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The Dirties: What Does This Underrated Indie Flick Say About Media and Society?

18 Jun

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By Tanner Smith

WARNING: This editorial contains spoilers for the film in question, “The Dirties.”

In 2013, an independent Canadian film called “The Dirties” premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. Since then, filmmaker Kevin Smith helped with distribution by way of his company, Kevin Smith Movie Club, and it has since been released on home media and video-on-demand. Those who have seen it are rather split about it—some say it’s a fresh, compelling take on bullying while others either call it either a self-praising “meta-mockumentary” or an irresponsible look at a risky topic that shouldn’t be touched upon. That topic in question is “school shooting.”

There’s no doubt that whenever those two words are mentioned, people’s minds are at unease. People recall numerous horrifying occurrences in which students were killed by gunmen on campus, which then leads them to wonder why they happened to begin with. The answers from media and society are usually unclear, so people come to their own conclusions, mostly having to do with mental disorders or TV/film violence. “The Dirties” is a controversial film that raises similar questions but also manages to deliver its own interpretation as well.

The film is told through the perspective of a video camera and is about a teenage movie buff named Matt (played by writer-director Matt Johnson) wanting to make his own movie. He buys wireless microphones to use and has someone film him and his best (and only) friend, Owen (Owen Williams), presumably all the time. The movie he wants to make is a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which he and Owen exact revenge on a gang of bullies in their high school, whom they dub The Dirties. When that movie is complete, Matt comes up with an idea to make another movie—a more realistic one in which he actually brings a gun to school and shoots The Dirties. Owen doesn’t take Matt’s idea seriously at first, but he starts to question his sanity when he not only continues to play-act in front of the camera (as if living his own movie), but also has blueprints of the school and has been firing guns for target practice.

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The main character of Matt is trying to become a movie star of his own creation. He’s constantly making film references that no one else understands, tries to become the thing he’s referencing, and as the film goes on, he thinks less of what famous people would do and what he would do, since he has become what he usually references. And thanks to the obscure cameraman (whose identity is never revealed), he’s never alone. This is a modern problem in today’s society, that today’s kids film themselves and act in front of the camera. But Matt, who faces issues of bullying and alienation, actively puts himself on camera 24/7, and so he’s always trying to perform and he can’t seem to break out of it. Even when Owen acknowledges what he’s doing is insane, Matt can’t bring himself back to reality and instead wants to further his own interpretation of reality and continue making his movie.

Owen, meanwhile, would rather try something else than keep making a movie with Matt. He wants acceptance among his peers, which is something Matt clearly quit trying to achieve. He longs for the attention of a girl he likes; he wants to make new friends; he wants to try something new. The biggest turning point in his life is when Matt is so obsessed with his art that he never talks to Owen like a real person anymore and, even scarier, actually seems serious about conducting his own school shooting.

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When looking for someone or something to blame for school shootings, media and society sometimes like to point the finger at violence portrayed in TV and movies, suggesting that watching it can make someone want to commit destruction. But this film shows how that’s actually never the case. What it tries to address is the issue of youth psychology and how it’s never always how we interpret it. According to filmmaker Johnson in an interview with cinema-scope.com, “The news always tells you the story of the kid starting at the last chapter of his or her life: that kid was a loner, or whatever. Which is really irrelevant to what happened. If you actually wanted to know what happened to the kid, you look at the first 200 pages of his life.”

That leads into the film’s ending. Some people complain that the film ends anticlimactically with no clear reasoning or logic. It ends with Matt, after having shot The Dirties in the school hallway and scared away his classmates, finding Owen cowering in a corner. He says, out of breath, “What are you doing? It’s me.” The scene cuts to black, the end credits roll, and that’s the end. But if you really think about it, it ends where the typical news story would start. The news story would start where the tragedy ends, but the film is a representation of what happened beforehand, which no one would want to talk about.

“The Dirties” may be one of the most important films of recent years, delivering a compelling portrait of disaffected youth and a descent into sociopathic behavior. It accurately portrays kids with real issues—being bullied, isolation, moving on, drifting apart, and even at some points, being bullies to each other and eventually to their own bullies. When the promising sociopath feels like a real person, instead of a standard, cold, distant, ruthless, cold-hearted killer, that makes it overall tragic; when a funny, artistic, even empathetic guy is also bullied and more, that can cause him to take drastic measures for vengeance.

“The Dirties” is not merely an unflinching portrayal; it’s also a cautionary tale. The back half of the film is laced with misfortune (albeit with an underlying comic tone, brought on by Matt trying to keep things lighthearted). One scene features Matt telling Owen he thinks he might be a “psychopath”—is this a cry for help or more play-acting? Whatever it is, Owen doesn’t listen. Shortly after, Owen has moved on and become just another face in the halls and another member of society the film specifically criticizes—his mind is elsewhere and he doesn’t see Matt as a friend in distress. So, in a way, it’s Owen, Matt’s best and only friend, who actually drives Matt to do what he ends up doing in the end of the film. As Owen fears for his own life when he sees what Matt has become, Matt doesn’t understand what’s changed and why he can’t see him for what he is, hence the line, “What are you doing? It’s me.” It’s a truly sad moment. We know what’s really going on, but no one else does. Even Matt doesn’t see the trouble in what he’s done.

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It’s a challenging concept when the victim is the one with the gun, at least in this film. Many people who see the film arguably miss the point of it (or they’re too busy questioning the identity of the cameraman), but those who don’t can’t help but wonder: Who’s really to blame for occurrences like this? Are they portrayed the exact opposite way? Etc.

More people should seek out “The Dirties,” which is available on demand. It’s the kind of film that will force them to ask questions and find answers they’re uncomfortable about, and it also emphasizes the importance of reaching out and helping those who need assistance and companionship. If society chooses to ignore or mishear cries for help, even from their own friends, it can lead to damage to themselves and/or others. That’s the theory Johnson tried to portray in “The Dirties,” and it’s hard to argue that it’s far off.

My original review: https://smithsverdict.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/the-dirties-2013/

Red Dawn (2012) (revised review)

16 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I hinted in my “Revised Review” of Project X, a film I changed my mind about, that I would re-review another film that I changed my mind about: the 2012 remake of the popular ‘80s action-flick Red Dawn.

It’s strange because in my original review of this movie, I stated I liked it but merely as a fun action-flick. Here’s what I said:

“I understand the film’s flaws. I get it, OK? The war element is defined in an improbable way. The characters aren’t developed enough. The shaky-cam gimmick that they use gets old, as it usually does. The pacing is a bit rushed. The ending feels more like the end of a first-entry in a franchise (which there probably won’t be). I get it. I don’t care. I know that’s weird of me to say, but…I don’t care. I was entertained.”

Well, maybe that’s how I felt when I first saw the movie, but the second time around, I realized I was being played for a sucker.

In the original film, made in 1984, the Soviets invaded a portion of the United States, causing a group of teenagers, dubbed the Wolverines, to fight back as guerillas. With the Soviets no longer a feasible threat, the North Koreans are the villains in this remake, though that’s because originally, it was going to be the Chinese before it was changed when the producers realized they’re too important for this. They try to explain in a prologue why North Koreans would want to invade us, but it’s a little hard to swallow, especially since Americans today are worried about terrorists in the Middle East. I don’t think we have to worry about North Korea as much.

Anyway, the film takes place in Spokane, Washington, the night after a big football game which cocky quarterback Matt Eckert (Josh Peck) accidentally lost for the team due of his arrogance. (Hmm, I smell a foreshadowing arc.) The same night, his older brother, marine Jed (Chris Hemsworth), comes to town. The following morning, the brothers are awoken by the sights and sounds of paratroopers dropping from the sky. Jed and Matt manage to escape the invasion with some other local kids, including Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Daryl (Connor Cruise), Toni (Adrianna Palicki), and Danny (Edwin Hodge), and hide out in the mountains. There, Jed decides to fight back against the invaders after they’ve executed his and Matt’s father. He trains the kids to be soldiers and execute guerilla attacks. They manage to get under the villains’ skin as a threat rather than a nuisance and try to have them eliminated.

Admittedly, the early parts of the film are the only good ones, and the idea of a group of people under attack by an invading force at which point they must become soldiers and fight back still appeals to me. That’s what appealed to me about the original Red Dawn, which I already said in my review wasn’t completely successful but did still stick with me in some ways. (I actually do like the first hour of that film, which I’ve seen more times than the rest of it.) I felt that those kids were portrayed as real, scared kids pushed to the breaking point, but here, the kids are just video-game characters about to make their next move. Aside from about two or three characters, hardly anything stands out about them to make me care.

Of the two actors playing the only characters with some sense of character development, I did like Chris Hemsworth. I think he’s a solid actor and he’s even very strong here. But then there’s Josh Peck. In my original review, I criticized his performance and character who has an ego and a very selfish way about him (which I guess was part of his development) while I also stated “the performance kind of grew on me after a while.” I think I was too kind to him because I didn’t want to dislike the movie on the basis of his character. But man, is he obnoxious here. His mumbling speech and mannerisms grated on me and his character is such a boor. It especially doesn’t help that much of what happens to some of the other characters in this movie is entirely his fault.

Then there’s Adrianne Palicki, who has a nice role as a potential love-interest for Hemsworth. There’s a scene midway through the film where they do share some chemistry together and I would’ve liked for that to keep going, but it’s just another poorly developed element to the film. Meanwhile, actors like Josh Hutcherson are given close to nothing to work with and blend into the background.

Another reason this movie doesn’t work as well is because it has enough potential for a longer film than its hour-and-a-half running time will allow. At best, it feels like a pilot for a TV show with an ambiguous ending. The action isn’t very thrilling either because it’s yet another victim of the “shaky camera” gimmick that tries to make the action exciting but instead leaves audiences aggravated because they can’t see anything very well. And even the story itself is boring, because with the exception of the ending, which I won’t give away, the kids always have the higher ground and manage to get the enemy at the right time almost always.

I can’t say that I think the original “Red Dawn” was a great film or even that good (again, except for a few parts), but it still felt relevant at its time, either as a cheesy action flick kids could relate to or as propaganda stating that everyone should carry heavy artillery in case the Soviets invade. And that’s the point—in the time it was released, everyone felt that a Russian attack was pending. With this remake, released in 2012, we’re in a different place and it’s more of an unplayable video game than anything else. I may have liked it when it came out, but in addition to its appeal lacking after a second viewing, it’s meaningless and unremarkable.

Project X (revised review with spoilers)

13 Jun

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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.

Frailty (revised review with spoilers)

8 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! This is a new review for the 2002 Bill Paxton thriller “Frailty” in which I’m going to talk about my feelings toward the ending.

Previously on Smith’s Verdict’s original “Frailty” review…”I won’t give away the ending to ‘Frailty,’ but I’ll admit that I didn’t see it coming. It manages to surprise us and mess with our expectations and it brings about new fascinating details about certain plot elements that kept us wondering. And yet, these new additions to the elements still keep us wondering because they also bring about something new to think about! Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.”

A funny thing about this film is that I enjoy it while I’m watching it. And then when I think about one of the bigger twists (of which there are about three), I understand it, but I wonder if it was even necessary. Watching the movie again with that in mind doesn’t necessarily damage my viewing, but it does bring things to a new perspective that I’m not entirely sure was needed.

To recap, “Frailty” is a chilling story of a calm, loving father (Bill Paxton, who also directed the film) who live a normal, happy life with his two young sons, Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), until he awakens them one night to tell them about a “vision from God.” Apparently, demons are walking the earth in the guise of regular people and it’s their duty, as “God’s hands,” to destroy them. Fenton doesn’t know how to react to this, but Adam believes Dad and wants to help him. Fenton is even more frightened when Dad makes a list of demons to destroy: people’s names. Dad has three useful tools: an axe, a pair of gloves, and a metal rod—“weapons from God.” Fenton can no longer doubt Dad’s motives when he brings home his first victim—a woman Dad claims is a demon whom he kills right in front his sons. Fenton believes Dad has lost his mind and can only watch in terror as he claims more victims, becoming a serial killer with Adam helping and supporting his father wholeheartedly. The story is told in flashback as one of the sons (grown up as Matthew McConaughey) explains to FBI agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) after revealing his brother is the one responsible for the killings which still continue.

The idea of a seemingly calm, sane father suddenly brought to the point where he kills people “in the name of God” is scary enough; the idea of wanting his young sons (one is 10, the other is 7) to assist him in his deeds is horrifying. And the film builds more tension from the kids’ perspectives and thoughts on the matters at hand—one wants to stop Dad, while the other joins him. It leads to a truly tense sequence in which Dad takes drastic measures with Fenton and locks him in his homemade dungeon for a week, hoping he too will get a vision from God. It leads to a tense climax in which Dad believes Fenton will ultimately follow in his footsteps and destroy a demon himself. Instead, Fenton brings it to a stop by turning the axe on his own father, killing him. Adam finishes the job himself, indicating that Adam will follow in his father’s footsteps and destroy more demons. Adam promises to bury Fenton someday in the same rose garden where they buried the other victims.

But wait. Earlier in the film, the McConaughey character, who has originally labeled himself as Fenton, claimed that the brothers’ promise was for Fenton to bury Adam. As he and Doyle explore the rose garden, that’s when he reveals his true identity—he is not truly Fenton but Adam. He has continued his father’s legacy. That’s one twist. Another twist is that all of this has been a means to capture Doyle, who is his next victim.

Now, this is a very effective twist, as is the realization that the real Fenton has grown up to become a serial killer and that Adam has “destroyed” him as a demon. It’s Adam’s belief that that’s why Fenton didn’t go along with him and Dad; because he was a demon. This would make for a disturbing portrait about what growing up with an influential, apparent serial killer could do to someone. And then comes the bigger twist…

Are these people really demons, or just chance victims of Dad’s delusional mind? Is the angel real or was it just a bad dream? We see one of Dad’s visions, of an angel visiting him and giving him his first list of demons, and it does seem slightly exaggerated, making us believe that it’s all in Dad’s mind. But then in the ending, what little ambiguity was left is suddenly thrown out the window, as it becomes very clear that the people whose lives Dad claimed were actually murderers and not innocent victims. We are shown their evil deeds, as well as Doyle’s murder of his mother. Dad and Adam were truly following God’s will. People find it shocking that “the axe murderer is working for God,” but the realization that the victims were never “human” but actual “demons” for God to demand be destroyed lest the Apocalypse come does make sense to those who strongly believe in God and it may actually be a relief to those same people, who would object to murders being done to “serve God’s will,” to get clarification. In that respect, it does bring everything around for a shocking revelation that I didn’t see coming. But at the same time, as “Frailty” was doing such a great job being a disturbing horror film with effective ambiguity up until that point, it is kind of disappointing that the film would feel the need to explain everything.

I originally gave the film a four-star ending, even with the ending, because I thought even with that in mind, it was still an intelligent, scary horror film with a theme of religious delusion taken very far. And the bigger twist isn’t even bad; it’s just that I feel like it would work better as a film without it. If we were to ask questions after seeing the film (without the twist) whether the angel was real or not and whether the people were really demons or not, it would bring forward interesting discussions about what it would say about religious fanaticism, delusion, and even about God’s will. As is, “Frailty” is a four-star film up until that shocking revelation. With it, in hindsight, I can still recommend the film but not as strongly as I did before, because even with it, there’s still a little ambiguity about whether or not there truly were demons or people who turned the wrong way and committed these deeds. Were they really destined to be that way? Were they truly demons? If they were demons, did they know it? Were they aware of their destinies to be destroyed? We saw their horrific wrongdoings but not their “demon form,” if they have forms under human skin. If God really is guiding these murders of the guilty, what does that mean?

But then again, maybe they are just demons and I’m thinking too much about it.

There are too many good things in this film for me not to recommend it. Different people are undoubtedly going to have different outlooks on the ending and what it all meant. I don’t think I can rate it three stars anymore. I wanted to rate it four. I wanted to love it as much as most critics did, including Roger Ebert and author Stephen King. And up until the final act, or at least until the bigger twist, I do love it and I do think it’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. But with that bigger twist, it’s still a good horror film with something deep to talk about. It could’ve been deeper and it could’ve been better, but I have to review the film for what it is rather than what it isn’t. I still recommend it.

Jack (revised review)

28 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This is a first for “Smith’s Verdict.” I’ve changed my mind about certain movies over time, but this is the first time I’ve had to revise a negative review and make it a positive one. And it’s not a movie I expected to change my mind about either—Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack.” But recently, I was able to rent the DVD for free at a local library in Conway, Arkansas, and I watched it for the parts I liked (I did acknowledge, in the original review, parts I liked about it), and then something strange happened: I found myself watching the whole thing, from beginning to end…then I watched it again…and then a third time all the way through. And that’s when I realized—there was more for me to like about it than I thought, enough for me to write this now-positive review of a movie that I know a lot of people hate and that even I took some shots at in the other review.

“Jack” is about a 10-year-old kid whose growth disorder causes him to appear four times his actual age, causing him to look about 40. Played by Robin Williams, Jack Powell has led a very sheltered life by his loving parents, especially his mother (played very well by Diane Lane), kept mostly out of society and out of public school. But his private tutor, Mr. Woodruff (Bill Cosby in a nice small role), suggests that maybe he’s ready to join the 5th grade and be with other kids his age. Reluctantly, the parents agree, and so Jack begins school, where of course he is seen as a freak because of his adult appearance who towers over all the other kids, is hairier than most of the kids’ fathers, and breaks his desk on his first day in class. But some cool 10-year-olds realize they can use Jack to their advantage in a schoolyard game of basketball, and they also discover they can use him to fool parents into thinking he’s the school principal. And soon enough, he’s invited to join their treehouse club because he looks old enough to buy them Penthouse magazine.

Yes, “Jack” was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and maybe that’s what caused people to be distracted while watching this movie, because they expected something more than this. It’s like Roger Ebert said in his review of Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money”—“If this movie had been directed by someone else, I might have thought differently about it because I might not have expected so much.” It’s like comparing it to directors’ previous work instead of seeing it as a movie even of itself. I think Coppola just liked making any kind of movie—it’s not like he wasn’t allowed to make a comedy-drama for Disney, starring Robin Williams. “Jack” is well-directed, and Coppola keeps his actors in check (good for comedic actors such as Williams, Cosby, and Fran Drescher), and the film is well-shot with a few Coppola trademarks (fast-moving clouds, POV shots, and a couple others I may have missed). It just happens to be in a sentimental comedy-drama, but I think it’s a good one. “Jack” does a very good job of balancing comedy and drama, as the second half of this film confronts Jack’s mortality, as it should; first you have fun while setting up characters and make us like them, and then you give us the inevitable by easing us into it.

But the first half has its moments of sadness as well, such as when Jack is starting school and, at one point, accidentally breaks his desk as he sits in it. I know a lot of people saw this as a predictable joke, but I don’t think it was necessarily intended as a joke. In context, it’s more upsetting than it is funny, because everyone is laughing at him, not with him. Jack’s status as an outcast only grows until he’s ultimately welcomed on the basketball court by the other boys, and then he has friends and feels like he’s living life the way he wanted to. When the film reaches the back half, Jack has realized how short his life is and must learn to accept it so he can live like everyone else. Nowhere is that clearer than in the ending of the film in which Jack has graduated high school, now looks like an old man, and gives a speech about how he is ready to accept his fate now he has led a full life and acknowledges everyone else to do the same. “Jack” doesn’t take the easy way out; sure, we don’t see him die, but we know he doesn’t have that much longer to live after the movie’s story is finished. We can accept it because he did accept it, and that makes for a touching, heartbreaking resolution by itself.

The film is also very well cast, thanks to Coppola’s usual casting director, Fred Roos (how often do you see a mention of a casting director in a review?). Robin Williams is brilliantly cast as Jack. He’s a master of body language and perfectly captures what it’s like to be a 10-year-old in a 40-year-old man’s body. Watch his hands, watch his head movements, notice his vocal inflections, and you can see Williams really working it here, as if he channeled all the way back to when he was 10. It’s a performance up there with Tom Hanks in “Big” or Judge Reinhold in “Vice Versa.” There are a few instances where he does step out of character and into Williams’ usual adult standup persona, and it can be a little distracting, but mostly he’s excellent in the role.

The supporting cast is pretty solid; I admire the acting in this film. Diane Lane has a difficult role to pull off, as the loving, concerned mother of a boy she knows people don’t accept right away. She’s not a bad person, and she knows some of the things she does isn’t fair; everything she does is for the wellbeing of her son. Bill Cosby is suitably soft-spoken as the tutor and gives a well-written speech to Jack, describing him as “a shooting star.” “You’re a shooting star amongst ordinary stars,” he says. “A shooting star passes quickly, but while it’s here, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever want to see.” Brian Kerwin, as Jack’s dad, doesn’t have as many good moments as Lane’s mother character does, but he does solid work as well. Jennifer Lopez is very good as Jack’s caring teacher. The actors playing the kids are all excellent, especially Adam Zolotin as Jack’s best friend Louie and Todd Bosley as a geeky kid who steals a few scenes here or there. And then there’s Fran Drescher as Louie’s trampy mother who makes her moves on Jack without realizing how old he really is (and I’m guessing she never does)…okay, so I still don’t think this subplot works very well, but oddly enough, I don’t mind her as much as I did before. She’s not that obnoxious here.

Now, I’m going to take a moment to look through my original, negative review and go through my criticisms one by one and see if I can respond to them now. Let’s see…I can now call it “an engaging drama” which I couldn’t call it before…I don’t think it’s “one of the clumsiest lost opportunities I’ve ever seen” as it does a lot with both comedy and drama…”The low point of the movie is a subplot involving Louie’s trampy mother…[the scene in which she meets Jack who poses as the principal] is uncomfortable with the misunderstandings…[the bar sequence] doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie. Take it (and Fran Drescher) out of the movie, and you wouldn’t miss a thing.” Well, I’ve already said I don’t Fran Drescher as much as I did before, and now I think I’ll defend the “principal” scene on the grounds that I think it works okay because Williams still plays it like a 10-year-old kid and it’s mildly amusing, and I’ll defend the bar scene in the sense of Jack feeling like he doesn’t belong in the adult world after he believes he doesn’t belong in the kid world either. But come on, did they really have to throw in a bar fight? And maybe I could’ve done without the whole thing about Drescher hitting on Jack and never finding out who he really is.

Then there’s the scene in which Jack asks out his teacher to a school dance and she has to turn him down. That was the part I criticized the most because I didn’t know how to feel. Well…I think it works fine now. It’s handled delicately and Jennifer Lopez plays it in an endearing manner, and it’s a rather heartbreaking moment.

Oh jeez, sometimes I can’t believe my own writing. Now I found the part in the original review where I wish “Jack” focused on Jack’s mortality. I just went into two-paragraph detail about how the film handles Jack’s mortality well enough that it’s effective and satisfying, so it’s best to say I didn’t pay enough attention to the movie to begin with.

I can’t dislike “Jack” anymore. I think the film is cute. Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s sad, other times it’s endearing, and only a few times did I find it annoying. “Jack” isn’t a great movie, and maybe it could’ve benefitted from a few scenes in which the ones learn more about girls their own age after reading Penthouse magazine and being curious about the opposite sex or, if writers James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau were really risky, Jack could’ve had a relationship with a girl his age (ew, that would mean Robin Williams and a pre-teenage actress have to play a 5th-grade couple; never mind). But I do think “Jack,” as it is, is quite good. It’s good-natured, it has effective moments of drama, it’s acted wonderfully, it’s funny, and I’m now glad I have more than a few good scenes to enjoy next time I watch it. And thus presents the last time Smith’s Verdict shall be taken seriously.

War Eagle, Arkansas (revised review)

4 Oct

Luke Grimes and Dan McCabe in

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This is a “revised” review of “War Eagle, Arkansas.” When I first watched and reviewed this film three years ago, I saw it as the great film it was and wrote a very favorable review. It was a film I would definitely want to see again. And surely enough, I did. I rented this film several times at the local video store in my Northeast-Arkansas hometown until I ultimately bought it there for $10.75. It was well worth the cash. The reason I’m writing a new review of it is because I feel there’s more I can say about it now, especially considering that it’s now one of my absolute personal favorite movies.

I love this film. I mean, I really love this film. It’s not just that it’s a well-executed, well-acted, and very credible independent film, but there’s also its sense of place (an idyllic rural community that hits very close to home), the excellent characterizations (believable, effectively-realized characters all around; they remind me of people I know/knew), and its courage to tell a story that is emotionally accurate even if it goes against what most audiences would like to see (the resolution is melancholy and yet hopeful, with a hint of satisfaction nonetheless). All of those elements speak to me in ways I didn’t expect.

The film is somewhat based on the true-life friendship of producer Vincent Insalaco’s son, Vincent III, and wheelchair-bound Tim Ballany. A similar friendship is imagined in the film, with Enoch Cass (played by Luke Grimes) and Samuel “Wheels” Macon (Dan McCabe) in the small town of War Eagle (said to be “at the top of a plateau in the Ozark Mountains”).

Enoch and Wheels are both outcasts—Enoch, because despite him being a gifted baseball player with a chance at a university sports scholarship, he has a terrible stutter that doesn’t allow him to carry out a full sentence half the time, and that also makes him somewhat insecure; and Wheels, not only because he’s confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, but because he is a witty loudmouth who rarely shuts up. They’ve been friends their whole lives, they hang out around town every day, and despite their disabilities, they are able to create a full personality all their own in a way that a long-running friendship can create.

The film takes place in the summer after Enoch and Wheels have finished high school, and is essentially a slice-of-life drama simply about certain events in this time period surrounding this central relationship. Things happen because they are supposed to do happen—they simply are, and it’s more about how these things happen. It’s told episodically, as it shows Enoch preparing to pitch for the All-Star baseball game in Fayetteville, working up the courage (and speech) to ask a girl he likes out on a date, and wondering about his life in his hometown and what life could be like elsewhere.

These are all very relatable issues. Particularly for me, speaking as someone who has lived in a small town most of his life (and also in Arkansas, believe it or not), there were many times when I would feel tired of the all-too-familiarities and think of moving outward to a new life in a new surrounding. But there would always be at least something in that town that always made it feel like home—it was my home, and the people in it made it worth staying for a little while longer. And that’s Enoch’s deal here—his best friend Wheels, and also his family, are important to him, despite his wishes of leaving.

Even if you haven’t felt that way in your life, you realize how accurately it is portrayed in this film. In the case of Enoch wanting to ask out a local girl, Abby (Misti Traya), every guy has felt this way before. Working up the courage to ask her out, not knowing what the response will be, uncertain of what will happen if she actually says yes, and so on. There are embarrassing moments that ring true, one of which is very painful—it’s when Enoch meets Abby and her friends and tries to ask her out, but because of his stutter and inability to even let out the first word, her friends can’t help but giggle and laugh at him until Enoch is humiliated and leaves. Eventually, he does score a date with Abby but has to bring Wheels along just in case.

But there are two problems with this new relationship between Enoch and Abby. One is that Wheels is now the odd man out and feels lonely without Enoch (he also gets the feeling that Abby is not right for Enoch after all), and the other is that it gives Wheels time to think about what not only his relationship with Abby does but also what their own relationship does, which is to keep Enoch in a working-class town when he should be taking his chance at a baseball scholarship in Tennessee. This leads to a confrontation in which Wheels, after trying to keep everything bottled up inside, finally lets out to Enoch that he needs to wake up and know what he has to do.

It all manages to fit around a decision that Enoch must ultimately make—either stay in his hometown or leave to play baseball for a Tennessee university. The result may not be obvious to most people, but what’s really important about this resolution is why and how it had to happen, and it becomes even more clear the more times you watch this film (or at least, for me, anyway). Whether you’re satisfied with it or not, it’s hard to deny that it feels very true to life.

What also makes the film silently tragic is the character of Wheels. This is a person that can never be independent and always needs someone to help him, whether it’s his mother or Enoch. So while Enoch has a chance of getting out of this hometown he’s lived in his whole life with Wheels, Wheels is going to feel more and more imprisoned by the community he’s been way too familiar with. You feel for him, because amidst all the wit and profane talk he spews, you understand more of the isolation that he feels and can’t help but sympathize with him.

The film is called “War Eagle, Arkansas,” and surely enough, the town itself feels like a character in the film. A great deal of atmosphere is noticed all throughout as you get a good sense of the environment these characters live their lives in. Particularly, there’s the local diner, the practice baseball field, the farm Enoch lives on with his grandfather and mother, the open fields, the main street, and the overlook near the “War Eagle” sign, where Enoch and Wheels sometimes sit and contemplate. There’s enough atmosphere here that you can understand why Enoch does in fact like this place and why Wheels is imprisoned by it.

I should mention the supporting characters, because they are terrific. For instance, there’s Pop (Brian Dennehy), Enoch’s grandfather and baseball coach, who is crusty and tough with his grandson, and has reasons for being so. This is not a Wilford Brimley type of character that has all the answers and kindly puts them in ways that those in need of help can understand, and he is not a warm presence. Sometimes he’s a jerk, he’s not always right, and he can get a little carried away. Yet at the same time, there’s a sense of humanity that keeps him from fully being a jerk. As the film progresses, we get a little more of his story through Enoch’s eyes, learning more about him through little actions and few words. He is trying to give Enoch the opportunities that were denied to him in his past, like baseball glory.

There’s also Jack (James McDaniel), a black video store clerk who wants to start his own church in a community that’s…well, mostly-white. You would think, since he is a preacher, that he would fit the role that the Dennehy character could have had, and while he does have a few inspirational speeches, they’re not overly written or played unrealistically. This film is consistent in how it doesn’t always go for the easy way out, and that’s true of how Enoch slowly but surely reacts to some of Jack’s advice. Also among the supporting characters is Belle (Mare Winningham), Enoch’s resolving mother who is sick and tired of the feud going on between Enoch and Pop because of the way Pop treats him; she’s an understanding woman who knows when to step in. And last but not least, there’s Jessie (Mary Kay Place), in a brief role that says a lot, as Wheels’ hardworking mother who is still trying to make ends meet.

All of these characters are believable and fully-realized, and the dialogue they deliver seems very genuine. The credit for that, as well as for the ways the story is presented, has to go to the writer, Graham Gordy, and the director, Robert Milazzo. They have created a great portrait of relationships, ambitions, and small-town life, with authentic characters and situations to help present them. And a great deal of credit also has to go to the actors; there is not a single false note in any of the performances. This film probably has my favorite performance delivered by character actor Brian Dennehy, who creates a very credible “crusty-old-man” character with purposes and also regrets. I learn more about him each time I watch this film. Luke Grimes (not a stutterer) and Dan McCabe (not diagnosed with palsy) are absolutely perfect in their roles, and their friendship is very convincing, as if they really had been friends all their lives. Misti Traya is a three-dimensional dream girl, with her quirks and flaws that balance out her good looks and nice qualities. James McDaniel, Mary Kay Place, and Mare Winningham are solid as well.

There’s hardly anything more I need to know about Enoch, Wheels, Abby, Jack, Belle, and Jessie than what I know from this film (and it helps that there are ending texts explaining what happened to half of these people later on). But if there was ever a sequel to this film, I would definitely check it out, because I certainly wouldn’t mind spending another hour-and-a-half with these people. But because I’m sure that a sequel will never come about, I guess I’ll just have to stick with this film as is.

And I have. I’ve watched “War Eagle, Arkansas” a hundred times already and will continue to watch it a hundred more times in the future.

Adventureland (2009) (revised review)

28 Jun

uhq-adventureland-stills-kris-looking-gorgeous-twilight-series-8217686-2560-1679

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This is a “revised” review of “Adventureland.” I wrote my original review of the movie three years ago, and back then, I only kind of liked it. But oddly enough, I found myself watching it again recently—but that’s not the odd part. The odd part was that I watched it three times in the past week and found myself admiring it more each time. It happens sometimes—you feel one way after watching a certain movie, and you either love or hate it with subsequent viewings.

So I’m writing a new review on “Adventureland.” But I’m not going back to the original source. I’m starting from scratch.

I think I know what it was back then. I think at the time I watched “Adventureland” on DVD for the first time, knowing that Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig were among the cast and also that it was directed by Greg Mottola whose previous film was the hilariously vulgar “Superbad,” I was expecting a “Superbad-esque” comedy. And it didn’t help that the trailers and TV spots marketed the film to be a slapstick-filled, crudely-funny, wacky comedy. There are laughs to be had, a few sex jokes to be tossed around, a few beers to be had, a few joints to be toked (as well as pot-cookies to be consumed), and an annoying character that constantly hits the main character in the nuts…but “Adventureland” is actually more mature and insightful than the original trailer would like you to believe. It’s a comedy, but it’s based around realistic situations, truthful characters, and, surprisingly, a lack of cheap laughs. Crudeness and profanity are left at a minimum here. Artificial humor doesn’t seem to be at work here, and no laughs are forced (well, for the most part—like I said, there’s a groin-flicking d-bag, but he’s not overused). The mature themes of “Superbad” (growing up, knowing those you’re comfortable with, respecting the opposite sex, etc.) are more at work with “Adventureland,” with no distracting partying-cop characters to hang with the McLovin character.

So maybe I was expecting something a little broader, along the lines of “Superbad,” mainly because of deceptive marketing. The first time I watched “Adventureland,” there was at least something there to keep me entertained enough to like it. The second time I watched it, I noticed something a little more about the heart of the film. Now, with a few more viewings, I find myself admiring it even more for what it is rather than what I may have expected it to be. The truth of the matter is that “Adventureland” has a unique, effective balance between humor and honesty that doesn’t feel the need to be so crude in order to gain an audience along the lines of the Judd Apatow crowd. (Remember—Judd Apatow did not direct “Superbad.”) Instead, it’s a nicely-done coming-of-age romance with sharp writing, a smart sense, and realistic, appealing characters. Most of the characters are in their early-20s, which is unusual for a film like this, but remember that young adults can come of age in comedy-dramas too. And they’re real people too—not stereotypical cardboard cutouts of what we expect from such a film that the marketing would like us to think. The characters are treated with respect and dignity, and they’re three-dimensional as well.

Also noticeable is how much attention to detail is given to the undignified employment of a second-rate amusement park. In this case, that park is called Adventureland. It’s 1987, and the rides at Adventureland may be fun, but a few key characters work games. In a wonderful sequence early in the film, we’re introduced to the technical aspects of the games, all of which are rigged to be unwinnable—there’s a ring toss with rings that have the same width as the tops of target-bottles; there’s a series of mannequins with hats glued onto their heads so that players can’t shake them off with balls; there’s a basketball hoop that has been hammered into an oval shape; and so on. The idea is that no one can win the best prize in the park, which is a Giant Ass Panda (an oversized stuffed panda), because there aren’t many of those left. The other prizes are just disposable little stuffed animals with make squeaking noises. I’m not sure, but it seems as if the rules of this park comes from firsthand experience. I wonder if director Mottola, who also wrote the film, worked at such a place in the ‘80s.

James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is a recent college graduate who lands a games-job at Adventureland for the summer, because his father lost his job and so his parents can’t pay for graduate school in New York City. The job basically requires him to run the game booths for minimum wage, and it’s not very exciting. But he does meet some interesting people, including Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s maintenance man who is in a band and is said to have jammed with such rock stars as Lou Reed…and also plays the field despite being married. There’s also deadpan intellectual Joel (Martin Starr), who shows James the ropes and has something particular in common with James: awkwardness around women. That leaves Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva, astonishingly beautiful), the park’s main attraction (in a way), and Em (Kristen Stewart), a friendly girl-next-door type whom James befriends. James makes friends with his fellow employees at Adventureland, and due to his supply of joints, he also becomes popular among them. And he even finds himself falling for Em. But there are two problems that arise. One is that Lisa P. actually kind of likes James, much to his surprise (and everyone else’s, frankly), so he decides to go on a date with her, since he and Em aren’t “exclusive.” Another is that Em is actually Connell’s secret lover.

It’s a very complicated love story in that James and Em obviously like each other and share undeniable chemistry, but James is too impressed with himself dating the kind of woman who usually wouldn’t give him a chance, and Em is still in the middle of her affair with Connell and not sure how to end it. It’s complicated, and believably so. These are real people who make mistakes and of course learn to realize them, though sometimes after it seems like things may not turn out so nice. One of the most refreshing things about the Connell/Em subplot is that Connell is not characterized as a grade-A douche-bag. When he discovers that James has feelings for Em, he doesn’t try and ruin chances of a possible romance between the two. Although he does give certain advice that sort of unnerves James (which further leads to James going through with a date with Lisa P.), he’s not a jerk. We don’t forgive him for cheating on his wife, but the character is three-dimensional. Any other movie, he might be the villain who deserves a comeuppance. Here, he’s not entirely sympathetic, but he’s not dislikable either.

This goes back to what I wrote earlier about how these characters seem and feel like real people. James likes to think he’s smart and sophisticated, but he’s not as bright as he seems and he notices that as the film continues. Em comes from an uneven home, but she sometimes causes the problems with her stepmother. They’re not too bright, but they’re not too dim either. They feel like they’re patterned after real people. When James and Em are together, it feels real—awkward, but not terribly so; sweet, but not overdone; and funny, but within the context. The same kind of realistic conversational setup can be seen in James’ talks with Joel or Connell. And what about the affair? How is that handled? Without giving it away, it’s handled convincingly and refreshingly.

Jesse Eisenberg has been unfairly labeled as a “Michael Cera copycat” in this movie, but that’s really not fair. If anything, Eisenberg has a further amount of awkwardness to offer, and on top of that, a drier comedic wit. Every word he says, you know he’s trying to be careful in saying it, lest he say anything stupid, and thinking hard and quick about it first. He delivers a convincing portrayal of a geek, never overplaying it. And then there’s Kristen Stewart, also unfairly labeled, though for her it’s because of the “Twilight” movies. For goodness sake, leave Kristen Stewart alone. Stewart can act, and can act very well. Her performance in “Adventureland” is a demo I can immediately think about. Stewart plays Em as an appealing, fully-realized, modest girl-next-door type that would take a chance on James, and who James would fall for. She’s great here. Of the supporting cast, Ryan Reynolds is solid in a role that could have been too easy to play. Martin Starr is a great deadpan.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the adults who run the park. Personally, I find these two to be a distraction. Don’t get me wrong—at times, I find them funny (hell, even Hader’s porn-star mustache gets a laugh out of me); other times, they just seem unnecessary. They just come off as desperate needs for comic relief, and they’re not needed for that because we already have Joel and a few other (stoned) employees for that. I feel bad saying this, because I love these two comic actors—they were fantastic on SNL.

“Adventureland” doesn’t rely on crudeness, profanity, and vulgarity to attempt to get a story going. There are a few moments of such, but they’re far from overused. More importantly, this movie is actually about something. It’s about the routine experiences of a summer job, finding ways to keep it interesting through the people you meet and the misadventures you have, and with characters that grow a convincing bond together. It’s about structure and about character, and I loved spending time with these people. I wondered what would become of these people years down the road.

This is a coming-of-age comedy-drama that doesn’t disgust, doesn’t overdo its sweetness, doesn’t rely on cruelty for humor, and overall, doesn’t rely on familiar territory to keep it going. I liked this movie the first time I watched it; I love it even more now. Who knows? Maybe down the road, I’ll grow to forgive the film of the unnecessary Hader-Wiig characters and even grant it a four-star rating. Hey, it could happen.