Archive | July, 2013

Scarface (1983)

31 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Scarface” is one of the more fascinating films I’ve watched recently. But I’m not entirely sure why that is. And for that matter, I’m not even sure whether or not I like it. On the one hand, it’s an ambitious, gloriously-shot, high-quality, riveting crime-drama epic that managed to keep me invested in the storyline, even with a running time of two hours and fifty minutes. On the other hand, it’s also an over-the-top, sometimes cartoonish-silly, inconsistently-acted “Godfather” wannabe with a lead character who is a blowhard that becomes an even bigger blowhard (oh gee, talk about a three-dimensional character arc) and is acted with an inconsistently interesting leading performance by Al Pacino.

And yes, I know that Pacino’s role of Tony Montana in “Scarface” is as iconic as they come—his exaggerated, over-the-top Cuban accent and mannerisms are usually imitated for fun, as is his most infamous line of dialogue, “Say hello to my little friend!” But let’s be honest—when I say “usually imitated for fun,” you know what I’m talking about. The Pacino performance is so over-the-top that it seems like he’s doing a parody of this type of macho gangster character who is a jerk from the start and an even bigger one the more powerful he becomes. Everything about this “character” seems overly exaggerated—it’s a live-action cartoon, to say the least. It’s a one-note performance that I don’t think was written that way, but Pacino just felt free to do whatever the hell he wanted to do with it. He’s a heavy scenery-chewer, he’s aggressive even when he should just calm down and think for a moment, and it doesn’t help that he snorts cocaine constantly through most of the film. I know that last part is supposed to emphasize why he behaves this way, but he was already aggressive at the start of the movie, and he gradually progresses to “asshole” status. Pacino’s character of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” is more of a character than Tony Montana, because at least he had something to start with before becoming what he had to be known for. (And I don’t think that’s the only “Godfather” comparison people would think back to when talking about this film and that.)

Maybe some of the reason for how over-the-top Pacino is in this role has to do with director Brian De Palma. Maybe De Palma wanted him to keep going on like this, to keep the intensity of the film alive, as the director always likes to keep things intense with his work. And indeed, his filmmaking here is not subtle at all, but it is interesting enough to keep me invested. I can also say the same for Oliver Stone’s screenplay, which is written a lot better than it’s being executed here. You can follow everything fine and you can see a genuine arc here. Maybe if a more low-key actor (not too low-key, just consistently intriguing enough) was cast as Tony Montana, “Scarface” would be a more credible film, so maybe that’s the thing—maybe Pacino was miscast.

But let’s be honest—Pacino’s hammy acting is the very reason why the performance stays in your mind. That’s why it’s iconic, that’s why people love to imitate him, and that’s why Tony is so memorable. And truth be told, when I mean to say that Pacino’s performance is “inconsistent,” I mean that Pacino does manage to pull off a few scenes credibly without having to go over-the-top (though, to be fair, I think the best of those are the ones that don’t feature him talking). So he has his good moments and his bad moments, which is why I call his performance “inconsistent.”

“Scarface” is about the rise and fall of this gangster Tony Montana, as it opens with him coming to America from Cuba along with his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) and ends with him high in power and paying the ultimate price that comes with the position. Tony and Manny come to Miami find themselves a job working for crime boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) after finding that washing dishes and flipping burgers at a diner doesn’t cut it for them. Their new job working for Frank requires shipping cocaine. But after a deal goes wrong, Tony and Manny make it out with the stash and money, which impresses Frank and causes him to make Tony one of his more reliable men to carry out missions for him.

Tony, of course, wants to try for something even bigger with his work. This means attempting to put himself higher than Frank and also taking Frank’s woman Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). And when he becomes a little too much for Frank, enough for him to send two henchmen to try and kill him (in one of the film’s best scenes), this is enough reason for Tony to kill Frank, take Elvira, and take control of all the cocaine in all of Miami. And surely enough, Tony Montana is risen to power and, wouldn’t you know it, unbearable enough to make enough enemies to try and gun him down.

I mentioned before that “Scarface” is impressive in how its story is told, and while it may come off as “standard” the way I’m describing it to you, it is sort of standard. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have room for surprises, and with De Palma’s direction, there are some neat, nifty twists to the usual stuff and an interesting look at the more violent aspects of the film. Indeed, the blood and gore keeps things interesting, especially in the ending which has Pacino at his most overzealous. Is it intended to be serious? Sure. But sometimes it almost seems like a parody of gangster-picture endings. Either way, it’s interesting to watch, if you can stomach it. Other fascinating scenes involve heavy amounts of violence, one of which involves a chainsaw that is used in an interrogation scene.

The supporting cast can’t get away untouched. Aside from Pacino’s acting, there are some performances that seem rather off. Michelle Pfeiffer is fine as Elvira (and has one particularly satisfying moment when she exclaims just how “boring” Tony has become), but Steven Bauer (the only Cuban actor playing a Cuban character, by the way) is bland, Robert Loggia isn’t the slightest bit convincing as the former Cuban drug lord, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as Tony’s sexy sister who is off-limits to anyone if Tony can help it, is awful with a never-convincing Cuban accent. That last one, I neglected to mention, has a weird relationship with Tony, or maybe it’s just how Tony is afraid to see her. I won’t go into detail about it, but let’s just say her final moment in this movie is beyond bizarre.

There is a fascination to the character of Tony Montana in that he just keeps going and going until he gets what he wants, and then when he ultimately does, he falls because he just doesn’t know when to stop. That, I believe, was the intention of the character, and possibly in how Pacino played him. When I think about it, in that respects, the performance sometimes works. I recommend “Scarface” because despite what I’ve said about Pacino, he is still fun to watch, and the film itself is beautifully shot and edited, even if it is over-the-top. It stuck with me, and it may stick with me even more after a second viewing.

The Haunting (1963)

29 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When people ask me what my favorite horror film is, I guess they would expect me to say “Halloween” or “The Exorcist.” And while I do love those movies and they, along with “Psycho” for instance, would be in my top-five of the genre, I say that my favorite in the genre is definitely “The Haunting.” And the trouble is, I always have to back up that title by labeling it “the Robert Wise haunted-house film from the 1960s” because I know that they’re thinking of the other “The Haunting” (the 1999 Jan De Bont remake of the 1963 film with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones). I’ll have something to say about the remake later and why it definitely doesn’t work in comparison to its predecessor, but I truly love the original film. In fact, I love it so much to admit that it’s just my favorite scary film—it’s one of my all-time favorite movies.

“The Haunting” is a superb, gorgeously-shot, very well thought-out chiller that uses psychological tension and character development in the same concepts of mystery and atmosphere. It takes place in a haunted house—Hill House, to be exact—and it’s about a group of characters who would like to investigate the supernatural occurrences of such a place but get much more than they expected. That premise sounds pretty simple, but Wise’s direction, along with great cinematography as well as great acting, makes it far more than what it could have been. Even if you don’t really find it very scary (it depends on whether or not you accept the “less is more” aspect—I’ll explain later in this review), it’s still a gripping psychological thriller, Gothic story, and character study.

“The Haunting” begins with an opening narration over a shot of an ominous-looking mansion in the night, and right away, the narration sets up the premise in a most interesting way. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a depiction of a haunted house, or rather just exploring a haunted house, has ever been put in a better way. “An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there…walked alone.” And when the intellectual voice of Richard Johnson puts it like that, I think I might follow him as well as those his character, Dr. John Markway, are brought into his experiment. And yes, his experiment is simply to investigate any sort of paranormal activity while spending several nights in Hill House. The house is full of history that connects to further evidence that it may be haunted, which fascinates him even more. He wants to know if everything he’s heard and studied is as real as it may seem.

Brought in on the project are Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris), clairvoyant Theodora “Theo” (Claire Bloom), and the house’s cynical new heir, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn). Eleanor, in particular, is our main focus of the film, as we hear her inner thoughts a good amount of time and has the most compelling character arc of the group. She’s a meek, insecure, guilt-ridden woman who has spent most of her adult life caring for her sick mother until her death, leading to further severe guilt that she has to deal with everyday. She seeks to belong somewhere with somebody, which is why she does take a chance and leaves her sister’s apartment (where she sleeps on the couch), and steals her sister’s car to make her way to Hill House, where she is finally expected somewhere.

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Hill House itself is a marvel to look at. It’s a large, maze-like mansion that looks like a Gothic castle, with many secrets and unsettling decorations and such. Among the most notable unsettling locations in the house is the library, which features a tall, spiraling staircase that is very rickety and unsafe. The exteriors and interiors of Hill House are just extraordinary and the whole place gives off a creepy vibe. You definitely can tell that something is not quite right with this place. Eleanor notices this upon first arriving, thinking to herself that “it’s looking at me” and if she goes into this house, she’s afraid she won’t come out the same way. But she does come inside, get to know Markway, Theo, and Luke, and surely enough, many strange things occur with apparent supernatural forces at work here.

But how much of the supernatural is actually “supernatural?” We spend so much time with Eleanor and we know that she isn’t quite mentally-stable because of her insecurities that sometimes take her over, so you have to wonder just how much of this ghost-story is actual ghosts and how much of it is actually in Eleanor’s mind. It’s evident that ghosts are real in these surroundings, as Eleanor is not the only one to experience these happenings. But what about when she explores the house herself and feels herself to be more at home, in a way depicted creepier than it sounds? Is she being controlled by the paranormal forces, is she letting in to her hopes of belonging somewhere, are her insecurities getting the very best of her? I won’t go into too much detail about what I get out of the connection between her and Hill House, but trust me when I say it’s an excellent psychological study. And that this is a character who seeks redemption and acceptance within a haunted house makes it even more unnerving.

It’s hard to pick my favorite “scary moment,” as most people choose their own favorite scary moments from their favorite horror films (the opening in “Halloween,” the exorcism in “The Exorcist,” the shower scene in “Psycho,” and so on). There are literally more than I could think of right off the bat, and oddly enough, every time I watch the movie again, I find myself unnerved throughout the whole movie because of those many moments. To name some of these scenes, I’d start with the introduction in which we see in flashback (with help of Dr. Markway’s narration) the past historic happenings of Hill House (suicide, accidents, etc.)—it’s a great opening and also very well-crafted in how it’s able to set up the environment and build up suspense for the rest of the story, and of course quite unnerving. There’s the first occurrence on the characters’ first night in Hill House, as Eleanor and Theo are frightened by loud, pounding noises coming from outside their bedroom and hold onto one another in fear—the terror is genuine and the scares come as unexpected so that the characters’ fear becomes ours, because we know just about as much as they do. Most memorably, arguably, is the scene in which Eleanor awakens at night to hear what sounds like a child being beaten and crying in pain. She wants to yell but is too afraid to, and she holds hands with Theo who is obviously as frightened as she is because, as we hear through Eleanor’s inner thoughts, she is holding on to her hand a little too tightly. When she finally yells “STOP IT!” and the lights turn on, she looks to see that…nobody was holding her hand the whole time. This is a perfect “scary moment”—the buildup, the tension, and the payoff are all very well-handled, making the standard-but-needed question “Whose hand was I holding” seem all the more impactful. There are many more moments like that in this movie. And do I even need to mention that the aforementioned “tall, spiraling staircase” comes into place for a crucial moment later?

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One major important aspect of “The Haunting” is simply pure terror, in that it’s really the things that you don’t see that scare you. indeed, there is no monster or blood and gore or any visible ghosts present at all throughout the entire movie (unlike the remake, which used endless amounts of CGI, completely missing the point of “less is more”). It’s all psychological and we can imagine what we think are making all those noises that we (and the characters) hear. (Also, there are hardly any special effects in the movie, with the exception of a door bending due to whatever is outside pushing in on it.) This is pretty much on the same level of feeling like you’re alone in a room and you’re shocked because there’s a sudden knock at the door. It’s that kind of tension that is evident throughout “The Haunting.”

The casting of the four principal roles is spot-on. Julie Harris is excellent as Eleanor, creating a believable portrait of an odd, meek woman who is possibly misguided to find a place to feel accepted. It’s a great performance and it makes “The Haunting” more of a character study than a haunted-house story. Richard Johnson is also great as Dr. Markway, a man who could convince you to jump off a cliff if he found a solid reasoning behind it. I love the way he puts the supernatural occurrences most of us have heard of, particularly the difference between “ghosts” and “ghouls.” Claire Bloom makes Theo her own character and also gives a certain indication that she might actually be a lesbian, which could explain why she acts the way she does toward Eleanor (compassion mixed with teasing most of the time) and also would give another disturbing sense in the scenes when they’re the only ones in a room together. Bloom makes risky decisions with this role, but they’re never over-the-top and are played effectively. I even enjoyed Russ Tamblyn’s comic relief—as Luke, Tamblyn plays a man who doesn’t believe in the supernatural or the phenomena; he’s just protecting his investment after being left the house and simply enjoys poking fun at whatever experience or little detail that the other characters bring up. He’s a smooth, wisecracking guy who likes to drink and crack jokes (“This ghost I can expect in my room tonight—is it male or female?”), which makes his ultimate belief in what’s really happening here all the more effective because all this time, he has served as a representation for some of the more cynical audience members. When he finally seems as scared as everyone else, it’s believable.

The filmmaking serves as another reason “The Haunting” works as well as it does. A good number of shots in this movie looks like it’s been fully prepared for first, so that we feel a hint of unease and also fascination. Even the reaction shots, which are mostly thankless, say something about the consistency—some of them are even at low angles with characters on either the right or left side of the screen. With a location as grand as Hill House, it’s important to know how to frame certain shots and Robert Wise obviously went out of his way to create something unique.

“The Haunting” is undoubtedly my favorite horror film. Its scares are more than effective because of how much its psychological terror works well. The themes are very well-presented. The depictions of the “haunted” aspects of this house and the occurrences are fascinating to listen to. The lead character of Eleanor is a great character for this sort of story. And it fascinates me and of course continues to scare me every time I watch it. It’s a well-crafted, excellent chiller.

NOTE: I mentioned the brilliant opening lines earlier in this review. I should also add that the similar-sounding ending lines are even more chilling, particularly because of who says them.

OTHER NOTE: If you want a perfect side-by-side comparison of both the original and the remake (and why one works and the other doesn’t), check out this Nostalgia Critic video-review on Blip: http://blip.tv/nostalgiacritic/nostalgia-critic-the-haunting-5634970

No Country for Old Men (2007)

24 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“No Country for Old Men” provides a fascinating character study with three complicated types—a good guy, a bad guy, and an anti-hero. One wants to do the right thing; one is practically anarchy-and-misery-personified; and the other walks that fine line between good and evil. First, let’s talk about the “anti-hero.” This is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a down-on-his-luck ex-welder who lives in a trailer park with his wife (Kelly Macdonald) and sometimes sticks his nose in places he shouldn’t. While on a hunting trip, he comes across a drug deal gone wrong in the middle of nowhere. He looks around, finds a lot of bodies, and finds a suitcase full of money. So he decides to keep it for himself.

This scene, early in the proceedings, also has Moss coming across a lone survivor who is immobile in the driver’s seat of a pickup truck and weakly asks for water. So what does Llewellyn do? He takes the guy’s gun and ammo and moves on because he knows that where there are drugs (and there is a truck full of “Mexican brown”) and moves on. Why does he do this? Did he have any intention of helping him if he did have water to give to him? Well, later that night, as he lies in bed in his trailer, he does have a change of heart and decides to go back and help the poor man, thus establishing that Moss is not a good guy or a bad guy—just a guy in between.

There is a definite bad guy here, and he’s a man you never want to meet anytime soon. He’s Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a cold, heartless killer whose murder weapon is a high-pressure air gun that can kill a cow (or kill a man with one shot to the forehead). Chigurh (emphasis on the “gurh” so it doesn’t sound like “Sugar”) is not charismatic and he’s not even enthusiastic. There’s never a sense that he enjoys what he does, as he goes around doing one horrific deed after another. What does this mean? Who is this guy? If he were a tree, what kind would he be? You can’t really ask much about this guy, because what he represents is the psychoticism of the criminal mind and how it’s only getting worse and worse. This is something that our movie’s good guy, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, looking more at home than ever), discovers, as he’s been on the job long enough to know that with everything going wrong and, even worse, confusing, this is all becoming too much to handle or even attempt to understand. He knows as well as we do that Chigurh is not going to stop doing these things anytime soon, and as long as people like him are around to spread anarchy and misery, what does that say for the world around him?

Chigurh goes after Moss because the drug-deal happened in his territory and now he wants the money. Moss packs up and leaves, sending his wife to her mother’s until he can figure a way out of this. Moss goes from place to place, with Chigurh catching up to him, and Bell being thrown into this because Chigurh had escaped from (and killed) one of his deputies.

Really think about that money—if you were a poor guy and you saw a way you could keep a mysterious bag of cash, would you take it? You’d think you’d get away with it and just enjoy yourself with it, but it’s not that easy when there are people who want it back, and they’re people that are best not to be trifled with and probably can’t be reasoned with. I’ve seen Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan”—I can already tell you before seeing this movie that this shouldn’t end well for a character deciding to take a chance and keep the stash. In “No Country for Old Men,” Moss is a bright guy who does realize his mistakes, even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge that maybe he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is (just smart enough to outwit Chigurh at a few crucial points). Either way, Moss is an intriguing anti-hero—his mistake leads to the question of what he’ll do afterwards and we wonder what will become of him and actually care for him. This is my favorite performance from Josh Brolin; he’s very strong here.

Javier Bardem is excellent as Anton Chigurh. I think he’s one of the best, most compelling villains you’ll ever find in a film. With that cold stare and indefinable accent he carries with him, Chigurh is one creepy S.O.B. If you ever come across this guy in the middle of nowhere, you should say your prayers quickly because you’re more than likely never going to be able to say them again. He doesn’t feel pity or remorse, and he can’t be bargained with. And you never know exactly what he’s going to do. Take this scene, which comes at the half-hour mark—it involves a coin toss. Chigurh is at a gas station, the clerk decides to make small talk, and Chigurh manages to take his words and twist them around to some weird cryptic speak, before he ultimately flips a coin and tells the unnerved man to “call it.” The tenseness of this scene is enhanced by Bardem’s performance as he messes with the clerk’s mind, as well as ours, because we don’t know what he’s going to do. Is he going to kill him? What will happen when the guy finally calls it? One thing’s for sure—Chigurh won’t leave until a decision is made. That’s a great scene, and this is a great performance from Javier Bardem.

“No Country for Old Men” was crafted by the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen), and they definitely know how to pace a film like this. With a story as complicated and with as many twists and turns, pacing is one of the more important aspects to keep us on edge and invested. With that said, the pacing in this movie is flawless, which helps with some of the most disturbing, suspenseful, uncomfortable scenes in the film, such as when Moss must escape his hotel room before Chigurh can piece together where he is. “No Country for Old Men” is very edgy throughout, with the terror counterbalanced by laconic wit that the Coens tend to put in their films (here, some of the comic bits come from Tommy Lee Jones’ wit). And being a Coen Brothers film, to expect a conventional way to tell this story (which is adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel) would be foolish. Don’t watch this film and pretend you know everything that’s going to happen, because I made that mistake and nearly hated myself for it. This is not like any other movie I’ve seen before—it plays with our expectations, catches us off-guard, and among everything else it has to offer, it delights in making us think and wonder while also unnerving us with what it thinks it can get away with. One last thing I’ll say about that is this—if you feel the least bit hateful towards the open ending, just think about how you would rather see it end. “No Country for Old Men” is a great film. 

The Conjuring (2013)

22 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You know, I can believe that if there are spirits or demonic presences that haunt or lurk about certain surroundings, then they would prefer to just joke around with the human inhabitants because these things have nothing else to do except cause misery to counterbalance their own woes. Then maybe they’ll attack or wait a long while until they either give up or someone who has experience in exorcism or disposing of these sort of supernatural means will finally come along and make things peaceful for the people again. These spirits, they never really get to the point quick enough, do they? Well, if they did, I guess everyone who has said to be in contact with such entities wouldn’t last very long (and to be sure, reportedly, a lot of them didn’t). Maybe it’s a notion of the more terrified you are, the more vulnerable you are and therefore the easier you are to ultimately be taken over by those same spirits until you are lost entirely, physically or mentally.

When going to see a “demon movie” or “ghost story” or “haunted-house movie,” it’s probably best to have a good idea of what you can gather from the (mostly-) invisible presence of darkness or evil, because while the film characters can give their interpretation, they’re usually not too sure or their arguments don’t make much sense. I bring this up because James Wan’s new horror film “The Conjuring” features protagonists who actually do know more or less what they’re dealing with when it comes to the “haunted” aspect. They are “demonologists” who have explored and searched many different places for any traces of supernatural elements, and they know quite a few things from experience, but they’re not quite sure of much of everything they’ve encountered. And I found that to be a refreshing move, because while these paranormal investigators are experienced, they don’t pretend like they know everything; they just go with what they’ve gone through with past occurrences. And that’s something you can also bring for yourself when seeing another one of these supernatural-horror movies (not knowing exactly what’s going on, but keeping an open mind if it’s interesting enough).

These people are Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), an infamous demonologist couple, and “The Conjuring” is more or less an interpretation on one of their more interesting and disturbing cases from decades past. For those who don’t know, Ed and Lorraine Warren were real-life people who did study and investigate the paranormal (one of their more infamous cases is the controversial “Amityville” haunting). “The Conjuring” tells about their investigation in a farmhouse in rural Harrisville, Rhode Island in 1971, and the film does go the “based-on-true-events” angle, which I’m not sure is going to fool anybody because when it comes to these types of films, cynics love to snicker at that tag on the poster. And just to get this out of the way, “The Conjuring” is not a perfect horror film. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen quite a few of these supernatural-horror elements before in many other movies, but when I saw them appear on screen, I was constantly taken out of that “based-on-true-events” concept. I know that this is based on real people and I know there really was a paranormal investigation and a supposed exorcism, but it’s kind of easy to tell what’s fact and what’s fiction…for the most part.

But I shouldn’t really nitpick on that little detail because after all, “The Conjuring” is an interpretation on the story and of course is on hand for an effective horror film. I liked “The Conjuring”; I can be honest and say that it’s my favorite horror film since “Sinister” about eight months ago. This is one that relies on atmosphere, characterization, and execution to build suspense and tension and terror rather than just going for the blood and gore, unlike, say, something as junky as the “Evil Dead” remake. “The Conjuring” is creepy and tense without having to result to gross, visceral visuals to scare people. It’s smarter than that. No slicing. No dicing. No “torture porn.” Not even a high body count. And even when a character will do something ill-advised just once in a long while, you’re still on edge because you’re not entirely sure what exactly is going to happen. That alone makes “The Conjuring” worth watching and a nicely-done chiller.

A good chunk of the credit for why “The Conjuring” works has to go to the director James Wan, who has made himself known for starting the “Saw” franchise and 2011’s haunted-house film “Insidious” (whose sequel “Chapter 2” is coming soon). Wan clearly loves the horror genre so much that he has studied what can make a film like this work, and he’s more than competent in crafting a suspenseful, scary production. I’m not sure how Wan does it, but he manages to even make an overdone “video-camera point-of-view” moment, midway through the movie, unnerving.

But we can also get into “The Conjuring” because the people in this movie are likable and feel like real people (which, of course, is a given, since these were based on actual people), so that we care for them while also finding ourselves wrapped in this bizarre situation along with them. I like these two demonologists, who keep a certain level of rationality despite what they deal with, and also the family that they’re assigned to help. This is the Perron family—father Roger (Ron Livingston), mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five young daughters—who are victim to many, many strange things happening in a rural farmhouse. You name it—bumps in the night, skin bruises, unusual noises, suicidal birds, a dead pet, and a twist to a family game called “hide-and-clap.” When it gets to be too much, the family turns to Ed and Lorraine for help and hope that they can protect them from this demonic presence before it’s too late, and before someone even more serious grabs ahold of them and never lets go. There are some quality character moments, particularly in how Lorraine and Carolyn are able to connect with each other in a certain scene where their similar love for their children (Ed and Lorraine have one daughter) by sharing a pleasant family memory. Good acting is an important asset to the reason we accept the characters in “The Conjuring.”

The camera movement is precise and wonderful, in how it moves from one side of an interior to another and especially how it sometimes tracks the characters to (maybe) something eerie coming their way. The music score is just right. The tension is existent. Effects are not overused. There are some neat scares. That and more make “The Conjuring” a worthy supernatural-horror film, and it satisfied me to where I was hoping that it wouldn’t become a franchise that will become a brand that is damaged by constant profiting. Well, even if it does, I still have a decent scary flick to turn to and remember the “good old days.” Time will tell. Who knows for sure?

Bernie (2012)

22 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Bernie” is a quite unusual film. It takes a true story, tells it in both fictional and documental format (so perhaps a docudrama?), and despite the grimness that underlies the tale, is quirky, funny, and strangely sweet. This is a movie about a man who has murdered a person, and because he was so well-liked among his community, hardly anyone believed it and no one wanted him taken away for a life sentence in prison. They love this man, they hated his murder victim, so they hoped he would get off scot-free.

The “Bernie” in the title of Richard Linklater’s droll comedy refers to Bernie Tiede, who was an east Texas “funeral director” (kinder term for “mortician”) who loved everyone in town as much as everyone in town loved him. He was a regular man of the people—always participating in social events, always making friends, always being there for those in grief, and so on. He was even able to make the meanest, most disliked woman in Carthage, Texas—Marjorie Tugent—like him. He was that lovable.

Unfortunately, while Marjorie has been using her late husband’s money to much extent, she is able to make herself more than Bernie could bear. She hires him as her personal assistant, to be there at her beck and call. And Bernie, being the nice pushover, always had to respond, no matter how busy he was or how much he could take from this woman anymore. And before he could take it any longer (and presumably before he could find a shot at gaining some inheritance from her), he picks up an “armadillo gun” and shoots her four times from behind.

For nine months, Bernie hides Marjorie’s body in a meat freezer in her own garage and constantly makes up excuses for her absence. It’s not until her stockbroker shows enough concern to use her estranged family to find out what he suspects. The police find the body and bring Bernie in on a first-degree murder charge. How did the local townspeople react, especially since Bernie actually did confess to the crime? They stick up for him and try to convince the district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, to help get him off. They do believe that Marjorie was too mean to handle and she deserved to die, and Bernie acted in “self-defense.”

Can you believe this? I mean, really, can you? I can see why “Bernie” has been labeled as “a story so unbelievable it must be TRUE.” This really did happen. Bernie Tiede was a real person from Carthage, Texas and he really did have enough respect from many people that no one believed it when he killed this elderly woman. To tell this story would be a difficult task, but luckily, director/co-writer Richard Linklater is a filmmaker who loves to take risks, and with “Bernie,” he has somehow found a way to make the feel of the film light and dark at the same time. I think you need both for telling a story like this, and “Bernie” is able to effectively mix the comedy with the grimness in such a seamless manner that sometimes you laugh but don’t know how to feel about what you’re laughing at, and other times you strangely care about what you’re watching and don’t seem to mind so much about what you find funny. It’s a strange concept, but it works.

And I’ll tell you what else works about “Bernie”—the lead performance from Jack Black as Bernie Tiede himself. This is Jack Black like I’ve never seen him before. He’s restrained, he’s mannered, he’s almost overly mild, which makes him somewhat creepy but oddly endearing, and he just creates this character with everything that hardly anyone would suspect of a typical Jack Black character. This is easily the best performance I’ve seen from Jack Black—he’s given just the right role and is able to pull it off successfully. Even I liked this man Bernie, based on this performance. I didn’t want to see him go to prison!

Shirley MacLaine plays Marjorie, the bitch of a woman who maybe didn’t “deserve” to die, but she was a bitter, mean old woman after all. Matthew McConaughey is Danny Buck Davidson, the D.A. who doesn’t care about how well-liked Bernie as long as he can prove that what he did was so wrong. Other actors play certain parts, like the stockbroker and Marjorie’s “grieving” granddaughter. But everyone else, and this is the weirdest and yet most intriguing part of the framing of this story, is interviewed in a documentary style in the most conventional ways of such a structure, and they are, for the most part, Carthage residents playing themselves. It’s all the more fascinating in that when they talk about Bernie, they really are talking about the actual Bernie Tiede.

“Bernie” is not necessarily a “deep” or “moving” film, depending on how you want to look at it (though maybe you are moved by Black’s portrayal of this man). But it isn’t supposed to be. It’s just an odd, offbeat docu-comedy (yes, that is what I’m calling this movie) about a lovable man who did a hateful deed that no one could ever believe, and it’s the kind of film you’re glad that Linklater would make and that Black could star in. It’s a treasure of a movie.

Get Him to the Greek (2010)

20 Jul

Film Title: Get Him to the Greek

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The formula for the comedies that come off the Judd Apatow assembly line seems to be that the characters and their situations must be as vulgar and crude as possible, but also must have vulnerable, quiet moments that show they are not so vulgar and crude; they’re just misunderstood and confused. This is something that quite a few comedies nowadays seem to forget, as Apatow’s R-rated comedies influence many other R-rated comedies that focus more on everything else except for appeal. I always have high expectations when I come see an Apatow production, whether or writes/directs or simply produces it, because you can see hints of his insight among the writer’s and director’s vision(s). I can expect hilarity and even some convincing drama.

“Get Him to the Greek,” written and directed by Nicholas Stoller (who also directed the 2008 Apatow-produced comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), is one that I personally find to be one of the least of the bunch. That’s not to say it’s not good. On the contrary. It’s just that some parts don’t mesh well with others, which leads to a few distracting qualities about it. But it’s not so much that I can’t laugh at it or like most of the antics involved, and it is an enjoyable watch.

“Get Him to the Greek” is a follow-up to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” in that it makes a major role out of the scene-stealer from that movie—the eccentric British rock legend Aldous Snow, played very memorably by Russell Brand. Aldous Snow was a weirdo, despite NOT being stoned or drunk at all in that movie (he had a tattoo that declared him “seven years sober”), and he managed to provide us with a lot of very amusing bits, with his personality, his thick British accent, and the double-entendres of his song lyrics. But if you ever wondered who Aldous Snow was as a person, “Get Him to the Greek” brings the character back and adds more to it to make him three-dimensional. Did Aldous Snow need further characterization? Well, we thought we knew all about him in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but then again, how much can you know about a supporting character? So not only can the guy make us laugh, but he can also tell us more about him.

Russell Brand reprises his role from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for “Get Him to the Greek,” and yet his co-star Jonah Hill, who played a waiter/stalker who admired Aldous Snow, does not. He’s a different character than the one he played in the previous movie. Here, he’s Aaron Green, a recording company suit. He has been sent by his boss, Sergio Roma (Sean Combs, a.k.a. P. Diddy) to bring Snow from London to Los Angeles, so he can perform a concert at the Greek Theater for a full comeback after not only a terrible previous album, called “African Child,” but also succumbing to substance and alcohol and, as we will learn, a couple resentments and heartbreaks. When Aaron travels with him, he finds that Snow is quite difficult to handle, as all he wants to do is party, do drugs, and drink, rather than think about performing and continue traveling. Aaron tries to get the upper hand and bring Snow down to earth so they can continue on the journey, but he’s pretty much spineless and has trouble speaking out.

But along the journey, Aaron and Snow form an unlikely bond, mainly because Snow has no one else to accept him and Aaron sees how much of a mess this guy is. And we do too. We come to like Snow because we can see his development as a character. In “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he was a caricature more than anything else. But here, he’s a three-dimensional individual with moments of vulnerability underneath his partying persona. He’s a self-destructive time-bomb who may go off at any moment, pretty much because he has no one to connect with. He takes drugs and drinks a lot because everyone in his life has broken his heart—British pop singer Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), who was the love of his life, and even Snow’s father (Colm Meaney), who has only used Snow for his fame and fortune.

These heavier dramatic moments in “Get Him to the Greek” balance with the comedic moments, which serve as relief with belly laughs (most of which comes from dialogue that comes so fast that you’ll wish you had a tape recorder). While I admit that the poignancy of the scenes that have to do with Snow’s life are effective in presenting some legitimate human drama into the mix, sometimes I feel it doesn’t really work because it seems as if some of these issues don’t really belong in the same movie that features outrageously funny moments such as when Aaron gets the upper hand by stuffing a bag of heroin into his behind so Snow can’t use it (and Snow has to use force to retrieve it). And I’m not entirely sure I liked the payoff involving Jackie Q. It’s played realistically, but I can’t help but feel that it was missing something a little more significant.

But on the other hand, “Get Him to the Greek” doesn’t forget that it’s a comedy and continues with more energy with a race to catch the Today Show (with Aaron stoned out of his mind and rushing to give Snow lyrics for a song he must perform), a drug-induced sequence to the tune of Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen,” and an uncomfortable, forced threesome with Aaron, Snow, and Aaron’s girlfriend Daphne (Elisabeth Moss), just to name a few.

Russell Brand does a nice job bringing Aldous Snow to life and Jonah Hill brings a certain likability that he can be known for when he isn’t loud and obnoxious. But the biggest surprise in the acting department comes from Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, who is hilarious and provides some of the film’s funniest lines and moments. (One has to wonder when we’ll see a full movie about this guy, just as this one stars a character from a different movie.)

One other thing I want to mention is the soundtrack, particularly the songs by Aldous Snow and Jackie Q, designed specifically for the movie. Among Snow’s vulgar lyrics for something like the admittedly-catchy “The Clap,” we also have glimpses of Jackie Q’s music videos, including the string-quartet-mixed-with-techno-beat “Supertight” and the unbelievably ill-mannered “Ring ‘Round my Posey.” (Rose Byrne is particularly hilarious and you can tell she has game, doing this.)

Much like an Apatow comedy, “Get Him to the Greek” allows us to laugh and also to care. It may not be as effective when compared to the likes of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but it works mainly because you can still feel what was accomplished more than what has been attempted.

The Flamingo Kid (1984)

19 Jul

Matt-Dillon-The-Flamingo-Kid

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Flamingo Kid” is a movie that fascinated me in how non-formulaic it is. When you get down to the basic premise, it’s about a kid from a poor neighborhood takes a job at a beach club, where he idolizes one of the fanciest locals who shows him a new way of looking at life that is against what the kid’s father wants for his son. Before the summer is over, the kid will know which path to ultimately take and will learn a few valuable life lessons. I don’t know how director/co-writer Garry Marshall did it, but he managed to take this old-school idea and form it into a treasure of a movie that is not only solid and entertaining, but also original in show, very well-constructed, and more effective than you might expect.

“The Flamingo Kid” is about a young man from Brooklyn who lives with his family in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. His name is Jeffrey (Matt Dillon), and he’s a good kid about to leave for college. But for now, summer is here and his working-class father (Hector Elizondo) has set up a job for him in an office. But when Jeffrey’s friends bring him to assist in a card game at a classy beach club in Long Island, Jeffrey decides he likes the place and is even offered a job as a valet, which he accepts.

By the way, the scene in which Jeffrey sits with his family at dinner, and tells his father that he’s decided to work at the beach instead of taking the job that his father has set up for him, is one of many pleasant surprises in this movie. This could have ended up in a screaming match between father and son, but it resolves in a civilized manner (though not without cynicism). I liked that scene.

Jeffrey parks cars at the beach club, but is soon moved up to “cabana boy.” While serving people, he becomes friendly with a sexy young woman (Janet Jones) with whom he forms a nice relationship, and he also meets a flashy car dealer, Phil Brody (Richard Crenna), who is also a master at gin rummy, which is often played with the locals. Brody comes to like Jeffrey and decides to teach him a few things he learned in life.

And here we have two opposing sides of Jeffrey’s coming-of-age journey. On the one hand, you have a hard-working father who wants what’s best for his son, because he knows that dreaming doesn’t get you far in life, as he found out in his time. And then there’s Brody, who hasn’t gone to college and mainly has the beach club, the game of gin rummy, and his car dealership as his necessities in life (he also believes that “you are what you wear,” which is his excuse for always wearing fancy clothes). Jeffrey comes closer to joining Brody’s side, as he now feels that his old neighborhood has grown very boring and is fascinated by what goes on at this beach club. When he tells his father that he’s decided not to go to college and work at Brody’s dealership, his father doesn’t believe in this “easy money” type of career and becomes impatient with Jeffrey. His advice doesn’t come clear for Jeffrey, who is constantly led to listen to Brody’s ideas. (And it doesn’t help that Brody is easy to believe.) And so the film is about how Jeffrey will learn over the course of the summer to respect his father and see what kind of man he is, and also see what kind of man Brody actually is.

Despite what I’ve just described, this material is not entirely predictable and portrayed in a way that both sides of this kid’s life each have a way of making it seem that they’re both right, instead of the movie just taking the easy way through with just one person clearly knowing all. Because of that and how effective it is in handling the growth of the Jeffrey character, “The Flamingo Kid” is a very well-done coming-of-age story. It’s able to tell the story of this young man’s journey in a successful, credible way that doesn’t feel rushed or contrived at all; it’s played just right, which is a most pleasant surprise.

But I don’t want to make “The Flamingo Kid” seem kind of dreary, because it really is entertaining and also very funny. It has a great share of comedic moments, particularly when it comes to seeing Brody’s lifestyle, a few side characters and their antics on the beach, and also with Brody’s wife (Jessica Walter), who is posh and conceited and so stuck-up that she even shows her disapproval of a “parking attendant” having dinner with the family with suspicious looks as she sips her wine. There are more moments like that are worthy of some good chuckles or laughs.

I forgot to mention that “The Flamingo Kid” takes place in the 1960s, and the film pays good attention to detail in giving it that ‘60s feel. Indeed, this does feel like one of those fun ‘60s beach-movies at the time, when a kid goes to the beach and meets the people who spend most of their time there and know (and envy) each other very well. Also, the ‘60s soundtrack is appropriate with some good, timeless, memorable songs.

The characters in “The Flamingo Kid” are all richly developed and complete, and they’re played by really good actors. Richard Crenna, in particular, is excellent here as Mr. Brody. He plays it in a proper manner that makes his vulgar moments and his manipulative moments seem all the more fascinating while also occasionally making for some good laughs. He’s smart and wise, but maybe to an extent, which of course Jeffrey will come to learn. It’s a nicely-developed character that Crenna pulls off successfully. Hector Elizondo is a three-dimensional working-class father who truly knows best. But it really comes down to Matt Dillon in the lead role. He’s terrific in this movie—he’s natural, believable, subtle, and likable. The character is bright, but doesn’t quite know all the answers about life, which is what he’ll learn (and he does learn, in a fresh way), and here’s a surprise—he’s able to teach the adults a thing or two as well. His performance in this movie reminded me a little of James Dean in a sense.

I really love this movie. It’s very well-put-together in the way it presents the environment that these complete, three-dimensional characters inhabit; the actors do solid work; no scene is too short or too long, which surprised me; there are some very effective funny moments; the ‘60s nostalgia is present while also telling a timeless tale; the writing is great; the ending works so well; and so on. It’s just an all-around entertaining movie that I have nothing but kind words for. Garry Marshall and co-writer Neal Marshall (no relation) have crafted a wonderful summer movie that really leaves an impact.