Archive | Revised Reviews RSS feed for this section

Revisiting: Midnight Special

5 Jan

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

by Tanner Smith

Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”) had two films released in 2016: “Midnight Special” and “Loving.” I initially gave three-and-a-half stars to “Midnight Special” and gave it credit for being what it was even if it didn’t exactly leave so much of an impact on me upon first viewing. And I gave four stars (my highest rating) to “Loving” simply for being a well-made drama with excellent acting and a timeless message.

How many times have I seen “Loving” since its original theatrical release two years ago? Once.

Now, how many times have I seen “Midnight Special” since its original release? About eight or nine. Maybe ten.

There are movies that I know are great because all the right elements are in place (and I’ll give them credit for that, hence my four-star review of “Loving”)…but with a lot of those movies, I feel like as time goes on, I realize they hardly require more than a couple viewings because once I have the movie I expect to be great, there aren’t many surprises. As a result, I “admire” the movie more than I “like” it.”

Then there are movies that I don’t have many expectations for or that I hardly know anything about, and then I get pleasantly surprised by what’s presented to me. Maybe I won’t think much of it at first, but as time goes on, I’ll feel the urge to watch it again and learn something more the second time. Then, I think to myself there’s probably far more here for which I originally gave credit. More time goes on, and I watch the movie a few more times, and I don’t realize until later…it’s becoming one of my new favorite movies.

That kind of movie is so fascinating, especially when I think back to when I originally saw it for the first time. Movies like “The Dirties,” “Whiplash,” “Ruby Sparks,” “Tex,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “The Last Detail,” “Frances Ha”–all of these are among my favorite films now, and I wouldn’t have guessed upon first seeing them! They knew they were good…I didn’t know they’d become my faves!

My point is Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” gets better and better each time I see it. His previous films–“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” and “Mud”–are among my favorites, and I find myself thinking…I might actually like “Midnight Special” MORE than “Mud!” (And Midnight Special didn’t even make my best-films-of-2016 list!!)

“Midnight Special” is a sci-fi road-trip drama featuring two men who are on the run with a little boy (the son of one of the men) who seems to have special abilities. The government seeks him because he seems to possess secret information, the religious cult that held him and raised him want him back because they see him as a savior, and the boy’s father just wants to keep him safe.

“Midnight Special” was Nichols’ first studio achievement (making a film for Warner Bros.). And unlike many indie filmmakers who get their time to shine in the studio system, he was able to maintain final cut. (The budget needed for the production was small, so WB agreed to give him plenty of room.) Part of me doesn’t want to be so cynical as to how limited space directors are given when working in the mainstream…but another part of me truly appreciates the freedom that Nichols was given. At the very least, couldn’t you imagine the vagueness of this story’s execution thrown out the window for simple explanations? (At its worst, they probably would’ve had Adam Driver’s NSA character deliver every possible answer to each raised question, a la the psychiatrist’s deduction in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”)

What I love about “Midnight Special” is exactly that: its vagueness. There is development upon development upon development in this story, and none of it feels forced or tacked-on. It feels very well thought-out, and I admire Nichols for putting faith into his audience to stay with the oddness (and the realism added to the strange and unusual) all the way through to the end. Why is the boy wearing goggles? Why do his eyes glow? How is he able to do the things he does? How does he know what he knows? Why does the government want him so badly? What were the cult’s intentions? And so on. It’s a delight seeing this story unfold–instead of being angry for getting more questions than answers, I’m actually intrigued by what’s already happening in front of me. That’s a sign of great filmmaking (and it reminds me of why Nichols is one of my favorite filmmakers).

Even the characters are somewhat vague–we just know enough about why we should root for them and yet we have to fill in the blanks ourselves about what brought them here. That’s another thing I love about this movie: all the central characters–Roy (Michael Shannon), Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and Sevier (Adam Driver)–are so interesting and beautifully realized while still leaving much for me to think about with them. I don’t know if I have everything right involving their backgrounds or even their true intentions…but it’s fun to think about.

All of that leads to the ending, which confused many people (and most critics who somewhat resemble people) even more than when “10 Cloverfield Lane” ultimately gave its audience what it was secretly building up to. Like “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Midnight Special” ended its story with so much and yet so little at the same time.

Something else I love about this movie (and what I touched upon in the review originally) is the theme of parenthood. While the agents see this little boy as a weapon and the cult sees him as a savior, the heroes are the ones who want to look out for his wellbeing. And it’s during this journey that they have to ask themselves what truly is best for this special child. Even if Roy worries about him when he has no choice but to let him fulfill his destiny, he knows that’s part of being a parent as well.

However, that does lead me to my one little nitpick of the film. Alton’s mother, Sarah, reveals to Lucas in one line of dialogue that she was broken apart from the cult that raised him and that Roy couldn’t do anything but watch as the cult leader practically took him as his own. (This also indicates that Roy was part of the cult long before he met Sarah, and perhaps she ultimately didn’t belong.) “He watched another man raise Alton for two years–something I couldn’t even do.” She’s reunited with her son for less than 24 hours on this desperate trek when she realizes she may have to let him go. She’s the one to tell Roy that they all have to be ready to lose him… I don’t know if I buy her acceptance of that, considering she’s probably been leading a lonely life ever since she was separated from her son for two years. But still, that’s a minor nitpick I have with the film.

On a deeper level, “Midnight Special” is more than mainstream sci-fi entertainment. It’s a wonderful, brilliant film that deserves more credit than I originally gave it. Maybe someday, I’ll give “Midnight Special” the “Revised Review With Spoilers” treatment so that I can give a detailed analysis about what I think it all means, and thus, I can go into why I embrace this film wholeheartedly.

And maybe I should give Loving another viewing and “Revisit” it sometime soon…

Advertisements

Revisiting: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

4 Jan

me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl

by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING!!!

What is the purpose of my “Revised Reviews”? To express new thoughts about a particular film that are different from what I initially had. That’s the beauty of continually watching films–while the films themselves don’t change, our attitudes toward them do. We can praise films for being great and then in good time they can become some of our favorites. Or we can think less of them as time goes by. My personal favorite type of film is one I think is “OK” or “fine” at first but then gets better and better with each viewing, to the point where I can call it a “favorite.”

This is probably why it was a mistake to publicly post about my Top 250 Favorite Movies. Maybe the Top 100 was enough. Creating the Next Top 150 only meant many other films wouldn’t slip in over time. (Hell, there may even be a couple films that could sneak into the Top 100 over time. See what I mean?)

Anyway, I gave three stars to a 2015 indie comedy-drama called “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” and now I’d give it three-and-a-half. This is after watching it countless times since it was released.

How many three-star reviews have I written for movies that eventually ended up on my personal-favorites list? I’ve lost count.

Seriously, there’s The Dirties, Gremlins, The Monster Squad, Dazed and Confused, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, among others, that I’ve initially rated a measly 3 stars out of 4.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” isn’t in my Top 250…but it might be in the Top 400 (if ever I make one…which I won’t…publicly…). But why?

While I praised the acting from the leads, the charming atmosphere, and the revealing bittersweet ending, I complained very much about two other things–I called them Excessive Comic Relief and Kind of Aware But Not Quite. For the former, I was referring to the side comedic characters (particularly those played by Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon) who seemed like they were there because there wasn’t enough comedy already given by the droll commentating lead character, his wisecracking best friend, their natural appeal & chemistry together, and especially the amateur home movies they make. (This is always my pet peeve in independent dramedies–a lot of them seem to have quirky side characters for the sake of…having quirky side characters.)

And yes, I’ve read the book this film is based on, written by Jesse Andrews who also penned the screenplay for this film adaptation. These characters work a little better in the book, but only slightly.

And for the latter, I was referring to the characters pointing out that they’re partaking in cliches that were done in other movies involving teenage friendships–just because you say you’re doing something doesn’t make it any different.

But I did mention a lot of the things that I did like about the film, hence the three-star recommendation. How was I supposed to know I would end up watching the film several times after, just for the things I really like about it?

What has grown on me with subsequent viewings? Well, for one, there’s the dialogue. I know I harped on a lot of the self-awareness of the characters, which much of the voiceover narration focuses upon, but when we actually get to see these kids as regular high-school kids, they sound very authentic (with a lot of intentionally awkward “uhs” and “ums” and stammers here or there) and have a lot to say. And as such, they’re not only likable–they’re real.

That’s another thing I like about the film: the lead characters are great! Greg (Thomas Mann) goes through a brilliant character arc in which he learns that he needs friendship in his life, and Earl (R.J. Cyler) knows he and Greg have been friends the whole time (even though Greg won’t acknowledge it) and ultimately becomes the one that has to talk sense to Greg. They make films and they go to high school, where they have very little social status, but they don’t take it all so seriously. And the more I watch the film, the more I realize how unserious they are in their filmmaking…and when you think about all the pretentious analyses we get from filmmakers and film scholars, especially from the indie film circuit nowadays, seeing these kids treat their films this way makes me smile.

Then there’s Rachel (Olivia Cooke), the titular dying girl. Critics complained that she’s more of an “idea” than a “person,” much like the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope…THAT’S THE IDEA! We’re not supposed to know the real her–we’re supposed to get an idea of her: Greg’s idea. That way, when Greg realizes there’s so much more he could’ve known about her, it’s all the more tragic.

And I also like that it’s a film about friendship. It’s a film about a teenage boy and girl who form a relationship, but at no point are the two romantically linked. Maybe they could’ve been, if they had taken the time to get to know each other more and decided to take another risky step further. But then again, maybe they would’ve been fine as just friends. That’s not something you would expect in your average teen film, but there you are–this is not your average teen film. It’s better than that.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl got high honors at the Sundance Film Festival; it’s a shame it didn’t get higher praise for Oscar season (like Best Adapted Screenplay?). And for good reason–despite the heavy subject material of an awkward boy befriending a cancer-patient girl, the story is told effectively with useful benefits, instead of resorting to melodrama. It takes realistic characters and forces them to ask questions about themselves–about what they must go through at this crossroads in life, how they must react when someone is in turmoil, how useful they can be in certain situations, etc. and so on.

And the more times I watch this film, the more I think about THAT rather than the things I complain about.

To conclude, I also love this dialogue exchange, after Greg and Earl are accidentally stoned (don’t ask): GREG: You can’t tell them we’re on drugs. EARL: Why not? (pause) GREG: Because then they’ll know.

That line (“Because then they’ll know.”) makes me cry with laughter each time I hear it.

An American Werewolf in London (Revised Review)

5 Nov

an-american-werewolf-in-london-watching9-videoSixteenByNineJumbo1600-v2.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember seeing John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London” on VHS when I was 16. I remember being so mad at the way it ended that I told myself I didn’t like the movie…and then, shortly after that, I bought the DVD and a T-shirt with “BEWARE THE MOON” (a line from the movie) sewn onto it. Yet, I was still convinced I didn’t like the movie…which is why I watched it countless times since then?

It took longer than I’m proud to admit for me to realize I did like the movie…I just didn’t like the ending.

“An American Werewolf in London” is a horror film with a sharp satirical sense of humor that makes for some uncomfortably funny moments. It begins with two American college students—David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne)—being dropped off in English country with a truckload of sheep…considering everything that happens to these two, I won’t even call this “subtle” foreshadowing.

David and Jack reach a local pub (called The Slaughtered Lamb) in a small village, a place that already seems disconcerting without the angry glares from the patrons and the barmaid. Before they leave, they’re warned to keep walking on the roads, stay off the moors, and “beware the moon.” Well, it’s a full moon out that night, and they ignore the warning and walk away from the road…and that’s when they are attacked by a ferocious creature in the dark.

Jack is killed, while David is hospitalized in London after being mauled by the creature. But the problem is no one, not even the police, believes his story that it was a large wolf that attacked them, since it was the corpse of a man that was uncovered at the scene of the crime, not a monster. While David is recovering from his injuries, he suffers a series of strange, harrowing nightmares, all of which involve him attacking animals and eating them (among other horrific details). But things get even stranger when Jack, now a decomposing corpse walking in limbo as one of the undead, visits David and warns him that he is becoming a werewolf. It was a werewolf that killed Jack and merely mauled David, and now, the curse has been passed on to David. If David doesn’t kill himself before the next full moon, he will become a monster and kill people.

It turns out Jack was right (of course), and on the next night of the full moon, David transforms into a werewolf and goes on a rampage. What everyone remembers from “An American Werewolf in London” is the transformation sequence, which shows the painful process of becoming the wolf-like creature. Makeup-artist/creature-creator Rick Baker supervised the effects, working with the makeup and prosthetics, and the result is not only effective but also one of the most amazing, memorable, lasting moments of its kind I’ve ever seen in any movie of its sort. (Baker won the Oscar for Best Makeup for this film, becoming the first winner for the category that was new at the time.) Carefully chosen cinematography and effective acting from Naughton make you feel the pain and suffering David is going through as his body goes through slow, numerous changes before ultimately becoming the American Werewolf in London.

“An American Werewolf in London” works well as a horror film, not only because of its effectively done scary set pieces (such as the boys’ first werewolf attack or a later attack in a Subway station) but also because we care for the character of David and feel sorry for him while he’s in this uncontrollable situation. But it also works as a black comedy, thanks to director Landis (who’s known for outrageous comedies like “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers”) who inserts many nice elements that are fun to laugh at. The most memorable and relevant of such elements comes with the character of Jack, who after his death visits David three times. Even though he looks worse and worse with each visit, as his body is slowly wasting away, Jack maintains the persona of a perky college student that makes for great comic relief.

Something else that keeps the rooting interest of the film going is a nice little romance between David and his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), who takes him in after David leaves the hospital. It’s sweet without being sugary, and you feel the attraction between the two. Much of the reason we want David to find some way to get through the curse is because we know Alex feels deeply for him. And then there’s David’s doctor, Dr. Hirsch (well-played by John Woodvine), who discovers there may be more to David’s story than he initially thought and does his own investigating. This subplot would be uninteresting if the part wasn’t played by an interesting actor who helps keep the film grounded in reality.

OK…let’s talk a little about the ending. Without giving away what happens, I still don’t like it. I feel like the film does so well, right up until this final minute or so. It feels so anticlimactic that it made me wonder why I spent so much time leading up to it. It let me down with how abrupt it was. But the more I thought about it (and I’ve watched this film several times), I might give the film a little bit of credit that there might not have been any other way it could’ve resolved itself…but I don’t know if I can forgive the film for immediately cutting straight to the credits with an upbeat pop song that tried to make me forget the utterly dire resolution I was just subjected to!

However, I can’t let something like that get in the way of the delightful horror-comedy I enjoyed for years (even if many of those years were spent in much denial). “An American Werewolf in London” is very well-made, contains Landis’ trademark blend of lightheartedness and weightiness, and may just be the best “werewolf movie” I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.

Signs (revised review with spoilers)

8 Oct

webANXsigns.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I would issue a “SPOILER ALERT,” but how many people who read my blog don’t know about “Signs?”

When I first reviewed M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 hit “Signs,” I was naïve enough as a young reviewer (I think I was about 17 when I wrote the review) to try not to give away any spoilers for a film that was already getting a heap of backlash. “Signs” is a film that was receiving a lot of love before it was getting a lot of hate. And I didn’t even acknowledge the backlash in my review; it was one of the worst reviews I’ve ever written that, for some reason, I decided to post in my blog years later when I started it. Rather than go in-depth about a film that everyone was picking on left and right, I was heavily inspired by Roger Ebert’s review. He gave “Signs” the same star-rating I did (four stars out of four), and he kept it spoiler-free in his review. (I wish I could explain to 17-year-old Tanner Smith the difference between taking inspiration from someone’s work and ripping it off.)

Anyway, “Signs” is a film that gets a lot of criticism that I think is unwarranted. I’m keeping the four-star verdict for this “Revised Review,” because Shyamalan’s “Signs” is one of my personal favorite movies.

I’m not kidding—I love “Signs” un-ironically and wholeheartedly. So now, I’m going to give it the Smith’s Verdict treatment that it deserves.

The film centers on a rural-Pennsylvania family (“20 miles outside Philadelphia,” a caption states)—widower father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and Graham’s two children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). One morning, they awaken to find that in their cornfield are mysterious shapes bent from several of the crops. From above, they look like crop circles. If this were a prank, it’d be one thing; but apparently, it’s happening all over the world and it all seems to be a warning sign for a global invasion from an otherworldly force. Aliens are coming, it seems, and Graham isn’t sure whether to believe it or not, but the others are more than willing to accept the possibility. Before long, the looming danger draws closer and the family has to survive the night…

OK, here goes—it turns out there really are extraterrestrials that come to Earth and mean harm towards mankind. Let’s start off with the ultimate masterstroke in telling this particular alien-invasion story: it keeps the focus on just one part of the world, with one family knowing as much as they can possibly know, from listening to the radio broadcasts, watching TV broadcast news, and even encountering some aliens themselves. Therefore, we as an audience only know what they know. Unlike in “Independence Day,” which featured a large variety of characters in different parts of the world witnessing the extraordinary events as they unfold, in “Signs,” we’re given the absolute minimum of the attack. And I think that’s great—sometimes, less is more.

Unfortunately, this is probably the source of a lot of the complaints & questions people have about “Signs” that they just won’t let be. The aliens have trouble with wooden doors. Water seems to be the only thing that can hurt them. Why would they come to a planet mostly covered with water? Why didn’t they bring any weapons? Because we know so little about the invasion itself, aside from what the group of characters only hears about, many of us are too quick to assume that these are mere plot holes that can’t be filled. But I think they can be…

For one thing, the criticism of the water being the thing that burns the aliens like acid has never been warranted, in my opinion. Think of it like this—if we were on a whole other planet in a whole other galaxy, we could come across something that could be very lethal to us; something that is a natural resource to the planet’s inhabitants. I never understood why people find it hard to believe that the aliens would have a deadly reaction to something they haven’t encountered before.

As for the question of why they would attack Earth, a planet that is mostly composed of water, I refer you to a scene in which the characters listen to a radio broadcast, in which a witness believes that they didn’t come to take over our planet but rather to harvest humans. They couldn’t care less about our planet; they just want as many of us as they could get before they left. And they seemed to have left in a big hurry, leaving only their wounded behind, most likely because of the water. Again, we don’t know for sure because we’re only limited to what we see on this family’s farm, but if some of the aliens landed somewhere where it rained, for example, that’d be enough for a slaughter, a distress call, a retreat, anything.

The final encounter in the film comes when a wounded alien has made its way to the house and nearly kills Morgan with its poisonous gas (luckily, Morgan, having suffered an asthma attack prior, didn’t inhale it because his lungs were too closed up). This is the alien that Graham encountered the previous day at a neighbor’s house, before removing its fingers with a carving knife. So, obviously, because its brethren scattered quickly and left their wounded behind, the alien, after having busted out of the house pantry where he was locked up, must have followed the closest crop circle and found its way to this house. It’s a desperate act that people have also questioned.

Oh, and what about the wood? These things seem to have trouble with wooden doors. (“Scary Movie 3” even mentioned this at one point: “They mastered space flight, but they can’t get through a wooden door?”) But here’s the thing—they have no weapons to aid them. It’s possible that they didn’t find any use for them, because they were only here for us, not for our planet. And here’s the other thing—they did get through the doors! When the family is holed up in the basement, how do you think the aliens ended up outside the door? They busted through the doors upstairs (and the boarded-up windows too—you can see the broken planks near the end of the film). And more importantly, the wounded alien at the end was the same alien that was locked in a kitchen pantry before…so, he obviously broke out. (It’s going to take some effort, guys.)

Something else people love to complain about is how everything seems to come together at the end, with Graham, a former preacher, suddenly gaining his faith back after it seems his wife’s dying words were warnings for the future, leading up to this moment in which Merrill must kill the alien with his treasured baseball bat. (“Merrill…swing away.”) People complain that it’s an unneeded premonition that is forced rather than revealing. Maybe Shyamalan was going for a way for God to provide help, thus restoring Graham’s beliefs (and there’s even a scene early in the film about how there may not be coincidences in the world). But I never saw it as that big a deal. I just saw it as Graham figuring out the best way to save the day while considering the possibility that this is no coincidence. Everybody has their reasons to believe.

And while I’m on the subject, people also complain about Graham leaving the cloth because he originally lost his faith after his wife died. He’s a flawed man, as you can see as the film continues. There are moments, particularly when he talks with Merrill (and especially their conversation about hope and fear), that indicate not only is he not so sure about whether or not we’re all alone in the world with no one to look after us and protect us, but also that he was never entirely sure even when he was a priest. No one is perfect. That’s what I got out of it, anyway.

I will give the critics a little bit of credit—it is a bit odd that the concept of crop circles, something that was dismissed as a big hoax in real-life (and even mentioned in this film at one point), is something that the aliens in this film actually decided to perform (for use of navigational purposes). Kind of coincidental, isn’t it? But then again, don’t some people wonder what would happen those crop circles really were from otherworldly sources? It is the movies, after all—what’s wrong with some wish-fulfillment?

I’ve already mentioned in my previous review how effective the acting is from all four principal actors, how striking the production design is (right down to the stained cross on the wall, which I did not recognize before), how deeply unsettling it is the way Shyamalan uses silence to elevate tension, and how wonderful James Newton Howard’s music score is. But they deserve mentioning again because I think just about everything about “Signs” works. As with “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” “Signs” was a case of a filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan putting his faith into his audience and telling a story using both big and little elements to both satisfy them and make them ponder. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of people didn’t fall for it. But I did, and I’m all the more glad that I took the time to truly think about all the things I mentioned in this review, rather than let the questions linger on in my mind before I decided I didn’t like “Signs.” I love “Signs,” and I will continue to love “Signs” to my dying day. It’s one of my favorite movies, and I will shrug off any more complaints I read about it. To those complaints, I say: it’s not a problem if it can be explained.

Heavyweights (Revised Review)

26 Dec

BPF69H.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yep, it’s “Revised Review” time again! And I would say it’s “Guilty Pleasure” time again, except I hold no guilt in liking “Heavyweights” whatsoever. It’s one of my childhood favorites, and when I wrote my mixed review (saying I liked it until the end), I thought I was telling myself I had outgrown the silly humor, the clichéd plot, the overdone stereotypical characters, and the conventional sports-movie ending. But I should’ve told myself, “Come on! You enjoy many parts of this movie, you love watching it every once in awhile, and even the ending isn’t that bad. At least give it three stars for being something you like!”

It is true; I do enjoy watching “Heavyweights” every once in awhile. I loved it as a kid and watched it over and over and over again, so much so that I had most of it memorized by the time I realized the clichés and the stereotypes and whatnot. Because of that, I thought I wasn’t supposed to cut it too much slack as a film critic. How silly I was, because while “Heavyweights” does have those familiar elements to it, there’s an edge that makes them more enjoyable than in something like “The Mighty Ducks” (which featured some of the same actors and crew members three years earlier). (Maybe since-accomplished Judd Apatow, providing one of his first screenwriter credits in his career by co-writing this movie, had something to do with that edge.)

So, because of that, I’m giving it three-and-a-half stars instead of three, because I just like “Heavyweights” that much!

The main character of “Heavyweights” is an 11-year-old overweight boy named Gerry (Aaron Schwartz). His parents send him, against his wishes, to a fat camp called Camp Hope, which is advertised to make overweight boys lose weight and have fun in the process. Gerry is bummed about it until he makes friends with his cabinmates, including Josh (Shaun Weiss) and Roy (Kenan Thompson in one of his early roles, just before Nickelodeon’s “All That”), who are not serious about losing weight. (They even hide food in secret compartments in their cabin.)

But before the first day at camp is even over is when the trouble starts. The friendly owners of the camp (played by Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller—I dunno, are they wasted cameos?) announce that their positions are taken over by self-assured fitness guru Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller), who is determined to make the kids lose weight quickly. Why? So he can make a quick buck with an infomercial about weight loss. He makes life at camp a living hell for the kids, and so the kids fight back and take control of the camp and their lives.

From this point forward, I would like to issue a SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen the movie before, check it out and then come back to read the rest of this review.

Everything builds up to an ultimate confrontation between Perkis and the kids (in which, in a neat little twist, Perkis’ parental issues come into play as he lashes out at the parents: “PARENTS! YOU’RE ALL THE CAUSE OF MY…THEIR PROBLEMS!”). But the movie continues with the kids earning their self-respect, going up against the athletic bullies from the camp across the lake (“Camp MVP”). This is what I complained about before, in my original review. But I really don’t have that much to complain about anymore. It’s dealt with quickly, isn’t boring, and it has its share of funny jokes here or there (such as when one of the jocks mistakes the Mona Lisa for Cher). Yeah, the big race is predictable. Yeah, the ultimate happy-ending is a bit much. But did I complain about the slow-clap at the end of one of my favorite movies, “Lucas”? No way. So why should I complain about this final act when, really, my problems with it are mere nitpicks?

This is what happens when a kid tries to become a serious film critic—he lets nitpicks of a silly, fun film get the better of him in a “serious review.”

“Heavyweights” is full of memorable, colorful characters, which is part of the reason I keep coming back to revisit the film. The kids are entertaining to watch and played by good comic actors, and the adults just have as much fun. Tom McGowen plays a good-natured counselor character named Pat, who is downgraded to janitor upon Perkis’ arrival because Perkis sees his weight as less of a motivator for the kids. Leah Lail is the attractive new nurse who becomes the apple of Pat’s eye; she doesn’t have as much to do as the rest of the cast in terms of humor, but she is likable enough. Paul Feig (yes, Paul Feig of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Bridesmaids” fame) scores a few laughs as a skinny counselor named Tim. And then there’s Ben Stiller as Tony Perkis and Tom Hodges as a buff, foreign counselor named Lars. Man, are these two lots of fun to watch—very funny and memorable at the same time. Stiller plays the part of Perkis with a few parts Fonzie and other parts Wayne from “Wayne’s World” and much original talent—a mixture that would fit him well for a similar role in “Dodgeball” nine years later. Even in the smallest comedic moments, such as when he jogs in the woods near his cabin, he’s wonderful. (“Come on, you devil log!” he exclaims as he stops to lift a log in his path.)

I mentioned that Judd Apatow, in the early stages of his career (which would lead to bigger and better things), is one of the writers of the film, and it actually makes sense. For what could have otherwise been a deplorable, standard summer-camp romp for Disney, Apatow gives the material a much-needed edge with a lot of witty one-liners, an awareness of itself, and colorful characters that don’t get dumbed down (for the most part). He and Paul Feig went on to create “Freaks and Geeks,” and honestly, I think I like “Heavyweights” almost as much as my favorite episodes of that series.

Yes, there are some things that are overdone. For example, there are some slapstick pratfalls that get more groans than laughs from me. And I guess it should bother me that the idea of satirizing the infomercial-weight-loss concept isn’t stretched out to its full potential (and accidentally treating the overweight kids as the problem, if you really think about it—none of the kids end up with serious pain as a result of the “system”). But I can’t sit here and let my original review of “Heavyweights” remain on smithsverdict.com without some redemption from me, a person that genuinely enjoys the movie and will probably watch it again now that I’ve talked about it some more. It even made it go out and buy the Blu-Ray, which has tons of bonus material about the making of the film, a commentary with cast & crew, an hour-and-a-half of deleted/extended scenes, and even more.

Any film that gets me excited about extensive bonus features on the Blu-Ray doesn’t deserve a mixed review.

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

18 Jun

dt

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.

the_dirties_trailer_2_screen

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.

600

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.

7823798324uhrwehiuew978234

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

ggt_24-11-2012_screenlife_01_scn091112red3_fct1025x631x78_t460

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.