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My Favorite Movies – Cyrus (2010)

10 Sep

By Tanner Smith

Jay & Mark Duplass, famously known as The Duplass Brothers, made quite a name for themselves as heroes in the micro-budget (or no-budget) filmmaking movement. (Many call it the “mumblecore movement,” but even the “mumblecore” filmmakers don’t seem to appreciate that term; why not call it “semi-pro?”) After making short, Sundance-accepted films with no money and making their impressive debut feature “The Puffy Chair” with only 15 grand, the Duplass Brothers had an opportunity to make a film with a bigger budget financed by a studio such as Fox Searchlight. (If their shared autobiography “Like Brothers” is any indication, that preparation process took so long that they made Baghead for cheap in the meantime just to stay creative–great move, guys.)

Whenever indie filmmakers get a chance to show a wider audience what they’re all about, it’s always kind of a risky move. Sometimes, it works, like with David Lowery and “Pete’s Dragon,” Richard Linklater and School of Rock, Mike Flanagan and Ouija: Origin of Evil…and yes, I know those are some strange examples, but try and fight me on their effectiveness. And with the Duplass Brothers, it really works. The film they made for $7 million, and with a cast of great, popular talents such as John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, and Catherine Keener, and made to appeal to a more mainstream audience than their arthouse features, actually turned out to be very funny, very sweet, and very weird–a great mix of their “mumblecore” (er, “semi-pro,” sorry) techniques and the mainstream “dramedy” entertainment they grew up watching.

That film is titled Cyrus.

I appreciated this film when I first saw it long ago (in 2011, I think; I missed its 2010 theatrical release). It’s grown on me even more over time because of its unique mix of dark comedy and romantic drama. And, I must confess, it currently rivals “Baghead” for the position of my favorite Duplass Brothers film.

John C. Reilly, one of the best character actors still working today, stars as John, a lonely guy who is depressed when his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) tells him she’s getting married. Knowing the news is devastating for him (even though they’ve been separated for seven years), Jamie invites John to a party, hoping he’ll meet somebody. And to John’s surprise and delight, he does meet someone: Molly, a quirky, delightful, fun woman who is played with the effortless charm of the lovely Marisa Tomei. They hit it off really well (and partake in a great dance number set to “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League) and promise to see each other again, but…she has a secret.

John stalks Molly to discover said-secret and that’s when he meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s 21-year-old son who still lives with her. John finds it somewhat difficult to connect with Cyrus, a grown man who is very attached to his mother (so close to the point that I think he could be reaching Norman Bates levels), whom John is now dating and having sex with. And yes, that is a bit much for John to take in–but Cyrus seems cool about the situation (and even makes uncomfortable jokes about it). But as this dynamic continues and Cyrus is more off-putting and clingy towards his mother, John has his suspicions about Cyrus’ intentions–and we do too, such as, is Cyrus trying to break up John and Molly? What is Cyrus truly all about? Where is this going?

Jonah Hill is absolutely brilliant as “Cyrus.” This film was released in 2010, a time when audiences who were familiar with Hill as the abrasive loudmouth in comedies like Superbad got to see a different side to him as an actor; to see him as this creepy, manipulative sort of man-child is to recognize this talented actor’s impressive range. (And a year later, Hill would star in “Moneyball” and earn his first Oscar nomination.) There are many different levels to Hill’s performance as Cyrus, and the more times I watch the film, the more amazed and intrigued I am by what he accomplishes in his facial expressions, his dialogue, and his attitude.

When John and Cyrus are at wits with each other, it makes for some delightfully dark comedy, with this relatively nice guy trying to figure out what the deal is with this potential psychotic and whether it will damage his relationship with the psychotic’s wonderful mother–and there are moments when we’re looking at it from John’s perspective and finding moments such as when Cyrus and Molly are wrestling together in the park…very off-putting.

But because John is so likable and played by the lovable John C. Reilly, and also because the Duplass Brothers care more about character, we’re not just laughing at the actions/reactions; we’re also caring about the main character and getting to know the other characters through him. When Cyrus’ humanity (his true humanity) does show, it doesn’t feel forced; it feels like a real person with faults and even guilt. And with Molly, it’s not as simple as, oh if only she could just wake up and get rid of this creep of a son–it’s more complicated for her to take sides.

It’s this kind of characterization that many mainstream comedy-dramas lack–those films are about comedy and drama with character, while “Cyrus” is a film about character with comedy and drama. The Duplass Brothers did a wonderful job here, making an indie film with mainstream appeal (or a mainstream film with indie appeal, however you see it).

My Favorite Movies – More 2010s Films (That I Already Covered Before)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

For the “My Favorite Movies” series, I have a lot of films to write about…but some films from the past decade, I already talked about in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series. Because I love these movies so much, I should have more to say about them that I didn’t before–and when I do, I’ll make separate posts for each of them. But for now, here are the 2010s films I already covered before that I consider “new favorites”:

Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls
Before Midnight
Life Itself
Ruby Sparks
Inside Out
Get Out
Frances Ha
The Social Network
The Spectacular Now
Take Shelter
Midnight Special
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Fruitvale Station
Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Llewyn Davis
Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War
Spider-Man: Homecoming
War for the Planet of the Apes
Big Hero 6
Kung Fu Panda 3
The Wind Rises
Attack the Block
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Boy Erased
Super Dark Times (mmm…actually, I might have more to say about that one in the future)
Gerald’s Game
Let Me In
The Visit
The Invitation
The Final Girls
Ouija: Origin of Evil
The Sacrament
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Way, Way Back
The Edge of Seventeen
The Kids are All Right
Everybody Wants Some!!
Short Term 12
Operation Avalanche
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I, Tonya
Miss Stevens
The End of the Tour
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Lean on Pete
True Grit
The Big Sick
It Follows
Safety Not Guaranteed
Sing Street
Mistress America
The Disaster Artist
Private Life
Love & Mercy
Green Room
Last Flag Flying
Love, Simon
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Cop Car
127 Hours
10 Cloverfield Lane
Blue Ruin
The Gift
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

And there are many other films from the 2010s that I will talk about (or talk more about) at some point (such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “Begin Again,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and others)–and like I said, if I have more to say about each of these treasures, then I’ll say it–but until then, those are some of my personal favorite films of the 2010s.

And if you came into this series late, also check out my posts for other 2010s favorites such as Sleepwalk With Me, Don’t Think Twice, The Land of Steady Habits, Brad’s Status, 20th Century Women, Cedar Rapids, mid90s, Lady Bird, The Farewell, The Dirties, and Lights Out.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#11

17 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now


OK, let’s address the elephant in the room first. IS David Fincher’s The Social Network 100% accurate, now that there have been reports long since its release about supposedly way too much creative licensing? Even Mark Zuckerberg, upon whom the film is based, noted one thing captured from the real-life story about his creation of Facebook: the clothing. Ouch…but of course he would say that, especially if he doesn’t want to admit he was (or even still is) what everyone around him proclaimed him to be–an “asshole.”

But whatever. How is “The Social Network” as *a movie?* It’s really damn brilliant.

“The Social Network,” directed by Fincher and written by arguably our finest dialogue writer today (Aaron Sorkin), is based on the creation of Facebook and the lawsuits that followed over who thought of it first and who got the shaft as it expanded. And it makes for a great modern American tragic comedy, almost Shakespearean in the way it portrays backstabbing. I’m not sure if everything (and everyone) portrayed in this film is dead-on accurate, but it strangely makes sense when you consider the different points of view of how everything happened (the film is intersected with future hearing sequences, which help narrate the story).

The script is excellent with informative, witty dialogue that the actors deliver in such a quick manner that is not necessarily “realistic” but always fascinating because it keeps the film going and you know there’s hardly any B.S. in what these people say (or maybe there is and it’s just too quick for me to catch on).

Jesse Eisenberg puts his trademark dry wit to terrific use as Mark Zuckerberg, creating a credible nerd/a-hole trying so hard not to be. Is the film unfair to the real Zuckerberg in showing him like this? Well…maybe, but honestly, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Critics were praising this film left and right when it came out in the fall of 2010, but when I was among those talking about how great it is, I had a very difficult time convincing my friends about that. They saw it as “the Facebook movie,” nothing they were interested in (which is ironic, considering they lived half of their lives on Facebook). This film is not about Facebook—that’s just on the surface. Beneath the surface is a story about envy, ego, dependability, betrayal, and control. Historical accuracy be damned. Amadeus didn’t need to be totally accurate to get its points across.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Winter’s Bone (2010)

20 Nov

By Tanner Smith

I remember attending the 2010 Little Rock Film Festival. I was almost 18 years old and I had just received a scholarship from the festival awards gala. There, I heard about an indie film set in the Ozarks called “Winter’s Bone.” It was the festival selection everyone was talking about. It received the highest award in the festival–the Golden Rock Narrative award. I met one of the film’s actresses, Shelley Waggener, who told me and my family how proud she was of how far the film has come so far. And so, I thought, this must be a hell of a film! So I look it up–it was a smash at Sundance, it’s been getting a ton of critical praise, and my favorite film critic, Roger Ebert, had just rated it 4 stars out of 4! That was when I knew I had to see this film.

Oh, and of course, one of the questions on my mind was, “Who’s Jennifer Lawrence?”

“Winter’s Bone” got a limited theatrical release soon after, but it wouldn’t come near my hometown in Northeast Arkansas. So I had to wait a few more months for it to hit DVD before I could check it out. And it didn’t disappoint. It was a gripping, compelling dramatic thriller with one of the most heroic cinematic protagonists of the decade: Ree Dolly (played by Lawrence), a 17-year-old Ozark Mountain girl who has to take it upon herself to find her father in order to save her family home. You see, her father, a meth manufacturer, has jumped bail–and if he doesn’t appear for his court date, Ree, her mentally ill mother, and her two younger siblings will lose the house because it was put up as part of his bond. Ree has been looking after her mother and brother and sister for a long time, and this is now her biggest challenge to make sure they all stay in her care for a while longer.

Ree doesn’t even flinch when she’s told the news that she has only a short time to think of a plan to stay–she simply says, “I’ll find him.” And that’s what she sets out to do. She starts with her meth-addicted uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), who warns her not to go after his brother because trouble will come of it. Then, she tries some distant kin, who are some of the most paranoid asses you’ll find in a movie–they make the meth cookers in “Breaking Bad” (name your pick) look like the most relaxed people in the world.

Ree digs herself deeper and deeper to find her father or find out what happened to him, and the less answers she receives, the more determined she is to take more risks. She even gets the stuffing knocked out of her in one gruesome scene when the family, including the local crime boss Thump Milton (or, as I like to call him, Tiny D*ck), tries to decide what to do with her since she’s asked too many questions and won’t stop. Kill her? Maybe. Anything else. “Help me,” she said. “Ain’t no one’s had that idea, have they?”

The higher the stakes are for Ree and her family, the more I want to see Ree succeed in her quest. And she couldn’t have been played by a better actress. This was Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance, and it led to numerous accolades (including an Oscar nomination–only her first), which as we all know led to a very successful career. And she’s excellent here, aided by a top-notch director, Debra Granik, who gave Vera Farmiga her time to shine in 2006’s “Down to the Bone” and later introduced us to Thomasin McKenzie in “Leave No Trace”–I’d say Granik has a knack for finding new female talent.

Also, I gotta talk about how impressive John Hawkes is in this role. After seeing him in other movies like “The Sessions” (and then being astounded that he was in “From Dusk Till Dawn,” which I had seen many times before “Winter’s Bone”), it’s like his performance in “Winter’s Bone” is from someone completely different. He is a damn good actor. And his character has a great arc as well. He starts off as super serious and kind of fearsome, almost like he’s meant to be the story’s antagonist. Then he loosens up and decides to step in and help Ree, leading to an interesting father-daughter type of relationship that it’s obvious Ree hasn’t experienced.

Also, there’s a theory I read that Teardrop killed his brother and that’s why he felt the need to step in and help Ree find him out of guilt. At first, I thought there was something to that theory, but then I thought, I don’t think the people who helped Ree with the body’s remains would have let the night pass without letting that little detail slip.

“Winter’s Bone” is a gritty, atmospheric and altogether terrifically made film. I loved it 9 years ago when I first saw it, and I still love it today.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Flipped (2010)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Rob Reiner’s “Flipped” is yet another underrated treasure that I think more people should check out. It had a limited release in Fall 2010 before heading straight to DVD. No one saw it, and I probably wouldn’t have either if I hadn’t read two highly positive reviews by Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli. And that’s a shame, because this would have been the film that would have earned Rob Reiner some respect again, after a long dry spell.

And he’s still struggling, with subsequent films such as “The Magic of Belle Isle,” “Being Charlie,” “And So It Goes,” and “Shock and Awe.” (Though, I thought “LBJ” was decent.)

“Flipped” is a film that shows a love story between two pre-teens that has an ingenious storytelling gimmick of showing scenarios from the perspectives of both the girl and the boy. The girl has liked him since 2nd grade, the boy has been trying to avoid her all this time, and as time goes by, their feelings for each other start to change–he starts to like her while she develops a disinterest in him. And the best thing is, you’re able to understand from both angles.

Family film, schmamily film. That doesn’t make it a “kid film”–Watch this movie, and tell me you don’t recognize certain feelings you felt when you were a kid.

There is one major thing that nearly kills the movie for me. Bryce’s father (played by Anthony Edwards) is such an ass. I can’t stand him. He always says the wrong things without thinking about them, and I just want to smack him each time he shows up on screen. Later, when the film tries to make us see him as “a coward,” I groaned because I still couldn’t see a character there.

The only reason I originally rated this film three-and-a-half stars instead of three (which would still be a recommendation) is because while there are many family-oriented films that feature supporting characters as one-note jerks (“The Education of Little Tree,” “Secondhand Lions,” “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” among others), this one only has ONE. So I guess that’s a relief.

“Flipped” is still Rob Reiner’s best film in years–probably not up there with “This is Spinal Tap,” “Stand by Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Misery,” “The Sure Thing,” “A Few Good Men”…man, he’s made some great stuff before “North,” hasn’t he? (Bring ’em back, Rob!) But anyway, then again, so few films are up to those standards. “Flipped” is still a pleasant, touching, satisfying romantic comedy that more people should give a watch.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Let Me In (2010)

26 Oct


By Tanner Smith

“Let the Right One In”…”Let Me In”…which one of these films do I prefer?

I don’t know.

Which one is better? A part of me wants to say “Let the Right One In” for how effective it is in its simplicity, but…I don’t know!

It’s that rare instance in which I like one film and its remake equally.

Actually, it’s more than that–I LOVE both of these movies!

The story is the same in each movie. A bullied lonely boy makes friends with a strange new girl living next door in his apartment building, and he doesn’t know until late in the friendship that she’s a vampire. So now, the boy has to decide whether or not he’ll let her into his life. (And vampires can’t come into your home without being invited…METAPHOR!)

The story is the same, but the movies aren’t the same. They’re both done differently, with different styles of filmmaking and even different ideas for the similar characters. And they’re both done beautifully!

“Let the Right One In” is a Swedish import that served as an “arthouse” vampire film. The beauty in the film comes from the simplicity–for example, nearly every scene is done in one take; in these scenes, we feel the emotional weight in the dramatic scenes and the intense rising fear of the horrific scenes. The friendship between the two 12-year-old main characters (well, one of them is actually 12; the other has been 12 for a very long time) feels just as genuinely sweet as it feels dangerous. You feel the plights of both of these people, and you realize that together, they can either be bad for each other or the best thing each other could ask for.

“Let the Right One In” is as beautiful as it is chilling, because it’s really *about something.* It has more on its mind than, say, brooding and admiring each other from afar. (Did I mention this released around the same time as “Twilight?” Did I need to?) It’s about two lost souls who find each other and face an uncertain future together.

Wait, “Let the Right One In” came out in 2008, and this is part of the Looking Back at 2010s Films, so I should talk about “Let Me In” (released in 2010).

I was open to the idea of an American remake, though I was a bit uncertain, because “Let the Right One In” was so terrific. When I noticed “Let Me In” was getting positive reviews, that’s when I started getting excited…

And I loved “Let Me In” for the same reasons I loved “Let the Right One In” and yet for different reasons too. It was more mainstream-friendly than “Let the Right One In,” to be sure. But there was still a great deal of atmosphere aided by gorgeous cinematography–I felt like I could reach out and touch the movie, it was that effective; I felt like I was there!

I felt more sorry for the boy in this one, named Owen, and he’s played by a great young actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who would go on to act in movies such as “Slow West” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”). The boy in the original film (Oskar) was quite pitiful and you sympathized with him, but you could sense more of a darkness in Owen’s eyes when he was angry and more misery when he gets picked on. When he has to make a choice as to whether or not he can trust the girl (Abby, played by Chloe Grace Moretz), the tears in his eyes made me feel even more for the poor kid!

And whereas “Let the Right One In” put nearly as much focus on the local townspeople who either fall victim to the vampire or become a vampire themselves, “Let Me In” keeps the focus on the protagonists for the most part (with only a prologue involving a police detective played by Elias Koteas serving as a chilling pushover). To me, I felt that was the right choice.

Oh, and the frightening-as-hell swimming-pool scene from the original is represented in the remake as well…let me just say that I lost my appetite because I was so freaked out. (The original is still scarier, again because of its simplicity, but this one got me pretty well too.)

I can’t choose! I love both “Let the Right One In” and “Let Me In” exactly the same. (And I’ve had nine years to think about this!) They’re just…both…my favorite vampire movie. And I can’t see myself bending anytime soon.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)

24 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Oh boy…better call this one a “revised review.” Let’s get this over with.

I don’t know if it was YouTube film critic Chris Stuckmann who originally coined the phrase “Phantom Menacing,” but it stuck with me. It generally means when you’ve hyped yourself up for a film so much that you’re going to enjoy it no matter what, much like how the hype for a certain “Star Wars” movie (I think it was…”Attack of the Clones”) was built up so big that for years, fans were in total denial that it was a bad movie* until they couldn’t lie to themselves any longer.


I Phantom Menace’d myself…with “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.”

This was the 2010 film adaptation of the first novel in a young-adult book series called “Percy Jackson & the Olympians,” by Rick Riordan, about a kid (named Percy Jackson) who discovers he’s a demigod (in his case, the son of Poseidon) and goes on many different adventures as Greek mythology meets the modern world.

I LOVED the books! I read the first four all throughout my junior year of high school in my spare time, and the fifth (and final) one in the series was released just when school was ending. (What timing!) They were imaginative, witty, very funny, wildly creative, had great detail in its action, had great memorable characters–I could see a movie play in my head as I read all of these books!

So, when I heard that director Chris Columbus (who directed the first two “Harry Potter” movies) was directing an adaptation of “The Lightning Thief,” I was hyped…HYPED!!!

No way was I going to dislike this movie…not even when I realized the comedic dialogue in the novel were a hell of a lot more funnier than in the movie. (“That was great, GREAT demigod driving!” Who wrote this?)

I waited months to see it, and I was so excited. I finally saw it, and…I had to try and convince my friends that it was good, because I was in straight-up denial because even though I could see a lot of parts in the same spirit as the novel (even if it wasn’t entirely faithful)…and they knew that it was another bland, rushed, watered-down fantasy-adventure alongside “Eragon” and others (and more to come). They knew, and I didn’t see it that way…I didn’t want to, either.

It was still a fast-paced, fun adventure that happened to have the same names as the characters in the stories I loved. I had a feeling that once the sequels were released, people would think differently.

And three years later, in 2013, there was a sequel! An adaptation to the second novel, “The Sea of Monsters.” I went to see it and…it…just…wasn’t…anything special. Everything moved too fast. There wasn’t much room for emotion or background. There were some good, fun parts in it, but overall, it was kind of underwhelming.

And then I thought back to the first movie…

THAT was when I couldn’t lie to myself anymore–the “Percy Jackson” movies just didn’t have the same magic.

And it could have! That’s what frustrates me about it today, looking back.

But the main problem is Percy himself, who’s deeper and more complex (and also funnier) in the novel but is portrayed in the movie as a bland, half-witted teen who hardly does anything on his quest to appease the gods. Even when he decides to rescue his mother from the pits of Hades, his friends have to point out the obvious: that he has no idea what he’s doing. However, Logan Lerman, who can be a pretty good actor, does what he can.

There are some good things in the movie though–back then, they were enough for me to say, “Yeah, this is good.” Uma Thurman’s clearly having fun as Medusa, all the modern parallels to Greek legend are as interesting as in the novel (the Lotus Eater lair disguised as a casino is a great scene–see, that’s what I mean by saying much of the movie is in the same spirit of the books), Steve Coogan’s Hades is both zany and intimidating enough, and this may be a controversial opinion, but…I like this Grover (the satyr friend, played by Brandon T. Jackson) better than the Grover from the books.

But the big problem with the movie that I’m not glad it took me so long to notice–that the Hollywood studio, rather than rely on its source material to make something not only fun and engaging but also deep and compelling and REALLY imaginative…instead opted for a “Harry Potter” knockoff just to try and cash in on what’s popular. (Right down to having the director of the first two “Potter” movies!)

I Phantom Menace’d myself in February 2010, when the decade had just barely started.

I haven’t read the books in a long, long time. I wonder if the library has them…

*That’s really not fair–movies are subjective, and if you like “The Phantom Menace,” more power to you.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Last Airbender (2010)

24 Oct


By Tanner Smith

I’ve been spending too much time these past few months talking about films that I really like from this decade. Obviously, there are a few films that came out in the past 9 years and 9 months that I’ve disliked or flat-out hated.

“The Gallows.” “Movie 43.” “Fant4stic.” “Just Go With It.” “Jack and Jill.” “The Cobbler.” “Fifty Shades of Grey.” “Bachelorette.” “A Good Day to Die Hard.” “Left Behind.” “VHS: Viral.” “Contracted: Phase II.”

But there’s one……….one film that just aggravates me to my core with the very notion that it even exists…..

It’s “Movie 43.”

But “The Last Airbender” is a VERY close second!

Seriously, I hate this movie. I hate it SO much.

And the funny thing is, when I saw “The Last Airbender” on TV (I missed it in theaters–Roger Ebert’s scathing review kept me away from it…so instead, I saw “Twilight: Eclipse” that summer), I just saw it as a standard bad wannabe fantasy epic and reviewed it as such (1 star out of 4). I wasn’t as “offended” by it as many of my friends were….and then, I saw the TV show it was based on–“Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is an incredible show. Imaginative, fun, amusing, creative, awesome, thought-provoking, great storytelling, epic conclusion, all-around fantastic show! I LOVE it!

And then when I saw the film again, which is a live-action adaptation of the first season, that’s when I felt dirty. Like, I felt sick. And to make matters worse, it felt like it was subliminally giving me the finger while I was watching it.

Those who know me know my least favorite movie is “Freddy Got Fingered,” but I can at least give it some credit that it’s so surreal that I can understand its audience. But “The Last Airbender”…I just can’t….I can’t, and I don’t want to.

Where do I begin? Maybe with the obvious problem–it’s a 90-minute recap of the first season of the series. 90 minutes!! How much room does that leave for emotion and character development when you’re trying to unload 20 22-minute episodes into one movie? Very little. The only semblance of heart in this movie comes from the relationship between our antagonist Zuko (Dev Patel) and his uncle General Iroh (Shaun Toub). It’s brief but it is there.

You remember Zuko, right? One of the most complex characters in all of children’s entertainment? Started out as a simple villain but continued as something far more interesting and compelling? The guy you felt the utmost sympathy for by the middle of season 2? The guy who had his whole world shattered when he realized the truth about what he was fighting for and why?

Well, here, we just have some lazy exposition…lots and lots of lazy exposition that’s supposed to make us care for his cinematic counterpart.

That’s really what this movie consists of: explaining the universe and the characters’ journeys without making us get a genuine feel for it all. There is NOTHING in this film that makes me care in the slightest about what ANYBODY is doing in this movie.

The acting isn’t very strong either. I could tell Noah Ringer possessed SOME qualities of our quirky, charismatic, naive protagonist Aang–if only the first takes weren’t always used (I’m just guessing). Nicola Peltz is not Katara nor is Jackson Rathbone Sokka…I don’t care for who they are instead, either.

Actually, looking up the casting for the film, I found out that Peltz was actually cast first and that her billionaire father was a potential investor in the film’s budget (and her audition was “subpar,” according to a crew member), and so they had to base the casting of Sokka on which actor could play her brother. And apparently, Rathbone did well capturing Sokka’s fun, cocky persona in his audition and that’s why he got the part….CAN’T HAVE THAT, NOW, CAN WE??? Yes, it turns out producers felt the humor took away from the story and thus, Sokka was turned into a stiff, humorless jerk. What a crock.

So, great–I don’t care about the story or the characters, and I don’t think the writers, producers, or actors cared about it either. This is terrible. Especially for a fantasy film. Can you imagine if “Star Wars” didn’t balance out its mythos with its humor or its quiet moments or its chilling scene of Luke discovering his aunt and uncle’s charred bodies and realizing what he has to do? You wouldn’t care because there wouldn’t be any heart put into all the hocus-pocus! And that’s “The Last Airbender.”

…But the soundtrack is nice. It’s James Newton Howard–his scores are usually first-rate when the films they accompany aren’t so good. I’ll give the film its soundtrack.

I can’t place all the blame on M. Night Shyamalan…though I am glad we can move on from this horrid experience and recognize him as a good filmmaker again, thanks to movies like The Visit and Split which would come out much later. But at the time, this was the death sentence for Shyamalan–the time when no one wanted to stick up for him for this mess.

You’re still cool, Shyamalan…but never, EVER do this again.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

10 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, as much as I liked “The Kids Are All Right” upon first viewing, I was irritated by the characters’ codependency the second time around, so much so that I wouldn’t see the film for another 8 years.

Good thing I did, because now that I’m older and understand things more clearly than I did when I was 18 (the age I first saw it in a theater and only saw it because critics were praising it), I recognize the reality of said-codependency and therefore see the film as honest and effective.

“The Kids Are All Right” is an indie dramedy about Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a same-sex couple who have been together for about 20 years, raising two children who were conceived thanks to an anonymous sperm donor. The two kids are 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Joni is about to leave the nest for college, and Laser pleads for her to do him a little favor before she leaves: try and contact their biological father. She reluctantly does, and the kids meet the guy, who’s a laid-back bohemian named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). They get along well, he’s happy to know them, and they agree to see each other again, but Nic and Jules want to meet him first. Paul’s relationship with the family grows, but as the family dynamic changes, things don’t go as smoothly as they’d like it to…

What makes the film as highly regarded as it is has to do with the script. For one thing, and probably the most important thing, the characterization is terrific. We already get a sense of Nic and Jules’ relationship before we’re even halfway through the film. They’re committed to each other, but it’s clear they’re not who they used to be and that causes a strain in their relationship. They each have careers, which add to the more difficult aspects of daily life–do they still want what they want when they have it? And they also notice little things about each other that they just don’t find attractive, such as Nic’s abrasiveness and condescending attitude, Jules’ micromanaging, that Nic is always busy (which makes sense, as she’s a doctor), and so on. The most telling scene is midway through in which Jules prepares for a romantic evening with Nic, and Nic suddenly becomes busy on the phone with a patient and Jules is left alone in the bathtub. This is what their marriage has become.

(SPOILER ALERT!!!) That’s why it makes sense that she would start an affair with Paul, because she’s finding the passion with him that she used to have with her wife. And of course, that’s not going to end well.


Will their relationship continue after the film is over? Maybe. A lot of couples go through some real rough patches, and they’re still together. Maybe Nic and Jules are too.

Btw, THIS is what I was referring to when I said I grew annoyed by the characters in the second-viewing–little did I know this is just how people in long-lasting relationships tend to behave. (Don’t review movies until you’ve had a little life experience.)

Paul is also a well-rounded character. Despite his business in running his own restaurant and growing his own food, he always ducked certain responsibilities. Now that his two biological children have welcomed him into their lives, he suddenly feels the need to play father-figure. But he does screw up the family dynamic real badly, and I was surprised to find that his resolution isn’t as pleasant as the type of situation would be in other movies–maybe he’ll have learned from this whole ordeal and bettered himself in the future…or he won’t have learned a thing and it just brings him back to where he started. I dunno, I’m sticking with the first thing–I’m an optimist.

Plus, Mark Ruffalo is unbelievably fantastic in this role. From his mannerisms to his quirks to his body language, he inhabits this flawed character…flawlessly.

And the kids are also more than “all right.” Joni’s coming-of-age is one of the more interesting parts of the film, as she says goodbye to everything she’s known, including her family, because she’s ready to move on and go to college away from it all. And Laser (man I’m jealous of that name–why’d I get stuck with “Tanner”*?) is a sensitive jock type who just wants to know what it’s like to have a man (a father) in his life after witnessing the dynamic between his punk friend Clay and his own father. He too comes of age, outgrowing his friendship with Clay and appreciating the parents that he already has.

As honest and realistic as the dialogue between these characters are (and is very well-written by director Lisa Cholodenko and her co-writer Stuart Blumberg), I think what made the script more special was the characters. If you have great characters, they can write most of the story for you.

They’re also very well-acted. Ruffalo and Bening were nominated for their respective performances–why wasn’t Moore? I think of the two lead actresses, Moore as Jules had the more interesting role. (Would that be “Moore interesting role”? Rim-shot!)

“The Kids Are All Right” was heralded as an arthouse treasure and went on to gain Oscar nominations–not just Best Actress (Bening) and Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo) but also Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. If I didn’t understand why then, I certainly understand why now. It’s an honest character-based drama with something to say about relationships.

*Just kidding, Mom–I love my name.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: True Grit (2010)

7 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…is it possible for a film to be nominated for 10 Oscars and not win a single one? I didn’t think so, until I checked the awards for the Coen Brothers’ 2010 adaptation of “True Grit!”

DAMN, and to think the 1969 John Wayne version won 1 out of 2.

The John Wayne version is as classic a Western as they come–a joyous, enthralling, and “gritty” frontier adventure. The Coen Brothers’ version plays the story differently…it’s not as joyous as the other. That makes it more interesting.

All the fun you can find in a young girl’s bloodthirsty quest to find her father’s killer and bring him to justice is GONE. This journey is as gritty as they come. And the ending hammers in effectively just what this crusade has done to this child.

And I’m going to talk about the ending, so…SPOILER ALERT!!!

Mattie Ross loses her arm from the snake bite, she and Rooster Cogburn never see each other again, and she grows up bitter and cold, an old maid with clearly no love in her heart. This might be the Coens’ way of saying someone this young being so dedicated to vengeance leads to a life of misery. That’s how the film ends! John Wayne doesn’t ride merrily into the sunset, there’s no happy ending (though not really a “sad” ending either), it just…ends. You can barely even argue that it even “ends” so much as “stops.” I actually found that pretty intriguing. It stayed with me more than the ending of the John Wayne movie.


Hailee Steinfeld is brilliant as Mattie Ross, and there’s no way you can convince me that she deserved a Best SUPPORTING Actress nomination–the film is ABOUT HER CHARACTER! (They should’ve switched her out with Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right” for the Best Actress nod.)

Jeff Bridges is also perfect as Rooster Cogburn. He vanishes in the role of a dirty, nasty, mean-as-hell fighter of justice, which admittedly is more than I could say for John Wayne who played it almost too “safe.”

Also great is Matt Damon as the Texas bounty hunter. He plays the role as a hero from a different movie who isn’t too keen on playing second-fiddle to Mattie and Rooster’s story.

And the supporting cast is solid too, from Josh Brolin as the killer to Barry Pepper as the gang leader Ned Pepper (wait, what?) to…hey wait, is that Domhnall Gleeson as Moon?? Holy crap, I just noticed when watching this film again today! He’s definitely come a long way since having his fingers cut off…especially that horrible line reading. (You know the one–“Oh Lord…I’m dying!”)

And of course being a film lensed by Roger Deakins, it looks great. Under the shadow of the Coens and these fine performances, we’re also taken through a dark, grey, compelling world where anything can happen and anyone can die. Let me see, was this film nominated for Best Cinematography….?

Yes it was. (Whew–it would’ve surprised me if that WASN’T one of the 10 Oscars it was nominated for.)

There is some much appreciated levity sprinkled throughout, so the film isn’t so gritty that it’s depressing. But pit one “True Grit” against the other, and it just depends on the kind of movie you prefer–one that’s overall lighthearted or one that’s overall compelling.

For me, though, I prefer the latter.