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Devil (2010)

21 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

God works in mysterious ways. But so does the Devil. From what I’ve heard in Sunday school growing up, the Devil is cold, calculating, seductive, ruthless, and very subtle in his schemes of drawing people over to the dark side before consuming their souls in hell. This supernatural thriller, “Devil,” does not represent him well, for reasons I’ll go into shortly. But to be fair, it is kind of fun. This is a “guilty pleasure” for me, to say the least (or the most).

Based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan, “Devil” is as much “Shyamalan” as you could expect. It has a spiritual message, it has tormented characters finding redemption after going through a paranormal occurrence, and you may recognize a few silly elements he used in “Lady in the Water” or “The Happening” (to be fair, those are two of my guilty pleasures too). Just to get this out of the way, I don’t hate M. Night Shyamalan. I love “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” “Unbreakable” gets better and better each time I see it, “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening” are too goofy for me to hate, and he came back from a career slump in a major way last year with “The Visit.” I didn’t see the critically panned “After Earth,” but I despise “The Last Airbender,” which seemed to make even his defenders turn their backs on him. “Devil” came out the same year as “The Last Airbender,” and there was a hate train chugging along because even though it wasn’t directed by Shyamalan (it was directed by John Erick Dowdle), it had his fingerprints all over it. But I can’t hate it—like “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening,” it’s too goofy for me to hate.

The premise sounds fantastic until it gets to the fine print. Five strangers are trapped in a broken-down elevator. But one of them is a killer. The power is faulty, and the killer strikes whenever the lights go out. Police and maintenance race to save the remaining bunch of claustrophobic people before they too are killed off one by one. Sounds like a Hitchcock or an Agatha Christie scenario, doesn’t it? Well…I don’t think Hitchcock or Christie would’ve made the killer the Devil.

And yes, the hook is that the Devil is one of the people trapped in the elevator, and that’s where the horror is supposed to come from, I suppose—not just that there’s a sadistic killer on board, but that person must also be the Devil come to take the rest to hell. How do we know this? Well, one of the building’s security guards (Jacob Vargas), a highly religious type, points out the signs that direct to the situation due to a story told to him as a child by his grandmother. But that’s not all—what else does he have to prove the Devil is near? He takes a piece of toast with jelly on it and throws it up in the air, and it lands jelly-side down. “When he is near,” he shakily concludes, “Toast falls jelly-side down.” I get what the writer is trying to do—use mundane materials to point toward the supernatural (like in “Signs,” with the baby monitor picking up an otherworldly signal)—but some ways of doing it are more lame than others (remember the Simon game in the fifth “Paranormal Activity” movie?).

As I said before, five people (Logan Marshall-Green as a mechanic, Jenny O’Hara as a crabby old lady, Geoffrey Arend as an unctuous salesman, Bokee, Woodbine as a temp security guard, and Bojana Novakovic as a manipulative woman) are trapped in an elevator in a Philadelphia high rise. Working on the problem are two security guards (Vargas and Matt Craven) and police detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who can see them via security cam. After a while, one of them is murdered, with no telling of whom of the remaining four did it. Every time the lights go out due to defective power, one of them ends up dead. While the race is on to get the elevator working again and save whoever is left, Vargas gives Bowden his conclusion that the killer is the Devil in disguise. Naturally, Bowden doesn’t believe him at first, but the further things escalate, the less he can deny the truth.

It turns out to be true—the Devil has decided to send some people to hell today and, for some reason, it takes him all day to do it, and it’s not even in a secretive way, seeing as how it’s all happening on closed-circuit cameras. When you really think about it, it doesn’t make any sense. And it gets sillier from there, with images of monstrous faces showing up in the surveillance monitor, one of the women being “bitten” by the Devil, and even a preposterous, laughable death by hanging. And with the security guard constantly speaking script-talk for “the Devil is near,” we get an angel in disguise, just so we can have an understanding of what we’re dealing with here.

To the film’s credit, all of the actors are uniformly good and Shyamalan-regular Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is well-done. And even some of the spiritual elements are surprisingly interesting, despite them being too convenient especially in the film’s climax.

Despite this missed opportunity to create a truly chilling, claustrophobic thriller, I find myself enjoying “Devil,” mainly for the things I laugh at, in addition to the things in it that are consistently good. It just so happens the laughable things are consistently laughable, so it all balances out. Like “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening,” “Devil” is a guilty pleasure I can’t help but enjoy each time.

Get Him to the Greek (2010)

20 Jul

Film Title: Get Him to the Greek

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The formula for the comedies that come off the Judd Apatow assembly line seems to be that the characters and their situations must be as vulgar and crude as possible, but also must have vulnerable, quiet moments that show they are not so vulgar and crude; they’re just misunderstood and confused. This is something that quite a few comedies nowadays seem to forget, as Apatow’s R-rated comedies influence many other R-rated comedies that focus more on everything else except for appeal. I always have high expectations when I come see an Apatow production, whether or writes/directs or simply produces it, because you can see hints of his insight among the writer’s and director’s vision(s). I can expect hilarity and even some convincing drama.

“Get Him to the Greek,” written and directed by Nicholas Stoller (who also directed the 2008 Apatow-produced comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), is one that I personally find to be one of the least of the bunch. That’s not to say it’s not good. On the contrary. It’s just that some parts don’t mesh well with others, which leads to a few distracting qualities about it. But it’s not so much that I can’t laugh at it or like most of the antics involved, and it is an enjoyable watch.

“Get Him to the Greek” is a follow-up to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” in that it makes a major role out of the scene-stealer from that movie—the eccentric British rock legend Aldous Snow, played very memorably by Russell Brand. Aldous Snow was a weirdo, despite NOT being stoned or drunk at all in that movie (he had a tattoo that declared him “seven years sober”), and he managed to provide us with a lot of very amusing bits, with his personality, his thick British accent, and the double-entendres of his song lyrics. But if you ever wondered who Aldous Snow was as a person, “Get Him to the Greek” brings the character back and adds more to it to make him three-dimensional. Did Aldous Snow need further characterization? Well, we thought we knew all about him in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but then again, how much can you know about a supporting character? So not only can the guy make us laugh, but he can also tell us more about him.

Russell Brand reprises his role from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for “Get Him to the Greek,” and yet his co-star Jonah Hill, who played a waiter/stalker who admired Aldous Snow, does not. He’s a different character than the one he played in the previous movie. Here, he’s Aaron Green, a recording company suit. He has been sent by his boss, Sergio Roma (Sean Combs, a.k.a. P. Diddy) to bring Snow from London to Los Angeles, so he can perform a concert at the Greek Theater for a full comeback after not only a terrible previous album, called “African Child,” but also succumbing to substance and alcohol and, as we will learn, a couple resentments and heartbreaks. When Aaron travels with him, he finds that Snow is quite difficult to handle, as all he wants to do is party, do drugs, and drink, rather than think about performing and continue traveling. Aaron tries to get the upper hand and bring Snow down to earth so they can continue on the journey, but he’s pretty much spineless and has trouble speaking out.

But along the journey, Aaron and Snow form an unlikely bond, mainly because Snow has no one else to accept him and Aaron sees how much of a mess this guy is. And we do too. We come to like Snow because we can see his development as a character. In “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he was a caricature more than anything else. But here, he’s a three-dimensional individual with moments of vulnerability underneath his partying persona. He’s a self-destructive time-bomb who may go off at any moment, pretty much because he has no one to connect with. He takes drugs and drinks a lot because everyone in his life has broken his heart—British pop singer Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), who was the love of his life, and even Snow’s father (Colm Meaney), who has only used Snow for his fame and fortune.

These heavier dramatic moments in “Get Him to the Greek” balance with the comedic moments, which serve as relief with belly laughs (most of which comes from dialogue that comes so fast that you’ll wish you had a tape recorder). While I admit that the poignancy of the scenes that have to do with Snow’s life are effective in presenting some legitimate human drama into the mix, sometimes I feel it doesn’t really work because it seems as if some of these issues don’t really belong in the same movie that features outrageously funny moments such as when Aaron gets the upper hand by stuffing a bag of heroin into his behind so Snow can’t use it (and Snow has to use force to retrieve it). And I’m not entirely sure I liked the payoff involving Jackie Q. It’s played realistically, but I can’t help but feel that it was missing something a little more significant.

But on the other hand, “Get Him to the Greek” doesn’t forget that it’s a comedy and continues with more energy with a race to catch the Today Show (with Aaron stoned out of his mind and rushing to give Snow lyrics for a song he must perform), a drug-induced sequence to the tune of Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen,” and an uncomfortable, forced threesome with Aaron, Snow, and Aaron’s girlfriend Daphne (Elisabeth Moss), just to name a few.

Russell Brand does a nice job bringing Aldous Snow to life and Jonah Hill brings a certain likability that he can be known for when he isn’t loud and obnoxious. But the biggest surprise in the acting department comes from Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, who is hilarious and provides some of the film’s funniest lines and moments. (One has to wonder when we’ll see a full movie about this guy, just as this one stars a character from a different movie.)

One other thing I want to mention is the soundtrack, particularly the songs by Aldous Snow and Jackie Q, designed specifically for the movie. Among Snow’s vulgar lyrics for something like the admittedly-catchy “The Clap,” we also have glimpses of Jackie Q’s music videos, including the string-quartet-mixed-with-techno-beat “Supertight” and the unbelievably ill-mannered “Ring ‘Round my Posey.” (Rose Byrne is particularly hilarious and you can tell she has game, doing this.)

Much like an Apatow comedy, “Get Him to the Greek” allows us to laugh and also to care. It may not be as effective when compared to the likes of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but it works mainly because you can still feel what was accomplished more than what has been attempted.

The Karate Kid (2010)

6 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember reading an online article about a project in development—a Jaden Smith vehicle called “The Kung Fu Kid.” I also remember rolling my eyes at the title, so I decided not to look further into it. Then when I saw the trailer for a Jaden Smith vehicle called “The Karate Kid,” I thought to myself, “Aw come on, really? They’re remaking ‘The Karate Kid?’ Jaden Smith is Daniel and Jackie Chan is Mr. Miyagi?” But you know, you shouldn’t judge before you see the movie. In other words, you don’t have to see a movie, but don’t pretend like you know right away that it’s going to suck. And I was surprised to discover that this modern version of the wonderful (and iconic) 1984 film, which originally starred Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, is actually a well-made, entertaining film. I’m glad to say that it’s more enjoyable (and more watchable) than any of the original film’s three sequels.

It’s also a pretty good remake. It carries over familiar elements of the original, but is able to tell a new story and allow certain differences that allow it to work as a stand-alone film. Maybe it does share the same sort of hokey sports-drama story that the original sort of introduced to the big screen for the first time in 1984; but when it works, just let yourself be entertained, if you’re willing to accept what’s in store for you.

There is one major problem, though. Despite being called “The Karate Kid,” karate is not the martial art that is being taught here. Here, it’s kung fu—because that’s kind of false advertising, calling a film “The Karate Kid” when karate has nothing to do with the story, and despite that cheesy title I remember reading, maybe it could have just stayed with the title “The Kung Fu Kid.” Ah well, what can you do? People would’ve attacked it at the start either way.

In the original film, Ralph Macchio played 16-year-old Daniel Larusso who moved with his single mother from New Jersey to California, where he has trouble fitting in. In the remake, Jaden Smith plays 12-year-old Dre Parker who moves with his widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson) from America to China, where he is unable to speak the language, doesn’t understand the culture, and of course has trouble fitting in. He does meet one girl, Meiying, who takes an interest in Dre (she likes his hair, particularly) and thankfully does speak English. But their little puppy-love attraction doesn’t do well with the jealous school bully, Cheng, who immediately doesn’t like Dre and beats him up on their first encounter. Like the original film, this bully hangs with a group of friends, and they all study under a psychotic martial-arts instructor (like I said, the original was karate while this one is kung fu) and they’re taught to fight, fight, fight.

When the beatings get to be too much for poor Dre, his unexpected rescuer turns out to be the apartment maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who as it turns out knows kung fu. Mr. Han agrees to talk with the bullies’ kung fu teacher, but because it doesn’t go well, Mr. Han arranges for Dre to fight the bullies in an upcoming kung fu tournament. It would seem cruel, but Mr. Han decides to actually teach Dre “real kung fu” to prepare for it.

In the original film, the teacher, Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi, managed to teach Daniel karate by showing him what can come from manual labor (for example, waxing the car (“wax on, wax off”) enables Daniel to block hits, as it turns out). Here, because Mr. Han noticed Dre’s defiance to his mother for never hanging up his jacket, and so he constantly has him hang it up, put it down, pick it up, and do the same thing over and over again. But as with the original film, there’s a secret method to doing this.

There isn’t anything perfectly fresh about this remake, mostly because much of the material was used in the original. And being a modern sports-drama, it’s fairly easy to figure out whether or not Dre is going to be able to beat the bullies in the tournament, earn respect from his peers, and so on. But there are some neat story aspects that keep it interesting, mainly involving the styles of kung fu. We get a lot of training sequences, all of which are amusing and even insightful (and because Jackie Chan is playing the teacher, you know that what you’re seeing is mostly true), and we even get to see the origins of kung fu, where Dre is introduced to a certain psychology within the art. For example, he notices an exercise involving a woman and a snake—is the snake controlling the woman, is the woman controlling the snake, or are they working as one? It’s a unique psychological element that Dre can of course learn to his advantage, and I think that’s what made the final battle more interesting, because by this time Dre has learned the art all too well and is able to use this ability to play to his opponent’s understanding.

I mentioned that “The Karate Kid” is a well-made movie and it is impressive, particularly in its visuals. Taking place in Beijing, China, you get a lot of great Chinese locations, including the Forbidden City where Dre goes on a field trip in one scene. And you also get the mountains and the Great Wall, which add to the nicely-photographed visual style.

Jaden Smith is a likable kid with a natural screen presence. The movie is a vehicle set up by his parents, Will and Jada Pinkett who serve as producers, but he deserves it. Jackie Chan delivers one of his best performances as Mr. Han, who is actually more complex of a character than you might expect. Mr. Han is not merely as eccentric as Mr. Miyagi was; he’s surlier and more bitter because of some tragic incident that in one scene, he ultimately tells Dre about. (That scene, by the way, is a very powerful scene and it leads to a perfect conclusion that has to do with that same psychology I mentioned above.) Chan is able to pull off a dramatic moment and it’s one of those rare moments that I didn’t see Chan in a performance.

The film is not without its flaws. I already mentioned a sort of lack of freshness in certain elements, but there are some parts that seem overstuffed, including the puppy-love relationship between Dre and Meiying. And admittedly, it is sort of unsettling seeing Dre get beat up brutally by the bullies in the early parts of the film, and also to see Mr. Han able to cause the kids to beat each other up thanks to some clever maneuvers. It probably has to do with the age, but seeing kids get beaten even by each other is not easy to watch. In fact, I’m surprised this film got away with a PG rating; the violence is a bit much for a family-friendly film.

But for the most part, “The Karate Kid” is a well-done remake to an iconic predecessor—keeping nostalgia alive for adults who are familiar with the original film, but not annoying for those aren’t familiar with the source. It’s a nicely-done, entertaining sports-drama that once again shows you don’t judge a book by its cover (or its title).

Rabbit Hole (2010)

24 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Rabbit Hole” is like the next “Ordinary People” of the early 21st century, and to me, that’s a good thing. This is just as emotionally involving and well-made as that 1980 Best Picture-winning family drama. And it’s odd, because this could have been as stale and overdone as most modern melodramas, but “Rabbit Hole” is smarter, more efficient, and better-acted than you might expect.

“Rabbit Hole” is a film about grief, particularly coping with the death of a little child. Already, that sounds like a made-for-TV schlocky, overdone melodrama. But “Rabbit Hole” mostly gets it right. The actors are great in making the characters seem real so that we can feel their pain and be convinced about their plight. And the writing is quite intelligent, based on a play by David Linday-Abaire, who also authors the screenplay here. Even if it seems all too real for people who have suffered a deep loss, and at times it is quite uncompromising, the emotions within the credible drama are evident and effectively done.

“Rabbit Hole” centers around Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), ordinary people doing their best to deal with everyday life after the accidental death of their four-year-old son, who was chasing a dog out in the neighborhood street and was struck by a car. Becca is attempting to move on, while Howie stays up all night watching home-movies that feature the boy. And the boy’s bedroom looks as if it’s still there waiting for the boy to come back. They’re enduring a good deal of grief as they’re practically restarting life since the incident, and a group therapy session doesn’t help much, as Becca is bitter enough to notice that these “mourners” are merely self-righteous for the sake of earning sympathy. Also, the couple’s marriage seems to be slowly but surely falling apart, and Howie turns to Gaby (Sandra Oh), who listens to him in sympathy, and he lets her because Becca won’t. Oh, and Gaby’s husband recently abandoned her.

Meanwhile, Becca finds someone to talk to—the last person one would expect for her to have conversations with: Jason (Miles Teller, very good), the teenager who drove the car that killed her son. She notices him and the emptiness in his eyes, and realizes the guilt he feels about that day. So she feels that if she makes him feel better about it, she herself will feel better about it.

Granted, this is not easy, and no one will feel 100% better about such a tragedy, but it does help to talk to someone.

There’s also a subplot involving Becca’s sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), who is unexpectedly pregnant. This leads to quiet denial from Becca who notices her sister’s irresponsibility and questions whether or not she’s able to raise or take care of a kid. And there’s also Becca and Izzy’s mother (Dianne Wiest), who herself has suffered a tragic loss—her son and Becca and Izzy’s brother.

As you can tell, every character is going through some sort of emotional conflict, and they’re finding (or trying to find) ways to cope with each situation either by themselves or through each other. They are not the same people they used to be because an experience such as becoming a parent and in this case losing a child will change a person in such a way that life could no longer be the same. It’s how they’re able to continue through life that really matters and makes them who they are now. These feelings are well-developed and lead to a lot of truly effective, sometimes heartbreakingly so, sequences that ring true and make us understand what they’re all going through.

The acting is an important asset to the success of “Rabbit Hole.” If we don’t believe what these characters endure, we don’t care, which is what makes “Rabbit Hole” all the more powerful in its acting in that we do care. Nicole Kidman delivers one of her best performances, as she delivers a highly credible portrayal of a woman enduring emotional pain and with a force that makes it all believable. Aaron Eckhart is good here too, as a man who has his own issues in dealing with his son’s death (and he’s clearly not on the same page of coping as his wife is). Of the supporting cast, Dianne Wiest delivers her best work in quite a while; Sandra Oh is appealing; Tammy Blanchard is convincingly rebellious; and Miles Teller is credibly vulnerable.

I also admire that “Rabbit Hole” isn’t necessarily about the little boy’s death—it’s about the reactions to it eight months after, and the recovery that can be developed at that point. With the exception of one (very brief) pushover, we don’t even get any flashbacks recalling the tragic incident. We just have Becca and Howie and their explorations of grief after it. That was a smart move, and the right approach to this material.

Not everything about “Rabbit Hole” works, though. For instance, I never really bought the grocery-store scene in which Becca confronts a nearby strict mother who won’t buy her kid Fruit Roll-Ups, despite his constant asking. The payoff to that scene just seemed quite forced to me. And it’s obvious to us that young, artistic Jason’s homemade comic book is supposed to symbolize the guilt he feels since that fateful day (it’s about parallel universes and what it’d be like for a character to experience a different personality within himself), but it’s not supposed to be revealing late in the film, which it is.

But everything else about “Rabbit Hole” works—the character interactions, the dealings/copings with grief, the story-framing, the acting, the writing, etc. Does it end pleasantly? Well, it depends on how you see it or what you get out of what led up to it. What I got out of it, without giving much away, was that it’s as redemptive as I would have liked to be, without being manipulative or dishonest. It worked for me.

Flipped (2010)

20 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are moments in life we don’t think about very often, and when we do, we like to think how things might have changed if we made different decisions in life. Take childhood, for example. Or rather, the first time we realized we were in love. Take this, for instance—what if you realized too late that you shared the same feelings toward a certain peer that the peer felt for you for the longest time…only to realize that by this time, the peer has lost interest? The timing is off; misunderstandings occurred; and you realize you were probably too blind or dumb to see what was there all along? Before it became a cliché in today’s pop music, it was the kind of thing that Afterschool Specials would have loved to present. It’d be an accomplishment to make an effective movie about such an issue without making it seem like a generic kids’-movie. And an accomplishment is just what Rob Reiner’s “Flipped” is.

“Flipped” involves a crush between two 7th-grade children in the early 1960s. Now I have to admit that at first, I wasn’t sure why this story takes place decades ago, and I thought Reiner wanted to recapture the “Stand by Me” nostalgia-feel. But then I realized something—a majority of junior-high kids in today’s modern age are overexposed with sexual imagery, thanks to the Internet and sheer curiosity aroused by other aspects, such as porn magazines and R-rated movies (particularly teen slasher films and raunchy comedies that feature nudity). I’m not saying that every kid does this or thinks this way about the opposite sex at this age; I’m just saying times have certainly changed.

But anyway, you can’t deny that the feelings that the characters in “Flipped” experience are genuine and familiar to anyone who has endured a childhood crush, especially when the feeling wasn’t exactly mutual. Maybe the “innocence-factor” is a bit forced, but as a story of young love, it’s acceptable in that sense.

The two kids in question are Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) and Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll). When Bryce was 7, he and his family moved to a new house, across the street from Juli’s family. Juli is immediately attracted to Bryce (mostly because of his eyes), but Bryce is desperate to avoid her. (“All I wanted was for Juli Baker to leave me alone,” Bryce states in a voiceover narration.) Juli hardly ever stops chasing Bryce and shadows him all through grade school until junior high. But then at this point, midway through the 7th grade, something strange happens. Bryce is starting to have feelings for Juli, while Juli isn’t so sure about him anymore.

“Flipped” doesn’t cheat by focusing for the most part on one of the two—instead, it has a really clever storytelling gimmick. It plays one situation from the viewpoint of Bryce; and then the scene “flips” so that we can see the same situation from Juli’s point of view. It’s an effective, well-done method to get us to sympathize with both sides. Even when it seems like there’s an unforgivable moment brought upon by one of them, the “flip” manages to tell it from that person’s perspective and make us understand why this happened.

A funny thing about this “family film” is that it’s probably more geared towards older viewers than the younger. Older viewers will recognize the feelings that these children are going through in this movie, particularly the change of a young person’s feelings toward a member of the opposite sex. Whether it’s coming to love them or hate them, it’s a confusing, complicated change in a person’s life. I say it’s more geared towards older viewers because of that nostalgia-perspective angle that “Flipped” delivers.

The acting is spot-on—Callan McAuliffe and Madeline Carroll are two very convincing child actors who capture the immaturity and vulnerability of these characters. The supporting cast, mostly composed of familiar faces, is not entirely memorable, with a couple exceptions—one being John Mahoney as Bryce’s insightful grandfather who notices Juli’s spirit, and the other being Anthony Edwards as Bryce’s father who is a complete and total jerk (this is a character I would rather forget). Other names include Aidan Quinn and Penelope Ann Miller as Juli’s parents, and Rebecca De Mornay as Bryce’s mother—they’re fine, but nothing special.

Yes, I did mention that “Flipped” was directed by Rob Reiner, whose films have never reached that level of worthy filmmaking since “North” almost twenty years ago (I’ll get back to you on “The American President,” though). He needed something that made people remember that this guy once made some impressive, memorable, terrific films such as “Spinal Tap,” “The Princess Bride,” and two particular films that “Flipped” echoes, “The Sure Thing” and “Stand by Me.” “Flipped” is Reiner’s best film in years. And unfortunately, nobody ever saw it, thanks to very poor marketing and a pushed-around release date. More people should give it a watch on DVD; it’s touching, it’s effective, and it’s a satisfying romantic comedy.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

6 May

 

imagesSmith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Have you ever noticed that in almost every superhero movie, the human side of the hero keeps its alter-ego as a burden? Clark Kent is still trying to keep his Superman identity a secret to the public, Bruce Wayne’s Batman is a curious case, and Peter Parker is still angst-ridden when he’s not Spider-Man and even more troubled when he is Spider-Man. Now with Iron Man, Tony Stark has the whole world know who he is and doesn’t seem the least bit resentful. This is why he’s one of the freshest superheroes in recent memory, based on a popular Marvel comic book and brought to life by Robert Downey, Jr. in 2008’s smash hit “Iron Man.” So you would expect a sequel and hope that Robert Downey, Jr. can give the Tony Stark the same wit and strength that he gave in the original. And he does in “Iron Man 2.”

While the original spent more time getting to know its characters and keeping the action to an absolute minimum, this sequel knows that we already know the characters and now we want to see them in action. There is more action in “Iron Man 2” and each sequence is, I must say, better crafted than the original. The best CGI sequence occurs at a racetrack when a villain and Tony square off—the villain in a suit, Tony in a car. Sometimes though, the action almost makes the characters not as interesting as they were in the original.

Robert Downey, Jr., of course, owns this film. His narcissism, wit, and innate charisma make everything he does in any movie make you want to root for him. In “Iron Man 2,” his Tony Stark has let everybody know he is Iron Man and brings world peace by traveling around the globe and eliminating problems. But privately, he’s dying. He is suffering from palladium poisoning caused by the magnetic device in his chest that was, ironically, keeping him alive. I love the scene where he treats his birthday party like his last and does a drunken standup to his guests.

His actions in that scene cause his friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle, reprising the role Terrence Howard played in the original) to steal one of Tony’s extra iron suits and try to smash some sense into him. There are many conflicts like that in this movie, two others more threatening. There, of course, has to be a villain. This one is bitter, fully-tatooed-body, Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) who has created his own iron suit, with a few nasty adjustments. There is also a smarmy entrepreneur named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who wants Vanko to make about fifty iron drones for the Military to out-Stark Tony. My problem is that Rourke, who is marketed as the main villain in this film, is not very compelling. His performance mainly is composed of insisting growling and nasty laughter with his golden teeth and full-body tattoos. Sam Rockwell, however, outwits Rourke in every scene which features them together, trying to outwit Downey Jr., even. Rockwell delivers a brilliant comic performance, a whiner trying to get in the big leagues but tries WAY too hard.

With all these characters I’ve mentioned, I almost forgot the rest of the main characters. Another little problem with this movie is how many characters there are and how hard to could be to keep track of them. Pepper Potts, Tony’s Girl Friday and possible love interest from the original (still played by Gwyneth Paltrow), is back as CEO of Tony’s weapons company. She isn’t used enough in this movie. The chemistry between the two in the original was one of that movie’s treasures. Here, they just share a few good scenes together and then they just worry about each other, Pepper more worried about Tony. New to the story is a sexy martial arts expert named Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) who may not be who she seems. She was called Black Widow in the original comic book—wow, welcoming. Who have I left out? Only Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Hogan (Jon Favreau, director of this movie), other familiar faces.

“Iron Man 2” is not as good as the original but I did like it. This sequel delivers more or less than it promises and Jon Favreau, who also directed the original film, proves more of himself as an action director, pacing the action appropriately. I did like the action, the script by Justin Theroux delivers some clever one-liners (the best ones are delivered by Downey Jr. and Cheadle), and I really loved seeing Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark in action once again. Its not-so-particularly compelling Russian villain and overuse of characters keeps this from being one of the better superhero movie sequels (such as “Spider-Man 2” and “The Dark Knight”). But I did like seeing Tony Stark sport on the iconic iron suit and kick some ass!

The Kids are All Right (2010)

24 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

(Originally reviewed mid-2010, hence the hopes for Academy Award notice…which it got)

The kids lead somewhat normal lives. One of them has just graduated from high school and is starting off to college soon. The other, younger kid is a well-natured jock whose best friend happens to be the wrong kind of friend to hang around with. But the kid doesn’t know it yet. These kids are nice, well-natured, and like regular kids, they have some issues. The issue they’ve lived with their entire lives is that they are the children of a lesbian couple. They’re half-siblings because each mother gave birth to them with the same anonymous sperm donor used. All their lives they’ve been trying to live normally but it’s hard. They love their moms, nonetheless. But they can’t help but wonder what their biological father is like and who he is.

The kids are 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska, “Alice in Wonderland”) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson, “Bridge to Terabithia”). Joni is the one who is going to college and has written a paper in high school about donors. Therefore, she could figure out who donated the sperm that their moms took. Laser is desperate—he wants to know who the father is and this may be his only chance. He looks to his sister for help—“I’ve never asked you for anything.” So Joni contacts the sperm bank to track down the father, who happens to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a chill, hippie-type gardener who sells organic food at the local market. His persona is like, “Yeah, you know, that’s cool, man.”

Joni arranges for her and Laser to meet with Paul and this leads to an awkward but funny scene in which they sit down and have a talk with each other. It’s not long before the kids want to see Paul again but there’s one catch—he has to have lunch with the whole family, the order of one of the moms. So they do and this sets up a series of complicated relationships between the family members and Paul.

The lesbian couple are Nic (Annette Bening), a doctor who is very strict in the house, and Jules (Julianne Moore, who is unfocused and doesn’t know what to do with herself. They love each other and perform nasty sexual activities, which are not exaggerated but still pretty disturbing to anyone who doesn’t approve of this kind of activity. They watch gay-man-porn. But there is something happening lately. This happens to all adults. They are experiencing midlife crisis. And with Paul around, it doesn’t make matters much better. Jules is already thinking of trying new things. What she tries may jeopardize the lifestyle of the family. The kids may be all right, but the adults aren’t.

The family life may be imperfect but it’s somewhat stable. (At one point, Laser says to the moms he’s going out. One of the moms asks for a hug and Laser scoffs, “Hug her. That’s what she’s there for.”) This is what makes “The Kids are All Right” very convincing. The people in this movie are just regular people. They could be your relatives, your next-door neighbors, your friends. You may know them or you may seem them around every once in a while. This is the kind of independent film about people in the world that reminds me of “Juno.” Both movies focus on people who think they have situations played out by themselves but they don’t really know what to do or how to go through with them. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But in the end, you feel something for the characters. By the end of “The Kids are All Right,” I felt satisfied that the story unfolded in a convincing way and there are no loose ends.

This is one of the best movies of the year. The cast is absolutely perfect. Julianne Moore is fantastic at playing the complicated Jules, Annette Bening goes as far with the strictness without overselling it, Mark Ruffalo is the best character in the movie (the way he talks and has insights about his own life are outstanding), and Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are two of the brightest, appealing, most convincing teenagers in movie history. All of these actors deserve Oscar nominations. The direction by Lisa Cholodenko is sharp and bright—her previous films were “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon.” And the writing is fantastic. I love the scene where the moms confront Laser about what he was doing lately and fear he might be gay. This talk they have with him is greatly written and acted that I wouldn’t be surprised if, just for that scene, this film gets a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. But there are a lot of great scenes—Laser and Paul talking about being buried or cremated, Jules telling Paul that she sees Laser’s expressions in his face, Jules and Nic confronting each other after a revealing moment of truth, the lunch talk the family has with Paul, and many more.

“The Kids are All Right” is a great film—one of the best films of the year, as I’ve said already. I will not call it a “gay film.” This is just a movie about complicated characters facing complicated situations and learning how to deal with them. And with Mark Ruffalo’s Paul, we see a different side of a character we’ve seen before—offbeat yet casual and pleasant—in a movie that deserves Academy Award notice.