Archive | September, 2015

Three Colors: Red (1994)

22 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Red,” the final chapter in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors Trilogy,” was sadly also Kieslowski’s final film before his untimely death. That the film is excellent for reasons I’m about to describe is a testament to the great Polish filmmaker’s magnificent career.

If the first two parts of the trilogy were very good, then “Red” is one I would call one of the best foreign films of the 1990s if not of all time. (Of course, calling a certain kind of film one of the greatest of “all time” would indicate that I’ve seen every movie, which I certainly haven’t.) Having seen it five times now, I’m always convinced with each viewing that I’m seeing a masterpiece. This is a film that explores the themes of fraternity, platonic love, and kismet in such a rich, complex way that it can lead to heavy discussions among movie-loving groups upon seeing it.

The best thing about a certain series is how each chapter has a story from one individual’s point of view. That makes the ideas similar and somewhat connected to other episodes but also causes each separate one to become its own self-contained story. You can watch “Red” as a stand-alone film and get as much about the ending as one would when associating it with the previous “Three Colors” films, “Blue” and “White.” Those who have seen “Blue” and “White,” like me, however, get an even stronger feeling from “Red.” Its ending brings closure to the other films while tying to this one as well. I won’t give it away here, but it brings its complicated, unstable characters together in a brilliant way that makes the central themes of the entire trilogy even more powerful.

But back to “Red”—the story involves a young, beautiful model named Valentine (Irene Jacob), who accidentally hits a dog with her car. She tracks down the wounded dog’s owner, a retired old judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and is surprised to find that the judge is indifferent to the dog and seemingly to her. He tells her she can keep the dog, but the dog runs back home, and this is when Valentine discovers the judge’s secret: he has tapped into people’s phones illegally so he can listen in on their conversations. She’s confused as to why he would invade their privacy; he simply listens in and analyzes what they will do after certain calls. (And sometimes he’s right.) But he doesn’t enjoy it—he hardly enjoys anything anymore, ever since tragic instances caused him to leave the court. He doesn’t even interfere in these people’s lives; he simply listens and lets them go about their day, much like God giving the human race free will (a bit of heavy symbolism, but it’s still there). Valentine is fascinated and somewhat unnerved by her discovery of the judge’s private life, while the judge is interested that someone now knows his secret, and they form an odd friendship. While that’s going on, we see the story of a would-be judge, named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), who is actually a neighbor to Valentine and also one of the people being spied upon by the judge. He’s devoted to his girlfriend, Karin (Frederique Feder), but it seems fate has another idea for them.

I didn’t quite get the parallel story involving Auguste and Karin the first time I saw “Red,” but the more times I watch it, the more I realize how similar Auguste’s present is to the old judge’s past, which I found fascinating to ponder. And I was unsure why exactly Auguste and Valentine would be in the same frame without ever actually meeting (or maybe they will); hell, the film even opens (with a remarkable shot, by the way, of telephone wires crossing) with Valentine making a call and then Auguste answering a call but not from her (instead, she was calling her boyfriend and he received a call from Karin). What does this mean? Again, I have to go back to the ending, which I still can’t talk about, but the more I thought about it, the more intriguing the concept of fate became as I watched it. And while we’re on the subject of fate, that’s what’s been controlling the characters of “Blue” and “White,” as well as the characters of this film, all along. When watching all three films, especially after seeing this one and returning to the others, you start to think about the themes that are apparent in each one, especially the theme of destiny. (It’s also worth nothing that this film loves to play with foreshadowing. Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.)

The color “red” stands for the theme of fraternity, or “platonic love.” Of course, the color is seen in nearly every shot with red objects and filters (and, by the way, the cinematography is absolutely lovely). There are no sexual overtones to be found in the friendship between Valentine and the judge; just interest. She’s fascinated by him, and vice versa. Their relationship is even more interesting when you realize that they’re on opposing sides on views of human nature—he has very little hope for humanity and she keeps her faith, despite him trying to convince her. And sometimes, she even gets to him; the moment that spells that out clearly is the scene where he shows up at a fashion show to see her—something otherwise unexpected for him to do. That’s the beauty of this friendship: you have no idea what’s going to happen. As with “Blue” and “White,” nothing is as simple as it may seem (or…even as simple as the judge might believe it to be; really think about that).

There is so much I’m probably missing in discussing “Red,” and I embrace this film for challenging me and making me think about what’s happening in the film and what it relates to in life. The more I watch this film, the more I learn from it. “Red” is a masterful conclusion to an already riveting trilogy, and even better, Kieslowski’s finest film in an already glorious career.

And I’ll tell you something else I got from the ending, which I still won’t give away: life is precarious and every moment you can cherish should be cherished forever. I love this film.

Three Colors: White (1994)

22 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“White” is the second entry in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors Trilogy.” It works fine as a stand-alone film, but it’s even better when seen as a middle chapter in a trilogy of films about liberty, equality, and fraternity. (“White” is about equality, while its predecessor, “Blue,” is about liberty.) It’s lighter in tone than the previous film, but it’s still droll enough to have you believe it’s a part of this series, while not being as emotionally consistent as “Blue.” But mind you, that’s only a nitpick mostly in comparison to “Blue” and the final film in the trilogy, “Red.”

Polish actor Zbigniew Zamachowski stars as shy, insecure Karol Karol, who has lost everything after his Parisian wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy), left him in humiliating circumstances. Down on his luck, he becomes a beggar at a train station until a fellow countryman, named Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), befriends him and decides to help bring him home to Poland, where Karol owned a hairdressing salon. There, he gets a job, rebuilds his life, and eventually plans revenge against Dominique. But when it comes to that time, will he go through with it? Does he still love her? Does she love him?

One of the problems people have with “White” is that we don’t see very much of Dominique (which is kind of surprising, given that she’s on the poster & DVD cover; you’d think Julie Delpy was the star of the film, which is not the case). What makes this a problem is the argument that the resolution isn’t as successful as it should be. We see so much of Karol and get a good sense of who he is as a person, but we know very little about Dominique. The reason it doesn’t work so well here rather than “Blue” is that in “Blue,” we knew very little about Julie but gradually got an idea of her mindset while following her on her journey in life. Here, we’re too sure of Karol and still pondering about Dominique when she isn’t the main focus. And what we see of her looks like an immensely interesting character we’d like to know more about. Something that could’ve fixed this “flaw” (again, this could be argued) is a few more scenes with her back in France while Karol is in Poland; give us a little more of her and more or less reason she has revenge coming. She doesn’t have enough screen time, in my opinion.

With that said, Karol is fine as a character. We get an accomplished portrait of a man who was happy with his wife, distraught when he lost her, regretful when he dedicated everything to her, afraid when he has to go to some heavy measures just for a job, and ultimately, in a wonderful ending, remorseful when his plan worked all too well. I may have some problems with “White,” but I can’t deny it’s a nicely-done character study. And I guess us not fully understanding his feelings toward Dominique compensates for our lack of knowledge toward Dominique.

While “Blue” was an anti-tragedy, “White” is anti-comedy. By that, I don’t mean it’s not funny but that the humor comes from the irony and the unpredictability of human nature. For example, the funniest scene in the movie is not one that many would predict. Karol makes it home to Poland by smuggling himself in a suitcase. What happens to that suitcase, I’ll leave you to find out.

Again, as with “Blue,” using color to spell out the theme was a bold and effective choice. “White” of course uses white objects in nearly every shot to spread the theme of equality, just as “Blue” used color for the theme of liberty.

“White” might need to be seen twice to fully understand the “equality” theme a little more. I didn’t get it so much the first time, but the second time made me notice more about the story and characters, and therefore made me ask more questions, enriching the experience a third time. Maybe “White” doesn’t have the same impact as “Blue” or “Red,” but it’s still effective in its own way.

Side-note: if you noticed in “Blue,” Zamachowski and Delpy make brief appearances, and likewise, in “White,” Juliette Binoche, the star of “Blue,” has a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo. All three actors appear at the end of “Red,” bringing everything in the trilogy together in a subtle, brilliant way. But I’ll get to that in the Red review.

Three Colors: Blue (1994)

22 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

After Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski created something ambitious with his “Decalogue” film series, which was a collection of short stories having to do with the Ten Commandments in modern life in ambiguous, satiric, and ironic ways, he decided to make something similarly impressive with the “Three Colors Trilogy.” The “three colors” in the title are blue, white, and red—the three colors of the French flag. And each film has to do with one of the three notions of the French motto: liberty (blue), equality (white), and fraternity (red). Writers Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz create three films to show how these ideals function in everyday life, from an individual’s point of view. According to Kieslowski, “When you deal with them practically, you do not know how to live with them. Do people really want liberty, equality, and fraternity?”

The first in the trilogy, “Blue,” is centered around the subject of “liberty,” specifically personal, emotional liberty. The main focus is a Frenchwoman named Julie (played wonderfully by Juliette Binoche), who at the start of the film loses her husband and daughter in a car accident which she survives. She recovers fine but only physically. Emotionally, she’s a wreck as she tries to deal with her loss, while at the same time, she hardly seems to feel anything anymore. At one point, she even seduces and sleeps with a man who is smitten by her, possibly just so she can feel something again. After that encounter, she sets off for a new life. She sells her house, burns her late-composer-husband’s compositions, puts her mother in a home, and goes to live in an apartment building, with no name to herself, no time for love or friendship, and not even any children in the building, as she wishes. But fate runs another course for her—things in the present force Julie to have to face them, and the past is far from at rest, leading to her confronting that too.

There are many movies like this where you could easily predict what is going to happen in a character’s life because the characters are thinking in terms of plot, and therefore, it’s easy to tell where they’re going. But “Blue” is different in the way it conveys real emotion and real pain, and it puts in a lead character who is very complicated and hard to figure out because she has nothing figured out. And therefore, that makes her an interesting person to follow, because we’re not sure what she’s going to do next. For that matter, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in her life that she’ll have to deal with! That’s because despite what she may think of her life (and what we all may think of our own lives), there is hardly any control.

That is what makes “Blue” so powerful. It hardly takes the easy way out and thinks things for us—it has a character who’s always thinking, and so, we have to figure out exactly what’s on her mind when she does certain things. The overall mood and grim atmosphere of the film suck the audience in so that they want to know what goes on with this woman and will follow her anywhere. The slow progression of Julie’s “new life” is fascinating, as we see her cope with isolation and loneliness and contemplate what life has to offer after tragedy.

It’s also worth nothing that “Blue” is a beautiful-looking film. To go with the theme of liberty and the color blue, nearly every shot contains a blue object and is often done with a blue filter as well.

“Blue” is a wonderful film and a very strong first entry in the “Three Colors Trilogy.” Will the second film in the series appear stronger or weaker by comparison? Join me in the review of White for the answer.

The Dirties (2013)

19 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In “The Dirties,” film-buff/high-school student Matt has been bullied very often, to the point where he decides to turn his plight into art. He and his best (and only) friend, a fellow outcast named Owen, secretly record themselves being bullied, as part of Matt’s revenge-fantasy project for film-class, in which he and Owen act out the murders of their tormentors.

And not only that, but Matt insists that he and Owen are filmed at all times because he has something bigger planned in mind for his next project. He even buys a set of lavalieres so he has no issues with audio. For his next big project, he plans to make a companion piece to the previous film, in which he films himself actually bringing a gun to school and shooting the bullies, because since he suffered for his art, they apparently might as well do the same.

If you’re wondering right away, yes, “The Dirties” is technically another “found-footage” movie, as it’s shown through the camera’s (or multiple cameras’) point(s) of view. Oddly though, the people filming are hardly ever identified. Who is filming all of this? We never know. For all we know, it could more another student or two, or it could be a documentary crew who gave the kids expensive lavalieres and wanted to make a documentary about bullying and being bullied. Then again, maybe the latter isn’t true, since Matt seems to have edited the “film” the way he wanted.

With that strange tidbit aside, “The Dirties” is actually a well-put-together, compelling portrait of disaffected youth and a descent into sociopathic behavior. That a film geek is the main character is even more interesting. Matt (well-played by the writer-director himself, Matt Johnson) loves film, he loves to spew movie quotes, and he loves to play with the camera when he’s filmed, like his life is a movie because it’s better than accepting a normal teenage life in a school environment where he’s picked on constantly. And we hardly even see his parents, so it seems like he has very little support from anyone else other than Owen (Owen Williams), his only friend. And Owen is at the point in his life where he’d rather do something else, like make new friends and get a girlfriend, and he’s slowly but surely breaking away from Matt. The biggest turning point in Owen’s life is when Matt is too obsessed with his art, never talks to Owen like a real person anymore (and instead, as a “character”), and even scarier, actually seems serious about performing a school shooting. Earlier, he may have just assumed Matt was only kidding, but when he sees that Matt has blueprints of the school (and this is after they’ve had target practice, using real guns), there’s hardly a doubt anymore. These are real kids with real issues—issues of being bullied, isolation, moving on, drifting apart, and even some points, being bullies to each other and eventually to their own bullies.

School shootings are such a risky topic to focus on in America, especially in film, and “The Dirties” may be the first one I’ve seen that really dives into what can cause such a horrific event. When the promising sociopath feels like a real person, instead of a standard, cold, distant, ruthless, cold-hearted killer, that makes it overall tragic; when a funny, artistic, even empathetic guy is also bullied and more that can cause him to take drastic measures for revenge.

Even more tragic is that he’s a high-school teenager who has very little to focus on other than his art. And everyone else is slow to catch on that even the original project was an outlet for his frustration; even the teacher doesn’t catch on, because his only concern is the violence and profanity that he feels needs to be deleted. As for the students, when they see the finished first project early on, they’re not concerned at all; they’re just laughing and mocking Matt and Owen.

The actual shooting occurs in the last few minutes of the movie, and thankfully, Johnson doesn’t dwell on that as much as Matt’s dangerous status and complete loss of innocence, making himself even more of an outcast. It does this by saying little and even doing little. It focuses on the right powerful moment to tell us this as it becomes clear. This is no game anymore. In fact, it never was.

The riskiest thing about “The Dirties” and what I think it deserves high points for is it portrays Matt as a real kid. I’ve known people like him and Owen. At some point, we were all like them, in a way. So, when they get pushed to the limit, we can see why one of them could be moved to retaliate. And there may even be more that we’re just not seeing.

Before anyone goes crazy, let me emphasize that I do not think committing horrific violent acts is acceptable or condonable. And that’s certainly not what’s supposed to be taken from “The Dirties”—those who do take that from this completely miss the point Johnson was trying to make. Also, the movie doesn’t provide us with many clear answers…but it does raise more questions about what causes something like this to happen.

American Heart (1993)

18 Sep
AMERICAN HEART, Edward Furlong, Jeff Bridges, 1993

AMERICAN HEART, Edward Furlong, Jeff Bridges, 1993

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In the mid-1980s, director Martin Bell made the Academy Award nominated documentary Streetwise, which followed the lives of several homeless children in Seattle. One of its subjects was a 16-year-old hustler named Dewayne, whose father was incarcerated for robbery. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Dewayne visits his father in prison and his father assures him that some day, they’ll be a family and go into business together after they’ve cleaned themselves up. And the most tragic moment of the film is when it’s revealed at the end that Dewayne committed suicide just before his 17th birthday.

“American Heart,” Bell’s 1993 fictional film based on this relationship and other aspects documented in “Streetwise,” contains the same spirit of grittiness and honesty. As a result, it’s a well-acted, well-written drama about the universal problems poor people face in the inner city.

Jeff Bridges stars as Jack, an ex-con just released from jail and trying to get his life back on track. Edward Furlong is Nick, Jack’s teenage son who has been staying at his aunt’s farm most of his life. Nick tracks Jack down and wants to stay with him, but Jack tries to send him back, with no avail. Realizing he’s stuck with the kid, Jack tries to make the best of it while also getting a job and making a living without resorting to old habits. He’s not a very good role model and the father-son relationship is edgy. As days pass, they find ways to connect, but problems arise as well, leading to trouble.

Meanwhile, there are three subplots. But each one connects to the main plot (as the best subplots do) in an effective way and they’re all well-done. One involves a relationship between Jack and Charlotte (Lucinda Jinney), a female cab driver Jack corresponded with while in prison. It’s sweet, funny, well-acted, and well-written, especially considering the undercurrents Charlotte adds to Jack and Nick’s relationship, which is already strained. Nick isn’t sure how to feel about Charlotte being there, since Jack is spending more time with her than with him. Another subplot involves Nick falling in with a crowd of streetwise kids and, among them, gets a girlfriend of his own: Molly (Tracey Kapisky), whose mother works as a stripper. The problem here is that Molly helps bring Nick down to her friends’ world of crime and debauchery. But Nick is in love with her and doesn’t care what happens to him. And it’s here where Jack must become a better father to his son. And then there’s Rainey (Don Harvey), who used to work big scores with Jack before he was imprisoned. Jack wants nothing to do with him anymore, but then Rainey goes after Nick, who can’t quite resist what he could get away with.

Jeff Bridges is perfect as Jack. This is honestly one of the best performances this great actor has ever pulled off in a long, successful career. I don’t see Jeff Bridges playing a part; I see a rugged, shaggy, burned-out man who feels hopeless and is constantly trying to get his life together while also keeping track of his son who he hasn’t seen in years. Edward Furlong is just as convincing as Nick, bringing a good sense of yearning and solemnity to the role of a kid seeking a bond with his father.

The script is very well-done. There are some effective lighthearted moments amidst the dark material of the film; the dialogue is perfect; and the back half doesn’t allow the easy way out, in which everything goes right. Not everything does turn out right. That’s life—life’s tough, get a helmet. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

Overall, “American Heart” is a terrific film. The performances are great, the script is fantastic, and the issues are as prominent now as they were in the early-1990s, when the film was made.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

18 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For most people, it’s hard to find a better concert film than Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense.” At the time of its release, it was declared the “greatest concert film of all time” and was also notable for being the first movie made entirely using digital audio techniques. The techniques worked and the movie also had non-intrusive camera movements that also worked in its favor, capturing the fierce, dynamic energy of a fun rock concert. It’s hard to deny the film’s technical drive.

This is especially important, because what really distinguish a concert film from an album are the musical performance and the cinematography. And “Stop Making Sense,” capturing the high spirits and exhilarating impact of a riveting Talking Heads concert, has a lot going for it that cause audiences to praise it as much as they do.

For those who don’t know, the Talking Heads were a most influential and popular rock/funk group from the late-‘70s to the early-‘80s. Their music, which includes popular singles such as “Burning Down the House” and “Girlfriend is Better,” contains a large amount of types, such as rock, ska, and so forth. And oddly enough, for the time their songs were created, they hardly feel dated and are as enjoyable today as they may have been back when they were topping the pop charts.

The film was filmed over the span of four concerts in four days, with the first day being a dry run/rehearsal so director Demme and his crew can figure out where to position the cameras, and the other three days being the actual filming days, leaving the final version to be a showcase of the concert from all three performances. And strangely, for a musical documentary, the whole hour-and-a-half running time is directed at the stage and the band. No backstage footage. No interviews. Even the concert audience is rarely seen. It’s just David Byrne, his band, and the music—that’s it. And really, that’s all the film needed.

I love how the film begins. It’s low-key, beginning with a solo effort (with help from a cassette tape) from Byrne (“Psycho Killer”), a duet with Tina Weymouth (“Heaven”), and a few other numbers before the entire band is brought on stage with “Burning Down the House.” From there on in, the pieces are in place, the tempo picks up, and we’re in for a concert film that’s almost like an aerobics video, including the band jumping around on stage to the rhythm of certain songs. It’s the visual energy of the band that makes the film fun to watch. (Oh, and there’s also a number (“Girlfriend is Better”) in which Byrne sports an oversized suit that makes his head appear smaller. It’s strange and funny to look at.)

Even in 2015, “Stop Making Sense” is still an impressive concert film and still probably the best of its kind. Because the technical aspects are so well-done and the music still holds up, it’s as extraordinary today as it was in 1984 when it was released. I’ll tell you how well it worked for me—I wasn’t even that familiar with the Talking Heads upon seeing the movie for the first time, and it still delighted me.

Whiz Quiz (Short Film)

16 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It is almost ridiculously easy to criticize the UCA-produced short film “Whiz Quiz.” It’s vulgar, crude, raunchy, stupid, disgusting, over-the-top, ridiculous, and more. But hey, that’s the film’s purpose. I just pretty much described the film in those numerous adjectives. So what does it matter? Does it work for you? Did it work for me?

I recall seeing “Whiz Quiz” at a screening in Hot Springs. The audience was packed and as far as I could tell, a good majority of it was laughing out loud and exclaiming in fear and disgust (and also delight). But there was still a minority of audience members who were grimacing in a different way. And I recall a story from the film’s lead actor, Tres Wilson, that very evening. He said someone came up to him, asked if he was in the film, leaned forward, and said “Garbage,” in reference to the film.

Needless to say, a film like “Whiz Quiz” is not going to appeal to everybody. That’s because it’s a comedy. Humor is subjective—you either laugh or you don’t. And I’ll admit, after seeing it for the first time, I felt the need to not only take a shower but also gargle some mouthwash. But the second time around, I did laugh more and I wondered if it truly was the purpose of the film to gross people out.

The film is about three perpetually stoned man-children (played by Wilson, Colin Bennett, and Ben Gibson) trying to figure out how to quickly pass a drug test for Wilson’s new job. Let me give you an example of the film’s dirty humor—the boys come to a public school and attempt to collect urine in a bathroom; a janitor (Frank O. Butler) comes in and assumes the boys are there for a custodial job; he locks the door, lets his pants down, and attempts to “initiate” the scared boys, who distract him (while he’s blindfolded) with a dildo and some hand sanitizer (don’t ask). The whole sequence is generally uncomfortable, I’ll admit, but the shots used and the slow pacing (which raises suspense) made me appreciate what the filmmakers, including writer-director Brock Isbell, were trying to get away with and I did laugh as much as I groaned. It’s almost kind of admirable. Another example is when Wilson attempts to detoxify his body and he vomits in the street. One vomit gag is more than enough, but here, it’s dragged out for over a minute. Anyone can be more disgusted than amused at this, but again, anyone could also admire the slow pacing and the way it’s put together, such as when you think he’s stopped and he hasn’t.

The biggest laughs from me each came from Austin Brown as a narcoleptic drug dealer. Let’s just say he falls asleep at the most perfect times in this film.

Now, am I just saying all of this because I’m impressed that a student film like this went the extra mile, in comparison to most UCA-produced shorts I’ve seen? Probably. I will say that it took guts on Isbell’s part to make this film and, in my opinion, to do it right.

But let’s get to the answer that I built up for myself from the start. Did it work for me? I laughed, I cried, I recoiled, I grimaced, and I winced. So yes, it did work for me and I’m giving it a positive review simply for challenging me to consider what exactly I find funny.

Red Dawn (2012) (revised review)

16 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I hinted in my “Revised Review” of Project X, a film I changed my mind about, that I would re-review another film that I changed my mind about: the 2012 remake of the popular ‘80s action-flick Red Dawn.

It’s strange because in my original review of this movie, I stated I liked it but merely as a fun action-flick. Here’s what I said:

“I understand the film’s flaws. I get it, OK? The war element is defined in an improbable way. The characters aren’t developed enough. The shaky-cam gimmick that they use gets old, as it usually does. The pacing is a bit rushed. The ending feels more like the end of a first-entry in a franchise (which there probably won’t be). I get it. I don’t care. I know that’s weird of me to say, but…I don’t care. I was entertained.”

Well, maybe that’s how I felt when I first saw the movie, but the second time around, I realized I was being played for a sucker.

In the original film, made in 1984, the Soviets invaded a portion of the United States, causing a group of teenagers, dubbed the Wolverines, to fight back as guerillas. With the Soviets no longer a feasible threat, the North Koreans are the villains in this remake, though that’s because originally, it was going to be the Chinese before it was changed when the producers realized they’re too important for this. They try to explain in a prologue why North Koreans would want to invade us, but it’s a little hard to swallow, especially since Americans today are worried about terrorists in the Middle East. I don’t think we have to worry about North Korea as much.

Anyway, the film takes place in Spokane, Washington, the night after a big football game which cocky quarterback Matt Eckert (Josh Peck) accidentally lost for the team due of his arrogance. (Hmm, I smell a foreshadowing arc.) The same night, his older brother, marine Jed (Chris Hemsworth), comes to town. The following morning, the brothers are awoken by the sights and sounds of paratroopers dropping from the sky. Jed and Matt manage to escape the invasion with some other local kids, including Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Daryl (Connor Cruise), Toni (Adrianna Palicki), and Danny (Edwin Hodge), and hide out in the mountains. There, Jed decides to fight back against the invaders after they’ve executed his and Matt’s father. He trains the kids to be soldiers and execute guerilla attacks. They manage to get under the villains’ skin as a threat rather than a nuisance and try to have them eliminated.

Admittedly, the early parts of the film are the only good ones, and the idea of a group of people under attack by an invading force at which point they must become soldiers and fight back still appeals to me. That’s what appealed to me about the original Red Dawn, which I already said in my review wasn’t completely successful but did still stick with me in some ways. (I actually do like the first hour of that film, which I’ve seen more times than the rest of it.) I felt that those kids were portrayed as real, scared kids pushed to the breaking point, but here, the kids are just video-game characters about to make their next move. Aside from about two or three characters, hardly anything stands out about them to make me care.

Of the two actors playing the only characters with some sense of character development, I did like Chris Hemsworth. I think he’s a solid actor and he’s even very strong here. But then there’s Josh Peck. In my original review, I criticized his performance and character who has an ego and a very selfish way about him (which I guess was part of his development) while I also stated “the performance kind of grew on me after a while.” I think I was too kind to him because I didn’t want to dislike the movie on the basis of his character. But man, is he obnoxious here. His mumbling speech and mannerisms grated on me and his character is such a boor. It especially doesn’t help that much of what happens to some of the other characters in this movie is entirely his fault.

Then there’s Adrianne Palicki, who has a nice role as a potential love-interest for Hemsworth. There’s a scene midway through the film where they do share some chemistry together and I would’ve liked for that to keep going, but it’s just another poorly developed element to the film. Meanwhile, actors like Josh Hutcherson are given close to nothing to work with and blend into the background.

Another reason this movie doesn’t work as well is because it has enough potential for a longer film than its hour-and-a-half running time will allow. At best, it feels like a pilot for a TV show with an ambiguous ending. The action isn’t very thrilling either because it’s yet another victim of the “shaky camera” gimmick that tries to make the action exciting but instead leaves audiences aggravated because they can’t see anything very well. And even the story itself is boring, because with the exception of the ending, which I won’t give away, the kids always have the higher ground and manage to get the enemy at the right time almost always.

I can’t say that I think the original “Red Dawn” was a great film or even that good (again, except for a few parts), but it still felt relevant at its time, either as a cheesy action flick kids could relate to or as propaganda stating that everyone should carry heavy artillery in case the Soviets invade. And that’s the point—in the time it was released, everyone felt that a Russian attack was pending. With this remake, released in 2012, we’re in a different place and it’s more of an unplayable video game than anything else. I may have liked it when it came out, but in addition to its appeal lacking after a second viewing, it’s meaningless and unremarkable.

The Up Series (1964-2013)

16 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “7 Up” project began in the mid-1960s as an episode of a British investigative current affairs program called “World in Action.” The near-40-minute episode, entitled “Seven Up!,” followed 14 children, all age 7, who were interviewed. The purpose of the program was to present “a glimpse of Britain’s future” and ended with the infamous quote, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The participants were chosen to represent different social classes in Britain in the 1960s.

Seven years later, when the children were 14, researcher-turned-director Michael Apted directed “7 Plus Seven” (or “14 Up!,” as it’s also known) with follow-up interviews. And because Apted believed that human lives reform in some manner within seven years, he would continue to follow these same participants (for the most part; a few dropped out, since there was no long-term contract requiring them to participate in each film) at ages 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and 56. (As of now, it’s unclear whether the series will continue at age 63.)

Watching these films as a whole, spanning five decades from “Seven Up” to “56 Up,” is a marvelous experience, capturing the truest essence of life possible for a documentary. It’s not only one of the best documentary projects of all time; it’s a real sociological study. It represents the lives of these people, they talk about what has changed every seven years and what hasn’t, and while we see the changes in each character, we still see who they were and get a sense that they are who they are. It’s like when you look at a photograph of yourself as a child—you know that you are the child and the child is you, but it’s difficult to comprehend the connection due to how much time has passed since the photograph was taken. And so, when each of these people in the “Up” series are shown as children and as adults, you notice the changes in each of them, but you also recognize some of the characteristics in them as children.

These are ordinary people—Tony, Suzy, Neil, Nick, Bruce, Jackie, Lynn, Sue, Symon, Paul, Andrew, John, Charles, and Peter. We don’t know them (though we feel like we do, through the films) and we can’t necessarily say that we at times are like them, because as the entire project indicates, no one is the same as another. But we do recognize parts of ourselves in some of these people that allow us to identify with them, want to know more about their lives, and become engrossed in everything else they have to say. Originally, the project was conceived as a way to make a political point about social class, but as Apted learned more about his subject’s lives, he lost sight of the bigger picture. But that’s fine, because the audience did too. He grew close to his subjects, so we did too.

The individual films in the series are all special in their own way. Some are more exciting and interesting than others, but there are hardly any downsides. The first two (“Seven Up!” and “7 Plus Seven”) are fairly standard, but that’s not bad at all. It starts to get very interesting at around “21 Up,” which shows the growth and maturity of the subjects as they prepare for the rough road of life. After “28 Up,” which some a couple fascinating changes (which I’ll get to in a moment), it becomes clear what the (new) purpose of the project is.

Now let’s talk about the participants. Jackie, Lynn, and Sue are all from the East End of London. While Lynn has a family and career, Jackie and Sue each married young, became single mothers, and later divorced their husbands. Andrew, John, and Charles, each representing the rich upper class people who usually map out the lives of children. These three pretty much followed the path that was already set for them by their parents and society. Of these three, Andrew is the only one who has participated in all of the films, Charles quit after 21, and John skipped 28 and 42. Symon and Paul lived in a children’s home run by charity—since then, Paul emigrated to Australia and has lived there with a wife and children ever since, and Symon has gone through a divorce and remarriage. (It’s also reported that his ex-wife didn’t care for the project, while his current wife does. He and his wife are now foster parents.) Nick grew up on a farm but didn’t see himself working on it in the future; he instead grew up to study science and become a professor and nuclear physicist in the United States. He married before 28, though everyone who saw the film apparently felt the marriage was doomed, due to her commentary. Because of this, she didn’t return for 35 or 42, and by 49, Nick was divorced and remarried. Bruce was a quiet boy who wanted to be a missionary and became a teacher and traveled to places such as Bangladesh. One of the more pleasing developments in the series is when he is 35 and regrets not having been married and in “42 Up,” he is a newlywed. He’s now a devoted husband and father. Neil and Peter were middle-class boys living in Liverpool. Peter skipped 35, 42, and 49, and returned in “56 Up” (mainly to promote his band). (I’ll get to Neil in a moment.)

Of the 14 participants, three stand out most to me (and a lot of other people, for that matter). One is Tony, also from the East End. He’s a favorite because he’s so open and charismatic and one of the biggest supporters of the project, which means he’ll most likely stay with it till the end. He dreamed of being a jockey at age 7; at 14, he was an apprentice at a horse-racing stable; at 21, he talks about a race where he had a photo-finish, from which he keeps a photograph as a souvenir, but he had to move on from being a jockey and instead concentrated on being a taxi driver; at 28, he owned his own cab, got married, and started raising a family. One of the most poignant moments in the series comes from “42 Up,” when he sits with his wife and confesses an affair he had; a real rough patch in their relationship. But they still stayed together after his wife forgave him. A particularly funny moment in the series is in “56 Up” when he tells an anecdote about how he was recognized for the series by someone who wanted his autograph instead of Buzz Aldrin’s (Aldrin was Tony’s fare).

Suzy, who comes from a wealthy background, was always reluctant about doing the films, as she was forced to do it in the first place by her parents. She’s always said she would stop participating, but she kept coming back (probably because she feels obligated to do so after so many years). Suzy was a very shy girl growing up, and by 21, she formed a very negative opinion about marriage. The most dramatic change in the series is from her from age 21 to 28. When you see her in “21 Up,” she’s bitter, chain-smoking, and nervous. But then in “28 Up,” she’s cheerful and happy and married with children; a remarkable transformation.

And last but definitely not least, there’s Neil, from a Liverpool suburb. Neil is the most complex person in the series and his story is consistently captivating and unpredictable. As a child, he was happy and excited, though you have to wonder what his home life was like, since he is also saying things like “I don’t want to have any children because they’re always doing naughty things and making the whole house untidy.” I don’t know many 7-year-olds who would talk like that, especially while smiling (like he does), so it may be indicated that Neil’s happiness was hiding something. By 21, he was living in a squat after dropping out of school after one term. By 28, he was homeless and living in Scotland; in “28 Up,” he provides the most heartbreakingly frank statement about why he will never have children: he’s afraid the child will inherit the most negative traits from him. Many people thought Neil would be dead by 35, but he was still alive, though his life had hit rock bottom. But luckily, by 42, he was able to put his life back together; he’s been involved in local council politics as a Liberal Democrat and he’s even made friends with Bruce, who let him live with him for a while.

This is what the most compelling documentaries contain: real human drama. You don’t find movie characters as fascinating as Neil.

Another special thing about the “Up” series is that with each film being released every seven years (and it still remains to be seen whether we will see “63 Up” in 2020), it allows the audience to think back about themselves and how their lives have changed in the past seven years. That reason (and more) is what truly makes the “Up” series special—it’s documentary filmmaking at its best.

Like Father, Like Son (Short Film)

16 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s a little difficult to classify Donavon Thompson’s 4-minute short, “Like Father, Like Son.” Is it a comedy, a drama, an action film, a thriller, or all of the above? I’m not sure, but I think any film that uses finger-guns as effective weapons is doing something original.

Made as a UCA film-class project before Thompson’s undergraduate thesis film, ‘Twas the Night of the Krampus, “Like Father, Like Son” starts out as a crime thriller, with a cop (played by Thompson) angrily interrogating a suspect of his wife’s kidnapping. He and his partner (Matt Mitchell, the elf from “Krampus”) track down the other kidnappers and prepare to take them down by…extending their thumbs & forefingers and using them as guns; a cute joke.

This is a project I could tell Thompson had a fun time making, and it shows here that he’s a guy who truly loves movies. He pays homage to trademark Tarantino shots and “Lethal Weapon” (which he stated in an interview is his favorite film), among others, and it’s interesting, especially after seeing “Krampus,” to see the ambition that Thompson had as a student filmmaker about a year before putting his skills and movie-buff knowledge to somewhat greater use. I liked “Like Father, Like Son”; it’s fun, it’s quick, and the ending, though almost a little too sweet for the material, is nevertheless effective.