Archive | July, 2013

The Innkeepers (2012)

11 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m convinced now—Ti West is the new king of horror. As he showed with “The House of the Devil” and now “The Innkeepers,” West clearly knows how to build suspense and how to hook audiences and keep them invested from the intriguingly creepy setup to the horrific payoff. West doesn’t go for the easy ways out—he hints early on at what’s going to be seen late in the film, and builds the suspense from that. Thanks to sharp execution and a few effectively helpful gimmicks (letting a shot continue, using open spaces, and such), he’s able to keep us on edge whenever a character appears or walks into a certain position. That’s a pure sign that a horror-film director can earn the trust of horror-film buffs.

West’s “The Innkeepers” also has the fortune of having visible character development. The film is essentially a ghost story that is merely built around these characters, so that more time is spent getting to know them so that we grow to care about them by the time the real horror begins. “The Innkeepers” takes place at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old time hotel in New England that is going out of business, due to lack of customers and modern-day touch. The hotel is seemingly haunted, which fascinates the two people working there on the last weekend before the hotel closes for good. These are Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), who decide to spend their time at the hotel investigating paranormal activity and seeking any sort of sign of a ghostly figure. Luke has already claimed to have seen something, and so Claire wants to make her own encounter. So, she roams around the empty rooms and hallways with an audio-recording device, hoping to see or hear a haunting spirit.

Aside from an annoyed single mother and her little son, the other guests at the hotel are Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), an actress who became a “psychic healer” who claims she is able to make contact with the spirits of the hotel and tries to warn Claire not to mess with what she doesn’t understand, and a decrepit old man (George Riddle) who comes to stay in the Honeymoon Suite because he wants the old memories brought back to him…yeah, how much do you want to bet something is wrong with this character?

“The Innkeepers” gets darker and darker as it goes along. Actually, it’s a little more lighthearted at the beginning, when we’re introduced to the characters of Claire and Luke. We see how they work, how they interact with one another, and it’s a believable “work-relationship” and friendship that maybe one of them wants to see as something more, but the other possibly doesn’t want to complicate things.

Then, the supernatural/paranormal element is introduced, and the tone becomes a little playful, with a certain amount of intrigue adding to the mystery as Claire continues to figure it out and talks with Luke about it. But then later on, it becomes clear that this hotel is haunted and the ghosts are definitely not to be trifled with. Remember, people—ghosts are generally tortured souls with no other ambition than to scare you silly or find some way to harm you.

The “ghost-story” aspect is sort of a by-the-numbers concept, but West makes up for it with atmosphere, great execution, and two particularly fine actors—Sara Paxton and Pat Healy—in the lead roles. One of the great examples of horror-movie filmmaking is that West allows the shot to linger and take its time with each scene, and then builds the suspense from that notion that something might happen. As a result, the audience is on edge throughout, thinking something is going to happen and nervously waiting for it.

Now, of course, when things go really, really wrong near the end of “The Innkeepers,” the characters have to make dumb decisions like go in “that room” or go down “those stairs” instead of—oh I don’t know—get out of that damn hotel because it is clearly haunted! I really wish that wouldn’t have been the case in which characters previously shown as bright and smart make dumb decisions to keep that particular “horror-movie” cliché.

But the amount of atmosphere and the characterization that you don’t find very often in mainstream horror movies are what make “The Innkeepers” chilling and quite memorable and definitely worth recommending. This filmmaker Ti West clearly respects the horror genre and is able to make good, smart horror movies that play with the standard elements and make them his own. After seeing both this and “The House of the Devil,” I have to be honest and say that I’d be interested in seeing his “director’s cut” of “Cabin Fever 2.”

Summer School (1987)

11 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s “guilty-pleasure” time again here on “Smith’s Verdict” with the 1987 Carl Reiner comedy “Summer School.” There are quite a few Carl Reiner comedies that I very much enjoy without guilt, such as “All of Me” starring Steve Martin. Compared to such comedies to come out of the ‘80s, say the “teenage sex comedies,” “Summer School” is tamer and also sillier, but it’s wonderfully so in the latter category. Parts about it work and make me smile/laugh; other parts are predictable and not particularly funny. But the aspects of the former are enough to make me watch it on DVD, and I’m sure I liked it a little more than the average film critic (I’m assuming). I certainly liked it a lot more than the late Roger Ebert, who had this to say about the film in his overwhelmingly negative review: “It’s a vaporfilm. You see it, you leave the theater, and then it evaporates, leaving just a slight residue, something like a vaguely unpleasant taste in the memory.” Ouch.

“Summer School” was the feature debut of then-TV star Mark Harmon, famous for his role in “St. Elsewhere” at the time before making himself better known in today’s NBC crime series “NCIS.” Here, he plays Freddy Shoop, a California high school gym teacher who doesn’t care for quality education and is a laid-back surfer type who would like nothing better to do for the summer than vacation in Hawaii with his girlfriend. But at the end of the school semester, he has the misfortune of having to teach summer-school Remedial English. “I ain’t no English teacher,” he tells snooty vice-principal Gills (Robin Thomas). “See? Double-negative.” But when his girlfriend leaves him (and by the way, I notice that Shoop is so laid-back that he doesn’t even feel anything when his superficial girlfriend leaves him for Hawaii), the job doesn’t seem so bad when he realizes he’ll be teaching in the classroom next to Robin Bishop (Kirstie Alley), the obligatory sexy teacher who may or may not ultimately fall for Shoop in the end. Until then, she sees Shoop as a fool, and, oh yeah, is dating Gills. Oh boy…

Shoop’s students are the usual gang of rejects and misfits, but they’re not harmless and they have their own quirks and likable qualities for Shoop to care about them. Shoop has fun with them and even schedules field-trips for their pleasure (going to the amusement park, then going to the beach), before Gills informs him that all of the students have to pass the upcoming English exam at the end of the summer term or else Shoop won’t be granted tenure. So in exchange for the students making an effort to learn, Shoop does each one of them a favor (he chauffeurs a couple of them around, teaches one how to drive, and so on). And to become a better teacher, he gains tips from Robin, who let me remind you may or may not be the love-interest (OK, let’s be honest—she is).

Let’s talk about the students. The students are probably the most entertaining parts of the film. With good young actors to play them, they all have their unique quirks and character traits that aid their appeal. Sometimes, they’re a little too real to be funny, but they are still likable. There’s Denise (Kelly Jo Minter), a dyslexic (I’ll get to that later) who also has trouble with driving and needs some teaching for the upcoming test; Eakian (Richard Horvitz), a squeaky-voiced geek who is appealing enough for even the students to like him (he’s also the one who negotiates with Shoop about the favors in exchange for learning); Larry (Ken Olandt), who sleeps during class (and even asks for a cot) because he works as a stripper at night; Kevin (Patrick Labyorteaux), a linebacker who must pass the English exam to get himself back on the football team; Rhonda (Shawnee Smith), a seven-months-pregnant girl who claims to have had sex with Sean Penn and David Lee Roth; and Anna-Maria (Fabiana Udenio), a sexy Italian exchange student whom Chainsaw and Dave lust after.

Who are Chainsaw and Dave? I was saving them for last. They’re my favorite characters in the movie. They are two horror movie buffs, Francis “Chainsaw” Gremp (Dean Cameron) and Dave (Gary Riley). They’re best buddies who do everything together, and provide a lot of the film’s comedic highlights. They’re also masters of gore, as they use latex rubber who stage two grotesque horror-film-like moments, such as “the bunnies from hell” and most memorably, the classroom massacre. In fact, they’re probably too good to be pulling this off, but their idol is Rick Baker (who is the subject of their first assignment, “Who We Admire Most in the World and Why”), so I guess they did their homework for that particular topic. Their favorite movie is also “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which Chainsaw has Shoop arrange a screening for in class.

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By the way, that “classroom massacre” scene, in which all the students prank Gills and a visiting grade-school teacher with Chainsaw and Dave’s makeup and effects, is very grotesque. I bet if it wasn’t staged, the movie would have gotten an R rating instead of a PG-13. We’re talking slit throats, saw blade in the head, intestines being played with, and most memorably, a tongue being pulled out. These guys should have taken pictures and mailed them to Rick Baker personally.

Oh yeah, and then there’s Pam (Courtney Thorne-Smith), a surfer-type who fakes menstruation to skip class and go surfing, and who also develops an icky crush on the “spiritual” Shoop. At one point, she even moves in with him. Nothing physical is involved—Shoop doesn’t think of her that way; although, I have to admit that it is kind of unpleasant to see a 16-year-old as kind of a maid for 30-year-old Shoop’s services.

Oh, and by the way, logic does not play in “Summer School’s” favor. For example, three questions about the class’ field-trip to the amusement park. First of all, how did Shoop gain authorization to arrange this in the first place? Gills is an uptight jerk who clearly hates and resents Shoop, and it’s obvious he’s in charge. Second, how was seven-months-pregnant Rhonda even allowed to ride the Go-Carts, let alone a Rollercoaster? Isn’t that some kind of a hazard? Third, come on—Denise can’t even drive a go-cart without taking it off the track? Give me a break. Oh, and then there’s the deal about Denise being dyslexic. How did no one notice at all? “She swept through the system” is the only excuse. Yeah, right.

But then again, this is the same movie in which one of the summer-school students has apparently spent the entire term in the bathroom because his “zipper got stuck.” (Though, that doesn’t help explain the disappearance of many other students seen in that class at the beginning of the term.)

Also, these kids are not bad kids, at least not enough to be considered “delinquents” or “criminals.” I mean, sure, they cause a little bit of trouble, but really, what high-school kid doesn’t? Gills’ labeling of these kids is inaccurate, which I guess is supposed to show how stuck-up he is, but it bugged the hell out of me.

So I’ve listed a few things that don’t work about “Summer School” and quite a few that I like about it. What else do I like about it? Well, Mark Harmon is well-cast as Shoop. He’s funny, likable, and has good comic timing when playing off the students or Kirstie Alley, who is admittedly sharp here despite being saddled with the role of obligatory romantic-interest.

And I also admired the ending, which doesn’t go for the easy way out with the kids passing the English exam after finally studying hard to prepare for it. Actually, a neat surprise here is that some of them don’t, but they all have improved greatly since the previous exam, which boosts the kids’ self-respect and makes Shoop seem like a real teacher, which he has become.

So maybe “Summer School” is a little too safe at times and some of the laughs come cheap, but for me, it is entertaining and appealing enough for me to watch it every now and then. Because not many others feel the same way, I can pretty much call it a “guilty-pleasure.” In other words, it’s at least a B- or a C+. But hey—it’s a passing grade.

The Hangover Part II (2011)

10 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Hangover Part II” is an example of Sequel B.O. (Box Office) Laziness—a classic case of a lazy attempt to cash in on the success of an unexpected box-office smash hit. The result is an obviously-rushed, overdone, and unbelievably lazy sequel that insults those who loved the original a couple years ago, and it also relates to the other version of “B.O.” And because it’s supposed to be a comedy, you can add “painfully unfunny” in there as well.

Don’t let the “Part II” in the title fool you—this is about as much of a continuation from the original story as “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” There is hardly an attempt to make any much of a difference this time around—the narrative structure is copied situation by situation, and it’s supposed to be “different” because the locations and McGuffins are different. News flash, guys—that doesn’t work! Continue the story! Don’t tell it again—we’ve seen it already!

Oh, and if there’s one good thing that can be said about everything in this sequel being traced back to many events in the original film, it’s that it serves as a guide for how much worse the original could have been.

“The Hangover,” released summer 2009, was a unique, clever spin on the “what-happens-in-Vegas” concept, in that it turned the outcome of the partying events of Las Vegas into a murder-mystery as the bachelor-partyers have many questions to find answers to, including where is the groom. It did not need a sequel. It had a great deal of spontaneity and surprise that made it all the more hilarious when we didn’t know what was coming and laughed at the results. And because the same narrative structure of that film is copied in “Part II,” there really is no surprise; we can see the jokes coming miles ahead. So when you’re not laughing at a comedy, you just sit there, feeling depressed. And that’s exactly how I felt when watching “The Hangover Part II.”

What do I mean by a lack of creativity that director Todd Phillips and his replacement writers (yes, “replacement” writers—how ‘bout that) convey onto “Part II?” Consider the opening. We see a wedding being prepared. There’s just one thing missing: the groom. The bride and her family calls the groom and his friends who are not there. And then, who should call?

If you guessed “Phil,” congratulations! You’ve earned the right to request a review for me to write!

Yes, Phil, the Bradley Cooper character in both films, calls, saying that there may not be a wedding. But wait! It’s different, you see, because it’s not the groom that’s missing—it’s the bride’s brother! And Phil actually acknowledges that “it happened again.” I don’t know if you can get the deadpan sarcasm when I say, “Wow. How different.”

And then, wouldn’t you know it—the film shows the opening-credits and we flash to before that call, setting up what will happen in this film. And don’t just think it’s that opening that is copied or that that is the only time we will ever hear the word “again” in this movie, because this movie loves to follow the same stuff laid out in the original film and apparently likes its characters to say, “it’s happening again!” Anyway, we find that Stu is getting married. Not to Jade, the friendly stripper from the other movie, but to a Thai-American woman, Lauren (Jamie Chung), who has no told backstory in how these two met. You’d think there would be a detailed explanation as to how and why these two are together, seeing as how things seemed to go fine between him and the stripper at the end of the first movie, and also having told off his bitchy girlfriend. But no—we just go with it because…she seems nice. Yeah, there’s no point in overstating this—the women in the “Hangover” movies have little to no personality.

I keep getting sidetracked here, and I haven’t even gotten to the rehashing of the characterizations of the leading men. Well, Ed Helms was Stu, an uptight, nervous dentist who ultimately stands up for himself after everything that’s happened in the first film; Bradley Cooper is Phil, an almost-total a-hole who becomes a little more respectful and learns a few family values; and Zach Galifianakis is Alan, the show-stealer of the original film who is an overgrown man-child who is just glad to have made friends on this trip. Oh, and there’s Justin Bartha as Doug, but he had no personality anyway, and he was only in the original film so he could disappear and be found near the end, so he could get married quickly. So, how are these newly-developed characters now? You won’t believe this—they’re pretty much the same people. Stu is more neurotic than ever; Phil is a huge a-hole (again); and Alan…actually, Alan is a lot worse this time around. This time, instead of a lovable, naïve slob of a man-child—he’s an unbearable, unstable lunatic. At first, I was wondering why Stu, Phil, and Doug were hesitant about inviting Alan to Stu’s wedding, but now, we understand why. Alan is a detestable person this time around. The character has taken a sharp, unpleasant turn, and I wanted to smack him in the face.

Stu’s wedding takes place in Thailand, and the movie substitutes Bangkok for Las Vegas. Wouldn’t you know it—the men party hard, and Stu, Phil, and Alan wake up in a dirty hotel room, having no memory of what happened before. Phil is more or less OK, but Alan is bald (OK fine, I chuckled when Alan checked if his beard was still there) and Stu has a Tyson-esque tattoo on his eye. Where’s Doug? Oh, he’s OK, he’s fine. He’s just back at Lauren’s place, having breakfast.

That’s right—Doug misses out on the action again! I guess we just needed the three-man “wolf-pack” that Alan desperately wanted to bring back. Come to think of it, I think Phillips wanted it back too.

But wait a minute! There’s a monkey in their room! Stu’s future brother-in-law is missing, but his finger is there! And the cackling, obnoxious Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) is there with them…although he can’t explain what happens because after a massive hit of cocaine, he passes out! Oh joy, here we go again on another wild goose chase.

OK, I’m getting really tired writing this review and thinking of certain significant things that happen on this wild goose chase. They run around Bangkok (which is portrayed in a very smug manner, without ever capturing the gravity and true danger of the place) and they have misadventures before the wedding. There you go—that’s basically what happens. If you saw “The Hangover,” “The Hangover Part II” won’t surprise you in how things are going to play out. What’s missing? Jokes, wit, originality, appeal, fun, the freaking point! If you didn’t guess already by this point, I hated the movie and I hated the lack of trying. I don’t care if they moved the “fun” to a different country; freshness is not found in “rehash-art!”

And wouldn’t you know it—“The Hangover Part II” was a box-office success, because apparently all this film needed to do was show up and everyone would come flooding into the theater. Worse yet, it beat out “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which was released on the same day as this sequel, and did not rehash the same old story! If we don’t get a “Kung Fu Panda 3” because of this, I’m blaming Todd Phillips.

The Stone Boy (1984)

8 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I am of two minds about Christopher Cain’s family drama “The Stone Boy.” On the one hand, it is somewhat slow and not without unnecessary scenes (and one particularly unneeded subplot). But on the other hand, it is a poignant, well-acted film that provides an effective portrait of grief after death and how a family is able or sometimes unable to cope with the situation. The more I keep thinking about the latter half of my mind to come up with a clear verdict for this review, the more I am won over by how well it works as a drama—enough so that I can give it a solid recommendation.

When you feel overwhelmed with grief and despair, you seek understanding and comfort from those closest to you. But when your own family and friends can’t seem to help you feel better, what else can you do but turn to people you don’t know very well, thinking they’ll be able to help? It’s a sad, morbid thing to think about—that those closest to you can’t seem to help you in your time of need. But I suppose when you hear what you want to hear from anyone who will listen, that’s at least something to feel good about. In “The Stone Boy,” a young boy, named Arnold (Jason Presson), is somewhat responsible for the death of his older brother, Eugene. He and Eugene got up early one morning to pick peas in a patch near their family’s farm; Arnold brought a shotgun to shoot some ducks, but it got caught in a barbed wire fence as Eugene tries to help Arnold free it, only for the gun to accidentally go off, killing Eugene.

It wasn’t Arnold’s fault, but his reaction to it confuses his family in a scary way. You see, after the accident, Arnold stayed with the body for a long time in shock (maybe the gravity of what just happened is too much for him, or maybe he thinks he’s having a bad dream and he’ll wake up anytime). How long he stayed out there with the body of his dead brother is never specified, but after this, he goes on to pick peas and put them in a pail, and bring them home, where his family is waiting for him. “Eugene’s dead,” Arnold uncomfortably says.

Arnold’s father, Joe Hillerman (Robert Duvall), keeps his feelings bottled up inside and can’t even bring himself to comfort Arnold. He advises his wife, Ruth (Glenn Close), to leave him alone, believing that “maybe he’ll realize what he’s done” if he’s left alone. Arnold’s older sister, Nora (Susan Blackstone), doesn’t know how to feel toward him. So basically, the family is assuming that Arnold will handle his grief on his own. The only one that will listen and who understands Arnold’s mental scars and confusion about what has happened is his kind grandfather George (Wilford Brimley). He and Arnold share many times together, and Arnold feels more at home with his grandfather than with his parents and sister.

To be sure, Joe and Ruth are not cruel people, and they know that they should be more attentive toward Arnold and give him the comfort he needs, instead of using him as an excuse feel sorry for themselves after this tragedy. But when they think about their late oldest son and Arnold being somewhat involved in his tragic death, they can’t seem to comfort themselves, let alone their guilt-stricken surviving son.

Meanwhile, there’s Uncle Andy (Frederic Forrest), who understands how sorrow and guilt feels…although nevertheless, he’s a lout who can’t seem to control himself. This becomes apparent when he seduces Eugene’s distressed girlfriend (Cindy Fisher), even though he is married. And it’s also apparent that this isn’t the first time he’s cheated on his pregnant wife Lu (Gail Youngs), as the next day she suspects something going on and hysterically talks with Ruth about it. She blames Arnold for all of this, even smacking him about three times in anger. Lu is fed up with her husband, as she packs up and leaves for Reno, Nevada to start a new life.

Now, I grant you that “The Stone Boy” might have been a little better if this subplot was trimmed or cleaned up a bit, because the whole thing with the Forrest character slows down the film’s pacing. I could have used less of his actions and more of how the family is attempting to cope with this tragedy, because there is already something deep and credible here. However, I feel the need to accept in some way, mainly because it is the reason for more grief that traces back to the tragedy. It delivers more to think about, particularly when Lu blames Arnold for causing some sort of trouble that led to Andy cheating on her with Eugene’s girlfriend. Lu’s story is actually pretty interesting, as she herself feels guilt and grief for certain things about her life, hence why she runs away to start a new life. Eventually, she is able to accept Arnold’s apology for what she thought he did to her; but she can’t give him much more than that because she remains a mess. Will she change? Who knows? But the movie isn’t about that. It’s about how everything can and should lead to reconciliation among this family.

“The Stone Boy” is very well-made. You get a sense of the South on this small Montana farm, but more importantly, you can actually feel what these characters are going through—particularly in that scene midway though the movie in which Lu takes out her anger on Arnold; you can get a clear sense of her anger there, and you feel sorry for the kid who is being treated this way. That’s not an easy task for a drama, for us to feel something for both sides of two certain characters that you can sympathize and empathize. And the film is aided by a great cast. Jason Presson is effective and sympathetic as the boy who is indeed treated as if he’s made of stone. Wilford Brimley is great as always, playing a kindly confidant—the kind of grandfather we’d all like to have. Robert Duvall and Glenn Close are solid, and are well-suited for admittedly difficult roles. And Gail Youngs is very good as Lu. Also good is Linda Hamilton in a small role near the end, as a young mother with a baby—she meets Arnold on a bus, and she gives him the kind of absolution and understanding that the kid needed for so long.

“The Stone Boy” does move at a somewhat-slow pace and there are a few moments that seem to drag when we just want to move back to something more interesting. However, its central themes about not knowing how to open up about a loss and what needs to be said and done in order to make yourself or someone close to you feel better about themselves make up for those parts, and provide enough satisfying, compelling dramatic moments that are strong enough to make an impact. You feel for these characters and hope that things turn out well for them. And that is one of the main reasons that “The Stone Boy” works.

In the Land of Women (2007)

8 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“In the Land of Women” is a character-based film that relates to the feelings and redemptive aspects that are felt after a breakup. After a relationship ends, sometimes a person needs a change of scenery. In that change of scenery, that person runs into situations or people who either help him or need his help (sometimes, it’s both) and in this process, each person involved in this experience has a chance to get over their plight. This is essentially what happens in Jonathan Kasdan’s “In the Land of Women.” With good acting, convincing drama, and an understated manner, this is an effective film.

Adam Brody plays Carter Webb, a struggling young writer who writes softcore porn. His girlfriend, Sofia (Elena Anaya), has just dumped him, leaving him heartbroken and uncomfortable. In order to get over this recent breakup, he decides to leave town for a while, and uses the excuse to visit his senile grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) who believes she is dying. He becomes her caretaker for his time spent in this Michigan town, and thus he finds himself “in the land of women.” Aside from his grandmother, two other women come into Carter’s life, and they live right across the street. They’re Sarah (Meg Ryan), with whom Carter becomes friends as they share casual walks around the neighborhood, and her oldest daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart), who is going through the confusing times of dating in high school and sees Carter as kind of a “big brother,” if nothing more. (There’s also the precocious younger girl in the family, Paige (Makenzie Vega), who develops a crush on Carter. A small flaw in the movie—this subplot goes nowhere.)

Sarah is going through a rough, reflective time in her life, having discovered she has breast cancer and also that her husband is having an affair, which even Lucy knows. And she also feels that Lucy does not love her very much, which she herself blames for certain mistakes in the past. Lucy is having trouble finding the right guy to date in high school, and even dates the complete-jerk of a football-quarterback when she should be dating the kid’s friend, who is actually nice, attentive, and shy. With each woman’s issue, Carter finds he is able to comfort the vulnerable Sarah and give advice to Lucy, even when it may seem that Lucy may actually have a crush on him. Does she or is she even more confused?

Despite what I’ve just described, “In the Land of Women” is not a love story. This came as a pleasant surprise, because while watching this film, I thought I could predict the typical “romcom” aspects that would come with the territory. But no, it’s just that these sweet moments between Carter and Sarah and Carter and Lucy serve as ways in helping each other out through either harsh or unclear points in life. They learn a couple things from one another, Lucy and Sarah can reconcile as mother-and-daughter, and Carter grows as a person. There are many effective scenes in this film that go with that amount of feel, and the film as a whole becomes touching without seeming manipulative. At times, though, it can be a bit too much. The payoff involving the Olympia Dukakis character feels forced and unconvincing. And also, a few scenes turn out to be arguably a little too cute.

The actors are quite good in “In the Land of Women.” Adam Brody is very likable as the nice, reactive leading man; Kristen Stewart is very appealing as Lucy; and Meg Ryan delivers her best performance in quite a while—she has the same Meg-Ryan appeal that made her famous in romantic comedies (such as “When Harry Met Sally”), but more importantly, she shows a greater sense of maturity that makes her more than what she’s usually known for. She’s great here. Also good is Makenzie Vega as grade-schooler Paige, Lucy’s sister and Sarah’s youngest daughter—she’s precocious but not annoyingly so. These actors add to the charm and realism of this effective, understated drama.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

6 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Mix William Shakespeare with John Hughes, and you get “10 Things I Hate About You.” But despite how insipid that may sound, it’s more entertaining and funny than you might expect. This is a charming, amusing high-school comedy that takes elements from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and brings them to the modern times of late-‘90s high school comedy-drama. The results are an amusing, smart script and talented actors to follow.

The “Shrew” is commonly known as Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles), a high school senior who is a nonconformist (which we immediately figure out in an opening scene where she listens to old hard rock while other girls listen to the hipper tunes) and antisocial. She’s hostile towards certain people, argues in her English class, and is sometimes referred to as “the wild beast.” Her younger sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), on the other hand, is the exact opposite of Kat. She’s popular, pretty, and superficial. She wants to date, but her strict father (Larry Miller) won’t allow her to unless Kat does. The shy new kid Cameron James (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has an instant crush on Bianca, finds out about this rule. So he and his friend Michael (David Krumholtz, very funny) decide to find a date for Kat. They hire the slick, rich, vain pretty-boy Joey Donner (Andrew Keegan), who also wants to date Bianca, to hire somebody to take her out. He chooses a possible candidate in Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), the school’s mysterious bad-boy, paying him to date Kat. But this proves to be complicated as Kat immediately thinks nothing of Patrick, other than disgust, and on top of that, Patrick actually starts to fall for Kat. So with some help, he attempts to “tame the shrew.”

If the story sounds like an updated (for 1999) version of “The Taming of the Shrew,” that’s exactly what it is. But not only that—there are many references to Shakespeare throughout the movie. A few lines of the original source are said jokingly (“I burn, I pine, I perish” is what Cameron says when he first notices Bianca); Michael dresses up in Shakespearean-era wardrobe to impress a girl he likes (who also reads “Macbeth”); the high school is called Padua High; sonnets are used as rap lyrics by the English teacher, played by Daryl “Chill” Mitchell; and so on and so forth. It’s all pretty clever in how the film knows that it’s in a Shakespearean story and yet doesn’t go so far that it becomes annoying. It works and delivers a few laughs.

The characters are some of the more interesting individuals you can find in a high-school comedy. Kat is not a one-dimensional “shrew” used as a tool to get the story going; she has reasons for being rebellious and actually does have feelings, which are stated in some early stages, but revealed further as the film continues. Of course we all know early on that Patrick will turn out to become a nice guy underneath the tough exterior, but a refreshing take has it so that Patrick can use it to his advantage. He’s not so much of a blowhard—there’s more to him than meets the eye, which even Kat comes to find. Bianca realizes her conceitedness that popularity brings her to being part of, and discovers she genuinely likes Cameron, who tries everything just to date her. At first, Cameron is a bit selfish and kind of a dork, but when he realizes certain flaws about Bianca’s personality, even he becomes three-dimensional. Michael is kind of an outcast on campus, but at least he knows his place in high school and uses it to his advantage. And then there’s the villain, Joey. I usually hate cardboard-cutout bullies that spoil everything in romantic comedies, but this kid cracks me up because he knows he’s a villain and has fun with his persona. (He’s also a model, which leads a very funny line after being hit in the nose: “I’m shooting a nose-spray ad tomorrow!”)

All of the actors play their parts well. Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger share undeniable chemistry, Larisa Oleynik brings more than meets the eye with her part, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is likable, David Krumholtz is funny, and Andrew Keegan is suitably slimy. Adult actors include Larry Miller as Kat and Bianca’s strict father, who gets a few funny lines every now and then; Daryl “Chill” Mitchell as the wisecracking English teacher; and Allison Janney who is funny as the sex-obsessed guidance counselor (by the way, she only gets two scenes early on and is never seen throughout the rest of the movie—why?). They add to the charm and humor of “10 Things I Hate About You.”

NOTE: I think the Allison Janney character had scenes that were cut out of the movie to give it the PG-13 rating. There are already lines of dialogue that include double-entendres and sexual references (and a drawn penis on Michael’s face), so more of Janney’s sexual talk would probably grant the movie an “R.”

The Karate Kid (2010)

6 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember reading an online article about a project in development—a Jaden Smith vehicle called “The Kung Fu Kid.” I also remember rolling my eyes at the title, so I decided not to look further into it. Then when I saw the trailer for a Jaden Smith vehicle called “The Karate Kid,” I thought to myself, “Aw come on, really? They’re remaking ‘The Karate Kid?’ Jaden Smith is Daniel and Jackie Chan is Mr. Miyagi?” But you know, you shouldn’t judge before you see the movie. In other words, you don’t have to see a movie, but don’t pretend like you know right away that it’s going to suck. And I was surprised to discover that this modern version of the wonderful (and iconic) 1984 film, which originally starred Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, is actually a well-made, entertaining film. I’m glad to say that it’s more enjoyable (and more watchable) than any of the original film’s three sequels.

It’s also a pretty good remake. It carries over familiar elements of the original, but is able to tell a new story and allow certain differences that allow it to work as a stand-alone film. Maybe it does share the same sort of hokey sports-drama story that the original sort of introduced to the big screen for the first time in 1984; but when it works, just let yourself be entertained, if you’re willing to accept what’s in store for you.

There is one major problem, though. Despite being called “The Karate Kid,” karate is not the martial art that is being taught here. Here, it’s kung fu—because that’s kind of false advertising, calling a film “The Karate Kid” when karate has nothing to do with the story, and despite that cheesy title I remember reading, maybe it could have just stayed with the title “The Kung Fu Kid.” Ah well, what can you do? People would’ve attacked it at the start either way.

In the original film, Ralph Macchio played 16-year-old Daniel Larusso who moved with his single mother from New Jersey to California, where he has trouble fitting in. In the remake, Jaden Smith plays 12-year-old Dre Parker who moves with his widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson) from America to China, where he is unable to speak the language, doesn’t understand the culture, and of course has trouble fitting in. He does meet one girl, Meiying, who takes an interest in Dre (she likes his hair, particularly) and thankfully does speak English. But their little puppy-love attraction doesn’t do well with the jealous school bully, Cheng, who immediately doesn’t like Dre and beats him up on their first encounter. Like the original film, this bully hangs with a group of friends, and they all study under a psychotic martial-arts instructor (like I said, the original was karate while this one is kung fu) and they’re taught to fight, fight, fight.

When the beatings get to be too much for poor Dre, his unexpected rescuer turns out to be the apartment maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who as it turns out knows kung fu. Mr. Han agrees to talk with the bullies’ kung fu teacher, but because it doesn’t go well, Mr. Han arranges for Dre to fight the bullies in an upcoming kung fu tournament. It would seem cruel, but Mr. Han decides to actually teach Dre “real kung fu” to prepare for it.

In the original film, the teacher, Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi, managed to teach Daniel karate by showing him what can come from manual labor (for example, waxing the car (“wax on, wax off”) enables Daniel to block hits, as it turns out). Here, because Mr. Han noticed Dre’s defiance to his mother for never hanging up his jacket, and so he constantly has him hang it up, put it down, pick it up, and do the same thing over and over again. But as with the original film, there’s a secret method to doing this.

There isn’t anything perfectly fresh about this remake, mostly because much of the material was used in the original. And being a modern sports-drama, it’s fairly easy to figure out whether or not Dre is going to be able to beat the bullies in the tournament, earn respect from his peers, and so on. But there are some neat story aspects that keep it interesting, mainly involving the styles of kung fu. We get a lot of training sequences, all of which are amusing and even insightful (and because Jackie Chan is playing the teacher, you know that what you’re seeing is mostly true), and we even get to see the origins of kung fu, where Dre is introduced to a certain psychology within the art. For example, he notices an exercise involving a woman and a snake—is the snake controlling the woman, is the woman controlling the snake, or are they working as one? It’s a unique psychological element that Dre can of course learn to his advantage, and I think that’s what made the final battle more interesting, because by this time Dre has learned the art all too well and is able to use this ability to play to his opponent’s understanding.

I mentioned that “The Karate Kid” is a well-made movie and it is impressive, particularly in its visuals. Taking place in Beijing, China, you get a lot of great Chinese locations, including the Forbidden City where Dre goes on a field trip in one scene. And you also get the mountains and the Great Wall, which add to the nicely-photographed visual style.

Jaden Smith is a likable kid with a natural screen presence. The movie is a vehicle set up by his parents, Will and Jada Pinkett who serve as producers, but he deserves it. Jackie Chan delivers one of his best performances as Mr. Han, who is actually more complex of a character than you might expect. Mr. Han is not merely as eccentric as Mr. Miyagi was; he’s surlier and more bitter because of some tragic incident that in one scene, he ultimately tells Dre about. (That scene, by the way, is a very powerful scene and it leads to a perfect conclusion that has to do with that same psychology I mentioned above.) Chan is able to pull off a dramatic moment and it’s one of those rare moments that I didn’t see Chan in a performance.

The film is not without its flaws. I already mentioned a sort of lack of freshness in certain elements, but there are some parts that seem overstuffed, including the puppy-love relationship between Dre and Meiying. And admittedly, it is sort of unsettling seeing Dre get beat up brutally by the bullies in the early parts of the film, and also to see Mr. Han able to cause the kids to beat each other up thanks to some clever maneuvers. It probably has to do with the age, but seeing kids get beaten even by each other is not easy to watch. In fact, I’m surprised this film got away with a PG rating; the violence is a bit much for a family-friendly film.

But for the most part, “The Karate Kid” is a well-done remake to an iconic predecessor—keeping nostalgia alive for adults who are familiar with the original film, but not annoying for those aren’t familiar with the source. It’s a nicely-done, entertaining sports-drama that once again shows you don’t judge a book by its cover (or its title).

The Rocker (2008)

3 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Rainn Wilson is usually known for his deadpan-comedic roles, particularly with his memorably downplayed-and-funny role as tight-ass Dwight Schrute in TV’s “The Office.” And I don’t know about you, but to me, it’s refreshing to see him perform in a broader style of comedy, which is the case in “The Rocker.” This is the kind of energetic, physical comic-style acting that Jack Black uses to unique effect. And while there are flashes of Black in Wilson’s portrayal of rock-n-roller Robert “Fish” Fishman in “The Rocker,” you still see Wilson, and he’s more than welcome to entertain us in this way.

I can see a lot of people, or critics are something close to “people,” calling “The Rocker” a shameless ripoff of “School of Rock.” But to me, that’s like saying “Superbad” is a shameless ripoff of “American Pie.” Elements are similar, but execution and added themes and story elements make what you can take from whichever, in this case. Doesn’t every film nowadays have to be inspired by something out of other films? It’s what you can add to it that matters.

Besides, I don’t even see much of “School of Rock” in “The Rocker,” aside from the central character being a washout rocker that gets his redemption. So I can’t exactly argue further with that concept. I’d just wind up becoming lost and confused in the point. Instead, I’ll just review “The Rocker” as it is.

“The Rocker” begins in 1986, which the colorful set design of the stage where we see a rock band performing doesn’t let us forget. That rock band is known as Vesuvius, the hottest band to score a heavy record deal. Unfortunately, that deal requires them to sell out and drop their drummer, Robert “Fish” Fishman (Wilson), to have an executive’s son take his place.

(By the way, that leads to a very funny horror-film type of scene in which Fish chases down the rest of the band as they attempt an escape. I don’t care if Fish running as fast as their van is very silly; it still made me laugh because of Wilson’s wide-eyed determination and the band’s screaming reactions. And it gets better when Fish uses his drumsticks as lethal weapons.)

Cut to 20 years later, when Fish has anger issues, particularly whenever Vesuvius, now hotter than ever and earned a spot in the Cleveland Hall of Fame, is mentioned in front of him. Now he’s lost a(nother) job, has been dumped by his girlfriend, and is now living in his sister’s attic. His nerdy teenage nephew, Matt (Josh Gad), plays keyboard in a band with his friends, broody singer-songwriter Curtis (Teddy Geiger) and Goth bassist Amelia (Emma Stone), calling themselves A.D.D. Needing a drummer to play for the high school prom, Fish agrees to step in and play with them…leading to a meltdown when Fish loses control as the band performs Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Feeling guilty, Fish decides to help A.D.D. in landing a gig to make the band known to the public. But fate runs its course as a YouTube video featuring the band practicing (with Fish drumming naked—don’t ask) suddenly becomes viral and A.D.D., with Fish as drummer, has a chance at a career.

We get the standard stuff here with what you’d expect when A.D.D. becomes big—they play different gigs, they become better-known, they go on tour, they film a music video, and eventually, they go through conflicts such as having to ultimately open for Vesuvius. There isn’t anything terribly new in “The Rocker,” but it’s still entertaining and funny and even touching in certain spots. There are many quotable lines of dialogue and very amusing moments, such as why the tour bus driver (Howard Hesseman) uses citizen-band radio, the music-video director’s (Demetri Martin in a funny cameo) overly precise direction, and arguably the funniest, any time Jason Sudeikis is on screen as the band’s slimy manager. Sudeikis gets the funniest one-liners in the movie, including “John Lennon’s rollin’ over in his grave to hide the boner you just gave him!”

There are many moments I found amusing and fun in “The Rocker,” but there is also room for character development, not only with Fish but also with the young band members. Curtis has abandonment issues, which serves as a tool for writing his songs, and now that he’s gaining success because of his words and vocals, he sometimes forgets what Fish of course recalls along the way, that they don’t rock just for fame and fortune. Amelia is a non-smiling punk-girl who becomes more emotional and happier as the film progresses. Matt is an insecure geek that eventually gains confidence and hooks up with a cute fan. I liked these characters. They seemed like real teenagers; their dialogue and interactions with each other seem credible. The actors—Teddy Geiger, Josh Gad, and Emma Stone—play them in an effectively earnest way.

There are other game actors that do well with what they have in “The Rocker.” There’s the standard love-interest that takes a liking to the man-child Fish. She’s actually Curtis’ mom, adding more to the awkwardness that Curtis has to go through later on. Christina Applegate plays the role and she does a fine job, although I have to admit, the relationship between her and Fish feels rushed and not completely fleshed out. But there’s also Fish’s brother and sister, played very well by Jeff Garlin (very funny in a doofus sort of way) and Jane Lynch (in a “tough-love” sort of way). And then, there’s Will Arnett in a brief role as the leader of Vesuvius—without giving away his change of personality in his return late in the film, Arnett is freaking hilarious here.

Sometimes, “The Rocker” will miss its mark on a few jokes/gags (particularly a pratfall early on that seems pretty forced) and a few pop-culture references come close to overdoing it. But mostly, thanks to a steady tone by director Peter Cattaneo (of “The Full Monty” fame), a load of flat-out funny moments, an admittedly-catchy soundtrack (I have to say, I was humming a few of these songs), and a zanily wonderful leading performance by Rainn Wilson, “The Rocker” is gentle, as well as fun, and it rocks. But for goodness sake, stop comparing it to “School of Rock.” True, that film may be superior, but this is a lot of fun too.

The Mighty (1998)

2 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Of the live-action family films to come out of the ‘90s, “The Mighty” is usually one that would be considered “underrated.” And it didn’t help that it was released the same year as the successful (though shameless) tearjerker “Simon Birch,” of which it shares similar traits. Don’t get me wrong—I like “Simon Birch,” but there are certain things that I notice suffer by comparison to “The Mighty.” Most importantly, while “Simon Birch” relied on manipulative ploys in order for the audience to feel something about its story, “The Mighty” offers more depth and intelligence to its story of young outcasts who become better than their labels whenever they’re together. This is how it creates an emotional impact for audiences; it doesn’t try so hard. It has a theme, sticks with it, and tells it in a sincere way while also being entertaining.

Based on the book “Freak the Mighty” by Rodman Philbrick, “The Mighty” tells the story of a friendship between two junior-high outsiders with certain weaknesses that define them to their peers. They are Max Kane (Elden Henson) and Kevin Dillon (Kieran Culkin). Max is big for his age, is dyslexic, and is repeating the seventh grade…again. His students refer to him as “The Missing Link,” and on top of that, he’s constantly given weird looks because his jailed father (James Gandolfini) is a known murderer who may have murdered Max’s mother. But Max wouldn’t hurt a fly—in fact, he never retaliates nor does he even stand up for himself at all. That lack of anger makes him the target of teasing and taunting by a group of bullies known as the Doghouse Boys, whose anthem towards him is “Killer Kane, Killer Kane, had a son who’s got no brain!”

Kevin has Morquio’s syndrome, which is said to cause bones to stop growing even though his organs continue to expand, meaning his days are probably limited by the time his organs become too big for him. As a result, he has a dwarfish figure and is crippled. But nevertheless, Kevin is a boy genius. When Max first sees him soon after he moves in next door to his grandparents’ house, he’s making an ornothopter—a bird-like model that can fly with the wind. He’s also a bit of a wise-guy persona, as he uses humor as a defense mechanism. When Max is blamed for a cruel joke toward him by one of the Doghouse Boys, Kevin asks him why he lets them “make a chump outta you.”

Max and Kevin become friends, after Kevin tutors Max in reading. Their book is “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table,” which Kevin often refers to constantly. Kevin brings Max into his world of imagination, which sees the real world as a parallel to that which he reads about (only in this case, they’re knights, the dragons are just bullies, damsels in distress aren’t as thankful as they might expect, and so forth). Also, Max often lets Kevin ride on his shoulders so they become one—“You need a brain and I need legs,” Kevin states. This comes in handy when Max saves Kevin from a run-in with the Doghouse Boys, and when they play basketball this way (Kevin is able to dunk the ball into the hoop).

There are more characters involved in “The Mighty,” each of which has their individually effective moments. There are Max’s grandparents, Grim (Harry Dean Stanton) and Gram (Gena Rowlands) as he calls them, who worry for their grandson ever since the death of his mother and the imprisonment of his father. When Max is brought home by the police after saving Kevin from the bullies, their first thought is to assume the worst, that Max has become like his father. (That’s Grim’s first thought aloud, to which Gram immediately responds by telling him to be quiet.) There’s a particularly effective moment in which Max breaks down to Gram after finding out that his father has broken parole, and also that he’s becoming more like him because of the anxiety and anger he feels toward him. Gram must comfort him and reassure him that he isn’t like his father at all. Also among the supporting characters is Kevin’s single mother (Sharon Stone), whose husband apparently left her when he discovered that Kevin was disabled (Kevin tells Max, “He heard the words “birth defect” and left”). Kevin’s mother has made it a point to keep Kevin out of “special schools” that “suit his needs,” and she’s very grateful to Max for being his friend. There’s one scene in which she states how she feels about Kevin playing basketball with Max, after the principal won’t allow it—“Kevin lives in this world of books and ideas…but Kevin would trade it all for a chance to be normal. Max Kane has given him that chance.”

When you really think about it, knowing that he will never be normal represents Kevin’s central inner opponent that he must conquer as a “Knight.” And if that’s the case, and this reality is a parallel to Kevin’s imaginary world, then that means that Max’s opponent is the horrible memory of seeing his father kill his mother. This goes well with a quote that is often used in this movie, “A Knight proves his worthiness through his deeds.” Each one of us has our own demons to battle in life, and it’s how we react to certain situations regarding it that make us who we are. “The Mighty” is a film that mixes imagination with reality (sometimes, the visuals of a fantasy world intersect with the real world, but it’s not overdone), and not once does it ever try to tell us that we should forget about reality; it teaches us to face it as we live our lives, and sometimes fantasy can be an escape-aspect of helping us through our difficulties in life.

And I admire that this story centers around kids, because we all have been through times at the same age as Kevin and Max when we felt like we were outcasts. That sense is seen and felt throughout the film, and is constantly used to turn pain into warmth with this friendship.

Great acting is a crucial element to the success of “The Mighty.” Elden Henson is perfect as the hulking but vulnerable Max; not only does he look right for the part, but also he feels right for the part. He never strikes a false note with this performance. Equally impressive is Kieran Culkin as Kevin, who knows his character inside and out. Gena Rowlands and Harry Dean Stanton do respectable work as Max’s grandparents. There’s also Gillian Anderson, whom I realized I forgot to mention plays a dishonorable, drunken “damsel” that the boys encounter and help retrieve her purse. No presence of Scully to be found here; she’s nearly unrecognizable and not particularly appealing. And there’s also Sharon Stone as Kevin’s mother. This is probably the best work I’ve ever seen from the actress, playing an ordinary single mother who is emotionally vulnerable and attempts to cover it with genuine gratefulness. She’s convincing and very real.

If there’s one thing about “The Mighty” that doesn’t really work, it’s the climax near the end of the film. Max’s father comes and takes him away, and Max is too crippled with anxiety and fear to do anything about it, until a certain part of that night snaps him out of it and causes him to finally let out his anger left onto him by his father. But meanwhile, Kevin figures out where he is, and using his mechanic skills he picked up from reading, he builds a sled that helps take him to where he accurately thinks Max is being held. I know this is supposed to show how further their “Knights of the Round Table” knowledge is being put to the test, but in a film that separates fantasy from reality as often as it keeps it in the same frame, this is pretty improbable. But it’s not so distracting that it harms the rest of the film. Actually, in its own way, it kind of works a bit (even more so than the “daring rescue” in “Simon Birch”).

Despite its occasional emotional, dramatic moments (the heaviest of which comes late in the film), “The Mighty” is not a downer. It has its entertainment values, but more importantly, it knows how to tell its story and theme in such a way that it brings an optimistic view on things in the end. How? Rent the film and see for yourself. You won’t regret it.

Snow Angels (2008)

2 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Snow Angels” is a film about highs and lows of human relationships, with different stories and an ensemble cast surrounding a central tragedy. It begins as a high-school marching band rehearses their version of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” on the football field, when suddenly, gunshots are heard in the distance. It’s inevitable that we see what builds up to those shots, beginning, as the caption puts it, “weeks earlier.” We meet one of the band members, Arthur (Michael Angarano), a shy, insecure high-school student, as he works in a Chinese restaurant (which I just realized has no Chinese employees) with his former babysitter, Annie (Kate Beckinsale). Arthur hasn’t had a girlfriend yet, possibly because he’s always had a crush on Annie who loves to tease him about their time together (“I totally used to give you baths”). And the timing couldn’t be more perfect, as Arthur’s parents are going through a divorce (because it turns out his father is having an affair), and as his dad moves out of the house, a nerdy, fun transfer-student, Lila (Olivia Thirlby, wonderful here), notices Arthur, comes into his life, and becomes his girlfriend.

This story about Arthur is undoubtedly my favorite part about “Snow Angels,” as it shows depth and weight in presenting this kid going through a tough time in his life and finding his first love, helping him deal with it. I recall Chicago Tribune film-critic Michael Phillips, when reviewing the film as guest-critic on “Ebert & Roeper,” described this appearance of Lila as “a gift from heaven,” and that always fascinated me because that is pretty much what this is about. Here is this gloomy situation involving parents’ divorce, and Arthur knowing the truth about his dad well before his mom realizes it, and in comes this newcomer who bonds with him and they share something for one another. This is one of the best high-school romances I have ever seen—it’s very sweet, and yet it seems real in the personalities of these two characters and how they playfully joke with one another, building up to a moment later in which Lila softly, ultimately states how she feels about Arthur, and Arthur can’t help but feel the same way, despite not knowing how to react.

Unfortunately, that is merely a subplot constantly pushed aside by the darker, gloomier aspects of the story within “Snow Angels,” which mostly has to do with the issues of Annie. Annie has gotten out of a failed marriage with Glenn (Sam Rockwell), the father of her 4-year-old daughter, whom constantly makes things difficult. Ever since his suicide attempt, Glenn has quit drinking, turned to Jesus, and tries to do the right thing. But he hasn’t changed for the better, it seems. The reason Annie left him was because he’s incredibly awkward, can’t hold a job, has violent tendencies, and is an alcoholic. And now, as he sometimes looks after their daughter every now and then, he wants Annie back. But Annie isn’t about to let him back into her life. Meanwhile, she is currently having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her best friend, Barb (Amy Sedaris). Soon enough, the affair is revealed, bringing further complications into Annie’s life, even before her daughter winds up missing.

If Arthur and Lila’s story represents the highs of human relationships, then everything involving Annie and Glenn represents the lows. But it’s not only emotional conflict, adultery, and anger; it’s also guilt, violence, and loss. And it only gets more depressing as it continues, building up to the tragedy that was set up in the beginning of the film.

And this is where I am a bit uncertain when it comes to deciding a “Verdict” for this film. Maybe it’s because the lighter romantic moments with the high-schoolers won me over so much, but it’s somewhat hard for me to get into the darker material surrounding the adult characters. I mean, those scenes are well-acted, smartly written, and well-directed, and I’m not saying that because it’s a downer, it’s a failure. I mean, a good solid portion of films are muted and downbeat. But when you have to have a cohesive narrative driving the emotional aspects forward for an effective payoff…I don’t know. It seems to be building up to something, and while that inevitable dramatic payoff is there, I’m not sure it all comes together in a way that fully makes us understand what has happened and for us to take in the tragic climax. The power isn’t there behind it, in my opinion, and as a result, I feel like I sat through much ado about nothing.

I understand that “Snow Angels” is based on a novel, and to my knowledge (having not read it), writer-director David Gordon Green was faithful to the source material when adapting it for the screen. But when I get down to what I really think about “Snow Angels,” I think there’s a perfectly satisfying story within the teen-romance material and around Arthur. There’s an interesting short film here trapped in a dark, gloomy story about the lows of adult relationships, when there’s a cohesive story about a kid (Arthur) finding a special-someone to be with, and questioning relationships in the process (there’s some drama in there, in how he feels about his dad going back and forth between home and elsewhere, and also in how he doesn’t know how to comfort someone who needs assistance). Right there is an interesting, full-circle story structure trapped in an uneasy story about a few seriously disturbed individuals.

And I know what they’re trying to do—trying to contrast young relationships with older. So it either works for you, or it doesn’t. For me, it is true that it is acted well (though there are some parts when you feel that Beckinsale was probably miscast, and Rockwell is hard to watch at times) and a lot of moments ring true. And it is an effective representation of ordinary people going through ordinary problems before they realize they can’t deal with it anymore. So despite my personal issues with the structure, I give “Snow Angels” a mild recommendation because of that. Sure, it’s inconsistent and without Arthur and Lila’s romance, it’d just be OK; but there are many individual moments that convince to keep watching it, so I can’t recommend it. I like “Snow Angels.” I wanted to love it, though.