulgarities in this movie, but if three or four scenes didn’t earn the film an NC-17 rating, I think the R rating will be stuck to just about anything mainstream. There are so many moments that are very much “out there,” to say the least, and on top of that, there are overly-done sexual sight gags—not the best film to see on a first date, that’s for sure.

Even co-writers/co-directors Rogen & Evan Goldberg (yes, “Superbad”/”Pineapple Express” co-writers Rogen and Goldberg direct their script this time—another reason I was looking forward to seeing this movie) were reportedly surprised to find that they got away with an R instead of an NC-17. If there was no issue with the ratings board about most of the gags seen here, then there’s pretty much anything than can get away with an R rating. No doubt about it.

But I digress. The movie opens with old friends Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel reuniting in Los Angeles. They catch up on current events, spend time together eating fast-food and getting stoned, and then Rogen brings Baruchel to James Franco’s house-warming party at his new mansion in the Hills. Who else should be there but Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride, and also there’s Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Jason Segel, Rihanna, Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, David Krumholtz, Mindy Kaling, Christopher MIntz-Plasse…Am I missing somebody? I believe I am. There were so many celebrity appearances at this party, all playing themselves, that I have to wonder if maybe I missed Leslie Mann or even Judd Apatow somewhere. But anyway, they’re all playing pretend versions of themselves here and it’s a wonderful comic move in how they can poke fun at their careers, highlights, memorable qualities, etc. And there’s also room for major contrast—not with Jay Baruchel, who is just about as awkward as in a lot of films he’s acted in; but mainly with Michael Cera. Cera has about five minutes of screen time, and he’s freaking hilarious. Why? Because the nice kid from “Superbad” and “Juno” is now playing an ass-grabbing, coke-sniffing, obnoxious jerk (or seven-letter word for “jerk”) that is supposed to be the “real Michael Cera.” His exit in this movie is also hilarious and also manages the Cera-esque awkwardness, though it’s all the more hilarious in how it was set up with him (or rather, his character).

And speaking of exits, or rather the end, the Rapture is here! In the middle of the party, Rogen and Baruchel stop by a nearby gas station, only to witness the beginning of insanity of apocalyptic proportions—explosions are heard, booming is felt, people are absorbed by blue light up into Heaven, and everyone else is left to endure (gulp!) the apocalypse. And get this—no one at Franco’s house noticed anything because nobody there was apparently worthy enough for Heaven. Things get more extreme when earthquakes arrive and a large sinkhole swallows a good majority of the party until Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Robinson, McBride, and Hill are left to hole up inside the mansion and figure out how to survive together. They spent most of their time figuring eating/drinking plans while also trying to agree with one another, getting stoned, reading (and abusing) porn magazines, and—I’m not even kidding—they even make a trailer for an unofficial “Pineapple Express 2.” (When I saw that scene, I laughed and laughed and laughed!) But when demons rise from the pits of Hell, they find that they can only survive for so long before they realize they must find a way to get to Heaven.

Remember when Bill Murray played himself in “Zombieland” or when Neil Patrick Harris played an incredibly vulgar version of himself in the “Harold & Kumar” movies? Remember how much laughs you can get from a comic actor exaggerating with his/her own personality? Such is the case with pretty much everyone in the cast here, which mainly consists of celebrities. Michael Cera, like I said, is an unbelievably funny masterstroke of writing, and Emma Watson even at one point comes to visit the six men and threatens them with an axe the moment “rape” is mentioned. (Yes—Hermione Granger with an axe!) But how about the six principles? They pitilessly lampoon themselves by going for the easy targets and the…not-so-easy targets. Their public images, their personalities—everything that the public thinks they know about them (but are probably not entirely right about) is broadly developed here, and that makes it all the more funny. We have Seth Rogen as the sometimes-reliable buddy who laughs that distinctive laugh and constantly gets stoned; we have James Franco as an oddball whose indifference in most of his performances is exaggerated (and also, he collects props from his films, like the camera in “127 Hours” which the group members use to make video-diaries); we have Jonah Hill as a former loudmouth turned fancy Oscar-nominated actor trying to keep his cool; we have Craig Robinson as the calm, relaxed “big-guy” role you see him in, only with more vulnerability and also a tendency to try new, disgusting things (like drinking his own pee); Jay Baruchel is the sweet-natured outcast here, as he usually plays the “awkward-odd-man-out” role, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s probably the only sensible one in the entire group. And then there’s Danny McBride—good Lord, is this guy horrid! If you thought he was unlikeable in many other movies, he’s incredibly obnoxious here and entirely hateful. McBride is a loser, plain and simple—there is nothing redeemable about this guy at all. And that was the purpose in exaggeration, of course—the result is freaking hilarious. All of these actors are game at this difficult task, and it’s very funny watching them trying to be nice to each other.

“This is the End” features many great moments, but I won’t dare give away even a majority of them. Even for those I did unintentionally give away, no worries—there’s a lot going on in this movie, as you feel that Rogen and Goldberg put their all into this. Even if it doesn’t work (and a couple vulgar-dialogue scenes do run on for a bit longer then they probably should), it keeps going and continuing with a new trick.

With that said, what more can I say about “This is the End?” There’s a lot I can say about this one-joke movie with comic figures poking fun at each other while surviving the apocalypse. But with a no-spoilers policy, I’ll leave you to enjoy the unbelievably-outrageous final half, along with what leads up to it. We’ve got a good couple months in the summer, but I’m going to make a prediction that no other comedy this summer-movie season is going to be as hilarious as “This is the End.”

Ed Wood (1994)

12 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Moviemaking is a pure art. Why should people in Hollywood be in it just for the money? Why not the joy and storytelling of the actual thing? Moviemaking should be about filmmakers appreciating the art and joy of what they do.

That’s why Tim Burton’s comedy-drama biopic “Ed Wood” is a true delight—a wonderful film based on the life-career of filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. If you’re not familiar with that name, he was well known for making some of the worst and most laughable movies of all time, such as “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” But Ed Wood didn’t see them that way when he was making them. He just had stories to tell—somewhat weird, offbeat stories—and wanted to create them on film. He loved doing what he does and despite the roadblocks put in his way, he didn’t give up.

One of the best things about the movie “Ed Wood” is that the title character is played with enthusiasm and energy by Johnny Depp as a 30-year-old enthusiastic, slightly weird optimist whom we can learn to root for. Watching this guy, we don’t care that he’ll make some pretty bad movies, and some bad decisions to make them. We just see him doing what he loves to do. Johnny Depp definitely succeeds in making this guy likable and capturing the true essence of who this guy really is. The character isn’t portrayed in a mean-spirited way and that is one of the many joys of this film.

As the movie starts, Ed is at a premiere party for one of his bad productions (this is a stage play). The scene is laughably bad with the strange dialogue by Ed’s own crew and the lame special effect used in the background. Then, the scene cuts to Ed and his friends celebrating but then reading a negative review towards the play. But Ed, always the optimist, states, “We can’t let the negatives rule over the positives!” Then, once that is done and we see Ed at home, with his girlfriend, and looking for new projects, we see him as a likable character right then.

The movie features Ed as he goes into filmmaking and creates three projects that will become cult classics nowadays—“Glen or Glenda,” “Bride of the Atom,” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Who does he get to play the lead parts in the movies—Ed’s friends, his girlfriend, people who paid him money to get them started in the first place, and the old movie star Bela Lugosi, best known for “Dracula.” He’s really old but Ed, still a big fan of his, knows he can still act. So, he and Bela become fast friends and Ed gives him a part to jumpstart his career again. The relationship between Ed and Bela is handled nicely and believable. Bela is played by Martin Landau, under a lot of makeup, and it’s a good, tough, eerie performance to pull off—he does.

One of the strangest things about Ed is that he always liked to dress in women’s clothing. His girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) is always wandering why some of her clothes are missing. He finally reveals the truth when he makes a movie about a transvestite—“Glen or Glenda.” And he never shot a second take, saying that the first take was “Perfect!!!” Even in the scene where a wrestler-turned-actor named Tor Johnson (“The Animal” Steele) has a bit of trouble going through a door, he still says it’s perfect. “It’s fine—it’s real.” I guess he just liked to film shots.

“Ed Wood” is filmed in black and white. But don’t let that stop you watching it. The black-and-white aspect is appropriate because it captures the zaniness of the idea and it traditionalizes the Ed Wood pictures, which were filmed in black-and-white. Then, for those who have watched the Ed Wood pictures, the scenes in which the movies are being created are satisfying. One of the best moments in the movie involve Ed’s actress asking which color dress she should wear; one of the producers says he’s color blind but he likes the “dark-gray one.”

This movie could have been called “Worst Director of All Time” but instead, it’s called “Ed Wood” because the movie celebrates him more than it mocks him. Johnny Depp does an extraordinary job at playing the filmmaking optimist and proves himself to be one the best actors of our time. He just finds the right balance of making this guy likable and a little weird as well. Also, the actors playing the original characters from back in the real Ed Wood’s day look remarkably like their counterparts—Bill Murray portrays Ed’s openly-gay friend Bunny Breckinridge known as the “Ruler” in “Plan 9,” Max Casella and Brent Hinkley portray Ed’s reliable production assistants, Jeffrey Jones plays local psychic TV entertainer Criswell, and Lisa Marie is Vampira of that old “Vampira Show.” Once again, Martin Landau gives a striking resemblance to the real Bela Lugosi with a terrific makeup job by Academy Award winning makeup artist Rick Baker.

Director Tim Burton, best known at the time for directing “Beetle Juice,” “Batman,” and “Edward Scissorhands” (also featuring Johnny Depp as a man named Ed), as well as for producing “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” has always been known for making unusual yet visually and virtually intriguing projects with characters that some people find touching and fun. Ed Wood is a character that all people will find touching and fun. He’s a young energetic filmmaker who is obsessed with Hollywood. I just love the scene in which Ed is ticked off during one of his productions—two stiff producers want to do things their own way—and Ed meets Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio), who tells him that “visions are worth fighting for”, as encouragement.

But Ed also just happens to dress in women’s clothes sometimes. At one point, someone asks him, “Are you a homosexual?” He proudly replies, “No, I’m a transvestite!”

“Ed Wood” is one of my personal favorite films. It’s a great movie that should be required viewing for every film school because it’s about a guy who loves what he does and will do anything to get a movie done. I mean, I’m not saying, “Hey, go out and make the worst movies ever made,” but rather, “Follow your dreams—don’t let them get away from you.”

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

8 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Faithful readers may have figured out that my two favorite Walt Disney-produced live-action movies are “20000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Old Yeller.” (And to get it out of the way, other great titles, produced by Disney himself before his death, that come into my mind are “Treasure Island,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” and “Mary Poppins,” but I’ll get to those later.) But there was one that I used to watch a lot as a kid—I mean, just as much as “Old Yeller” (yes, that much). That was 1959’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” a delightful, fantastic movie that I loved as a kid and love even more now.

The film takes place in a small Irish village, where an old widower, named Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe), lives with his 20-year-old daughter Katie (Janet Munro) in a gatehouse near Lord Fitzpatrick’s (Walter Fitzgerald) estate, of which Darby is caretaker. Darby passes the time by telling stories around the town pub—telling stories about the times he constantly attempts to catch the leprechauns, particularly their king Brian Connors (Jimmy O’Dea), who live on a hilltop known as Knocknesheega. Lord Fitzpatrick has hired someone else to labor the estate, which means Darby and Katie will be forced to leave, so a young Dubliner named Michael McBride (a 29-year-old Sean Connery in one of his earliest film roles) can move in. Darby begs Michael not to tell Katie that he lost his job, and manages to convince Katie that Michael is only here to help out around the house. That night, Darby is led to Knocknesheega where he stumbles upon the home of the little people. It turns out he was led there by King Brian so he can stay forever, away from the harshness of the real world. Darby manages to escape and make his way back home, which leads to King Brian finding him and Darby being able to trick him so he can capture him. Now in Darby’s possession, King Brian owes Darby three wishes to be granted, and Darby decides to save them for something wise.

Where do I begin with this movie? There’s literally a lot to like about “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” and a great deal of inventiveness. Well, I guess I’ll begin with the rules that are established with the leprechauns. For example, if you wish a fourth wish after your third, then it negates the other three; leprechauns’ powers only work at night; leprechauns can take any shape or form (such as a rabbit); they love dancing, whiskey, and hunting, which Darby can use to trick them; and so on. All of these rules are important to the story, and important for Darby to be smart enough to remember them all. This makes Darby a wise adversary for King Brian to match wits with. And that’s another wonderful thing about this movie—Darby and King Brian can be good friends when they need to be, but when to get what they want, they know how to fool each other into making it happen for one another. For example, how does Darby escape the leprechaun underground world? He plays a hunting song on the fiddle for the leprechauns to dance to before jumping to their horses and going off to hunt, in spirit of the song, thus giving Darby a chance to escape—here, he has used the leprechauns’ love for dancing and hunting to his own advantage. King Brian is able to outwit Darby as well, such as when he tricks Darby into wasting one of his wishes, and even at one point to save Darby’s life (without giving anything away).

I like the way the rules for the leprechauns are set up. Although, I have to wonder—there’s one scene in which King Brian manages to escape from Darby’s bag through a crowd of people, but the people see him as a rabbit. How does that work? If King Brian’s powers only work at night, then how was he able to make everyone see him as a rabbit (if he didn’t transform himself as a rabbit)? I mean, OK, Darby was tricked into wasting his second wish so that Michael could see King Brian (though only as a rabbit), but what was the extent of that wish? Could everyone else just see him as a rabbit, like Michael? I don’t know; maybe I’m questioning too much.

And before anyone lists any comments below, I’m not going to list the possibility that Darby is imagining all of this about the leprechauns and the magic they represent all this time (as inventive as that may be, don’t get me wrong). This is a fantasy and I’m dealing with it. Let the leprechauns and whatever spooky element Darby comes across later be there; don’t read too much into Darby being the only one to see them.

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Speaking of spookiness, Darby also comes across a sinister ghostly figure at the end, known as the Banshee, which is said to represent death. In a complicated turn of events, Katie winds up at death’s door and Darby desperately attempts to keep the Banshee and the Death Coach from taking her away. Both the Banshee and the Death Coach frightened me as a kid (the Banshee’s blue-tinted, ghostly image, and not to mention her moaning howl, still continues to send chills down my spine, I’ll admit). I don’t doubt it frightened other kids as well (well, perhaps not those who were angered that the Nostalgia Critic listed the Banshee’s appearance as the Scariest Nostalgic Moment, but I digress); it’s just one of those scary aspects you find in Disney movies (the donkey-transformation in “Pinocchio,” the forest scene in “Snow White,” and so on) that scare younger kids but delight older ones.

But as for the lighthearted scenes, of which there are a lot, there are two in particular that I just love to watch every time. One is the aforementioned fiddle-scene in the leprechaun world, and it is very entertaining as well as visually astounding—by the way, the special effects in this movie, for the most part (I mean, aside from obvious trickery), are just fantastic; there are many great shots that show Darby and the little people in the same frame (done through forced perspective) and it seems completely seamless. I’m not quite sure how they were able to make them appear in the same frame in that day and age, but it’s just incredible. Anyway, the other scene I love is the scene that follows, as Darby and King Brian play a drinking game together so that Darby can trick King Brian into staying until daylight so that he’ll be powerless (and that’s how Darby catches him). This game gives us the “Wishing Song,” one of two songs in this movie (I’ll get to the other one in a bit). The “Wishing Song” has the two of them trading verses back and forth to see how long they can go. This scene is entertaining in the way they continue and keep coming up with clever, amusing rhymes.

This one’s my favorite: “I wish I was married to Old Widow Tunney; she’s ugly as sin, but has beautiful money.”

Oh, I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention the budding romance between Katie and Michael, which takes up a good chunk of movie. Darby wants Katie to be happy, while Katie only thinks about caring about her father and working around the house and doesn’t believe she has time for a man in her life. But Katie and Michael spend some good time together and actually get close to one another, while Katie doesn’t know that Michael is actually here to take Darby’s place. And Michael is wondering how long it will be before Darby tells her. But Michael isn’t keeping this secret for his sake—he genuinely likes Katie and Darby, and does want to help them. While this part of the movie isn’t as fascinating as Darby and the little people, it does help to deliver solid characterization, and on top of that, the two do share convincing chemistry together.

And need I also mention Sean Connery singing the other, most memorable song in the movie, “My Darling Irish Girl?” You know, it might just be me, but I’m not quite sure how to react to Sean Connery singing here. It’s kind of surreal, and I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It’s a good song, though.

What else is there to like about this movie? Albert Sharpe is excellent in the title role, Janet Munro and Sean Connery are appealing, the special effects are outstanding for the most part (there are some noticeable goofs, but when they’re good, they’re very good), I love the creativity among the leprechauns’ folklore, I love how Darby and King Brian are able to outwit each other, the atmosphere surrounding this small Irish town is evident throughout, and even the side characters such as the town locals who listen to Darby’s stories are amusing. “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” is just an all-around fantastic movie. It’s charming, creative, and (for lack of a better word) Disney-magic.

Going to the Mat (2004) (TV)

8 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Far be it for me to review a “Disney Channel Original Movie,” though to be honest, I have certain nostalgia for a lot of them (no matter how stupid I found a lot of them to be later on), having grown up watching the Disney Channel. But there is actually one that I can find myself reviewing and recommending because I genuinely find it to be a solid family-oriented sports film. That is “Going to the Mat,” released to the small screen in early 2004.

The story: Jace Newfield (Andrew Lawrence) is a blind teenager who has moved from New York City to a small town in Utah. Fearing the students at his new school will mock him for his blindness, he attempts to impress them all by bragging about his old home and making fun of jocks before they have a chance to tell “blind” jokes. However, it turns out that no one cares much that he’s blind because they’re already turned off by the notion that he’s acting like a jerk. He has two friends—Vincent “Fly” Shu (Khleo Thomas) and Mary Beth Rice (Alessandra Toreson)—who tell Jace that the best way to fit in around here is to be a jock. Music isn’t going to impress anyone, as Jace is a good drummer, mainly because the music teacher, Mr. Wyatt (Wayne Brady), is also blind. So finding a sport seems to be a new priority. Mary Beth suggests wrestling, as her father (D.B. Sweeney) is the coach. With Fly accompanying him, Jace tries out for the wrestling team. Of course, the other members of the team give him a hard time and think he’s on the team to play the “freak” angle for the local newspaper (which is not the case, as the coach is a no-nonsense guy). But Jace is determined to earn his spot on the team and works hard to improve on the wrestling skills throughout the course of the season.

What really stands out about “Going to the Mat” is the message. It’s probably obvious, but it’s actually very effective as well. It’s all summed up in one line, said by Jace later in the movie after he’s already scored a couple points for the team—“You know what really ticks me off, when people tell me how brave and courageous I am for doing things that sighted people do every day.” That’s a good, solid point. Just because a person is blind doesn’t mean he can’t do everything that sighted people can. And this is a problem that Jace didn’t have to deal with in New York City, as he was able to find ways to do what his friends did. Note the opening scene. He’s playing in a band in front of a large audience and they get good reception. In this scene, you wouldn’t even guess that Jace was blind as he plays the drums. But the next scene shows signs of his blindness, as he plays baseball with his friends. Jace is up to bat, and the ball that they use is a special one that makes beeping sounds for Jace to use his other senses to hit it when it’s pitched to him. Then, Jace goes to pitch the ball and sound is used here as well—the thudding sounds a fist makes when the catcher hits the mitt, giving Jace a target. All throughout this scene, they’re just having ordinary conversation; nothing except how they play the game is made of Jace’s blindness, even when Jace needs assistance as they grab a snack nearby. This is a really good scene; it’s executed and acted pretty realistically for a “DCOM.”

Anyway, now that Jace is in these new surroundings and having to prove himself because most people see him as a blind guy. One of the team is angry because Jace is taking his place (though to be fair, it’s because the coach doesn’t want the kid to hear himself before a big meet), and just sees the whole thing as a joke. Jace has to work even harder not only to score points for the wrestling team, but also to fit in with those that gave him a hard time from the start. And eventually, he does manage to succeed in earning respect, as well as points. What fascinates me about “Going to the Mat” is that this is actually a credible situation—maybe a little too credible for a DCOM (in that maybe it could have had a theatrical release instead).

Fly is also able to earn respect. He joins the wrestling team along with Jace, and is also picked on because of his short stature. But as Jace gets better with wrestling, so does Fly. Both boys are able to beat the odds and relieve themselves of the “underdog” status. This is something that sports-movies usually love to play off of—the underdog angle. There’s a ne’er-do-well group of misfits who try out for a certain sport and improve until they are able to earn regard from everyone. Surprisingly, while there are a few clichés present in “Going to the Mat,” the film doesn’t necessarily dwell on them. Jace and Fly’s “underdog” story arcs are played convincingly so that it’s easy to follow along their practice. The coach doesn’t take any bull from anybody, but he isn’t the one-dimensional jerk—in fact, he’s far from it. The bullies are surprisingly well-developed characters, particularly the wrestling-team captain, John (Billy Aaron Brown). While he does give Jace a hard time, the two grow to form a nice friendship because Jace is able to help him with his Spanish-class grade in order for John to continue being on the team. In return, John helps Jace practice. Even Mary Beth, which is what could have been the thankless role of high-school love-interest, is three-dimensional—kind, but not dim; helpful, but within limits; falls for Jace, but knows there’s a bit of a risk, seeing as how her father is Jace’s coach. Also, it’s refreshing that she knows a lot about wrestling.

Andrew Lawrence stars as Jace, and it’s a solid, charismatic performance. He’s completely convincing as a blind kid seeking to fit in. He’s tough, but sensitive too. He’s cocky and brave, but also knows when to keep his mouth shut and focus. And he doesn’t back down, though he knows his own limitations of his disability. He’s very good here and he’s also another very important reason why this film works. Khleo Thomas is not as successful, as he is sort of a generic best-friend character, but he is likable nonetheless. Alessandra Toreson is good as well, Billy Aaron Brown is a convincing jock, and Wayne Brady is also solid as the blind music teacher who informs Jace that it’s not sight that makes you who you are—it’s obvious, and the speeches are kind of hokey at times, but they’re effective at getting the point across.

Also, I’m kind of glad that the ultimate wrestling match at the end of the movie is a playoff match and not a final. It doesn’t even matter whether Jace wins or loses; it’s how Jace is able to handle it against one of the best high-school wrestlers in the state. In the end, he gains respect and no one sees him as just a blind person anymore. Yes, it is predictable, but I didn’t mind so much.

I’m not sure whether or not this is based on a true story, but to tell the truth, it wouldn’t really surprise me. What does surprise me, however, is how serious the story is treated. Maybe it’s not treated too seriously, for the sake of keeping kids invested. But there’s nothing handled in a dumb way, so I wouldn’t imagine many adults rolling their eyes at the film (like they would do with many other DCOMs). I liked “Going to the Mat” as a kid; watching it now, it turned out to hold up surprisingly well.