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Lawless (2012)

18 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Lawless” is a mixed bag. It’s well-made and well-acted, but there seems to be something that’s bringing it down. That “something” is possibly the trying-too-hard syndrome. To make this film about violent and ignorant people a more mainstream project than to be expected from the Weinstein Company doesn’t entire work in the film’s favor. Unfortunately, I can only praise the acting and cinematography, while the rest of the material doesn’t do much to support them.

“Lawless” is a gangster film based on the story of the Bondurant brothers, who sold moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition in the United States. (How much is based on fact, I’m not entirely sure.) The brothers—timid Jack (Shia LaBeouf), tough Forrest (Tom Hardy), and manic Howard (Jason Clarke)—are seen as the best, most prominently respected bootleggers around. They make great moonshine, using their bar for their activities, with help from Forrest’s lover Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) and Jack’s enthusiastic best friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan, “Chronicle”).

Enter Special Agent Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), a slimy, smarmy Chicago federal agent. He’s working with the local sheriff to attempt to shut them down…or at least, that’s what I think he wants to do. I say that because this guy Rakes is such a cartoonishly evil bad guy, which his sadistic persona and oily appearance (he’s ridiculously well-dressed, with his hair slicked back as well) certainly don’t do him justice for. There’s no motive with this guy; no dramatic purpose. This is one of the problems with the movie—a lot of the action scenes ride with this character, the antagonist, and most of them don’t work because they’re not amounting to much, from a dramatic standpoint.

Also, I’m wondering why Rakes wasn’t shot early into the proceedings, but these movies mainly require him to live to see the climax. And speaking of certain/uncertain death, don’t tell me you’re not able to guess the fate of the young, enthusiastic, innocent, jittery Cricket the moment he runs on screen for the first time. Audiences love him, but those who have seen many other movies like this will know that he’s a dead man walking.

The real reason to see “Lawless” is the acting. Aside from Shia LaBeouf providing a likable lead character (proving once again that he can be a credible, appealing actor), Jason Clarke being suitably maniacal, and Gary Oldman in a small role as a Chicago gangster, the real standouts are Tom Hardy as Forrest and Jessica Chastain as Maggie. Hardy is charismatic and delivers a solid, strong screen presence—I can even forgive the strange scene in which his throat is cut open and he lives long enough to crawl to the hospital and be treated, because Hardy makes it believable somehow. Jessica Chastain, whom I’m still convinced is an angel, is as great as expected, and has her sexiest role to date (she’s even topless at one point), playing an exotic dancer from the city who comes to the country to get away from the violence she gets herself into after the brothers mess with Rakes. Guy Pearce…well, he just does what he’s required to do as Rakes.

There is a great deal of violence in “Lawless,” as you’d expect from an American gangster film. Things get pretty vicious, particularly near the end as the battle lines are crossed. Those scenes actually strike the right note of tension that this fable (if you will) requires. But before that, like I said, the action scenes may have the grit, but they don’t bring the interesting moral dilemmas that something like the remake of “True Grit” was able to deliver, by comparison. It’s just set out like this—the illegal bootleggers (innocent, young Jack and tough, heart-of-gold Forrest) are good; the man trying to do the right thing (the over-the-top villainous Rakes) is bad. And there are some gangsters thrown in for measure (notice I didn’t say “good” measure). “Lawless” is not flawless, I’m sad to say.

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Madison County (2012)

30 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Give the five central young people in the horror film “Madison County” credit—at least they don’t take the Obligatory Wrong Turn. Midway through their trip to Madison County in rural Arkansas, they encounter a Mysterious Pickup Truck Driver who asks where they’re going. He responds by giving his own directions. Do they take his advice? Surprisingly, no…but here’s a bigger surprise—they still endure all sorts of slasher-film-type torture nonetheless. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many movies, but that was a refreshing move.

To be sure, “Madison County” is standard stuff. A group of attractive young people embarks on a seemingly harmless trip far from home, and they stop at a practically-dead town, where they encounter the wrong guy who just wants to stalk and kill them. It goes all the way back to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” (You could call this film “The Arkansas Axe Slaughter.”)

But that doesn’t make “Madison County” a bad movie. In fact, I found myself rather enjoying this film. It’s competently made and knows how to satisfy the average horror fan. I was surprised by how much I liked the film—it brought back fond memories of when I was exploring the slasher-movie genre for the first time as a young teenager (and yes, that included watching “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), and how since then (especially now that I’m a film critic) I’ve found some to be acceptable (with some sick, recognizing enjoyment to them) and others to be deplorable (that just feel like an overcoming sickness). The truth is, however, that slasher movies have existed for decades and there’s no sign of stopping anytime soon. But so few of them are as satisfactory as “Madison County.”

The film follows a group of college kids (Colley Bailey, Matt Mercer, Ace Marrero, Joanna Sotomura, and Natalie Scheetz) as they hit the road for a small mountain town called Madison County, Arkansas, in the hopes of interviewing the author of a novel that is based on a legendary murderer named Damien Ewell. One of the kids needs the interview for a class project, and yet he and his buddy bring their girlfriends along with them (with a fifth, the protective older brother of one of the girlfriends, in tow) in the hopes of having a good time. (And let’s face it, it’s also because a standard slasher movie requirement is to have five young, attractive people—not four or six; five! But I digress.)

Once they do make it to Madison County (again, without taking that Obligatory Wrong Turn), they snoop around private property, encounter a strange group of locals at the local diner (including an elderly woman who just seems all too polite), and are warned to turn back before they get into trouble. But wouldn’t you know it—while exploring the woods, trouble does find them. And it’s in the form of a psychotic killer with an axe and a pig-face mask.

I was surprised by how well the first half was set up to prepare us for what the blood hits the fan. It establishes the mystery that the characters are trying to find about, and by doing so, the first half of the film maintains a quiet level of creepiness and eases us into the violence that will occur in the second half, which is composed of the young outsiders racing to survive the predatory Damien. Also, I give the first half credit for setting up the characters in a plausible way, and I found myself liking them as well—they’re not the obnoxious goofballs you see in Eli Roth’s horror films; they’re people you want to root for. This isn’t really an actor’s movie, but the actors playing the five do adequate jobs—in particular, Ace Marrero as the broody, protective “older brother” (mentioned above) adds an unaffected confidence to the role that makes him stand out.

And the film is genuinely scary at times. In particular, there’s a chase between Damien and two young women in the woods, as Damien gets closer and closer to a hiding spot while the woman is too scared to run (and also, give the scene credit for having the other woman make herself a decoy to save the other one). That overly-polite woman at the diner that I mentioned steals every scene she’s in, because you know something just isn’t right with her. And I should also mention the film’s terrific opening scene that shows a young, half-naked, unconscious woman in the back of a moving pickup truck. She wakes up and has no idea where she is, and I’m thinking that I feel her pain. That opening scene got me hooked, and prepared me for what was to follow. (Who that woman was is part of the mystery, by the way.)

“Madison County” is certainly better than most independent slasher movies in recent memory, and most of the credit for that goes to the writer-director, Eric England. He knows that the slasher-horror genre is done to death (so to speak), and doesn’t do a lot to change most of its elements and gimmicks, making it all the more welcome in the way that most of its familiarity works in the film’s favor, in my opinion.

The Five-Year Engagement (2012)

21 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Really? Five years? Eh, whatever. Should be an interesting TEN-year separation. (Hey, there’s a sequel idea! But I digress.)

“The Five-Year Engagement” is a dopey romantic comedy from the guys that brought us “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (director/co-writer Nicholas Stoller, star/co-writer Jason Segel, and producer Judd Apatow), and while it’s not quite up there with that hilarious, heartwarming treasure of a movie, it’s still a nicely-done romantic comedy. This is good in my book (or review), especially compared to the many terrible romcoms that just keep coming to the dismay of us critics, but the general public seems to eat up. Come on, how many sappy novels did Nicholas Sparks write that his film adaptations keep coming every year? But I digress.

Jason Segel and Emily Blunt are an appealing couple and exhibit great chemistry on-screen. They play Tom and Violet, whose story begins just how most romcoms would end—a marriage proposal. In an opening scene, Tom accidentally ruins the surprise for Violet that he has set up for a proposal during a skit, but nevertheless, Violet says “yes” and the movie begins.

But the big question after the OTHER big question is, when’s the big date? Violet tries to plan the perfect wedding, while waiting for a college professorial opening in psychology, and Tom is doing well at work as a chef, a job that might get him a promotion. But soon, things start to spiral downward when Violet’s dream job offer arrives. The job is in Michigan, not in the Bay Area, meaning Tom has to quit his job, relocate with Violet, and start anew. Violet is happy with her new job. But the wedding doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon because of this. As time goes by, Tom starts to become more resentful of Violet’s newly developed success and the continuing engagement seems like it could working its way up to a breakup.

The romcom rulebook states that there must be many concerned family relatives and the best friends who are simply there to provide comic relief. I’m usually very sick of these people because they slow things down and cause the kinds of clichés that I truly cannot stand in romcoms anymore (misunderstandings, revelations, etc.). And while they do slow things down at certain spots, and there is a slight misunderstanding involving Violet and her new boss (Rhys Ifans), they don’t damage the story to the point where it becomes annoying. In particular, we have Tom’s wisecracking best friend Alex (Chris Pratt) and Violet’s sassy sister Suzie (Alison Brie) who meet and married well before Tom and Violet. These two do what their stereotypes have them do, but they still provide laughs. Brie, in particular, has a hilarious imitation of Elmo as she discreetly discusses this “five-year engagement” (yes, the title tells no lie) with Violet in front of her four-year-old daughter. (And Blunt, as wonderful as she is, deserves credit for her equally-funny imitation of the Cookie Monster.)

There are also some funny supporting characters involving Ifans and his psych-study group, which includes Mindy Kaling and Kevin Hart who make the most of their scenes with some very funny one-liners.

One major problem I had with “The Five-Year Engagement” is that it goes on for too long at two hours and four minutes of running time. It especially shows in many scenes that have made their point already and yet are still rolling. You just want to yell “Cut!” at certain points or just wish the editing was tighter.

But what makes “The Five-Year Engagement” worth watching are the performances from Jason Segel and Emily Blunt. Segel has always played a likable, hulking, sometimes-dim guy and he’s just as appealing here. Even when he makes some mistakes (and there are people who even rank him out as stupid), it’s hard not to like him. Emily Blunt is marvelous as always. She’s likable, pretty, funny, and just a fabulous screen presence. I will watch her in anything she acts in.

“The Five-Year Engagement” has just what we want in a romcom—two appealing lead actors and some very funny gags (including one involving a babysitting job and a crossbow). I just wish it was tightened up at least a little bit in the editing process. There’s a very good romantic comedy buried in filler, but it’s better than buried in…well, never mind.

Sinister (2012)

20 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

We have seen many movies with “found-footage” scenarios—“The Blair Witch Project,” “Cloverfield,” “Diary of the Dead,” “District 9,” the “Paranormal Activity” movies, “The Last Exorcism,” “Chronicle,” and “Project X.” It should be its own genre, if it isn’t already. We know what to think of them because when all is said and done, they are movies. But you have to wonder if someone did view these odd scenarios as if they really were found footage. In other words, what if these types of scenarios really were found footage, and not something staged for a production? What would be going through the head of the person who found it? What would he feel? How would he react? Would watching it have any effects on him?

“Sinister” uses that idea to tell a story about a character that grows obsessed and consumed by a mystery. Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” or Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” “Sinister” is mainly about the rules and clues within the mystery, and how it affects the person investigating it as well as how it affects those around him.

But “Sinister” is a horror movie. It has all the aspects of such—darkness, loud noises, a house with a troubled past and a mysterious attic, moaning and groaning, and murders to be investigated. Oh, and there’s also a few odd supernatural symbols and a scary demon-face that appears out of nowhere at appropriate times.

“Sinister” opens in an effectively disturbing way—a Super-8 film that shows the hanging deaths of a family of four, hanging from a tree limb. Soon, we notice that the same tree is in the backyard of the new family moving into this same house. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is an author of crime novels, and he knows that something grisly happened at this location, though he’s forbidden from his supportive wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) to tell her or their two young children anything about it. Ellison is in need of a bestseller, so he decides to look more into what happened here. While searching through the attic, Ellison comes across a box of Super-8 movies. It seems quite harmless, as they’re all labeled as family home-movies, until Ellison decides to watch them.

Ellison discovers that they are snuff films that show families being murdered in various ways—throats slit in bed, multiple drowning in a swimming pool, being run over by a lawn mower, and also that hanging that was seen earlier. Ellison suspects these are all the pattern of a serial killer and decides to investigate further. But then baffling things start to happen—footsteps in the attic, the film projector starting on its own, and then there’s that ghoulish face that appears in one of the films, and also seems to move on a saved still-photograph. And it turns out there’s more than some human serial killer that Ellison is considering.

You know how the characters of horror films seem to make stupid mistakes when it builds up a climactic act? Ellison is no exception, but at least he has a reason for doing what he winds up doing as the film continues. He’s obsessed, intrigued, and even somewhat fascinated by all of this. The more clues he comes across with this, the more captivated he is by this whole situation. But of course, he also gets his family in danger as well with such knowledge. His son is having night terrors, and his daughter is possibly influenced by some sort of supernatural presence related to this.

(However, you do have to wonder where Ellison’s wife draws the line and decides to pack up the kids and leave this man before he digs deeper into this.)

“Sinister” has fun with the horror genre and also tells its story in an intriguing way so that we are learning with the character more and more as the story continues, like how most good thrillers/horror films work. And it also knows how powerful a film image, such as in these Super-8 films, can be. But what makes it more fascinating was that it was co-written, with director Scott Derrickson, by film critic C. Robert Cargill (spill.com). The fact that a film critic wrote this allows for more to be analyzed through repeated viewings. Watching the film a second time on DVD (I saw it on the big screen the first time), there are a few little things I didn’t notice before, but are starting to become clearer now. You can also tell where he got some of his influences as a writer because there is that Hitchcockian element of voyeurism, as we are watching Ellison watching these Super-8 movies that should never have been watched.

I have to come back to the first paragraph. That’s still fascinating, how it was decided “Sinister” should be, with the “found-footage” aspect. I’m very pleased that Cargill and Derrickson decided to go this route and add the elements of mystery and nosiness to it.

“Sinister” is quite an affecting horror film—it truly lives up to its name. It’s unsettling, creepy, well-executed, and like the most iconic horror films (though I’m hoping there isn’t a sequel to this), it has images that you will haunt you for quite a while, whether you like it or not.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

13 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s face it—even if we know that the third and final chapter of a trilogy is somewhat underwhelming compared to the previous movies, we can’t help but see them anyway because we have to see for ourselves what these franchises will end on. This is especially true of the updated “Batman” series by Christopher Nolan, whose “Batman Begins” is brought the Marvel hero Batman to a new darker level, and whose “The Dark Knight” is practically a masterpiece. “The Dark Knight Rises” is the third and concluding chapter in this trilogy and it’s a marvelous, extraordinary, satisfying conclusion to one of the great trilogies in film history.

It’s unbelievable, what Nolan and his crew have not only done to Batman, but also to the superhero genre. Not only are they excellently crafted when skillful filmmaking and top-notch action sequences, they bring heavy doses of conflict and pull off the riskiest move—making the hero an anti-hero. All of that is brought to the nth degree, in that it makes the films the darkest in the genre, and that is why these “Dark Knight” films are so great. They weren’t popcorn films or even lighthearted entertainments—they were deep, rich movies that really made you think about human issues and conflict…and the protagonist just happens to sport a black mask and cape.

“The Dark Knight Rises” picks up eight years after the events in “The Dark Knight.” Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a recluse and his night identity as Batman is no more. If you recall in “The Dark Knight,” the hero-turned-villain Harvey Dent was killed, with only Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) knowing his true deeds. Gotham was led to believe that Dent was the hero all along and that Batman is no longer needed. Eight years later, Bruce Wayne doesn’t leave the east wing of Wayne Manor and is aided by his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), who thinks it’s time for him to live a new life away from Gotham, as it just made him more miserable. Alfred believes that Wayne just wants things to go bad again so he can feel better.

And coincidentally, enter the mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy), sporting a metal breathing mask and carrying a voice that is part Sean Connery, part Darth Vader. He comes from the League of Shadows, once communicated by Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson, making a brief cameo as he reprises his role in the first film). He comes to Gotham to expertly spread chaos, and also to rule it as his own. Who can stop him?

Introduced into the mix is a heroic young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a reluctant deputy (Matthew Modine) who is forced to work that “hothead” cop, and two possible romantic partners for Bruce—one is the sexy, thieving, feisty, not very trustworthy Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) also known as Catwoman, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) who may be able to rescue Wayne Enterprises after Bane’s stock market wipes out Wayne’s finances. I think Wayne has more chemistry with Tate, but then again, he and Catwoman are too busy trying to trust each other to create foreplay (unless that is the foreplay).

But anyway, with help from his new sidekicks and some new gear created by the Q-like Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce Wayne rises again as Batman to assist Gotham in restoring its safety. However, as Catwoman states, there’s a storm coming. Without giving too much away, Bane is surely taking over Gotham and he actually manages to get Batman out of the picture so that he wins. The question is, can the Dark Knight rise again?

Too often do we get the villains attempting to succeed in taking over whatever it is they’re trying to take over. Only in the case of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Bane actually succeeds for the most part. In the middle of the movie, he is able to overrule Gotham and run things along with his followers—mainly prisoners and would-be criminals. (There’s a nice touch having the Scarecrow, played again by Cillian Murphy, being the Judge that sentences mutineers to either exile on thin ice, death by execution, or death by exile.) The city is an absolute hell-on-earth scenario, and only Batman can bring everything back to normal. But how?

As was the case with the previous movies, the action sequences are outstanding. There are scenes of physical violence involving Batman and Bane, and of course Catwoman gets in a few kicks every now and then. But there are also some great chases, with vehicles like the Batmobile, Batplane, and even a Batcycle, most of which come in handy in the sensational action-filled climax. I don’t know how Christopher Nolan is able to take an action sequence and make it look as kick-ass without being overdone, but he always seems to pull it off. I can’t necessarily explain how he does it; marvel at the action here and in his films such as “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” and you’ll see what I mean. I would have loved to see this movie on an IMAX screen—heck, I’d even see it in IMAX 3D if I could!

The Bruce Wayne character is even more conflicted this time around—he’s more heroic, but he’s also more flawed. Not only does he have some major disadvantages that come into place at crucial points in the movie, but also we get more of Bruce’s status as an anti-hero. He’s a hero who could at any point be pushed into joining the dark side, which is why we’re happy that he is our hero and wants to stay our hero. But will he stay that way or will he end up like Harvey Dent, after he realized that being a hero brought nothing to him?

All of the cast members are excellent. Christian Bale is still a solid Bruce Wayne/Batman. Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine are still very game at their reprising roles. The almost-unrecognizable Tom Hardy is a solid villain, though his voice takes getting used to at first. And other newcomers to the trilogy Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are more than welcome.

The ending is just perfect. It hits all the right notes about how to conclude this story of Batman, and that is all I’m going to say about that.

How do I rank “The Dark Knight Rises” along with “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight?” To me, that’s kind of a tough decision to make, as I love all three movies the same. It’s like asking me which fast food chain I like better, when the answer is just unnecessary. I love this movie, it’s absolutely thrilling, and it’s one of my favorite films of 2012.

There’s something else I should bring up, and it’s very important. “The Dark Knight Rises” has a running time of two hours and 44 minutes. It was the fastest two hours and 44 minutes I’ve experienced in a cinema. I was not bored for a minute.

NOTE: I state that the third and final chapters of great movie trilogies are underwhelming only when compared to the previous films. “Return of the Jedi” and “The Godfather Part III” may not be as (I’ll just say it) “perfect” as their predecessors in their own series, but they are still fine films. And look at the Academy Award winning film “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”—need I say more?

Premium Rush (2012)

12 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I have thought about it and no, I don’t recall many action chase movies in which bicycling is the subjective way to go. And now that I think about it, it seems like a nice idea for a thriller—a cat-and-mouse chase, only with the hero chased on a bicycle. And on a busy city street, no less. David Koepp, probably one of the best-known successful screenwriters (scripts on his resume include “Jurassic Park,” “Panic Room,” and the first “Spider-Man”), has taken this idea to the screen for the exciting, well-crafted chase picture “Premium Rush,” which he directed as well as co-wrote.

“Premium Rush” centers on New York City’s daredevil bicycle messengers. The best is Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), fast on his two wheels and smart on the fly. His bike doesn’t have any brakes, because he fears they would cause him to wipe out at some point. But he’s fast—very fast. Fast enough to be cocky and reckless.

Wilee, along with his on-again off-again girlfriend Vanessa (Diana Ramirez) and the awesome Manny (Wole Parks), ride around the city, delivering letters in a hurry for thirty bucks a job. Wilee is asked specifically by Vanessa’s roommate Nima (Jamie Chung) to quickly deliver an envelope to Chinatown, to a person who will make an important call to China. Wilee accepts the job, but is cornered by a crooked cop, Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who politely asks for the envelope. Wilee says no, and Monday cuts the crap and gets rough, leading to Monday chasing Wilee on his bike and trying to overtake with his car. Wilee constantly has the upper hand, but not without suspense of trying to get out of what should be dead ends.

Forget the standard schlock action flicks that use chase scenes to attempt the story going, but instead manage to bore an audience to sleep, and just remember that chases can be fun. With the right amount of pacing, a good dose of tension, and very impressive stunt work, a chase scene can be very exciting to watch. Some movies recall this; others don’t. “Premium Rush” definitely does. There is a good dose of entertaining chase scenes in this movie, and they’re all very effective adrenaline rushes. Aside from the remarkable stunt work (for once, I don’t believe that a lot of CGI was used for this action movie—if they did, I have to admit I was fooled then), the camerawork is extraordinary. As Wilee is racing down the street on his bike, we’re subjected to point-of-view shots, mid-range shots, and above shots. Add that to some nifty editing and we’ve got one hell of an exciting chase picture. Also of note is a fair amount of clever moments, such as when Wilee is sorting out in his mind the exact routes to take as alternatives (if he takes a wrong turn, he’ll get hit by a vehicle—we see visions of the alternatives, some of which are quite amusing). Try doing that when you’re on a time limit.

“Premium Rush” is not all chases, however. There’s enough in this hour-and-a-half-long film to make room for a story involving why this envelope is important, why it needs to be delivered, why this dirty cop wants it so badly, etc. Most of it is told in flashback and intersects with certain parts of the movie we’ve seen before. I have to admit I almost didn’t want to see this flashback at first, since I kind of wanted to keep with the bicycle chase stuff. But as it progressed, I didn’t mind. In fact, I actually found myself caring for what was at stake.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the more reliable actors nowadays, and here he gives a top-notch performance. His character of Wilee is cocky and reckless (sort of like Chris Evans’ beach-bum character in “Cellular,” except he’s a daredevil), but he’s also likable enough for us to root for him. How much real bicycle stunt work Gordon-Levitt was able to do is beyond me, though Gordon-Levitt reportedly needed about 30 stitches after an accident with a taxi. (Stick around for a post-credits shot of the aftermath of the accident.)

And what can I say about Michael Shannon as the dirty cop Monday, other than he is just wonderful in this movie? Shannon is clearly having a lot of fun with his performance, creating a sleazy villain we love to hate. He even provides a lot of the bleakly comedic moments in “Premium Rush.”

There’s not exactly any insight in human nature or depth in much else, but “Premium Rush” isn’t exactly supposed to contain those elements. It just wants to take us on an adventure. This is a fun, exciting, energetic action film that anything but routine.

Red Dawn (2012)

12 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Suspend your disbelief. Sit back and relax…and then next thing you know, you’re on the edge of your seat in the middle of intense action! That is the best way to enjoy “Red Dawn”—at least, that’s how it was for me. Yes, it’s true—I rather enjoyed this modern retelling of the popular 1984 war film (also called “Red Dawn”), while most critics found it to be disposable entertainment. But here’s the obvious wrong element to that phrase—it’s still entertainment in my eyes. With nicely orchestrated action sequences, and a go-for-it style and tone, I found “Red Dawn” to be a suitably energetic action flick.

For those who don’t recall the original 1984 film, it was about a group of high school teenagers who transform into soldiers when their hometown is in the hands of a foreign army. The idea of young people being able to perform great heroic deeds to defend their home and freedom is still a very intriguing idea, and I’m always interested in checking out what the newest movie of such elements has to offer. Earlier this year, I enjoyed the Australian teenage action/adventure “Tomorrow, When the War Began.” Now about eight months later comes “Red Dawn,” the modern remake of the 1984 film of the same name. And I’ll state right now—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. The action was very intense and it kept me interested in what was going to happen. The teenage characters, while not really developed enough, are still likable enough for us to root for them, and they’re played by appealing young actors. The first sights of jets and paratroopers arriving, as seen looking from a suburban front lawn, are chilling and visceral. And I even bought some of the dramatic moments as well.

Instead of the Russians occupying the hometown of our young heroes, and with connections to other parts of America, it’s North Korea that has become our invaders. (Although, it’s said that Russians have helped—and by the way, don’t ask. You shouldn’t care.) They land in Spokane, Washington the morning after a hard-fought high-school football game. The “Wolverines” star player—Matt Eckert (Josh Peck)—has just cost the game, and goes home in misery, while the next morning, he and his visiting older Marine brother Jed (Chris Hemsworth) are awakened by the thud of bombs. They look outside, see the chaos appearing from the sky as enemy troops attack, and get the hell out of dodge, along with a few friends—including Robert (Josh Hutcherson); Daryl (Connor Cruise); Toni (Adrianne Palicki); Danny (Edwin Hodge); Julie (Alyssa Diaz); and Greg (Julian Alcaraz).

The setup is probably the best part of the movie. Introducing these kids as regular teenagers before putting them in this heavy situation was a smart move—in this way, it plays like the regularity of “Friday Night Lights,” with a neatly-cinematographed football game sequence, as well a brief scene involving small-town mingling, that suddenly gets interrupted by a Roland Emmerich/Michael Bay type of invasion. The sequence in which the attack arrives, recalling 9/11 moments, is very well-done and makes for a very forceful action scene in which Jed, Matt, and friends desperately race to escape town before it gets even worse. But did they really have to shake the camera so much?

So with the town in control of the communistic invaders, and most of their parents already killed (and Daryl’s father is the mayor who has no choice but to help the interlopers), Jed takes charge of the small group and ultimately decides to fight. Thankfully, he has military training and so he trains the younger ones to become soldiers as they plan their moves as a guerilla hit-and-run defense force. They use their name—the Wolverines—as a term of rebellion.

Where’s the US Army, you may ask? Well, they help in the background, and the Wolverines do come across a small group of American fighters, led by Lt. Tanner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who can’t believe that a group of small-town teenagers could possibly be the great line of defense they’ve been hearing about. (Hey, it could happen. And who knows—maybe other football team members have decided to rebel as well.)

I mentioned that the pacing of “Red Dawn” was somewhat rushed. I could have used more scenes in which Jed trains these inexperienced kids how to fight, instead of a quick montage, and I also am a bit confused as to whether or not this is a national invasion or a local invasion. I think they explained it, but it was somewhat brief and I wasn’t sure what was happening to the rest of the United States. There’s the supposed evolving of young Robert as he makes his first kill and then has a supposed “change”—we never see enough of that, nor do we know what he’s going through. The storyline is not easy to figure out once the Wolverines have made themselves known, and that’s what made it more fun, as they race about in one combat sequence after another, and finally planning what they hope to be a final blow (which we all know it is not) as they sneak through the local police station that the enemy has taken as their headquarters.

We still have moments among the characters—not much, but they’ll do. Most of which involve Jed and Matt’s sibling rivalry, as Matt is a class-A screwup trying things his way and unwittingly putting the rest of the team in danger (most of which, from earlier, are attempts to rescue his captured girlfriend Erica, played by Isabel Lucas). Then there’s a very brief subplot in which Toni develops a crush on Jed, and wouldn’t you know it—just before they’re about to get intimate, there’s an explosion in the distance.

Chris Hemsworth plays the strong, effective leader type as well as Patrick Swayze did in the original film 28 years ago. Adrianna Palicki could have had more to do, but she makes the most of her underwritten role. The constantly-working young actor Josh Hutcherson is fine, while newcomer Connor Cruise is adequate at best. Josh Peck’s mumbling sort of got annoying, as did his character’s ego, but the performance kind of grew on me after a while.

I guess I’ll also say this about this “Red Dawn” remake (although I get the feeling I’m never going to live down this positive review)—it’s consistently entertaining. It knows it’s a movie and never tries to become reality, unlike the original film which tried too hard to play at both the violent angles and the dramatic elements to the point where it sort of put itself in the “strong first half/lackluster second half” category. Here, “Red Dawn” is a popcorn movie through and through. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s intense—just don’t expect too much in the sense of logic and you won’t be disappointed.

NOTE: Years later, I took back this positive review. Read the Revised Review here.