Archive | January, 2014

Why I Don’t Particularly Care for Oscar Predictions

29 Jan

By Tanner Smith

The nominations for the 86th Annual Academy Awards, which represent the best in 2013 for film, were announced January 16th, 2014. People all over the Internet have expressed their glee and outrage, bringing up both pleasant and unpleasant surprises related to which were nominated and which were not. But now, nearly two weeks later, it seems that is done, meaning it’s time for print and electronic media to write about a popular subject in relation to the Oscars: Oscar predictions.

It’s the time of year when the general moviegoing public loves to state who/what is going to win which award. There are two reasons for this. One is, they like to think like the Academy and think they can enhance their knowledge for what the Academy may call art. The second is, they can make a game out of it. Certain Oscar parties are thrown and they have a contest: those who can come close to predicting correctly what’s going to win what award, they get a prize.

To me, it seems that people who post Oscar predictions are becoming a little overconfident nowadays. They seem to really like to state to their peers (or film students as well) that they’re absolutely positive that this actor or actress is going to win that award or that director or producer is going to win that award and so on. It’s to the point where they seem to be a little overzealous on the subject.

I am not one of those people who like to predict who/what’s going to win which Oscar. For that matter, I’m not particularly fond of Oscar predictions either. I can understand that predicting the winners can lead to some entertainment come Oscar night (which is March 2nd, 2014). But on the other hand, it can also make people seem somewhat full of themselves. Maybe I read too much into Oscar predictions when I notice them posted in magazines such as Entertainment Weekly or online websites such as RichardRoeper.com. Maybe they really like to predict the Oscars just to see what they can get right. That’s fine. But I think the main reason I’m not particularly fond of Oscar predictions is because I feel like something is missing from those magazines and websites. That is the lack of explanation for why they believe which is going to what award, as well as lack of statement for opinion, meaning most of these predictions aren’t who they would pick if they were part of the Academy and got to vote. There’s also a lack of acknowledgement for technique and skill and mainly it seems to be all about popularity.

That is why what I would like to see is something that would be considered “old-fashioned.” That would be something that the late film-critic duo Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert used to do on their television programs “At the Movies” and “Siskel & Ebert”: not predicting who will win, but announcing who they each thought should win. Their annual show was entitled “If We Picked The Winners.” That was a definite accurate title for this special show, because they went against what was popular in pre-Oscar times. They stated their own opinions. They stated why they would choose this. They were not members of the Academy, as most film critics aren’t, so this was like wish-fulfillment for them.

This is something I would like to see more of nowadays: people not predicting the Oscar winners, but stating their opinions of who they think should win. Who would they choose if they got a voting ballot for the Oscars? Why can’t I read more posts/stories about why they would like this or that to win? Oscar predictions are not my thing; I’d rather write or talk to people about my personal opinions regarding the Oscars, and I would read or listen to their responses and their opinions as well. You can learn a little about the person that way, you have something to discuss, and you’re not trying to think like you know the Academy’s mindset. Nobody knows for sure what’s going to win the Academy Awards except possibly for members of the Academy. Let it be.

My favorite “If We Picked The Winners” Siskel & Ebert special is their 1986 show. Check it out: Siskel & Ebert: If We Picked The Winners 1986

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Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here’s something I’m not sure anyone would have expected: a Disney film about the making of a Disney film. And it’s not just any Disney film, but “Mary Poppins,” well-known as one of Walt Disney’s best. Yet it also seems kind of ideal of an idea to be made, since the story behind Walt Disney and co. getting the rights to the original source material by author P.L. Travers is an interesting one. That story is made into Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks.”

The film takes place in the early 1960s. Emma Thompson stars as P.L. Travers, the author of the popular “Mary Poppins” books, which Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) has been trying to obtain the rights to for years so he can produce a film adaptation. For 20 years, Travers has resisted the urgency because she isn’t a particular fan of Disney. She can’t abide cartoons, she doesn’t like his lighthearted fare, and she just can’t see her beloved characters treated in a way she’s afraid Disney would do. But now, she’s struggling with her financial situations and feels she has no choice but to agree to let the Disney studio make the “Mary Poppins” film.

She travels from London to Los Angeles to meet and negotiate with Disney, the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), and the writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). But each session tests her patience, as she doesn’t always agree with their decisions. She’s a stubborn, bitter woman who won’t stand for nonsense. They come to compromises (sometimes to her disdain) and Disney tries to open Travers’ heart to what magic he has to offer.

There is a lot of delight in the scenes where she visits with her collaborators, especially for those who know and love the popular Disney film. There are comic moments that reference what almost was and what did become part of the film, and the dialogue in these scenes is just fun to listen to. This is one of the most interesting, entertaining films I’ve seen about the collaborative process in Hollywood filmmaking. Even if some of it doesn’t necessarily ring true, it’s still interesting to watch.

It’s kind of unusual for this film to be made, since it isn’t an entirely pleasant story to be told. But director John Lee Hancock (who also directed the 2002 sports film released by Disney, “The Rookie”) and writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith found a way to make this film sweet and entertaining but also very effective. The story is intercut with the rougher edges of the film, which occur in flashback sequences in which Travers, living in Australia, deals with the sickness of her father (Colin Farrell) who is fighting a losing battle with alcoholism. In these sequences, we see where Travers got the idea for most of the characters and events in her books. We understand their meaning and why they’re so important to Travers.

It can be argued that the contrast between the 1900s flashbacks and the 1960s events makes the former feel like a different film. But I think the combination of light and darkness is suitable for giving the audience an understanding for why Travers feels the way she feels about certain things occurring now. This gives most of her meetings with Disney a greater meaning. And because of the flashbacks, we also have a complete portrait of P.L. Travers, seeing her as a child played by Annie Rose Buckley and as a middle-aged woman played by Thompson.

Emma Thompson carries this movie. Her performance as P.L. Travers is definitely spot-on. She plays a stubborn woman who has had a troubled past, as well as a writer who loves her characters too much to see them ruined. Any writer could relate to that in some way. Thompson’s great here. The surprise performance for me came from Tom Hanks. I didn’t know how well he would portray Uncle Walt himself, but he managed to project the right amount of optimism and happiness that can definitely remind you of the late Hollywood titan. And it’s just hard not to see him as Disney. Note the scene later on when he talks to Travers about why years back, he never gave away his character of Mickey Mouse for money; you can see and hear the sincerity in his performance.

Those who know the story beforehand may have a bit of an issue with the ending of “Saving Mr. Banks.” Without giving too much away, it may rub some people the wrong way. But personally, I would see it as a “on the one hand/on the other hand” resolution. Maybe it doesn’t entirely make clear what Travers is feeling at the premiere screening of “Mary Poppins,” but so what? It didn’t need to go one way by fully presenting what should be felt here; that would have been cheating. Instead, we get an ending that can be analytical and heartwarming at the same time.

For those with a soft spot for “Mary Poppins,” “Saving Mr. Banks” is a treasure. For those who are interested in the collaborative process in a movie studio, it’s also a treasure. And of course that can also be said for those who are straight-up Disney fans. I can relate to all three. I loved “Saving Mr. Banks.” It’s solidly-acted, it’s entertaining, it has an effective balance of comedy and drama, and for lack of a better term, it’s “Disney magic.”

Fruitvale Station (2013)

25 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Fruitvale Station” is one of the strongest films I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s an effective, tragic, well-done account of the last day of the year 2008 and the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III. For those who don’t know, Grant was a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who was celebrating New Year’s with his friends when he was shot and killed by police at the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California. The event was recorded by bystanders on their cellphones and uploaded online, leading to international outrage.

Ryan Coogler makes his feature debut with “Fruitvale Station,” a film based on the events leading up to the incident. It’s obvious Coogler cares so much for the subject that a film about it would have to be done exactly right. And thankfully, he knew how to tell the story. The film is presented in a straightforward way, as if the viewers are innocent bystanders or eavesdroppers as Oscar Grant III goes about his day, not knowing it will be his last. It’s an effective process.

The film begins with actual footage of that incident on the platform, as police brutally pin him to the ground, people shout “hey” and “let him go,” and the cop brings out his gun. Then the film starts, as it’s a dramatization of the day that led up to the incident. Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan) is just going about his day—spending time with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their 4-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), looking to regain his job after having lost it, calling his mother and wishing her a happy birthday, finding her a birthday card, buying seafood for his grandmother’s gumbo, eating dinner and chatting with family, and more, with only one flashback showing that Oscar was once in jail for dealing drugs.

The first half of the film is just an ordinary day in Oscar’s life, but what makes it all tragic is that we know something important that Oscar doesn’t—whatever he does on this day is going to be his last. We know how it will end. He doesn’t. That makes a moment in which he tells his daughter goodnight before he and Sophina set out for a night out with friends—he promises to take her to Chuck E. Cheese the next day, but we know it’s not going to happen.

Then comes that night. Oscar, Sophina, and their friends ride the train, party before the countdown to New Year 2009, come across a couple pleasant people to talk with, and then they step onto the train leading to Fruitvale Station. A fight breaks out when Oscar comes across a hateful ex-cellmate, leading to the arrest of Oscar and his friends on the platform, leading to…

“Fruitvale Station” may be more about Oscar’s final day than it is about Oscar himself, but we do learn a few things while in his company. We know some things about his past, we see how his year in prison makes things uneasy for his mother (well-played by Octavia Spencer), we see his good qualities, we see his bad, we see him interact with people who love him. It’s enough for us to get a good sense of who he was, and Coogler is careful not to present him as a heroic type but as a many-sided human being. Oscar was a regular guy who had his problems but also had people who love him and would miss him. It’s a compelling portrait of such a man who befell a case such as this, and it also leads to one of the most brutal, uneasy scenes I’ve seen in recent memory. When the climax arrives, it’s a truly effective tough case of police brutality and even tougher to stomach as it was based on a true event. Though it also makes you think—do you think anyone would have even remembered Oscar’s name if he wasn’t killed the way he was?

“Fruitvale Station” is never manipulative (even a scene in which Oscar helps a young woman at the grocery store decide which fish to buy is convincing), and even when you think it’s going to be (such as when he helps a dog who just got hit by a car), Coogler finds a way to effectively roughen up the scenes, keeping with the consistency of the film which feels gritty and realistic. He’s aided by an excellent actor in the role of Oscar Grant III. Michael B. Jordan turns in a star-making performance, giving a powerful portrayal of a young man who goes about his day, not knowing it’s his last. He, along with the nontraditional cinematography and solid supporting cast, adds to the compelling nature of “Fruitvale Station,” a film I will not forget anytime soon.

Turn Right On Madness (Short Film) (2014)

21 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Turn Right On Madness” is a short slasher film, and we can go through a checklist of certain elements for the subgenre.

Wrong turn: Check.

Wrong gas station: Check.

Psychotic killer in the middle of the woods: Check.

Death, death, death: Check.

One left alive: Check.

Obligatory scary ambiguous ending: Check.

Heavy blade involved: Check.

Dumb decisions made by characters: Check.

You come to expect these things in a slasher film, and “Turn Right On Madness” is no exception. Indeed, the film is about a group of three young people (that’s a change; usually it’s a group of five) who decide to go camping in the middle of nowhere, take a wrong turn, and get stalked and hunted by a psychotic killer with an axe.

Some of you may be thinking while reading this, “Sounds good! Keep talking!” The rest of you may be thinking this has already been done. And yes, it has already been done, but not entirely. For one thing, there’s something more ominous afoot, as if the characters (played by Geneva Galloway, Steve Helms, and Hannah Blackburn-Parish) were pawns in some sort of sinister game. Technology is involved (echoes of “The Cabin in the Woods”); people inform others through radio that their targets are moving, and what brings these people to danger (or “madness,” if you will) is actually their GPS, which has brought them to their doom. And a delightful touch is that the GPS voice is set to a scary-voice track. There is also where most of the film’s humor comes from—its sinister voice stating a new direction, followed by something along the lines of “if you dare,” followed by mechanized evil laughter. I’ve heard the rant of “technology is evil,” but…wow.

And yes, the GPS does bring them to the “wrong gas station.” Well, at least this one actually looks modern (despite what the Blackburn-Parish character thinks, as she packs a “pink tazer” with her).

Well OK, it does accept cash-only (originally spelt on a sign as “ownly,” being not-so-thoroughly scratched out) for gasoline, but what can you do?

Not too far from the gas station is where the GPS leads them to a remote area, and (in the film’s funniest moment) the car suddenly stops, leaving them stranded in the woods. As they look at the map (yes, there is actually a map), they realize they were led the wrong way, as two of them go into the woods looking for help. Big mistake.

By the way, I love this line by the character left behind while the others embark into the woods—“I would’ve taken the road instead of the woods, but that’s just me.”

Something that shouldn’t surprise me yet nevertheless does is that this film was written, edited, and directed by Sarah Jones, a graduate of the University of Central Arkansas Digital Filmmaking MFA program. The surprise is “Turn Right On Madness” is her first film since the effective 20-minute drama, “John Wayne’s Bed,” Jones’ graduate thesis film. But the more I think about it, this shouldn’t surprise me, as she was involved in shorts such as a vampire thriller and a zombie flick. I can tell she’s a fan of the horror genre, and I can tell those who helped her make the film (including producer Jennifer Mazzacane, who wrote/produced the short horror film, “Campout”) like the horror genre as well. It has a tense moment or two (being a film of 10 minutes in length, that’s about the best you can do, I guess), its blood and gore effects are nicely-done, it seems to have an affection for the slasher-film subgenre, it has some surprises, and of course, being the modern horror film, it can even be a little self-referential.

When all is said and done, “Turn Right On Madness” is a slasher film, and it all depends on whether you can tolerate this type of film and also appreciate the little touches thrown in to make it somewhat more original than the average. The idea of a GPS being the cause of the madness that befalls these three people is both original and funny. There are funny lines of dialogue at certain points in the first 4-5 minutes. The lead actors are fine, though not much range is required for a film like this (even though a certain amount of credible screams help). And I must admit there were a couple moments that did get to me: one was the first death, because it came out of nowhere, and another was the final appearance of the killer (played by Johnnie Brannon). So I’d say I enjoyed this short film. It is what it wants to be and you can tell the filmmakers had fun while making it…well, except for maybe that time when Jones apparently cut her foot with a sheet metal door. But what’s making a horror film without losing some blood in the process?

OK, that may have been a sick joke, and I apologize for that.

On a side-note, I asked Jones why she chose to make this film after something as serious as “John Wayne’s Bed.” She said she wanted to do something “campy and fun after JWB [“John Wayne’s Bed”].” Being a filmmaker myself, I can respect that.

Contracted (2013)

14 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Just to get this out of the way, the tagline for the “Contracted” poster reads “Not Your Average One Night Stand.” And the problem with that is I don’t think the sexual encounter in the opening of this film could be considered a “one night stand” so much as “rape.” Our female protagonist is clearly drunk, the predatory male picks her up, the next thing we know is that they’re getting it on in the back seat of a car with her repeatedly telling him to stop when he doesn’t, and it’s indicated later that roofies were more than likely involved.

Yeah, I’d consider that “rape.”

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Eric England’s “Contracted,” an effectively horrific, suitably gross horror film with as many smarts as gore. It’s a nicely-done chiller that plays as horror and as a cautionary tale about safe sex. It begins as 20something lesbian Samantha (Najarra Townsend) attends a party held by her best friend Alice (Alice Macdonald). Feeling her relationship with her girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman) is deteriorating, she gets smashed, making her the perfect target for a mysterious stranger named BJ (Simon Barrett). Before she knows it, she has unprotected sex with him in a car, which will result in the impending horror.

The next day, which is given the foreboding caption “Day 1.” Samantha awakens with a slight case of the chills. She also has a rash and a bloody…well, never mind. She goes to see a doctor about it, but she gets that usual lame story about blood tests (though why she isn’t given a prescription at least, I couldn’t figure out). But things get even worse during the next couple days, and on Day 3 (which is labeled “Day 3 of 3”), things get even worse as her eyes change color, she gets a sore on her lower lip, and her hair, teeth, and fingernails fall out. (I won’t even mention the maggots.) This is far from STD; she is slowly but surely falling apart and losing her life.

The “grossout quality” is evident throughout “Contracted” and the makeup and effects in how they change the appearance of Najarra Townsend and do some neat practical effects for parts of the body are definitely something to be complimented, as they are well-done. And they did make me squeamish, particularly when Samantha notices something is not quite right with one of her fingernails.

But if that were all “Contracted” was, it would have been creepy but sort of ordinary. What I like about “Contracted” is that it is more of a character study than a straight-up horror flick. We come to understand Samantha as a person and thus we feel for her as she slowly and literally falls apart. There are hints given by her mother (Caroline Williams), whom she lives with, that she has had a troubled past involving drugs and that she has enough to be mad about, particularly with her lesbian lifestyle which her mother disapproves of. And I like that we’re not given expository dialogue about what Samantha has gone through in her life; everything is said to us through either hints of dialogue or how relationships between these characters flow with each meeting.

And Samantha does have a lot to deal with—her mother is overbearing; her girlfriend Nikki is hardly interested anymore; Alice is a little too clingy; there’s a nice guy (played by Matt Mercer) who won’t take the hint that Samantha isn’t interested in him; she isn’t too fond of her waitress job; she would rather do something with her hobby of growing orchids; and so on. There’s too much for her to deal with, which is why she sometimes makes mistakes due to her muddled priorities and sometimes-standoffish attitude. And now she’s had sex with a man for the first time, which came to this disease that is disturbingly ruining her life. But she’s too scared and too naïve to get everything on track once at a time. All that and more leads her to descending into madness and becoming destructive to herself (and to others) once it’s clear there’s no hope for her.

Samantha is not always easy to like, but she is easy to empathize with and you do feel sorry for her. And Najarra Townsend does a great job in the role. There isn’t a single false note in the performance, as far as I’m concerned.

Also, by having “Contracted” be more ABOUT a person, it also has the advantage of being an effective allegory about how people feel in the weird stages of early adulthood and how their deeds can lead to mistakes and consequences.

Not everything in “Contracted” works. Some of the mother’s reactions to her daughter’s illness are a little too unrealistic. You could argue that she’s afraid she’s resorting to old bad habits and she thinks that’s what this led to, but come on. And then there’s the second visit to the doctor, when the doctor notices that Samantha’s “condition” has only gotten worse. He doesn’t take her in for observation; he just tells her not to get in contact with anybody. Really? Then there’s a really nasty encounter with the nice guy who has been stalking Samantha for quite a while. Maybe if he were a little sleazier (or maybe if he were replaced by BJ), that would have been an effective comeuppance, if that’s what it was supposed to be. And what about BJ? (By the way, a brilliant move on the filmmakers’ part is that BJ is always kept out of focus during his scenes.) We don’t see him again except for a moment in which he picks up another woman. Why not put him in the nice guy’s place and give Samantha a moment of revenge?

(Granted, the fact that BJ isn’t given a form of comeuppance is somewhat chilling, since it’s obvious he’s going to keep spreading the disease around.)

Now I must admit I did read a few reviews of this film before watching it, because I am friends with this film’s 2nd 2nd Assistant Director and I wanted to know how the film was doing, critic-wise (as of now, it ranks 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Each one of the reviews I read mentioned a certain word that made me correctly guess the film’s ending. What was that word and would it lead you to assume (possibly correctly) what the payoff to the disease is? I’m not sure I should reveal it. On the one hand, knowing beforehand made the film a little more fascinating in where it was going. On the other hand, I’m not sure how people would react to the final shot. I could see it having mixed reviews—some might react with an awed “whoa” (in a positive way); others might react with a dissatisfied, deadpan “what?”

Well, great. Now I can’t reveal that word now that I’ve built it up so much. People would guess the payoff for sure. Well, I guess the best thing to do would be to say to check out this film and decide for yourself whether you like the payoff or not.

I liked “Contracted.” It has a great protagonist; it’s well-made; it has a nice supporting cast, especially Katie Stegeman as unfriendly Australian lesbian Nikki and Charley Koontz as perpetually high Zain; the make-up effects are outstanding; it’s chilling; and its ending…well, I accepted it. Maybe you will too.