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My Favorite Movies – Cloverfield (2008)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

Before I start with “Cloverfield,” let me just state for the record that I’m not one of those movie reviewers (I’m not a “film critic” so much as “movie reviewer” nowadays) that are afraid to publicly change their opinions on certain movies–for that matter, I’m not afraid of rewatching those certain movies either. It happens. For instance, I may have given Cloverfield 3 stars out of 4 initially, and maybe my reasons still hold up–but you know what? It stayed with me. It stuck with me. I love revisiting it. I admire the craftsmanship. I get something new each time I watch it. Hell, I’ve even watched it at least 50 times in the past thirteen years since its theatrical release! Therefore, it’s a “favorite.” (So is its companion piece 10 Cloverfield Lane, but I didn’t underestimate that one right away–I gave it 3 1/2 stars.)

Watch a movie a few more times and your feelings towards it will probably change. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.

And this is why I have Revised Reviews…or reviews in which I revisit these films just so I can talk about why I love them after some time has passed. (Hence, “My Favorite Movies.”)

Anyway, back to “Cloverfield.”

I was there…I was one of the witnesses to the most devastating, confusing event I ever saw unfold in front of my eyes…the horror…everything seemed so normal, and then…buildings blew up…flaming debris flew all over the city…and then the head of the Statue of Liberty suddenly made its way onto the street!! But the most horrifying part of it all?

The trailer didn’t have a movie title! OH, THE HORROR!!

Yes, I was one of those moviegoers that was confused and yet intrigued by that infamous teaser trailer that came before the first “Transformers” movie back in 2007. The first-person camera perspective capturing all the mayhem happening in Manhattan added to the tension and made me want to see the movie so I can understand just what the hell was going on! There was no title in the trailer–just a release date: 1-18-08. (For a while, I thought “1-18-08” was the title!)

Six months later, we got “Cloverfield.”

While The Blair Witch Project helped inspire this film’s look, “Cloverfield” was the film that helped make the “found-footage horror” subgenre popular (and the success of Paranormal Activity, which was made with even less money, would help even more a year later). What makes it effective is how slowly it builds everything up in the first 20 minutes. Everything seems normal, with a bunch of 20somethings hanging out at a party and going through some drama they have to talk each other through. And then suddenly, midway through a conversation, BOOM! The building shakes, there’s an explosion, the power goes out all over the city for a moment, everyone’s panicking and wondering what’s happening, they watch the TV news as soon as the power’s back on, they all go up the roof to find out more, A BUILDING BLOWS UP, THERE’S FLAMING DEBRIS HURLING ALL OVER THE CITY, EVERYONE’S SCREAMING AND YELLING AND GOING CRAZY–

I love that. Everything can seem so ordinary before it all goes to hell. “Cloverfield” captured that perfectly. And having it come from the first-person camera perspective helped a lot in making it effective–we are there watching the action happen. And what’s even more impressive is the production value–because the film looks cheap (in that this disaster movie is shot on ground-level with a handheld camera), it’s easy to forget that we’re bearing witness to many big-budget pyrotechnics that fit right at home in a “Godzilla” movie (blowing up the Brooklyn bridge, the military firing at the monster in the street, etc.). And because we’re seeing it at this level, it’s more disturbing and intriguing.

Once the film gets going, it hardly lets up. Our heroes, including Rob (Michael Stahl-David), Lily (Jessica Lucas), Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), and the camera-operator/comic-relief Hud (T.J. Miller), are in the middle of a city evacuation due to the presence of a gigantic monster that’s attacking the city. (And because we only see the monster from afar, we don’t get any info about it–the only explanation for its existence is merely implied.) But Rob has something else on his mind, as he decides to head deeper into the city to save his ex-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), for whom he still has feelings. His friends decide to follow him (especially Hud, because after all, he’s got to film everything), and we’re treated to one scary situation after another.

There is a quiet moment in which our heroes are safe underground in a subway station–they separate from each other to take in everything that’s happened already and, in a truly disturbing effective moment, they listen to the action happening above ground and can only imagine what could be happening right now. I felt that moment, and the acting, especially from Lizzy Caplan, is spot-on.

The scariest scene for most people who see the film has nothing to do with the big monster (though we do get a nice “eating” moment with the beast near the end). It’s set in a dark subway tunnel, which our heroes have to walk through when most of the streets are blocked off. OK, fine, it’s dark and there are rats, but the trains aren’t running and the gigantic monster can’t fit in there anyway. What do they have to worry about?……There are smaller monsters that come from the big monster…and they find their way into the tunnel…and we don’t see them until the camera’s night-vision is turned on…and they attack!

Trying to make your way through a really dark place is scary enough. You never know what’s in the dark waiting for you…

Of course, people complain about the film’s shaky camera movements. (In fact, theater owners had to warn people who were prone to motion sickness not to sit in the front row when they saw the movie.) Director Matt Reeves wanted to capture a realistic amateur look, since the film is being shot by characters who hardly know how to operate a video camera in the first place. It is annoying, but when you really think about it, it’s sort of acceptable, especially in the scenes in which Hud is running for his life. I don’t think he’s as concerned about getting “the perfect flowing running shot” as he is about capturing “how it all went down.”

“Cloverfield” is a truly effective horror film, and I enjoy watching it more than I enjoy watching any recent “Godzilla” movie, honestly. It’s like a “Godzilla” movie in which the perspective is always from the witnesses of the mass destruction. And it would help give birth to other “found-footage” movies…for better or worse.

My Favorite Movies – Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

I can thank film critic Richard Roeper for this one. I remember seeing on TV the “Ebert & Roeper” review for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” back in April 2008, when Roeper declared his love for the movie and even said it might be one of his top 50 favorite comedies of all time.

He got a lot of hate mail for that statement. But it’s 13 years later and I doubt anyone would want to argue with him about it nowadays–because “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a very, VERY funny movie!

Btw, Roeper responded to the haters in the most dignified way a critic could: “Well guess what, I think ‘Blazing Saddles’ is overrated, how do you like them apples!”

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a film about a guy going through a rough time after his girlfriend for five years breaks up with him. He’s played by Jason Segel, who also wrote the screenplay–yet another classic example of an actor writing the right role for himself to play. He isn’t afraid to make his character, Peter, pathetic and miserable…and he also isn’t afraid of showing you his pecker.

This film is full of hilarious moments and characters. Everyone is so funny here–Russell Brand’s rock-star Aldous Snow (whom he would play again in “Get Him to the Greek” two years later) is so funny; Paul Rudd’s stoned surfing teacher is so funny; that newlywed couple is so funny; Jonah Hill’s stalker character is so funny; Bill Hader as Peter’s stepbrother, holy crap is he funny! Mila Kunis is absolutely delightful as Peter’s rebound–she has a great sense of comic timing, is quite fetching, and makes her character the kind of woman *I* would’ve liked to be around in a time of crisis. Even Kristen Bell as Sarah Marshall could have been someone for us to hate, but even she’s funny; I especially love when she imitates Aldous Snow’s Cockney accent.

There are a lot of moments that make me laugh each time I watch this film; too many to name even–video conversations between Peter & his brother and his wife; the advertisements for fake TV shows; and the naked breakup. (Side-note: Segel has a point; who wants to remember what they wore during a breakup?…A better question is why is that line only said in the trailer instead of the movie?)

But my absolute favorite is at the end when the film gives us a glimpse of Peter’s musical adaptation of Dracula…performed by puppets!

One of the top 50 best comedies of all time? Maybe, maybe not. But then again, humor is subjective, not objective. It just depends on your sense of humor. But this one makes me laugh each time I see it. I love it.

And by the way, because of this movie, I now know that the state fish of Hawaii is the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a! (“Yeah, bitch!”)

My Favorite Movies – Pineapple Express (2008)

7 May

By Tanner Smith

As much as I love the balance of raunchy comedy and heartfelt drama in Judd Apatow productions like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” The Big Sick, and even Superbad (hey it’s got a heart too)…I freaking love the outlandish nature of “Pineapple Express,” a movie that is a great chunk of comedic dialogue/improvisation, outrageous action set pieces that show they were using their budget like it was no problem, and a weird anti-drug message even though I highly doubt many of the people involved took it to heart long since this movie’s release!

I guess you could say there’s some heartfelt drama in the scenes in which the main characters’ friendship develops, but…I never took it that seriously!

Thing is, I always saw “Pineapple Express” as a hella FUNNY movie! Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s typical mix of sharp wit and blunt outrageousness is elevated to action-comedy levels, all of the actors are having a ton of fun with their roles, and…what is my favorite scene in this? I don’t know!!

Is it the scene in which a panicked (and stoned) Dale (Rogen) tries to explain to his dealer Saul (James Franco) about the murder he just witnessed? Hilarious! Is it the long fight sequence between Dale, Saul, and the hilariously unreliable Red (Danny McBride)? Hilarious! Is it the chase scene where Saul has to kick through the red-slushee-drenched windshield in order to see where he’s going? HILARIOUS!

How about the whole final act in which Dale and Saul have to fight their way out of the villains’ lair, which is already invaded by Asian mobsters? (They never specify which “Asians,” so…racist? I dunno.) Even many of the violent deaths are so random and gratuitous, I just can’t help but laugh!

And in between all these hilarious sequences are some nicely handled down-to-earth moments where characters are just sitting around and talking. The director was David Gordon Green, who’s best known for low-key slices of life (and “Halloween 2018”), so seeing this director’s style brought to a Rogen/Goldberg script produced by Judd Apatow is actually pretty awesome. There’s a scene early into the proceedings as Dale and Saul just hang out and shoot the breeze, and it actually feels like a real conversation as opposed to many mainstream comedies were they’re improvising just because they desperately want to be funny.

I mentioned the actors having a ball with their respective roles, and there are A LOT of them here! Seth Rogen is great at being…well, still Seth Rogen, but still the likable type of Seth Rogen. James Franco is hilarious as an intentional extension of Brad Pitt’s drug dealer in “True Romance.” But there’s also Danny McBride as the hilariously unreliable dealer who constantly goes back and forth between helping our heroes and betraying them; Gary Cole and Rosie Perez as the sinister drug lord and corrupt cop who are out to kill these guys; Kevin Corrigan (from True Romance–coincidence?) and Craig Robinson who deserve their own buddy comedy as the two hitmen sent out to dispose of Dale and Saul; James Remar and Bill Hader as a general and a private in a hilarious (I keep using that word) prologue set in the 1930s; Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn as the parents of…Dale’s high-school girlfriend played by Amber Heard……

OK…even though the film makes it very clear Angie (Heard) is 18, it’s still kind of icky that this 20something-year-old process server is making out with his girlfriend by her locker.

Screw it, I love this crazy movie. I loved it as a teen and I love it as an adult.

My Favorite Movies – Baghead (2008)

5 May

By Tanner Smith

I didn’t want to call Baghead one of “my favorite movies” because it’s just so…simple?

But the whole “mumblecore” thing has definitely been a big influence on me as an indie filmmaker, so if I had to pick one, I guess I’ll have to pick “Baghead,” my favorite of the directorial efforts of Jay & Mark, the Duplass Brothers.

For those who wonder what I’m talking about, here’s a definition of “mumblecore”–a subgenre of independent film characterized by naturalistic acting and dialogue (sometimes improvised), low-budget film production, an emphasis on dialogue over plot, and a focus on the personal relationships of people in their 20s and 30s. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

“Baghead” is a strange, wonderful little film is centered around four actors who are down on their luck–one of whom is played by Steve Zissis, who went on to star in the Duplasses’ HBO series “Togetherness”; another is played by the one and only Greta Gerwig, who back then was labeled the “mumblecore queen.” They decide to take a trip to an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods so they can all work on a script idea for them to star in together. One of them has a nightmare about a stalker with a paper bag over his head, which sparks a new idea for a film: a horror movie about a “baghead” stalker-killer. But WOULDN’T YOU KNOW IT–there seems to be an actual baghead lurking outside the cabin!!

I know–what are the odds, right?!

This isn’t really a horror film, necessarily. It’s mostly a romantic comedy about Chad (Zissis) hoping to score with the lovely Michelle (Gerwig), who has a crush on Matt (Ross Partridge), who used to date Catherine (Elise Muller)…and then occasionally, Baghead shows up. It’s only near the end of the movie where the suspense truly elevates, and its payoff would be disappointing only if you’re going into this film thinking it’s a standard slasher flick. And I admire Jay & Mark Duplass for handling things unconventionally.

And how the movie was made was basically this: Jay, Mark, their actors, and a very small crew, went up to a cabin in Austin, Texas, in August 2007, and decided to just make a movie. They got the film completed just in time for Sundance 2008 and they ended up selling it for a whole more than it took to actually make it.

Jay & Mark’s first film was a similarly made-on-the-spot production “The Puffy Chair.” I admire that film more than I “like” it, though to be fair, I think it’s because I saw “Baghead” first. They followed up Baghead with their first studio production: Cyrus, starring popular actors like John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, but still made with the feel of a “Duplass Brothers production.”

The story of the Duplass Brothers, as chronicled in their wonderful autobiography “Like Brothers,” inspires me even today. They teach me that it doesn’t matter what I have to make art–it’s what I do with what I have that truly matters.

My favorite scene in “Baghead”: there’s actually a fairly creepy scene in which Michelle is waiting for Matt to enter her bedroom; Baghead appears and Michelle thinks it’s Matt playing a joke, so she takes her top off…but IS it Matt? She isn’t so sure anymore, and Baghead keeps watching until he suddenly walks away… Uncomfortable.

How did I first find out about this movie? Well, in June 2008, there was an episode of Ebert & Roeper in which Richard Roeper and guest critic Michael Phillips talked about it. They both admired it for its strangeness–Phillips in particular admitted he probably liked it so much because he saw many other films at Sundance that year that were even more pretentious than this one.

I may be dealing with a copyright issue here, but…here’s a transcript of that initial review, aired in mid-June 2008:

MICHAEL PHILLIPS: “I can’t think of a single reason why BAGHEAD should work at all…but it does. This new microbudget film by the Duplass brothers gives us four LA friends who want to jumpstart their fledgling film careers. So they head to Big Bear, east of LA, with the idea of writing a screenplay in the woods. For a while, the characters spend time scaring each other for fun, drinking too much, and then SOMEONE appears outside the cabin with a bag on his or her head. No one knows who it is, and at this point, a nicely observed deadpan comedy gets more and more interesting.”

(shows clip from trailer–“Somebody saw me naked!”)

PHILLIPS: “I don’t want to inflate Baghead or anything, but for me, the Duplass brothers show us, with Baghead, how the so-called ‘mumblecore’ genre should be done–with a sense of humor to go with a sense of everyday realities. In very limited release this weekend, it opens wider over the July 4th weekend…and I say ‘see it!'”

RICHARD ROEPER: “I’m with you, Michael–I liked this film quite a bit! I think this guy should’ve walked into that movie ‘The Strangers’ where they had the guy with the sackcloth over his head! (chuckles) This one’s a lot more entertaining–it’s very funny, it’s smart, and it can be really scary, and…it really has some nice performances as well, so, you know, people should look for this one.”

PHILLIPS: “I saw it the first time at the Sundance Film Festival, and I didn’t know if I was laughing then because I had just seen 10 movies that were so much lamer and more pretentious than this. But you know, second time through, it works well as its own kind of comedy.”

ROEPER: “Absolutely.”

Side-note: I miss this show. Roeper and Phillips had a good rhythm in reviewing new movies together.

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.