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Pineapple Express (2008)

4 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Imagine you like to smoke pot—like, a lot—and then you witness a murder by a pot farmer who definitely wants you hunted down and killed. How do you stay alive? Stay sober. It takes the “heroes” in the action-stoner-comedy “Pineapple Express” a long time to figure that one out. And when they do, it’s a pretty good subtext. After all of the crazy stuff that they get into, it’s almost guaranteed that they won’t want to get stoned again.

After “Cheech and Chong” come Dale and Saul—two American stoners. Dale (Seth Rogen) is a twentysomething-year-old process server whose girlfriend is in high school. Saul (James Franco) is his weed dealer. These two guys are sloppy enough for us to laugh at them. They’re not quite Cheech and Chong, or even Harold and Kumar, but I could see a TV series put somewhere in the scenes where the two American stoners hang out together in Saul’s apartment.

When Dale is about to deliver a subpoena to druglord Ted (Gary Cole), he witnesses Ted and a female cop (Rosie Perez) commit murder. Dale panics and flees, making a lot of noise while doing so. Frightened, Dale turns to Saul, and soon, the two are on the run.

That leads to silly, funny, and sometimes exciting action sequences for these characters to fall into—they get chased by the female cop in a car chase (the funny twist there is that their car has a red Slushee spilled all over the windshield), they get in a fight with the hilariously-unreliable Red (Danny McBride), and at the end, they wind up in a “Scarface”-inspired massacre between the drug lord and the Asian competition. And Dale and Saul are stoned throughout most of the situations that occur; during that massacre, it’s unclear if they’re still stoned or smart enough to know that whenever they’re stoned, bad things happen. Maybe this will teach them a lesson.

“Pineapple Express” was produced by Judd Apatow, who also produced R-rated comedy hits “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” and as if predictably, there are a lot of big laughs in it—I like the part where the two are tied up and use a strange method of trying to get out. However, be advised—this is just as profane as “Superbad.”

There are also some winning performances by Seth Rogen and James Franco and also, Danny McBride, who betrays the two heroes a few times; and despite getting shot multiple times and being blown up, he comes back like Wile E. Coyote. There are a couple of things wrong with Seth Rogen’s character—I mean, he’s funny here (he always is funny in everything he’s in), but it’s almost hard to root for a guy who sells weed to high school students and makes out with his girlfriend (smokin’ hot Amber Heard) by her locker. But by the end, we learn to dismiss all of that.

James Franco gives the best performance in the movie as the weed dealer obviously inspired by Brad Pitt’s character in “True Romance.”  He’s very funny here, and thankfully, he doesn’t bring the annoyance of Jay (of “Jay and Silent Bob” fame) or even Daffy Duck to this character. He’s simply a guy who is confused most of the time (because he’s stoned most of the time).

The three actors I’ve mentioned bring comic timing in this film. If someone like Liam Neeson, Daniel Craig, or even Sylvester Stallone took this on, it would have just been your basic action film. Ed Begley, Jr. and Nora Dunn make funny cameos in a scene set in Dale’s girlfriend’s house—a scene that I probably wouldn’t have liked if they hadn’t shown up.

Director David Gordon Green, whose previous work included indie films “George Washington,” “Undertow,” and “Snow Angels,” is the last director you’d expect to direct this Judd Apatow stoner-comedy/action picture, but he does such a good job at keeping the action and the comedy on mostly the same level—it seems almost like a stoner version of “The Blues Brothers,” which also mixed action and comedy. With great comic timing, a brilliant performance by James Franco, and some nifty (though very violent) action sequences, “Pineapple Express” is the movie that the second “Harold and Kumar” movie wanted to be.

Be Kind Rewind (2008)

26 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Be Kind Rewind” can be easily described as overtly whimsical. And that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. I can see a lot of people—or critics who in some ways resemble people—being somewhat annoyed by everything thrown at us by visionary director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and others completely won over by the magic of it all. I fall into the latter category.

Sometimes, “Be Kind Rewind” is sticky. Other times, it’s forced. Mostly, it’s enchanting. It takes place at a street corner in Passaic, New Jersey, which seems to be stuck in a time warp. It has probably the last VHS rental store in the world (the movie’s world, anyway)—no new releases, because those are available on DVD of which there is none on display whatsoever. It’s said to be the birthplace of jazz pianist “Fats” Waller, as store owner Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) believes. But it’s implied that that’s not the truth. The store is set up for foreclosure and demolition to make way for modern conveniences. Fletcher leaves town to see what he can do, leaving his faithful live-in employee Mike (rapper Mos Def) in charge with instructions to keep his klutzy, annoying friend Jerry (Jack Black) out of the store.

Jerry works at the nearby power station and in a half-baked scheme to sabotage it, he becomes “magnetized” and accidentally winds up erasing every tape in the store. Desperate and panicked, Mike and Jerry grab a vintage video camera and set out to make their own versions of popular movies and rent them out instead. With help from their friends, they start with “Ghostbusters,” then “Rush Hour 2,” and then these homemade versions become so popular that it becomes a new business with a system—name which movie you want “sweded” (that’s the term they choose because they insist that the tapes come from Sweden, but who are they fooling?) and they deliver the goods. Suddenly, the store has the best business it ever had, but that doesn’t seem to please the copyright holders of the original films very well, especially since people seem to enjoy these shorter, reenacted versions better.

That story is bizarre enough, but it’s far from predictable and it’s very intriguing in its whimsy. Gondry loves to experiment with quirky, awkward humor to further the production and there’s plenty to be found here, which I’ll leave for you to discover.

The casting is inspired. I’ve always been a fan of Jack Black, but he has found a role that suits him better than a lot of his earlier roles. Mos Def is quite good as Mike—he’s calm and relaxed in contrast to Black’s zaniness. Melonie Diaz sports a cute smile and a can-do attitude as Alma, a local woman who helps Mike and Jerry with their business. (It should be noted, though, that a potential romance between Alma and Mike is immediately forgotten about after it’s set up.) Veteran actors Mia Farrow and Danny Glover are excellent in supporting roles.

The film is also a heartfelt tribute to independent filmmaking if I ever saw one and the way these “films” come about and how many people support them are great to watch, especially for an indie filmmaker such as myself. On top of that, Mike and Jerry’s new versions of these films such as “Ghostbusters” and “RoboCop” are so enjoyable, so funny, and very quirky. That they made them in just a few hours made me think back to the times when I was a kid making movies with no experience and very little equipment. I just wanted to put on a show, as these guys did.

The ending is just wonderful. It brings the tribute full-circle and becomes a sequence so heartwarming, so enchanting, so whimsical, that I couldn’t help but smile and even start to cry. I was actually wishing for the end credits, not because of usual reasons, but because I wanted to keep the tears from coming. That’s how well “Be Kind Rewind” worked for me. It’s sweet, cute, and just downright enjoyable.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

19 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When Ang Lee’s “Hulk” was released in 2003, it left many movie audience members (and a few fans of the original Marvel comic book series) feeling disappointed. I think it was due to the fact that it was heavy on character development rather than action sequences (the special effects didn’t impress them either). So, a sequel was out of the question and a “reboot” was called on schedule to completely ignore the 2003 disappointment.

As a result, the reboot, entitled “The Incredible Hulk,” is a fairly decent superhero movie. When “Hulk” was more of a character piece, “The Incredible Hulk” has some of the same characters (Bruce Banner/Hulk, Betty Ross, and General Ross), but not much development. And no, I don’t just mean compared to the 2003 film either. But on the plus side, Bruce Banner is given enough development—that counts, considering he is the central character. And the character is played by a terrific actor who almost always has great screen presence—Edward Norton. I have to be honest—I wasn’t sure Edward Norton could hold a candle to Eric Bana (who played the Bruce Banner character in the 2003 film). Eric Bana showed a great sense of vulnerability as the character and was the subject of a tragic case. In Norton, I felt he was just as strong and added some original touches to the character.

The movie begins with an opening credits sequence that shows images of Bruce’s back-story. Bruce Banner was part of an experiment for the government that went totally wrong. Bruce became the Hulk as a result—for those who are new, the Hulk is the nickname for a giant green monster that Bruce transforms into when he gets angry. When the opening credits are over, we see Bruce hiding out in Brazil, where he learns to control his anger so the Hulk doesn’t take over, much like “Jekyll and Hyde.” Bruce is trying to find a cure for…I was going to say, “disease,” but what exactly do you call this? I dunno, but if he wants it gone, it’s a disease in this case. Anyway, Bruce works at an energy-drink bottling plant, where a drop of his blood accidentally drips into one of the bottles. This leads to General Ross (William Hurt, chewing the scenery here) discovering where Bruce is and sending his soldiers to chase after him.

This leads to a few action sequences that I have to admit are more fun than in the 2003 film. They’re so alive and energetic. They’re as much fun to watch as the action sequences in “Iron Man,” of which this film is in the same universe (you’ll find out what I mean when you see the very last scene of this movie). But what doesn’t quite work in “The Incredible Hulk” was an element that helped make “Iron Man” a strong piece of work—the love story. While the romance between “Iron Man’s” Tony Stark and Pepper Potts was fresh and very sweet, the romance between Bruce and Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), the daughter of General Ross, just seems all too generic. Also, Liv Tyler’s performance was pretty bland. But to be fair, I think that had to do with the way the character was written. There isn’t much juicy material written within the Betty character. There is one exceptionally clever moment with Bruce and Betty’s relationship later in the film as Bruce and Betty are about to make love when Bruce realizes that he can’t get too excited. (I would love to explain the dangers of a superhero sex scene, but I’ll save it for a superhero movie that actually has one.)

I also should say I like this 2008 Hulk better than the 2003 Hulk. It looks a lot better than the former Hulk (which looked more like Shrek on steroids) and has better movements. Sure, it’s CGI and there were times when I didn’t believe it was there. But in the 2003 film, I really didn’t believe the Hulk was there. Wrapping this up, what have I left out? Only the soldier played by Tim Roth, whose character’s motivations are given away by the film’s trailers (shame on the marketers, by the way).

Sex Drive (2008)

13 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Just about every year, we get a new teenage sex comedy to relieve us from gravity and also harmlessness. 2008’s is “Sex Drive,” a movie about as raunchy and vulgar as the “American Pie” movies. Looking at the trailer for this movie, I thought I was in for yet another formulaic teen movie. But somehow, “Sex Drive” is fresher than it seems, mainly because the lead characters in the film are so appealing and likable. That’s a nice surprise for a movie like this.

The movie centers around an awkward eighteen-year-old named Ian (Josh Zuckerman) who strikes up a Chat relationship with a hot girl he met…online. She thinks he’s a jock, but the truth is, he’s kind of a dork. He doesn’t get respect at work (he’s forced to go around the mall and sell coupons for a doughnut shop…while dressed as a giant doughnut with eyes and a moving mouth that Ian operates himself) or at home. He always gets himself in embarrassing situations that bring his stepmom to think that he’s weird and unpleasant.

Ian’s best friends are Lance (Clark Duke) and Felicia (Amanda Crew). Lance is pudgy, wears glasses, and has zits…but he scores with a dozen girls because he’s so confident. He’s one of the popular guys in school who tries to give Ian some enough confidence to be with a girl. Felicia is a rebel girl who acts tough enough not to wear a dress for her cousin’s wedding, is best friends with Ian, and secretly has a crush on Lance.

Ian’s online “girlfriend” asks Ian to come down to Knoxville, Tennessee, where she promises him the best time of his life. Lance talks him into stealing his older brother’s hot-looking GTO (nicknamed “The Judge”) and travel all the way from California to Tennessee and get lucky with this girl. In tow is Felicia, who doesn’t know why they’re going to Tennessee but loves the ride.

The movie borrows a few traits from “The Sure Thing”—a teenager travels far just to save sex with someone he barely knows and winds up through a series of misadventures with his passengers. “Sex Drive” isn’t up there with “The Sure Thing.” It’s also not entirely good either. The script has some jokes that are hit-and-miss, and are neither funny nor convincing. “Sex Drive” has issues with supporting characters—there’s an older brother (played by James Marsden) who is constantly on testosterone. Like many annoying older brothers in movies, he’s obnoxious and picks on his younger brother, calling him gay because he’s still a virgin. The punchline for this character may be funny, but the character just isn’t. He’s just irritating. Then, there are the hillbillies that they run into. Then, there’s the hitchhiker they pick up. Then, there are the Amish folk that the characters meet—that whole sequence is somewhat distasteful. And there are many more uneven characters in this movie, to distracting and disturbing effect. It seems like the characters these three teenagers meet are from another planet. That makes “Sex Drive” not so pleasant an experience.

One exception to the uneven supporting characters rule is the Amish character played by Seth Green. Sporting a funny-looking beard, Green plays an Amish fellow who happens to know a thing or two (or a hundred) about fixing motor vehicles. He comes in handy when the heroes’ car breaks down. I like the scene where he and Lance have a talk about his trip to Las Vegas while riding in a horse-drawn carriage.

What’s refreshing about “Sex Drive” are the three teenagers. Ian, Lance, and Felicia are appealing and well-played by Zuckerman, Duke, and Crew. Duke and Crew, in particular, get the frequent share of one-liners and they pull through with great comic personalities. And their characters all have some unique developments (especially Lance who finally finds someone to love). Too bad they’re in a movie that exploits them rather than tries to love them.

NOTE: I really liked that doughnut suit that Ian wears a few times in the movie. That alone gets a big laugh.

The Strangers (2008)

6 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

1996’s “Scream” pointed out that horror movies featuring psychotic killers are much scarier when no motives are declared for their atrocious deeds. That may be true, but maybe a simpler motive than you’d expect has a creepier element to it. And here we have “The Strangers,” which features masked killers who invade a couple’s home and terrorize them. Why do they do this? “Because you were home.”

That’s it. That line hits a strong note because even in a horror film such as this, being at home won’t help you at all. You think you’re safe and alone, but you’re not. That is a very chilling thought. There are times when I’m home alone and I hear some noise outside and I don’t feel like I’m safe. It could just be a raccoon or something, but it could be someone trying to get in.

“The Strangers” is a chilling horror film about such a home invasion. It’s the debut feature of Bryan Bertino, who pulls out all the stops to create something tense and disturbing. The plot isn’t new, but Bertino’s cinematography makes for great production value and helps make “The Strangers” into something less than a geek show with a lot of blood and gore. There is more terror and suspense here than anything else, keeping the audience on edge throughout the film’s brisk 85-minute running time.

The film takes place in a cabin in the woods as Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) arrive in the middle of the night after a wedding reception. James has proposed to Kristen, who has turned him down. So things are uncomfortable and uneasy for the two of them, and they awkwardly try to keep conversation to keep the night from being too unpleasant for both of them. But before they get a chance to make amends, there’s a knock at the door. It seems strange and they shrug it off, but before long, they realize that there are three people in masks who harass them and make their night miserable. With no one around to help and nowhere to run, Kristen and James find themselves fighting for their lives alone in this house.

“The Strangers” produces a great deal of chilling scenes. The most effective are the ones without music. Why? Because we don’t need it. Take a look at the scene in which you see a figure in the background as Kristen walks forward, not noticing. You don’t need a sharp music cue to show that the figure is there and that he or she means death. The audience will scream because it’s out of the ordinary. Sound effects also play a good part in the film, whether it’s banging on a door, record repetitions, shotgun blasts, etc. But it’s the cinematography that must be praised. It allows us to see things that shouldn’t be there and we’re surprised to see (like that scene I mentioned before), and it always shows purpose with each shot.

Something else I should bring up about the creepiness factor—those masks the killers wear are very freaky. They’re mostly blank white faces (hello, Michael Myers) that are enough to terrify and shock.

The characters—these two people played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman—are always engaging. I liked them and I hoped they would make it out of this scary situation alive. Sure, they make mistakes, but they are bright enough to know their limitations even though they come to them a little later than they expected. My favorite moment is when they find a shotgun and Speedman confesses he doesn’t know how to use it. “I’m not sure I even know how to load it.” “But I thought you said you went hunting with your dad.” “That…was just something I said.” And then, without giving anything away, when Speedman does something terrible by accident, I really felt bad for him.

I have to admit when “The Strangers” opened with a disclaimer saying it was inspired by true events, I rolled my eyes in disbelief. First of all, we know that’s not true and this isn’t “Fargo.” Second of all, don’t have someone read what we can. If Bertino (or whoever made this decision) is concerned about blind people seeing the movie, here’s a newsflash for you—most of the movie is silent anyway! Third of all, don’t start the disclaimer saying it was based on a true story and then end it with stating that the “brutal events that took place are still entirely known!” Are you trying to create controversy?

But then once “The Strangers” kicked in with the story, I got into it. It was chilling, disturbing, well-made, and very effective.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

19 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Well, it’s time for a new lovable loser to take over the writing in the comedies coming off the Judd Apatow assembly line. First came Judd Apatow himself, writing (and directing) the romantic comedies “40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” Then came Seth Rogen and his buddy Evan Goldberg, writing the teenage comedy “Superbad.” Now for the Apatow-produced romantic comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he calls back his former “Freaks & Geeks” cast member Jason Segel and introduces a newcomer—Nicholas Stoller—to direct.

Segel not only writes this material, but also stars in it as a guy named Peter, who has a great relationship with his TV-star girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) and also provides the ominous background-music “tones” for her crime show. But when Sarah comes over to his apartment, saying “I love you” in a pitiful tone, that can only mean one thing.

So Peter and Sarah are broken up and Peter is not taking it very well. To call him a wreck would be an understatement. He’s advised to take a vacation in Hawaii to take his mind off of her. But there’s a problem—Sarah is there with her new boyfriend and staying at the same hotel!

Things are about as complicated as they could possibly get. Sarah’s new boyfriend—the British rock singer Aldous Snow (Russell Brand)—is a complete weirdo, and things get really awkward when Aldous invites Peter to eat with him and Sarah at a restaurant. But soon enough, Peter finds a friend and trace of hope in the attractive hotel receptionist, Rachel (Mila Kunis). She’s beautiful, sympathizes with Peter, and lends him a supporting hand.

All of the people on the island in this movie are just hilarious and there are a handful of characters to watch and enjoy. There’s not only the zany Aldous Snow. There’s also the constantly stoned surfing instructor (played with relish by Paul Rudd), the religious newlyweds who have trouble with sex, the waiter/stalker (Jonah Hill) who tries to get Aldous to take a listen to his demo tape, and the island’s butcher. I don’t know if this counts as “on the island,” but there’s also Peter’s stepbrother whom Peter constantly stays in touch with via Skype. He’s very funny as well.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” has a wonderful screenplay by Segel (who, remember, also stars as Peter). He’s not afraid of making Peter into a desperate schlub of a guy, which makes for very funny moments in the first act. And for that matter, he’s also not afraid of…how do I put this? Letting it all hang out. The scene in which Sarah breaks up with Peter features quick shots of Peter’s genitals, pushing just how far the MPAA rating system could go.

Segel also gives the side characters more than enough moments to shine and the actors are game enough to give them their all. Bill Hader, as Peter’s stepbrother, delivers some of the film’s funniest one-liners while mainly on the other end of a cell phone or a computer, and his sweet-natured wife is very likable, though her role is very brief. Russell Brand is simply hysterical as Aldous Snow, who, with his long hair, lion-like face, thick British accent, and calm-yet-nutty mannerisms, is a comic treat of a character on screen. Paul Rudd is winningly silly. Jonah Hill has some great moments as he stalks Aldous while he thinks he’s being subtle about it.

The two main women are also written well and portrayed even better by the actresses. Sarah isn’t written as a complete snob (a kinder word for “bitch”). She just believes that her relationship with Peter didn’t work out and would like to try something new. She doesn’t hate Peter and we, as an audience, don’t dislike her. Kristen Bell does a nice job of portraying Sarah Marshall as having more humanity than you would expect in this sort of role. Mila Kunis (of TV’s “That ‘70s Show” fame) is absolutely delightful as Rachel—she has a great sense of comic timing, is quite fetching, and makes Rachel the kind of girl I would like to get to know in a time of crisis.

Those previous three paragraphs have gone out of their way to give praise to the written characters of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and how the actors portray them, but what else does the screenplay give us? Only more and more quirks to make us laugh. I couldn’t find a single weak link when it comes to the comedy in this script. What can you say about a musical about Dracula…featuring puppets? Seriously, what can you say? I couldn’t say anything. Why? Because I was constantly laughing. Oh, and I should also mention that a majority of the jokes in this movie are not merely gross-out gags…they’re just sex jokes. To be honest, I’m actually kind of relieved.

But also, like in previous Apatow comedies like “40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” the mix between raunchiness and romance is kept in check; carefully fashioned and convincing. Many of the moments that feature Peter and Rachel together reminded me of the finest moments in “When Harry Met Sally.” Segel and Kunis show a great deal of chemistry, they’re convincing throughout, and their comic timing is spot-on.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a hilarious and even heartfelt movie with a funny screenplay, likable acting, and a real heart to go with the humor. And the last thing to say is that if I wind up in a predicament like Peter’s and need a vacation to take my mind off it, I hope Mila Kunis is there to help me out.

Note: I might be wrong on this one, but if the shots of Peter’s nudity had stayed on a little longer, the R rating for this movie may have been replaced with an NC-17.