Archive | September, 2013

The Witches (1990)

30 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Kids often have that feeling that the grownups are out to get them, and in “The Witches,” the children have much to fear from the women of the world—particularly those with gloves and purple eyes. As an elderly woman tells her grandson (and as a result, the audience) a story about real witches, they apparently look like real people walking the streets. If you look closely at them, you can see the purple haze in their eyes. They have square feet, so they wear plain, ordinary shoes. And whenever a witch is near a child, she often holds her nose, since clean children have a distinct odor.

They’re out to destroy every child in the world. And they’re everywhere, in every country.

The story is told early on in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Witches,” based on Roald Dahl grim children’s story of the same name, as the Norwegian grandmother, Helga (Mai Zetterling), tells her American grandson, Luke (Jasen Fisher), all she knows about witches. When she was a little girl, her friend was taken by a witch and imprisoned in a painting until her image aged, withered and vanished. (Helga kept seeing her image move as years went by. She also lost a finger due to an encounter with a witch.)

That’s a very chilling opening sequence, told in flashback and with effective atmosphere, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which is like a well-told children’s bedtime story that would probably scare little kids and give them nightmares. But I think kids like to be scared (or else they wouldn’t go out for Halloween or watch scary movies that their parents forbid them to) and “The Witches” would probably delight them. Though, granted, some of them might want to prepare themselves first, as there are some disturbing elements in this movie.

Helga takes Luke on a vacation to England, where they stay in a fancy hotel. At this particular hotel is where all of the witches of England have an annual secret meeting, including the Grand High Witch, the most dangerous, fearsome one of them all. These witches pose as a children’s charity group hosting a convention at the hotel. They’re led by Miss Ernst (Anjelica Huston, having a lot of fun playing the role), a tall, striking woman with a distinctive manner and accent that lets us know immediately that she can’t be trusted. She is indeed the Grand High Witch, as Luke realizes as he stumbles upon the witches’ meeting and overhears their secrets, as well as their secret plan. Their plan is to use a magic formula to hide in sweets—when children eat them, they are transformed into mice.

Luke is discovered (a little too late, conveniently—I thought they would’ve smelled him earlier, since witches have a keen sense of smell) and he is forcibly turned into a mouse (a talking mouse too—OK, maybe it’s a little too convenient now). Luckily, he’s able to convince his grandmother who he really is, and so they come up with an idea to stop the witches before they carry out their plot.

The late Jim Henson produced “The Witches”. He and his special-effects crew bring their genius and talent to work in the sequences in which Luke, in mouse form, and his friend Bruno (Charlie Potter), also turned into a mouse, run about gigantic pieces of furniture and, even in close-ups, are able to make us believe that they really are talking mice with specific actions to perform. For kids, this is a fun adventure to take with the boy-mouse, and for adults, it’s an interesting visual look that impresses. It’s the best of both worlds.

It’s here that “The Witches” turns into a romp and loses of its tenseness that was set up in the aforementioned opening scene. But it is a good deal of fun, and it’s hardly predictable, as we can’t exactly see how everything will play out. It’s also a race against time, which makes things more exciting for the final act of the movie.

I admire how grim Nicolas Roeg made “The Witches” to be, given that it’s a family film that could have been played relatively safe. While it has a certain sensibility to it, the implications of the story are very grim and the imagination contains what could become or what might have become. If there is one problem, it’s probably the ending, but this is coming from someone who has read the book. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say some kids may enjoy a happy ending after all the grim stuff is over with. Mostly though, “The Witches” is quite fascinating.

Gregory’s Girl (1982)

27 Sep

GREGORY'S GIRL 1981 film still

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In the early 1980s, there was a trend in the movies called “teenage-sex movies.” Ever since “Porky’s” was released in 1982 and became a huge box-office hit, studios have tried to cash in on its success by simply making comedies about horny teenagers, usually boys, looking to “get lucky” with the opposite sex. They claim to be about growing up and becoming a man, when really, they’re really about unlikable jackasses who would nothing better than to have sex. They’re not looking for love or friendship with a member of the opposite sex; they see them as mysterious creatures or objects to obtain or hunt (or jump). So few movies about teenagers at the time were about real teenagers with real relationships and problems and so on—one in particular I can think of at the top of my head is “Tex,” which is one of my favorite movies; that film wasn’t about sex, but it was about coming of age and becoming a man.

Another film released around this time, and undoubtedly a breath of fresh air for critics and audiences looking for that type of film, was a Scottish film called “Gregory’s Girl,” made by Bill Forsyth. This is a film about an awkward, weird, not particularly handsome young man, named Gregory (Gordon John Sinclair), and his misadventures through life and through love. He’s curious about the girl he likes, but just wants to get to know her better, unlike his friends who would just do anything to get girls to notice them, even if it’s not particularly charming topics of conversation. (We all had friends like that in high school, didn’t we? My friend would often quote “Austin Powers” to try and impress a girl. Don’t try that, by the way. But I digress.)

Gregory is on the soccer team (though, it’s actually known as “football” there, of course), but his lack of skill and coordination on the field puts him down to the position of goalie. Taking his place is Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), an attractive, athletic girl who is a very talented soccer player. No one can believe how well “a girl” can play, especially the coach, but Gregory notices it as “modern” and sees her true athletic skills. But also, he immediately falls in love with her. He can’t stop thinking about her, he likes the way she plays, he likes the way she smells, he likes everything about her. He even likes her scars—there’s one scene in which Gregory and Dorothy show each other scars and injuries from their pasts. That’s a great scene—the chemistry is perfect, the body language is accurate, and you can really get a sense of what these two feel towards each other, as they’re polite during certain feelings they go through in this sequence.

So, we know that Gregory likes Dorothy a whole lot, but how does Dorothy feel about Gregory? Well, truth be told, I’m not sure. You can tell she likes him a little, and she knows he likes her, and she’s not above flirting with him while also making friendly conversation. You’re not quite sure of what she feels, but you know what? I was never sure how any girl in high school really felt; there’s hardly a way of knowing for us guys. Despite the title “Gregory’s Girl,” the film is not necessarily about Dorothy, but more about how Gregory reacts to these feelings he has now developed and how he works up the courage to ultimately ask her out on a date. The last 20 minutes of the film, in which he does have the courage to ask out Dorothy and what happens after he does, do not go in the way you’d expect it to be, but without giving too much away, you do feel Gregory’s confusion that slowly but surely turns into happiness.

Now, to be sure, this isn’t a complete success. Sometimes, it can be a little too cute in its humor and sometimes tries a bit too hard, particularly whenever Gordon John Sinclair does some bizarre improvisations (like mimicking a cat’s meow repeatedly) to make us laugh at him. And there’s also a disturbing subplot that sneaks its way in later in the film and is never made of anything again—is it me or did it seem like the soccer coach was flirting with Dorothy?

When “Gregory’s Girl” focuses on the mixed, messed-up emotions that real adolescents have in their lives, it works as comedy and drama, with gentle goofiness and a sense of sincerity. There are funny moments to be sure, but there are more sweet moments. I didn’t even mention the conversations Gregory has with his precocious 10-year-old sister, who herself is oblivious to boys (there is one, however, that does pine for her). They add to the charm and humor of this nicely-done film.

That Sinking Feeling (1984)

27 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How can I properly describe, in detail, the charm of Bill Forsyth’s “That Sinking Feeling?” Well, to begin with, in its droll, matter-of-fact way, it’s quite funny and appealing. It has an odd premise—a bunch of bored teenagers band together to plan a heist and steal some kitchen sinks. And its humor is offbeat (and also quite broad, particularly when it features characters in drag). But “That Sinking Feeling” is presented in a way that is engaging and peculiarly true-to-life and makes it interesting to watch.

The film is set in a Scottish small town called Glasgow, where a group of unemployed, broke, bored young people live. They’re so bored that one even tries to kill himself…by drowning himself with his breakfast of Corn Flakes and milk (that is darkly hilarious). But he comes to realize, “There’s got to be something more to life than committing suicide.” And there is, as he notices a stainless-steel sink being sold for 60 pounds. He rallies his friends and some other teenagers in town to come up with a plan to rob the local sink factory.

Most of the film is showing the kids preparing the robbery. They learn complicated hand signals that aren’t as easy to learn or remember for a crucial point. They gain inside information. They get an idea to distract the building’s night guard…by having two of the boys dress in drag. You might be asking yourself why they didn’t just get their girlfriends to do it, and at times this subplot can get pretty disturbing, but watching one of the boys slip in and out of character when he should or shouldn’t is worth sitting through it.

There’s also the matter of the truck they need to store the sinks in after they’ve robbed the place. One of the kids has concocted a “sleeping potion” so that the driver of a bakery truck will pass out with enough time for the amateur thieves to borrow it for a while. And surely enough, the potion works and the driver is immobile and snoring the whole time…though he doesn’t seem to wake up.

Watching a couple of Bill Forsyth’s other films made around the time this was released (“Local Hero,” “Gregory’s Girl”), you can tell that this is a director who likes to tell stories and execute them with gentle goofiness, with some parts practicality and other parts black comedy. Early on in “That Sinking Feeling,” which he made before those two other films, you can definitely see that in the scene in which one of the kids is expressing himself to a statue of a war hero, and just when he gets angry at himself and the statue, he awakens a bum who was sleeping at the nearest bench. And just a couple scenes later, he and two other boys his age are conversing in a car, talking about contemplating suicide (one tried to drown himself with Corn Flakes and milk), and it’s soon revealed that they’re in a wrecked car in a vacant lot instead of a parked car somewhere public.

The film is full of great, droll moments like that and some funny lines of dialogue—my favorite line comes from the nurse who states that the comatose driver will wake up in the year 2068, with the plus that he’ll be rich with hospital benefits! There’s also a nice payoff to a foot chase, as one of the kids is chased by a cop who turns out to be an old friend, and they eventually engage in friendly conversation, asking how “the gang” is doing. (“I’m not in a gang!” the kid exclaims.)

The actual heist itself isn’t as interesting as the buildup to it; actually, what happens after it is more interesting and funny, particularly how not just Scotland Yard is baffled by the heist, but also the plumbers (and because the police find a woman’s shoe, they suspect a female gang is involved). And things don’t necessarily work out the way the kids plan, but…eh, screw it, they’re easygoing enough not to care about it nonetheless.

“That Sinking Feeling” is an effectively low-key film with honest portrayals of people with too much time on their hands and enough idle speculation and funny dialogue to pass off to one another. It’s an original piece of work with likable characters, a nicely-done execution, and a scheme that is absurd enough for us to laugh and even care because we come to care about these kids.

Mean Streets (1973)

23 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What’s it like to live in a gangster environment? More important, what’s it like to survive it? Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” presents a portrayal of people going through life in New York’s Little Italy in a way that it’s hardly about gangsters as much as it is about those who have grown up and developed an understanding about that place. Some people are innocent, others strike deals, others are enforcers, and then there are those you really don’t want to cross. One of the characters states it as practically living in a constant state of sin, but continuing through with it because that’s what’s expected of him and his friends.

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.” Those are the opening, narrating words from Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a small-time hood collecting on the mean streets of Little Italy. He’s a Catholic with hints of feelings of guilt, but is too focused on the mob business to feel much guilt for what he does or sees. He’s also not entirely good at this business, and can hardly take care of himself. With the money he can bring in from collecting from his uncle’s protection racket, he’ll be lucky just to open a small business. But what separates him from the other Mafiosos is that he actually does have a conscience, as part of his Catholicism. Sometimes it does make him wonder (he even hovers his hand over a candle while thinking about the fires of Hell).

We meet the people in Charlie’s life, including Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), Tony (David Proval), Michael (Richard Romanus), and Teresa (Amy Robinson). Johnny Boy is a special case—being an out-of-control, intense thug, he embraces the criminal street life, takes everything as it comes, and tends to take out his anger and emotions by beating whomever he can find. He is also very pathetic, as he paid his debts to Michael, the local loan shark, in quite a long while, and his extensions are running out. Charlie sometimes feels forced to look out for him and make sure he stays on track with everything, including a pivotal moment in which he must calm him down when he’s shooting a .38 on a rooftop. His constant getting into trouble leads to even more trouble.

Tony is also part of the Mafia community—along with Michael, he co-owns a local bar and is much a Mafioso as Michael. That leaves Teresa, Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin, who is very beautiful and the object of Charlie’s affections. But due to her epilepsy, she is shunned by society and thus her and Charlie’s relationship is kept secret.

These are the characters of “Mean Streets,” and the film’s main focus is on what they do, how they live, how they relate to each other, what they get into, etc. Scorsese takes these fully-realized characters and puts them in a fully-realized world for a film that has something to say about them and we’re interested in knowing what that is. By the time the film is over (to its tragic end), you sympathize with them and hope they continue to survive in this messed-up place, no matter what it takes, and just hope it doesn’t push too far.

When you follow a group of characters in a film that doesn’t have a story in the traditional sense, and just focuses on how they live their lives, it helps the most when they feel real. Charlie, Johnny Boy, Teresa, Tony, Michael, and others around them seem exactly right for this material, and are played excellently by the actors, especially Keitel who brings the sincerity within the budding Mafioso, and De Niro (his very first collaboration with Scorsese; three years before “Taxi Driver,” seven years before “Raging Bull”) who brings a powerful screen presence to his performance. They feel real; the brotherly relationship between Charlie and Johnny Boy feels real; their whole world feels real; the way Scorsese frames them all feels as if we’re eavesdropping on them; the scenes of violence are very well-controlled.

“Mean Streets” came out the year after Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” the gangster film to end all gangster films. While most gangster films released back then would try to imitate that film’s success and grand scale, Scorsese opted to make a dark, small, personal film that was more mature than a good deal of the copycats that “The Godfather” inspired. “Mean Streets” is a great film, and it was the commercial debut of Scorsese, who of course would become later known to us as America’s greatest filmmakers.

After Hours (1985)

21 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When I first heard the premise for Martin Scorsese’s comedy “After Hours,” I didn’t think much of it. An uptight workaholic has the craziest night of his life? Maybe it’s because I’ve seen too many movies, but I kind of thought it wouldn’t be anything special, because I didn’t think there would be enough creativity or enough courage to really go all out and make it something unforgettable. In other words, I thought it would be relatively safe and I wouldn’t care much about it. But boy, was I wrong. “After Hours” is not only original and funny, but it is also unrelenting, unafraid, riveting, and best of all, unpredictable. This is a great film—one that had me hooked from the start of the mayhem to the end, and that couldn’t make me even begin to guess what was going to happen one minute to the next.

Why tonight? Why did all of this have to happen to him tonight? Why is he in one mess after another? Why can’t he just catch a break and call it a night? Why can’t he just go home? When will this ever end? Those are the exact questions that ordinary, uptight word-processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) asks himself as he takes a cab to SoHo, Manhattan, on a night that starts out as an interesting date with a beautiful woman and transforms into a nightmare that he cannot escape from. It all begins as he meets said-woman, knockout Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), in a café. They strike up a conversation, she gives him her phone number, and as soon as he gets back to his apartment, he immediately calls her up and asks her for a date.

Big mistake. Now, I’ll only reveal just the beginnings of this “wild night” that Paul finds himself in the middle of, because trust me, I want you to be as surprised as I am so that you’ll enjoy the film more. (I’m doing you a favor, trust me.) Paul takes a cab to SoHo, but the ride is so violent that it causes all of Paul’s money to fly out the window. A frustrating start, but no matter. Paul has a date with a beautiful woman and is even roped into giving her sculptress roommate (Linda Fiorentino) a massage after she finishes up a sculpture that looks like a man calling for help. (Very effective foreshadowing aspect here.)

Not enough for you? Of course it isn’t. How could it be? It sounds relatively harmless so far. It’s only keeping me interested so far because I can relate to this guy’s confusion—losing his money, just wanting to move forward with his date, etc. Then, they go to a diner and Paul finds that Marcie is not exactly date-material; he doesn’t like her very much. So he bolts. He wants to catch a subway train home and he only has 97 cents. Not a problem, right? He can just forget all about it.

Wrong. The fare went up and he can’t get a token for the train. He’s stuck there in the SoHo district with no money and no reason to be there. What else could go wrong? You name it. The whole rest of the night only gets worse and worse and worse, in a series of confusion, misunderstandings, violence, craziness that later leads to a huge misunderstanding, a death, and an angry mob.

“I mean, I just wanted to leave my apartment, maybe meet a nice girl. And now I’ve gotta DIE for it?!”

“After Hours” is a hard-edged comedy-thriller with a lot going on, and all of it very original and with a very clever blend of humor and horror. It’s an urban nightmare that never seems to end, as Paul tries to find some way to get himself out of this mess and back home. And being a Scorsese-directed film, you also expect the film to be very well-made, and it is. Scorsese uses all kinds of camera shots to get each point across and also to add to the agitation that the main character is going through. And it’s obvious that Scorsese, as evidenced in some of his other films, has a great eye for big cities—the SoHo district seems like a character of itself. The film is also very cleverly-edited—for example, there’s a scene in which Paul finds himself in yet another messy situation, and after an important line is delivered, suddenly there’s the sound of a mousetrap snap (mousetraps are set all around the windows of a certain character’s apartment). Paul is the mouse. He was curious, and now he’s trapped.

But wait, you may ask. How can I possibly reveal so little of the story for “After Hours,” when I said in the first paragraph that just hearing the premise wasn’t enough to impress me, and so how are you supposed to be impressed? Well, that is kind of tricky, I’ll admit—it took a risk for me to have to do that. My only hope is that you’ll take a chance on the film, as I did, and maybe you’ll be surprised by what it has to offer. It’s a scary, funny, wild ride that I was glad to have taken. I loved every minute of “After Hours.” Take that for what it’s worth.

The Way, Way Back (2013)

13 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You ever have that experience when you’re there with what seems like the wrong people at the wrong place and time, and you can’t leave because you don’t know where else to go? And during those times, were you ever picked on for being so awkward by simply being there and not contributing to the conversation everyone else is having? Has this happened many times in your life? Chances are this has happened to us numerous times, and most often when we were young and attending family reunions or other social events.

It’s always a most uncomfortable situation because not only are you not relevant to the conversation these people are having, and don’t have much input (if any at all), but you barely know these people to feel like you want to be part of it. You’re just sort of stuck there, not knowing what to do.

“The Way, Way Back” knows what that feels like, as its young protagonist, an awkward, shy, nerdy 14-year-old named Duncan (Liam James), is dragged to the beach house of his divorced mom’s new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and is the butt of humiliation when he isn’t bored of being stuck in the middle of uncomfortable get-togethers with Trent and his neighbors and friends. It’s one thing to be stuck on vacation with your family, because most teenagers don’t enjoy that very much; it’s quite another to be stuck there particularly with someone you don’t like very well.

While Trent sometimes seems like an okay guy, Duncan has legitimate reasons to hate him. In an opening scene, on the drive to the beach house, Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a 1-to-10 scale; when Duncan nervously answers “6,” Trent says he sees him as a “3.” Trent has his own ways of “tough love” that show that he surely doesn’t know the full meaning of “sensitivity,” which also puts a bit of a strain on his relationship with Pam (Toni Collette), Duncan’s mother.

By the way, that opening scene is great at setting up the story because it makes us easily sympathize with Duncan and establishes that people can see you how they want and it wouldn’t be very true. We only see Trent in this scene through the rearview mirror so that we see his eyes looking back at Duncan—nicely-done move on the filmmaker’s part.

Anyway, Duncan is trapped at this beach house with nothing to do and no one to hang out with, until he discovers the local water park, called “Water Wizz.” There, he meets the park’s offbeat manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes a liking to the kid and decides to give him a job at the park. So, while Duncan has to endure the behavior of Trent, his mother, and the next-door neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), (who is always drunk and knows even less about tact than Trent does, and sometimes points out what should never be pointed out in public, even when it has something with her own children) by night, he works the park by day and finds he fits in with the other employees and has fun working the pools and slides. He even learns to be cool, or at least “cool” by Owen’s eyes. It’s a safe haven for him, and he tells no one back at the house about it—the only one who finds out is Betty’s rebellious but sweet teenage daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who also takes a liking to Duncan, if only Duncan can find the right words to say to her.

“The Way, Way Back” is an effective coming-of-age movie in how it presents this gawky, socially weird boy and how he can stand up for himself, talk some sense into his somewhat-meek mother who should know better than to date a jerk like Trent, form a friendship with some unlikely fellows, and even work up the courage to talk to a girl he likes. Duncan is able to do all of this by the time the vacation (and the film) is over. And the transitions are presented in a credible way with intelligent writing and believable characters who don’t like types in the slightest, but real people. Even Trent, who could have been written as a villainous type, is not entirely evil; he’s mainly a flawed individual who isn’t fit for certain situations that require parenthood or reliability. He tries, though. But it doesn’t quite work.

The character of Pam surprised me as the film went on, because early in the film, I wasn’t so sure what this mother figure was going through when socializing with these bizarre characters (including Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet as an offbeat couple) and doing something she shouldn’t be doing, like getting high (as she’s led on by Trent and company). As the movie progresses, you do get to see more of the character and that she is a complete person and not simply a dopey “mom” role. You see that this is a woman who clearly wants as much time with her son as she does fulfilling her own interests, and before the film ends, the relationship between her and her son is mended too.

A lot of nicely-formed characters are put into this screenplay by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also co-directed the film and each have supporting roles as two of the water park workers), and they’re played very well by the actors. Steve Carell is a convincing jerk, which is a surprise considering he’s one of the nicest guys to see on screen or on TV; Toni Collette is very good as Pam; AnnaSophia Robb delivers her best, most sincere performance since “Sleepwalking” five years ago; Allison Janney is freaking hilarious as Betty, and she gets some of the funniest moments in the film; the actor who gets the rest of the film’s funniest moments is definitely Sam Rockwell, who is just excellent as the park owner Owen (I mean it—this performance needs to be seen to be believed; writing about it doesn’t do it well); and last but definitely not least, Liam James is perfectly natural in playing the awkward teenager who comes of age and becomes more comfortable with his life.

“The Way, Way Back” is a very charming film that also has a seamless blend of humor and drama, mainly because the comedy plays from the awkwardness and unpredictability of most of these events. Aside from character moments from Betty and Owen and some of the park workers (including Maya Rudolph as Owen’s potential girlfriend who can’t take any more of his antics), there are laughs that just come from simple things, like a legend on one of the waterslides, for example. They add to the charm and appeal of this film.

Reality Bites (1994)

11 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A film that shows the plight of post-college graduates can be made well, if the makers of it just take their time to really dive into what it’s like to accept the reality of growing up and facing real life. Joel Schumacher’s horrid “St. Elmo’s Fire” was not that film, and unfortunately, neither is Ben Stiller’s “Reality Bites.” Instead of presenting its characters as real, reasonable people, “Reality Bites” presents them as shallow, callous, and all-around terrible.

Now, to be sure, there are people like that in the world, and I’m not saying you can’t like a film with unlikeable characters. But the story framing of “Reality Bites” is all wrong, trying to make the film into a quirky romantic comedy (even with old clichés to assist it), and that can only mean that no serious consequences are necessary for their behavior. And I hated it even more when I realize that nothing about them has changed and that these are supposed to be our sympathetic heroes all along.

These are nonconformist Gen-Xers in the mid-‘90s whose plights are centered around two common rules for them—don’t sell out and don’t give in to The Man. Would that explain why Winona Ryder’s Lelaina Pierce isn’t the best employee working for a local morning television show? Would that explain why Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer lost his twelfth (yes, twelfth) job and is now living with Lelaina and her friends, sleep-around Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and closeted Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn)? Would that also explain why he spends his time playing guitar at a coffee house when he’s not lounging on the couch, spewing pretentious “insight?”

Of the four characters I just mentioned, the only two characters that have legitimate dramatic conflicts in their lives are not the two main characters, Lelaina and Troy, but Vickie and Sammy. And because the film is too focused on the former two to care about these two more interesting people, they get little to no resolution. Vickie has a series of one-night stands that leads to her confronting a very real risk of catching the HIV virus. What happens then? The test comes out negative, and we’re not sure of whether or not she’ll continue with these flings. Then there’s Sammy—very possibly gay. He hasn’t come out of the closet yet because of how his conservative parents might react. What’s his resolution? I don’t know, because Lalaina’s documentation doesn’t follow into Sammy’s parents’ house where he goes to tell them. I guess we’re supposed to assume it went well and now Sammy will starting seeing men.

Oh yeah, there’s a story here, isn’t there? “Lalaina’s documentation,” as I forcibly brought into the review just now, refers to Lalaina constantly videotaping her friends goofing around or discussing their current situations. (Hello, Mark Cohen from “RENT.”) She uses a regular home-video camera with bad video quality so the film can try and make it seem “real.” Maybe if they were worried about reality with this angle, they would know that not many filmmakers shake the camera as much as Lalaina does, except for those who are either starting out in this field or don’t know how to frame a shot.

This documentary has a chance to aired on TV, when Lalaina meets a nice yuppie who happens to work for an MTV-like station. This is Michael Grates, played by the director himself Ben Stiller. He is a good man—he’s smart, he’s attentive, he’s nervous, he’s pretty much everything that Troy is not, which the film tries to make us think is a bad thing. Why? Because Lalaina has to choose between the two of them, even though it’s very obvious (to us, anyway) who the right guy is for her. Michael is supposed to be “the other man” for Lalaina to leave, so she and Troy can get together.

The most frustrating aspect of this film is that it had a chance to avoid that cliché and it just didn’t ignore it. Here’s what happens—Michael takes Lelaina’s finished documentary to the station network; it’s edited severely in a stylized montage that Lelaina doesn’t recognize as her “artistic vision”; she’s mad because Michael sold out to The Man; and she leaves him so she can be with Troy. (Actually, I think the network improved the documentary!) Ben Stiller sold his own character out.

“Reality Bites” is essentially hipster trash. It has nothing to present aside from superficiality and callousness, the very things that the characters claim they don’t want to be involved with. This film didn’t make me care about the problems of post-college graduates; it just made me think of rewriting the screenplay myself and thinking of what I would personally add. Now, I’m just wondering where I would begin.

The Spectacular Now (2013)

8 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When a film truly captures what it’s like to be a teenager in high school, or in a high school romance, it’s something special. Generally, most of us come of age in a major way in our high school days and so, a film that captures certain dilemmas or relationships (either platonic or romantic) can make for a great, effective coming-of-age story, given the right amount of detail in writing and characterization. I can think of many such films that are great examples of such, including “Tex,” “Lucas,” and last year’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” among others; another to add to the list is “The Spectacular Now,” a truthful, incredible film about forming a high school senior forming a new relationship with someone he’d never met before, and learning to fully prepare for his own future.

His name is Sutter Keely (played by Miles Teller). He’s a semi-popular 18-year-old who lives in the “now” mainly because he doesn’t look forward to growing up and dealing with life the way adults in his life do. He has an amusing, likable personality that compensates for somewhat of a sad existence, having been without a father for a while and with not much of a relationship with his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He also drinks a lot, carrying around a whiskey flask to spike his soda cups, even at his part-time job. He would probably be best referred to as an “alcoholic Lloyd Dobler,” in reference to the John Cusack character in “Say Anything,” but that probably wouldn’t be fair.

One morning, Sutter is found lying flat on the front lawn of a house he doesn’t recognize, having drank heavily the night his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), broke up with him. The person who finds Sutter is Aimee Finnicky (Shailene Woodley), who goes to the same school as Sutter (though he doesn’t recognize her). Aimee is in the neighborhood covering for her mother’s paper route, and Sutter decides to help her with the rest of it, having nothing else to do. Sutter decides he wants to spend some more time with her, and wallflower Aimee is glad to be accepted by someone like him. So they share conversation after conversation as Aimee tutors Sutter in geometry, Sutter invites her to a lake party, and their relationship is mostly consisting of talks and meetings that simply don’t need any reason to be—they enjoy each other’s company, talk to and listen to one another, and their relationship flows naturally as it becomes something more.

Then comes the time when Sutter can’t deny his true feelings for Aimee, despite what he tells his friend who thinks Sutter is using Aimee as a clumsy rebound for Cassidy. Then comes the prom, to which they go together and see the good time that everybody has, despite being a somewhat pointless tradition. Then comes a sex scene, which I have to say completely surprised me in how it was handled. This could have been a low point of the film, in that it would have been sloppy and in a mean-spirited way. But instead, with the careful direction of James Ponsoldt, it’s handled in such a careful and delicate way that at no point does it seem embarrassing or a cheat. Sutter and Aimee don’t merely have sex; they make love. And as a plus, it knows just when to fade away from it.

Sutter and Aimee look, act, and feel like real high-schoolers. Their conversations, their world around them, their misadventures, etc. feel like the real deal, and with enough conflicts in their lives to make them even more interesting, these two are a high-school-film romance that is undoubtedly worth paying attention to. I loved watching these two together; they’re sincere, appealing, and well-rounded characters that feel like people we knew, or even people we were. The film goes even further with them as the film continues. As the first hour or so creates a unique spin on high-school-film territories, as the relationship and their situations are played with a great natural realism, the rest of the film, in my opinion, is surprisingly even better. This is the point in the film in which Sutter and Aimee are willing to help each other out—after Aimee has taken Sutter’s advice and stood up to her overbearing mother, Sutter then decides to take Aimee’s advice and get his deadbeat dad’s phone number from his mother or his older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And what happens? Sutter, bringing Aimee along, goes to visit Dad (Kyle Chandler) and he realizes how clear things are becoming. Not only does he see why he’s better off without his dad, but he also realizes the kind of person he himself might become if he keeps living life the way he does. And he truly realizes that he must somehow create his own future. But how? And does he want to? Can he change?

The final half-hour of “The Spectacular Now” is what truly pays off about the film. It’s all about coming of age and things coming into full perspective for the subject of that concept (in this case, Sutter). It’s not predictable and it’s as realistic and natural as what was set up before. It’s played with a sense of harsh reality and a possibility of learning to deal with it. I felt for the characters all throughout the film, and this final act made me care even more about them.

“The Spectacular Now” is a wonderful film—a film that is smart and knows how teenagers talk and act; the characters are three-dimensional and always appealing; the director and writer(s) don’t go for the easy ways out of a situation because they’re too respectful to their audience for that; and all in all, a rich, deep, meaningful, effective drama about growing up, forming a relationship, and facing your own future. This is one of the best films of 2013.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

8 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m not sure I can necessarily write about Woody Allen’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” without even mentioning a similar type of film released just a couple months ago (not Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” of course, though the story of “Blue Jasmine” is probably more closely similar to that)—Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha.” That film was about a neurotic young woman trying to find a secure hold on life while practically on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I mentioned in my favorable review of that film that it reminded me in dialogue, acting, style, and tone of a Woody Allen screenplay and film. That’s not too far off here, because…well, “Blue Jasmine” is a Woody Allen film. Imagine Frances “Ha” Halloway aged a decade or two and having found a success in life, becoming materialistic and pampered and married to a Wall Street wizard…and is now having to face reality yet again, after everything has just hit rock bottom along with her.

How odd is it that I compare Baumbach favorably to Woody Allen when I would find that Allen has crafted a slice-of-life/character-study similar to Baumbach’s film…which in itself is similar to some of Allen’s best dramatic work? I don’t know, but I do know that I feel these two films are terrific, and they’d make a great double-bill with each other.

Nearing the age of 78, Allen’s styles haven’t changed much—neurotic characters, the old-school title font, the sharp dialogue, the music he likes, etc. But he shows he still has game in the art of filmmaking. As long as this guy continues to make films (and he has for several decades now), we know there are some truly original artists still at work here. And with “Blue Jasmine,” he has crafted one of the most thoughtful, effective films released this year.

The film stars Cate Blanchett in an Oscar-caliber performance, reminding us that she is still one of the very best actresses we have, as Jasmine, a disillusioned, indigent woman who is learning to face reality the hard way. Seen in flashbacks, we get an idea of what her original life was like, when she was married to wealthy Hal (Alec Baldwin) and living a great, acquisitive life in New York. We also learn in this present-day setting that Hal has been caught for illegal activities (and apparently not just cheating on his wife numerously, either) and has also committed suicide in his cell because he couldn’t handle facing a life sentence. The FBI has taken everything away, leaving Jasmine penniless and homeless.

Now, Jasmine has moved in with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, wonderful here), in her San Francisco apartment. Ginger has never had anyone depend on her before, and Jasmine never needed her for anything until now. But Jasmine is not the greatest houseguest—in fact, she’s rather critical and doesn’t quite know when to keep her mouth shut. This is especially true when she judges Ginger’s apartment and constantly puts down Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Though Chili may have his moments of rage, he is somewhat of an improvement over Ginger’s ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay—yes, Andrew Dice Clay), and doesn’t necessarily deserve to be the butt of Jasmine’s unfavorable remarks.

Life goes on for Jasmine, and it’s something she isn’t prepared for. She has to go find a job, which she isn’t used to at all, and finding one is not easy. She does, however, get a job working as a receptionist for a dentist, but that doesn’t seem to last very long, as she’s an incompetent employee (and it also doesn’t help that the dentist she works for likes to hit on her until it’s the last straw for her—at least she knows the meaning of “sexual harassment”). Also, she’s not very good in social situations like she used to be—due to the events in her life, she has developed a habit of talking to herself without even being aware of it as she gets confused looks from passersby. That, and she’s still as ignorant and selfish as she was when she was rich, making her just a shallow, almost-unbearable woman to be around.

Now, don’t get me wrong—Jasmine is not a one-dimensional bitch, by any means. Because of the flashbacks and a few moments when she’s alone and trying to figure things out for herself, we see how and why she has become who she is and why her life is tragic. We can understand why she acts the way she does. That’s what makes “Blue Jasmine” an effective character-study and a convincing drama.

Cate Blanchett’s performance helps a great deal—she understands this character inside and out and is just excellent here. I hope she gets an Oscar nomination for this performance; she’s that good. And so is Sally Hawkins, who adds a great amount of depth to her role of Jasmine’s sister Ginger, who has her own experiences in life and love, not only with Chili, but also with a sound man she meets at a party, played well by Louis C.K. It’s a credit to Allen that he is still able to use familiar faces for surprising effect, and that’s especially true of the casting of Andrew Dice Clay, who is truly rock-solid here (especially near the end, when he gives a key speech to Jasmine about what’s going on).

Allen still has it. People may not believe it that much anymore, but Allen still has it. And I don’t even know what “it” is, but whatever “it” is, Allen has used it to good effect in “Blue Jasmine,” a nicely-done character piece.