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Looking Back on 2010s Films: Argo (2012)

11 Nov

By Tanner Smith

If you’ve followed my Looking Back on 2010s Films series (and it’s OK if you haven’t–I’m mostly doing this because it’s fun, not to gain a large fanbase or anything), you may have noticed I tend to mock the Oscars (mostly in favor of the Indie Spirits). But maybe that’s not fair. The Oscars aren’t the only game in town and when you get down to it, it’s still another group of people who have their own collected opinion about movies they think deserve higher recognition.

With that said, are there any Best Picture Oscar winners on my decade-end top 20?

Well…there’s one. (And there are also two Best Animated Feature winners as well.)

BUT I still would like to write some others for this series, such as “The King’s Speech,” “Birdman,” “Moonlight,” and “Green Book.” And “Argo.”

(And I’ve already written about “The Artist.” That film came SO close to making the list.)

Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is one of the more entertaining thrillers of the decade. It’s thrilling, intriguing, frightening, tense as hell, and overall very interesting to watch. And even though I liked another Best Picture nominee of that year, “Life of Pi,” a little better for different reasons, I still cheered when “Argo” took home the gold. (And “Life of Pi”‘s Ang Lee took home the award for Best Director–not that Affleck was nominated, anyway. Oh yeah, I still remember the controversy about that!)

As time went on, I’ve seen “Argo” more times than “Life of Pi,” so I guess that says something about being careful which film you personally declare “the best” at the time, but how do you know at first?

“Argo” is based on “declassified” true events–a story that was kept a secret for decades: the “Canadian Caper.” US CIA agent Tony Mendez rescued six US diplomats from Tehran, Iran during the Iran hostage crisis, by having them pose as a filmmaking crew who were in Iran for a location scouting. It was a plan so crazy that it actually worked, but not without some suspense along the way. Affleck has already established himself as an accomplished director with gripping thrillers such as “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” and so he was up to the challenge to make this into a film (and he also stars in the film as Tony Mendez).

But of course with such praise from critics and audiences came the inevitable backlash–films that are based on true events always have people coming out about facts that differentiate from fiction. In the film’s climax, it shows higher stakes for the six diplomats than what was probably set up in the real-life situation of escaping from the country. And former President Jimmy Carter, who still liked the film, criticized the Canadian embassy’s minimal involvement in the film, where in actuality, the whole plan was mostly their idea.

Well…OK, fair enough. The main hero for “Argo” could’ve been Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor rather than US CIA agent Tony Mendez. But…eh, let me enjoy what I have. What I have is really damn good already.

It feels like a ’70s political thriller. Everything looks and feels right. The hairstyles. The technology (right down to the box TV sets). Even the vintage Warner Bros. logo that starts the film. And plus, ’70s political thrillers exaggerated a lot of tense situations based on true events as well–“Argo” is just playing by “movie rules.”

It’s also very funny, with Alan Arkin and John Goodman as a movie producer and makeup artist who help Mendez with the ruse of a sci-fi film in pre-production that needs enough exposure make it realistic. Their interaction with Affleck, the dialogue they deliver about what it means to make it in the business, the contrast between what they stand for–all of that is well-done here. Plus, old-school Hollywood always fascinated me, and that’s why these are my favorite scenes in the movie.

Though, I’m sure if the “Argo” film project they talk about was made into an actual film, I’m 75% certain it would have been pretty bad, even for “a $20 million Star Wars rip off.”

What else can I say but…”Argo f**k yourself!”

Looking Back at 2010s Films: West of Memphis (2012)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

If there’s one film that needs to be seen about the well-known West Memphis Three, Amy Berg’s documentary “West of Memphis” would be the best bet because it tells the whole story.

The trilogy of “Paradise Lost” documentaries chronicle the actual events as they go along. And even from the first chronicle, it became clear that these kids did not commit this sick murder of three little boys and that the town was so blinded by hatred and sadness that they had to blame somebody. A trio of teenage boys who wore black and listened to heavy metal were the perfect targets for them, and they spent 18 years in prison as a result. They were only freed as part of a plea bargain.

“West of Memphis” has the advantage of hindsight. It draws a more investigative, closely-examined portrayal of the case, the place, the people involved, the pains, the evidence (or lack thereof), and even how the convicted three men, after spending 18 years in prison, attempt to go on with their lives after finally being released.

This is a deep, sometimes painful examination of a failure in justice that is by far the superior film about the WM3. Seek it out if you haven’t already.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Life of Pi (2012)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

So this is the book they said was “unfilmable”…

The visual style of “Life of Pi” made for a great moviegoing experience for me, seeing it on the big screen and in 3D (I didn’t see this film in IMAX and it was still pretty amazing). Maybe I can’t relive that same experience, but it’s not like the visuals went away when it hit home media, and it’s not like they still can’t be appreciated either.

But style aside, Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is still a pretty memorable film. It’s deep, it’s adventurous, it has a great hook (a young man and a tiger are stranded together on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean), Suraj Sharma is an engaging lead, and the effects used to bring the tiger, “Richard Parker,” to life are nothing short of brilliant.

And of course, it’s still amazing to look at, whether you see it on the big screen or small.

A lot of people have problems with the “revelatory” scene at the end, mainly because there are no visual aids. I personally think it was the right choice to just hear about it, because we can ask ourselves, “Did it really happen like that?”

“Life of Pi” remains to be a great achievement in top-notch effects and narrative storytelling.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Flight (2012)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

I didn’t know much about Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” when I first saw it. I knew it starred Denzel Washington, I knew it involved a plane crash, and more importantly, I knew it was directed by Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away”); I was going to see it regardless!

What I got was…a two-hour movie about Denzel suffering addiction and its terrible effects. But even when it catches me off guard, at the end of the day, it’s a very well-done, disturbingly effective portrait of an otherwise decent man and the damage that occurs from his alcoholism.

What gets the film started is a realistically terrifying sequence in which Denzel’s pilot manages to use his skills to pull off something that not other pilots could’ve pulled off. He loses only a few people in the crash, saving over a hundred others. But it turns out he was intoxicated and high at the time he was flying, raising more questions about what happened and heightening the issue.

From that point on, it’s an uncompromisingly dark picture about how Denzel must stay clean and never look back or face consequences set up for himself long before.

I got so into this story that when it comes to a crucial point in which Denzel mustn’t drink and yet faces temptation involving a hotel refrigerator, I was nervous as to what was going to happen.

And of course, as with any Denzel performance, he’s giving it his all. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, and for good reason.

Also great is Kelly Reilly as a younger woman who is addicted to drugs and has already hit rock-bottom, hoping for a chance of recovery. I was just as invested in her story as I was in Denzel’s.

The film is rarely an upper, but it’s consistently compelling and packs a dramatic punch.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: ParaNorman (2012)

14 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

“ParaNorman” is a fun, well-animated Halloween horror-adventure film…but it’s actually more than that.

It’s another creepy stop-motion animated film, though I wouldn’t confuse it with “Coraline” or “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (both good in their own ways). The plot involves Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) as an odd outcast kid who sees ghosts. One of the ghosts warns him of a witch’s curse that haunts his small hometown. The deceased are brought back as zombies, and Norman, along with four peers, have to race to put them back to rest before the witch returns and destroys everything and everyone in town.

Without giving too much away, it turns out the question as to who the real monsters are is more complicated than it seems. The zombies walk about town, and of course, the townspeople are frightened (and in a funny twist, the feeling becomes mutual when the locals fight back). But as Norman and his friends find out, it’s not the zombies or the witch that’s haunting the town and the characters–instead, it’s the past. Terrible decisions made in the past come back to haunt the town, much of which has to do with refusing to accept the things the majority calls strange and unusual. It’s a tragic story that makes you feel for the characters and become more invested in what’s happening.

It’s not easy to accept a family Halloween film that warns its audience that THEY could become the monsters they fear–and THAT’s why “ParaNorman” deserves to be treasured.

THIS lost Best Animated Feature to “Brave”?!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Sinister (2012)

12 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, “Sinister” is a horror film that features the best kind of jump-scare and the worst kind of jump-scare.

The former occurs when the main character Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) watches one of the sinister snuff films, which features a lawnmower…and suddenly someone is in the lawnmower’s path!

The latter just seems like a lame studio note–the monster, the Bughuul deity, suddenly appears on-screen for one last scare for no good reason other than…Blumhouse Productions wanted one last scare.

(This is not the only time Blumhouse has given us movie endings with cheap jump-scares. They just kept doing it for a while. I think they’ve learned by now not to do it anymore. I mean, would their later films like “Split,” “Get Out,” or ‘The Gift” be any more effective if they all concluded with someone jumping on-screen and shouting “boo”?)

The reason the lawnmower jump-scare worked was because it actually was a legitimate scare. It had appropriate buildup and a scary payoff. It didn’t fake out the audience with a lame joke in which it turned out to be a random noise caused by a friend or a pet or something. (Like a lot of people, I HATE those fakeouts.)

I really like “Sinister.” I like the mystery, I like the looming doom that surrounds the characters, I like Ethan Hawke, and I especially like that it’s co-written by a film critic (C. Robert Cargill of┬áspill.com), someone who respects film audiences.

But there’s one other thing I like about the film, and I cannot believe I neglected to mention him in my original review years ago. My favorite character in the film is Deputy So-And-So, played by James Ransome (who recently starred as Eddie in “It: Chapter Two”). He’s the sheriff’s deputy who helps Hawke’s investigative crime-author character figure just what is going on with these snuff films and this Bughuul figure. He could’ve easily been written as dumb and naive, for comic relief. Instead, while he is starstruck by the author and eager to help him any way he can, he’s very bright, and he even manages to figure out the hidden truths before the author is able to. I don’t think he gets enough credit, even from the author himself who even lists him in his smartphone contacts as “Deputy So-And-So.”

I did see the critically-panned “Sinister 2,” which brings back Deputy So-And-So (no, seriously–he’s the lead character this time, and he’s STILL credited as So-And-So), the only recurring character aside from Bughuul. Unsurprisingly, it disappointed. Maybe I don’t need a sequel. I have “Sinister,” and that’s good enough for me…except for that final jump-scare. (Seriously, f*** off.)

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Hunger Games Movies (2012-2015)

12 Oct

The_Hunger_Games_Mockingjay_Part_1

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, let’s talk about the “Hunger Games” movies!

I read the first two (out of three) books in the “Hunger Games” series by Susanne Collins when I first heard the movies were being made. I skipped the last book, because…well…the second book (“Catching Fire”) didn’t really grab me as much as the first one did.

About a year later, “The Hunger Games,” the movie, was released. I really liked it. I thought it was well-acted with great performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Lenny Kravitz, among others. And I thought it had great social commentary about what we perceive as entertainment, what draws the most attention in times of crisis, what classes find valuable, and so on. Yes, it is very dizzying with its constantly shaky camera movements and the whole purpose of an action film is to actually SHOW the action…but to be fair, I don’t want to see the bloody deaths of children. (Btw, even though they aren’t shown in graphic detail, this movie should’ve gotten an R rating! PG-13, my ass.) I will criticize the heavy amount of closeups and the actual “hunger” of the Hunger Games going ignored, but the shaky-cam? Eh. Doesn’t bother me that much.

Even though I wasn’t entirely sold on the second book, “Catching Fire,” I was still curious to see how that film adaptation would turn out…and to my amazement, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” turned out to be even better than the first movie! (It’s my favorite of the four “Hunger Games” movies.) I don’t know if it was a case of toning the material down while still getting a clear understanding about what made it worth selling to begin with, or if the new director (Francis Lawrence, taking over for Gary Ross) with a different style had something to do with it (I CAN SEE THE ACTION NOW), or whatever. But either way, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had elements of what made “The Hunger Games” compelling and added to it by deepening the themes, broadening the characters, exploring the environment this story is set in, and heading into darker territory. This was like the “Empire Strikes Back” of young-adult book adaptations! And I loved it–and I still hadn’t read “Mockingjay,” the final book, so where was it going to go from there??

They split “Mockingjay” the movie into two parts (because of course they did).

“Part 1” is fine–it still has more of that commentary coming out and giving us more survival techniques for the resistance in this war-driven world, and Jennifer Lawrence carries a great deal of it (of course). But “Part 2” is where things get REAL good. This is the final resolution, the story that’s going to make things right…or are they? We get a lot of tough questions and even tougher answers, and we find ourselves asking, what would WE do if we had the upper hand on our enemies? It’s a lot more thought-provoking than I expected. There isn’t a lot of action in it, but I didn’t need a “Return of the King” type of climax for this series that’s talking to people about hard choices, such as moral uncertainty of war–I just needed something deeper than that. And I got it. And I admired this franchise for taking that risk.

My ranking of the films:
1. Catching Fire
2. Mockingjay Part 2
3. The Hunger Games
4. Mockingjay Part 1