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The Kids are All Right (2010)

24 Apr


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.

MacGruber (2010)

19 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let me just put this out of the way. “MacGruber” is not one of the worst SNL-sketch adaptations. But then again, it’s not one of the best either. This is a slick but sort-of depraved action-comedy with an unlikable hero and jokes that are mostly hit-and-miss. Sure there were parts when I laughed but even those were chuckles when all I wanted was to laugh out loud. I am a fan of the original sketch that runs on “Saturday Night Live.” For those who aren’t familiar with the sketch, it features Will Forte as a low-rent MacGyver named MacGruber (complete with blond mullet and said in one of the sketches to be MacGyver’s son), who in each sketch is caught along with his partner (Kristen Wiig) in desperate situations in which he must defuse a bomb with household materials and yet is always distracted. The sketches are funny and made with a great deal of energy humor.

It should come as no surprise that the director of the film adaptation to the sketches (named “MacGruber”) is Jorma Taccone. What does surprise me, however, is how less he has to work with here and how much more he could’ve made out of the material, given the energy and creativity and humor of the SNL Digital Shorts he co-creates with Akiva Schaffer and Andy Samberg (all three are the Lonely Island; Schaffer is an executive producer here).

What also surprises me is how much of a jerk MacGruber is. If one of the characters were to say that about MacGruber in the film, they would not say “jerk.” They would’ve used the seven-letter word for “jerk.” There is a great deal of profanity in this R-rated movie; f-bombs are being dropped and even the main villain’s name can’t be said. His name is Dieter van C^%#@h (use your imagination but do not say it out loud). But back to what I was trying to get across at the beginning of this paragraph. In the sketch, you would get a few guesses that MacGruber might be a jerk but you wouldn’t care because you’d be laughing at how goofy he is. But here, Will Forte plays MacGruber as a man who uses his own partner as a shield from gunfire, rips out unsuspecting guards’ throats, and acts as if he wants everyone to take a hike.

I guess I can say that Will Forte, very funny on “Saturday Night Live,” plays the main character very well. He does show some potential as a comedic actor. For example, there’s a scene in which he distracts security guards for the villain by stripping naked and walking towards them with his hands covering his privates and a stick of celery sticking out of his rear end. I also like how he takes his car radio with him every time he steps out of his Ferrari and how he fires a machine gun. He looks as if it’s the first time he’s ever fired one.

Showing more comedic charisma are Forte’s co-stars Kristen Wiig (always fabulous), reprising her role as MacGruber’s assistant Vicki St. Elmo, and Ryan Philippe as the straitlaced Lt. Dixon Piper. They play off Forte very well as comedic foils. I especially liked how Wiig, in one scene, shows her comedic talent in a scene set in a restaurant while disguised as MacGruber. She’s really funny here. I also liked her doing the countdowns in a few bits when they’re needed. Ryan Philippe is good as the lieutenant who, in one scene, is used as a human target when MacGruber is attacked. “How’d you know I was wearing a bulletproof vest?” “You were wearing a bulletproof vest?!”

You may have heard those quotes in the trailer. With the exception of that stick of celery, just about every amusing bit from this movie is in the trailer. That’s always a bad move. It inspires people to ask the question, “Why didn’t I just watch the trailer so many times?”

Oh I should also mention the name of the actor who plays the profanely named villain. Well, it’s Val Kilmer and he’s suitably slimy in a role that requires him to be a standard action movie villain. The movie’s main plot involves MacGruber taking down this bad guy who stole a nuclear missile to blow up Washington, DC. What he’s planning on accomplishing, I don’t know. Oh and I should also point out that the reason Maya Rudolph was only in the first MacGruber sketch and never seen again is not that Rudolph left the show (although that is true) but because the villain in this movie killed her character. (Maya Rudolph shows up in a flashback for a cameo.)

I have to say I smiled at the beginning of “MacGruber.” When the opening credits rolled and we first see MacGruber in a montage, I smiled widely when the music turned into an orchestra version of the “MacGruber” theme song. And then the choir ended it with “MacGruber…he made a f—ing movie! MacGruber!” I thought for sure I was in for a treat. What I got was not one of the worst SNL adaptations but definitely one of the best. Maybe if Jorma Taccone had spent more time giving us more of MacGruber’s origins and gave us more of his goofiness. Instead, we get MacGruber in one bizarre sex scene and strangely enough, I think MacGruber only made one explosive device in this entire hour-and-a-half movie. Only one. Too bad it didn’t work.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)

16 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve read the entire “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” book series by Rick Riordan, which has gained a huge fan base. I am among those fans. Why? Because this book series gives an interesting modern look at Greek mythology, a series of thrilling adventures set in modern times and places, and most importantly, a strong, likable hero we can identify with and root for. Percy Jackson is a confused kid whose life is changed; throughout the book series, he grows into his strange surroundings and ultimately does battle with what he knows, only for the safety of his friends and family.

But I’m reviewing the books when I should be reviewing the film adaptation of the first in the series—“Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” The filmmakers have made some changes and omitting a few parts from the book for the movie version, but I didn’t mind so much because the same mood of the original story remains the same. And I must say after I saw the movie, I was actually relieved that the filmmakers didn’t use everything. The book had a lot—and I mean a LOT—of situations that definitely work well in a book, but by omitting some of the situations and working their own way around them (but like I said, a lot of parts remain the same as in the book) makes “The Lightning Thief” work as a movie by making the situations that follow in the film simple enough to follow along and piece together. “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” is fun and thrilling with a likeable cast and nicely done action sequences.

Oh yeah and I think I should also tell you exactly who Percy Jackson is. Well, he’s the son of the Greek god Poseidon (god of the seas) and mortal Sally Jackson. You see, as the story of “Percy Jackson” makes itself abundantly clear, the Greek gods are real, and every once in a while, they have kids with mortals. These kids are called demigods and they live among us. Percy Jackson is a demigod but doesn’t realize it until it’s almost too late.

Played by Logan Lerman, Percy is a teenager (he was twelve in the book but 17 in the movie) leading a dull life and not doing well in school because he is dyslexic and has ADHD. His best friend is Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) and his teacher is wheelchair-bound Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan). His mother Sally (Catherine Keener) is a kind woman who has to put up with her husband Gabe (Joe Pantoliano), who is both a slob and a jerk. Percy has absolutely no idea that he’s a demigod nor does he even know his real father (Poseidon)…until the plot gets underway.

Percy is accused of stealing Zeus’ lightning bolt and is chased by monsters (including the Minotaur). It is then that Percy is taken to Mr. Brunner’s training camp for demigods. Mr. Brunner, you see, is actually Chiron, a centaur (he has the bottom half of a horse). Oh, and Grover is a satyr (half-man, half-goat). Anyway, Percy did not steal the lightning bolt. (To explain why he’s accused is too much to explain.) But if it isn’t returned in matter of days, there will be a war among the gods, which could bring disaster to the world.

Percy, Grover, and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario)—the daughter of Athena—go on a cross-country quest to piece everything together as the movie turns its fun scale up a few notches with a series of thrilling adventures for the kids to go through. My most favorite is when the kids wind up in Medusa’s lair—a gnome emporium; that idea itself is fun. Medusa is played with seductiveness and with a head of snakes by Uma Thurman. She has fun with this role.

OK, I’ve said too much of the plot for you to go and have the fun the movie wants you to have. Director Chris Columbus also directed the first two Harry Potter movies and I guess it’s because of his presence and the story of a hero in a world-threatening situation that many critics are already reviewing the film as a “Harry Potter knockoff.” I sincerely don’t think it’s fair to make that comparison because “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” while not having that same sense of wonder that the first Harry Potter film had, is something rarely seen in other movies considered to be “Harry Potter knockoffs”—pure magical fun with good acting, well-done special effects, and a great sense of adventure. Logan Lerman is well-suited and charismatic as Percy, Brandon T. Jackson and Alexandra Daddario are likeable as his friends, and the supporting cast is wonderful—Catherine Keener as Percy’s mother; Pierce Brosnan as the centaur; Uma Thurman as Medusa; Sean Bean as Zeus; Kevin McKidd as Poseidon; Steve Coogan in Mick Jagger getup as Hades (he shows how scary he can look when he’s not dressed that way); Rosario Dawson as Hades’ abused wife Persephone; and Jake Abel as Luke, the helpful son of Hermes. Oh, and of course, nobody plays a selfish slob better than Joe Pantoliano.

The movie also does well at tapping into the emotional side of the kids. Since one of their parents is a Greek god and therefore never gets to see them, then why did they bother meeting their mortal parent in the first place? And do the gods even care about them? Actually, if you think about it, those are very good questions.

One other thing—I can’t tell you how pleased I was when this movie, while the sequels to the “Lightning Thief” book are also expected to made into films if this first one does well at the box office, did not end with a cliffhanger. I’ve seen many book-to-film adaptations (two, for example, are “The Golden Compass” and “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant”) that end as if saying to us, “See you next time!” “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” didn’t have to.

Best Worst Movie (2010)

8 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When I first saw a 1990 horror film called “Troll 2,” I went through a series of emotions—confused, shocked, annoyed, depressed, and the thing is I could go on and on about how I felt about this horrible movie. “Troll 2” was hands-down the absolute worst movie I’ve ever seen, and will ever see, in my life. I thought if I ever saw a frame from that film again, I would vomit in the nearest trashcan. But then I realized, wait a minute! This is the worst film of all time! That has to be worth something, right?

I’m not exaggerating either. People all over the Internet have saved this film from obscurity by hailing it as a masterpiece. Why? Because of how much they love to hate it! “Troll 2” is now hailed as a cult classic because people love to make fun of it. Because of that, it’s even known to some as one of their favorite movies. It’s like, if you want to watch every bad movie, you might as well enjoy the absolute worst. It’s so bad that it’s infamously good.

To give my short review of “Troll 2” (which bares no resemblance to 1986’s more mediocre-than-god-awful “Troll,” by the way), besides calling it the worst film I’d ever seen, here it is—the acting and dialogue is camp at its finest, its production values are nonexistent, the effects are worse than awful, and just about everything else is done so wrong, that the entire film has to be seen to be believed. Just talking about it doesn’t help at all. Check it out sometime—I mean, if you don’t want to watch every bad movie, then watch the absolute worst.

Wow. Can’t believe I said that.

Michael Paul Stephenson, about 20 years ago, played the little protagonist, in the film, who discovered goblins (not trolls) in a small town where his family is vacationing. He hoped that being the lead in a film would bring him to child-star status. Boy, was he wrong. But now that he sees the cult phenomenon that “Troll 2” has become, he has created a documentary—entitled “Best Worst Movie,” a fitting title—chronicling the fandom behind it.

“Best Worst Movie” begins rather ordinarily, as we follow an Alabama dentist named George Hardy. George is one nice guy. People love him, people love to be around him, and even his ex-wife can’t hate him. It seems like a documentary about this sincerely nice man until “Troll 2” is brought up. George Hardy, whom everybody loves to like, had played the father in “Troll 2,” which everybody loves to hate.

George deeply appreciates the stardom that has been given to him because of his role in “Troll 2.” He was overacting as much as everybody else in the film, and what really distinguishes him from everyone else, mainly, is this one line delivery that everyone laughs so hard at—“You can’t piss on hospitality! I won’t allow it!” George shows up at almost every screening of the film, and is called up to the stage to say that line. He does, and everyone goes nuts each time.

We meet other actors from the movie. In particular, there’s Connie McFarland as the sister, Don Packard as the creepy drugstore owner, and Margo Prey as the mother. McFarland is hurt by the comments saying that she did a really bad acting job, but she understands because she knows she did a terrible job in the movie. She won’t put it on her resume, in fear of never being hired again if she mentions the title. Packard explains that he had gotten the role because the actor who was supposed to do it wasn’t able to, and so Packard just arrived on the set not too long after and did it himself. He admits that he arrived on the set courtesy of a day-release program from a mental hospital. Then there’s Margo Grey. She’s another story. When Stephenson and George show up at her house, there’s a sign saying that this woman would rather be left alone and would prefer no visitors of any kind. Because of that, they’re almost afraid to ring the doorbell because they imagine someone wielding a shotgun in front of him, or possibly shooting through the door. But Margo does welcome them into her home, even though the two are possibly unnerved by her. She never comes to a single screening of “Troll 2.”

We also meet the director Claudio Fragasso, an Italian who couldn’t speak English very well but kept insisting he understood Americans. He’s the person to point to when it comes to the reason why “Troll 2” is so bad. It’s because of this communication breakdown and a good deal of ineptitude that this production was doomed. But here’s the odd part. He doesn’t acknowledge that he made a bad film, let alone the worst of all time. He’s hurt by the audience’s constant laughter and whenever he’s called up for question-and-answer, his most basic response is, “You don’t understand nothing.” (The most memorable use of that response is when he is asked why the film is called “Troll 2” when there are no trolls in it.) He even interrupts his actors when they announce the troubles they had on set, with dialogue and acting. “You don’t understand nothing.” And nobody who was involved in the production all those years ago had the slightest clue what he was trying to do.

George Hardy remains the anchor of “Best Worst Movie.” He’s the one that Stephenson follows most of the time, as George looks forward to more screenings and goes door-to-door handing out flyers to neighbors, telling them to come down to the next one and see the film if they hadn’t already. Sometimes, he’ll even describe the film and yes he will even say his infamous line. George is also invited to film revivals and conventions. But at the bigger conventions, George is surprised to see a less-than-expected number of people showing up at the “Troll 2” stand or panel, particularly at the horror-movie convention, where everyone recognizes actors from “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels rather than actors from “Troll 2.” George keeps trying to make himself known, by saying, “See ‘Troll 2!’ It’s the worst movie of all time!” His lack of recognition has him to say, “There’s tons of gingivitis in this room.”

George has stated that if Fragasso plans to make “Troll 2: Part II,” then George will be on board. Whether or not the other actors will remains to be seen, if the film is a go. I’m not saying I’ll see it, if that happens…but I’m not saying I won’t either.

The Book of Eli (2010)

29 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

(Originally reviewed early 2010)

Is the end of the world really the subject that entertainment wants to thrill us with nowadays? With “Knowing” and “The Road,” movies that feature apocalypse just keep coming. Maybe after filmmakers realize they use too much of that subject in too many movies for one twelve-month period, they’ll get back to other stuff. With “The Book of Eli” and “Legion” seeming to finish off the twelve-month period of end-of-the-world movies, it seems as though the “genre” will be left alone for a long time. But “The Book of Eli” is a good movie—not as strong as “The Road” but not as confusing as “Knowing.” It’s a slick, well-made end-of-the-world Western, if you will.

A cataclysmic event, dubbed as “the war,” obliterated almost everything and everybody on Earth. What exactly happened? I’m not quite sure. I think there was a war that “tore a hole in the sky,” as a character says. How did this war begin and when did it end? I’m not quite sure of that one either. Anyway, 30 years later, survivors of the war try to make their best to survive this wasteland that was once America. Everything is valuable now, especially water. Everyone has to wear sunglasses because of the sun’s new rotation or brightness, or whatever. Some survivors, just like in “The Road,” have stooped to cannibalism. It truly is a mad world.

The main character is a man who should be called Eli (Denzel Washington) but strangely enough, we hardly ever hear his name. But since the movie is titled “The Book of Eli,” we are forced to refer to this man as Eli. He’s a mysterious traveler who walks nonstop, heading West where he believes that the last King James Bible, which he has in his possession and reads from time to time, will be safe from others who would use it to manipulate other people in this damaged world for the worse. Oh yeah, and Eli is also handy with a knife. In one scene in the beginning, he takes down a whole band of thugs with just ten seconds. He has also been heading West for a number of years, saying he walks by faith and not by sight. In that case, maybe he only thought he was heading West all these years.

Well, as it turns out, there is someone out to take possession of the King James Bible and has been looking for it since everyone burned them all during the war. This is Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the ruler of a Western town who, of course, has his own band of thugs by his side, including a bald muscleman and a scrawny wise guy. When Eli walks through this town and is given hospitality by Carnegie, it isn’t long before the Bible is discovered and a bloodbath is sure to be drawn for it.

Carnegie is an evil man but played by Oldman as a calm dictator who isn’t broad in a way that we wouldn’t believe he could possibly do such deeds. He is also married to a blind, abused woman named Claudia (Jennifer Beals) who wasn’t blinded by the war but was born this way and was in some way, lucky when the event occurred. Carnegie abuses Claudia to control her daughter Solara (Mila Kunis), who is a prostitute in Carnegie’s bar. Solara later accompanies Eli in his neverending quest to bring the Bible to safety. And there, they meet two characters who are as strange and deluded as anybody in “The Road”—a husband-and-wife survivalist couple named George and Martha.

But more on them when you watch the movie, which is bold, inventive, and powerful. It’s also phenomenal in the ways of the performances by the actors. Denzel Washington is at the top of his game here as Eli. He plays this complicated, mysterious person with the right note and with a great deal of edginess. Washington is great in this movie and Gary Oldman is brilliant as the villain, with a fine line between calmness and irrationality. I should also give special notice to the performances by Mila Kunis and Jennifer Beals, both of which carry the best performances of their individual careers.

Now, the final half of this movie is a bit flawed and sort of uneasy to follow. It also carries one of the most surprising plot twists in recent memory. But directed by the Hughes Brothers, who previously directed “Menace II Society,” it’s very well-made and the cinematography is suitably bleak, just like the scenes that followed in “The Book of Eli.”

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2010)

25 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974” is the first in a trilogy of British TV films, later released theatrically. But even most of it is setup material for the second and third entries, it can be taken as a stand-alone. Whether or not this will stand above the rest remains to be seen, as I haven’t yet seen the other films. But this is an effective first entry that works well on its own, but does have me interested in seeing the later entries.

“Red Riding: 1974” is a mystery fable, set apparently in 1974 (as the title suggests, though it could have taken place anytime, I guess). Its hero is a young reporter named Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) based in the dark little town of Fitzwilliam, West Yorkshire. Eddie is given the task to report on the mysterious child killings. The police aren’t making much progress, though they say they’re working on the case. Eddie doesn’t particularly care much for the story, as he’s somewhat of a slacker. But there are two things that keep him interested—the romantic relationship he winds up sharing with Paula Garfield (Rebecca Hall), the mother of one of the dead girls; and the death of his friend Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan) who has stumbled upon something that could or could not related to this case. As Eddie digs deeper into the case, he runs afoul of certain characteristics with policemen and rich businessmen, particularly land developer John Dawson (Sean Bean) whom Eddie suspects of the murders.

“Red Riding: 1974” is more than a serial killer mystery. Without giving too much away, we can tell from the final act of “Red Riding: 1974” that this is a brutal tale of power and corruption, mainly involving police. And the later entries will no doubt dig further into that. Police corruption isn’t new in movies (or in life, for that matter), but the approach that’s given in this movie is so unbending and careless that it’s kind of sick, and yet effective at the same time. There’s a torture scene near the end of the film that’s especially fierce that is followed by a very tense moment involving two police officers taking joy in practically scaring the hero to death. And the hero learns the hard way that only one thing matters in this sick little world that he didn’t make—power.

This could have been great. It has a neat look—it was shot on 16 mm film and has chosen a suitably bleak town for its location. The acting is very good—particularly by Sean Bean and Rebecca Hall, while Andrew Garfield is merely OK. (He doesn’t make the strongest impression as the leading man.) The way the story develops into this heavy corruption tale is nicely-handled. The ending is uncompromising and memorable.

But if I have to criticize, I’ll say that the story isn’t precisely clear and there are some moments where I’m wondering how exactly we got to a certain spot. Maybe after another viewing of “Red Riding: 1974,” I’ll be able to understand it better and give it a more positive review. As it is the first time around, it is an effective introduction to a promising trilogy of films.

NOTE: Another little nitpick is that the thick British accents made it difficult to understand what some of the characters were saying. Is it weird that I think subtitles for an English film can be necessary sometimes?

Cyrus (2010)

16 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Cyrus” has the plot of a family sitcom pilot—a single mother meets a new guy and her son tries to separate them for his selfish reasons. But make the story into a gritty independent comedy-drama, make the couple relatedly likable, and make the son an over-20, creepily-wholesome man-child, and you get “Cyrus.”

Despite the casting of John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Catherine Keener, Judd Apatow was at no point involved with “Cyrus.” You’ll notice that just by the camerawork and gritty tone delivered by low-key indie directors Mark and Jay Duplass. It’s dark and subtle, with a few comic moments to even things out.

It starts out pleasant enough, as John (John C. Reilly), a relatively nice guy, is suffering an emotional blow. His ex-wife (but still-friend) Jamie (Catherine Keener) is marrying her boyfriend Tim (Matt Walsh). Even though they divorced years ago, the news that his ex-wife is marrying again is a bit much. But Jamie knows this and accompanies him and Tim to a party where she hopes he and a single woman will get along great. After some reluctance, John goes and meets Molly (Marisa Tomei). They hit it off pretty well, and even perform a karaoke version of “Don’t You Want Me” together. But after their first night together, she leaves a note where she should be on his bed. And when they see each other, she always leaves too early. With the slight suspicion that maybe she’s married or seeing someone else, John follows her home and discovers her secret—her grown son Cyrus (Jonah Hill) who lives with her.

Cyrus seems like a good-hearted, somewhat-normal guy, though he does have his creepy moments as he seems just a little too wholesome. And his relationship with his mother is a little too cute to be true (or comfortable). And quite possibly, he might have a mental disorder, as he sometimes freaks out in his sleep in the middle of the night. But he also has something else in mind as long as John continues to see Molly and soon, John and Cyrus are at wits with each other.

This is treated more seriously than you would expect, but there are some light comic moments for relief. The comedy is never broad or extreme—the raunchiness is never exploited (no nudity, though there is some sex). Instead, the humor comes from the realism of the situations that play off in this script and execution. These characters aren’t caricatures of other such characters in this sort of film (or story, at least); they’re treated as real individuals with plenty of interaction to give them all dimensions. Even Cyrus has his moments of humanity, despite his reputation as a creepy man-child.

All four principal actors are great. John C. Reilly is instantly likeable and is completely relatable throughout the movie. You totally feel that he is connected to this character and script. Here, he reminds us of why he became a well-respected actor in the first place, before he joined Will Ferrell in comedies such as “Talladega Nights” and “Step Brothers.” Marisa Tomei just has to smile, and she has us invested. She’s as delightful and appealing any other role she’s played. The always-reliable character actress Catherine Keener has more dimensions to Jamie than you might expect from an ex-wife character. But what really counts the most is the casting of Jonah Hill as Cyrus. Hill is absolutely perfect in this role. Instead of pulling his usual schtick you see in comedies such as “Superbad” and “Funny People,” it’s interesting to see what he does with this character of Cyrus—normal when he can be, slightly psychotic other times.

“Cyrus” is unusual, but with an effective mix of sweetness and peculiarity. It doesn’t treat its characters as a mockery and doesn’t go for the easy way out with the drama or the comedy. Sometimes it can be inconsistent, but mostly it’s a brilliant piece of work.

127 Hours (2010)

9 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, so acclaimed Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle has a film that has only a limited theatrical release. At the time, I thought it was quite odd for a movie made by the director of the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” to not get a wide release. But then, I realized that this movie—entitled “127 Hours”—is based on the true story of Aron Ralston’s…incident. In 2003, Aron Ralston, a 27-year-old hiker, hiked along Blue John Canyon in Utah without telling anybody where he was going. Something went wrong and he fell into a narrow canyon—his right forearm was crushed by a boulder against the rock wall, keeping him trapped in there for nearly five days until he finally did what he had to do in order to escape and live. What he had to do is shown in great detail for a three-minute gruesome scene in “127 Hours”—it’s a scene so gruesome that many test audiences for the movie either walked out, fainted, or closed their eyes. This is why the movie is only in limited release.

Now, it’s not that I blame Fox Searchlight Pictures for a long trip to see this movie (I had to go all the way from Manila, Arkansas, to Little Rock to see it at Rave Motion Pictures—I usually see my movies in Jonesboro). It is a gruesome scene and I must admit that I did close my eyes at a couple points. But here’s my statement: You shouldn’t let three minutes of realistic gruesomeness in a 92-minute movie ruin a great experience. “127 Hours” is a haunting, effective, gripping, and unforgettable film that accurately tells the amazing story of how Aron Ralston came to terms with his own life while trapped “between a rock and a hard place” (that being the name of the book written by Ralston himself).

The movie stars James Franco in an excellent performance as Aron, a cocky, adventurous hiker who lives for adventure. By bicycle and foot, he treks along the Blue John Canyon in Utah just for the fun of it. We have a nice prologue in which we get great shots of the canyon—very lovely cinematography here—and we get to know Aron a little before the big incident. Aron starts his hike and then he meets up with two female hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn). He shows them the way they want to go, but after they take a swim in an underwater cavern. Then, he waves goodbye to the women and goes off alone again…and then the unthinkable happens.

So he’s trapped inside the canyon and the thought of anybody looking for him (or even passing by) is unthinkable itself. People rarely hike down here and Aron isn’t close with anybody, so he didn’t tell anyone where he was going. He sums it all up in one word: “Oops.” No kidding—this is a pretty big “oops” moment. He’s very low on supplies, food, and water. He has a watch, a video camera, and a cheap multipurpose tool he tries to use to chip the rock a little so he can free his hand and get out of the canyon. But this shows no luck, since his hand seems to be supporting the rock, rather than the opposite.

I imagine it’d be very hard to make a movie like this. To make it right is a greater obstacle. How do you make a movie where a character remains immobile for more than an hour in the film? How do you make a startling story like this into a dramatically satisfying piece of work?

Well, I have the answer—the casting of James Franco. He makes for good company, his acting is natural, and he apparently knows Aron Ralston enough to make him seem like…Aron Ralston. He’s a wild adventurer who is also smart and quick-thinking. There is room for cockiness and humor (such as when he documents himself on his video camera and imagines himself on a talk show) while there is also a great deal of dramatic range. He realizes that he hasn’t appreciated his family and friends as much as he used to and since he is probably going to die here, he feels so sad about it. After a couple days in the canyon, he starts to experience hallucinations in which they all visit him. The drama in “127 Hours” really works, especially considering that we know that Aron will have his second chance after being trapped for five days in the canyon. He had to do what he had to do in order to live and that was…to use his cheap tool to self-amputate his arm. Would anybody have done it? I don’t know. I’m not even sure I would’ve done it, though it seems very logical. One thing is for sure—it is not easy to watch. This is a very unpleasant scene and I don’t blame anybody who had eyes closed. But it takes almost an hour and a half leading up to it, letting us understand who Aron is and why he’s doing this.

“127 Hours” is not a film I will soon forget. It’s an effective film set in some of the most beautiful places on Earth, it tells an accurate retelling of an amazing and haunting true story, the drama works wonderfully, the movie is splendidly well-made, and then there’s the most important ingredient—James Franco’s flawless portrayal of Aron Ralston. It also makes you think—this is a movie about a guy who never embraced life until he almost dies. He realizes that everyone he knew, he never appreciated until this moment. This goes to show that every second in life counts. It’s a terrific film.

The Last Airbender (2010)

9 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ll state right away that I haven’t seen a single episode of the popular animated TV series, aired on Nickelodeon, called “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” So I don’t know the exact details of its story, characters, etc. But I do know that it is held in high regard—it has a cult following and apparently even the most stubborn critics can’t help but like it. So when the fans heard of a theatrical film adaptation of the show, they were hyped. When they heard that it was going to be live-action…they were worried. When newcomers to this story heard that the writer/director was M. Night Shyamalan, we had little to no expectations.

We all know that Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker and has brought us some outstanding achievements (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “Signs”). But he has really lost his way since then. Projects like “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening” were not promising evidence that Shyamalan was gifted, if we hadn’t seen the other three films. And now here he is adapting a film from this animated TV series. I’m surprised that the Paramount studio entrusted this man with something as apparently delicate.

Like I said, I haven’t seen the original show, so I’m reviewing “The Last Airbender” (the “Avatar” was omitted for obvious reasons) as a movie, like it should be. And the verdict is I hated it. It’s a confusing, uninteresting, jumbled mess that is a huge case of bad writing, bad storytelling, and bad filmmaking. This is not only M. Night Shyamalan’s worst film to date—it’s one of the worst fantasy films I’ve ever seen.

The plot is incomprehensible, though to be fair, I think it’s because I’m not accustomed to watching it develop in episodes on TV. There’s a scroll that tries to explain everything in the very beginning, and most of the dialogue is full of spewing exposition. But I couldn’t tell you what happens in this story or why it happens. I just know that in some distant future (or maybe a parallel dimension), mankind has split into four tribes, each representing an element—earth, air, water, and fire. And there are people in these tribes who can enchantingly manipulate their elements—or “bend” them, as they put it. These tribes are at war with each other, particularly because the Fire-benders are brutally hostile because…whatever. Only one can bring peace to the world—the “Avatar,” who can control all four elements.

The Avatar, named Aang (Noah Ringer), is found by two water-benders—a sister and brother named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, the “Twilight” movies). They release him after he’s been buried under the ice for years. But by the time they figure out who he is, they are attacked by the Fire tribe warriors, led by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) who tries to capture him before Fire Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) claims him for the Fire Lord (Cliff Curtis)…at least I think that’s why this is happening. Oh, and Aang, aided by Katara and Sokka, heads to the lands of different tribes to train and master his own abilities, so he can make himself known as the Avatar.

“The Last Airbender” takes itself way too seriously, to the point where we’re supposed to be familiar with most of the material. But it’s hard to be invested when it’s pretty much just a callback to those fantasy films that tried for the same “complexity” that this one does, and it ends up looking like a joke as a result. (Well hey, not every fantasy film can be “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter”—at least those films knew how to tell their stories.)

The screenplay is horrible. The dialogue is laughably bad and the story developments are inconsequential. It’s like we’re being challenged to follow along with what’s going on in this movie. I wouldn’t mind so much except that it’s so rushed and ends on a note that suggests a sequel, which I would definitely not look forward to seeing. And like I said, most of the dialogue is just awkward exposition—there’s no reason for these characters to explain these details except for informing the audience what’s going on. It’s not informatively helpful; it’s boring.

The special effects range from average to completely unconvincing. Some visual shots are clever, like the water spheres that the Water-benders create, and even a few shots of this “giant water buffalo” (I have no idea what Aang’s humongous pet really is). But mostly, they’re very weak. The fire looks like obvious CGI flames, the twister scenes (in which air is “bended”) are unimpressive, and every battle sequence is unintelligible, making for an uninteresting final-battle climax. Shyamalan’s gifts do not include action scenes.

I’m just glad I didn’t see “The Last Airbender” in 3-D.

But to be fair, the settings are quite extraordinary. It really does look like we’ve entered another world. Look at the icy mountains, the medieval-looking castles, the large-scale ships—the production design deserves credit.

I really don’t like to criticize young actors, but Noah Ringer is totally flat as Aang, and is given unable support by his two co-stars Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone. All three young actors are dull, stiff, and unconvincing. The villains—Cliff Curtis, Aasif Mandvi, and Dev Patel—are slightly better, but here’s the main problem with them. They play it too straight, like they’re leading men in another movie. Dev Patel, in particular, has apparently forgotten that his role is supposed to be hammy, not deadpan serious.

“The Last Airbender” is an unintelligible, badly-made fantasy film. And I find it very hard to believe that Shyamalan, this man formerly known as an influential filmmaker, botched up this adventure that should have been exciting. Maybe he’ll find his way again. I sure hope so.

NOTE: Sometime, I will watch an episode or two of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and see what all the love is about.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

3 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What a world that Scott Pilgrim has to fight through! In this “world,” Scott Pilgrim (along with us, as the audience for the movie “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) is sucked into action sequences that defy gravity, bend physics, and seem almost hilariously and epically vicious. What a trip.

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is a movie based on the popular graphic novel of the same name. I guess it could be described as a satire—not only of the graphic novel, but of comic books, video games, and all graphic novels. This movie was brought to the screen by Edgar Wright, whose previous films were “Shaun of the Dead” and Hot Fuzz,” and he specializes in this sort of satire. There are quickly paced editing in non-action sequences, good pacing, great comedic writing, and then there’s the action itself. These action sequences blend comic books, graphic novels, and video games into one and the result is outstanding. Scott Pilgrim and his opponent face each other in exaggerated (but very funny) manner, then they fight—they jump high through the air, freeze when necessary, punch and kick each other even harder than you can without getting seriously injured, and when the opponent is defeated, he explodes into coins (points you would receive when playing a video game for an extra life). Scott has to do the same thing multiple times in this movie.

OK, I’m praising the action a bit too early. Let’s just talk about the plot to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Scott Pilgrim is a 22-year-old Canadian currently dating a Chinese high school girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Scott plays in a hardcore rock band called Sex Bob-omb and lives with a gay roommate (Kieran Culkin, sort of overdoing it with the gayness, but mostly funny). He has fun with Knives at first, but he starts to get a little tired of it. Enter New York transplant Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). To Scott, this is the coolest girl in the world. She’s a tough babe sporting leather jacket and boots, as well as changing her hair color every week. Ramona tells Scott that they can date if he can fight and defeat her “seven evil exes.” And just like that, the battles begin!

These action sequences will relieve those who were disturbed by the graphic realistic violence in this year’s earlier comic book superhero-satire “Kick-Ass.” In that movie, you knew that there really were people becoming part of a bloodbath. With “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” it’s different because this movie does not take place in reality (I don’t think). It’s exaggerated, fun, hilarious, and amazingly done so that we don’t feel disturbed. Good casting composes of Brandon Routh (the previous Superman) and Chris Evans (the Human Torch) as two of the evil exes.

Oh, I cannot believe I forgot to mention the actor playing Scott Pilgrim. Well, it’s Michael Cera, who has great deadpan comic timing, which he proved so with the TV show “Arrested Development” and with the movies “Superbad” and “Juno.” Recently, he hasn’t been in a good movie since “Juno,” in my opinion. I didn’t like “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “Year One,” or “Youth in Revolt.” The material just wasn’t there for him. Here, Michael Cera feels right at home, oddly enough. His deadpan comic personality fits right in with the video game/comic book scenarios. He can seem like a sissy and he shows that he might be, especially when he has to break up with Knives so he can be with Ramona—“I think we should break up, or whatever…”

I laughed a lot at the non-action scenes, especially the “Seinfeld” satire (complete with music and laugh track). I liked the songs performed by Sex Bob-omb and how the movie kids with the video game elements (the Universal logo even gets the treatment). There are many overly edited bits that are just plain funny. And there is an action sequence that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud with. It’s another one of the evil exes that Scott has to vanquish, in which Mae Whitman (recently co-starring in the TV series “Parenthood”) plays the evil ex (don’t ask). Diehard “Arrested Development” fans (like me) may recognize her as Michael Cera’s “Arrested Development” character George Michael’s girlfriend Ann. Maybe I was just having my own imaginative battle while watching this particular one, but watching George Michael and Ann fight in an overly-exaggerated action sequence just made me laugh out loud.

I have a couple of criticisms—one somewhat obvious and one somewhat personal. The one personal criticism, just to get it out of the way, is that I would have loved to see more of Anna Kendrick as Scott’s younger sister. Anna Kendrick is a go-to actress for any movie, even if it’s just a small part for her. She has that gutsy, witty attitude that I just can’t resist. I think she’s criminally underused here. An obvious criticism—seven evil exes just seems like too much. The movie stretches out a bit too long. Maybe it would’ve been better if Ramona just had five evil exes.

I would probably take “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” over “Kick-Ass.” Over “Sky High?” Well, maybe. This is a crazy and exaggerative but hilarious and awesome movie. I haven’t read the original graphic novel of the same name, so I can’t make comparisons. On the film adaptation, however, it’s a fun ride to take.