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Once (2007)

21 Jun


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.

Death Proof (2007)

8 May

Grind House (Death Proof)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” was the second of two films (the first directed by Robert Rodriguez) to pay homage to a type of ’60-‘70s exploitation film known as the “grindhouse,” which was commonly made for drive-in theaters. The films were made with very little money and usually bad quality in the filmmaking and acting department. They have since been accepted as guilty pleasures. Rodriguez and Tarantino are apparently among those fans, and these two films they created (released as a “Grindhouse” double-feature) are practically their love letter to the type. It’s not conventional in the slightest (compared to what we’re used to now), and it’s all about cheese, pulp, sex, and gore.

There are two main differences between Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” however. Rodriguez’s intention was to make a bad film with a tongue-in-cheek approach to the splatter-movie/zombie-flick that goes incredibly over-the-top. Tarantino plays it straight with a sincere approach in his story. “Death Proof” was the true attempt to make a “grindhouse” production.

It seems as if Tarantino was tailor-made for this type of film. It’s oddly-structured, incredibly over-the-top, and fast-and-furious in its filmmaking style, which is everything Tarantino pushes to great effect in his films.

“Death Proof” stars Kurt Russell as a psychopathic stuntman, aptly named Stuntman Mike. He revels in extremities and drives a kick-ass muscle car that is guaranteed “100% death-proof.” He hangs out at a bar where several loud, obnoxious young women (with whom the film spends a lot of time with before introducing us to Stuntman Mike) are hanging out on a road trip. He picks up one of the women, takes her for a drive in his car, and gives her a ride she’ll never forget…because she’ll be dead. (Apparently, to feel the edge of a “death-proof” car is to sit in the driver’s seat.) He then performs a dangerous stunt that claims the lives of her friends, before focusing on another group of women about a year later.

For the first half-hour, we’re subjected to the girls’ chitchat amongst each other in a flat attempt to establish character development. While there are some good Tarantino-esque lines (or rather, “conversations”), I have to admit I didn’t care much for these people. And I was hoping that Stuntman Mike would show up a lot sooner so that he could dispose of these nymphs ahead of time.

Then, the film switches gears and follows a whole other group of young women. While they’re about as compelling as the first group, they at least have the honor of having New-Zealand-stuntwoman Zoe Bell among them. The idea of this striking young stuntwoman (who was Uma Thuman’s stunt-double in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies) taking center-stage (and playing herself) in a movie about a psychotic stuntman brings numerous possibilities, and while it doesn’t follow through with all of them, it still brings about the most important aspect—squaring off against Stuntman Mike, giving him a worthy opponent.

Bell and her friends (played by Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thorns) come to a Tennessee town to test-drive a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T and perform a dangerous stunt known as “Ship’s Mast” (which requires Bell riding on the car’s hood with leather straps to hold on to). Then, Stuntman Mike comes along and messes around with them, endangering their lives. But with the extremist attitude these girls have, this may end up being his biggest mistake…

That’s the payoff to “Death Proof” and it’s a damn good one. In fact, the whole second half is the best thing about “Death Proof.” The conversations are pure-Tarantino; the intensity is taken up a notch once the women and Mike engage in their stunt-driving; and it just feels like an engaging “grindhouse” feature. If the first half represents everything people hate about the “grindhouse” element, then the second half represents what everything loves about the “grindhouse” element. Tarantino set out to deliver a love-letter to this type of film; for the most part, he succeeds.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

1 May


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Most films released in 2007 dealt with darker plots, such as “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood.” But those two weren’t musicals. Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is one of the best musicals to come around in a long time, and I’m pretty sure it’s the darkest (and bloodiest). “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was originally a Broadway play, and for years I don’t think just any filmmaker would have dared to make a film adaptation until Tim Burton decided to give it a shot. If you know the story, or even if you don’t know the story, you’ll be amazed by this film of great direction, amazing sets, memorable characters, and a great story of revenge.

The story—Benjamin Barker (brilliantly played by Johnny Depp in his seventh Depp-Burton collaboration) is a barber living in London with his wife and baby daughter. But when the dastardly Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) notices his wife’s beauty, he ships him to Australia on false charges to be with her and adopts his daughter. Years later, Barker is a changed man. He’s released from prison and has come back to London to discover that his wife is dead and his daughter is locked up by the judge. He hears this news from Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who is noted to make the “worst pies in London.” He changes his name to Sweeney Todd and reopens his barber shop right next to Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. He vows revenge on Judge Turpin and is just waiting to slit his throat. In the meantime, he practices on unworthy throats…

Well, it is a musical. How’s the singing? Well, people may think that Johnny Depp sings in “Crybaby,” but some people forget that wasn’t his voice. We hear him sing throughout the whole movie, and it’s not exactly a big Broadway voice but he doesn’t need one. His acting is unique and now, so is his singing. And this movie never has more than five minutes of no singing. The songs are quite good and very memorable. Stephen Sondheim is the finest music maker, having to keep these songs alive for this movie. The music is amazing and intriguing.

There are also subplots involving a young sailor who falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter and may end up helping getting her back (without knowing who she really is), and a boy who is adopted by Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett that could cause trouble when Sweeney is acting strange, or even more so. And also, we know that Mrs. Lovett is absolutely in love with Sweeney while Sweeney couldn’t care less about she feels. To him, Mrs. Lovett is like a sister to him and she doesn’t understand that Sweeney’s only love is his wife. These are created so we don’t have to see a whole lot of blood throughout the whole movie’s running time, and they work effectively.

We also get a great comic moment from “Borat’s” Sacha Baron Cohen as an Italian rival barber who has a shaving contest with Sweeney. He’s hilarious here, and that’s great comic timing in such a film that has Sweeney slitting the throats of his customers and Mrs. Lovett cutting the remains up and cooking them into her meat pies. Suddenly, she doesn’t make the worst pies in London anymore.

Like most Burton movies, the movie looks so good while also looking quite eerie. Tim Burton has yet another unique style of filmmaking. He’s made London look so dark because this is a dark movie and the character’s faces look so gothic to blend in with the dark surroundings. Burton scores again here and this is most definitely his best film since “Ed Wood.” The acting is first rate. Johnny Depp is such a great actor who has all these memorable roles. He creates another memorable character for his career as the vengeance-seeking Sweeney Todd. And Alan Rickman is game enough to make a role his own. This is the best I’ve seen him act since 1988’s “Die Hard.” And also there’s Timothy Spall as the silly assistant to Rickman’s character Beadle, who’s also very good.

To sum it all up, with Stephen Sondheim’s spellbinding music, Tim Burton’s direction, Johnny Depp’s fantastic role, and a few scares here and there makes this one of the best musicals I’ve seen in a long time. And I guess the blood spurting out of the throats also makes this the bloodiest classic musical I’ve ever seen.

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

24 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Simpsons” is one of the best TV shows to come around and I’m sure I’m not the only one who believes that. And with “The Simpsons Movie,” here is a triumph. We have waited for this film for a long time and now that it’s here, I am not disappointed. Not one bit. In many ways, “The Simpsons Movie” is a triumph. It’s funny all the way through. And I never thought I would ever say this about “The Simpsons,” but “The Simpsons Movie” is also well-animated. Watch the sequence with the angry mob carrying torches and you’ll see what I mean. The animators spent a long time trying to satisfy fans of the popular TV series and they didn’t disappoint us. I loved the look of this film and I also loved the energy put into it with the script and voiceovers.

Even the Simpsons are surprised to see themselves in a movie. As they watch a movie, they wonder who would be dumb enough to watch something they can get on TV for free. Who would be so dumb? “Suckers.” He’s pointing straight at us.

Of course it has to have a plot but even so, the movie satisfies. It delivers satire with a capital S. On second thought, make every letter capitalized. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has declared the Simpsons’ hometown of Springfield a crisis zone. The lake is polluted and young Lisa Simpson is going door-to-door to convince people to help prevent people from dumping in the lake again. (One house even flees.) Things take a turn for the worse when the lovable dope himself—Homer Simpson—dumps a silo of pig droppings into the lake. The EPA takes action and imprisons the townsfolk in a gigantic glass dome (threatening their lives but what do the government care, right?). Wait until you see who the president of the United States is.

I could easily give away the big laughs of the movie but that wouldn’t be fair. In a way, this movie is like “Airplane.” One gag happens after another, usually one gag funnier than the last. I won’t spoil the biggest laughs in the movie but they feature a skateboarding scene inspired by Austin Powers and a unique way to go fishing. There are more big laughs—those made me laugh the hardest…I think. I was laughing loudly through a lot of this movie—those two scenes made me laugh the loudest, I think.

The Simpsons don’t just become action heroes, though that’s what they become when they race to save Springfield from certain doom. They remain the same American family that we all know and love. Bart is still mischievous and devilishly clever. Lisa is still the squeaky-voiced voice of reason daughter. Maggie is still an accident, sadly, but she finds her worth (hasn’t she always?). Marge is still toughing it out and dealing with her husband’s idiocy. Her voice has yet to improve—but really, does it have to? And Homer Simpson—what a lovable goofball he is. Just watching this guy stand around will bring a smile. Watching him act around, while being voiced by Dan Castellaneta, will always bring a laugh. It’s impossible to dislike him.

What else can I say? I love this movie. I love the biting satire, I love the fact that the animators and screenwriters were trying so hard to make us laugh, and I love the Simpsons themselves. The polished writing and the stylish animation help a lot as well. “The Simpsons Movie” relives the glory days of the great TV show. To those who disagree with me, eat my shorts.

Surf’s Up (2007)

16 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Does anybody, aside from me, think that “Happy Feet” was a bit overrated? I liked “Happy Feet” OK, but I felt it was a little too much. After “Happy Feet,” I didn’t expect “Surf’s Up” to be any better. “Surf’s Up” is the first movie since “Happy Feet” to feature cute penguins in a computer-animation process and I was really surprised by how much I liked it. It’s charming, cute, and funny. I liked it more than “Happy Feet” because the penguins are cuter and they have a more interesting story to tell. And it’s told through the same documentary process as “This is Spinal Tap”—it’s a mock documentary.

A documentary crew makes a film about penguin surfing. They follow the events of Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), a small boy-penguin who loves to surf, lives with his mom and jerk older brother, and lives in Shiverpool, Antarctica (a pun on Liverpool, England). His hero is the late, legendary surfer Big Z, and he wants to be just like him. He is noticed by a talent scout and he, along with a friendly chicken surfer from Wisconsin named Chicken Joe (voiced by Jon Heder), is to compete in the Big Z Memorial surfing contest.

Once arriving on the island, he runs afoul of another competitor—tough, self-absorbed Tank (voiced by Diedrich Bader, whom you might remember, from his gruff voice at least, as Rex from “Napoleon Dynamite”)—and develops a crush on the lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel). After an injury in a competition between Cody and Tank, Lani takes him into the woods to her uncle nicknamed “Geek” (voiced by Jeff Bridges).

But as it turns out, Geek isn’t just a hermit. As Cody discovers, he is actually Big Z who went hiding after a failed surfing contest. Cody takes a liking—as you would if you met your idol—to Big Z, who gives him surf lessons, and as you would expect, he teaches a few life lessons as well. He teaches him these lessons in “Karate Kid” and “Big Lebowski” mode. The lesson, of course, is that winning isn’t everything. I love the scene in which Big Z teaches Cody to make his own surfboard out of a block of wood by informing him on the ways of Zen.

Kids will probably love the film but it would also keep parents entertained as well. The script is clever—it gives the movie some funny lines, a few memorable moments including the one I mentioned earlier, and a satire on sports TV shows with the archival footage of the original penguins surfing. I also love the “Spinal Tap” gimmick that it uses, the way that the camera shakes every now and then and there are questions asked by the cameraman (or camera-penguin, the movie never tells who’s making this film) and interviews with the characters.

“Surf’s Up” delivers the goods, and I admired it more than “Happy Feet” mainly because it wasn’t about penguins racing to save the world or embark on great journeys; they just want to catch some waves. It’s as simple as that. It’s funny, whimsical, witty, and a lot of fun. 

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

15 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Man, is this movie a disappointment! Remember the big-bang action climax at the end of the original 2007 hit “Transformers?” I remember how bored I was with that, yet how entertained I was with what happened before that. And here, we have its sequel “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” a boring, loud, obnoxious, stupid movie that is easily director Michael Bay’s worst movie since “Armageddon.” Both movies are incomprehensible and idiotic with nothing to show except for an endless amount of big-budget special effects and a poorly-constructed screenplay and heavy-handed direction. These special effects are indeed special but they’re just special effects. There’s hardly anything special ABOUT them because the story is lame and the characters are one-dimensional.

Once again, we have the continuing war between the good Transformers (the Autobots) and the evil Transformers (the Decepticons). The Autobots have the US Army on their side now as they go around searching for Decepticons because…I don’t know, maybe if one of them was around, they might rally more from their home planet and possibly destroy the Earth or something. The movie opens with an especially LOUD opening battle in which Autobots seek to destroy a couple of Decepticons but end up causing more damage than the Decepticons did.

The Decepticons leave the Autobots with a warning: “The Fallen will rise again.” There are always lines like that in big-budget blockbusters. What is the Fallen? Apparently, it’s some type of evil force that can even control the Decepticons and cause world domination. The Fallen is the MacGuffin—we have to watch out for it and keep our ears open. But the movie is so loud that we actually want to SHUT our ears! There are many battles like the one in the beginning of the film that seem to go on forever and grow tiresome and annoying. Sometimes, we will cut back to the original film’s returning teenage hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) as he deals with his parents (Kevin Dunn as the Dad, and Julie White, who seems to be trying hard for a Razzie as the Mom) and tries to settle things in his off and on relationship with his girlfriend Mikaela (the beautiful but bland Megan Fox). He is also trying to fit in on his first days of college but it’s hard to do when his roommate Leo (Ramon Rodriguez) is a techno geek who is attempting to expose the Transformers that the government “covered up.”

OK, let me stop for a moment. We learn in this movie that the big climax in the city at the end of the first “Transformers” was “covered up” by the Government. This makes no sense. There was a city full of witnesses who saw the Autobots and Decepticons fight and kill each other. How in the world could the Government have covered up something like that?

Sam, Mikaela, Leo, and another returning character (played by John Turturro) are caught up in this battle that leads the Transformers to the discovery and possible resurrection of the Fallen. Once again, Sam must save the world while the leader of the Autobots—Optimus Prime—and the US Army (with returning characters played by Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel—both of which are just standard shoot-em-up guys) fight off the resurrected Megatron, the evil leader of the Decepticons. At one point, Sam and the group wind up in Egypt, where there is (of course) an action climax bigger than any of the big action climaxes that happened earlier in the film. John Turturro has to get to the top of a pyramid to get…something, I forgot. And while doing so, he makes this hammy speech, “The machine is buried in the pyramid! If it gets turned on, it will destroy the sun! Not on my watch!”

Also in this climax is a Transformer that works as a vacuum. At one point, Leo and Turturro are behind a car while this monster sucks everything into its mouth. The car is sucked in but Leo and Turturro run away like nothing is there. I’m no physics expert but I don’t think this is possible. If a car can get sucked into this huge vacuum, how can two lighter, moving subjects be unaffected? There are also many other moments in which Sam and Mikaela barely escape death without getting hurt. They even OUTRUN EXPLOSIONS. The only time someone is really injured in the midst of all this big-time action is when Sam is TELEPORTED into another place and breaks his arm (this was written into the story because of LaBeouf’s arm was actually broken during production).

This is just one big action climax and when it stops for comedy, it doesn’t really work. The humor is juvenile at best. We see one dog humping another (twice), we see Turturro’s butt cheeks at one point, we get moments of embarrassment with Sam’s bizarre mother (actually, Julie White is funny in her scenes), and Leo is there for no good reason except to have an annoying, racist stereotype. And speaking of racist stereotype, the most annoying “comic relief” comes from two twin Autobots who act as jive-talking black stereotypes. Their dialogue is spoken so fast that I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. And they NEVER SHUT UP. Then when the film tries to attempt drama, Megan Fox has to cry. No offense to this actress, but she can’t quite cut it here.

And if you think the human characters are boring, the Transformers are far worse. They’re dumb, clanky, and their dialogue is as dumb as any of the humans’. And while in the original film they were a sight to behold, they just look like a walking pile of junk this time around.

The problem with Michael Bay is that he spends too much time creating blockbuster elements that he forgets that other stuff is important. I enjoyed the original “Transformers” movie, and also Bay’s 1996 thriller “The Rock.” But with movies like “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Bad Boys II,” and now, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” it’s obvious what he really wants to do—impress and/or annoy the audience with blockbuster style. The style may be fresh, but the development is rotten.

Knocked Up (2007)

13 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Knocked Up” is a miracle—a romantic comedy that is a clear definition of the phrase. The romance is interesting, the characters are endearing, and last but most definitely not least, it’s freaking hilarious. A sitcom-type love story is covered by dirty humor and a sharp wit, but it’s not mean-spirited, not entirely crude, and is honest in its subject matter. As a result, it’s sweet and funny without transcending to standard romantic comedy clichés.

“Knocked Up” is Judd Apatow’s second outing as a writer/director after 2005’s other great romantic comedy “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Apatow has produced many other works, such as the underrated short-lived TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” and has a thing for taking unique characters and surrounding them with ribald humor. That’s pretty much what “Knocked Up” will be remembered for.

The two characters that are subject to the plot are Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl). Both are almost entirely different from each other. Ben is a pudgy, laid-back 23-year-old slacker/stoner who does nothing but hang out with his buddies and get stoned. Allison is a tall, blonde, attractive woman with a sunny personality and a hint of professionalism that gets her a promotion for the E! Entertainment channel. While celebrating her promotion, Allison meets Ben at a club and share a drunken one-night stand.

Eight weeks later, Ben and Allison haven’t spoken (Allison declares the whole thing a mistake after finding out more about Ben), but Allison experiences morning sickness…that’s right. She’s pregnant. Ben’s the father, so Allison decides to get in contact with him. First there’s uncertainty and then a brief talk about abortion, but Allison decides to keep the baby and Ben decides to support her.

So, Allison and Ben are roped into this weird situation and must get to know one another more in order to stand each other. But what makes this relationship nice is that they’re willing to stand each other and try something new. The problem is, it’s easier said than done. It’s like how Ben realizes that he shouldn’t smoke pot if he’s supposed to be this responsible adult now—he knows he should stop, but does he want to stop? And so, this relationship between Ben and Allison has ups and downs.

The relationship is at the heart of the story. I was surprised to realize just how touched I was by the amount of romance in a movie that is nearly scattered with laughs. It’s touching, how the movie chronicles the efforts of these two opposites to get along perfectly. These are two people who want to fall in love and try not to force themselves into doing so, but to let it flow if they find their own similarities.

Ben’s a likable schmoe, despite his status as a loser—he’s very charismatic and well-played by Seth Rogen. Allison is attractive, energetic, and appealing and is not just a comic foil for Ben—she’s a fully-realized character. As played by Katherine Heigl, sometimes she’s funny, but she’s always convincing.

There are also a lot of funny supporting characters to watch in “Knocked Up,” played gamely by charismatic actors. There’s Allison’s older sister Debbie (Leslie Mann, Judd Apatow’s wife) who has an acid tongue, a need to control things (but also a need to cling to her youth), and some of the more memorable moments in the movie. The always wonderful character actor Paul Rudd plays Debbie’s stressful husband Pete—Rudd delivers his lines as if he doesn’t even know he’s funny. (I love his speech about how marriage is a long episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”) There are also Debbie and Pete’s two adorable daughters (played by Apatow’s and Mann’s actual daughters), Allison’s gynecologist who disappears at the worst time imagined, Ben’s supportive father (Harold Ramis) who is not the best person to support anybody, and Ben’s less ambitious slacker buddies (played by Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Jonah Hill, and Jay Baruchel, each keeping their first names for the movie) including one (played by Starr) who grows a beard long enough for the others to make fun of him (“Your face looks like Robin Williams’ knuckles,” for example).

(It’s because of that guy that I shave once a week!)

Amidst the unforced sweetness of the story, “Knocked Up” is straight-up funny! There are so many perfectly delivered one-liners, sharply written dialogue, impeccable comic timing, and public related (and media related) humor. What I mean by that last one is the way the movie uses celebrity cameos (who show up for E! in the movie) is brave and inspired, particularly with Ryan Seacrest’s self-parody. Period. I can’t spoil any jokes; I don’t even know if I can get away with referencing the setups. But trust me when I say there are plenty of laughs in this movie.

What I was wasn’t too crazy about was the climax of the movie, which is possibly the longest delivery room sequence ever put in a movie. There are laughs, to be sure, and the romance pays off, as well as the story. But I feel like most of what was being shown was just padding to build the tension.

What leads up to it, however, is a remarkably funny and sweet romantic comedy that is edgy, joyful, and hard-R-rated (be warned). And I hope that if I ever go to Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas while on ‘shrooms, I hope Paul Rudd is sitting next to me.

Oh, crap. I referenced a setup. Deal with it. Go watch “Knocked Up!”

The Mist (2007)

10 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith


In a horror film like “The Mist,” this is the line that is a staple for the start of something interesting. Here it is—a thick, eerie mist that spreads across a small town. And an old man runs into a crowded supermarket, saying that “SOMETHING IN THE MIST” took somebody away. The mist blows in, enveloping everything in sight. With half the population of the town inside the supermarket, they all begin to get a glimpse of that certain “SOMETHING IN THE MIST!!!” No one is going anywhere until the mist clears…if it clears.

That’s the premise for “The Mist,” a tense, well-done horror film based on a novella by Stephen King. It was directed by Frank Darabont, making this his third Stephen King film adaptation, following “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.” You could tell by the setup for “The Mist” that this is as far from those other movies as you could get. But “The Mist” is about more than cheap scares and monsters (though there are some). When you get down to it, it’s ultimately about the paranoia that develops when people race to survive together in a terrifying situation and how hopeless it can all seem/be.

It all begins somewhat normally as artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane), his son Billy (Nathan Gamble), and his neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) drive into town to the supermarket—and this is after a violent storm trashes their neighborhood. But it’s then that the mist turns in and the panicked old man (who, did I mention, has blood on his face) runs in, screaming to shut the doors because the mist is coming and, did I mention—“SOMETHING IN THE MIST!!!”

People step outside and disappear, but it seems clear that they didn’t leave the parking lot. And it’s David and a few others who get an encounter with something with a large tentacle and learn that there really is “SOMETHING IN THE MIST!!!”

David tries to lay it down as he possibly could with the other people in the market that there’s something really dangerous outside. But meanwhile, religious fanatic Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), the town loony, believes this is the sign of the Apocalypse and that God has chosen her to show everyone the way to salvation. She rants and scolds those who try to ignore her…and even brings up the idea of human sacrifice!

Sorry lady, but I don’t think it said in the book of Revelation that God would send giant bugs to kill the unfaithful. I think George A. Romero was closer with his zombie stories.

OK, I did mention “giant bugs,” and sometimes they do look silly. Other times, however, they’re pretty frightening, particularly when you catch glimpses of them (like the giant tentacle I mentioned earlier). They’re also quite unnerving (probably the most unnerving, really) when you see them through the gloom of the mist. But sometimes they do look silly and the CGI is too noticeable, when seen up close.

Mainly though, it’s a story of survival, fear, paranoia, and mistrust. As everyone holes up inside the supermarket and things get worse and worse, the people are divided into two groups. One group is with David’s clear-mindedness, and the other is with Mrs. Carmody’s…delusion. (There’s another group following Brent Norton’s skepticism, but that doesn’t last long, of course.) It’s a matter of time before they turn on each other, and the tension is always there amongst the characters. It asks the question of who are more the monster—the people or the actual monsters. Meanwhile, though, a lot of them turn into unlikely heroes. David turns from a professional painter to the person many people turn to in a crisis—he’s sensible, clear-minded, and quick on his wits. Then there’s the meek, nerdy Ollie (Toby Jones), schoolteacher Amanda Dumfries (Laurie Holden), and elderly Irene (Frances Sternhagen) who turn in some big blows when it comes to fighting the monsters.

What I didn’t need in “The Mist” was the obligatory scene that tries to explain exactly what this mist is and why there are these supernatural beings attacking us. Why not let our imaginations run wild and come up with our own explanations?

But mainly, “The Mist” is a nicely-done, truly scary horror film that us real tension amongst characters who seem realized, monsters that are actually frightening (for the most part), and an ending that is…well, let’s just say this movie ends on a deadly-ironic note and leave it at that.

Mr. Woodcock (2007)

7 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Billy Bob Thornton acts as yet another crude, hateful guy in “Mr. Woodcock”—he played pretty much the same character in “Bad Santa,” “Bad News Bears,” and “School for Scoundrels.” Here, he and other talented actors, including Seann William Scott and Susan Sarandon, are supposed to carry an engaging premise. But the script just kills it dead.

This is the premise—a best-selling author’s mother is about to be married to his old grade school coach who made his life hell growing up. The possibilities within this premise are endless but unfortunately, only a couple of them are added and even THEY aren’t very funny. Think of what the Coen Brothers could have done with this premise and you’d have a much better movie. But with “Mr. Woodcock” as it is, there’s hardly any hope for it at all.

We begin with an opening scene set in the time when the author was just a little fat kid in gym class. Mr. Woodcock pushes these poor kids to the limit—he tells an asthmatic kid, “Take a lap. Lose the asthma.” Then he makes the fat kid strip down to his underwear and attempt to do some pull-ups. What a guy. Cut to about twenty years later, when the fat kid (named John Farley) has definitely slimmed down and grown up to be a best-selling author about “letting go of your past.” He’s played by Seann William Scott, a good comic actor who probably hates being known only for playing Stifler in the “American Pie” movies.

John returns to his childhood home to visit his mother (Susan Sarandon). And boy does she have news for him! She’s engaged to be married to…Mr. Woodcock! Oh no!

This news turns John’s world of fame upside-down and the whole movie is either about him and Mr. Woodcock trying to bond or him trying to break up his mom and Mr. Woodcock. Well, it’s both, but it’s nothing I would really expect from a premise like this. I wish the filmmakers took chances with this instead of giving us what is supposed to be hilarity. There’s one point in the movie where John’s friend (played by Ethan Suplee) visits John, along with his brother who has a swollen eye. The friend tells John he has the solution to the problem—he pops in a videotape and it shows the little brother in a backyard saying unconvincingly, “No, Mr. Woodcock,” and a chair thrown right in the kid’s face. Was that supposed to be funny? Physical abuse to smaller children? There are also plenty of crude, vulgar jokes which are also not funny because the characters know what they’re in for, whereas in “American Pie,” the characters didn’t know what they were in for.

And of course, there are all sorts of slapstick in which a character gets hurt while trying to score a laugh—only one of them worked and it’s in the film’s trailer. It’s the part where John and Woodcock race on treadmills and John slips and falls back into the wall. That was kind of funny.

Billy Bob Thornton does play this role well but then again, we’ve seen him play this guy many times before. He’s the guy who finds your weakness and uses it for nearly sadistic purposes. He’s insulting, hateful, crude, vulgar, violent, and worst of all, uncompromising. (“You must like getting spanked, Farley. I guess it runs in the family.” Ouch.) Seann William Scott, on the other hand, is an annoying whiner and there’s no way I could believe his character could write a best-selling book. Susan Sarandon as the mom is nice, but she’s dumb to fall for Woodcock’s tricks. And then there’s Amy Poehler who plays John’s agent and girlfriend, does the bitch part over-the-top to the point where I wanted her to go away.

“Mr. Woodcock” is a missed opportunity. I would love to give it zero stars, but I’m giving it one-and-a-half instead because of the premise, that one laugh, and Billy Bob Thornton. The rest is just trash.

I am Legend (2007)

6 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Thinking you’re the last person on the planet is a common fantasy among people. You have everything to yourself and you make do with what you have. But the truth is if you really were the last person on Earth, it’d be a living nightmare. You’d be very lonely and would most likely suffer psychological anguish for life.

Richard Matheson wrote a novel called “I Am Legend” where the main character goes through that very ordeal. It goes through what the character would go through if he thought he was the only one in the world. Everyone else has either died or become vicious creatures (not unlike vampires)…or have they? I sometimes wonder if what the character is going through with the creatures is really just part of the character’s mind, as a symptom of loneliness. It could be. It’d be very interesting if it was.

2007’s “I Am Legend” is the third cinematic adaptation of the novel and it’s a pretty damn good one.

It stars Will Smith in a powerhouse performance as Dr. Robert Neville, an ex-military scientist who just could be the last man on Earth. He lives in the now-desolate New York City, three years after a virus that was supposed to cure cancer wound up wiping out most of the human race. Neville is immune to the virus and has been spending his days alone, trying to develop a cure for the “infected,” which are the people who didn’t die but instead became predatory zombie-like creatures that only come out at night.

He also has one companion—a loyal dog named Sam. They hide during the night and hunt during the day. As the movie opens, we see him hunting for stray elk as he’s interrupted by a lioness (that escaped from the zoo?). But Neville is lonely and can feel his sanity slowing drifting away (like I said, it could just be that the “infected” aren’t really there after all, and everyone else is just dead). He sets up department store mannequins all over the street and actually talks to them in friendly, neighborly chat as if they were really people. And he often suffers flashbacks of his family’s tragic fate, as Neville tried to keep them clear of the danger before it spread. (This is also where we get knowledge of what exactly happened before all of this.)

The first time we see New York City is just breathtaking. It’s abandoned and desolate, looking remarkably like how it would look after three years’ lack of residence—note the weeds growing on the street. It’s incredible.

For the first hour or so, “I Am Legend” is a masterful piece of filmmaking. It’s a thriller with a great deal of tension (overlying and underlying), a more-than-capable actor playing the hero, and a sense of pace and place. And there are some terrific action sequences, in which Neville and the dog are attacked by the infected. And they also follow some really suspenseful moments, such as when Neville and the dog explore dark garages and buildings where one of the infected just might be hiding and waiting to attack. But then 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.

And do you remember what I said about the creatures possibly being figments of the protagonist’s mind? There’s an ending that proves it wrong. That goes to show that “I Am Legend” was, without giving much away, merely to be a B-movie. But until “I Am Legend” heads in that direction, it’s a heavy, tense, entertaining movie.