Archive | September, 2017

Alpha Dog (2007)

19 Sep

Alpha-Dog-Gallery-8

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! (Though it’s based on a true story.)

Most criminals don’t know what they’re doing half the time. Most of them are just kids trying to act tougher than they are. And even if they think they’re unstoppable, they’re too arrogant to recognize that this lifestyle has to end. We’ve learned this lesson in movies before, but there’s still something about Nick Cassavetes’ gritty crime drama “Alpha Dog” that speaks volumes in how unsettling and unforgiving it is in its portrayal of this kind of lifestyle.

Based on the kidnapping/murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz (though with each name altered for the film), “Alpha Dog” takes place in the late 1990s and focusing on young drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, playing a fictional version of real-life Jesse James Hollywood) and his crew, which includes Frankie (Justin Timberlake), Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), and many other young people in it for the money and the drugs (and the guns). One of Johnny’s customers, an addict named Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), owes him money, which leads to conflict. That conflict leads to the kidnapping of Jake’s 15-year-old brother Zack (Anton Yelchin, playing a fictional version of Nick Markowitz).

Zack, who is tired of the constant suffocating by his loving but overbearing mother (Sharon Stone), doesn’t realize the trouble he’s in; in fact, he actually adapts to his surroundings and doesn’t even try to escape his captors. “I’m just gonna ride it out,” he tells Frankie who becomes his friend, “and see what happens.” Soon enough, more friends are involved in this abduction, including two girls who are turned on by Zack’s situation and his innocent reaction to it all. (“Stolen boy,” one of the girls, played by Amanda Seyfried, declares him.) Zack has a good time—he hangs out with Johnny’s crew, he drinks and does drugs, he has a sexual awakening with the girls, and he basically has the time of his life. But as Johnny realizes the gravity of what he put himself and his crew into by taking this boy, he also realizes the kid may have to be silenced for good in order to avoid jail time.

When you’re young, you feel like you’re indestructible. It’s not until you learn a very harsh life lesson when you understand what you put yourself into and how easily you can be corrupted. Frankie, Elvis and co. think they can get away with anything if they follow the right leader. Unfortunately, that leader happens to be Johnny, who himself has no idea where he’s headed and mostly reacts in anger and fear. They think they’re big-time gangsters and, in a group, they perform violent actions, but the tragic thing about it, when all is said and done, they’re all a bunch of scared kids who make dumb decision after bad decision until they all end up in a world of hurt. Cassavetes successfully (and in an unflinching way) captures that side of this arrogance where real-world consequences seem to elude them until it’s too late.

And then you have Zack, who sort of idolizes these (slightly-) older people, particularly his older brother who is constantly stoned and/or coked out (but also filled with rage). But this is a good kid who is impressionable and corrupted by this lifestyle, blinded from the truth and trapped in a situation he didn’t expect. It leads to the inevitable climactic moment in which Frankie has to assure Zack that everything’s going to be OK for him…when it really isn’t. It’s a powerfully frightening scene that keeps the tension alive even though we know what’s going to happen. And it’s even sadder that this kid learns the hard way what this lifestyle is all about: self-perseverance.

The acting is across-the-board solid. Anton Yelchin is perfect in the role of the innocent caught in a world of both bliss and corruption. Emile Hirsch captures both the ego and the cowardice of this “mastermind” who, it turns out, has nothing under control. Justin Timberlake had many other times to shine in the acting spotlight, such as “The Social Network” just a few years after this film’s release, but this was the film and the performance, as jokester/confidant Frankie, that first showed us there was something more to this guy than popular music. Another performance I want to single out is Sharon Stone as Zack’s mother—her final scene, a mock interview, is definitely among Stone’s finest moments as an actress.

Some parts of “Alpha Dog” can be a little too simple, particularly in the conventional lines of dialogue between the captors talking it out and the victim’s searchers concerns. And I didn’t quite see the point in singling out every “witness” (with subtitles) as they arrive throughout the film. But overall, I can’t deny the power of Cassavetes’ portrayal of such an ugly side of youth in America. And that portrayal concludes with a punch to the gut.

Advertisements

Juno (2007)

11 Sep

juno-ss2

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hard to believe it was almost ten years ago when Jason Reitman & Diablo Cody’s “Juno” took the world by storm, becoming that little indie high-school-drama film that beat the odds, received just as much acclaim from audiences as critics, and even receiving three pivotal Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress) and a win (Best Original Screenplay)… Actually, on top of that, it’s hard to believe it was this film that received the attention I think should have been received by other, more superior films of the sort. Films like “The Spectacular Now,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” or even “Sing Street.”

But it was “Juno” that received the attention, probably more than it deserved. And with that came the inevitable backlash, with people being overhyped/oversold on how “groundbreaking” this film was when it was released (or since then). But a good portion of said-backlash…came from people who were among the cult that made it popular to begin with. Repeated viewings can either increase or decrease viewers’ perceptions of a film, and with “Juno,” it seemed to decrease for people who couldn’t help but notice things about it that annoyed them—things that were there from the beginning.

Now, it’s 10 years later, and we look back on “Juno” with either fond memories or annoyed groans. As for me, even though I feel the film is somewhat overrated (and there are some things to groan about), I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it every now and then as a legitimately good (not great) film.

For those who missed the Juno-craze, “Juno” follows 16-year-old high-school junior Juno MacGuff (a star-making turn by Ellen Page, nominated for Best Actress) when she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption, and endures the ups and downs that follow. We follow her through the important moments of the pregnancy—telling people including her boyfriend and her parents, meeting the would-be adoptive parents, establishing a connection with them, bulging out, getting dirty looks and remarks, and of course, as a teenager in an adult situation, learning some things about herself and about life.

The scene that sold the movie for audiences is the scene midway through, in which Juno and her best friend Leah (played with ditzy appeal by Olivia Thirlby) sit down with Juno’s father Mac (J.K. Simmons, always great) and stepmother Bren (Allison Janney, delightful in everything she’s in) to reveal Juno is pregnant. In any other film, the parental characters’ reaction would be along the lines of heartbroken cries or screams (melodramatic but undeniably real). But in this film, it’s a different kind of heartbreak—shock and disappointment—and it’s followed by a calm, rational discussion about what to do next. This was such a relief to people who were tired of the typical parental reply to a situation like teenage pregnancy. Others were confused about it, wondering if these parents were underreacting to something that should be treated as a big deal. I think Mac and Bren do see it as a big deal and you can see the surprise on their faces (Mac even says he was hoping for Juno to face expulsion from school rather than pregnancy); but I also think they know Juno is going through enough with the situation already that she doesn’t need them to make it worse by yelling at her.

The film is full of unusually calm, quiet moments like that. One of my favorites is when Juno tells the boy with whom she had sex once, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), that he is the father. This is a nice, timid boy (the type of character you don’t see in many high-school movies…except for “Superbad,” which Cera starred in a few months prior to this film’s release), and you can tell that the moment he first appears on-screen. The look on his face when Juno announces she’s pregnant is priceless—and thankfully, he doesn’t ask if she’s sure he’s the father. Instead, he simply asks, “What should we do?”

After Juno considers abortion and backs out just as soon as she enters the clinic’s waiting room, she decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. She comes across a wealthy yuppie couple, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), and feels the couple is right for the baby…well, right for her, actually—Vanessa desperately wants to be a mother and Mark seems like a really cool person (he plays guitar and has decent taste in music), so why not? As time goes on, she visits them and gives them updates, while making somewhat of a connection with Mark (almost too uncomfortable, but it’s PG-13, so don’t expect something extreme).

During all of this, Juno learns from her loved ones (Mac, Bren, Paulie) just how difficult the adult life can be, in making tough decisions and especially in relationships. Being a teenager who is growing up so fast due to this experience and not realizing how big of a deal this is, she learns things she didn’t want to learn before, especially about herself, and as a result, she comes of age. This is what truly makes the film special. You do see a change in her when the third act reveals some heavy truths about which Juno has to ponder. And this is a teenager who acts like a hipster in terms of her tastes in music and movies, tries to act cool, thinks she’s better than most people and things, and has an acid tongue. She can even be unlikeable at times, particularly when she stops paying attention to Paulie, who wants to be there for her—at one point, when Juno chews him out after she finds out Paulie is dating someone else, that’s when Paulie finally reveals how hurt he is by being ignored. But it comes from a place of understanding why she would feel the way she feels—being a teen who is growing up too fast, she’s confused and scared, even if she won’t admit it. Juno learns truths she didn’t expect, didn’t see coming, didn’t want to accept…and by the end, she becomes a better person who will enjoy the rest of her pleasant teenage years before making tougher decisions as an adult.

Let’s talk about the dialogue. This is another major issue some people have with the film—Diablo Cody’s screenplay is laced with snappy, witty dialogue that is so quick, so uncommon, so…not like anyone’s ever heard in a movie before. Let me list a few here:

  • “Honest to blog?”
  • “I am forshizz up the spout.”
  • “Phuket, Thailand!” (used as an exclamation)
  • “Thanks a heap, coyote ugly. This cactus stings even worse than your abandonment.”
  • “So what’s the prognosis, Fertile Myrtle? Minus or plus?”
  • “Paulie Bleeker is totally boss.”

And my personal favorite, from a one-scene cameo by Rainn Wilson as a general-store clerk who sells Juno three pregnancy tests:

  • “This is one doodle that can’t be un-did, home-skillet.”

There are even more sassy lines like that, much of which are said in Juno’s constant voiceover monologues. It’s overdone and somewhat dated that it “captured the voice of a generation” (I remember some peers saying stuff like that—I was 15 when the film came out), but it is the key to the film’s humor and much of it did make me at least snicker (more so than the hipster-vocal soundtrack which also scatters throughout the film). Do I think it deserves the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? Well, it is distinct in its dialogue and characters’ behaviors, so the win is seen as an appreciation for creativity in a situation we’ve all seen in other movies. (Though, personally, I would’ve voted for “Ratatouille”—the closing monologues given in that lovely animated film were more beautiful than anything else written for any other film released in 2007.)

While it is unfortunate that people still see Ellen Page as Juno nowadays (meaning she needs to make an even more memorable turn in future projects), even though she’s been in many other movies since her breakthrough, I can’t deny the good work she puts in the performance. She’s always watchable and fun to listen to as she spouts out a lot of Diablo-isms from the script. But more importantly, when she does get hurt, you can feel the pain—that’s the key to this performance, that she’s able to mask her true emotions with abrasiveness, and it’s completely credible.

But the supporting cast can’t escape praise. Michael Cera has been typecast like crazy since “Juno” and “Superbad” (which makes his crazy cameo as himself in “This is the End” all the more hilarious), but I can’t deny that the roles he became famous for were made so because he’s just so damn likable. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are among the best pair of parents I’ve seen in movies about teenagers—I’ve seen movies with parents that try to be “hip” and “with it” (“Mean Girls” even made fun of that trope to perfection), while these parents feel more “real” and respectful than any of those. Jennifer Garner shows more than what her introduction as an OCD yuppie would like us to believe and she has a truly shining moment in which she feels the baby’s kick beneath Juno’s belly. And this is truly among the best of Jason Bateman’s work (right up there with his performance in 2015’s “The Gift”), as he plays a character that eventually can’t deny to Juno or Vanessa that he’s not ready for the adult world, even though he himself is an adult.

So I guess I’m not one of those people who found reasons to dislike “Juno,” but I’m not one of those people who praise it to high heaven either (I’m not sure I can find many who still can to this day either). Parts of it do annoy me, but the strengths of the narrative and characters outweigh the weaknesses. And even the parts that annoy me could also be seen as funny due to how dated they are. Richard Roeper announced on his show “Ebert & Roeper” in December 2007, “Small flaws be damned, I have to say it—I LOVED, LOVED this movie!” I think I would just state in this blog in September 2017, “I see the film’s appeal and recognize the flaws, but I do particularly care for the film and will even watch it once or twice a year.” How’s that for praise?

It (2017)

8 Sep

Movie-Cast-2017-1024x549

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It can be anything. It can be the very thing you fear most. It sleeps for years and then resurfaces to feed on children. It feeds on their fears. In order to do that, it becomes what they’re afraid of. It can be anywhere. It knows what scares you. It uses that to get to you. That is what makes It one of the most terrifying abstract figures in literature.

Best known as its favorite and primary form as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, It comes from the 1986 1000+-page novel by Stephen King, titled “It.” In the novel, it’s a mysterious, frightening entity that can’t be explained (well, technically, it is kind of explained in King’s “Dark Tower” series) and can be vanquished by its would-be victims by one thing: overcoming fear. The lesson here is, in conquering fear, you gain power, which is something the characters learn in King’s novel, the 1990 two-part TV miniseries, and now this 2017 cinematic upgrade, all of which are titled “It.”

However, until you get to that point, there’s a whole lot going bump in the night…

The basic idea of all three platforms of “It” is something that’s fascinated me since I first watched the miniseries at age 10: fears coming to life, terrorizing children and only being defeated by facing them head-on. The miniseries doesn’t entirely work, but there are elements from King’s original novel that still do, and I wondered what could be done with a current theatrical reboot. And how did this 2017 upgrade turn out, directed by “Mama” director Andy Muschietti?

Well, if you saw the Verdict above, you’re not surprised when I say “It” is a blast!

After spending a half-decade in development hell, it’s nice to see that the final product of “It” is very well-made and effective at capturing the essence of the book while also becoming more or less its own thing. The novel and the miniseries told two stories—one involved a group of seven outcast children facing off against It, the other involved those same kids grown up and facing It again upon its return. This film only tells one: the kids’ story. That’s right—this is only “Chapter One,” and it makes way for a “Chapter Two,” in which 27 years later (or in our movie world, 2 or 3 years), both It and our heroes (grown up) will return.

(I would issue a SPOILER ALERT, but who doesn’t know by now that this is part of a two-story…story?)

Thankfully, this “Chapter One” of “It” doesn’t feel like it needs a “Chapter Two.” “It” has the power to stand on its own feet with just enough buildup and payoff to the stories of these characters and does not necessarily rely on a future installment to answer important questions. It’s a strong narrative that satisfies, intrigues, and yes, frightens.

Our protagonists are a group of 11-12-year-old outcasts that form together because they’re bullied, they come from unhappy homes, and their friendship is the best thing they can ask for in an otherwise boring summer. They call themselves The Losers Club and are constantly harassed by adults who don’t understand them and a sadistic bully and his cohorts. They also have each seen It in many different forms (followed by the clown form)—for stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), it’s his little brother Georgie, who is missing and presumed dead despite Bill’s persistent search for him; for hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), it’s a leper; for Jewish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), it’s a horrifying painting in his rabbi father’s office; for home-schooled and lone black kid Mike (Chosen Jacobs), it’s his parents being burned alive; for the club’s lone girl Beverly (Sophia Lillis), it’s her demented father and possibly menstruation (…you’ll see in the movie); for overweight new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), it’s the morbid history of his new town (of Derry, Maine); and for cut-up Richie (Finn Wolfhard), it’s…clowns. (Tough break there, Richie.) They come to each other about their own experiences with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) and learn more about It. Bill, desperate to get his brother back in the hopes that he’s still alive, rallies his friends together to fight back.

The main strengths of “It” come from the development of these young characters, what they go through in this town, and what they’re most afraid of that they must overcome in order to survive. At 2 hours and 10 minutes, “It” takes the proper time necessary to flesh out all seven of these kids and give the audience a good sense of who they are, what they’ve gone through, and what kind of people they’ll become. When they’re together, it’s gripping material (it’s, I dare even say, of of “Stand By Me” quality, to quote another King adaptation). All of these young actors are excellent and easily watchable, and you really buy them as friends. When they’re alone, it’s unnerving—whenever each of these characters goes through something unsettling, you fear for them because they are terrified. From the opening scene, which pulls a big no-no in modern horror movies (disposing of a young child), you know this thing is powerful, terrifying, and out there. And it’s targeting these poor kids, who have enough to go through already.

Those scenes put a chill down my spine, but that’s not to say Pennywise the Clown isn’t scary. On the contrary. Portrayed by Skarsgard in a nice mixture of performance and CGI, Pennywise is not to be ignored in this film. You don’t see as much of him as you would expect from the trailer, but when he does show up, I’ll just say it’s pretty unnerving. Skarsgard doesn’t imitate Tim Curry’s popular portrayal of the character from the miniseries; instead, he makes the role his own.

I admired “It” for taking the time to carefully establish the horrors faced by the characters instead of simply making it a freak show with a demented killer clown at the center. While there is some gore and some jump-scares, this is a horror film that relies heavily on tension and psychological terror. By the time the film reached its inevitable hard-hitting horror-movie traditional climax, it’s hard not to root for the kids to succeed in both conquering their fears and beating It as harshly as possible. (You could practically call the film a “superhero movie” in how it goes about its final act.) “It” stays true to the essence of King’s scary novel (while making some notable changes and omitting certain questionable aspects from the novel), and it’s a great thrill ride as a result.