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Alpha Dog (2007)

19 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! (Though it’s based on a true story.)

Most criminals don’t know what they’re doing half the time. Most of them are just kids trying to act tougher than they are. And even if they think they’re unstoppable, they’re too arrogant to recognize that this lifestyle has to end. We’ve learned this lesson in movies before, but there’s still something about Nick Cassavetes’ gritty crime drama “Alpha Dog” that speaks volumes in how unsettling and unforgiving it is in its portrayal of this kind of lifestyle.

Based on the kidnapping/murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz (though with each name altered for the film), “Alpha Dog” takes place in the late 1990s and focusing on young drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, playing a fictional version of real-life Jesse James Hollywood) and his crew, which includes Frankie (Justin Timberlake), Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), and many other young people in it for the money and the drugs (and the guns). One of Johnny’s customers, an addict named Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), owes him money, which leads to conflict. That conflict leads to the kidnapping of Jake’s 15-year-old brother Zack (Anton Yelchin, playing a fictional version of Nick Markowitz).

Zack, who is tired of the constant suffocating by his loving but overbearing mother (Sharon Stone), doesn’t realize the trouble he’s in; in fact, he actually adapts to his surroundings and doesn’t even try to escape his captors. “I’m just gonna ride it out,” he tells Frankie who becomes his friend, “and see what happens.” Soon enough, more friends are involved in this abduction, including two girls who are turned on by Zack’s situation and his innocent reaction to it all. (“Stolen boy,” one of the girls, played by Amanda Seyfried, declares him.) Zack has a good time—he hangs out with Johnny’s crew, he drinks and does drugs, he has a sexual awakening with the girls, and he basically has the time of his life. But as Johnny realizes the gravity of what he put himself and his crew into by taking this boy, he also realizes the kid may have to be silenced for good in order to avoid jail time.

When you’re young, you feel like you’re indestructible. It’s not until you learn a very harsh life lesson when you understand what you put yourself into and how easily you can be corrupted. Frankie, Elvis and co. think they can get away with anything if they follow the right leader. Unfortunately, that leader happens to be Johnny, who himself has no idea where he’s headed and mostly reacts in anger and fear. They think they’re big-time gangsters and, in a group, they perform violent actions, but the tragic thing about it, when all is said and done, they’re all a bunch of scared kids who make dumb decision after bad decision until they all end up in a world of hurt. Cassavetes successfully (and in an unflinching way) captures that side of this arrogance where real-world consequences seem to elude them until it’s too late.

And then you have Zack, who sort of idolizes these (slightly-) older people, particularly his older brother who is constantly stoned and/or coked out (but also filled with rage). But this is a good kid who is impressionable and corrupted by this lifestyle, blinded from the truth and trapped in a situation he didn’t expect. It leads to the inevitable climactic moment in which Frankie has to assure Zack that everything’s going to be OK for him…when it really isn’t. It’s a powerfully frightening scene that keeps the tension alive even though we know what’s going to happen. And it’s even sadder that this kid learns the hard way what this lifestyle is all about: self-perseverance.

The acting is across-the-board solid. Anton Yelchin is perfect in the role of the innocent caught in a world of both bliss and corruption. Emile Hirsch captures both the ego and the cowardice of this “mastermind” who, it turns out, has nothing under control. Justin Timberlake had many other times to shine in the acting spotlight, such as “The Social Network” just a few years after this film’s release, but this was the film and the performance, as jokester/confidant Frankie, that first showed us there was something more to this guy than popular music. Another performance I want to single out is Sharon Stone as Zack’s mother—her final scene, a mock interview, is definitely among Stone’s finest moments as an actress.

Some parts of “Alpha Dog” can be a little too simple, particularly in the conventional lines of dialogue between the captors talking it out and the victim’s searchers concerns. And I didn’t quite see the point in singling out every “witness” (with subtitles) as they arrive throughout the film. But overall, I can’t deny the power of Cassavetes’ portrayal of such an ugly side of youth in America. And that portrayal concludes with a punch to the gut.

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Juno (2007)

11 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hard to believe it was almost ten years ago when Jason Reitman & Diablo Cody’s “Juno” took the world by storm, becoming that little indie high-school-drama film that beat the odds, received just as much acclaim from audiences as critics, and even receiving three pivotal Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress) and a win (Best Original Screenplay)… Actually, on top of that, it’s hard to believe it was this film that received the attention I think should have been received by other, more superior films of the sort. Films like “The Spectacular Now,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” or even “Sing Street.”

But it was “Juno” that received the attention, probably more than it deserved. And with that came the inevitable backlash, with people being overhyped/oversold on how “groundbreaking” this film was when it was released (or since then). But a good portion of said-backlash…came from people who were among the cult that made it popular to begin with. Repeated viewings can either increase or decrease viewers’ perceptions of a film, and with “Juno,” it seemed to decrease for people who couldn’t help but notice things about it that annoyed them—things that were there from the beginning.

Now, it’s 10 years later, and we look back on “Juno” with either fond memories or annoyed groans. As for me, even though I feel the film is somewhat overrated (and there are some things to groan about), I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it every now and then as a legitimately good (not great) film.

For those who missed the Juno-craze, “Juno” follows 16-year-old high-school junior Juno MacGuff (a star-making turn by Ellen Page, nominated for Best Actress) when she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption, and endures the ups and downs that follow. We follow her through the important moments of the pregnancy—telling people including her boyfriend and her parents, meeting the would-be adoptive parents, establishing a connection with them, bulging out, getting dirty looks and remarks, and of course, as a teenager in an adult situation, learning some things about herself and about life.

The scene that sold the movie for audiences is the scene midway through, in which Juno and her best friend Leah (played with ditzy appeal by Olivia Thirlby) sit down with Juno’s father Mac (J.K. Simmons, always great) and stepmother Bren (Allison Janney, delightful in everything she’s in) to reveal Juno is pregnant. In any other film, the parental characters’ reaction would be along the lines of heartbroken cries or screams (melodramatic but undeniably real). But in this film, it’s a different kind of heartbreak—shock and disappointment—and it’s followed by a calm, rational discussion about what to do next. This was such a relief to people who were tired of the typical parental reply to a situation like teenage pregnancy. Others were confused about it, wondering if these parents were underreacting to something that should be treated as a big deal. I think Mac and Bren do see it as a big deal and you can see the surprise on their faces (Mac even says he was hoping for Juno to face expulsion from school rather than pregnancy); but I also think they know Juno is going through enough with the situation already that she doesn’t need them to make it worse by yelling at her.

The film is full of unusually calm, quiet moments like that. One of my favorites is when Juno tells the boy with whom she had sex once, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), that he is the father. This is a nice, timid boy (the type of character you don’t see in many high-school movies…except for “Superbad,” which Cera starred in a few months prior to this film’s release), and you can tell that the moment he first appears on-screen. The look on his face when Juno announces she’s pregnant is priceless—and thankfully, he doesn’t ask if she’s sure he’s the father. Instead, he simply asks, “What should we do?”

After Juno considers abortion and backs out just as soon as she enters the clinic’s waiting room, she decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. She comes across a wealthy yuppie couple, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), and feels the couple is right for the baby…well, right for her, actually—Vanessa desperately wants to be a mother and Mark seems like a really cool person (he plays guitar and has decent taste in music), so why not? As time goes on, she visits them and gives them updates, while making somewhat of a connection with Mark (almost too uncomfortable, but it’s PG-13, so don’t expect something extreme).

During all of this, Juno learns from her loved ones (Mac, Bren, Paulie) just how difficult the adult life can be, in making tough decisions and especially in relationships. Being a teenager who is growing up so fast due to this experience and not realizing how big of a deal this is, she learns things she didn’t want to learn before, especially about herself, and as a result, she comes of age. This is what truly makes the film special. You do see a change in her when the third act reveals some heavy truths about which Juno has to ponder. And this is a teenager who acts like a hipster in terms of her tastes in music and movies, tries to act cool, thinks she’s better than most people and things, and has an acid tongue. She can even be unlikeable at times, particularly when she stops paying attention to Paulie, who wants to be there for her—at one point, when Juno chews him out after she finds out Paulie is dating someone else, that’s when Paulie finally reveals how hurt he is by being ignored. But it comes from a place of understanding why she would feel the way she feels—being a teen who is growing up too fast, she’s confused and scared, even if she won’t admit it. Juno learns truths she didn’t expect, didn’t see coming, didn’t want to accept…and by the end, she becomes a better person who will enjoy the rest of her pleasant teenage years before making tougher decisions as an adult.

Let’s talk about the dialogue. This is another major issue some people have with the film—Diablo Cody’s screenplay is laced with snappy, witty dialogue that is so quick, so uncommon, so…not like anyone’s ever heard in a movie before. Let me list a few here:

  • “Honest to blog?”
  • “I am forshizz up the spout.”
  • “Phuket, Thailand!” (used as an exclamation)
  • “Thanks a heap, coyote ugly. This cactus stings even worse than your abandonment.”
  • “So what’s the prognosis, Fertile Myrtle? Minus or plus?”
  • “Paulie Bleeker is totally boss.”

And my personal favorite, from a one-scene cameo by Rainn Wilson as a general-store clerk who sells Juno three pregnancy tests:

  • “This is one doodle that can’t be un-did, home-skillet.”

There are even more sassy lines like that, much of which are said in Juno’s constant voiceover monologues. It’s overdone and somewhat dated that it “captured the voice of a generation” (I remember some peers saying stuff like that—I was 15 when the film came out), but it is the key to the film’s humor and much of it did make me at least snicker (more so than the hipster-vocal soundtrack which also scatters throughout the film). Do I think it deserves the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? Well, it is distinct in its dialogue and characters’ behaviors, so the win is seen as an appreciation for creativity in a situation we’ve all seen in other movies. (Though, personally, I would’ve voted for “Ratatouille”—the closing monologues given in that lovely animated film were more beautiful than anything else written for any other film released in 2007.)

While it is unfortunate that people still see Ellen Page as Juno nowadays (meaning she needs to make an even more memorable turn in future projects), even though she’s been in many other movies since her breakthrough, I can’t deny the good work she puts in the performance. She’s always watchable and fun to listen to as she spouts out a lot of Diablo-isms from the script. But more importantly, when she does get hurt, you can feel the pain—that’s the key to this performance, that she’s able to mask her true emotions with abrasiveness, and it’s completely credible.

But the supporting cast can’t escape praise. Michael Cera has been typecast like crazy since “Juno” and “Superbad” (which makes his crazy cameo as himself in “This is the End” all the more hilarious), but I can’t deny that the roles he became famous for were made so because he’s just so damn likable. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are among the best pair of parents I’ve seen in movies about teenagers—I’ve seen movies with parents that try to be “hip” and “with it” (“Mean Girls” even made fun of that trope to perfection), while these parents feel more “real” and respectful than any of those. Jennifer Garner shows more than what her introduction as an OCD yuppie would like us to believe and she has a truly shining moment in which she feels the baby’s kick beneath Juno’s belly. And this is truly among the best of Jason Bateman’s work (right up there with his performance in 2015’s “The Gift”), as he plays a character that eventually can’t deny to Juno or Vanessa that he’s not ready for the adult world, even though he himself is an adult.

So I guess I’m not one of those people who found reasons to dislike “Juno,” but I’m not one of those people who praise it to high heaven either (I’m not sure I can find many who still can to this day either). Parts of it do annoy me, but the strengths of the narrative and characters outweigh the weaknesses. And even the parts that annoy me could also be seen as funny due to how dated they are. Richard Roeper announced on his show “Ebert & Roeper” in December 2007, “Small flaws be damned, I have to say it—I LOVED, LOVED this movie!” I think I would just state in this blog in September 2017, “I see the film’s appeal and recognize the flaws, but I do particularly care for the film and will even watch it once or twice a year.” How’s that for praise?

Annie Hall (1977)

23 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s address the elephant in the room first: Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” won the Best Picture Oscar instead of “Star Wars.” There’s not much I can add to that, so let’s move on.

Well…maybe there is. I’m not going to act like I can’t understand why “Annie Hall” took home the award instead of the ever-popular “Star Wars” (which is one of my favorite films, so calm down). “Annie Hall” was more than just a typical romantic comedy. Hell, it was the 1970s, when typical romantic comedies were the rarity until the 1990s, when “When Harry Met Sally” set a new standard in 1989…thus resulting in the “typical romantic comedies” I can think of, now that I think about it…

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, “Annie Hall.” It was more than just pure comedy. Sure, there are funny lines of dialogue and many unusual comedic sketches (such as a cartoon sequence, fantasy journeys through time and daydreams, and constant breaking of the fourth wall), but considering all of it as the mindset of the narrator, Alvy Singer, played by writer-director Woody Allen, the film is more than a comedy and more like a bitter exploration into his psyche. In that respect, while “Star Wars” was the most fantastic, inventive and fun movie of 1977, “Annie Hall” might have been the smartest and most insightful.

“Annie Hall” represents the pure use of comedy I admire—if done well, comedy can allow audiences to get a real feel for the characters. Comedy can set you up and draw you in, and before you know it, you’re learning more about the characters and also learning from them as well.

If it wasn’t clear from Woody Allen’s films prior to this (“Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas”), Allen is a sad, sad man. The questions he has about life lead to a non-stop pursuit of answers, he has a very low opinion on many aspects of life and existence, and it’s probably fair to say that his therapy in getting through life is by creating characters to live through and writing jokes; first for standup, then for cinema. (Allen has since made quite a few dramatic films later in life, and while jokes may not be a primary focus in them, the way he lives through his characters certainly is.) With “Annie Hall,” written and directed by Allen, the public got a pretty clear picture of Allen’s personality and how close his character of Alvy Singer is to the actual Allen.

Alvy, a comedian, has a very low opinion of himself. As the film opens, he addresses the camera with a couple jokes—one about how short and pointless life can seem and another which is attributed to Groucho Marx: “I would never want to belong to any group that would have someone like me for a member.” All uphill from here, eh?

The film is essentially Alvy’s recollection of previous relationships with women, particularly the one he had the most fondness for: Annie Hall (played by a fabulous Diane Keaton, who won an Oscar for the role). He tries to understand why he and Annie broke up a year ago, and we take this journey inside his head, figuratively speaking, experiencing memories and fantasies (all in non-linear fashion, by the way). We even see the source of his melancholy at a very young age, when he read as a child that “the universe is expanding” and often questioned his mother about the point of existence.

Alvy recalls many pleasant times with Annie, more so than with his first wife (Carol Kane), who disagreed with him about his thoughts on the JFK assassination (maybe Allen felt better when he saw Oliver Stone’s “JFK”), or his second wife (Janet Margolin), a writer who was unable to get an orgasm. Annie talked a little differently (“la-de-da, la-de-da, la-la, yeah”) and dressed a little differently (with a wardrobe that started a trend for a little while after this film’s release), but they shared many fun times with her: frantically trying to cook lobsters, making fun of men from her past, among other things. She feels a loving connection between the two of them, but when the two of them move in together, that’s when things start to get a little tense, leading to their breakup.

But it doesn’t stop there. From that point on, Alvy has bad dating experiences (and bad sex), he’s unsure of what to do with his career, and when Annie calls for him in the middle of the night, it’s to get him to kill a spider (“a spider the size of a Buick”).

Sometimes, the journey through Allen’s (er, sorry—Alvy’s) psyche takes detours. I’m not sure why they’re there, but I find them simply hilarious. For example, Alvy and Annie are standing in line at a movie theater and Alvy is very annoyed by the guy standing behind him and telling his friend about the works of Fellini and McLuhan and his opinion on them. What does Alvy do? He brings in McLuhan himself to talk down to the man, saying “You know nothing of my work!” Why is this there? I don’t know—maybe just to appease Allen’s annoyance of people who try to act smarter than they are, but it’s got nothing to with Annie, other than…she was there.

But then again, maybe this was never really about Annie after all. Maybe this was all just a way of making Alvy feel better about himself. That would also explain the scene in which he revisits his first-grade classroom (with 6-year-old Alvy there as well) and all his old classmates state what kind of adults they became. (“I’m into leather,” a girl states.) Is this a way of Alvy thinking to himself that he could’ve had a worse journey in life than ending up as a comedian? A way of making himself feel better? Could be.

“Annie Hall” is also somewhat of a love letter to living in New York City (something Allen recaptured in the arguably-better “Manhattan” two years later) as opposed to Los Angeles, where Alvy and Annie visit in the final half-hour of this hour-and-a-half film. L.A. doesn’t look very good here, and I think what Allen was trying to say was people in New York City think too much and people in L.A. think very little. Ouch. No wonder Woody Allen never attends the Oscars in Hollywood, despite his numerous wins and nominations for his screenwriting.

Basically, “Annie Hall” is all about Woody Allen. It’s his vision, his dialogue, his persona, his representation of how he feels about love and life in general. And amidst all the talk about how embittered he is about a lot of things and how unsure he is about himself (to the point where he can’t let good things be as good as they should be), there is a lesson to be learned by the end of “Annie Hall”: relationships can be painful, but they’re also worth the pain. He’s not telling us how to feel; he’s telling us how he feels. And maybe we can learn something from him in the process.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

23 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Summer 2011: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is released to theaters. I decide not to see it. “Really? What’s the point? We all know how it’s going to end.”

Spring 2012: I catch “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” on one of the satellite movie channels. To my surprise, it’s pretty good. I write my three-star review, stating one major problem I had with it: the ending. I write that the story grinds to a halt, obviously setting up for a sequel. “I guess the origin story isn’t enough to set up the events in the previous movies,” I wrote. (Though, in hindsight, isn’t it deliciously ironic to see a film where man’s defeat is the happy ending?)

Summer 2014: No, the origin story is not enough to set up the events in the other “Planet of the Apes” movies, for now we have “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Let’s see how this one turns out… Well, that was one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen. I did not expect that…

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the seventh entry in the “Planet of the Apes” film series. (Actually, it’s the eighth, but who wants to acknowledge the 2001 Tim Burton re-imagining?) Frankly, I think it’s the best in the series by far. It’s a solid sci-fi action film, but it also works effectively in its dramatic and allegorical elements.

The film is set a decade or so after “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” left off, when a virus plagued humankind, leaving much to ruin. A band of humans lives as one in San Francisco and an ape colony lives in the nearby woods. The apes, now more advanced than before, are led by Caesar (again played with stellar motion-capture performance work by Andy Serkis), who recalls the good in humanity more than most of his followers who were caged and horribly treated by their human captors. None of the apes have seen a single trace of humans until one day, when a small group of the San Francisco survivors enter the woods unexpectedly. They attempted to pass through to restore the power grid. Caesar has learned to speak, and so the group’s leader, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), reasons with him for help. But the mutual cooperation unfortunately doesn’t last long, as members of both man and ape clash, leading to the beginning of inevitable war.

The allegories of hatred and prejudice are done quite well in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” without getting preachy or too heavy-handed. There are blunt points that are made, but for the most part, it’s handled efficiently with visuals, interaction, and just the right amount of dialogue that helps get the point across. It makes for an intruging tragedy amongst the blockbuster-expected explosions and gunfire. And what helps even further is the characterizations of both the humans and the apes—the personalities that get the most focus are fleshed out. There are some humans and apes that see a mutual connection—they include Malcolm, Caesar, a nurse named Ellie (Keri Russell), Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi-Smit McPhee), and a wise orangutan named Maurice. (I’m not gonna lie—Maurice stole my heart.) But there are many of the other human survivors and many of the other apes who share a mutual hatred for each other and would like nothing more to see them exterminated if only for their own selfish desires of annihilation. The humans that represent it are Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo), and the ape that stands for warfare is Kobo, who often butts heads with Caesar, who tries to keep peace by keeping humans and apes separate in the beginning. But tragically, despite the sincere efforts of Malcolm, hatred breaks free and everything starts going to hell. The parallels of human and ape are effectively done and help make this allegorical tale even more powerful.

Andy Serkis is once-again outstanding as Caesar, hands-down the best, most compelling character in the whole “Planet of the Apes” series. He’ll always be known as the king of the CGI/human blend of acting, and someone at the Academy should give the man a special Oscar for his work. With his work in “Lord of the Rings,” “King Kong,” and now the “Planet of the Apes” reboots, I’d say he’s due for Academy recognition. Exaggeration, you may say? I don’t think so.

Director Matt Reeves (who is also making the upcoming sequel, “War for the Planet of the Apes”) does a great job with the action and gives the audience what they crave in a summer movie, such as a lengthy battle sequence on the streets of San Francisco. But he’s also very efficient in the quieter moments, particularly in the first 15+ minutes, which show the home life of Caesar and the rest of the apes.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” did something I didn’t expect it to do: it made me anticipate the next “Planet of the Apes” movie. Will “War for the Planet of the Apes” be just as good if not better? I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out. If there’s anything I’ve learned from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” it’s not to be cynical about a continuing reboot that comes my way.

Super Dark Times (2017)

30 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember growing up in the country and hanging out at a friend’s house in the middle of nowhere. When there were no parents around, he would play with some weapons in the house—act like we were soldiers/warriors or something like that. Other friends would often be there and get involved too. Nothing bad ever happened and we felt we were being careful. But when I saw Kevin Phillips’ “Super Dark Times” at this year’s annual Fantastic Cinema & Craft Beer Festival, it made me look back on those memories and consider myself (and my old friends) lucky that we didn’t get hurt doing some really stupid things.

“Super Dark Times” is a coming-of-age psychological drama about the aftermath of a deadly incident between a few high-school teens. It’s a film that reminded me a lot of “Mean Creek,” an independent film from 13 years ago about how actions & consequences can have a lasting impact on young people. Both films are effective in reminding their audiences how dangerous and scary teenage life can be.

Set in the mid-1990s, “Super Dark Times” centers on best friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan); ordinary teens who engage in typical teen conversation, perform gross-out dares, and hang out with others who aren’t exactly their “buddies” but need other people to pass the time with. Two of them are a younger boy, Charlie (Sawyer Barth), and an obnoxious peer, Daryl (Max Talisman). The four find Josh’s older brother’s samurai sword and take it out to the woods to slice some milk cartons. But when Daryl’s harsh attitude leads to a confrontation, an accidental result of panic becomes fatal. Panicked even further, Zach, Josh, and Charlie feel they have no choice but to hide Daryl’s body and cover everything up.

Covering up the accident is easier said than done. While Charlie is relatively quiet about everything, Zach and Josh act differently from then on. Josh is having strange urges, mouthing off in class, and taking more risks such as stealing his brother’s weed and sharing it with peers. Zach gets much of the film’s attention as he attempts to make sure everything is OK, when it becomes clear that nothing about this is quite alright with him, as the guilt is starting to overtake him. Phillips does a very good job showing just how much this plight is affecting Zach, as he becomes more worried and paranoid, and even presenting a couple dream sequences for a more uncomfortable, nightmarish setting.

Things get even darker when it comes to how Josh is handling the aftereffects of what he’s done. And the less I say about that, the better…

The most heartbreaking scene in the film for me was when Zach’s secret crash, a classmate named Alison (Elizabeth Cappucino), is suddenly in Zach’s bedroom and makes a seductive advance towards him. This should be a happy moment, as Zach is realizing his feelings toward her are mutual and she’s IN HIS ROOM, but he can’t help but cry on her shoulder about the tragedy that unfolded. It’s a confusing time for him (a “super dark time,” if you will) and he feels nothing can be normal for him anymore. And he can’t tell anyone about what he’s feeling—not Alison, not his unsuspecting mother (Amy Hargreaves), not Charlie (who’d rather not talk about the incident), not even Josh (who copes with it his own way, alienating Zach). It’s a powerful moment.

“Super Dark Times” is more effective when it explores the theme of “loss of innocence” than when it delves deep into horror in the final act, as Josh’s mental state goes from questionable to dangerous. This is an unfortunate move on the part of writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, but thankfully, by that point, the central characterizations are strong enough (and the actors are solid too) that it doesn’t really damage the film. It’s a gripping film with a “super dark” viewpoint.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

18 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s just get this out of the way. There’s a penis shown on screen for what feels like too long for a mainstream comedy, which in this case is “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” It’s an unexpected, uncomfortable sight, everyone’s gone crazy about it upon the film’s release, and it seems executive producer/co-writer Judd Apatow has an odd obsession with showing the male anatomy (either that or his sometimes-collaborator Seth Rogen is an influence; see “Superbad,” for example). There, I’ve addressed it. Now let’s talk about how awesome the rest of this movie is.

Remember the golden age of parody movies when you could make fun of tropes in a particular film subgenre while also pay homage to them? Movies like “Airplane” and “Spaceballs” are within that particular field. But unfortunately, many of the parody movies we know of nowadays are the ones that merely mention what’s popular at the time and put more emphasis and effort on that than story and humor, which both need to be the biggest factors. But then along comes a gem known as “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” a film that makes fun of musician-biopic stories while knowing what it means to parody something properly and be entertaining along the way.

You know the formulas of many music biopics and how overly earnest the films are in painting the portrait of tortured yet successful musicians. “Walk Hard” goes through all the conventions with an extreme lampooning style.

John C. Reilly stars in oddly enough one of his very best roles as Dewey Cox, a marginally talented country rocker who comes from a humble Southern background, where he experienced a tragic occurrence that cost the life of his brother. (He accidentally cut him in half while the boys were having a machete fight. What makes the scene even more hilariously tragic is the fact that the boy is still alive briefly after being “halved.”) Dewey’s father (Raymond J. Barry) hates him (and is always grumbling about how “the wrong kid died”) and he lost his sense of smell. But he can play guitar efficiently and sing well enough to get attention of some people, which leads to more people, which leads to a following, which leads to fame, which leads to drugs, sex, all that stuff you expect.

“Walk Hard” has it all: A) the disapproving parent, B) the cynical first wife (Kristen Wiig, very funny) who always reminds Dewey he’s “never gonna make it” even though he’s already successful, C) the drug pusher (Tim Meadows, also very funny) who’s always telling Dewey “You don’t want none of this shit” and yet somehow always convinces Dewey that DOES want “this shit,” D) a second wife (Jenna Fischer, also very funny) who has her own struggles with him such as resisting her own sexual urges, E) the ups and downs of fame and fortune, even going through Bob Dylan/Brian Wilson struggles in music and creativity, F) rehab, and finally G) redemption with a heartfelt song about Dewey’s life as a whole. What else does it have? Surprisingly, there’s heart in the midst of all the zaniness. I think a good reason for that is John C. Reilly doesn’t merely play Dewey Cox as a running joke but as sincere as possible, which surprisingly works—it makes the jokes more funny and you care somewhat about him too. Dewey Cox is just so…sweet! It’s hard not to care for him. The film was directed by Jake Kasdan, who co-wrote the script with Judd Apatow, and it’s clear they have some affection for Cox…don’t say that out loud, reader.

Many of the songs are heavy on the double-entendre fueled lyrics, making them highly amusing, particularly the title song “Walk Hard” (a play on “Walk the Line”) and especially “Let’s Duet,” a duet with John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer. Say this out loud: “Let’s duet in ways that make us feel good.”

There are many other funny bits I haven’t even mentioned in this review, including a recording scene that feels very similar Brian Wilson’s (of the Beach Boys) drug-induced creative state, a callback to the Bob Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back,” and especially the cameos from comedic actors portraying famous past musicians. (I’ll leave it for you to find out.) “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” is consistently clever, very funny, and represents the man, the myth, the legend that is Dewey Cox in a way that would make him proud if he were a real musician.

Ridge Runners (2017)

7 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Recently, I saw filmmaker Hunter West’s debut feature “Ridge Runners” again (my third time seeing it at a film festival). At the Q&A following the screening, West mentioned how difficult it was to get the finished film out there, due to its content. The issue that takes center-stage in this tense dramatic thriller is a little girl as a victim of child sex trafficking.

“Ridge Runners” is a very disturbing film, and that’s not just because of the subject matter. In fact, none of the deeds associated with the central crime are portrayed on-screen (thank God). What is chilling and unsettling about the film is what is suggested throughout the film and what our protagonists (who are a duo of police detectives investigating the disappearance of a little girl) are trying to find out about. And there are some characters whose true colors are revealed late in the film—they truly made my skin crawl in the ways they explain what’s happening and why.

So, there you go—the film is well-made and very ominous, and the horrifying stuff is only implied. And yet it was a tough sell…think about that for a moment.

The message of “Ridge Runners,” directed by West and written by Austin Lott, is “Human Trafficking happens everywhere,” as stated by the film’s website (http://www.ridgerunnersfilm.com/) and a truly unsettling prologue (followed by a caption that states one in five human trafficking victims is a child). Our protagonists, police detectives Rachel Willow (played by Jennica Schwartzman) and Rob Shepherd (Austin Haley), discover this horrible truth upon investigating the mysterious disappearance of a 12-year-old girl. The more they uncover, the more horrifying the truth becomes. West reportedly was inspired to make this film because he heard of actual sex trafficking happening in his small town (and the film also takes place in a small town), and so he and Lott set out to make a film as a warning that this type of thing isn’t just an international problem or even a city problem—it can happen anywhere.

But it’s one thing to make a public service announcement about it; it’s another to make it work well. How’s the film itself? It’s essentially a TV-crime-show episode doubled in length and with arguably more detail in description (though not even that much). But it’s very effectively done, and the credit for that goes to West’s directing, Lott’s writing, and the acting, which also includes chillingly good performances by Charlee Graham as the girl’s mother coping with her daughter’s disappearance and Jason Thompson as her employer at a racetrack called The Ridge, among other fine supporting players. A good portion of the film is dialogue and performance, and while some parts are veering close to overuse of exposition (particularly early in the proceedings, when the girl’s mother is questioned by the detectives), it still works overall.

Some would say the film goes for the easy way out in the final act, but the outcome satisfied me, and I’m certain it satisfied many other festival audience members as well. I won’t go into it here, lest I give away potential spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

“Ridge Runners” is an intriguing, effective and chilling tale about how evil can exist anywhere. And it wasn’t done in a preachy or overdone manner; instead, it was handled in a relaxed manner, more dignified than you’d expect with this material. The film is currently playing in festivals at this time, but it is now set for distribution. You can catch more news about that as it surfaces on the film’s website and also on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/RidgeRunnersFilm/ It’s definitely worth checking out.