Sharp Stick (2022)

21 Mar

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

In 2022, actor-filmmaker Lena Dunham had two new feature films released a few months apart. A majority would agree the better of the two is Catherine Called Birdy–and I agree, too. Watching it again on Amazon Prime recently, it’s even better than I remember it the first time. It’s witty, memorable, and could even be labeled as a new classic in the YA-story camp. It’s also Lena Dunham’s best work.

Dunham’s other film, released a couple months before “Catherine Called Birdy,” was “Sharp Stick.” This is what opened people’s eyes, as it was Dunham’s first film in 12 years (since the appealing “Tiny Furniture” in 2010). Most people were not impressed by what Dunham offered within “Sharp Stick,” and I’ll admit I wasn’t either–in fact, look back at my “Catherine Called Birdy” review and you’ll find me using words like “unpleasant” and “confused” to describe how I felt about it.

Well…after I rewatched “Catherine Called Birdy,” I gave “Sharp Stick” another viewing. Lena Dunham wanted to say something with this film–it is her first film in over a decade, after all. She deserves my time and attention. So, has my opinion changed on this film?

You saw the three-and-a-half star rating above. So you know I like it. Very much.

What was my problem with it initially? Well, the main character, played by Kristine Froseth, kept turning me off. Why does she dress the way she does? Why is she so naive? How is someone in their mid 20s this out of touch when it comes to sexual exploration? And is it really probable that she would put herself out there to try every position she finds out about online–just like that?

See, that’s not fair, is it? I realized that. So, what changed my mind?

Severe health issues are brought to the foreground. 26-year-old Sarah Jo (Froseth) had an emergency hysterectomy at age 15 and menopause at 17. That kind of medical crisis that young would probably cause someone to have severe embarrassment about their own body, and thus, Sarah Jo hasn’t pursued any intimate or romantic relationship because of such. And she lives at home with her hippie mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and influencer-dancer adopted-sister Treina (Taylour Paige, “Zola”) because they welcome her and because she’s always felt a sense of security with them. When I keep all of that in mind, I stop asking why she, as Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper put it, “dresses as if she’s an Amish pre-teen and has the emotional and intellectual maturity of someone half her age.” It’s more complicated than that, and I won’t pretend to have all the answers–but seeing the film again, with this knowledge in mind, I care more than enough to ponder them.

Oh, and I guess this is a good time to mention the controversy this film generated upon its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2022. People thought Sarah Jo was on the spectrum due to her extreme naivety and social awkwardness, got all up in arms about it, and caused Dunham to issue a statement saying, “Nothing about Sarah Jo was coded to suggest or convey neurodivergence.” The movies are generally subjective and you could look at the character as being a representation of something (there’s even a category on TV Tropes called “Diagnosed by the Audience”), but let me just say that I don’t think the statement was necessary and I don’t think it made things better for the complainers either. Maybe Sarah Jo is on the spectrum, maybe she’s not, but let’s move along.

Anyway, Sarah Jo is an emotional and exploratory virgin and “Sharp Stick” is all about her pursuing this part of life that she never thought about before. And why not? She’s 26, she’s kept a guard up for so long, she feels so many gaps in her life, and she’s going to explore it. Now, is moving from a secret affair with her employer, a “cool-dad” type (played hilariously by Jon Bernthal) who is the father of the special-needs kid Sarah Jo often looks after, to a list of many sexual acts with strangers pushing it? Yeah, one would definitely ask, “Where did this come from?” But again, it’s her exploration. It may be extreme, but it’s not so improbable to imagine how she gets there.

Now, as for Dunham telling this story through a fairy-tale-like lens, with sporadic animated sequences illustrating Sarah Jo’s feelings, I can see how people can find the shift from extreme realism to inner fantasy somewhat jarring. But if it went even further with no realism and all shiny visuals, I think I’d find it even more confusing. There’s a scene early in the film in which Marilyn tells Sarah Jo and Treina their “origin stories,” and while Sarah Jo is listening in awe as if she’s listening to a bedtime story, I can feel the emotional weight in Marilyn’s voice as we learn that this person has been there and done all of that–she’s been married five times, she wanted to be a starlet, she speaks freely about her sexuality, and more. Maybe it’s the way Jennifer Jason Leigh plays it so convincingly as well, but I believe Dunham was hinting at something more with this scene–it’s a setup to the pleasure and pain that Sarah Jo herself will face as the film continues.

See what happens when you give a movie another chance? This time around, I found “Sharp Stick” to be funny, honest, and heartfelt. I admired the deeply layered lead character of Sarah Jo and thought actress Kristine Froseth did a wonderful job. Bernthal handled both the comedic and heavy moments very well, playing a guy who never really grew up. Scott Speedman is hilarious as Internet porn star Vance Leroy, whom Sarah Jo declares is her favorite upon doing more “research” online–it’s because his masculinity doesn’t come off as toxic as most of her male callers as of late. And Dunham’s script is smarter than I initially gave it credit for.

So yes, I like “Sharp Stick.”

Lena Dunham is doing good work. As a filmmaker, she’s 3 for 3. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023)

21 Mar

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

Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 sleeper hit “Magic Mike” was a winning film. It had a good mix of arthouse and mainstream appeals, it took the audience into the world of a male stripper who had other aspirations (it also helped that it was loosely based on its star Channing Tatum’s experiences as a stripper before he became an actor), and I’m sure it also spoke to a certain demographic that just loved to see scantily clad men put on a show in scene-stealing numbers.

I don’t think it needed a sequel, especially one as silly as 2015’s “Magic Mike XXL.” But it was enjoyable enough for what it was, and it was nice seeing Mike in a different light while returning to the spotlight for “one last dance.” (But I still think it would have been more interesting if Cody Horn’s love-interest character from the first film returned–I don’t know what fans were talking about in their hatred towards her.)

Now, over a decade since the original film, we have “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” which has a mix of the grittiness of the original and some of the wacky antics of the second. (But despite differing tones, all three films feel like they belong in the same universe. Credit for that goes not only to Soderbergh, who produced but didn’t direct the second film and returns to the director’s chair for this one, but also screenwriter Reed Carolin, who wrote all three.)

Maybe it’s because I admire what Soderbergh, Carolin, and returning star Channing Tatum bring to this franchise that I don’t mind the tonal shifts and I still rather enjoyed “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” even more than “Magic Mike XXL.”

When we first see Tatum’s Mike Lane in “Last Dance,” he’s a bartender for a catering company, after the global pandemic caused his furniture business to crash. (I like that this film shows us characters struggling in economic crisis, just as the original “Magic Mike” was a statement about the post-2008 economic crash.) In a fun little cameo appearance, Caitlin Gerard’s Kim returns from the original film as one of Mike’s former clients–Mike pretended to be a cop to put on a show for her. Kim works as a lawyer for business mogul Maxandra “Max” Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), who is hosting the fundraising event for which Mike is tending bar. When Max, who is depressed and struggling herself, hears of Mike’s former vocation (the stripping, not the furniture business), she invites him inside her luxurious Miami estate and pays him to give her a dance.

And does he ever, proving that even in his 40s, Channing Tatum still has some moves. He puts on a hell of a show for Max, and wouldn’t you know it–this is only the beginning…

Max pays Mike to accompany her to London for some time. (But nothing physical is to happen–how much you want to bet something physical does happen between these two? I joke, but Tatum and Hayek do share good chemistry together.) It’s only when Mike is in London with her does he realize why he’s there: to direct a stage show at a theater called the Rattigan, owned by Max’s divorced husband Roger (Alan Cox). Though reluctant at first, Mike accepts Max’s request to turn a stuffy period-piece romance into a wild male-stripper fantasy show with a message of female empowerment.

It’s very much “hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show” as Mike and Max bring in new dancers to turn this show into something special. But it’s not as flashy as you’d think–it’s surprisingly subdued in the scenes where they rehearse and put their all into it. Any other film, it’d feel more joyous–but this is “Magic Mike,” after all.

Although, the influence of “Magic Mike XXL” does come in a strange moment where the dancers must convince an uptight bureaucrat on a bus to approve the theatre renovations in preparation for the big finale. That felt a bit out of place in this film, but…eh. It made me laugh, so it gets a pass.

And the show, which takes up the film’s final act, is wild enough that it was worth the wait. It’s well-choreographed, well-shot, and rather exciting.

So maybe “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” isn’t as gritty or as sexy as the original film, but why criticize it as such? I enjoyed it more than “Magic Mike XXL,” which I liked for what it was, and I enjoy “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” for what it is. And even if I can see Mike and Max’s romance coming a mile away, I still applaud it. Mike deserves some happiness in his life–I think Salma Hayek Pinault can give it to him.

But you uptight “Magic Mike” fans better not cause her to be written off like you did for Cody Horn’s character! (Yeah, I don’t think I’ll get over that.)

They Wait in the Dark (2023)

10 Feb

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

To begin my review of Patrick (“I Am Lisa”) Rea’s new micro-budget horror film, “They Wait in the Dark,” I would like to mention how refreshing it is (for me, anyway) when a young child is terrified rather than enchanted by a mysterious, ghostly presence. Does that annoy anyone else, when a kid in a horror film is too dumb to believe this is more than some “imaginary friend”? (Remember Lights Out? The film in which the kid is too scared to sleep at night because of his mother’s malevolent “imaginary friend”? Could we get more of that, please?)

Well, in “They Wait in the Dark,” young Adrian (Patrick McGee) has one strange encounter with an invisible force during his first night in an abandoned house; the following night, he meets it again and repeatedly shouts at it to “GET OUT!”

But, of course, the kid’s mother doesn’t believe there’s anything haunting this house except for bad memories. So, there they stay. Let’s see what happens.

Adrian and his mother, Amy (Sarah McGuire, The Stylist), are fleeing from Amy’s ex-girlfriend, Judith (Laurie Catherine Winkel). We don’t get a lot of backstory of what led to Amy & Adrian’s situation (thankfully, filmmaker Patrick Rea’s script keeps us guessing), but we do get an idea what they’re avoiding as we get the sense that Judith is abusive and unhinged and we also see how good she is with a knife, as well as what happens when one unfortunate trucker catcalls her. (Oh, and Amy is treating what looks like a stab wound at her side. Yeah, I think it’s safe to assume Amy & Adrian are better off without Judith.)

Amy reunites with an old friend, Jenny (Paige Maria), who helps them get refuge at Amy’s old family farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. It’s not Amy’s ideal hiding spot, but it’s also unlikely Judith will find them there. As more about Amy’s troubled past comes to light and her own parenting towards Adrian becomes questionable (for every moment she’s kind towards him, there’s a moment in which she’ll randomly snap at him), it quickly becomes clear to us (and to the kid) that there’s most likely something sinister dwelling in this house.

Who or what is to be feared the most? I love it when a supernatural thriller poses that question. It makes for a film that is as intriguing as it is disturbing, and “They Wait in the Dark” is no exception. The main reason for its effectiveness comes down to the character of Amy–most notably actress Sarah McGuire’s excellent performance as well as director-writer Patrick Rea’s careful guidance. Amy’s enough of a mystery to keep us wondering and enough of a human being to be engaging, and with more than enough complexities for McGuire to tackle head-on. It’s a remarkable character study.

When character and atmosphere share the same importance as terror and gore in a horror film is when I appreciate the filmmaker’s endeavors even more. (“They Wait in the Dark” was made for peanuts in rural Kansas. I can tell this was a labor of love for Rea and his cast/crew–and it looks great too, with help from cinematographer Hanuman Brown-Eagle.) But I don’t want to deny the fear factor either–for instance, the first (visible) sign of the haunting presence pushed me back into my seat the moment it appeared. (Very well-done jump scare.)

From the film’s mysterious opening to its eerie middle to its volatile finale, “They Wait in the Dark” kept me invested in these questions: which threat is to be feared more, whether Adrian will be safe or not, and even whether Amy is to really be trusted or not. I was not disappointed by the answers. And I was grateful to see that this film had a lot more on its mind than I was anticipating.

2022 Review

31 Dec

By Tanner Smith

I told myself I wouldn’t make my year-end 2022 list until after I’ve seen White Noise, Women Talking, and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery–but I’ve been real busy this holiday season, I’m very tired, and I decided instead to publish my list as is before celebrating New Year’s Eve. (To quote Greg in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, “Please appreciate how honest I was just now.”)

Besides, I liked many films this year and I feel my list is very solid as is. Why waste time? Let’s get going!

As with my 2021 Review last year, I’m listing my selections in alphabetical order. Beginning with the honorable mentions, they are:

5-25-77, Alan Jones Part One, Bones and All, Bros, Catherine Called Birdy, Clerks III, Elvis, Emergency, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Fall, Halloween Ends, Hollywood Stargirl, Kimi, Mark, Mary + Some Other People, The Northman, Not Okay, Pennywise: The Story of It, Scream, She Said, Spoiler Alert, Stutz, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and Vincent’s Vow.

And this year…I’m going with a Top 25! So, here they are–my Top 25 Favorite Films of 2022 (in alphabetical order):

  1. 7 Days
    This year, we had a couple of comedies set during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic–Judd Apatow’s The Bubble and the Indie Spirit Award winner 7 Days. Maybe it’s because the latter was simpler and sweeter than the former, but to me, Roshan Sethi’s endearing indie romcom 7 Days is unquestionably the superior film. Short, funny, and sweet, and with winning performances by stars Karan Soni (who also co-wrote the film) and Geraldine Viswanathan, it’s a neat blend of screwball comedy and realistic drama–it’s also one of the films I rewatched the most this year.

2. After Yang
Do androids dream? If so, what purpose did they truly serve in the grand scheme of things? What truly matters when a person and a machine are one and the same? As those questions are pondered in the wonderful, moving sci-fi drama After Yang, brought to us by visionary filmmaker Kogonada (whose previous film was Columbus, also wonderful and moving but for different reasons). And with one of the best performances from Colin Farrell starring as a father hoping to repair the family’s beloved malfunctioning humanoid companion (named Yang), I was pleased to ponder the questions along with him.

3. Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood
More of a modest memoir than a glorified space opera, I thoroughly enjoyed director Richard Linklater’s latest nostalgia trip. This one has a sci-fi conspiracy twist–NASA put a space module too small for grown-up astronauts and trained and sent a fourth-grade boy up to the moon in it. (Hey, I’ve heard crazier theories.) Available on Netflix.

4. Barbarian
As many film reviewers have pointed out before me, 2022 was a very impressive year for horror. And I include Zach Cregger’s strange, unsettling, unpredictable, even occasionally laugh-out-loud funny Barbarian on this list because I simply cannot get it out of my head. (I know that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, and indeed there are better horror films on this list–but I’ll not dare give away the fun and horrifying secrets this film has to offer, even for a brief retrospective.)

5. The Batman
Don’t ask me exactly where I’d rank this latest cinematic outing of DC Comics’ Caped Crusader (given to us by director Matt Reeves, who already brought dignity back to the Planet of the Apes franchise) among the other Batman films–but it’s up there with the superior ones, like The Dark Knight and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. I love its dark mystery, its moody atmosphere, and its gritty performances (especially from Robert Pattinson as a damn good Batman and Zoe Kravitz as a complex Catwoman). Let’s see where it goes next.

6. The Black Phone
Well, THIS was chilling! Chilling for its late-1970s slasher-movie vibe, the usually-affable Ethan Hawke portraying pure evil as The Grabber, and keeping me on the edge of my seat as the pre-teenage protagonists attempt to escape The Grabber’s grasp and solve his deadly mystery–Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone gave me the chills many different times in its 103-minute runtime. Of all the unique and exceptional horror films released in 2022, this one got to me the most.

7. Bodies Bodies Bodies
I LOVED this crazy movie! Halina Reijn’s horror-comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies kept me intrigued as many times as it made me laugh. Picture Scream mixed with an Agatha Christie mystery, and you have a sharply satirical horror-comedy about a group of young people (in this case, Gen-Zers) who band together for a good time in a big house–only to turn against each other when they get killed one by one. In a time when so many young people live in the moment, cling to their smartphones for comfort and guidance, and completely miss what’s happening around them, this example of social commentary couldn’t be more effective if Zoey Deutch’s narcissistic character from Not Okay suddenly entered the picture. And the ending–PERFECT. That’s all I’ll say about it.

8. Cha Cha Real Smooth
Cha Cha Real Smooth is the sophomore effort from exciting new actor-filmmaker Cooper Raiff, after the refreshingly original 2020 college-dramedy S#!%house–after these two remarkable feats, I’ll happily see what else he has in store for us. Fresh new voices can add something special to familiar stories–for S#!%house, it was coming of age through the college experience; for Cha Cha Real Smooth, it’s coming of age post-college graduation; and in both films, there’s something special to be found. Keep up the good work, Mr. Raiff. Available on Apple TV+.

9. Confess, Fletch
My personal pick for the funniest film of the year. I could credit it to the direction from Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad, Adventureland), the sharp screenplay from Mottola and Zev Borow, and/or the colorful supporting cast (which includes Marcia Gay Harden and Kyle MacLachlin)–maybe even the source material, Gregory McDonald’s 1976 novel of the same name. But it really comes down to Jon Hamm taking the lead as Fletch–he IS this movie.

10. Emily the Criminal
This film contains the best monologue of the year, delivered by the wonderful Aubrey Plaza in the title role, about why unpaid internships don’t mean a thing to someone who’s heavy in student loan debt. (Stolen credit cards and fake IDs…I guess they ARE the most practical way to make some easy money.) John Patton Ford’s neo-noir crime thriller is as telling as it is involving–and the great performances from Plaza and Theo Rossi (as Emily’s semi-boss) help too.

11. The Fabelmans
This is the film I’ve been looking forward to all year–a semi-autobiographical portrait of the early days of Steven Spielberg, one of my filmmaking heroes. I remember when I was a kid, I read up on how Spielberg was inspired to make his own films as a youngster and what would become the seeds that would bloom such beautiful artworks as E.T. and Schindler’s List, among others.

And five years ago, there was a wonderful HBO documentary, simply called Spielberg, that went in-depth about WHY he made his films–and a lot of his youth experiences had to do with it. (Check it out if you have HBO–it’s a great doc.)

Now, Spielberg himself has made The Fabelmans, which is not only a love letter to his growth in filmmaking but also a moving memoriam of his parents (his mother died in 2017, his father in 2020). He even wrote the script, which means something since he doesn’t usually write his films and it also says something about how much of his heart and soul went into this one. (He co-wrote it with Tony Kushner, the playwright who also penned Spielberg works such as Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story.) But it is based on his childhood, so who better to write it than the man himself?

And it shows. Only a visionary and exciting director like Steven Spielberg can take a coming-of-age story and make it such a visual and aural entertainment. Do I care about the characters? Yes. Am I intrigued by their story? Yes. Does it feel long at 2.5 hours? No. So, add all of that to the usual Spielberg flair, and what do you get?

One of the best films of the year.

12. The Fallout
For me, the most emotionally involving film of 2022 was released in January–that film was The Fallout, which is about school-shooting survivors attempting to overcome trauma and guilt. By the end of the film, we get the feeling it’s going to take more than one movie to get through it–but there is a hopeful sense that they will in the future. A wonderful filmmaking debut from actress Megan Park and a remarkable leading performance from 2022’s busiest actress Jenna Ortega (Wednesday, X, Scream). Available on HBO Max.

13. God Forbid: The Sex Scandal that Brought Down a Dynasty
The most entertaining documentary I’ve seen this year–it’s as riveting as it is disturbing. Available on Hulu.

14. Hustle
A Happy Madison production released on Netflix…and it’s GREAT?? OK, OK, I don’t want to sound too snobby about it–but I mean it when I say Hustle took me completely by surprise. It’s not merely great in the same way I enjoy funny Adam Sandler-produced comedies like Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, and Click (as opposed to stuff like Jack and Jill, Just Go With It, and quite a few Netflix comedies released under his studio banner Happy Madison Productions)–it’s great in the way that actor/producer Sandler and director Jeremiah Zagar (We the Animals) found a story deep inside themselves that they wanted to tell in the best way they could. (And given Sandler’s love for the NBA, setting the story within the pro-basketball circuit makes me wonder why it took so long for him to make this film.) It’s a feel-good story of hope and belief with enough gentle comedy (and your typical Sandler fashion of product placements) that truly got me in the heart. This is more than a layup, in basketball terms–it’s a freethrow that wins the game. I loved it. Available on Netflix.

15. I Heard the Bells
I Heard the Bells, the first cinematic production from Sight & Sound Theatres, tells the story of the origin of the well-known poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s a story of a man who had his faith and his passion challenged before ultimately embracing both. And it’s a warm, uplifting fable that was just what I needed during the holiday season.

16. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Well, THAT was interesting and wonderful! How did I feel feelings for a mockumentary about a talking, walking shell named Marcel?? Just…what…how…why… I mean, not that I’m complaining, but wow, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is kind of a beautiful film! There’s a lot of heart, poignancy, and earnestness here. There’s a lot of humor, but it’s more gentle and quiet than I expected. But most importantly, there was rarely a moment throughout this film where I didn’t have a smile on my face.

17. Nope
Like Jordan Peele’s previous films (Get Out and Us, both of which I love), Nope is another deeply layered horror film that also demands a second viewing. (I rewatched it with my dad–we both got much more out of the film that time.) But as we know, it takes a very entertaining first viewing to warrant one. And Peele is 3 for 3.

This film also contains the most disturbing sequence of any horror film I saw this year–you probably already know the scene I’m talking about: the one that takes us inside…well, if you don’t know, you’ll see when you see it (or see it again).

18. On the Count of Three
It’s gonna take a lot of analysis to get into why I endorse this film wholeheartedly, especially if you saw the Hulu ads and assumed that it’s a dark comedy about suicide. It’s much more than that. Trust me, I wouldn’t recommend the film there wasn’t a whole lot more to it. Director-star Jerrod Carmichael and his writing duo Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch knew exactly what they were doing and gave us a complex story about life and death. Available on Hulu.

19. Pearl
I wasn’t even that frightened of Mia Goth as Pearl in X because she was a frail old woman (who killed people)–and honestly, if I didn’t know that was her underneath all that old-person makeup in X, I would never have guessed. But here in this origin story, called Pearl, in which we see Mia Goth as a younger version of Pearl…yikes is she scary! I don’t think I’m ever gonna look at her smile the same way again (especially after that last shot…I’m gonna have nightmares about this film’s last shot!!).

It’s a performance that is determined to give a casual moviegoer chills and even the biggest fan of X shivers–and Mia Goth is giving it her all; I see her winning numerous awards for this complicated, multilayered role that she must’ve had a ton of fun playing at the same time.

Spoiler alert–X is on this list too; if this list wasn’t alphabetical, I’d include both X and Pearl as a tie.

20. Prey
All it takes is a change of scenery (in this case, Comanche territory in the 1700s) to get people invested in the Predator franchise again–and I dunno if this will actually happen, but I’d be down for a Predator-vs.-Samurai film too!

21. Smile
Another pleasant surprise in the horror category for 2022 in film, Parker Finn’s Smile is more than a cash-grab or a simple scarefest–it’s a unique, intriguing, disturbing, and yes, quite chilling commentary on people around you trying to force you to “smile” (i.e., be happy) while your inner demons continue to torment your every being. Good stuff here.

22. Soft & Quiet
If I Heard the Bells showed me a glimpse of heaven, then Soft & Quiet is like taking a 90-minute tour in hell. (This may have been the scariest film of the year for me due to its frank and realistic manner in which evil is personified.) But thanks to the ambiguous yet optimistic end of the film, we remember that no matter what horrific and inexcusable deeds are committed towards our neighbors here on earth (by other neighbors–in this case, neo-Nazi Karens), no one can get away with them.

23. TÁR
So what is TÁR? A cancel-culture fable? A ghost story? A riches-to-rags tale? A meditation of classical music? Well, the beauty of film is it can be whatever you want it to be. And with Todd Field’s amazing, haunting epic drama with a spectacular powerful performance from Cate Blanchett, I don’t mind pondering what it’s truly about as long as I’m still thinking about it. And I doubt I’ll forget it anytime soon.

24. Top Gun: Maverick
Well, THAT was awesome! There’s nothing I can say about this surprise-smash blockbuster sequel that no one else has said already–so I might as well move on.

25. X
With X and its prequel Pearl, filmmaker Ti West not only shows his versatility as a director but also outdoes himself with a new iconic horror franchise. While stylistically different, both films are wicked, darkly funny, blood-splattered, and chilling to the bone. And it began with X, the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to Pearl’s…”Wizard of Oz” (see, that’s how different they are–I love it), a horrific look at how dark and deep the hole of loneliness, old age, and repression can get…while giving us some multidimensional characters to see through it and some gory murders to see THEM through. What a wild ride. And I can’t wait to see “MaXXXine,” the new entry in the franchise.

Whew! This one was exhausting to make and it’s time to rest for a while. I can’t wait to see what treasures 2023 will deliver either on the big screen or on the streaming channels. However you see it, let’s enjoy it!

TÁR (2022)

20 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In the exceptional 2015 Steve Jobs biopic “Steve Jobs,” the most impactful line of dialogue aimed at the titular egomaniacal genius is as follows: “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.”

While that film ended with Jobs becoming a little more decent towards his family, friends, and colleagues, I believe the central character of “TÁR” would scoff and laugh at that very insight.

Meet Lydia Tár. She’s an amazingly gifted, wildly tenacious, world renowned classical music conductor. She’s also a caring (and very protective) mother, a passionate partner, a giver, and a major influence for many.

She is also a master manipulator, toxic, and extremely narcissistic–and a sexual predator.

Not that all of that is thrown at us at once. While the film opens with an extended sequence in which Tár is interviewed in front of a large audience in New York City, not everything is revealed to us. She tells New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik (played by actual New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik) simply what you would find on a Wikipedia article or an autobiography. (And indeed, Tár has one coming out soon–in the movie, not in real life.)

Side-note: We do get a hint of how superior and self-satisfied people like Tár and her fans feel about themselves when Gopnik, in his introduction about Tár, mentions that she is one of five “EGOT” (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners and everyone laughs at the mention of Mel Brooks as another.

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár, who is also about Lydia Tár and only Lydia Tár. Everyone else is a supporting character in her own personal story and she isn’t self-aware enough to realize her methods in the Berlin Philharmonic where she rehearses, in the home with her violinist wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) and adopted daughter (Mila Bogojevic), and in a Juilliard classroom where she teaches are questionable. Lydia is hiding things from Sharon, fiercely protective of her daughter to the point where she threatens a little girl for bullying her, and in one very impressive unbroken 10-15 minute take, she ridicules a Juilliard student for not taking an interest in Bach’s music because of his identity politics. She also seems to be grooming a Russian cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer) perhaps the same way in which she took interest in another protégé Krista before it advanced to something more that didn’t work out, leading to Lydia blacklisting her and ruining her musical career.

Even when Lydia asks her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) to remove any and all emails that mention Krista, it’s quite clear this is going to come back to get her. Her inability to handle certain things around her (which also include insomnia, sensitivity to sounds, and a neighbor who cares for a dying mother) only makes things worse, and when she doesn’t acknowledge flaws that could harm others, she digs herself a deeper hole.

I would have thought “TÁR” was based on a real person if you had told me, and I would have believed you. But no, this character is an original creation from writer-director Todd Field’s original screenplay, and it’s a remarkable character study made even more effectively disturbing in this post-#MeToo world, in which powerful people cannot get away with hurtful methods anymore. And without giving too much away, that is essentially what “TÁR” is about.

Cate Blanchett is nothing short of amazing in this role. She lives and breathes Lydia Tár. I don’t know if Blanchett trusted Field or if Field trusted Blanchett or if they had a great understanding together–but I can tell, in many of these long sequences in which Blanchett has to hold our attention in a single shot that goes on for several minutes at a time (such as the aforementioned 10-15 minute unbroken take), that Blanchett knows this character inside and out and both Field and his cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister are showing her (and in effect, showing us) the world of Lydia Tár.

And upon further research, apparently Cate Blanchett had to learn German and conduct an orchestra as well as re-learn to play the piano for the film. Her hard work has certainly paid off in this reviewer’s eyes, and I’d give her the Oscar and Indie Spirit right away.

Where this fascinating yet terrible individual’s life goes is intriguing and engrossing. (And as someone who doesn’t especially care for movies over 2.5 hours, and this one is two hours and 37 minutes, it should say something that I was never bored by this material.) “TÁR” both a character piece and a cautionary tale with an intelligent screenplay from Todd Field and a remarkably excellent leading performance from Cate Blanchett. The result is like a fine concerto of many and all emotions.

Hollywood Stargirl (2022)

14 Dec

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

“Hollywood Stargirl” is the sequel to Stargirl, a wonderful Disney+ film that came out in 2020 (and made my best-of-2020 list). And strangely, even though “Stargirl” was based on a book series (by Jerry Spinelli), “Hollywood Stargirl” is its own sequel to the film rather than an adaptation of the novel sequel.

I didn’t know how to take that. “Stargirl” (the movie) was made for Disney+ at a time when no one knew what Disney+ could become and there needed to be a lot of original content to start from. When I heard about “Hollywood Stargirl,” this sequel (which, again, is not based on the book “Love, Stargirl”), I assumed it was nothing more than pandering to a certain demographic.

Also, in the first movie, the Stargirl character herself didn’t interest me as much as her co-star Leo, who felt more genuine and real and likable (he was also the main character; Stargirl was more or less a Manic Pixie Dream Girl). But here, it’s all Stargirl and no Leo. My cynical mind asked: how good could it be?

I took a chance on “Hollywood Stargirl.” I saw it was still directed by Julia Hart and co-written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz, who not only made the first “Stargirl” movie but also three indie gems (Miss Stevens, Fast Color, and “I’m Your Woman”)–so I just had to know, would “Hollywood Stargirl” make this talented duo of Hart & Horowitz 5 for 5?

To my astonishment, yes. But how?

Well, for one thing, now that Stargirl is actually the lead character this time, they give her more time to develop, thus making her more human. Her genuine nature was hinted at in the first movie–but here, she’s shy, she’s uncertain, she’s not as confident as she likes to make others believe, and I’m able to accept it as this is what she’s like under different circumstances (such as moving to a new town, to LA no less, and finding ways to fit in with people who are just as strange as she is). I think it’s because she’s this unique that it makes it more believable that people would lower their defenses around her and even be a little happier in her presence. (It also helps that actress Grace VanderWaal’s acting has greatly improved–she shines here, and not just in a MPDG way.)

So what’s “Hollywood Stargirl” about, seeing as how it’s an original story and not based on “Love, Stargirl”? Stargirl and her mother (Judy Greer) move to LA when Mom gets a costuming job on a Hollywood movie set. (Go figure, Mom thinks working for a studio film sucks.) Stargirl quickly makes a friend in her neighbor Evan (Elijah Richardson), who hears her singing (Stargirl often sings her own renditions of classics such as “Love and Mercy” and “Make Your Own Kind of Music”) and decides she’s the perfect addition to his and his brother’s student film. At first, she’s reluctant, but then she gets in the spirit of hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show and gets others excited to join in, gosh darn it!

Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. Happy-go-lucky, sunny, and hopeful, even veering dangerously close to manipulative. It’s not as honest or fresh as the first movie (which I still highly recommend as a damn good teen film in an era filled with damn good teen films–and made by DISNEY, of all studios). But I accept this sequel’s tone for two key reasons–because this formula is done well and because we all could use some good sunniness every now and again.

But it could also be because I love movies in which people make movies or music–and in “Hollywood Stargirl,” they make both a movie (actually, it’s a “sizzle reel,” whatever that is) and music. (Oh I get it–Stargirl loves the song “Make Your Own Kind of Music” and now she’s making her own kind of music.)

Judd Hirsch co-stars as a grumpy neighbor who has a heart of gold and, wouldn’t you know it, lowers his defenses the more Stargirl connects with him. Uma Thurman also co-stars as a boozy reclusive singer-songwriter who recorded one album decades ago and disappeared since then–well, it turns out she’s a regular at the bar where Evan’s brother Tyrell works, Stargirl instantly recognizes her (she and her mom are fans of her album), and if she can get through to her stony facade, maybe…just maybe…she can help the kids out. And hey, maybe she could answer Stargirl’s question as to why she hasn’t recorded another album?

Am I making fun of this film? Maybe. But I’m doing it out of respect and admiration. I liked “Hollywood Stargirl”–I liked the characters, I liked the dreamlike portrayal of Southern California, and I like its mix of real-world credibility and sunny optimism. It’s more of an escapist entertainment than the first Stargirl movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But c’mon…couldn’t Leo have at least made a cameo in this movie? I liked Leo. Leo was me in high-school. Leo was my spirit animal. Leo got me through 2020. Am I exaggerating? Yes I am, but you get it.

“Hollywood Stargirl” is available on Disney+.

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood (2022)

13 Dec

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

I wasn’t especially fond of Richard Linklater’s previous film (“Where’d You Go, Bernadette”), and this new film was in the same rotoscope-animation style as a couple of his films that don’t do too much for me (“Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly”)–but could this new film win me over?

“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood “(I keep wanting to call it “A Space Age Boyhood” in reference to Linklater’s big hit “Boyhood”) is like a mix of “The Wonder Years” and Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”–in that a whole lot of it feels very real, though it’s very doubtful that this is totally autobiographical (but you know Tom Sawyer liked to stretch the truth).

How’s this for a conspiracy theory? NASA put a space module too small for grown-up astronauts and trained and sent a fourth-grade boy up to the moon in it. (Hey, I’ve heard crazier theories.)

“Apollo 10 1/2” is more about the memories of growing up as a child in that era, when the world was bleak due to the Vietnam War, racial tensions, assassinations, etc.–but the hopefuls looked to the future which promised a lot of optimism, beginning with the television vision of the first man walking on the lunar surface…..and it just happens to come from the point of view of a man (voiced by Jack Black) looking back at his childhood as the glory days–especially when he remembers being able to walk up on the moon before Neil Armstrong did. (Like I said, it’s a stretch–but it’s a story, not a conspiracy theory.)

And I appreciated it for being more of a modest memoir than a glorified space opera–one I’ll keep coming back to on Netflix every now and again.

Soft & Quiet (2022)

11 Dec

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

SPOILER WARNING! I don’t know how I can get through this review without revealing certain plot points that filmmaker Beth de Araujo most likely intended to keep quiet–out of respect, I’ll try to be subtle…but I can’t promise in succeeding.

They look like your typical average everyday sweet (and white) ladies–but try to get to know them a little more because they just might be hiding something…something very serious and evil despite their pleasant demeanor. They might just get together and have their own little meetings–but not for a book club.

Well, even if they did discuss their favorite literature, it’d set off many alarm bells to those outside of these meetings.

The first few minutes of the intriguing and effectively disturbing thriller “Soft & Quiet” set us up in a brilliantly deceptive fashion, as we meet a pleasant-looking elementary school teacher named Emily (Stefanie Estes). Emily is crying because of a home pregnancy test that turns out negative. Emily is accompanying one of her students as he waits for his mom after school. Emily tells the kid to stick up for himself, singling out the janitor whose mopping caused the kid to slip in the halls. Emily even lets the kid read an excerpt of a children’s book she’s writing. Emily seems great–and she’s on her way to some place with a foil-covered pie she made herself, to share with others at a meeting at a small local church.

Emily (and I’ll stop beginning sentences with “Emily”) meets with other seemingly well-adjusted women and presents her pie to share with them–and de Araujo stays on the homemade cherry pie as it is unwrapped to reveal that carved into the upper crust is…a swastika.

Yep, this is happening and it’s not a joke–it’s a meeting with a far-right women’s group called “Daughters of the Aryan Dynasty,” of which Emily is the leader. (Did I mention the school janitor Emily pointed the kid toward wasn’t white? The questionable look she gave upon passing them says something else now.) These white ladies sit in a circle and discuss what they hate about minorities, liberal agendas, BLM, and other things that irritate their shared bigotry. Just when you think you have an idea of who Emily is and who these people she’s meeting with are, the rug is pulled out from under us as we endure a terrifying 15-20 minute conversation about the things they cannot stand seeing in modern-day America–the things that are assisting people apart from themselves, they speak ill of, and in many different ways too. (Each member represents a type of white supremacy, like a legacy of the KKK and a racist boomer, among others.) They throw out racial, xenophobic, and homophobic slurs to each other like it’s no big deal. And it’s clear that Emily’s “children’s book” has a sinister agenda, revealing more about Emily than I’d like to know. (This woman is SCARY, the more layers are uncovered from her.)

And no, the church’s pastor is not welcoming of this group of monsters–in fact, when he gets Emily alone outside the room for a bit, his demands are clear: they all need to leave. Now. Like, right now.

We are 30 minutes into the film when Emily, hiding the confrontation from the others, adjourns the meeting early and invites everyone for a drink at her house. Well, great–now we can see what these terrible people are like in the real world they heavily criticized. I may foresee the very real possibility of them coming across that’s going to get them in a lot of trouble if they act the way they believe, but they do not, and so off we go. What follows is a truly disturbing portrait of neo-Nazi Karens putting themselves deeper and deeper into a horrid situation (that’s the turning point of the film) that doesn’t need to happen but they’ll let it happen because they are, to be frank, f***ing idiots who deserve every karmic thing she could possibly get coming to them.

As ecstatic as I would have been to actually see that karmic justice upon these awful human beings, I am thankful to see “Soft & Quiet” end on an ambiguous yet optimistic note that will all but assure us that nobody can get away with incidents like this. (And de Araujo, who wrote and directed, was inspired to make this film from the Central Park birdwatching incident–did that lady get away with that? NOPE.)

“Soft & Quiet” is set in real time, presenting an afternoon in the life of this horrible person that escalates into something that was definitely inevitable–the cinematographer, Greta Zozula (who also shot observant gems like “The Half of It” and “Never Goin’ Back”), stays with these people and shows us firsthand something more horrific and sadly real-world than your average horror film. (And even more impressive is its ability to look like one continuous shot, much like the Oscar-winning “Birdman” and Hitchcock’s “Rope.”)

The actors are so convincing that I may be terrified just watching another one of their performances–I may have to repeat the mantra, “They’re only actors,” to myself until I remember exactly that. That may sound like hyperbole, but that’s how credible and effective these actors are–not just Estes but also Olivia Luccardi as an overzealous punk radical and Jon Beavers as Emily’s pushover husband who is often the point of his own wife’s gay slurs. There’s also the aforementioned KKK-legacy who mentions her work in the neo-Nazi website stormfront: “The media loves to portray us as big scary monsters. Do I look that scary?”

Lady, you can look like the angel on top of a Christmas tree and I’ll still be terrified of you if you pull more stuff like this.

I Heard the Bells (2022)

8 Dec

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

For a debut feature film from a well-known theatre company (in this case, Sight & Sound Theatres, a faith-based company best known for huge-scale Bible-story productions), “I Heard the Bells” could have fooled me into thinking this was their fifth or tenth film. But seeing as how their stage productions are well-regarded for their outstanding (and expensive) resources, I shouldn’t be surprised by the grand theatrics thrown onto the screen (and countered toward the audience as a result–that’s a compliment, by the way) by director/co-writer Joshua Enck and his cast & crew (most of which have worked with Enck on many a S&S show).

Go figure, passionate artists put their heart and soul into a production and all the extra expenses go into something worthwhile. I’ll be intrigued to see other films from this same company.

Set in the early 1860s (and let me take a moment to mention the production & costume design to show the era are beautifully detailed), “I Heard the Bells” tells the story of the origin of the well-known poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s a story of a man who had his faith and his passion challenged before ultimately embracing both.

We begin with a warm, welcoming first act that may as well have been directed as part of a S&S stage show, as Longfellow (very well-played with vigor by Stephen Atherholt) celebrates Christmas 1860 with his loving wife Fanny (Rachel Day Hughes) and his five adoring children. After a wonderful moment of a family’s holiday gathering do we get something you don’t often succeed at achieving live on stage: a subtle change of emotions, well-suited for film and the silver screen, as we see the real human characters behind the theatrics. This is important to realize, especially when, as the story continues, we see this family is in for heavy emotional drama that threatens to tear them apart.

We learn that Longfellow has lost a daughter in the past (and will not allow his teenage son, Charley [Jonathan Blair], to enlist in the Union Army, lest he risk losing him too)–thus, we know this family has encountered tragedy already. How a family behaves in the face of tragedy is foundation for intriguing storytelling (and effective for parables to assist in real-life scenarios as well–most of them are based on real-life scenarios)–having not known the Longfellows’ story, I was all the more invested in how this family would adjust when something even more devastating occurs, thus causing Longfellow to lose all interest in writing, Charley to ultimately enlist and go to war, and then…well, I shouldn’t say any more, but seeing as this all results in an uplifting Christmas carol, you shouldn’t expect this film to end any way other than with a positive message.

And “I Heard the Bells” earns its resolution too. Because the filmmaking, acting, and time-period feel are all so effective and wonderfully-done, nothing feels too pat (which is often the downfall of many a faith-based production). This is a film made by people who are, yes, passionate about their beliefs but, most importantly, know how to tell a good story and keep an audience invested. They also give us a clear portrait of this poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his complicated feelings towards his own work, despite the positive impact it has on people–we learn that he was one of the best-known abolitionists of the time, writing poems to help free slaves of the South, thus possibly igniting his son’s drive in fighting for a cause; but we also get the feeling that he wishes he could do more. As he’ll come to learn, the right amount of carefully chosen words can make a great (and positive) impact on people.

(We also see more of that positive impact in a comedic moment late in the film, when Charley recites a poem to his fellow soldiers and a local bumpkin who would like to read more poetry.)

The cinematography from Steve Buckwalter is outstanding as well–an opening tracking one-shot that enters from the sky into a hole in the roof of a dilapidated church (where the steeple should be) where we see a dramatic image that speaks volumes for what we’re about to see set it up for me that this is a film made by people with all the resources and all the money (and they even built that church specifically for the film, from scratch!) put into something ultimately worth our viewing pleasure.

“We need poets to change the world,” Fanny tells his beloved husband Henry. “Not politicians.” That line of dialogue is essentially the thesis for the entire film. And thankfully, there’s no political agenda to tell us what we should feel in “I Heard the Bells”–simply a poetic one that shows us what we could. “I Heard the Bells” delivers the meaning of Christmas to those who might lose sight of it, and it’s a moving film that deeply reminded me of it.

Catherine Called Birdy (2022)

8 Dec

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

Here we have a coming-of-age story set in the Middle Ages. And why not? I don’t see enough such stories from that particular time period.

“Catherine Called Birdy,” based on the young-adult novel by Karen Cushman, is written and directed by Lena Dunham. 12 years ago, Lena Dunham presented a very strong, funny, endearing filmmaking effort in “Tiny Furniture”–12 years later, she had not one but TWO directorial follow-up feature films: “Sharp Stick” and “Catherine Called Birdy.”

It’s funny how “Sharp Stick” (a small, personal story about a young woman exploring sexuality) seemed right at home in the “Girls” star’s wheelhouse and yet felt so confused and unpleasant…and yet “Catherine Called Birdy,” which is set in the early 1200s and features a female protagonist younger than her usual demographic, is as intelligent as it is charming.

Bella Ramsey shines as 14-year-old Lady Catherine aka Birdy who has just become a woman, which is great news to her father (Andrew Scott) because now he can marry her off and repay his debts. (An example of the comic writing at hand: the father blames his debt on his wife [Billie Piper] for her expensive tastes.) Birdy of course has no interest in getting married and leaving childhood behind–but as she learns throughout the story, it’s not so easy making her way through a world that hardly seems interested in what women want to do.

Birdy knows what she doesn’t want, but she’s not entirely sure what she does want–thankfully, she’s not so precocious that she pretends to know the difference; she is still very young (and also accustomed to an aristocratic environment) and has a lot to learn about herself and the world around her…like most tween girls in the best modern-day coming-of-age films.

There’s a lot of comedy in this story, such as the witty voiceover narrations of Birdy as she continually writes in a diary and the outrageous antics Birdy finds herself succumbing to in an attempt to hold onto her individuality. And there are also some very on-the-nose pop songs on the soundtrack (including “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Girl on Fire”) that simultaneously cracked me up and made me wonder if I was watching a lost episode of “Drunk History” (or the movie “A Knight’s Tale”).

But the spirit of the setting rings true with authenticity and the characters are written and portrayed with such heart that it’s wonderful to keep up with them–unlike “The Little Hours” which comprised of one joke (Middle-Agey nuns spewing modern-day profanities) or “The Favourite” which tried almost too hard to be edgy and provocative, “Catherine Called Birdy” is crowd-pleasing while containing a genuine affection for its setting and characters.

“Catherine Called Birdy” not only reaches the heights of “Tiny Furniture,” but it may even surpass it as Lena Dunham’s best work to date. It’s truly wonderful.

“Catherine Called Birdy” is available on Amazon Prime.