Southside With You (2016)

8 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You” is a sweet romance about the most important of dates in any relationship: a first date. It may not seem so important while it’s happening, of course, but when there’s a second date and a third and maybe even a long-term committed relationship that comes from it. There may be other times that couples look back on with more fondness, but deep down, they know that “first date” was the most special time in their lives.

Set in 1989, “Southside With You” is about two young adults who work in a Chicago law firm. He’s a Harvard Law student working for the summer as an associate for the firm. And she’s his advisor, a hard-working young lawyer. He invites her to a community-organizing meeting, picks her up, and, well…it doesn’t start for a couple more hours, and he also invites her to see some exhibits at a local art center…and maybe get a bite to eat too. “This is not a date,” she informs him. “Until you say it is,” he assures her.

She’s not looking for a relationship with a coworker, particularly him. She’s black; he’s black; she’s concerned about what her coworkers might think. “How’s it gonna look if I start dating the first cute black guy who walks through the firm’s doors?” she says. “It would be tacky.”

His response? “You think I’m cute?”

Thus is the start of a will-they-or-won’t-they day in which these two brilliant, motivated, likable individuals get to know one another a little more and enjoy being in each other’s company. They spend the whole day talking about numerous topics, including art, family, empathy for others, idealisms, even “Good Times” (“DYNOMITE!”) and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (which they go see at a movie theater together). He learns there’s more to her than a highly-motivated young African-American woman who fights to be taken seriously at the firm, which is mostly dominated by older white men. After hearing him speak at the community meeting, she realizes his full potential as a public speaker. They realize qualities in one another that they truly admire.

And their conversations are fun and interesting to listen to, with dialogue written by Tanne, and they’re also wonderfully acted, by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. They both give immensely charming performances as two ambitious young people who might just be perfect for each other.

And just who are these two people, you may ask? Well, maybe if I share their names, you might have some idea as to who they are: Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama. That’s right—“Southside With You” is about the first date between the First Couple of 2008-2016 in the summer of 1989. But it’s not a political statement (though that’s not to say political affiliates won’t see it as such), nor may it be entirely factual (though I do wonder what the Obamas themselves think of this film), nor are there any obvious foreshadowing lines of dialogue such as, “Wow, Barack, you should go into politics!” (Not even a single “Yes We Can” is uttered once.) It’s first and foremost a romance; a first date between two charming, brilliant young people that may escalate into something more. (And it makes the film even more charming when you remember what happens with the characters’ real-life counterparts later on down the road.) And as such, it’s successful.

With a unique, nearly-perfect blend of hot-topic debates and emotional realizations of the past, all of which is shared between two interesting characters, “Southside With You” is a nice (albeit idealized) little romance that gives me a relationship about which I can care and by which I am intrigued. Even if it weren’t the future POTUS and his wife, I’d still follow these two. And that’s a high compliment to how well-realized they are. This is a sweet film.

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Antiquities (2019)

30 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“There’s a feature-length film that could be made with the material in ‘Antiquities.’” –an excerpt from my review of Daniel Campbell’s short film “Antiquities,” April 2013.

Here’s another: “Writer-director Daniel Campbell is obviously so intelligent a filmmaker that he’s able to get laughs by just everyday quirkiness […] it’s funny, and it has something to say about the oddities of everyday life.”

Can I just rewrite that as my closing thoughts for Campbell’s recently released feature-length adaptation?

I loved the short. It was very funny in how eccentric it could make its characters, particularly the awkward lead (played wonderfully by Jason Thompson), which made the elevating genuine sweetness all the more moving and weirdly profound. It was about an odd person gaining enough self-confidence to begin a different direction in life, despite the sometimes-intentional/otherwise-benign efforts of his equally quirky co-workers (including one particular a-hole named Blundale, played by Roger Scott) at an antique mall to hold him back.

So, needless to say, I was more than curious to see what the same writer-director (Daniel Campbell) could do with a feature. For one thing, I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t bring back the same eccentricities of the supporting characters from his short; for his feature, he introduces new eccentricities, by which maybe I shouldn’t be surprised (yet I am pleasantly surprised). Second thing is, whereas the short was about stepping outside of the image the protagonist was afflicted with, the feature is more about a modern-day everyman finding ways to relate to the eccentric people with whom he had acquainted himself. I had a feeling this would work, and it did. The feature version of “Antiquities,” of course given the same title as the short, is endearingly strange in the most identifiable way.

Having lost his father, a young man named Walt (Andrew J. West) moves back to his small Southern hometown to live with his cheerful aunt and uncle (Melanie Haynes and Jeff Bailey) and gain employment at the antique mall where his dad used to work. He’s a mild mannered kid who sincerely wants to step into his father’s shoes (both figuratively and literally; he wears his father’s old boots to work) and walk around and get acquainted with his old co-workers. In the process, he’ll learn more about his father, about the people he knew, about himself, and how people behave in the names of self-discovery and dealing with pain.

If you like indie “dramedies” with quirky supporting characters, you’ll get a kick out of the cast of eccentric folks here. Entire films could be made about the people who work at this antique mall, such as Blundale (Roger Scott, reprising his role from the original short, more or less), the sumbitch who, when he isn’t making his coworkers’ lives miserable, likes to stage Civil War battles to his own liking through dioramas; or Jimmy Lee (Graham Gordy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Campbell), the oddball whose booth resembles his childhood living room during Christmastime (and nothing in his booth is for sale); or Dolores Jr. (Michaela Watkins), the neurotic with self-image issues; or Dewey Ray (Troy Hogan), the general manager who is married to Blundale’s mother; or Delaney (Michael Gladis), a heavyset man who is more talk than action; or the shrink (Mary Steenburgen in two very funny scenes) whose parrot senses narcissism; or the obligatory Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Ellie (Ashley Greene), who behaves irrationally while also grieving the loss of her cherished brother. (An example of Ellie’s character: on a date with Walt, she sneaks them into a closed amusement park, tricks him onto a ride, and then turns it on while laughing maniacally… I can’t say I recall that happening to me, despite going out with quite a few loony ladies back in the day, but if it did, I probably wouldn’t want to hang out with her again.)

You get my point. But I will continue by saying that while I’m tired of seeing people like this in many recent indie flicks, it was this film that made me realize that I got tired of them because they didn’t feel like real people so much as writer’s constructs to maintain some type of identity. I could see people I knew in these characters; some of the time, I could even see myself in one or two of these characters. And that’s the key difference. You feel that these people are going through their own confusions in life, and while you may be initially be put off by some of them, you gain somewhat of an idea as to why they are the way they are. Even Ellie, who I was ready to brush off as too good to be true, became a more interesting character as the film progressed.

Oh, and Jason Thompson is in the feature too, although he doesn’t play the same role as in the short. I feel obligated to report that. (He plays Walt’s cousin.)

So, because the supporting cast is so memorably quirky, you’d think that Andrew J. West, as the Joe Blow protagonist, would seem bland by comparison. On the contrary. I think it’s because he was playing an everyman reacting to the oddness of these people that I kept chuckling at his facial expressions while also wondering what he might be thinking during those moments. (Or maybe it’s just that I would react the same way if I were in his shoes—er, “boots.”)

“Antiquities” is a delightfully observant comedy that taught me not to jump to any conclusions, whatever they might be. And if I may be even more honest here, just writing about those memorable characters made me want to see the film again. The film is available on demand (I rented it from Amazon Prime and I’ll probably purchase it in the near future); I highly recommend you check it out wherever you can, because “Antiquities” is a nice little treasure. It’s funny, and it has something to say about the oddities of everyday life.

(Wait, that sounded familiar…)

Revisiting: Midnight Special

5 Jan

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by Tanner Smith

Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”) had two films released in 2016: “Midnight Special” and “Loving.” I initially gave three-and-a-half stars to “Midnight Special” and gave it credit for being what it was even if it didn’t exactly leave so much of an impact on me upon first viewing. And I gave four stars (my highest rating) to “Loving” simply for being a well-made drama with excellent acting and a timeless message.

How many times have I seen “Loving” since its original theatrical release two years ago? Once.

Now, how many times have I seen “Midnight Special” since its original release? About eight or nine. Maybe ten.

There are movies that I know are great because all the right elements are in place (and I’ll give them credit for that, hence my four-star review of “Loving”)…but with a lot of those movies, I feel like as time goes on, I realize they hardly require more than a couple viewings because once I have the movie I expect to be great, there aren’t many surprises. As a result, I “admire” the movie more than I “like” it.”

Then there are movies that I don’t have many expectations for or that I hardly know anything about, and then I get pleasantly surprised by what’s presented to me. Maybe I won’t think much of it at first, but as time goes on, I’ll feel the urge to watch it again and learn something more the second time. Then, I think to myself there’s probably far more here for which I originally gave credit. More time goes on, and I watch the movie a few more times, and I don’t realize until later…it’s becoming one of my new favorite movies.

That kind of movie is so fascinating, especially when I think back to when I originally saw it for the first time. Movies like “The Dirties,” “Whiplash,” “Ruby Sparks,” “Tex,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “The Last Detail,” “Frances Ha”–all of these are among my favorite films now, and I wouldn’t have guessed upon first seeing them! They knew they were good…I didn’t know they’d become my faves!

My point is Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” gets better and better each time I see it. His previous films–“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” and “Mud”–are among my favorites, and I find myself thinking…I might actually like “Midnight Special” MORE than “Mud!” (And Midnight Special didn’t even make my best-films-of-2016 list!!)

“Midnight Special” is a sci-fi road-trip drama featuring two men who are on the run with a little boy (the son of one of the men) who seems to have special abilities. The government seeks him because he seems to possess secret information, the religious cult that held him and raised him want him back because they see him as a savior, and the boy’s father just wants to keep him safe.

“Midnight Special” was Nichols’ first studio achievement (making a film for Warner Bros.). And unlike many indie filmmakers who get their time to shine in the studio system, he was able to maintain final cut. (The budget needed for the production was small, so WB agreed to give him plenty of room.) Part of me doesn’t want to be so cynical as to how limited space directors are given when working in the mainstream…but another part of me truly appreciates the freedom that Nichols was given. At the very least, couldn’t you imagine the vagueness of this story’s execution thrown out the window for simple explanations? (At its worst, they probably would’ve had Adam Driver’s NSA character deliver every possible answer to each raised question, a la the psychiatrist’s deduction in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”)

What I love about “Midnight Special” is exactly that: its vagueness. There is development upon development upon development in this story, and none of it feels forced or tacked-on. It feels very well thought-out, and I admire Nichols for putting faith into his audience to stay with the oddness (and the realism added to the strange and unusual) all the way through to the end. Why is the boy wearing goggles? Why do his eyes glow? How is he able to do the things he does? How does he know what he knows? Why does the government want him so badly? What were the cult’s intentions? And so on. It’s a delight seeing this story unfold–instead of being angry for getting more questions than answers, I’m actually intrigued by what’s already happening in front of me. That’s a sign of great filmmaking (and it reminds me of why Nichols is one of my favorite filmmakers).

Even the characters are somewhat vague–we just know enough about why we should root for them and yet we have to fill in the blanks ourselves about what brought them here. That’s another thing I love about this movie: all the central characters–Roy (Michael Shannon), Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and Sevier (Adam Driver)–are so interesting and beautifully realized while still leaving much for me to think about with them. I don’t know if I have everything right involving their backgrounds or even their true intentions…but it’s fun to think about.

All of that leads to the ending, which confused many people (and most critics who somewhat resemble people) even more than when “10 Cloverfield Lane” ultimately gave its audience what it was secretly building up to. Like “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Midnight Special” ended its story with so much and yet so little at the same time.

Something else I love about this movie (and what I touched upon in the review originally) is the theme of parenthood. While the agents see this little boy as a weapon and the cult sees him as a savior, the heroes are the ones who want to look out for his wellbeing. And it’s during this journey that they have to ask themselves what truly is best for this special child. Even if Roy worries about him when he has no choice but to let him fulfill his destiny, he knows that’s part of being a parent as well.

However, that does lead me to my one little nitpick of the film. Alton’s mother, Sarah, reveals to Lucas in one line of dialogue that she was broken apart from the cult that raised him and that Roy couldn’t do anything but watch as the cult leader practically took him as his own. (This also indicates that Roy was part of the cult long before he met Sarah, and perhaps she ultimately didn’t belong.) “He watched another man raise Alton for two years–something I couldn’t even do.” She’s reunited with her son for less than 24 hours on this desperate trek when she realizes she may have to let him go. She’s the one to tell Roy that they all have to be ready to lose him… I don’t know if I buy her acceptance of that, considering she’s probably been leading a lonely life ever since she was separated from her son for two years. But still, that’s a minor nitpick I have with the film.

On a deeper level, “Midnight Special” is more than mainstream sci-fi entertainment. It’s a wonderful, brilliant film that deserves more credit than I originally gave it. Maybe someday, I’ll give “Midnight Special” the “Revised Review With Spoilers” treatment so that I can give a detailed analysis about what I think it all means, and thus, I can go into why I embrace this film wholeheartedly.

And maybe I should give Loving another viewing and “Revisit” it sometime soon…

Revisiting: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

4 Jan

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by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING!!!

What is the purpose of my “Revised Reviews”? To express new thoughts about a particular film that are different from what I initially had. That’s the beauty of continually watching films–while the films themselves don’t change, our attitudes toward them do. We can praise films for being great and then in good time they can become some of our favorites. Or we can think less of them as time goes by. My personal favorite type of film is one I think is “OK” or “fine” at first but then gets better and better with each viewing, to the point where I can call it a “favorite.”

This is probably why it was a mistake to publicly post about my Top 250 Favorite Movies. Maybe the Top 100 was enough. Creating the Next Top 150 only meant many other films wouldn’t slip in over time. (Hell, there may even be a couple films that could sneak into the Top 100 over time. See what I mean?)

Anyway, I gave three stars to a 2015 indie comedy-drama called “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” and now I’d give it three-and-a-half. This is after watching it countless times since it was released.

How many three-star reviews have I written for movies that eventually ended up on my personal-favorites list? I’ve lost count.

Seriously, there’s The Dirties, Gremlins, The Monster Squad, Dazed and Confused, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, among others, that I’ve initially rated a measly 3 stars out of 4.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” isn’t in my Top 250…but it might be in the Top 400 (if ever I make one…which I won’t…publicly…). But why?

While I praised the acting from the leads, the charming atmosphere, and the revealing bittersweet ending, I complained very much about two other things–I called them Excessive Comic Relief and Kind of Aware But Not Quite. For the former, I was referring to the side comedic characters (particularly those played by Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon) who seemed like they were there because there wasn’t enough comedy already given by the droll commentating lead character, his wisecracking best friend, their natural appeal & chemistry together, and especially the amateur home movies they make. (This is always my pet peeve in independent dramedies–a lot of them seem to have quirky side characters for the sake of…having quirky side characters.)

And yes, I’ve read the book this film is based on, written by Jesse Andrews who also penned the screenplay for this film adaptation. These characters work a little better in the book, but only slightly.

And for the latter, I was referring to the characters pointing out that they’re partaking in cliches that were done in other movies involving teenage friendships–just because you say you’re doing something doesn’t make it any different.

But I did mention a lot of the things that I did like about the film, hence the three-star recommendation. How was I supposed to know I would end up watching the film several times after, just for the things I really like about it?

What has grown on me with subsequent viewings? Well, for one, there’s the dialogue. I know I harped on a lot of the self-awareness of the characters, which much of the voiceover narration focuses upon, but when we actually get to see these kids as regular high-school kids, they sound very authentic (with a lot of intentionally awkward “uhs” and “ums” and stammers here or there) and have a lot to say. And as such, they’re not only likable–they’re real.

That’s another thing I like about the film: the lead characters are great! Greg (Thomas Mann) goes through a brilliant character arc in which he learns that he needs friendship in his life, and Earl (R.J. Cyler) knows he and Greg have been friends the whole time (even though Greg won’t acknowledge it) and ultimately becomes the one that has to talk sense to Greg. They make films and they go to high school, where they have very little social status, but they don’t take it all so seriously. And the more I watch the film, the more I realize how unserious they are in their filmmaking…and when you think about all the pretentious analyses we get from filmmakers and film scholars, especially from the indie film circuit nowadays, seeing these kids treat their films this way makes me smile.

Then there’s Rachel (Olivia Cooke), the titular dying girl. Critics complained that she’s more of an “idea” than a “person,” much like the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope…THAT’S THE IDEA! We’re not supposed to know the real her–we’re supposed to get an idea of her: Greg’s idea. That way, when Greg realizes there’s so much more he could’ve known about her, it’s all the more tragic.

And I also like that it’s a film about friendship. It’s a film about a teenage boy and girl who form a relationship, but at no point are the two romantically linked. Maybe they could’ve been, if they had taken the time to get to know each other more and decided to take another risky step further. But then again, maybe they would’ve been fine as just friends. That’s not something you would expect in your average teen film, but there you are–this is not your average teen film. It’s better than that.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl got high honors at the Sundance Film Festival; it’s a shame it didn’t get higher praise for Oscar season (like Best Adapted Screenplay?). And for good reason–despite the heavy subject material of an awkward boy befriending a cancer-patient girl, the story is told effectively with useful benefits, instead of resorting to melodrama. It takes realistic characters and forces them to ask questions about themselves–about what they must go through at this crossroads in life, how they must react when someone is in turmoil, how useful they can be in certain situations, etc. and so on.

And the more times I watch this film, the more I think about THAT rather than the things I complain about.

To conclude, I also love this dialogue exchange, after Greg and Earl are accidentally stoned (don’t ask): GREG: You can’t tell them we’re on drugs. EARL: Why not? (pause) GREG: Because then they’ll know.

That line (“Because then they’ll know.”) makes me cry with laughter each time I hear it.

2018 Review

31 Dec

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2018 Review

by Tanner Smith

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The time I refer to is when critics (even amateur ones like myself, who don’t get screeners in advance) get to look back on the whole year and sum up which films they liked the most. I always like to read those lists from other critics, particularly from pros like Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times, James Berardinelli of Reelviews, and Chris Stuckmann of YouTube. And I always like to make one for myself every year. But this year, I’ve come to a realization…

These lists are kind of pointless.

I love to make them each year. And I loved making my Top 100 Favorite Movies post back in November 2017 and my Next Top 150 Favorite Movies post just a few months ago. But what did I realize in the time since making both of those lists? It’s that while movies don’t change, our attitudes toward them do. Making a Top 250 list of my favorite movies and announcing it publicly on smithsverdict.com maybe wasn’t the smart choice because there are always going to be other movies that will find a special place in my heart after a certain number of viewings…especially ones that make me wonder why I didn’t initially place them in my year-end lists.

For example, in my 2015 Review, The Stanford Prison Experiment and Spotlight were two of of the Honorable Mentions for my Best-of-2015 list. Now, they’re two of my top 200 personal favorite movies.

See what I mean?

But I think the reason people like to make these year-end lists, and also why I like to make them too, is because they capture how we feel in the moment, especially when we want to celebrate the best movies the year had to offer us. We may think differently of certain ones after repeated viewings, but in the moment, it feels like there’s nothing stronger.

Why continue to stall? I’m going to make this year-end Review anyway. And I’ll probably keep making them for years to come. So let’s do this…

As I always do with these year-end Reviews, I’ll begin the 2018 Review with my least favorite films of the year. And, because I don’t willingly seek out films that have gotten overwhelmingly bad reputations (well…except The Cloverfield Paradox, which snuck up on everyone and disappointed them; but come on, I liked that film), I actually didn’t “hate” any film this year. However, I was disappointed by and gave mixed reviews to a few films I did check out this year. What were those? These are them, in alphabetical order:

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  • The 15:17 to Paris—This was based on an incident in which a small group of people prevented a terrorist attack from occurring, and director Clint Eastwood, in reenacting the event, got the actual heroes to relive the moment. A film with good intentions, to be sure. But the script tries too hard to stretch out moments that take place before the fateful train ride and emphasize that something big is coming in these people’s lives. A documentary about the making of this film would be more interesting.

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  • Josie—Eric (Contracted) England’s neo-noir slow-burn thriller contained good acting (from Sophie Turner and Dylan McDermott) and occasional strong moments of drama and suspense. But it just wasn’t enough to enthrall me overall. (Watch me warm up to it with repeated viewings, the same way I did with A Ghost Story, which I ended up giving a positive review long after a mention in this similar list in the 2017 Review.)

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  • Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom—This one was actually pretty close to being named my worst pick of the year, because it just wasn’t what I wanted from a “Jurassic” movie. (I’d even argue that it ended where it should have begun.) But there were a few moments in it that kept me calling it anything other than a mere disappointment than an overall-bad flick.

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  • The Kindergarten Teacher—A lot of critics really liked this one…I thought it was creepier than I think it was going for. (And no, I didn’t see the original Israeli film it was based on.)

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  • The Nutcracker and the Four Realms—Would somebody tell Disney that not everything has to be an unnecessary forgetful action-adventure version of something we’re familiar with? I think most of us already have, and Disney is just not listening.

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  • A Wrinkle in Time—Ava Duvernay’s Disney bomb had quite a few winning emotional moments and some uniquely visually pleasing scenes…in between many awkwardly acted scenes with an annoying Reese Witherspoon, an irritating Mindy Kaling, and an overly self-indulgent Oprah Winfrey (who spends half of her role as a giantess—the jokes write themselves).

I won’t mention The Open House, the much-maligned Netflix horror film, because…I only saw that one while listening to Chris Stuckmann & John Flickinger’s mocking commentary over it. So, it doesn’t count. (Side-note: that commentary is one of the more entertaining things I’ve seen this year.)

So, there you go. Nothing I hated this year. And last year, there were three films I hated. Either I made wise decisions to skip certain movies or I’m just too impressionable by the 97 films I did see.

Yes, 97!! I know most critics see over a hundred films per year. But I’m doing this on my own time, so I’m proud of myself for at least seeing more films this year than I did any other year. But there were still a few that I missed (and would still like to see in the future), and those are: Bumblebee, First Man, The Hate U Give, If Beale Street Could Talk, Mary Poppins Returns, Shoplifters, Sicario II, Vice, What They Had, Widows, and You Were Never Really Here

But what about the ones I missed before making my 2017 Review? Did I catch up on any of those? Yes, quite a few: Battle of the Sexes, Brad’s Status, Call Me By Your Name (which I reviewed), Downsizing, Gifted, Molly’s Game, The Shape of Water, Thor: Ragnarok (which ended up on my Next Top 150 Favorite Movies list), and Wind River. Those were among the films I listed in my 2017 Review that I would have liked to see. But what about the ones that surprised me that were originally released in 2017 and I caught up with in 2018? Do I even need to say it’s I, Tonya? Nope—because who doesn’t love that film? Other pleasant surprises were Columbus, Brigsby Bear, and Happy Death Day.

There’s another list I want to bring up before I go into my favorite films of 2018. Last year, I had seen 5 TV/VOD series-seasons, and I acknowledged them all because I thought it was impressive that a diehard movie buff like me would take the time to check out these lengthy stories. How many did I see this year? Five, again! And one of them wasn’t Jessica Jones: Season 2…why haven’t I watched that yet?? Whatever, let’s do it: My Top 5 Favorite TV Series of 2018!

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  1. MST3K: The Gauntlet—They had me at “Mac & Me.” That’s all I’ll say.

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  1. The Sinner: Season 2—I watched the first few episodes of this season with my parents while visiting them once…the next time I visited, I wanted to watch the rest. The Sinner: Season 2 was a uniquely chilling and riveting series that made me want to check out Season 1.

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  1. American Vandal: Season 2—Just before seeing Season 2, my fiancée and I checked out American Vandal: Season 1. I was utterly surprised to find that this mockumentary series about a high-school prank gone wrong (done in the style of popular true-crime series) was not only humorous but also very insightful in its depiction of underachieving high-school students. And Season 2, which goes even bigger with its concept (and is also very “meta” about that as well), is every bit as funny and deep.

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  1. Mr. Mercedes: Season 2—I rewatched Mr. Mercedes: Season 1 (which I placed at #2 in this similar list last year) before checking out Season 2; I liked it even better the second time. Maybe that will happen with Season 2…I certainly hope so, because the season finale STILL has me perplexed!

And my favorite TV season of 2018 is…

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Oh, you already know what it is even without knowing what I willingly seek out in terms of series-seasons. It’s The Haunting of Hill House—I love it for the same reasons everyone else loves it: it’s a horror series with as much emotion and drama as horror and tension. Its creator, Mike Flanagan (whose films I’ve highly recommended on this blog), knows how to balance the terror and drama perfectly. That it’s based on the same source material as my personal favorite horror film (“The Haunting”) is a definite plus. This may actually be my favorite film of the year…a very lengthy film at that. But I have to be consistent and talk about my favorite “films” of 2018. So, I’ll be fair. (And maybe someday, I’ll write a full review for this wonderful series.)

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And now, we come to my most personal favorite films of 2018. But first, some honorable mentions…actually, let’s scratch out the “some” and replace it with “23” honorable mentions because I just can’t help myself: A Quiet Place, Incredibles 2, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Private Life, Ben is Back, BlacKkKlansman, Deadpool 2, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Filmworker, Before I Wake, The Favourite, Annihilation, Skate Kitchen, Green Book, Hold the Dark, Hereditary, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Crazy Rich Asians, Creed II, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Bohemian Rhapsody, Overlord, and Love, Simon.

But if you know me, you know I can’t stop there. Other films I really liked this year included, in alphabetical order: 22 July, American Animals, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Blaze, Borg vs. McEnroe, Chappaquiddick, The Cloverfield Paradox (no regrets), The Death of Stalin, Dumplin’, The Endless, Entanglement, Game Night, Hearts Beat Loud, Isle of Dogs, Juliet Naked, The Land of Steady Habits, Mandy, Mowgli, The Mule, The Old Man & the Gun, Outside In, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Ready Player One, A Simple Favor, Summer of 84, Tully, Unsane, and We the Animals 

And, I might as well mention these too: 6 Balloons, Alex Strangelove, Cam, Christopher Robin, Halloween, I Can Only Imagine, Kodachrome, Measure of a Man, New Year New You, Nothing to Hide, The Ritual, Solo, Sorry to Bother You, Support the Girls, Thoroughbreds, and Unfriended: Dark Web

 Now…which 20 films did I enjoy more than those? Let’s do this: these are my Top 20 Favorite Films of 2018!

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  1. Avengers: Infinity War—The Marvel Cinematic Universe Avengers movie we’ve all been waiting for…while eagerly waiting for the NEXT MCU Avengers movie coming in just a few months from now! It’s amazing how far the MCU has come in the 10 years since it started. No one suspected it would become of the most popular movie franchises in history, but here we are. And Avengers: Infinity War gave us exactly what we wanted: a high-octane, 150-minute-long thrill ride that ended with more gasps than we anticipated. Like everyone else who went along for the ride, I can’t wait for Endgame.

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  1. First Reformed—One of the most riveting films of the year, Paul Schrader’s mesmerizing drama about faith being challenged also featured one of the best performances of the year, from Ethan Hawke as a small-church pastor who goes through an odd series of events that forces him to question his faith. Where he goes from there is as emotional as it is convincing. And the ending…whoa.

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  1. Mission: Impossible—Fallout—The “Mission: Impossible” film series has gotten better and better, but I don’t think they can top Fallout, the sixth entry in the franchise. This was an astounding action film; probably the best James Bond movie that didn’t feature James Bond. If it’s anything other than pure adrenaline, I’ll still take it. It’s that impressive.

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  1. Can You Ever Forgive Me?—Marielle Heller’s tightly directed biopic about a failed author (played brilliantly by Melissa McCarthy) who finds other ways to make a living is funny, insightful, and brilliant all at the same time. It effectively blends comedy and drama without distraction.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/05/can-you-ever-forgive-me-2018/

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  1. Paddington 2—The best family film of the year, no question about it. This movie about a cuddly talking bear practically demands you to love it…and I did. If not for the bear, if not for Hugh Grant’s comedically magnificent performance, if not for the antics the bear gets into…then just see it because it’s charming and cute.

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  1. A Star is Born—This is everyone’s choice for the Oscars (whose nominations are soon to be announced), and I don’t blame them. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut not only showed everyone that Cooper could direct and sing (we already knew he could act), but it also showed them that he could do it extraordinarily well. Just as impressive is Lady Gaga, who is heart-meltingly good.

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  1. Free Solo—I saw quite a few documentaries this year (some more of which will appear in the rest of this list), and one of the most invigorating was Free Solo, a film about a man who risks his life to give it more excitement and meaning, by free-climbing hundred-foot rock faces while leading up to the ultimate climb El Capitan. Even though I knew he’d survive (if he didn’t, this would be a snuff film), that didn’t mean my heart didn’t reach out to this guy in his rough attempts.

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  1. Searching—I saw this mystery-thriller twice in theaters within the same week (I don’t normally do that); it was even more fun the second time. Knowing the twists in the story from the first viewing and still having a great time the second viewing is a major compliment for a film like this. Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/28/searching-2018/

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  1. Blindspotting—Hard-hitting and soul-shaking, but also funny and energetic, this film is practically ingenious in the way it takes horrific subject matter and inserts some satirical biting comedy into it while also being brutally honest about it. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal co-wrote and co-starred in this film, and they deserve all the recognition they can get for it.

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  1. Wildlife—This was one of two films I saw this year that made me cry. I couldn’t help it. It was powerfully acted and wonderfully executed, and when it reached a boiling point late in the film, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the central characters. This was actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut (he also co-wrote the script with his long-time girlfriend Zoe Kazan); I can’t wait to see what else he does in this field. Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/19/wildlife-2018/

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  1. Lean on Pete—Lean on Pete was not only one of my favorite films of 2018; it also had my favorite film protagonist of 2018. And that was 15-year-old Charley (played wonderfully by Charlie Plummer), a kid who keeps on in life despite all the rough goings he continues to come across. This is more than the typical boy-and-his-horse story you might expect upon hearing about the film—you’re making a big mistake if you expect something less deep than what you get. Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/07/13/lean-on-pete-2018/

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  1. A 3-way tie between Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Whitney, and Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind—All three of these films are biographical documentaries centered around late talents (Fred Rogers, Whitney Houston, and Robin Williams) who took on the entertainment business and won, creating unforgettable legacies that can be treasured through films like these. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is obviously the best known of the three, but the other two deserve attention as well.

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  1. Boy Erased—I don’t have enough kind words to say about this highly effective drama from Joel Edgerton. It does right what so many Oscar-bait dramas of this sort do wrong. Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/22/boy-erased-2018/

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  1. Roma—I caught Alfonso Cuaron’s 2-hour-plus slice-of-life drama on Netflix just as everyone went crazy over it, and at first…I didn’t see what the big deal was. The first hour or so isn’t particularly investing, but the remaining hour or so was so powerful it made me realize the necessity of the time leading up to it. This is a quietly effective portrait of how little things in life can affect us deeply. Will I watch it as many times as Cuaron’s similarly themed Y Tu Mama Tambien (#27 on my Top 100 Favorite Movies list)? Time will tell.

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  1. The Tale—The Oscars are probably going to ignore Laura Dern’s amazing performance in this HBO-released drama because…it’s HBO-released. Well, last year, they recognized Netflix-released films as…films. So, I guess there’s a first time for everything. But anyway, Laura Dern gave one of the best performances of the year in one of the most powerfully disturbing films of the year, and it deserves to be seen and admired. Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/12/08/the-tale-2018/

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  1. Leave No Trace—This film, directed by Debra Granik (who previously made Winter’s Bone 8 years ago), is simply wonderful. With excellent acting, gorgeous cinematography, an emotional center, and very few words, this film managed to get across themes of isolation, family, breaking away, and other mature themes…all while maintaining a PG rating. (Remember when that rating actually meant something other than “Practically G”?) And I sincerely hope this jump-starts the career of young up-and-comer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who deserves an Oscar nomination for her work here. Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/19/leave-no-trace-2018/

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  1. Eighth Grade—The one critically acclaimed I didn’t want to see this year turned out to be one of my favorites. Yes, it reminded me of the uneasy, awkward times of junior high. But it also reminded me of the good, pleasant times (at least by comparison) that made the experience not entirely miserable. As a result, this film about the last week of eighth grade for a socially inept girl (played very well by Elsie Fisher) is effective without being depressing or cloying. Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/19/eighth-grade-2018/

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  1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—I was the guy who gave four stars to both Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” and Marc Webb’s reboot “The Amazing Spider-Man,” simply because I’m such a fan of the web-slinging Marvel superhero that I’ll ever so highly appreciate pretty much any new Spider-Man movie that “feels” right. Maybe I was overexcited, even though I do enjoy both Spider-Man movies. And I’ll stand by my praise for last year’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (which I gave three-and-a-half stars even from the start). But I gave four stars to Into the Spider-Verse, the new animated take on Spider-Man, and I’m calling it my third favorite film of 2018…and I’m fairly certain I’ll stand by it as time goes by. This was a ton of fun and I look forward to seeing it again very soon. It may be the Spider-Man movie that I’ve been waiting for all this time. Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/12/22/spider-man-into-the-spider-verse-2018/

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  1. Black Panther—Avengers: Infinity War may have been the MCU movie we wanted, but Black Panther was probably the MCU movie we needed. It was one of the biggest hits of the year for that very reason. Perhaps it was overhyped as the year went on since its February release date. But I don’t care. The film we got turned out to be one of my personal favorite MCU movies, right up there with “Iron Man” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” This was more than your typical superhero movie—it asked tough questions and didn’t have easy answers; the characters were better developed, especially the villain; and the non-action scenes were just about as compelling as the action sequences. It’s as simple as this: I freaking LOVED this film. Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/08/18/black-panther-2018/

For a long time, Black Panther was my favorite film of the year. Every time I saw a new emotionally gripping film, like The Tale or Won’t You Be My Neighbor? or Leave No Trace, I would think “This is my favorite film of the year”…and then, time would pass, and I would keep going back to Black Panther. So, I had to think long and hard before making my ultimate decision for #1. And what did it turn out to be?

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  1. Three Identical Strangers—I hear a fictional cinematic retelling is being told of the story this excellent documentary is centered on. I’m not entirely sure that’s a good idea, because this true-life story is so unbelievable that only a documentary (or a written memoir) could help convince audiences that this really happened. And within the first few minutes of Three Identical Strangers, which combined both interviews and dramatic reenactments to present this extraordinarily fascinating story of three triplets who met for the first time at age 19, I was hooked and ready to see what the rest of the documentary had to offer. I was thoroughly impressed from start to finish, but more importantly, I was emotionally invested. I felt for these people while I was also fascinated by their true story about how they met and where their lives went from there. It reminded me that sometimes, documentaries can give me richer characters and more compelling situations than most fictional stories, because truth can be stranger than fiction. I loved this film wholeheartedly. It’s wonderfully made, had numerous twists and turns that kept me intrigued, contained memorable characters in real-life people, and also might have provoked more discussion than any other film I’ve seen all year. And for that reason, plus many more, Three Identical Strangers is my favorite film of 2018.

Man, I love this time of year! See you in 2019!

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

22 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve liked more Spider-Man movies than I’ve disliked them. I like Sam Raimi’s 2002 smash-hit “Spider-Man.” I thought “Spider-Man 2” was even better (and I gave it four stars because hey Roger Ebert did so that was OK…eh, if I’m being honest, I’d still give it four stars if I re-reviewed it). And I really liked “Spider-Man: Homecoming” last year, after “Captain America: Civil War” brought the web-slinging hero into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Oh, and there’s also Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” to which I immediately gave four stars after seeing it twice in theaters in the summer of 2012…maybe I was hoping it would go in a better direction than it ended up into to justify the rating. (THAT Spider-Man movie, I’ll write a Revised Review about.) And the less said about “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the better…

Oh, whatever, let’s talk about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which is hands-down the best Spider-Man movie yet! (And I will NOT hesitate in giving it four stars, because I also think it’s one of the best films of the year. It’s definitely one of my favorites of the year.)

This Spider-Man movie has it all. The pathos. The humor. The fun. The excitement. Everything that most Spider-Man fans look for in a Spider-Man movie, it’s here. Nothing more, nothing less, and God bless America!

Sorry, sorry, let me collect myself before continuing…

OK, I’m back. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a wonderful comic-book film. It’s strange and unusual, which adds to the highly effective dramatic elements that help elevate the story material and the necessary comedic aspects, while also paying homage to previous versions of the Marvel-Comics superhero so that it can move on with a different story. Some parts parody the formula, other parts are adding to it, and overall, it’s an affectionate respect to the hero we know and love.

And did I mention it’s also animated? As in, they take advantage of every clever visual touch that could be added to a great Spider-Man story, right down to the exclamation word bubbles lifted from a comic book to pop onto the screen? Do I need to mention that it’s visually pleasing as a result? Do I need to? It’s just the icing on top of the cake.

Our hero is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore, the talented young actor from 2015’s “Dope”). He’s a bright but awkward teenaged boy who’s just been transferred to a private school that his stern policeman father (Bryan Tyree Henry) is forcing him to attend. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, and this stuffy school isn’t helping anything. His life changes, however, when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider one night. This of course gives him super spidey-sense and web-slinging abilities that make for one awkward situation after another until he comes across the costumed hero himself, Spider-Man (Chris Pine). Unfortunately, the humongous, psychotic Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) comes along and kills Spider-Man/Peter Parker, but not before Spidey’s final words to Miles are to stop Kingpin from destroying the world with his dimension-jumping device that could doom the city. Sound weird? It gets even weirder as Miles comes across…Spider-Man. Huh?

Actually, this is an alternate version of Spider-Man/Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson). He’s heavier built, his origin story is slightly different, and he’s cynical and heartbroken after being Spider-Man was too much for him. He’s been brought here due to a malfunction in the dimension machine, which seems to have brought out other versions of Spider-Man, such as Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), anime heroine Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and even Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Together, they team up to stop Kingpin’s insane plan and also help Miles control his powers so that he can take up the slack of this dimension’s new Spider-Man and keep New York City safe.

Admittedly, the story contains so much material, and yet it doesn’t feel overstuffed. There is a lot to absorb, and the right amount of time is taken to let the audience take in what they are seeing right in front of them. The things that are important are given the most focus, and everything else thankfully doesn’t feel like filler—they’re here to further aid the film’s delightfully witty and fun tone. And the best part is while a hardcore comic-book fan can admire the directions “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” takes, a casual fan can still watch it, admire it, and enjoy the ride.

The movie is a total blast, and the comedy, action, and drama all blend beautifully to make for one hell of an entertaining experience. And I think because it’s animated, it’s allowed to take more chances than it could have if it were live-action. Or maybe it would’ve worked fine if it were live-action. Either way, I’m perfectly content with what I got, because “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a ton of fun that I can’t wait to return to in the near future.

Green Book (2018)

21 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Even when we know almost exactly what we’re going to get in a particular movie, we still embrace it because it gives us what we want AND need. And that’s the case with “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s road-trip comedy-drama about race relations in the 1960s. We all know race relations were troublesome in that era (and some will argue they’re not at their strongest nowadays, either—but let’s not go there), and so, we know more or less what we’re going to get from this movie about a white tough-guy chauffeur/bodyguard (from the Bronx) who is hired by a black sophisticated pianist (who lives right above Carnegie Hall, literally) to travel through the Midwest and the Deep South for a two-month tour. We know these two are going to bicker and argue for a good portion of the trip before letting down their defenses and getting to know one another better. And we know they’re going to encounter a good deal of racism (some of which is “polite” racism from good-natured Southern folks, but it’s still racism). We know there’s going to be a big blow-up moment between the two in which one reveals something about themselves that changes everything. And we know they’re going to become friends.

Well, we do get all of that in “Green Book.” But…so what? Just because we have a pretty good idea of how things are going to turn out for the most part, that doesn’t make the movie any less good, powerful, or endearing. And that’s all that “Green Book” becomes: a lovely, sentimental road movie with two interesting characters and something to say about where we were then and where we are now.

Based on a true friendship between Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and Don Shirley, “Green Book” takes place in the last couple months of 1962, as bouncer/enforcer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), who earns the nickname by being able to talk himself out of almost any tight spot, is hired to drive the renowned pianist Doc Shirley (Mahershala Ali) of the Don Shirley Trio through the Midwest before going into the Deep South. Assisting Tony is “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook that lists the state-by-state locations that will serve black travelers.

We get an “Odd Couple” sort of relationship between Lip and Doc, as Lip is more abrasive, outgoing, and a real wiseass, whereas Doc is more reserved, the straight man to Lip’s antics. And what also makes things complicated is Lip’s deep-rooted racism, as established in an early moment when he throws away two glasses used by two black repairmen after his wife serves them drinks. But he needs the work, and the job to drive this black man around pays well, so he knows he has to do what he has to do. It’s his story being told in “Green Book” (which is also co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of the real-life Tony Lip), and so it’s important that the audience understand how his development from ignorance into tolerance comes to be, especially since we all know it’s inevitable. (And I’m not just saying that because the real-life story Lip and Doc remained friends to their dying days, shortly within each other, which is pretty interesting and cool—I’m mostly saying it because we know the change is predictable in this type of story.) Thankfully, the development is not only convincing; it’s welcoming in ways that I didn’t expect. There’s not a moment in this progression that feels rushed; it feels natural and real, and we welcome the changes in Lip’s worldview.

“Green Book” was directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, who is still best-known as one half of the Farrelly brothers who were responsible for such outrageous raunchy comedies as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.” I’m glad he can remind us any good filmmaker can make any type of movie, no matter what their reputation. But also, while he knows to capture the weight of the heavier situations that are definite for his protagonists to come across (such as the Southern “gentleman” who is glad to let the Don Shirley Trio play in his mansion…as long as Doc doesn’t use his bathroom), he also knows to lighten the mood with comedic moments, such as when Lip stops for Kentucky Fried Chicken (in Kentucky!) and practically begs Doc to try some after he admits he’s never tried it before, and especially when Doc helps Lip in writing letters to his loving wife (Linda Cardellini, underused but still effective)…letters that are written better than what Lip could have come up with, to say the least. And yet the comedy doesn’t feel forced; most of it comes from the characters being themselves and interacting with each other, and thus when their working relationship elevates into trusting friendship, we understand how it happened.

All of that is well and good, but there is one very important element that makes “Green Book” worth recommending and seeing again: the acting. The acting from both Viggo Mortensen as Lip and Mahershala Ali as Doc is unbelievably excellent. If we didn’t buy their performances for even a slight moment, the whole film would’ve fallen apart real fast. (And I don’t think I’m exaggerating in that remark.) I look at Ali and I don’t see the stonefaced drug dealer he portrayed in his Oscar-winning performance in “Moonlight”; I see someone 100% different, the reserved, suave, cultured Dr. Don Shirley, who keeps his nose in the air and his demons wrapped tight inside himself. He’s great, but it’s not really his story being told here. Instead, it’s the story of Tony Lip, played by Mortensen, who has delivered many a strong performance in his busy career…and I think this one might be his best. He has a credible New York accent and he’s gained a lot of weight for the role, but the attitude he brings to the character is what makes him very interesting. His ability to talk his way out of anything plus his violent temper proves to be both a blessing and a curse, and it’s when Tony Lip realizes both aspects that his character starts to go through a fascinating change. I’m sincerely hoping for an Oscar nomination for Mortensen in this role, because he deserves it.

“Green Book” as a film isn’t very subtle, as most of the characters’ journey is painted in broad strokes. But the performances are excellent and what make the film the treasure that it is. They help make the inspirational true-story aspects all the more effective, and as a result, “Green Book” is a predictable winner but a winner nonetheless.