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Come Morning (2013)

3 Apr


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


The World’s End (2013)

10 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The World’s End” is the supposed final entry in the “Cornetto” (or “Blood and Ice Cream”) trilogy, and I seriously hope that doesn’t mean writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer Simon Pegg aren’t going to make any movies together, because with “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” and now this, they make some of the most intriguing, entertaining, ambitious, wonderful films (not just comedies; that’s too easy) to give us the pleasure of seeing. I don’t know what it is; maybe they bring out the best in each other through each other. But I love all three of these movies. I would be first in line to the next Wright-Pegg collaboration.

The review has barely started and I must sound like a fanboy right about now. Let’s get right to it.

“The World’s End” stars Pegg as Gary King, a middle-aged man stuck in a stage of arrested development and always lives in the past. He recalls a time 20 years ago when he and his four best friends, when they were teenagers, embarked on a journey known as the Golden Mile, which is mainly a series of 12 pubs, with the World’s End tavern being the final stop. Gary looks back with fondness but also with regret since he and his friends didn’t make it to the World’s End. But he still likes to see himself as a king of cool, as back in his teenage days, he was a charismatic, daring teenager who felt like he could take on the world as opposed to actually dealing with real-life issues.

Nowadays, 20 years later, he’s a pathetic middle-aged man who still thinks things can return to the way they were, still drinks, and still sees himself as king-of-cool. He hasn’t aged mentally and doesn’t care how pathetic he looks to everyone else. His friends, meanwhile, have drifted away from him. They live their lives with jobs, marriage, families, etc. They get surprise visits from Gary, whose plan is to rally his group together to relive the old days and do it right this time. He manages to talk his friends (Andy, played by Nick Frost; Steven, played by Paddy Considine; Peter, played by Eddie Marsan; and Oliver, played by Martin Freeman) into returning to their hometown of Newton Haven and finish the Golden Mile.

The only reason the friends, one of which (Andy) holds a grudge against Gary, go along with Gary’s plan is because they feel worried about his way of living and because he said his mother died (which isn’t true). Gary becomes a little too much for them to handle at times, and the friends have to try and talk sense into him and bring up that what he’s doing isn’t healthy or welcoming, and he needs to grow up and face reality.

Oddly enough, this first part of “The World’s End,” which runs for about 35 minutes, proves that it would be a great, funny and effective movie about a reunion of old friends thinking about the old days and when their lives are like now. They notice what’s changed and what hasn’t changed, and that includes their first few pub-stops in Newton Haven, which have been cleaned up and “Starbucked.” Gary even finds that his old flame, Sam (Rosamund Pike), isn’t interested in Gary anymore.

Think Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups” done right. There’s great writing (the dialogue and one-liners are absolutely wonderful and very funny) and great acting and it seems like the story is going somewhere mature with what it has already. And it kind of does, but…not quite in the way those who haven’t seen the trailers or read the plot synopses would have expected. Those who have are waiting for me to bring up the “blanks,” the nicknames the main characters give to the robot-alien-things that have invaded the town.

Yep. Gary and friends discover that Newton Haven has been invaded by an alien intelligence, and most of the townspeople have been replaced by blue-ink-filled, life-size action-figure like, robotic replicates. Rather than get the hell out of that town, Gary figures the best solution is to continue on the Golden Mile so as they don’t raise suspicion and thus don’t fall victim.

Makes sense to me.

Bottom line is that Gary came here to complete a pub crawl and he’s going to do it, no matter how many times his friends try to convince him otherwise or how many other messy situations they get into with the robots. Gary pours himself a pint everywhere they go and rarely lets anything stop him. No matter what other changes he’ll come across, Gary will not back down. Through all this madness, there is still time to keep true to the reunion story by taking time to bring up new issues about past, present, and future. It all manages to oddly fit together, mixing comedy, drama, and sci-fi to give us a spot-on satire and a gripping story at the same time. Also, this is probably the most personal story Wright and Pegg have put together, since the focus is mainly on Gary’s character and how he’ll grow despite not wanting to and not expecting to.

But of course, I cannot forget to talk about the action sequences. They’re very entertaining to watch, as we get some of the funniest fight choreography I’ve ever seen in a comedy. Great stunts and the right moves help make these scenes gripping action and fast-paced comedy. And in these scenes, be sure to rewatch them a couple more times on DVD because there’s a chance you’ll miss a couple things, it’s so fast. It’s edited energetically, much like the other films (as well as “Attack the Block,” a Wright production). The special effects are pretty damn good too.

Simon Pegg delivers what is arguably his best performance here. He’s been good in movies before; this is his most accomplished work. I could also say the same for Nick Frost, who has co-starred opposite Pegg in the other “Cornetto” movies. As Andy, the uptight businessman who constantly tries to talk some sense into his friend, Frost is very effective. That comes as a surprise, as Pegg is usually the straight-man and Frost is usually the jokester. Here, it’s the other way around, and Frost is wonderful here. The rest of the cast, which includes David Bradley as a crazy old man who knows the score and Pierce Brosnan in an uncredited cameo, perform well and make for an appealing supporting cast. I don’t know why, but seeing Martin Freeman with an earpiece and a suit trying to fight is a joy to watch.

Everything builds to a climax in which Gary faces off against the leader (who’s just a voice of reason, so to speak) of the aliens. I won’t give away the ultimate resolution, but let’s just say it’s very clever and leads to one hell of an epilogue that you don’t see coming and are nevertheless fascinated by (or at least, I was). Mainly though, “The World’s End” is a joyous experience. A ton of fun. A funny, slick, well-made film. There’s more I could say about this film that express how much I love it, but I’ll do you a favor and leave you to enjoy it for yourself. What else can I say but it’s time to look into the future. And in my future, there’s more viewings of this film.

Wait, doesn’t that go against the “don’t cling to the past” message?

Ah well, I’ll figure it out later.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

28 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here’s something I’m not sure anyone would have expected: a Disney film about the making of a Disney film. And it’s not just any Disney film, but “Mary Poppins,” well-known as one of Walt Disney’s best. Yet it also seems kind of ideal of an idea to be made, since the story behind Walt Disney and co. getting the rights to the original source material by author P.L. Travers is an interesting one. That story is made into Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks.”

The film takes place in the early 1960s. Emma Thompson stars as P.L. Travers, the author of the popular “Mary Poppins” books, which Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) has been trying to obtain the rights to for years so he can produce a film adaptation. For 20 years, Travers has resisted the urgency because she isn’t a particular fan of Disney. She can’t abide cartoons, she doesn’t like his lighthearted fare, and she just can’t see her beloved characters treated in a way she’s afraid Disney would do. But now, she’s struggling with her financial situations and feels she has no choice but to agree to let the Disney studio make the “Mary Poppins” film.

She travels from London to Los Angeles to meet and negotiate with Disney, the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), and the writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). But each session tests her patience, as she doesn’t always agree with their decisions. She’s a stubborn, bitter woman who won’t stand for nonsense. They come to compromises (sometimes to her disdain) and Disney tries to open Travers’ heart to what magic he has to offer.

There is a lot of delight in the scenes where she visits with her collaborators, especially for those who know and love the popular Disney film. There are comic moments that reference what almost was and what did become part of the film, and the dialogue in these scenes is just fun to listen to. This is one of the most interesting, entertaining films I’ve seen about the collaborative process in Hollywood filmmaking. Even if some of it doesn’t necessarily ring true, it’s still interesting to watch.

It’s kind of unusual for this film to be made, since it isn’t an entirely pleasant story to be told. But director John Lee Hancock (who also directed the 2002 sports film released by Disney, “The Rookie”) and writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith found a way to make this film sweet and entertaining but also very effective. The story is intercut with the rougher edges of the film, which occur in flashback sequences in which Travers, living in Australia, deals with the sickness of her father (Colin Farrell) who is fighting a losing battle with alcoholism. In these sequences, we see where Travers got the idea for most of the characters and events in her books. We understand their meaning and why they’re so important to Travers.

It can be argued that the contrast between the 1900s flashbacks and the 1960s events makes the former feel like a different film. But I think the combination of light and darkness is suitable for giving the audience an understanding for why Travers feels the way she feels about certain things occurring now. This gives most of her meetings with Disney a greater meaning. And because of the flashbacks, we also have a complete portrait of P.L. Travers, seeing her as a child played by Annie Rose Buckley and as a middle-aged woman played by Thompson.

Emma Thompson carries this movie. Her performance as P.L. Travers is definitely spot-on. She plays a stubborn woman who has had a troubled past, as well as a writer who loves her characters too much to see them ruined. Any writer could relate to that in some way. Thompson’s great here. The surprise performance for me came from Tom Hanks. I didn’t know how well he would portray Uncle Walt himself, but he managed to project the right amount of optimism and happiness that can definitely remind you of the late Hollywood titan. And it’s just hard not to see him as Disney. Note the scene later on when he talks to Travers about why years back, he never gave away his character of Mickey Mouse for money; you can see and hear the sincerity in his performance.

Those who know the story beforehand may have a bit of an issue with the ending of “Saving Mr. Banks.” Without giving too much away, it may rub some people the wrong way. But personally, I would see it as a “on the one hand/on the other hand” resolution. Maybe it doesn’t entirely make clear what Travers is feeling at the premiere screening of “Mary Poppins,” but so what? It didn’t need to go one way by fully presenting what should be felt here; that would have been cheating. Instead, we get an ending that can be analytical and heartwarming at the same time.

For those with a soft spot for “Mary Poppins,” “Saving Mr. Banks” is a treasure. For those who are interested in the collaborative process in a movie studio, it’s also a treasure. And of course that can also be said for those who are straight-up Disney fans. I can relate to all three. I loved “Saving Mr. Banks.” It’s solidly-acted, it’s entertaining, it has an effective balance of comedy and drama, and for lack of a better term, it’s “Disney magic.”

Fruitvale Station (2013)

25 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Fruitvale Station” is one of the strongest films I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s an effective, tragic, well-done account of the last day of the year 2008 and the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III. For those who don’t know, Grant was a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who was celebrating New Year’s with his friends when he was shot and killed by police at the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California. The event was recorded by bystanders on their cellphones and uploaded online, leading to international outrage.

Ryan Coogler makes his feature debut with “Fruitvale Station,” a film based on the events leading up to the incident. It’s obvious Coogler cares so much for the subject that a film about it would have to be done exactly right. And thankfully, he knew how to tell the story. The film is presented in a straightforward way, as if the viewers are innocent bystanders or eavesdroppers as Oscar Grant III goes about his day, not knowing it will be his last. It’s an effective process.

The film begins with actual footage of that incident on the platform, as police brutally pin him to the ground, people shout “hey” and “let him go,” and the cop brings out his gun. Then the film starts, as it’s a dramatization of the day that led up to the incident. Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan) is just going about his day—spending time with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their 4-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), looking to regain his job after having lost it, calling his mother and wishing her a happy birthday, finding her a birthday card, buying seafood for his grandmother’s gumbo, eating dinner and chatting with family, and more, with only one flashback showing that Oscar was once in jail for dealing drugs.

The first half of the film is just an ordinary day in Oscar’s life, but what makes it all tragic is that we know something important that Oscar doesn’t—whatever he does on this day is going to be his last. We know how it will end. He doesn’t. That makes a moment in which he tells his daughter goodnight before he and Sophina set out for a night out with friends—he promises to take her to Chuck E. Cheese the next day, but we know it’s not going to happen.

Then comes that night. Oscar, Sophina, and their friends ride the train, party before the countdown to New Year 2009, come across a couple pleasant people to talk with, and then they step onto the train leading to Fruitvale Station. A fight breaks out when Oscar comes across a hateful ex-cellmate, leading to the arrest of Oscar and his friends on the platform, leading to…

“Fruitvale Station” may be more about Oscar’s final day than it is about Oscar himself, but we do learn a few things while in his company. We know some things about his past, we see how his year in prison makes things uneasy for his mother (well-played by Octavia Spencer), we see his good qualities, we see his bad, we see him interact with people who love him. It’s enough for us to get a good sense of who he was, and Coogler is careful not to present him as a heroic type but as a many-sided human being. Oscar was a regular guy who had his problems but also had people who love him and would miss him. It’s a compelling portrait of such a man who befell a case such as this, and it also leads to one of the most brutal, uneasy scenes I’ve seen in recent memory. When the climax arrives, it’s a truly effective tough case of police brutality and even tougher to stomach as it was based on a true event. Though it also makes you think—do you think anyone would have even remembered Oscar’s name if he wasn’t killed the way he was?

“Fruitvale Station” is never manipulative (even a scene in which Oscar helps a young woman at the grocery store decide which fish to buy is convincing), and even when you think it’s going to be (such as when he helps a dog who just got hit by a car), Coogler finds a way to effectively roughen up the scenes, keeping with the consistency of the film which feels gritty and realistic. He’s aided by an excellent actor in the role of Oscar Grant III. Michael B. Jordan turns in a star-making performance, giving a powerful portrayal of a young man who goes about his day, not knowing it’s his last. He, along with the nontraditional cinematography and solid supporting cast, adds to the compelling nature of “Fruitvale Station,” a film I will not forget anytime soon.

Contracted (2013)

14 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Just to get this out of the way, the tagline for the “Contracted” poster reads “Not Your Average One Night Stand.” And the problem with that is I don’t think the sexual encounter in the opening of this film could be considered a “one night stand” so much as “rape.” Our female protagonist is clearly drunk, the predatory male picks her up, the next thing we know is that they’re getting it on in the back seat of a car with her repeatedly telling him to stop when he doesn’t, and it’s indicated later that roofies were more than likely involved.

Yeah, I’d consider that “rape.”

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Eric England’s “Contracted,” an effectively horrific, suitably gross horror film with as many smarts as gore. It’s a nicely-done chiller that plays as horror and as a cautionary tale about safe sex. It begins as 20something lesbian Samantha (Najarra Townsend) attends a party held by her best friend Alice (Alice Macdonald). Feeling her relationship with her girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman) is deteriorating, she gets smashed, making her the perfect target for a mysterious stranger named BJ (Simon Barrett). Before she knows it, she has unprotected sex with him in a car, which will result in the impending horror.

The next day, which is given the foreboding caption “Day 1.” Samantha awakens with a slight case of the chills. She also has a rash and a bloody…well, never mind. She goes to see a doctor about it, but she gets that usual lame story about blood tests (though why she isn’t given a prescription at least, I couldn’t figure out). But things get even worse during the next couple days, and on Day 3 (which is labeled “Day 3 of 3”), things get even worse as her eyes change color, she gets a sore on her lower lip, and her hair, teeth, and fingernails fall out. (I won’t even mention the maggots.) This is far from STD; she is slowly but surely falling apart and losing her life.

The “grossout quality” is evident throughout “Contracted” and the makeup and effects in how they change the appearance of Najarra Townsend and do some neat practical effects for parts of the body are definitely something to be complimented, as they are well-done. And they did make me squeamish, particularly when Samantha notices something is not quite right with one of her fingernails.

But if that were all “Contracted” was, it would have been creepy but sort of ordinary. What I like about “Contracted” is that it is more of a character study than a straight-up horror flick. We come to understand Samantha as a person and thus we feel for her as she slowly and literally falls apart. There are hints given by her mother (Caroline Williams), whom she lives with, that she has had a troubled past involving drugs and that she has enough to be mad about, particularly with her lesbian lifestyle which her mother disapproves of. And I like that we’re not given expository dialogue about what Samantha has gone through in her life; everything is said to us through either hints of dialogue or how relationships between these characters flow with each meeting.

And Samantha does have a lot to deal with—her mother is overbearing; her girlfriend Nikki is hardly interested anymore; Alice is a little too clingy; there’s a nice guy (played by Matt Mercer) who won’t take the hint that Samantha isn’t interested in him; she isn’t too fond of her waitress job; she would rather do something with her hobby of growing orchids; and so on. There’s too much for her to deal with, which is why she sometimes makes mistakes due to her muddled priorities and sometimes-standoffish attitude. And now she’s had sex with a man for the first time, which came to this disease that is disturbingly ruining her life. But she’s too scared and too naïve to get everything on track once at a time. All that and more leads her to descending into madness and becoming destructive to herself (and to others) once it’s clear there’s no hope for her.

Samantha is not always easy to like, but she is easy to empathize with and you do feel sorry for her. And Najarra Townsend does a great job in the role. There isn’t a single false note in the performance, as far as I’m concerned.

Also, by having “Contracted” be more ABOUT a person, it also has the advantage of being an effective allegory about how people feel in the weird stages of early adulthood and how their deeds can lead to mistakes and consequences.

Not everything in “Contracted” works. Some of the mother’s reactions to her daughter’s illness are a little too unrealistic. You could argue that she’s afraid she’s resorting to old bad habits and she thinks that’s what this led to, but come on. And then there’s the second visit to the doctor, when the doctor notices that Samantha’s “condition” has only gotten worse. He doesn’t take her in for observation; he just tells her not to get in contact with anybody. Really? Then there’s a really nasty encounter with the nice guy who has been stalking Samantha for quite a while. Maybe if he were a little sleazier (or maybe if he were replaced by BJ), that would have been an effective comeuppance, if that’s what it was supposed to be. And what about BJ? (By the way, a brilliant move on the filmmakers’ part is that BJ is always kept out of focus during his scenes.) We don’t see him again except for a moment in which he picks up another woman. Why not put him in the nice guy’s place and give Samantha a moment of revenge?

(Granted, the fact that BJ isn’t given a form of comeuppance is somewhat chilling, since it’s obvious he’s going to keep spreading the disease around.)

Now I must admit I did read a few reviews of this film before watching it, because I am friends with this film’s 2nd 2nd Assistant Director and I wanted to know how the film was doing, critic-wise (as of now, it ranks 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Each one of the reviews I read mentioned a certain word that made me correctly guess the film’s ending. What was that word and would it lead you to assume (possibly correctly) what the payoff to the disease is? I’m not sure I should reveal it. On the one hand, knowing beforehand made the film a little more fascinating in where it was going. On the other hand, I’m not sure how people would react to the final shot. I could see it having mixed reviews—some might react with an awed “whoa” (in a positive way); others might react with a dissatisfied, deadpan “what?”

Well, great. Now I can’t reveal that word now that I’ve built it up so much. People would guess the payoff for sure. Well, I guess the best thing to do would be to say to check out this film and decide for yourself whether you like the payoff or not.

I liked “Contracted.” It has a great protagonist; it’s well-made; it has a nice supporting cast, especially Katie Stegeman as unfriendly Australian lesbian Nikki and Charley Koontz as perpetually high Zain; the make-up effects are outstanding; it’s chilling; and its ending…well, I accepted it. Maybe you will too.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

24 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There have been many stories in categories of science-fiction, action, drama, or all of the above that a similar element—the future sucks. There’s usually a dystopian society that runs under more strict, controlling, even violent procedures, and there’s usually a main character, or main characters, that have figured out the answer and use it to bring down this society that has turned the future into a hellhole. We’ve seen it all before. And it’s also used in quite a few young-adult novels, so it’s becoming more and more popular with each generation.

But “The Hunger Games,” Susanne Collins’ book series, finds many twists and turns with the sort of “dystopian future” tale that can either compel or bore audiences. In this case, Collins found a way to appeal to beyond the books’ supposed target demographic by giving her stories original ways to bend around the familiarities and give us some effective political and social commentary as well.

And it helps that with each book in this series of three stories, the themes deepen, the commentary is more active, the emotional conflict is more compelling, and you have something special with this series. That’s essentially a way to describe the film adaptation of the second book, “Catching Fire.”

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” picks up about a year after the original “Hunger Games” left off, as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) prepare to go on a victory tour after winning the Hunger Games, which if you recall required them to be the last two of 24 young people to survive. But just because they won doesn’t mean there aren’t any ramifications for their futures. For one thing, they haven’t left the arena without any deep emotional scars that can come from killing in order to survive (and win). Katniss in particular has trouble coping and even functioning half the time. And also, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is angry and wants Katniss dead. Why? Because Katniss’ actions in the Hunger Games, including her idea of both her and Peeta winning, has made her into a symbol of hope and rebellion. Some of the 12 districts have begun to rise against the system, bringing it to a halt. In order to maintain his power and put an end to revolt, Snow believes Katniss should die.

As Katniss and Peeta embark on their tour and witness the rebellion of these districts, Snow is even more angry and decides to bring their district to the ground slowly but surely. Armed forces come in (dressed as…Stormtroopers?) and attack the villagers, including Katniss’ best male friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Worse yet, in order to ensure her doom, Snow arranges for a new game in which Hunger Game victors are forced to face each other. Katniss and Peeta end up in an arena yet again to fight for their lives, and for their freedom. This time, Katniss and Peeta have allies, such as athletic Finnick (Sam Claflin), angry rebel Johanna (Jena Malone), and intelligent Beetee (Jeffrey Wright).

The final hour of this two-hour-25-minute film occurs in the dome in which the game takes place. But these games are rather different from the original story in two ways. One is, there’s a lot more at stake than Katniss’ own life. She has to question the loyalty of her allies, before they may or may not become each other’s enemies later; she has to question what awaits her and her loved ones if she does survive; she has to wonder if she will put her life down to save those closest to her, such as Peeta. What will come out of this if either Katniss or Peeta live? Will it further raise the rebellion? If so, what will come from it?

And unfortunately, for those who haven’t read the books, those answers won’t be revealed until the last two films in the film series, each based on the third book “Mockingjay.” The film ends with a cliffhanger that may anger some, but keep most anxious to see what’s going to happen on November 21, 2014.

The other reason these games are different, at least on an entertainment level rather than an emotional level, is the series of adventures that these characters come across. More obstacles chase after them, each more dangerous than the last. These sequences are very exciting and tense (even the scenes with the gigantic baboons are thrilling to watch)—even more so than the tricks in the original film. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a rousing action film in that sense.

It’s also an intriguing film to look at. The visual style of the film, from the poor districts to the Presidential palace, is consistently brilliant and fun to watch, with all sorts of colors and visual effects that really stand out.

And it works with its drama as well. The stress disorder that Katniss feels is legitimately effective, and it not only causes her to think about what she had to do to survive the Hunger Games, but also causes the audience to consider what they were watching as entertainment! You understand Katniss’ plight and you wish for the comeuppance of those who want to strike her down because she already has too much to deal with, including keeping her family and friends safe. Even the smaller elements work well, including (surprisingly) a love-triangle involving Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, who is also in love with Katniss and watches with disdain and Katniss and Peeta continue a charade of romance in order to keep their fans happy. (Hopefully, it stays that way in the next film.)

Once again, this “Hunger Games” film is graced with a top-notch cast. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss; even more so than in the original film because of the emotional complexity she has to bring to her character. Josh Hutcherson is again likable as Peeta; Woody Harrelson is great, reprising his earlier role as the drunk but helpful Haymitch; Liam Hemsworth’s Gale has more screen time than before and has room for more development; and Donald Sutherland plays President Snow like a despicable villain we desperately want to see comeuppance brought onto. Of the new additions to the cast in this story, I’d say Jena Malone is the strongest (let’s face it—you would like to say what she says about her situation when she’s interviewed for TV), but let’s not rule out Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is terrific in the role of the new gamemaker.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a terrific film and I hope that this film-franchise continues strong so that the next two films can further deepen the elements that made it not only entertaining but also thought-provoking. As far as young-adult-novel film adaptations go, “The Hunger Games” is by far the strongest in a long time. I eagerly await the next entry.

The Kings of Summer (2013)

11 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a good film somewhere within Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ debut feature “The Kings of Summer”—it just needs to be found. This would like to be the next “Stand by Me”—a coming-of-age teenage story about how a seemingly-fun, unusual journey teaches its young characters to grow up and face reality. And sometimes, the film gets that angle right with some nicely-done, beautiful sequences and good acting by the principals, but it lets itself down by now allowing itself to truly go into some of these issues (and when they do, they overdo it) and giving us awkward, forced, sitcom-style filler to surround the worthy material. So, while I give it some points for trying, the film as a whole is mainly a mess.

The film is about a high school student named Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), who lives with his jerk of a single father (Nick Offerman). His mother has died, and his older sister (Alison Brie) isn’t around anymore (she moved out when she got the chance). His friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), has a home life that is suffocating for him, with his ridiculously-hovering parents always around him. When Joe and a weird kid named Biaggio (Moises Arias) get lost on their way home from a party, they find a beautiful wooded area that Joe decides he wants to live in. So he brings Patrick in on his plan to run away from home to build a house in the middle of the woods. Joined by Biaggio, they go through with the plan and live there in their own makeshift cabin for a good chunk of the summer. But when Joe’s crush, a girl named Kelly (Erin Moriarty), gets involved in this new world they’ve created, things get complicated when she and Patrick develop their own relationship.

There are moments in this film, even among the moments that I thought were either forced or painful, where I thought it was going somewhere. There are beautifully-executed montage sequences, all of which involve the boys building the house (this sequence has a most appropriate use of the MGMT song, “The Youth”), exploring the great outdoors, or simply thinking about which situation they get into. And the final act, in which the boys’ friendship is tested and Joe can’t bring himself to come back to civilization until a key moment arrives, kept the story from being predictable, which was refreshing. So there are moments in the film that do work well, thanks to the direction and the acting. But the script is all over the map. There are many painful, artificial attempts at humor, most of which involve the adults. The adults in this film are so dim and clueless, and they speak and work entirely in sitcom manner. Aside from Joe’s jackass father and Patrick’s overly-hovering parents, there are also two incompetent cops called in to investigate the boys’ “kidnapping.”

These moments hurt the serious material and make “The Kings of Summer” very inconsistent. I’m aware that you do need comic relief when you deal with issues that are heavy (dealing with difficult home life, dealing with first love, finding out who you are as a person, knowing how to solve your problems), but this is pushing it. Besides, the film already has the character of Biaggio for that. This kid is beyond weird—the things he says are beyond disturbing (“I don’t see myself as having a gender” or “I can read; I just can’t cry”)—but the deadpan delivery given by Moises Arias makes it work and makes us laugh. (I would say that the fact that Biaggio is essentially a one-note caricature is another problem, but it didn’t bother me as much as the other attempts at humor.)

Mainly, what “The Kings of Summer” wants to deliver is a message that growing up and becoming a man doesn’t mean just doing whatever you want to do, and that friendship (such as the one between Joe and Patrick) can be tested and fought unless there’s some form of ground they can find with their emotions (Joe kind of becomes an emotionally bully later in the film). And while I like the young actors and Vogt-Roberts’ direction, and there are images that stick in your mind for a while, “The Kings of Summer” mostly suffers from an over-written, uneven script that takes its topics and either does little with them or ignores them.