Archive | 2008 RSS feed for this section

Baghead (2008)

5 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Baghead,” written and directed by brothers Jay & Mark Duplass, is an independent film that is both made on the cheap and delightfully aware of how cheap it is. It even opens with our main characters attending a film festival, where a micro-budget short film screened and its director gloats about his limited resources in making the film, right down to having his actors improvise their dialogue rather than provide them with a completed script… That is almost exactly how the Duplass Brothers managed to make “Baghead.”

This style of micro-budget filmmaking is commonly known as “mumblecore,” but if you listen to the Duplass Brothers’ audio commentary for the film, you’ll learn they don’t particularly care for that term.

Our main characters in “Baghead,” desperate actors looking to star in something, are inspired by this filmmaking method that they decide to rent a secluded cabin (in the woods, of course) and come up with a screenplay for a low-budget indie film in which they will all star. When they’re not working on ideas for the script, Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Catherine (Elise Miller), and Michelle (Greta Gerwig) do all the typical things young people do when they have a weekend to themselves in a cabin in the middle of nowhere—they get drunk, get high, pal around, go swimming, and then eventually collaborate on ideas. One night, Michelle has a nightmare about a killer with a bag over his head (a “baghead” killer, if you will), and this inspires Matt to write a horror script about this very concept.

What happens next requires a leap of faith the Duplass Brothers had to take for their audience to continue watching “Baghead” all the way to the end. It seems there really is a baghead lurking outside in the woods. In the film’s creepiest scene, he appears in Michelle’s room and watches as she flirts with who she thinks is Matt playing a game…and he just stands there, watches, and leaves. No one is sure whether it’s one of the four playing games or if there really is a stalker outside watching them…and with a bag over his head. What are the odds that there would actually turn out to be a baghead appearing around the same time these people start to write a script that features a baghead? Well, I won’t give away how this came to be, but it will either make or break the film for most people. It didn’t break it for me; if anything, it added more creativity than anything else.

“Baghead” has a wonderful amount of self-awareness, with art imitating life imitating art, as it comments on the world of filmmaking (particularly micro-budget filmmaking, in which “Baghead” belongs). The Duplass Brothers clearly love to create art and will do whatever it takes to do it with whatever they have. And they get clever mileage out of how they comment on how they even make their own film within said-film.

Of all four main actors, who were previously second-tier actors, only one managed to make it in the big time: Greta Gerwig. At the time, Gerwig was known for several films of this sort (she became known as “the Mumblecore Queen”) before she managed to break out, get more roles in bigger-budgeted indie films (at least, in comparison to “mumblecore” films) and mainstream movies, and even get recognition from Oscar for her directorial debut “Lady Bird.” But she started out with a bubbly, quirky personality that differentiated her from several of her peers. (Many critics had a problem with that—one of the critics of “Baghead” called her “fingernails-on-the-blackboard awful.”) I think she’s a delight in “Baghead”—not to slam her three co-stars, but Gerwig is the true star of the film. She’s funny and charming throughout the whole film.

Much of the film is improvised heavily, with many awkward pauses as the characters try to figure out what to say to one another and find ways to make it feel as real as possible. While it is grating at times, I admire the effort to insert realism into the mix. (That’s generally what “mumblecore” is all about—making the most out of minimal material.) The clumsy handheld camerawork adds to it as well. Though, I will say a lot of what the characters say is not particularly interesting, and I’m constantly waiting for something more juicy to come along and break the monotony. I do care about whether or not Chad and Michelle will end up together, but I’m not sure I needed the passive-aggressiveness of a potential love-triangle to make things more complicated.

I have yet to mention the tension that comes with the very real possibility that there is a baghead walking around outside, leading to a “Blair Witch” style of a sequence that leads to our characters roaming through the woods in fear. By that point, I was comfortable with the way the film was going. The Duplass Brothers were able to milk tension out of the simplest situations, and it truly works.

“Baghead” is essentially a low-budget horror-comedy, and the Duplass Brothers clearly had fun making it. Many people will have trouble with the final twist in the final act, but I didn’t really have much of a problem with it. I was simply appreciative that they didn’t go for any of the easier ways out of a bind.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

28 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Spoiler Warning!

What angers many American citizens more than most things in the world is when people of power get away with something they should be held accountable for. That was especially true of how practically the entire liberal population reacted when Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency after the Watergate scandal, as they see it, as a means to avoid responsibility. That he was pardoned by Gerald Ford made them angrier, because that meant he wouldn’t stand trial or face any consequences for what he did, let alone apologize for what he’d done. Nixon was disgraced, and he agreed to a series of four extensive television interviews with British talk show host David Frost in an attempt to win over the public. What he didn’t expect was a publicly viewed ambush…

Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” is based on playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan’s stage play of the same name, and it’s a strong, compelling retelling of real events that present a duel between an iconic figure and one who would become iconic afterwards.

Frank Langella presents a credible Nixon without foaming at the mouth in the name of exaggerating the role, which isn’t demonized. He plays a man who might regret his deeds but will try to justify them and is too stubborn to admit his wrongdoings. It’s a compelling portrayal that deserved the recognition it got, including an Academy Award nomination. But just as strong is Michael Sheen’s underrated performance as his adversary, David Frost, a boyishly charming, charismatic showman who has no interest in politics but sees this interview/duel with Nixon as a way to boost his career. Sheen’s depiction of Frost is fascinating, because he plays him as someone who is either a pure optimist or someone pretending to be a pure optimist while hiding nervousness and uncertainty behind a smile and outgoing personality. And think about it—if you had to go one-on-one on public television with one of the most controversial figures in the White House, wouldn’t you be at least a little uncertain about your chances of winning? (Asking that question made me pay more attention to Sheen’s performance the more times I watch this film.)

Frost was a TV personality who had a lot riding on this. In the first place, people considered him either crazy or stupid for even thinking of interviewing Nixon—they were sure he’d say no, and if he said yes, they were afraid he’s glamorize him. He paid a fortune to arrange the interviews when all networks wouldn’t devote airtime to serious journalism. Frost won the opportunity to do the interviews when Nixon, who (along with his advisors) thought him to be a lightweight interviewer, saw his opportunity to change the image the public saw him as. When Frost and his three allies—producer John Burt (Matthew McFayden) and reporters James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt)—play hardball by asking difficult questions, Nixon talks his way through and out of each issue.

It seems like a done deal—with three out of four interviews in which Frost and Nixon are at a stalemate, there’s clearly no self-recognition from Nixon about Watergate, Frost is losing confidence, his friends (save for his supportive girlfriend, Caroline, played by an astonishingly beautiful Rebecca Hall) are becoming skeptical, and it looks like the final interview will amount to nothing. But Frost shocked the world when he managed to ask the right questions and get the right answers, leading to Nixon being humiliated (especially after saying the controversial quote: “I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.”) and finally owning up to what he had done. Everyone already knew he was guilty, but they wanted to hear him say it. Thanks to Frost, he finally did. Frost became a more widely-known celebrity and Nixon was able to show his face in public again, feeling the truth had set him free.

It’s a gripping story told very well through solid direction by Howard, brilliant writing by Morgan, and excellent acting from the cast (which also includes Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones as two of Nixon’s aides). Though I have to wonder what creative liberties are taken from historic facts, I don’t let it bother me because it is such a good story and the facts shouldn’t get away from that. I know the interviews are shortened; I know certain things didn’t happen; and I’m pretty sure a late-night phone conversation between Nixon and Frost about cheeseburgers didn’t happen (I’m assuming). I don’t care. I’m enjoying “Frost/Nixon” and the battle of wits it portrays.

City of Ember (2008)

15 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I begin, let me state that while I like this film adaptation of Jeanne DuPrau’s science-fiction fantasy novel “The City of Ember,” I can’t help but wonder how more effective it would be if the prologue was omitted from the final product. Let me explain—it’s not that we don’t need somewhat of an explanation for some of the elements given to the film (even though some elements, we have to figure out for ourselves—I’ll get to one specific example later); it’s that there could have been a great surprise twist that would have made sense and, more importantly for a sci-fi film, would have been intriguing.

As “City of Ember” opens, we’re given a prologue (with the voice of Tim Robbins narrating the setup) that lets us know right away that the action is going to take place in an underground city that was built to protect the survivors of a catastrophe that has gotten the best of Earth, so that new generations will live on. A box is given to the first Mayor of the City of Ember—inside the box are rules and instructions that will help the people of Ember to come back to the world, 200 years later. (A timer is set on the box to be opened in a specific 200 years—by the way, you ever wonder if that box’s batteries run out after a couple weeks or something? But I digress.) As time passed, the box was unfortunately abandoned and forgotten until finally, on its 200th year, it opens.

Do we really need to know right away that Ember is an underground city? Wouldn’t it have been a great twist if it were revealed to us, while being revealed to the film’s heroes, that Ember was underground the whole time? With this prologue, we’re now ahead of the protagonists instead of wondering along with them what else is out there among this “post-apocalyptic” world. It would have been more interesting to try and figure out where Ember was, but it’s set up early on that it’s underground.

Aside from that missed opportunity, “City of Ember” is a nicely-done sci-fi family adventure film with a unique visual look, an interesting setting, a cast of characters we can root for, and a mystery that keeps you invested. And no, that mystery isn’t where Ember is—it’s how to escape from it.

The box with instructions is found by two Ember children—teenagers Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway)—who ultimately use the written guides to find an exit. And just in time, too—the city’s generator that provides the city’s light and air is broken, leading to frequent malfunctions for Ember. Not only that, but the food storerooms are running empty and the water supply is low. Lina and Doon follow complicated, enigmatic clues that lead closer and closer to a safeguarded path to a place outside of Ember. But while on this journey, they come across a treasonous plan of Ember’s corrupt mayor Cole (Bill Murray), meaning they must work fast in order to ultimately figure everything out.

The setting of Ember is fun to look at, with one of the most fascinating movie sets I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of a George Orwell/Terry Gilliam type of city, with its claustrophobic setting, its color palette, which mostly consists of browns and golds, and even somewhat-retro technology without the updated present-day luxuries we’re used to. There are no computers in this world, which is kind of odd, but there are messengers running from place to place to deliver a new message to somebody from a customer. Everything is much more mechanical, with all sorts of gears and motors. There’s a fitting metaphor for how life has drained long since our modern technologies somewhere in here, and I think that’s what makes it all the more intriguing.

The last third of the film shows the two kids on their journey to find an exit from Ember. This leads them to a secret passage that leads to a couple of waterwheels and an old control room, where it all seems like a Rube Goldberg invention. Again, we have more visual effects to admire and the sets are very impressive. This city of Ember is a very inventive vision and has just what a sci-fi film such as this needed.

Oh. Yeah. I should mention the gigantic mole-like creature that is loose in the pipes down below. It only has a couple of scenes on-screen, but its presence is never explained in the slightest. Why is there a giant mole in this world? Did it have something to do with the end of the world? If it was due to radiation that Ember was created, was this a side effect? There’s also a cat-sized moth that Doon comes across and helps after it’s broken its wing. It seems to fly up to the surface; that’s a clever way of establishing some sort of radioactive-related theory. But still, it’s kind of a confused way of letting us take it seriously when a random giant mole is scattering around the city.

By the way, here’s something odd—the novel doesn’t even mention the giant mole or moth at all.

There are some problems I have with “City of Ember.” One is a few scenes go on a little longer than they should and some parts feel like filler to fill in the hour-and-a-half running time. Another is that the CGI ranges from passable to…in the case of the moth in particular, not very good. And the dialogue could have used a little work, particularly from Doon’s mentor, vague old Sul (Martin Landau, cashing a nice paycheck), and his father (Tim Robbins) who mostly speaks through trailer-type dialogue. And then unfortunately, there’s Bill Murray. As big a fan I am about Bill Murray, I really don’t believe his performance here. Murray just seems to be phoning it in and I couldn’t buy him for a moment.

But “City of Ember” has more things for me to appreciate that I enjoy watching the film and recommend it. The two young leads are appealing; the setting is unbelievable and very imaginative; there are clever twists and turns to the story here and there; the adventures are fun; and what’s probably most refreshing is that unlike most post-apocalyptic stories, this one is more centered on hope rather than misery. And that’s what made the ending of the film all the more satisfactory (even if it is ambiguous).

The Rocker (2008)

3 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Rainn Wilson is usually known for his deadpan-comedic roles, particularly with his memorably downplayed-and-funny role as tight-ass Dwight Schrute in TV’s “The Office.” And I don’t know about you, but to me, it’s refreshing to see him perform in a broader style of comedy, which is the case in “The Rocker.” This is the kind of energetic, physical comic-style acting that Jack Black uses to unique effect. And while there are flashes of Black in Wilson’s portrayal of rock-n-roller Robert “Fish” Fishman in “The Rocker,” you still see Wilson, and he’s more than welcome to entertain us in this way.

I can see a lot of people, or critics are something close to “people,” calling “The Rocker” a shameless ripoff of “School of Rock.” But to me, that’s like saying “Superbad” is a shameless ripoff of “American Pie.” Elements are similar, but execution and added themes and story elements make what you can take from whichever, in this case. Doesn’t every film nowadays have to be inspired by something out of other films? It’s what you can add to it that matters.

Besides, I don’t even see much of “School of Rock” in “The Rocker,” aside from the central character being a washout rocker that gets his redemption. So I can’t exactly argue further with that concept. I’d just wind up becoming lost and confused in the point. Instead, I’ll just review “The Rocker” as it is.

“The Rocker” begins in 1986, which the colorful set design of the stage where we see a rock band performing doesn’t let us forget. That rock band is known as Vesuvius, the hottest band to score a heavy record deal. Unfortunately, that deal requires them to sell out and drop their drummer, Robert “Fish” Fishman (Wilson), to have an executive’s son take his place.

(By the way, that leads to a very funny horror-film type of scene in which Fish chases down the rest of the band as they attempt an escape. I don’t care if Fish running as fast as their van is very silly; it still made me laugh because of Wilson’s wide-eyed determination and the band’s screaming reactions. And it gets better when Fish uses his drumsticks as lethal weapons.)

Cut to 20 years later, when Fish has anger issues, particularly whenever Vesuvius, now hotter than ever and earned a spot in the Cleveland Hall of Fame, is mentioned in front of him. Now he’s lost a(nother) job, has been dumped by his girlfriend, and is now living in his sister’s attic. His nerdy teenage nephew, Matt (Josh Gad), plays keyboard in a band with his friends, broody singer-songwriter Curtis (Teddy Geiger) and Goth bassist Amelia (Emma Stone), calling themselves A.D.D. Needing a drummer to play for the high school prom, Fish agrees to step in and play with them…leading to a meltdown when Fish loses control as the band performs Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Feeling guilty, Fish decides to help A.D.D. in landing a gig to make the band known to the public. But fate runs its course as a YouTube video featuring the band practicing (with Fish drumming naked—don’t ask) suddenly becomes viral and A.D.D., with Fish as drummer, has a chance at a career.

We get the standard stuff here with what you’d expect when A.D.D. becomes big—they play different gigs, they become better-known, they go on tour, they film a music video, and eventually, they go through conflicts such as having to ultimately open for Vesuvius. There isn’t anything terribly new in “The Rocker,” but it’s still entertaining and funny and even touching in certain spots. There are many quotable lines of dialogue and very amusing moments, such as why the tour bus driver (Howard Hesseman) uses citizen-band radio, the music-video director’s (Demetri Martin in a funny cameo) overly precise direction, and arguably the funniest, any time Jason Sudeikis is on screen as the band’s slimy manager. Sudeikis gets the funniest one-liners in the movie, including “John Lennon’s rollin’ over in his grave to hide the boner you just gave him!”

There are many moments I found amusing and fun in “The Rocker,” but there is also room for character development, not only with Fish but also with the young band members. Curtis has abandonment issues, which serves as a tool for writing his songs, and now that he’s gaining success because of his words and vocals, he sometimes forgets what Fish of course recalls along the way, that they don’t rock just for fame and fortune. Amelia is a non-smiling punk-girl who becomes more emotional and happier as the film progresses. Matt is an insecure geek that eventually gains confidence and hooks up with a cute fan. I liked these characters. They seemed like real teenagers; their dialogue and interactions with each other seem credible. The actors—Teddy Geiger, Josh Gad, and Emma Stone—play them in an effectively earnest way.

There are other game actors that do well with what they have in “The Rocker.” There’s the standard love-interest that takes a liking to the man-child Fish. She’s actually Curtis’ mom, adding more to the awkwardness that Curtis has to go through later on. Christina Applegate plays the role and she does a fine job, although I have to admit, the relationship between her and Fish feels rushed and not completely fleshed out. But there’s also Fish’s brother and sister, played very well by Jeff Garlin (very funny in a doofus sort of way) and Jane Lynch (in a “tough-love” sort of way). And then, there’s Will Arnett in a brief role as the leader of Vesuvius—without giving away his change of personality in his return late in the film, Arnett is freaking hilarious here.

Sometimes, “The Rocker” will miss its mark on a few jokes/gags (particularly a pratfall early on that seems pretty forced) and a few pop-culture references come close to overdoing it. But mostly, thanks to a steady tone by director Peter Cattaneo (of “The Full Monty” fame), a load of flat-out funny moments, an admittedly-catchy soundtrack (I have to say, I was humming a few of these songs), and a zanily wonderful leading performance by Rainn Wilson, “The Rocker” is gentle, as well as fun, and it rocks. But for goodness sake, stop comparing it to “School of Rock.” True, that film may be superior, but this is a lot of fun too.

Snow Angels (2008)

2 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Snow Angels” is a film about highs and lows of human relationships, with different stories and an ensemble cast surrounding a central tragedy. It begins as a high-school marching band rehearses their version of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” on the football field, when suddenly, gunshots are heard in the distance. It’s inevitable that we see what builds up to those shots, beginning, as the caption puts it, “weeks earlier.” We meet one of the band members, Arthur (Michael Angarano), a shy, insecure high-school student, as he works in a Chinese restaurant (which I just realized has no Chinese employees) with his former babysitter, Annie (Kate Beckinsale). Arthur hasn’t had a girlfriend yet, possibly because he’s always had a crush on Annie who loves to tease him about their time together (“I totally used to give you baths”). And the timing couldn’t be more perfect, as Arthur’s parents are going through a divorce (because it turns out his father is having an affair), and as his dad moves out of the house, a nerdy, fun transfer-student, Lila (Olivia Thirlby, wonderful here), notices Arthur, comes into his life, and becomes his girlfriend.

This story about Arthur is undoubtedly my favorite part about “Snow Angels,” as it shows depth and weight in presenting this kid going through a tough time in his life and finding his first love, helping him deal with it. I recall Chicago Tribune film-critic Michael Phillips, when reviewing the film as guest-critic on “Ebert & Roeper,” described this appearance of Lila as “a gift from heaven,” and that always fascinated me because that is pretty much what this is about. Here is this gloomy situation involving parents’ divorce, and Arthur knowing the truth about his dad well before his mom realizes it, and in comes this newcomer who bonds with him and they share something for one another. This is one of the best high-school romances I have ever seen—it’s very sweet, and yet it seems real in the personalities of these two characters and how they playfully joke with one another, building up to a moment later in which Lila softly, ultimately states how she feels about Arthur, and Arthur can’t help but feel the same way, despite not knowing how to react.

Unfortunately, that is merely a subplot constantly pushed aside by the darker, gloomier aspects of the story within “Snow Angels,” which mostly has to do with the issues of Annie. Annie has gotten out of a failed marriage with Glenn (Sam Rockwell), the father of her 4-year-old daughter, whom constantly makes things difficult. Ever since his suicide attempt, Glenn has quit drinking, turned to Jesus, and tries to do the right thing. But he hasn’t changed for the better, it seems. The reason Annie left him was because he’s incredibly awkward, can’t hold a job, has violent tendencies, and is an alcoholic. And now, as he sometimes looks after their daughter every now and then, he wants Annie back. But Annie isn’t about to let him back into her life. Meanwhile, she is currently having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her best friend, Barb (Amy Sedaris). Soon enough, the affair is revealed, bringing further complications into Annie’s life, even before her daughter winds up missing.

If Arthur and Lila’s story represents the highs of human relationships, then everything involving Annie and Glenn represents the lows. But it’s not only emotional conflict, adultery, and anger; it’s also guilt, violence, and loss. And it only gets more depressing as it continues, building up to the tragedy that was set up in the beginning of the film.

And this is where I am a bit uncertain when it comes to deciding a “Verdict” for this film. Maybe it’s because the lighter romantic moments with the high-schoolers won me over so much, but it’s somewhat hard for me to get into the darker material surrounding the adult characters. I mean, those scenes are well-acted, smartly written, and well-directed, and I’m not saying that because it’s a downer, it’s a failure. I mean, a good solid portion of films are muted and downbeat. But when you have to have a cohesive narrative driving the emotional aspects forward for an effective payoff…I don’t know. It seems to be building up to something, and while that inevitable dramatic payoff is there, I’m not sure it all comes together in a way that fully makes us understand what has happened and for us to take in the tragic climax. The power isn’t there behind it, in my opinion, and as a result, I feel like I sat through much ado about nothing.

I understand that “Snow Angels” is based on a novel, and to my knowledge (having not read it), writer-director David Gordon Green was faithful to the source material when adapting it for the screen. But when I get down to what I really think about “Snow Angels,” I think there’s a perfectly satisfying story within the teen-romance material and around Arthur. There’s an interesting short film here trapped in a dark, gloomy story about the lows of adult relationships, when there’s a cohesive story about a kid (Arthur) finding a special-someone to be with, and questioning relationships in the process (there’s some drama in there, in how he feels about his dad going back and forth between home and elsewhere, and also in how he doesn’t know how to comfort someone who needs assistance). Right there is an interesting, full-circle story structure trapped in an uneasy story about a few seriously disturbed individuals.

And I know what they’re trying to do—trying to contrast young relationships with older. So it either works for you, or it doesn’t. For me, it is true that it is acted well (though there are some parts when you feel that Beckinsale was probably miscast, and Rockwell is hard to watch at times) and a lot of moments ring true. And it is an effective representation of ordinary people going through ordinary problems before they realize they can’t deal with it anymore. So despite my personal issues with the structure, I give “Snow Angels” a mild recommendation because of that. Sure, it’s inconsistent and without Arthur and Lila’s romance, it’d just be OK; but there are many individual moments that convince to keep watching it, so I can’t recommend it. I like “Snow Angels.” I wanted to love it, though.

The Dark Knight (2008)

29 May


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If I thought Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” was one of the darkest (and very best) superhero films I ever saw, then I hadn’t seen anything yet. “The Dark Knight” is the follow-up to the film that represented Nolan’s new look at the dark, harsh “Batman” universe, and to get it right out of the way, this is not just one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen; it’s also the best superhero film I’ve ever seen. I don’t even want to necessarily call it a “superhero film.” For a film about Batman, this film is unbelievably tough, powerful, adult, moody…and oddly enough, that all works in the film’s favor. Aside from being extraordinarily well-crafted in story and execution, the tone and staging of “The Dark Knight” reminded me of a Caped Crusader version of “The Godfather,” in terms of uncompromising actions and consequences. I mean it—it’s that great.

“The Dark Knight” is a film about power, chaos, hope, deceit, selfishness, actions, and consequences. It’s a deeper film than one might have expected from a film such as this—not that the original Tim Burton film or Nolan’s “Batman Begins” weren’t dark; it’s just that apparently, they weren’t this dark. It’s the kind of film that provokes thought and leaves you stunned by everything it had to offer. It seems as if Nolan figured that the origins of Batman were already spelled out in the other film, and now it was time to go all out and give him a story that builds upon solid themes and concepts that were implied before.

Batman is a symbol of Gotham City and people’s great hope whenever trouble is near. Although, there are debates about whether or not Batman is a hero or a menace, and it doesn’t help that his presence influences “copycat Batmen” who wear similar costumes, but carry rifles and sport hockey pads. Crime bosses are on edge because of him, which serves as a good purpose for the city’s new D.A., Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), to take them on. Dent is the White Knight to Batman’s Dark Knight—he doesn’t have to wear a mask and knows how to push someone’s limits and handle himself as well. He’s an ideal hero for Gotham City. Thanks to a meeting together brought upon by incorruptible police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Dent and Batman know they’re on the same page in a crusade to stop crime, so they do their parts in order to continue.

But a new threat has made himself known in Gotham. Enter the Joker (the late Heath Ledger in his final film role); a sadistic psychopath with as much taste for theatrics as Batman, only he dresses like a clown and keeps a flamboyant personality that also reads sadism and madness. His mission as the new mob enforcer is to spread anarchy and chaos throughout the city. Knowing Batman stands in his way, he demands that he remove his mask and turn himself in, or else many people will die at his hands.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), Batman’s human alter-ego, is more arrogant than before, but that’s just a cover for everyone around him. The only people he confides in are his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), and Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). Through them, he acknowledges that things are getting even more out of control now that he has all of these duties to handle, and especially now that he must reveal himself as Batman or people will be killed by the Joker. And the Joker does keep good on his word, making things even more complicated and painful.

This is not a superhero film in which despite everything being thrown at the hero, everything turns out right in the end. Mostly, everything just goes wrong, and even more so as the situation continues. Batman may be a heroic figure, but he’s not perfect. He has his flaws and he can’t save everybody, which is especially true in the cases of some important characters. No one is safe in this movie; there’s danger all throughout and consequences for every action, whether they be your own or not. This is what differentiates “The Dark Knight” from pretty much every other Batman film, in that it’s bleaker with hardly any compromises in how situations occur. It’s grim and unpredictable.

Batman is more intimidating than ever and his presence says a lot about what he represents and what he’ll go through to fight for it. He doesn’t take any bull from anyone, even from the city’s most psychotic villains. I won’t say anything about the growling voice that everyone seems to make fun of, because really, it does work at delivering words of menace when they’re needed.

(At this point, I’d like to issue a SPOILER ALERT!)

Anyone who knows the name “Harvey Dent” before seeing this movie already knows that Dent becomes the villainous Two-Face. This becomes an important transition midway through the film, as Dent does become Two-Face as the result of an incident that (SPOILER ALERT!) takes the life of Rachel, because Batman could only save one of them. With half of his face horribly burnt, Dent’s personality changes as well. He’s out for vengeance against those who betrayed him, and goes through many lengths to do it. And this man was supposed to be Gotham’s new hero. This is all very powerful stuff, as he transforms into the very hateful criminals he was trying to protect Gotham from; but due to deceit and false hopes for the city, he only becomes no different than the rest of them. It’s a tragic portrait, and it’s also even more thought-provoking when you realize that this is who Batman could have become if Bruce Wayne were corruptible.


“The Dark Knight” gave movie audiences a new, truly-intimidating villain in the Joker. This villainous character has already made himself known in so many Batman tales that it seemed inevitable that he would show up to battle Batman. But this representation of the Joker, portrayed by Heath Ledger, is just excellent. Ledger may not have been people’s first choice to play the role, but you never see Ledger in this performance—you only see the Joker. The Joker is not only darkly funny, but he’s also menacing and very scary. He may look like a clown, but there is no humor with him whatsoever. This guy is vicious and twisted, and worst of all, intelligent and enjoying every minute of what he does.

The scariest scene in the movie is seen through home-video footage of the Joker as he tortures and interrogates one of the Batman impersonators—the realism of the footage and the sickness of the Joker will make any audience member silent minutes after this scene is over.

But what about the action? While “Batman Begins” was a bit annoying in its camera-shaking, “The Dark Knight” delivers its action with swift camera movements so that everything is seen and admired. The action itself is exhilarating and some of the best I’ve ever seen in a film. The best action scene comes midway through the film—it’s a car chase through the streets of Gotham, and the situation is made even more intense in that it’s also a race against time for Batman to save somebody. The editing isn’t as quick as most action films like to do; it just shows the action head-on and puts the viewer right in the middle of it.

Oh, and there are also new, improved Batman-gadgetry, invented by Q-like Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). This includes a type of sonar-invention that allows Batman to keep track of everyone in the city via their own technologies. Even Fox can’t help but think that this is wrong on so many levels.

Christopher Nolan has crafted a masterpiece with “The Dark Knight.” It’s strange about how a film about a man dressed as a bat can have the same amount of gravity as a crime thriller such as “The Departed.” But with a clear vision of concepts and ethics, a series of masterful action sequences, an even-more-complex hero, quite possibly the most memorable movie villain in a long time, and even more elements that I don’t even think I mentioned in this review, “The Dark Knight” is the best superhero film I’ve ever seen.

Cloverfield (2008)

13 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The date was July 3rd, 2007. The movie was Michael Bay’s “Transformers.” The place was Paragould Cinema 8 in Paragould, Arkansas. The coming-attractions trailers included an engrossing “sneak-peek” that showed a scene of a Manhattan party being interrupted by exploding buildings and some sort of attack, seen from the point of view of a home-video camera. What’s going on? What’s attacking the city? Hell, what’s the title of the freaking movie? The end of this ingenious trailer only showed “From Executive Producer JJ Abrams” and “Coming 1/18/08.”

That was terrific. That had me thinking what the film was going to be when it was released. What we got was “Cloverfield,” released January 18th, 2008, which is pretty much the “inside-out” version of a monster movie, much like how “The Blair Witch Project” was the case with the ghost story. Like “Blair Witch,” the film “Cloverfield” is entirely the content of one video tape, as one among a group of people documents “how it all went down” as some thing attacks Manhattan.

That means the majority of “Cloverfield’s” running time consists of shakiness of handheld camerawork, undoubtedly giving some audience members motion-sickness. (I sat in the front row of the cinema—it’s no doubt after all.) You either get into it or you’re very annoyed by it. (But for those who say people don’t really shake the camera like the camera-holder does in this movie, newsflash—people running from disaster don’t usually care about keeping the camera steady!) Besides, I can see the effect that director Matt Reeves was going for with this—not the standard monster movie; mainly a major disastrous event seen from ground-level. After all, ever since 9/11, everyone likes to record anything out of the ordinary, to say the least.

“Cloverfield” starts out as a farewell video for a sincere young man named Rob (Michael Stahl-David) at his going-away party, as he is able to leave Manhattan for a new job in Japan. Documenting the party is Rob’s best friend, goofball Hud (TJ Miller, whose line-deliveries said from behind the camera make for appealing comic relief). Also at the party are Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), Hud’s crush Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), and, to Rob’s surprise, Rob’s ex-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman).

“Cloverfield” spends a little more than 15 minutes with these people, making it feel like a different movie than what was advertised. This actually works in the film’s favor because it really sneaks up on you the same way it sneaks up on the characters when chaos ultimately ensues. It really got me when they’re just having normal conversation and then out of nowhere, the building shakes, things start blowing up, people ask “What was that?” etc. Once the madness gets started, the film becomes exhilarating.

And by the way, I’m sure the realization that the attacker in “Cloverfield” was just a regular monster, and not Godzilla (though pretty close in shape and size), disappointed a lot of hyped moviegoers, but I’m sure any reveal would have disappointed them, so forget that. As for me, I was one of the people who didn’t care what the attacker was, as long as it was sci-fi based and big enough to be threatening. The monster itself is scary when seen in glimpses, like when the camera switches to and from it in a hurry, and also when it’s kept in the shadows so there’s that foreboding aspect to “Cloverfield.” Even scarier though are these parasitic spider-like creatures that apparently come from the big creature and attack people. The creepiest scene in the movie involves these little beasts as they attack our heroes in a dark subway tunnel. These things mean business.

What exactly is this monster? Where did it come from? What can kill it? None of that is answered. “Cloverfield” has no backstory or any kind of explanation for the monster’s origins. All we know is that it’s big, it’s mean, and it’s here. That’s it—the whole movie stays with Rob, Hud, and company as they race to survive the night and escape the city before things get worse. That’s actually kind of refreshing, in that there’s no bizarre B-movie type of explanation like it came from pollution or something like that. And the actors playing these admittedly-generic characters are pretty good and quite likable for us to follow them. They, along with some first-rate special effects, add to the realism, grittiness, and terror of this “inside-out” monster movie.

The Happening (2008)

9 May


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I hate to pick on M. Night Shyamalan. I really do. His successful 1999 thriller “The Sixth Sense” is a masterpiece in my eyes. I really like his follow-up thrillers “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” and I find “The Village” to be quite underrated. But as “Lady in the Water” declared his downfall as a filmmaker by just trying too hard to make a complicated, laughable story into something even more so in execution, this is also proven in the follow-up to that film, “The Happening.” For those who thought “Lady in the Water” was inept, “The Happening” is even more so. It’s strange (not in a good way) and just laughably bad.

This is one of the stupidest apocalyptic thrillers I’ve ever seen. See if you follow this—it begins as some sort of neurotoxin hits several people in New York, causing them to freeze in time, take a few steps backward, and then ultimately kill themselves.

Richard Roeper put this best, by the way—“Something wicked this way comes, and when it does, you die.”

Anyway, this airborne silent-invisible killer spreads from city to city. It’s posted by the media as a terrorist attack, but (get this) there’s a different theory that maybe nature has something to do with it, that it’s extremely ticked off at society and has found a way to communicate through the trees in order to spread a toxin in the air that will destroy all of humanity.

Yeah, that’s silly enough. It’s even more laughable as the heroes we follow in “The Happening” actually talk to the trees and plants in an attempt to soothe them and spare their lives.

Our heroes are a high-school science teacher, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg); his emotionally withdrawn wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel, keeping her eyes as wide as she possibly can); Elliot’s best friend, Julian (John Leguizamo); and Julian’s young daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). They leave the city of Philadelphia by train after news of the attack, but then are stranded in a rural area where they must…outrun the wind?

Yep, they outrun the wind and find shelter easily. And get this—they never stay in one spot and hole up! They keep going from place to place without having the intelligence to just hide in one location and wait out the storm. These characters are too dumb for a slasher-movie, let alone a disaster-movie.

The atmosphere is practically nonexistent. There’s hardly a sense of menace in the air (so to speak), so it’s hard to fear for the characters when the threat is near. And characterization is even worse—it’s stilted and forced, and the dialogue doesn’t help either. Speaking of which, say this line without cracking up (I dare you)—“Don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it!” I don’t know about you, but that line kills me.

What was M. Night Shyamalan trying to pull off here? An environmental message within an apocalyptic thriller? Well, if he can’t make trees or plants seem ominous or threatening, there’s hardly anything that can be worth recommending for “The Happening.”

Iron Man (2008)

6 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Iron Man” is a superhero movie that is quite surprising in how it’s presented, but nonetheless exceptional as a result. Its story structure is standard for a superhero-origin-tale, but not so much, necessarily, is how it views its hero and how he reacts to his situations or relates to those around him. But it’s not saying that it isn’t entertaining, because at the same time, “Iron Man” presents some nifty action sequences as well as special effects (which are used to serve the story). This is a superhero movie that is about something. It’s gripping, well-made, funny when it needs to be, and also rather awesome when it needs to be.

Based on the Marvel comic book series, “Iron Man” tells the origin story of weapons manufacturer Tony Stark as he becomes the awesome heroic figure simply known as “Iron Man.” Tony is introduced as a wealthy, brilliant yet naïve playboy who has a creative, ingenious mind and a tendency to slack off. When in Afghanistan to present his latest weapon, from his company Stark Industries, he is attacked and captured, brought to a cave by his captors. He is healed from his serious injuries with an electromagnet attached to his torso to keep bits of irremovable shrapnel from his heart. He is kept alive to build a new lethal weapon for his guerilla captors. But instead, he spends his time building something they didn’t expect—a way out. Using his limited resources, he is able to build a bulletproof, armed, metal suit and uses it to escape and make his way back home. Upon his return, he makes a few changes—he shuts down Stark Industries’ weapons division and decides to make a few improvements on the suit’s design. For instance, he stabilizes flight and gives it more perfection in the weapon implants it has.

While “Iron Man” does have its share of action, as Iron Man must destroy a rebel base full of weapons (manufactured by Stark industries, in an ironic twist) and also battle an ultimate antagonist with a similar suit of armor, this film is more of a character story, particularly in the way Stark develops his personality throughout the movie. Here’s a guy who has a luxurious, ignorant outlook on his life, not fully knowing what his company is really doing or even how he is with the people around him—those include his loyal Girl Friday, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow); his best friend, Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard); and his no-nonsense business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Once he has had his eye-opening experience in the cave, and knowing that these ruthless guerillas are the main ones purchasing his company’s weapons, a sense of alarming alertness overcomes him. He now knows he has to do something about this.

Robert Downey, Jr. is this movie. He’s an inspired choice to play the role of “hero,” and Downey makes it his own, giving it a great amount of wit, flair, and energy (even more so than most superhero-movie protagonists). He dominates the screen throughout, as he should. He’s downright brilliant and so charismatic for us to follow him all through the movie. And he has a sharp wit that comes with the character, making him all the more entertaining to watch and listen to.

There’s also a solid supporting cast. Gwyneth Paltrow, as Tony’s Girl Friday and possible love-interest, is quite appealing, and she and Downey share engaging banter on par with Bond-and-Moneypenny talk; they’re great together. Jeff Bridges plays pretty much the main villain, but a good move on the film’s part is that he’s not clearly identified as such a role (but you don’t necessarily deny it, because he seems quite slick).

Thankfully, director Jon Favreau knows not to have this superhero origin-story aimed for mostly teenage boys. There is some good action, aided by well-done special effects (that don’t show up the actors, thankfully), but there’s more to it in setting up the story, developing the characters, and showing their plight and conceptions. There’s a nice, smooth pacing going with the film, and strangely enough, it doesn’t feel like the average superhero movie. Oh, there are elements existent so that superhero fans won’t be disappointed. But there’s more to it than that. It includes numerous details, some of which you wouldn’t expect, and it brings you into most of them so that you really get an understanding for this tale. “Iron Man” is a solid film, a worthy successor in the superhero-movie genre.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

1 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Where do I begin with the sheer comic brilliance of Ben Stiller’s fantastic comedy “Tropic Thunder?” Should I merely start with the inventive plot? The brilliant cast of characters? The way it seems to understand and love movies? Or even the real show-stealer of the film that everyone remembers with great fondness? Well…I guess I should go ahead and start with the plot.

The movie tells the fictional story of the making of a war film based on the (fake) true story about a Vietnam vet. Among the main cast is a diverse group of actors/personalities. There’s Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, who also directed and co-wrote the film), a former big-time action hero who needs a big break after his attempt of a dramatic performance (as a retarded farmhand named “Simple Jack”); Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a heroin-addicted comic actor best known for his comedy franchise, “The Fatties,” which seems to be filled with flatulence jokes; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a hiphop artist who promotes his own merchandise (including the energy drink Booty Sweat); newcomer to the acting department, nerdy Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel); and last but definitely not least, five-time Academy-Award winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), an Australian method actor who goes to many extremes to play roles—for this particular movie, he received “pigment alteration” in order to portray the African-American sergeant that takes center-stage.

And yes, Robert Downey, Jr. spends a majority of the movie in black makeup, and actually plays it like an Australian actor playing an African-American man while constantly keeping in character even when the cameras aren’t rolling—he’s that committed to the role. Downey is not only hilarious in this movie, but he’s convincing in the role. It’s amazing how he’s able to pull this off, and it’s a great deal of fun to watch him continue to do this throughout the movie. It never gets old. He is comedic gold in this movie.

To be sure, this is the most controversial aspect of “Tropic Thunder,” putting Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface. It’s a very bold, risky move to make, and Stiller, as director and co-writer, has the nuts to go ahead and go through with it. Thankfully, he has the intelligence to back it up by casting Downey in the role, and also by having him go up against Brandon T. Jackson, whose Alpa Chino (say it out loud) really is black and constantly tears into Lazarus for “keeping in character.” It helps that the character of Lazarus isn’t aware that he’s being somewhat offensive in his portrayal.

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. As for the plot of “Tropic Thunder,” the director of the fake movie, Damien (Steve Coogan), can’t seem to control his actors, nor can he get the realistic reactions he needs from them (particularly from Speedman). Four-Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte—yes, Nick Nolte), the old Vietnam vet turned screenwriter, suggests that he takes them out into the actual jungles of Vietnam and have them act out the entire war film while being filmed with hidden cameras in the trees (how exactly that works, seeing as how actors don’t know where to go, is beyond me, but who cares?), while supposed surprises are waiting for them as they continue. But something goes wrong when Damien is blown up (quite unexpectedly) by an old land mine, and Speedman, thinking it was fake (there’s a particularly disgusting bit in which he carries Damien’s “prop-head” and tastes his “corn-syrup” blood), takes charge of the movie. But it may not actually be a movie anymore, as heroin processors become involved and open fire on the actors for real.

I love this distinct group of actors that are playing in this movie-within-the-movie—they’re all different but appealing personalities. And they’re all established early on, as “Tropic Thunder” opens with (get this) fake trailers and advertisements, each featuring one of the actors. We have Alpa Chino hawking his Booty Sweat; Tugg Speedman in his sixth “Scorcher” action flick; Jeff Portnoy in “The Fatties: Fart 2” (Black portrays all members of the Fatty family, much like Eddie Murphy in “The Nutty Professor”); and the funniest of them all, Kirk Lazarus as an Irish priest in a period drama with Tobey Maguire as his lover. These fake previews are among the most hilarious parts of the movie, which is mainly a 100-minute rip of Hollywood filmmaking. There are many elements of the Hollywood system (such as the egotistical director, the obsessive agent, the overzealous producer, etc.) that are broadened for good laughs, while also providing a bit of truth to them. I won’t give away most of the details that are brought upon by Stiller’s deranged, brilliant mind, but they’re beyond funny.

Ben Stiller, as the heroic leading actor, acquits himself nicely as basically an idiot who thinks he’s better than the movie he’s in, and then takes it upon himself to run the show. He gets his laughs from sheer goofiness in the way he thinks he’s right about everything. Jack Black, despite being given second-billing between Stiller and Downey, is not particularly a scene-stealer except for one particularly funny scene in which he begs for the others to tie him to a tree while going through heroin withdrawals, and then begs to be untied. Brandon T. Jackson is brilliant as he speaks for African-Americans who might be offended by Downey’s performance. Jay Baruchel is probably the weakest of the group, but I guess that’s the point—he’s mainly the straight arrow; nothing else is required of him.

Other actors include Matthew McConaughey, who is an absolute delight as Speedman’s agent who is determined to make sure he gets his TiVo; Danny McBride as the team’s pyromaniac explosions-expert; and probably the most holy-bleep-I-can’t-believe-it performance to come around in a long, long time—Tom Cruise as a fat, balding, profane producer who cares about nothing but making money. Cruise almost challenges us to forget about Downey and focus on his character; it’s just too bad the two don’t share any scenes together.

Oh, and let’s not forget the cameos. Tobey Maguire isn’t the only recognizable face to make a cameo appearance. Keep an eye out.

“Tropic Thunder” is also high on violence and energy, particularly in the climactic sequence in which Speedman is captured and the other actors have to sneak into a heroin-processing plant to rescue him. But even that gets its share of laughs, and even moments of character development, such as when Speedman and Lazarus think about what distinguishes themselves from the characters they play. It’s an odd but effective moment to have in an action scene.

“Tropic Thunder” has so much energy that it’s hard not to pay attention to it, and has so many broadly developed moments that you can’t help but laugh at. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s energetic, and it’s just a true blast!