A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you’ve read my review of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” you know that one of my biggest pet peeves in comedies is the kind of self-referential humor I referred to as “Kind of Aware But Not Quite.” The definition I used is “when a film is so self-aware that it has a character point out the clichés, thinking that commenting on it will make it less of a cliché.” But if you also read my reviews of “The Big Short” and “Deadpool,” you know I’m not against all self-aware comedy and that sometimes it can work to a film’s advantage. Really, it’s a matter of how well it’s written in order to work effectively.

There is a moment midway in David Wain’s hyper-aware biopic “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” that made me both laugh loudly and smile widely. It’s when the film’s narrator does something I think a lot of movielovers wish would happen in many other “based-on-a-true-story” biopics: he lists all of the things that happened in real-life that were not focused upon for this story and cut either for a shorter running time or “…just because [we] didn’t feel like it.” That’s the kind of poking-fun at the creative liberties of biopic storytelling that made the whole film work for me.

“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” tells the story of Doug Kenney, the influential but disturbed comedic genius who co-founded National Lampoon magazine and was responsible for launching the careers of many famous comedians such as Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, and many others. He had a lot of things going for him…and also a lot of things going against him, such as drug dependency and commitment issues. For a biopic about such an artist to work, you might expect something along the lines of Richard Attenborough’s “Chaplin” or Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Instead, we get something not as tedious or as heavy-handed—an ultra-meta comedy that pulls no punches in inside-jokes and fourth-wall breaking.

Mind you, it doesn’t ignore the heavier material; it just chooses not to dwell on it so much. It seems like the movie Doug Kenney himself would have wanted about himself.

Doug Kenney died at age 33 (to this day, people are unsure if he fell from a cliff or jumped off). But we still have a narrative device to tell the story, walk into scenes, and talk directly to the camera: a version of a modern Doug (played by Martin Mull). He’s there to reassure the audience that everyone knows they’re making a farce about something true to life, even going as far as to call out the actors playing comedic icons—“These actors don’t look exactly like the real people, but do you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? Do you think Will Forte is 27?”

And yes, Will Forte does star in the movie as younger Doug, who takes up a majority of screen-time. As the story begins, Doug is celebrating his time at Harvard University, creating the Harvard Lampoon into something more outrageous and wacky. Once the college days are over, however, Doug wanders aimlessly, dragging his friend/writing-partner Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson, wonderfully droll here) along with him. Wanting to continue making funny magazines for a career, Doug and Henry launch National Lampoon magazine, filling it with the blackest comedy and the most disgraceful material, resulting in them gaining popularity (even if many groups end up suing them for being offensive). The magazine helped launch the careers of many promising writers (most of which aren’t focused upon in this movie, which Modern Doug acknowledges) and also, with its hour-long radio program (The National Lampoon Radio Hour), put many comedians in proper notice. The supporting cast mainly consists of game actors portraying comedic icons, the most effective of which are Jon Daly as Bill Murray, John Gemberling as John Belushi, and Joel McHale as Chevy Chase (fitting, seeing as how McHale and Chase were co-stars on the TV series “Community”).

As time goes on, and many of his colleagues continue their careers with “Saturday Night Live,” Doug sets his sights on something higher, like movies. Thus, he co-writes “Animal House,” which becomes one of the highest grossing movies of all time, which is a big accomplishment for a lowbrow comedy. His next film is “Caddyshack,” directed by Harold Ramis, which is Doug’s way of sticking it to the country-club snobs his father associated with. But executives aren’t seeing his vision, he’s not proud of how the movie is turning out (especially after seeing “Airplane!” which is a gigantic comedic hit), and his depression and drug dependency gets worse as a result. (Side-note: the scenes that recreate the atmosphere of the makings of “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” are spot-on; I would’ve like to see more of that.) There are people in his life that want to help him, like his second wife Kathryn Walker (Emmy Rossum) and Chase. But nothing anyone tries to say or do to help him is enough.

OK, that sounds a little depressing. And honestly, it is. But would you rather the film just ignore it altogether? That’d be even worse, wouldn’t it? So, props to director David Wain and writers John Aboud & Michael Colton for doing what they can with this kind of material while also trying to have fun with it as well. “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” ends with Young Doug and Modern Doug meeting each other at Doug’s funeral and attempting to influence the mourners to “laugh, dammit!” Somehow, I get the feeling Doug Kenney would’ve liked the ultimate result of this scenario.

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Creep 2

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A few years ago, indie filmmakers Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass went out to the woods to make a movie with their limited resources. What resulted was “Creep,” an effectively creepy (forgive the pun) found-footage movie starring Duplass as an unsettlingly peculiar individual whom Brice isn’t sure whether or not to trust. I would issue a SPOILER WARNING here, but if you’re the slightest bit interested in seeing “Creep 2,” then you probably already know how “Creep” ended. It’s no secret going into “Creep 2” that Duplass’ titular “creep” character is no mere weirdo; he’s a serial killer.

Part of the fun of the original “Creep” was trying to figure out just what was up with this strange man (Duplass) whose company our protagonist (Brice) is stuck with throughout the movie. He’s clearly not well, he has a lot of issues, he says/does things that are unnerving, and it gets worse and worse until it ultimately ends violently, thus finally revealing that it was all a setup for one of the “creep’s” filmography that involves murders. “Creep” is one of the killer’s movies about his individual killings, and now we have “Creep 2.”

(Whew. That one paragraph saved me the trouble of reviewing “Creep.” For the record, I give it the same rating as “Creep 2”: three stars out of four.)

Now that we know Mark Duplass’ character is a psychopathic murderer with creative ambition, where do we get suspense in this sequel? Well…what if our protagonist was an unsuspecting amateur video artist who’s curious to see what this guy is all about? You see, Sara (Desiree Akhavan), creator of an online documentary web series called “Encounters,” films her “encounters” with strangers who place ads for her to answer/investigate. She answers an ad from Aaron (Duplass) to visit/film him for monetary reasons, and she’s curious especially after Aaron reveals he is a serial killer. He assures her that he won’t kill her, and she has little reason to trust him (thankfully, she arms herself with a hidden knife). All he wants is for her to film his expressions of reaching the age of 40 and feeling like he’s run out of inspiration for future works. And this is where we get another strange delight: the serial killer has a midlife crisis.

As with the previous film, “Creep 2” is presented in first-person camera perspective, in documentary format, still keeping the audience on-edge and not knowing what to expect. It’s refreshing to note that for all the times we say we’re tired of the “found-footage”/”faux-documentary” gimmick, there are still times when we can say it can still be done effectively.

The suspense in “Creep 2” comes from the question of whether or not Aaron is serious when he says he’s considering quitting the “art” of killing, seeing it more as a “job” than a “religion” (among many funny lines of dialogue sprinkled throughout the film for Duplass to bring levity to an otherwise tense thriller). He confides in Sara, who keeps filming him in his times of excitement and depression and inconsistent strangeness. That leads to the bigger question, which is whether or not Sara is safe. And if so, then for how long?

I liked “Creep 2” better than the first “Creep,” despite giving them both the same rating (ratings are hardly meaningful anyway—just read what I have to say instead of focusing on the stars). It’s just as refreshing but also funnier, more tense, and, for lack of a better word, creepier. Duplass is clearly having a ton of fun with the role, which is more compelling with each layer that gets peeled throughout these movies, and Akhavan is a refreshing protagonist who is scared of her company but tries to remain calm as she tries to learn more about him carefully. And I confess I didn’t know where this story was going and it delighted me that it continued to surprise me. I’m not sure where Duplass and director Patrick Brice can go from here with a possible “Creep 3,” but I’d sure like to find out.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

12 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s the movie that nobody expected to like and yet totally surprised them! (And seeing as how it was the fifth highest-grossing film of 2017, I’m assuming audiences originally went to see it to hate on it?…And then they got so surprised they told their friends to see it too?) “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a quasi-sequel to the 1995 film “Jumanji,” based on the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. In the book and the ’95 movie (starring the late Robin Williams), a mystical board game unleashed an array of ruthless, unearthly jungle animals onto a small town to wreak havoc.

The players of the game had to continue until they finished so that all could return to normal, and in the meantime, they had to run from a stampede of rhinos & elephants and fend off gigantic mosquitoes & spiders, a man-eating flower pod, and even horrific CGI monkeys, among others. The fun of the movie was discovering what could appear next for the characters to defend themselves against (and having a likable Robin Williams guide the audience through the madness added onto the fun).

And now, we have “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” in which the evil game is given an upgrade. Not only does it transform from board to video, but it also sucks players into the game for them to play in the otherworldly jungle. It also might be a little tamer, considering the scarier creatures of the ’95 movie are nowhere to be found here. (But there’s still a ruthless villain and some vicious hippos, rhinos, and other jungle animals to fight off.) That’s because this is more of a lighthearted adventure film whereas the first movie was more like a horror film disguised as a family-adventure. It’s fun, funny, playful, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” from director Jake Kasdan, has more in common with “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” than “Jumanji” (funnily enough, both “Honey” and “Jumanji” shared the same director, Joe Johnston), with four kids braving a treacherous jungle in order to find their way back home and learning something about themselves in the process. In this case, our trekking young heroes are nerdy Spencer, gigantic jock Fridge, stuck-up popular girl Bethany, and shy Martha. During a day of detention together, they come across the Jumanji game console and decide to play it. Big mistake…

Suddenly, they’re transported into the game and not played by young actors Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, and Morgan Turner anymore. Instead, they’re switched into the bodies of their video-game avatars—Spencer is now dashing, strong Dwayne Johnson; tall Fridge is now short Kevin Hart; Martha is now tall, striking Lara Croft-like Karen Gillan (complete with tiny top & shorts not fit for a jungle trek); and Bethany is now…Jack Black (uh-oh!). This is where the movie really shines, as these popular actors poke fun at their images. It’s a lot of fun watching Johnson play a scrawny teen trapped in a giant muscular body and taking note of his physical appearance, and it’s especially fun watching Jack Black play a self-absorbed mean-girl trapped in the body of “an overweight middle-aged man” to her absolute horror. The gimmick is they get to play opposite their usual personalities, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

Our heroes have to go along the game’s journey through a world they didn’t make, while adjusting to new sets of skills and fending off the monstrous jungle obstacles, in order to finish the game and return home. Another fun element of the film is the video-game logic that they often come across, such as non-player characters that repeat programmed responses, cut-scenes that reveal backstory, and ominous music that lets them know trouble is afoot (in this case, it’s the sinister drumming sounds that Jumanji is famous for).

Something I didn’t quite understand, though, is why we often cut back to the game’s villain, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), in scenes that could have easily been treated like cut-scenes. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if our heroes didn’t know what to do next and then they found themselves observing another cut-scene in which Van Pelt unintentionally reveals an answer to a clue, and then they realize “Oh yeah we should try that”? Cannavale is wasted in the role anyway, without much juicy material to handle, but it would’ve helped fix what I saw as an annoying plot hole.

Before the film’s release, people were worried that this movie would disrespect the memory of Robin Williams by “rebooting” the film. (Those same people also forget that the original movie was based on another source material, so another adaptation isn’t completely hard to understand.) Thankfully, they were relaxed when they realized it wasn’t so much a “reboot” as a “sequel,” which becomes clear as the main characters come across the old dwelling place of the Robin Williams character. The new inhabitant (played by Nick Jonas) states, “It’s his place; I’m just living in it.” It’s the little things that fix bigger things.

Overall, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a lot of fun. And much of the fun comes from watching these four actors play these roles with the greatest of ease. Dwayne Johnson is at his least Dwayne Johnson-est, Kevin Hart has his share of great Kevin Hart freakout moments (such as when he exclaims he doesn’t have the “top two feet of [his] body,” Karen Gillan gets to play kick-ass female action hero perfectly (and also partakes in a very funny scene in which she tries “flirting”), and Jack Black, in a role that easily could’ve terribly wrong, is hilarious and even surprisingly brilliant in a gender-swapping role. The movie is two hours long, but I could easily watch these four for another two hours. Guess that’s all the more reason to see the movie again.

I Am Legend: Special Edition

21 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! If I’m going to review the “I Am Legend” special-edition version, which includes the “controversial” alternate ending (I use quotations for that term because the DVD cover describes it as such), I have to talk about said-“controversial” ending.

I reviewed the 2007 thriller/drama “I Am Legend,” starring Will Smith and based on the Richard Matheson novel, before. I praised most of it (giving it the same three-and-a-half star rating I give to this “Special Edition”), but I did admit the third act was nothing special, especially when in comparison to the preceding two acts. I wrote, “the movie runs on autopilot for its final act, unfortunately. The climax of the movie is just your standard monster-attacking-the-house climax where characters are forced to fight off the enemy, nearly get caught, find some way to fight back—you name it, you got it. The outcome is less than satisfactory. It’s forced.”

I saw the film for the first time in 2007, when it was released. (Also, I wrote the review in 2012, if you were wondering.) I was 15 when I first saw it, and even back then, as a dumb teenage boy who was hungry for destruction in cinema, I noticed the film didn’t end the same way it began. The first two acts of “I Am Legend” weren’t about typical action or horror-movie tropes—it was mostly quiet, with thought-provoking scenes of drama and some carefully-chosen lines of dialogue when discussing the implications of the antagonists’ nature (the antagonists, of course, being the infected sunlight-fearing zombies that take up New York City).

And then the film ends with Will Smith blowing up the “monsters” as well as himself, sacrificing his life to protect the antidote that can reverse the process that turned everyday, ordinary people into this different kind of species… Even as a teenage moviegoer, I wasn’t that enthralled by the film’s resolution.

I’m unsure if I need to remind readers of the plot synopsis of “I Am Legend,” but I’ll attempt to sum it up anyway. Dr. Robert Neville (Smith) is the lone survivor of a plague that wiped out New York City three years before. With no outside communication and the plague reaching out even further, Neville may be the last man on Earth, with only one companion: a loyal dog named Sam. Immune to the virus that killed and/or transformed the infected into predatory zombie-like creatures, Neville spends his days trying to develop an antidote. When times get to be too psychologically anguishing for him, as he seemingly gets nowhere with the experiments, he is suddenly visited by two human survivors, a woman (Alice Braga) and a young boy (Charlie Tahan) who are headed to where they believe a “survivor’s colony” resides outside the island.

Right around this point, “I Am Legend” should be getting more interesting, as issues such as faith and survivor’s guilt are mentioned and discussed in a couple effective moments that are much deserved after numerous quiet, suspenseful scenes with Will Smith alone. But before it can get too deep, the characters are attacked by the creatures that storm Neville’s house. This is where we get the disappointing final act in which it simply doesn’t feel like much is accomplished, despite Neville presumably destroying them all (and sacrificing himself in the process, so that the woman and child can go free with the antidote that ultimately results). It didn’t feel like the right conclusion for such a strong film like this to truly end with.

But I kept saying the film was good, despite a disappointing ending, mainly because everything leading up to it done so effectively. And then…I was told about the original ending. That was when I started to look at the film (and the studio that released it in 2007) in a different (read “negative”) way. The film was treating me, a teenage moviegoer in 2007, with respect and intelligence—no loud violent action sequences, a great deal of silence in both the dramatic moments and the suspenseful moments, and profound issues to be discussed. And then, it decided I needed something I had already seen before in an action-filled climax. That didn’t tick me off so much; what does tick me off today is that if it was released with the original ending, it would’ve given me something even deeper and more profound to ponder long after it was over. That was when I realized that the film I saw in the theater treated me like a thinking adult until the final act, and I want to say “screw you” to whoever made the decision to make such a drastic change.

So, what is the original ending? The ending that would’ve changed everything? The ending that was kept in the “Special Edition” DVD/Blu-Ray release to deliver a more satisfying “I Am Legend”? The ending that gives “I Am Legend” the three-and-a-half star rating on Smith’s Verdict that it truly deserves? Let’s talk about it…

In a clever use of non-verbal communication, the alpha-male creature (Dash Mihok) identifies the subdued female creature (whom Neville was experimenting on to create the antidote, which seems to have finally taken effect). Neville realizes there’s still humanity in these mutants, and taking into account the ingenuity they’ve shown before (such as knowing how to spring a trap for him earlier in the film), he also realizes that they’re not exactly the non-intelligent monsters he thought they were. He gives the creatures the newly-cured woman, whom the alpha male takes with distraught disappointment, and he lets them all go. Thinking back to all the creatures he either killed or experimented on in the long time he’s been the only normal human in the city, he realizes a very harsh truth: they’re not the monster in this world; he is. All this time, he’s been thinking these are horrific monsters that need to be exterminated from our society, but it’s not his society anymore—it’s a brand new world with a newly formed species and he’s the rare breed that won’t adapt to it. In the eyes of the people that now rule the world, he’s the monster that can either be fought or feared, just as he thought of them.

This whole ending is masterfully done! And as a plus, it’s the ending that makes the most sense for this kind of story. It makes the film into a brilliant “eye of the beholder” story that challenges viewers and makes them truly think about what they’ve seen and where the characters can go from the ending. Neville lives in this version, and he and the other surviving humans leave to find other survivors, but…what happens after? It’s less optimistic, but it’s the ending that this thought-provoking end-of-the-world fable deserves.

And some numb-nuts at Warner Bros. must have thought, “Nope! Can’t have that! We gotta treat our younger audience for our PG-13 movie like they’re idiots! We treated them like adults long enough, so let’s just show Will Smith as a martyr or…something!” Whoever made that decision…I can’t stay mad at them for too long because after all, they did learn their mistake and release a DVD with that ending edited into a “director’s cut.” (Side-note: kudos to you, director Francis Lawrence—you knew what you were doing.) And it’s the director’s cut that truly deserves praise, because the ending delivers more in home-media than what it originally promised in the theater.

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

5 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “Cloverfield” film series, created by J.J. Abrams’ company Bad Robot, continues to intrigue me in terms of creativity and surprise, both in substance in its entries and its ability to sneak up on the audience. Last time, with the secret entry “10 Cloverfield Lane,” nobody was aware of its existence until about a month before its theatrical release. This time, with #3, entitled “The Cloverfield Paradox,” everything was kept secret until the Super Bowl, during which a trailer was revealed to viewers…and immediately followed up with the film’s release on Netflix! (Now that’s a pleasant surprise, more pleasant than who actually won the Super Bowl, for some people.)

All three films are science-fiction horror films that take place within the same universe, but they don’t all revolve around the same characteristics. (Actually, there are a few that are noticeable, but they’re not among the focuses of the films. I wouldn’t worry about trying to connect all three films together just yet.) Instead, they all take familiar elements from similar scenarios (the monster-movie, the contained-thriller, the space-station/haunted-house) and present new things to them to put the audience in a world of intrigue, terror and thought. For the first “Cloverfield” in 2008, we had a found-footage approach to a Godzilla-like story; for “10 Cloverfield Lane,” we were kept underground for a large portion of the film until we were aware of what was really going on upstairs; and for “The Cloverfield Paradox,” most of the action is set in a space station, where something goes really, really wrong that may result in bad things on Earth that may or may not have to do with elements from the first two films.

(That’s all I’ll say without giving away spoilers, but really, are you expecting anything less than…”Cloverfield”-esque elements?)

Set in the near future (not quite specified in terms of time), Earth is undergoing an energy crisis. The Cloverfield station is launched by collective space agencies to complete a particle accelerator that will help save the planet (or, as someone on Earth argues, could bring it to its destruction). After two years, the accelerator finally seems to work. But then, after launching it toward Earth, something goes wrong, and the crew onboard the Cloverfield station find themselves experiencing all sorts of inconsistencies in the universe and even in themselves.

What’s happened? Why does everything seem off? Why do things appear/disappear? What’s happening on Earth? And who is the strange passenger that seemingly appears on the ship and knows more than the crew does about her? What’s the connection to the other “Cloverfield” films? Some of these questions are answered, while others are best left to interpretation (unless you see the film a second time and something clicks in your mind, leading to a probable conclusion). And also, much like with “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the filmmakers (which, in this case, include producer J.J. Abrams and director Julius Onah) don’t feel the need to spoon-feed their audience with numerous details. We’re just thrown into a drastic situation, and these things are what our characters have to go through.

There’s some good character moments as well, particularly involving an appealing, fully-developed lead heroine named Hamilton, played very well by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She has a tragic backstory and a husband (Roger Davies) she left on Earth, and so when certain things about this new phenomenon are revealed to her, she has choices to make that aren’t easy to figure out as one may think. There’s also a nice moment in which we see a crew member named Kiel (David Oyelowo) crying by himself after the trouble starts, and then he collects himself before returning to his crew to take command. Most of the side characters (the rest of the Cloverfield crew) are types, but they’re likable types, particularly Chris O’Dowd as the comic-relief who has a particularly bad experience involving one of his body parts and yet still has one-liners to crack.

It’s easy to make the comparison to “Alien,” seeing as how most of the action takes place on this space station and Hamilton could be seen as a Ripley-type. But “The Cloverfield Paradox” has enough dark colors in its production design of this space station to give it its own identity (much more than 1997’s “Event Horizon,” which must have stolen the set from “Alien” to make up for its lack of original style). The CGI visual effects are effectively done, which made me wish I could’ve seen this film on a big screen rather than a small screen. (And I saw this film on my smartphone, which is too small a screen for a film of this spectacle.) But to be fair, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is less about spectacle & action and more about thrills & story.

Look at it like an updated “Star Trek: The Next Generation” story with weird occurrences on the USS Enterprise (or better yet, the “Lost in Space” movie some of us were waiting for). There’s mystery, there’s intrigue, there’s fear, there’s paranoia, there’s questions, there’s answers, and then there’s a resolution that some audience members may approve of while others may be disappointed. Either way, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is an effective confined-space thriller (literally in space) and a very pleasant surprise to stream on Netflix just after its announcement during the Super Bowl.

Note: I heard a fourth “Cloverfield” film has completed production, and this one intrigues me more than the others—it’s set in WWII and is described as a “supernatural Nazi thriller.”

Before I Wake (2018)

3 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This was not supposed to happen. A horror film released on the first weekend of January (and on Netflix, no less) is not supposed to be this thought-provoking. It’s not supposed to keep me wondering about this supernatural aspect or that origin of the central boogeyman in the story. But nevertheless, “Before I Wake,” directed by Mike Flanagan (the best horror director working today—see “Oculus,” “Hush,” “Gerald’s Game,” and even “Ouija: Origin of Evil”), is a horror film that could’ve been released on New Year’s Day, and it still would’ve been noticed as something good.

(Actually, this was originally supposed to be released theatrically in September 2016, on the same day as “The Disappointments Room” and “Blair Witch”…needless to say, I would have preferred seeing this horror film over either of those other two.)

Remember that “Twilight Zone” episode in which Bill Mumy was an odd child that could make his many wishes come true? Well, for young Cody (Jacob Tremblay, one of the best child actors working today), it’s the same principle—his dreams become reality. He goes to sleep, and the objects of his dreams manifest themselves physically. For instance, upon moving into the house of his new foster parents and learning about their long-lost son, the foster parents, Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane), see their son right there in the living room as soon as Cody is asleep. But that’s not all—Cody is suffering trauma due to his mother passing away, seemingly taken away from him from a dark entity known as The Canker Man. So, just as his pleasant dreams become reality, so does The Canker Man.

I have to be honest and say that supernatural horror stories involving some kind of demonic presence are starting to bore me, mainly because it just seems ghosts & demons can just…do things. It doesn’t matter if it’s consistent or how much time passes in between hauntings or even what is the extent of their abilities. They just do…whatever they want. So, as “Before I Wake” was continuing, I didn’t care about what exactly The Canker Man was…until the final act, when we figure out what Cody has gone through before meeting his foster parents, and there’s a psychological twist that makes everything we’ve seen before a lot more interesting. I grow tired of over-the-top horror-movie climaxes, but this one had me intrigued. (No, I won’t give it away here.)

Mike Flanagan is a director who truly knows and love movies. He’s shown special talent in the horror genre, and it’s clear he’s not making these films simply to frighten or give us visceral reactions—he wants to tell stories with genuine characters and give us an effective thrill ride while we’re getting to know these people and admiring the craftsmanship as well. And even though The Canker Man is frightening, it’s where he comes from that makes his presence (and the film, by default) something to think about. And I give props to Flanagan for not giving us yet another weirdly-defined ghost/demon that can’t be explained.

Much of the film has to do less with scares and more with dealing with childhood phobias and coping with parental mistakes, as Cody has many skeletons in his closet even at the age of 8 and Jessie and Mark are struggling with the death of their own child while they have to care for this new boy in their home (Mark feels responsible for his son’s drowning in the bathtub). And I appreciated Flanagan’s methods in making it more than a standard horror film in which a child is scared by a random boogeyman. The film also brings interesting developments with Jessie, such as: if she can see her son when Cody sleeps, is she using Cody to continue fulfilling the wish of seeing him again, and how far will that go? (Mark, of course, knows better—this isn’t their dead son at all; it’s only Cody’s interpretation of their son, from what Cody saw in photos/videos of him.) This causes Jessie to think more about what it means to be a mother, especially when she does something that makes authorities see her as unfit to care for Cody.

“Before I Wake” has its flaws, such as narrative pacing issues, but its heart is in the right place, it had me guessing throughout and thinking afterward, and it is rather scary at times. “Before I Wake” is an effective horror film…I just wish I saw it back in September 2016. But it’s a good way to start the year 2018.

Cop Car (2015)

3 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Growing up, I didn’t always watch the greatest films. Most of them were straight-to-video family films you could rent at the local video store for a dollar. Most of them involved mischievous kids getting involved in something bigger than them and ultimately saving the day from ruthless (but mostly clumsy) baddies. As a child, I loved watching them because they showed me a world in which children can get away with anything and embark on risky adventures but still come out all right.

I also started to watch the R-rated “Stand By Me” when I was 9 years old (before I would watch it again and again and again), but not even that would’ve prepared me if I saw director Jon Watts’ “Cop Car” at a very young age.

“Cop Car” has a setup that sounds like one of the movies I used to watch way back in the day. Set in the deep South, two pre-teenage boys (played with natural ability by Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson) are running away from home (for reasons never explained, so who cares?) and are walking along empty fields out in the middle of nowhere when they come across…a cop car. It’s a patrol unit abandoned out in the open, and they decide to hit it with a rock…then they decide to play inside it…then they realize that the keys are in it… And this leads to a fun joyride, as the boys drive along fields before taking it to the mostly-empty highway to drive faster. But meanwhile, the Sheriff (Kevin Bacon) wants his car back…

Sounds a bit trite, doesn’t it? Well, what if I told you that the Sheriff is a definite bad guy who disposes of a dead body from the trunk of the cop car? What if I told you there’s something sinister awaiting the boys once they find what’s left in the trunk? What if I told you this plot went from fun adventure to Cormac McCarthy territory, in which the situation becomes more bleak, lives are in jeopardy, and it’s unclear whether these little boys will get out of this alive?

And what if I told you that I loved the directions “Cop Car” kept taking?

This kid’s joyride story takes a dark, disturbing turn as the boys start playing with the artillery left in the backseat (with one of them looking down the barrel of a rifle when he thinks it isn’t working—yikes!), they discover something in the trunk that brings everything to a horrific situation (and with one of the most horrifying monologues I’ve ever heard in a movie—hide your pet guinea pig, kids), and the corrupt Sheriff does what he feels he must do in order to save his reputation and himself in this deadly game of cat-and-mouse. It’s a pulsepounding, suspenseful thrill ride that had me riveted right to the ambiguous conclusion.

We don’t know all the details involving the characters, such as why the boys are running away, who the Sheriff murdered, is the frightened but deadly Shea Whigham character (who shows up late in the proceedings) to be trusted in any other situation, and so on. We’re just put into this journey as the boys are walking and exchanging curse words before coming across the cop car, and off we go. By the time the film got really good, I didn’t care about details that were left out; I was simply involved, and all I knew was how unlikely it seemed that anyone was going to get out of this alive.

The kids feel like real kids. They’re rowdy little boys who think they’re much smarter than they actually are; they do very stupid things (like play with guns; at one point, one tries to shoot the other wearing a bulletproof vest). Because they feel real, the danger for them feels even more real, and that’s when we start to fear for them when they don’t even realize how much trouble they’re in.

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Kevin Bacon is a ton of fun in this role of the corrupt Sheriff. He’s menacing but also funny, particularly in the scenes in which he realizes his car is missing, he has to steal the only car around for miles, and he has to come up with numerous ways to keep dispatchers from noticing anything out of the ordinary (and it also doesn’t help for him that he’s not very smart either). He handles it with his usual Kevin Bacon charisma. But the charisma turns to terror, especially when he bluntly tells the boys, “YOU DON’T STEAL A COP CAR!”

The cinematography, by Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Sieple, is gorgeous, delivering a vibe that’s very much Terrence Malick-esque. As the boys are walking along these empty fields and surrounded by nothing but seemingly-endless country, I can’t help but feel the location.

“Cop Car” is darkly terrific and a great thrill ride. And it taught me to never steal a cop car, especially if it’s Kevin Bacon’s.