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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Revised Review)

16 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yep, it’s “Revised Review” time again. This time, the subject is “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth entry in the Harry Potter movie franchise. When I first reviewed it, I gave it three stars. I liked it, but I think my mind was more focused on the previous films, particularly “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (one of my personal-favorite films, period). To me, the pace seemed off, I was confused where the story was going, and I just knew that it was going to lead to another cliffhanger which would pave the way for another sequel which would pave the way for another cliffhanger which would lead to the ultimate climactic battle to end all battles in this Harry Potter universe.

(By the way, if you’re wondering, I haven’t read all of the books. I read the first three and then quit, only because I enjoyed the movies so much, I wanted them to surprise me.)

As time went on, however, I re-watched all the “Harry Potter” movies in a row, once in a while. And suddenly, as I was taking in more of what “The Order of the Phoenix” had to offer, I realized its success in what it was trying to do. This was a different “Harry Potter” movie—one that would provoke thought, ask questions about similarity/difference, and prepare us for something darker and heavier to come. As a result, it is now my second-favorite “Harry Potter” movie (behind “The Chamber of Secrets,” which is as fun as this is insightful).

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” begins with 15-year-old budding wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) sitting bitter and alone on a swingset in a playground. This shot alone sets the tone for the film—Harry feels isolated and knows that something is coming that will transform him from a child to an adult, and he’s not sure he wants to let go of childhood yet. (Maybe I’m reading too deep, but that’s always what I got out of it.) In the previous film, the dreaded Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) was brought back from the dead, and Harry was the sole witness. For a while, it seems nobody believes him and he’s all alone. But after a seemingly-predetermined incident causes Harry to be expelled from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry for using magic outside of school to protect himself, it turns out there’s a small secret society of witches/wizards called the Order of the Phoenix, including Harry’s godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), that has formed outside the Ministry of Magic since Harry’s allegation of Voldemort’s return. They’re preparing for a fight that is sure to come, and they try to keep Harry out of it as much as possible, despite Harry’s desperate need to get involved.

The Order, along with Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), manage to get Harry enrolled back in school, but trouble soon comes brewing, as it always does whenever Harry and his two best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), get involved in whatever’s happening at this dangerous school (keep your kids away from this place, parents!). Firstly, most of Harry’s classmates think Harry is lying about Voldemort’s return to cover up another reason for the death of another student (caused by Voldemort). Secondly, the school is slowly but surely being controlled by a new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor: Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), who also aids in the Ministry. She and Harry clash because of Harry’s “lies” and because she won’t teach defensive spells to students.

Oh, and need I also mention that hormones come creeping in during all of this, leading to Harry’s first kiss with his crush Cho Chang (Katie Leung)? Hasn’t this kid gone through enough confusion in his already-loaded life?

Once it becomes clear to other students that Harry is telling the truth, Harry, Ron, and Hermione bring them together to start their own secret group, called Dumbledore’s Army, to teach/learn defensive spells for when the time comes to battle Voldemort’s forces. And it seems they may have to begin defending themselves sooner than they thought…

I’m going to look at my original review (posted on this site) and point out some things I wrote then that I change my mind about now.

“It is […] my least favorite in the franchise.” Right away, I take that back.

“Harry’s best friends […] aren’t given anything special to do, save for a few short scenes of humor.” We already had four whole movies prior to set up the characters and their friendship together, and the focus in this one is entirely on Harry. So why did I let that bother me?

“And it’s annoying when Hermione is correcting Harry for something he knows is right.” Hermione doesn’t see the things that Harry sees, leading to a friendship with Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) who sees the strange and unusual (I mean, by Hogwarts’ standards). Jeez, younger-critic-Tanner—picky much?

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t like Luna Lovegood. It’s a one-note loony role that just plain annoyed me.” OK, fine, I did think that was the case for one of the most beloved characters in the series. Yes, I still think the character is one-note loony, but my feelings towards her have softened a bit the more times I watched the later Harry Potter movies. She’s sweet, she’s likable, and she didn’t deserve the slam I gave her in my original review.

It seems the problems I had with the movie were mere nitpicks for being “different.” Reading my old review of this movie again, I can’t help but be reminded of the initial reception critics/audiences had toward “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.” Now known as one of the greatest sequels of all time, it took a while for people to warm up to its new ideas back then. That’s essentially how I feel about “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”—I wasn’t ready for the darker directions it was going to take (and it was darker compared to the new directions taken in “The Prisoner of Azkaban” and “The Goblet of Fire”). Subsequent viewings caused me to admire it for taking the series in a more complicated turn, which was also used to develop the character of Harry even further.

And that’s something I didn’t even notice the first time I reviewed the film, let alone acknowledge in the review. Harry is a role model—he wants to do what is right, he wants to do his part in protecting his friends and others, and he demands justice for wrongdoings. That’s fine and all, but what makes the character more compelling here is his inner turmoil. He’s still a kid going through struggles in growing up, and on top of that, he’s experienced tragedy, such as the murders of his parents and peers, and he’s constantly being ignored for either negligence of knowing the truth or for a greater cause when he wants to be involved. This makes him angry, and he gets even angrier as the movie continues. At one point, he admits he’s afraid of becoming more and more like Voldemort. He even notices some similarities between him and Voldemort growing up as Tom Riddle.

Voldemort knows this. He wants to use Harry’s anger to tempt him into joining him and/or giving into the dark arts. In a wonderful moment near the end, Harry has a chance to kill one of Voldemort’s cohorts out of anger for the murder of one of Harry’s most trusted companions, and this is when Voldemort strikes into his mind, using his subconscious against him. Harry has experienced such tragedy and guilt and turmoil, which can lead to further such issues if he acts on them out of vengeance. An important line of dialogue from earlier in the film comes to mind during this scene, as Sirius Black assured Harry, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” Harry is able to win the inner battle with Voldemort by recognizing the differences between himself and Voldemort. As he puts in a wonderfully biting statement, “You’re the weak one. And you’ll never know love. Or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.”

(I’m not going to lie—every time I watch this scene, I feel a lump in my throat every time he says that line. It’s delivered perfectly by Radcliffe.)

In my original review, I did praise the final half for giving us a gripping glimpse into “magic battle,” which both sides of the fight attacking one another, with Harry and friends in the middle. “Magic battle” would become better realized by “Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” but this climax is still intriguing. And I also praised Imelda Staunton’s performance as Umbridge. Who wouldn’t? She portrays one of the most despicable creatures in any movie I’ve ever seen, and I will not use that as an exaggeration. She punishes students severely for speaking out about issues that go against authority (whether she believes Voldemort is back and is trying to cover it up for the Ministry or not, it’s no excuse to scar Harry’s hand for telling “lies”). She won’t teach students to defend themselves for practically-conservative reasons. She has a sweet demeanor most of the time, but tick her off and she will find a way to get you. Staunton plays the role perfectly; it’s frightening, the way she pulls it off. I think it’s the smile… anyone who can do terrible things and keep that smile is worthy of hatred. (I mean hatred towards the character, not the actress—I’m certain Imelda Staunton is a nice woman in reality.)

This was director David Yates’ first going into the Harry Potter universe (and he would go to direct more Harry Potter films since). The tone he uses is very effective; it almost feels like we’re walking into a dream. We’re not entirely sure what’s real and what’s imagined, and so there’s that sense of unease that settles throughout the film.

I may have underappreciated “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” when I first saw it (and reviewed it), but this is my chance at redemption for my mistakes. I love this film even more today, and I have no second thoughts in giving it a four-star rating. (In hindsight, this deserves a four-star rating more so than “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” which does not hold up as well for me today. Maybe I’ll do a revised review for that one too, someday…)

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I Am Legend: Special Edition

21 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! If I’m going to review the “I Am Legend” special-edition version, which includes the “controversial” alternate ending (I use quotations for that term because the DVD cover describes it as such), I have to talk about said-“controversial” ending.

I reviewed the 2007 thriller/drama “I Am Legend,” starring Will Smith and based on the Richard Matheson novel, before. I praised most of it (giving it the same three-and-a-half star rating I give to this “Special Edition”), but I did admit the third act was nothing special, especially when in comparison to the preceding two acts. I wrote, “the movie runs on autopilot for its final act, unfortunately. The climax of the movie is just your standard monster-attacking-the-house climax where characters are forced to fight off the enemy, nearly get caught, find some way to fight back—you name it, you got it. The outcome is less than satisfactory. It’s forced.”

I saw the film for the first time in 2007, when it was released. (Also, I wrote the review in 2012, if you were wondering.) I was 15 when I first saw it, and even back then, as a dumb teenage boy who was hungry for destruction in cinema, I noticed the film didn’t end the same way it began. The first two acts of “I Am Legend” weren’t about typical action or horror-movie tropes—it was mostly quiet, with thought-provoking scenes of drama and some carefully-chosen lines of dialogue when discussing the implications of the antagonists’ nature (the antagonists, of course, being the infected sunlight-fearing zombies that take up New York City).

And then the film ends with Will Smith blowing up the “monsters” as well as himself, sacrificing his life to protect the antidote that can reverse the process that turned everyday, ordinary people into this different kind of species… Even as a teenage moviegoer, I wasn’t that enthralled by the film’s resolution.

I’m unsure if I need to remind readers of the plot synopsis of “I Am Legend,” but I’ll attempt to sum it up anyway. Dr. Robert Neville (Smith) is the lone survivor of a plague that wiped out New York City three years before. With no outside communication and the plague reaching out even further, Neville may be the last man on Earth, with only one companion: a loyal dog named Sam. Immune to the virus that killed and/or transformed the infected into predatory zombie-like creatures, Neville spends his days trying to develop an antidote. When times get to be too psychologically anguishing for him, as he seemingly gets nowhere with the experiments, he is suddenly visited by two human survivors, a woman (Alice Braga) and a young boy (Charlie Tahan) who are headed to where they believe a “survivor’s colony” resides outside the island.

Right around this point, “I Am Legend” should be getting more interesting, as issues such as faith and survivor’s guilt are mentioned and discussed in a couple effective moments that are much deserved after numerous quiet, suspenseful scenes with Will Smith alone. But before it can get too deep, the characters are attacked by the creatures that storm Neville’s house. This is where we get the disappointing final act in which it simply doesn’t feel like much is accomplished, despite Neville presumably destroying them all (and sacrificing himself in the process, so that the woman and child can go free with the antidote that ultimately results). It didn’t feel like the right conclusion for such a strong film like this to truly end with.

But I kept saying the film was good, despite a disappointing ending, mainly because everything leading up to it done so effectively. And then…I was told about the original ending. That was when I started to look at the film (and the studio that released it in 2007) in a different (read “negative”) way. The film was treating me, a teenage moviegoer in 2007, with respect and intelligence—no loud violent action sequences, a great deal of silence in both the dramatic moments and the suspenseful moments, and profound issues to be discussed. And then, it decided I needed something I had already seen before in an action-filled climax. That didn’t tick me off so much; what does tick me off today is that if it was released with the original ending, it would’ve given me something even deeper and more profound to ponder long after it was over. That was when I realized that the film I saw in the theater treated me like a thinking adult until the final act, and I want to say “screw you” to whoever made the decision to make such a drastic change.

So, what is the original ending? The ending that would’ve changed everything? The ending that was kept in the “Special Edition” DVD/Blu-Ray release to deliver a more satisfying “I Am Legend”? The ending that gives “I Am Legend” the three-and-a-half star rating on Smith’s Verdict that it truly deserves? Let’s talk about it…

In a clever use of non-verbal communication, the alpha-male creature (Dash Mihok) identifies the subdued female creature (whom Neville was experimenting on to create the antidote, which seems to have finally taken effect). Neville realizes there’s still humanity in these mutants, and taking into account the ingenuity they’ve shown before (such as knowing how to spring a trap for him earlier in the film), he also realizes that they’re not exactly the non-intelligent monsters he thought they were. He gives the creatures the newly-cured woman, whom the alpha male takes with distraught disappointment, and he lets them all go. Thinking back to all the creatures he either killed or experimented on in the long time he’s been the only normal human in the city, he realizes a very harsh truth: they’re not the monster in this world; he is. All this time, he’s been thinking these are horrific monsters that need to be exterminated from our society, but it’s not his society anymore—it’s a brand new world with a newly formed species and he’s the rare breed that won’t adapt to it. In the eyes of the people that now rule the world, he’s the monster that can either be fought or feared, just as he thought of them.

This whole ending is masterfully done! And as a plus, it’s the ending that makes the most sense for this kind of story. It makes the film into a brilliant “eye of the beholder” story that challenges viewers and makes them truly think about what they’ve seen and where the characters can go from the ending. Neville lives in this version, and he and the other surviving humans leave to find other survivors, but…what happens after? It’s less optimistic, but it’s the ending that this thought-provoking end-of-the-world fable deserves.

And some numb-nuts at Warner Bros. must have thought, “Nope! Can’t have that! We gotta treat our younger audience for our PG-13 movie like they’re idiots! We treated them like adults long enough, so let’s just show Will Smith as a martyr or…something!” Whoever made that decision…I can’t stay mad at them for too long because after all, they did learn their mistake and release a DVD with that ending edited into a “director’s cut.” (Side-note: kudos to you, director Francis Lawrence—you knew what you were doing.) And it’s the director’s cut that truly deserves praise, because the ending delivers more in home-media than what it originally promised in the theater.

Alpha Dog (2007)

19 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juno (2007)

11 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

18 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s just get this out of the way. There’s a penis shown on screen for what feels like too long for a mainstream comedy, which in this case is “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” It’s an unexpected, uncomfortable sight, everyone’s gone crazy about it upon the film’s release, and it seems executive producer/co-writer Judd Apatow has an odd obsession with showing the male anatomy (either that or his sometimes-collaborator Seth Rogen is an influence; see “Superbad,” for example). There, I’ve addressed it. Now let’s talk about how awesome the rest of this movie is.

Remember the golden age of parody movies when you could make fun of tropes in a particular film subgenre while also pay homage to them? Movies like “Airplane” and “Spaceballs” are within that particular field. But unfortunately, many of the parody movies we know of nowadays are the ones that merely mention what’s popular at the time and put more emphasis and effort on that than story and humor, which both need to be the biggest factors. But then along comes a gem known as “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” a film that makes fun of musician-biopic stories while knowing what it means to parody something properly and be entertaining along the way.

You know the formulas of many music biopics and how overly earnest the films are in painting the portrait of tortured yet successful musicians. “Walk Hard” goes through all the conventions with an extreme lampooning style.

John C. Reilly stars in oddly enough one of his very best roles as Dewey Cox, a marginally talented country rocker who comes from a humble Southern background, where he experienced a tragic occurrence that cost the life of his brother. (He accidentally cut him in half while the boys were having a machete fight. What makes the scene even more hilariously tragic is the fact that the boy is still alive briefly after being “halved.”) Dewey’s father (Raymond J. Barry) hates him (and is always grumbling about how “the wrong kid died”) and he lost his sense of smell. But he can play guitar efficiently and sing well enough to get attention of some people, which leads to more people, which leads to a following, which leads to fame, which leads to drugs, sex, all that stuff you expect.

“Walk Hard” has it all: A) the disapproving parent, B) the cynical first wife (Kristen Wiig, very funny) who always reminds Dewey he’s “never gonna make it” even though he’s already successful, C) the drug pusher (Tim Meadows, also very funny) who’s always telling Dewey “You don’t want none of this shit” and yet somehow always convinces Dewey that DOES want “this shit,” D) a second wife (Jenna Fischer, also very funny) who has her own struggles with him such as resisting her own sexual urges, E) the ups and downs of fame and fortune, even going through Bob Dylan/Brian Wilson struggles in music and creativity, F) rehab, and finally G) redemption with a heartfelt song about Dewey’s life as a whole. What else does it have? Surprisingly, there’s heart in the midst of all the zaniness. I think a good reason for that is John C. Reilly doesn’t merely play Dewey Cox as a running joke but as sincere as possible, which surprisingly works—it makes the jokes more funny and you care somewhat about him too. Dewey Cox is just so…sweet! It’s hard not to care for him. The film was directed by Jake Kasdan, who co-wrote the script with Judd Apatow, and it’s clear they have some affection for Cox…don’t say that out loud, reader.

Many of the songs are heavy on the double-entendre fueled lyrics, making them highly amusing, particularly the title song “Walk Hard” (a play on “Walk the Line”) and especially “Let’s Duet,” a duet with John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer. Say this out loud: “Let’s duet in ways that make us feel good.”

There are many other funny bits I haven’t even mentioned in this review, including a recording scene that feels very similar Brian Wilson’s (of the Beach Boys) drug-induced creative state, a callback to the Bob Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back,” and especially the cameos from comedic actors portraying famous past musicians. (I’ll leave it for you to find out.) “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” is consistently clever, very funny, and represents the man, the myth, the legend that is Dewey Cox in a way that would make him proud if he were a real musician.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

24 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“No Country for Old Men” provides a fascinating character study with three complicated types—a good guy, a bad guy, and an anti-hero. One wants to do the right thing; one is practically anarchy-and-misery-personified; and the other walks that fine line between good and evil. First, let’s talk about the “anti-hero.” This is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a down-on-his-luck ex-welder who lives in a trailer park with his wife (Kelly Macdonald) and sometimes sticks his nose in places he shouldn’t. While on a hunting trip, he comes across a drug deal gone wrong in the middle of nowhere. He looks around, finds a lot of bodies, and finds a suitcase full of money. So he decides to keep it for himself.

This scene, early in the proceedings, also has Moss coming across a lone survivor who is immobile in the driver’s seat of a pickup truck and weakly asks for water. So what does Llewellyn do? He takes the guy’s gun and ammo and moves on because he knows that where there are drugs (and there is a truck full of “Mexican brown”) and moves on. Why does he do this? Did he have any intention of helping him if he did have water to give to him? Well, later that night, as he lies in bed in his trailer, he does have a change of heart and decides to go back and help the poor man, thus establishing that Moss is not a good guy or a bad guy—just a guy in between.

There is a definite bad guy here, and he’s a man you never want to meet anytime soon. He’s Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a cold, heartless killer whose murder weapon is a high-pressure air gun that can kill a cow (or kill a man with one shot to the forehead). Chigurh (emphasis on the “gurh” so it doesn’t sound like “Sugar”) is not charismatic and he’s not even enthusiastic. There’s never a sense that he enjoys what he does, as he goes around doing one horrific deed after another. What does this mean? Who is this guy? If he were a tree, what kind would he be? You can’t really ask much about this guy, because what he represents is the psychoticism of the criminal mind and how it’s only getting worse and worse. This is something that our movie’s good guy, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, looking more at home than ever), discovers, as he’s been on the job long enough to know that with everything going wrong and, even worse, confusing, this is all becoming too much to handle or even attempt to understand. He knows as well as we do that Chigurh is not going to stop doing these things anytime soon, and as long as people like him are around to spread anarchy and misery, what does that say for the world around him?

Chigurh goes after Moss because the drug-deal happened in his territory and now he wants the money. Moss packs up and leaves, sending his wife to her mother’s until he can figure a way out of this. Moss goes from place to place, with Chigurh catching up to him, and Bell being thrown into this because Chigurh had escaped from (and killed) one of his deputies.

Really think about that money—if you were a poor guy and you saw a way you could keep a mysterious bag of cash, would you take it? You’d think you’d get away with it and just enjoy yourself with it, but it’s not that easy when there are people who want it back, and they’re people that are best not to be trifled with and probably can’t be reasoned with. I’ve seen Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan”—I can already tell you before seeing this movie that this shouldn’t end well for a character deciding to take a chance and keep the stash. In “No Country for Old Men,” Moss is a bright guy who does realize his mistakes, even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge that maybe he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is (just smart enough to outwit Chigurh at a few crucial points). Either way, Moss is an intriguing anti-hero—his mistake leads to the question of what he’ll do afterwards and we wonder what will become of him and actually care for him. This is my favorite performance from Josh Brolin; he’s very strong here.

Javier Bardem is excellent as Anton Chigurh. I think he’s one of the best, most compelling villains you’ll ever find in a film. With that cold stare and indefinable accent he carries with him, Chigurh is one creepy S.O.B. If you ever come across this guy in the middle of nowhere, you should say your prayers quickly because you’re more than likely never going to be able to say them again. He doesn’t feel pity or remorse, and he can’t be bargained with. And you never know exactly what he’s going to do. Take this scene, which comes at the half-hour mark—it involves a coin toss. Chigurh is at a gas station, the clerk decides to make small talk, and Chigurh manages to take his words and twist them around to some weird cryptic speak, before he ultimately flips a coin and tells the unnerved man to “call it.” The tenseness of this scene is enhanced by Bardem’s performance as he messes with the clerk’s mind, as well as ours, because we don’t know what he’s going to do. Is he going to kill him? What will happen when the guy finally calls it? One thing’s for sure—Chigurh won’t leave until a decision is made. That’s a great scene, and this is a great performance from Javier Bardem.

“No Country for Old Men” was crafted by the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen), and they definitely know how to pace a film like this. With a story as complicated and with as many twists and turns, pacing is one of the more important aspects to keep us on edge and invested. With that said, the pacing in this movie is flawless, which helps with some of the most disturbing, suspenseful, uncomfortable scenes in the film, such as when Moss must escape his hotel room before Chigurh can piece together where he is. “No Country for Old Men” is very edgy throughout, with the terror counterbalanced by laconic wit that the Coens tend to put in their films (here, some of the comic bits come from Tommy Lee Jones’ wit). And being a Coen Brothers film, to expect a conventional way to tell this story (which is adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel) would be foolish. Don’t watch this film and pretend you know everything that’s going to happen, because I made that mistake and nearly hated myself for it. This is not like any other movie I’ve seen before—it plays with our expectations, catches us off-guard, and among everything else it has to offer, it delights in making us think and wonder while also unnerving us with what it thinks it can get away with. One last thing I’ll say about that is this—if you feel the least bit hateful towards the open ending, just think about how you would rather see it end. “No Country for Old Men” is a great film. 

In the Land of Women (2007)

8 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“In the Land of Women” is a character-based film that relates to the feelings and redemptive aspects that are felt after a breakup. After a relationship ends, sometimes a person needs a change of scenery. In that change of scenery, that person runs into situations or people who either help him or need his help (sometimes, it’s both) and in this process, each person involved in this experience has a chance to get over their plight. This is essentially what happens in Jonathan Kasdan’s “In the Land of Women.” With good acting, convincing drama, and an understated manner, this is an effective film.

Adam Brody plays Carter Webb, a struggling young writer who writes softcore porn. His girlfriend, Sofia (Elena Anaya), has just dumped him, leaving him heartbroken and uncomfortable. In order to get over this recent breakup, he decides to leave town for a while, and uses the excuse to visit his senile grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) who believes she is dying. He becomes her caretaker for his time spent in this Michigan town, and thus he finds himself “in the land of women.” Aside from his grandmother, two other women come into Carter’s life, and they live right across the street. They’re Sarah (Meg Ryan), with whom Carter becomes friends as they share casual walks around the neighborhood, and her oldest daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart), who is going through the confusing times of dating in high school and sees Carter as kind of a “big brother,” if nothing more. (There’s also the precocious younger girl in the family, Paige (Makenzie Vega), who develops a crush on Carter. A small flaw in the movie—this subplot goes nowhere.)

Sarah is going through a rough, reflective time in her life, having discovered she has breast cancer and also that her husband is having an affair, which even Lucy knows. And she also feels that Lucy does not love her very much, which she herself blames for certain mistakes in the past. Lucy is having trouble finding the right guy to date in high school, and even dates the complete-jerk of a football-quarterback when she should be dating the kid’s friend, who is actually nice, attentive, and shy. With each woman’s issue, Carter finds he is able to comfort the vulnerable Sarah and give advice to Lucy, even when it may seem that Lucy may actually have a crush on him. Does she or is she even more confused?

Despite what I’ve just described, “In the Land of Women” is not a love story. This came as a pleasant surprise, because while watching this film, I thought I could predict the typical “romcom” aspects that would come with the territory. But no, it’s just that these sweet moments between Carter and Sarah and Carter and Lucy serve as ways in helping each other out through either harsh or unclear points in life. They learn a couple things from one another, Lucy and Sarah can reconcile as mother-and-daughter, and Carter grows as a person. There are many effective scenes in this film that go with that amount of feel, and the film as a whole becomes touching without seeming manipulative. At times, though, it can be a bit too much. The payoff involving the Olympia Dukakis character feels forced and unconvincing. And also, a few scenes turn out to be arguably a little too cute.

The actors are quite good in “In the Land of Women.” Adam Brody is very likable as the nice, reactive leading man; Kristen Stewart is very appealing as Lucy; and Meg Ryan delivers her best performance in quite a while—she has the same Meg-Ryan appeal that made her famous in romantic comedies (such as “When Harry Met Sally”), but more importantly, she shows a greater sense of maturity that makes her more than what she’s usually known for. She’s great here. Also good is Makenzie Vega as grade-schooler Paige, Lucy’s sister and Sarah’s youngest daughter—she’s precocious but not annoyingly so. These actors add to the charm and realism of this effective, understated drama.