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My Favorite Movies – Surfacing (Short Film) (2009)

18 Aug

By Tanner Smith

Surfacing is a 30-minute short film I love to play repeatedly on my laptop because it helps inspire and motivate me whenever I’m in a writing or thinking mood. I don’t know if it’s a film that writer-director Bruce Hutchinson, lead actress Kristy Hutchinson, cinematographer Chris Churchill, and/or anyone from the supporting cast want to forget about since it was made so long ago–but to them, I say this with all sincerity:

You made a damn good film and I love it wholeheartedly.

“Surfacing” is a film about a college swimmer, Hannah Gill (played wonderfully by Kristy Hutchinson), who has temporal lobe epilepsy and also Geschwind Syndrome (a phenomenon that involves characteristic behavioral changes following a seizure). But her seizures are getting worse and could end her life unless she gets an operation that could help. Does she want to be rid of the thing that gives her the most joy in life? (A better question would be, can she still feel that joy without it?)

It’s a character-based slice-of-life drama that uses this conflict to get us in the heads of Hannah, her sister (F.E. Mosby), her swim coach (Pammi Fabert), and her friends as they figure out how to handle the situation. Those moments wouldn’t matter as much without the quieter, softer moments which show the characters just hanging out together–watching the sunset, studying in the library, etc. There’s also a lovely tender moment in which Hannah’s sister is there for her during another seizure, and it’s played beautifully.

I love the cinematography from Chris Churchill–its raw, documentary-like style adds to both the realism and the charm of the film. I also love the use of the film’s soundtrack–it feels like it’s constantly playing in Hannah’s head. (To further illustrate the point, she listens to a song on her iPod and then that same song plays during her swim meet.)

There are many layers to Kristy Hutchinson’s performance as Hannah–as someone going through such a complicated illness with seizures that cause her a feeling of grace, Hannah feels intense energy and joy post-seizure, guilt when the moment passes, confusion when she’s unsure whether or not to cure herself because of those moments, disappointment, sadness, and then acceptance. When she gives a poetic speech about embracing the beauty in the world, I’m not thinking, “What a manic pixie dream girl”–I’m instead understanding why someone going through this would say these things. It’s wonderful work.

I also love that Hannah can be a little too much to handle sometimes–for instance, in any other film featuring a disease-stricken character, that person would be complaining about feeling fatigued when someone is pressuring her to go out and party, whereas in this film, SHE’S the one pressuring her friends to go out and party even though THEY’RE tired.

It’s funny–I used to think Hannah’s friends and sister were boring and now I see where they’re coming from when it comes to being friends with Hannah. And I still like Hannah for the same reasons they do.

Check out “Surfacing” here.

My Favorite Movies – Humpday (2009)

11 Mar

By Tanner Smith

I wrote about Laggies yesterday; I might as well write about the late, great Lynn Shelton’s most infamous film today.

“Humpday” was indie filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s third film and it immediately got more people’s attentions in 2009. The reason for that? The concept alone was very funny–two long-time best buddies who are getting too old for the drunken one-ups-manship decide they’re going to partake in an amateur porno film in which they have sex together…but the problem is they’re not gay and the idea kinda makes them nervous. This came out the same year as mainstream comedies about male bonding like “The Hangover” and “I Love You, Man”–“Humpday” takes that male bonding and asks…what are the limits? (Or, in other words, what does “I love you, man” even mean, when you think about it?)

Maybe today it’d be no big deal to make a film like this and it’d probably be lost in the shuffle of films tackling something like sexual identity–but this is 2009 we’re talking about here, so it was good for this film to gain popularity when it did. (Plus “Humpday” is really freaking good.)

And it was good for writer-director Lynn Shelton, who made this film for less than 20 grand on a mostly improvised script, to gain recognition for it as well. Looking at the behind-the-scenes documentary on the film’s DVD, it’s very clear everyone on set loved Lynn Shelton, who clearly had a vision to project. If not for this film’s success, I’m sure she would’ve still made films, but “Humpday” was the seed that grew an even more distinguished film/TV career.

“Humpday” also stars two indie filmmaker-actors who got their start in the same mumblecore film world as Shelton: Mark Duplass (whose Duplass Brothers productions are other favorites of mine–“The Puffy Chair,” Baghead, Cyrus, Safety Not Guaranteed, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) and Joshua Leonard (indie filmmaker and also an in-demand character actor long since his role in “The Blair Witch Project”). They play Ben (Duplass), a happily married man with a loving wife named Anna (Alycia Delmore), and Andrew (Leonard), Ben’s shaggy free-spirit college buddy whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years before he shows up at Ben & Anna’s house out of the blue. Anna likes this guy; he seems harmless. And Ben suddenly feels the freedom he had as his college friend that’s sort of limited now that he’s in a committed relationship with Anna. Ben joins Andrew at a party (and unfortunately leaves Anna, who was cooking her famous porkchops for him, hanging at home for the night), where a bunch of young, wild, and free swingers (including Lynn Shelton herself) hang out, get high, and pretty much do whatever they want. (Mind you, these people aren’t very young themselves.)

And this is where Ben and Andrew get into a dare contest where they dare each other to make a gay pornographic film in which two straight guys (themselves) partake in anal sex. They’re going to submit their “art project” to the HUMP! film festival, a showcase for homemade erotica. It’s beyond daring, the idea of two (straight) guys having sex together, so they decide they’re gonna go for it…or are they?

Well, maybe they will. The next day, after sobering up, they think maybe this is a good idea–or, at least, they’re not willing to back down from this challenge. So they get a hotel room and…oh wait, first Ben has to tell his wife what he and his old friend will be doing. How she handles the situation once it’s revealed is one of the film’s highlights–Anna isn’t your one-dimensional conventional movie-wife type; she’s more reasonable (and complex) than that.

What helps this admittedly sitcom-like scenario feel so real is the improvised, unfurnished feel of it all. I’m usually not for entirely-improvised dramedies. (But why shouldn’t I be? They’re only annoying if the editors don’t cut out the overly-excessive improvisations.) But Duplass & Leonard’s chemistry is very natural, the interactions they share with other characters feel real, and it makes the final act, in which Ben & Andrew get to the room to make the “art project,” feel natural and real as a result. (The editing works as well–a scene thankfully doesn’t goes on too awkwardly long and it doesn’t feel unfocused.)

“Humpday” is also very perceptive. Shelton addresses, with “Humpday,” the contradictions of the modern everyman–for example, while they may not be homophobic in theory, that doesn’t mean they don’t feel uncomfortable about the idea of having sex with the same gender. When Ben ponders that, he thinks about what it means to have an identity and to have a motivation. It makes the resolution all the more interesting, and…well, I won’t go into it here, but a film critic looked back at the film not long ago and felt it “chickened out” at the end–I find that to be an over-simplification of what Shelton was going for here.

“Humpday” is a funny movie, but it’s also smart and insightful. “Laggies” may be my “favorite” of Lynn Shelton’s movies, but I have no problem with calling “Humpday” her best movie. And the Indie Spirits (yes, they come to the rescue yet again for the movies too important for Oscar to care about) seemed to agree–they gave Shelton and “Humpday” the coveted John Cassavetes Award (the award given to the best creative effort made for less than $500,000). Kudos!

Oh, wait a minute, there’s a French-language remake of this film? That sounds unusual (usually, we’re the ones remaking French films). This one is called “Do Not Disturb.” I haven’t seen it, but Lynn Shelton apparently did, based on this interview with Indiewire in 2019–“One of the most interesting kind of gender studies lab experiments I’ve ever experienced was watching, side by side, my version and the French version of ‘Humpday,’” Shelton said. “It is f**king fascinating.” This version was apparently very scripted whereas Shelton’s was mostly improvised; it was made with more money than Shelton could get her hands on at the time; it had French stars such as Charlotte Gainsbourg in it; and it was directed by a man, whereas part of the appeal of Shelton’s version was she was a woman putting twists on the male-buddy-comedy conventions…that’s not to say a male director can’t do that, obviously, but read the rest of the Indiewire interview and you can guess what the problem was with the French remake.

Maybe I’ll check out this “Do Not Disturb” film at some point. But first, I’ll watch “Humpday” a couple more times in the near future–maybe I’ll even turn it on after publishing this post.

My Favorite Movies – Funny People (2009)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

I love the art-imitates-life aspect of movies–it works for Sylvester Stallone in the “Rocky” movies, Mike Birbiglia in Sleepwalk With Me, Chris Rock in “Top Five,” and others. Judd Apatow allows that for actors, usually comedic actors–he gives them more of a chance to shine by giving them roles that are similar to themselves. (He’ll have them write their roles most of the time.)

For Adam Sandler, it’s a little different. In Apatow’s “Funny People,” Sandler plays a Hollywood star best known for standup comedy and some really, REALLY terrible comedic films. Sound familiar? Well…this Sandler character is a little different. Whereas Sandler in real life is a family man with lots of friends and a reputation for being one of the sweetest guys to work with in show business, George Simmons is lonely, with no real friends, and pretty much a standoffish jerk.

Why is Sandler playing this role so similar to himself and yet different from himself at the same time? I don’t know–but it’s interesting to think about.

“Funny People” is essentially a modern-day “Great Gatsby” tale. George Simmons is millionaire Jay Gatsby, and the Nick Carraway role is played here by Seth Rogen as aspiring writer/comedian Ira. Ira gets an opportunity to write for George, who has decided to get back into his standup act after being away from it for so long, and he becomes George’s personal assistant and later confidante. When things go from bad to worse for George, Ira has to be the one to get him to open himself up more to the people in his life.

George is diagnosed with a rare blood disease that’s slowly killing him, which causes him to reexamine his life. He even reaches out to an old flame, Laura (Leslie Mann), in hopes of reconnecting with her long after she’s settled down, gotten married, and had two kids. (She’s basically Daisy in this “Great Gatsby” parallel.) Upon hearing of his illness, Laura does reenter George’s life…which gets even more complicated when halfway through this two-and-a-half-hour film, George is suddenly better.

Btw, they gave this part away in the trailer–shame on those in charge of marketing this film for that! (Eh, I just gave it away too, so I’m not any better.)

The first half of “Funny People” has always been my favorite. It’s wonderfully written, very funny, very moving when it needs to be, and it showcases some of Adam Sandler’s best work as a serious actor. It’s one of my favorite Seth Rogen performances as well–he plays Ira as one of those aspiring artists who doesn’t quite have all the confidence he needs. There are also a lot of colorful supporting characters, such as Ira’s roommates, moderately successful comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and full-of-himself sitcom star Mark (Jason Schwartzman); Ira’s potential love interest, another standup comic named Daisy (Aubrey Plaza, playing it the best way Aubrey Plaza can); and Randy (Aziz Ansari), who is described by Apatow as “Souljah Boi as a standup comedian.” Also, upon watching this film again, is that Bo Burnham as one of Mark’s co-stars in “Yo Teach”?! (It is!!)

Funny People also looks GREAT–the cinematographer was Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s frequent DP, which would explain why this Apatow dramedy looks just like a Spielberg film.

The second half of the film is less successful, as George and Ira travel to Laura’s house in Marin County, which results in mistakes and consequences and a lot of misunderstandings and sad truths and arguments and… Part of me wants to interfere and bring George and Ira back to LA, where all the best stuff was.

BUT despite that, it is necessary to have this second half. Now that George has had a complete recovery, with no traces of the leukemia whatsoever anymore, where does he go from here? It would have been so easy to just end it with the good news–but the intriguing thing is, George was happier when he was dying. So, whatever lessons he learned, he completely forgets about. Why is this interesting? Because it works best as a cautionary tale for lonely, depressed, bipolar people (not just actors) who need the right people in their lives, or else they’re going to run cycles that take them down worse turns each time. (That’s what I get out of it, anyway.)

Plus, in this film’s second half, we have Eric Bana (whom Seth Rogen was previously praising in “Knocked Up” and now co-stars with here). He plays Laura’s husband, who doesn’t take too well to certain news. This character could have been boring, but thankfully, Bana has enough comedic chops to keep it interesting.

I’m still calling “Funny People” one of my favorites, because even though I prefer watching one half over the other, it still works as a whole because of the questions that are worth answering and discussing.

My Favorite Movies – (500) Days of Summer (2009)

16 May

By Tanner Smith

Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer has gotten somewhat of a backlash in recent years, and I…honestly can’t quite understand why.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom is a selfish guy who sees himself as a romantic lead who has this delusion of what he thinks true love is or should be…THAT’S THE IDEA!

Oh, but he unlearns the harsh lesson he learned upon the very end of the film…THAT’S THE JOKE!

Yes, the myth of the Nice Guy has been debunked–but are you seriously telling me that you’re realizing Tom’s character flaws NOW??

“(500) Days of Summer” works BECAUSE of that character and his flaws. It’s not a love story–it’s a cautionary tale. I was 17 when I first watched this movie in 2009, and even I could see that! (And I was one of those Nice Guys!! It’s because of life experiences and movies like this and Ruby Sparks that I was able to grow out of that toxic mindset.)

PSA: don’t be a Nice Guy–it’s too easy. Be a Kind Guy instead.

Don’t worry, you still have good reason to love this movie: because it’s great!

Part of the reason it’s great is because of the brilliant screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (the screenwriting duo that has since gained recognition for writing The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Disaster Artist). The story of how Tom (Gordon-Levitt) met, courted, and ended things with Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is told in non-linear fashion, telling us how one way went in another direction in this relationship and how an attitude can change upon life experience. I haven’t seen that many movies that carry this approach THIS effectively.

Another reason it works is because of the lead performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s so easy to mistake Tom for the common romantic leading man, but it turns out he’s more complicated than that. He causes us to look at romantic leads from previous romances and see if THEIR actions hold up–that makes sense, considering Tom learned all his “expertise” on romance probably from watching those movies.

“(500) Days of Summer” is a movie about a guy who learns some harsh lessons about love and life, and that’s what it was always meant to be. And it’s great at being that.

So lighten up!

My Favorite Movies – Adventureland (2009)

26 Apr

By Tanner Smith

Like a lot of people, I was disappointed that director Greg Mottola’s follow-up to “Superbad” wasn’t…well, much like “Superbad.” I would still recommend “Adventureland” for what I saw it as: a funny, sweet coming-of-age dramedy that wasn’t anything special. But then after watching it again a few years later, holy cow, it’s something special–it even caused me to write my first revised review. (Link:

Everyone remembers their first job, and not everyone has the most pleasant memories of it–but there were some things worth remembering about it, whether we want to acknowledge them or not. James (Jesse Eisenberg) is the artistic type: one who would rather do anything but work a minimum wage job at a summer amusement park. But that’s exactly what happens to him, as he’s in charge of games at Adventureland for the whole summer, just so he can pay for grad school in New York City.

This is one of those theme parks where half the games are rigged and even if you win, you throw away the crappy prize soon after.

James makes friends with his coworkers, including deadpan intellectual Joel (Martin Starr), and starts a possible fling with Em (Kristen Stewart), who is also heading to NYC after the summer. When the bombshell Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) is also working at the park and starts flirting with James, that’s when James has trouble.

I know the obvious choice is for James to stay with Em because she seems more his type, but how many of us made smart choices at a young age? Even if we’re smart, who says we can’t act stupid? What makes it even more complicated is that Em is the secret mistress of Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s maintenance man who is married.

There’s more to these characters than we expect, and in a weirdly effective way, both the comedy and the drama come from how they react to each situation. And things don’t resolve in ways we expect them to either.

“Adventureland” is 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.

Oh, I forgot to mention it takes place in 1987–pre-social-media, and a time when if you wanted to ask a girl out on a date, you had to call her house phone and ask her father if she was home.

My favorite scene: I’m not entirely sure this is my favorite scene, but it has my favorite quote in the movie. It’s when James and Joel are thinking about the future, and Joel wonders what the point is of being an artist, especially since Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, was so insignificant that he was referred to as “Henry” Melville when he passed.

James disagrees:

“No, I mean, he wrote a seven-hundred page allegorical novel about the whaling industry. I think he was a pretty passionate guy, Joel. I hope they call me Henry when I die, too.”

Adventureland (2009) (revised review)

28 Jun


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


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


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Web critic James Berardinelli (of 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


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.”