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The Happening (2008)

9 May

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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Our heroes are a high-school science teacher, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg); his emotionally withdrawn wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel, keeping her eyes as wide as she possibly can); Elliot’s best friend, Julian (John Leguizamo); and Julian’s young daughter, Jess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

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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

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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!

Let the Right One in (2008)

25 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I get the feeling that “vampire movie” is a genre. Like any genre, we can try and ignore it but it just keeps coming back, for better or worse. Films like “Let the Right One In” make me optimistic about it, though. Yes, “Let the Right One In” features a vampire, as did “Twilight,” and yes, the vampire falls in love with a human, as does the vampire in “Twilight.” But one of the joys about “Let the Right One In” is how less exploitive it is about the vampire standards than “Twilight.” In fact, the human that the vampire comes to like doesn’t even realize that this strange person is a vampire until more than an hour into the film.

The vampire girl and the human boy are both reaching adolescence (“How old are you,” the boy asks. “Twelve…but I’ve been twelve for a long time.”), but despite their age, this film is not intended for children. It is deadly grim. The deeds these kids perform may even give adults nightmares. The girl has to kill in order to feed on human blood and the boy would like to exact serious revenge against a sadistic bully. At night, he practices by stabbing a pole and repeating what the bully says to him. And then there’s that scene that involves a swimming pool that puts you on edge—I won’t give away what happens in that scene, but having a vampire on your side may come in handy, just so I’ve said it.

The boy’s name is Oskar and the girl’s name is Eli. They are both lonely, strange, and in need of a better existence but of course, nothing is very simple. A great connection and friendship builds between the two. And for us in the audience, the connection moves us—we feel empathy for these kids, we feel sorry for them, and we may not like the dirty deeds these kids perform but understand why they do them.

I haven’t even tried to describe this film, which is very well-made. The setting of the snowy small town in Sweden sets a dark and creepy mood for the whole film and director Tomas Alfredson knows how to stage a scene. He keeps his camera focused on one thing so what happens in the background is what we’d really like to see—it’s what we don’t see that scares us. Consider the scene where Eli’s adult apartment-mate kills a man and fills a pitcher with blood coming from the wound. Do we see the actual act? No. That shot of the victim being killed is obscured by a tiny tree among others near an icy pond. And then there’s that scene in the swimming pool I mentioned earlier—with the scene I just told you about, you’ll understand just how great the payoff looks.

But how can I really describe just how deadly grim this film is? I guess I can’t. But the vampire element is definitely not exploited enough and I love that. This movie is described as a “vampire movie,” but what really is a vampire movie? One about self-discovery and relationships between human and vampire? Or one about exploitation and a heavy amount of lust for blood and sex between human and vampire? What we really have is a relationship that occurs between these two lonely twelve-year-olds who perform deadly deeds and try to get by in this cruel world. I love this movie a little more than “Near Dark,” also a so-called “vampire movie” about self-discovery. Still, “Let the Right One In” features a vampire, and if the term “vampire movie” is in fact a genre now, I can say that “Let the Right One In” is one of the best.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008)

21 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Harold and Kumar are appealing characters. They’ve certainly proved that in 2004’s “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.” Harold is of Korean descent, Kumar of Indian descent, but they’re both living in America like every day Americans…and they get along great together because they smoke more pot than Cheech and Chong. In “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle,” they spent a night of funny misadventures trying to find White Castle and eat there like regular Americans. Along the way, they are met by racists who make them miserable. That movie had a heart to it. Their next movie, “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” has no heart and I’ve been unable to locate its brain.

This is a mean-spirited, uninspired sequel to “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle” that is an insult to the eyes and ears of people who love comedy. It does have decent performances by John Cho and Kal Penn, reprising their roles as the likable potheads Harold and Kumar, but the script has nowhere interesting to go and the direction is heavy-handed.

We pick up where the first movie left off, as Harold and Kumar board a plane to Amsterdam to meet the girl of Harold’s dreams. What they didn’t count on was a racist old lady. Get this—what she sees when she sees Kumar on the plane is an Arabian terrorist ready to strike. And then she yells bloody murder and Harold and Kumar are arrested. You can already tell that this movie is going to blow.

Our heroes are accused of being terrorists and brought to the most unlikable character in the movie—a sleazy, slimy, evil-grinning, ultimately racist, hawkish government hotshot Ron Fox (Rob Corddry). There are so many wrong things going on with this character that it’s never funny. I wanted to punch a hole in the screen every time he showed up. What’s worse? Corddry plays the character so well. He locks the boys up in Guantanamo Bay, where no one “even heard of rights.” As the title suggests, Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay.

Now, the title suggests at least some funny material. But no. It’s only five minutes out of this mess but an unfunny five minutes.

Anyway, Harold and Kumar are out to clear their name and have many misadventures involving hillbilly in breeders, a KKK rally, a bottomless swimming party, a conversation with an unexpected ally, and a tripping Neil Patrick Harris, played by…Neil Patrick Harris. Harris at least brings charisma to the mix but it’s too little, too late. All the other misadventures—especially the KKK rally and inbred Cyclops—are missed opportunities. And then there are two romantic subplots, but even they seem uninspired.

There is one funny moment that should be mentioned because I can only think of how better the movie would be if it was like that moment—it’s a flashback of the boys in college. Kumar was as uptight as Harold is and vice versa. That was funny and I just wish the movie took chances, like in that scene.

To sum it all up, THIS is what Harold and Kumar are reduced to? After getting to know them in the previous movie, which had laughs throughout, we have to see them be the targets of racism and that sleazy government agent? I mean it—Corddry deserves a punch in the face right now.

I heard there was going to be a third movie featuring Harold and Kumar—“A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas.” If that’s true, the filmmakers need better material to work with. “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” is an uninspired sequel and not even Cho, Penn, and NPH’s charm, nor that one funny scene, could save it.

NOTE: Long after writing this review, “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas” has been released. I still haven’t seen it yet, though I suppose I should.

Fireproof (2008)

19 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Fireproof” is a movie drenched in sentimentality, and yet it worked for me because it remained consistent in tone. Somehow when the message in “Fireproof” draws itself even clearer than it already has, the movie became more touching. It comes close to the edge of becoming too sentimental for its own good, and I think other people who see this movie will believe it did already reached the edge, but it still worked for me. It touched my heart, and that’s what it was trying to do in the first place.

The film, made by a Christian film company called Sherwood Pictures (based upon the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia), is a drama with this message—be true to your spouse. It also coins a process for married couples to use when it seems like their marriages are falling apart—this process is called “The Love Dare.” It’s a 40-day procedure that the main character in “Fireproof” has to perform in an attempt for his wife to love him again.

Caleb Holt (Kirk Cameron) is a fireman whose marriage with Catherine (Erin Bethea), a nurse, is falling apart. Catherine hates Caleb’s addiction to Internet pornography and his large savings for a boat he intends to buy. She would rather use the money to buy a better hospital bed for her sick mother.

Catherine says she wants out, and then files for divorce. Caleb turns to his father (Harris Malcom) and tells him about the impending divorce. His answer is “The Love Dare.” Caleb isn’t so sure about this at first, but soon enough, he’s going through this procedure day by day. In the meantime, Catherine isn’t buying her husband’s sudden niceness and just ignores his offers, while also possibly having an affair with a handsome doctor she works with. But the truth of the matter is that Caleb has indeed changed and he realizes that his motto—“Never leave your partner behind”—doesn’t just count at the firehouse or on rescue missions, but also—and arguably, most importantly—with your spouse.

“Fireproof” handles this plot by making me think that it’s going one way, while really, some of the time, it’s going another—I won’t even go into the point where the divorce papers come in—and that was a surprise. I’m uncertain that audiences for this movie will notice that—Christian audiences, mainly—but I am certain that the film’s weepy ending will sincerely move them. And I need to be honest here…I came so close to crying. The film’s ending did indeed touch me and that counts for this review.

The film isn’t entirely based on those moments that make people want to weep, however. There are comic antics performed by the other firemen—I love the scene where Caleb challenges a rookie to a tobacco-sauce-drinking contest. And there are two rescue scenes—one involving a car on train tracks and the other involving a burning house. This is a surprise, too. The action is well-directed (by Alex Kendrick, pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church) and well-paced.

“Fireproof” doesn’t feature acting that would cause consideration for awards, but there are some decent performances, especially from Kirk Cameron as the lead character and from Ken Bevel as a fireman who encourages Caleb to become a born-again Christian. Erin Bethea is adequate as Catherine, but her shouting scenes are a little off.

I understand whom “Fireproof” will appeal to and I believe that other people—especially those with marriages that are falling apart—should see it too. It’s a sweet, sentimental film with a positive message—what’s wrong with that?

Hancock (2008)

15 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Hancock” is an unusual superhero movie. Will Smith plays the title character John Hancock, who happens to have powers beyond belief and never grows old. I guess you could call him a superhero, but the trouble is that he has a really bad attitude, he’s an alcoholic, and he trashes everything surrounding him when he’s forced to stop trouble. It’s a nice premise. I mean, not all superheroes are nice guys, right? And he doesn’t even have a secret identity.

This isn’t a great movie, but Will Smith pulls it off with his usual attitude that makes all of his movies watchable.

Jason Bateman plays a public-relations agent/family man named Ray. He has a wife named Mary (Charlize Theron) and a young son. Hancock saves his life when he’s almost run down by a train (but also trashes his car and derails the train in the process). Ray owes him and decides to help him clean up his act. He takes him home; his son likes him, but Mary seems to know him from long ago, and keeps giving him a look, which doesn’t make this a spoiler. Hancock spends a few weeks in prison and Ray visits from time to time to counsel him and help him.

Soon enough, Hancock becomes a better man and tries not to trash the place when he foils a robbery when he’s released. However, things do not go so well for him afterwards. That’s just the first half of “Hancock.” There’s a big twist in the second half that makes us go “What?! Whoa!”

(I saw this movie in a theater with my friends and that was my real reaction to the twist.)

Will Smith is great in this role as the superhero with a hangover. He has this attitude and charisma that makes us laugh or care. From comedic roles in his infamous TV series “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to tough guy roles in “Men in Black” to dramatic Oscar-nominated roles in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith is a powerhouse performer and doesn’t seem to work hard to make his movies hits.

Also, Jason Bateman is quite good and relaxed as the nice guy who attempts to change Hancock. Charlize Theron is quite effective as Mary. She has nice moments as the wife who seems to have a history with Hancock. The only trouble with her character is we know that she has a history when we first see her on screen with Hancock.

The action scenes are big-budget and are spent as much time as the ones in “Spider-Man” or “Batman.” Most of Hancock’s antics, such as when he’s flying through the air and placing a car on top of a building (with people in it), are funny but most of them are also heartless. But luckily, director Peter Berg knows that the audience doesn’t care about him flying through the air throughout the whole running time. So, he puts in those moments when Ray is counseling Hancock and has a little secret and back story behind Hancock. Like I said, this isn’t a great movie but Will Smith makes it work for me.