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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

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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.