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Looking Back at 2010s Films: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

How do you follow something as big and innovative as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in the MCU?

With “weird.” But, like, the good, awesome kind of “weird.” Why not hire Troma aficionado James Gunn to adapt the Marvel comic book about space aliens and a talking raccoon kicking ass across the galaxy?

Thus came “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the blockbuster hit no one expected. Even fans of the comics didn’t see this coming.

It is interesting to go to intergalactic fugitives battling through space after we’ve been used to superheroes and all-powerful gods. How are we supposed to take a talking raccoon and a walking tree (who only says three words: “I am Groot”) seriously? Well…we kind of do and kind of don’t at the same time. It’s complicated.

How complicated? Here’s how the movie opens–we get an emotionally heavy scene in which a little boy sees his mother die in a hospital bed right in front of him, before he’s abducted by aliens as he runs off in a sad fit. That’s the kind of WTF-ness we’re in for, so we just have to see what we get.

Cue the Marvel logo, followed by the caption “27 YEARS LATER” on a desert planet as a masked rogue kicks some small alien creatures while rocking out to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” on his walkman and headphones, as the opening credits roll.

OK, movie. I’m hooked. Keep it coming.

Point is, “Guardians of the Galaxy” has a sense of humor and we’re not meant to take it that seriously. But at the same time, it embraces its weirdness, so we can identify as well.

So, we have our hero…hero…er…….considering the idiotic things Peter Quill aka Starlord (Chris Pratt) does in subsequent MCU entries, I don’t like to call him “our hero” anymore. Well, anyway, Peter was abducted by alien bounty/treasure hunters and has lived amongst them since then. But now he’s caught and imprisoned by the Nova Corps, along with other outlaws: a humanoid plant named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a lab-experiment swearing raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of Thanos who works as an assassin.

Oh, and this marks the first appearance of Thanos (not including his end-credits cameo in “The Avengers”), the all-powerful super-villain. Everyone saw this as a big deal; I didn’t. He doesn’t do much in this one, so we’re subjected one of his boring subjects, Ronan the Accuser (I had to look up his name; that’s how forgettable he is). And whenever he reappeared at a distance in future MCU movies, I wouldn’t give a damn who this guy was…until about four years later, of course, when he finally comes out to play in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

This was also the second appearance of the Infinity Stones (which were set up in “Thor: The Dark World”). Again, we had to wait to see what those were all about. (Or at least I had to–I don’t read comics.)

Anyway, our band of outlaws team up with Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a heavyset warrior who never lies or understands sarcasm, as they escape the prison and race to outrun Ronan before they decide to stand together and fight him.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” gave us something interesting and new while still staying true to the Marvel traditions, whereas “Guardians of the Galaxy” is…different. And we embraced it because of that. I did too. I thought it was fun and funny…I even called it the “Ghostbusters” of our generation. Do I still think that?

Well…maybe it’s not as great as I remember it being. Maybe I just appreciated it highly for being so different. But it is still a fun watch.

I may be in a minority opinion here, but the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t the most interesting heroes to me. I mean, their backstories are interesting, but they themselves…let me put it this way: it feels like they think they’re funnier than they really are. Peter’s a dork who’s too high on himself (and I’ll get to his “ego,” if you will, in future posts), which is funny sometimes when he practically whines to be taken seriously with his title of “Starlord”; Rocket laughs way too much at his own jokes; and soon, even when Drax lightens up, he becomes a little grating too. I like them better when they’re sincere goofballs rather than standup comedians who need to know when to move along with the next bit.

But something else that makes me hold back a little bit when looking back on this movie is that the pacing is a little confused. Some of the action goes on a little long, and the emotional moments (such as Groot lighting up a room) are a little short. I get that it’s a comedy first and foremost, but sometimes, especially for an MCU entry, it feels a little messy.

But I still enjoy “Guardians of the Galaxy” for individual scenes that make me laugh out loud, individual moments that get me excited, and simply the overall creative and giddy spirit of the thing. (And of course, the rousing vintage soundtrack helps a lot too.) I don’t love it as much as most MCU fans do, but I still had a good time revisiting it.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Rich Hill (2014)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Rich Hill is a documentary I saw at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival during its festival run. I remember immediately wanting to write about it upon seeing it, because it affected me that deeply.

It’s a documentary that gives us insight into the lives of three different teenage boys (Andrew, Harley, and Appachey) who live in the impoverished town of Rich Hill, Missouri. We meet their families, see what they do during the day, how they all live, and how they get by, so that we get a melancholy yet hopeful portrait of three boys with families who are not “white-trash,” as Andrew puts it, but “good people.” The one who gets the most sympathy from me is Harley, whose case is so sad that I really hope things are going well for him now.

More than five years later, I do still wonder where these kids are today. I hope wherever they are, they’re doing OK.

“Rich Hill” is now available for streaming.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

5 Nov

By Tanner Smith

After “The Avengers” became a humongous box-office hit, we knew we were going to see something great from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But when?

Well, “Phase Two” begin in May 2013 with “Iron Man 3,” which was fun enough. But then came “Thor: The Dark World” in November 2013, which was dull as dishwater. We needed something that was going to be the next big thing for the MCU! And what’s this? A “Captain America” sequel? OK, let’s see what you got…

One viewing later, everyone was convinced, like “Holy cow this is what I didn’t know I was waiting for and it’s freaking amazing.”

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a film that dared to challenge its audience and it paid off in a major way. We still got the kick-ass action we go to these blockbusters for, and for that matter, we still got Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), among other MCU characters we recognize from other movies. But we got more than that. We got a more complicated story that asked questions we didn’t bother to think about in a movie like this. And as it progressed, it got even more interesting.

Before Steve Rogers was thawed out after being frozen for decades, he was led to believe that there was a simple war he was fighting: obvious good guys and obvious bad guys, no in-between. But now he’s in a world he’s trying to understand, not just because many people he knew are gone or even because of pop culture (about which he makes a list of things to keep track–I’ve paused that moment several times just to read the list), but because things are more complicated within who he thought he was fighting for and why. Now he can’t trust anybody except maybe Black Widow, and the two go on the run from HYDRA, the organization that’s taken over SHIELD, and their newest weapon, The Winter Soldier.

Suddenly, Captain America, the Boy Scout who always wanted to do good in his time, is suddenly the most interesting character in the MCU because he’s now in a time where he’s afraid he’s not doing as much good as he thought. You can tell that it’s eating him up inside that he just doesn’t know who to trust anymore and what’s worth fighting for. And then comes the reveal of the Winter Soldier…

I would issue a SPOILER ALERT but I think we all know by now that the Winter Soldier is Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s buddy from long, long ago, now brainwashed by HYDRA. It becomes a plot point in “Captain America: Civil War,” which everyone saw, so let’s move on and say this was another big strength in the story development for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It adds to Steve’s confusion about what he needs to do. What is his purpose now? To save Bucky? To stop him? Who else is he supposed to be fighting against/alongside? The moment Bucky’s reveal is brought onto us, everyone knew this movie was what we as comic-book movie fans needed. It’s great, and where it goes from there is not “predictable” so much as “inevitable.”

Every twist and turn “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” throws at us feels important and we’re completely invested in what’s going to happen next.

Even a cameo by the late Garry Shandling can feel like a big deal. (“Hail HYDRA.”)

This was the first MCU entry for the Russo Brothers (Anthony and Joe Russo), who would later give us more of the best MCU movies (“Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Avengers: Endgame”). They know we need something new to add to the familiar stuff we want to see, and this would only be the beginning of their impressive MCU track record. (Hah! I use the mild word of “impressive” when they’re responsible for this year’s highest-grossing film!! But you get what I mean.)

For one thing, they didn’t use much CGI. It is there, but it’s not what’s focused upon. It was surprising to find real stuntmen doing their thing or actual sets being built. For another thing, they let the actors play with their roles–reportedly, Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson wrote their own dialogue for many scenes they shared together; that’s why their chemistry as partners is spot-on. Also, the Russo brothers let the characters feel like real people we could know in our own lives–the opening scene introduces Steve to Sam aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and their dialogue together genuinely feels like two war veterans sharing their stories.

And also (and I’m saving this for last because I think it’s really cool), they’re big fans of Honest Trailers, the web series from YouTube channel Screen Junkies that picks apart little details here and there–they aimed for this film to be “Honest-Trailer-proof.” That just lets you know they’re thinking of both the audience and the film critics.

Fun fact: Screen Junkies did an Honest Trailer for this movie, which led to the Russo brothers being interviewed by the channel’s host Hal Rudnick and Honest Trailers writers Dan Murrell and Spencer Gilbert.

So, yeah. This movie’s great. It’s one of my favorite MCU movies. What are my other favorites? Well, I’ll post about those as well in this Looking Back at 2010s Films series…except “Iron Man,” one of my top-3 MCU faves, because that awesomeness came out in 2008.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Oculus (2014)

15 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, my favorite thing about the 2005 dramatic thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is that it left everything up to the viewer’s interpretation, giving us different possibilities as to why something happened the way it did. Was it the supernatural or was it something simpler?

Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” did something very similar in its first hour. It involves two siblings who both went through a traumatic experience involving the death of their parents. The brother has been living in a mental institution since then, convincing himself that it was a violent domestic issue and not the cause of something supernatural he now believes his traumatized mind came up with as a coping mechanism. What was it he thought caused the tragedy? A haunted mirror that manipulates people’s minds. He’s now released and welcomed back by his sister…who now has the mirror and still believes it was what caused the horrible ordeal that killed their parents. So, she decides to bring her brother in as she documents her experiments with the mirror before she attempts to kill it.

(Why she doesn’t bring other people in as witnesses to this apparent supernatural presence, I don’t know, but…never mind.)

I love the first hour of “Oculus,” as the sister is dead-set to prove that her parents were victims of something that can’t be explained that dwells within the mirror itself and brother has spent years proving to himself that it’s not real. Now he has to convince her that things they went through did not happen the way they remember it, but she’s shocked to find that he has no recollection of what she believes truly happened. This is great stuff!

The rest of the film is good too (and you can even make the argument that what happens in the final act isn’t actually what happens). There are some very good chilling moments (including one involving an apple…yecch), some more insight into our main characters slowly but surely going crazy, and an effective way to show flashbacks and have them intersect with present-day events. But that first hour, which allowed us to consider one thing when another thing seemed too obvious from the start, is so damn good, it kind of feels like a different movie. But I still like “Oculus” overall, for challenging me as well as scaring me.

And it was the first film to give filmmaker Mike Flanagan some much-needed attention (he had another film before, a low-budget thriller called “Absentia,” but that hardly went anywhere). Little did he know that it would lead to more projects that would cement his status as one of the very best horror directors working today.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Sacrament (2014)

15 Oct


By Tanner Smith

I stated before that I’m a supporter of the found-footage/faux-documentary format (again, when it’s done right). One of the inspirations I turned to when making my own fake-documentary feature was Ti West’s “The Sacrament.”

“The Sacrament” is a faux-documentary thriller in which a small VICE camera crew (played by AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, and Joe Swanberg) travels to a secluded religious community, where people who were down on their luck come together to live in peace and serve the community founder, simply called “Father” (Gene Jones). Everything seems fine, until they come across some members who beg them to take them away from here. With that tension comes the paranoid possibility that the crew will return home to reveal too much about the community. And with that…comes complete chaos.

The trailer tried to be clever in hiding where this whole ordeal is going, but even if you haven’t seen the movie already, you can tell where this story is going: it’s based on the Jonestown massacre.

But even so, “The Sacrament” is a gripping thrill ride. Once everything goes to hell, it’s just a question of which of our main characters could survive and how long it will take before they finally make their way out of this horrible experience. And unlike most first-person-perspective movies, I’m not wondering why the characters keep filming everything–they’re a media group getting as much of the story as they can in the hopes that they can get out of this situation with their lives and reveal it to the world. I buy that.

And because I buy that, I’m constantly on-edge when everything goes from bad to worse, because we’re seeing things mostly through the eyes of our protagonists, whether they’re hiding from armed guards or running to a new location. We even get disturbing footage from the antagonists as well, after they take one of the cameras–the most brutal scene that comes from this is a static-shot scene in which someone is forcibly poisoned and dies in his sister’s arms. The poor guy…

Oh, and I should also mention that because our heroes are camera operators & documentarians, that creates a perfect alibi to keep shots steady, except for when they’re running for their lives while filming! It’s the little things that prevent criticism…except for when it comes to people who claim the idea of exploiting the Jonestown massacre for horror-movie purposes is in bad-taste. (It’s just a movie.)

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Creep Movies (2014, 2017)

14 Oct


By Tanner Smith

I’m a supporter of the found-footage/fake-documentary format, but I should emphasize that I’m only a fan of it *when it’s done right.* When it is, it can make for an effective thrill ride in putting the viewer in the shoes of the character holding the camera, and thus making the viewer an inactive part of the story.

Don’t get me wrong–there are some terrible ones; but the ones that make us wish they’d go away only make the good ones good enough to make us wonder what else could be done with the approach. Some of my favorite examples include not only the popular ones like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” but also “The Sacrament,” “The Visit,” “Chronicle,” “V/H/S,” “REC,” and…the “Creep” movies.

“Creep” was a microbudget indie thriller created by Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice, who just decided at one point to go out to a cabin in some woods and make their own movie in which a videographer may or may not be in danger of his “creepy” subject. This was a brilliant setup for the first-person perspective setup, with our main character being a videographer named Aaron (played by Brice, who also directs the film) and filming his experience in answering an ad for a strange man named Josef (Duplass) who asks him to follow him around with his camera for a couple days. When Josef who’s already shown to have very strange qualities becomes even more disconcerting, we have no idea where this film is going to go and neither does Aaron–we ourselves are with it along with him, trying to piece some things together. THAT is how you do a found-footage/faux-doc movie!

OK, now I have to talk about the ending so that I can talk about the film’s sequel, “Creep 2″…even though “Creep 2” itself is already a spoiler for “Creep” anyway. So, SPOILER ALERT!!!

The whole film, this whole time, has been edited by Josef long after he took Aaron’s footage for himself…after killing Aaron and filming himself doing it. It turns out Josef is a serial killer who loves to make movies out of his murders, with beginnings, middles, and endings…..yikes.

Again, THIS is how it’s done with the subgenre! It’s chilling and disturbing in all the right ways.

“Creep 2,” I think is even better. Brice & Duplass didn’t just remake “Creep”; they continued the story with something that I can’t recall having seen in any horror film–Duplass’ serial-killer character, whose real name is NOT Josef apparently, is going through a midlife crisis…the serial killer is going through a midlife crisis…

That’s just oddly fascinating.

This time, the videographer he’s brought on board for his next project is amateur web-series creator Sara (Desiree Akhavan). As soon as she arrives at his cabin, he makes it quite clear to her that he’s a killer, and he announces that he asked her to come make a film about his own end, thus creating his “magnum opus.” Sara is smart enough to keep on-guard but isn’t quite sure exactly where he’s going with this. Where this goes…let me just say I’m curious to see “Creep 3,” if it does go anywhere.

And yes, there is a “Creep 3” in the works. I’ll be interested to check it out!

Both “Creep” movies are on Netflix–I recommend you check them both out for a good scare or two!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Guest (2014)

14 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, here’s the setup to “The Guest”: a stranger named David (Dan Stevens) arrives to a family’s house, saying he was a friend of their late son who served and died in combat, and after he earns their trust, he slowly but surely reveals his true colors as someone diabolical…

It sounds familiar, but it doesn’t feel familiar. But unlike “The Gift,” which also did something different with a familiar setup, “The Guest” isn’t interested in providing psychological insight into human behavior while providing a familiar setup. Instead, it’s just a good fun time, with action, comedy, horror, and occasional drama. And it never takes itself too seriously–it’s like if “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” combined with “The Terminator.”

There’s more than a handful of good, memorable scenes in “The Guest.” One of my favorites is when David protects the youngest son (Brendan Meyer) against some school bullies, follows them to a bar where they’re too young to be drinking, and totally trashes them, blackmailing the bartender not to say anything. Both “The Guest” and “John Wick” were released in the same year–I’d easily rival this scene in “The Guest” with the club scene in “John Wick.”

Of course, things are not right with David, who turns out to be sinister (though thankfully vague in his reasons as to why). And it leads to a fight to survive…in a Halloween funhouse maze…with ’80s-’90s techno music playing throughout! What a way to end a thrill ride, right?!

Well, at least, the climax made me forget my little gripes I have about the film, like a few slow portions (particularly in the middle act) and some poor acting from side roles. And there’s also Dan Stevens. This was my introduction to him, having not seen one episode of “Downton Abbey,” and he’s fantastic in this film. One moment, he’ll be a cool guy to have a beer and chat with…then the next, he’s hurling grenades in a diner, killing all inside.

Side-note: there’s a little pet-peeve I have with these movies, when someone tries to tell someone else some horrible news and the response is “You’re just saying that.” Why would somebody just say something like that?? It’s right up there with “it’s only the wind” as one of my biggest pet-peeves in horror movies.

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

12 Oct


By Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Stuck (Short Film) (2014)

11 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, who says every film I talk about here has to be feature-length? Not me–it’s my series; I’ll do what I want with it! With that said, I’m going to highlight some short films as well, starting with John Hockaday’s award-winning short film “Stuck.”

“Stuck” is a 20-minute short about Spence (Scott McEntire), a door-to-door salesman for glue (yes, GLUE!) whose life is changed when his man-child brother, named Bob (Jay Clark), moves in with his family.


“Stuck” was Hockaday’s undergraduate thesis film for the film program at the University of Central Arkansas. It was filmed in February 2014, and when it was finished, it screened at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival in May. The film was nominated for three awards Best Arkansas Film, Best Actor in an Arkansas Film (Jay Clark), and Best Arkansas Director. Hockaday took home the directing award.

I couldn’t have been happier for him, for three reasons. For one, I was also a UCA film student at the time and a year before I would make my own undergrad thesis film. I would often sit in on the film classes to catch up on the progresses of the films being made at the time, i.e. watch rough cuts to see which ones had the most potential.

(Excuse me while I take a moment to shudder my own usage of the word “potential,” a word often spoken to me in film-school. I have an utter disdain for the term now. But you get what I mean.)

Anyway, “Stuck” was a film that I could tell would become something special. And it wasn’t just me–one of Hockaday’s classmates (who shall remain anonymous, even five-and-a-half years later) told me in confidence that he was jealous of Hockaday’s film. (And the classmate’s film was pretty good too.)

For another reason, Hockaday was a very good friend of mine. I used to hang out with him on campus, we’d often chill at his apartment, my nickname for him was “Hockadude,” and we had a mutual love for movies and the art of filmmaking. It was amazing to see my dear friend win the Director award at LRFF, and I knew he was walking on air at the time.

And last but not least, “Stuck” is a very good film. It has a lot of heart to it, it’s very well-made, and it just comes off as the type of feel-good movie that audiences generally feel the need for every now and then.

Now let’s address a certain elephant in the room I brought upon myself in this post. You could argue that because of our friendship, I’m obligated to like whatever film he made for his thesis. Well, he was honest with me after I showed him some of my work at the time, so I had to return the favor. I could have given “Stuck” my highest rating of 4 stars out of 4 when I originally reviewed it. I didn’t–I gave it 3 1/2, which was close enough…because there were a few little nitpicks I had with the film.

And I might as well address them now:

-The character of Spence’s wife (played by Julie Atkins) is barely a character at all, she’s so underwritten.

-Why does Spence’s son (Peter Grant) have two beds (one of which is occupied by Bob when he moves in)? Is there another child we didn’t see in the film? Did he or his parents think it would be fitting to have twin beds? A little nitpick, but it always bothered me.

-As clever as the “stuck” metaphor is, I’m not sure there are a lot of ways to make GLUE funny.

-In the fabulous opening musical number, Spence turns to the camera to express his bitterness in an angry way. In the original cut of the film, Spence maintained his forced giddiness while singing the same lyrics–under the film professor’s advisement, Hockaday brought actor Scott McEntire back to re-record the lyrics in an angrier tone…and I don’t think it’s nearly as funny.

There. I’ve shared the few things I don’t like about “Stuck.” Now I can talk about how awesome the rest of the film is.

And I’ll just power through it:

The opening song is delightful, with impeccable lyrical timing/content (that is, except for the fourth-wall breaking, which could’ve been funnier the other way–that’s the last time I mention that). I also like that there are two different versions of the song, with an acoustic reprise playing during the end credits. The acting is very solid; particularly, Clark is a ball of energy that is impossible to dislike. Jarrod Paul Beck’s cinematography is top-notch. (I’ve seen many UCA-produced films lensed by this guy, and I’ve worked with him many times as well–he always knew what he was doing.) It’s very funny (particularly with the payoff to the introduction of Spence & Bob’s parents’ ashes…even now, I can’t believe Hockaday actually went there). The editing is excellent. I love this line: “WHAT IN THE GREAT STATE OF ARKANSAS IS GOING ON HERE?!” And I love the energy that Hockaday put into the making of this film, from pre-production to post.

You can check out the film on YouTube and see if you agree:


NOTE: Hockaday has since worked behind-the-scenes for studio films such as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (post-production assistant), “10 Cloverfield Lane” (assistant visual effects coordinator), and “Star Trek Beyond,” among others.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

3 Oct

A Fault In Our Stars

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, I was forced (er, “suggested”) by a friend to read John Green’s popular young-adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” because it was one of her favorite books and the film adaptation was coming that summer.

Being the pushover that I am, I agreed to read it…and I’m glad I did. No dystopian futures. No contrived love-triangles. No vampires. Just a nice little romance between two young people…who have cancer. (YIKES!) It was written with a sly wit, the characters were likable, it was melancholy with realistic issues with the comic relief thrown in at just the right time, and it made me feel something overall.

And thankfully, I could also say that about the film adaptation.

I joined my friend to see the movie on opening day in June 2014, and I was impressed. It was handled very delicately with just the right tone to fit…though judging from the loud sobbing from the teenage girls sitting in the row behind us in the theater during the final act, I’d say it did its job TOO well.

Our narrator is Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a teenage girl who, because of her cancer, uses a portable oxygen tank to breathe. She starts up a relationship with a charming teenage boy named Augustus (or “Gus,” played by Ansel Elgort), a former athlete who had his leg amputated due to cancer risk. This guy is too good to be true (call him the Manic Pixie Dream Boy), but then again, he does have his secrets, most of which are revealed late in the relationship (and the film). Both of these characters know that their relationship is surely doomed, and they actually talk about it, which makes up for the overabundance of cuteness that’s set up in the former half of the film. Thus, just as “50/50” worked because it used humor to lure the audience into serious territory, “The Fault in Our Stars” used charm and cuteness.

There are some good funny moments and light comedy in the screenplay. The lighthearted conversations between Hazel and Gus are cute, some of their text conversations are funny, and there’s an effective comic relief from Isaac (Nat Wolff), who uses humor to cope with having just become blind–Isaac deserves his own movie.

I wrote in my original review, “it could work if the writers are smart enough to know what to leave and what to keep.” Who wrote the screenplay? Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, probably my favorite screenwriting duo working today–they also wrote “500 Days of Summer,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Paper Towns” (another adaptation of a John Green novel), “Our Souls at Night,” and “The Disaster Artist.”

At times, they’re so faithful to the novel that I think scenes could have been cut from the film (especially the little sidetrack of a backstory for the therapy-group leader–seriously, was that even needed?). But…eh. At least the strengths of the original source are still in the movie.

“The Fault in Our Stars” is sweet, well-acted, and with enough humor to keep me entertained and enough melancholy effectiveness to keep me invested.