Archive | January, 2015

Magnolia (1999)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us.” The meaning of that quote in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” is at the core of the film, which is a series of tales that involve grief, regrets, resentment, and sadness among their central characters. Yes, “Magnolia” is an ensemble piece (and a three-hour long one at that) with many different storylines surrounding different characters (only some of whom interconnect) while maintaining a consistent theme to make the characters’ stories parallel. This is a risky move for any filmmaker to make, but Anderson not only manages to pull it off; he really manages to pull it off. The three-hour running time is enough time to allow each character to develop and have their full story told; the characters’ stories are interesting enough to keep us invested; the filmmaking is riveting; and here’s the true test of how effective it was for me—I was so empowered by each story being told in this three-hour epic that I rarely even noticed what time it was. This is an example of a wildly ambitious project that works wonderfully.

“Magnolia” takes place in one day in rainy Los Angeles and presents a slice-of-life look at many different people. I suppose it’s best to begin by describing each character. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is a child genius and a star contestant on a popular TV game show, “What Do Kids Know?” He’s a very smart kid who has every answer and the potential to win the ultimate money prize on the show, and his father couldn’t be prouder; in fact, winning the money seems to be the only thing to get his dad’s attention. The show’s host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), has terminal cancer and learned he has two months to live. He wants to try and reconnect with his daughter, a cocaine addict named Claudia (Melora Walters), but she believes (though he doesn’t remember) he molested her as a child. Meanwhile, Claudia meets a friendly but incompetent police officer, Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who looks past the fact that she’s strung out on drugs and just wants to date her and possibly start a relationship.

We also meet a former champion on the show, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who has grown up and is unhappy with how his life turned out. He seeks to gain attention from someone he loves—a bartender with braces—by getting money for “corrective oral surgery” so he himself can get braces on his teeth. At the same time, we have the producer of the show, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), stricken with cancer and on his deathbed. His second wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), is a young woman trying to deal with her imminent loss, and she even admits that she never really loved him and only married him for his money; this self-revelation causes her to think suicidal thoughts. Earl has a dying wish to see his estranged son. His nurse, Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), tries to fulfill that, discovering that the son is actually Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a magnetic guru who aids men in the conquering of women—his mission statement: “Seduce and Destroy.” (Aaron Eckhart’s character in “In the Company of Men” would envy this guy.) Earl abandoned Frank when he was a boy and Frank has never forgiven him, and Frank had to take care of his mother who died of cancer.

All these characters are different but also kind of similar too. The central theme of “Magnolia” could be either parental cruelty and its lasting effect on both the parents and their children or the effects of spiritual and physical cancer and looking back on life in sorrow and guilt. Two of these people, Earl and Jimmy, are dying physically, and maybe even more, such as self-destructive Claudia and depressed Linda, are not too far behind. Along with Claudia, the rest are hiding some deep mental scars brought on by the sins of the parents and have their own defenses—Frank uses his misogynistic self-help to mask his insecurities; Donnie is loving and surely losing; and the boy genius, Stanley, is being pushed by his father to keep answering correctly and go on to win the grand prize. It starts to become too much pressure for him. There are so few who try to help, the two in particular being Jim and Phil. A policeman and a nurse—the only figures who represent care and hope in these people’s lives. But they’re only available for about two or three of the people in question; the others could benefit from their help. (What makes it more upsetting is that the connections Jim and Phil make with the people they come across probably won’t last long.)

For a three-hour ensemble drama, “Magnolia” is perfectly-paced. As strange as that sounds, it was enough to keep me involved in each one of these characters’ stories. There’s a lot that happens in this film (obviously, given its running time), so I can’t say too much about the plot in this review. Even the least interesting storyline (to me, it’s the subplot involving Donnie) has something worthwhile to keep me watching. It not only helps to establish these characters in a strongly realistic portrait of how real people with similar problems behave and interact. It also helps to have a top-notch cinematographer (Robert Elswit, Anderson’s usual DP) to photograph the film beautifully; to edit it energetically; and to add a few eccentric moments, such as when all “dying” characters sing along to an Aimee Mann song playing on the soundtrack (“It’s Not Going to Stop”). But there’s also something that happens near the end…but I’ll get to that later.

Every actor/actress in this terrific ensemble cast does a spectacular job. Newcomer Jeremy Blackman is terrific as a kid under tremendous pressure; I felt for this kid at a crucial point when he realizes this game isn’t fun anymore. Julianne Moore does a great job at making Linda into someone who is always sympathetic even in times when she can be unlikable. Jason Robards delivers arguably his best scene in any film he’s been in: a heartbreaking bedridden monologue about how many regrets he has in his life now he’s at death’s door. John C. Reilly radiates a soft gentleness to his policeman character, and he and Melora Walters share a nice, offbeat relationship together. Philip Baker Hall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and William H. Macy are equally effective. And then there’s Tom Cruise—this may just be the best performance I’ve ever seen from this top-notch star, playing Frank with much charisma with much sadness hiding underneath. It’s a spellbinding portrayal.

It’s hard to pick my favorite scene—is it the prologue involving urban legends?; is it Stanley’s breakdown on the air?; is it Earl’s monologue about regret and guilt?; is it Frank’s tearful reunion with his dying father?; is it the beautiful sequence in which all “dying” characters (figuratively and literally) share a musical number?; is it the extraordinary, completely out-of-nowhere occurrence near the end of the film? How about the whole thing?

If you’ve seen the film, you’re probably wondering what I make of said-“extraordinary, completely out-of-nowhere occurrence.” This was a sequence that took everyone by surprise in its original release, caused many debates, and even split many audiences and critics in their overall opinion of the film (some say it was a work of genius while others say it was an unbelievable copout; if you haven’t guessed, I belong to the former group). If you don’t know what it is, I won’t reveal it here, but I will say this—nothing in the first 2 hours and 40 minutes of this film will prepare you for it. I certainly wasn’t prepared for it. It may be a copout for some people who thought it ruined a perfectly good setup of effective human conduct and communication, but to me, it only raised the film to a new level that I was fascinated by it. I found myself thinking more about it the second time I watched the film. (I also realize that without the prologue that indicates that even the most improbable things can happen in life, this ending would have made no sense at all.)

P.T. Anderson’s “Magnolia” is simply a wonderful piece of work—a very well-put-together ensemble drama that quite frankly, I would even rank higher than Robert Altman’s best works. I cared about each character, I felt like I knew each of them rather than just some of them, and again, I was engaged by all their storylines, which to me is its biggest accomplishment. Maybe I understand it or I was in the right mood for it when I first watched it, but “Magnolia” was a tremendous film for me to experience.

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2014 Review

22 Jan

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2014 Review

By Tanner Smith

It’s that time of year! The time I feel like a true critic. The time to recap the films I saw this year. So let’s start off this wonderful time of the year with…my Least Favorite Films of 2014.

For starters, the runners-up (the films I can only give mixed reviews to)—(Divergent, Little Accidents, Magic in the Moonlight, The Monuments Men, Non-Stop and…Interstellar; I’m sorry, but the film just didn’t work for me very well)

5. Devil’s Knot—Probably the most redundant film of the year, a fictional narrative based on the West Memphis 3 trials. We’ve already had many great, hard-hitting, harrowing documentaries (the Paradise Lost trilogy and West of Memphis) covering this subject of three young men given unfair trials in the face of an angry public who cried out for blood after a grisly murder. This film doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t seen or heard before in a more compelling documentary.
4. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones—I had a little bit of hope for this current “Paranormal Activity” sequel, as its surreal terror was moved to a more interesting location (the ghetto rather than suburbia). But my hopes were dashed when I saw where it story was going. It’s one thing if it’s repetitive of the earlier films’ formulas; it’s another if the story has enough material to make you laugh rather than quiver. This “scary” film has: a Simon game that can communicate with spirits; gangsters going up against witches; and even time-travel.
3. That Awkward Moment—A dumb romantic comedy mainly from the perspective of the guys, but unfortunately, no matter what viewpoint it’s from, the film still doesn’t escape the typical romcom clichés I’m tired of seeing. And seriously, why would Zac Efron’s character wear that embarrassing costume to a party he knows his girlfriend’s family and friends are attending?
2. Life After Beth—A definite disappointment for me because I’ve always found Aubrey Plaza to be very funny and appealing. But as a zombified “angry girlfriend,” she is just flat-out irritating in this would-be comedy about a lonely guy (Dane Dehaan) getting another chance at his lost love. Despite the reliable cast (which also includes John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, and Anna Kendrick) and an engaging premise, the film is a mess. There are too many scenes of people either saying and doing things that hardly make sense, its attempts at broad comedy just result in awkwardness and everyone being loud and annoying, and even when it looks like there’s going to be a bright spot (supplied by Anna Kendrick who’s usually always lovable), and the script needed a lot of work as it clearly doesn’t know where to go and where to stay. I hope Joe Dante’s upcoming film with a similar premise (entitled “Burying the Ex”) is much better.

And my Least Favorite Film of 2014 is…

1. Men, Women & Children—Just thinking about this film makes me cringe. It’s well-intentioned about how society relies so much on social media but it’s handled all wrong in a heavy-handed way. Great acting from talent such as Adam Sandler, Rosemarie Dewitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, among others, can’t save this film from its laughable script and poor attempt at social commentary. It’s lame, tedious, pretentious, and about as effective and informative about society as “Reefer Madness!” Yeah I said it. I hate this film, and the sooner this cast and their director (Jason Reitman) can move on from it, the better.

SPECIAL CATEGORIES:
I Liked It, You Didn’t: Horrible Bosses 2, A Night in Old Mexico
You Liked It, I Didn’t: Interstellar
Film I Didn’t Expect to Enjoy But Did: About Last Night, The Purge: Anarchy
Could’ve Been Better: Non-Stop
Best Musical Moment: Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s dance to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from The Skeleton Twins
Funniest Scene: Groot’s smile from Guardians of the Galaxy (with Channing Tatum’s joyous reaction from 22 Jump Street and the chain-link fence gag from Horrible Bosses 2 as honorable mentions)
Most Overstuffed Story: The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Creepiest Moment: The moment of truth in Oculus
Most Memorable Song: “Everything is Awesome” from Lego Movie
Best Performance of the Year: J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
Haven’t Seen Yet But Would Like To: Big Hero 6, Citizenfour, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Foxcatcher, Fury, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Inherent Vice, A Most Wanted Man, A Most Violent Year, St. Vincent, Top Five, Unbroken, and Wild

Special Mention #1: Mark Thiedeman’s Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls. This tender 40-minute coming-of-age comedy-drama is quite honestly one of my personal favorite films of this or any year, which is why it’s unfortunate that it only has one previous screening (so far), this past summer’s Little Rock Film Festival (where it received the award for Best Arkansas Film). Here’s hoping for more to come in 2015, because more people need to see it! I just can’t recommend this film enough.

Special Mention #2: Taylor Feltner’s Man Shot Dead is a terrific documentary I also noticed at the LRFF (it also screened recently at the Indie Memphis Film Festival). I really hope it moves on to even more screenings in 2015 because, again, this is a film more people need to see!

Five Terrific LRFF-Selected Short Films (in alphabetical order): Tara Sheffer’s 13 Pieces of the Universe, David Bogard’s A Matter of Honor, Caleb Fanning’s Origin, Bruce Hutchinson’s Sidearoadia, John Hockaday’s Stuck

But wait! Shouldn’t I list my favorite films of the year already?

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): 22 Jump Street, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Joe, Lego Movie, To Kill a Man, X-Men: Days of Future Past

Oh, and I liked these as well: About Last Night, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Before I Disappear, Big Eyes, The Book of Life, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Fault in Our Stars, Godzilla, The Heart Machine, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Muppets Most Wanted, Neighbors, A Night in Old Mexico, Oculus, The Sacrament, The Signal, The Skeleton Twins

Okay, enough stalling. There are my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2014.

10. Locke—Not the most exciting concept (a man goes on a long drive alone in the dark, making decisions through cellphone calls that will ruin his life) but nonetheless brought to life with much dramatic tension put into its writing and a top-notch performance by Tom Hardy, leading an effective one-man show.

9. American Sniper—In my opinion, it’s Clint Eastwood’s best film in a long while and Bradley Cooper’s best work. I can’t say enough about how good Cooper is or how riveting the war-action sequences are in this film. What’s a true relief about this film is that, like the more subtle war films, it doesn’t have an interest in politics; it makes every scene personal and lets you decide for yourself what you’re supposed to feel. A gripping picture.

8. Nightcrawler—A compelling, disturbingly effective character study and a well-made, tense thriller, as well as a fitting satire on news media. Great leading performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy—This Marvel-superhero film was definitely one of the most fun times I’ve had at the movies this year. It’s action-packed, it has solid characterization, it’s full of heart, and arguably more important, it has a sense of humor. Instead of going for an epic story, it’s more in the spirit of “why not” with its giddiness. This may just be our generation’s “Ghostbusters,” and that’s a compliment indeed.

6. Whiplash—This was a riveting, intense film about striving for greatness, being pushed too far to achieve it, and the conflict of hardly knowing when to draw the line. The film is less of a sports formula drama and more of a tense thriller. J.K. Simmons, as a tough jazz instructor, gives the performance of a lifetime.

5. The Imitation Game—All in one, this film is an intriguing film about a previously unsung hero, a WWII tale told not with fighting strategy (nor does it even take place on the front) but with intellectual thought, and an unnerving portrait of how ignorance based on a person’s offbeat personality/behavior can blind the fact that that person’s activities saved millions of lives. Great screenplay and a top-notch performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.

4. Birdman—A truly fantastic film that takes us behind the scenes of a difficult Broadway production and through the mindset of a hard-working, washed-up actor looking for redemption. Remarkable cinematography, excellent acting, and an environment that sucks you in—a film that definitely deserves to be checked out.

3. Rich Hill—I’ve seen films try and truly capture what it’s like growing up in the South, but this documentary shows the real deal in a hard but sensitive journey into the lives of three teenage boys who live in Rich Hill, Missouri. The result is one of the finest films of this or any year.

2. Life Itself—It was fascinating to find out all the things I didn’t know about one of my late heroes, film critic Roger Ebert, through this documentary based on his memoirs. It gives us a talking-head approach with interviews from people from his life before giving us a fly-on-the-wall perspective to see just how much Roger suffered during the final months and years of his life; sometimes it was hard to watch. The commentary near the end, by Roger’s wife Chaz, is one of the most heartbreaking I’ve heard in any documentary. Four stars for the story of Roger Ebert.

And my favorite film of 2014 is…

1. Boyhood—This is like the ultimate slice-of-life picture: presenting little moments in the arc of a boy growing into a man. I’m aware of its history and that it took a few days a year for 12 years to get that genuine chronological feel, but I would never label “Boyhood” as a gimmick film. It’s a moving, intimate epic about coming of age. There were times when I felt like I knew this kid or even was this kid. It spoke to me, touched me deeply, and is the absolute best film I’ve seen all year.

American Sniper (2014)

18 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Clint Eastwood’s war thriller-drama “American Sniper” grabs you by the shirt and nearly rips it off after holding on for so long. That’s a compliment to how riveting its intense action sequences are. Here, at a time when it seems nearly impossible to shoot action without the use of a tripod, are some well-shot, fully-realized battle scenes that are among the best in any war film I’ve seen. You can see everything fine, it’s exciting, and it captures the essence (and madness) of war really well. What makes it all work better is that, unlike most action films or thrillers you see coming to the big screen here and there, I actually care about who’s involved in the chaos.

The film is loosely based on the life of Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, who served four tours in Iraq in the 2000s, and it has received a controversy about how much of his story was exaggerated and how much was never mentioned at all (that is described in his autobiography of the same name). Either way, it’s a fascinating film that paints a clear portrait of a man who wishes to serve his country in any way he can and becomes a “legendary” American sniper in country, with 160 confirmed kills, but still try to keep what’s left of his humanity/mental-state intact out of country.

Bradley Cooper stars in arguably his best work to date as Kyle. While watching this film, I forgot I was watching Cooper in a performance and instead saw Chris Kyle. It’s tough to fully describe how shockingly good he is in this role; it has to be seen to be believed.

We follow Kyle on four Iraq tours, as well as times with his family in between. As I said before, the action sequences are outstanding, with one powerful scene after another—my favorites include an important opening kill, a tense, drawn-out rescue attempt against an interrogation that involves a drill, and a shoot-to-kill scenario where the target is about a mile away. But oddly enough, it’s when he’s home that the film is at its weakest. Its theme of trying to cope in the real world, which we’ve seen better in other films, is more standard in the way it’s presented, even though there are some effective tricks Eastwood pulls for us to feel something (the best of which involves a blank TV screen). But even so, I suppose it’s needed. After all, it’s important to care about Kyle and what he has to live for.

Would the film be more compelling if everything they left out from the book was put into the film? Probably, but then again, as I hear, the book is more about patriotism which would have made a more “complete” film more of a propaganda than anything else. But I’m reviewing this film, not the book. As a film, it’s terrific and one I won’t forget anytime soon.

Men, Women & Children (2014)

14 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I won’t deny that our dependence on modern technology is a social problem. And to be fair, Jason Reitman’s ensemble drama “Men, Women & Children” poses an interesting question—are we so lonely in the world that we spend more time with our computers and our phones than anything (or anyone) else? This is a film that wants to be (“be,” not “make”) a profound statement on how we all, as a society, rely on social media, not to mention online gaming and pornography. Unfortunately, what should be a deep, moving, effective portrait about where we are now is reduced to a heavy-handed, overbearing, even laughable-at-times mess of a film that tries to say more than it actually is. This film is about as informative a social commentary as “Reefer Madness.”

The film, based on a novel by Chad Kulgen, is an ensemble piece, featuring many talented actors portraying the film’s many central focuses: a group of high school students and their parents who have their own tales being told here, each of them related to how technology is running his or her life. Adam Sandler is effectively low-key as Donny, a family man who is hardly satisfied with his marriage to his wife, Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), anymore, and seeks excitement from his son’s pornography. Meanwhile, Helen has a similar problem, unbeknownst to him, and their son, Chris (Travis Tope), can’t get aroused by any human sexual contact due to watching so much porn. Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), a popular cheerleader with her own website full of “modeling” photos, finds this out as she makes her advance toward him but makes up a lie to her classmates. Who’s running Hannah’s website, you may ask? It’s her mother (Judy Greer), who hopes that it will help give her daughter a career in modeling or acting. (It’s indicated that she herself took her shot at one way back when.) Hannah’s friend, Allison (Elena Kampouris), wants to be thin and gets advice from a website about anorexics; of course, this causes her to starve herself.

The campus football star, Tim (Ansel Elgort), quits the team after his mother abandoned him and his father, Kent (Dean Norris), and finds himself questioning life and existence, as well as playing an online game nonstop. He also starts a nice relationship with a wallflower girl, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who has a secret social-media account to keep her outrageously overprotective mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who keeps track of her daughter’s texts, calls, Facebook account, everything. Oh, and she also leads a discussion group where she tries to warn the parents of the neighborhood about the “evils” of online media.

While all these stories are taking place, they’re being observed by an omnipresent narrator (voiced by Emma Thompson), who I guess is supposed to be the voice of Voyager (which we cut to in space every now and then), observing with pity how mankind is becoming worse. And right there is the biggest problem of the film. The execution at work is too condescending, too arrogant, and too messy that it doesn’t leave a tragic impact as much as a dull impression. The way all of these issues are being addressed is just too much to take in, let alone take seriously. And there are far too many callbacks to Carl Segan’s “Pale Blue Dot” that the point is far gone out the window. I’m not moved; I’m just bored. And don’t even get me started on the 9/11 references.

The actors do what they can with what they have, but another problem with the film is that just about everyone is neither appealing nor interesting. And what’s worse is, by the end, their actions are both insufferable and questionable. Near the end, Patricia, who has found out about her daughter’s secret Tumblr account she uses to communicate with Tim, goes so far as to shoot Tim down (not letting him know who she really is), causing Tim to do something that is supposed to be sad and tragic but is instead annoyingly blasé. Lucky for me, I gave up around the point when Helen sees a prostitute midway through.

I really wish director Jason Reitman, who made himself a name with such effective satires as “Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno,” and “Up in the Air,” went sharper with this material and mocked the subject material in a ironic way rather than try to shock and awe us with the dangers of a modern problem. As is, I found “Men, Women & Children” to be awful and, even worse, boring. The sooner this talented director and this large talented cast can move on from this, the better.