Archive | October, 2016

The Babadook (2014)

31 Oct

 

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

From looking at the trailer and the cover art, you would think “The Babadook” is a monster movie/creature feature. But, to be fair to the marketing team behind the film, “The Babadook” is a hard film to sell to the general public. This is first and foremost a psychological thriller in which the monster (the “Babadook” of the title, named Mister Babadook) may or may not be real. That doesn’t even matter when you consider what the film is really about. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

“The Babadook” is Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut that tackles two very human (and very dangerous) emotions: depression and loneliness. Its central focus is single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis in an excellent performance) who lost her husband shortly before she gave birth to her son. Six years later, her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is more than a handful; actually, you could say he’s a pure terror. He won’t stay out of trouble, he plays with weapons, he throws temper tantrums, he says he sees monsters, and he tends to hurt people, intentional or not. Even Amelia can’t seem to stand him, even though she won’t admit it to herself or to her sister, who hates him (even before Samuel causes her daughter to fall from a treehouse and hurt herself). Both Amelia and Samuel are dealing with their loss.

One night, Samuel requests Amelia to read him a seemingly children-oriented book called “Mister Babadook.” It’s about a tall dark figure that will visit you and haunt you if you left him into your life. That’s when things start to get a little freaky…

“The Babadook” is one of the scariest films I’ve seen in the past few years, and its effective horror aspects had very little to do with the Babadook itself as a physical presence and more to do with Amelia’s mental state. Much of the torment Amelia faces with her son is psychological, and what she’s feeling ranges from depression to anger. She feels alone, not being able to connect with her son, and as horrible as it is to admit to herself, she sees him as the cause of her mental illness, which she felt ever since she lost her husband the day Samuel was born. And Samuel sometimes annoys her to the point where she lashes out irrationally at him. These two need to find some way to connect with each other, or they’re in for a dreadful life together out of which they can never escape.

I stated above that this isn’t a monster movie. You barely even see the Babadook at all in this movie, but you can feel this thing’s presence looming over these people. It is kept in shadow and it’s a frightening presence, but more importantly, it represents the monster within Amelia trying to get out and extinguish her son, whom she sees as the source of her mental struggles. I know that sounds pretentious when described like that, but the way it is handled in this movie, as well as the way Kent executes the material, is exceptional in addition to horrifying. This movie got under my skin. And it did that without having to resort to many of the tropes mainstream audiences are used to with horror movies these days—there are no loud jump scares, there’s no CGI monster, and there’s no easy way out in the scriptwriting/storytelling. And it means something. The monster represents more than many other horror-movie monsters in recent memory.

“The Babadook” is a very effective representation of what grief and mental illness can do to a person as well as an unsettling horror movie. If you go to this movie and fully expect a monster movie, you’re not going to get what you want and you’ll be disappointed. But if you look deeper under the surface of what is already a disturbing psychological thriller, you might find something better than what you were expecting in the first place. This is a masterful, smart thriller that scared me, kept me on edge, and left me glad that it explored more real horrors than most filmmakers (and even audiences, for that matter) wouldn’t have bothered to try.

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My Top 15 Favorite “How I Met Your Mother” Episodes

27 Oct

By Tanner Smith

I’m going to try something new here on Smith’s Verdict—not necessarily a “review” of a television show; just merely a list of my favorite episodes of said-show. So let’s see how it goes.

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“How I Met Your Mother” was one of my favorite TV sitcoms. Even though it wasn’t entirely successful in its humor or structure, the eighth season is particularly a hit-or-miss with most people (me included), and the series finale is more-or-less a major letdown, I can’t deny when the episodes are good, they’re really good. They entertain me each time, and I never get tired of watching them. I enjoy the misadventures of neurotic narrator Ted (Josh Radnor), good-natured giant Marshall (Jason Segel), cute, excitable redhead Lily (Alyson Hannigan), Canadian tough-chick Robin (Cobie Smulders), and of course, the “legendary” suit-wearing playboy Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), told by Ted years in the future as stories to his kids, leading to the much awaited meeting of their mother.

“How I Met Your Mother” also one of the few shows I’ve seen all the way through, more than once. (Hey, I’m a movie guy, first and foremost.) So, having seen each and every episode of one of my favorite shows, I thought I’d make a list of my absolute favorites. Which episodes make me laugh, make me smile, and/or even make me tear up? (Oh yes, there’s an episode like that, and it’s on this list.)

These are My Top 15 Favorite “HIMYM” Episodes!

Warning: SPOILERS!

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15) TEN SESSIONS (Season 3, Episode 13)

This was the introduction to Stella (Sarah Chalke), who would become Ted’s girlfriend and soon-fiancée…and the person to break his heart brutally after leaving him at the alter. But she started out as Ted’s dermatologist. Early in Season 3, Ted got a back tattoo while drunk (or, as his friends put it, a “tramp stamp”). To remove it, he has to undergo 10 sessions of laser tattoo removal surgery. But he’s fine with it, because it gives him time to convince Stella to go out with him after the final session.

Also in this episode is Britney Spears—she plays Stella’s shy receptionist who has an unrequited crush on Ted. Her sideshow appearance on the show was built up big-time, but even though she is funny here, she doesn’t hog the spotlight. (I’m going to be honest—the first time I saw this episode, I didn’t even know that was Britney!) That’s a good thing, because I did care for the Ted-and-Stella story. Stella is very likable, charming and funny. Of course, it’s odd saying that about her now that I know what she’ll do later in the next season, but it’s easy to see why Ted is attracted to her and why he would pull off one of the show’s highlights: a two-minute date. Those who have seen the show know exactly what I’m talking about.

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14) STUFF (S2E16)

When you break up with someone, what do you do with the “stuff?” Ted and Robin’s relationship takes somewhat of a turn when Robin learns that many of Ted’s possessions are from his ex-girlfriends. He gets rid of them and they move past it…only for Ted to realize that all five of Robin’s dogs are from ex-boyfriends. The visual representations of how Ted and Robin view these possessions gets me laughing each time I watch this episode—Ted imagines the dogs as Robin’s exes; I have nothing else to say about that! This show is particularly successful when it takes relatable issues and puts its own funny spin on them (in this case, it’s figuring out what to do with “stuff” that belonged to exes.)

Is that all to this episode? Nope. It gets better. Not with Ted and Robin, but with Barney and Lily. Their subplot is simply hilarious. It begins as Lily invites (nay, begs) Barney to an “Off-Off-Broadway” play she’s participating in (and an awful one at that). Barney is very blunt about how much he didn’t enjoy it, and as payback, he puts on his own play just to torture her. (As a bonus Easter-egg, if you look in the background, an audience member reads a playbill with the title “SUCK IT LILY.”) Barney’s play is a definite highlight, but the payoff at the end…!

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13) TED MOSBY: ARCHITECT (S2E4)

In this episode, Robin learns a thing or two about what it means to be in a relationship. She and Ted get into an argument when she seems disinterested in his work in architecture (and also when she admits she doesn’t like “Field of Dreams,” which Ted sees as a bigger deal than her lack of listening—that’s kind of funny). Barney assures Ted that his job isn’t boring and he just needs to have the right attitude about it in presenting it. Barney’s way of proving it makes Robin suspicious of Ted, leading to Robin and Lily going around town trying to find him. This gets Robin to learn that listening is key to relationships and she’s going to lose him if she isn’t interested in his career. Robin has already stated early in the show that she’s somewhat uncomfortable with relationships; so, to see her undergo a lesson in life and love is welcome. Her problem is she didn’t want to care about what she thinks Ted may be doing this night, but the revelation for her is that she clearly does. She’s pushed out of her comfort zone and it helps her grow as a person. The episode is funny (especially when we see how law majors party in one scene), but the dramatic aspects of this story make it one of the best in the series.

By the way, I like Field of Dreams too. Review here: https://smithsverdict.com/2013/04/06/field-of-dreams-1989/

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12) THE PINEAPPLE INCIDENT (S1E10)

The Pineapple Incident is one of the most popular episodes of the entire series—it’s the highest viewed of Season 1 and the second highest overall. Ted is criticized by his friends for overthinking everything in his life, and he tries to prove them wrong by taking one shot too many. The next morning, he can’t remember anything—why he sprained his ankle, why his jacket is burned, and…who is this girl sleeping in his bed? Marshall, Lily, and Barney fill him in while they themselves can’t figure certain things out.

What can I say about it that no one has already? The non-chronological story structure is fun. It’s funny to watch Drunk Ted do his thing. Also, additional 10 points for adult Winnie Cooper. It’s great to watch…let’s move on!

By the way, did the pineapple belong to The Captain? I think it might have…

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11) SLAP BET (S2E9)

Slap Bet shows another piece of progress for Robin…and man, is it a joyful one! But I’m getting ahead of myself. Ted knows there are some vague important details about Robin’s past, but Robin doesn’t want to talk about them. This makes Ted paranoid that he doesn’t know his girlfriend very well and even pressures her in an attempt to know her secrets. Meanwhile, Marshall and Barney have their own ideas about Robin’s past, which leads to a Slap Bet—whomever is right gets to slap the other person in the face really hard.

Barney finds the key to Robin’s big secret. By this point, Ted wants to respect Robin’s privacy while Robin knows there’s no point in hiding it anymore. So then they all learn the secret. Barney is wrong, Marshall gets to slap him five times anytime, and Robin is embarrassed but feels good now that Ted knows her biggest secret.

Who would’ve expected Robin Sparkles and “Let’s Go To The Mall?” That is a brilliant payoff and a hilarious faux-‘80s-music-video that comes with it.

The use of the “Slap Bet” is wonderful and there are many laughs (and slaps) that come with it, especially with Lily as the appointed Slap Bet Commissioner. And it leads to one of the best running gags of the series. Though, I have to ask—if Barney knows Marshall can slap him at any time and is afraid of it, why doesn’t Marshall use it to scare Barney out of their business when he’s doing one of his schemes or something against them? (Sorry, but that’s always bothered me.)

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10) MURTAUGH (S4E19)

OK, so there’s nothing especially progressive about this episode. You could watch this by itself and still laugh at it. It’s on my list because…well, exactly that—it’s one of the funnier episodes in my opinion. Barney is kicked out of his favorite laser-tag joint, which inspires Ted to break out the “Murtaugh List.” It’s a list of things people are too old to do, inspired by a line of dialogue by Sgt. Murtaugh in “Lethal Weapon” (“I’m too old for this…stuff”). Barney challenges himself to do everything on the list, which of course leads to hi-jinks.

To see Barney go through such ridiculousness (at least, “ridiculousness” for his age) is funny enough (he gets his ear pierced, hurts his back after sleeping on a futon, and so on), and it gets better when Barney and Robin come up with their own list and challenge Ted to do things he’s “too young to do,” turning Ted into somewhat of a “grumpy old man.” All of this is fun to watch and makes me laugh each time I watch it.

Oh, and there’s also a subplot featuring Marshall and Lily butting heads when it comes to Marshall’s coaching methods in kindergarten basketball. It’s cute, it has some laughs (including a random Teen Wolf…don’t ask me), but whatever—get us back to the Murtaugh list!

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9) SANDCASTLES IN THE SAND (S3E16)

More Robin Sparkles! But uh-oh! There’s something more!

This episode begins with Robin reverting back to her teenage self after her former boyfriend, Simon (Dawson himself, James Van Der Beek), comes into town. Even though Robin has clearly changed for the better since they were together, she can’t help herself around him. Each member of the group feels the same way whenever they reconnect with old friends, a phenomenon of reverting to one’s high-school self (associative regression or “revertigo?”), leading to a very big laugh when Lily’s old high-school friend revisits her.

Blah, blah, blah. What do people remember most about this episode? Robin Sparkles 2! Barney overhears Simon mention another music video Robin made when she was a pop singer, and he sets out to find it because…well, he’s Barney and he’ll do anything to humiliate Robin. But that leads to a surprising development in which Barney actually shows somewhat of a sweet side after Simon dumps Robin. That leads to Robin showing Barney what he’s wanted to see. That leads to yet another delightful Robin Sparkles music video (a love ballad this time, whereas the other was a techno pop song). That leads to…Robin and Barney kissing?! The end.

When this episode was aired for the first time, HIMYM fans freaked out. They had no idea where this was going to go. Were Robin and Barney going to date?! How was this going to work out?! Everyone was excited to find out. Watching this episode knowing what I know now about where this ended up going, it’s still a clever script—it’s interesting to see the subtle hints Barney and Robin may have dropped on each other. Maybe it’s possible Barney’s quest to find more humiliating Robin Sparkles videos was his way of knowing more about the other side of her personality…

Or maybe the writers wanted to deliver some kind of fan service; that’s also a possibility. But I’m sticking to my theory!

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8) GAME NIGHT (S1E15)

One of the things I love about this show is whenever it takes us into the pasts of the characters we’ve become very familiar with—I call them “looking-back episodes,” in which characters swap stories about who they were (being a sitcom, they’re usually embarrassing stories). One of my favorites is a Season 1 treat called “Game Night.”

We were only 15 episodes into this show, and we had a pretty good idea about the legend that is Barney Stinson. But it was time to show who Barney Stinson was before he became…Barney Stinson, so to speak. The episode begins when the group is having game night but discovers an embarrassing videotape of Barney…or a longhaired, hippie-ish Barney crying his eyes out and singing a sappy love song to his lost love. The group wants to know what the tape is all about, but Barney will only tell one part of his story and will continue only after someone from the group shares his or her own embarrassing story.

Just when fans think Barney is a one-dimensional playboy at the start of the series, “Game Night” brings new dimensions to his character that’s so fascinating to watch. It’s amazing to see who Barney was and think this is who he is now. It brought the character to a whole new level.

Barney, you got issues. But for you, my friend, I will SUIT UP!

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7) SPOILER ALERT (S3E8)

This is the episode in which we learn all the annoying behaviors of the group just as the characters themselves learn them too. It begins with Ted dating a woman he thinks is the perfect girl but everyone has a problem with. Since he doesn’t see their problem with her, they agree not to tell him what it is. But he begs them, and they reveal she’s very talkative. Now he can’t stop noticing and he breaks it off with her. But it doesn’t stop there. The five friends let slip each other’s flaws, leading to annoyances amongst them.

Among the group’s flaws: Lily’s loud chewing; Marshall’s constant singing about his actions; and Ted’s pretentious correcting. Everyone’s illusions of each other’s perfection are being shattered (followed by a shattering glass sound effect each time), but in the end, they learn that people don’t see the flaws of people they truly love and they become more accepting of them.

Yeah, it’s kind of predictable and obvious, but I like it. I like these people, flaws and all.

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6) HOW I MET EVERYONE ELSE (S3E5)

This supposed simple story of how Ted met his wife rambles on a lot. We know that. But hey, that doesn’t mean we’re not curious to know how he and his friends met each other, especially after we’ve known for two seasons by this point.

Ted brings a date (named “BlahBlah,” as Older Ted can’t remember her real name) to meet his friends at McLaren’s Pub, and this leads to stories around the booth about how they all know each other. Marshall and Lily met in the college dorm and it was love at first sight (though Ted has his own twist on the tale). Barney and Ted met in a public restroom and Barney instantly decided he was gonna teach him how to “live.” But my absolute favorite is the story in which Barney met Marshall.

Though, I’ll be honest—I wish I would’ve seen what happened after Barney witnessed Marshall make out with Lily (before he found out it was Lily). Apparently, he was so impressed he provided services for Marshall, thinking it was a “Karate Kid” scenario of master-and-student. It would’ve been hilarious to see Barney’s reaction upon realizing Lily was Marshall’s girlfriend.

But hey, you enjoy what you can get. I enjoyed this episode.

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5) GIRLS VERSUS SUITS (S5E12)

With the show’s 100th episode, the creators had to come up with something big. Not only did they drop several hints about “the mother,” giving us glimpses of her personality, but they brought Ted so close to meeting the mother without meeting her at all. (“I think I glimpsed her foot,” he narrated.) Ted dates a student at the university where he teaches, and she seems to have a “roommate complex.” Ted’s narration informs us (well, his kids, but mostly us) that his date’s roommate whom she’s not particularly a fan of is “the mother.”

This episode has the best use of comedic narration I’ve seen in the entire series. Example: When Ted’s date complains that men always fall in love with her roommate, Ted replies that he won’t. Older Ted narrates, “Oops.” I don’t know why, but that always makes me crack up.

So what is the mother like? Well, from what we hear, she’s quirky, sweet, artistic…wait, she actually sounds like my girlfriend! Guess I’m a lucky guy, huh? But I digress.

But the hints about the mother aren’t what people remember most about this episode. No, no, no…it’s Barney’s musical devotion to suits! This musical number is GREAT fun to watch, and you can tell Neil Patrick Harris is enjoying the hell out of it with his exuberant performance. It’s well choreographed, the song is well-written, the other members of the group tune in as well, and fans totally ate it up.

And I did too. This episode is transcendent. The show couldn’t get better than this from that point forward…well…except for my number-two choice…

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4) THE LEAP (S4E24)

This was the end of Season 4, the year in which Ted got so much crap thrown on him. He was left at the alter. He lost his job. He got in an intense fight with a crazy bartender. Oh yeah, and he got beaten up by a goat. But as Older Ted narrates while looking back, it was the best year of his life, because if he hadn’t gone through all of that, he wouldn’t get his teaching job (which he calls the best job he ever had). This would lead him to his future wife…

I’m going to be honest. This episode is one of my favorites mostly because of the ending. The story of Barney and Robin stubbornly trying to scare each other away from a relationship even though they’re nuts about each other is funny and kinda sweet, and of course the fight with the goat is fun too. But it’s the ending I’ll always take from this one. This episode represented the end of Ted’s job as an architect and the beginning of his job as a lecturer. He feels bad about himself, having been fired from his firm and his clients (you know, the two Texans who wanted him to design a rib restaurant shaped like a cowboy hat?). But thankfully, Lily is there to set him straight and tell him to take a major leap and see what the view is like from the other side.

Of course, this is happening in a story in which Marshall wants to take a literal leap from one rooftop to another. Lily’s words inspire Marshall to ultimately take the leap, leading to everyone else following his lead, including Ted, who has now seen the point.

It’s an obvious metaphor, to be sure. But it’s a very effective one. Top it off with the A.C. Newman song “Prophets,” and it’s a hell of a scene.

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3) DUAL CITIZENSHIP (S5E5)

This was the first episode I ever watched, and it made me watch the series from the start. And it was a great introduction for me—this is sitcom material at its absolute finest.

It features two stories—one featuring Barney and Robin, the other featuring Ted, Marshall, and Lily. And I enjoy both of them greatly. In Story A, Barney tutors Robin so she can pass an American citizenship test (while also giving his own questions about what it means to be an American—very funny). But she “goes Canadian” (as Barney puts it) and ends up in Toronto, where Barney follows. She doesn’t feel American enough or Canadian enough, so she decides to do “duel citizenship.” The highlight of this story is Barney’s constant belittling of Canada, to the point where he badmouths the customers of a Toronto coffee shop, leading to a pretty funny resolution. This is yet another nice moment in the series that shows how Barney cares for Robin.

Story B: Ted and Marshall make a road trip to their favorite pizza place in Chicago. But unfortunately for Ted, Marshall brings Lily along, and she becomes a nuisance—always having to pee (funny), bringing along a Kenny Rogers-narrated audiobook (very funny), and even worse, stopping at a bed-and-breakfast for a weekend of pampering for her and Marshall (Ted’s grumbling reactions are VERY funny). The resolution with this side-story is pretty funny as well.

You may notice I’ve used the word “funny” numerous times in this review. See why this episode got me hooked on this show? See why it’s one of my favorite episodes? I just think it’s so damn funny, plain and simple!

TANTRUM!!!

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2) HOW YOUR MOTHER MET ME (S9E16)

There’s no contest—this is the absolute best episode of Season 9. And it deserves a high ranking as one of the best episodes of the entire series.

This episode is focused on The Mother (Cristin Milioti). We’ve finally come to meet her at the beginning of the season, interacting with some of the other members of our central group on the way to Barney and Robin’s wedding, where she will of course meet Ted. But who is she, really? We got glimpses of her personality, but there has to be something more to her.

With this episode, we got what we all wanted to see by this point. It shows the connections between her and the group from the start of the series, beginning from 2005 to the present point in time. In Barney and Ted’s round of their pick-up gimmick “Have You Met Ted?” it turns out the woman they tried to pick up went to the wrong bar. We follow her as she joins The Mother on her 21st birthday. From there, we get a series of events, most of which are related to what our key characters have gone through throughout the series. They were at the same St Patrick’s Day party, she encountered The Naked Man, she was there when Ted taught the wrong class on his first day, she guesses correctly why anyone would name a bar “Puzzles,” and of course, Ted dated her roommate (even though, if you recall, Ted would’ve liked to know her just from looking at her possessions).

Through it all, we see her own rocky journey through life and love. And she is EASILY sympathetic from the very start—her beloved boyfriend dies in 2005, thus making her romantic situation all the more complicated. The episode had barely started, and I already wanted to hug this poor woman and tell her it’s going to be OK.

We needed this episode, but more importantly, we needed it to be good. We’ve been waiting to spend time with The Mother, and since we obviously weren’t going to get to know her as much as we have known Ted, Marshall, Lily, Robin, and Barney. So, at the very least, we needed to feel like we know her. Was 22 minutes enough? Hell no. But for the challenge the writers brought upon themselves, they did a solid job. We get to know The Mother as much as we would if we were watching her in a 22-minute short film. We already know she’s adorable and immediately appealing, but now we know she has emotional baggage. We see why she has trouble socializing, we see what she does with her time while under stress, and we see how she decides to give relationships a chance again.

But that leads to the most beautiful scene in the series—and this is the moment I mentioned in the introduction made me a little teary-eyed. She’s at the location of the wedding, and she plays “La Vie En Rose” with the ukulele her late boyfriend gave her and sings to herself. Little does she know that Ted can hear her…

That is a beautiful scene, not only because we understand what she feels at this moment, but also because it’s a quiet, slow scene that earned its place in this quickly-paced episode.

I really, really wish we got to know The Mother even more, because she is a delight to watch. But alas…

This should be my #1 choice, since it has the moments that, for lack of a better phrase, “made me feel things.” But seeing as how the key characters I’ve come to know and love aren’t the focus of this episode, it would feel like to cheating to choose it as my favorite. Besides, this is a comedy show. Which episode made me laugh the most?

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1) THE PLAYBOOK (S5E8)

I’ve been thinking, and no, I cannot think of another HIMYM episode that makes me laugh as consistently as this one does. (That’s right—not even “Dual Citizenship.”) That alone grants The Playbook the choice of my number-one favorite episode.

Barney and Robin have broken up one episode ago, meaning Barney is back on the prowl. (“Daughters, hide your MILSWANCAs!”—meaning Mothers I’d Like to Sleep With And Never Call Again) He shows the group his book of pick-up arts, simply known as The Playbook. Things are fine, until Lily’s attempt to set Ted up with a friend of hers backfires due to one of Barney’s plays. It becomes Lily’s mission to stop Barney from going through ridiculous schemes as she sees The Playbook only as an excuse to move past his relationship with Robin.

I’ve given enough spoilers away in this post, but I won’t dare say how this episode ends. But I will say it left me laughing for what felt like hours. Even today, it makes me chuckle and smile for a while.

And I can say the same for the plays we see performed throughout this episode. The Don’t Drink That. The Cheap Trick. The My Penis Grants Wishes. The He’s Not Coming. And…Mrs. Stinsfire. Every time this part comes up, I die laughing. It’s a cheap joke, but it works so well!

I’m such a fan of HIMYM that I bought the published Playbook. The best coffee table book I’ll ever have.

So, there you have it. A Top 15 list of favorite episodes from one of my favorite TV shows. It took a long while to write this, but you know what? It was worth it. I’d like to do Top 15 Episodes lists from my favorite shows, such as maybe Seinfeld or Psych. I hope you enjoyed this, and remember:

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Jeepers Creepers (2001)

23 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You ever hear that expression “less is more?” “Jeepers Creepers” would have sufficed well with a lot less explaining and more subtlety. This is a horror film that begins as an interesting, tense, scary first half, and as it continues, it becomes even less successful while doing so. How? By explaining too much, and in the most improbable, silly ways too. Half of what is said about what’s going on here, and the motivations behind it, you can’t possibly take seriously because it’s all too ridiculous. This is not the film we started out with.

The film does start out fine, as we’re introduced to two likable characters—a college-age brother and sister driving home together for spring break. Played by Justin Long and Gina Philips, Dary and Trish engage in friendly, convincing sibling-banter and feel like real people. While they can be a little annoying at times with their ways of passing the time (exchanges of “nuh-uh” and “uh-huh” over and over again, for example), they are mostly likable enough for us not to want anything bad to happen to them.

On their drive, they encounter an intimidating truck whose (unseen) driver messes with them in a dangerous way. They survive, but later they spot that same truck, where the driver seems to have thrown a body down a pipe. Being out in the middle of nowhere with hardly another car and no way to call for help (and apparently there’s no cell phone service either), Dary bravely (though rather stupidly, but that’s what Trish acknowledges) decides to look into the pipe and see what’s down there. When he accidentally falls into it, that’s when he comes across a most grisly discovery. And that’s only the beginning…

And when Dary escapes and he and Trish make it to the next town, this is where “Jeepers Creepers” starts to go off track. Where do I begin?

Well, first of all, it seems the supernatural is an important element to this “driver.” It has its own theme song (“Jeepers Creepers,” no matter what tempo it’s being played at), and it apparently has its own omens too, like hundreds of crows and cats.

Second, it turns out it’s not a man at all. It’s some kind of winged beast that apparently eats body parts to compensate for what it doesn’t already have (eyes so that it can see, lungs so that it can breathe, etc.). All I’m thinking is, “What? Where did this come from, and how am I supposed to take this movie seriously anymore?”

Third, there’s a psychic. That’s right—there’s a crazy old lady in town who serves as the town psychic who can spew more exposition than you can think of, and probably more than she can even think of. Sometimes, I even think she might be making some of this stuff up—every 23 years, for 23 days, it gets to eat? You know, I think I give up asking.

I was rooting for “Jeepers Creepers,” as it began with atmosphere, tension, and actual character development (things that most horror films hardly bother with). And it is competently made. But while it certainly is ambitious, and while the monster itself would make an intriguing villain in a different light, it’s overdone and as a result is just plain silly.

Lady in the Water (2006)

23 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“’Lady in the Water’ and ‘The Happening’ are too goofy for me to hate” –excerpt from my “Devil” review

I can’t rationally defend M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening”; on a critic’s level, I gave it one-and-a-half stars. But on a personal level, it’s one of the most fun so-bad-it’s-good movies I could pop in every once in a while. We all have our guilty pleasures. But I do feel bad for holding guilt over enjoying three movies under Shyamalan’s name (“Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” and “Devil,” all of which are silly in many different ways). I know this filmmaker is an easy target for ridicule and mockery, but remember: this is the same guy that brought us “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” and “The Visit.” (I don’t even mind “The Village.”) Yes, I hated “The Last Airbender,” but I can’t hold that over his head like most people on the Internet do.

“Lady in the Water” is a film people use to mock Shyamalan for making it. But is it really deserving of much hatred?

This was Shyamalan’s departure from Disney Studios, having Warner Bros. present the film instead. Even though Disney was going to fund the movie anyway due to Shyamalan bringing them hit after hit after hit, Shyamalan took offense at the executives who took a look at his script and said they didn’t understand it, and he left. So let’s see what they didn’t understand…

Based on a fairy tale Shyamalan told his children before bed, “Lady in the Water” brings depressed apartment-building superintendent Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti) in the middle of a strange “bedtime story” come to life, once he meets a water nymph that comes from the swimming pool. She is a “narf” named Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), who has come from the Blue World to inspire a budding writer who lives in the building and whose writing will change the world for the better. Once that is done, a giant eagle known as the Great Eatlon will come and take her back home. One of the tenants, Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung), is reminded of an Eastern story like this, and so, she brings her mother (June Kyoko Lu) in to tell him the story so he (and we) can fill in the blanks to find parallels to what’s happening here. There are also monsters lurking outside near the pool—wolf-like Scrunts who leave poison with their scratches, and monkey-like Tartutics who serve as the Blue World’s peacekeepers who attack Scrunts. Cleveland agrees to protect Story, as he searches the building and tries to determine which of his tenants is the writer and which of the rest of the tenants are chosen to assist Story in her journey home—a guardian who can fend off the Scrunts, an interpreter who can read messages in mundane features, a healer who can heal Story’s wounds, and a group of helpers.

I will give this movie credit for its originality. All this talk about the things in this “bedtime story” combined with modern-world parallels is intriguing, even if some of it does seem ridiculous. (And I’m not going to lie…it is kind of ridiculous. Even Cleveland laughs at how silly some of this is on some occasions.) And I do like how this movie establishes its environment within this apartment building, with many different characters with different purposes banding together to help save this “narf.” (Even that word “narf” sounds ridiculous.) But the problem is this story contains so many essentials that it gets kind of hard to follow. On top of that, we never see the Blue World. We only hear about it as we follow Cleveland and learn things as he goes and finds out more. The more that becomes thrown at us, the more lost people can become. Sad to say, this may be what turned Disney off on the script.

(Oh, and the said-interpreter who can read messages in mundane features? It turns out to be a little boy who can decode secret messages through cereal boxes… Yeah.)

So, who plays this specific author whose storytelling will better humanity’s future? M. Night Shyamalan himself, of course. This was not a good move. It’s not because Shyamalan is wooden in the role but because it enforces his detractors’ general view of his probable egotism. I mean, think about it—Shyamalan is playing a writer who isn’t fully understood yet but his book about world views will many years later inspire a future leader (and someone will take his life because of it). That’s…a little too easy.

Shyamalan has also included a character who is a snooty, cynical film critic named Farber (Bob Balaban). Farber is a critic who complains about everything, thinks he knows what’s going to happen here and there (whether it’s in a movie or not…or this movie), is so full of himself, and (SPOILER ALERT) gets brutally murdered by a vicious beast. Obviously, this is a stereotype of people might think a film critic is like, because very few critics in real life are like this. So I like to think this is Shyamalan’s way of making fun of people whom he thinks don’t understand his work some of the time (and maybe, since Farber points out some self-aware commentary about the goofiness the situation may seem, it’s his way of addressing the film’s criticisms before the critics could get to it). I’m thinking to myself, “OK, this is kinda fun. Shyamalan’s making jokes about critics.”

That’s why it baffles me when people take it seriously, like Shyamalan was taking non-subtle jabs at his hecklers and saying no one will understand him and they don’t deserve to. I didn’t have a problem with it—they’re just jokes. So what?

Let’s get to more of the positives, now that I’ve described the problems people have with “Lady in the Water.” As I said, I like certain elements of this story being told, but I also really cared for the person learning all of these things. Paul Giamatti does a great job as this depressed man who lost his wife and children to a burglar/murderer. His mannerisms are convincing (even his stutter, which sounds remarkably realistic) and you feel like you reach out and touch this guy, like pat his shoulders and tell him everything’s going to be OK. Some of the side actors playing the tenants are really good as well, such as Bob Balaban as the critic, Jeffrey Wright as a crossword-puzzles whiz, and Sarita Choudhury as Shyamalan’s character’s helpful sister. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Bryce Dallas Howard, whose character of Story is ineffective as merely a plot device who doesn’t really do anything herself, aside from whimper and whisper throughout the entire movie. I’m not saying this is Howard’s fault; she just has so little to work with, despite the movie being named after her.

What else do I like? The music score by James Newton Howard. The music is outstandingly good; it becomes a character of its own. I wouldn’t mind listening to this soundtrack and coming up with my own movie based around it.

I also admired the spiritual aspect of the movie. According to Young-Soon, the moral of the bedtime story is no one knows for sure who they are, and it takes everyone in the movie to understand their place in this world in order to save the day.

I notice the flaws of “Lady in the Water” and I can see why people make fun of it, but there’s just something so fascinating about it. I admire what Shyamalan was trying to do, even if some of what he did backfired. I hear there’s a book about the making of this film (entitled “The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career On a Fairy Tale”), and I’d be interested to read it. This movie garnered enough interest for me to find out more about it. And this is a guilty pleasure I certainly hold guilt on but I enjoy watching every once in a while as well.

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

22 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I didn’t write a full review of 2014’s “Ouija,” because it can be summed up very quickly. It’s lame, dumb, badly-written, and contains a nonsensical twist that makes it worse. Dumb, bland teens play with a Ouija board, bad things happen, they get picked off one by one by a malevolent spirit. You’d think these idiots would’ve seen the “Paranormal Activity” movies to learn not to mess with things they don’t understand. It’s a boring movie with very little to it, other than…the filmmakers wanted to see if they could make a movie about playing a supernatural board game. (Unless it’s Jumanji or Zathura, I don’t care much.)

Side-note: Yes, I know people are terrified of the Ouija board game, but if it was a real hazard to everyone, do you think they would’ve kept it stocked in toy stores all these years? Besides, according to renowned demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, it’s not the board game itself that lets in demons; it’s you inviting them in. (You could basically do the same thing with Checkers pieces or a Twister dial, or, if you saw “The Conjuring,” a music box or a doll.) The Ouija board is just a toy. But due to the spiritualistic elements surrounding it, it’s easy for filmmakers & storytellers to try and use Ouija for purposes usually relating to horror elements, which leads us to…

Even though “Ouija” was universally panned by critics, it made a bundle at the box office, leading to the studio getting a half-baked idea that it might warrant a sequel. I have no idea what the planning process was like, but I like to think that studio executives, as well as producer Michael Bay (yes, THAT Michael Bay, whose track record with the horror films he produces is very off-putting), knew there was nowhere for this “franchise” to go but up, and so maybe they knew they had to make this new one as good as possible. Who’s a good director who knows how to make horror movies? Who can take what little the original film had to begin with and make something gripping and scary out of it?

Mike Flanagan is the one they chose to take Ouija in a new direction. His previous horror films include the underrated chiller “Oculus” and my favorite horror film of 2016 by far, “Hush,” so I’d say that was a very good choice. And if you saw my Verdict rating above, you know I think Flanagan did a very good job with “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” a prequel to the 2014 film. I was surprised by how smart and how genuinely chilling this movie is, especially considering its deplorable predecessor.

Set in 1967 (47 years before the other film), “Ouija: Origin of Evil” focuses on one family (as opposed to a group of stock dead-meat teen characters in the first film). California medium Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is a widowed mother to rebellious 15-year-old Lina (Annalise Basso) and adorable 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson), all of whom are adjusting to life after the sudden death of her husband/their father. Alice hosts séances at home for clients, and her daughters help make the illusion more practical. But they mean well; Alice assures her children that they’re not scammers and they do it to help people, even if their methods are showy. But they themselves would appreciate a real way of connecting to the afterlife.

Alice buys a Ouija board game (property and trademark of Hasbro, whom I hope has a sense of humor in allowing their product associated with grisliness) and rigs it for use at séances. But when Doris begins playing with it, the family discovers to their amazement that they can really communicate with authentic spirits, including the man they lost.

This is a very intriguing premise so far, as we see people using phony methods of connecting with spirits and are bewildered by the discovery of something more real than they expected. But it’s not fun for long, as Doris is in contact with spirits who are much less than friendly. Soon, she is possessed by a black-skinned demon (Doug Jones…of course, Doug Jones). Alice is still blinded by the amazement she feels for the whole ordeal, but Lina is suspicious and seeks help from priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas), who discovers there is far more sinister going on with poor little Doris than Lina or Alice ever expected.

Flanagan has fun with the ‘60s setting, littering the film with retro callbacks, such as space-program references, retro fragments such as the roman numerals (of the date) at the bottom of the title card, the classic Universal logo that opens the film, and even inserting little black blips at the top-right of the screen to make it appear as if it was projected on film. With the exception of an obvious CGI figure that (thankfully) only pops up about 2-3 times, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” looks and feels like a film that was made and released in the late-‘60s. But Flanagan also knows how to use scares effectively. He uses jump-scares scarcely (I think the first fake-out scare was intended to be funny rather than annoying, thank goodness), he eases people in with tension and a creepy feeling without overloading the buildup with falseness (a problem most horror movies face today), and then, in the overbearing climax, that’s when he pulls out all the stops. That’s what a good horror film is supposed to do: ease the audience into its weirdness/creepiness and let it all out when the time is right, by which point the audience is very much on-edge.

But wait, you may ask. How is it scary? Flanagan uses creepy visuals, even out of focus in the background. He shows horrific things happening. And like I said, he uses false jump scares scarcely—when there are real jump scares, there’s actually something to be scared of. (I know, a shocking concept, right?) And overall, it’s creepy. It leaves you with the knowledge that there are dangerous forces at work and are playing with Doris’ mind and haunting Alice and Lina’s lives, and it builds its suspense from there. The climax is a little overbearing, with everything becoming a threat around every corner of this house (including a creepy basement and a hidden room), but it deserves to be by that point.

But a horror movie wouldn’t be nearly as effective if we didn’t care about the characters this stuff is happening to. Flanagan manages a win with this as well, picking three very good actresses (Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, and Lulu Wilson) who successfully deliver a family dynamic and play people we care about and fear for. Henry Thomas is also solid as well, playing a man of God who is also looking for otherworldly answers ever since his wife died.

It’s important to note that no one needs to see the 2014 “Ouija” film before seeing this “prequel.” This works perfectly well as a stand-alone story, and its predecessor needs no more attention than it already got. “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is much better than it deserves to be. Not that I would want another “Ouija” movie to come from this—I mean, after all, just like there was nowhere for the franchise to go but up, this franchise seems like it can only go downward from here.

The Final Girls (2015)

14 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Final Girls” wants to be both a satire and a loving homage to ‘80s slasher horror films, but I don’t recall any “Friday the 13th” or “Sleepaway Camp” film (and yes, I’ve seen my share of those films) with a universe so…colorful. Let me explain—“The Final Girls” is about a bunch of modern teenagers who are magically transported into the world of an ‘80s slasher film they were watching, and this new dimension is the mid ‘80s in full Technicolor. The flowers are artificially colored, the leaves are brightly green, the characters wear bright colors, and so on. This is more like “Hot Tub Time Machine’s” interpretation of the ‘80s than, say, “The House of the Devil.” (Both “The Final Girls” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” apparently picked the same ‘80s year too: 1986. Odd coincidence.)

But no one should be complaining too much, because the overly-retro look of the exaggerated movie-‘80s adds to the fun. We can associate it with the ‘80s, and that’s good enough. “The Final Girls” is meant to be a spoof rather than a genuine horror film. And while it lampoons its own nostalgic callbacks with self-awareness, it embraces them with admiration too. We get the stereotypes (the jock, the slut, the token minority, etc.) lined up for slaughter by a silent, demented killer in a secluded summer camp, accompanied by present-day young people who observe the madness.

The main character of “The Final Girls” is Max (well-played by the appealing Taissa Farmiga), a college student whose mother (Malin Akerman) played one of the many victims in a popular mid-‘80s slasher film, entitled “Camp Bloodbath.” A year after her mom dies in a car accident, Max reluctantly agrees to appear at a “Camp Bloodbath” retrospective as a favor to Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), the nerdy stepbrother of Max’s sarcastic hipster friend Gerty (Alia Shawkat, “Arrested Development”) who arranges the screening at a local theater. Accompanying Max, Duncan, and Gerty are Max’s sensitive-jock crush, Chris (Alexander Ludwig), and an unwelcome Vicki (Nina Dobrev), who can’t seem to get over the fact that she and Chris are broken up. Soon after the movie starts, the theater is caught on fire, and the five kids try to escape behind the screen. They realize too late they have actually escaped through the screen and into the movie itself.

They find that the movie plays on a loop and the only way to get out of it is to go through it with the central characters. This proves to be a difficult task, as things seem too real in this world, especially the killer who waits in the woods for the perfect (and appropriate—or inappropriate) moments to strike. Now they have to try and make it through the film without becoming victims themselves.

Another difficulty in this journey is the reunion between Max and her mother—er, her mother’s character, in her early 20s. Max wants to make sure her mother doesn’t fall victim to the killer, thus trying everything possible to change the course of the film. The relationship between Max and her mother is very strong and helps bring an emotional backbone to a film that is otherwise a joyful romp. The film is surprisingly serious-minded when it comes to this aspect’s themes of loss, redemption, and fear of losing again. On top of that, both actresses play their roles very well. And this relationship also has light comedic purposes, such as Max having to play mother to her own mother, whose character is eager to lose her virginity to the class-A horn dog Kurt (Adam DeVine), which will of course result in her murder by the on-looking killer. That’s funny, but it’s also emotional when you consider that she feels the need to protect her from the hardships of the real world.

One of the film’s running gags is that these five central millennial characters have to play practical parental roles to these ‘80s-movie archetypes such as teaching the airhead slut Tina (Angela Trimbur), And these types are more than exaggerated, which should irritate me but strangely left more of an impact on me as it went on. Maybe it had to do with the context of 2015 archetypes going through all this—somehow, it makes me wonder what people are going to make of this young generation decades from now. What would they see in us (or in our movies) that we simply don’t see ourselves today?

Wow, I just wrote myself into a philosophical topic in a review of a broad comedy.

You know what? I’ve said enough. Check out “The Final Girls.” It’s entertaining. It’s funny. It’s cute. It’s even touching at times. It’s well-written, and it’s worth nothing one of the writers was Joshua John Miller, whose father was Jason Miller (well-known as Karras of “The Exorcist” fame); maybe he developed the character of Max as a way of dealing with his own parental loss. And of course, it’s very colorful. Metaphorically and literally.

Evil Dead II (1987)

13 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m sure some people are looking at the “Smith’s Verdict” rating and thinking, “What?! This so-called ‘critic’ didn’t give ‘Evil Dead II,’ one of the best movies ever made in the history of mankind, a four-star rating? Or even a FIVE-star rating?! I’m so mad, I’m going to unsubscribe from his blog right now! That’ll show him for giving ‘The Goonies’ a higher rating than this movie!” There is an explanation for that—a selfish reason, but still a reason all the same. “Evil Dead II,” Sam Raimi’s sort-of sequel to his 1981 gory, goofy horror classic “The Evil Dead,” is a hell of a good time—a slapstick comedy in the guise of a horrific supernatural shocker. It is a relentless, outrageous (and yes, also groovy) romp with lots of blood, gore, slapstick, gags, practical effects, crazy camerawork, fast editing, energetic spirit, an awesome hero, and an overall uncompromisingly zany style to it. Since then, it has become a cult classic like no one’s business, with many, many people praising it to high heaven (ironic, considering this movie features many, many demons in it), watching it every Halloween, showing it to their friends, and calling it one of their favorite movies. It was definitely the movie that put Sam Raimi in the spotlight, causing him to make another sequel (“Army of Darkness”) and eventually make more mainstream movies (such as the “Spider-Man” trilogy later on), and I think it’s safe to say it made actor Bruce Campbell the star we know him as today.

The film is technically a sequel to the original film, but it’s more of a remake. It was supposed to take place where the original left off, but the sequel’s new studio couldn’t get the rights to footage from the original for a recap, and so, they shot new footage for a prologue, explaining why Ash (Campbell) is at that creepy cabin in the woods and how the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (or “Book of the Dead”) has brought forth an evil entity that threatens to consume his soul. He barely survives but can’t escape the evil, and he’s left to face off against whatever this force can throw at him in a night of battle against non-stop over-the-top macabre components. Ash isn’t one to give up so easily—even when he is forced to cut off his right hand, which was possessed by a demon, he eventually has it replaced…with a chainsaw. Is that “groovy” or what?

The film is similar in style to the original “Evil Dead” but not necessarily in tone. The original intent of “Evil Dead” was to be legitimately scary, while the main intent for “Evil Dead II” is to be ludicrously comical. Raimi and his crew pull out every trick in the bag to make something so absurd into something so fitting, and it really works. This movie is a lot of fun to watch as a result, and that’s why people love it so much. Absolute slapstick (such as when Ash’s hand punches him in the face or grabs his head to smash against dishes and windows) and one-liners (such as when Ash shotguns a demon who wants to “swallow [his] soul”—“Swallow this”) add to the humor aspects of the movie. “Evil Dead II” can unsettle you if you don’t like nasty, creepy-looking, possessed people or mangled deer heads coming to life and laughing maniacally (yes, that’s in this, if you haven’t seen the movie already) or lots and lots of blood (sometimes in different colors even), but it’s not here to scare you or even to necessarily gross you out—it’s here to make you laugh.

So, what do I think would make “Evil Dead II” a better movie (and by that, I mean a four-star movie rather than a three-and-a-half-star movie)? Well…if it had no one else except Bruce Campbell in it. I mean it—if it was just the ever-awesome Bruce Campbell taking center-stage throughout, fighting off many supernatural beasties (or “Dead-ites”) with no outside help whatsoever, I would’ve given the movie a four-star rating. But instead, Raimi decided to bring in some annoying visitors for the demons to kill. They are Annie (Sarah Berry), whose father owns the cabin; her boyfriend (Richard Domeier); and a redneck couple (Dan Hicks and Kassie Wesley). I get that they’re here to be picked off one-by-one, and they’re supposed to be funny, I suppose. But I wasn’t amused by them and I found them annoying and too dumb for me to care. The stuff with Ash fighting off the forces of darkness is great on its own; if the movie was just about this macho-dude-turned-badass-hero against an army of demons, then I would’ve given it four stars. That’s a compliment to Bruce Campbell, who is so much fun to watch in a movie that is so much fun to watch, despite my nitpick about the other characters.