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Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

3 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Four men from 2010 have just discovered that they are in 1986. They believe that the hot tub they partied in is the cause of this. How does one of them consider this phenomenon? “It must be some kind of…hot tub time machine.”

That line in the movie aptly titled “Hot Tub Time Machine” is said directly to the camera, almost as if saying, “I know it sounds crazy. Just go with us.” That kind of confidence (I really believe that’s how the line was implied to turn out) is what makes “Hot Tub Time Machine” not as bad as it may sound. The filmmakers take chances with this premise and the actors have fun with it.

“Hot Tub Time Machine” is a cross between “Back to the Future” and “The Hangover” (with a hard R rating). Four men take a road trip to recapture their youth, and after stepping into the hot tub time machine, they find they are now living their youth in the mid-80s. While there, they try to have some fun, but also discover that they were just as miserable then as they were in 2010.

The friends are miserable enough. First, there’s Nick (Craig Robinson from TV’s “The Office”), a dog groomer whose wife is cheating on him. Then, there’s Adam (John Cusack), an insurance salesman whose wife just left him because he’s a bit boring. Then there’s Lou, the worst of them. He’s a party animal who may be suicidal. He lives too much in the past and never stops with the constant partying and ranting. Nick and Adam decide to bring Lou to the ski lodge they messed around at when they were young and having fun. Along for the ride is Adam’s 20-year-old nerdy nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), much to Lou’s anger.

When they find themselves back in 1986, looking the way they did back then (Jacob looks the same because he wasn’t even born then, although he flickers at some points that require it). They have to relive the events that occurred when they originally lived it—breakups that end in pain (for Adam, that pain comes from being stabbed in the eye with a fork) and concerts (Nick was a musician) that may go wrong. In the meantime, the hot tub time machine is being fixed by a mysterious fix-it guy, played by Chevy Chase. But trying to relive these events is harder than they imagined but funnier to us.

Lou supplies most of the film’s raunchiness and vulgarity. He’s played by Rob Corddry, who was previously seen in “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” a film I hated (Corddry’s over-the-top performance in that movie didn’t help much either). I recall writing my review for that movie and stating that Corddry’s well-done yet ultimately sleazy and nasty performance as that movie’s main racist villain should have received a punch in the face for being so unlikable. He barely redeems himself here, stealing every scene he’s in (give or take about 3 or 4). It is possible to dislike this guy as Lou, but once you’ve gotten into the mood of the movie like I have, you come so close to forgiving him. OK, Corddry, you’ve gotten away with it this time.

The film is alive and supplies two terrific running gags. One involves a squirrel (I wouldn’t dare give away the surprise) and the other involves Crispin Glover as a bellman who has only one arm in 2010 but both arms in 1986…but it doesn’t seem like his arm will last long. This is a great running gag; many accidents happen in which the man may have lost his hand. If and when he loses it in their time period doesn’t matter. I laughed loudly. I also laughed at many of the complicated occurrences, such as when Jacob meets his future mother, who is a horny slut, and also funny are the pop-culture 80s references. There’s a great cover of “Jesse’s Girl,” a retro look at the ski lodge, and a ski patroller who believes the time travelers are actually Russian spies and that their energy drink-can is actually a bomb. Oh, and there’s a cameo by William Zabka (the bully from “The Karate Kid”).

John Cusack is good, but then again, he usually is. Craig Robinson and Clark Duke are great deadpans and strike the right notes in their performances—they’re very funny. It all comes back to Rob Corddry, who practically steals this movie. Like I said, he’s very easy to dislike and I’m willing to let him slide for this movie. After all, he just wants to be funny.

Oh, and there’s Chevy Chase as the mystical hot-tub repairman. I really didn’t find him very funny or effective at any point of the movie. He doesn’t even serve much of a purpose—he just shows up, winks at the audience, and that’s it. Worst of all, like I said, he’s just not very funny.

I enjoyed “Hot Tub Time Machine” for its quirkiness, its comedy, and its vulgarity in the right places. It’s not for everyone. Certainly not for people offended by the f-word (said probably more than 200 times here) and definitely not for people who think the whole idea of a hot tub time machine is lame.

Kick Ass (2010)

1 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As far as I can tell from reviews, “Kick-Ass” is a movie you either love or you hate. Is it possible to “only like” it? I guess it is possible, because I “only liked” it. I did not love it, but I do not dislike or hate it either. Yes, it is overly violent. Yes, it has uneven humor. Yes, it tries to be a mixture of both. But about that last “yes,” it does work at a mixture of both funny and violent. We’ve seen the superhero-set-in-reality gimmick before, like we did with the great Disney/Pixar film “The Incredibles” and Will Smith’s surly superhero “Hancock”—we just haven’t seen it with teenagers in the lead roles or with graphic violence that would make Tarantino wince. The movie takes place in the “real world”—crime is where you least expect it and nobody has superpowers.

The film’s narrator Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a geeky high school teenager who is just plain average—his only superpower is being invisible to girls, he doesn’t have a lot of friends on MySpace, and he has his own fantasies. He is heavily influenced by comic books and wonders why nobody ever tried to become a superhero in this crime-ridden world—he thinks that all a person needs in order to be a superhero is a costume and a weapon. So, under the name “Kick-Ass,” he tries it out—he orders a green wetsuit complete with mask, carries two blunt objects, and looks for crime. His first attempt is a failure as he is almost killed. But that doesn’t stop him. Soon, he scares off a group of muggers and is caught on somebody’s iPhone. Soon, Kick-Ass is a YouTube sensation and the inspiration for other “superheroes.”

If Kick-Ass’ beatings are violent enough, you haven’t seen anything yet. A subplot involves a mob boss (Mark Strong) who kills people mercilessly without explanation—a bad influence for his teenage son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, best known as “McLovin”). In one scene, the man even fries one person with a man-sized microwave. But even that’s nothing compared to what I am about to explain next. It turns out that a father and daughter have become costumed vigilantes of their own, inspired by Kick-Ass. They are Big Daddy and Hit Girl. Big Daddy dresses up like Batman (complete with Adam West voice—he pauses. like. this.) and his true identity is a near-crazy father to eleven-year-old Mindy, who is Hit Girl. How crazy? Consider an early scene where he uses his own daughter as target practice (Mindy wears a bulletproof vest so she can feel what it’s like being hit with a bullet). He wants to do it three times—Mindy asks for ice cream and bowling afterwards. Big Daddy has taught Mindy the ways of the weapon—from butterfly knives to handguns—and together, Big Daddy and Hit Girl are more experienced than Kick-Ass.

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Here’s what will draw the most controversy for “Kick-Ass” but will also be the most memorable—Hit Girl is not playing a game like Kick-Ass is. She is overly serious about this new identity—she doesn’t just outsmart the criminals; she kills them stone-cold dead. She cannot be reasoned with. Complete with a purple wig, a leather outfit and mask, Hit Girl is an eleven-year-old nightmare for all parents.

The crime boss doesn’t like that Kick-Ass, Hit Girl, and Big Daddy are wasting his men, so he declares open season on them. His son gets a costume of his own and names himself Red Mist. His job is to trick Kick-Ass into leading him to Hit Girl and Big Daddy. This sets up the final half of the movie, which is more violent than funny. But when you raise a climax for a movie like this, what more can you ask for? It’s a final showdown—you saw it coming, deal with it.

What I liked about “Kick-Ass” was that it featured a main superhero that has no experience whatsoever. As a hero, Kick-Ass is better off staying home. But he tries his best. This is what gives the film an edge—both for effectiveness and for humor. I liked Kick-Ass’ true identity Dave’s high school problems that could be resolved with his secret identity now that he has self-confidence. He even scores the girl of his dreams (Lyndsy Fonseca), who at first thinks he’s gay. Now, portrayed by Aaron Johnson, Dave may be a bit bland, but he is believable and that’s what the film needed. He is not supposed to steal the show, so he doesn’t. What really gives “Kick-Ass” its kick are the characters of Big Daddy and Hit Girl. Big Daddy is played by Nicolas Cage in his craziest performance in a long time. He understands this material and plays with it. I can’t think of another actor who could pull off this character. I love it when he says his dialogue while in the Big Daddy suit—his speech impediment in those scenes makes the film work greatly for Cage. Chloe Grace Moretz is a true find as Hit Girl. She may get the most attention for a girl of her age doing all of these horrible things to people, but it helps that she is an extraordinary young actress.

“Kick-Ass” is original, alive, well-made, and powerfully-acted—it also bloody and violent. It deserves its R rating. The trailers for this movie make it seem like a PG or PG-13 family superhero movie. (Parents will most definitely be shocked by the language that comes out of this little girl’s mouth, though the kids will love it.) I was interested in these kids and I feared for them when they were in real danger. Not that I approve of Hit Girl killing hit men. But done in the wrong hands, this material could’ve easily failed. Luckily, it finds its place and keeps it there. Is “Kick-Ass” a masterpiece? No. But it’s a fun thrill ride.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

26 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Ree Dolly is an unflinching, tough, 17-year-old Southern girl who does not take “no” for an answer and believes that anything not offered shouldn’t be asked for. She acts as a parent to her two younger siblings, while her real mother is mentally absent and her father, a meth cooker, is arrested. She cares for them all (except her father, of course) with welfare and help from a friendly neighbor—they all live in the backlands of the Ozarks, near the Arkansas border line. She is also the most engaging movie heroine in a long time. In Debra Granik’s film, “Winter’s Bone,” she is forced to carry a task to save her family’s property. She is an ordinary person who must rise to an occasion.

The conflict: Ree’s father, who was arrested for cooking meth, is missing and he put everything on bond, including the family house. Ree is visited by the sheriff, who tells her on the house porch that if her dad doesn’t show up at court, she and her family lose the house. She looks into the woods in thought when the sheriff asks, “You got someplace to go?” She says, “I’ll find him.” The sheriff doesn’t believe her—“Girl, I been lookin’.” She looks back at him and sternly repeats, “I said I’ll find him.” And just like that, she sets out to question many family members for clues or answers as to where her father is.

The whole family, except for Ree who would want her siblings to never fall into the habit as well, cooks methamphetamine and keeps to themselves. They give wary looks to outsiders (like the sheriff and the bond trader) who visit Ree and constantly remind her that the house will no longer be their property. Ree’s uncle Teardrop doesn’t know where his brother is and advises Ree not to go looking for him either. But she does, and this leads to brutal confrontations—one of which brings a league of mountain women to beat her hard. (When she comes to, she asks if they’ll kill her. One of them says they were thinking about it.) It seems like this search will jeopardize her life, but she will never stop looking for her father, dead or alive.

“Winter’s Bone” was filmed on location in one of the bleakest of living environments. Living in the backlands of the Ozarks, the rural area looks like it used to a town but is now caught in a Depression-type state. There are houses, but there are also shacks, sheds, and piles of junk almost all around. With only a few modern conveniences, the locals live here in relaxation. But from another perspective, it’s depressing rather than relaxing. I loved how director Debra Granik framed every shot to make us see something new about this place. Ree has lived here her whole life and is becoming a strong, independent woman and her younger siblings are as cheerful as they can be, without knowing what misfortune they have. This may not be true, but maybe the reason that the mother is mentally absent is because of the depression of her surroundings—maybe she realized the difficulty of her situations in parenting and couldn’t take it anymore. Maybe. But anyway, the rest of the people in this rural area are suspicious, violent, and cold-hearted.

Ree Dolly is played by Jennifer Lawrence in an excellent, star-making performance. There is no wrong note in this performance. She has a convincing, forceful personality that really brings this character to life. Also very effective is John Hawkes, as fearsome uncle Teardrop, and Dale Dickey as one of the mountain women who challenges Ree, and also assaults her midway through the film. There are other effective performances from amateur actors who make their first appearances in this film and it’s amazing to see how natural they are—there is no cliché dealing with their characters.

“Winter’s Bone” has suspense, a compelling main character, intriguing supporting characters, a murky look to the Ozarks, and a story worth telling. To me, this is one of the best movies of 2010 and I certainly hope this film is remembered as years go by, most notably for Jennifer Lawrence’s flawless portrayal of an ordinary person rising to the occasion.

NOTE: “Winter’s Bone” also won the Grand Jury Prizes at Sundance for “Best Picture” and “Best Adapted Screenplay.” It also won the Golden Rock Award at the Little Rock Film Festival—at the awards gala (I won an award there too—a screenwriting award), I was fortunate enough to meet Shelley Waggener, the actress who played Sonya, the friendly neighbor who helps Ree and her family.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

22 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here we go—the beginning of the end of the popular “Harry Potter” film series, based on the book series by J.K. Rowling. The book series ends with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” which was so long that the filmmakers had to split it into two parts. And so, here is “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” which of course ends abruptly and keeps us waiting anxiously for Part 2 to arrive in a few months.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is not a film to start with if you are not familiar with the “Harry Potter” series or haven’t seen the previous films. This is strictly for fans only. This is the setup to what we have been waiting for since the evil Lord Voldemort has risen and Harry Potter must fight him in the end. The battle will most definitely happen in Part 2 and that will be the end of this wonderful series about the young wizard Harry Potter who started out as just a regular kid who found out he was a wizard and came to Hogwarts School to test his wits, and wound up in many adventures that lead to the rise of Lord Voldemort, who killed his parents long ago and tried to do so with Harry and failed. Now, Voldemort is back.

No place is safe anymore. It’s dangerous to the point where Harry’s friend Hermione is forced to erase any memory of her from her parents and run away. Harry’s hateful relatives have moved out, knowing they are not safe in their house anymore—Harry would have been thrilled that they are leaving if not for the reason why. Now Harry, Hermione, and their friend Ron are in the world away from Hogwarts, which is dangerous for them now. But then again, it’s dangerous here too as Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters draws near.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is a solid entry in the “Harry Potter” series—the best in quite a while. It’s action-packed, the three central characters are here with things to do, and by now, we more than care about everyone involved here. This is why it hurts us when about two characters we knew from earlier films meet their ends here. I won’t give away who dies in this movie—I wouldn’t dare spoil anything.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has survived every incredible ordeal in the past years, and so have Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson). But somehow this is different—the villains mean business and the situations are more deadly, if you can believe that. Even the Ministry of Magic is out to destroy the three young heroes this time.

These three characters are not kids anymore—their school days are nostalgic memories now and the stakes are higher this time around. They have reached the state of adulthood and now have to take things upon themselves. They spend most of their journey alone as Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) sends his minions out to get them, as well as Ron’s numerous family members and old friends. The three camp out at night and go searching for new clues by day in order to find the key to stopping all of this madness. While they camp out, they are safe from Voldemort but they find complications with themselves, particularly with Ron who not only is jealous of Hermione being alone with Harry but also with Harry’s persistence. There is one scene in which Ron is about to lose himself entirely and sees Harry and Hermione completely nude and making out with each other. This is when you know that you don’t know what is going to happen because this time, all bets are off.

There are many great sequences in this film. One shows the characters as they use a Polyjuice potion in order to disguise themselves as members of the Ministry of Magic and get the next clue (and meet an old friend who will send a chill to anyone who knows who the character is). This scene is suspenseful and also funny at some points. And then there’s a big snake that will definitely scare small children—the PG-13 rating is deserved. There are many other scenes like this and it’s only Part 1 and the major conflict hasn’t even begun yet. We have to wait for Part 2 for more.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have grown into their characters and are still engaging in their roles. They have changed here as well—Radcliffe begins to grow a beard, Grint has his demons within him, and Watson is becoming a very attractive young woman. I will follow them anywhere in any Harry Potter movie. The studios made the wise decision not to recast these three people and allowed them to grow with the movies.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” does end abruptly—someone should have added a caption, “To be concluded.” Part 2 arrives in a few months and we will finally see every plot point line up, every character’s situation resolved, and the villains will fight the heroes in a final climactic battle. But you must see every Harry Potter film before you see that film. And before this film as well.

The Social Network (2010)

15 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s hard to make a good or great movie about networking, but it is possible—I am referencing television networking in that statement. It’s even harder (and seemingly impossible) to make a good or great movie about the creation of a social network via computer. But “The Social Network” amazingly pulls it off—this is a great movie, not just because it knows what it’s talking about when it comes to developing this website, but because it’s so skillfully made and highlights a great cast and a sharp script.

You can see in the TV ads that “The Social Network” is the true story about the creation of Facebook, the social network we all (or most of us, anyway) know and love. But you’d be surprised that this is more about people than about Facebook. Facebook was created by an intelligent young man named Mark Zuckerberg, whose creation made him the youngest billionaire in America in his early 20s. In the movie, Mark is played by Jesse Eisenberg as a Harvard student who thinks he is right all the time. This doesn’t do him well with social situations—in an opening scene, he uses logic with his date Erica (Rooney Mara, soon to be known as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to the point where she dumps him and calls him an a**hole. Indeed, he is arrogant, persistent, and may be an a**hole, but he’s intelligent and somewhat witty in his own logical arguments.

Mark gets the idea while drunk and blogging that he could develop a site where fellow students could decide which of two Harvard girls is hotter than the other. He hacks into the system with the “facebooks” of students on campus computers, creates the site, and is declared an even bigger a—hole. But this brings the attention of identical twin brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), both of which are on the university’s rowing team, and their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). They tell Mark that they want him to help them program a new website called The Harvard Connection. Mark agrees, but goes to his best (and only) friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield, soon to be known as the next Spider-Man) with the idea of making this idea into something bigger—“Thefacebook,” an online social network to Harvard students, where people can display personal information.

Mark and Eduardo eventually launch the site, which brings them popularity and trouble. The film intersects back and forth between those scenes and scenes involving Mark being sued by both the twins, for stealing their idea, and by Eduardo, for reasons to be explained later in the film. This shows you can be popular with one idea, but an enemy to others. In the storytelling scenes, we see as Facebook develops into a wider network, Eduardo is made CFO and pays thousands of dollars to help program it, and we later meet Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of two music web startups (Napster and Plaxo). Sean is brought in to give insight on “Thefacebook” (drop the “the,” expand it, create a Wall, etc.). Sean is a manipulative creep who has Mark in his hands and pulls him into the big time. Why expand Facebook—well, why make millions when they can make billions?

The story for “The Social Network” (of which some elements are true, but like most biopics, they add flights of fancy) seems impossible to make into a movie. But the storytelling is amazingly well-developed with an excellent script. This is a great movie to listen to—the dialogue that these bright Harvard students say is on-target and amazing, but never to the point where we’re annoyed. And I love movies that show the whole process of creation—even if the idea of writing or filming how they begin to invent Facebook sounds unfilmable and illiterate, the script still surprises us with spellbinding writing and explanations in ways we can understand. This screenplay, written by Aaron Sorkin, really deserved the Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (the film is partially based on the book, “The Accidental Billionaires”). It never falters, condescends, or dumb down the material or the characters. It’s amazing how this writer Aaron Sorkin and the film’s director David Fincher is able to tell this story without boring audiences.

Also, the script is excellent in developing the characters. Mark Zuckerberg is a nonsocial smart aleck, Eduardo is reliable but has a breaking point, and Sean is a bigger a**hole than Mark, but tries to cover it with manipulation and charm. The story gets heavier when Mark doesn’t even realize that Sean redrafts the financial arrangements to keep Eduardo out of the picture. All three roles are wonderfully acted and even “wonderfully” is not a strong enough adjective to describe these performances. Jesse Eisenberg deserves an Oscar (or at least a nomination) for his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. We all know from “Adventureland” and “Zombieland,” in which he starred as the lead role, that Eisenberg is a great young actor with a dry, highly verbal sense of humor. Here, he gives his best performance—he gives that same personality in this movie, but he gives something more to the character so we understand his arrogance and intelligence. He makes Mark Zuckerberg a living, breathing character rather than the butt of a joke this movie could have become. He has great screen presence, remarkable comic timing, excellent acting range, and is absolutely fantastic in this movie. Other strong performances—Justin Timberlake is memorable as Sean and Andrew Garfield is very good as Eduardo.

With a great cast, sharp direction, and an excellent script, “The Social Network” is, in my opinion, the best film of 2010.

Let Me In (2010)

10 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This was not supposed to happen—I was not supposed to receive much from a remake of a great movie that came out almost two years after the original. I was a big fan of the original Swedish film “Let the Right One In” and so, I had my doubts about this American remake entitled “Let Me In,” directed by Matt Reeves, whose previous directorial effort was 2008’s “Cloverfield.” This new movie is faithful to the original, but a few changes have been made to make it even more effective. Those who saw the original film and see this new one will know the changes I’m talking about. But I was far from offended. I think these changes helped the story a lot. For example, the motives of the adult “father” to the vampire girl (for those who haven’t seen or heard of the original, I’ll get to the vampire part soon) are explained more clearly…but also in a subtle way. In the original film, I didn’t quite understand the relationship of the little vampire girl and her adult guardian who could be her father but then again could not be. There are a couple of scenes in this remake that explain it a bit more and then there is one shot that sums everything up—it involves a picture, that’s all I will say. I was satisfied by this subtle explanation—in fact, I was satisfied by a lot of elements in “Let Me In.”

The storyline remains the same in “Let Me In.” Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, the talented young actor from “The Road”) is a twelve-year-old, lonely boy who is severely bullied by sadistic bullies at school. When he is alone, he repeats the bullies’ dialogue as he stabs a tree multiple times. This brings the attention of a mysterious girl that just moved in the apartment next door to him—her name is Abby (played by Chloe Grace Moretz, “Kick-Ass”) and she is a vampire. She lives with a middle-aged man (reliable character actor Richard Jenkins) who is believed to be her “father” but maybe something more, as we see in a few key scenes. Owen and Abby become great friends and their relationship is dangerous because Owen doesn’t know that Abby is a vampire—he doesn’t know that The Father kills for blood in order to feed Abby. But Abby would never let anything happen to Owen and she gives him the strength that he needs.

I was intrigued by the relationship of these two twelve-year-old kids in the original film and I am just as intrigued here. Unlike the relationship between Bella and Edward Cullen in the Twilight Saga, this is a relationship that actually feels real and risky—there is no sex in this movie, but there are sensuous moments in which Abby goes into Owen’s bed while naked (no nudity is shown) and other moments when Owen and Abby share warm hugs when they realize they need each other. This relationship never states that dating a vampire is fun and games—it could be dangerous.

These two kids live in a dangerous world where bad things can and will happen. I mentioned the bullies’ sadistic behavior. These kids are more brutal than the kids in the original film and that’s quite an accomplishment indeed—we get many nasty scenes of the bullies’ terrible behavior. They pull his underwear up so tight that he wets himself, the leader of the bullies strikes him hard across the face with a pointer stick, and they try to push him into a hole in an icy pond. But that’s Owen’s problem. Abby’s problem is that she needs blood to eat in order to survive. This leaves opportunity for horror elements—The Father is killing innocent people and draining them of their blood to put it into a jug. There’s one scene that is absolutely incredible—I’m not going to give much away, but it involves The Father’s latest victim of murder in a car. The outcome of this scene is the best movie car wreck I’ve seen in a long, long time, seen through an unmoving POV shot inside the car! This is an absolutely fantastic shot. There are many other shots that are great, but that’s because director Matt Reeves drops his “Cloverfield” style of directing (camera shaking for intensity) and focuses on what is most important in the shots. He even goes as far as keeping Owen’s stressed, divorced mother (Cara Buono) out of focus throughout her scenes. He knows it’s more important to capture Owen’s expressions in these scenes, and we can hear Mom’s suffering in her voice when she talks to Dad on the phone. This is one of the best-looking movies of 2010; wonderfully well-made.

This movie is set in 1983, which leaves many Reagan-era touches, such as Ms. Pac Man and songs by Blue Oyster Cult. Most notably are the haunting references to the candy Now and Later, as well as Reagan’s television speeches about good and evil. Suitably, there is a character known only as The Detective (Elias Koteas) who goes through town investigating the murders, believing it to be the work of “Satanists.” A word about the new character of The Detective—I do admit that the town-adult subplots in the original film seemed unnecessary with a somewhat weak payoff. If you recall the original, you recall the woman who is turned into a vampire and the husband who is investigating what is happening when his friends are murdered. The latter is transformed into The Detective for “Let Me In” and we only see him (and the woman, of course) when we absolutely need to.

Aside from how great-looking and well-developed the story is in “Let Me In,” what will really draw the most attention are the excellent performances from the actors. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who was very effective as the little boy in a damaged world in “The Road,” is a boy in a world that may as well be damaged. We believe in Owen, we care for him, and we want things to go well for him. This is a kid we definitely don’t want bad things to happen to. Even more effective about his performance is his reaction shots—when he’s not talking, he listens and learns important things about this situation. In the first most effective terrifying moment in the final half, we feel his fear. Also very strong is Chloe Grace Moretz as Abby. Moretz gave “Kick-Ass” its energy (and controversy, I know) and in “Let Me In,” she plays an even more complicated character and pulls it off. Richard Jenkins, who doesn’t have much dialogue, lets us know what he’s thinking with just his expressions and the intensity in his murders.

To me, “Let Me In” is one of the best movies of 2010. It’s definitely the best remake of the year—a step or two above the remake of “The Karate Kid,” which I liked. Yes, we’ve seen vampire romance many times before and we have the original film, but “Let Me In” is a lot better than you might expect. For one thing, it doesn’t treat this relationship with sexuality but with the loneliness of childhood as these kids are on the brink of adolescence. Don’t be expecting a “vampire movie” if you see this movie. Expect something a lot more.

NOTE: I should also mention that there are some genuinely terrifying moments in “Let Me In,” the two most effective come in the film’s final half. I won’t go into the first one, but I will say this about the second one—if you’ve seen the original film, you know there is a swimming pool scene. If you were terrified of that scene in the original, there is a chance you will breathe heavily and recoil in your seat in the theater…I did.

The Runaways (2010)

9 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Runaways” is a biopic about the all-girl rock band started by Joan Jett, whom we know as the punk rock female singer from Joan Jett and the Blackhearts mainly. For those who have little to no knowledge of The Runaways, her start in the music business, “The Runaways” tells that story with its own touches. The result is a good biopic—not a great biopic. It is well-made but standard in its storytelling. What makes it special—in fact, what makes most biopics special—are the performances from the actors who portray the historical figures the movie bases them on.

The movie opens as a young woman—guitarist Joan Jett, played by Kristen Stewart—and her friend—drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve)—approach a music agent named Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Joan tells Kim that she wants him to manage an all-girl rock band with her as the lead guitarist. Kim hears them play and believes they have potential, so he tells them to be tougher and more energetic in their music performances. He brings The Runaways together and helps bring along the rest of the group—including guitarist Lila Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton), bassist Robin (Alia Shawkat, the rebellious teenage girl in “Arrested Development”), and fifteen-year-old singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). They are young and ready to rock. But Kim knows getting them known to the public isn’t going to be easy, so he continues to push them harder during practice.

Cherie Currie could be considered the main protagonist of the story. We see her living with her sister and mother (a wannabe actress who always shouts “Places everyone” when getting her daughters’ attention) in a rural home. In an opening scene, Cherie dons a lot of makeup and lip-synchs David Bowie in a talent show, where she is booed off the stage.

What’s most fun about “The Runaways” is the creation of The Runaways’ popular songs such as “Cherry Bomb.” The music is one of the best things in the movie. When the band is on the stage, “The Runaways” rocks along with it. But that’s not the only thing that gives it its strength. Performances from the lead actors make this worth watching. Kristen Stewart is excellent as Joan Jett, with the short brunette hair and attitude that mixes asking for trouble with sincerity. Dakota Fanning is very good as Cherie Currie—I think this is her first role in which she doesn’t play a little girl, but a young woman. The scene-stealer here is Michael Shannon—his character of Kim is a creep and proud of it. He is not likable but he seems very real. What didn’t quite work was some of the elements in the storytelling, such as the relationship between Joan and Cherie. Also, the melodrama in which Cherie’s family misses her is a bit uneven, though Cherie’s relationship with her sister is pleasant enough. Maybe a few scenes with Joan Jett’s home life would’ve made the movie earn a three-and-a-half star rating. What did work, aside from the music and the performances, was Cherie’s descending into the world of drugs and sex, after the band makes it big in Japan. That was convincing enough.

Like I said, “The Runaways” is not a great biopic—it’s a good one and I’m giving it three stars. I just wish the screenplay went further ahead with the band and the relationships. Luckily, they have the performances and the music to compensate for the script’s weaknesses.

Buried (2010)

7 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When I die, I’ll have made sure that my body is cremated. I wouldn’t want a burial. This may sound a little ridiculous, but after hearing about certain miracles that (how do I put this, exactly?) bring people back from the dead. If I’m one of those people, then I would be buried alive, and I shudder to even think about others buried alive. But like I said, that’s probably a rarity. Though still, I’d prefer to be cremated.

It’s a truly frightening concept, being buried alive. There you are, in a dark cramped coffin. Underground. Barely any oxygen. A real sense of claustrophobia. You can scream…no one can hear you. All of that is covered in the film “Buried,” which is about a man who is kidnapped and placed in a wooden casket underneath the desert. It’s an engagingly gripping thriller.

Ryan Reynolds stars in a convincing, effective performance as Paul Conroy, a truck driver working in Iraq. As the movie opens, he awakens in the casket with only a Zippo lighter, a cell phone, a flashlight, and a pencil. The last thing he remembers is his convoy being attacked and his fellow drivers being shot at. While inside his own possible grave and knowing that there is no way out from inside, he realizes that he’s been captured and held for ransom by his attackers. The terrorists order him to ask the US embassy for five million dollars.

While all this is going on, Paul desperately calls many people for help—the police, the FBI, the hostage crisis handlers, his wife, everybody. It becomes very irritating when those are really supposed to help keep asking all sorts of idiotic questions and wasting what little time there is while Paul is down there. In fact, I don’t even know who’s more the villain—the terrorists or the people who are supposed to help him.

Probably the very best thing about “Buried” (and the most amazing) is that its story follows through only inside that coffin. Throughout the film’s 95-minute running time, we stay entirely with Paul. There are no flashbacks, no scenes that take place on the other side of the phone calls, and nothing even above ground. Perhaps that’s not the most amazing part—the most amazing part is that the film keeps the viewer’s attention and interest. There’s a great deal of atmosphere and mood, told right away by the opening scene.

That opening scene comes after an old-school credits sequence that, along with a heavy orchestral score, promises something massive. The first shot after that is complete darkness, followed a few seconds later by light breathing, some thumps, and finally a lighter igniting to show the fear in the main character’s eyes.

But “Buried” also probably wouldn’t be as effective without Ryan Reynolds’ performance. That’s an odd thing to say, because I don’t consider myself a fan of his. Reynolds’ comedic work does nothing for me—he seems too bland and uncharismatic. But in this serious, dark role, he’s perfect. He brings about every right emotion, he’s absolutely credible, and is easy company for 95 minutes. Since we spend our time in the coffin, the other characters in this film are mainly voiceover roles, played by actors Stephen Tobolowsky, Samantha Mathis, and Erik Palladino.

The more claustrophobic you are, the less “Buried” is going to appeal to you. But this is an unforgettable, impactful thriller that gives me more reason as to why I would prefer to be cremated.

True Grit (2010)

22 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“True Grit” is not so much the remake of the 1969 Western of the same name that won John Wayne his Oscar, but more of a new adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis. But to be fair, practically everyone else is going to label it as a “remake” of the 1969 version. And it was a dang good Western too—adventurous, exciting, and fun. Now we have this new version created by the Coen Brothers—Joel and Ethan Coen of masterpieces such as “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.” If anyone, they’re two of the first few people I would be interested in seeing pull this off. The result is more compelling than you might think.

This update is not, by any means, a joyful Western. It’s a dirty, terrifying, disturbing adventure-thriller that happens to take place in the Old West. In other words, it’s one of the best Westerns to come around in a long time. It’s kind of a refreshing change of pace. And besides, when you remake a movie, it’s almost pointless unless artistry is thrown in.

The story is the same as in the original film. 14-year-old Mattie Ross’ father has been killed by a drunken cowardly snake named Tom Chaney. So she goes into the city to hire US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a fat, dirty, constantly drunk, vile man, to lead a manhunt into the Indian Territory to find him. Accompanying Mattie and Cogburn is only one Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (sounds like “La Beef”). The journey is essentially the same as in the original—the unlikely trio of heroes ride along the Indian Territory on their horses and come across some grim situations involving outlaws until they finally come across Tom Chaney, his leader Ned Pepper, and their gang.

There are new touches added this time around, with some disturbing imagery. For example, there’s a man hung high from a tree and Mattie has to cut him down for Cogburn to see if he knew who he was. Then there’s a man clothed in a bear-skin who takes the body’s teeth and asks if there’s an offer for the “rest of him.” So strange, so disturbing…so brilliant. It adds to the grimness that Mattie has to learn to conquer.

Here’s another new touch added to the new version—Mattie’s attitude towards this whole adventure. In the original, Mattie Ross, played by Kim Darby (much older than her character—she was about 20 while her character was 14), was a realistic figure—showing that there is fear to overcome while knowing that she’s out of her limit on this manhunt. In this remake, Mattie, solidly played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, is much more bitter and far more determined to hunt down the man who killed her father. She’s so determined to the point where she just doesn’t care about what may lie ahead for her on this journey. All she has is vengeance on her mind. Don’t get me wrong—Mattie in the original had determination for justice too. But this Mattie is determined to a more extreme level.

John Wayne played Rooster Cogburn in the original film, but let’s face it—not many people called him Rooster Cogburn throughout the movie; we called him John Wayne, because there’s no one else he can play (not that that means he isn’t great at it). In this remake, he’s played by Jeff Bridges—kind of an odd choice for the great actor, although he has disappeared into his roles to the point where we forget that it is Jeff Bridges playing them (like the Coen Brothers’ other production, “The Big Lebowski”). But the truth of the matter is that Jeff Bridges is absolutely perfect as Rooster Cogburn. He looks right and more importantly, he feels right. This is a role that he gets completely lost in. Even his speech, though somewhat indistinct at times, seems legit. It’s all the more effective when you realize that you would rather spend more time with John Wayne’s welcome presence than Jeff Bridges’ intimidating swagger. What makes him interesting is we don’t know what makes him tick. We don’t know what puts him on edge, but we don’t want to be around when he is.

La Boeuf was played with grinning delight by Glen Campbell in the original film. This time, he’s played by Matt Damon. And if you think Matt Damon doesn’t belong in this movie, here’s a news flash—La Boeuf doesn’t belong in this journey. He’s like a hero from another movie that found himself out of his element, playing sidekick in this movie. And the truth is Matt Damon does do a credible job at playing the cowboy who’s in way over his head.

The villains are about the same, but still well-acted. Josh Brolin is the dumb, pathetic Tom Chaney and Barry Pepper is the tough, thinking Ned Pepper (wait, what?) and they’re well-suited for their roles.

So the mood and character traits are darker this time around. But it’s not just that. The cinematography is dark and moody as well. Remember how in the original film, we caught those beautiful landscapes? Well here, the landscapes are about as empty and unpromising as an apocalyptic wasteland. This is a darker, more complex re-imagining of a Western that seemed fun. Even the ending is different and more sour. There’s no happy ending with John Wayne riding off on his horse into the sunset. Heck, there’s barely even a happy ending. It just…ends. And strangely, that’s so effective. It teaches that a life fueled by vengeance is not the best way to live.

“True Grit” has the same quality of a Coen Brothers’ movie, so it came as no surprise that they made it. The dialogue is quirky, the side characters steal the show (particularly a horse trader played by Dakin Matthews and a landlady played by Candyce Hinkle), and there are some odd little touches added to the shots—that’s how you know this is a Coen Brothers’ movie. And it’s dark, mysterious, and compelling, like their best thrillers. And if you think you’re ready to see Jeff Bridges play a cowboy, don’t say you weren’t warned, partner.

NOTE: There’s a subtle music score that seems to follow the melody of the hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” I noticed it midway through the movie and was wondering if there’d be a lyrical rendition for it later. And if there’s one thing I hate about this movie, it’s whoever they chose to sing that song in the end credits!