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Looking Back at 2010s Films: Bridesmaids (2011)

5 Oct


Image result for bridesmaids movie

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, it’s the first of two Apatow productions to get a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination (the second being “The Big Sick”): “Bridesmaids!”

Let’s just forget about “Ghostbusters 2016” for now (or ever) and think back to a time when a film from director Paul Feig and starring Kristen Wiig would delight us and make us laugh. And here we have “Bridesmaids,” a comedy-drama about a woman who suffers a series of misfortunes after being asked to serve as maid of honor for her best friend.

I didn’t see this one in a theater. Having seen Wiig on “SNL” and only a couple movies at the time, she was very hit-or-miss for me. And the trailer didn’t look promising–it made the movie look pretty lame. But when I did catch the flick on DVD, it actually turned out to be pretty engaging. Wiig was hilarious (I think I liked her act even more after seeing this film), the whole cast was funny, the writing was sharp, and there was actually something more to it than comedy, to my surprise.

Why is it that so many good comedies have the worst trailers? (I didn’t want to see “Long Shot” based on its trailer either and that film was pretty good too.)

The Oscar-nominated script for “Bridesmaids” was co-written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who also acted as the paranoid airplane coach passenger). What I really like about Judd Apatow’s productions is that they give actors a chance to write their own stories (such as Steve Carell for “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” just about every Seth Rogen screenplay, Jason Segel for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Amy Schumer for “Trainwreck,” and of course Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon for “The Big Sick”). It’s a very effective way of saying, “I can’t get the right role for me, I’ll write the right role for me.” Kristen Wiig is really good here, playing a neurotic woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown due to the fear that she’s losing her best friend, which is the one thing she feels she has left in life. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes it’s bittersweet, sometimes it’s pathetic, and it’s always convincing.

Maya Rudolph is also good as her buddy who’s getting married, Rose Byrne is wonderful as the passive-aggressive Helen who threatens to steal Wiig’s “thunder” with her assertiveness, and of course…Melissa McCarthy. This was the movie that made Melissa McCarthy a household name and even gained her her first Oscar nomination, playing Megan, the wild card of the bunch of bridesmaids. I could blame this movie for giving birth to the typical McCarthy role that I usually can’t stand, but she’s just so damn funny here–maybe she had more of a filter here or she just trusted the writing enough to simply go with it instead of try to go beyond it.

OK, so the movie has funny people. But what about funny sequences? Oh yeah–this movie has plenty of those! Critics scoffed at the “bridal shop/food poisoning” scene; I thought it was so outrageous that it had to be hilarious, and I know I’m not alone. The plane scene? It displays some of Wiig’s funnier moments of her career, and I love McCarthy’s persistence toward a passenger she knows for sure is an Air Marshall. The bit where Wiig and Byrne desperately try to get Chris O’Dowd’s Irish cop’s attention? YES!

Speaking of which, I know a lot of people don’t really care for the Chris O’Dowd character and his relationship with Wiig, but I thought it was sweet enough. Who I could’ve done without were Rebel Wilson and Matt Lucas as Wiig’s odd British roommates who never got a single laugh out of me.

Oh, and Jon Hamm is also in this movie, playing a “himbo” Wiig often has fun with. This movie’s a little overloaded with wacky characters–some work, some don’t…I can’t say Hamm’s doesn’t work.

But there’s more to “Bridesmaids” than zany comedy. We also get a smart, convincing, very effective view on female friendship and competition–we see how the friendship could continue between Wiig and Rudolph after what they’ve been through together, we get a great deal of class-consciousness between Wiig and Byrne’s little feud, and there are great insights of companionship between the other bridesmaids, including when a tired mother/housewife (Wendi McLendon-Covey) gives advice to a newlywed (Ellie Kemper). And sometimes, even that can be a little funny.

Pretty good stuff here. “Help me, I’m poor.”

Looking Back at 2010s Films: 50/50 (2011)

3 Oct

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…”50/50″ is one of the best “dramedies” I’ve ever seen. (I don’t care if it’s hyperbole; I just like it that much.)

Incidentally, there’s a new term I learned from a DVD extra on “Booksmart” that I hope catches on: “hilareal” (meaning “hilarious” and “real”). And that’s “50/50”: hilareal.

If there’s anything more important than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s a comedy that can make you feel. There is a lot of funny material in “50/50,” but while I’m laughing, I’m also caring about the characters and the story; thus, when things get really serious later, I feel something. In my opinion, this is how you get audiences to care about characters: you show them as people. A little lightheartedness, a few jokes, etc. can really help an audience identify with them. And here, we have a naive, likable, aloof young man, named Adam (well-played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who’s been diagnosed with spinal cancer (with 50% chance of survival). Not very funny; in fact, the cancer itself is not meant to be laughed at (because it’s freaking CANCER!). Rather, it’s those around him (what they do, how they react) that ease the mood. There’s his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who’s your basic comic-relief who tries to get his best friend laid, high, anything to cheer him up (and also cheer himself up as well). There’s his hovering mother (Anjelica Huston) who can be a bit much. There’s his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who has her own BS about why she doesn’t join Adam at the hospital. (It’s hardly a spoiler that this couple don’t last the entire film.) There’s a couple other cancer patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) who cope with chemotherapy with marijuana-baked macaroons. There’s his therapist (Anna Kendrick), who is a great listener but a terrible psychiatrist…but potentially a good new girlfriend (because, of course). (Also, he’s her third patient.)

They’re all well-realized characters. They provide a lot of the humor, but they’re not just comic foils. The humor comes across naturally because they feel like real people. Even Seth Rogen’s over-the-top lazy-stoner comic-relief type is accepted when we realize what he himself is going through as his best friend is possibly dying of cancer and he’s trying so hard to make him feel better.

This is not a stoner comedy about cancer. Because you don’t laugh at cancer. You laugh with the characters.

The cancer aspect isn’t exploited in the slightest. Because director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Reiser (a cancer survivor who wrote the script as semi-autobiographical–Rogen is even one of his best friends) know how serious it is. That’s where the drama comes in, as it should. And because I care about the characters, I care about what happens to Adam and how his friends and family are going to respond. To quote Roger Ebert, “A film is not about what it is about, but about how it is about it.”

There’s a moment that’s so uncomfortable I have to fast-forward through it whenever I rewatch the film because it’s so difficult to endure. It’s when Adam decides to use his declining health to pick up a woman at a bar and get her into bed. Now, that setup alone sounds awful. But what follows is actually tragic. No matter how hard he tries (and she’s DEFINITELY trying while riding him), he can’t have sex because the pain is too much. It’s a realization that he can’t live his life normally. It’s powerful and depressing at the same time…and maybe funny in a “dark comedy” sort of way.

As the film progresses, we see Adam, who’s been trying to be independent, become more emotional as his disease gets worse. In trying to beat death by simply living, he realizes just how open he needs to be to everyone who loves him and let them help him. It’s there that we as an audience realize that cancer doesn’t just affect the patient but those around him.

I love “50/50.” This is a blend of comedy and drama done exactly right. And I will say it again–it’s one of the best dramedies I’ve ever seen.


The Hangover Part II (2011)

10 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Hangover Part II” is an example of Sequel B.O. (Box Office) Laziness—a classic case of a lazy attempt to cash in on the success of an unexpected box-office smash hit. The result is an obviously-rushed, overdone, and unbelievably lazy sequel that insults those who loved the original a couple years ago, and it also relates to the other version of “B.O.” And because it’s supposed to be a comedy, you can add “painfully unfunny” in there as well.

Don’t let the “Part II” in the title fool you—this is about as much of a continuation from the original story as “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” There is hardly an attempt to make any much of a difference this time around—the narrative structure is copied situation by situation, and it’s supposed to be “different” because the locations and McGuffins are different. News flash, guys—that doesn’t work! Continue the story! Don’t tell it again—we’ve seen it already!

Oh, and if there’s one good thing that can be said about everything in this sequel being traced back to many events in the original film, it’s that it serves as a guide for how much worse the original could have been.

“The Hangover,” released summer 2009, was a unique, clever spin on the “what-happens-in-Vegas” concept, in that it turned the outcome of the partying events of Las Vegas into a murder-mystery as the bachelor-partyers have many questions to find answers to, including where is the groom. It did not need a sequel. It had a great deal of spontaneity and surprise that made it all the more hilarious when we didn’t know what was coming and laughed at the results. And because the same narrative structure of that film is copied in “Part II,” there really is no surprise; we can see the jokes coming miles ahead. So when you’re not laughing at a comedy, you just sit there, feeling depressed. And that’s exactly how I felt when watching “The Hangover Part II.”

What do I mean by a lack of creativity that director Todd Phillips and his replacement writers (yes, “replacement” writers—how ‘bout that) convey onto “Part II?” Consider the opening. We see a wedding being prepared. There’s just one thing missing: the groom. The bride and her family calls the groom and his friends who are not there. And then, who should call?

If you guessed “Phil,” congratulations! You’ve earned the right to request a review for me to write!

Yes, Phil, the Bradley Cooper character in both films, calls, saying that there may not be a wedding. But wait! It’s different, you see, because it’s not the groom that’s missing—it’s the bride’s brother! And Phil actually acknowledges that “it happened again.” I don’t know if you can get the deadpan sarcasm when I say, “Wow. How different.”

And then, wouldn’t you know it—the film shows the opening-credits and we flash to before that call, setting up what will happen in this film. And don’t just think it’s that opening that is copied or that that is the only time we will ever hear the word “again” in this movie, because this movie loves to follow the same stuff laid out in the original film and apparently likes its characters to say, “it’s happening again!” Anyway, we find that Stu is getting married. Not to Jade, the friendly stripper from the other movie, but to a Thai-American woman, Lauren (Jamie Chung), who has no told backstory in how these two met. You’d think there would be a detailed explanation as to how and why these two are together, seeing as how things seemed to go fine between him and the stripper at the end of the first movie, and also having told off his bitchy girlfriend. But no—we just go with it because…she seems nice. Yeah, there’s no point in overstating this—the women in the “Hangover” movies have little to no personality.

I keep getting sidetracked here, and I haven’t even gotten to the rehashing of the characterizations of the leading men. Well, Ed Helms was Stu, an uptight, nervous dentist who ultimately stands up for himself after everything that’s happened in the first film; Bradley Cooper is Phil, an almost-total a-hole who becomes a little more respectful and learns a few family values; and Zach Galifianakis is Alan, the show-stealer of the original film who is an overgrown man-child who is just glad to have made friends on this trip. Oh, and there’s Justin Bartha as Doug, but he had no personality anyway, and he was only in the original film so he could disappear and be found near the end, so he could get married quickly. So, how are these newly-developed characters now? You won’t believe this—they’re pretty much the same people. Stu is more neurotic than ever; Phil is a huge a-hole (again); and Alan…actually, Alan is a lot worse this time around. This time, instead of a lovable, naïve slob of a man-child—he’s an unbearable, unstable lunatic. At first, I was wondering why Stu, Phil, and Doug were hesitant about inviting Alan to Stu’s wedding, but now, we understand why. Alan is a detestable person this time around. The character has taken a sharp, unpleasant turn, and I wanted to smack him in the face.

Stu’s wedding takes place in Thailand, and the movie substitutes Bangkok for Las Vegas. Wouldn’t you know it—the men party hard, and Stu, Phil, and Alan wake up in a dirty hotel room, having no memory of what happened before. Phil is more or less OK, but Alan is bald (OK fine, I chuckled when Alan checked if his beard was still there) and Stu has a Tyson-esque tattoo on his eye. Where’s Doug? Oh, he’s OK, he’s fine. He’s just back at Lauren’s place, having breakfast.

That’s right—Doug misses out on the action again! I guess we just needed the three-man “wolf-pack” that Alan desperately wanted to bring back. Come to think of it, I think Phillips wanted it back too.

But wait a minute! There’s a monkey in their room! Stu’s future brother-in-law is missing, but his finger is there! And the cackling, obnoxious Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) is there with them…although he can’t explain what happens because after a massive hit of cocaine, he passes out! Oh joy, here we go again on another wild goose chase.

OK, I’m getting really tired writing this review and thinking of certain significant things that happen on this wild goose chase. They run around Bangkok (which is portrayed in a very smug manner, without ever capturing the gravity and true danger of the place) and they have misadventures before the wedding. There you go—that’s basically what happens. If you saw “The Hangover,” “The Hangover Part II” won’t surprise you in how things are going to play out. What’s missing? Jokes, wit, originality, appeal, fun, the freaking point! If you didn’t guess already by this point, I hated the movie and I hated the lack of trying. I don’t care if they moved the “fun” to a different country; freshness is not found in “rehash-art!”

And wouldn’t you know it—“The Hangover Part II” was a box-office success, because apparently all this film needed to do was show up and everyone would come flooding into the theater. Worse yet, it beat out “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which was released on the same day as this sequel, and did not rehash the same old story! If we don’t get a “Kung Fu Panda 3” because of this, I’m blaming Todd Phillips.

The Sitter (2011)

20 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How can I properly describe how bad a comedy “The Sitter” is without saying this first—director David Gordon Green and comic actor Jonah Hill deserve a lot better than this. Actually, I can’t truly blame Hill as he’s doing what he can with a lazily written leading character, and I can’t blame Green for venturing into mainstream comedy after such great indie-small productions as “George Washington” and “Undertow,” and I loved his first mainstream-comedy attempt, “Pineapple Express.” But the problem is there’s nothing to back either of them up, and I can blame Green for at least half of the reasons “The Sitter” fails. It’s not as horrid as his previous comedy “Your Highness,” but that’s very, very faint praise indeed.

I hated this movie as much as any other terrible, unfocused, unintelligent R-rated raunchy comedy that tries so hard to be crude and vulgar for any kind of laugh and mostly falls down dead. (And yes, “Your Highness” falls into that category as well.) Listen—everyone, even the younger characters, are spewing the worst profanities because they love hearing them! Look—there’s a visual that is definitely not pleasant to look at (depending who you are)! Check it out—whatever amusing bit you can find in such an inept piece of garbage is already in the 2-minute redband trailer online! And no I am not going to say this shamelessly rips off “Adventures in Babysitting” and made it R-rated, because I wonder if the writers had even seen that movie. I say that because whether you like “Adventures in Babysitting” or not, it was hard to deny the fun and lightheartedness that was much like a “Ferris Bueller” cousin of a comedy—and “The Sitter” is joyless, tasteless, and worst of all, “laughless.”

Jonah Hill stars as Noah, an ordinary, 20something nice guy with hardly a sense of ambition to him. He’s not confident, he lets his “girlfriend,” Marisa (Ari Graynor), push him around, he lives with his mother, he vegetates in front of the TV, he doesn’t have a job, and blah blah blah he’ll wind up a changed man by the end of the movie, because that’s usually how this works. To make a little money while his mother isn’t able to babysit for a neighbor, he agrees to take the babysitting task himself, taking charge of three kids: neurotic 13-year-old Slater (Max Records), the little girl with too much fashion/makeup on the mind and on the face, Blithe (Landry Bender), and the adopted Hispanic pyromaniac Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) who has a love for fireworks and a tendency to cause mayhem wherever he can. The job isn’t much, as Noah and the kids don’t get off to a good start, and then Marisa calls Noah, asking him to come to the city and pick up some cocaine from her drug-dealer friend, Karl (Sam Rockwell). In exchange, she’ll have sex with him. So being the irresponsible “nice guy” that he is, he brings along his three charges, and wouldn’t you know it—they run into all sorts of misadventures, all of predictable and unfunny.

Actually, I take it back—some of it is not predictable, necessarily. But a lot of it is so weird and deranged and uneven that you wouldn’t care if it was actually predictable, as long as it was funny. And it’s not. It’s just not. OK, I get it already—the Hispanic kid likes to explode toilets with cherry-bombs; why is this funny? Why is it repeated? Oh right, so he can use this need to save the day. Then there’s the Rockwell character (and to be fair, it looks like Rockwell is really trying here) who has an odd hideout with a bunch of bare-chested men skating and dancing to “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”—OK, it’s weird, I’ll grant it that, but it doesn’t pay off. And there are a lot of pedophile jokes for uncomfortable misunderstandings an uneasy conversation about whether or not Slater is actually gay. And then when “The Sitter” stops for drama, it’s the cheesiest load of trite. We’ve seen this all before—first the kids hate Noah, then they realize that Wait a minute! They actually like this guy! This is a PG movie (PG-13 at best) with an R-rated mentality—insipid.

Where’s a blues bar when you need these kids to fall into such and just have a good time?

There’s one laugh I got from this movie and it occurred during the end-credits, if you can believe it. As the credits roll, we’re given information about what happened to these characters after all this madness—I have to admit, I laughed at the fate of Karl’s henchman.

David Gordon Green has made many good movies before, but 2011 was not a good year for him. His two films released that year—“Your Highness” and “The Sitter”—are deplorable messes. He has shown with “Pineapple Express” that he is capable of directing a mainstream comedy, but all I can say is this—Please, man! You made “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” and “Snow Angels!” I know you wanted a mainstream crowd to see your work! Now that you’ve made “Pineapple Express” and everyone knows your name, give them something else to respect you for!

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011)

1 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Remember how in “Scream” teenagers had seen “Halloween” and thus took it as a crash course in how to survive a horror movie? Well, the college students in “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” have obviously seen “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and maybe “Deliverance,” and take what they can to survive a similar scenario…and yet they still die in many horrific ways!

Here’s the setup—a group of obnoxious college students (all of which you’d like to see get slaughtered by a psychotic hillbilly soon) go on a camping trip in the middle of nowhere. Along the way, they receive glares from passing rednecks in a pickup truck, and also encounter them again at the obligatory Wrong Gas Station—that rundown old gas station that looks like a regular end-of-the-line shack. Of course, those two same “hillbillies” are staying in a cabin near their campsite (which is also where a certain Memorial Day Massacre took place, wouldn’t you know it), and they happen to show up when one of the girls goes skinny-dipping. Their appearance frightens her, as she gets into an accident after which the two take her away.

To be sure, the two guys—Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine)—are not the psychotic hillbillies that serve as antagonists for this kind of movie. They’re just two dim-witted buddies who only hope to enjoy a fishing trip at Tucker’s cottage in the woods (though it really doesn’t help that the interior of the cabin makes the place look haunted and also has newspaper clippings of the infamous massacre reported). They’re only out there near the college kids’ camp because they were fishing, and Dale happened to see the beautiful young woman and became infatuated. When she has her accident, they rescue her and bring her unconscious back to the cabin. Meanwhile, the other kids, led by Chad (Jesse Moss), believe that she was kidnapped and because they’ve seen too many movies about psychotic mountain men, they…decide to fend for themselves and try and get her back instead of going straight for the police…


The girl, Allison (Katrina Bowden), quickly realizes that she isn’t in any danger from these two men, and even spends some time with Dale. They play board games together and talk with one another and start to hit it off pretty well. But that doesn’t make the others understand the situation as they race to “rescue” her. But the problem is (and this is a running joke), every time they attempt to make a move, they accidentally wind up killing themselves in horrifically tragic ways!

Many young people die in the most hilariously unintentional ways, but mind you, they’re the most gruesome ways as well. (I won’t even mention the woodchipper, but let’s just say that “Fargo” made it look dignified.) And thankfully, this is the first “slasher-movie” (if you will) in which you actually get your wish about the character you wish would die dies. They are not likable, and they are very obnoxious, but they are supposed to be that way. They are the butt of the running joke. And while the running joke is violent, it is still funny because of the clichés that they try to avoid and yet come back to, leading to their deaths.

Tucker and Dale are pretty likable, and are played with a great Laurel-and-Hardy rapport by Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine. The pudgy Labine, in particular, has a puppy-dog likeability that you can’t help but sympathize with this guy. And that’s also why Katrina Bowden, as Allison, is appealing as well—she sees through the bullcrap that her friends always think they see.

Just remember this little message, you dumb college-student losers who decide to go camping in the middle of nowhere, where a “redneck’s” cabin happens to be…for whatever reason you would choose that location. “Hillbillies” are people too.

The Help (2011)

20 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I review “The Help,” I should probably state that I did not want to see it. I saw the trailer and assumed it was another one of those heavy-handed movies that reminds us “racism and prejudice are bad.” Then I was astonished to see that it was nominated for quite a few Academy Awards, including Best Picture. This was the year I made the vow to watch all of the Best Picture nominees. So, a friend lent me the film’s Blu-Ray disc that she owned and I decided to just sit down, prepare for what’s to come, and hope for surprises.

Well, truth be told, there are very little surprises in “The Help,” save for some great performances. But when the story works, I accept the film for what it is. I liked “The Help”—a lot more than I imagined. The wonderful acting, well-developed characters, and involving story drew me in. Is it telling me what I haven’t heard before? No. But I was still quite moved.

“The Help” is a feel-good tale, based on a best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett (unread by me, however). It presents itself as the story of African-American housemaids in the South, and how they enabled a young white woman to write a book about them.

It takes place in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, where slavery isn’t far off from house caring. The white women who live there hire black women to raise their children and tend to their houses, while also ruling over them with arrogant attitudes. One maid—named Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis)—worries that the little girl she cares for is going to turn out to be like her boss, and it seems like the other maids think the same way of the children they care of.

The worst of these overpowering women is the constantly-condescending Hilly Hollbrook (played by a scene-stealing Bryce Dallas Howard), who also seems to be the “leader” of this society. Whatever she does, the others want to do…except for one woman. That woman is named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), and she’s returned home from school. She doesn’t fit in well because she’s not all for the other girls’ snooty attitudes, and sees the maids as individuals, particularly because her mother’s maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) was more of a mother to her than her actual mother (Allison Janney).

Skeeter wants to be a writer and decides to write a book telling the life-stories of the maids. But of course, she needs them from their perspectives. So, she’s able to find two keen participants—Aibileen and her friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer)—to sneak behind their employer’s backs and tell their stories, exposing certain, intriguing secrets in the process. All of the other maids are hesitant about this little project, until they see the confidence in Aibileen and Minny and decide to join in.

This story is told during the Civil Rights Movement and there are notions of violence rising in the backdrop. But mainly, “The Help” tells its story safe and doesn’t veer too far into being uncomfortable. There isn’t a shade of grey to be found here. There is melodrama, along with moments of comedy, tragedy, and triumph—enough to please audiences. It’s easy to see why this film did well with audiences. There’s a nice sense of overcoming for these characters.

I love Emma Stone, but her role is a thankless one and she’s constantly upstaged by the other performers. Aside from Sissy Spacek (who has nice moments as Hilly’s mother), Mary Steenbergen (as Skeeter’s publisher), and Allison Janney (who has more dimensions than expected, as Skeeter’s mother), there are three other actresses who really make impressions. The first is Viola Davis as the maid Aibileen. Davis is so forceful and compelling as this sensible woman who takes a chance and tells her story—it’s an excellent performance. The second is Octavia Spencer as Minny, who has a wonderfully expressive face and a comic wit that works. Minny is the kind of woman who strikes back without thinking of consequences—later in the movie, she strikes back at Hilly for firing her and treating her new employer like slime in a scene that. Uh, don’t ask how she strikes back.

The third, as Minny’s new employer, is Jessica Chastain. Chastain plays a ditzy, white-trash blonde named Celia Foote, who is married to a nice businessman but can’t seem to do much to please him. So she hires Minny to care for the house and cook, while Celia’s husband is at work, so that he’ll think that Celia did it all. Minny knows who she’s really doing this for and also develops a friendship with Celia, while giving her good pieces of advice and explaining why the other women don’t want her around. This leads to a comic scene at a charity event, in which Celia strikes back. I’m sorry for saying so much about the character here when I forgot to mention her in the main story description (her comeuppance doesn’t have much to do with the main story). I should be praising Chastain, as she plays the role. I really love her. Her performance is hilarious, infectious, and sincere. My theory—Jessica Chastain is an angel; she came down to Earth, made up a biography, and decided to act in six or seven movies in the past year to be nominated for an Academy Award.

One character that isn’t as effective is Hilly, mainly because she never comes across as a fully realized character. As played by Bryce Dallas Howard, she’s too much of a cartoonish caricature and only knows two emotions—condescension and shrieking anger.

“The Help” is engaging and at times, very affecting. And while the running time is 146 minutes, the movie gets better as it goes along. With great acting and a nicely told story, “The Help” is a feel-good movie that works.

The Beaver (2011)

18 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

With an odd title, a bizarre premise for a screenplay, and a lead actor that, given the news spread about his personal life, wouldn’t seem like a comfortable choice, “The Beaver” wouldn’t seem like anything special or even worth watching, for that matter. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself loving this endearingly earnest drama about a man who uses a beaver puppet as a way of coping with his rock-bottom life and rising to make everything better.

Mel Gibson plays the man, named Walter Black, who is described via opening narration as a man who was a decent family man and a successful businessman working with toys, but has lately found himself to be so bored that he would just neglect everything in his life, including his wife and two sons.

Walter leaves the house. On his first night away, he stops at a hotel and contemplates suicide. But then, he stops himself and realizes that the only one that can save him now is himself. Although, instead of him revealing this to himself, he uses an old beaver hand puppet to speak for him, and to him, strangely. Who is “he?” The Beaver.

As the Cockney-accented Beaver, Walter attempts to get his life back on track. He spends time with his youngest son, makes his wife happy again, and even regains proper control of his toy company. But while this Beaver stuff is cute for a while, his wife starts to question her husband’s sanity and gets more concerned about him.

This is very well-handled and Jodie Foster, as director, has a nice visual style in the way she intersects certain sequences with everyday things to keep scenes interesting. She handles the characters with respect and intelligence and doesn’t talk down on them. Even her own character doesn’t go through all of the usual stuff we’re accustomed to seeing the reactive wife character go through. She’s actually a three-dimensional character, and she does have her limits.

Mel Gibson turns in an admirable performance as Walter Black. With everything that seems to be going on with him, you could say that his Walter is just a reflection of his own lifestyle. If you think that way, it could be unsettling and I can understand that. But separate the art from the artist and you have a deeply effective portrayal of a possible mental case of a man who has hit rock bottom and realizes he’s the only one who get his life back together again.

There’s a subplot involving Walter’s troubled teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) and his relationship with the popular cheerleader/class valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). Norah hires Porter to write her graduation speech for her, and they develop a nice friendship together as they learn more about themselves. You could argue that this has little to no significance to the story involving Walter and the Beaver getting his life back together. But there are two reasons to tolerate it. The first is, there is some significance in that Porter doesn’t want to be like his father and yet his relationship with Norah sort of helps him realize that he can be who he wants to be, and that his father isn’t so bad after all. And the second is, even without the first, Yelchin and Lawrence share nice chemistry. Their scenes together are very sweet—as sweet as the “teenage-relationship subplots” (it should be its own obligatory element) in dramas like “The Ice Storm” and “Snow Angels.” Jennifer Lawrence turns in an excellent performance (when have you ever seen her do a bad job?) as making us feel for Norah, as she has her own skeletons in her closet.

“The Beaver” is a very effective drama, despite the expectations that I’m sure everybody has of it. If you can buy everything in this screenplay and respect the accomplishment that it was given, you’ll be just as pleased as I was.

The Change Up (2011)

12 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Not since “Your Highness” have I felt so unclean from a theatrical gross-out comedy in 2011. To get things straight, I am not against gross-out comedies. I’m only against gross-out comedies that have more “gross-out” than laughs. I mentioned “Your Highness.” That movie was obsessed with making sure that every single joke focused on one of two things—penises and weed. This movie, “The Change-Up,” released a few months later, is obsessed with making sure that when its story gets underway, every single joke is focused also two things—Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds switch bodies, and things get ugly.  

Yes, two people switch bodies in this movie as the main gimmick. This type of comedy has been used a dozen times—some to good use, some to bad. But to my knowledge, this is the first body-switch comedy with an R rating from the MPAA, implying that it’s aimed at adults. Well guess what, guys—there’s a difference between “adult” and “immature.” It’s like saying, Hey guys! Want to see projective poop shoot into Jason Bateman’s mouth as he attempts to change a baby’s diaper? Want to see exposed female breasts just for the sake of nudity rather than exoticism? Want to hear the “F” word repeated over and over and over until you realize it was written just to keep the “R” rating?

I don’t! When I saw that distasteful scene where Batman changes the diaper, I was saying to myself, “Wow, two minutes in, and already, this movie wants me to walk away.”

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself. But here you have it—the R-rated body-switch comedy. As is typical of body-switch comedies, you have to have the introductions to the characters that will the subjects of this change-up—show their jobs, show their homes, show their personalities. To the film’s credit, even in about fourteen minutes, those three are developed easily. We see Jason Bateman as Dave, a good-natured lawyer and a father of three; and Ryan Reynolds as Mitch, a lazy, wisecracking pothead. Since they envy each other’s lives and actually say to each other that one would prefer the other’s life, they get their chance to actually endure each other’s lives. Oh yeah, they make their wish while taking a leak in a public “magic fountain.”

So Dave’s mind is in Mitch’s body and vice versa. Mitch moves in with Dave’s wife (Leslie Mann) and takes over his job, but can’t quite cut it. Dave finds himself in the making of a “light porn” movie and hates how Mitch is now hitting on his wife, but he likes his newly found freedom because Mitch does practically nothing anyway.

OK, there you go with the story. Now for the humor—There are many gross-out gags, like getting a tattoo with Olivia Wilde as Dave’s co-worker (don’t ask where she gets her tattoo), but I just didn’t laugh very much. I mean, a few chuckles here and there, but when you have a gross-out comedy, it’s timing that matters. Not just simple gross-out gags. I felt dirty watching this movie—afterwards, I felt like taking a shower.  

I’m a fan of Jason Bateman’s dry wit that made him popular in TV’s “Arrested Development” and good movies like “Juno,” though I have to admit I have mixed feelings toward Ryan Reynolds—I liked him in “Definitely, Maybe” and in “Adventureland” and thought he was a legitimate good actor in “Buried,” but in many of his other comedies (“Van Wilder,” in particular), he comes off as just bland to me. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see these two imitate each other in this movie in which these two…change up. (Yeah, “The Change-Up” is one of the most generic titles in recent memory.) But the problem is that once these two have switched personalities, there isn’t any promising material. I smiled when these two first acted off each other (as each other), but after a few minutes, it just wore off.

The biggest insult “The Change-Up” has to offer is the forced sentimentality that follows through in the final act. You know what I mean—basic sentiments are given, the guys learn things about themselves and other people they interacted with, and of course the soft music in the background that does the acting for the actual actors. Did the filmmakers forget that it was all followed by stuff like Olivia Wilde’s nudity, Leslie Mann’s intestinal disorder, Reynolds’ porn experience, and more? This has got to be the clumsiest adding-in of sentimentality I’ve ever seen in a comedy. “The Change-Up” goes out of its way to be vulgar and offensive and then it goes for the heart. Unbelievable.

“The Change-Up” had two good comic actors to make the idea work, and anything can be done well (see “Vice Versa,” see “Big,” see “Freaky Friday,” I could go on with a few others, I think). But the actors needed better material and the audience needed a break.

P.S. I just looked up body-switch movies and there are two others I can recommend, aside from the three I’ve already mentioned—“Peggy Sue Got Married,” starring Kathleen Turner; “Chances Are,” starring Robert Downey Jr.; and I kinda liked “17 Again,” starring Zac Efron. Oh, I should also mention “Being John Malkovich,” in which John Cusack became…John Malkovich.

The Descendants (2011)

10 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Descendants” is the latest from writer-director Alexander Payne. Payne specializes in bizarre comedy (read “Election,” read “Sideways”). How bizarre? Well, bizarre enough to make you question whether it should be labeled as a comedy. I’ve met a lot of people who saw the film and couldn’t decide to label it as a comedy or a drama.

To those people, I say this: Well…yeah, doesn’t that go without saying? It’s a comedy-drama. Why are you looking forward into this? Comedy-dramas do exist, or have you forgotten that? “The Descendants” is a comedy-drama. You laugh, you cry. This genre is not new. You’ve seen plenty of TV shows like this too.

Anyway, “The Descendants” goes through comedy and drama. However, it has a consistent tone, along with some great acting and a well-executed script, which makes for a touching and funny film that takes chances and delivers much more than you’d imagine. It’s strange, mind you, as most Alexander Payne productions are, but it’s also very effective.

The film features one of George Clooney’s best performances as Matt King, a lawyer based in Honolulu, Hawaii, whose life is falling apart as his wife Elizabeth is comatose after a boating accident. It’s his job to keep the family together. He starts by trying to keep his youngest daughter, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), out of trouble in school—she behaves inappropriately with other kids. Matt’s other daughter, 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley, from TV’s “The Secret Life of an American Teenager”), is at a boarding school and as Matt finds out when he comes to take her home, she drinks. Matt has never been close to these girls, as he’s usually labeled as the “back-up parent,” but now he has to be the one to tell them that their mother will never wake up from her coma and it states in her living will that the situation requires removing her from life support.

From here, many complications arise. Matt of course has to tell everyone related or acquainted to Elizabeth that she’ll die soon. His father-in-law (Robert Forster) flat-out tells Matt that he should have been a better husband. Alex and Scottie attempt to cope with the situation. Stuff you’d expect from this type of crisis. But there’s more. Alex’s idiot boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) stays over to help out and constantly says or does the wrong things, while possibly stoned (I’m not sure—there’s a line of dialogue indicating that he smokes pot). And Alex breaks the news to Matt that Elizabeth has been cheating on him!

All this happens while Matt and his cousins—including Hugh, played by Beau Bridges—tries to sell acres of land on the island of Kawai in order to open a new resort. Not a good time for Matt.

So…yeah! The “Terms of Endearment” elements have flown out the window since we discover that the woman on the verge of death has pretty much caused trouble even before the accident. Alex recognizes the guy who was sneaking around with her mother, and decides to help her father find him. He’s a real-estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, looking middle-aged) and he’s been cheating on his own wife (Judy Greer) for Matt’s. What Matt is going to say when he finally meets Brian is always in question.

“The Descendants” balances comedy and drama, mostly in an effective way. But it’s not conventional. It deals with the deeper issues realistically. These are realistic people in a realistic crisis that happens to be saddled with all sorts of little twists and turns in the midst of it all. That the film takes place in Hawaii lets the record show that life itself isn’t paradise. Things are just as complicated here as anywhere else. Even the moments that practically force you to weep aren’t conventional either. The dialogue is right, the awkwardness in most scenes is believable, and just about every scene just plays itself out.

George Clooney is very good in this movie—he’s low-key, convincing, and delivers some parts comedy and other parts drama. In that case, he’s equal to the material he’s working with. The young actors are strong, especially Shailene Woodley as the oldest daughter who constantly battles her emotions. Nick Krause as the dumb boyfriend is very funny and actually proves to play a dummy with more dimensions than you might think, as we see in a scene in which Matt and the kid have a little heart-to-heart. He’s not so dumb. Also, Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer do nice work, and Robert Forster is solid in a small but effective role.

“The Descendants” is an odd but wonderful movie. The story had me guessing, I was invested in the characters, there are moments of accurate truth, and it’s probably Alexander Payne’s best work.

Drive (2011)

4 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Is “Drive” a blockbuster? I’m not sure. But it is an action film…or is it? Maybe it’s an action film made for those who usually like blockbusters or action films. There are car chases and a deal of tension, but more importantly, it also has a sense of calmness in its pacing about it and it has characters worth watching.

It’s important for a film like this (or sort of like this) to have an intriguing hero, and “Drive” definitely has one. As played by Ryan Gosling, the lead in “Drive” is a guy simply called the “Driver.” He’s a mysterious auto mechanic who mostly drives—he does car stunts for action movies and drives getaway cars for bank robberies. He says very little and is given little background. This guy is a puzzle. We never know his name and we’re never fully aware of his intentions. We just know that he drives and he has no fear of dying. Ryan Gosling may not be a likely choice for an action hero, but this isn’t a likely choice for an action film. (Excuse me; I’m going back and forth as to whether or not “Drive” is really an action film.)

“Drive” opens spectacularly with a prologue involving a getaway. The Driver provides transportation for some criminals and evades a police chase by timing, swiftness, and possible further-planning, This opening sequence lasts about eight minutes and it’s one of the best paced, thrilling scenes I’ve seen in a long time. That alone could make its own short film, but the rest of the movie is still pretty good.

The plot involves the Driver as his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) gets him a job that will allow him to drive a souped-up car in races. But to pay for the car, he has to turn to a couple of mob thugs, Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). Meanwhile, he befriends his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. In about a week, they grow warm, but then Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison. In a nice twist, the husband isn’t a hostile, enraged, or even jealous man. He thanks the Driver for looking after his wife and kid, but he also asks him for a favor since he sees him as a professional driver. He plans a heist and asks the Driver to provide the getaway vehicle, and this is where the movie goes underway.

The heist doesn’t end well and the dilemma with Bernie and Nino is further developed, putting lives at risk, which include Irene and her son as well as the Driver.

So with the Driver as an intriguing hero, there must also be menacing villains. Bernie and Nino are absolutely (and memorably) ruthless, while Shannon is more benevolent as the man who the Driver needs on his side. They’re all well played by Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston, but if I had to pick the standout, it would have to be Brooks. Because we’re used to seeing Brooks play the sympathetic funny guy, it’s surprising to see just how believable and how effective he is as the refined Bernie, constantly going off on the more loutish Nino and secretly planning his next moves.

The whole movie is presented in a real sense of style. The writing is very smart in making the Driver a sympathetic mystery, the villains consistently ruthless, and the abilities to know when to relax and develop character while also setting up the action. The car scenes are outstanding—there seems to be very little CGI and it looks like real stunt driving happening on the screen. It feels so real as it’s happening, and that further builds up the tension. The final act of the movie isn’t as strong as what followed before. This is more standard action film stuff—it’s when the action kicks up an extra notch, the violence becomes more intense (including a gruesome scene in an elevator), and Gosling and Brooks finally meet for a conclusion for either one of them or both of them. But that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in the final outcome.

There’s a real 1980s-vintage feel to the film, from the pink-colored opening titles to the pumping soundtrack (which features a beautiful-sounding song called “A Real Hero,” by the band College). There’s also symbolism to be found, such as when the color of blood is contrasted the beauty of the palm tree outside a nearby window. The director Nicholas Winding Refn crafts this film with complete seriousness—he takes the characters as seriously as the action scenes. That’s what makes it different from most action films (OK, I’ll call it an action film) and why the final act is interesting, despite my little quibbles with it. “Drive” sets up its characters so we can get to know them so that when the action does kick up an extra notch, it’s effective.

Ryan Gosling, with only mannerisms and facial expressions to work with, is just phenomenal. He makes the Driver a compelling individual to watch—we want to know more about him. He creates a hero that is so shrouded in mystery that it’s very compelling. This isn’t the type of role that Gosling isn’t accustomed to—he winds up owning the screen. His relationship with Carey Mulligan’s Irene and her son is sweet. They say very little, as the Driver hardly engages in small talk, but the mood is there. Mulligan is lovely and innocent in the role and deserves to be secure.

“Drive” is a tense, stylish, wonderfully acted, brilliantly crafted thriller (hey—there’s a better way to describe “Drive!”) that opens masterfully, continues smoothly and icily, and ends chaotically, for better or worse. All in all, this is a very good movie with an intriguing hero, menacing villains, an icy tone, and some real badass driving.