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Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

10 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here at Smith’s Verdict, I (Tanner Smith) try to bestow through words an enlightened point of view on the films I choose to review. (Or, at least, that’s what I try to do nowadays—do you know how many of my earlier reviews I would like to rewrite/revise?!) With that said, let’s talk about what many critics and audiences declared one of the worst films ever made—John Boorman’s “Exorcist II: The Heretic.”

How badly was this film received? Within ten minutes of its Chicago critics’ screening, the crowd chased the executives away in anger. At a theater in Hollywood Blvd., the audience threw things at the screen (at least these people actually stayed through the film to the end). On the night of the premiere, audiences straight-up laughed at the film, as they couldn’t take it seriously. And among the critics who slammed it harshly, Gene Siskel wrote in his review for the Chicago Tribune, “’Exorcist II’ is the worst motion picture I’ve seen in almost eight years on the job [as a film critic].” (I feel sorry that Siskel saw worse films in his remaining 22 years of life ‘til his death in ‘99.) Is it truly worth the hate it receives? Let’s take a look…

It should be noted that despite taking the opportunity to direct a sequel to “The Exorcist,” one of the greatest (and most profitable) horror films of all time, director John Boorman did not care for the original film, calling the original script “rather repulsive.” For the sequel, he set out to make a film in his own vision—one that would take risks while sending the audience on a journey that was “positive, about good, essentially” (according to Boorman in an interview). So, where did he go wrong and did he succeed in some way(s)?

Before I answer that, I’ll talk about the story. Four years after the exorcism of Regan O’Neil, which resulted in the death of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) (oh, and also the death of Father Kerras, but never mind about him until “Exorcist III,” if you can help it), a preacher struggling with his faith, named Lamont (Richard Burton), is sent to investigate what truly happened back then, after Church authorities declare they don’t want to acknowledge that demons and Satan exist. The now-teenaged Regan (Linda Blair) is monitored by a psychiatric institute because she claims she doesn’t remember anything from the experience. Psychiatrist Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) believes her memories are simply repressed and has a method that can help find them.

OK, this is where you really have to suspend your disbelief when this method is introduced—it’s a device that can apparently cause two people to go under hypnosis and visit each other’s minds…I’m not entirely sure that’s how that works.

Tuskin wants to use the machine to find out what really happened to Regan. While continuing his investigation, Lamont becomes involved and tries questioning Regan, which Tuskin doesn’t see as doing as much good as harm. Things get even more complicated when Lamont hooks himself up to the machine with Regan, which leads to more questions needing to be answered.

So, you can probably spot the first point in which “Exorcist II: The Heretic” goes downhill. This machine, a “synchronizer,” seems highly implausible, especially after the first film had such a gritty, realistic feel to it and made the supernatural elements feel more plausible with each scene. The way this device is set up feels more at home in a science-fiction film. I would believe in hypnotherapy as an attempt to solve the problem of interpreting Regan’s past trauma, but not this thing. In fact, this was the very thing I mentioned before that caused audiences to give up and laugh at its premiere. It seemed to start out fine, with an exorcism prologue that is creepy enough for audiences…and then it cuts to Regan being introduced to Tuskin’s machine. Odd segue, eh?

Is that the only problem with “Exorcist II: The Heretic?” Well…no. As much as there is scientific babble about how the machine “synchronizes brain waves,” there’s a lot of spiritual babble as well. Much of it is actually kind of fascinating (which I’ll get into later), but for the most part, it’s either not written well or not delivered well. It’s a little difficult to understand what the film is saying for the most part because of confusing dialogue. I think I have some idea of what the film was building up to, but I’ve seen the film twice now (once out of curiosity, twice to review it) and I can say this: when Tuskin delivers one of the final lines of dialogue, “I understand now but the world won’t,” I was confused because I was still a little lost, much like “the world.”

It also doesn’t help that Richard Burton, who takes up a good chunk of the film’s spiritual aspects, delivers his lines like he’s talking in his sleep. Burton looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than in this film. His character is supposed to be a troubled priest seeking answers beyond his comprehension, but the way Burton plays it gives off the impression that he could use a drink. Hearing him say the central demon’s name “Pazuzu” multiple times out of what is supposed to be fear just comes off as silly. (But to be fair…the demon’s name is “Pazuzu.” I dare you to say that name at least twice without cracking up.)

And while it has its talk of the spirit world, the demon world, exorcism, and so forth, “Exorcist II: The Heretic” also shows a little of the “terror.” But the problem there is, as “The Exorcist” proved successfully, less is more. There are many laughable visuals in the film, most notably a giant locust that flies around Africa in search of a new victim. And there’s also James Earl Jones in a locust costume…need I say more?

So I’ve talked about the confusion the film generates, the ridiculous plot device that’s literally a device, and Richard Burton’s embarrassing performance. Is there anything positive to say about this film that most people called one of the worst of all time?

I think so. For one thing, I admire that the film is a continuation (even if four years after the original event is a little too long) and they don’t try the same things the original did. The narrative allows more to be discovered, such as when Regan develops somewhat of a psychic ability and has an interesting conversation with Lamont about it and about how it can used to someone’s advantage before it can be used for evil. And when Lamont goes from place to place, country to country, finding out more than he expected, I was interested to find out more of what was beneath the surface of the mystery (even if the name “Pazuzu” is off-putting). And there are some chilling moments, such as the prologue and Lamont’s encounter with James Earl Jones’ Kucomo. But those chilling moments make way for conversations that sound false and moments that seem silly rather than frightening (such as loud chanting when the characters are in Africa). “Exorcist II: The Heretic” isn’t trying to be a horror film, necessarily, but more of an odd, unusual, spiritual journey in which characters find themselves facing against the Devil. And considering one of these characters (Regan) spent an entire film (the original “Exorcist”) with a demon inside her, that journey is all the more fascinating, especially when she develops her psychic gift (or is it a curse?). It almost feels like she’s being tested by God to make the right choices.

But sadly, Boorman doesn’t execute that intriguing element well, and it leads to a confusing climactic scene in which, again, I’m not entirely sure what happened and what was learned from it. I just know…there were a lot of locusts.

“Exorcist II: The Heretic” is a very strange film, but it’s not one of the worst movies ever made. There are parts I find interesting to watch and other parts I find maddening to watch, as well as parts that are simply absurd (such as when Regan casually says the line, “I was possessed by a demon”). I think if the plot was tighter, the people behind the making of the film were more confident about what they were trying to accomplish here, and, like I said, hypnotherapy was involved in the story (instead of that ridiculous machine), people would think differently about it. As is, it’s a mess, but it’s an intriguing mess.

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Jeepers Creepers (2001)

23 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You ever hear that expression “less is more?” “Jeepers Creepers” would have sufficed well with a lot less explaining and more subtlety. This is a horror film that begins as an interesting, tense, scary first half, and as it continues, it becomes even less successful while doing so. How? By explaining too much, and in the most improbable, silly ways too. Half of what is said about what’s going on here, and the motivations behind it, you can’t possibly take seriously because it’s all too ridiculous. This is not the film we started out with.

The film does start out fine, as we’re introduced to two likable characters—a college-age brother and sister driving home together for spring break. Played by Justin Long and Gina Philips, Dary and Trish engage in friendly, convincing sibling-banter and feel like real people. While they can be a little annoying at times with their ways of passing the time (exchanges of “nuh-uh” and “uh-huh” over and over again, for example), they are mostly likable enough for us not to want anything bad to happen to them.

On their drive, they encounter an intimidating truck whose (unseen) driver messes with them in a dangerous way. They survive, but later they spot that same truck, where the driver seems to have thrown a body down a pipe. Being out in the middle of nowhere with hardly another car and no way to call for help (and apparently there’s no cell phone service either), Dary bravely (though rather stupidly, but that’s what Trish acknowledges) decides to look into the pipe and see what’s down there. When he accidentally falls into it, that’s when he comes across a most grisly discovery. And that’s only the beginning…

And when Dary escapes and he and Trish make it to the next town, this is where “Jeepers Creepers” starts to go off track. Where do I begin?

Well, first of all, it seems the supernatural is an important element to this “driver.” It has its own theme song (“Jeepers Creepers,” no matter what tempo it’s being played at), and it apparently has its own omens too, like hundreds of crows and cats.

Second, it turns out it’s not a man at all. It’s some kind of winged beast that apparently eats body parts to compensate for what it doesn’t already have (eyes so that it can see, lungs so that it can breathe, etc.). All I’m thinking is, “What? Where did this come from, and how am I supposed to take this movie seriously anymore?”

Third, there’s a psychic. That’s right—there’s a crazy old lady in town who serves as the town psychic who can spew more exposition than you can think of, and probably more than she can even think of. Sometimes, I even think she might be making some of this stuff up—every 23 years, for 23 days, it gets to eat? You know, I think I give up asking.

I was rooting for “Jeepers Creepers,” as it began with atmosphere, tension, and actual character development (things that most horror films hardly bother with). And it is competently made. But while it certainly is ambitious, and while the monster itself would make an intriguing villain in a different light, it’s overdone and as a result is just plain silly.

Red Dawn (2012) (revised review)

16 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I hinted in my “Revised Review” of Project X, a film I changed my mind about, that I would re-review another film that I changed my mind about: the 2012 remake of the popular ‘80s action-flick Red Dawn.

It’s strange because in my original review of this movie, I stated I liked it but merely as a fun action-flick. Here’s what I said:

“I understand the film’s flaws. I get it, OK? The war element is defined in an improbable way. The characters aren’t developed enough. The shaky-cam gimmick that they use gets old, as it usually does. The pacing is a bit rushed. The ending feels more like the end of a first-entry in a franchise (which there probably won’t be). I get it. I don’t care. I know that’s weird of me to say, but…I don’t care. I was entertained.”

Well, maybe that’s how I felt when I first saw the movie, but the second time around, I realized I was being played for a sucker.

In the original film, made in 1984, the Soviets invaded a portion of the United States, causing a group of teenagers, dubbed the Wolverines, to fight back as guerillas. With the Soviets no longer a feasible threat, the North Koreans are the villains in this remake, though that’s because originally, it was going to be the Chinese before it was changed when the producers realized they’re too important for this. They try to explain in a prologue why North Koreans would want to invade us, but it’s a little hard to swallow, especially since Americans today are worried about terrorists in the Middle East. I don’t think we have to worry about North Korea as much.

Anyway, the film takes place in Spokane, Washington, the night after a big football game which cocky quarterback Matt Eckert (Josh Peck) accidentally lost for the team due of his arrogance. (Hmm, I smell a foreshadowing arc.) The same night, his older brother, marine Jed (Chris Hemsworth), comes to town. The following morning, the brothers are awoken by the sights and sounds of paratroopers dropping from the sky. Jed and Matt manage to escape the invasion with some other local kids, including Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Daryl (Connor Cruise), Toni (Adrianna Palicki), and Danny (Edwin Hodge), and hide out in the mountains. There, Jed decides to fight back against the invaders after they’ve executed his and Matt’s father. He trains the kids to be soldiers and execute guerilla attacks. They manage to get under the villains’ skin as a threat rather than a nuisance and try to have them eliminated.

Admittedly, the early parts of the film are the only good ones, and the idea of a group of people under attack by an invading force at which point they must become soldiers and fight back still appeals to me. That’s what appealed to me about the original Red Dawn, which I already said in my review wasn’t completely successful but did still stick with me in some ways. (I actually do like the first hour of that film, which I’ve seen more times than the rest of it.) I felt that those kids were portrayed as real, scared kids pushed to the breaking point, but here, the kids are just video-game characters about to make their next move. Aside from about two or three characters, hardly anything stands out about them to make me care.

Of the two actors playing the only characters with some sense of character development, I did like Chris Hemsworth. I think he’s a solid actor and he’s even very strong here. But then there’s Josh Peck. In my original review, I criticized his performance and character who has an ego and a very selfish way about him (which I guess was part of his development) while I also stated “the performance kind of grew on me after a while.” I think I was too kind to him because I didn’t want to dislike the movie on the basis of his character. But man, is he obnoxious here. His mumbling speech and mannerisms grated on me and his character is such a boor. It especially doesn’t help that much of what happens to some of the other characters in this movie is entirely his fault.

Then there’s Adrianne Palicki, who has a nice role as a potential love-interest for Hemsworth. There’s a scene midway through the film where they do share some chemistry together and I would’ve liked for that to keep going, but it’s just another poorly developed element to the film. Meanwhile, actors like Josh Hutcherson are given close to nothing to work with and blend into the background.

Another reason this movie doesn’t work as well is because it has enough potential for a longer film than its hour-and-a-half running time will allow. At best, it feels like a pilot for a TV show with an ambiguous ending. The action isn’t very thrilling either because it’s yet another victim of the “shaky camera” gimmick that tries to make the action exciting but instead leaves audiences aggravated because they can’t see anything very well. And even the story itself is boring, because with the exception of the ending, which I won’t give away, the kids always have the higher ground and manage to get the enemy at the right time almost always.

I can’t say that I think the original “Red Dawn” was a great film or even that good (again, except for a few parts), but it still felt relevant at its time, either as a cheesy action flick kids could relate to or as propaganda stating that everyone should carry heavy artillery in case the Soviets invade. And that’s the point—in the time it was released, everyone felt that a Russian attack was pending. With this remake, released in 2012, we’re in a different place and it’s more of an unplayable video game than anything else. I may have liked it when it came out, but in addition to its appeal lacking after a second viewing, it’s meaningless and unremarkable.

LRFF2015 Review: “Made In Arkansas” Shorts Block 4

21 May

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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The Tricycle

Smith’s Verdict: ****

I’ve seen some of Arkansas writer-director David Bogard’s work before; I particularly liked last year’s LRFF selection, A Matter of Honor. I think “The Tricycle” is his best work. It’s a marvelous 6-minute short film that successfully mixes the harsh realism of a quarreling couple with the innocence of a child’s fantasy.

It begins in the home of a 6-year-old girl, named Ava (played by Ava St. Ana), who is drawing some pictures and trying to stay happy while her parents (Quinn Gasaway and Caroline Brooks) are in the midst of an unpleasant argument. This scene is written, shot, and portrayed perfectly. It’s also kind of hard to watch; that’s a credit to the realism the scene creates. What’s more heartbreaking is that when the girl tries to show her father what she drew, he ignores her, causing her to go outside. That was just painful.

After the toughest of family-drama scenarios, the film gives Ava a much-needed escape, as she passes a neighbor’s house and notices an old tricycle left out in front. The tricycle seems to have a mind of its own and it follows the girl along the sidewalk. There’s a truly magical (forgive the pun) faraway shot that shows the girl and the tricycle reluctantly trying to unite together. That shot is as charming as the food-luring scene from “The Black Stallion.” I never thought I would see a tricycle as a living, delightful creature, but that’s the effect the film had on me.

Is the tricycle really magic or just part of the girl’s imagination? The film ends with a certain possibility that it hardly matters whether or not it’s real, but rather, it’s a diversion from the cruel reality she knows too well and into a wonderful place she can always turn to briefly until things get better. That’s generally what kids do—when things in life get so rough, they create in their minds their own worlds to escape into, where things can be better and more fun. That’s what Ava is trying to do. And of course, kids have to come back and still deal with real-life issues, but for the moment, those issues don’t exist. Bogard understands this, and he has created a great short film that I will not forget anytime soon.

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What Was Lost

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Sometimes it takes a really good actor or a really good script (or of course, both) to make what could be an overwrought melodrama something special. And while the script and direction by Romello Williams are sound and successful, what really makes his 25-minute JBU-produced drama, titled “What Was Lost,” stand out is the performance from his main actor, Tres Wilson. I’ve seen Wilson’s work in UCA films such as Thien Ngo’s “The Paperboy” (which I’ll get to later), Adam Crain’s “Henchmen,” and Brock Isbell’s “Whiz Quiz”—he’s a good comic actor, playing with a sincere, straight face during some bizarre settings. In “What Was Lost,” however, he truly shows his range in a remarkable performance as Wayne, a young father who loses everything he holds dear and tries to find a way to move on. Also good is Anthony Waits as his friend, James, who comes to town to be there for him and delivers just what the film needs: comic relief. Will Wayne let James help him? It’s not an easy question to answer, especially for Wayne, who has a lost a lot. And the film doesn’t shy away from his plight. What makes the latter half of “What Was Lost” all the more heartbreaking is the sheer realism that is felt within the former half, which effectively shows Wayne interacting and playing with his young son. Not once do I see Tres Wilson and a little actor playing father and son; I see a father and his son. It’s because I felt so much for these two that I didn’t want to see anything bad happen to either of them. And when something does, I feel bad for Wayne, and that’s how I know the film is working. When film was over, I actually turned to the person next to me, and whispered, “Damn.”

Overgrown

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Bruce Hutchinson’s 3-minute short “Overgrown” is less of a narrative short and more of a visual poem. With the aid of an omnipresent narrator, giving what can be best described as a short story, we’re introduced to a young woman, described as “an otherworldly being named Bindy” (played by Kristy Hutchinson), whose practical home is the woods and who apparently lives off mankind’s hopes and dreams and collecting the ones that are unfulfilled. “Overgrown” could be seen as visual storytelling, except that it’s not just the visuals telling the story. Maybe with the narration, there’s a little more clarity than the film needed to succeed, but the descriptive idea of a manifestation of dreams and wishes is a fascinating one and that angle probably wouldn’t gotten across completely without it. The film is also nice to look at, with the right locations and a top-notch cinematographer (Chris Churchill, who also shot Hutchinson’s previous film, Sidearoadia) to bring it to life.

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Pyro

Smith’s Verdict: ***

I said in one of the reviews above that one of the important steps to recovery is to take grace where it can be found. It can be found in your friends, your family, your hobbies, your work, whatever. For kids, especially teenagers, it’s even more difficult. They search for ways to express themselves and some of those ways can rub people the wrong way, especially when they develop certain habits that can get them hurt. Take Graham, the 17-year-old pyromaniac of Cole Borgstadt’s 10-minute short, “Pyro,” for example. After his parents’ death, there’s nothing he likes better than to light random matches and drop them in the sink, set off fireworks, and enflame whatever he can find. (A line of dialogue indicates he and his late father used to do stuff like that together—or at least, shoot off fireworks together.) That’s his way of expressing himself. He thinks it’s all he has and he doesn’t care for anything else. He’s also trying his older brother’s patience. His brother is more responsible and having to care for both himself and his brother who will most likely set the house on fire, accidentally or not. He’s also trying to lead his own life as not just a surrogate parent. The film opens with his announcement to his brother that he will propose to his girlfriend…with their late mother’s engagement ring. “You’re already taking Dad’s place. You have to take Mom’s ring too?” Graham asks in a scene that is perhaps composed of forced exposition but what can you do in a 10-minute drama? (And at least the characters are addressing what’s bugging them to each other.) The film ends with a selfish, primitive act, which surprisingly doesn’t result in a shouting match but a surprising (refreshingly) calm discussion between the two brothers about the way things are, who they are, who they thought they were, and some probabilities for the future, before ending on an ambiguous note, as well as on a haunting image (haunting because of the character and the symbol). It’s a powerful moment that subtly states that things just happen, people change for better or worse, and it’s important to attempt to accept what you can get and know how to properly use it. As a whole, “Pyro” is a good short film, but that ending is great. The film is very well-crafted with clear direction from Borgstadt, decent acting from Ross Thompson and Zach Stoltz as the brothers, and good cinematography from Emily Field.

Oh, and someone anonymous told me to mention the writer-director Cole Borgstadt was a student at Fayetteville High School when he made this film. I responded to the seemingly condescending comment by saying, “Yes, because apparently, high-school students aren’t capable of making good films, right?” That quickly shut him up.

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The Space Station

Smith’s Verdict: **

Michael Sutterfield’s half-hour sci-fi film “The Space Station” is about a young woman (Amber Erdley) living a somewhat-empty life in the city and seeking excitement elsewhere. And boy, does she find it. After she meets an older man (Stephen Perry) who claims to be an astronaut, he invites her to his “home away from home”: a space station. She says yes, he sedates her, and she awakens in a room where Earth is seen in plain sight outside her window. She and the astronaut are now in outer space and he shows her the pleasures she wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t met him.

This is yet another short film for which I cannot give a proper full review without going into the resolution. It’s also the one LRFF2015 Made In Arkansas short I was least looking forward to reviewing. Because I can’t recommend the film, I shouldn’t care how much I could reveal even with an attached link to the film online. But I still like to think I have at least some critiquing principles, so I’m going to tread lightly while writing about this one. The first 10 minutes of the film are interesting, the next 10 (or less) minutes are intriguing, and the final 10 minutes made me care less and less after a twist is revealed. As soon as that twist came along, I lost hope for the film. I feel like it tried to redeem itself by the end with a message about appreciating what you have and where you are rather than what you don’t have and where you aren’t. There’s a reason I couldn’t accept that message, but to talk about it would be to give away the twist. That’s why I wasn’t looking forward to writing this review.

That’s enough I’ll say about that. It’s a real shame too, because I was really getting into this story. Curious, bewildered Amber Erdley and calm, confident, suave Stephen Perry play their roles well; writer-director Michael Sutterfield establishes situations and characters well; the visual effects are great to look at; the editing is well-done; and Gabe Mayhan’s cinematography is stunning. A lot of effort was put into this short film (apparently, it took five years to complete) and I hate to give a negative review to a film with such a good setup. But once that twist came along, it became tough for me to recommend. And again, that’s all I’ll say about it.

NOTE: I heard this was based on a short story by Bernard Reed. Perhaps the twist translates better on paper and doesn’t work well in this film, but I’m not reviewing the original story the film is based on.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

9 Feb

Jupiter-Ascending

Smith’s Verdict: **
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Tell me if this sounds familiar to you—a bland, underdeveloped main character hates his or her life but doesn’t realize the very important reason for existing until someone or something is on the attack, causing the person to rise up, accept destiny, and fight back.

This story is tired and old, but I wouldn’t mind that if it had strong characterization, a gripping story, and an imaginative world. With the Wachowskis’ latest science-fiction adventure, “Jupiter Ascending,” they certainly have the world down. The film excels at establishing this new universe with great detail and even first-rate CGI. And you also want to find out more about this interesting place. But the problem is it constantly distracts from everything else and the characters get lost in it. You know the expression of the actors “chewing the scenery?” This is the scenery chewing the actors.

What’s worse is it’s trapped in a story with uninteresting characters, a ton of exposition that lost me as quickly as it had me, and even a shorter running time than it needs to really explain the backstory instead of rushing it out so quickly. But I should probably take back that last one, because it’s already two hours and I wouldn’t want to sit through much more of this mess.

Now, to be fair, there are a few nicely-done action scenes, including one involving attacking spaceships and a soldier flying around on anti-gravity boots, having to evade the enemy fire and keep hold of the film’s protagonist at the same time. That was a riveting scene and it had my attention. A lot of the action is nicely-handled. But there’s another problem with that—I easily forget what it is these aliens are fighting for. I assume it’s Earth, as it usually is, but what was the reasoning? (To be fair, I probably missed it in the ongoing exposition.)

Oh yeah, there’s a story here, right? Our protagonist is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant to the United States who works as a maid to aid her indigent family in Chicago. But things turn upside-down when a band of aliens try to kill her. It’s a hit ordered by the inter-dimensional Abrasax family—Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth)—who see Jupiter as a threat or as an opportunity to get what they’re interested in. It seems Jupiter is the reincarnation of someone who was originally part of their world, and she may even be of royal blood. A half-man/half-wolf being named Caine (Channing Tatum) is hired to protect her. As he gains her trust, he brings her back to his world, they experience more chases and fights, and she realizes who she truly is by the end of the film.

Oh I must reveal how they find out Jupiter is “royal” because this made me laugh so hard, I almost fell out of my seat in the theater. As Jupiter and Caine visit a farm where lots of bees surround Jupiter before she realizes they’re actually following her every move. Why is this happening? As one character explains, “bees recognize royalty.” If you think that’s funny, you’re going to love the true answer to the question, “what killed the dinosaurs?”

A lot happens in this hastily-rushed story that it’s hard to keep track of whose backstory and even harder to be invested in what little character development there is. Jupiter and Caine are supposed to fall in love, but I think Anakin and Padme in the “Star Wars” prequels had better chemistry than these two. There’s never a sense that these people really connect in a meaningful way. Jupiter is hardly interesting; she’s just a “regular person” without much depth to her that has all this madness happen to her. Caine is a semi-interesting character, but that’s only in his background of being engineered as a half-man/half-wolf creation; aside from that, he’s a standard tough badass hero role. Kunis and Tatum are likable actors, but they don’t have much to work with here.

The villains actually have nice moments and are given at least some personality traits, such as Titus’ smarmy charm. But this brings me to another problem with the film: Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Balem. Balem is a straightforward villain, but Redmayne plays it with what he probably thinks is an “intense whisper” but comes across as Hugo Weaving imitating Dumbledore. Redmayne is currently nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for “The Theory of Everything” and we know he’s a great actor, but he really picked the wrong choice to play this character in this manner.

The “Star Wars” sequels helped further the development of its hero, Luke Skywalker, making his journey more harrowing and personal. With Thomas “Neo” Anderson in the “Matrix” sequels…well, they tried. I don’t think “Jupiter Ascending” is lucky enough to get a franchise, so I’m sorry, Jupiter—I hope your future missions go well without us.

NOTE: I’m just going to address the Abrasax family personally—Have you ever considered she probably wouldn’t be a threat if you didn’t try to kill her in the first place, you morons?! Oh wait. Then we wouldn’t have a movie. Never mind.

The Last House on the Left (1972)

6 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: **
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning: This review contains many spoilers (but it is an older movie).

“The Last House on the Left” was the feature debut for director Wes Craven, who would go on to be best known for horror films such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (and its sixth sequel, “New Nightmare”), the “Scream” movies, and “Red Eye.” I know he’s a smart filmmaker with a lot of interesting ideas to put into the mix of his films, and to be fair to “The Last House on the Left,” I think I kind of understand the reasoning behind most of the choices made for it. Let me explain…

There are many strange elements to this film, all of which are very distracting in comparison to some disturbing, brutal scenes of sex and violence. The soundtrack contains a lot of cheesy, upbeat music, including a theme song for the film’s antagonists and a melancholy (“foreboding”) theme song for their victims that features the central lyric “and the road leads to nowhere.” The unnerving scenes of uncomfortable flirtation and upcoming torture are constantly intercut with quirky scenes in which parents prepare a surprise birthday party for their daughter who happens to be in danger during all this. And even more distracting is the central rape-and-murder sequence interlaced with scenes involving two bumbling police officers who look and act like they belong in a completely different movie.

I suppose the reasoning for this choice in music is what was going on at the time, when you would tune in to TV and radio and hear stories about Vietnam and then switch the dial to chirpy folk music to calm yourself down. I think Craven was trying to satirize that probability through this film. But to me, it didn’t work at all and it kept losing my attention. Maybe back then, it worked. But now, it’s extremely dated.

The film’s tone constantly shifts in the first hour of the film, from horrifying terror to quirky comedy. I know we need some comic relief after some of the scariest of moments, but this is just too much. It’s sloppily handled and has no clever way of seguing from one to the other. Am I being too harsh? Probably, but I never got a laugh from these clowns.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. “The Last House on the Left” is about two young women, Mari and Phyllis, who go out for a night on the town and meet a strange young man their age who might supply them with pot. But quickly, they’re trapped in a motel room with the young man, two escaped convicts, and their whorish girlfriend, who torture them and kidnap them. (This happens along with Mari’s parents preparing the birthday party.)

The following morning, the brutes stash the girls in the trunk of the car, which breaks down during their “pleasant” drive in the middle of the woods. From that point on, they take the girls further into the woods and go on to violently rape and murder them. It’s extremely violent and very depraved in its execution. The visceral thrills are well deserved, especially since the scene is well acted, very disturbing, and quite scary in that you don’t know what these people will do to these poor young women. What’s especially heartbreaking is that all of this is happening just across the street from Mari’s house and she tries to find a way to escape that far, even trying to talk the weakest of the killers (the young man) into helping her, but it just won’t happen. And when Phyllis tries to escape, you root for her to escape and are saddened to find out what happens to her when the killers catch up to her, just as she almost makes it to the highway. It’s crude and startling, but it’s very effective.

But the big problem here is that it constantly loses its horror; this whole sequence is intercut along with a lot of the material involving the two cops.

One of the most interesting and refreshing things about the film is that the young man, one of the killers, is as unsettled about his companions’ crimes as we are. He has nightmares that night about what they’ve done (with Mari tauntingly chanting his name) and even in the beginning, he believed things were going too far. But the kid is also mentally unstable and is constantly convinced by the two older men to go along with the plan. When the kid finally steps up and tries to put a stop to all the mayhem, it’s especially tragic that he can’t allow himself to. One of the best scenes in the film is when the ringleader of the group, Krug (David Hess), is held at gunpoint by the kid and Krug manages to talk him into pointing the gun at himself and “blowing his brains out.”

Only the last twenty minutes remain consistently unnerving and violent. The killers find themselves spending the night in the home of Mari’s parents. The parents find out who these strange people are when they discover blood stains on their clothing and one of the men wearing Mari’s locket. They decide to take revenge and singlehandedly kill them all in ways that are shockingly more dangerous and violent than the killers’ previous actions. The father attacks with a chainsaw and sets traps around the house (one of which involves electrocution), while the mother does something to one of them that I’m not even going to describe here. A psychologically disturbing scene that gets into the minds of the parents before they carry out their revenge is a dream sequence in which they smash one of the killers’ front teeth out with a hammer and chisel. This climax is horrific but it’s fascinating in that you can see the lengths that the parents are willing to go through to avenge their daughter’s death.

But need I also mention that the curtain-call ending credits feature the same cheesy, upbeat music as well? That’s right; just when we’re supposed to feel something after a gruesome series of murders and ask ourselves questions of how we as people would handle a similar situation, it’s immediately ruined. Something else I should bring up is the advertising for this film—it originally released a trailer with a reassurance, “To Avoid Fainting, Keep Repeating, It’s Only a Movie…Only a Movie…Only a Movie…” I can’t imagine anyone, even back when the film was released, mistaking this for anything else, especially if you show them the scenes involving the two cops.

NOTE: Okay fine, I laughed once, at a scene in which the bumbling cops encounter a woman driving a chicken truck and try to hitch a ride. I might as well admit it.

Mommie Dearest (1981)

23 Dec

th

Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“No wire hangers EVER!”

Coming from the 1981 film “Mommie Dearest,” that line is one of the most popular movie quotes, even gaining itself a spot on the American Film Institute’s “100 Quotes” list. It’s so quotable that it spawned over a dozen parodies (most of them are quite funny). And it’s from a film that is now a “cult classic” because of scenes such as the one this line came from, because a good deal of actress Faye Dunaway’s performance is loud, abrasive, and over-the-top. When I decided to see this film to see how truly “funny” it is, well…

Well, first, let me talk about the “no more wire hangers” scene, in which wealthy, stubborn actress Joan Crawford (Dunaway) is angry at her little daughter, Christina, for having wire hangers in her closet. This is the scene that is often quoted mockingly and said to be so bizarre that it’s unintentionally humorous. That really surprises me.

Yes, it’s a little confusing as to where Joan’s daughter’s wire hangers came from. Yes, the line is quite memorable. Yes, the scene is a little too over-the-top. But if you really look at this scene, it’s incredibly disturbing! I mean, you’ve got Joan yelling at her daughter for a ridiculous reason. That’s one thing. It’s another thing when Joan beats her with one of the wire hangers! This is a very unsettling, hardly watchable scene that features child abuse at its center. And it doesn’t stop there. She drags her out of bed and messes up the bathroom so she can wash it herself! Even poor Christina knows this is going too far! “Jesus Christ,” she says to herself tearfully.

(Sarcastic remark: I don’t know what’s funnier—the yelling or the beating.)

It baffles me how people have labeled “Mommie Dearest” a “cult classic” because of “campy” scenes like that. I have to wonder what movie they thought they were watching and what substance they were abusing while doing so.

Okay, to be kind of fair, my guess is that it has to do with “shock value.” Aside from the wire-hanger scene, there are moments in which a mother angrily cuts off a lot of her daughter’s hair, tackles her to land on a glass table, and, in another “campy” bit, harshly cutting hedges out of anger. It’s like watching a “Friday the 13th” movie—its fan base sees the appeal in being shocked every couple of scenes. Because of this, “Mommie Dearest” is not the most effective kind of biopic. It’s supposed to show the truly complicated relationship between Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter Christina, as it only gets worse as time goes by due to cruelty and jealousy. But it goes so far at showing the terrible parts of the relationship that after a while, it’s hard to truly explain what it’s all about. There’s hardly a narrative flow here; it’s all one shocking moment after another without much ground. Most of these scenes don’t even have much of a buildup. They just happen.

“Mommie Dearest” is a depressing film; one I wouldn’t want to revisit anytime soon. One viewing of it was enough for me. The film was so successful as an unintentional “comedy” that its popularity led to no Academy Award nomination for Faye Dunaway (which is one of the reasons she doesn’t like to talk about the film) but several Razzie nominations (and wins, for that matter). I can say this about Faye Dunaway’s performance, however. Dunaway clearly put her all into it, and in all fairness, it is a chillingly good performance. When you think about it, Joan Crawford was an over-the-top personality; therefore, Dunaway playing her as such is necessary. Dunaway should not be criticized for playing a loud, rough, even violent woman with some truly unnerving mental issues. I don’t even see Faye Dunaway in this film at all; I see Joan Crawford. (Oh, and thanks to sensational makeup, she even looks exactly Joan Crawford—another strange reason people make fun of this movie.) Too bad we only see her as a monster though. The film was based on a best-selling memoir, written by Christina Crawford, which only described her movie-star mother as such. That may be the film’s biggest problem. It’s too one-sided. I didn’t care much for this movie, other than to prove the point that I am definitely not part of this “cult” that holds it in high regard for all the wrong reasons (or the right reasons, for that matter).

NOTE: I will point out the film’s one satisfactory scene. Just before Joan attacks a young-adult Christina, they engage in a screaming match with a great exchange: “Why can’t you give me the respect that I’m entitled to?!” Joan shouts. “Why can’t you treat me the same as any stranger on the street?!” Christina responds perfectly: “Because I am NOT…ONE OF YOUR FANS!”