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Paper Towns (2015)

27 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER ALERT! I’m going to talk about the ending of “Paper Towns,” because it’s the main reason I’m recommending the film.

The term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in the 2000s. Google describes it as “(especially in film) a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist.”

You’ve seen them in movies before—Natalie Portman’s quirky, messy character in Zack Braff’s “Garden State,” Kirsten Dunst’s spunky, helpful flight attendant in Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown,” Zoe Kazan’s blunt criticism of the trope in her penned “Ruby Sparks,” among others. They’re not real—they’re just constructs of a hopelessly romantic male writer’s imagination. As a character explained in “Ruby Sparks,” “Quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real. No woman is going to identify with this story.”

Why do I bring this up in a review for “Paper Towns?” Because every criticism I could throw at this movie suddenly means nothing when the movie ends.

What do I mean by this? Our main character, a high school student named Quentin is fascinated by the very idea of this spunky, quirky, popular girl who lives across the street from his house. One night, she unexpectedly arrives at his bedroom window and asks him to join her on her all-night journey to perform all sorts of tasks, like humiliating pranks on her friends and boyfriend for reasons of revenge. The next day, she’s missing. She seems to have run away. Quentin discovers that she left clues that lead to where she might have gone.

Who IS this person? She seems too interesting to be true. When Quentin finally does learn the truth, he finds…she is too interesting to be true. And she knows it. She doesn’t know herself, so others don’t really know her either.

On the one hand, it’s troubling when you’re steps ahead of the main character on his quest. But on the other hand, it’s refreshing that the screenwriters (or rather, the author of the novel of the same name the film is based on) were smart enough to let the character learn the lesson nonetheless. It would’ve been less interesting if we had easier answers and an overly romantic ending.

“Paper Towns” is based on a young-adult novel by John Green, who also penned “The Fault in Our Stars.” (Fun Fact: the film adaptations of both of these novels were written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.) Like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns” has a nice blend of comedy and drama and some memorably appealing characters, only this one has more of a fun, mystery edge to it. This quirky, mysterious girl, Margo (Cara Delevingne) has brought Quentin “Q” (Nat Wolff, who played the comic-relief in the “Fault in Our Stars” film adaptation) to assist in her revenge plan for her boyfriend cheating on her with her best friend, and now, rather than start a nice relationship with Q the next day, she doesn’t turn up in school. Where is she? Q finds a clue in her bedroom that indicates she might have run away to a “paper town” (a fake town created by mapmakers to protect copyright). The more he looks into it, the more clues he finds that serve as a map to the location where she might be. He brings his two best friends, whip-smart Radar (Justice Smith) and obnoxious Ben (Austin Abrams), in on the mystery, and Margo’s best friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) join in on the fun as well. Before long, all five embark on a road-trip to the paper town. What they find along the way isn’t as important as what they discover along the way (of course), but when they return to school in time for prom, they are all changed people.

Q is the least interesting character in the film. He’s just your typical bland, likable, awkward teen hoping to have a good time in high school. Though, as played by Nat Wolff, he is at least likable. His friends are much more interesting, and thankfully, they’re given plenty of room to develop. Radar is loyal to his girlfriend, though he’s embarrassed to introduce her to his family. Why? Get this—his family has the largest collection of Black Santa figures decorated all throughout the house. (I’m not making this up.) Ben is borderline obnoxious and consistently funny—he’s given room to grow outside the horny, annoying comic relief he could’ve been if we didn’t get enough time to know him.

That’s the purpose of the story—to get to really know people. Lacey isn’t just a blonde knockout, Radar’s girlfriend isn’t a stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t know how to have fun, and of course, beneath Margo’s shroud of mystery lies someone more complex than you might think. More so than the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” However, my biggest problem with the movie (and I don’t think the ending could be blamed for this one) is that Margo just isn’t all that interesting to me to begin with, and I think that might be because Delevingne isn’t that charismatic of a performer to make me totally invested in the puzzle that is her character. But then again, the movie isn’t really about her as much as it is about Q’s love for her and his friendship with Radar and Ben. I really liked seeing these kids interact with each other and with Lacey and Angela.

With quick pacing by director Jake Schreier, dialogue from Neustadter and Weber that feel like realistic teenage banter, and a fine cast, “Paper Towns” is a cute, fun mystery-drama that is effective (especially) to the end.


The Cobbler (2015)

13 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t like to hate on movies (anymore), particularly indie comedy-dramas (“dramedies”) that dabble in magical realism. I find them fascinating—I love “Ruby Sparks,” about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl suddenly brought to life; I admired “The One I Love,” about a couple being forced to examine their relationship through their ideal selves; and “Birdman” won Oscars for reasons, obviously. With “The Cobbler” being given a down-to-earth tone by the deeply talented Tom McCarthy, who made such wonderful low-key dramas such as “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” and the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” and guided by an admittedly interesting premise, you’d think this would be a sure-fire sleeper…

What IS the premise? Adam Sandler plays Max Simkin, who works as a cobbler in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His life isn’t anything to brag about—he cares for his ailing mother (Lynn Cohen), he cares very little for the shop (or his customers), he ignores the prying of the barber named Jimmy (Steve Buscemi) who works in the shop next door, and he’s just a miserable sadsack. Oh, if only something magical could come along to live his life some purpose. And thankfully, something unexpected happens once he brings out an old stitching machine to repair local thug Ludlow’s (Method Man) shoes, and he tries them on. Suddenly, whoa! He looks in the mirror and he sees Ludlow staring back at him! It turns out the stitching machine is magic—if you repair someone’s shoes with it, and then put on the shoes, you become the literal owner of the shoes. (Of course, the shoe sizes have to match Max’s, which luckily, they do.)

Max uses the ability to become other people for some exciting reasons, such as living as someone else for a day because anyone else’s life is more interesting than his own. But then, it gets WEIRD… Here’s an example: Max wears the shoes of his late father (Dustin Hoffman) and transforms into him so that he can have a romantic dinner with his mother to make her happy… I don’t want to know what happened after that dinner, but I hope he let his mother down gently (not in the way you’re thinking!).

As if that wasn’t creepy enough, he also becomes a handsome Brit (Dan Stevens) so he can score with his beautiful girlfriend…in the shower (where he has to keep the shoes on—ha ha). That’s not charming—that’s really, really disturbing. I don’t think the crazy Adam Sandler of his own Happy Madison comedies would attempt to go this far.

Adam Sandler is a very likable, charming fellow (when he wants to be) and can be very funny (again, when he wants to be). And he’s a really good actor, as established in non-Happy-Madison-related productions such as P.T. Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” James L. Brooks’ “Spanglish,” Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.” (Not that he’s not a good actor in the Happy Madison movies—it’s just that you don’t see those movies for acting ability.) But here, when I should be feeling for this self-loathing, life-hating, poor guy, I’m instead questioning his morals and ethics when he does so many creepy things once he obtains this magical ability. It’s so uncomfortable that it actually makes “The Cobbler” harder to watch than most Happy Madison movies…MOST of them.

When he does use the machine to serve a good cause (saving the community his shop is set up in), I care very little because what leads him to it and what occurs as a result is laughable in all the wrong ways. The story gets more ridiculous as it goes along, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re given a twist at the end that had me facepalm myself and say, “Are you kidding me?!”

“The Cobbler” should have been a sweet fable about a guy learning to be more comfortable with himself as he becomes other people. It had a great lead and a great director, but the script just needed a lot of rewrites in order to make it work. Thank God McCarthy bounced back with “Spotlight” just a few months after this film’s release. Otherwise, it would’ve destroyed him. And Sandler still has a few good ones to deliver, so I’ll be on the lookout for those.

Cop Car (2015)

3 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Growing up, I didn’t always watch the greatest films. Most of them were straight-to-video family films you could rent at the local video store for a dollar. Most of them involved mischievous kids getting involved in something bigger than them and ultimately saving the day from ruthless (but mostly clumsy) baddies. As a child, I loved watching them because they showed me a world in which children can get away with anything and embark on risky adventures but still come out all right.

I also started to watch the R-rated “Stand By Me” when I was 9 years old (before I would watch it again and again and again), but not even that would’ve prepared me if I saw director Jon Watts’ “Cop Car” at a very young age.

“Cop Car” has a setup that sounds like one of the movies I used to watch way back in the day. Set in the deep South, two pre-teenage boys (played with natural ability by Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson) are running away from home (for reasons never explained, so who cares?) and are walking along empty fields out in the middle of nowhere when they come across…a cop car. It’s a patrol unit abandoned out in the open, and they decide to hit it with a rock…then they decide to play inside it…then they realize that the keys are in it… And this leads to a fun joyride, as the boys drive along fields before taking it to the mostly-empty highway to drive faster. But meanwhile, the Sheriff (Kevin Bacon) wants his car back…

Sounds a bit trite, doesn’t it? Well, what if I told you that the Sheriff is a definite bad guy who disposes of a dead body from the trunk of the cop car? What if I told you there’s something sinister awaiting the boys once they find what’s left in the trunk? What if I told you this plot went from fun adventure to Cormac McCarthy territory, in which the situation becomes more bleak, lives are in jeopardy, and it’s unclear whether these little boys will get out of this alive?

And what if I told you that I loved the directions “Cop Car” kept taking?

This kid’s joyride story takes a dark, disturbing turn as the boys start playing with the artillery left in the backseat (with one of them looking down the barrel of a rifle when he thinks it isn’t working—yikes!), they discover something in the trunk that brings everything to a horrific situation (and with one of the most horrifying monologues I’ve ever heard in a movie—hide your pet guinea pig, kids), and the corrupt Sheriff does what he feels he must do in order to save his reputation and himself in this deadly game of cat-and-mouse. It’s a pulsepounding, suspenseful thrill ride that had me riveted right to the ambiguous conclusion.

We don’t know all the details involving the characters, such as why the boys are running away, who the Sheriff murdered, is the frightened but deadly Shea Whigham character (who shows up late in the proceedings) to be trusted in any other situation, and so on. We’re just put into this journey as the boys are walking and exchanging curse words before coming across the cop car, and off we go. By the time the film got really good, I didn’t care about details that were left out; I was simply involved, and all I knew was how unlikely it seemed that anyone was going to get out of this alive.

The kids feel like real kids. They’re rowdy little boys who think they’re much smarter than they actually are; they do very stupid things (like play with guns; at one point, one tries to shoot the other wearing a bulletproof vest). Because they feel real, the danger for them feels even more real, and that’s when we start to fear for them when they don’t even realize how much trouble they’re in.


Kevin Bacon is a ton of fun in this role of the corrupt Sheriff. He’s menacing but also funny, particularly in the scenes in which he realizes his car is missing, he has to steal the only car around for miles, and he has to come up with numerous ways to keep dispatchers from noticing anything out of the ordinary (and it also doesn’t help for him that he’s not very smart either). He handles it with his usual Kevin Bacon charisma. But the charisma turns to terror, especially when he bluntly tells the boys, “YOU DON’T STEAL A COP CAR!”

The cinematography, by Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Sieple, is gorgeous, delivering a vibe that’s very much Terrence Malick-esque. As the boys are walking along these empty fields and surrounded by nothing but seemingly-endless country, I can’t help but feel the location.

“Cop Car” is darkly terrific and a great thrill ride. And it taught me to never steal a cop car, especially if it’s Kevin Bacon’s.

Spotlight (2015)

13 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I wrote for a newspaper before. It was The Echo, the campus newspaper for UCA (University of Central Arkansas); I wrote for three semesters, and some of the reviews on this blog made it in the Entertainment section. (Not too shabby.) I wasn’t always writing reviews (or columns) for it, however. A requirement for writing for the paper was reporting on current events, either for News, Campus Life, or Sports. I thought it would be easy at first—just go in, report what I see, and make sure I name my sources and get my facts right. The more I did it, the more difficult it became. I had to get different kinds of information from sources that were either unattainable or hard to get in contact with, and I had to write the story before a certain deadline that would keep crunching down.

There. I have my campus newspaper-reporter story out of the way. Now I’m going to talk about “Spotlight,” a film about investigative journalism at its most challenging. I’m aware of the differences between my experiences in The Echo and what happens in this film (in addition to what happens in big newspaper businesses in real life). I just thought I’d mention it here to state that if I thought it was hard writing an article about a heart-disease lecture or Green Week on Campus (among others) for The Echo, I hadn’t done anything yet.

“Spotlight” is one of the best films about newspaper reporting, if not the absolute best. It focuses on a particular story that our main characters—a team of investigative reporters—are trying to dig up over a long period of time. It begins with the team’s interest in the story and it ends with the story being published, meaning the main storyline of “Spotlight” involves the process of getting the story.

“Spotlight” involves the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team—editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They’re a small group of journalists who write in-depth investigative articles after spending months conducting an abundant amount of research. In 2001, their new story comes after the Globe’s new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), learns of a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represented numerous families alleging their children were sexually abused by Catholic priests. Baron wants the Spotlight team to investigate. Rezendes meets with Garabedian, who reluctantly tells him that there’s much more going on here than meets the eye. The Spotlight team interviews victims and lawyers, and it becomes clear that this isn’t just a 4-13 case number. It’s a widespread conspiracy, with at least 90 cases of scandal and cover-up. The team realizes how risky it is to go after such a powerful institution as the Catholic Church, but they go ahead with the story anyway, spending months to get the full scoop and expose the truth.

“Spotlight” is based on actual events—in early 2002, Spotlight published the story and it triggered a storm that caught the attention of both the country and the world. The whole film is seen through the perspective of this team of journalists, and the audience discovers what they uncover, through conducting interviews, following leads, and so on. Much of the film takes place in the newsroom, and so you get a sense that this is their life (we only get glimpses of their home lives, because the film is less about character than about the job). Director Tom McCarthy (director of small indie favorites such as “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, has a great eye for the material and makes the wise decision of approaching it with tact and realism without resorting to melodrama. He gets the journalists’ intrigue within the investigation and uses it with respect.

The characters are secondary to the most important aspect of the film, which is to show the harrowing process of this type of investigative journalism. But it takes great acting from those portraying the journalists to really sell it. Thankfully, the ensemble acting is nothing short of brilliant. Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, d’Arcy James, and Schreiber look and feel exactly right for their roles, right down to their mannerisms (for example, I love how McAdams keeps scribbling notes as she walks away from a property she got kicked out of). Plus, they undersell certain scenes that would be overly emotional; they play it like any regular person absorbing new, disturbing information would. You can tell they’re upset by what they uncover, but they’re taking it in rather than breaking down and throwing things across the room in anger. There’s only one blow-up scene in which Ruffalo gets angry and explodes, but even that’s not overdone. Speaking of Ruffalo, he’s perfect as an intensely aggressive reporter who won’t stop until he gets what he needs—he earned his Oscar nomination. In fact, the whole cast should’ve been nominated; not just Ruffalo and McAdams. (Seriously, Academy—the Indie Spirit Awards have an Ensemble Acting award, and you should too.)

Even though there were too few occasions where I could see myself in these characters, having worked on a smaller paper for a brief period of time, I could recognize close to everything as being true to life. It makes me wonder how I would feel if I was working for this paper and working with this team and getting this particular story. I will tell you this: it would’ve made me proud to fight with giants and do whatever it takes to get the word out and expose the truth. I feel the passion in the Spotlight team and it makes me glad there are more investigative journalists out there fighting to remove the curtains behind which people hide with their dark injustices.

“Spotlight” was one of the best films of 2015—I really wish I knew that when I did my “2015 Review.” I put it in the Honorable Mentions when it should’ve been placed as #2 on my Top-10-of-2015 list. Watching it again and reviewing it now, I recognize my mistake and attempt to take it back with a four-star rating and nothing but praise for this brilliant film. (And hey, it won the Best Picture Oscar, so there’s that too.)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 2 (2015)

12 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Previously on Smith’s Verdict…

From the “Mockingjay—Part 1” review—“[Mockingjay—Part 1”] is hard to criticize except to say it’s not a complete film. I’m rating it three stars, with it amounting to an optimistic ‘incomplete’ status. It’s just a film leading us into ‘Part 2,’ and is it is, it’s worthwhile for audiences and fans of the original source material. […] ‘Mockingjay Part 2’ has the potential to be great.”

I get why “Mockingjay,” the third book in the “Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins, was split into two movies. For one thing, it’s a long book, and only the biggest “Hunger Games” fans would pay to see a 3+ hour long movie based on it. And for another, making two films was an opportunity for the studio to make double the amount of money it would make if it were just one film. (It’s a move that I honestly think is unnecessary—see the unfortunate mess the “Divergent” series is in.) Yes, it is a long book, but most readers will agree it moves at a snail’s pace. I give credit to the writers for adapting it as close to the source material as they could to please the fans, but I think “Mockingjay” would have been stronger as one film, if they took a few elements from “Part 1” (including the ending) and trimmed a little bit of “Part 2,” “Mockingjay” would have been as strong as “The Hunger Games” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

With that said, “Mockingjay—Part 2” is a solid conclusion to what has always been a riveting film series. It’s well-paced, it ties up loose ends, and it ends brilliantly (I’ll get to that later). This entry is bleaker than the other two, which is necessary, since it takes us to the fight to the end between dystopian rule and rebellion. Not everything is going to be easy; if it were, there wouldn’t be as many deaths.

“Part 2” of course picks up where “Part 1” left off, with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), after being rescued from the devious Capitol, unexpectedly choking his former lover, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Peeta has been brainwashed to believe that everything the Capitol is doing is largely because of Katniss’ actions. Distressed by this, Katniss agrees to join a group assault on the Capitol, so she can finally confront and possibly assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

One of the things that strikes me about this film is how complicated it is in its story. Peeta believes Katniss is the cause of so much destruction and is only making the Capitol worse. What’s strange is, in a way, he’s right. But Katniss does what she does in the name of survival and is trying to hold on to what she has, as well as a good moral center—but the problem is, she doesn’t always know what’s best and even though she sometimes goes against what she’s told to do by her allies, she knows her allies’ advice isn’t the best decision either. That is a strong asset to this movie—it shows the complications of doing the right thing in this corrupt, violent society, and it’s never clear exactly what the right thing is. What matters in this world are survival and holding onto your moral center as much as possible.

This is as much a credit to Jennifer Lawrence’s brilliant work as an actress, but I like how you can see Katniss’ inner struggle to do what she can and must in this insane world she didn’t make. On top of that, she’s made up to be a symbol to the media—someone who did something rebellious and paved the way for the Resistance. So now, the President of the Resistance, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), wants to use her as a decoy for others to move in ahead of her, but as the raid continues, she’s less interested in becoming a martyr and a decoy than becoming a savior and a heroine. And then, when something horrible happens to one of her loved ones, you’re not sure how she’s going to react/retaliate (that is, unless you read the book).

Other critics complain that “Mockingjay—Part 2” starts off at a slow pace. On the one hand, I can see what they mean. But on the other hand, I don’t mind because I see the turmoil these people are going through before the big raid on the Capitol, and it’s fascinating to see how their minds work. This film needed that time to build things up, so I could feel what they were feeling. And no, there isn’t a lot of action (and a few action scenes are scattered far apart), but I think people misunderstand—this isn’t the epic-battle conclusion in the same way “The Return of the King” was for “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Deathly Hallows” was for “Harry Potter”; it’s still a conclusion, but it’s one that uses wits instead of weapons. The final half-hour of the film isn’t a big, bombastic action climax—it’s a battle of brains. It leads to an unexpected resolution that I honestly commend this film for delivering us instead of taking the easy way out.

If you read my reviews of the previous “Hunger Games” movies, you know I’m not a fan of Gale (Liam Hemsworth). So, something I was interested in while seeing this final chapter was how this love triangle between him, Katniss, and Peeta was going to work out. I won’t give away what becomes of Gale, but I will say it only reinforces my statement that Gale was an unnecessary character. (But on the plus side, nothing too big was made of the “love triangle”; it’s played in a mellow way.)

The action scenes are very well-done, with solid direction by Francis Lawrence. There are scenes of combat that are brutally tense, but the highlight of the film is an “Aliens”-like sequence in which the rebels fight for their lives in a sewer tunnel against Capitol-trained man-monster things. That was a very chilling scene that had me on the edge of my seat.

I appreciated “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2” for making a tough point about the moral uncertainty of war in the midst of providing a conclusion most of us have been waiting for. It’s not an action-packed thrill ride, but it’s not supposed to be. If you’re willing to dig beneath the surface of the story, you’ll find that it’s saying deeper than expected.

The Final Girls (2015)

14 Oct


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Final Girls” wants to be both a satire and a loving homage to ‘80s slasher horror films, but I don’t recall any “Friday the 13th” or “Sleepaway Camp” film (and yes, I’ve seen my share of those films) with a universe so…colorful. Let me explain—“The Final Girls” is about a bunch of modern teenagers who are magically transported into the world of an ‘80s slasher film they were watching, and this new dimension is the mid ‘80s in full Technicolor. The flowers are artificially colored, the leaves are brightly green, the characters wear bright colors, and so on. This is more like “Hot Tub Time Machine’s” interpretation of the ‘80s than, say, “The House of the Devil.” (Both “The Final Girls” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” apparently picked the same ‘80s year too: 1986. Odd coincidence.)

But no one should be complaining too much, because the overly-retro look of the exaggerated movie-‘80s adds to the fun. We can associate it with the ‘80s, and that’s good enough. “The Final Girls” is meant to be a spoof rather than a genuine horror film. And while it lampoons its own nostalgic callbacks with self-awareness, it embraces them with admiration too. We get the stereotypes (the jock, the slut, the token minority, etc.) lined up for slaughter by a silent, demented killer in a secluded summer camp, accompanied by present-day young people who observe the madness.

The main character of “The Final Girls” is Max (well-played by the appealing Taissa Farmiga), a college student whose mother (Malin Akerman) played one of the many victims in a popular mid-‘80s slasher film, entitled “Camp Bloodbath.” A year after her mom dies in a car accident, Max reluctantly agrees to appear at a “Camp Bloodbath” retrospective as a favor to Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), the nerdy stepbrother of Max’s sarcastic hipster friend Gerty (Alia Shawkat, “Arrested Development”) who arranges the screening at a local theater. Accompanying Max, Duncan, and Gerty are Max’s sensitive-jock crush, Chris (Alexander Ludwig), and an unwelcome Vicki (Nina Dobrev), who can’t seem to get over the fact that she and Chris are broken up. Soon after the movie starts, the theater is caught on fire, and the five kids try to escape behind the screen. They realize too late they have actually escaped through the screen and into the movie itself.

They find that the movie plays on a loop and the only way to get out of it is to go through it with the central characters. This proves to be a difficult task, as things seem too real in this world, especially the killer who waits in the woods for the perfect (and appropriate—or inappropriate) moments to strike. Now they have to try and make it through the film without becoming victims themselves.

Another difficulty in this journey is the reunion between Max and her mother—er, her mother’s character, in her early 20s. Max wants to make sure her mother doesn’t fall victim to the killer, thus trying everything possible to change the course of the film. The relationship between Max and her mother is very strong and helps bring an emotional backbone to a film that is otherwise a joyful romp. The film is surprisingly serious-minded when it comes to this aspect’s themes of loss, redemption, and fear of losing again. On top of that, both actresses play their roles very well. And this relationship also has light comedic purposes, such as Max having to play mother to her own mother, whose character is eager to lose her virginity to the class-A horn dog Kurt (Adam DeVine), which will of course result in her murder by the on-looking killer. That’s funny, but it’s also emotional when you consider that she feels the need to protect her from the hardships of the real world.

One of the film’s running gags is that these five central millennial characters have to play practical parental roles to these ‘80s-movie archetypes such as teaching the airhead slut Tina (Angela Trimbur), And these types are more than exaggerated, which should irritate me but strangely left more of an impact on me as it went on. Maybe it had to do with the context of 2015 archetypes going through all this—somehow, it makes me wonder what people are going to make of this young generation decades from now. What would they see in us (or in our movies) that we simply don’t see ourselves today?

Wow, I just wrote myself into a philosophical topic in a review of a broad comedy.

You know what? I’ve said enough. Check out “The Final Girls.” It’s entertaining. It’s funny. It’s cute. It’s even touching at times. It’s well-written, and it’s worth nothing one of the writers was Joshua John Miller, whose father was Jason Miller (well-known as Karras of “The Exorcist” fame); maybe he developed the character of Max as a way of dealing with his own parental loss. And of course, it’s very colorful. Metaphorically and literally.

The Martian (2015)

12 Oct


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Martian” has an intriguing premise: an astronaut is left behind on Mars after a fierce storm caused his crew to believe he was dead. Now he’s alone and stranded on a desolate planet and must rely on his skill, inner strength, and wit to survive and find a way to contact Earth. From there, it’s a question of whether or not he can leave Mars and get home.

One of the biggest pleasures of this science-fiction drama, based on the novel by Andy Weir, is the humor that allows itself within it. It’s relatively realistic and believable in its science (at least, for me—I’m not a scientist) and its dramatic moments are warranted and very effective. But at the end of the movie, it’s easy to realize it was still a lot of fun. The film has a sense of humor, with a clever, sharp script, which requires the characters to say many witty lines of dialogue.

Some examples:

  • “Mars will come to fear my botany powers,” states astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) when he realizes he has to “grow food on a planet where nothing grows.” Luckily, he’s a botanist.
  • “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”
  • “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
  • At the time NASA officials finally realize one of their astronauts is stranded on Mars, one of them (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) wonders “what this does to a man psychologically.” The immediate cut back to Mars results in probably the funniest moment in the movie (which I will not reveal here).

I wasn’t surprised by this welcome comic angle to what would otherwise be just a tense, dark sci-fi thriller when I realized who wrote the screenplay—Drew Goddard, who wrote and directed the delightfully entertaining “The Cabin in the Woods.” However, I was surprised to find it was directed by Ridley Scott, who has made films such as “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” and “Prometheus,” neither of which are as cheerful or even as adventurous or hopeful as “The Martian.” I still like those movies, but I kind of appreciated this change of pace more.

And that’s really what it comes down to, more than the movie being humorous—it’s hopeful. The main character is an optimist. Even though he’s trapped on a desolate planet with very few resources on hand, he simply states, “I’m not going to die here.” So he does everything possible to make sure everything’s going to be fine (and also that he believes it himself). Even when things are at their darkest and he starts to doubt himself, he knows that it’s better to die fighting than not try to survive. I admire stories that show how a lone survivor in a dire situation copes with seclusion (like “Cast Away,” “Gravity,” “127 Hours,” “Touching the Void,” among others), and “The Martian” has a real good share of challenges, both internally and externally, and they’re all captivating.

The film cuts back and forth from Mark’s experiences on Mars to the many attempts of NASA on Earth seeking to find a way to save him. A month after mission controller Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) and NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) made the news of Mark’s death public, they do become aware of his survival, and they find ways to communicate as they race to find a solution to the problem. This is, of course, after stick-in-the-mud PR director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) mentions how bad it would make NASA look if they announced they were wrong about Mark’s death—nice sense of priorities there. (Commentary!) The film also cuts to Mark’s crew in space (played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie), as they realize what’s happened as well and have to make a choice to either defy authority to turn around and go back for Mark or continue straight on to Earth and hope for the best.

Another statement about the humor—it’s low-key. The film doesn’t lose sight of the urgency of the situation at hand, but it also knows to lighten up at times, which I greatly appreciated. But the main reason it works perfectly in a story that would otherwise be a dark, deep, depressing exploration of a man’s awareness in a remote area is because these characters feel like real people. Many of the things they say feel like what most of us would say, even the one-liners; in fact, especially the one-liners—most of us like to joke in order to relieve ourselves of some stress at times. (I know I do.) The scenes in which Mark expresses himself in his video logs leave opportunity for this humor to shine in particular. Even in the scenes set on Earth, even though they’re not widely comedic, they are played with a relaxed susceptibility.

I could relate to Mark easily; he feels like a real, likable, easy-going person and not merely a plot device. A lot of credit for that goes to Matt Damon, who turns in one of his truly best turns in a long career of strong performances (right up there with “The Departed” and “Good Will Hunting”). He shines brightly in a movie in which he’s allowed to, having only himself to work with. He has to portray every emotion imaginable in this ordeal—fear, optimism, enjoyment, hopelessness, anxiety, agony, whatever…and he does it all brilliantly. There isn’t a false note in this performance at all.

Of course, I can’t talk about a movie set on Mars without talking about the look—Mars looks suitably unwelcoming as is expected, the special effects are top-notch, and the visuals are nicely done. What else can I say? But then again, what all do I want to say? The effects aren’t the focus of the movie, which is always a refreshing change of pace for a sci-fi film.

I mentioned “The Martian” in my “2015 Review” post. I said, “With this and the new Star Wars film, maybe now we’re moving toward an era where our sci-fi blockbusters can have characters most of us optimistic wiseasses can actually relate to.” What I meant was, if these movies can continue to have their characters say things most general audiences would say if they were in the same situations, that makes the characters more relatable and therefore more sympathetic, and therefore they make us more willing to care for them. Keep this up, filmmakers of mainstream blockbusters, and we’ll be out of a cinema slump that people on the Internet claim we’re living in. (By the way, guys, that’s not true—just keep looking for movies like this one.)