Archive | 2015 RSS feed for this section

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#4

28 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash

4) INSIDE OUT (2015)

Disney/PIXAR, what have you given us this decade? “Toy Story 3,” “Toy Story 4,” “Coco”–all of them are great. “The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2” and “Cars 3”–never saw them, saved my money for “Incredibles 2,” which was really good (albeit very late to the party). Brave–eh. “Monsters University”–not bad. “Finding Dory”–very good.

Disney/PIXAR has had some ups and downs these past 10 years, but that doesn’t matter…because this decade, they also gave us Inside Out, one of the best Disney films I’ve ever seen and probably the best Pixar film I’ve seen too (right up there with “Up” and “Toy Story 2”).

It has an interesting idea–the emotions we feel are manifested by our own inner universes–and it’s able to do just about everything great that can be done with it. The personalized emotions that help make a girl named Riley who she is are Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Joy is the chief emotion, which constantly throws her overboard whenever Sadness wants to step in and ruin core emotions with her very touch. As Riley moves from Minnesota to California with her parents, Joy has to help her make the best of it. But something goes wrong, and Joy and Sadness are ejected from the master controls. Fear, Anger, and Disgust try to take charge in the meantime, resulting in Riley snapping at her parents, not trying to make new friends, and even thinking about running away. Joy and Sadness have to work together in order to make their way back to the control room to settle Riley’s emotional state.

Brilliant. Bright. Funny. Imaginative. Profound. Moving. Sometimes sad. All of these adjectives can be used to describe the power of “Inside Out.”

This world is amazing. Memories are created and stored in collections of glass spheres, whether they’re short-term, long-term, or forgotten entirely. And there are also theme parks connected with one another, with the themes being dreams, nightmares, her favorite sport (hockey), imagination, and so on. It’s amazing to see how this “world” inside a person’s head works. There’s a dark abyss where forgotten memories are stored and eventually fade away, a dream-land that resembles a Hollywood studio where actors act out Riley’s dreams and nightmares, and all sorts of inventive components. As Joy and Sadness go on this journey through the subconscious, they encounter many strange things like abstractness, fears, daydreams, and even a forgotten imaginary friend, named Bing Bong (Richard Kind).

But the story and character development are just as impressive as the environment they’re set in. It balances funny and dramatic perfectly, as we laugh at the insane inventiveness of how this world works and how some of the emotions run it (or try to run it), but more importantly, we learn something that most of us don’t like to think about: the importance of the emotion of sadness. This is exactly what the overall film is about: balance. Joy and Sadness have to learn to get along, and Joy constantly pushes her aside because she feels Riley doesn’t need her, but over time, she realizes that not only do they have to work together but that Sadness is more important to the team of emotions than anyone would give her credit for–in fact, Joy learns in a brilliant scene late in the film that Joy and Sadness are essential together.

What I really love about this development is that the film stays true to its own message it’s been pushing all along: that it’s OK to be sad because that’s part of growing up. In order to adapt, we need all of our emotions in order to get through whatever. There are many things in life we can’t get back, and “Inside Out” knows that. Instead of bringing back many elements from the first couples acts of the story, they stay gone and are replaced with new ones, because that’s part of the process of coming of age. For a Disney film to play this message of stuff-happens-and-you-gotta-deal-with-it, this is pretty gutsy and very much appreciated.

I would love to see a sequel to “Inside Out” that shows the difficulties of Riley growing up, but I would also love to see spinoffs with other people and their emotions trying to cope with whatever change comes their way.

I love “Inside Out.” I wanted this to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars–I already knew it was a dead lock for Best Animated Feature, but that’s beside the point. This isn’t merely the best animated film of the decade–it’s one of the best films, period.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#16

3 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite

16) SPOTLIGHT (2015)

I could begin this post four different ways–I could mention how strange it was that writer-director Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning “Spotlight” was released within the same year as his turkey “The Cobbler” or that “Spotlight” didn’t make my best-of list for that year (2015) and yet it’s on my best-of list for the decade or that it means something when a film has a bigger impact on you after subsequent viewings…or that it’s the only Best Picture Oscar winner on my list (with all due respect to other winners like “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” “Argo,” and “Moonlight,” all of which I really like and admire).

When I first saw “Spotlight” in a theater, I was already in kind of a surly mood with much on my mind. So while I could recognize its first-rate dialogue-driven screenplay, brilliant understated acting, and equally understated directing, its dramatic impact didn’t quite hit me. But because of all of those reasons I could recommend the film, I listed it as an Honorable Mention in my 2015 Review because I did recognize its potential even though there were 10 films I felt I liked better.

It wasn’t until I watched the film again on DVD, alone in my room, and with an open mind that I realized just how excellent “Spotlight” was and that it deserved a high ranking on my best-films-of-2015 list.

Based on actual events, “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.

So what is it about “Spotlight,” a film about the process of investigative reporting, that moves me deeply? Why is it on my decade-end list? What is there to this film that is mostly directed with a down-to-earth low-key tone, extended amounts of dialogue exchanges, and very little characterization?

Ambition. Drive. Drama. Nerve. Credibility. Passion. To name a few.

It’s one of the best movies about what it means to be a reporter. You see all the hard work that’s put into investigating a story–all the research, all the interviewing, all the pushing of people who will give a reporter the time to talk to them, all the doors being slammed in their faces, all the detective work put into the struggles, all the hours spent into it all, and determination to see it through no matter how long it takes. And it’s a story that’s worth following–these people learn how deep this conspiracy goes, that so many horrible people have used the cloth to manipulate and molest children…and so many other people did nothing about it. It’s also just not enough that a few priests and lawyers are exposed for their wrongdoings (there are already some survivor’s groups that are formed and not enough people are even interested about that). They need to get the full scoop and every possible resource that will prove all guilt. It’s great that these hard-working journalists see it through.

The film is based on a true story. There is a Spotlight team for the Boston Globe and they did print a story that exposed a lot of hidden crime within communities, which caused more victims/survivors to speak out. Tom McCarthy and his crew were able to enlist the assistance of the actual Spotlight team members that are dramatized for this film. In fact, Mark Ruffalo even asked his character’s real-life counterpart (Michael Rezendes) to say his lines for him so he could capture his speech patterns, body language, and other mannerisms. (And in a baseball game scene, you can even see the real Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Walter Robinson in the background)

In “Spotlight,” we don’t see much of the characters outside of work, and so we don’t know them very well either. But while on the job, we still feel their passions for digging for truth, getting the word out, and helping people. With Steven Spielberg’s 2017 critically-praised journalism drama “The Post,” an obvious comparison, the elements are reversed. There is more characterization at work with “The Post,” but what I don’t feel in that film that I do with “Spotlight” is the drive and ethics behind investigative journalism, which made it more fascinating and worth caring about.

The film is carried by McCarthy’s low-key direction, the effectively convincing acting from everyone on-screen, and McCarthy & co-writer Josh Singer’s gripping dialogue structure, and as a result, “Spotlight” feels real and powerful but not in the ways I would expect. It’s easy to make a film like this and insert a lot of melodramatic elements, like a lot of angry screaming matches or even (God forbid) some type of throwaway assassin hired by the community to prevent the Spotlight team from seeing this thing through. But instead, “Spotlight” is powerful because it simply tells the story that needed to be told as it was. Whenever the team interviews victims, their stories are hard to listen to, and even though their words speak to these reporters, all they can do is sit and listen–and you know in their minds they’re thinking about how serious this all is, and they’re probably sweating from their pits that very moment. That’s what I mean–it’s very quiet that way. The only time one of the Spotlight crew truly breaks and loses his temper is late in the film, when Rezendes is convinced that they have all the pieces together and need to print the story right away, but Robinson isn’t going to rush it. “IT’S TIME!” Rezendes snaps. “THEY KNEW! AND THEY LET IT HAPPEN! TO KIDS!!” This scene was criticized for feeling out of place (probably to earn Ruffalo his Oscar nomination), but it doesn’t bother me at all. It feels like that anger was building up inside throughout the whole film and so it seemed inevitable that it would explode in an isolated incident. If Rezendes didn’t say anything, someone else probably would have.

“Spotlight” is a wonderful film, and I wish I had recognized it as such when I first saw it. But now, I can’t deny that it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this decade. The acting, the directing, the writing, the editing, even the subtly solemn music score (by Howard Shore)–everything about it is top-notch. And I applaud it for being a film that reminds us that whenever something is horribly wrong in the world, there’s always going to be a group of people to do something about it.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#20

27 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Another decade comes to an end, which means it’s time for movie lovers such as myself to look back at all of the movies released within the decade and narrow down which ones stood out the most for them. And if you look at my ridiculously long list of “honorable mentions,” you’ll see that it was tough for me to single out even an extra 30 for a top-50, let alone a top-20–but there are 20 movies I DIDN’T mention, and those are the selections I will be looking at one-by-one.

Let’s begin with my #20 choice–one of the greatest, most riveting, most brilliantly made, and yes, most financially/critically successful action movies to ever grace the silver screen:

20) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

“OH WHAT A DAY! WHAT A LOVELY DAY!”

George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” is awesome. There’s no other way to put it. It’s simply awesome in every aspect I can think of. Miller waited 30 years since 1985’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (which I still like, maybe more than I should) to bring “Mad Max” big to cinemas. Now, with a new cast and more resources thanks to a bigger budget, he has created “Mad Max: Fury Road,” in a few ways a sequel but in other ways a reboot. Either way you look at it doesn’t matter–at least, it didn’t matter to me. It’s one of the greatest action movies I’ve ever seen.

In this high-octane, unbelievably effective post-apocalyptic tale, set in a harsh desert wasteland where civilization has collapsed, Tom Hardy struggles to survive as the title role. Water is precious. Freedom is a long ways away. And everyone needs gasoline to fuel their many awesome-looking vehicles that brave the desert from time to time. That’s really the only setup we need for a story that’s as straightforward as they come.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is a two-hour chase movie. It begins as a loner, Max, is captured by a warlord named Immortan Joe and his bloodthirsty pack of “war boys” to be one of their blood donors to fuel them and ready them for battle. But as Furiosa (Charlize Theron) defies Immortan Joe and flees with Immortan Joe’s five wives to release them from captivity and deliver them to a better place far from him. One of the “war boys,” Nux (Nicholas Hoult), joins his pack along a manhunt in stopping Furiosa, bringing Max with him. After losing the others in one hell of a sandstorm (mixed with lightning!), Max joins forces with Furiosa, Nux is put into the mix as well, and they work together to avoid Joe’s cronies before fighting them off in the name of freedom for them all.

Lots of pyrotechnics, impressive visual storytelling, amazing gadgets and vehicles built for the setting, a badass hero, and a deadly atmosphere to combat it all–all of that is what “Mad Max: Fury Road” delivers for us. The CGI is used to add layers to the environment and is not cartoonishly over-the-top, and the editing isn’t as fast and incomprehensible in the same way Michael Bay makes millions of dollars with his mindless action flicks. Here, a lot of the setting is practical, computers are used to make it look more fitting (with a lot of oranges and reds to create a color scheme that spells out what this environment is like), and we’re also treated to long tracking shots to get a feel for where we are–a great counterbalance for the crazy closeups that often appear to show the characters’ determinations. But the badass hero isn’t Max after all–it’s Furiosa. She’s the one with purpose, determination, a plan, and numerous ways of gaining the upper hand–and Theron has to play the role with minimal dialogue, using mostly her facial expressions to constantly get across what kind of person she is and what she’s up to. Despite having the title role in four movies (he is “The Road Warrior” after all), Mad Max has never really been the most important part of this franchise’s environment anyway–it’s always been the world around him, as well as the characters he comes across, that he interacts with that made it all interesting.

And even better–you don’t have to have seen the other “Mad Max” movies to get into this one.

Oh, and about Immortan Joe’s five wives, for whom Furiosa races to seek freedom–they’re all supermodel-like, as if they’re being prepared for a magazine shoot. At first, I wondered why this was necessary, until I realized, this is how Joe prefers to see them, as they’re often referred to as “breeders.” Thus, they flee to seek their own identity and independence. But they’re not useless either–each of them proves their worth one way or another.

So, we have Max, Furiosa, Nux, and the five women going up against Immortan Joe and his colorful baddies in one extended action scene after another in which Max and Furiosa have to devise one improvised plan after another. It’s never boring–it’s paced fantastically and with carefully chosen dialogue and some emotion to make sure we can catch our breath and learn a thing or two about them and their situation.

Oh, and there’s a blind metal guitarist whose guitar shoots flames…I don’t know why that’s a thing, but I love it!

“Mad Max: Fury Road” runs for two hours. It goes by very fast. Every time I watch it, I don’t get tired of it. I just sit back, relax, and have myself a hell of a good time.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Bridge of Spies (2015)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Steven Spielberg, one of my personal favorite directors working today, has had seven feature films released this decade: “The Adventures of Tintin,” “War Horse,” “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The BFG,” “The Post,” and “Ready Player One.” What do I think of them?

“The Adventures of Tintin” is good fun; “War Horse” is flawed but mostly powerful; “Lincoln” looks/feels great but I’d come back more for Daniel Day Lewis’ lead performance than anything else; “The BFG” is cute enough; “The Post”…I’ll probably see that one again to be fair, because it didn’t do much for me when I saw it before (but everyone else seems to love it); and “Ready Player One” is also good fun. But the one I have the most admiration for is “Bridge of Spies,” a historical drama made with just about as much grit, conviction, style, and intrigue as Spielberg’s “Munich” and “Amistad.”

What makes this one even more interesting? Spielberg works with a script by the Coen Brothers! I’m down!

Set during the Cold War, when Americans and Russians sent spies to each other’s country in paranoia of each other’s nuclear capabilities, the film follows a New York insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), who is hired to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for this performance), who’s been charged for spying for the Soviet Union. Believing Abel deserves a fair trial he most likely won’t get if he doesn’t take the job, he agrees to his case. He’s not able to get his client a “Not Guilty” verdict, but his arguments spare Abel the death penalty because Abel is an honorable servant to his country and he might be useful for a future prisoner exchange. And a prisoner exchange might just be in store, as in a parallel storyline, CIA pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is captured by the Soviets after being shot down in their territory (and failing to hit the self-destruct and/or kill himself, as instructed to do if he were ever caught). So, Donovan is asked to travel to Berlin and talk the KGB and East German representatives into a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers.

All of what I’m describing to you sounds simple, but it’s more complicated than that. Donovan tries his best to defend Abel fairly, while the CIA urges him to push Abel to reveal what he knows, despite Abel being loyal to his country. Donovan becomes one of the most hated men in the country for defending a Soviet spy–his family home even has shots fired upon with his family inside (no one gets hurt, though). We’re told all the stakes for Powers and his fellow CIA recruits if there’s any chance of capture. The CIA thinks a letter from Abel’s wife contains a hidden USSR message. And this is before Donovan goes to East Berlin to meet with the KGB in the Soviet Embassy only to end up with another exchange, this time it’s Abel for an arrested American student for political purposes.

And on and on and on. “Bridge of Spies” is loaded with exposition, as dialogue drives a great deal of the story. You need three key elements to make it work: a great director, hugely talented actors, and more importantly, a sharply written screenplay.

Well, let’s see, we have a screenplay revised from playwright Matt Charman to Joel & Ethan Coen, whose (arguably-) greatest strength is their flair for words. Check one.

Tom Hanks is top-notch as always playing Donovan who knows all the right things to say to get his points across, which for the most part work. Check two.

And Spielberg is on his A-game. Check three.

That’s not to say the entire film is focused on dialogue. Being a Spielberg film, he has unique imagery in his work. For example, there’s an effective contrast between children playing along the newly constructed Berlin Wall and Brooklyn children playing in their backyard (both occur as Donovan looks from the window of an elevated train in both countries), thus reminding him of the freedoms that America is best known for. And there’s a standout scene that shows Powers and his plane being shot down in Soviet territory–everything about this scene is wonderfully executed. It’s exciting, well-crafted, and looks scarily real.

But much of “Bridge of Spies” is dialogue-driven, and in that respect, it also works wonders. It’s a spy cat-and-mouse game, an urban drama, and a conspiracy thriller all rolled into one, and with this director, actor, and team of screenwriters, it’s all highly satisfying. Thank you, Spielberg–you still got it.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: ‘Twas the Night of the Krampus (Short Film) (2015)

29 Oct

By Tanner Smith

If you recall my “Stuck” post, I mentioned that one of the “Stuck” director’s classmates (still anonymous) confided in me that he was jealous because he felt his undergrad thesis film was far better than his own. Well…this time, I myself am that classmate.

The year I wrote and directed my own undergrad thesis film at the University of Central Arkansas, I was jealous of another undergrad film from one of my classmates. The writer/director was Donavon Thompson. The film: “‘Twas the Night of the Krampus.”

My film, “Sassy & the Private Eye,” was a fun, goofy action-comedy about a private detective helping a Sasquatch clear his name of murder. Thompson’s film, “‘Twas the Night of the Krampus,” was a fun, goofy action-comedy about a badass Santa Claus fighting the demonic Krampus. We had respect for each other’s visions, we often showed our work to each other because we wanted to know how the other was doing, and both of our finished films screened at the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival. But even so, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that “‘Twas the Night of the Krampus” was better in just about every way.

Thompson’s film had better writing (and funnier one-liners). It took more advantage of its premise (right down to the holiday-appropriate costumes, production design, and props, such as a white pistol with red stripes like a candy cane–oh, and a candy-cane sword as well!). It had more heart to it, with the story of overcoming grief and loss at its surprisingly emotional center.

My film had unnecessary profanities, a hackneyed character arc about respect, a pitiful excuse for a “mystery,” and “shock” humor that I simply wasn’t able to pull off in writing or in execution. (Don’t believe me? Watch it here. If you like it, that’s fine. I personally don’t like it.)

“‘Twas the Night of the Krampus,” even watching it now, is still a good deal of fun–from the opening loving homage to “Lethal Weapon” to the kickass battle with kick-ass Santa (Johnnie Brannon) and his (robotic-)right-hand elf (Matt Mitchell) versus the villainous Krampus (Xavier Udochi) to the closing-credits rendition of “Please Come Home for Christmas” that I can’t deny warms my heart.

But as was the case with “Stuck,” I now have to find something to pick on about the film, just to show I’m playing as fair as can be. It’s too easy to pick on continuity errors, such as a clock that tells different times in between cuts–as a student filmmaker, I can identify. So, I guess I’ll simply have to mock the unimaginative design of the Krampus. They shoot him in shadow to make him appear more menacing, but it still looks like they draped an actor in black and put a long black wig on him. And also, there’s the Krampus’ defeat…I get that there was so much Thompson and his crew could do, but still…this is hard for me, guys, you have to understand.

Also, here’s a side-note: Sam (Kandice Miller), one of Santa’s elf assistants, originally had a bigger role in early drafts of the script. Due to severe cuts demanded by our film professor, Sam’s role is simply reduced to…the “you should take a look at this” cliche. She tries to have some semblance of character in the “master-control” scene, but Santa persists in interrupting her before she can begin her sentences…thus, I have this joke I often said aloud when reviewing the rough cuts in class: “Shut up, Sam! How dare you try to have a role in this film?”……..Shut up, past-Tanner–you wrote a script about a Sasquatch and a private eye, and you couldn’t even make that funny.

Oh, and imagine our surprise when we learned there would be a “Krampus” feature film to released later that year, in time for Christmas.

“‘Twas the Night of the Krampus” is an entertaining short, and I’m glad Thompson was able to pull it off.

To conclude this piece, I share my one contribution to the film. During pre-production, Thompson told cinematographer Nikki Emerson that he wanted the film to have a “Lethal Weapon” sort of vibe, visually. So I lent her my collection of “Lethal Weapon” DVDs, since I was hanging out with her at the time.

The amusing, rousing, fun short film about saving Christmas is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FX0zFpA1xbs

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Whisperers (Short Film) (2015)

29 Oct

Untitled.png

By Tanner Smith

Yes, I’m looking at another short film for my Looking Back at 2010s Films, and it’s another one produced by the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) film program. Why? Because I’ve seen a lot of them in my time at UCA and I’m hella nostalgic. So why not?

“The Whisperers” was Jason Miller’s UCA graduate thesis film, and it’s a very well-made 17-minute horror movie that emphasizes that familiar precaution we all heard as children: “be careful what you wish for.”

And here I warn you–SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT!!!

In my original review of this short film, almost five years ago, I expressed genuine interest in discussing the film’s ending. But the film hadn’t even been accepted into the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival yet, and I had just seen it as its premiere-screening at UCA, and so I could hardly analyze it. Now that it’s had its festival run and is now available on YouTube, here I go…

The story is about a pre-teenage boy, Nathan (Hayes Polk), who has to look after his obnoxious little brother, Zachary (Chance Creden), one night while their parents are out. Nathan and Zachary bicker constantly, and Nathan wants nothing more than for Zachary to just stay out of his life–a relatable sibling dynamic. So we have two little boys who are alone in a rural farmhouse at night…and there’s someone (or something) outside…whispering…

Who are the “whisperers?” What are they whispering? Well, at first, it’s too indistinct to tell, but later it becomes clear that these mysterious dark-shrouded figures (with sharp claws and rapid-moving lips) are in fact whispering (repeatedly) Nathan’s exact words for wishes of living a life without Zachary. (“I wish I was an only child,” “You are the worst brother ever,” etc.) Zachary doesn’t seem to hear them–only Nathan does. And as the whisperers come inside the house and Nathan hides himself and Zachary underneath the bed, Zachary is snatched by the whisperers, who disappear along with him! Nathan conquers a fear (set up an earlier throwaway line of dialogue) to use the family ATV to try and chase them, but he ends up running into his parents. “Where’s Zachary?” an injured Nathan asks his parents. They don’t know who Zachary is. As it turns out, the whisperers granted Nathan’s wish–Zachary had never been born and there’s no proof of his existence whatsoever.

End of story? No. This is what I really wanted to talk about before. The film concludes with an epilogue in which Nathan, now grown up (played by Mark Cluvane), revisits his parents at the old house. He goes to the room that used to be Zachary’s, which is now a study. He’s still not over what happened all those years ago, and you can safely assume that he’s never been able to let the memories fade away. This sad point is further emphasized when he retrieves from his pocket the only memento probably saved from that time: a Pog which Zachary gave to him in exchange for the confiscated Sega player the boys were fighting over earlier.  We then hear more whispers…this time, they’re of Zachary’s dialogue: “Why don’t you want to play with me?” They continue as Nathan looks mournfully at the toy faded by the time and the bedroom that was and never would be again… The End.

If the film had just ended with young Nathan’s realization that his brother is gone, it probably would have been powerful enough–a nice, chilling, effective moral lesson along the same lines as ’90s kid-horror shows such as “Are You Afraid of the Dark” and “Goosebumps.” (Fittingly enough, “The Whisperers” is set in the ’90s, hence the Pog.) But adding this extra bit at the end is, in my opinion, a stroke of genius. It’s great to see this character having grown up with the consequences of what he’s done as a child.

I mentioned before that “The Whisperers” is a well-made movie, and it is impressive, especially in hindsight. For example, the opening shot of the film pans across framed pictures on a wall–one is of a family, the other is of the two brothers. In the background, we hear the brothers fighting. As it gets physical, the picture is bumped off the wall. That brilliant example of subtle foreshadowing, especially after watching the film again, reminds me of what a careful and skilled filmmaker Jason Miller is.

He’s also thankfully not very blatant with ’90s references to match the setting. In fact, my favorite scare in the film involves the Clapper. (Does anyone still use the Clapper today? Just curious.)

11096678_10152977429008315_942132813484870391_n.jpg

“The Whisperers” began its festival run at the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival (sadly, that was the last year for LRFF) and received the award for Best Arkansas Film. It was fun to revisit the film again, and just in time for Halloween.

Check out the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFAhE9dJSvY

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Visit (2015)

24 Oct

the-visit-03

By Tanner Smith

“The Visit” was a moderate success, but for M. Night Shyamalan, “moderate” was MUCH better than what he faced with his few previous movies. (Then, over a year later, he would release an even more impressive achievement with “Split”–better than moderate.)

And it was even enough to grant him a nod for the Razzie Redeemer Award, after being nominated for (and winning) a few Razzies for said-few previous movies. (Not that the Razzies are to be taken seriously, anyway.)

I remember, it used to be fun to make fun of Shyamalan. But I never lost faith in him. I mean, this is the same guy who made three of my personal-favorite movies (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “Signs”)–I never even lost faith in him when he made one of my LEAST favorite movies (“The Last Airbender”). Even lesser films like “The Village,” “Lady in the Water,” and “The Happening” still showed many signs of a director who kept trying different, inventive things, despite what people were thinking of him. But by the time “After Earth” came around, marketing execs were so nervous about the general public’s opinion of Shyamalan that they didn’t include his name in the trailers.

Thank God it was only a rough patch. Shyamalan wanted to go back to his roots, the times of making his first films (“Praying With Anger” and “Wide Awake”) with so little money and so much faith before he got his big chance with “The Sixth Sense” and even bigger chances since then. So, he came up with a small budget and made a horror film for Blumhouse. That became “The Visit,” and thankfully, it paid off and made everyone interested in Shyamalan again.

I really like “The Visit.” It’s a fun, entertaining horror film that blends terror and comedy really well, probably better than most horror-comedies. I mean, in most horror-comedies, the laughs are there but the scares aren’t very effective–“The Visit” had a great, unique balance. But here, especially in the final act, I’m laughing loudly at what’s going on and yet at the same time I’m genuinely concerned for these two poor kids who just wanted a pleasant visit with their distant grandparents!

I know with these long movie ramblings of Looking Back at 2010s Films, I’ve been giving away endings and analyzing them…I won’t do it here. I didn’t see the twist coming, and nearly everyone in the theater with me upon first viewing didn’t either–I remember hearing everyone gasp loudly, one woman exclaim “Oh no…”, and as for me, when the twist came about, I suddenly felt the world expand around me as everyone was coming together. But even if you DO know the twist, it’s still an entertaining thrill ride–“The Visit” is yet another one of those movies you have to see more than once, which you know I love.

The faux-documentary approach (yes, faux-documentary–NOT found-footage, as everyone labeled it) works…for the most part. It seems like a documentary a young, aspiring filmmaker would make. But the problems with it are that it doesn’t always FEEL like one. The most important reason for that: the video & audio are WAY too good for what these kids supposedly have to film everything. So while I think it would be more effective if it was more realistic in that sense, I still admire the overall spirit of it.

“The Visit” wasn’t a huge success, but it was just what Shyamalan needed at that point in his career. Audiences dug it and critics liked it (well, for the most part–sheesh, Richard Roeper, calm down with the one-star review, will ya!?). And then after “The Visit,” Shyamalan made “Split,” also for Blumhouse, which was so good it certified his status as a filmmaker worth following again.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Gallows (2015)

22 Oct

Horror-2015-The-Gallows-Movie

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…I didn’t say all the films I look back upon had to be the ones I liked.

I mentioned I’m a supporter of the “found-footage/fake-documentary” angle, but I also mentioned there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it…with that said, I hate “The Gallows.”

Not only does it have the most forced explanations possible for why this film “needed” to be seen through the perspectives of the characters’ video cameras (seriously–it didn’t add a thing), not only is the writing atrocious, not only are we subjected one of the most forced plot progressions ever (for the sake of “twists” that hardly make any sense anyway)…but making Ryan the main character made this one of the most unpleasant experiences I ever had watching a movie. I detested this snot-nosed little pissant from the moment he first appeared on-screen to the moment where he finally gets his comeuppance–in a horror film, that’s a very bad decision!!

OK…let’s TRY to be fair here.

To be fair, none of the other characters are relatable or likable either. Even Reese, the typical bland, shy, charming, awkward teen we’re supposed to sympathize with, isn’t so charming after all. I would give props to the directors for not making him the lead, but…Ryan?? F**king Ryan??? WHY??

OK, enough Ryan-bashing. I did enough of that in my original Smith’s Verdict review already.

I mentioned in my review that I like the idea of a horror story taking place in a school, but I will admit there IS actually something else I like about the film. Switching from camera to camera is a given lately in found-footage movies, but the way they do it here (showing the other camera’s perspective to show what happened EARLIER, when we only heard sounds based on something that may have happened off-camera) is actually mildly effective.

Maybe I’m just jealous of this film. It was made for a small budget, independently, and then New Line Cinema picked it up for distribution, some changes were added, and it was released to theaters. And I don’t mean limited-release. I mean wide-release, multiplex, seen nationwide. That baffles me… I mean, kudos to the filmmakers who obviously had a dream, but…

Screw it, I don’t want to be too mean. And the film was already critically panned, pretty heavily.

Except from Richard Roeper, one of my favorite critics still writing today…you know what, I’m gonna look up his review of “The Gallows”…

“One of the strengths of ‘The Gallows’ is it knows how a cheery, bustling place during the daytime can become a creepy hall of horrors in the dead of night.” …That’s the opening paragraph, and I agree 100%. But let’s keep going…

“This is the kind of movie where you can anticipate the next big shock and it usually arrives right on cue, and yet it still gets you right in the gut.” Well, good for him, but when I “anticipate” the “next big shock,” it’s because I know it’s setting up for a predictable jump-scare, followed by a loud musical sting that shouldn’t even be there if it’s found-footage.

“Even with some plot holes as gaping as the Grand Canyon – OK, as gaping as POT holes in Chicago after the spring thaw – its effectiveness cannot be denied.” I disagree, but that’s the kind of Richard Roeper biting dialogue I’ve always loved.

He goes on to describe the plot and thankfully, he agrees that putting on the same play that still got a student killed years ago is a REALLY stupid idea. But… “This is the first of about 30 stupid decisions made by key characters, but what horror movie DOESN’T feature the leads doing really dumb things?”

Roeper, what are you doing to me, man? I’m starting to agree with your positive review!

“At times it makes no sense for any camera and/or phone to be recording the madness as characters shriek and run and howl and cower and yell at one another, but ‘The Gallows’ stays true to the ‘found-footage’ rule of never once stepping outside the conceit that all of this was recorded by participants in the story.” There are better found-footage movies that have better explanations as to why the cameras are consistently rolling…I can’t get into this one.

OK, so clearly, Roeper liked this movie for the same reasons I did not. (He didn’t even seem to mind Ryan as much as I did.) Film is subjective, and there are no exceptions. it would’ve been easy for Roeper to pretend he didn’t find any sort of entertainment value in this thing, just as it would’ve been just as easy for me to claim I liked it.

I will NEVER like this movie. And if I ever go see its sequel (which is already on-demand at Amazon Prime, last I checked), I’d be doing so kicking and screaming my way in. But if you do…I won’t mind.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Final Girls (2015)

15 Oct

1474240819793074470

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…I want a sequel to “The Final Girls!” Why is there still not a sequel to “The Final Girls”?? People will see it!…Or somebody will!…I will!

“The Final Girls” is a satirical horror film about a group of modern-day young adults who are magically teleported into a 1980s slasher film–think “Last Action Hero” meets “Scream.” And now, in order to see the end of the film and hopefully get back home, they have to help the ’80s protagonists fight off a mysterious masked killer. What complicates things is that one of the ’80s kids was played in reality by the deceased mother of one of the millennials, and she’s not ready to lose her again.

The film was co-written by Joshua John Miller (along with M.A. Fortin), whose father is Jason Miller, who was best-known for playing Father Karras in “The Exorcist.” I can’t help but feel like writing this screenplay was like a form of therapy for him. (And another fun fact: Joshua Miller was best-known for acting as the little punk from ’80s cult classics “River’s Edge” and “Near Dark”–I know he plays different characters, but c’mon, he’s still the same little jerk in each film.)

But even with its heart, it’s still a horror-comedy. Does the comedy work? Yes…for the most part. The deconstructing of the slasher-movie tropes is very well-done, including how even being genre-savvy doesn’t always save your life. The killer, named Billy, is obviously molded after Jason Voorhees and the “Black Christmas” killer (also named “Billy”). They try to work in as many types as possible for the disposable teens–the Stud, the Sexpot, the Virgin, the Final Girl, and more. And it’s also nice to see these millennial youths play parental roles to these ’80s stereotypes.

What I don’t like so much about the film is that the ’80s stereotypes don’t feel even like “’80s stereotypes.” They feel like millennials trying to play ’80s so they can have an excuse to be as impolitically correct as possible. Did they really expect me to buy Adam DeVine as a jock stud from the ’80s? Bullsh*t. I have the same problem with Angela Trimbur as the ’80s Sexpot–again, I’m not seeing as much of a type as much as someone trying to perform community theater. Even for an ’80s slasher film, you gotta try harder than this.

Though, I will say…they are more memorable than most disposable teens in real ’80s slasher films.

Speaking of which, the main characters themselves are likable enough for me to want to follow them. It’s not really an actor’s movie, but it is important to have appealing players in any film, no matter how satirical it may be. Taissa Farmiga is a fun protagonist, Alexander Ludwig is convincing as a sensitive jock, Nina Dobrev is funny as a conceited slutty type, Alia Shawkat is also funny at being Alia Shawkat, and Thomas Middleditch is irritating without being ear-numbingly so. Also, Malin Akerman as the ’80s Virgin who doesn’t know her character is played by someone’s late mother is very sweet and effective.

Again, not an actor’s movie. But give credit where it’s due.

And judging from the entertaining blooper reel at the end, it looked like everyone had a fun time making this flick. If I were involved, I’d probably have a blast too. I definitely had fun watching this film…and I’d undoubtedly have fun watching a sequel if they would just make one already!

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

12 Oct

The_Hunger_Games_Mockingjay_Part_1

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