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Adventureland (2009) (revised review)

28 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This is a “revised” review of “Adventureland.” I wrote my original review of the movie three years ago, and back then, I only kind of liked it. But oddly enough, I found myself watching it again recently—but that’s not the odd part. The odd part was that I watched it three times in the past week and found myself admiring it more each time. It happens sometimes—you feel one way after watching a certain movie, and you either love or hate it with subsequent viewings.

So I’m writing a new review on “Adventureland.” But I’m not going back to the original source. I’m starting from scratch.

I think I know what it was back then. I think at the time I watched “Adventureland” on DVD for the first time, knowing that Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig were among the cast and also that it was directed by Greg Mottola whose previous film was the hilariously vulgar “Superbad,” I was expecting a “Superbad-esque” comedy. And it didn’t help that the trailers and TV spots marketed the film to be a slapstick-filled, crudely-funny, wacky comedy. There are laughs to be had, a few sex jokes to be tossed around, a few beers to be had, a few joints to be toked (as well as pot-cookies to be consumed), and an annoying character that constantly hits the main character in the nuts…but “Adventureland” is actually more mature and insightful than the original trailer would like you to believe. It’s a comedy, but it’s based around realistic situations, truthful characters, and, surprisingly, a lack of cheap laughs. Crudeness and profanity are left at a minimum here. Artificial humor doesn’t seem to be at work here, and no laughs are forced (well, for the most part—like I said, there’s a groin-flicking d-bag, but he’s not overused). The mature themes of “Superbad” (growing up, knowing those you’re comfortable with, respecting the opposite sex, etc.) are more at work with “Adventureland,” with no distracting partying-cop characters to hang with the McLovin character.

So maybe I was expecting something a little broader, along the lines of “Superbad,” mainly because of deceptive marketing. The first time I watched “Adventureland,” there was at least something there to keep me entertained enough to like it. The second time I watched it, I noticed something a little more about the heart of the film. Now, with a few more viewings, I find myself admiring it even more for what it is rather than what I may have expected it to be. The truth of the matter is that “Adventureland” has a unique, effective balance between humor and honesty that doesn’t feel the need to be so crude in order to gain an audience along the lines of the Judd Apatow crowd. (Remember—Judd Apatow did not direct “Superbad.”) Instead, it’s a nicely-done coming-of-age romance with sharp writing, a smart sense, and realistic, appealing characters. Most of the characters are in their early-20s, which is unusual for a film like this, but remember that young adults can come of age in comedy-dramas too. And they’re real people too—not stereotypical cardboard cutouts of what we expect from such a film that the marketing would like us to think. The characters are treated with respect and dignity, and they’re three-dimensional as well.

Also noticeable is how much attention to detail is given to the undignified employment of a second-rate amusement park. In this case, that park is called Adventureland. It’s 1987, and the rides at Adventureland may be fun, but a few key characters work games. In a wonderful sequence early in the film, we’re introduced to the technical aspects of the games, all of which are rigged to be unwinnable—there’s a ring toss with rings that have the same width as the tops of target-bottles; there’s a series of mannequins with hats glued onto their heads so that players can’t shake them off with balls; there’s a basketball hoop that has been hammered into an oval shape; and so on. The idea is that no one can win the best prize in the park, which is a Giant Ass Panda (an oversized stuffed panda), because there aren’t many of those left. The other prizes are just disposable little stuffed animals with make squeaking noises. I’m not sure, but it seems as if the rules of this park comes from firsthand experience. I wonder if director Mottola, who also wrote the film, worked at such a place in the ‘80s.

James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is a recent college graduate who lands a games-job at Adventureland for the summer, because his father lost his job and so his parents can’t pay for graduate school in New York City. The job basically requires him to run the game booths for minimum wage, and it’s not very exciting. But he does meet some interesting people, including Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s maintenance man who is in a band and is said to have jammed with such rock stars as Lou Reed…and also plays the field despite being married. There’s also deadpan intellectual Joel (Martin Starr), who shows James the ropes and has something particular in common with James: awkwardness around women. That leaves Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva, astonishingly beautiful), the park’s main attraction (in a way), and Em (Kristen Stewart), a friendly girl-next-door type whom James befriends. James makes friends with his fellow employees at Adventureland, and due to his supply of joints, he also becomes popular among them. And he even finds himself falling for Em. But there are two problems that arise. One is that Lisa P. actually kind of likes James, much to his surprise (and everyone else’s, frankly), so he decides to go on a date with her, since he and Em aren’t “exclusive.” Another is that Em is actually Connell’s secret lover.

It’s a very complicated love story in that James and Em obviously like each other and share undeniable chemistry, but James is too impressed with himself dating the kind of woman who usually wouldn’t give him a chance, and Em is still in the middle of her affair with Connell and not sure how to end it. It’s complicated, and believably so. These are real people who make mistakes and of course learn to realize them, though sometimes after it seems like things may not turn out so nice. One of the most refreshing things about the Connell/Em subplot is that Connell is not characterized as a grade-A douche-bag. When he discovers that James has feelings for Em, he doesn’t try and ruin chances of a possible romance between the two. Although he does give certain advice that sort of unnerves James (which further leads to James going through with a date with Lisa P.), he’s not a jerk. We don’t forgive him for cheating on his wife, but the character is three-dimensional. Any other movie, he might be the villain who deserves a comeuppance. Here, he’s not entirely sympathetic, but he’s not dislikable either.

This goes back to what I wrote earlier about how these characters seem and feel like real people. James likes to think he’s smart and sophisticated, but he’s not as bright as he seems and he notices that as the film continues. Em comes from an uneven home, but she sometimes causes the problems with her stepmother. They’re not too bright, but they’re not too dim either. They feel like they’re patterned after real people. When James and Em are together, it feels real—awkward, but not terribly so; sweet, but not overdone; and funny, but within the context. The same kind of realistic conversational setup can be seen in James’ talks with Joel or Connell. And what about the affair? How is that handled? Without giving it away, it’s handled convincingly and refreshingly.

Jesse Eisenberg has been unfairly labeled as a “Michael Cera copycat” in this movie, but that’s really not fair. If anything, Eisenberg has a further amount of awkwardness to offer, and on top of that, a drier comedic wit. Every word he says, you know he’s trying to be careful in saying it, lest he say anything stupid, and thinking hard and quick about it first. He delivers a convincing portrayal of a geek, never overplaying it. And then there’s Kristen Stewart, also unfairly labeled, though for her it’s because of the “Twilight” movies. For goodness sake, leave Kristen Stewart alone. Stewart can act, and can act very well. Her performance in “Adventureland” is a demo I can immediately think about. Stewart plays Em as an appealing, fully-realized, modest girl-next-door type that would take a chance on James, and who James would fall for. She’s great here. Of the supporting cast, Ryan Reynolds is solid in a role that could have been too easy to play. Martin Starr is a great deadpan.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the adults who run the park. Personally, I find these two to be a distraction. Don’t get me wrong—at times, I find them funny (hell, even Hader’s porn-star mustache gets a laugh out of me); other times, they just seem unnecessary. They just come off as desperate needs for comic relief, and they’re not needed for that because we already have Joel and a few other (stoned) employees for that. I feel bad saying this, because I love these two comic actors—they were fantastic on SNL.

“Adventureland” doesn’t rely on crudeness, profanity, and vulgarity to attempt to get a story going. There are a few moments of such, but they’re far from overused. More importantly, this movie is actually about something. It’s about the routine experiences of a summer job, finding ways to keep it interesting through the people you meet and the misadventures you have, and with characters that grow a convincing bond together. It’s about structure and about character, and I loved spending time with these people. I wondered what would become of these people years down the road.

This is a coming-of-age comedy-drama that doesn’t disgust, doesn’t overdo its sweetness, doesn’t rely on cruelty for humor, and overall, doesn’t rely on familiar territory to keep it going. I liked this movie the first time I watched it; I love it even more now. Who knows? Maybe down the road, I’ll grow to forgive the film of the unnecessary Hader-Wiig characters and even grant it a four-star rating. Hey, it could happen.

The Hangover (2009)

22 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

(Originally reviewed early 2010)

“The Hangover” is a very satisfying type of comedy. It’s funny and well-made, but also with the feel of a mystery thriller. The plot: Four men throw a bachelor party in Las Vegas and have a crazy night, as it seems, but they can’t remember a thing and can’t figure out why there’s a tiger in their Caesar’s Palace suite bathroom, whose baby is in their closet, why one of them is missing a tooth, and most importantly where the groom is. The marketing campaign that asks these questions lets you know right away that this movie is going to be quite something. And then the movie opens: the wedding is being prepared, the bride is wondering if the groom is going to show up, she gets a call from a friend of the groom’s saying that there won’t be a wedding.

We then flash two days earlier. The groom is a clean-cut young man named Doug (Justin Bartha, the National Treasure movies). He’s getting married to a nice woman who has a pudgy, strange, bearded brother named Alan (Zach Galifianakis). So his friends—vulgar schoolteacher Phil (Bradley Cooper) and sensitive dentist Stu (Ed Helms)—throw him a bachelor party in Las Vegas, taking Alan along for the ride. They check into a Caesar’s Palace suite and have drinks on the roof of the building.

Then, the next morning, they wake up in their suite and find themselves with the important questions: Where is Doug? Why is there a tiger in the bathroom? Whose baby is in their closet? Why is Stu missing a tooth? Why did the valet bring them a police car?

The rest of the movie is about them trying to piece together the mystery and figure everything out. They can’t remember a thing that happened that night because it turns out that Alan drugged them all with roofies. Their journey to figure everything out leads them to a violent encounter with Mike Tyson, a visit to a Vegas wedding chapel, a crude police station, and a nasty run-in with a Chinese mobster.

All of this is just flat-out funny. I laughed a whole lot during this movie. And it helps that the characters feel somewhat real as they possess personality problems. Phil is a schoolteacher who likes to steal his students’ money (to fund the trip), Stu is trying to get along with his snobby girlfriend, and Alan is just plain…strange.

I mean it. This character has to be seen to be believed. Zach Galifianakis turns in a great comic performance—the kind of breakout role that made John Belushi a star in “Animal House.” He’s short, bearded, awkward, clueless, and just wants to be liked. And he delivers some great lines, such as when Stu notices a woman wearing his grandmother’s “Holocaust ring”: “I didn’t know they give out rings at the Holocaust.” And also, he’s so sincere the way he says things like, “Is this the real Caesar’s Palace? Did Caesar live here?” I especially loved his “wolf-pack” speech he gives on the roof with his new buddies.

“The Hangover” is a mystery-comedy, which I didn’t even know existed, and director Todd Phillips (“Old School” and “Road Trip”) and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore take no mercy in taking us along for the ride and laughing with it too. “The Hangover” is a hilarious movie with a terrific story and weird characters.

Observe and Report (2009)

21 Jun

Observe and Report

Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

All right, let’s get it out of the way. “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” was released the same year as “Observe and Report” and they each feature a mall cop as a leading character. Whoop-de-do.

But both movies are undeniably different from each other. While they are satirical looks at this sort of “rent-a-cop” occupation, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is a suitable family film in that it’s lighthearted, silly nonsense, while “Observe and Report” is…I mean, holy *bleep*. This movie is like the Bizarro “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” It’s dark, unusual, twisted, demented, crude, and completely *bleep*ed up. Seriously, this is a freaking deranged film. At times, it’s funny in its dementedness; other times, it’s very uncomfortable in such; and mostly, it’s unpleasant. One thing that I can’t deny, however, is that writer-director Jody Hill (of the equally-unusual “The Foot-Fist Way”) isn’t afraid to go all out with how crazily he can develop a story.

Seth Rogen stars as the “mall cop” of the story, but don’t expect a lovable loser from this character and performance. While Rogen has been funny and likable as an appealing schmoe in movies like “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express,” he’s not how people would want to see him usually. And those who do probably won’t know what to make of his Ronnie Barnhardt, Mall Cop. This guy is just an a-hole—a sociopath who has a short fuse, a loud mouth, a tendency to get himself in situations he doesn’t belong…and yes this guy is Chief of Security at Forest Ridge Mall. He’s one of the most disturbed, hateful leading men you’ll ever find in a comedy, and Rogen gets lost into the role, to his credit. Ronnie lives with his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston), works with four other mall cops, including Dennis (Michael Pena) and the Yuen twins (John and Matt Yuan), and constantly keeps an eye on a cosmetics girl he has a crush on, Brandi (Anna Faris), even though Nell (Collette Wolfe), another female worker at the mall (though more good-natured than Brandi is), clearly has an interest in him. When a flasher invades the mall parking lot and some of the indoor stores get robbed as well, Ronnie takes it upon himself to one-up the police, particularly crude Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), and “crack the cases” himself.

How do you properly describe the tone of “Observe and Report?” Well, at least it’s consistently dark, and, since it mostly centers around a detestable mall employee, a connection could further be made with “Bad Santa” rather than “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Both “Bad Santa” and this movie have a darkly-comedic tone that comes with the deeds/actions of a unbelievably socially inept main character and a sense of biting satire. In this case, there are satirical elements to be found, mostly towards Ronnie’s profession (malls, mall-cop, gun use); and there’s also some to be found from the actions of supposed professional police detective Harrison, who at one point can’t take Ronnie’s behavior anymore, calling him “retard” even. Mainly it’s all a series of lowbrow, less sophisticated comedic setups and gags—some of which are funny, others are uncomfortable to watch, and others are somewhat unnecessary (an example of this is an exchange of multiple “f-you’s” from loud to whisper to simply mouthing the words—is that supposed to be funny?). There are so many gags that are very much “out there,” you’ll be wondering if what you’re seeing is really happening or a sick fantasy in deranged Ronnie’s mind.

I don’t think I properly got the point more across as to how much of a creep Ronnie is. It’s hard to sympathize with him, even when Harrison tricks him and leads him to a dangerous part of town where drug dealers attack (led by Hill’s former leading man, Danny McBride). What supplies some of the film’s humor is the way that Ronnie sees himself as the hero of this story, while most of us would think otherwise.

I don’t see the point in some of the side characters. I found Michael Pena to be wasted in the role of Ronnie’s second-in-command, and a twist involving his character didn’t make me laugh or interest me in the slightest. The main joke involving the Yuen twins is that they want to use guns…fine. But then there’s Ronnie’s mother, who is completely incompetent at giving inspirational talks to her son because she’s drunk half the time; Nell, who serves to be the ultimate love-interest once Ronnie realizes that maybe Brandi isn’t the woman for him; and speaking of which, Brandi does go on a dinner date with Ronnie, and it leads to…I’m not going to lie, a pretty hilarious (though so-wrong) sexual encounter. I will always think of Anna Faris as an airhead ever since the “Scary Movie” films, but…damn she’s brave.

“Observe and Report” is about as dark a “dark comedy” can get, and as unusual as such can get. I didn’t laugh much, but when I did, I laughed my ass off. The climax, in particular, is probably the weirdest thing in the movie, but I laughed and laughed and laughed! Is this crazy film worth recommending for those few laughs? Well…not necessarily. But I do have some sort of respect towards both Hill and Rogen for making something as dark and nasty without holding back.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)

26 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Web critic James Berardinelli (of www.reelviews.net) put it best when defining a “guilty-pleasure”—“Guilty pleasure (n): a film that a critic shamefacedly admits to liking even though the prevailing opinion, as put forth by serious members of the profession, is that the movie is a piece of crap.” (from his “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” review)

I was 17 years old when “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” was released in cinemas in the fall of 2009. I saw it and, despite many film critics’ opinions of it, found myself very much enjoying it. Even my friends at school were thinking I was crazy for recommending it, although to be fair, some of them were disappointed mainly because they had read the book series this film is (loosely) based on. I hadn’t read the books until a few months later, when I started to read the first four (out of I forgot how many). As a film itself, my opinion still didn’t change. I still thought it was quite entertaining, despite what everyone else said. So…yes, I would call “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” a “guilty-pleasure.”

But for the record, I wouldn’t call this film “flawless.” There are a few things wrong about “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” that I notice with each viewing—flaws that should tick me off to my boiling point and make me create a scathing review of it instead of a semi-positive one. But for some reason, those never seemed to deliver that effect on me. I was never sure why. Maybe I’m a sucker for a coming-of-age story involving the supernatural and this is just a pushover for me. Maybe the good parts about the film overthrow the bad in the end. Maybe I see something here that hardly anyone else who saw the movie did.

OK, enough of that. To get into the review…actually, where do I even start?

Well, first I’ll start with the biggest noticeable flaw in the movie. It’s clearly intended to be the first installment of a franchise, meaning there are so many loose ends, so many elements built up to nothing—just a cliffhanger ending with very little resolution. It’s as if all the filmmakers had in mind for this movie was to set up a possible “Cirque du Freak” franchise. And what makes it worse is that this movie did poorly at the box-office, meaning—guess what—there was no chance of a sequel. I guess we were supposed to read the books to fill in the rest of the story, if we cared enough. But there’s one major problem with that—the first half of the movie is based somewhat upon the first two books, while the second half of the movie was entirely made up on the spot. So those who do read the books to find out what happens after the all-too-ambiguous ending are going to be lost and confused. So mainly what it comes down to is that this movie cannot stand alone.

This sort of confidence that a film based on a popular book can do well worked for “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” and even “Twilight.” (And as I can tell, it’s also working for “Percy Jackson.”) But what about “Eragon?” What about “The Golden Compass?” And now this. Give Fox’s lackluster “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” credit for keeping its story somewhat cohesive. And their “City of Ember,” which I find quite underrated, actually (and for the record, I hold no guilt in liking that one). (How odd is it that I’m defending 20th Century Fox, despite their tendency not to adapt from their source material all that well.)

Well, this “positive” review is not starting out well, is it?

The story involves a high-school teen named Darren Shan (sharing the same name of the author of the original book series). Darren is more or less a “perfect kid.” Darren (Chris Massoglia) listens to his parents, he gets good grades, and he’s popular in school. He does, however, have a weak link in his otherwise-perfect life—a bully-for-a-best-friend named Steve (Josh Hutcherson) who constantly gets Darren into trouble. (Oh, and Darren also has a bizarre fascination with spiders, which is patently explained early on, just as how Steve is obsessed with vampires.) Darren and Steve come across a flyer for a freak show, known as Cirque du Freak, appearing in their hometown. Steve convinces Darren to sneak out of the house at night to check it out.

The freak show is a marvel of talents and grotesque visuals—there’s an overweight man with “two bellies” that crafts a tricycle out of spare parts he swallows himself; a teenage boy with scaly skin and a large snake; a woman who can grow limbs back after they’ve been chopped or bitten off (wait, wha…?); and a bearded lady, among others. Steve recognizes one of the talents—a spider wrangler named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly)—as a vampire (funny how no one seemed to notice that, apparently), and goes backstage to ask to become one himself. But what he didn’t know was that Darren was hiding in Crepsley’s dressing room and stolen his spider (a rare breed that brings certain death with one bite). Darren gets away, but the spider winds up biting Steve (who doesn’t become a vampire, because he has “bad blood”). So he goes back to Crepsley to beg him to help save him. Crepsley accepts, but on one condition: that Darren becomes a half-vampire and work as his assistant while traveling with the Cirque.

As if that setup wasn’t full enough, there’s also a mysterious large man known as Mr. Tiny (played by Michael Cerveris) who apparently has great powers and wants to see a war between good Vampires (such as Crepsley) and evil Vampaneze (vampires who kill whom they need their blood from). He has his sights set on Darren and Steve, because apparently, there’s some sort of prophecy that states that two boys on opposing teams will start the war. So while Darren becomes a vampire, he goes to Steve in order to convince him to turn into a Vampaneze (anybody else think that name sounds silly?). To Tiny’s aid is a vicious Vampaneze known as Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson), who sharpens his fangs with a small cutting tool (OK, that’s kind of cool).

And believe it or not—that’s just the first half of the movie I just described. I haven’t even mentioned Darren faking his own death in order to join the Cirque; the Vampaneze attacking Crepsley and Darren because they know Darren will ultimately do something for them; Darren joining the Cirque and getting to know them; Steve becoming a Vampaneze; and many more. I have to admit this movie is overstuffed. There’s too much going on here, and unfortunately, due to the lack of resolution for the most part, that doesn’t make it fully satisfying, admittedly.

There are also changes in the vampire legend here. Half-vampires are able to walk in the daylight (useful as a vampire’s assistant) and all vampires are able to “flit” (run with super-fast speed with a colorful trail of smoke following them). Also, these vampires don’t kill whoever they feed on, because after all, Crepsley must be the guy to root for and Murlaugh must be the one for us to root against.

I like the character of Larten Crepsley; he’s quite interesting in how he is a man who seems to have been cursed with this identity from the start and sometimes has difficulty coping with it. Therefore, while sometimes he uses the Cirque as a way of pleasure through entertainment, he also has his surly moments as well. He has a romance with the Bearded Lady (Salma Hayek) and his scenes with her allow him to reveal some of what he’s going through—if he gets too attached to her, even though he’ll live much longer than her, what does that leave him with? I thought John C. Reilly did a credible job at playing the role, and also provides some of the movie’s laughs and funniest lines of dialogue.

But “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is more of Darren’s story, as he changes from “Mr. Perfect” to “Vampire’s Assistant.” This is more of a superhero origin tale than a “Dracula” story. While many critics have found Darren to be bland and all too generic, and found Chris Massoglia’s acting to be mediocre, I really didn’t have much of a problem with him. I didn’t mind Massoglia’s acting (though, he is noticeably better in Joe Dante’s “The Hole”) and didn’t think it was the purpose for Darren to be the most interesting person in the movie. Massoglia plays him as an average teenager that goes through all of this madness (or “freakiness”), and while he’s not exactly memorable, he is likeable. And I liked watching him interact with the members of the Cirque, including a girl with a Monkey Tail with whom he shares a little romance with. He also befriends the aforementioned “boy with scaly skin” named Evra (Patrick Fugit). And I’m just going to come out and say it—I hate this character. From the moment he stepped on-screen in the freak show sequence, and complained about how no one will let him play music, I knew I wouldn’t like him. People have a problem with Darren, but this kid is just whiny and obnoxious throughout.

Mr. Tiny is probably the most interesting character in the movie, and Michael Cerveris is completely game at playing him. He says he’s not the villain, but simply wants to be a bystander to a coming apocalypse. But look at him—he reads the Book of Souls, feels joy when he realizes what could happen, manipulates young men into falling into this new prophecy, and the whole idea of wanting destruction says it enough; he’s a villain. And what is he and where is he from? We’re not sure. We know about many things he can do (such as reanimate corpses by crushing them down to half-size—hello, “Phantasm”), but what is the extent of his abilities? That, this guy is downright creepy. He looks like a man preparing to go to the opera; you wouldn’t suspect anything by looking at him. But talk to the man and you know something is wrong. This is an intriguing villain.

Murlaugh is intimidating at first, but becomes just sillier and sillier as the movie continues (though it is fun watching Ray Stevenson overact), while Steve is pretty boring. He becomes a villain late in the proceedings, now a Vampaneze, and his portrayal reminded me of Harry Osborn’s mediocre characterization in “Spider-Man 3.”

Who else is in this movie? Let’s see—there’s Willem Dafoe in what can be described as a cameo in the role of Gavner Purl, a friend of Crepsley’s; Ken Watanbe as Mr. Tall, a seven-foot caretaker for the Cirque; Frankie Faison as the aforementioned “two-bellied” one; and many others. They’re not on screen for very long, but they make the most of their time.

Good Lord, I’m hardly done describing certain things about “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” and this review is already so long. I didn’t even mention the CGI dwarves that bite people at freak-show admission stands…apparently, not many people were bothered by that, as Darren and Steve walk into an auditorium full of people. And what about the climactic confrontation between Crepsley and Murlaugh and between Darren and Steve (one of which has a winning finish)? And the message that was seemed put in at the last minute—“It’s not about what you are; it’s about who you are.” Oh, and what about the extras in Darren and Steve’s high school, who are not the greatest actors as they don’t seem natural in the slightest? Man, this movie is so full!

You know…I realize while writing this unbelievably long review (probably the longest I’ve written) that this movie is not as good as I remember it. It was somewhat obvious when I watched it again before this review. And yet, I still feel somewhat positive towards it. Does that technically mean I should give this a mixed (2.5 rating) review?

What do I like about the movie? Well, there are some appealing characters in the mix—while most of them are barely developed, what we do see of them is entertaining enough. The world they’re in is appealing as well, and the visuals are impressive enough—the production design and the costumes really pop. The (intentional) comedy works well, for the most part (particularly with the freaks). There’s a nice cast that keeps things interesting. I liked seeing Darren learn to fit into the Cirque, this society of freaks, and how he becomes a member. And…I don’t know, I sort of bought into the spirit of things with this movie.

So, like I said, I do kind of like “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” despite its many flaws. You can call it a guilty-pleasure, as I already have. I understand its flaws, don’t get me wrong. It’s somewhat clumsy, especially in how it doesn’t necessarily have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But I did find something to enjoy about this movie, and I’m going to stand strong in defending it whenever it’s brought up in a derogatory manner.

Avatar (2009)

8 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

(Originally reviewed early 2010)

“Avatar” is an extraordinary spectacle to behold—a film with the same kind of science-fiction/fantasy heart and energy that made “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy hits. James Cameron (director of the Terminator movies and “Titanic”) takes a story and fills it with amazing sights and gives “Avatar” a lot more than people would expect from him.

The film is set in the year 2154. U.S. Armed forces are set on a mission to an earth-sized moon called Pandora to locate a rare piece of mineral that the Earth desperately needs. The natives on Pandora are the Na’Vi, 12-ft. tall blue-skinned beings who respect their environment. They do not present a threat to Earth but nevertheless, the Armed forces are planning to attack them and retrieve that rare mineral that is somewhere in their dwelling. To venture out of their drafts, the people use avatars—Na’Vi lookalikes that are genetically created from observing the natives and are mind-controlled by humans, whose bodies still lay inside a machine in a trance-like state.

This new breakthrough is amazing to the hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Jake is a paraplegic assigned on the mission because he is a genetic match for his dead identical twin, who already had an avatar ready for him. With this new body he inhabits, he can walk and run again. He can also venture out into the Pandora wilderness. Technically, there is no danger for him. If his avatar is destroyed, the human mind returns to its own body unharmed. Maybe.

“Avatar” is mostly about Jake as he changes his life on Pandora. First he’s a good soldier who wants to go along with the group. But then not much later, a series of events happens and he becomes a Na’Vi native. He befriends a female native named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who saved his life. He learns that the Na’Vi, who live in an enormous tree, are in harmony with nature and survive only because they know their planet well. To get around, they are forced to tame wild creatures, much like the Native Americans. In this case, they tame dragons that can be controlled once its tail and a Na’Vi’s tail are connected together. Strange.

Then the film sets into darker territory. The Armed forces are prepared to attack, given orders by the ruthless, aggressive Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephan Lang, who really lets it all out with this performance). We get many battle/action sequences, but these have purpose. “Avatar” has already established the characters so we fear for them. These scenes are powerful and frightening and well-handled. The movie is full of scenes that fall into those three adjectives. I can also add “amazing” in the scene in which Jake tames a dragon-like beast and later flies on it. That is a great sequence. It works even better in 3-D. 3-D is starting to become a trend nowadays but I watched this film in IMAX True 3-D and found myself (I’m not kidding) holding on to my own seat. 3-D works best when the film shown in 3-D gives us amazing-looking flying sequences. We can experience the flight ourselves while watching it.

The film looks great. “Avatar” is not only a sensational entertainment but also a technical breakthrough. Pandora was created by a large amount of CGI and it looks fantastic. We haven’t seen this place before; we would love to return someday. The Na’Vi are created by using real human actors in motion-capture technology. All is done convincingly—that is most important when working with technology like this. The Na’Vi look like unique individuals and give Cameron and the artists a lot of credit for making Neytiri, a female blue-skinned, golden-eyed giantess, look beautiful. Another pleasure in the movie is the relationship that builds up when Jake and Neytiri train together and learn to trust each other and even love each other. This is very risky to pull off, especially once you consider what would happen if Neytiri found out Jake’s body was only an avatar. But it works here. I loved watching these two together.

The film is 163 minutes. I have to admit, I never checked my watch—that’s a good sign. Though I also must admit, I thought the movie was going to end about an hour-and-a-half into the movie (that’s just a guess). But no, I was given an hour of more amazing visuals and more interesting story to experience. The running time of 163 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time. “Avatar” interested me from beginning to end.

James Cameron has done it again. This is his first film since “Titanic” twelve years ago and he spent all that time developing this project. He never took a step wrong. “Avatar” is one of the best films of 2009. Maybe James Cameron really is “king of the world.”

Adventureland (2009)

23 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Jesse Eisenberg is a talented, subtly humorous young actor whose wit may be dryer than Michael Cera’s, if you can believe that. The odd thing was that he was constantly confused for Michael Cera. That may have something to do with his awkwardness he brings to his young characters in movies such as “The Squid and the Whale,” but also because he happens to be in a movie directed by the director of “Superbad,” which happened to star Michael Cera. (And it was reported that a few high-school girls in fact did mistake the lead for Michael Cera. How about that.) Eisenberg is an appealing actor, and with his quick delivery, you know that he has this way of delivering one-liners almost like he’s at risk. That makes him funny and likeable. He delivers the lead performance in “Adventureland,” a coming-of-age comedy-drama about summer jobs, romance, relationships, and ups and downs with all of the above.

The lead roles in this movie are college-aged, but they are more intelligent and likeable then you would find in lowbrow college comedies. They are real people that we meet every day, and such characters star in this movie, which is funny and realistic. It’s funny for the most obvious reason—its script is funny. It mixes comedy with reality—the best kind of comedy writing you could ask for. OK, so there’s a dorky character that spends every scene flicking the main character in the groin, but even he seems realistic.

The movie is set in the year 1987 for no particular reason other than to have the song “Rock Me Amadeus” play in the background constantly. (Don’t worry—the characters find it annoying too.) Eisenberg plays James Brennan, a recent college graduate who wants to go to Europe with his friends. But his parents are short of funds, which means James must get a summer job. He picks working at Adventureland, a second-rate amusement park where the games are rigged, the employees are bored all the time, and the only good prize is a Giant Ass Panda, which no one should win because there aren’t many of them left. The park is run by a couple, played by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig who deserve a movie of their own. They’re funny, but they don’t seem like they’re in the same movie as the other characters.

James becomes surprisingly popular, though that could have something to do with the joints that he passes around to others at work. James’ fellow employees are bored Joel (Martin Starr) and the attractive Em (Kristen Stewart). James and Em hang out together and have fun with each other. But there’s a problem—Em is having a secret affair with Adventureland’s maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who is married and is said to have jammed with Lou Reed. (“Don’t believe everything you hear,” he tells James.) As “Adventureland” continues to play out, the relationship between James and Em develops further, causing Em to question her affair with Connell. This relationship between James and Em is the highlight of the movie—it’s richly written and complicated, without the usual clichés with romantic comedies. They are well-acted by Eisenberg and especially by Stewart, whose scenes of confrontation bring out the best performance of her career so far.

In year-end 2009, “Adventureland” hit a lot of critics’ best-of-the-year lists, but for me, the subplot involving the park owners and a few unnecessary scenes (yes, there are some) seemed like a different movie than what is supposed to be. I should give “Adventureland” three-and-a-half stars, but I am giving it three stars because of its faults and because of how I felt about it. I thought it was good, but not as great as it could have been.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

21 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Robert Downey, Jr. is one of the best actors of this or any generation. He has this way of becoming his character, rather than saying his lines without a proper motive. He made “Iron Man” his own movie, he deserved his Oscar nomination for the heart he put into his performance of a Aussie-turned-black-man in “Tropic Thunder,” and even if the movie “The Soloist” wasn’t recommended by me, his performance in the movie was still exceptional. That is why it’s no surprise that Downey Jr. can pull off the role of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes in his new movie, “Sherlock Holmes.” Why is it called that? Because there hasn’t been a movie featuring the great detective in quite a long time, so the executives thought, “Hey, let’s just call it ‘Sherlock Holmes’ so people will understand it more.”

Yeah, I’ll buy that.

It’s still early in the century; therefore, Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson (both characters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories), must be evolved into action heroes—I have noticed that Watson, compared to previous films, had lost weight. They go through several action sequences but they’re always ready because they spring into action as early as Batman and Robin. In the meantime, they behave like college roommates. They do indeed live together and Watson (Jude Law) has a complaint midway through the movie: “Do you hear me complaining about you practicing your violin at 3:00 in the morning?” He also has a problem with Holmes firing his gun at the wall whenever he gets bored. Even riskier: Watson is engaged to marry the beautiful Mary (Kelly Reilly) but Holmes isn’t making their relationship any easier. Holmes fans will want Holmes to figure out a person by looking at his/her clothes and Holmes does that with Mary, only upsetting her. In the meantime, Holmes is trying to get through many meetings with the unbelievably beautiful Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who is working for a mysterious criminal mastermind. (His identity is a twist at the end, perfect for Holmes fans.)

The movie’s plot: Holmes and Watson stop the fiendish Satanist Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) from undergoing a voodoo ritual. Blackwood is hanged for his crime, only to return from the grave soon after. So, Holmes and Watson spring into action to figure out exactly how this happened, what he was up to then, and what he’s up to now.

This leads to many sequences, including a brilliant action scene in a boat shed and a desperate struggle atop the under-construction Tower Bridge. Some of them were kind of confusing, because the plot kept rambling and it was almost hard to keep track of what was happening. However, most scenes—that boat shed scene I mentioned, the duel between Holmes and a 10-foot-tall giant, and a desperate rescue in a slaughterhouse—are riveting and fun. And Holmes makes everything come together at the end.

There are some neat ideas put into the mix, as well as some effective jokes—one, for example, involves a sledgehammer and a smaller hammer—and great visual shots by director Guy Ritchie. I was impressed by how faithful Ritchie was to the source material while also keeping us interested with some comic timing and riveting action sequences. But what really holds it together is Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. He’s great in this movie—he portrays Holmes as a socially awkward narcissist who rubs everyone the wrong way and doesn’t know how to take care of himself. But he’s also a whiz at logic and deductive reasoning, which makes him one of the smartest people on the planet. He’s got a great relationship with Watson, played with appealing wit by Jude Law—it’s almost like a cop buddy picture with them, if you think about it, and it’s very interesting in the way they fight crime together in 19th century London, which is as dark as I’ve ever seen 19th century London displayed in the movies.

I guess the reason I’m giving it three stars is because of the plot’s meandering points, hopefully to be improved in the sequel (and there’s sure to be one, considering the near twist at the end). But what really deserves praise is, again, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s chemistry and director Guy Ritchie’s riveting directing style with the action sequences. I was entertained by “Sherlock Holmes” and am hoping that the sequel is even better.

The Final Destination (2009)

17 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I knew the “Final Destination” series was bound to sink this low. I knew that sometime sooner or later, the series would run out of ideas and sink into the same old story with nothing new or particularly exciting…and it’s shown in 3-D (that much desperation). This is the worst entry in the series—yes, worse than “Final Destination 2.”

Now, I liked the first “Final Destination.” I found the second to be dull as dishwater and the third to be somewhat of a guilty pleasure with its talented cast and even more creative death scenes. But they’re all carrying the same storyline—a teenager has a premonition of death, she saves a few people, she and the others slowly die in bizarre freak accidents. So why should the fourth one (called “The Final Destination,” which probably means this is the last entry—I seriously doubt it) be any different? But while “Final Destination 3” had more going for it than the same storyline as the original films, this one has almost nothing. It’s a pointless, repetitive, terrible waste of time.

In “The Final Destination,” a young man named Nick (Bobby Campo) is at a stock-car race track with his friends, who are the same, usual alcoholic bratty types. Already I’m sick of these characters because they resemble many characters in slasher movies that actually deserve to die. Where’s the fun or suspense in that?

Anyway, Nick has a premonition of a car crashing into the stands, killing a lot of people. When he wakes up, he freaks out, gets his friends and several others off the stands, and the vision becomes real. But it’s not over for them. Because Death is coming for them…

OK, I really don’t feel typing anymore. I know it’s not professional but I’d rather not type the same things about the plot that I’ve said the last three times. It has tired me out, even to think about it again. Just do me and you a favor—avoid “The Final Destination.”

I mentioned before that the movie is in 3-D—that, of course, is to try and hide the fact that there isn’t anything original…and of course, to distort the images of the fake-looking CGI explosions.

The Uninvited (2009)

5 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

(Originally reviewed mid-2009)

Another Asian horror film remade for American audiences…this time, it’s “A Tale of Two Sisters” from Korea remade as “The Uninvited.” Now, don’t dismiss this as a rip-off right away. “The Uninvited” is a chilling piece of work by the Guard Brothers by Britain. This is their directorial debut, and it’s not a bad one.

The main reason “The Uninvited” works so well is that Emily Browning is a most engaging choice for a heroine. Her face is so wonderfully expressive and she makes her character convincing in the scenes where she is supposed to be scared or confused. Emily Browning is an Australian actress, and she is 20 years old, though she looks 14. She was previously seen in “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.” She’s terrific in this movie, and she’s so fresh and ready to take on any role.

Emily Browning plays Anna, a teenaged girl who is at a party at the beach one night. But when she is making out with her boyfriend, he says he has a condom. That causes her to leave but when she arrives at her house, she sees the boathouse nearby blow up with her terminally ill mother inside of it.

For almost a year after the incident, Anna is released from a mental institution to go back home to her loving father (David Strathairn) and her sassy older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel). She doesn’t quite remember what happened the night of the incident. Her father’s new girlfriend is Rachel (Elizabeth Banks), who was her mother’s caregiver. Anna doesn’t trust Rachel, who is just dangerously nice.

Anna keeps questioning what really happened that night. Her boyfriend Matt claims to be a witness to the accident but he never gets a chance to talk to her. Rachel may have something to do with it. Even Alex seems to think so—the fire may not have been an accident but an act of murder by Rachel to get closer to their father. While Anna tries to figure things out, she is being haunted by visions of her dead mother who creepily tries to tell her something.

The movie looks good. I like the ominous look of the horror movies from the 70s and 80s. And the thriller aspect is effective. I recoiled in my seat during a few of the scenes. One sequence in particular is nail-biting. It’s the scene in which Anna sits up in bed and some thing is creeping towards her.

The actors are effective. David Strathairn is well-cast as the loving father who may have a secret kept. Arielle Kebbel brings charisma and energy to her role as the sassy older sister. And Elizabeth Banks, who has been the career woman for the past few months (she was George Bush’s wife in “W,” Miri in “Zack & Miri,” and the love interest in “Role Models”) as the beautiful, nice blonde, shows a darker side than we’ve seen her before. But Emily Browning makes the best impression here.

This is a thriller that works. We don’t really know why Anna is seeing all of these visions and we keep anticipating for an answer. There are a lot of scenes that seem set up and they all lead to the big twist at the end of the movie.

I have seen a lot of thrillers with big twists at the end and I love them sometimes—for example, “The Sixth Sense” and “Frailty.” But with “The Uninvited,” the ending’s twist is a bit too much. I will say this, though—I didn’t predict it. But it makes the whole movie kind of sad in a way that makes the audience question themselves, “Did who we rooted for deserve to be rooted for?” I’m not going to give the ending away, but I am going to give “The Uninvited” a marginal recommendation. Emily Browning won me over.

The House of the Devil (2009)

30 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Filmmaker Ti West is obviously an enthusiast of classic horror films, and indeed, his film “The House of the Devil” feels like an affectionate homage to horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. He not only uses the same filming procedures to refabricate the style of these films, but he also used similar technology (for instance, a 16mm camera to give the film a vintage look). The film also opens with a disclaimer stating that it is based on “true unexplained events.” Isn’t that what the makers of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” wanted people to believe in 1974?

“The House of the Devil” also uses elements of the “haunted-house” story and the slasher-film subgenre. It also uses the plot element of the “satanic panic” that swept the 1980s and inspired Ronald Reagan’s infamous speech about good and evil.

Oh, and get a load of this—the film is also set in the 1980s. A specific year isn’t mentioned, but you can tell from all sorts of vintage basics that this isn’t set in the 2000s. There are gigantic Coke cups, payphones, answering machines, a Sony Walkman, and feathered hair.

With such ambition, “The House of the Devil” is a terrific old-school thriller with so many interesting touches put into it. This is the kind of callback to the old-fashioned horror films that I looked for and missed in Eli Roth’s “Cabin Fever.” Ti West seems to understand his elements more.

The setup involves an easygoing young woman, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), who is saving money for her own apartment so she doesn’t have to deal with her skank of a roommate anymore. While checking posters on college-campus, she notices a call for a babysitting job and decides to take it. Samantha’s friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her to the big Ulman house on the night of a full lunar eclipse…in the middle of a dark forest far from society.

Oh yeah! This isn’t going to go well!

Once Samantha introduces herself to the strange Ulman couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), she is told that there is no “baby” to look after—instead, it’s Mr. Ulman’s aged mother who stays upstairs. Nonetheless, Samantha stays to earn some much-needed cash, while Megan sees this as a red flag and practically begs Samantha to come back home with her. Samantha stays; Megan leaves, but promises to come back later (the Ulmans didn’t want to pay for two). How much do you want to bet that Megan isn’t coming back later?

Now, without giving much away, something shocking (and worthy of the first murder scene in “Psycho”) happens midway through the movie. And when it does, it raises the tension level for the rest of the movie, which is mainly Samantha roaming about the house, trying to relax and enjoy herself in the huge parlor. She doesn’t know what’s happened, but we know that something may or may not happen to her and the rest of the film keeps us on edge until she finally realizes that something is wrong.

The feeling of being alone in a strange house (though not entirely alone with “Mother” upstairs in her room) creates a constant feel of anxiety, so that when the scary stuff does happen, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been set up—when it finally happens, we’re still prepared for it. That’s how it was for me, anyway. It seems to me that West understands that the best thing about this sort of horror film is not the ultimate occurrence that is scary; it’s waiting for it. It’s the anticipation that something is bound to happen that is more fun than anything else. What does happen, and you’ll probably guess from the opening disclaimer (and even the title of the film) that it involves a satanic ritual, is not necessarily as successful as the buildup, but that’s sort of the point.

I loved Jocelin Donahue in this movie. She has such an appealing, easygoing presence, and made for a very likeable protagonist to follow and fear for. She has no trouble in earning our sympathy. Tom Noonan has been suitably creepy in many roles before; this is no exception, as Mr. Ulman. Greta Gerwig is likeable, and also scores a few laughs with the attitude she brings to her cynical character of Megan.

Ti West truly gets the horror genre and knows what it takes to make a satisfactory horror film. This is also true of his later feature “The Innkeepers,” and I wonder what his personal cut of “Cabin Fever 2” (which was not the cut that was ultimately released, leading to West disowning the film) was like, because I’m sure something that sounds as dumb as a sequel to “Cabin Fever” would get my attention if Ti West directed it. I really think he’s that good. And “The House of the Devil” is a terrific horror film, making Ti West a new potential “master of horror.”