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V/H/S/2 (2013) – V/H/S: Viral (2014)

27 Aug

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V/H/S/2

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As someone who enjoyed the found-footage horror anthology “V/H/S” as more-or-less a “guilty pleasure,” I was curious to see what could be done as a follow-up. Would “V/H/S” be a worthy horror franchise or would it wear out quickly after a desperate cash-grab attempt?

“V/H/S/2” (or “S-V/H/S,” as it was originally called) is about on par with “V/H/S” in that it’s uneven yet enjoyable for the best parts (just enough for me to recommend). There is one big difference, however—“V/H/S/2” has a middle segment that is creepier, more outrageous, and more fun than any of the other segments in either of the two “V/H/S” films. It itself is a terrific horror film worthy of a recommendation.

Once again, the wraparound story for the anthology involves people sneaking into a house and watching unsettling VHS tapes. While I thought the previous film’s connective tissue had some chilling subtle moments, I felt it was weak overall with a lack of clever resolution. But with this one (directed by Simon Barrett), I surprisingly found myself more involved in what was happening, as once again, little things change here and there that had me edgy—the surprise was I thought the twist was actually unique and well-done. My only problem with it is after the characters watch the segments in between. The things they see don’t seem to faze them very much; they just seem to shrug it off and continue to the next one each time.

The first segment (“Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” directed by Adam Wingard) is shown through a man’s ocular implant with a camera. The doctors warn him that the implant is experimental (hence the camera, to see how things go at first). Shortly after he gets it, he starts seeing visions of people who shouldn’t be there. It’s an unsettling, effectively done chiller with an ending that made me look away.

The second segment (“A Ride in the Park,” directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale) is shown mostly from the POV of a Go-Pro attached to a bicyclist’s helmet. The bicyclist is attacked by a zombie and soon becomes one himself. He turns others into zombies and they set off in search for fresh meat. This is a neat twist on the zombie-movie, with enough visceral gore to appease genre fans.

The third segment is the aforementioned best: “Safe Haven,” directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. The narrative here is more intricate than any of the previous segments, and it definitely works as its own short horror film. It involves a news crew getting the scoop on a cult run by an Indonesian deportee (played chillingly by Epy Kusnandar) who promises immortality to his followers. I could tell where this was going as soon as I knew a cult was involved, and it seemed to lead to where I thought it would. But after that, there was still about 15 minutes left to go…and man, I was way off! Would you believe me if I said Kool-Aid was the least of the worries here? This segment has a ton of surprises, neatly horrific developments, and unforgettable additional elements that make it worth recommending for all genre fans, if they can take it.

Unfortunately, after that, we get to the weakest segment in the series: “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” from Jason Eisener (best-known for “Hobo With a Shotgun”). With a goofy fun-sounding title like that, I expected much more than what I got. Maybe it was because nothing could top “Safe Haven,” but I just wasn’t interested in this part at all. It’s fairly straightforward—teens have a sleepover, aliens invade, they try to get away, they get abducted, the end. Oh, and there’s a camera attached to a dog. It might be enjoyable for some, and it may not be fair comparing it to “Safe Haven” after all, but I expected a better end portion than this.

I recommend the film overall, but it really comes down to “Safe Haven.” It’s worth seeing just for its own insanely entertaining bit of craziness.

But then we take a step down in quality and quantity; the ultimate end of a promising horror franchise; the final nail in the coffin…

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V/H/S: Viral

Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“V/H/S: Viral” is not merely bad—it’s obnoxious. With the previous films, you could tell they were labors of love from indie filmmakers having fun with this style of “hyper-realistic” horror. But with this, you can tell it’s a feeble cash-grab attempt. I don’t feel any passion put into this at all, and everyone else seemed to agree with me, as no future “V/H/S” films were planned since this film’s release.

I think what this film is trying to say is that we’re all obsessed with viral videos and many members of our generation are looking to capture the next best online hit. I think (but I’m not sure, as the motivations are muddled at best) that was the intention of the wraparound story to present that message. But the result is so confused and baffling that it’s hard to find the sense in it. Even the ending, which should spell out what it means, left me scratching my head. But on the plus side, it made me feel better to know it was over and I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

From what I could gather, it’s about teens trying to make their own viral videos and weird things happen that endanger their lives…and that’s all I got.

There’s no structure of people finding VHS tapes and watching horrific shorts. It’s just a bunch of random shorts thrown in between this strange supposed-wraparound.

(Just to state up front—I won’t list any names of the directors of these segments. I like to think I’m doing them a favor.)

The first random short is “Dante the Great,” which is about a magician who obtains a mystical cloak that truly is magic and gives him unbelievable power, which goes to his head. His assistant has to confront him and fight him one-on-one and somehow gain the upper hand against his real magic. This actually would be a neat idea and the effects are decent, but its execution is all over the place. Sometimes, it’s shown as a documentary. But then there’s hidden camera footage that no one could have gotten. There’s cheating in “found-footage,” and then there’s this.

The second segment is “Parallel Monsters” is a little better. It has an intriguing concept of a guy unlocking a portal to another dimension and switching places with his counterpart, only to find that it’s not what he expected at all. What he finds is creepy enough and it leads to some effective imagery. But unfortunately, it ends on a disappointing note.

After the passable “Parallel Monsters,” we are then cursed with the most detestable part of the film: “Bonestorm,” about a bunch of loud, rude, crude, vulgar, obnoxious, detestable skateboarders who go to Mexico and fight off a bunch of cult members looking for a sacrifice (I think; it was hard to tell exactly what was happening). This is what got me over the edge, as I facepalmed myself and wondered if it was even worth sitting through the rest of this thing. But I faced it head-on, as painful as it was. “Bonestorm” was such an aggressively bad short. Its shot choices are repetitive and with no style put into it, making it painful to look at—even skateboard videos and video games have more style than this thing.

Even the message of the film makes no sense! I just realized that even though there’s this stupid wraparound story that’s supposed to talk about young people and their obsession with “going viral,” neither of these three segments have ANYTHING to do with that in the slightest! They’re just random shorts trying to recapture that spirit of the previous films and failing miserably. No thought went into this at all. “V/H/S: Viral” is a lazy, badly-done conclusion of a “trilogy” made by people who I would guess didn’t care for what it was going to be as much as how quickly they could turn it in. I hated this movie.

The Dirties: What Does This Underrated Indie Flick Say About Media and Society?

18 Jun

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By Tanner Smith

WARNING: This editorial contains spoilers for the film in question, “The Dirties.”

In 2013, an independent Canadian film called “The Dirties” premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. Since then, filmmaker Kevin Smith helped with distribution by way of his company, Kevin Smith Movie Club, and it has since been released on home media and video-on-demand. Those who have seen it are rather split about it—some say it’s a fresh, compelling take on bullying while others either call it either a self-praising “meta-mockumentary” or an irresponsible look at a risky topic that shouldn’t be touched upon. That topic in question is “school shooting.”

There’s no doubt that whenever those two words are mentioned, people’s minds are at unease. People recall numerous horrifying occurrences in which students were killed by gunmen on campus, which then leads them to wonder why they happened to begin with. The answers from media and society are usually unclear, so people come to their own conclusions, mostly having to do with mental disorders or TV/film violence. “The Dirties” is a controversial film that raises similar questions but also manages to deliver its own interpretation as well.

The film is told through the perspective of a video camera and is about a teenage movie buff named Matt (played by writer-director Matt Johnson) wanting to make his own movie. He buys wireless microphones to use and has someone film him and his best (and only) friend, Owen (Owen Williams), presumably all the time. The movie he wants to make is a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which he and Owen exact revenge on a gang of bullies in their high school, whom they dub The Dirties. When that movie is complete, Matt comes up with an idea to make another movie—a more realistic one in which he actually brings a gun to school and shoots The Dirties. Owen doesn’t take Matt’s idea seriously at first, but he starts to question his sanity when he not only continues to play-act in front of the camera (as if living his own movie), but also has blueprints of the school and has been firing guns for target practice.

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The main character of Matt is trying to become a movie star of his own creation. He’s constantly making film references that no one else understands, tries to become the thing he’s referencing, and as the film goes on, he thinks less of what famous people would do and what he would do, since he has become what he usually references. And thanks to the obscure cameraman (whose identity is never revealed), he’s never alone. This is a modern problem in today’s society, that today’s kids film themselves and act in front of the camera. But Matt, who faces issues of bullying and alienation, actively puts himself on camera 24/7, and so he’s always trying to perform and he can’t seem to break out of it. Even when Owen acknowledges what he’s doing is insane, Matt can’t bring himself back to reality and instead wants to further his own interpretation of reality and continue making his movie.

Owen, meanwhile, would rather try something else than keep making a movie with Matt. He wants acceptance among his peers, which is something Matt clearly quit trying to achieve. He longs for the attention of a girl he likes; he wants to make new friends; he wants to try something new. The biggest turning point in his life is when Matt is so obsessed with his art that he never talks to Owen like a real person anymore and, even scarier, actually seems serious about conducting his own school shooting.

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When looking for someone or something to blame for school shootings, media and society sometimes like to point the finger at violence portrayed in TV and movies, suggesting that watching it can make someone want to commit destruction. But this film shows how that’s actually never the case. What it tries to address is the issue of youth psychology and how it’s never always how we interpret it. According to filmmaker Johnson in an interview with cinema-scope.com, “The news always tells you the story of the kid starting at the last chapter of his or her life: that kid was a loner, or whatever. Which is really irrelevant to what happened. If you actually wanted to know what happened to the kid, you look at the first 200 pages of his life.”

That leads into the film’s ending. Some people complain that the film ends anticlimactically with no clear reasoning or logic. It ends with Matt, after having shot The Dirties in the school hallway and scared away his classmates, finding Owen cowering in a corner. He says, out of breath, “What are you doing? It’s me.” The scene cuts to black, the end credits roll, and that’s the end. But if you really think about it, it ends where the typical news story would start. The news story would start where the tragedy ends, but the film is a representation of what happened beforehand, which no one would want to talk about.

“The Dirties” may be one of the most important films of recent years, delivering a compelling portrait of disaffected youth and a descent into sociopathic behavior. It accurately portrays kids with real issues—being bullied, isolation, moving on, drifting apart, and even at some points, being bullies to each other and eventually to their own bullies. When the promising sociopath feels like a real person, instead of a standard, cold, distant, ruthless, cold-hearted killer, that makes it overall tragic; when a funny, artistic, even empathetic guy is also bullied and more, that can cause him to take drastic measures for vengeance.

“The Dirties” is not merely an unflinching portrayal; it’s also a cautionary tale. The back half of the film is laced with misfortune (albeit with an underlying comic tone, brought on by Matt trying to keep things lighthearted). One scene features Matt telling Owen he thinks he might be a “psychopath”—is this a cry for help or more play-acting? Whatever it is, Owen doesn’t listen. Shortly after, Owen has moved on and become just another face in the halls and another member of society the film specifically criticizes—his mind is elsewhere and he doesn’t see Matt as a friend in distress. So, in a way, it’s Owen, Matt’s best and only friend, who actually drives Matt to do what he ends up doing in the end of the film. As Owen fears for his own life when he sees what Matt has become, Matt doesn’t understand what’s changed and why he can’t see him for what he is, hence the line, “What are you doing? It’s me.” It’s a truly sad moment. We know what’s really going on, but no one else does. Even Matt doesn’t see the trouble in what he’s done.

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It’s a challenging concept when the victim is the one with the gun, at least in this film. Many people who see the film arguably miss the point of it (or they’re too busy questioning the identity of the cameraman), but those who don’t can’t help but wonder: Who’s really to blame for occurrences like this? Are they portrayed the exact opposite way? Etc.

More people should seek out “The Dirties,” which is available on demand. It’s the kind of film that will force them to ask questions and find answers they’re uncomfortable about, and it also emphasizes the importance of reaching out and helping those who need assistance and companionship. If society chooses to ignore or mishear cries for help, even from their own friends, it can lead to damage to themselves and/or others. That’s the theory Johnson tried to portray in “The Dirties,” and it’s hard to argue that it’s far off.

My original review: https://smithsverdict.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/the-dirties-2013/

The Wind Rises (2014)

24 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Visionary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has claimed that “The Wind Rises” is his final film. It’s not the first time he’s made that statement, but this film truly is his last one, it’s a great one to end his extraordinary career with. It showcases the best of his abilities—it’s visually stunning, tells a good story, is beautiful in its own way, and is a truly terrific film. What else should I expect from the man who gave us such animated classics as “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Castle in the Sky,” among others?

Miyazaki wanted to try something different for his swansong, so he apparently decided to add his usual touches to a biography, loosely based on the life of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi who came up with the design of the Japanese Zero fighters, which were used in World War II. From that description alone, you may be thinking this is not a good thing. But the character has no political agenda—he dreams of creating something truly unique and innovative just like his idols. He wants nothing to do with war; he just wants to create.

The film doesn’t have a political agenda either—it’s merely a fable about dreams, creativity, and passion. Though the film doesn’t necessarily ignore the controversies involved, they’re not the central focus. Instead, the central focus is breaking new ground with technology and bringing something incredible to life.

“The Wind Rises” begins in post-WWI days, with Jiro as a teenager (voiced by Zach Callison) who would love to fly but his poor eyesight discourages him. (Even in his dreams, he ends up crashing a plane he’s piloting—a definite bad sign, as flying is one of the most common traits of dreams.) But he is truly fascinated by aircraft and reads up on an Italian aviator (Stanley Tucci), who often visits Jiro in his dreams, and learns that he never actually flies the planes he invents. This inspires Jiro to craft his own designs. As time goes by, Jiro (now voiced as an adult by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) follows his dream by helping to create one plane after another.

One of the best things about “The Wind Rises” is the way it explores the creative process. It takes us into Jiro’s imagination; his dreams and fantasies, in which he mostly converses with his heroes. The film also shows us how little things inspire him—shooting stars, debris being whisked off by the wind, and even something as small as the curve on a fish bone in his lunch inspire his ultimate design. There are realistic dialogue-based scenes in which Jiro talks about his inventions with fellow engineers and others, but for the most part, what we need to know about his passion for creating is told through his dreams and fantasies, which are beautifully realized and, being a Miyazaki film, visually amazing.

And speaking of “visually amazing,” I can’t neglect to talk about the best-animated sequence in the film, which is the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. It’s intense, impactful, and well-drawn, and the aftermath of the earthquake is effectively handled, presenting a dread that would of course come from such a disaster.

In addition to showing Jiro’s work, “The Wind Rises” is also a sweet romance, as Jiro meets Nahoko Satomi (Emily Blunt) years after he assisted her when she was injured in the earthquake. You could say destiny, the wind (which, if you notice, whooshes them toward each other), or both brought them together after they lost track of each other, but they become reacquainted, spend much time together, and eventually get married. But unfortunately, due to her tuberculosis, their relationship is doomed.

The film doesn’t lose sight of the characters, and given its visual inventiveness, that’s no small feat. We enjoy these characters, especially Jiro, whose likeability equals his passion, who we root for when he inventions fail and he constantly has to try again, and who we feel sorry for when people take what he sees as wonderful and original and use it for dangerous, horrible purposes. His goal was never to create a war machine—it was to develop something that no one else had before, even if, in the end, it resulted in the deaths of many, many people. It leads to a haunting, bittersweet ending in which Jiro takes in what his invention has done in the wrong hands—writing about it would decrease the film’s impact and meaning, so I’ll leave you to interpret for yourself what it means.

Disney made a wise choice in having Touchstone present “The Wind Rises” for North American distribution and the MPAA, who I usually mock, I have to give credit for rating it PG-13. It may be animated, but that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for children. The film is very much adult (that is to say, “mature”) in its storytelling and historical content, and I also think the earthquake sequence would be too intense for younger children to take. Miyazaki went out of his way to tell a great story, regardless of his target audience, which really should be those looking for visionary ingenuity. The result is one of the best animated films in recent years. Would this be the end of Miyazaki’s long career? We shall see, but this is a pretty impressive film to go out on—one of his absolute best.

The Dirties (2013)

19 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In “The Dirties,” film-buff/high-school student Matt has been bullied very often, to the point where he decides to turn his plight into art. He and his best (and only) friend, a fellow outcast named Owen, secretly record themselves being bullied, as part of Matt’s revenge-fantasy project for film-class, in which he and Owen act out the murders of their tormentors.

And not only that, but Matt insists that he and Owen are filmed at all times because he has something bigger planned in mind for his next project. He even buys a set of lavalieres so he has no issues with audio. For his next big project, he plans to make a companion piece to the previous film, in which he films himself actually bringing a gun to school and shooting the bullies, because since he suffered for his art, they apparently might as well do the same.

If you’re wondering right away, yes, “The Dirties” is technically another “found-footage” movie, as it’s shown through the camera’s (or multiple cameras’) point(s) of view. Oddly though, the people filming are hardly ever identified. Who is filming all of this? We never know. For all we know, it could more another student or two, or it could be a documentary crew who gave the kids expensive lavalieres and wanted to make a documentary about bullying and being bullied. Then again, maybe the latter isn’t true, since Matt seems to have edited the “film” the way he wanted.

With that strange tidbit aside, “The Dirties” is actually a well-put-together, compelling portrait of disaffected youth and a descent into sociopathic behavior. That a film geek is the main character is even more interesting. Matt (well-played by the writer-director himself, Matt Johnson) loves film, he loves to spew movie quotes, and he loves to play with the camera when he’s filmed, like his life is a movie because it’s better than accepting a normal teenage life in a school environment where he’s picked on constantly. And we hardly even see his parents, so it seems like he has very little support from anyone else other than Owen (Owen Williams), his only friend. And Owen is at the point in his life where he’d rather do something else, like make new friends and get a girlfriend, and he’s slowly but surely breaking away from Matt. The biggest turning point in Owen’s life is when Matt is too obsessed with his art, never talks to Owen like a real person anymore (and instead, as a “character”), and even scarier, actually seems serious about performing a school shooting. Earlier, he may have just assumed Matt was only kidding, but when he sees that Matt has blueprints of the school (and this is after they’ve had target practice, using real guns), there’s hardly a doubt anymore. These are real kids with real issues—issues of being bullied, isolation, moving on, drifting apart, and even some points, being bullies to each other and eventually to their own bullies.

School shootings are such a risky topic to focus on in America, especially in film, and “The Dirties” may be the first one I’ve seen that really dives into what can cause such a horrific event. When the promising sociopath feels like a real person, instead of a standard, cold, distant, ruthless, cold-hearted killer, that makes it overall tragic; when a funny, artistic, even empathetic guy is also bullied and more that can cause him to take drastic measures for revenge.

Even more tragic is that he’s a high-school teenager who has very little to focus on other than his art. And everyone else is slow to catch on that even the original project was an outlet for his frustration; even the teacher doesn’t catch on, because his only concern is the violence and profanity that he feels needs to be deleted. As for the students, when they see the finished first project early on, they’re not concerned at all; they’re just laughing and mocking Matt and Owen.

The actual shooting occurs in the last few minutes of the movie, and thankfully, Johnson doesn’t dwell on that as much as Matt’s dangerous status and complete loss of innocence, making himself even more of an outcast. It does this by saying little and even doing little. It focuses on the right powerful moment to tell us this as it becomes clear. This is no game anymore. In fact, it never was.

The riskiest thing about “The Dirties” and what I think it deserves high points for is it portrays Matt as a real kid. I’ve known people like him and Owen. At some point, we were all like them, in a way. So, when they get pushed to the limit, we can see why one of them could be moved to retaliate. And there may even be more that we’re just not seeing.

Before anyone goes crazy, let me emphasize that I do not think committing horrific violent acts is acceptable or condonable. And that’s certainly not what’s supposed to be taken from “The Dirties”—those who do take that from this completely miss the point Johnson was trying to make. Also, the movie doesn’t provide us with many clear answers…but it does raise more questions about what causes something like this to happen.

The Up Series (1964-2013)

16 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “7 Up” project began in the mid-1960s as an episode of a British investigative current affairs program called “World in Action.” The near-40-minute episode, entitled “Seven Up!,” followed 14 children, all age 7, who were interviewed. The purpose of the program was to present “a glimpse of Britain’s future” and ended with the infamous quote, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The participants were chosen to represent different social classes in Britain in the 1960s.

Seven years later, when the children were 14, researcher-turned-director Michael Apted directed “7 Plus Seven” (or “14 Up!,” as it’s also known) with follow-up interviews. And because Apted believed that human lives reform in some manner within seven years, he would continue to follow these same participants (for the most part; a few dropped out, since there was no long-term contract requiring them to participate in each film) at ages 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and 56. (As of now, it’s unclear whether the series will continue at age 63.)

Watching these films as a whole, spanning five decades from “Seven Up” to “56 Up,” is a marvelous experience, capturing the truest essence of life possible for a documentary. It’s not only one of the best documentary projects of all time; it’s a real sociological study. It represents the lives of these people, they talk about what has changed every seven years and what hasn’t, and while we see the changes in each character, we still see who they were and get a sense that they are who they are. It’s like when you look at a photograph of yourself as a child—you know that you are the child and the child is you, but it’s difficult to comprehend the connection due to how much time has passed since the photograph was taken. And so, when each of these people in the “Up” series are shown as children and as adults, you notice the changes in each of them, but you also recognize some of the characteristics in them as children.

These are ordinary people—Tony, Suzy, Neil, Nick, Bruce, Jackie, Lynn, Sue, Symon, Paul, Andrew, John, Charles, and Peter. We don’t know them (though we feel like we do, through the films) and we can’t necessarily say that we at times are like them, because as the entire project indicates, no one is the same as another. But we do recognize parts of ourselves in some of these people that allow us to identify with them, want to know more about their lives, and become engrossed in everything else they have to say. Originally, the project was conceived as a way to make a political point about social class, but as Apted learned more about his subject’s lives, he lost sight of the bigger picture. But that’s fine, because the audience did too. He grew close to his subjects, so we did too.

The individual films in the series are all special in their own way. Some are more exciting and interesting than others, but there are hardly any downsides. The first two (“Seven Up!” and “7 Plus Seven”) are fairly standard, but that’s not bad at all. It starts to get very interesting at around “21 Up,” which shows the growth and maturity of the subjects as they prepare for the rough road of life. After “28 Up,” which some a couple fascinating changes (which I’ll get to in a moment), it becomes clear what the (new) purpose of the project is.

Now let’s talk about the participants. Jackie, Lynn, and Sue are all from the East End of London. While Lynn has a family and career, Jackie and Sue each married young, became single mothers, and later divorced their husbands. Andrew, John, and Charles, each representing the rich upper class people who usually map out the lives of children. These three pretty much followed the path that was already set for them by their parents and society. Of these three, Andrew is the only one who has participated in all of the films, Charles quit after 21, and John skipped 28 and 42. Symon and Paul lived in a children’s home run by charity—since then, Paul emigrated to Australia and has lived there with a wife and children ever since, and Symon has gone through a divorce and remarriage. (It’s also reported that his ex-wife didn’t care for the project, while his current wife does. He and his wife are now foster parents.) Nick grew up on a farm but didn’t see himself working on it in the future; he instead grew up to study science and become a professor and nuclear physicist in the United States. He married before 28, though everyone who saw the film apparently felt the marriage was doomed, due to her commentary. Because of this, she didn’t return for 35 or 42, and by 49, Nick was divorced and remarried. Bruce was a quiet boy who wanted to be a missionary and became a teacher and traveled to places such as Bangladesh. One of the more pleasing developments in the series is when he is 35 and regrets not having been married and in “42 Up,” he is a newlywed. He’s now a devoted husband and father. Neil and Peter were middle-class boys living in Liverpool. Peter skipped 35, 42, and 49, and returned in “56 Up” (mainly to promote his band). (I’ll get to Neil in a moment.)

Of the 14 participants, three stand out most to me (and a lot of other people, for that matter). One is Tony, also from the East End. He’s a favorite because he’s so open and charismatic and one of the biggest supporters of the project, which means he’ll most likely stay with it till the end. He dreamed of being a jockey at age 7; at 14, he was an apprentice at a horse-racing stable; at 21, he talks about a race where he had a photo-finish, from which he keeps a photograph as a souvenir, but he had to move on from being a jockey and instead concentrated on being a taxi driver; at 28, he owned his own cab, got married, and started raising a family. One of the most poignant moments in the series comes from “42 Up,” when he sits with his wife and confesses an affair he had; a real rough patch in their relationship. But they still stayed together after his wife forgave him. A particularly funny moment in the series is in “56 Up” when he tells an anecdote about how he was recognized for the series by someone who wanted his autograph instead of Buzz Aldrin’s (Aldrin was Tony’s fare).

Suzy, who comes from a wealthy background, was always reluctant about doing the films, as she was forced to do it in the first place by her parents. She’s always said she would stop participating, but she kept coming back (probably because she feels obligated to do so after so many years). Suzy was a very shy girl growing up, and by 21, she formed a very negative opinion about marriage. The most dramatic change in the series is from her from age 21 to 28. When you see her in “21 Up,” she’s bitter, chain-smoking, and nervous. But then in “28 Up,” she’s cheerful and happy and married with children; a remarkable transformation.

And last but definitely not least, there’s Neil, from a Liverpool suburb. Neil is the most complex person in the series and his story is consistently captivating and unpredictable. As a child, he was happy and excited, though you have to wonder what his home life was like, since he is also saying things like “I don’t want to have any children because they’re always doing naughty things and making the whole house untidy.” I don’t know many 7-year-olds who would talk like that, especially while smiling (like he does), so it may be indicated that Neil’s happiness was hiding something. By 21, he was living in a squat after dropping out of school after one term. By 28, he was homeless and living in Scotland; in “28 Up,” he provides the most heartbreakingly frank statement about why he will never have children: he’s afraid the child will inherit the most negative traits from him. Many people thought Neil would be dead by 35, but he was still alive, though his life had hit rock bottom. But luckily, by 42, he was able to put his life back together; he’s been involved in local council politics as a Liberal Democrat and he’s even made friends with Bruce, who let him live with him for a while.

This is what the most compelling documentaries contain: real human drama. You don’t find movie characters as fascinating as Neil.

Another special thing about the “Up” series is that with each film being released every seven years (and it still remains to be seen whether we will see “63 Up” in 2020), it allows the audience to think back about themselves and how their lives have changed in the past seven years. That reason (and more) is what truly makes the “Up” series special—it’s documentary filmmaking at its best.

The Purge (2013)

27 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You can spew as much B.S. about it as you want (because that’s all I’m going to think of it as: B.S.), but there is no way I’m going to believe that The Purge should, could, or would be a real law, let alone “work.” That is the main problem with the film, “The Purge.” It’s a really dumb idea to begin with. It goes like this—in order to keep America in great shape and the crime rate at an all-time low, the “New Founding Fathers” (uh-huh) bring forth a social policy that every March 22 for 12 hours, criminal law is put on hold. This is known as The Purge. People can do whatever they want (or as they put it, “release the inner beast”), even murder, without fear of legal consequences. Some go out and let out pent-up anger they’ve held inside for a whole year, while others can hole up safely inside their homes.

Apparently, this law was created so people could let out all their inner anger for one night if they go by the honors system not to commit any crimes the rest of the year, thus bringing crime down and making America a more peaceful place. Do I even have to point out how ridiculous this sounds? It shouldn’t be much to complain about, since it’s only the setup for a laughable home-invasion thriller; but the characters keep repeating over and over why The Purge exists and why “it works” (and not once are mental scarring brought up in the slightest), and it’s very poorly handled. Even the social commentary (in that the rich attempts to cleanse the world of the poor) is weak. This results in “The Purge” turning out to be a pretentious, deplorable thriller that takes itself way too seriously.

The film takes place on March 22, 2022, and right there, you can tell how hard writer/director James DeMonaco is trying to warn his audience that The Purge could exist and it’s the direction America is going. Anyway, we get a couple introductory captions that explain that unemployment is down 1% and crime is abolished, thanks to The Purge. Our main characters are James and Mary Sandin (played by Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey), suburbanites who have made a living thanks to James’ successful security company, which has helped turn all neighborhood homes in fortresses to protect neighbors during The Purge (and the passive-aggressive neighbors resent them for this…for some reason never really explained). Of course, their house has a security system as well, and so they prepare to wait calmly during The Purge with their teenage kids, Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane). But when Charlie notices a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) desperately roaming the neighborhood and screaming for help, he decides to let him in for shelter. (Why did James tell his son the code to disarm the barricades?) James doesn’t trust the stranger, but it turns out the whole family has something more to fear. A group of teenagers wearing masks have been chasing the man down and the creepy Polite Leader (Rhys Wakefield) asks that the family release him or else they’ll break through the barricade and kill them.

From what I can gather, these kids are rich and delight in killing poor people during The Purge. And apparently, they want this particular poor person because he got away just as they were about to lynch him. Why they don’t just let him go and look for someone else to kill is anyone’s guess, since they don’t think to take advantage of The Purge, so it’s just a weak excuse to make “The Purge” into a home-invasion flick, which itself isn’t very successful. The homeless man doesn’t have enough moments to be declared a character, but more of a tool to allow James to question morals and ethics. So therefore, it’s hard to be scared by him when he doesn’t pose a threat, and it’s hard to care because James’ morals and ethics are hardly developed anyway. There’s too much behavior and not much rationality so that we’re questioning what’s really at stake while at the same time, we’re being asked to celebrate the deaths of the home invaders as they ultimately force their way in and delight in torturing their would-be victims just so there can be enough time for someone to come in and save them. But then, in the final few minutes, we’re led to believe that the best way to end the mayhem is peacefully. A worthy compromise, but it’s a bit hypocritical.

Ethan Hawke at least looks dedicated in his role, playing a man who’s being pushed over the edge (at least, I think that’s what’s happening). Lena Headey, on the other hand, looks like she’d rather be somewhere else, as she doesn’t seem invested in her character. The young actors, Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane, are fine. Meanwhile, there’s the performance of Rhys Wakefield as the creepy leader of the invaders. I don’t know if he knew what he was acting in was laughably bad, but he can hardly keep a straight face while delivering hammy, supposedly-foreboding speeches. He is the most enjoyable part of the film.

What we’re supposed to learn from “The Purge” is that The Purge doesn’t work after all. Since it’s so obvious that The Purge could never happen (seriously, I would believe the futuristic society’s rules in “Divergent” before I believe this logic), there’s nothing to be afraid of or think about after the film is over. So just looking at it as a horror film, it still doesn’t succeed. It’s just a collection of horror-movie clichés within a half-assed political message. But apparently, it was so successful at the box-office that it warranted a sequel. Hopefully, writer/director James DeMonaco decides to do something more with an already-flawed premise and has learned something from making this film. Has he? Well, I’ll get to that later…

Come Morning (2013)

3 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I’m writing this review, it’s been a few days since I saw “Come Morning.” And I’m convinced that it’s one of those films that haunt you with not only how good it is but also how profound, effective, and unforgettable it is. It has a premise that sounds like a suitable idea for a tense thriller, and it’s easy to expect something exciting but also kind of generic. But not with “Come Morning.” It has its effective setup, it grabs you, and then it takes you where it wants to go.

The film is about 10-year-old D (Thor Wahlestedt) and his grandfather Frank (played wonderfully by Michael Ray Davis) who are on an afternoon hunting trip. The trip takes a tragic turn when D accidentally shoots and kills a trespassing neighbor. D wants Frank to call the authorities and explain what happened. But due to a long-running, complicated (and violent) feud between the two families, Frank knows that telling the other neighbors that the death was an accident won’t go well, and so he and D set out to bury the body deep in the woods.

The story occurs mostly in the woods and mostly at night, which creates an ongoing, effective, metaphorical visual for the narrative—the deeper into darkness the characters embark into, the more lost they become in their moralities. Things slowly but surely go more wrong as suddenly the realization of D’s accidental murder isn’t as relevant as what becomes revealed later with Frank. Some of his demons come back to haunt him, he runs into enemies from the past, and his actions causes him to consider his own morals and ethics as well as the loss of D’s innocence.

What really makes this whole film special is just how subtle it is. There is much revealed of the history between Frank’s family and the neighboring family, but hardly anything is spelled out for the audience. We just get visual storytelling, understated dialogue, and thought-provoking questions to interpret by the time the film is over. Without giving too much away, there isn’t just the guilt that D feels, but there’s more than Frank feels when it comes to facing his demons and trying to find ways out of the danger he put his family through; you can feel that he has had things happen that he can’t feel proud of and also can’t forgive himself for. It is also a damn good thriller; very suspenseful and becomes even more so as it continues.

Derrick Sims

Most of the praise for “Come Morning” unquestionably goes to Derrick Sims, who not only wrote and directed the film but also edited and photographed it. Not knowing another way to put this, I’ll say every move he makes for this film is the right one. There’s one particular scene in this film that spoke me in many ways as to just how great Sims was as a filmmaker; without giving too much away, it involves the final moment in a character’s life. It’s an amazingly effective scene that could have gone one of two ways and may have sunk the film. It went the other way and became the best scene in the film.

I also admire how he shot the film himself. It’s as if he had this vision in his head and just wouldn’t be satisfied unless he created it. And indeed, the cinematography is first-rate. I don’t know how he managed to create beautiful scenery when most of the film takes place in the wilderness in the dark, but he certainly did.

This is a great film; one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. That’s why it shocks me that while it had great reception at festivals (including the Oxford Film Festival, where it received the Jury Award for Best Cinematography), the film never got a real theatrical release. That’s a shame, because I can see a lot of people seeing “Come Morning” the same way I did: as an atmospheric, unforgettable, well-executed, haunting piece of art.

NOTE: “Come Morning” is available on DVD and BluRay, and can be purchased at www.fabledmotionpictures.com.