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Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

14 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Stranger Than Fiction” is a delightful, thought-provoking film with an ingenious premise. What if you and your life were subjects of a novel being written as you live your life? What if you heard the writer talking in your head, as a narrator of your life? And what if the writer foretold that a harmless act will lead to your imminent death? That’s the idea for “Stranger Than Fiction.” It’s executed remarkably well, hardly ever stepping wrong. It’s a comedy-drama, a fantasy, and romance all in one, while featuring great work from the cast and great moments of eccentric humor, happy-or-sad truth, and genuine tenderness.

Before I write the review, I want to tell a little story. I have to be honest. I didn’t like this movie when I first saw it. I saw it on the big screen in early December 2006 (it was released in mid-November), when I was fourteen years old. That night, I was going to see “Unaccompanied Minors” with my family. For some reason I can’t quite recall, I saw “Stranger Than Fiction” by myself. So there I was, one of only two people in the theater, and “Stranger Than Fiction” became a much more poignant movie than I was expecting…which disappointed me. I was expecting a broad comedy, especially since Will Ferrell was the star, and was looking forward to seeing one. This wasn’t it. Then, that night, I saw “Unaccompanied Minors,” marketed as a gentle family comedy, and it actually met my expectations.

If you don’t know what “Unaccompanied Minors” is…well, you’re not missing that much. As time went by, that film just wore out on me. But soon enough, I started to recall the other movie I saw that day, and was really starting to think about it. So I rented “Stranger Than Fiction” on DVD and noticed something in it that I never would have seen in my ignorant early-teenage state. It affected me so much that it totally changed my entire view of it. I realize it did leave an impact on me, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see it again.

Anyway, that’s the kind of film “Stranger Than Fiction” is—one that takes you totally by surprise. One of the main surprises is that, yes, Will Ferrell is the star of this complex, touching film. Ferrell has been known for his broad comedic work, whether on “SNL” or movies like “Elf” or “Anchorman.” Although he has done dramatic work a couple times before, none of it was really that memorable. His performance in “Stranger Than Fiction,” however, puts him up there with comedic actors that show that they are capable of equaling their skills to their dramatic capabilities.

Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS auditor whose life is based around numbers—calculating large sums in his head and counting his every move each day. While this is effective in keeping in time with his everyday routines and his work, this doesn’t work well with human interaction. He lives alone, keeps to himself, and has no real friends. Then, something strange happens—Harold starts to hear a woman’s voice, talking about him “accurately and with a better vocabulary.”

Harold becomes convinced he’s hearing the narrating voice of his own narrative being written. He goes to see a shrink (Linda Hunt), who tells him that these symptoms resemble schizophrenia. She then recommends that he visits a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman), who doesn’t believe him at first, but ends up giving him some helpful advice in finding out if his story is a comedy or a tragedy. And Harold must find out soon, because the narrator has already spoken of a foreshadowing to his “imminent death.”

Meanwhile, we do see the author herself—an odd reclusive woman named Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) who is suffering from writer’s block. Her trademark in her novels is that her protagonists are dead by the time the story is finished—she can’t decide how to kill Harold Crick. With the aid of her new assistant (Queen Latifah), she attempts to come up with something tragic and fitting, not knowing that Harold is a living person whose life is in her control.

While this is going on, Harold finds he does have something to live for. That would be Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker whom he has to audit. At first, she hates him and does everything she can to make his job miserable. Harold, however, can’t stop thinking about her and is even nervous around her. But eventually, Ana does take pity on Harold and even bakes him cookies. This is the start of a nice relationship between the two, meaning that it’s very important that Harold lives longer than Kay intends him to. Harold has to find her and practically beg for her not to kill him.

Director Marc Forster and writer Zach Helm show a great deal of fondness for these characters and it constantly shows. We like them just as much as they do. These are real, appealing people; not merely caricatures that they could have become. I enjoy spending time with them, and credit for that must also go to the actors. Ferrell is just brilliant. He’s likable, endearing, tragic, and funny when he needs to be. He creates a three-dimensional character in Harold Crick and we don’t want him to die, even if it means that Kay will have her masterpiece if he does. Emma Thompson, as Kay Eiffel, is wonderful—playing her role as an intelligent, but slightly odd, artist obsessed with creating the perfect novel. Maggie Gyllenhaal is delightful as Ana, and displays great, convincing chemistry with Ferrell—they’re great together. Dustin Hoffman plays it straight with the role of the literary professor and he’s allthemore effective because of it.

The story is incredible on paper and comes through on screen with great execution. It just gets better as it goes along, making you feel for these people and the outcome of every situation. And it’s a lot of fun to follow along with the creativity of the tale as it continues—touches such as Harold quietly checking off every mark of a “comedy” or a “tragedy” are just fantastic.

The final half is just perfect. While many films deteriorate and run out of energy before the last reel, “Stranger Than Fiction” just delivers the right amount of payoffs and displays the exact right tone of emotions. It deals with mortality in the sensitive ways you can think of, given the situation. It also asks the questions of whether or not Kay has the right to kill off her main character to have her “masterpiece.” If he dies, the story will come full-circle and there will have been a well-crafted piece of work. The solution fits the film perfectly.

I was expecting a comedy out of “Stranger Than Fiction.” What I got instead was something more wonderful, sweet, and impactful. It’s a great film; one that made me laugh, made me cry, and made me smile. So as you can tell, it did leave an impact on me when I was 14. I just didn’t know it yet.

Final Destination 3 (2006)

11 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s a neat premise, really—once you discover that Death has a design, you can cheat it. It fits right into the type of movie that Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called the Dead Teenager Movie. You know the type—teenagers are alive in the beginning and at the end, they’re all dead (except for one, who is kept alive to return in the obligatory sequels).

The premise was used in the 2000 DTM (Dead Teenager Movie) “Final Destination,” which had fun with the theory that Death’s design can be messed with by teenagers. Its sequel, awkwardly titled “Final Destination 2,” didn’t thrill me because of its monotonous tone. Now we have “Final Destination 3,” which has the same spirit and amount of thrills and fun as the first film. The premise is about the same—the main teenager (out of many introduced along with) has a premonition of disaster that will kill many teenagers, the main teenager and a few others are stopped from doing what would have been done, the premonition comes true, but Death isn’t finished yet. It will set up many accidents (yes, I’m calling them “accidents”) that will kill off the ones who were supposed to die—not later, but sooner. About the same premise as the previous films.

Here, the heroine is named Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). With her boyfriend and his friends, she is about to board a roller coaster called “The Devil’s Flight.” But in a very convincing, frightening, and well-executed scene (better than the opening sequence in the first film, in my opinion), she has a vision that the roller coaster will go out of control and she and her friends will die. She freaks out and is let off the roller coaster, many of her classmates follow, but the roller coaster takes off and the worst occurs. But of course, it’s not over for those “lucky survivors.”

As sick as this may sound, Death is getting better at forming these accidents (shut up). But It also has a sick sense of humor. There’s one sequence in particular that will most likely frighten the audience the most—I won’t describe it but it involves two dumb blondes and tanning booths. Death shows no mercy (nor should It) and obviously neither does director James Wong. It becomes apparent that the pictures Wendy took of the surviving teenagers before the roller coaster disaster show clues revealing how they will die. To prove that, Wendy shows a friend a picture of the Twin Towers, one of which features the shadow of an airplane…

As a whole, the film isn’t quite up there with the first film, though I was frightened of the tanning booth scene and many of the other deaths that occur and I liked the characters. Mary Elizabeth Winstead shows a lot of pluck as the heroine Wendy and Ryan Merriman is equally good as her friend Kevin—their appearances and performances make up for the fact that no one from the previous two films makes an appearance. I can’t quite recommend this movie. The other characters are all high school caricatures (dumb blondes, jock, skeptic, etc.). They don’t make much of an impression—they’re just the targets of one of Death’s clever traps. And also, why is it that nobody mourns the dead teenagers? Isn’t it sad that these teenagers who have a lot to live for don’t even make it to college? I could ask where the parents are, but that’d be silly. This is a Dead Teenager Movie—it features teenagers; the parents aren’t supposed to be there.

“Final Destination 3” will please fans of the series, but I was searching for more in the premise. I might as well just watch the first movie again.

Superman Returns (2006)

4 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Oh, I so wanted to like “Superman Returns.” This is the fifth entry in the “Superman” series and the return to the big screen for the American superhero since 1987’s awful “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” and it’s unfortunate to be as disappointing as 1983’s lackluster “Superman III.” The special effects are there and some of the actors are game, but with little story material unnaturally stretched out, it only makes “Superman Returns” encourage apathy.

Superman’s been gone for quite a while, off to find other survivors from the demised planet Krypton, where he came from. Clark Kent’s been gone as well, since well…Clark Kent is Superman. It’s kind of odd that no one working for the Daily Planet realizes that when Clark comes back to work, Superman is back in action. Shouldn’t somebody make some kind of connection? To be fair, that’s not exactly a criticism to be had, since you can’t ask questions like that in a superhero movie. (Otherwise, Bruce Wayne’s cover as Batman would be blown instantly.)

Anyway, Clark Kent returns to Metropolis and finds that things have changed. But I had trouble figuring out if the reasons that things are so different in Metropolis is because Superman’s been gone for a long time, or because the writers didn’t think things were different from the other movies. The Daily Planet is now crowded with corporate sellouts, the shutterbug Jimmy Olsen isn’t as chip as he used to be and is somewhat dumber, and Lois Lane—the spunky reporter/sometimes girlfriend of Superman in the past—is without energy. But to be fair, I think that last one is because Lois isn’t enjoying herself with her fiancé Richard White, who is dull and definitely without energy.

Once Clark Kent returns, as does Superman, beginning with the rescue of Lois and several other passengers of an airplane about to crash. That sequence is actually well-crafted—it’s thrilling, fun, and keeps you on the edge of your seat. It gives a sense of how this modern-day Superman movie could have gone had it kept that energy level.

But what made the good Superman movies work, as well as its action scenes, were the human relationships, particularly with Clark/Superman and Lois Lane. In “Superman” and “Superman II,” there was a real sense of chemistry between Christopher Reeve as Clark/Superman and Margot Kidder as Lois. In “Superman Returns,” Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth play their characters as tongue-tied as an awkward soap opera teen romance. I didn’t feel any chemistry between them and individually, they’re pretty bland. Brandon Routh has the resemblance of a young Christopher Reeve, but has little to no personality. Kate Bosworth isn’t much better. She looks too young and too innocent and just isn’t as much fun as Margot Kidder played the role years ago. I also didn’t buy her relationship with James Marsden’s boring Richard White in the slightest.

Coincidentally enough, when Superman returns, the villainous Lex Luthor escapes from prison with yet another plan to destroy Superman and rule the Earth. But his plan will either be too ridiculous or too confusing. If I have this right, Lex’s plan is to use crystals from kryptonite to raise up a new continent in the mid-Atlantic and flood most of the populate world’s surface. Once he’s done that, he’ll have his own place. (Well, who’s going to go to go to this rugged and uninhabited landscape anyway?) Kevin Spacey plays Lex Luthor and he’s the best actor in the movie. He has the same kind of fun that Gene Hackman had as this overplotting, egotistical menace.

The plan leads to a climax that just goes on and on and on until I just checked out of the movie entirely. The effects are there, but the excitement is missing in action. Even with the revelation that Lois’ young son (sorry, forgot to mention him) could have Superman’s powers, there’s a real lack of interest.

Yes, Lois has a son, about five or six years old. I mentioned he could have Superman’s powers. That’s because it’s obvious that Superman is the father (remember the scene in “Superman II” when Clark and Lois finally “got together?”). Now, why couldn’t there be more with this kid? He rarely speaks and constantly stares off into space—not interesting.

“Superman Returns” is an attempt to bring Superman into a darker universe, as what was done with Batman and Hulk. But if you’re going to do that, you need better characterization, human relationships, and better paced action sequences (with the exception of the scene where Superman saves the plane). Superman is a duller in this movie and the supposed thrilling climax is at the same level. They ultimately make “Superman Returns” a lackluster return.

The Descent (2006)

3 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Descent” takes us where a good horror film should—it ventures into the unknown. It starts out with real people, one with real issues to face on her own, and then puts them in a mysterious location where, since it’s a horror film, something goes very wrong and they have to fight for their lives.

That location happens to be underground caverns. Already, that’s a masterstroke of horror-film writing. Just imagine yourself down there, on a spelunking expedition with your friends. It’s dark, it’s deep, and it never seems to end. You have to have a guide on your crew that knows the way out. But imagine that the further down into darkness you descend, the more you might discover…for better or worse. “The Descent” takes that feeling and ups the ante with familiar (but welcome) bump-in-the-night elements, as well as a great sense of atmosphere, and results in a satisfying horror film.

The film is about a group of six daredevil women who plan a trip to go spelunking in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. It should seem like a planned-out, safe journey into well-charted caves. But what they don’t know is that one of them—Juno (Natalie Mendoza)—has actually led them to an unknown crevasse so they can be the first to explore it. Of course, none of them know this until they suddenly find themselves trapped deep within the cavernous underworld, due to a cave-in.

Of these characters, the main focus is on Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who is distant from her friends due to an accident that took the lives of her husband and daughter. What she didn’t know (and still doesn’t, although we catch on) is that her husband may have had an affair with Juno. Now a year later, Juno invites Sarah and their old friends (and a couple new friends) to go on this trip that could grant him fame (and naming rights of the cavern)…granted they find a way out.

The caves are suitably dark and disturbing with only lanterns and headlamps to light the way—the film captures a great sense of mystery within these deep locations. The director Neil Marshall brings a load of suspense in the early stages of cave exploration in the first hour of the film, and brings about a truly unnerving, stomach-wrenching sequence in which the women are squeezing their way through a tight, cramped space to continue their trek. This scene is the most terrifying for my money. Just the idea of having to crawl through that tight a spot, and being stuck about halfway through is unsettling, because I’m as claustrophobic as they come. The fear of dying miles beneath the surface is brought to attention in “The Descent.”

Midway through the movie, the characters realize that they’re trapped and these caves aren’t marked, meaning they have to fight to survive if they’re going to find a way out. For about ten to twenty minutes, we get more good shock tactics featuring heights, falls, and tension amongst themselves. It’s later in the film when we finally see what the marketing of the film has been setting up, and so it’s no secret that as the characters descend deeper into the caves, they happen upon a strange breed of humanistic creatures that notice them as a threat.

These monsters are albino beings with no eyes, a supersonic hearing ability (like bats), and slime dripping off their naked bodies. Since they show up so late in the film, I could see some people calling this a cheap last-minute story gimmick. But I can let it go for two reasons. 1) They’re suitably scary enough. 2) In some bizarre way, I can accept the fact that these creatures could be found in very deep, underground-unknown places.

As you’d expect, the second half of “The Descent” features the characters fighting against the monsters and trying to save each other. The tension still remains with a great deal of suspense and energy, and the climax of the film actually amounts to something in ways I’ll only describe briefly. You see, the title of the movie has two meanings—a descent into the unknown and a descent into chaos and madness. The protagonist Sarah has been struggling with her sanity ever since the accident that killed her family, and now that this horrifying event is happening to her (which includes the reveal of Juno’s secret involving her husband), it is a further descent into chaos that causes her to attempt to act upon the courage she lost and the rebirth that she deserves. This makes the climax all the more compelling because she knows that if she is going to die, she is going to die fighting.

I’m glad that only one character out of these six was given a traumatic back story for us to focus on, although I admit I could have used a few more personality traits from a few of the other women. In fact, some of them I have to watch the movie for again to remember them.

The ending of “The Descent” is one of the most memorable in a horror film. It’s unsettling and unforgiveable, but more importantly, it’s intriguing and unforgettable.

“The Descent” is a terrific thriller with a dark claustrophobic atmosphere, credible tension, a good cast, a great dose of adrenaline, and suitable psychological issues. It’s so effective that I’m actually thinking more about what goes on in the uncharted caves, rather than the well-charted caves I tour with my family in Arkansas for summer trips. I probably don’t truly believe that there are vicious, slimy monsters down below, but you know there could be anything down there.

Slither (2006)

2 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The ads for the science fiction-splatter movie “Slither” say that every horror film that came before it were “wusses.” That may not be true, but then again, “Slither” isn’t really a flat-out horror flick. It is a horror B-movie that has a comedic edge to it. The movie carries almost the same gimmick as the 1986 B-movie “Night of the Creeps.” That movie was about alien slugs invading people’s minds on a college campus. This time, the filmmakers say, “Forget the boring teenagers. We’ve seen too many of these teenaged splatter movies. Let’s just have town locals come in and see how they react to these disgusting situations.” Now keep in mind—this movie does get pretty disgusting. Read on and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

As the movie opens, we meet the folks in a Southern small town. We meet Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks), a gorgeous blonde. We meet Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) as the rural tycoon that Starla married, even though he may be a bit too old for her. But who cares? Then, we meet Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), the town sheriff who has a bit of a crush on Starla. There’s also the town mayor whose opening scene gets a laugh. He cusses out a person who is in his driving zone then he sees a woman and her children look at him blankly and then he greets them, making them say, “Good morning, Mayor.”

Grant is infected by a kind of alien being and he becomes a brainwashed creature with an immense craving for meat. Pets have gone missing, as well as a local woman, and Starla is starting to know that there is something very, very wrong with Grant. And who wouldn’t when we see him later, this time as a blob resembling Jabba the Hutt.

The special effects are pretty impressive, making the ick factor even more ick-ish. There’s a scene later in the movie where that local woman I mentioned earlier that was missing is found as a huge sphere-shaped thing the size of a barn, and suddenly, hundreds of monster slugs explode out of her. And this is when things get even more crazy, as the slugs attack by entering people’s mouths and taking over their minds.

This movie really gets disgusting and the movie barely gets away with being too disgusting. But it’s all just good fun. Writer/director James Gunn was obviously shooting for making this movie the way it is and he succeeds. “Slither” isn’t for everyone, but I thought it was a fun splatter movie that kept my interest.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

1 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I could just hear the board meeting for this movie. “Whatcha got for me?” “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver.” “Greenlight it.” That would be my reaction to “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver” as well because the idea of Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver is simply funny. It’d be like “Anchorman at Talladega.” Unfortunately, while there are a couple laugh-out-loud moments, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is not as funny as it is mean-spirited.

But there are a few laugh-out-loud moments. The first comes at the beginning in which Ricky Bobby’s mother (Jane Lynch) gives birth to Ricky while his drunken father Reese (Gary Cole, a hoot) drives the car at 100 miles per hour. That’s a funny scene. Ricky Bobby loves to “go fast” and lives by a motto given by his father one day at school—the only day he’s ever seen him—which is simply, “If you ain’t first, you’re last!” Ricky grows up as a NASCAR mechanic with a goofball for a driver. But when the chips are down, this calls for somebody who can go fast. So Ricky steps in, wins the race, and through many years, is world-famous with a smokin’ hot, busty, blonde wife (Leslie Bibb), a loyal best friend (John C. Reilly) who is also a NASCAR driver and is a great enough friend to come in second place, and a neverending winning record…and two very obnoxious boys who mouth off to their grandfather (“Shut up, Grandpa! Or I’ll go ape sh— on you’re a—!”) and do horrible things to people. Damien from “The Omen” could have a play date with these little monsters.

But Ricky’s “perfect” life doesn’t last long. Ricky gains a new rival—a gay French driver named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen)—and his showboating (or show-carring) against him leads to humiliation and the end of his career. I mentioned above that there are a few laugh-out-loud moments in this movie. One of them comes after Ricky crashes. He’s physically all right, but then, he strips down to his underwear and acts like he’s on fire. (“Help me, Oprah Winfrey! Help me, Allah! Help me, Tom Cruise!”) That is a brilliant comic scene and I don’t think that just anybody would have the guts to run around in his underwear in an auditorium, let alone a racetrack. Will Ferrell really lets out his comic talent for this really funny scene. Another great moment is when Ricky Bobby proves he is paralyzed from the accident, even though he’s not.

What I really liked in “Talladega Nights” were the scenes on the racetrack. This isn’t like watching NASCAR on TV where we keep the camera on one or two positions, none of them close to the track or cars. The direction of “Talladega Nights” is special because it shows us many shots of the track we haven’t seen before. We have cars speeding towards us, racing right by us, and so many different angles to see them through. In one way, it works as a satire for NASCAR. But it is all so well-made.

But the storyline is lightweight and the characters don’t really show appeal with their mean-spiritedness—most of the dialogue is mainly composed of cruelty in the form of one-liners (which I don’t mind, if they were amounting to something I actually cared about). And that’s too bad. Will Ferrell is a great comedic actor and he sure proved that in movies like “Elf” and “Anchorman.” But in “Talladega Nights,” with his dim wits and George W. Bush impersonation, he could’ve been a comedy icon and people may think of the character that way. But to me, he just came off as obnoxious and mean-spirited as almost everyone else in this movie. Do filmmakers think it’s funny when people yell at each other? John C. Reilly and Amy Adams, who plays Ricky’s personal assistant/future girlfriend, give the film some appeal with their performances, but they are criminally underused. These two can bring grins to many people’s faces. I would’ve wanted to see more of them. Amy Adams, in particular, gives the film’s most energetic comedic moment when she finally confronts Ricky and talks some sense into him.

Sadly, the ballad of Ricky Bobby is not very touching. And most of the other jokes, aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, fall flat. Director/co-writer Adam McKay, who also directed “Anchorman,” seems to be trying too hard with this movie. McKay directed TV episodes of “Freaks and Geeks” that were more appealing than this feature-length film. Not a particularly good sign.

Feast (The Project Greenlight Movie) (2006)

30 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Feast” was the third (and final) film to be made out of competition for the “Project Greenlight” contest, which if you recall was sponsored by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Chris Moore as a contest for screenwriting and directing (amateur filmmakers get to make a film for Miramax, or in this case, Dimension Films). And also if you recall, any film that gets made for “Project Greenlight” is documented by a camera crew for the reality-TV series, aptly titled “Project Greenlight.” I would have loved to see that series to see what the making of “Feast” was like, because it was probably more fun and interesting than the actual film itself.

“Feast” is a mess. I know what it’s trying to be—a self-aware horror film that wittingly makes fun of itself. And while I can’t deny that some parts are kind of fun in a recognizing sort of way, the rest of the movie is very dumb, quite weak, and sometimes disgusting without the proper humor to offset it.

The movie starts out promisingly—we’re introduced to an entire group of stereotypical characters in a bar out in the middle of nowhere. With each person introduced, we’re given a helpful pause and caption. The caption states that person’s stereotype (Bozo, Beer Guy, even Jason Mewes, who plays…Jason Mewes), “fun facts” (“About to rob the bar in 20 minutes”), and of course, “life expectancy” because it’s obvious this bar is about to be subjected to a monster attack. (For example, when the film introduces a wheelchair-bound young man, dubbed “Hot Wheels,” his Life Expectancy is: “They wouldn’t kill a cripple, would they?”) What’s great about this opening, and these captions introducing these stereotypes, is that it’s ironic. This is how we would predict their “life expectancies” to turn out. And then, the Hero busts into the bar, with a monster head, and warns everyone that there are some vicious, nasty, hungry beasts coming this way, and he’s “the one that’s gonna save your ass.” And wouldn’t you know it—he’s the first victim of the monsters when they arrive immediately, so the movie can make way for the Heroine; hopefully, she does a better job than the Hero.

And so, you have the group of ne’er-do-wells banding together to stand and fight off the attacking creatures and survive the night. And…yeah, that’s about it, plain and simple. While I couldn’t begin to guess anymore who was going to live and who was going to die, the humor continued to fall flat with jokes about stereotypes that go on for far too long and sell out their welcome. By the end of the movie, I just didn’t care much for the horror-comedy aspects because if the film itself didn’t care much for where it was going, other than to keep padding to the story, I shouldn’t either. You have to wonder if the director John Gulager (son of Clu, who plays the Bartender) actually knew he was making a bad horror movie. There are no scares (the best horror-comedies have scares to offset to the humor) and hardly any suspense because let’s face it, who truly cares about these people since they’re mainly just walking punchlines for the script?

Also, most of the action is inexplicable. Why? Because those sequences are cut so quickly it’s hard to make out what’s going on. I guess it’s meant to keep the creatures obscure until the final act, when you can see them a little better. But it’s hard to feel tense and on-edge when the cinematography is blurred and the editing is too quick.

The actors do what they can with their roles, the creatures (when you actually see them) are admittedly suitable H.R. Giger designs, and a few jokes and visual gags work. But “Feast” is not much fun, nor is it very memorable, and it needed further study of its genre. I noticed that Wes Craven was credited as “Executive Producer”—what the film really needed was Kevin Williamson to bring the script some of the wit brought to the “Scream” movies.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

19 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Little Miss Sunshine” answers the question, “Is it possible to create something great with elements of a formula road movie?” The answer for this movie is yes. “Little Miss Sunshine” could be described as a road movie because a dysfunctional family is forced to travel halfway across the country, but what makes it very original, compelling, and funny is that this movie is also a character study. These characters within this family are well-developed and are unique individuals. They give “Little Miss Sunshine” its strength.

These people are the Hoovers. To call them dysfunctional is an understatement. The man of the house is Richard (Greg Kinnear), an overconfident, winning-obsessed life-lessons coach who can be unbearable to live with. His wife is Sheryl (Toni Collette), a completely honest housewife who tries to keep her family from falling apart. Sheryl’s brother is Frank (Steve Carell), a suicidal, gay Proust graduate. Richard and Sheryl’s children are seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a glasses-wearing girl a little on the plump side who is determined to win a beauty contest someday, and teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), an oddball who reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence. That leaves Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a heroin-snorting wise guy.

These people are so original and so much fun to watch. They deliver the strengths to this story, which is interesting and funny because of the more appropriate reason—its script is funny. The writing here is Oscar-worthy. It’s rich, alive, funny, and touching. All of these elements of the writing are put to the screen to perfection by directors Valerie Davis and Jonathan Dayton, and by the actors, who know these characters by heart and don’t seem like they’re reading lines at all. I loved watching these people act and listening to them speak.

For example, there’s a dinner scene in the beginning of the film, in which all six family members are eating chicken at the dinner table. Here we get to know who these characters are, without annoying exposition. Too many introductions to characters just read lines that describe to the audience who they are at random. But in this dinner scene, they made cute, little Olive the questioning little girl who causes Frank to explain his reason for committing suicide. He explains it as calmly as possible.

But soon, it’s time to hit the road. Olive is in a top spot in a little girls’ beauty pageant and has a chance to compete in Little Miss Sunshine. They drive an old, yellow VW bus to California, where the contest is being held. But it doesn’t seem like the bus will survive this trip. Its clutch is shot so they have to run out and push it to start it. That’s one of many road trip problems this family goes through—there is also comedy, tragedy, and revelations, all of which written very well. But nothing could prepare them for when they finally make it to Little Miss Sunshine. I will not give away the outcome except to say that it comes totally unexpected and will cause discomfort for some people but big laughs for most.

And let’s be honest–these types of pageants are disturbing, disturbing, disturbing! And “Little Miss Sunshine” thankfully knows that enough to make audience members cringe at certain moments. But at least the movie delivers a solid punchline.

The story is somewhat similar to a lesser family road movie released earlier in the same year (2006), “R.V.” This one—“Little Miss Sunshine”—has more heart and more humor, as well as a lack of cliché. In “R.V.,” you knew the R.V. was going to be dumped in a lake. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” you may think you know what will happen when Richard confronts a man who ripped him off and they have an argument near a swimming pool. If you’ve seen as many movies as I have, you would think that Richard would throw the man in the pool…but he didn’t! Another great bit is when Dwayne writes in his notepad to explain to Frank that he hates everyone. Frank asks about his family, and that forces Dwayne to underline the word “Everyone.” There are many other great bits in this movie and a few great scenes as well, like the dinner scene. I love the scene in which Grandpa gives some vulgar advice to young Dwayne, every scene in which the family has to get out and start the bus, an encounter with a highway patrolman, and other scenes as well-written and acted as those.

The acting is top-notch. Greg Kinnear is well-cast in a role that basically requires him to be a pompous, winning-obsessed man. Toni Collette is great as the pro-honest mother. Paul Dano does everything he can with a performance that requires hardly any dialogue—his facial expressions say everything about the character. Abigail Breslin is an absolute delight as Olive. She’s very talented and understands her part very well. And she doesn’t go for the deadly cuteness that many child stars fall into. Alan Arkin steals all of his scenes as Grandpa. But the biggest surprise here is Steve Carell, who plays it straight in this role. Carell is wonderful as this strange person. His line-delivery and facial expressions are unique—sometimes they’re funny and other times, they make us care for him. This is a career highlight for Steve Carell.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is a delightful movie—funny, charming, and alive. With its clever script and truly original characters who are well-acted by the actors, “Little Miss Sunshine” is the movie that “R.V.” wanted to be.

Hoot (2006)

8 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Hoot” is the film adaptation of the Newbery Award winning novel of the same name, written by Carl Hiaasen, and it’s surprisingly faithful to its source material in terms of story and character. You would think that the movie would be just as good as the book in that sense, but I have two problems with that sense. For one thing, there’s just such a mediocrity to the execution of the movie that doesn’t make it seem very special. Also, and I know I might get a lot of flack for typing this, I don’t personally think that the novel itself is special to begin with. I’ll get to analyzing those problems the best I can later in this review, but let me explain the plot first.

A young man named Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman) and his family have moved again, this time from Montana to Florida. He already has problems with a husky bully, who has enjoyment in pressing the kid’s face against the school-bus window, but he finds interest in two kids his age. One is a soccer jock named Beatrice (Brie Larson), who is dubbed “Bear,” and a barefoot runaway nicknamed “Mullet Fingers” (Cody Linley) who is also Beatrice’s stepbrother and is constantly vandalizing a construction site, where a pancake-house corporation wants to build their newest restaurant in this small town. Roy decides to help him, along with Beatrice, because the construction site is filled with endangered burrowing owls and it’s up to the kids to save them.

I’m not quite sure where to begin. I mean, the premise is nice and the friendships between Roy and Beatrice and with Roy and Mullet Fingers are developed in an interesting way, both in the novel and film. But there are many quibbles I have with this story. First of all, the construction site is in the middle of the forest—why would anyone want to build a pancake house there? And who would want to go to a pancake house in that particular location?

Also, this family film is promoting a somewhat-environmental message. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to teach a lesson to kids if it’s done right, but the kids in this movie aren’t exactly the right role models for saving the environment. They commit felonies in order to save the day. They steal, vandalize (for example, they spray-paint a police car’s windows black), and even terrorize (with cottonmouth snakes and alligators that Mullet Fingers is able to handle—by the way, Mullet Fingers has been living on his own in the woods long enough, so how far does his animal-handling skills go?). On top of that, they’re not entirely convincing. I seem to be circling back to that Mullet Fingers kid—by the way, he’s called that because he can catch a mullet (a type of fish) with his bare hands. I would like to know exactly how Mullet Fingers survives on his own for what is said to be so long. And if he doesn’t want to be seen, then why does he constantly run on a public sidewalk where plenty of people are able to see him?

Oh yeah, and why is Roy the only one on the school bus who notices Mullet Fingers running by it? Is it because that ridiculous bully isn’t holding anyone else’s face against the window?

Here’s another problem with the story—there are too many side characters for unnecessary subplots. That beefy bully I mentioned is particularly boring and—get this—is afraid of one thing that fortunately Roy (or “Cowgirl” or “Tex” or “Eberhardt” as he’s constantly called every now and again) has on his side: Beatrice. Huh—or maybe he just doesn’t want to hit girls. (Yeah, that sounds about right.) But Roy breaks the bully’s nose after being held in a headlock, only to create an unnecessary subplot that distracts from Roy fitting into his new town and helping his new friends save the owls. Another side character, played by Luke Wilson whom gets top billing in this movie, is police officer David Delinko, a young and loyal cop who is called upon the site to investigate the vandalism reported by the foreman named “Curly” (Tim Blake Nelson). His main role is to be gullible and humiliated while Roy hides his secrets from him, even after he makes friends with him. He’s also the one whose patrol car is spray-painted black by Mullet Fingers while on a stakeout. Why not make this character smarter, or maybe a little funnier to make him more interesting? And then, we have the villain who is just a comic caricature. Chuck Muckle (Clark Gregg), the vice president of the pancake house corporation, knows there are owls and doesn’t care for any of Mullet Fingers’ antics to bulldoze the site. He’s over-the-top here. And of course, we have the dumb parents who know less than their children and their supposed heart-to-heart talks with Roy are pathetic.

What I’m basically getting at is “Hoot” is overstuffed. And Wil Shriner who thinks of this as a feature-length after-school special also executes it poorly with what-probably-isn’t-but-just-seems-like-it lazy direction. And the constant use of bland songs by Jimmy Buffett doesn’t help much either. And the climax has to be one of the most overly cutesy scenes in a recent family film. But to be fair, I believe “Hoot” is harmless enough for younger kids. The kids are actually kind of likeable and the owls are cute enough to be worth fighting for. But if you want a better family film that delivers subtle and more entertaining ways to bring messages across, this isn’t it.

Children of Men (2006)

26 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“This is how the world will end…this is how the world will end…this is how the world will end…not with a bang but with a whimper.” –T.S. Eliot

That is exactly what is happening to the world in the action film “Children of Men,” a bleak, action-packed, wicked thriller that takes place in the year 2027. The Earth has become practically uninhabitable and anarchic. Natural disasters, terrorism, and war have brought the world to hell. All borders are closed permanently, which means anyone who tries to step into new territory is declared an illegal immigrant and forced to go with others to a prison where they will eventually be executed. But it gets worse—humans have become infertile. It is exceedingly rare for a woman to be pregnant. As the movie opens, a newscast informs us that the world’s youngest person (at age 18) is dead. With this knowledge, you can sense that in a few decades, the human race will become extinct. Soon, others will die until the last man on Earth will die. No one else will go on because there are no more births. That is the subtext throughout “Children of Men” and it’s a profoundly creepy one.

The movie takes place in England, where a man named Theo (Clive Owen) gets a coffee one morning and sees the newscast about the death of the youngest person on the planet. He then steps outside to wait for a bus when suddenly, the coffee house explodes! Not only is this surprising, but watch Theo’s reactions to the destruction. At first, we see him as this ignorant tough guy we see in a lot of action movies. But when the coffee house explodes, he shows off a real sense of fear—he is startled by this occurrence, as anyone would be.

Theo has his way of showing concern about this now-damaged world, but he prefers to think about being with his pot-smoking best friend Jasper (a bewigged Michael Caine, wonderfully cast), who is even more ignorant of more or less…everything. But he is soon captured by his former wife Julian (Julianne Moore) and her associate Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who are part of a rebellion against the now-corrupt government (or what’s left of a government). They need Theo to help them to smuggle a young African woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) out of the country to a place where she might be safe from everyone else. (It is said that there is a ship called The Tomorrow, which rescues and harbors said “illegal immigrants”). This woman needs to be protected because she holds the key to the future of Earth’s society. Theo doesn’t realize why Kee is so important until after a few angry run-ins with wild townspeople and the police. It turns out Kee is pregnant—the first baby to be born in 18 years. “Now you know what’s at stake here,” Luke calmly explains to Theo.

Soon, Theo and Kee are on the journey to get past the border unseen and unharmed. But of course, this is not going to be easy. They are pursued by many people (including security troops) and partake in many action sequences. But these scenes are so convincing—so well-executed—that you realize just what they’re about. You never forget what is at stake in this story. Director Alfonso Cuaron (who also directed “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) has an amazing visual style and executes every action sequence well, and I love how a lot of these scenes are in a single ongoing shot. Every action scene is desperate and with purpose. Cuaron knows how to stage this kind of situation and Clive Owen captures the sense of fear and desperation. Owen is ultimately solid in this movie. He has a cool attitude, yet has a sense of vulnerability that he doesn’t show but you can tell during certain shots.

I love the way the storyline of “Children of Men” develops into something bigger than it began with. When the movie opens, we already sense the world ending because of humanity’s wasting away. Now when Kee arrives and needs to be saved, we see that the world can either remain the way it is (maybe even worse) or be preserved for a new generation. It all depends on Theo’s actions—he has his own demons with his former wife, which haunts him after her arrival.

Also, there is great cinematography. When Theo walks through a desolate London, it looks like a real place. It’s incredible, how the filmmakers were able to make this into a dark, scary place to live in (or even walk in). The settings get darker as Theo goes on this dangerous journey to the border and even through the immigrant prison. It’s all convincing.

“Children of Men” belongs in a class with “Mad Max” and “Blade Runner,” but it may be better than those two references. This is a movie that shows an even darker approach to futuristic fiction and serves as a cautionary tale. It shows a world that is indeed not ending with a bang but with a whimper.