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Lady in the Water (2006)

23 Oct


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“’Lady in the Water’ and ‘The Happening’ are too goofy for me to hate” –excerpt from my “Devil” review

I can’t rationally defend M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening”; on a critic’s level, I gave it one-and-a-half stars. But on a personal level, it’s one of the most fun so-bad-it’s-good movies I could pop in every once in a while. We all have our guilty pleasures. But I do feel bad for holding guilt over enjoying three movies under Shyamalan’s name (“Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” and “Devil,” all of which are silly in many different ways). I know this filmmaker is an easy target for ridicule and mockery, but remember: this is the same guy that brought us “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” and “The Visit.” (I don’t even mind “The Village.”) Yes, I hated “The Last Airbender,” but I can’t hold that over his head like most people on the Internet do.

“Lady in the Water” is a film people use to mock Shyamalan for making it. But is it really deserving of much hatred?

This was Shyamalan’s departure from Disney Studios, having Warner Bros. present the film instead. Even though Disney was going to fund the movie anyway due to Shyamalan bringing them hit after hit after hit, Shyamalan took offense at the executives who took a look at his script and said they didn’t understand it, and he left. So let’s see what they didn’t understand…

Based on a fairy tale Shyamalan told his children before bed, “Lady in the Water” brings depressed apartment-building superintendent Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti) in the middle of a strange “bedtime story” come to life, once he meets a water nymph that comes from the swimming pool. She is a “narf” named Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), who has come from the Blue World to inspire a budding writer who lives in the building and whose writing will change the world for the better. Once that is done, a giant eagle known as the Great Eatlon will come and take her back home. One of the tenants, Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung), is reminded of an Eastern story like this, and so, she brings her mother (June Kyoko Lu) in to tell him the story so he (and we) can fill in the blanks to find parallels to what’s happening here. There are also monsters lurking outside near the pool—wolf-like Scrunts who leave poison with their scratches, and monkey-like Tartutics who serve as the Blue World’s peacekeepers who attack Scrunts. Cleveland agrees to protect Story, as he searches the building and tries to determine which of his tenants is the writer and which of the rest of the tenants are chosen to assist Story in her journey home—a guardian who can fend off the Scrunts, an interpreter who can read messages in mundane features, a healer who can heal Story’s wounds, and a group of helpers.

I will give this movie credit for its originality. All this talk about the things in this “bedtime story” combined with modern-world parallels is intriguing, even if some of it does seem ridiculous. (And I’m not going to lie…it is kind of ridiculous. Even Cleveland laughs at how silly some of this is on some occasions.) And I do like how this movie establishes its environment within this apartment building, with many different characters with different purposes banding together to help save this “narf.” (Even that word “narf” sounds ridiculous.) But the problem is this story contains so many essentials that it gets kind of hard to follow. On top of that, we never see the Blue World. We only hear about it as we follow Cleveland and learn things as he goes and finds out more. The more that becomes thrown at us, the more lost people can become. Sad to say, this may be what turned Disney off on the script.

(Oh, and the said-interpreter who can read messages in mundane features? It turns out to be a little boy who can decode secret messages through cereal boxes… Yeah.)

So, who plays this specific author whose storytelling will better humanity’s future? M. Night Shyamalan himself, of course. This was not a good move. It’s not because Shyamalan is wooden in the role but because it enforces his detractors’ general view of his probable egotism. I mean, think about it—Shyamalan is playing a writer who isn’t fully understood yet but his book about world views will many years later inspire a future leader (and someone will take his life because of it). That’s…a little too easy.

Shyamalan has also included a character who is a snooty, cynical film critic named Farber (Bob Balaban). Farber is a critic who complains about everything, thinks he knows what’s going to happen here and there (whether it’s in a movie or not…or this movie), is so full of himself, and (SPOILER ALERT) gets brutally murdered by a vicious beast. Obviously, this is a stereotype of people might think a film critic is like, because very few critics in real life are like this. So I like to think this is Shyamalan’s way of making fun of people whom he thinks don’t understand his work some of the time (and maybe, since Farber points out some self-aware commentary about the goofiness the situation may seem, it’s his way of addressing the film’s criticisms before the critics could get to it). I’m thinking to myself, “OK, this is kinda fun. Shyamalan’s making jokes about critics.”

That’s why it baffles me when people take it seriously, like Shyamalan was taking non-subtle jabs at his hecklers and saying no one will understand him and they don’t deserve to. I didn’t have a problem with it—they’re just jokes. So what?

Let’s get to more of the positives, now that I’ve described the problems people have with “Lady in the Water.” As I said, I like certain elements of this story being told, but I also really cared for the person learning all of these things. Paul Giamatti does a great job as this depressed man who lost his wife and children to a burglar/murderer. His mannerisms are convincing (even his stutter, which sounds remarkably realistic) and you feel like you reach out and touch this guy, like pat his shoulders and tell him everything’s going to be OK. Some of the side actors playing the tenants are really good as well, such as Bob Balaban as the critic, Jeffrey Wright as a crossword-puzzles whiz, and Sarita Choudhury as Shyamalan’s character’s helpful sister. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Bryce Dallas Howard, whose character of Story is ineffective as merely a plot device who doesn’t really do anything herself, aside from whimper and whisper throughout the entire movie. I’m not saying this is Howard’s fault; she just has so little to work with, despite the movie being named after her.

What else do I like? The music score by James Newton Howard. The music is outstandingly good; it becomes a character of its own. I wouldn’t mind listening to this soundtrack and coming up with my own movie based around it.

I also admired the spiritual aspect of the movie. According to Young-Soon, the moral of the bedtime story is no one knows for sure who they are, and it takes everyone in the movie to understand their place in this world in order to save the day.

I notice the flaws of “Lady in the Water” and I can see why people make fun of it, but there’s just something so fascinating about it. I admire what Shyamalan was trying to do, even if some of what he did backfired. I hear there’s a book about the making of this film (entitled “The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career On a Fairy Tale”), and I’d be interested to read it. This movie garnered enough interest for me to find out more about it. And this is a guilty pleasure I certainly hold guilt on but I enjoy watching every once in a while as well.

Devil (2010)

21 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

God works in mysterious ways. But so does the Devil. From what I’ve heard in Sunday school growing up, the Devil is cold, calculating, seductive, ruthless, and very subtle in his schemes of drawing people over to the dark side before consuming their souls in hell. This supernatural thriller, “Devil,” does not represent him well, for reasons I’ll go into shortly. But to be fair, it is kind of fun. This is a “guilty pleasure” for me, to say the least (or the most).

Based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan, “Devil” is as much “Shyamalan” as you could expect. It has a spiritual message, it has tormented characters finding redemption after going through a paranormal occurrence, and you may recognize a few silly elements he used in “Lady in the Water” or “The Happening” (to be fair, those are two of my guilty pleasures too). Just to get this out of the way, I don’t hate M. Night Shyamalan. I love “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” “Unbreakable” gets better and better each time I see it, “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening” are too goofy for me to hate, and he came back from a career slump in a major way last year with “The Visit.” I didn’t see the critically panned “After Earth,” but I despise “The Last Airbender,” which seemed to make even his defenders turn their backs on him. “Devil” came out the same year as “The Last Airbender,” and there was a hate train chugging along because even though it wasn’t directed by Shyamalan (it was directed by John Erick Dowdle), it had his fingerprints all over it. But I can’t hate it—like “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening,” it’s too goofy for me to hate.

The premise sounds fantastic until it gets to the fine print. Five strangers are trapped in a broken-down elevator. But one of them is a killer. The power is faulty, and the killer strikes whenever the lights go out. Police and maintenance race to save the remaining bunch of claustrophobic people before they too are killed off one by one. Sounds like a Hitchcock or an Agatha Christie scenario, doesn’t it? Well…I don’t think Hitchcock or Christie would’ve made the killer the Devil.

And yes, the hook is that the Devil is one of the people trapped in the elevator, and that’s where the horror is supposed to come from, I suppose—not just that there’s a sadistic killer on board, but that person must also be the Devil come to take the rest to hell. How do we know this? Well, one of the building’s security guards (Jacob Vargas), a highly religious type, points out the signs that direct to the situation due to a story told to him as a child by his grandmother. But that’s not all—what else does he have to prove the Devil is near? He takes a piece of toast with jelly on it and throws it up in the air, and it lands jelly-side down. “When he is near,” he shakily concludes, “Toast falls jelly-side down.” I get what the writer is trying to do—use mundane materials to point toward the supernatural (like in “Signs,” with the baby monitor picking up an otherworldly signal)—but some ways of doing it are more lame than others (remember the Simon game in the fifth “Paranormal Activity” movie?).

As I said before, five people (Logan Marshall-Green as a mechanic, Jenny O’Hara as a crabby old lady, Geoffrey Arend as an unctuous salesman, Bokee, Woodbine as a temp security guard, and Bojana Novakovic as a manipulative woman) are trapped in an elevator in a Philadelphia high rise. Working on the problem are two security guards (Vargas and Matt Craven) and police detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who can see them via security cam. After a while, one of them is murdered, with no telling of whom of the remaining four did it. Every time the lights go out due to defective power, one of them ends up dead. While the race is on to get the elevator working again and save whoever is left, Vargas gives Bowden his conclusion that the killer is the Devil in disguise. Naturally, Bowden doesn’t believe him at first, but the further things escalate, the less he can deny the truth.

It turns out to be true—the Devil has decided to send some people to hell today and, for some reason, it takes him all day to do it, and it’s not even in a secretive way, seeing as how it’s all happening on closed-circuit cameras. When you really think about it, it doesn’t make any sense. And it gets sillier from there, with images of monstrous faces showing up in the surveillance monitor, one of the women being “bitten” by the Devil, and even a preposterous, laughable death by hanging. And with the security guard constantly speaking script-talk for “the Devil is near,” we get an angel in disguise, just so we can have an understanding of what we’re dealing with here.

To the film’s credit, all of the actors are uniformly good and Shyamalan-regular Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is well-done. And even some of the spiritual elements are surprisingly interesting, despite them being too convenient especially in the film’s climax.

Despite this missed opportunity to create a truly chilling, claustrophobic thriller, I find myself enjoying “Devil,” mainly for the things I laugh at, in addition to the things in it that are consistently good. It just so happens the laughable things are consistently laughable, so it all balances out. Like “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening,” “Devil” is a guilty pleasure I can’t help but enjoy each time.

Ghostbusters (2016)

19 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I feel like I’m walking a tightrope here, making this my first review in almost two months. This “Ghostbusters reboot” has garnered a huge amount of controversy, mostly from Internet trolls, before it was even seen by the public. Well…here goes.

The 1984 version of “Ghostbusters” is a beloved comedy classic (and one of my personal favorite movies of all time). The 1989 sequel, “Ghostbusters II”…not so much. It was made simply to cash in on the “Ghostbusters” name; that it was created by the same minds behind the original made it even more disappointing. But the original is still regarded as a wonderful film that can never be replaced.

A good sequel could be made. But the idea of a reboot or remake made fans cringe. When the first trailer for “Ghostbusters 2016” was released, it became one of the most disliked videos on YouTube, most likely because it wasn’t very funny. This was a major sign of trouble for “Ghostbusters” fans.

And playing the “sexist/misogynist” card when the Ghostbusters are all female made things even worse, causing an uproar among many, many people on the Internet.

Having seen the movie, I can say “Ghostbusters 2016” doesn’t deserve such hatred. Nor does it deserve high praise. Did I laugh? Yes, a few times. Other times, well…let’s get to the review already.

In this “reboot” of “Ghostbusters,” three paranormal researchers (played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon) discover ghostly activity in New York City (sound familiar?). Using makeshift equipment they can use to capture apparitions, they, along with a fourth member (Leslie Jones), decide to start a business for which they rid the city of peeving ghosts (again, sound familiar?). But little do they know that this is actually the beginning of something bigger and more destructive that could wipe out the city and possibly even the world (again, sound familiar?). As you can tell, this movie is following the same formula of “Ghostbusters” and “Ghostbusters II.” As we’ve seen with the “Indiana Jones” movies and the more recent “Star Wars” flick, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with recreating a formula, if you can bring in some new things that make us want to keep watching this movie and not just watch the movie it’s reminding you of. What does this “Ghostbusters” reboot have? 1) The deadpan secretary from the original is replaced by a dunderhead model (played hilariously by Chris Hemsworth) who understands nothing about his job but has a body Wiig can’t stop staring at. 2) The Ghostbusters have more advanced weapons than proton packs & shooters—they have ghost-effective grenades, vacuums, and even gloves that allow them to hit ghosts hard. 3) I will admit, the action in this film is more effective here than in the original (and that might be because of those new weapons, which the Ghostbusters use in a sequence in which they fight ghosts in Times Square).

Unfortunately, that isn’t enough. And neither is the presence of some very talented comediennes. There is a good movie trying to get out. I did laugh at some quirky lines of dialogue, some neat gags, and especially whenever Kate McKinnon (who is freaking hilarious on SNL) was on-screen, playing the brainy, eccentric wildflower of the bunch who reminds me of a mix between Greta Gerwig and Ed from “Cowboy Bebop.” And admittedly, when the film was trying to be a new “Ghostbusters,” some parts of it do work—the opening scene is in that same scary/funny tradition; a mannequin coming to life and chasing Jones is the same way; there’s some sharp modern commentary about how the public don’t believe in ghosts even when the Ghostbusters post documented footage on YouTube (hey it’s 2016, am I right?). But when it doesn’t work is when callbacks to the original film are forcibly thrown at us—the logo, the Ecto-1 car, the fire station, the cameos from actors/actresses who don’t reprise their original roles (By the way, why have them then? Why couldn’t this movie have just been a sequel?), the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Slimer, etc. The film feels like a blend of “Ghostbusters” callbacks and newer material, and it’s a mess. It feels like a watered-down version of the original “Ghostbusters.” Also, in terms of story conflict, the difference between this film and the original is that I don’t feel there’s a lot at stake in this film. That might have to do with a lack of an interesting villain—the best we get is a sleazeball wimp played by Neil Casey. Not that the idea of a wimpy villain who happens to have supernatural forces at his control, but it needed a more charismatic actor.

The actresses aren’t given a lot to work with in this script. Wiig’s character seems like she’s going to go somewhere, but she’s very underused and also kind of awkward. McCarthy’s fine, but she’s in the same boat as Wiig when it comes to displaying her true talents. McKinnon is having a ton of fun with what she has. And Jones is suitably sassy as a subway worker whose info about the city layout comes in handy (but not for long, however). But when these four are together on-screen, their chemistry sparkles.

I won’t say much about the special effects. They’re there, they range from decent to bad, Slimer looks…slimier, and that’s about it. What’s a “Ghostbusters” movie without some cheesy-looking spirits?

I think the biggest problem with this movie is, whenever “Ghostbusters 2016” references “Ghostbusters,” it’s a constant reminder that we should be watching “Ghostbusters.” When it tries something different, which is only once in a while, it reminds us that there’s a decent film trying to make itself known. It’s better than “Ghostbusters II,” but not by much. With a more clever script, this could have worked. As it is, it’s not bad, but it’s not something I’ll revere as much as the original “Ghostbusters” either.

LRFF2015 Review: “Made In Arkansas” Shorts Block 1

18 May

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Last week, the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival was underway and I attended six Made In Arkansas shorts blocks, for short films made in Arkansas (of course). Usually after the festival, I’ll write individual reviews for a select few. But this year, I decided to review all of them. And because a good deal of them are so short that they don’t give me enough material to work with unless I analyze each film as a whole (thus spoiling the entire film), I decided to write posts of each block, as I write short reviews describing what I thought of each short. The catch? I cannot review my own two short films (yes, I had two in the festival; I’ll point those out in later posts), nor can I review two shorts I worked on (even if it was documenting behind-the-scenes; it’s still being part of production). With that said, let’s start off with Block 1!



Smith’s Verdict: ***

When I first saw one of the two central teenage characters in Andrew Lisle’s 8-minute short film, “Loser,” wearing a brown paper bag over his head (with two eye-holes and a smiley-face drawn on it), I thought it’d be one of those quirky indie comedy-dramas that do strange things for no reason other than to be “quirky,” with little to no development. And while it is a strange sight for one typical high-school boy to have a conversation with a boy with a bag over his head, I let it slide as the film went on. This is a bullied kid looking for ways to express himself, like almost every high-schooler. Yes, it’s a ridiculous sight, but I understood it as a trait that isn’t as uncommon as one might think. Director Andrew Lisle was in high school when he made this short (Har-ber High School to be exact); he gets the emotions of these kids down and thankfully understands the effects of not just bullying but also vengeance. This is something that has been addressed before, but it’s just as effective. And I think this may have to with Lisle’s limited resources and not trying to exaggerate anything (strange, given the bag), but its small scale adds on to it. “Loser” is an impressive short.



Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

“Forsaken” is a half-hour film written and directed by recent John Brown University graduate Krisha Mason. It’s about a young woman, named Janessa, who is suffering a tragic loss and trying to move on. And thanks to a controlling mother who is less helpful than she thinks she is, Janessa feels even more miserable. She meets a young man in her apartment building. With his help, she can keep her hope alive. There are sure signs of talent at work here. Mason’s direction is solid, I admire her for trying to tackle a difficult subject such as coping with loss, and the film looks nice, thanks to striking cinematography by Lauren Addington. But the script needed work in order for the film to be truly effective for me. While there were some strong scenes, such as a conversation between Janessa (well-played by Victoria Fox) and her friend, Tanner (Derek Duncan), and a moment in which she breaks down in a church, others, especially those involving Janessa’s appalling mother, feel artificial and forced. The film also brings forth a new plot twist that descends the film more melodramatic than it should be and what’s worse is that it seems all too convenient for the dramatic payoff. “Forsaken” isn’t a bad short film, but it could’ve been better.


Monotony Broken

Smith’s Verdict: ****

J.C. Cocker’s 5-minute short “Monotony Broken” is about a young woman who is depressed at this point in her life and has a blissful fling with a stranger she meets in a laundromat. There isn’t a lot I can say about it without discussing the film in its entirety, which wouldn’t be fair unless the film was online (which it currently isn’t). So, for now, I’ll say that this is a beautiful short that works as art as well as film. There isn’t any dialogue said/heard in any of the five minutes of running time; it’s just simply mood. Thanks to Cocker’s direction, Matt Bates’ gloomy cinematography, and outstanding acting from Rachel Van Hampton as the woman and Kristof Waltermire as the stranger she meets, “Monotony Broken” is quite astounding.


Stranger Than Paradise

Smith’s Verdict: ****

The full review can be found here. Excerpt: “[…] a beautiful film, proving that you can tell a moving story with just one minute of running time.”



Smith’s Verdict: ***

At its surface, UCA student Cody Harris’ 15-minute film, “Rites,” is about a teenage girl who notices her father’s strange evening behavior and makes a shocking discovery. But at its core…

It’s hard to write a full review of “Rites” without analyzing the ending (or at least, attempting to analyze the ending) because it delivers a shocking revelation that goes into the question (I believe) the film was asking itself, which is, “Does anyone have a right to impose their will on anyone due to their religious beliefs?” How far does that go? Thinking more about the ending, which I won’t give away here, it’s a very chilling thought that raises quite a few questions and makes you ponder what it was really about. The more I thought about it, the more disturbing the whole film seemed.

When the film is posted online, I’ll publish a new, analytical review of the film with spoilers and the attached film. But for now, I’ll say that it is an effective, powerful short; probably more powerful than the “Verdict” makes it out to be. The setup is a little clumsy in its execution, but the acting from Kimberlyn Fiits, Tom Kagy, Johnnie Brannon, and Pammi Fabert is consistently good, the cinematography by Jake Lurvey is well-done, and the film’s ultimate payoff is unsettling and thought-provoking.


The Dealer’s Tale

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Justin Nickels’ 15-minute film, “The Dealer’s Tale,” is a modern retelling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale,” which was about men searching for Death before they are led to treasure by a mysterious old man who claims to know where he is. They stay with it, as things go wrong. It’s one of the great moral tales in literature. In “The Dealer’s Tale,” quite possibly one of the best short films in Arkansas, two hit men, Miller (Jason Thompson) and Reeve (Jason Willey) are searching for Death after performing a new hit, encounter a mysterious little boy (Taj Van Tassel, effectively low-key) who witnesses them dumping the body, and the boy leads them to a hidden treasure (in this case, cocaine) which the men decide to guard for a while until, of course, something goes horribly wrong as tension amongst the men gets the better of them. The settings of both the story and this short film are different, but the structure, spirit and tone are the same. They both display how greed is “the root of all evil” and can turn supposed-friends against each other.

“The Dealer’s Tale” starts off amusing with Tarantino-esque dialogue exchanges between the two men driving down city streets, grisly hints as to their deeds, the introduction of this strange, innocent child walking through quiet alleyways and under bridges, and then the inevitable betrayal leading to an incredible final act. The last few minutes of “The Dealer’s Tale” is quiet and haunting and so well-done that I’ll never forget it. Without giving it away (though, really, it’s an old story), it captures the feeling of contemplation not just with words but with mood in ways that some films can’t or won’t take the risk at attempting. Justin Nickels is a hell of a filmmaker.

Now I’ll take a moment to discuss the acting from the two principal actors. Jason Thompson (who was excellent in the Arkansas feature “45 RPM” and shorts such as “Antiquities”) and Jason Willey (funny and sincere in shorts such as “Diamond John” and “Stranger Than Paradise”) are perfect together. With Thompson’s hotheadedness and Willey’s more reserved manner, these two make a great, efficient comic duo. They worked together in Nickels’ previous short, “Strangers” (screened at last year’s LRFF), and shared a hilarious scene together in “Antiquities” (albeit portraying very different personalities in that one); they’re fun to watch together. They exhibit appealing chemistry and their timing is spot-on. By themselves, they’re good too, particularly Thompson who is part of the reason the final act works so well.

“The Dealer’s Tale” is very well-made, well-acted, and gloriously-shot (by Bryan Stafford of “45 RPM” and the previously-reviewed “The Sowers”). I look forward to seeing Justin Nickels’ next project (and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish Thompson and Willey teamed up again).

Join me later for Block 2!

Furious Seven (2015)

4 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Furious Seven” is the seventh entry in the highly successful series of “The Fast and the Furious” films that basically represent the equivalent of what they feature much of: street racing. Both street racing and these films are made up of speed, adrenaline, and a divergent lack of intelligence. “Furious Seven” is mostly on that level. But this time around, there’s a sense of poignancy surrounding the film’s fun measure, and it has to do with the untimely death of star Paul Walker. Walker died midway through filming and because we’re aware of that, that kind of takes away from the fun whenever he’s on screen.

If you can get past that (which isn’t easy, seeing as how the fourth wall is nearly broken when it brings up this matter near the end), this seventh entry in a film series that is all about stunts, effects, energy, and quick editing is…pretty much the same thing. It’s a relentless series of exciting action sequences that don’t generate any real tension because everyone in the audience knows that everything will turn out okay. But they look great and provide us with a great deal of trailer-fodder. My favorite scene involves Vin Diesel’s Dom and his allies (Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, and Ludacris) parachuting out of the back of a plane…with cars. It’s tremendously insane and fun to watch, and it’s followed by a similarly insane moment as Walker attempts to flee from the back of a truck that is about to hurdle off a cliff.

Does the story even matter? Does it matter that Jason Stathum’s character is a Special Ops assassin out to avenge his brother’s death by killing Diesel and company, thus making it your typical hunter-vs-hunted tale? And does it even matter that Kurt Russell joins the cast as a government agent who enjoys watching these guys work? Does it matter that there’s a mercenary played by Djimon Hounsou using surveillance technology to track them down? Nope. Not at all. It’s just an excuse to give us awesome action scenes; nothing more, nothing less. I feel that it tries to be a James Bond movie (complete with a beautiful woman, played by Nathalie Emmanuel, who knows a thing or two about computer hacking), but when you have as much high-speed energy as this, you don’t care much about anything else.

Give the filmmakers some credit for attempts at character building, such as when Walker’s character, Brian O’Connor, is struggling to choose between the adrenaline-junkie life he’d gotten used to or a quiet, responsible family life he’s getting used to. But other moments such as Rodriguez’s amnesiac character trying to regain her memories as Diesel’s wife aren’t as successful.

The film ends with a tribute to Paul Walker, which thankfully isn’t done with merely a “For Paul” dedication but with a montage of shots of him from earlier in the series. It also has a nice reflective moment that works with the message I think was trying to get across all along: it’s all about family. I won’t say any more about it, but it’s actually a well-done moment.

I’m giving the film a mixed review but admittedly with some affection. I did enjoy it, and I would probably see it again on DVD or on demand to see those glorious action scenes again. Bottom line here is that it either works for you or it doesn’t. If you like energized, adrenaline-fueled set pieces, this is the movie for you. Just expect a little bit of pathos near the end.

Interstellar (2014)

28 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Maybe it’s because I’m noticing more of Christopher Nolan’s film trademarks (and frankly, getting a little tired of them) that I didn’t like his latest film, “Interstellar,” very much. Christopher Nolan has made some truly impressive, groundbreaking films, such as “Memento,” the “Dark Knight” trilogy, and “Inception”…but watching them again, I feel like these already-terrific films could be even better if the characters acted like real people. The characters’ emotions are always present, but what Nolan always seems to ask from his actors is that they always know how heavy the weight of their situations are, and so they say their lines in a sort-of monotone way while saying dialogue that is mostly made up of philosophical insight and plot exposition. Nolan never seems to want audiences to feel for themselves what it means for his characters to do what they do; he seems to want the characters to talk about it themselves.

Before anyone attacks me, “The Dark Knight” and “Memento” happen to be two of my all-time favorite films. I admire the in-depth conversations in both films because most of them do give the material more power. Why do I appreciate his most glaring trademark in those films and not in “Interstellar?”

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the story. It’s in the future (though a specific year isn’t mentioned), and the world is falling apart due to famine and blight, causing dust storms to appear and crops to die. Former NASA test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family farm acres of corn that he owns and do their best to adapt in this world where humanity most likely is getting closer to its doom.

Cooper’s daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), keeps noticing a strange occurrence in her bedroom that she thinks is caused by a ghost. She brings her father in on the discovery and interprets these signs as Morse code (this child is either very intelligent or has had a lot of time to think about this—hey, that’s another Nolan trademark). Well, she’s right, and it draws Cooper to a secret location, where NASA is operating as a think-tank to save humanity. One of their solutions is to get people off the planet and into a space station. The only problem is overcoming gravity to send the ship into outer space. But Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has an idea to send Cooper and a small crew, including Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and a sarcastic robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), through a wormhole near Saturn that was most likely placed there by a superior intelligence presumably to give humanity a chance of survival. With Cooper as pilot, he and his group set out to see what’s out there. The main drawback to attempt saving the world: the mission will most likely take decades to complete, which is how long Cooper will be separated from his family. Murph is particularly upset and resentful as she feels she’s being abandoned.

The first-third of “Interstellar,” which is 45 minutes of a 170-minute film, is fine and it does give us a good look at what it’s like for these people (Cooper, his kids, and his father-in-law, played by John Lithgow) live in this ominous scenario and having to deal with this world every day. Though, there are some parts that I found laughable—for example, the public-school system has new science textbooks that explain how the NASA moon-landing was all fake and staged. Why? Well, because they don’t want the students to even think about the possibility of leaving Earth. (I don’t know; schools are weird. Apparently, nowadays, you get in trouble for saying “bless you” when someone sneezes.) Another odd moment is when the characters attend a ball game and apparently no one notices the approaching massive dust cloud right away. But aside from those parts, it does a good job at establishing the relationship between Cooper and Murph, so that when Cooper has to tell Murph that he’s leaving, it’s very moving. Cooper is not willing to abandon his family, but he knows the chance to save the human race, and his family, is his to take when it’s offered. (But did he really have to make the situation worse by joking that maybe he and Murphy will be the same age when he gets back, because seemingly he won’t age in space? I mean, come on; that was kind of cruel.) And the first act has a pretty good buildup of a mystery involving who made the wormhole, who or what is out there, who or what was causing the anomaly in the first place, what’s the significance of the “ghost,” etc.

I have to give credit to a great transition to the second-third, which goes into the “space” portion of the film, as Cooper and crew blast off into outer space. It shows Cooper driving away from home, as we hear a countdown. At the end of the countdown, there he is, in front of the spacecraft, taking off. No training sequence—just an immediate transition. But unfortunately, the film doesn’t have that kind of smooth cutting for the following hour or so, and I’m afraid it needed it.

But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. When Cooper, Amelia, TARS, and the other astronauts, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), set off in space to embark on their journey through the wormhole. But what do they find in the wormhole? A planet covered in water and a planet covered in ice.

Let’s get to the good things about this long section of the film. The wormhole is spectacular and definitely deserves to be experienced on the big screen, with the best surround sound. The water-planet makes for a suspenseful moment in which the crew must leave before a massive wave comes along to envelop everything. When I saw that wave coming, I got goosebumps; I’m not going to lie. And that some of the icy mountains on the other planet are upside-down and some are even clouds! That’s impressive. And later on, they come across a black hole that is also amazing to look at; maybe even more so than the wormhole. And there is time for legitimately dramatic moments, such as when Cooper realizes how long he’s been gone and watches video messages from Earth that show his kids grow older, while he can only sit and weep at what he’s lost and probably can’t get back.

But unfortunately, this large portion of the film is also the weakest. When all is said and done, these planets are unspectacular; they’re just water and ice. Couldn’t there have been more imagination to go with these planets in a science-fiction story? The adventurous parts of this “epic” science-fiction film are not very epic as a result, and it only gets worse when half of it is made up of that typical Nolan trademark I mentioned before: lots and lots of dialogue having to do with exposition, philosophy, meaning, etc. Only every now and then do the characters behave like real people, and that’s always only for just a few seconds before it’s back to explaining and spewing more dramatic ironies and so on. Oh, and lots and lots of scientific babble.

A lot of people have been wondering whether or not the science in this story is accurate, which really fascinates me because I didn’t think you were supposed to question science in a science-fiction story. There are a lot of talks about relativity and complex physics and so on, and because there is so much dialogue that gives us theory upon theory upon theory, maybe that’s why people who watch this film question it, because they want to know if they should trust it. Well, it’s still science-fiction, and I just sort of go with whatever one can think of, when it’s executed properly.

Though, I did learn that one of the executive producers of this film is CalTech physicist Kip Thorne, so I don’t know; maybe the science is accurate. So there you go.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the Earth scenes that show Murph (now played as an adult by Jessica Chastain), assisting Brand in NASA and still resentful of her father leaving. You would think that after all these years of working for these people who sent him on this mission, she would’ve gotten over it by now. Doesn’t she know the world is at stake and he left to protect the human race? I get it; she feels like her father abandoned her. But sheesh, look at the big picture, why doesn’t she?

Nolan is a hell of a storyteller, which is why most of his films work as well as they do. And even when his stories seem uneven, like this one, there is a big payoff. “Interstellar” is no exception. The last third of the film is quite strong and powerful and, being a Nolan film, quite complex. I won’t give it away, but it gets the emotions right and provides a satisfying resolution to the story. But even then, it has its questionable moments, such as an ending that I thought went against what it was about.

There are strong elements in “Interstellar,” particularly the battle between circumstance and emotion that’s always present and has people wondering what’s more important and of course, being a Nolan film, what it means. And it is serviceable for audiences who just prefer to turn their brain off and watch some good sci-fi action (I forgot to mention an improbable but riveting scene involving trying to lock a craft in place from underneath a space station) or those who just want to get a good emotional experience. But I feel like the film is overblown by Christopher Nolan’s ambition to make it something grand and epic, and as a result, I feel that this is what causes the film’s undoing for me. I hate to say this about a filmmaker I often called one of the greats, and to be fair, maybe it’s because I’m noticing (and being slightly annoyed by) more of his trademarks, particularly with his directing and writing, that I wasn’t getting into “Interstellar” as much as I wanted to as I was entering the theater. But this film just didn’t do much for me.

Little Accidents (2014)

23 May


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sara Corlangelo’s “Little Accidents” is an ensemble drama that tries to intersect many character stories around not just one tragedy but two at least. As the title suggests, these tragic events are caused by little accidents. While some individual traits work well on their own, and it’s well-acted and suitably atmospheric, the film as a whole lacks focus. There are three particular characters that are given the most attention, but there are also side characters that apparently have much more purpose than is being shown so that when something important is said to them or when something tragic happens to one of them, it’s hard to feel for or even understand them when you hardly got a chance to know them. This is a problem I notice in most ensemble films that try to connect a few character stories into one film: it leaves little room for development on certain aspects.

One of the central tragedies in the film is a fatal mining accident in the small coal town of Beckley, West Virginia. Possibly due to managerial negligence, 10 miners lost their lives, and a lot of Beckley locals are wondering who’s to blame for it. Reserved, quiet Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook) is the lone survivor, which means he’s the perfect subject for interrogation in the investigation. And he also gets unwanted attention from everyone in town, not just because he’s the lone survivor of this incident but also because half of them are afraid he’ll say something against the mine which will cause it to shut down. What he knows could ruin the livelihoods of everyone who works there.

Meanwhile, another tragedy occurs as teenage Owen (Jacob Lofland), whose father died in the mine accident, in involved in the accidental death of one of his schoolmates, J.T. (Travis Tope). Feeling responsible, he hides the body and doesn’t tell anyone about what happened. The only witness was his Down-syndrome-afflicted little brother (Beau Wright), whom he makes promise not to tell anyone, even their mother (Chloe Sevigny).

J.T.’s father, Bill Doyle (Josh Lucas), is one of the corporate executives for the mine and is also under investigation for the mine accident. When J.T. disappears, he and his wife, Diana (Elizabeth Banks), start a public search for him. As time goes on, they come to expect the worst, as they grieve their son’s loss. At the same time, Owen tries to carry on with his life with his silent guilt. Feeling sorry, he gets himself a job doing yard work for Diana and Bill. But when they befriend each other, Owen is even more unsure about whether or not he should tell them what happened to J.T.

Somewhere in all this, Amos gets back into the picture, as Diana, who isn’t very close with Bill anymore and seeks comfort elsewhere, meets Amos at a Bible study and begins an affair with him. But something I have to wonder is what was the clear motivation for Diana in this affair. I mean, I know she’s grief-stricken over the loss of her son and needs someone to be with when Bill isn’t always there for her when he has the investigation to deal with; but is it possible that she’s just cozying up to Amos to keep him from testifying against the mine and its executives, including Bill? I recently asked a friend who saw this with me what he made of this relationship; a possible conclusion is that maybe she started out genuinely liking him and feeling comfortable around him in this distressing situation but then she realized that she does indeed care for her husband when it’s possible that Amos may actually testify against him. Either way you look at it, it still gets Amos to realize what he has to do.

Not that it’s at all implausible, but it’s always interesting in films such as this how people from different classes in a small town are brought together and able to talk to each other like this. I think the most touching friendship is the one that develops between Owen and Diana; the best scene in the film is one in which Diana helps Owen with yard work and they talk about J.T., and Owen tells her what J.T. was like the last time he saw him (because she knows he was there around the time he disappeared). The dialogue and acting in this scene is just perfect and captures the pain and guilt that both of them are going through with one not realizing the full truth about the other.

The film contains a lot of atmosphere as it presents this town and picks just the right locations to show us. The film’s director of photography, Rachel Morrison, captures the setting really well with the aid of natural-light 35mm photography. The actors are solid too—this is some of Elizabeth Banks’ best work as a distraught woman dealing with loss and also feeling guilty about benefit; Boyd Holbrook is suitably subdued as soft-spoken Amos who eventually must face corruption; and Jacob Lofland (in his first film since “Mud”), as a guilt-ridden kid who tries to consider the penalties of his actions, is emerging as a most promising young actor with great range.

But unfortunately, other good actors are left with unwritten, underdeveloped roles that they try to pull off. I guess Josh Lucas gets a fair amount of screen time, but Chloe Sevigny is wasted as Owen’s mother; we know nothing about her except she lost her husband in the accident and she’s able to buy her sons the latest technologies with settlement cash. That’s about it—there’s no character here. I can say the same about Amos’ father whom Amos lives with after recovery. They get only two brief scenes together before something inevitable (at least, if you’ve seen enough movies) happens, and by that time, when you should feel bad for him and for Amos, I feel like I didn’t know a damn thing about him.

By the main aspects of “Little Accidents,” I should like this film. And I do, at least a little. At the end of the film, when characters must reveal their hidden truths, it does have a certain emotional power to it. I think what bothers me about it is that while it spends time with emotional connections with these characters from different classes, there are hardly any room for connections in their own. Because of that, in my opinion, it doesn’t make the new relationships seem entirely special or noteworthy.

Maybe I’m focusing too much on the little things in this film and a second viewing might change that. As I’m writing this review, I come to think that maybe I should give “Little Accidents” a pass, since I think its main intention was to show how people are brought together during tragedy. In that respect, it does work well. I don’t know; if I see the film again and it changes the way I look at it, I’ll revise the review. For now, I give it a mixed review.

The Monuments Men (2014)

10 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Monuments Men” is a war film that is never dull, features an all-star cast, has great cinematography, has a fascinating story to be told (a WWII tale that most people forget about), and has its share of effective moments, both lighthearted-comedic and sorrowful-dramatic. That’s why it disappointed me when there wasn’t much else to it. A few things seem to be missing from what could have been a great film. That it’s merely “okay” is more disappointing.

Based on a true story, the Monuments Men in the title refer to a unit of eight men who, near the end of World War II, are there to track down and save as much of Adolf Hitler’s art as they can. They are led by George Clooney (who also directed and co-wrote the film) and consist mostly of historians and professors played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Dimitri Leonidas.

Why did I use the actors’ names as opposed to their character-names? Because it’s Clooney, Damon, Murray, Goodman, Balaban, Dujardin, Bonneville, and Leonidas. One of the major problems with this film is that there’s a distracting lack of characterization. I know these actors are playing characters based on real people, but the film doesn’t give them a lot to do. By the end, I never remembered any of the characters’ names, let alone knew who they were. I just saw recognizable actors doing their thing. They get big moments, but not much else.

There’s a saying that music can make or break a movie. In this case, there are moments when the music score in this film really cripples the film. The “lighthearted” music for the humorous moments is too much, the “sorrowful” music for the dramatic moments is too much, and even in a tense moment, such as when Matt Damon’s character accidentally steps on a land mine and the others have to help him out, the music ruins things. The problem is that the music is too reassuring—everything seems to be OK.

I can’t help but wonder if either the film was made very quickly or there was more material that had to be cut out of the final version before release or what, because at a nearly-two-hour running time, “The Monuments Men” feels strangely too short. There are moments that seem to be going somewhere, but they’re forgotten about quickly. And that’s a shame, because those moments make the film for a while. I have to wonder how much better this film might have been if it had more to deliver with each of the characters and the journeys they face. There’s a French spy played by Cate Blanchett who strikes up somewhat of a relationship with Matt Damon’s character. That’s interesting, and her character is interesting at first. But like everything else, there’s a distracting lack of development here.

With such talent involved, “The Monuments Men” is at least watchable. And there are a few good moments that I’m glad I saw. But it’s either the script or the editing that has to be faulted here. In the end, I saw an “okay” film and I’m forced to write a mixed review for a film that I could have liked.

Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog (1995)

12 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There were moments in the family film “Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog” that really surprised me. For one thing, I was shocked to discover that this film about a boy and his dog braving the wilderness alone for a three-week journey was not a harmless picnic. The boy is resourceful and quick-witted, and the dog is truly wonderful, but man do they go through some pretty rough stuff. By the end of this trek, the boy is tired and weak and he and the dog have already been through what is absolutely no fun camping trip. Moments in this film ring true when it’s focused on the outdoor scenes. Even in the inevitable material such as when the boy and his dog encounter a wolf and a cougar, there’s a surprising level of suspense that keeps it interesting.

But those moments are so few in “Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog,” which despite the title is more about the boy finding his way home than it is about the dog. The boy, named Angus (Jesse Bradford), has been taught by his father (Bruce Davison) some of the basic rules of wilderness survival. These tactics come in handy when he is a boat accident that leaves him, and his new dog Yellow, in the Canadian wilderness. They must rely on their courage and skills for about three weeks, enduring violent rainstorms, a pack of wolves, starvation, freezing temperatures, and a curious cougar, all while Angus’ father and mother (Mimi Rogers) continue to pay ($200,000 a week) for searches.

It’s hard not to recommend a film like this, especially since it has moments that make it a little more mature than most boy-and-his-dog stories, and it is well-made with nicely-done photography of the island that the boy is stuck on. Jesse Bradford is quite good in the leading role too. I think my problems mainly had to do with everything else. The scenes with the worrying parents are too corny for my taste; sometimes the tone of the film is too innocuous to be anything but predictable; and I’m sorry to say this, but the dog is too perfect. The dog always knows what to do and how to do it, and the kid suffers worse than he does. I know that’s weird of me to say, as I am a dog person and truly wouldn’t want any harm to come to this dog, but to make this dog so perfect loses the film some of its credibility.

By the way, where did the dog come from anyway? Angus finds him at the beginning of the film, and we know nothing about where the dog came from in the first place. Isn’t that strange?

The last fifteen-or-so minutes of the film are the most boring because it drags on for far too long, as we know that somehow, as Angus continues to blow that dog whistle in the hopes that Yellow will find his way home, Yellow will finally come. How did Yellow manage to find his way back to Angus? Why didn’t we see that story?

I don’t know what else to say, except that it sort of feels like perhaps this film was done in a hurry. Many parts of the film feel a little too rushed, without much time to let everything sink in. Some of the time, scenes are glanced over and forgotten. It’s kind of embarrassing for me to give a film like this a mixed review, considering that it has moments that are more mature than in most boy-and-his-dog stories. But “Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog” could have been better.

The Kings of Summer (2013)

11 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a good film somewhere within Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ debut feature “The Kings of Summer”—it just needs to be found. This would like to be the next “Stand by Me”—a coming-of-age teenage story about how a seemingly-fun, unusual journey teaches its young characters to grow up and face reality. And sometimes, the film gets that angle right with some nicely-done, beautiful sequences and good acting by the principals, but it lets itself down by now allowing itself to truly go into some of these issues (and when they do, they overdo it) and giving us awkward, forced, sitcom-style filler to surround the worthy material. So, while I give it some points for trying, the film as a whole is mainly a mess.

The film is about a high school student named Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), who lives with his jerk of a single father (Nick Offerman). His mother has died, and his older sister (Alison Brie) isn’t around anymore (she moved out when she got the chance). His friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), has a home life that is suffocating for him, with his ridiculously-hovering parents always around him. When Joe and a weird kid named Biaggio (Moises Arias) get lost on their way home from a party, they find a beautiful wooded area that Joe decides he wants to live in. So he brings Patrick in on his plan to run away from home to build a house in the middle of the woods. Joined by Biaggio, they go through with the plan and live there in their own makeshift cabin for a good chunk of the summer. But when Joe’s crush, a girl named Kelly (Erin Moriarty), gets involved in this new world they’ve created, things get complicated when she and Patrick develop their own relationship.

There are moments in this film, even among the moments that I thought were either forced or painful, where I thought it was going somewhere. There are beautifully-executed montage sequences, all of which involve the boys building the house (this sequence has a most appropriate use of the MGMT song, “The Youth”), exploring the great outdoors, or simply thinking about which situation they get into. And the final act, in which the boys’ friendship is tested and Joe can’t bring himself to come back to civilization until a key moment arrives, kept the story from being predictable, which was refreshing. So there are moments in the film that do work well, thanks to the direction and the acting. But the script is all over the map. There are many painful, artificial attempts at humor, most of which involve the adults. The adults in this film are so dim and clueless, and they speak and work entirely in sitcom manner. Aside from Joe’s jackass father and Patrick’s overly-hovering parents, there are also two incompetent cops called in to investigate the boys’ “kidnapping.”

These moments hurt the serious material and make “The Kings of Summer” very inconsistent. I’m aware that you do need comic relief when you deal with issues that are heavy (dealing with difficult home life, dealing with first love, finding out who you are as a person, knowing how to solve your problems), but this is pushing it. Besides, the film already has the character of Biaggio for that. This kid is beyond weird—the things he says are beyond disturbing (“I don’t see myself as having a gender” or “I can read; I just can’t cry”)—but the deadpan delivery given by Moises Arias makes it work and makes us laugh. (I would say that the fact that Biaggio is essentially a one-note caricature is another problem, but it didn’t bother me as much as the other attempts at humor.)

Mainly, what “The Kings of Summer” wants to deliver is a message that growing up and becoming a man doesn’t mean just doing whatever you want to do, and that friendship (such as the one between Joe and Patrick) can be tested and fought unless there’s some form of ground they can find with their emotions (Joe kind of becomes an emotionally bully later in the film). And while I like the young actors and Vogt-Roberts’ direction, and there are images that stick in your mind for a while, “The Kings of Summer” mostly suffers from an over-written, uneven script that takes its topics and either does little with them or ignores them.