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

12 Oct

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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

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Avengers (2012)

10 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, here’s a film that made a majority of moviegoers hella hyped and excited…and it would only be the beginning!

Who would’ve thought 2008’s “Iron Man,” as awesome as it was, would lead to one of the greatest movie franchises we could ever ask for? I mean, a lot of people hoped, but lots of movies promised future installments that never came through. This one gave birth to a cinematic universe, which back then was only a mere thought! In the three years that followed, we got “The Incredible Hulk” (which I thought was OK), “Iron Man 2” (meh), “Thor” (fine), and “Captain America: The First Avenger” (decent). It was all leading up to…”The Avengers!”

Needless to say, “The Avengers” made bank…times 10! Because we all had to see what was going to happen! And it was AWESOME!!!

Writer-director Joss Whedon and the studio execs gave us pretty much exactly what we wanted–the heroes we’ve seen in five different movies have come together, first as rivals and ultimately as allies fighting off a mega invasion. Unlike most recent action flicks where the first act is more interesting than the second, the whole film is interesting for different reasons. The first act is reintroducing all of these characters to us and introducing them to each other, and seeing them together is pretty interesting. Tony Stark aka Iron Man is still snarky and cocky. Steve Rogers aka Captain America, now getting used to being in a whole new era he was used to, feels the need to take initiative. And Bruce Banner aka Hulk (played by Mark Ruffalo who took over for Edward Norton) has learned to channel his anger (which Hulk of course represents), but the bickering amongst the others is trying his patience. And then we get the second act…

It’s revealed that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) brought them all together because he knew they wouldn’t get along, but he forgot they all share the same purpose of saving the world, which he’s trying to dominate. (Even Stark states at one point, “Not a great plan.”) Along comes an army of alien beings that come to mess up New York City…and along comes who are now officially The Avengers to mess them up! We get a pretty awesome fight that you would think would be the big climax. But nope! That’s just the beginning. And we’re treated to about 45 minutes of incredible, heart-pumping, hell-yeah action that is never boring and always fun to watch! And of course, as typical for a Whedon production, there are lots of one-liners as well.

I remember seeing this flick in a packed theater, and the audience roared, cheered, and applauded at the part where Hulk throws Loki around like an insignificant rag doll, in easily the most awesome part of the film! The response was so loud that I didn’t even hear until the second time I saw the film that Hulk muttered, “Puny god.”

Yeah, this movie was pretty awesome. But little did we know that this Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t end there. And the movies would get better and better (for the most part)–more questions would be raised, important issues would be discussed, our favorite characters would grow, others would be introduced and developed, and we’d have a whole universe full of fun superhero films (as of now there are *23* MCU movies!). “The Avengers” would be the end of Phase One and the start of something that would be every bit as interesting and fun.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Bernie (2012)

9 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, let’s talk about a Richard Linklater film starring Jack Black! (No, it’s not “School of Rock”–if I were talking about movies from the 2000s…)

Something makes Linklater and Black seem to work surprisingly well together. Seeing “School of Rock” at a young age made me a fan of Black’s, and I honestly think Bernie features Black’s best performance of his career. Both movies were directed by Linklater, and both movies showcase Black’s strengths not just as a skilled funnyman but as a damn good actor.

“Bernie” is based on a true story of a murder that took place in Carthage, Texas. The victim was an 80-year-old widowed millionaire. The murderer: her companion, Bernie Tiede. Because Bernie was so well-liked and a beloved member of the community, no one wanted to believe that he was capable of such a horrid act. And when he confessed to it, hardly anyone wanted him imprisoned! So the DA had to arrange a change of venue so that an impartial jury could hear the case.

I’m not making any of this up! Sometimes, real life is stranger than fiction.

Linklater uses an interesting (and brilliant) technique in telling this story. Instead of telling a straight-up dramatization of these events, he mixes documentary conventions with fictional elements. There are many talking-head interviews with the townspeople, some of whom are played by actors…the others are actual townspeople!

On top of that, it’s a dark comedy about a murder committed by someone no one would have thought to have done it……..I don’t think I need to say that some Carthage locals didn’t take to this film particularly well. The DA (played in the film by Matthew McConaughey) brought up an interesting point: that the victim’s side of the story is ignored in favor of a simpler motivation for Bernie to kill her. I can understand that, but at the same time, this story is based on an article surrounding the incident and on testimonials from those were there when the case was opened. Not everyone can know exactly why Bernie did what he did–they can only speculate that it was because Ms. Nugent, the victim, was possessive and taking advantage of Bernie’s goodwill, while others viewing the film can see possible ulterior motives at hand.

(Nugent’s nephew, btw, speculated that the story “pretty much tells the way it happened.”)

And that is why Jack Black’s performance as Bernie Tiede works wonderfully. At first glance, he seems like your jolly, kind-hearted, Ned Flanders type of friendly neighbor who commits an inexcusable act of violence he can’t take back. But watching it again, with the townspeople’s interviews in mind, it’s interesting to see Black in another light that subtly shows that maybe there was something more on his mind…

And of course, Black wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for this performance. But, of course, he was nominated for an Indie Spirit Award…because of course. (He was also nominated for a Golden Globe, but who cares about those?)

“Bernie” is an intriguing, grisly, entertaining dark comedy from a brilliant director and an even-more-brilliant leading man……….Now let’s talk about what happened AFTER this film’s release. An Austin attorney saw the film, met with the real Bernie Tiede in prison, and reopened the case to address issues not previously mentioned. Bernie was released from his life sentence on bail and had to live with Linklater, who had an open garage apartment at his house in Austin. This led to a controversy amongst the DA and Nugent’s family because there was no future prosecution and a FILM helped a man get out of a life sentence way too early. The DA even finally agreed that Bernie probably deserved a lesser sentence. And then, a couple of years after he was released, Bernie had a resentencing hearing…and Bernie was sentenced to 99 years to life in prison.

Oh, and here’s an…interesting…tidbit………..there’s a scene in Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” in which someone opens a refrigerator and a cat runs out of it. (“Why is there a cat in the fridge?”) Bernie Tiede is credited as “Cat Wrangler”…Bernie Tiede hid Ms. Nugent’s body in a freezer……when you really think about it, that’s all kinds of messed up!!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Les Miserables (2012)

9 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…let me just state that my only exposure to the musical “Les Miserables” is Susan Boyle’s outstanding version of “I Dreamed a Dream” and the 2012 film. Never read the book it was based on, never saw the stage play, never saw any other film adaptations. So, I’m just going to look at the 2012 cinematic version from the director of “The King’s Speech” and…the upcoming “Cats” movie…….OK.

When I first saw this film, I was blown away…despite some inconsistencies.

And after watching it again recently, I was still blown away…despite those same inconsistencies.

The most glaring one of them all is Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. He’s great and powerful…and then he’s too showy and trying too hard. It’s kind of weird how he goes back and forth like that. Sometimes, it’s like his most accomplished acting work (and I see why he was nominated for Best Actor this role)…other times, I think he could’ve been more subtle–it’s times like those when I realize the difference between singing in film and singing in theatre.

I admire the grit and weight that’s given to the story, but there are far too many closeups for us to be fully invested in what the characters are going through. I get why a lot of them were used, but a simpler approach could’ve helped other moments.

The poster child (I mean literal “poster child”–her face was on all of the advertisements for this film) for the story is Cosette, whom Jean Valjean, himself on the run as a fugitive, has to rescue from a life of misery after her mother dies. But she doesn’t do anything. She’s a McGuffin–an object that someone is trying to find and protect, standing for what the French rebels are fighting for. I wouldn’t mind so much except that there’s a far more interesting child, one who is active and assisting the rebels and even sacrifices himself for the cause, is Gavroche–why wasn’t HE the symbol for “Les Miserables”?? What did Cosette do aside from…weep?

And then there’s…Russell Crowe. So many people have criticized his singing voice, and I’m not going to act like I don’t see why. He simply can’t carry the tunes he’s been given. He’s better when he’s calm and/or quiet rather than when he’s loud and bombastic. When his Javert is looking over the treachery he found himself a part of, Crowe’s facial expressions say more than his droning singing voice could ever get across.

What do I like about the film? Well, for one, I love the scale of the production. The film feels BIG. It goes beyond what you would’ve seen on stage and maintains the heart and soul that was meant to be felt. The reason I kept watching this 157-minute long musical is simply because it demanded me to.

The costume design is great and the set design is outstanding, recreating 19th Century France really well.

And then there’s Anne Hathaway as Fantine…wow is she spectacular. It’s probably her most accomplished acting of her career, and of course, her singing is better than expected. Her “I Dreamed a Dream” sequence is fantastic–she has the pipes for it, but more importantly, she has the EMOTION for it. And it’s done in just one take in close-up, allowing the intimacy to add to what’s already being felt in this moment. It’s this scene that undoubtedly won Hathaway the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Oh, and there’s also Helena Bonham Carter & Sacha Baron Cohen as the swindling innkeepers, Eddie Redmayne as the rebel who falls for Cosette, Samantha Barks who of course Redmayne sees as a a friend rather than a lover even though she’s more developed and interesting, and a bunch of other characters that we probably don’t need for the film even though they’re from the stage musical. But…eh. They’re fine. I’m not terribly bored by them, so that counts for something.

OK, so there’s a lot of problems with “Les Miserables 2012″…but I can’t help it. I have a soft spot for it. The stuff that’s good in it are REALLY good, and the parts that aren’t so good aren’t terrible…and at least Russell Crowe is a better singer than Gerard Butler.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

6 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, here’s Colin Trevorrow’s feature debut “Safety Not Guaranteed.”

As soon as I heard the premise, I immediately wanted to see this film. Magazine reporters respond to a Classified ad asking for someone to assist in time-travel. “Must bring your own weapons.” “Safety not guaranteed.” “I have only done this once before.” I’m hooked.

What I got was a delightful quirky comedy about two lost souls who find each other. One is a bitter, depressed, sarcastic–aw screw it, it’s just Aubrey Plaza (either she’s exactly like the characters she’s playing or she’s just that talented). And the other is an awkward oddball charmer who genuinely believes he can travel through time. He’s played by Mark Duplass. (Fun fact: this was my introduction to Duplass–I didn’t know anything about his filmmaking work in “mumblecore”; at the time, I just thought he was a talented no-name actor.) Plaza goes undercover to respond to Duplass’ ad, earn his trust, find out more about him, and see what he’s all about. I mean, he can’t seriously travel through time…can he? He seems so entirely convinced that he has the resources to do so and that all he needs is a partner…and some lasers, which Plaza reluctantly helps him steal. Whether he’s for real or not, the two form a connection together. Soon enough, I forget all about the sci-fi element that may or may not be present and just focus on the chemistry between these two people.

Oh, and there’s also Jake Johnson as Plaza’s wiseass boss and Karan Soni as a shy intern who of course blossoms over this life-changing road trip. I like these two actors, but I don’t think these characters belonged in this movie at all. Johnson’s subplot about reconnecting with an old flame doesn’t fit, because I’m not sure what he’s supposed to have learned after what should have been a lesson in humility. He doesn’t seem to change. It just feels like filler for a longer running time. (And the film overall is 87 minutes long.) And we know why Soni is there–he’s the nerd who comes of age and has the time of his life, thanks to Johnson. My point is Plaza and Duplass don’t need more support unless it’s helping them advance their story. I feel like Johnson and Soni slow it down.

But the stuff involving Plaza and Duplass is so good, that other stuff doesn’t matter that much.

How does it end? I’ll leave that for you to discover, but I will say it gives us what our emotions want to see in this moment. I’ll admit I was a little on the fence about it when I first saw it…but then I read the original ending from the screenplay online. And I gotta tell you, reading it, I didn’t feel a thing! It made me appreciate the cinematic ending a lot more.

Director/co-writer Colin Trevorrow went on to direct “Jurassic World” and was in line to direct “Star Wars Episode IX”…until his next film “The Book of Henry” flopped hard. (Btw, am I the only one who thinks that isn’t fair? Seriously, one bomb and they fire him just like that? Screw the studio system.) BUT there are rumors going around that they are keeping something from Trevorrow’s script in “The Rise of Skywalker”…they better credit him if that’s true. (Look at Wikipedia–his frequent collaborator Derek Connelly is still credited.)

This is generally what happens when a small-budget indie gets the attention of the big boys–small-time directors get their shot at the big time. Look at Jordan Vogt-Roberts (he went from “The Kings of Summer” to “Kong: Skull Island”); look at Jon Watts (“Cop Car” to “Spider-Man: Homecoming”); look at David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” to “Pete’s Dragon”); look at Josh Trank (“Chronicle” to…”Fant4stic”……he was kicked off of “Star Wars IX” too). There are plenty of examples like that; it’s the Hollywood Zeitgeist.

Maybe that’ll happen to me someday…will I turn it down? I say “yes” now because of stories I’ve heard about how the studio system screws people over more often, but I don’t know…

Where was I? Oh yeah, “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Check it out if you haven’t already!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

3 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, when “The Amazing Spider-Man” came out, I loved it. I gave it my highest rating of 4 stars out of 4……I think I overpraised it.

But there’s still much for me to enjoy in the film, so I’ll talk about it here.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” was billed as “The Untold Story.” It was advertised as a darker, grittier cinematic version of Spider-Man, after the lightheartedness of Sam Raimi’s take on the web-slinging Marvel hero.

It turned out to be another origin story, with Peter Parker getting bitten by the radioactive spider, gaining unbelievable abilities, losing his uncle, donning a suit to fight crime, coming across a supervillain to take down, and learning “with great power comes great responsibility”……I didn’t mind. It was done with a different style, like an indie dramedy turned blockbuster, which makes sense considering director Marc Webb’s indie/music-video background. And I was game.

Andrew Garfield is an extremely likable Spider-Man. He’s a pretty good Peter Parker too, like a mumbling, awkward skater-punk…but there’s no way you can make me believe he’s in high school. You could’ve put the character in college and it would’ve been fine. This is just distracting.

The same goes for Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. High school, my ass. But she’s super likable (if there’s an Emma Stone role that isn’t likable, then it’s not worth talking about), and on top of that, she’s wicked smart–not only because she knows how to make an antidote for a super-complex body-changing formula (…I don’t know HOW she knows how to do it, but YOU can’t do it) but also because she picks up on things faster than Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane ever did in three Spider-Man movies. (Thank God!)

What else do I like about the movie? I like watching Peter figure out his powers; I love the chemistry between Peter and Gwen; Martin Sheen is terrific as Uncle Ben; I like that the jock bully Flash is able to lay off Peter after Uncle Ben gets killed; Denis Leary is great as the police captain (and Gwen’s father) who sees Spider-Man as a vigilante threat; I like the scene of Spider-Man making fun of a car thief, showing he’s more of an anti-hero the first time around; I like the rescue scene at the bridge where Peter has to use psychology as well as strength to help a kid in danger; Stan Lee’s gratuitous cameo is awesome; and I like Rhys Ifans as The Lizard…for the first half of the movie.

OK, here we go…what DON’T I like about the movie? I’ve tried to convince myself that The Lizard is a complex villain, but I can’t deny it anymore–his plan makes no sense. How did he go from using his experiment to grow his amputated arm back and getting back at the scientist who threatened to take it all away from him…to using it to turn all of New York City into lizard hybrids? I just can’t wrap my head around it anymore, and I’m usually good at finding b.s. reasons for things in movies I otherwise love.

Sometimes, the fast pace benefits the film, such as when Peter tries getting used to his powers–it lets you feel the anxiety of what he’s going through. Other times, it feels way too rushed to satisfy–for example, how is this kid who’s supposedly poor able to create the web shooters? It made more sense in the other movies when the webs were organic. He’s able to afford to create a suit that looks like a basketball AND super-advanced web shooters? It’s just glanced over; I don’t like that. I also don’t like that the search for Uncle Ben’s killer is disposed of pretty quickly, like Peter forgot all about why he became Spider-Man to begin with.

Oh, and there’s also the prologue flashback with Peter’s parents…I was positive this would be explained in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″……OK, here’s a brief mini-review of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”: When I first saw it, I knew it had problems but I thought it was solid nonetheless…then I saw it again and the problems just became too much for me. I think I’d rather watch “Spider-Man 3” again than watch “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” again.

And I’ll still watch “The Amazing Spider-Man” too again anytime, despite its own problems.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)

1 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

I want to start a new series of mini-review posts celebrating the films of the 2010s that I truly enjoy. I’ll call it Runners Up for the Best Films of 2010s…or maybe just the films of the 2010s that I truly enjoy, like I said.

I’ll start with an indie dramedy from 2012 called “Celeste and Jesse Forever.”

It’s the film that made John Lassester reach out to writers Rashida Jones & Will McCormack to write the screenplay for Toy Story 4…only to have the script rewritten by frequent Pixar writer Andrew Stanton (while Jones and McCormack apparently still share Story credit)…I don’t think I’ll ever understand the studio system.

Anyway, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” is a film about what brings people together in relationships and what pulls them apart. Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are the best of friends, and they love each other very much–they even get married. (In a clever opening, we see the progression of their relationship through a montage of still photographs.) Seems like their love could last forever. But nope. As the story begins, we learn they’re separated–in fact, they’re getting divorced. Though, they’re hardly separated–they still spend a lot of time together, are still great friends, and Jesse even lives in the guest-room garage just a few feet away from the house! They don’t find it weird (in fact, they agree that it makes their relationship stronger)–their friends do, though. When one of them asks Celeste what went wrong, Celeste explains that it’s as simple as just being two different people–Celeste is a very driven businesswoman and Jesse is a slacker. Everything changes when Jesse reunites with an old flame and starts getting serious with her and changing his life around. Celeste feels a new void left behind and decides it’s time to move on and start dating. But it’s not so easy.

There are some things I don’t like about this film. The least of which is sometimes the attempts at shock humor don’t work (other times, it’s very funny). Mostly though, it’s the character of a trashy pop-star played by Emma Roberts–nothing wrong with the actress, it’s just I don’t know why this character is even here. I get that she’s a client of Celeste’s marketing firm and we should get a sense of how Celeste’s job works, but the character is underdeveloped and her interaction with Celeste doesn’t feel nearly as special as the other relationships in the film. There didn’t need to be a whole subplot dedicated to her.

What do I like about the film? There’s a lot I not only like about the film but LOVE about it. For one thing, director Lee Toland Krieger is able to balance a series of tones as one, which is really tricky especially for a “romantic comedy.” (Though, I think I’d call this more of an “anti-romcom,” since it’s less about the meet-cute and more about the break-up.) It’s funny when it needs to be, but more importantly, it’s sweet and heartfelt when it needs to be. It can also be kind of depressing. (After all, Celeste’s character arc is trying to be OK without the man she called her best friend to whom she was married.) One particularly upsetting moment is when Celeste finally snaps at Jesse late in the film, when Jesse finally has his life together, and she asks him the question, “Why didn’t you change for ME?”

Rashida Jones has always been talented, but not many roles have been written the best for her. I think the reason she’s able to portray all kinds of depth in this particular role is that she wrote it herself. Almost as if she thought, “No one’s gonna give me the role I need–I’LL give me the role I need!” And she’s excellent here. And so is Andy Samberg as Jesse, who shows more subtlety than I’d ever expect from one of the funniest people I follow.

And I like the supporting cast as well–I know I picked on Emma Roberts, but there’s also Elijah Wood who scores some laughs as Celeste’s boss/confidant (who wants to be the “saucy-gay-friend” type but Celeste won’t let him play it), Ari Graynor & Eric Christian Olsen who are VERY funny as Celeste and Jesse’s soon-to-be-married friends (though Graynor’s outburst at the beginning is a bit much), Will McCormack (Jones’ co-writer) as consistently-stoned friend “Skillz,” Chris Messina as a guy who keeps trying to hit on Celeste, and Rebecca Dayan as Jesse’s sweet, new girlfriend.

(Oh, and Chris Pine shows up at one point…I don’t know why he was there, but I’m glad for some reason.)

“Celeste and Jesse Forever” is an honest film about how love isn’t everything, as powerful as it may be–and while it’s good when it’s funny, it’s great when it’s bittersweet. And I hope that after the film ended, Celeste took hold of a chance with someone new…someone better than the men we’ve already seen her date.

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.”

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.