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Southside With You (2016)

8 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You” is a sweet romance about the most important of dates in any relationship: a first date. It may not seem so important while it’s happening, of course, but when there’s a second date and a third and maybe even a long-term committed relationship that comes from it. There may be other times that couples look back on with more fondness, but deep down, they know that “first date” was the most special time in their lives.

Set in 1989, “Southside With You” is about two young adults who work in a Chicago law firm. He’s a Harvard Law student working for the summer as an associate for the firm. And she’s his advisor, a hard-working young lawyer. He invites her to a community-organizing meeting, picks her up, and, well…it doesn’t start for a couple more hours, and he also invites her to see some exhibits at a local art center…and maybe get a bite to eat too. “This is not a date,” she informs him. “Until you say it is,” he assures her.

She’s not looking for a relationship with a coworker, particularly him. She’s black; he’s black; she’s concerned about what her coworkers might think. “How’s it gonna look if I start dating the first cute black guy who walks through the firm’s doors?” she says. “It would be tacky.”

His response? “You think I’m cute?”

Thus is the start of a will-they-or-won’t-they day in which these two brilliant, motivated, likable individuals get to know one another a little more and enjoy being in each other’s company. They spend the whole day talking about numerous topics, including art, family, empathy for others, idealisms, even “Good Times” (“DYNOMITE!”) and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (which they go see at a movie theater together). He learns there’s more to her than a highly-motivated young African-American woman who fights to be taken seriously at the firm, which is mostly dominated by older white men. After hearing him speak at the community meeting, she realizes his full potential as a public speaker. They realize qualities in one another that they truly admire.

And their conversations are fun and interesting to listen to, with dialogue written by Tanne, and they’re also wonderfully acted, by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. They both give immensely charming performances as two ambitious young people who might just be perfect for each other.

And just who are these two people, you may ask? Well, maybe if I share their names, you might have some idea as to who they are: Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama. That’s right—“Southside With You” is about the first date between the First Couple of 2008-2016 in the summer of 1989. But it’s not a political statement (though that’s not to say political affiliates won’t see it as such), nor may it be entirely factual (though I do wonder what the Obamas themselves think of this film), nor are there any obvious foreshadowing lines of dialogue such as, “Wow, Barack, you should go into politics!” (Not even a single “Yes We Can” is uttered once.) It’s first and foremost a romance; a first date between two charming, brilliant young people that may escalate into something more. (And it makes the film even more charming when you remember what happens with the characters’ real-life counterparts later on down the road.) And as such, it’s successful.

With a unique, nearly-perfect blend of hot-topic debates and emotional realizations of the past, all of which is shared between two interesting characters, “Southside With You” is a nice (albeit idealized) little romance that gives me a relationship about which I can care and by which I am intrigued. Even if it weren’t the future POTUS and his wife, I’d still follow these two. And that’s a high compliment to how well-realized they are. This is a sweet film.

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Antiquities (2019)

30 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“There’s a feature-length film that could be made with the material in ‘Antiquities.’” –an excerpt from my review of Daniel Campbell’s short film “Antiquities,” April 2013.

Here’s another: “Writer-director Daniel Campbell is obviously so intelligent a filmmaker that he’s able to get laughs by just everyday quirkiness […] it’s funny, and it has something to say about the oddities of everyday life.”

Can I just rewrite that as my closing thoughts for Campbell’s recently released feature-length adaptation?

I loved the short. It was very funny in how eccentric it could make its characters, particularly the awkward lead (played wonderfully by Jason Thompson), which made the elevating genuine sweetness all the more moving and weirdly profound. It was about an odd person gaining enough self-confidence to begin a different direction in life, despite the sometimes-intentional/otherwise-benign efforts of his equally quirky co-workers (including one particular a-hole named Blundale, played by Roger Scott) at an antique mall to hold him back.

So, needless to say, I was more than curious to see what the same writer-director (Daniel Campbell) could do with a feature. For one thing, I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t bring back the same eccentricities of the supporting characters from his short; for his feature, he introduces new eccentricities, by which maybe I shouldn’t be surprised (yet I am pleasantly surprised). Second thing is, whereas the short was about stepping outside of the image the protagonist was afflicted with, the feature is more about a modern-day everyman finding ways to relate to the eccentric people with whom he had acquainted himself. I had a feeling this would work, and it did. The feature version of “Antiquities,” of course given the same title as the short, is endearingly strange in the most identifiable way.

Having lost his father, a young man named Walt (Andrew J. West) moves back to his small Southern hometown to live with his cheerful aunt and uncle (Melanie Haynes and Jeff Bailey) and gain employment at the antique mall where his dad used to work. He’s a mild mannered kid who sincerely wants to step into his father’s shoes (both figuratively and literally; he wears his father’s old boots to work) and walk around and get acquainted with his old co-workers. In the process, he’ll learn more about his father, about the people he knew, about himself, and how people behave in the names of self-discovery and dealing with pain.

If you like indie “dramedies” with quirky supporting characters, you’ll get a kick out of the cast of eccentric folks here. Entire films could be made about the people who work at this antique mall, such as Blundale (Roger Scott, reprising his role from the original short, more or less), the sumbitch who, when he isn’t making his coworkers’ lives miserable, likes to stage Civil War battles to his own liking through dioramas; or Jimmy Lee (Graham Gordy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Campbell), the oddball whose booth resembles his childhood living room during Christmastime (and nothing in his booth is for sale); or Dolores Jr. (Michaela Watkins), the neurotic with self-image issues; or Dewey Ray (Troy Hogan), the general manager who is married to Blundale’s mother; or Delaney (Michael Gladis), a heavyset man who is more talk than action; or the shrink (Mary Steenburgen in two very funny scenes) whose parrot senses narcissism; or the obligatory Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Ellie (Ashley Greene), who behaves irrationally while also grieving the loss of her cherished brother. (An example of Ellie’s character: on a date with Walt, she sneaks them into a closed amusement park, tricks him onto a ride, and then turns it on while laughing maniacally… I can’t say I recall that happening to me, despite going out with quite a few loony ladies back in the day, but if it did, I probably wouldn’t want to hang out with her again.)

You get my point. But I will continue by saying that while I’m tired of seeing people like this in many recent indie flicks, it was this film that made me realize that I got tired of them because they didn’t feel like real people so much as writer’s constructs to maintain some type of identity. I could see people I knew in these characters; some of the time, I could even see myself in one or two of these characters. And that’s the key difference. You feel that these people are going through their own confusions in life, and while you may be initially be put off by some of them, you gain somewhat of an idea as to why they are the way they are. Even Ellie, who I was ready to brush off as too good to be true, became a more interesting character as the film progressed.

Oh, and Jason Thompson is in the feature too, although he doesn’t play the same role as in the short. I feel obligated to report that. (He plays Walt’s cousin.)

So, because the supporting cast is so memorably quirky, you’d think that Andrew J. West, as the Joe Blow protagonist, would seem bland by comparison. On the contrary. I think it’s because he was playing an everyman reacting to the oddness of these people that I kept chuckling at his facial expressions while also wondering what he might be thinking during those moments. (Or maybe it’s just that I would react the same way if I were in his shoes—er, “boots.”)

“Antiquities” is a delightfully observant comedy that taught me not to jump to any conclusions, whatever they might be. And if I may be even more honest here, just writing about those memorable characters made me want to see the film again. The film is available on demand (I rented it from Amazon Prime and I’ll probably purchase it in the near future); I highly recommend you check it out wherever you can, because “Antiquities” is a nice little treasure. It’s funny, and it has something to say about the oddities of everyday life.

(Wait, that sounded familiar…)

Green Book (2018)

21 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Even when we know almost exactly what we’re going to get in a particular movie, we still embrace it because it gives us what we want AND need. And that’s the case with “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s road-trip comedy-drama about race relations in the 1960s. We all know race relations were troublesome in that era (and some will argue they’re not at their strongest nowadays, either—but let’s not go there), and so, we know more or less what we’re going to get from this movie about a white tough-guy chauffeur/bodyguard (from the Bronx) who is hired by a black sophisticated pianist (who lives right above Carnegie Hall, literally) to travel through the Midwest and the Deep South for a two-month tour. We know these two are going to bicker and argue for a good portion of the trip before letting down their defenses and getting to know one another better. And we know they’re going to encounter a good deal of racism (some of which is “polite” racism from good-natured Southern folks, but it’s still racism). We know there’s going to be a big blow-up moment between the two in which one reveals something about themselves that changes everything. And we know they’re going to become friends.

Well, we do get all of that in “Green Book.” But…so what? Just because we have a pretty good idea of how things are going to turn out for the most part, that doesn’t make the movie any less good, powerful, or endearing. And that’s all that “Green Book” becomes: a lovely, sentimental road movie with two interesting characters and something to say about where we were then and where we are now.

Based on a true friendship between Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and Don Shirley, “Green Book” takes place in the last couple months of 1962, as bouncer/enforcer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), who earns the nickname by being able to talk himself out of almost any tight spot, is hired to drive the renowned pianist Doc Shirley (Mahershala Ali) of the Don Shirley Trio through the Midwest before going into the Deep South. Assisting Tony is “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook that lists the state-by-state locations that will serve black travelers.

We get an “Odd Couple” sort of relationship between Lip and Doc, as Lip is more abrasive, outgoing, and a real wiseass, whereas Doc is more reserved, the straight man to Lip’s antics. And what also makes things complicated is Lip’s deep-rooted racism, as established in an early moment when he throws away two glasses used by two black repairmen after his wife serves them drinks. But he needs the work, and the job to drive this black man around pays well, so he knows he has to do what he has to do. It’s his story being told in “Green Book” (which is also co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of the real-life Tony Lip), and so it’s important that the audience understand how his development from ignorance into tolerance comes to be, especially since we all know it’s inevitable. (And I’m not just saying that because the real-life story Lip and Doc remained friends to their dying days, shortly within each other, which is pretty interesting and cool—I’m mostly saying it because we know the change is predictable in this type of story.) Thankfully, the development is not only convincing; it’s welcoming in ways that I didn’t expect. There’s not a moment in this progression that feels rushed; it feels natural and real, and we welcome the changes in Lip’s worldview.

“Green Book” was directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, who is still best-known as one half of the Farrelly brothers who were responsible for such outrageous raunchy comedies as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.” I’m glad he can remind us any good filmmaker can make any type of movie, no matter what their reputation. But also, while he knows to capture the weight of the heavier situations that are definite for his protagonists to come across (such as the Southern “gentleman” who is glad to let the Don Shirley Trio play in his mansion…as long as Doc doesn’t use his bathroom), he also knows to lighten the mood with comedic moments, such as when Lip stops for Kentucky Fried Chicken (in Kentucky!) and practically begs Doc to try some after he admits he’s never tried it before, and especially when Doc helps Lip in writing letters to his loving wife (Linda Cardellini, underused but still effective)…letters that are written better than what Lip could have come up with, to say the least. And yet the comedy doesn’t feel forced; most of it comes from the characters being themselves and interacting with each other, and thus when their working relationship elevates into trusting friendship, we understand how it happened.

All of that is well and good, but there is one very important element that makes “Green Book” worth recommending and seeing again: the acting. The acting from both Viggo Mortensen as Lip and Mahershala Ali as Doc is unbelievably excellent. If we didn’t buy their performances for even a slight moment, the whole film would’ve fallen apart real fast. (And I don’t think I’m exaggerating in that remark.) I look at Ali and I don’t see the stonefaced drug dealer he portrayed in his Oscar-winning performance in “Moonlight”; I see someone 100% different, the reserved, suave, cultured Dr. Don Shirley, who keeps his nose in the air and his demons wrapped tight inside himself. He’s great, but it’s not really his story being told here. Instead, it’s the story of Tony Lip, played by Mortensen, who has delivered many a strong performance in his busy career…and I think this one might be his best. He has a credible New York accent and he’s gained a lot of weight for the role, but the attitude he brings to the character is what makes him very interesting. His ability to talk his way out of anything plus his violent temper proves to be both a blessing and a curse, and it’s when Tony Lip realizes both aspects that his character starts to go through a fascinating change. I’m sincerely hoping for an Oscar nomination for Mortensen in this role, because he deserves it.

“Green Book” as a film isn’t very subtle, as most of the characters’ journey is painted in broad strokes. But the performances are excellent and what make the film the treasure that it is. They help make the inspirational true-story aspects all the more effective, and as a result, “Green Book” is a predictable winner but a winner nonetheless.

A Quiet Place (2018)

28 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Horror films can generate effective scares with ominous music & dialogue…but a horror film like John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” is one that reminds me how easy that can be. What’s tricky is building suspense and creating thrills through visual storytelling. “A Quiet Place” manages to pull it off, and it’s one of the best horror films in recent memory. (And even though we’ve had many terrific horror films in the past couple years, one of which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, I don’t think I’ll call that “hyperbole.”)

“A Quiet Place” is centered on one family: the Abbotts (Krasinski as dad, Emily Blunt as mom, Millicent Simmons as daughter, Noah Jupe as son). They’re one of the few families that are still surviving the aftermath of some sort of alien invasion, even as many of the otherworldly creatures still stalk the earth. Life as they know it has ceased to exist for a long, long time, and they rely on two things in order to survive—one is each other, but the most important is complete silence. You see, these things attack at the slightest loud noise, and being that they’re still in their area (and even killed off another family member in a creepy prologue), living in silence is the best way to maintain survival.

We don’t see the attack—the film begins on “Day 89,” after it. We’re not even entirely sure as to how it happened. (Though, we do get some imagery such as newspaper headlines to give us a few clues here or there.) We just know it’s not as important as what survivors have to do next. These unfriendly beings took over our world, and our main characters just have to deal with it. That’s a neat hook, and it’s interesting to see how people in this new world get through their daily routines with almost total quietness. (They also communicate through sign language, as the daughter is already deaf—that detail itself raises suspense as she wouldn’t be able to hear a noise she herself may cause.) Things start to get even more dangerous when the expecting mother is about to have a new child, and everything has to be set in order to protect the family during the delivery. But no matter what they do, danger still comes for them…

The tone and atmosphere play an enormous role in the film’s success. The quiet in this film is practically deafening; it made me realize how claustrophobic it can make someone feel. When a loud noise finally comes up, you’re instantly on-edge because you can’t shake the feeling that something terrible is about to happen… Krasinski proves to be a masterful director in how he can rely on visual storytelling to keep the audience engaged and on the edges of their seats, and he uses the simplest methods to keep us invested. (One particular setup involves a nail…you know what that’s going to lead to, even if you don’t know when it will pay off.)

An obvious comparison is M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” which also featured an alien attack from the perspective of one rural family in a farm setting. But with this particular family trying to find ways to keep quiet while trying to stay together, you can’t deny they have more complications to encounter in this particular case.

The gripes I have with “A Quiet Place” are mere nitpicks. While the sound design is carefully controlled for the most part, it’s when Marco Beltrami’s musical score kicks into gear during certain scenes that the effect those scenes could’ve gotten are somewhat lost in translation. And while I give credit to Krasinski for not dwelling on early long shots of the creatures, which are CG spider-like beasts, I wish he could’ve continued that “less-is-more” technique in the climax. And for a film that does so well in relying on silence to scare us, it still couldn’t resist a few jump-scare moments here or there, unfortunately.

But I can’t let little things like that get in the way of how I ultimately feel about “A Quiet Place.” It’s a gripping, compelling, scary, well-acted, wonderfully-shot chiller. It’s a terrific exercise in quieting down and using understated terror methods to get a reaction from us. And…yikes, that nail…

Juliet, Naked (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Juliet, Naked”—awkward title; doesn’t really demand to be projected on a marquee of your local cinema, does it? (There are other jokes I could’ve made about the title, but let’s just move on to the review.)

“Juliet, Naked” is based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, directed by Jesse Peretz (“Girls”), and features three brilliant comic performances from Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, and Chris O’Dowd as three of the most offbeat, neurotically insane movie characters of 2018. (That last part is truly what makes me recommend this film—I admittedly haven’t read Hornby’s novel nor have I seen Peretz’s previous accomplishments, though if they’re as witty and sharp as what’s presented in “Juliet, Naked” (or other film adaptations of Hornby’s work, like “High Fidelity” or “About a Boy”), that counts for something.) It’s a winning, charming romantic comedy with three characters heading in different directions in life—one wants something more than what she has, one tries again and again to connect with other people, and the other is content with where he is.

That first person is Annie (Rose Byrne delivering some of her best work). She’s quiet, sweet, and tolerates her boyfriend Duncan with whom she has lived for 15 years…even though his true love is actually (and not so secretly) the life and music of the mysterious musician Tucker Crowe. She becomes more resentful of her time with Duncan because she feels like there are more chances out there that she could take.

The second person is Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). He’s a singer-songwriter who was moderately popular in the early 1990s before he mysteriously (and suddenly) vanished. He’s become a legend for all obsessed fans of his music, most of whom come together to visit a fanmade website that is devoted to all things related to Tucker Crowe (complete with absurd theories about where he is now).

And the third…is the blogger who created the site: Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a college professor. As stated before with Annie, he cares about very little apart from Tucker Crowe. Either Annie has the patience of a saint or Duncan’s never going to stop to smell the roses and count his blessings—either way, Duncan’s pretty obnoxious about his obsession with either Tucker Crowe’s music or the sound of Tucker Crowe’s voice. (Side-note: Tucker Crowe’s music is hardly an important factor here…though, what little we hear of the music sounds like hardly anything other than easygoing alt-pop sounds.) Duncan is the least realized character of the three in this film, but at least O’Dowd is solid and funny in the role. (Additional side-note: stay through the credits for a hilarious payoff.)

In “Juliet, Naked,” someone sends Duncan a CD titled “Juliet, Naked,” which turns out to be an undiscovered demo filled with unfinished versions of the songs that would end up in Tucker Crowe’s most infamous album, “Juliet.” (There—now you have an explanation for the title.) Annie finds it first and listens to it, much to the dismay of Duncan. She posts a very negative review of the CD on Duncan’s site, which results in a surprising email response from Tucker Crowe himself, saying she “got it right.” So, unbeknownst to Duncan, Annie and Tucker Crowe correspond through email and get to know each other’s awkward secrets before they decide to meet in person. Among the secrets of the life of Tucker Crowe: he lives in his ex-wife’s garage, he has more than one ex, and he has several children scattered throughout the world, thus indicating that he’s trying to rearrange many aspects of his life that don’t involve music.

I won’t dare reveal what happens when Duncan ultimately (and inevitably) meets his long-time idol for the first time…what you might be thinking in your head may be funnier than what actually occurs, but it’s still just as awkward and funny, I assure you.

What makes “Juliet, Naked” work are the flawed characters (played wonderfully by all three actors—and there’s also Lily Brazier in a funny side-role as Annie’s lesbian sister) and the writing behind them (originated from Nick Hornby and adapted by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins). Where it truly shines is the low-key romance that slowly develops between Annie and Tucker, who are two flawed people trying to get their lives sorted out.

Another thing I want to comment upon is the use of improvisation. This is an Apatow-produced romantic comedy—many films produced by Judd Apatow tend to stall during numerous scenes of heavy improvisation from actors who aren’t given much control and are almost desperate for laughs. But with “Juliet, Naked,” the laughs come from a witty script and the improvs feel (gasp!) NATURAL. (I turn back to the scene in which Tucker and Duncan meet for example.) It doesn’t feel forced in the slightest, and I admire the film (and the actors’ abilities) for that.

“Juliet, Naked” is a carefully observed romantic comedy about people who are getting older, don’t know where they’re going in the future, and need help, whether they know it or not. Sometimes, it’s sweet (without being sugary). Sometimes, it’s funny (without being mean). And overall, it’s a little film with more heart than a title like “Juliet, Naked” would make anyone think.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

5 Nov

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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.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

21 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Based on a true story.” The Hollywood studio system loves to use those five words in an attempt to sell their products even further outside their target demographic. Even if the films they’re promoting only sound slightly similar to events that have taken place one way or another in reality, they will find some way to include that old familiar saying. (They may even remove a word and alter the tag to “inspired by true events.”) When it comes to horror films, particularly those that delve into the supernatural, using that tag creates a very thin line between what audiences are willing to believe and what they’re choosing to ignore. Take “The Conjuring,” which was marketed as “based on a true case files of the Warrens”—are we really supposed to believe that the events portrayed in that film really happened the way the filmmakers interpreted it?

That is why something as unique as Scott Derrickson’s (“Sinister,” “Doctor Strange”) underrated courtroom-drama/supernatural-thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” cannot be ignored.

From that title, what do you expect to see in this film? Exorcism. Demonic possession. Death. All sorts of odd, ominous, spiritual elements going bump in the night. And a girl named Emily Rose, who indeed is part of an exorcism. If the film were as simple as that, it’d be just another supernatural-horror film. But it’s not as simple as that. Why? Well, let me explain the story first.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is loosely based on a German woman named Anneliese Michel, who in the mid-1970s underwent a Catholic exorcism not long before her death. She had already been diagnosed with epilepsy and given many psychiatric treatments, neither of which proved effective. As her condition got worse and she claimed to hear voices (among other things), her family believed her to be possessed by a demon and thus called for two priests to perform the deed. When she died of dehydration and starvation, her parents and the priests were found guilty of negligent homicide. Since then, there have been posthumous notes that point to her being under the influence of a demonic being.

So then lies the question of whether or not Anneliese truly was possessed. Are the simplest answers always the true ones? Is the way I described the event sounding more credible? I believe that there are things in this world that we may never fully comprehend and that things are never as simple as all that. Maybe she was really sick, as her psychiatrists have testified. But what about the priests and the exorcism? The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t take the concept lightly, as far as I know; so, they must’ve had some idea that something was more wrong than trained professionals have thought. Then there’s the audiotape of the exorcism, which was handed in as evidence during the trial—it’s pretty unnerving and points more toward the possibility of something supernatural overtaking this girl, but it also could have been evidence of enabling the psychiatric torture she must have been going through also.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” knows this. How do I know it knows this? Because it chooses a brilliant method in telling the story—instead of going for a straightforward approach in telling this story, in which one side of the belief system is obviously right, it looks at it from both sides. This is a masterstroke of storytelling for this kind of film, because it allows us, the audience, to decide for ourselves what we choose to believe. The best part is the film doesn’t cheat in ways that make everything so easy for one to believe something in particular. It shows why something must have happened this way or why it also could’ve happened another way. One way is the simpler way of explaining, but is it the most true? That’s the beauty of it—we’re the judges.

The protagonist of the film is defense-attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), who has been brought on as the lawyer of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson). Father Moore is a priest on trial after the death of a teenage girl named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) following an exorcism he attempted onto her. The church doesn’t want the public attention, and so, he’s advised to plead guilty to reckless endangerment. But Father Moore doesn’t wish to plead guilty, because he wants Emily’s story to be told, not caring in the slightest about the consequences for himself. Thus, we get an intriguing court case, in which Bruner, an agnostic, is forced to carry through the ordeal and defend her client, and the prosecutor, a churchgoer named Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), has to prove against what can’t be easily proven. Emily Rose was possessed. Emily Rose was sick. Father Moore made things worse. Father Moore did too little. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there a “right”? Is there a “wrong”?

Taking influence from “Rashomon,” we’re told the story of Emily Rose through various perspectives, each being told from witnesses taking the stand in court. They all contradict each other, so that we see the supernatural side of things (and get our traditional modern supernatural horror movie this way) and then see what can easily be proven to non-believers. It’s a “look-at-it-this-way” scenario each time we cut back to the courtroom, and it really works.

Bruner represents the general moviegoer—someone who needs proof in order to believe in something. Father Moore assures her that “demons exist whether you believe in them or not,” and the further she dives deeper in this case, the more complicated things get. By the end of the film, she isn’t entirely a believer, but she has found herself open to more possibilities. This results in a remarkable, telling closing-statement that is so well-crafted, I found myself rewinding the film and listening to it several times. (I’m not kidding.)

Belief and proof do not always interconnect. There are differences between facts and possibilities. And what makes “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” special is that it stands by those two statements from beginning to end. That, plus the top-notch acting (especially from Linney and Carpenter), makes up for most of the film’s problems (such as the slow pacing and some standard horror tropes). The good outweighs the not-so-good here, and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a film that I think more people should talk about. “Based on a true story”? You be the judge.