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My Favorite Movies – The Puffy Chair (2006)

5 May

By Tanner Smith

I’ve made it no secret on this blog that I’m a fan of Mark & Jay Duplass (aka the Duplass Brothers), pioneers of micro-budget filmmaking. From directorial feats like Baghead to Cyrus, from producing gems like Safety Not Guaranteed to 7 Days, they make a great impression by making small films feel important.

And it began with their debut feature: “The Puffy Chair.”

After making no-budget improvised short films (some of which were accepted at the Sundance Film Festival) with very few resources, brothers Jay & Mark decided to make a feature film with the same spirit and passion that they put into the shorts. (And their parents, who are credited as executive producers, loaned them $15,000 to shoot it.) The result is “The Puffy Chair,” an indie-dramedy feature that focuses on relationship issues–for example, it’s one thing to say you’re going to commit to your significant other; it’s another thing to actually commit. (How did Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” put it? “Sh*t or get off the pot.”)

It’s as indie and as “mumblecore” as it gets, with then-unknowns casting their girlfriends and friends (and paying them $100 a day), using minimal camera equipment, and improvising a good chunk of the dialogue. But I’ll say this (and I don’t know if it’s controversial or not)–when it comes to the indie-mumblecore era that was prominent in the 2000s, I get so much more out of “The Puffy Chair” than I ever do with others. (All respect to mumblecore grads like Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, whose works I also admire–I like their later works better than their mumblecore entries.) Much of it has to do with the likability of the actors (which include Mark Duplass himself and his then-girlfriend/now-wife Katie Aselton, both of whom co-starred in the FX series “The League” and collaborated on Aselton’s feature film Black Rock, in two of the three leading roles), the universal theme of relationship trauma, the raggedy nature of the filmmaking, and some good laughs to balance out the emotional elements.

Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton star as Josh and Emily, a couple in their mid-20s. They’ve been together for years, but now, they’re simply coasting, with no real future plans in mind. Josh is waiting for either something really good or really bad to happen to decide for him whether or not he should propose–while Emily wants him to propose. In the film’s prologue, we see these two having fun together before she gets angry at his subtle ignorance and storms off, leading to him pulling another charming move (imitating Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything”–except he left his Peter Gabriel CD at home) and inviting her on a road trip with him from New York to Atlanta for his father’s birthday.

On the way, they pick up Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), Josh’s neo-hippie brother. (This is news to Emily–she knew they were visiting him; she didn’t know he’d be the third wheel on this road trip.) And they’re also going to pick up a purple La-Z-Boy recliner (the titular “puffy chair”) that resembles one Josh & Rhett’s father had a long time ago and Josh purchased on eBay–they plan to deliver it as their dad’s birthday present. Being a road-trip movie, you expect things to go wrong and they do–Josh keeps showing his well-meaning but constant inefficiency (which causes friction amongst him and Emily), a motel night-stay goes wrong, the chair is terribly worn-out (can you get a chair reupholstered within 24 hours for a few hundred dollars?), Rhett meets a woman named Amber (Julie Fischer) which then leads to further complication, and so on. By the time they reach their destination at the end of the film, Josh has to make a decision with Emily, whether to grow with her or stop kidding himself for both their sakes.

The film is all about Josh & Emily’s relationship trauma, and we even get hints of some of the things that caused the complications–Josh used to be a musician (now he’s a booking agent) and his touring schedule resulted in much time away from Emily, and it’s also hinted that she caused him to leave his band. Is there a future for them? (A road trip may just be what they need to truly evaluate where they are at this point…) At times this dysfunctional-couple dynamic is painful to watch, but it’s always realistic and it’s also very funny, particularly in the ways the three main characters work off each other, the misadventures they go on together (particularly at the first motel, when they try to get a cheap room), and especially what the puffy chair in question must go through before the trip is over.

It’s all beautifully handled, and the ending to “The Puffy Chair” is both satisfying and bittersweet–though, you may not be all for it upon initial viewing; when you stop to think about it, however, it seemed very inevitable.

“The Puffy Chair” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and was released theatrically in 2006. Little did Mark & Jay Duplass know that it would pave the way for a bright and successful career for both of them (and for Katie Aselton, who’s now a prominent character actress) and light the way for budding filmmakers they inspired.

My Favorite Movies – Half Nelson (2006)

15 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Acclaimed actor Ryan Gosling received his first Oscar nomination for playing a middle-school teacher with a crack habit in the great 2006 drama film, Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden’s “Half Nelson.” Gosling had already shown promise as a young rising star, with gripping work in “The Believer,” “The Notebook,” and “Stay.” But it was his performance in “Half Nelson” that became the breakthrough that his career needed.

“Half Nelson” is about good people who adopt bad habits, such as a father figure (played by Anthony Mackie) who is a drug dealer. And Gosling’s character Dan Dunne is the one in question. He’s a history teacher for an inner city middle school and he’s very good at what he does, despite (or rather, because of) not sticking to the assigned syllabus. One of the most subtle touches of Gosling’s performance is that the only thing that truly gets him excited is when he gets to talk of arguments of power and world politics (whether in or out of the classroom), showing that it’s the very thing he has a real passion about. But it’s mostly when he’s outside of school (or even when he’s in the teacher’s lounge) that he’s half-dead, even smoking crack as a vice to get him through the strangeness of life.

He forms a friendship with one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), after she discovers his habit. And he learns more about her (such as how Mackie, the dealer, gets her involved in his business), enough to get an idea of what she needs and what she should avoid. But who is he to judge? Therein lies the interesting question surrounding Gosling’s character—can a basehead be a good role model? Is that even possible?

Gosling has to portray a man who means well, who is good at his job, and who can give good advice…but he also has to portray him as flawed, destructive, irresponsible to himself and potentially others. Who is Dunne in the classroom? He’s a cool, hip teacher whose class most of us would be happy to take. Who is Dunne outside the classroom? He’s practically a zombie. We see how he lives in his small apartment, how he wakes up in the morning on a hardwood floor, and how he drags himself to work each day.

This is why Gosling’s performance is so powerful and why it deserved many accolades—he’s able to pull it off with the right amount of body language, carefully written dialogue (and a bit of improvisation as well), and subtlety to get us to understand what goes on in this person’s head and why we should care.

Gosling IS this movie—if he didn’t convince us that he was capable of so many layers to put on this performance, it would all fall apart. Dan Dunne is not a bad person—he just has a bad habit. We know a lot of people like that, and “Half Nelson” reminds us of it.

Ryan Gosling would go on to stardom and subsequent impressive performances (“Drive,” “The Nice Guys,” and “La La Land,” just to name a few). But we shouldn’t forget that it was “Half Nelson” that showed the world that he deserved the attention to begin with.

My Favorite Movies – Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

17 Apr

By Tanner Smith

What makes a winner and what makes a loser? Who is anyone to decide that anyway?

Co-directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, who would go on to make Ruby Sparks (a film in my top-20), “Little Miss Sunshine” is about characters in a win-or-lose situation. What they learn along the way is that the ultimate resolution doesn’t matter as much as the hard work it took to get there.

We have Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a type-A personality who strives to be a motivational speaker and sell a book about his own “9 steps to winning.” He’s married to Sheryl (Toni Collette), an overworked mother to teenaged Dwayne (Paul Dano) and 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin). Dwayne reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence to prepare himself for the flight academy. And it’s Olive’s obsession with beauty contests that sets the story forward, as she earns a spot in a girls’ beauty pageant called Little Miss Sunshine in Redondo Beach, California. So, the family, which also includes suicidal Proust scholar Frank (Sheryl’s brother, played by Steve Carell) and Richard’s profane, heroin-snorting father (Alan Arkin), has to drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach in two days in order for Olive to compete. Their VW bus might not survive the trip…

Being a road movie, the symbolism is obvious–the journey is more eye-opening than the destination itself. Richard gets harsh news about his book sales, forcing him to reevaluate his own values. Frank copes with having attempted suicide and wonders what to do next as an unemployed Proust scholar. Dwayne learns something about himself that completely shatters his own world. Many of these well-defined characters have their own little thing to get through, and it’s through Grandpa, who is unorthodox but still more experienced than the others, that they learn that they don’t have to do it alone. With the right support and effort, there is satisfaction in the outcome, win or lose.

An effective piece of symbolism is in the form of the bus, which has a shot clutch. The only way to get it going is for everyone to push it together to start it.

As moving and effective as its overall meaning is, “Little Miss Sunshine” is also hilarious in the ways it pushes these characters along their journey, such as a sequence that recalls “Weekend at Bernie’s” and a show-stopping encounter with a patrol cop. The screenplay by Michael Arndt is great at balancing comedy and drama–if there’s anything more important than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s one that can make you feel. And with characters as colorful as these, it’s easy to feel something for them.

This film tells us that it’s not about what we achieve but how we behave in attempting to achieve it. And if you disagree with what society declares a winner or loser, well…screw ’em. What do they know anyway?

Now…I HAVE to talk about the final act, in which they get to the Little Miss Sunshine contest and are totally unnerved and disgusted by who/what Olive is sharing the stage with. I worked as a PA for the reality TV show “Toddlers & Tiaras” once, and I can tell you that the horrified reactions of most of the characters during this totally unpleasant experience in the final act of this film are very accurate. Every time I rewatch the film, it’s a truly uncomfortable sequence…but it’s totally worth it to get to the ultimate (and hilarious) payoff, which is basically a great big middle finger to those kinds of beauty contests!

Actually, no–it’s TWO middle fingers! One isn’t enough.

God bless you, you little indie film that could (and did). And I salute you for making me believe that it’s OK just to be OK.

Click (2006)

27 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are “movies starring Adam Sandler” (“Punch-Drunk Love,” “Spanglish,” “Funny People,” “Reign Over Me”) and then there are “Adam Sandler movies” (movies produced by Sandler and starring him to put him up front in attempts to maintain his popularity—“The Waterboy,” “Big Daddy,” “Grown Ups,” “I Now Pronounce Chuck & Larry,” and many more). Sandler can act really well (his terrific performance in “Spanglish,” in particular, breaks my heart), and he can also be very funny…even though a majority of those “Adam Sandler movies” don’t do good jobs of showing his comedic talents. Thankfully, there are exceptions—I like “Happy Gilmore,” “50 First Dates,” “The Wedding Singer,” and the subject of this review, “Click.”

Of the section of “Adam Sandler movies” I find enjoyable, “Click” is probably my favorite. It has its typical “Sandler-esque” crude humor, but it has a bigger heart to it and an unexpected level of pathos that surprisingly make the movie more than what it could’ve been. There are laughs, but there is also a lot of drama as well—drama of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” class.

Sandler plays Michael Newman, an architect who works so hard to get a promotion in his firm that he barely has time to spend with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two kids. He misses his son’s swim meet, he has to cancel the annual summer camping trip, and he can’t enjoy have a family dinner without his arrogant jerk of a boss (David Hasselhoff) calling him constantly. Adding onto the agitation is his inability to turn on the TV without turning on the ceiling fan or opening the garage, and so he sets out late at night to buy a universal remote control. The only place open is “Bed, Bath & Beyond.” In the “Beyond” section is where the mysterious Morty (Christopher Walken) works. Morty takes Michael to the “Way Beyond” section and brings him the universal remote to end all universal remotes…

It turns out this remote controls everything in Michael’s universe. He pushes the pause button, and everything pauses around him. He clicks rewind, and he can revisit favorite memories. He can even fast-forward through parts of his life he’d rather skip, like arguments with his wife, slow traffic, and sad moments when his kids are let down. This leads to many funny moments such as he plays with the color setting on himself, making him appear yellow (pirate), then green (Hulk), then purple (Barney), until he finally gets a good tan (Julio Iglesias). And it also has its inventive moments too, such as when Michael explores features from his “Main Menu,” such as his “making-of” and a moment with commentary by James Earl Jones.

But Michael learns that the remote is no toy, as it seems to learn his fast-forwarding patterns and is skipping through larger portions of his life. This is where the dramatic aspects come in. Michael learns the hard way that he needs to put more focus on what he has rather than what he doesn’t have, because his life will just go by quickly otherwise. It’s hard to believe this is in the same film that also features crude jokes with side characters including Michael’s wife’s friend (Jennifer Coolidge, really annoying) and some grossout humor including a long fart joke. While the comedic aspects in the first half of the movie are broad, they’re toned down as the situation involving this dangerous remote becomes more serious. And it works because Michael is a relatable guy and his plight is recognizable—he wants everything to go well, but his priorities are out of place. We feel bad for him when he loses so many precious times (and even loved ones) and is in danger of losing even more. And it’s because Sandler is so good at playing the “everyman” that we want things to go well for the character.

“Click” is a bit uneven, but for what it set out to do, it works. Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s touching, and overall, it has a good point to make: don’t fast-forward through the most important parts of your life, figuratively. There’s more I can find here than I could in many other “Adam Sandler movies,” so I use “Click” as a prime example of what they could be.

Lady in the Water (2006)

23 Oct


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.

United 93 (2006)

11 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There is a particular film I will only watch about once a year because even though I see it as a great piece of work that affects me prominently with each viewing, it’s not a film I need to watch repeatedly. That’s because when I watch it once in a long while, its impact doesn’t leave me.

That film is “United 93,” a film directed by Paul Greengrass that takes us back to the day we faced evil so early in the 21st century: September 11, 2001. But the film is not here to exploit the horrible memories of that infamous date or take advantage of the guilt the survivors feel. It’s not a melodrama—it’s a grounded, documentary-like, fact-based account of the reactions of people witnessing horrific things in New York City as well as the events that transpired on United Flight 93, one of the hijacked airplanes. On top of that, the film is here for a very important reason: on the day America faced terror, there was still room for courage and heroism.

Three planes were hijacked by terrorists. One struck the Pentagon. Two struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The fourth, Flight 93, didn’t reach its target, the Capitol Building, due to the heroic actions of its passengers, who revolted against their captors. This film tells that story on that plane (from its boarding to its inevitable end), as well as witness-based accounts of people in other places such as NORAD and air traffic control centers in New York and Boston. It’s through these people we see situations advance, and it’s through the people on board Flight 93 we see others advance. And that’s it—we don’t see any hints of a conspiracy theory or patriotism or “the big picture”; we simply witness settings transpire, from the witnessing of the World Trade Center being destroyed to the pressing race against time to make important decisions (such as closing off US airspace) to the frightening hijacking of Flight 93 to the passengers’ rebellious attempt to gain control to its unfortunate (and inevitable) demise.

“United 93” is technically perfect. It strives on realism and feels like it’s really happening, which makes it even more haunting when you find yourself living what was by far the darkest day of the 21st century. Thanks to director Greengrass’ choice of using the documentary approach, you get a pretty good idea of what it must have been like seeing these terrible things for the first time, because you feel like you’re there. In addition to that, there are no recognizable actors to be found here (…except Olivia Thirlby, who plays one of the Flight 93 passengers, but this was before she developed a solid acting career). And the people portrayed in the film aren’t stock disaster-movie types. They’re just people, with no character biographies/histories. We only get to know these people as if they were strangers on that airplane or inside the National Air Traffic Center or the airport and so on, and only the slightest traits are developed. That also works in the film’s favor.

I want to use the portrayal of the destruction of the World Trade Center as an example of how this film works. When you first see the unforgettable image of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in smoke, your first instinct is to gasp, as you recognize what it means. This film perfectly portrays how the reactions must have been for the people seeing it for the first time, from afar. When you first see the smoking Tower in this film, it’s from a distance, through a window. An airport worker notices, and simply says to his co-worker in a somewhat awed manner, “Hey, look at the Trade Center.” As more people notice, there’s the amount of confused murmuring that grows into frightened exclamations when they get closer visuals on TV news. The fear escalates and grows stronger as they see another plane strike the South Tower, which results in the expected reaction, and it feels as real as when it actually happened. This film made me forget I was watching a film.

I didn’t see “United 93” on a big screen. I was even afraid to see it until five years ago, when I rented it on DVD. But A) watching it on a small screen still left an impact on me, and B) even though I was afraid to see it because I knew what it was about, much like people in 2006 who felt the release of this film was “too soon,” I saw the importance of why we needed this film. As much as we would like to, we will never forget the things we saw on 9/11/2001, whether on TV news or even firsthand. But we should never forget what the passengers of Flight 93 died for: our country. They were ordinary people who faced a horrifying situation, and together they stood to strike back against the terrorists or die trying. If not for them, the terrorists would have used the plane to strike the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Instead, the plane crashed in a field, as the passengers couldn’t get control of the plane as they reached the cockpit.

“United 93” is a film I will never forget, and aside from the film being powerfully haunting in the ways it portrays the tragedies of 9/11, maybe that’s why I choose to watch it only once a year. Its meaning and reason for being stays with me as time goes on. But I do choose to watch it occasionally to remind myself that on the day America encountered terror, there were still ordinary people who rose to the occasion and foiled a terrorist plot.

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.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

13 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s very rare for an American-made war film to portray a battle from the failures’ perspective—it’s something else to practically make the US armed forces the “enemy,” from their point of view. But director Clint Eastwood has made something unique and special with “Letters from Iwo Jima,” the companion piece to his “Flags of Our Fathers.” That film showed the same battle from the Americans’ perspective, how iconic symbols can be formed, and asked the question of what it means to be a “hero.” “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the film that completes the portrayal of the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima. (Both films were released a few months apart in 2006.)

Ken Watanabe delivers a brilliant performance (one I think was overlooked by the Oscars) as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who arrives on Iwo Jima in late 1944, months before the big battle. Knowing the Americans will target the island, the Japanese set up surprise attacking maneuvers, diversion tactics, and dig tunnels in preparation. But Kuribayashi’s tactics are unusual to his fellow soldiers, beginning with taking artillery from the beaches to the higher ground, and so while some of his men see him as smart, others see him as weak.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Japanese end up losing the ultimate battle, and most of the platoon will be dead by the time the end credits roll. But it’s nice to see things most of us Americans already knew about seen from the other side, such as when the Japanese spot the raising of the flag on top of the mountain. It’s interesting to understand both mindsets of these opposing forces, which is probably the reason why Eastwood made both this film and “Flags of Our Fathers” back to back: to take notice of similarities as well as differences. What is surprising is how vulnerable the Japanese were, especially after seeing “Flags of Our Fathers” and assuming they were a faultless (faceless) force to be reckoned with. Here, we see the dangers they faced on that island, having to deal with sickness, shortage of food and water, loss of ammunition, no air cover, and no reinforcements when needed. They had much more to deal with than most people acknowledge. There are also some soldiers with mutiny on their minds, some with surrender on their minds, and some who claim that Kuribayashi isn’t on their level.

What’s also surprising is how they reacted to the inevitable. The main theme in the film seems to be “honor” and it’s precisely clear in each scene in which Kuribayashi’s orders to fall back are ignored and many soldiers force themselves and others to take such extreme alternatives to surrender, including suicide attacks and blowing themselves up with grenades. This is where audiences can ask themselves what honor really is, especially in the face of war. What is dying with honor and what is a wasteful charge?

Two characters in the film stick out and are helped with flashbacks to help build character. First is Kuribayashi, who has strong points even if some of his tactics do end up backfiring (you get the feeling that if he had more outside assistance, he would’ve had more advantage). And the other is Private First Class Saigo (Kazanari Ninomiya, very good here). He wakes up to everything surrounding him and starts to wonder why he’s even there. At one point, he considers surrendering; but his platoon, crossed with his own honor, won’t let him, seeing it as a crime to be what they label a “coward.” You see a lot of the action through his eyes—he’s just an ordinary young man who doesn’t know why these battles are even needed and just wants go home to be with his wife and daughter.

The look of the film is striking. Most of it is monochromatic with only instances of color in things such as explosions; you could almost see the movie as being in black-and-white. When the explosions do come, they look and feel all the more real and horrifying.

“Letters from Iwo Jima” is not propaganda, nor is it even pro-war. It’s not even that hard-hitting a war drama but rather a thoughtful representation of people who knew even before going to the island that their next stand could be their last. Instead, it’s a straightforward, powerful interpretation of an important part of history from a side we don’t often hear about, and it’s more pro-humanity. There are no forced debates about war; everything we need to know is shown to us effectively, and we see both sides of human nature layered within the film and its characters. The film also demonstrates Clint Eastwood’s continuing restrained maturity as a director; with this and “Flags of Our Fathers,” he clearly respects (or at least acknowledges) what went on in the heads of each soldier (particularly the “vulnerable” ones) on each side of the Battle of Iwo Jima. “Letters from Iwo Jima” is one of Eastwood’s best directorial efforts and it’s undoubtedly one of the most gripping, beautifully done war films I’ve ever seen.

The Up Series (1964-2013)

16 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

16 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Snakes on a Plane” had received a lot of hype on the Internet for a long time. Now, it’s here and while it may not be the masterpiece that audiences would like to expect, it’s still a good way to spend a little more than an hour and a half. It’s like a cult movie that thrills audiences but bore critics (most of them, anyway). But I was sixteen when I became a critic—so I guess I’m a little bit of both. Therefore, I’ll give “Snakes on a Plane” three stars. It’s a fairly bad movie, I’ll admit, that interests. It’s like “The Mummy”—great trash, no, good trash, yes.

Most of the hype is about star Samuel L. Jackson’s biggest line in the movie that is probably going to be remembered for a long time—“I have had it with these mother—-snakes on this mother—–plane!” There is fun to be had with watching “Snakes on a Plane” and with a title like that, why wouldn’t there be? Unsuspecting passengers are already scared of flying, but then they have an encounter with snakes! And also, wouldn’t the snakes’ slithering inside of the plane somehow mess with the gears and the engines? Exactly.

Why are the snakes on the plane to begin with? Well, as the movie begins, a young surfer named Sean (Nathan Phillips) witnesses a murder committed by a mobster. Jackson plays Neville Flynn, an FBI agent who has to transport Sean from Honolulu to L.A. to testify against the culprit. But the murderer wants Sean dead and takes drastic measures—he smuggles hundreds of poisonous snakes onboard the plane on a crate and arranges for the crate to open when the plane is up in the air.

When that crate is opened, the snakes are loose and make their way up to coach where they attack all the passengers. They kill most of them in almost every way a snake can and about every way the filmmakers can think of—snake to the crotch, snake to the bosom, snake to the eye, snake to the tongue, snake to the arm, you name it. Now, it’s up to Flynn, Sean, flight attendant Claire (Juliana Margulies), and a group of survivors to destroy the snakes and land the plane safely.

All this is dumb fun and the secondary characters are the basic stereotypes—including Three G’s, who is a germ phobic rap star; smokin’ hot blonde flight attendant Tiffany (Sunny Mabry); the hostile Brit; and video game lover Troy (SNL’s Kenan Thompson)—but I guess that’s why I liked it. It’s preposterous, yes, but it’s fun. Jackson is forced to play the hero and Margulies is a flight attendant with an axe—watch out!

“Snakes on a Plane” is another one of those comedy-horror flicks and while it’s not up there with “Tremors,” the best in its category, in my opinion, it’s still a fun way to spend about 100 minutes.

OK, look. “Snakes on a Plane” isn’t a great movie. I shouldn’t even be giving it three stars but I’m going to anyway because I had some fun. It’s action-packed, it kept me interested, and it had some good moments. However, if you think it’s a waste of time, then just don’t waste yours. But I have enough time on my hands to waste anyway.