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Adventureland (2009)

23 Apr


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


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


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


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


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.”

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

21 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How did I feel about “Where the Wild Things Are” immediately after I saw it? I imagine it was the same reaction that open-minded audiences had when they saw it in on the big screen—stunned silence, followed by a stating “Huh,” and then walking out trying to think about what they just saw. That happened to me as well. This is one of those late-reaction movies, where you have absorbed everything that the movie has thrown at you, and once it’s over, you slowly but surely realize how much of an impact it left with you.

What can I really say about “Where the Wild Things Are?” It’s adapted from a short children’s book and directed by Spike Jonze of “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” It has a fairly simple family-movie idea to start with—a little boy goes to a mystical island to have fun with gigantic, playful beasts. But it goes way beyond the silliness of that idea, and manages to give a pleasurable mix of concepts, imagination, director’s vision, and complexity that goes deeper into the original source material. It is also, in my opinion, just one of those absolutely perfect movies. Everything about it works, from beginning to end. I can’t seem to find a single thing wrong with it.

The fact that it’s a family-oriented picture makes it even better because there’s something here for everybody. Although, some parents may complain it may be a little “too dark” for their kids to see, but the movie earns its dark moments by playing it straight. It’s not dark; it’s deep, and not in a ridiculous way either. And the kids are probably going to see a bit of themselves reflected in this film—the emotions that the young protagonist goes through are relatable to, I believe, every kid.

A little boy named Max (Max Records) is a wild little boy. Sometimes, he can be sweet and loving, while other times, he’s moody, lonely, reckless, and even violent in some cases (he tries to bite his mother at one point). One day, he feels lonely and left out when a snowball fight with his older sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and her friends ends gloomily, and his mother (Catherine Keener) ignores him because she has a date (Mark Ruffalo). Angry, Max escapes into his deep imagination and appears on an island where the natives are gigantic, furry creatures known as the “Wild Things.” There are about seven of them, each of which represent a part of Max’s being. They make Max their king, and they all have fun together—running, playing games, being wild. But soon, Max learns that these Wild Things do actually have conflicts the same as he does back home. There are issues with a certain group (or “clique,” if you will), games can get a little too rough, and feelings that can be hurt as easily as Max’s was. These are all issues that Max has to deal with back home, and he learns that things aren’t as different here as they were there.

“Where the Wild Things Are” has a low-key approach—it’s more soft and bitter in its key sequences while using pure emotion to tell most elements of the story. This could have been handled with more of a blockbuster feel with a lot of machinery and cuteness to try and appeal to a mainstream audience (see the deplorable Dr. Seuss film adaptations, for example). It’s amazing how director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers somehow managed to take a simple story and create a soft, deep family movie that is not like many others in recent memory.

The idea of Max running off to the fantasy island of Wild Ones is Max’s way of escaping into his own imagination, which is why these beasts resemble parts of Max’s psyche. Max develops a strong bond with a few of them, particularly Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) who represents Max’s soul—someone who seeks friendship and love while feeling destructive when internally pushed. There’s also a kindly Wild One named KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), who represents Max’s unconditional love for his family.

This couldn’t have been as clear (or as effective) without the fifteen-minute-long prologue that shows Max’s recklessness, imagination, the way he sees the world around him, and of course his relationships with his mother and his sister. Everything comes back around for Max on this island. Things start to fall apart on the island, as Max’s fantasy world starts to turn against him. It’s then that he learns certain things about his own life, including how hard it is to negotiate with family and friends. When Carol is suddenly destructive, and Max has to reason with him, it’s really Max’s way of understanding himself more.

As for those Wild Things themselves, they’re not only imaginative in their creature designs (live-action but not cartoony, looking like they stepped right off the pages of the original book); but they have distinct emotions and personalities. The effects team gets the look of each of these creatures exactly right, and the voice actors (which also include Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, and Forest Whitaker) do successful jobs of helping make them three-dimensional.

Every kid likes to pretend they’re somewhere else when they’re all alone with no friends or family members to interact with. While doing so, they make up people or creatures or all sorts of characters to interact with, and the kid can further figure out certain things this way. That is really what this fantasy land is all about with “Where the Wild Things Are”—it’s Max’s way of figuring out what’s happening around him in reality. The film is more fascinating in this sense. “Where the Wild Things Are” is truly an excellent film. It’s insightful, indefinable, and enchanting, to say the absolute least.

Knowing (2009)

16 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Knowing” is a science-fiction thriller directed by Alex Proyas. For those who don’t know, Proyas made the 1998 sci-fi film “Dark City” which served as a strong parable about how we sometimes don’t understand the world we live in. “Knowing” is like that in the way that it asks the question or whether the universe is random or deterministic. It’s a film about a man who discovers the answer…

The film opens in 1959 at an elementary school, where students are asked to create drawings of what they think the future will bring. A girl named Lucinda (Lara Robinson) suddenly hears voices that instruct her to line her paper with random rows of numbers…or are they random? Fast-forward to 2009, where the time capsule is opened with all the drawings inside. Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury) winds up in possession of Lucinda’s numbers and shows it to his father John (Nicolas Cage), an M.I.T. astrophysicist. Koestler becomes obsessed with this paper once he notices patterns in these numbers. He realizes that these numbers are warnings for death—dates, times, longitude/latitude, and even the numbers of victims who die at that time or place.

The setup of “Knowing” is investing and pretty intriguing. There’s a good deal of tension drawn in the scenes where Koestler figures things out, and Cage actually manages to sell his reaction scenes with credibility. There are interesting questions of fate and risk that come into place, as Koestler discovers that since there are events that happened long after the numbers were written, he could figure out what’s going to happen next, and possibly find a way to stop it. But is it possible to save lives of those who are predetermined? This is a dangerous question for someone who has previously believed that stuff just happens.

As Koestler digs further into the clues, he’s able to track down Lucinda’s daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) and granddaughter Abby (Lara Robinson again), hoping they’ll be able to help. As the story progresses, Caleb and Diana team up to discover what the last few numbers on the paper mean. But meanwhile, Caleb and Abby are being watched from afar by mysterious strangers who whisper in the night.

And it’s here that “Knowing” falls apart. The story stops being interesting and becomes more tiresome and really ridiculous. While the conflict is there as something bad unfolds for the Earth, the excitement isn’t present and the resolution is less than satisfying—it’s underwhelming. The truth behind these strangers and the numbers is beyond ridiculous. This is supposed to be the big twist to the story. I wanted a more complex ending.

Nicolas Cage is credible in the first half, but as things go downhill, so does his performance. He can’t stop yelling, which is understandable given the circumstances, but Cage is so over-the-top that it’s hard not to laugh at him. Rose Byrne, however, is consistently convincing and creates a sympathetic character opposite Cage.

The disaster sequences are nicely staged, but the use of CGI is always obvious. A train crash in the middle of the film doesn’t look very real, and there’s another scene in which a plane crashes, but while the plane looks real, the flames around it look incredibly fake. But it should also be said that the final effect—not giving anything away—is a genuinely horrific, but effective visual.

“Knowing” starts off by grabbing your attention, but diminishes midway through. Give it credit for not being an ordinary disaster movie and using an intriguing idea to play off of, but they should have thought more about a satisfying purpose.

Funny People (2009)

15 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

With a title like “Funny People,” a writer/director like Judd Apatow, and a cast that features actors/comedians like Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, and Aziz Ansari, you would expect this movie to be as raunchy and as funny as Apatow’s other writing and directing works like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” or his productions such as “Superbad” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Well, there certainly is raunch and humor in “Funny People,” but at the surface is a story of pure drama. Many of the characters in this movie are stand-up comedians, and everyone else is in some other sort of show business (like a sitcom), but the characters are all hostile towards each other—while showing friendship as well as dealing with life issues—and the story is mainly about how life off screen or off stage is every bit as difficult as is it is on screen or on stage.

“Funny People” is probably the closest Apatow has gotten to digging deeper into what his characters are going through. Each of his movies had plenty of humor but enough realism to show their lives. This film goes the extra mile. The result—an uneven but mostly endearing movie about how these “funny people” live their lives.

Adam Sandler delivers his best work in the leading role, and that’s saying something, considering his great work in dramatic roles such as “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Spanglish,” aside from his usual shtick in his juvenile-minded comedies. He plays a stand-up comedian named George Simmons. He enlivens the stage and has a huge fan base, but his life isn’t as lively. He lives alone in a big mansion, barely has any friends, and could possibly have bipolar disorder. Women fall to his feet and men have their cell phones ready to take pictures of him whenever he sees him. The problem is he’s all alone in living this celebrity’s dream. Things get worse when he hears the news from a doctor that he has a rare blood disease that’s killing him.

Enter Ira (Seth Rogen), an aspiring comic who lives with his buddies, one of which (played by Jason Schwartzman, who’s very funny here) is a self-indulgent TV sitcom lead, who is so proud of his moderate success that he leaves his paycheck on Ira’s pillow. (Jonah Hill plays the other roommate.) Ira is forced to follow George Simmons’ stand-up comedy act one night, but it comes easy, since George is so depressed that he literally dies on stage, while no one suspects that he’s dying in real life. Ira uses George’s somewhat-failure to his advantage, and that leads George to hire Ira to write some material for him to use. Later, though, Ira is the only one who knows of George’s sickness.

What follows is actually a well-told story of how George deals with his disease and how the relationship between George and Ira develops. There’s humor, but there are also some really touching moments here—George’s meltdown when he realizes he can’t waste another minute, George’s confiding in Ira, and the people from his life whom he comes to contact with. One of those people is the “one that got away”—a woman named Laura (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife) who despite everything still loves George and wants to spend some time with him, now that he’s dying.

All of this is well-told. Sandler does a terrific job of showing the dark side of this stand-up comic who faces his own mortality. Sometimes, he’ll look at it with a laugh, but like everybody, he’ll ponder his life and dread the end. The movie shows a nice job of showing parts of his career—for example, we see posters and clips of George Simmons’ movies that, believe it or not, look actually worse than the actual Adam Sandler comedies. One of them features him as a man-baby, with his head on a baby’s body, and another features him as a half-man, half-fish (a merman). I should also note the way this movie opens—it opens with home-video footage of George making crank calls with his college buddies (the footage was shot by Apatow himself and the buddies were actually Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo). This is funny because Sandler thinks it’s so funny, he’s enjoying what he’s doing and his friends are laughing uproariously as he does it. Then the movie starts and you see George many years later, alone in bed and tired. Times have changed. He has no one to share the laughs with. This is the life he leads now that he’s become rich and famous. It lets you know right away that “Funny People” isn’t merely a comedy. It’s saying something serious about fame.

Not to say the entire movie is serious. There are plenty of funny moments in this movie to balance the dramatic moments. There’s Adam Sandler’s guitar-playing mocking of Ira’s former last name (it’s spelt Weiner, but pronounced Whiner), James Taylor briefly mocking Ira’s sense of humor at a MySpace party, Jonah Hill’s description of how a popular video can lead to something more, Jason Schwartzman’s self-indulgence, and more pleasantries.

All of the actors do fine work. Seth Rogen does a surprising turn because he isn’t playing the loud, anxious best friend role that made him famous in Apatow’s movies like “40-Year-Old Virgin.” I’ve seen him play that role in many other movies and while he is funny and entertaining to watch, it’s so refreshing to see him actually try to act in this movie. And he does a convincing job. I bought Rogen as this bashful, clueless, good-hearted comic who tries to make George feel good about himself in his remaining days. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman crack several one-liners; they’re very funny here. Also notably funny is the deadpan presence of Aubrey Plaza, a mousy female comic whom Ira has a crush on. Oh, I almost forgot about Aziz Ansari—he plays another desperate stand-up comic and while Ansari’s role is brief, he makes the most of it.

“Funny People” has all the material for a movie that deserves four stars. Unfortunately, this is only the first half of the movie. And from this part, I’d like to issue a SPOILER ALERT! Even though a major plot point I haven’t discussed yet is shown in the film’s trailers, I won’t take any chances. So finish the review right here and see the movie for yourself, but I should warn you the movie is two hours and twenty-six minutes long and when you realize why that is when you watch the movie, come back and read the review.

For those of you who stayed, I’m about to go into the second half of “Funny People,” which is surely less successful than the first half. It begins with George learning that he’s actually beat his disease. Actually, that could have been the end of the movie. I felt like I’ve seen the end of a movie as Ira yells in delight that George is cured. But no, there’s a little more than an hour left to watch. All that time leads to George’s new affair with Leslie Mann’s Laura. Laura learns that George is well and still has these feelings for George, but the problem is she’s married to an Australian hunk (Eric Bana). But he’s on the road most of the time, and George finds it more appropriate—to himself, anyway—to pay her a visit at her house, dragging Ira along with him. It’s an overnight that eventually becomes longer, much to the concern of Ira and to Laura’s two young daughters (played by Apatow’s and Mann’s real-life daughters, both of whom were also in “Knocked Up”).

The movie just becomes more of a family melodrama and becomes less of what has followed before. It only gets more complicated as Bana returns home and has his suspicions of George’s visit. I wanted George and Ira to just leave the house and go back to where the more interesting characters and story developments were.

What I’m getting at is that “Funny People” is a missed opportunity for a really great movie, and I feel like I’ve seen Apatow’s special “director’s cut” than the actual movie that, when you get down to it, was really the first half of the movie, which is so rich and funny and insightful that you wonder if Apatow could have saved the stuff with Laura’s family for a “Knocked Up” spinoff.

“Funny People” ends with a conclusion that is satisfying enough that you feel like you’ve enjoyed spending time with these characters. You may be relieved to go home, but at least, you have things to think about, related to most of what you’ve seen. The movie does have pacing issues and you wonder why the editors couldn’t have cut a few minutes out of certain scenes, but as it is, “Funny People” is a smart, endearing comedy/drama and is probably the closest Apatow has ever done as a writer and director to telling a real story. Apatow has made himself known as the modern king of comedy, and I always look forward to his next movie, whether it’d be one that he wrote or directed himself or simply one he produced (because he puts in his own creativity as well as the writers of those projects, and you always recognize it). “Funny People” is a near-triumph, but good enough. Oh, and did I mention that George dismissed absolutely everything he may have learned from his near-death experience? How often does that happen in a drama that features cancer? Just thought I’d point that out at the very end of this review.

I Love You, Man (2009)

2 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m going out on a limb here having to explain the details of a “bromance.” A “bromance” is a special platonic relationship between two men who not only see each other as best friends, but also as brothers (or “brothers-from-other-mothers”). When it comes to movies, we’ve had plenty of male-bonding/”buddy” movies, but “I Love You, Man” is billed as the first “bromantic”-comedy to be released. This means there’s more emotion to the guys than just being buddies, and it’s like a romantic comedy, but without the sex.

Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd), a real-estate agent, is engaged to marry his adorable, loving girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones). But as they start to prepare their wedding, they draw a blank at the position of “best man.” Peter realizes that while he gets along great with women, he has never had any male best friends. He’s one of those guys who has had more longing relationships with women than men. Even his dad (J.K. Simmons) and brother Robbie (Andy Samberg) are that close to him, though the two are best friends with each other. So Peter decides to search for a new best friend in the way that one would search for a romantic partner—“man-dates.” These don’t work, and in the film’s funniest scene, a candidate played by Thomas Lennon may seem like the right guy but…just wait and see.

At an open house (Lou Ferrigno’s house up for sale), Peter meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) and they hit it off pretty well. Sydney’s a beach bum (who invests every now and then) who likes nothing better than to hang out and do stuff when he’s not lazing about in his “Man Cave,” a separate garage beside his house. Peter and Sydney start hanging out together—they both love the band Rush, they’re honest with each other, and their friendship grows…while Peter’s relationship with Zooey is being questioned.

I had a friend like Sydney. He’s the kind of guy that in many ways is not the right friend for you, but in most ways, he’s the friend that kind of helps boost your self-esteem because he does the things that guys only think about. He just likes to have fun and wants to share it with you. Peter needed a Sydney to balance out his well-organized (albeit boring) lifestyle, especially to boost his own self-esteem. You see, Peter is, with all due respect, a loser. He fails at imitations (he always winds up with an Irish accent), comes with up strange nicknames that don’t make any sense at all, and tries unsuccessfully to deliver jive-talk wisecracks to fill in awkward pauses. He may have a Zooey in his life, but he needs a Sydney.

Paul Rudd as Peter and Jason Segel as Sydney are both likable and play well off one another. You really buy these two as best friends. Of the supporting cast, Rashida Jones is lovely and gamely comedic as Peter’s fiancée, J.K. Simmons and Jane Curtin do nice work as Peter’s parents, and Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressly are hilarious as the married couple from hell—the couple that argues constantly that is not only a funny running gag, but also a clever, subtle message about finding the right partner (romance or bromance, doesn’t matter). Andy Samberg, as Peter’s gay brother who helps set him up on man-dates in the earlier scenes, is basically a one-joke caricature, but he has a few funny lines as well. Thomas Lennon, though his role is short, is freaking hilarious. His voice and mannerisms reminded me a lot of Bill Murray and I mean that in the best possible way.

But wait, how’s the humor? This is after all a comedy and “I Love You, Man” even has this premise that would have fit in a sitcom. And as a result of a funny script, there are many funny one-liners, some shock-value chortles, character-based jokes (such as what goes on inside Sydney’s “Man Cave”), and a great running gag about Lou Ferrigno that is probably best left from this review. However, there are some gags that are hit-and-miss, that leave a trail of awkwardness because there’s hardly a way to recover from them. You have to wait for the next one. And there are also a few jokes that are almost too self-referential that you wonder if Judd Apatow was involved in this project. For the most part, though, “I Love You, Man” is a well-executed, funny, feel-good “bromantic” comedy with engaging performers and surprisingly something sincere to say about relationships.

Paranormal Activity (2009)

24 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Any horror film that forces Steven Spielberg to watch it in the daylight, rather than at night, deserves to be checked out. The story of how the extremely-low-budget independent thriller “Paranormal Activity” got its release is quite interesting—apparently, the film was shown at several film festivals for a couple of years before it was acquired by Dreamworks, who wanted to remake the film with a bigger budget. Spielberg got a DVD copy of the film and watched in his home at night, and was so scared to continue that he waited until morning light to finish it, after which he called the executives, saying, “We shouldn’t remake this—we should release it!” Paramount Pictures picked up the film and released it to the public.

“Paranormal Activity” is a welcome addition to the horror genre—maybe not a complete success, but enough clever moments and more importantly, terrifying moments. No doubt it’s a great movie to see with a crowd, with screams and laughs—it’d be very entertaining, but when you watch it alone in your house, what you have seems like a typical horror film. Not much fun is left. But still, it’s an effective chiller.

“Paranormal Activity” uses the first-person perspective used in other thrillers such as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield.” It pretends to be “found documentary footage” and is seen only in a first-person perspective, from a video camera owned by one of the main characters. And better yet, all of the actors are unknowns, making it more effective—the actors use their real first names for their characters.

This first-person gimmick also creates atmosphere—much like how “The Blair Witch Project” created atmosphere with its first-person perspective in the middle of the woods, “Paranormal Activity” uses the same gimmick inside a seemingly normal suburban house.

Inside this house live a young couple—Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat)—who have just moved in. They’re experiencing a haunting of some sort, so Micah decides to buy a new camera to see if he can record anything out of the ordinary, like an amateur paranormal investigator. He’s excited about this ordeal, but for Katie, this is nothing new, as she has experienced something like this in the past.

Micah films around the house during the day and also sets up a tripod in the bedroom to record them (with the help of a computer) while they sleep. And surely enough, the camera does capture some strange happenings, like a mysterious shadow or a moving door. Micah and Katie keep trying to figure stuff out—Katie even calls a psychic to come down and see what he thinks. He concludes that this spirit is a demon and it only wants Katie, and not the house.

Every night, things get creepier and more tense. It just gets worse as it goes along, and Micah is in no way making things better. He provokes the demon! I’ve seen horror movie characters do stupid things before, but…he brings out a Ouija board to try and communicate with the demon, even though he has been specifically told not to! He’s a brave guy, all right…no, he’s just an idiot. And most of his antics pay off in a way that you just want to smack him. If you don’t yell at the screen, “Get out of the house!,” you might still feel obligated to yell, “Get a clue!”

There are many scary moments in “Paranormal Activity.” As with “The Blair Witch Project,” the fear comes more from what we don’t see. When we hear something going on elsewhere, it comes out of nowhere. We hear someone—or something—walking up the stairs and it fills us with unease. And so on. There are many hints as to what’s going on throughout the movie and it gives the audience time to try and figure out exactly what’s happening. Also, just the idea of something supernatural happening in a typical suburban house at night is creepy enough. There’s something I’d like to mention too—there’s a time code at the bottom of the screen (or viewfinder, if you will) every time the camera records them sleeping. The numbers will speed up, meaning that we’re fast-forwarding through time (usually to a few hours later). When the numbers stop…you know something is going to happen, but you don’t know what. That’s a great idea.

And then there’s the ending, or rather the final image—I won’t give it away, but I guarantee it will make even horror movie fans uneasy.

This is an effective horror film, and a terrific one in that it uses its limited resources to give us something satisfying. Both lead actors are totally convincing their roles (and Katie Featherston can let out a hell of a scream, I tell you that), the setting of one house filmed with one camera is surprisingly fitting, and of course, the scares are there.