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V/H/S/2 (2013) – V/H/S: Viral (2014)

27 Aug



Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


V/H/S: Viral

Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gallows (2015)

20 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember writing my “Unfriended” review like it was yesterday. It began with somewhat of a PSA about characterization. Let’s review: “If you’re going to make a teen slasher film without well-developed or even likable main characters, you have to have A) good commentary with an underlying theme & message, B) a clever gimmick, or C) both.” There are two types of horror-movie victims: people who make poor decisions and get severely punished for it, and one-dimensional pawns in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse who we do not care about when they die. “Unfriended” worked because while the characters could be seen as the latter for some, they were seen as the former by others who knew they were dumb teenagers—it was the film’s way of showing consequences while partaking in supernatural horror.

And now we have “The Gallows,” which has a lead character so detestable and unlikable and obnoxious that you’ll be wishing for the company of the jackass who got killed by a blender in “Unfriended.”

His name is Ryan (played by Ryan Shoos). He mocks everything and everyone he sees. He throws footballs at unpopular kids. He’s idiotic. He has no personality outside of hurtful comments. He’s the kind of stereotypical jock you usually find as a one-dimensional bully in high-school dramas, except here, he’s our hero. Good thing he’s in a horror film where he’ll surely die; at least when that happens, he’ll shut up.

Oh, and he films everything too. That’s right—“The Gallows” is another found-footage horror film in which characters record everything on their pocket cameras or their cellphones, including their imminent demises. They’re films that cost very little to make and are very profitable upon release. Some are good; others are…well, like “The Gallows,” pretty bad. Like the bad ones, there’s hardly an excuse for our characters to constantly film everything, and when there is, it’s usually nonsensical and lame. And even when they’re running for their lives, they’re still filming, causing a lot of shaky-cam that is never fun to look at. Oh, and there are also loud, sudden sound effects that couldn’t have been captured on camera, unless they knew they were making a movie and wanted to jump-scare audiences who think loud noises are scary

The film begins with home-video footage showing opening night of a high-school play called “The Gallows,” a “Crucible”-like morality tale, in a Nebraska high school in 1993. A prop malfunctions and a student is accidentally hanged. Cut to 2013, when the drama department has agreed to put the play back on. (Yeah I know, just go with it.) The actor playing the boy to be hanged is a star football player named Reese (Reese Mishler), who has a crush on his co-star, the devoted theatre student, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). Of course, his “friend” Ryan is unsympathetic and a complete jerk and tries everything to make him leave the play while also humiliate him in the process. He comes up with a plan for him and Reese to sneak into the school at night and trash the set so the play will be called off. They bring a cheerleader, Cassidy (Cassidy Erin Gifford), in on it, but soon, they, along with Pfeifer (who happens to come across them in the school), find themselves locked in as they begin to suspect that they’re not alone…

Even with an admittedly shocking reveal about one of the four characters in peril, there’s nothing particularly interesting about our bland leads. Even when it seems they’re about to take a promising turn in a possible relationship between Reese and Pfeifer, it’s cast aside to make room for more antics involving the scumbag known as Ryan and more screaming and yelling from everyone else (again, while they film everything—while we’re on the subject, there is no reason for this film to be shot in this style).

Is anything fresh about “The Gallows?” Yes, the location. Setting a horror film inside a school for the most part is an intriguing idea. It shows how a place can seem peaceful and cheery during the day and seem ominous and creepy at night. (Not to mention, it also saves money on a production designer, because the place is decorated already.)

It all comes back to Ryan. There’s a fine line between “funny” and “insulting” when it comes to creating characters that are kind of jerks, and they have to be kept in that gray area for us as an audience to care for them something even remotely bad happens to them. This is the kind of teenage douche bag that I hated in high school—not the best characterization for your horror movie lead! On top of that, the writing is awful, the terror is only mildly effective, and the found-footage gimmick doesn’t provide the slightest bit of tension, so I’m saying skip this movie like whatever school board should’ve skipped the decision to bring back a play that a child died while performing.

Project X (revised review with spoilers)

13 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are some reviews I wish I could take back if not remove them from the site altogether. There are times when I consider taking them down, but I can’t hide from the truth—I used to feel this way towards that movie and this “revised review” represents how I feel now. I originally did it with Adventureland and War Eagle, Arkansas, finding more things to praise and talk about with those titles. Then I wrote a new review for Jack, which I originally disliked and then liked after a few more viewings. Then, recently, I wrote a new review for Frailty, talking about the ending and why I don’t think it works so much now as I thought I did then. Now, I wonder—which is more embarrassing? Taking back a negative review or a positive one by reversing the feeling?

I don’t know, but I honestly can’t sit here and say that I recommend the Red Dawn remake and “Project X” anymore. It’s time to make a change.

Okay, let’s get through this quick. What’s the story? Three unpopular high-school seniors—Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown)—decide to throw a party at Thomas’ house while his parents are out of town. By throwing a “game-changer,” they believe they’ll make a name for themselves. They have someone follow them around with a camera to document history in the making: a party no one will ever forget. But as the night progresses, things spiral out of control and the party gets even wilder.

Yes, I did give “Project X” three stars in my original review, mainly because at the time, I thought this was a teen film that was going the extra mile in its debauchery and praising the overblown final act, in which the teens’ “game-changing” house party turns into a nightmare that is brought to a stop as a crazy drug dealer attacks the whole neighborhood with a flamethrower. I admit I got a laugh out of the craziness of the event (hell, I even saw it as a teenage horror film when it got to the flamethrower) and I could argue that perhaps I was ready to recommend the film, regardless of how it was made or even what it all meant. But then, I watched it again and the effect was wearing off. I was noticing more parts that were distracting. I knew there were parts of the movie I didn’t like, but watching them again only made the experience worse. The more I thought about it, the less I liked it. And the less I liked it, the more I hated it. So now that I’m writing this review, let’s rip it a new one!

To start off, the setup is preposterous. The party is thrown on Thomas’ birthday to bring out the illusion (brought on by Costa, but I’ll get to that little f*cker later) that it’s Thomas’ birthday party. Why are Thomas’ parents out of town on his birthday? Because it’s their anniversary! A forced setup if ever I heard of one!

Now, let’s get to the craftsmanship. The first-person perspective of the camera filming everything doesn’t work—it cheats a lot, as does a lot of “found-footage” movies recently, adding shots that couldn’t have been filmed from one camera. And aside from the main characters, people hardly address or complain about being filmed wherever they go (even in the boys’ locker room!). And of course, the cameraman (a Goth kid named Dax, played by Dax Flame) has to document everything, so that there will be a nice flowing narrative in editing, which would explain why there’s an extended sequence involving the boys visiting a drug dealer to buy “supplies” for the party and then steal a garden gnome for “decoration.” The garden gnome is smashed during the party and it turns out it was filled with ecstasy, which everyone goes crazy for (and on). But I’m getting ahead of myself—the craftsmanship is awful. When the film switches to the party, where everyone has pocket cameras and cellphones, we get many different perspectives, which results in a lot of unpleasant shots that glorify heavy amounts of debauchery. It’s not fun to watch and it adds to the unpleasantness of the whole experience. It also doesn’t help that it has numerous montages, set to pop songs, of everyone getting wasted and going crazy at the party, which gets tiresome and not amusing in the slightest. This is a problem with having the party take center-stage instead of be a destination: there’s very little that can be done with it. We get the familiar, predictable payoffs such as Dad’s nice car ending up in the pool and not much else. You know you’re in trouble when the “comedic highlights” involve a little person being shoved in an oven before punching guys in the testes and a nagging neighbor punching out a 12-year-old “security guard” after being tazed by him.

Now, let’s get to Costa…oh, Costa. This guy is probably the most obnoxious, annoying, offensive, crude, vulgar, pushy, creepy, insecure teenage douche bag I’ve ever seen in a teen film! In any other film, this would be funny. But here, with his constant spewing of profanities, over-the-top ranting, and homophobic and/or sexist remarks, he is not funny; he’s just repugnant. Eric Cartman, he is not. And it’s all the more depressing when you see that he’s such a negative influence on Thomas. He pushes him to do things such as invite more people to the party, take drugs, get drunk, and even the party is happening because Costa made Thomas do it. He keeps pushing Thomas to take the extra step because he manipulates him into going along with it, always stating he can handle everything when he really can’t. Thomas’ life would be a lot better without him around.

Hell, without Costa around, Thomas would adjust to high-school nicely. He’s friends with a pretty, jocky type named Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton) who Thomas clearly has feelings for (and vice versa). She comes to the party where they have a couple nice little chats and Thomas confides in Costa that he thinks he might have a shot at being with her and he’s falling in love. But then, Costa screws everything up by telling him that he had plenty of chances with Kirby and he should instead take a shot at “getting lucky” with a popular girl who he wouldn’t have had a shot with before. I don’t know if I’m angrier at Costa for his behavior, Thomas for not standing up for himself, or the filmmakers who have no deliberate payoff other than “Costa might be right.”

Even if the writers (one of which is Michael Bacall, who, to be fair, has written some funny movies previously) don’t believe in Costa’s behavior, the movie doesn’t support that notion, as Thomas comes out of his shell and starts acting as everyone else at the party because, for once, he feels popular. The movie never addresses the lack of importance of high-school popularity, especially for a senior. When it’s over, it’s over and the “fame” you felt in the halls is done for.

I’ll get to what I really hate about this after I talk about the “arbitrary climax.”

The arbitrary climax…is still a lot of fun. It’s like an intense zombie film, with the druggie, demanding his gnome back, burning down parts of the neighborhood with a flamethrower and the police trying to stop him (one cop even shoots at his pack, blowing him up), along with everyone running for their lives as houses burn and helicopters drop loads of water onto everybody. The shakiness of the camera adds some intensity to it. That is the only cool part of this movie—I’d be lying if I said I’ve seen another teen film where the party ends in a more epic fashion.

And now, let’s get to the biggest complaint I have with this movie. After all this madness and mayhem, there are no consequences! The kids have made it out alive and they go home to face the music. Are Thomas’ parents angry that he trashed the house, destroyed Dad’s car, and scared the whole neighborhood? Hard to tell, especially since all we get is a scene in which Thomas’ father, who even called Thomas a “loser” in the beginning for behaving nicely and never getting in trouble (what father is this?), actually respects his son for taking chances! I’m not even kidding—they bond over it! This is followed by the next day at school, where their classmates congratulate the three guys for the party, and Thomas manages to convince Kirby to take another chance on him, even though there’s no reason why she should. And then we get the inevitable captions, explaining what happened to everyone after the big night. Thomas and J.B. get into a little trouble, while Costa, the one who started it all and can have everything blamed on him, gets off scot-free! In fact, he even tells a news reporter that he’s planning another party! No one goes through heavy consequences or even learns anything from this experience!

Oh, and here’s a real shot to the movie’s gonads—the druggie survived after being blown up!

Now that I’ve labeled just about everything there is to know about this detestable film, let’s compare this to another “raunchy teen flick”—“Superbad.” Why does that movie work and this one doesn’t? Easy—that movie doesn’t glorify that kind of behavior; this one does. That movie shows its teenage characters learning how important it is to be themselves around their crushes; this movie declares it’s okay to be as harsh and as chauvinistic as possible because it will gain popularity and babes. That movie has likable characters; this one doesn’t. That movie shows the harsh side-effects of partying; this movie doesn’t. “Superbad” was about teenagers who thought they had to party hard in order to gain respect, and what they learned was they didn’t have to. That movie was like an anti-partying movie—do you think those guys are going to want to act that way after their crazy night? I don’t. After “Project X,” I have no doubt these kids will find themselves in deeper. They’re doomed.

I may have been way too kind to “Project X” before, but not anymore. This movie just plain sucks.

Men, Women & Children (2014)

14 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I won’t deny that our dependence on modern technology is a social problem. And to be fair, Jason Reitman’s ensemble drama “Men, Women & Children” poses an interesting question—are we so lonely in the world that we spend more time with our computers and our phones than anything (or anyone) else? This is a film that wants to be (“be,” not “make”) a profound statement on how we all, as a society, rely on social media, not to mention online gaming and pornography. Unfortunately, what should be a deep, moving, effective portrait about where we are now is reduced to a heavy-handed, overbearing, even laughable-at-times mess of a film that tries to say more than it actually is. This film is about as informative a social commentary as “Reefer Madness.”

The film, based on a novel by Chad Kulgen, is an ensemble piece, featuring many talented actors portraying the film’s many central focuses: a group of high school students and their parents who have their own tales being told here, each of them related to how technology is running his or her life. Adam Sandler is effectively low-key as Donny, a family man who is hardly satisfied with his marriage to his wife, Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), anymore, and seeks excitement from his son’s pornography. Meanwhile, Helen has a similar problem, unbeknownst to him, and their son, Chris (Travis Tope), can’t get aroused by any human sexual contact due to watching so much porn. Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), a popular cheerleader with her own website full of “modeling” photos, finds this out as she makes her advance toward him but makes up a lie to her classmates. Who’s running Hannah’s website, you may ask? It’s her mother (Judy Greer), who hopes that it will help give her daughter a career in modeling or acting. (It’s indicated that she herself took her shot at one way back when.) Hannah’s friend, Allison (Elena Kampouris), wants to be thin and gets advice from a website about anorexics; of course, this causes her to starve herself.

The campus football star, Tim (Ansel Elgort), quits the team after his mother abandoned him and his father, Kent (Dean Norris), and finds himself questioning life and existence, as well as playing an online game nonstop. He also starts a nice relationship with a wallflower girl, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who has a secret social-media account to keep her outrageously overprotective mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who keeps track of her daughter’s texts, calls, Facebook account, everything. Oh, and she also leads a discussion group where she tries to warn the parents of the neighborhood about the “evils” of online media.

While all these stories are taking place, they’re being observed by an omnipresent narrator (voiced by Emma Thompson), who I guess is supposed to be the voice of Voyager (which we cut to in space every now and then), observing with pity how mankind is becoming worse. And right there is the biggest problem of the film. The execution at work is too condescending, too arrogant, and too messy that it doesn’t leave a tragic impact as much as a dull impression. The way all of these issues are being addressed is just too much to take in, let alone take seriously. And there are far too many callbacks to Carl Segan’s “Pale Blue Dot” that the point is far gone out the window. I’m not moved; I’m just bored. And don’t even get me started on the 9/11 references.

The actors do what they can with what they have, but another problem with the film is that just about everyone is neither appealing nor interesting. And what’s worse is, by the end, their actions are both insufferable and questionable. Near the end, Patricia, who has found out about her daughter’s secret Tumblr account she uses to communicate with Tim, goes so far as to shoot Tim down (not letting him know who she really is), causing Tim to do something that is supposed to be sad and tragic but is instead annoyingly blasé. Lucky for me, I gave up around the point when Helen sees a prostitute midway through.

I really wish director Jason Reitman, who made himself a name with such effective satires as “Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno,” and “Up in the Air,” went sharper with this material and mocked the subject material in a ironic way rather than try to shock and awe us with the dangers of a modern problem. As is, I found “Men, Women & Children” to be awful and, even worse, boring. The sooner this talented director and this large talented cast can move on from this, the better.

The Purge (2013)

27 Oct


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Alive (1983)

12 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What has happened to Tony Manero? By the end of “Saturday Night Fever,” you feel that this Brooklyn wiseass has smartened up and matured enough to know there’s more to life than being a jerk and being king of the dance floor at a disco. But in its sequel, “Staying Alive” (named after the popular Bee Gees song), which catches up with Tony about five years later in Manhattan, Tony is someone we hardly recognize. And it doesn’t help that a boring, recycled plot with a PG rating replaces the hard R-rated edge of “Saturday Night Fever.” The result is a quite lame movie that didn’t need to be a sequel to “Saturday Night Fever” because we’re not seeing Tony Manero grow up; we’re just seeing John Travolta as a Broadway dancer in a series of one heavily-edited music-video-style sequence after another so that the whole movie feels like another version of “Flashdance.”

This is what Tony Manero (played again by John Travolta) has reduced to—a wimp who has lost his edge in the same way that Rocky Balboa lost his edge with “Rocky” sequel upon “Rocky” sequel. And wouldn’t you know it—this sequel was directed and co-written by Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone has made Tony into a naïve bore whose occasional smartass moments don’t define him in the slightest and apparently hasn’t learned a damn thing since the first film (remember—five years ago) about women, since he is trapped in yet another story in which he falls in love with the wrong girl instead of the girl he only sees as a pal, and then he will learn the only person who matters. And what’s worse is that he and Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes) are so good together, despite the fact the Jackie is all too patient and should probably just forget about Tony already, that you just want to smack Tony for not only going to score with the other girl, a snobby, experienced British dancer named Laura (Finola Hughes), but constantly staying sweet and making promises he can’t keep to Jackie who deserves better.

What about the real story? It’s dreadfully dull, as it involves Tony getting a job dancing for a stage play called “Satan’s Alley,” and desperately trying to give the audience something to remember about him. And that’s about it—it’s all too simple. Love triangle, rehearsals, coming of age, blah blah blah. It’s pretty tired stuff. And it doesn’t help that the film barely goes five minutes without a new song, a heavily-edited montage, or usually both. There’s no substance; it’s all style. And the worse part is the big explosive climax in which Tony does perform in the play. And this play, this “Satan’s Alley” which is assumingly about an ascension into heaven, is ridiculously bad. This payoff is a play that I would walk out of very quickly. It’s incomprehensible and just plain outlandish.

Oh, and the dancing sucks too. It’s below par when you think of Broadway dancing. And there isn’t a single moment that comes close to capturing the excitement and energy of John Travolta’s solo disco dance in the previous film, because we can guess that Travolta doesn’t have what it takes to be a Broadway dancer and he’s usually shot from the waist up. He may dance disco, but not much else.

“Staying Alive” forgets what “Saturday Night Fever” was all about. The previous film was not about dancing; it was about a complicated character that danced. This time, there is dancing all throughout, and there is a character who is not so complicated this time around. It would not matter in the slightest if Tony Manero was the focus here because the character is completely lost, and not even the charismatic John Travolta could bring him back. “Staying Alive” is one of the worst sequels I have ever seen.

Jeepers Creepers II (2003)

3 Oct


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Every 23rd spring, for 23 days, it gets to eat.” Yes, apparently, “Jeepers Creepers II,” the sequel to the modest horror-movie hit “Jeepers Creepers,” went with that angle that is just as ridiculous now as it was then. That’s apparently the main rule for a fiendish winged half-man/half-beast known as The Creeper. And I have to admit—it is a neat monster. It’s fast, dark, tall, ugly, vicious, and ruthless. And it doesn’t talk or wisecrack, so it only has a snarling personality.

But it’s a really bad move to make us root for the villain in a horror film just so we can say how intriguing the villain might be. “Jeepers Creepers II” has a nice monster, but it has it entrapped in a nothing story with extremely unlikable, annoying “heroes” that we just want to see die faster so that the movie will be over and we can move on with our lives. (And maybe the most dedicated fans of this movie, which I’m hoping are a very limited few, can make pieces of online fanfiction that is more interesting than what they had to watch to get started with.)

Yeah, “Jeepers Creepers II” is well-made (for the most part, anyway), but it’s boring, stupid as hell, and contains the dumbest, most unpleasant group of characters you’ll ever find in a horror film or a mindless action-adventure. Never before have I wanted a whole group of protagonists to die faster than they do in this movie. They’re that obnoxious.

The film starts out in a suitably unnerving way, as a young boy sets up scarecrows in the middle of a wheat field and then notices one that seems unfamiliar. He sees the claws, and then bam! It springs into action, grabbing the boy, and running off with it as his father and older brother give chase before it ultimately flies away. (Why it didn’t just fly away before is anyone’s guess.)

And then, we’re introduced to our heroes. No, it’s not Jack Taggart (Ray Wise), the farmer who was the dead boy’s father and now seeks vengeance in a mere subplot. Instead, we’re forced to follow a group of jackasses—a high-school football team on the bus ride home from a big game. The Creeper causes the bus to have a flat tire (by using one its…ninja-stars? What were those again?) and picks off the driver, coach, and assistant coach, leaving the team and a few cheerleaders to fend for themselves.

How stupid are these kids? Well, let’s do bullet-points for all the idiotic actions they perform.

  • Even though the Creeper is super strong and fast, and has even removed the head of one of their teammates, they still slowly look upward to see if it’s still out there.
  • It never occurs to them that they should stay low in that bus.
  • When they get out of the bus (yes, they get out of the bus), they do nothing but stand on the road until they see it coming. When they can’t get back in, what do they do?
  • They run out into an open field instead of hide under the bus!

And let’s not forget Scotty, the jackass homophobe who angrily takes charge and decides to split the group in two, seeing as how The Creeper only saw a few of them earlier, and thus those it hasn’t seen will live. One thing he forgets (that, by the way, someone does bring up but not soon enough) is that The Creeper saw him too, so that whole scene in which he tries to take charge, resulting in him making an even bigger jackass out of himself, was completely pointless.

It’s pretty easy to hate Scotty, but there are others on that bus who are equally loathsome, including Scotty’s girlfriend who always says the wrong things; one kid who assumes another is gay (which is interesting, considering how many gay undertones there are in this movie); and there’s even a cheerleader who is actually psychic so she can explain the motivations of The Creeper. I haven’t mentioned any names of the actors playing the kids; I’ll cut them a break. What I won’t cut a break, however, is the screenwriter for writing so much atrocious dialogue that forces us to listen to these “heroes” go on and on and never shut up. I’d much rather see what Jack Taggart has to do with anything, but he’s unfortunately a supporting character who’s able to show up for a somewhat-kickass climax, in which he packs a quite lethal weapon: a post-puncher turned spear-thrower. Why not follow this guy instead? Anybody but these detestable jerks!

You get the point—“Jeepers Creepers II” is a horror film with not much of a story and no one to identify or sympathize with. I guess the idea of characters being trapped on a bus by a vicious villain that won’t stop is kind of intriguing, but when you have to spend an hour and a half with people you don’t like, and just wish they would get it sooner, it takes the fun out of everything it could have had going for it.

P.S. By the way, why is this thing called The Creeper when it does everything else aside from “creep,” like fly, stare, and…lick the glass on one of the bus windows? (What?)

The Hangover Part II (2011)

10 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Hangover Part II” is an example of Sequel B.O. (Box Office) Laziness—a classic case of a lazy attempt to cash in on the success of an unexpected box-office smash hit. The result is an obviously-rushed, overdone, and unbelievably lazy sequel that insults those who loved the original a couple years ago, and it also relates to the other version of “B.O.” And because it’s supposed to be a comedy, you can add “painfully unfunny” in there as well.

Don’t let the “Part II” in the title fool you—this is about as much of a continuation from the original story as “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” There is hardly an attempt to make any much of a difference this time around—the narrative structure is copied situation by situation, and it’s supposed to be “different” because the locations and McGuffins are different. News flash, guys—that doesn’t work! Continue the story! Don’t tell it again—we’ve seen it already!

Oh, and if there’s one good thing that can be said about everything in this sequel being traced back to many events in the original film, it’s that it serves as a guide for how much worse the original could have been.

“The Hangover,” released summer 2009, was a unique, clever spin on the “what-happens-in-Vegas” concept, in that it turned the outcome of the partying events of Las Vegas into a murder-mystery as the bachelor-partyers have many questions to find answers to, including where is the groom. It did not need a sequel. It had a great deal of spontaneity and surprise that made it all the more hilarious when we didn’t know what was coming and laughed at the results. And because the same narrative structure of that film is copied in “Part II,” there really is no surprise; we can see the jokes coming miles ahead. So when you’re not laughing at a comedy, you just sit there, feeling depressed. And that’s exactly how I felt when watching “The Hangover Part II.”

What do I mean by a lack of creativity that director Todd Phillips and his replacement writers (yes, “replacement” writers—how ‘bout that) convey onto “Part II?” Consider the opening. We see a wedding being prepared. There’s just one thing missing: the groom. The bride and her family calls the groom and his friends who are not there. And then, who should call?

If you guessed “Phil,” congratulations! You’ve earned the right to request a review for me to write!

Yes, Phil, the Bradley Cooper character in both films, calls, saying that there may not be a wedding. But wait! It’s different, you see, because it’s not the groom that’s missing—it’s the bride’s brother! And Phil actually acknowledges that “it happened again.” I don’t know if you can get the deadpan sarcasm when I say, “Wow. How different.”

And then, wouldn’t you know it—the film shows the opening-credits and we flash to before that call, setting up what will happen in this film. And don’t just think it’s that opening that is copied or that that is the only time we will ever hear the word “again” in this movie, because this movie loves to follow the same stuff laid out in the original film and apparently likes its characters to say, “it’s happening again!” Anyway, we find that Stu is getting married. Not to Jade, the friendly stripper from the other movie, but to a Thai-American woman, Lauren (Jamie Chung), who has no told backstory in how these two met. You’d think there would be a detailed explanation as to how and why these two are together, seeing as how things seemed to go fine between him and the stripper at the end of the first movie, and also having told off his bitchy girlfriend. But no—we just go with it because…she seems nice. Yeah, there’s no point in overstating this—the women in the “Hangover” movies have little to no personality.

I keep getting sidetracked here, and I haven’t even gotten to the rehashing of the characterizations of the leading men. Well, Ed Helms was Stu, an uptight, nervous dentist who ultimately stands up for himself after everything that’s happened in the first film; Bradley Cooper is Phil, an almost-total a-hole who becomes a little more respectful and learns a few family values; and Zach Galifianakis is Alan, the show-stealer of the original film who is an overgrown man-child who is just glad to have made friends on this trip. Oh, and there’s Justin Bartha as Doug, but he had no personality anyway, and he was only in the original film so he could disappear and be found near the end, so he could get married quickly. So, how are these newly-developed characters now? You won’t believe this—they’re pretty much the same people. Stu is more neurotic than ever; Phil is a huge a-hole (again); and Alan…actually, Alan is a lot worse this time around. This time, instead of a lovable, naïve slob of a man-child—he’s an unbearable, unstable lunatic. At first, I was wondering why Stu, Phil, and Doug were hesitant about inviting Alan to Stu’s wedding, but now, we understand why. Alan is a detestable person this time around. The character has taken a sharp, unpleasant turn, and I wanted to smack him in the face.

Stu’s wedding takes place in Thailand, and the movie substitutes Bangkok for Las Vegas. Wouldn’t you know it—the men party hard, and Stu, Phil, and Alan wake up in a dirty hotel room, having no memory of what happened before. Phil is more or less OK, but Alan is bald (OK fine, I chuckled when Alan checked if his beard was still there) and Stu has a Tyson-esque tattoo on his eye. Where’s Doug? Oh, he’s OK, he’s fine. He’s just back at Lauren’s place, having breakfast.

That’s right—Doug misses out on the action again! I guess we just needed the three-man “wolf-pack” that Alan desperately wanted to bring back. Come to think of it, I think Phillips wanted it back too.

But wait a minute! There’s a monkey in their room! Stu’s future brother-in-law is missing, but his finger is there! And the cackling, obnoxious Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) is there with them…although he can’t explain what happens because after a massive hit of cocaine, he passes out! Oh joy, here we go again on another wild goose chase.

OK, I’m getting really tired writing this review and thinking of certain significant things that happen on this wild goose chase. They run around Bangkok (which is portrayed in a very smug manner, without ever capturing the gravity and true danger of the place) and they have misadventures before the wedding. There you go—that’s basically what happens. If you saw “The Hangover,” “The Hangover Part II” won’t surprise you in how things are going to play out. What’s missing? Jokes, wit, originality, appeal, fun, the freaking point! If you didn’t guess already by this point, I hated the movie and I hated the lack of trying. I don’t care if they moved the “fun” to a different country; freshness is not found in “rehash-art!”

And wouldn’t you know it—“The Hangover Part II” was a box-office success, because apparently all this film needed to do was show up and everyone would come flooding into the theater. Worse yet, it beat out “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which was released on the same day as this sequel, and did not rehash the same old story! If we don’t get a “Kung Fu Panda 3” because of this, I’m blaming Todd Phillips.

The Sitter (2011)

20 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How can I properly describe how bad a comedy “The Sitter” is without saying this first—director David Gordon Green and comic actor Jonah Hill deserve a lot better than this. Actually, I can’t truly blame Hill as he’s doing what he can with a lazily written leading character, and I can’t blame Green for venturing into mainstream comedy after such great indie-small productions as “George Washington” and “Undertow,” and I loved his first mainstream-comedy attempt, “Pineapple Express.” But the problem is there’s nothing to back either of them up, and I can blame Green for at least half of the reasons “The Sitter” fails. It’s not as horrid as his previous comedy “Your Highness,” but that’s very, very faint praise indeed.

I hated this movie as much as any other terrible, unfocused, unintelligent R-rated raunchy comedy that tries so hard to be crude and vulgar for any kind of laugh and mostly falls down dead. (And yes, “Your Highness” falls into that category as well.) Listen—everyone, even the younger characters, are spewing the worst profanities because they love hearing them! Look—there’s a visual that is definitely not pleasant to look at (depending who you are)! Check it out—whatever amusing bit you can find in such an inept piece of garbage is already in the 2-minute redband trailer online! And no I am not going to say this shamelessly rips off “Adventures in Babysitting” and made it R-rated, because I wonder if the writers had even seen that movie. I say that because whether you like “Adventures in Babysitting” or not, it was hard to deny the fun and lightheartedness that was much like a “Ferris Bueller” cousin of a comedy—and “The Sitter” is joyless, tasteless, and worst of all, “laughless.”

Jonah Hill stars as Noah, an ordinary, 20something nice guy with hardly a sense of ambition to him. He’s not confident, he lets his “girlfriend,” Marisa (Ari Graynor), push him around, he lives with his mother, he vegetates in front of the TV, he doesn’t have a job, and blah blah blah he’ll wind up a changed man by the end of the movie, because that’s usually how this works. To make a little money while his mother isn’t able to babysit for a neighbor, he agrees to take the babysitting task himself, taking charge of three kids: neurotic 13-year-old Slater (Max Records), the little girl with too much fashion/makeup on the mind and on the face, Blithe (Landry Bender), and the adopted Hispanic pyromaniac Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) who has a love for fireworks and a tendency to cause mayhem wherever he can. The job isn’t much, as Noah and the kids don’t get off to a good start, and then Marisa calls Noah, asking him to come to the city and pick up some cocaine from her drug-dealer friend, Karl (Sam Rockwell). In exchange, she’ll have sex with him. So being the irresponsible “nice guy” that he is, he brings along his three charges, and wouldn’t you know it—they run into all sorts of misadventures, all of predictable and unfunny.

Actually, I take it back—some of it is not predictable, necessarily. But a lot of it is so weird and deranged and uneven that you wouldn’t care if it was actually predictable, as long as it was funny. And it’s not. It’s just not. OK, I get it already—the Hispanic kid likes to explode toilets with cherry-bombs; why is this funny? Why is it repeated? Oh right, so he can use this need to save the day. Then there’s the Rockwell character (and to be fair, it looks like Rockwell is really trying here) who has an odd hideout with a bunch of bare-chested men skating and dancing to “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”—OK, it’s weird, I’ll grant it that, but it doesn’t pay off. And there are a lot of pedophile jokes for uncomfortable misunderstandings an uneasy conversation about whether or not Slater is actually gay. And then when “The Sitter” stops for drama, it’s the cheesiest load of trite. We’ve seen this all before—first the kids hate Noah, then they realize that Wait a minute! They actually like this guy! This is a PG movie (PG-13 at best) with an R-rated mentality—insipid.

Where’s a blues bar when you need these kids to fall into such and just have a good time?

There’s one laugh I got from this movie and it occurred during the end-credits, if you can believe it. As the credits roll, we’re given information about what happened to these characters after all this madness—I have to admit, I laughed at the fate of Karl’s henchman.

David Gordon Green has made many good movies before, but 2011 was not a good year for him. His two films released that year—“Your Highness” and “The Sitter”—are deplorable messes. He has shown with “Pineapple Express” that he is capable of directing a mainstream comedy, but all I can say is this—Please, man! You made “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” and “Snow Angels!” I know you wanted a mainstream crowd to see your work! Now that you’ve made “Pineapple Express” and everyone knows your name, give them something else to respect you for!

Medicine Man (1992)

16 May


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How could John McTiernan, the director of “Predator” and “Die Hard,” have made a film that was so unbelievably boring? It’d be one thing if “Medicine Man” was dumb and witless, which it is (don’t get me wrong). But “Medicine Man” is really an endurance exam, with the questions being: How long can I endure a bad actress and a practical “king-of-cool” actor constantly bantering with one another? How long can I endure a story that is all tell and no show? How long can I stay awake?

Man, did I hate this movie. At least with most bad movies, there is at least something interesting to keep you watching and hoping something good will ultimately come of it. But this is just much ado about nothing.

Lorraine Bracco stars as a Bronx scientist who talks tough and takes no nonsense. Sean Connery is an eccentric researcher who has been living in the Amazon rainforests for about six years, studying jungle potions and sickness cures. Bracco is out there because the organization she works for (which is funding his experiments) wants to know what he’s doing out here in the jungle with Indian natives. What she discovers is that Connery has actually found a cure for cancer. But because he’s running low on it, having experimented on it too much, he and Bracco must trek across the jungle to get to a place where a lot of this cure can be found. But they must hurry, as the place is about to be bulldozed.

Now to be fair, the look of the film is first-rate. You do get a sense that you’re there in the Amazon rainforest, hiking along with these characters. But when there’s nothing substantial in the dialogue or characterization, and also when there’s hardly any action to be found here, do you really want to stay here for about an hour and 40 minutes?

There’s also a nice scene involving a rope-and-pulley setup that allows Connery and Bracco to make their ways up to the treetops. From there, they can get a good view of the land, and so do we.

But then it’s back to the ground, where our main characters are. Sean Connery is sometimes known for making anything watchable, and while he does do a decent job here, he’s not enough to save the movie from its overlong, boring dialogue scenes that try to whimsically entrance us with the joys and mysteries of nature and a non-too-subtle environmental message. Half of the time, I couldn’t keep up with what was going on, and ultimately I didn’t care.

I’m sure Lorraine Bracco can deliver a fine performance, given the right director (see her work in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”). But it’s obvious that this actress has a very limited acting range, and that’s clearly shown here. Bracco is teeth-grindingly awful here. She’s never convincing, she’s stilted in her line deliveries, and she never shuts up. And all her character does is complain, even when she shouldn’t. I get that her character is liberated, and Connery is supposed to ease her into some sort of romantic relationship, but this is just too much. Also, I didn’t buy any of the “chemistry” that supposedly was brought upon by Connery and Bracco together—they’re equally boring here. All they do is banter, banter, banter. Here’s a sample exchange, upon first encountering each other: “I’m not a girl!” “The hell you’re not!” “I’m your research assistant!” “The hell you are!” And it’s all downhill from there. “Romancing the Stone,” this is not. It’d be one thing if this was actually trying to be a “Tarzan” picture; it’d at least be fun. But instead, “Medicine Man” is just a bore.