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V/H/S (2012)

27 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “found-footage horror” genre is very hit-and-miss. It’s an excuse for filmmakers to turn out a product with a shoestring budget. Some of them do it well, bringing viewers into the hyper-realism style of execution. Others do it horribly, just using it as an attempt to cover up that they have very little to offer in terms of story, characters, or even scares. “V/H/S” is a found-footage horror anthology that is very hit-and-miss, in that some chapters in the saga are effective while some are…well, not as much.

“V/H/S” tells six stories (each told from a different director), neither of which ties in at all to anything except for the wraparound story which is mostly composed of people watching the other segments anyway. (That’s a clumsy tie-in, but whatever.) The wraparound story (or “Tape 56,” director by Adam Wingard, whose film “The Guest” I really enjoyed) involves a criminal gang (who film their activities for some reason—not a smart idea, guys) as they break into a house in search of a special videotape. While searching, they find a body seated in front of a TV set with a VCR and many unlabeled tapes. So they watch the tapes…

The first tape (“Amateur Night,” directed by David Bruckner) shows three guys out on the town, one of whom has a hidden camera on his glasses with which they hope to make an amateur porn video. They manage to pick up a particularly strange young woman who turns out to be a succubus with a taste for human blood. This is one of the two most effective segments in the series, as well as the most fun. Its ability to hold the action in one shot (from the POV of the character wearing the camera-glasses) is impressive, the ultimate make-up on the succubus in monster/humanoid form is well-done, and the gore was enough to make me wince/cringe (that’s no small feat).

Side-note: This isn’t really an actor’s movie, but the casting for the succubus was very effective. The actress, Hannah Fierman, has a great blend of adorableness and uneasiness (and her wide-eyed stare is unsettling as well).

The next tape (“Second Honeymoon,” from one of this generation’s most promising horror filmmakers, Ti West) shows a couple on their second honeymoon. They film themselves doing silly things, but things get creepy when someone breaks into their hotel room (in a genuinely disturbing scene). This segment is one of the weakest, as it leads to an unsatisfying payoff. A disappointment from West. (OK, not “Cabin Fever 2”-disappointing, but still disappointing.)

The third tape (“Tuesday the 17th,” by Glenn McQuaid) has an interesting idea but isn’t portrayed in an interesting-enough way. It features a group of obnoxious teens exploring some woods which supposedly have a horrific history to them, when it turns out the killer is only able to attack when there’s a camera on him. One girl knows about it and tries to prove it by…filming her friends being killed by this digital slasher. (Not a great plan.) I like the idea of the killer only being seen through the interference in the camera’s viewfinder, but it’s just not enough to be exciting or scary.

The fourth tape (“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” by mumblecore-protégé Joe Swanberg) is my favorite. It’s told entirely through Skype, as a scared woman believes her house is haunted and tries to convince her boyfriend of what’s going on. I won’t reveal the twists here, but I found them chilling and even fascinating.

Finally, we get the final entry (“10/31/98,” by Radio Silence), in which four guys in search of a Halloween party find themselves in a haunted house, where a Satanist ritual seems to be happening. When they realize it’s not a joke and they’re at the wrong party, they find themselves in a terrifying situation. To put it in the best, most positive way, the ending of this segment is the film’s mike-drop.

The wraparound story has its chilling little touches when the film cuts back to it, such as things that weren’t there before but are suddenly there or the other way around. But unfortunately, its resolution is weak at best. In fact, I would barely even call it a “resolution.”

As a whole, “V/H/S” is half-intriguing and half-annoying. Three segments are unnerving and enjoyable in their way, while the other three have their scary moments at times while each of them don’t necessarily satisfy as its own piece. They all barely connect. They just have one thing in common—they were made by promising horror filmmakers who pride themselves in visceral shocks and scares. Not that I would say these short segments show the best of their craftsmanship, but I appreciate the effort given with their limitations of the “found-footage” genre. So, in a way, I would recommend “V/H/S” as a fun thrill ride if you and your friends are bored and feel like checking out an ambitious horror film with good scares to offer. That’s about as high a recommendation as I can give without necessarily letting it slide with a “mixed review.”

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Red Dawn (2012) (revised review)

16 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I hinted in my “Revised Review” of Project X, a film I changed my mind about, that I would re-review another film that I changed my mind about: the 2012 remake of the popular ‘80s action-flick Red Dawn.

It’s strange because in my original review of this movie, I stated I liked it but merely as a fun action-flick. Here’s what I said:

“I understand the film’s flaws. I get it, OK? The war element is defined in an improbable way. The characters aren’t developed enough. The shaky-cam gimmick that they use gets old, as it usually does. The pacing is a bit rushed. The ending feels more like the end of a first-entry in a franchise (which there probably won’t be). I get it. I don’t care. I know that’s weird of me to say, but…I don’t care. I was entertained.”

Well, maybe that’s how I felt when I first saw the movie, but the second time around, I realized I was being played for a sucker.

In the original film, made in 1984, the Soviets invaded a portion of the United States, causing a group of teenagers, dubbed the Wolverines, to fight back as guerillas. With the Soviets no longer a feasible threat, the North Koreans are the villains in this remake, though that’s because originally, it was going to be the Chinese before it was changed when the producers realized they’re too important for this. They try to explain in a prologue why North Koreans would want to invade us, but it’s a little hard to swallow, especially since Americans today are worried about terrorists in the Middle East. I don’t think we have to worry about North Korea as much.

Anyway, the film takes place in Spokane, Washington, the night after a big football game which cocky quarterback Matt Eckert (Josh Peck) accidentally lost for the team due of his arrogance. (Hmm, I smell a foreshadowing arc.) The same night, his older brother, marine Jed (Chris Hemsworth), comes to town. The following morning, the brothers are awoken by the sights and sounds of paratroopers dropping from the sky. Jed and Matt manage to escape the invasion with some other local kids, including Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Daryl (Connor Cruise), Toni (Adrianna Palicki), and Danny (Edwin Hodge), and hide out in the mountains. There, Jed decides to fight back against the invaders after they’ve executed his and Matt’s father. He trains the kids to be soldiers and execute guerilla attacks. They manage to get under the villains’ skin as a threat rather than a nuisance and try to have them eliminated.

Admittedly, the early parts of the film are the only good ones, and the idea of a group of people under attack by an invading force at which point they must become soldiers and fight back still appeals to me. That’s what appealed to me about the original Red Dawn, which I already said in my review wasn’t completely successful but did still stick with me in some ways. (I actually do like the first hour of that film, which I’ve seen more times than the rest of it.) I felt that those kids were portrayed as real, scared kids pushed to the breaking point, but here, the kids are just video-game characters about to make their next move. Aside from about two or three characters, hardly anything stands out about them to make me care.

Of the two actors playing the only characters with some sense of character development, I did like Chris Hemsworth. I think he’s a solid actor and he’s even very strong here. But then there’s Josh Peck. In my original review, I criticized his performance and character who has an ego and a very selfish way about him (which I guess was part of his development) while I also stated “the performance kind of grew on me after a while.” I think I was too kind to him because I didn’t want to dislike the movie on the basis of his character. But man, is he obnoxious here. His mumbling speech and mannerisms grated on me and his character is such a boor. It especially doesn’t help that much of what happens to some of the other characters in this movie is entirely his fault.

Then there’s Adrianne Palicki, who has a nice role as a potential love-interest for Hemsworth. There’s a scene midway through the film where they do share some chemistry together and I would’ve liked for that to keep going, but it’s just another poorly developed element to the film. Meanwhile, actors like Josh Hutcherson are given close to nothing to work with and blend into the background.

Another reason this movie doesn’t work as well is because it has enough potential for a longer film than its hour-and-a-half running time will allow. At best, it feels like a pilot for a TV show with an ambiguous ending. The action isn’t very thrilling either because it’s yet another victim of the “shaky camera” gimmick that tries to make the action exciting but instead leaves audiences aggravated because they can’t see anything very well. And even the story itself is boring, because with the exception of the ending, which I won’t give away, the kids always have the higher ground and manage to get the enemy at the right time almost always.

I can’t say that I think the original “Red Dawn” was a great film or even that good (again, except for a few parts), but it still felt relevant at its time, either as a cheesy action flick kids could relate to or as propaganda stating that everyone should carry heavy artillery in case the Soviets invade. And that’s the point—in the time it was released, everyone felt that a Russian attack was pending. With this remake, released in 2012, we’re in a different place and it’s more of an unplayable video game than anything else. I may have liked it when it came out, but in addition to its appeal lacking after a second viewing, it’s meaningless and unremarkable.

Project X (revised review with spoilers)

13 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are some reviews I wish I could take back if not remove them from the site altogether. There are times when I consider taking them down, but I can’t hide from the truth—I used to feel this way towards that movie and this “revised review” represents how I feel now. I originally did it with Adventureland and War Eagle, Arkansas, finding more things to praise and talk about with those titles. Then I wrote a new review for Jack, which I originally disliked and then liked after a few more viewings. Then, recently, I wrote a new review for Frailty, talking about the ending and why I don’t think it works so much now as I thought I did then. Now, I wonder—which is more embarrassing? Taking back a negative review or a positive one by reversing the feeling?

I don’t know, but I honestly can’t sit here and say that I recommend the Red Dawn remake and “Project X” anymore. It’s time to make a change.

Okay, let’s get through this quick. What’s the story? Three unpopular high-school seniors—Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown)—decide to throw a party at Thomas’ house while his parents are out of town. By throwing a “game-changer,” they believe they’ll make a name for themselves. They have someone follow them around with a camera to document history in the making: a party no one will ever forget. But as the night progresses, things spiral out of control and the party gets even wilder.

Yes, I did give “Project X” three stars in my original review, mainly because at the time, I thought this was a teen film that was going the extra mile in its debauchery and praising the overblown final act, in which the teens’ “game-changing” house party turns into a nightmare that is brought to a stop as a crazy drug dealer attacks the whole neighborhood with a flamethrower. I admit I got a laugh out of the craziness of the event (hell, I even saw it as a teenage horror film when it got to the flamethrower) and I could argue that perhaps I was ready to recommend the film, regardless of how it was made or even what it all meant. But then, I watched it again and the effect was wearing off. I was noticing more parts that were distracting. I knew there were parts of the movie I didn’t like, but watching them again only made the experience worse. The more I thought about it, the less I liked it. And the less I liked it, the more I hated it. So now that I’m writing this review, let’s rip it a new one!

To start off, the setup is preposterous. The party is thrown on Thomas’ birthday to bring out the illusion (brought on by Costa, but I’ll get to that little f*cker later) that it’s Thomas’ birthday party. Why are Thomas’ parents out of town on his birthday? Because it’s their anniversary! A forced setup if ever I heard of one!

Now, let’s get to the craftsmanship. The first-person perspective of the camera filming everything doesn’t work—it cheats a lot, as does a lot of “found-footage” movies recently, adding shots that couldn’t have been filmed from one camera. And aside from the main characters, people hardly address or complain about being filmed wherever they go (even in the boys’ locker room!). And of course, the cameraman (a Goth kid named Dax, played by Dax Flame) has to document everything, so that there will be a nice flowing narrative in editing, which would explain why there’s an extended sequence involving the boys visiting a drug dealer to buy “supplies” for the party and then steal a garden gnome for “decoration.” The garden gnome is smashed during the party and it turns out it was filled with ecstasy, which everyone goes crazy for (and on). But I’m getting ahead of myself—the craftsmanship is awful. When the film switches to the party, where everyone has pocket cameras and cellphones, we get many different perspectives, which results in a lot of unpleasant shots that glorify heavy amounts of debauchery. It’s not fun to watch and it adds to the unpleasantness of the whole experience. It also doesn’t help that it has numerous montages, set to pop songs, of everyone getting wasted and going crazy at the party, which gets tiresome and not amusing in the slightest. This is a problem with having the party take center-stage instead of be a destination: there’s very little that can be done with it. We get the familiar, predictable payoffs such as Dad’s nice car ending up in the pool and not much else. You know you’re in trouble when the “comedic highlights” involve a little person being shoved in an oven before punching guys in the testes and a nagging neighbor punching out a 12-year-old “security guard” after being tazed by him.

Now, let’s get to Costa…oh, Costa. This guy is probably the most obnoxious, annoying, offensive, crude, vulgar, pushy, creepy, insecure teenage douche bag I’ve ever seen in a teen film! In any other film, this would be funny. But here, with his constant spewing of profanities, over-the-top ranting, and homophobic and/or sexist remarks, he is not funny; he’s just repugnant. Eric Cartman, he is not. And it’s all the more depressing when you see that he’s such a negative influence on Thomas. He pushes him to do things such as invite more people to the party, take drugs, get drunk, and even the party is happening because Costa made Thomas do it. He keeps pushing Thomas to take the extra step because he manipulates him into going along with it, always stating he can handle everything when he really can’t. Thomas’ life would be a lot better without him around.

Hell, without Costa around, Thomas would adjust to high-school nicely. He’s friends with a pretty, jocky type named Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton) who Thomas clearly has feelings for (and vice versa). She comes to the party where they have a couple nice little chats and Thomas confides in Costa that he thinks he might have a shot at being with her and he’s falling in love. But then, Costa screws everything up by telling him that he had plenty of chances with Kirby and he should instead take a shot at “getting lucky” with a popular girl who he wouldn’t have had a shot with before. I don’t know if I’m angrier at Costa for his behavior, Thomas for not standing up for himself, or the filmmakers who have no deliberate payoff other than “Costa might be right.”

Even if the writers (one of which is Michael Bacall, who, to be fair, has written some funny movies previously) don’t believe in Costa’s behavior, the movie doesn’t support that notion, as Thomas comes out of his shell and starts acting as everyone else at the party because, for once, he feels popular. The movie never addresses the lack of importance of high-school popularity, especially for a senior. When it’s over, it’s over and the “fame” you felt in the halls is done for.

I’ll get to what I really hate about this after I talk about the “arbitrary climax.”

The arbitrary climax…is still a lot of fun. It’s like an intense zombie film, with the druggie, demanding his gnome back, burning down parts of the neighborhood with a flamethrower and the police trying to stop him (one cop even shoots at his pack, blowing him up), along with everyone running for their lives as houses burn and helicopters drop loads of water onto everybody. The shakiness of the camera adds some intensity to it. That is the only cool part of this movie—I’d be lying if I said I’ve seen another teen film where the party ends in a more epic fashion.

And now, let’s get to the biggest complaint I have with this movie. After all this madness and mayhem, there are no consequences! The kids have made it out alive and they go home to face the music. Are Thomas’ parents angry that he trashed the house, destroyed Dad’s car, and scared the whole neighborhood? Hard to tell, especially since all we get is a scene in which Thomas’ father, who even called Thomas a “loser” in the beginning for behaving nicely and never getting in trouble (what father is this?), actually respects his son for taking chances! I’m not even kidding—they bond over it! This is followed by the next day at school, where their classmates congratulate the three guys for the party, and Thomas manages to convince Kirby to take another chance on him, even though there’s no reason why she should. And then we get the inevitable captions, explaining what happened to everyone after the big night. Thomas and J.B. get into a little trouble, while Costa, the one who started it all and can have everything blamed on him, gets off scot-free! In fact, he even tells a news reporter that he’s planning another party! No one goes through heavy consequences or even learns anything from this experience!

Oh, and here’s a real shot to the movie’s gonads—the druggie survived after being blown up!

Now that I’ve labeled just about everything there is to know about this detestable film, let’s compare this to another “raunchy teen flick”—“Superbad.” Why does that movie work and this one doesn’t? Easy—that movie doesn’t glorify that kind of behavior; this one does. That movie shows its teenage characters learning how important it is to be themselves around their crushes; this movie declares it’s okay to be as harsh and as chauvinistic as possible because it will gain popularity and babes. That movie has likable characters; this one doesn’t. That movie shows the harsh side-effects of partying; this movie doesn’t. “Superbad” was about teenagers who thought they had to party hard in order to gain respect, and what they learned was they didn’t have to. That movie was like an anti-partying movie—do you think those guys are going to want to act that way after their crazy night? I don’t. After “Project X,” I have no doubt these kids will find themselves in deeper. They’re doomed.

I may have been way too kind to “Project X” before, but not anymore. This movie just plain sucks.

Bernie (2012)

22 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Bernie” is a quite unusual film. It takes a true story, tells it in both fictional and documental format (so perhaps a docudrama?), and despite the grimness that underlies the tale, is quirky, funny, and strangely sweet. This is a movie about a man who has murdered a person, and because he was so well-liked among his community, hardly anyone believed it and no one wanted him taken away for a life sentence in prison. They love this man, they hated his murder victim, so they hoped he would get off scot-free.

The “Bernie” in the title of Richard Linklater’s droll comedy refers to Bernie Tiede, who was an east Texas “funeral director” (kinder term for “mortician”) who loved everyone in town as much as everyone in town loved him. He was a regular man of the people—always participating in social events, always making friends, always being there for those in grief, and so on. He was even able to make the meanest, most disliked woman in Carthage, Texas—Marjorie Tugent—like him. He was that lovable.

Unfortunately, while Marjorie has been using her late husband’s money to much extent, she is able to make herself more than Bernie could bear. She hires him as her personal assistant, to be there at her beck and call. And Bernie, being the nice pushover, always had to respond, no matter how busy he was or how much he could take from this woman anymore. And before he could take it any longer (and presumably before he could find a shot at gaining some inheritance from her), he picks up an “armadillo gun” and shoots her four times from behind.

For nine months, Bernie hides Marjorie’s body in a meat freezer in her own garage and constantly makes up excuses for her absence. It’s not until her stockbroker shows enough concern to use her estranged family to find out what he suspects. The police find the body and bring Bernie in on a first-degree murder charge. How did the local townspeople react, especially since Bernie actually did confess to the crime? They stick up for him and try to convince the district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, to help get him off. They do believe that Marjorie was too mean to handle and she deserved to die, and Bernie acted in “self-defense.”

Can you believe this? I mean, really, can you? I can see why “Bernie” has been labeled as “a story so unbelievable it must be TRUE.” This really did happen. Bernie Tiede was a real person from Carthage, Texas and he really did have enough respect from many people that no one believed it when he killed this elderly woman. To tell this story would be a difficult task, but luckily, director/co-writer Richard Linklater is a filmmaker who loves to take risks, and with “Bernie,” he has somehow found a way to make the feel of the film light and dark at the same time. I think you need both for telling a story like this, and “Bernie” is able to effectively mix the comedy with the grimness in such a seamless manner that sometimes you laugh but don’t know how to feel about what you’re laughing at, and other times you strangely care about what you’re watching and don’t seem to mind so much about what you find funny. It’s a strange concept, but it works.

And I’ll tell you what else works about “Bernie”—the lead performance from Jack Black as Bernie Tiede himself. This is Jack Black like I’ve never seen him before. He’s restrained, he’s mannered, he’s almost overly mild, which makes him somewhat creepy but oddly endearing, and he just creates this character with everything that hardly anyone would suspect of a typical Jack Black character. This is easily the best performance I’ve seen from Jack Black—he’s given just the right role and is able to pull it off successfully. Even I liked this man Bernie, based on this performance. I didn’t want to see him go to prison!

Shirley MacLaine plays Marjorie, the bitch of a woman who maybe didn’t “deserve” to die, but she was a bitter, mean old woman after all. Matthew McConaughey is Danny Buck Davidson, the D.A. who doesn’t care about how well-liked Bernie as long as he can prove that what he did was so wrong. Other actors play certain parts, like the stockbroker and Marjorie’s “grieving” granddaughter. But everyone else, and this is the weirdest and yet most intriguing part of the framing of this story, is interviewed in a documentary style in the most conventional ways of such a structure, and they are, for the most part, Carthage residents playing themselves. It’s all the more fascinating in that when they talk about Bernie, they really are talking about the actual Bernie Tiede.

“Bernie” is not necessarily a “deep” or “moving” film, depending on how you want to look at it (though maybe you are moved by Black’s portrayal of this man). But it isn’t supposed to be. It’s just an odd, offbeat docu-comedy (yes, that is what I’m calling this movie) about a lovable man who did a hateful deed that no one could ever believe, and it’s the kind of film you’re glad that Linklater would make and that Black could star in. It’s a treasure of a movie.

The Innkeepers (2012)

11 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m convinced now—Ti West is the new king of horror. As he showed with “The House of the Devil” and now “The Innkeepers,” West clearly knows how to build suspense and how to hook audiences and keep them invested from the intriguingly creepy setup to the horrific payoff. West doesn’t go for the easy ways out—he hints early on at what’s going to be seen late in the film, and builds the suspense from that. Thanks to sharp execution and a few effectively helpful gimmicks (letting a shot continue, using open spaces, and such), he’s able to keep us on edge whenever a character appears or walks into a certain position. That’s a pure sign that a horror-film director can earn the trust of horror-film buffs.

West’s “The Innkeepers” also has the fortune of having visible character development. The film is essentially a ghost story that is merely built around these characters, so that more time is spent getting to know them so that we grow to care about them by the time the real horror begins. “The Innkeepers” takes place at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old time hotel in New England that is going out of business, due to lack of customers and modern-day touch. The hotel is seemingly haunted, which fascinates the two people working there on the last weekend before the hotel closes for good. These are Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), who decide to spend their time at the hotel investigating paranormal activity and seeking any sort of sign of a ghostly figure. Luke has already claimed to have seen something, and so Claire wants to make her own encounter. So, she roams around the empty rooms and hallways with an audio-recording device, hoping to see or hear a haunting spirit.

Aside from an annoyed single mother and her little son, the other guests at the hotel are Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), an actress who became a “psychic healer” who claims she is able to make contact with the spirits of the hotel and tries to warn Claire not to mess with what she doesn’t understand, and a decrepit old man (George Riddle) who comes to stay in the Honeymoon Suite because he wants the old memories brought back to him…yeah, how much do you want to bet something is wrong with this character?

“The Innkeepers” gets darker and darker as it goes along. Actually, it’s a little more lighthearted at the beginning, when we’re introduced to the characters of Claire and Luke. We see how they work, how they interact with one another, and it’s a believable “work-relationship” and friendship that maybe one of them wants to see as something more, but the other possibly doesn’t want to complicate things.

Then, the supernatural/paranormal element is introduced, and the tone becomes a little playful, with a certain amount of intrigue adding to the mystery as Claire continues to figure it out and talks with Luke about it. But then later on, it becomes clear that this hotel is haunted and the ghosts are definitely not to be trifled with. Remember, people—ghosts are generally tortured souls with no other ambition than to scare you silly or find some way to harm you.

The “ghost-story” aspect is sort of a by-the-numbers concept, but West makes up for it with atmosphere, great execution, and two particularly fine actors—Sara Paxton and Pat Healy—in the lead roles. One of the great examples of horror-movie filmmaking is that West allows the shot to linger and take its time with each scene, and then builds the suspense from that notion that something might happen. As a result, the audience is on edge throughout, thinking something is going to happen and nervously waiting for it.

Now, of course, when things go really, really wrong near the end of “The Innkeepers,” the characters have to make dumb decisions like go in “that room” or go down “those stairs” instead of—oh I don’t know—get out of that damn hotel because it is clearly haunted! I really wish that wouldn’t have been the case in which characters previously shown as bright and smart make dumb decisions to keep that particular “horror-movie” cliché.

But the amount of atmosphere and the characterization that you don’t find very often in mainstream horror movies are what make “The Innkeepers” chilling and quite memorable and definitely worth recommending. This filmmaker Ti West clearly respects the horror genre and is able to make good, smart horror movies that play with the standard elements and make them his own. After seeing both this and “The House of the Devil,” I have to be honest and say that I’d be interested in seeing his “director’s cut” of “Cabin Fever 2.”

Ruby Sparks (2012)

28 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Ruby Sparks” is like a wake-up call to all hopeless romantics. Those searching for the “perfect one.” Those who ignore the notion that the Honeymoon Stage will end. Those who are only interested in a specific vision of said-“perfect one.” It’s not so easy, and I’m sure many people would agree with me. Relationships take time and practice in order for it to work. Certain problems can either be dealt with or ignored, depending on how much you care for a future with this person.

Take Calvin, the protagonist of the romantic-comedy “Ruby Sparks.” Calvin (Paul Dano) is a twentysomething author whose first novel, which he wrote just after high school, was very successful. But now, he has a bad case of writer’s block, is asocial, lives alone in his apartment with his dog, and has been through a nasty breakup. He’s also a hopeless romantic, hoping to find the “perfect girl” which his married brother, Harry (Chris Messina), says doesn’t exist. One day, his inspiration appears in a dream—a muse in the form of a beautiful woman named Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay for the film). She can’t possibly be real, says Harry. He may be right, but Calvin doesn’t want to believe that. So he decides to write a book about a fictional version of him in a relationship with Ruby. He falls in love with the character of Ruby, as he doesn’t want a real woman—he wants the “perfect woman.”

Then something magical happens. And when I say “magical,” I mean you just go with it, just like with “Groundhog Day” or “Stranger than Fiction.” Ruby has suddenly appeared into Calvin’s home, and also into his life. Calvin at first thinks he’s going crazy and just seeing her as a manifestation of his hope for “the one.” But no—it turns out that other people can see her too. She’s very, very real. She believes she’s real and has all of the personality traits and memories that Calvin has given her, so they’re actually in a relationship together.

But that’s not all. Calvin realizes that he can also change anything about her just by typing on his typewriter. He convinces Harry of this by having her speak fluent French without knowing it. When he realizes this, he finds he can’t help but try it again when he realizes that the relationship between him and Ruby has somewhat turned downhill, as they don’t see eye-to-eye on certain things, she becomes more independent, and he doesn’t see her as the “perfect woman” anymore. So he decides to make a few changes…

I’ve heard of authors falling in love with their characters, but this is ridiculous. And that’s part of the reason I adore this film. “Ruby Sparks” is that rare “magical” look at the creative process, in that the creator is passionate about a creation, in this case an author and a favorite character. What serves as inspiration for a new novel? Maybe a dream that represents a manifestation of something that a person yearns for, hopes for, wants to know more about, etc. Think of how an author must feel having to kill off a favorite character to bring the story to a more dramatic quality and effect. With “Ruby Sparks,” we have Calvin, who creates this character and has this magical event occur in his life that actually brings that character to life. He feels the responsibility to keep the character consistent to his original thoughts. But when she’s real, he can’t deal with it and tries to make things the way they were. But it’s not easy. He could have dealt with certain little issues by talking with Ruby, but instead, he changes her personality. First he makes it as if she’s miserable without him; she’s clingy beyond belief (she won’t even let him go to the bathroom without her). Then he brings her an endless amount of joy; she becomes an annoyance pretty fast. Every change he can make goes very wrong and he can’t seem to fix it. Can it be fixed? Should it even have been trifled with? What are Calvin’s responsibilities as his creator? Does he have the right to twist Ruby’s persona in order to satisfy his desires? The fantasy aspect of “Ruby Sparks” delighted me in the way it mixed romance and the creative process with a magic element. And I love how Kazan’s screenplay never explains how Ruby can exist. I don’t think I needed to know. It’s quite intriguing that way, and I was with it every step of the way. Even when it takes a tragic dark turn (which I might add, is very well-handled) later in the film, I was with it, wondering how it was going to play out.

I’ve always seen Paul Dano as an actor who can either be very solid or very annoying. Here, he’s very likable and identifiable, and his low-key performance makes the story even more effective. This is probably the best work I’ve seen from the actor whose résumé also includes memorable titles such as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood.” Zoe Kazan, Dano’s real-life girlfriend, makes her writing debut and was previously seen in supporting roles in indie films such as “Me and Orson Welles” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” in which she also appeared with Dano. As an actress, she has an ethereal presence and an immense appeal. As a writer, she’s even better, knowing how to keep the narrative flowing, how to restrict myth from reality, and how to develop each character, even the supporting characters who could have been typical romcom walking clichés, but are given much personality and three dimensions.

Speaking of which, the supporting cast is just great. Chris Messina plays the type of role that is usually the wisecracking buddy, but the character is able to give helpful advice that makes sense. Annette Bening is a riot as Calvin’s hippie mother, and Antonio Banderas is even better as her lover; I have to wonder how a movie centering around them would play out. Steve Coogan is a sleazy author. Elliott Gould is a helpful shrink that Calvin turns to when he has writer’s block. The actors add light and color to what could have been thankless roles.

I mentioned before that “Ruby Sparks” does take a dark turn, and indeed it does, once the gravity of this bizarre event fully grabs hold of Calvin. This is a sequence that some viewers are divided upon. They either love it or hate it. As for me, this is the kind of descent into darkness that most romantic comedies don’t have the nerve to take a chance on. Without giving much away, it fits very well with the magic aspect and opens Calvin’s eyes to what he was looking for and what may or may not be real. It’s bleak, but effectively so.

“Ruby Sparks” is quite the unusual romance film. With Kazan’s screenplay and husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (whose previous film was “Little Miss Sunshine”), the aspects of the romantic comedy have been deconstructed into something that seems much like the typical one at first, but then develops into something more and ultimately, much deeper than you might expect. I admire that “Ruby Sparks” took chances in its story and characters, and to me, it pays off in a most refreshing way. I love this film.

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)

27 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I love Rashida Jones. Everything she’s in, I’m always curious about; I’m not going to lie. Jones has a very appealing personality that comes with undeniable talent that mixes wit with sweetness; you can’t help but pay attention to her because when she doesn’t make you laugh, she makes you smile. It’s impossible for me to dislike her. I loved her in “The Office”; she’s very funny in “Parks & Recreation”; and she’s fresh and appealing in comedies such as “I Love You, Man” and “Our Idiot Brother.” I will watch her in just about anything. Sometimes, though, I feel she’s underused, which is why I was delighted to find that she takes the lead role in a script that she co-wrote. That film is the romantic-comedy-drama “Celeste and Jesse Forever.”

As you can tell by the title, Jones plays the “Celeste” in that titular couple. Who’s “Jesse?” Andy Samberg. Right away, I’m hooked—Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg together. I’ve always been a fan of Samberg’s “SNL” work and especially his hilarious, collaborative Lonely Island shorts (and he “killed” as a host on the 2009 MTV Movie Awards), so pairing him with Jones had me curious but also interested. What really surprised me was that Samberg had impressive range as an actor, something I never found in “Hot Rod” or “I Love You, Man” which required him to play broadly comedic roles. Here, he’s pretty good and delivers the type of solid (even subtle) performance the role needs, especially considering…

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself here. I just admire these two comic actors so much that I already liked the film before I even saw it. What do I think of the film itself?

Well first, I’ll just state that it exceeded my expectations by not being a mainstream romantic-comedy with two likable leads and a series of comedic antics and dramatic conflict (we already had “The Five-Year Engagement” for that, I guess). Instead, while it is good-hearted, the film, written by Jones and Will McCormack and directed by Lee Toland Krieger, presents more of a nonconventional look at what happens after the end of a relationship.

The story: Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg) are a likable couple who married young and find themselves at a crossroads now pushing the age of 30. To keep from hating each other, they separate, awaiting divorce, but remain close friends. They still hang out together, laugh at each other’s jokes, and despite the separation, they still live on the same property. They’re still in love with each other, but they won’t admit it. Celeste and Jesse are happy with this friendship, however, although their friends, Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), think it’s weird that these two are still close with one another, despite getting divorced. Celeste states that the reason she wants to divorce him is because Jesse is not the right husband for her, since she is a successful career woman and he is unemployed and a bit of a slacker.

Jesse runs into a woman he shared a one-night stand with, Veronica (Rebecca Dayan). It turns out that she’s pregnant with his baby and he decides to stick with her, meaning that the friendship between him and Celeste is on hold for long periods of time. Once reality sinks in, Celeste realizes that she loves Jesse and wants him back, but she probably can’t get him back. As time goes by, Celeste’s life spins out of control and she finds himself incapable of being the way she was when Jesse was around.

This is not the typical romantic-comedy in which two people meet, fall in love, endure certain problems (usually a villain that gets in the way of things), and they get married. While that is overdone, I think maybe I would have liked to see the meeting of Celeste and Jesse, oddly enough. But to be fair, it’s probably because Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg make such an appealing couple that I would have loved following the story of how they met. The early scenes in which they’re together are wonderful, as the two play off each other perfectly with the right amount of timing. But anyway, instead of the usual romantic-comedy clichés, we have the couple reaching the end of their relationship, long after they were married. This is not a film about how the most important thing is to love and be loved, though it is acknowledged that love is powerful; it’s mainly a case of these two people dealing with the poignancy the regret of this situation. There may be a second chance, there may not. This worked especially well for me, because I never knew from one point to the next what was going to happen, which is unusual because I usually pretend to predict the outcome of a romantic-comedy. I didn’t know if they would get back together or even if they would be happy at all (though to be fair, there is that suspicion that the latter is probable in some way).

The second half of “Celeste and Jesse Forever” shows Celeste as she turns from being a happy, controlled businesswoman to being an out-of-control neurotic—it’s like the indie-cred version of “Bridesmaids,” which also featured a neurotic woman struggling to seek control of her life. This puts Rashida Jones center-screen—a leading role. I’m not even surprised when I realize she’s excellent here. She has great range as an actress, she delivers her lines naturally, and I hope that more screenwriters and directors create another role with her abilities in mind so that she herself doesn’t have to create a character for herself (I mentioned before that she co-wrote the screenplay).

Does everything about “Celeste and Jesse Forever” work? Well, not quite. I found a few things to be distracting, like the subplot involving a teen-queen (played by Emma Roberts) who comes into Celeste’s life, and a few unnecessarily harsh moments that sort of drag. But if I’m going to pick on one supporting character, I should name a few others because they do have their funny moments—Celeste’s gay boss (Elijah Wood), whom I was glad was not portrayed in a broad, stereotypical fashion (in fact, the film even cracks a few jokes at the stereotype the character could have been); Skillz (McCormack), the local pot-dealer; and the newlywed couple played by Graynor and Olsen. I have to be honest and say that I’m generally not a fan of Graynor’s usual airheadedness (sue me; I didn’t find her very charming in “Nick and Noah’s Infinite Playlist”), but I thought she acquitted herself nicely here.

“Celeste and Jesse Forever” has its funny moments, but the laughs come from authenticity rather than forced dirty humor you usually find in romantic-comedies desperate for a laugh. This is a romantic-comedy that seems real and credible, with interesting characters and a genuine feel for both Celeste and Jesse. It may not be “forever” for these two, but maybe they’ll remain “just friends.” (Oh boy, here we go again…)