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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.

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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.

Margot at the Wedding (2007)

22 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” is one of those “acquired-taste” films—particularly independent comedy-dramas that either enthralls you with what it presents or makes you angry if not annoyed. And while grittiness and documentary-style filmmaking takes a huge part of the films’ craft, what is mostly singled out is how unlikeable the characters can become. “Margot at the Wedding” does indeed feature characters who say and do mean, hurtful things to each other, and the film has divided critics because of this (I especially remember a 2007 “Ebert & Roeper” review with guest-critic Michael Phillips’ enthusiastic review of the film, followed by Roeper’s quite negative response). Now where do I stand on viewing the characters, and therefore the film?

Well, you saw the “Smith’s Verdict” rating above, so it’s not exactly a mystery that I personally love this film.

Noah Baumbach is the writer-director of “Margot at the Wedding” and it’s evident from his earlier film “The Squid and the Whale” how intelligently he handles the characters and situations he goes through. He doesn’t give the characters (or the actors playing them) one-note roles; they’re fully realized and have some redeemable qualities that can either be ignored or acknowledged depending on how much you’re able to accept them as real people. And since he sees them as real people, he finds it important that film audiences view them as real people; so thanks to specific direction and long, moving shots, a documentary-style of filmmaking is handy.

The characters in “Margot at the Wedding” are a family so dysfunctional that the family in “The Squid and the Whale” (divorced parents and two struggling sons) looks happier by comparison. Nicole Kidman plays the title character, Margot, a bitter woman who writes short stories, cares for her young son Claude (Zane Pais) after an ending marriage, and is, on her worst days, a neurotic, self-important bitch. It’s clear that in order to keep her own unsteady ego, she constantly hurts and insults those closest to her—even her own adolescent son, who does nothing to hurt anybody and is probably the most innocent character in the entire movie. (Watching this movie, I felt the same sympathy for this kid I did for the teenage son trying to survive a broadly-crazy family in “Arrested Development.” This kid does not deserve the type of mental scars parents’ battles can bring.)

Margot and Claude come to the Eastern shoreline family house of Margot’s sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black). Already, this reunion between siblings is sensitive and it only starts to get worse when Pauline confides in Margot with a secret: she’s pregnant. So of course, Margot tells Claude who in turn tells Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) and her teenage babysitter Maisy (Halley Feiffer), and Pauline has to tell Malcolm before he hears it from someone else. And of course, because Margot is in the middle of separating herself from her husband (John Turturro), she starts an affair with Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), Maisy’s father. Oh, and because Margot can’t cause enough damage, she constantly states that marrying Malcolm is a mistake, thinking him to be a loser, despite everyone else, including Claude, seeing him as a nice good-guy type. And then she snaps at the rude behavior of Pauline’s next-door neighbors, which starts another conflict.

Yes, it’s clear that Margot is mostly an unlikeable, fixated, selfish woman who manipulates her family and others around her, with Pauline being the butt of manipulation for the most part. Her positive qualities are her genuine love for her son (despite a questionable decision later in the film) and at times a certain respect for her sister—if she wasn’t going through a failing marriage, she’d probably be happy for Pauline and more respectful for Malcolm (though to be fair, Malcolm does have a flaw that is revealed midway through the film).

It’s brilliantly ironic that the happiest occasion—a wedding—provides the course of problematic, emotional scarring for this dysfunctional family. It’s almost like an opposite version “National Lampoon’s Vacation” movie; drained of energy, showing the real deal, and hardly any room for compromise. Margot is a mother who is blatantly honest in her observations and hurts those around her, whether intentional or not, and for the most part it is, just so she can come off as “sophisticated.” This is the kind of thing that Baumbach has to be praised for—showing skill in leaving discomfort with realistic situations and characters who talk like natural people would talk. Sometimes, there’s wit; other times, there’s honest truth; mostly, it all sounds very natural. It’s as if Baumbach knows to draw the fine line between appalling and truthful, and at times you get laughs from the darker wit-aspects.

Kidman delivers one of the best performances of her career, showing no fear in making Margot as pathetic as she doesn’t like to believe she is and somehow finding a way to show that the character is not a one-note caricature—there are times when she does care for those around her. Jennifer Jason Leigh presents an appealing Pauline, who is a nice woman but also flawed herself in how she defends herself from Margot’s remarks. And you really buy Kidman and Leigh as sisters, as they bicker but also have genuinely-sweet moments together when there’s nothing to fight about. The supporting cast is good, especially the young actors who deliver personality and appeal. But Jack Black, usually known for broadly-comedic roles, is probably not as successful as he could be in a role like Malcolm, but he’s not terrible at all—it’s the quiet, low-key moments that he’s able to pull off, while he can’t quite handle the louder moments.

Like I said, people will either get into “Margot at the Wedding” or you’re put off by the Margot character and how good Kidman is at making her unlikeable. With an unhappy universe in which the film takes place, is it effective? For me, it is. It spoke to me and I admired it for the characterizations and craftsmanship…

I’m just glad I’m not Margot’s son.

Once (2007)

21 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

John Carney’s “Once” is a “musical” in the most nontraditional meaning possible. For one thing, it tells its tale while grounded in reality so that the usual corniness and improbability found in “traditional” musicals are nowhere to be found. And second, the music/songs come naturally, so that occasionally characters will play a certain song all the way through, but in a reality setting. And strangely enough, all of the songs serve as part of the storyline. In that case, then, it’s one of the most intriguing musicals I’ve ever seen. Although, I don’t think I want to call “Once” a musical. Instead, I’ll just call it what it is: a damn good film.

The minimalist plot focuses on the relationship between two people in Dublin, Ireland. Those characters are an Irish street guitarist (Glen Hansard) and a Czech flower saleswoman (Marketa Irglova). She hears some of his songs and notices his true talent, and they start to spend time together. She also plays piano and accompanies him in singing and playing a piece called “Falling Slowly” in a piano shop. It’s the start of something good, but their relationship is mainly platonic, as he is trying to get over an old girlfriend who left him to move to London, and she is married but has left her husband for a better life for her child. Both connect very well through music. They play music together, he plays her a few tunes, she comes up with lyrics for one of his soundtracks, and she moves him forward to recording a song at a studio, which is what they attempt to do.

All of the songs are memorable and help to move the story along and bring insight into the characters’ lives. For example, the lyrics to “Falling Slowly” state a lot about what the characters have gone through in their lives—singing it together to one another makes it all the more intriguing. That song, by the way, is my choice for the best one in the movie (then again, I’ve always known that—I first heard it when it was performed on the televised 80th Academy Awards, where it won Best Original Song), although another song, “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” is great as well.

This relationship between these two characters is very sweet and well-done, and the actors playing them display a great deal of chemistry. (And they’re talented musicians too, which is an important quality for this craft.)

I mentioned that “Once” is as nontraditional as a musical can get. It also has a low amount of choreography, as opposed to old-school musicals that rely on a heavy amount. Instead, “Once” tells its story in a documentary-style, with tracking shots, awkward closeups, shaky handheld shots, and zooming in and out. At first, I found this distracting, but I never lost the illusion that I was there with these people. Just as I never lost the illusion that there was real heart and passion put into “Once.” It’s a genuine treasure of a movie.