Archive | March, 2016

Frost/Nixon (2008)

28 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Spoiler Warning!

What angers many American citizens more than most things in the world is when people of power get away with something they should be held accountable for. That was especially true of how practically the entire liberal population reacted when Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency after the Watergate scandal, as they see it, as a means to avoid responsibility. That he was pardoned by Gerald Ford made them angrier, because that meant he wouldn’t stand trial or face any consequences for what he did, let alone apologize for what he’d done. Nixon was disgraced, and he agreed to a series of four extensive television interviews with British talk show host David Frost in an attempt to win over the public. What he didn’t expect was a publicly viewed ambush…

Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” is based on playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan’s stage play of the same name, and it’s a strong, compelling retelling of real events that present a duel between an iconic figure and one who would become iconic afterwards.

Frank Langella presents a credible Nixon without foaming at the mouth in the name of exaggerating the role, which isn’t demonized. He plays a man who might regret his deeds but will try to justify them and is too stubborn to admit his wrongdoings. It’s a compelling portrayal that deserved the recognition it got, including an Academy Award nomination. But just as strong is Michael Sheen’s underrated performance as his adversary, David Frost, a boyishly charming, charismatic showman who has no interest in politics but sees this interview/duel with Nixon as a way to boost his career. Sheen’s depiction of Frost is fascinating, because he plays him as someone who is either a pure optimist or someone pretending to be a pure optimist while hiding nervousness and uncertainty behind a smile and outgoing personality. And think about it—if you had to go one-on-one on public television with one of the most controversial figures in the White House, wouldn’t you be at least a little uncertain about your chances of winning? (Asking that question made me pay more attention to Sheen’s performance the more times I watch this film.)

Frost was a TV personality who had a lot riding on this. In the first place, people considered him either crazy or stupid for even thinking of interviewing Nixon—they were sure he’d say no, and if he said yes, they were afraid he’s glamorize him. He paid a fortune to arrange the interviews when all networks wouldn’t devote airtime to serious journalism. Frost won the opportunity to do the interviews when Nixon, who (along with his advisors) thought him to be a lightweight interviewer, saw his opportunity to change the image the public saw him as. When Frost and his three allies—producer John Burt (Matthew McFayden) and reporters James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt)—play hardball by asking difficult questions, Nixon talks his way through and out of each issue.

It seems like a done deal—with three out of four interviews in which Frost and Nixon are at a stalemate, there’s clearly no self-recognition from Nixon about Watergate, Frost is losing confidence, his friends (save for his supportive girlfriend, Caroline, played by an astonishingly beautiful Rebecca Hall) are becoming skeptical, and it looks like the final interview will amount to nothing. But Frost shocked the world when he managed to ask the right questions and get the right answers, leading to Nixon being humiliated (especially after saying the controversial quote: “I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.”) and finally owning up to what he had done. Everyone already knew he was guilty, but they wanted to hear him say it. Thanks to Frost, he finally did. Frost became a more widely-known celebrity and Nixon was able to show his face in public again, feeling the truth had set him free.

It’s a gripping story told very well through solid direction by Howard, brilliant writing by Morgan, and excellent acting from the cast (which also includes Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones as two of Nixon’s aides). Though I have to wonder what creative liberties are taken from historic facts, I don’t let it bother me because it is such a good story and the facts shouldn’t get away from that. I know the interviews are shortened; I know certain things didn’t happen; and I’m pretty sure a late-night phone conversation between Nixon and Frost about cheeseburgers didn’t happen (I’m assuming). I don’t care. I’m enjoying “Frost/Nixon” and the battle of wits it portrays.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

28 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Good Night, and Good Luck” is filmmaker/actor/activist George Clooney’s dramatized portrait of CBS’ battle against Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, when anti-Communist McCarthy would accuse any of his detractors of being traitors to the country. CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow (played by an excellent David Strathairn) decides he can’t stand by any longer while McCarthy lies, scares, and destroys freedoms in the name of defending them. So Murrow, with help from producers (including one portrayed by Clooney) and fellow reporters, devotes episodes of his show, “See It Now,” to publicly criticize McCarthy’s methods. Of course, McCarthy fights back, but as powerful as he may be, he doesn’t have the resources to back up his statements. Murrow’s counterstrike leads to Senate investigating McCarthy, which then leads to a sigh of relief from those running from accusation. The story is bookended by the 1958 “Salute to Edward R. Murrow,” during which Murrow talks about the importance of morals and ethics when it comes to media.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” is not a conventional biopic or historical melodrama—it plays 100% straight, with one key focus, a documentary-like approach in execution, and no off-topic subplots (save for a little subplot involving a married couple in the workplace who may or may not be targeted, but that doesn’t distract from the plot in the slightest). Clooney knows what’s really important to be presented by this film: the struggle between Murrow and McCarthy, which is powerful enough on its own. And I can’t commend Clooney enough for using actual newsreel footage of the real McCarthy, instead of hiring a lookalike actor to portray him. (The black-and-white cinematography works in the film’s favor also.)

If “Good Night, and Good Luck” was resonant in 2005 (when it was originally released), then it’s even more significant now, in 2016, sadly. McCarthyism still lives—politicians spread bad publicity about their rivals; they condemn those who question certain political beliefs; and many issues are exploited for any sort of gain, whether they be for debates, news channels, or even tabloids, just to gain attention. The thing is, we may live in a different time than what is portrayed in this film, but watch it again and you’ll find enough parallels to see that we still haven’t learned our lesson and thus we’re doomed to repeat history. That is why “Good Night, and Good Luck” is as important now and it was when it was first released into theaters.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

27 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Spoiler Alert…but come on; you know how this story ends already.

God sent his son to spread His message. There are many ways He could’ve gotten his word across to man, but by using his son as a symbol. God so loved mankind that he made his one begotten son into a man. When Jesus rose from the grave three days after being shamed and beaten and crucified onto a wooden cross to die because of his constant spreading the message of love, that message become clear, and that’s what’s being taught in Christian teachings to this day. Renowned director Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” adapted by screenwriter Paul Schrader from the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantakis, is a film that shows just how cruelly difficult it was for Jesus to carry on in becoming that symbol. Because he was both a man and the Son of God, he had the same temptations of man.

Sometimes knowing what he had to be would be hard for him to take in. But not knowing what to do made it even tougher. And with the Devil coming in many forms to steer him away from the path to delivering the message, he would even wonder what it would be like to live a normal life as a man. He had desires, thoughts, feelings; the same as any other man. And he had to resist such temptations in order to carry out his mission. What we can take from this film is that it’s “more difficult to be a good man than God.” (That’s a line Gene Siskel originally wrote in his Chicago Tribune review of this film; I’m sorry, but that’s such a good quote.)

The film (as well the book it was based on, for that matter) makes it very clear that it isn’t based entirely on the Bible and that’s more of an interpretation of what Jesus must have felt in the last days of his life. At the time of this film’s release, many religious groups have attacked the film for it, calling it “blasphemous.” (But then again, religious extremists will fire shots at any film in which God is mentioned in terms of story, like “Life of Brian” and “The Passion of the Christ,” usually when they haven’t even seen the film.) Since then, it has become widely appreciated as one of the finest religious films ever made, because it challenges audiences with questions of faith and belief and gets the message across in a very strong way, by showing what trials and tribulations Jesus had to face before fully carrying out his destiny. It’s a message that can give comfort to any sinner.

Willem Dafoe portrays Jesus—a challenging role to say the least but he pulls it off successfully. He’s a New Testament guy in an Old Testament land (in this case, the location of Morocco), where the message of love and forgiveness is not easily delivered. And it’s not easy for him either. Sometimes he doubts himself and questions whether or not he truly is the Son of God (and when he does believe, he uses it to reproach his mother and the memory of his father—ouch). When the prostitute, Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), is forbidden to attend a wedding, Jesus has to be as calm as possible in order to rationally bring her in. Sometimes, he’ll confide in Judas (Harvey Keitel, possibly the film’s weak link—I didn’t buy him entirely in this role), who is portrayed as a better man than most teachings have made him out to be (and his name becoming a curse doesn’t help either)—here, he’s a man doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do.

It all leads to the most controversial sequence of the film. Jesus is crucified on the cross, in extreme pain, listening to those around him either berating him or screaming in pain, and he starts to hallucinate and imagine what it would be like if he was taken down from the cross and able to live out the rest of his life as a regular human being. He marries Mary Magdelene, has a family, and lives a full life. But he is also shamed by his former followers, who claim he abandoned his mission and say they don’t know what to believe anymore. Jesus soon finds the strength to shake off his temptation and return to the cross, where he will die as God’s son and come back to deliver the last piece of the message.

Scorsese, who was raised Catholic, is hardly a strange choice to make “The Last Temptation of Christ,” since a good chunk of his films are about flawed people seeking redemption. He knew he was taking a big risk with the Christian right, and he even received death threats and had to arrange private, secure screenings for critics before the film’s release. But he’s a skilled filmmaker, as well as a believer, and those who see the film for what it is can appreciate what he put into it.

The Wind Rises (2014)

24 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Visionary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has claimed that “The Wind Rises” is his final film. It’s not the first time he’s made that statement, but this film truly is his last one, it’s a great one to end his extraordinary career with. It showcases the best of his abilities—it’s visually stunning, tells a good story, is beautiful in its own way, and is a truly terrific film. What else should I expect from the man who gave us such animated classics as “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Castle in the Sky,” among others?

Miyazaki wanted to try something different for his swansong, so he apparently decided to add his usual touches to a biography, loosely based on the life of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi who came up with the design of the Japanese Zero fighters, which were used in World War II. From that description alone, you may be thinking this is not a good thing. But the character has no political agenda—he dreams of creating something truly unique and innovative just like his idols. He wants nothing to do with war; he just wants to create.

The film doesn’t have a political agenda either—it’s merely a fable about dreams, creativity, and passion. Though the film doesn’t necessarily ignore the controversies involved, they’re not the central focus. Instead, the central focus is breaking new ground with technology and bringing something incredible to life.

“The Wind Rises” begins in post-WWI days, with Jiro as a teenager (voiced by Zach Callison) who would love to fly but his poor eyesight discourages him. (Even in his dreams, he ends up crashing a plane he’s piloting—a definite bad sign, as flying is one of the most common traits of dreams.) But he is truly fascinated by aircraft and reads up on an Italian aviator (Stanley Tucci), who often visits Jiro in his dreams, and learns that he never actually flies the planes he invents. This inspires Jiro to craft his own designs. As time goes by, Jiro (now voiced as an adult by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) follows his dream by helping to create one plane after another.

One of the best things about “The Wind Rises” is the way it explores the creative process. It takes us into Jiro’s imagination; his dreams and fantasies, in which he mostly converses with his heroes. The film also shows us how little things inspire him—shooting stars, debris being whisked off by the wind, and even something as small as the curve on a fish bone in his lunch inspire his ultimate design. There are realistic dialogue-based scenes in which Jiro talks about his inventions with fellow engineers and others, but for the most part, what we need to know about his passion for creating is told through his dreams and fantasies, which are beautifully realized and, being a Miyazaki film, visually amazing.

And speaking of “visually amazing,” I can’t neglect to talk about the best-animated sequence in the film, which is the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. It’s intense, impactful, and well-drawn, and the aftermath of the earthquake is effectively handled, presenting a dread that would of course come from such a disaster.

In addition to showing Jiro’s work, “The Wind Rises” is also a sweet romance, as Jiro meets Nahoko Satomi (Emily Blunt) years after he assisted her when she was injured in the earthquake. You could say destiny, the wind (which, if you notice, whooshes them toward each other), or both brought them together after they lost track of each other, but they become reacquainted, spend much time together, and eventually get married. But unfortunately, due to her tuberculosis, their relationship is doomed.

The film doesn’t lose sight of the characters, and given its visual inventiveness, that’s no small feat. We enjoy these characters, especially Jiro, whose likeability equals his passion, who we root for when he inventions fail and he constantly has to try again, and who we feel sorry for when people take what he sees as wonderful and original and use it for dangerous, horrible purposes. His goal was never to create a war machine—it was to develop something that no one else had before, even if, in the end, it resulted in the deaths of many, many people. It leads to a haunting, bittersweet ending in which Jiro takes in what his invention has done in the wrong hands—writing about it would decrease the film’s impact and meaning, so I’ll leave you to interpret for yourself what it means.

Disney made a wise choice in having Touchstone present “The Wind Rises” for North American distribution and the MPAA, who I usually mock, I have to give credit for rating it PG-13. It may be animated, but that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for children. The film is very much adult (that is to say, “mature”) in its storytelling and historical content, and I also think the earthquake sequence would be too intense for younger children to take. Miyazaki went out of his way to tell a great story, regardless of his target audience, which really should be those looking for visionary ingenuity. The result is one of the best animated films in recent years. Would this be the end of Miyazaki’s long career? We shall see, but this is a pretty impressive film to go out on—one of his absolute best.

Thank You For Smoking (2006)

20 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Tell me if containing each of these elements in one film sounds risky in the slightest:

  • Pro-smoking lobbyist as our charming protagonist
  • Environmentalist U.S. Senator as a sleazy villain
  • Smoking endorsements, even in front of children
  • Manipulation to the masses is a sport
  • Death tolls leading to long-lasting friendships

“Thank You For Smoking” was Jason Reitman’s 2006 satirical comedy that featured all of those things and more. It cuts its subjects slowly and delicately with a knife instead of bludgeoning them to near-death, and as a result, it’s a brilliant satire with a deep layer of appreciation of human nature hidden underneath risqué words and ideas that would have caused (and probably are causing) more people in our modern PC society to discuss it further.

Our main character is Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). He’s a spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, speaking on behalf of cigarettes, but he’s also speaking for something more: freedom. Freedom of speech and of choice, particularly. And he’s so good at what he does that anyone listening to him and even about to argue with him is left speechless. The film opens with his guest appearance on “The Joan Lunden Show,” alongside a teenage boy suffering lung cancer and a representative of a Vermont Senator. Naylor is in the spotlight and on the spot, but he is able to win an audience over through his charm and his speech. How does he do it? He states that Big Tobacco could never profit off of the kid’s death and that they’d be losing a customer. “It’s in our best interest to keep him alive and smoking,” he says. He even goes as far as to say the representative and the Senator he represents are using this “Cancer Boy” to prove their points against smoking, or as he puts it, they’re “trafficking in human misery.”

And…he’s actually right! Later in the film, the Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy) balls out the representative (Todd Louiso) for not finding a “Cancer Boy” who’s more “hopeless.” He’s Naylor’s archrival, trying to argue a point to the people that should be simple: smoking is bad. But he’s no more manipulative than the tobacco industry—he just uses different methods of manipulation to the public.

That’s right—Naylor, a tobacco lobbyist, is the hero of “Thank You For Smoking” and Finistirre, a Senator promoting healthy living, is our villain. How often does that happen? And get this—Finistirre tries to force people to see things his way, while Naylor simply convinces them.

Naylor dines once a week with two friends, alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and firearms lobbyist Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner). They call themselves the M.O.D. Squad; M.O.D. standing for Merchants of Death. Sometimes, they argue over which of their products cause more deaths per year. This may be the only argument that Naylor even comes close to conceding over.

But no matter. He still has children to spread the pro-smoking message across to, such as when he visits his son Joey’s (Cameron Bright) class on Career Day and counter-argues with a girl whose mother says “cigarettes kill”—“Is your mommy a doctor?”

Naylor also meets with media executives, such as Hollywood agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), to further get the message across. This includes Jeff’s idea for incorporating smoking in a futuristic science-fiction film (he chooses the future because he believes in a coming world were smokers and nonsmokers can live together in harmony). (By the way, I love this dialogue exchange between Naylor and Jeff: “Cigarettes in space? […] But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?” Pause. “Probably…But it’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. You know, ‘Thank God we invented the…you know, whatever, device.’” I would like to see a whole film about Jeff.)

But there’s something else to Naylor, and that’s his relationship with his son. He’s great at what he does, which is frowned upon by many, but he also wants to be a good father to Joey. Some of the more eye-opening moments for Naylor come when Joey accompanies him in a business trip in California so he can see what his father does for a living. Naylor’s moral center comes into play as he teaches Joey what he’s really trying to get across, which is that it’s a duty to educate people, warn them about the dangers of any substance they’re interested in, and let him choose for themselves whether or not they’ll follow the advice. He says it’s all about freedom and liberty.

The film addresses that cigarettes are addictive, easily available, and profitable, but it does address the dangers of smoking as well (the most obvious being lung cancer). And while the message and the people condoning the message are seen as very dangerous to society, it’s hard to argue against it because of how charming and likable Naylor is. Played brilliantly by Aaron Eckhart, Naylor is manipulative, charismatic, and also has his morals, especially when it comes to raising his son. True, his ethics may be questionable and not precisely clear, but they do come across in his own way as valuable. This creates a conflict for him as he sometimes has to decide what’s right or wrong, especially at a low point in his life when he has to say the right thing at a congressional hearing at which he goes one-on-one with Finistirre. But what is “the right thing?”

You’d think this would lead to a predictable conclusion during which Naylor sees the error of his ways and changes the world around him or something, right? It’s not as easy as that. His cross-examination to Finistirre’s arguments is the result of a decision he makes that is more or less the same message he’s been getting across before, but it’s more grounded, less morally vague, and even valuable. I won’t say how he manages to pull it off, but it’s handled in such an intelligent way that takes brilliant writing to truly pull off. It also gets the film’s true message across, which is that we should be allowed to do what we want but we should also educate those who look up to us and hope they make good choices.

Oh, and if you think the film does truly endorse smoking, take this fact into consideration: no one in the entire movie is seen smoking.

What does this mean? That the film is truly against smoking? That it’s hypocritical in that sense? I think it’s the film’s way of offering a suggestion that whatever the film’s audience is going to get from it is neither correct nor incorrect, meaning that we can debate about it from different viewpoints, but each viewpoint is our own. “Thank You For Smoking” leaves everything up to its viewer.

I think “Thank You For Smoking” is a comic masterpiece. It took chances with its subject matter, it’s well-crafted and tightly-edited (I may have mentioned a lot of plot, but there’s even more to this 90-minute film, if you can believe it), it’s very funny but also knows to lighten up on its dramatic portions, it’s brilliant in the way it uses smoking as a representation for the risks people are going to subject themselves to but have a right to, and it has a main character who’s exactly like that—maybe we’re better off without him, but we have a right to listen to what he has to say. It also has a wonderful cast. Aside from Eckhart as Naylor, I already mentioned William H. Macy, Maria Bello, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, and Cameron Bright, but there’s also Robert Duvall as founder of Big Tobacco, J.K. Simmons as Naylor’s shouting boss, Sam Elliott as the original Marlboro Man dying of cancer, and Katie Holmes as a sexy reporter who gets the scoop on Naylor, and they all do terrific work here. The true stars of the film, however, are Jason Reitman’s direction and Aaron Eckhart’s performance. This is the best film of either of their careers and a film they may want to show to their kids some day and see what they choices they make after seeing it.

The Walk (2015)

20 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I won’t issue a Spoiler Alert, because the story of Philippe Petit walking a tightrope across the Twin Towers is very well-known.

Early in the morning of August 7th, 1974, an amazing occurrence/performance happened at the original World Trade Center. French acrobat Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope that spanned from the top of one tower to the top of the other—a 200-foot length over a thousand feet in the air! He spent a little over a half-hour performing his “walk,” with many New Yorkers watching from the ground. He risked life and limb with no harness to support him and no safety net to catch him if he fell. You could call it paid-off training crossed with instincts or a miracle, but what Petit did up there was incredible.

There was already a documentary made about the event, called “Man on Wire,” but director Robert Zemeckis (known for such well-crafted works such as “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away,” “Flight”) decided to use his skills with camera angles and digital effects to recreate the performance in “The Walk,” a fictional retelling that goes into Petit’s origins, his team’s efforts in helping plan the “coup,” and ultimately his famous “walk.”

The film is split in three segments. The first segment is somewhat biographical, as Petit (played with energetic charisma by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose French accent is mildly distracting at first but grows on you quickly) doesn’t like to think about “death.” When he’s on the wire, performing on the streets of Paris, he claims he never feels more alive. When he hears about the Twin Towers in New York City, he immediately thinks of the perfect place for his “wire.” While in training, under master wire walker Master Rudy (Ben Kingsley), he meets people like his partner in crime (and in love) Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), photographer Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony), and math teacher Jeff (Cesar Domboy), who has a fear of heights—they all become his accomplices as he plans a heist at the Twin Towers. It’s a different kind of heist: a mission to steal a moment in time.

The second segment leads up to the “walk,” as Petit and company go to New York, gain more accomplices, and put their plan into motion. There is much suspense involved when the gang is attempting at night to get the wire ready by morning and in danger of being caught at any time. (And of course, there must be at least two moments in which the acrophobic Jeff has to face his fears—a cheap shot but effective nonetheless.)

Then comes the actual walk, about an hour-and-a-half into this two-hour film. This is unquestionably the film’s highlight. Do I even need to say how fantastic it looks? It’s Robert Zemeckis making a reenactment of Philippe Petit’s famous Wire Walk—knowing his reputation for great-looking craft, I knew this was going to be something special. And I have to admit, as someone who is terrified of heights, watching this was so effective that I cringed and held onto my seat in fear. (Though, I did at first see it in a theater, and my second viewing, on a laptop screen, wasn’t nearly as effective. But it still looks good.)

Many critics have complained that the film has too much buildup to its final act, but honestly, I didn’t mind. I enjoyed getting to know Petit’s origins, his friends are appealing company, and the film is consistently good-looking, with numerous camera tricks and neat effects that occur even before the walk, such as passages of time. I also admired how Zemeckis executed the film much like a spy thriller, with the characters scoping out the layout of the Trade Center, trading secrets, and sneaking in to perform the ultimate task. Whatever problems you may have with “The Walk” may be counterbalanced by the final act alone, which is truly a spectacle to behold. But do yourself a favor, find the biggest screen you can, and watch it on that.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

14 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

With a title like “10 Cloverfield Lane,” you would expect a direct sequel to the 2008 hit, “Cloverfield,” which was hidden in secrecy until release and has seen gained a following (just as this new movie was—even its first trailer wasn’t released until two months before the film’s release). But if you walk into the movie expecting it to be just like “Cloverfield,” you’d be disappointed. “10 Cloverfield Lane” is instead a thriller that may or may not have any relation to “Cloverfield,” aside from J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, carrying both films. The great thing about keeping this film in secrecy is that you don’t know what to expect, and as a result, you find yourself surprised and able to appreciate the film for its own merits if you’re willing to keep an open mind. “10 Cloverfield Lane” only slightly ties back to the earlier movie, such as a line about “satellites” that may be familiar to those who have a theory about a subtle visual at the end of “Cloverfield.” Anything else might be implied (and that’s all I’ll say about that).

Mostly, however, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a tense, claustrophobic thriller set inside a basement/bunker under a farmhouse. We’re kept in that area for a majority of the film. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakens inside, chained to the wall. She learns from her “host,” a hulking, discomforting man named Howard (John Goodman), that he rescued her from a car crash and that he can’t let her or another occupant, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) go because something apocalyptic seems to have happened up top. “An attack,” he calls it. Michelle learns Howard is a survivalist and believes he might be crazy, but with every possibility comes something to turn it around, leaving Michelle not knowing what to think. And there’s always something about Howard that makes Michelle even more afraid of him. She’s afraid to go outside but even more afraid of staying inside…

The premise is intriguing, and director Dan Trachtenberg (making his feature debut here) does a lot with it within these confined spaces of tight areas of this basement. He doesn’t let the audience know what’s really happening outside, if there even is something happening—is there really something to fear in the world or is Michelle being held captive by this madman? There are numerous deceptions whenever we may have something figured out, leaving us guessing numerously what’s really happening and keeping us on edge with several tense scenes. What’s going on? Who is Howard, really? What does this certain thing in this place mean for us? What are those noises outside? And so on. The film is a terrific thriller because of this. It even reminded me of the mystery-shrouded first couple seasons of Bad Robot’s TV series, “Lost,” and that’s a compliment indeed.

What it does answer by the end is answered subtly for the most part; others are left suitably ambiguous; and then, there’s the final act which will appease probably the most antsy moviegoer who wants some form of closure. I won’t give it away here, but I would be lying if I said that I probably didn’t need to see it, especially since the buildup to it was so darn good (and had me thinking this was going to be the best film of the year so far). It’s a little disjointed while not necessarily “disappointing.” (I may have to see the film a second time to look back at the hints and clues I know were present at times during the film.) It doesn’t hurt the film as much as I thought it did when I walked out—a few hours later, I had thought more about it and felt I should’ve seen it coming from the moment I bought my ticket stub. It’s a little difficult to explain in this review, since it’s spoiler-free, but I think the best way to describe it is this: “10 Cloverfield Lane” works better as its own thriller than as a “blood-relative” to “Cloverfield” (Abrams’ words).

Effectively done filmmaking aids in the film’s favor, with smooth camera movements adding to the increased tension. But also essential is the acting from the three principals. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is strong in a role that is a rarity in horror movies: a heroine who is smart. You know how most horror-movie protagonists make dumb decisions that lead to audience members wanting to shout advice to them through the screen? (“Call the police!” “Get out of the house!” Etc.) I only felt the need to do that once with her (ONCE), and then she immediately did what I wanted her to do at that moment! From the moment she awakens in her strange surroundings for the first time, you’re with her, thinking of what you would do if you were chained to that wall and had to get to your cellphone on the other side of the room. Then there’s John Goodman, one of film’s finest character actors, as Howard—he is nothing short of brilliant in this role. He has to go back and forth between a kind teddy bear of a guy and a scary, dangerous madman, and he pulls off each transition perfectly. John Gallagher Jr. has less to do as sort-of “the other guy,” but he holds his own fine.

I may have my own problems with the ending of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” but what leads up to it is a masterful, suspenseful thriller that makes me look over a nitpick like that. Overall the film is terrific, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the film again in order to be sure of whether or not my feelings toward the final act are altered.

True Story (2015)

14 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“True Story” couldn’t be more aptly titled. When one hears another tell a story about something, especially when that something is a serious crime, it’s hard to tell if the person telling the story is telling the exact truth or an exaggeration of the truth (if not lying entirely) and even harder for the listener to know what to believe, especially when there is no second side to the story, or at least no one to hear it from. In this film, journalist Mike Finkel was booted off the New York Times for fudging some facts of an important story he wrote for them, after he had defended himself by saying he got enough important details from the experience (but with no notes to back it up). His attempt to redeem himself comes when convicted killer Christian Longo steals Finkel’s identity and Finkel, oddly flattered by the fact that someone knew of him, decides to visit him from time to time to know more about him and get his true side of the story behind his crime of murdering his wife and children. Finkel plans to write about his meetings with Longo for a book, titled “True Story.” But the more Finkel learns about Longo and about the crime, the more he questions what’s true, what’s fabricated, and what’s exaggerated. What is truth? What are lies? What is manipulation? Is the title “True Story” accurate or ironic? You can wonder if the story within the film is true even of itself. (Surely, some liberties were taken, of course.)

“True Story,” based on the actual Michael Finkel’s 2005 book of the same name, is less of a crime story and more of a drama about the codependent relationship/twisted friendship between Christian Longo (convicted killer) and Mike Finkel (his biographer), each of whom begin their relationship with an agenda, though it’s unclear whether they’ve achieved it or not. That’s one of the things that makes the film all the more fascinating, on top of the efficiently understated performances by the actors playing the parts: James Franco as Longo and Jonah Hill as Finkel. Both these actors are known for comedic roles, but their low-key approaches to these serious roles suit them rather well. Hill is believable as a writer who’s sure about his brilliance in his craft, which makes it even more believable when he feels he’s been duped. And Franco delivers one of his very best performances in an unsettling turn as a master manipulator who is so sure of himself as someone who may be able to win over a jury with his charm at a murder trial.

Also very good in this film is Felicity Jones as Finkel’s girlfriend, Jill, who stands by her man when things are tough and mostly stays out of things until a crucial moment late in the film when she meets Longo for herself and decides to tell him a thing or two. I normally grow tired of the cliché in which a secondary character stays quiet for a majority of the film until late in the game when he or she finally says something of significant importance, but when it works, it really works. And that is certainly the case here—Jones nails this scene and her dialogue is choice.


But this also brings up a problem I have with “True Story”: the script. It may sound odd to you, but I think the script “True Story” is too good. It’s a weird criticism, I know, but a good deal of the dialogue sounds too carefully written. Take this introductory exchange between Longo and Jill when they first meet: she tells him, “I thought you’d be taller.” “Why?” “I don’t know. Maybe because [Mike] looks up to you.” Something about that sounds rehearsed, like it’s part of a play, and her story she tells to Longo, as tough as it sounds, still sounds staged.

But wait…she’s telling a story to get something important across to Longo, much like how Longo has been telling stories to get points across to Finkel and the trial jury. So…isn’t that kind of the point and I’m contradicting myself with this criticism?

Well, another problem with the script is that it can be a little heavy-handed, with obvious statements to make, sometimes repeatedly. And the scene I praised before probably wouldn’t plausible without Longo getting some chance to defend myself, no matter how hard Jill’s words may hit home for him.

Maybe I’m a little unfair with that criticism, because the overall film is very powerful and a solid drama with respectable performances and neat direction by Rupert Gould. It’s an interesting portrait about biography, human conduct, and how it’s not always easy to get what you want no matter how high the stakes are raised. Especially in the aftermath of a heinous crime.

The Gift (2015)

14 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You know the setup, you saw the trailer, you’ve seen movies like this before: a seemingly mild person identifies himself/herself to an average family but soon becomes violently dangerous, resulting in a deadly battle between them. You think you might be able to guess where filmmaker-actor Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift” is going, right?


“The Gift” may seem like it’s going in that direction, but what you may have heard about it is certainly not the case. I’ll explain the setup before I get to what I mean by that:

Newlyweds Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall), move to a nice new place in Southern California after Simon receives a new job nearby. Soon after they settle in, they meet an old friend of Simon’s from high school: an oddball named Gordo (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the film). He wants to restart a friendship with Simon, though Simon says they were never close to begin with. But Gordo sends the couple gifts to win their friendship and even starts inserting himself in places where they don’t want him. Robyn doesn’t mind much, but Simon just wants him to go away. He lets Gordo know this in unkind terms, which results in Gordo reacting impulsively and unpredictably.

I didn’t see the film’s trailer, as most people have (and reacted negatively too, especially after actually seeing the movie), and so while I didn’t know what the trailer revealed, I did have some idea from other movies of this sort where this was going to go. Even though I was half-right, I was also…half-wrong (duh). The situation is familiar and recognizable, but when I thought I was getting one thing, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself getting another entirely. That has to do with the ways Edgerton tweaks with the story and makes it more of a story about how whatever wrong you’ve done in the past followed by the insistence not to own up to it and confess eventually will come up and ruin your life. I won’t give away how “The Gift” gets that across (and wonderfully so, I might add), but let’s just say that karma will come and get you when you least expect it.

The filmmaking involved is also impressive, with very carefully constructed execution by Edgerton. Edgerton proves himself worthy as a filmmaker and also turns in a performance that is also creepy and chilling but also strangely sympathetic when you learn more about his character. That’s all I’ll say about him.

Rebecca Hall is suitably vulnerable as a woman who doesn’t know as much about her husband’s past as she thinks she does. And speaking of her husband, Jason Bateman is perfectly cast as a person who can seem charming and likable but also slimy and apathetic, showing he has some things to hide…

The themes of “The Gift” are damage and karma. Secrets are kept from everybody, everyone is damaged in one way or another, and in some way, when the film builds to a haunting finale, the past will come back to haunt you for the rest of your life. “The Gift” works wonderfully as a dramatic thriller. I wish I could tell you more about exactly why it works, but I will leave it for you to discover its secrets for yourself, because it is worthy of checking out. It may even force you to think back to your own past and wonder if there are any secrets of your own that you should own up to…

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)

6 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For those who aren’t familiar with director Penelope Spheeris’ trilogy of “Decline of Western Civilization” films, I’ll give a little background. The first “Decline of Western Civilization” film was a documentary about the Los Angeles punk rock scene, featuring concert footage of punk bands and interviews with band members and their audiences, giving a glimpse into the subculture the music created. It filmed through 1979 and 1980 and released in 1981. The film became a cult hit, which led to Spheeris making a sequel, this one about the heavy metal scene of 1986-1988: “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.” (Nearly a decade later, a third chapter was made about the gutter punk lifestyle of homeless teenagers of L.A. ‘90s.)

“The Metal Years” uses the same approach as the previous film—a straightforward, constructive, unblinking view of a subcultural phenomenon. But there’s something different about this approach. While interview subjects in the first film could make wild comments at times, the amount of “out-there” these people bring to their interviews doesn’t merely make “The Metal Years’ an in-depth portrait; it also makes it a comedy, with randomly hilarious moments in which these “metalheads” seeking fame and fortune use their egos to unintentionally embarrass themselves on camera.

The reason for their directness may be because director Spheeris is definitely not afraid to ask these people the right questions. And when I say “the right questions,” I mean the questions we might be afraid to ask ourselves; the kind of questions that would seem “rude” to many other people. Whether it’s about groupies, over-ambition, addiction, ethics, economics, or whatever, Spheeris asks these direct questions to get the honest answers she seeks, and she has apparently earned enough trust from her subjects to receive them. Among the questions are: “What do you think parents think about you?” “Are you in it for the chicks?” “What if you don’t make it as a rock star?” “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”

Among Spheeris’ interview subjects are famous musicians such as Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Dave Mustaine and Paul Stanley, but her initial focus is on unknown bands (some of whom are still unknown today, unsurprisingly), including London, Odin, Seduce, among others; the film has them talk about their desperate quests to stardom and how confident they are that they’ll each make it as a rock star. Many of the answers they give to Spheeris’ blatant questions are fun to listen to just because of how egotistical they are.

It’s nice to get different views on the lifestyle, from those who want to go through certain elements of the lifestyle to those who already have. Among the latter is the somewhat voice of sanity in the form of Ozzy Osbourne, who is seen here as rehabilitated and talking about success while making breakfast in his comfortable home. And there are also those who seemingly haven’t learned much from experience, as Steven Tyler of Aerosmith boasts about his musical and sexual flairs. (By the way, as funny as the movie is, it’s funnier for music buffs looking at this movie from 1988, knowing what they know in 2016.) And then there’s the former, who just desire to be famous, even if it means, according to one subject, “going down in history like Jim Morrison.” They don’t even like to get real jobs because they’re so convinced they’ll be famous sometime soon—they’re that convinced it’s inevitable.

The film is a cult-classic also for its scenes that show rock star excess. There’s a sequence including middle-aged club owner Bill Gazzarri, whose “sexy rock n’ roll dance contest” is now called sleazy and sexist; some of the subjects talk about how women, especially groupies, are portrayed unfairly in the metal scene; Aerosmith talks about spending millions of dollars on drugs; and so on. The most haunting interview occurs late in the film, with Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P., who inadvertently presents the other (darker) side of partying. He’s interviewed in a swimming pool, with his mother sitting in a lawn chair nearby. He slurs and stumbles throughout the interview as he was heavily drunk, admits to being a “full-blown alcoholic,” pours a bottle of vodka over himself, all while his mother watches with discomfort. It’s the most striking sequence in the film.

The film may be dubbed “Part II,” but it can easily be seen on its own. And even if you don’t care about heavy metal of the mid-to-late-‘80s, there’s sure to be something in this documentary that will entertain people today. And when you’re not laughing at these unusual behaviors and straightforward comments, you may also learn some illuminating, interesting information about the pursuit of fame and fortune, which is still relevant in our lives today.