The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

5 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Before I Wake (2018)

3 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cop Car (2015)

3 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man on the Moon (1999)

3 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s often said that humor is subjective—what one finds funny, another finds offensive and/or unforgivably stupid. The late entertainer Andy Kaufman knew this and kept alienating his audience in order to keep around the only people that understood his humor, as few as they may seem. He never liked to do things conventionally; he just liked to put on a show his own way. While some people would declare him a comic genius, others would refer to him as a crazed fool. “Man on the Moon,” the Andy Kaufman biopic created by director Milos Forman (“Amadeus”) and screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Kareszewski (“Ed Wood,” the Forman-directed “The People vs. Larry Flint”), is a wonderful film that illustrates the work of both the genius and the fool.

What aids the film throughout is not only the expert direction by Forman or the detailed script by Alexander & Kareszewski, but it’s the leading performance from Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman that keeps it alive. From beginning to end, Carrey disappears into the role of the late Kaufman and gives a great sense of what the man must have gone through in life. We may not always know what he was thinking, as we are kept out of the loop during much of Kaufman’s extreme antics. But that works in the film’s favor, as we’re supposed to be left wondering what Kaufman is thinking. What’s important is Carrey has some idea as to what he’s thinking for the duration of the film.

For those who don’t know, Andy Kaufman became popular for a comedic character he portrayed in the TV series “Taxi”: a foreign oddball named Latka Gravas. He was also known for doing unpredictable things, such as reading the entirety of “The Great Gatsby” at a college presentation, wrestling women in front of live audiences (which led to a feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler for making a mockery out of wrestling), and other antics that ticked many people off. His practical jokes got to the point where, when it seemed he was dying of lung cancer, hardly anyone believed it when he was sick or even after he had died. (You could say the film even argues at the end that Kaufman is still alive.) His untimely death in 1984 caused people to think back to his career and the insane performances he created. Back in his heyday, his popularity was minimal; nowadays, he’s hailed as a comedic master.

“Man on the Moon” is a slightly fictional biopic that chronicles the highlights of Andy Kaufman’s career. It begins with one of the most innovative prologues I’ve ever seen in any biopic, in which Carrey as Kaufman, using his Latka imitation, berates the movie before it even begins and even starts rolling the end credits after having cut out the entire film, which he describes as “full of baloney.” (But it turns out to be a prank to get rid of audience members who wouldn’t understand Kaufman.) Many biopics don’t have the courage to acknowledge that they made up a lot of material for dramatic purposes; this one just flat-out opens by declaring it isn’t to be taken too seriously.

As the movie continues, we see Kaufman performing on-stage at local bars, meeting agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito…strangely not reprising his role as Danny DeVito who co-starred with the actual Andy Kaufman in “Taxi” in real life), landing guest appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” getting a contract for “Taxi,” crafting a TV special that ABC executives turn down for being too different, and more. Oh, and there’s also Kaufman’s arch-nemesis: a loud, crass lounge singer named Tony Clifton. The less I say about him, the better…

The more we see of Kaufman’s performance on-stage with the public and off-stage with Shaprio, his writing partner (Paul Giamatti), and his lover (Courtney Love), the less we know about who Kaufman truly is. The best we can gather is that he’s a man who just wants to entertain people in his own ways, and it’s in the quieter moments of the film that we can figure that out, making the more outrageous moments even more telling. (I’ve seen this film about five times now, and I learn more from this character each time.)

Jim Carrey is this movie. He has the look and feel of Andy Kaufman, eerily so that I hardly see the actor in the performance. Carrey does tremendous work here, probably the best performance he’s ever given in a film. (Side-note: watch the Netflix documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” which features never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage about the making of “Man on the Moon.” It shows how deeply Carrey wanted to inhabit the character he was playing. It’s almost psychopathic, the way he attempted method acting here.)

“Man on the Moon” has some pacing issues, particularly toward the final act which feels somewhat rushed, which is unfortunate as we should be feeling more for Kaufman’s plight after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and people wondering if it’s yet another performance art. But it makes up for that with a clever ending and a reveal that I won’t dare give away here. Overall, “Man on the Moon” is a fun (but also deep) film about an entertainer that wanted to entertain, no matter who was part of his audience.

American History X (1998)

3 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a scene in Spike Lee’s 1989 racial drama “Do the Right Thing,” in which the black pizza-delivery boy Mookie confronts the white pizza-chef Pino about his racist remarks. Pino claims to hate African-Americans, and yet his favorite actor and his favorite basketball player (and possibly his favorite musician) are all dark-skinned. Mookie calls him out on it. How does Pino respond? “It’s different […] I mean, they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.”

We don’t know why racism is still around, and that scene illustrates the probability that maybe the racists themselves don’t know either. “To me, it’s different.” I can’t be the only one who sees Pino’s “defense” as nothing more than pathetic.

But because of that, we know Pino wouldn’t actually act out on his prejudice against other races, particularly black people. He just comes off as a big mouth. I want to smack him, but I’m not scared of him. I am, however, scared of dumb White Rage group members (of groups like the KKK or the skinheads) because they do act out their rage and try to justify their brutal actions towards members of different races.

“American History X” is a disturbing drama that provokes questions/thoughts about racial hatred and doesn’t try to answer most of them itself. It features characters that follow the hatred with blindness and don’t give a moment’s thought to the world around them (and by the time most of them do, it’s nearly too late).

Edward Norton turns in a powerful performance as Derek Vinyard, one of the most active members of a white supremacist movement in Venice Beach, secretly led by Cameron (Stacy Keach) who stays in the shadows to keep his record clean. Derek is an inspiration to his fellow hate-filled disciples, as he seems angrier and is more charismatic than the rest—they listen to whatever he says, just as he listens to what Cameron says. But one night, everything changes when he kills two black men who tried to steal his car and is arrested by police and thrown in prison for three years. While inside, he faces some harsh truths, the harshest one being, with all the roughnecks and lifers and make up his inmates, he’s the minority. When he’s released three years later, he’s a changed man and wants to present that to his family and friends, but it’s easier said than done, especially since many of his close ones now hail him as a hero for the night he was arrested…

There’s one scene that attempts to give some idea as to where Derek got his hatred (in a flashback to a family dinner scene in which his father (William Russ) declares his cynicism against minorities in town), but overall, the film isn’t about why prejudice is around—instead, it shows how it can harshly affect the lives of a man and his family and friends. And when a change of heart comes, the film shows that it isn’t easy to demonstrate it with mere apologies or simple actions.

I really have to credit director/cinematographer Tony Kaye (who, for the record, has disowned the film for being against his earlier vision) for the genuine, disturbing feel in the scenes that show pure anger. Many of them are hard to watch, such as when Derek argues with his mother (Beverly d’Angelo) and sister (Jennifer Lien) for bringing in a teacher (Elliot Gould) who not only disagrees with his way of thinking but is also Jewish. Many of these scenes (unfortunately) ring true and you feel the angry words that are coming out of Norton’s mouth. (But the problem with these scenes is the unnecessary amount of extremely tight close-up shots that distract from the moment rather than make us feel like we’re in the moment.)

The film is told in non-linear fashion, with past events (Derek’s rise to power, the dinner scene, the murder, Derek’s whole prison experience) presented to us in black-and-white. I would have preferred if these events were told chronologically. In giving us early present scenes from the perspective of Danny (Derek’s younger brother, played by Edward Furlong), we lose track of focus fairly quickly. Danny learning about his brother, whom he idolizes and whose footsteps he tries to follow, isn’t as interesting as Derek’s development. With that said, Derek is a completely developed character. We see what set him off, what his influence was to people, why other people feared him, and more importantly, we understand why his attitude changes and feel bad when it seems he can’t be a more positive influence to the same people he led in the movement. We know a lot about Derek; not so much about Danny or their anxious mother or their liberal sister or the fat man (Ethan Suplee) that joins the movement to get strength he can’t get elsewhere or Derek’s girlfriend (Fairuza Bulk) who simply follows her man or even the black high-school principal (Avery Brooks) that wants to help both Derek and Danny. (I would’ve liked to see a movie about what the principal has to go through.) All of the actors do serviceable jobs, but the entire film rests on the shoulders of Edward Norton.

It is true that Tony Kaye is not particularly a fan of this film (and even tried to credit himself as “Alan Smithee” and even “Humpty Dumpty”), and long since this film’s release in 1998, I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t speaking out as a publicity stunt. I understand where he’s coming from; I empathize with filmmakers whose original vision is altered by producers (and even, in this case, the lead actor himself Edward Norton, who had the script changed midway through shooting). But Kaye shouldn’t be too resentful of the film; after all, it has grown a cult following from people whose eyes were opened by the film’s power (and is also a topic of discussion for most film schools). “American History X” may have its small amount of problems, but it also has its considerable amount of raw power.

Maybe Pino should take a look at this film…

2017 Review

9 Jan

2017 Review

by Tanner Smith

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year—the critics’ year-end reviews! Some reviewers do it at the end of the year, while others (like me) wait until the year is over and the New Year has begun. I’ve had this blog since 2013, and I’ve done these year-end reviews since 2014…and I’m still not paid to do this sort of thing yet. (But hey, it could still happen…maybe.) Nonetheless, this is the time when I look back at the films I saw and pat myself on the back for acting like a true film critic.

This was a very surprising year for cinema, particularly mass-market entertainment. I think I enjoyed more blockbusters this past year than any other year—and I’m not kidding, wait until you see what’s on my list if you don’t believe me…or haven’t seen many movies in your local multiplex.

BUT before we get to the pleasant surprises, I of course have to begin this review with my least favorite films of the year. And because I’m still not getting paid to review movies yet, I wasn’t obligated to see the new Transformers movie or “The Mummy” or “The Emoji Movie” or insert-popularly-bad-movie-here. (Side-note: it’s not my intention to undermine those who do get paid to see every movie possible and review them, whether they be good or bad. I appreciate your devotion to your work.)

So, what DID I see that underwhelmed me severely?

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Rings—I had a little bit of hope for this unnecessary, late sequel to “The Ring,” a 2002 horror film I genuinely like. It acted like the dreadful “The Ring Two” didn’t exist; I’m hooked already. And it had a neat idea within the “story”: a college professor and his students find the cursed videotape and attempt to study it. But what’s done with it? Nada. A boring young couple watch the tape, try to find out about it, and find out stuff that…we already learned from “The Ring Two!” Well, isn’t that nice. The scares are weak, the conflict is uninteresting, and the ending—what the hell?

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Friend Request—I like “Unfriended.” This is not “Unfriended.” This is a supernatural cyber-thriller that is so unaware of itself that its “commentary” is made superficial when our main character’s Facebook Friend count drops in between scenes. I’m not even kidding; the Friend count pops up every now and then, to show that she’s being Unfriended. Because as we all know, that’s what’s important…right?

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Don’t Hang Up—The premise sounds fun; some dumb teens delight in prank-calling people, only to end up in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a devious caller that wants revenge for one of their pranks. But come on—there must have been a better way to handle it than with simple “scare” techniques, seemingly-magical killer’s intuition, and some of the more boring teenage characters you can find in a boring teen horror film.

I only truly disliked those three movies. But there are three other movies that made me feel…um, indifferent.

Beauty and the Beast—If you saw my “Top 100 Favorite Movies” post, you know I truly adore the Disney animated film “Beauty and the Beast.” This live-action version just seemed pointless, and while it certainly looked good, all I kept wondering is why I didn’t just watch the animated film again.

Cult of Chucky—Well, I will say that I enjoyed this Chucky movie more than many of the previous Chucky movies. But truth be told, I don’t find Chucky that interesting anymore. He’s just kind of a bore. He likes killing and he has an attitude…OK. At least he encounters some of his more interesting previous victims.

A Ghost Story—I just didn’t get it. I know many critics are praising this film as one of the best of the year, and I admire what director David Lowery attempted to do with this untraditional “ghost story.” But it just didn’t do anything for me, except cause me to wonder, “I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie.” But I dunno, maybe I need to see it again…

Goodbye, Christopher Robin—The story of the creation of Winnie the Pooh is an interesting one, and to be fair, this film gets some aspects right. But due to some awkward performances and an unsteady tone, “Goodbye. Christopher Robin” just didn’t grab me overall.

In Dubious Battle—I forgot I even watched this one, directed by James Franco. Thank God Franco delivered a much better film this year that made people take him seriously as a director.

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As with every year-end review on Smith’s Verdict, I’m going to mention the well-received films that I missed in 2017. But before I do that, I’m going to take a look at the films I missed in 2016 that I caught up with in 2017. They are: The Edge of Seventeen, A Monster Calls, Moonlight, and Pete’s Dragon. (Unfortunately, there are still about 8 other relevant 2016 films I still need to see, including the Oscar-nominated “Fences” and “Hidden Figures.” And for the record, both Moonlight and A Monster Calls would’ve made my Top-15-of-2016 list, as would have 20th Century Women and Southside With You, which just slipped by me until way later. Oops.)

But what films did I miss in 2017 that I will see sometime soon in 2018? I’m not including The Post or Phantom Thread, as those haven’t even been released near me yet. Instead, I’ll mention Battle of the Sexes, Blade Runner 2049, Brad’s Status, Call Me By Your Name, Detroit, Downsizing, The Florida Project, Gifted, Good Time, Molly’s Game, mother!, The Shape of Water, Thor: Ragnarok, Wind River.

As I’m writing this, half of these are already available on DVD and Blu-Ray, so I’ll make sure I check them out sooner or later.

Last year, I had two TV/VOD miniseries to talk about and give mentions as special as my favorite films of the year. This year, I’m glad to say that I’ve seen 5 miniseries/series-seasons that I believe deserve mention. So, here is my list of my Top 5 Favorite TV Series of 2017!

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5. A Series of Unfortunate Events—This 8-episode Netflix series based on the first four books of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” children’s book series was just a ton of fun. Neil Patrick Harris made for an entertaining Count Olaf, I enjoyed watching the young actors, and I especially laughed at how much it kidded itself with its style and humor even more so than the 2004 film adaptation starring Jim Carrey.

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4. Marvel’s The Defenders—It’s the Netflix answer to “The Avengers!” With Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist teaming up to put a stop to something twisted, “Marvel’s The Defenders” is a sometimes messy but overall entertaining action-adventure with likable characters. I’d even say I enjoyed Iron Fist more in this series than I did his own series.

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3. Stranger Things 2—One of the most anticipated entertainments of the year, and for me, it had only one disappointment: the much-berated Episode 7. It still had intriguing mystery, our favorite characters were back with some fresh, developing relationships, and once again, it had a neat callback to the ‘80s. I just hope that “Stranger Things 3” takes it easy on poor Will; he’s suffered more than enough already.

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2. Mr. Mercedes—Surprise! A show that isn’t on Netflix! I caught this 10-episode-long Stephen King adaptation on The Audience Channel and it riveted me from one episode to the other. It’s based on the first of a trilogy of King’s works surrounding a detective character named Bill Hodges, brilliantly played in the series by Brendan Gleeson. We also get a nice chilling turn from Harry Treadaway as the psychotic Brady Hartsfield, who challenges Hodges to figure out the clues to his sick games. Maybe someday, I’ll write a review for this by itself, because the more I write about it, the more I look forward to the sequel series (based on the continuing King book “Finders Keepers”).

And my favorite TV season of 2017 is…

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  1. Nirvanna the Band the Show—I already reviewed this hilarious Viceland series in detail, so you can read about my thoughts if you want to know more about it. Matt Johnson is one of my favorite filmmakers working today, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. He seems to have found his niche with this and his movies, and it’s a trademark that will do him well for future projects as well.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2017/05/26/nirvanna-the-band-the-show-viceland-series/

And now, we come to my personal favorite films of 2017. But first, here are some honorable mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Lego Batman Movie, Gerald’s Game, Super Dark Times, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, Psych: The Movie

Might As Well Mention These Too: The Devil’s Candy, Sleight, The Babysitter, Different Flowers, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Power Rangers, Alien: Covenant, Ridge Runners, Creep 2, Kong: Skull Island

Oh, and I Liked These Too: Okja, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, To the Bone, Burning Sands, 1922, Annabelle: Creation, XX

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One more mention I want to give is to a film called Big Sonia. This is a documentary about one of the last remaining Nazi Holocaust survivors, named Sonia, who goes to schools, radio stations and even prisons to tell the story of her imprisonment, her survival and the lessons it taught her in order to go through the rest of her life. It’s a heartwarming film that moved me deeply. (And because I saw it just recently, I’m not so sure where to place in the Top 20.)

And now, without any more ado, here are My Top 20 Favorite Films of 2017!

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  1. Wonder Woman—I mentioned that 2017 was a great year for mass-market entertainment, and “Wonder Woman” was definitely smarter and more amusing than I ever would have expected. I think DC finally understands that they don’t have to imitate Marvel in order to make a fun movie. They just needed to make a fun movie.

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  1. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)—No one makes dysfunctional family comedy-dramas quite like Noah Baumbach, and this one, available on Netflix, is on par with his most well-known film “The Squid and the Whale.” Adam Sandler deserves Best Supporting Actor consideration for his role in this film.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2017/11/20/the-meyerowitz-stories-new-and-selected-2017/

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  1. Wonder—This movie pleasantly surprised me. I thought it would be a standard, feel-good, after-school-special type of film that preaches to kids that they should look on the inside rather than judge by appearance. “Wonder” found a way to teach that lesson very effectively, by showing what nearly all of the characters go through instead of focus on one particular child. By doing that, the message is clearer than ever: there is no “ordinary.”

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2017/11/20/wonder-2017/

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  1. Coco—Not a great year for animation, but Disney/PIXAR has given us another winner the equally funny/heartfelt “Coco,” an enjoyable look at the Land of the Dead. The emotional climax of this film got me a little teary-eyed.

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  1. Logan—The Wolverine movie I was waiting for! This gritty, nasty, R-rated journey involving Hugh Jackman as the aging Wolverine and Patrick Stewart as the ailing Xavier had me riveted from beginning to end, for its action and for its drama. This is supposedly Hugh Jackman’s final appearance as the Marvel anti-hero; I’d say it’s a great swan song.

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  1. Dunkirk—Seeing this brutally intense WWII film on the biggest screen with the best surround-sound was quite an unforgettable experience. Director Christopher Nolan takes a step away from analytical dialogue for once and just proves with a powerful visual storyteller he can be.

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  1. Stronger—One of the most pleasant surprises of the year was David Gordon Green’s “Stronger,” a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a Boston Marathon Bombing victim that loses his legs and is hailed as a hero for identifying one of the bombers. The newfound fame overwhelms him, making it difficult for him to live his life. Gyllenhaal deserves Oscar consideration, as does Tatiana Maslany as his girlfriend that is hurting inside just seeing him hurt.

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  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—A few critics are already hailing this as the best film of the year. I admire it, I like it…I don’t like it as much as they do. But I see where the praise is coming from—the comedy and drama are very well-connected (when the characters aren’t merely spouting trigger words), the conflicts are strong and heavy, the character arcs are surprisingly complex, there are no easy answers, and Frances McDormand gives one of the best performances of her career.

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  1. Split—M. Night Shyamalan is back, baby! It’s the twist ending that kept me coming back to this film, made me look at the film in a whole new way, and made me like the film more and more with each viewing (and I’ve seen it about five times now). I’m still not going to give away the twist for those who still don’t know…but I will say I am excited to see Shyamalan’s next film. “Split” is scary, intriguing, chilling, well-made, and with a tremendous performance from James McAvoy, who sadly will be forgotten by the Academy this month.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2017/01/20/split-2017/

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  1. Baby Driver—Director Edgar Wright continues to do what he does best with “Baby Driver”: have fun with conventions, mix comedy and action together, and give us a hell of a good time. His trademarks continued with “Baby Driver,” a compelling, amusing action-adventure with a kick-ass soundtrack, a series of thrilling car chases, and probably one of the best (and most-deserved) death scenes I’ve seen in a long time.

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  1. Last Flag Flying—This one caught me totally off-guard. I didn’t know Richard Linklater, one of my favorite directors, even made a “spiritual sequel” to “The Last Detail,” one of my favorite films. But I saw it in a theater, and it is wonderful. It’s not a direct sequel to “The Last Detail” (though you can see similarities in characters from each film); it’s just more like a nice little road-trip with interesting people (in this case, they’re played by Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell as Vietnam War vets questioning the Iraq conflict in 2003 while burying Carell’s son who died in battle) talking about interesting topics. As a film on its own, it’s gripping.

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  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming—While most critics consider “Logan,” “Wonder Woman,” or “Thor: Ragnarok” as the best superhero film of 2017 (see, I told you 2017 was a great year for blockbusters), I immensely enjoyed the new “Spider-Man” reboot as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland is an immensely likable Peter Parker/Spider-Man, he’s given funny quips and situations to partake in, and the film is like the Spider-Man movie I was waiting for: a superhero movie about a boy struggling to maintain a social life while thinking he can handle bigger things outside of school. And if you read my review, you also know that I think this presents a great development for Iron Man too, as he becomes mentor to a kid who would otherwise be like him.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2017/11/20/spider-man-homecoming-2017/

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  1. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi—Fans are hating on it, and let them hate all they want; they’re not gonna get the movie they play in their heads. Instead, they’re gonna get something that’s as challenging as it is entertaining, and I admire this film for being just that. It’s this “Star Wars” movie that reminds me of why we need “Star Wars.”

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  1. War for the Planet of the Apes—Talk about a film I didn’t expect to like so much! As much as I admired “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” I was somewhat cynical about “War for the Planet of the Apes,” because I didn’t think it would go anywhere I wouldn’t see coming. But man, was I wrong. This is a great movie! It’s a powerful, emotional, gripping action-drama that denied conventions and provided plenty more substance than I would’ve ever expected. This “Planet of the Apes” prequel/reboot saved the best for last. And will somebody give Andy Serkis the Oscar recognition he deserves already?!

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  1. The Big Sick—My favorite romantic comedy to come out in a long time. I’ve often said in this blog that something more important than a comedy that can make you laugh is a comedy that can make you feel. “The Big Sick” both made me laugh and gave the feels, and the balance of comedy and drama works perfectly. This may be a career breakthrough for Kumail Nanjiani as well.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2017/11/20/the-big-sick-2017/

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  1. Lady Bird—If I were to make a list of the Best films of 2017, Greta Gerwig’s excellent directorial debut “Lady Bird” would’ve made the #2 slot. As my favorites, I put it at #5. But my appreciation for the film still exists, as a coming-of-age comedy-drama involving a Catholic schoolgirl just going through the ups and downs of senior year while dealing with a stressful home life… You know, I tried to explain this film to a friend soon after I saw it, and it sounded nothing like the film I saw. That’s because, while the film does have certain conventional elements in it, they’re treated in a way that seems like we haven’t seen them before. And I highly applaud Gerwig for that. A great performance by lead actress Saoirse Ronan deserves Oscar recognition, as does the editing, which is the best I’ve seen in any film all year.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2017/11/20/lady-bird-2017/

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  1. It—Stephen King had a banner year for his film adaptations (“Mr. Mercedes,” “Gerald’s Game,” “1922,” the much-maligned “Dark Tower” movie), and his most successful (in terms of critics and box-office numbers) is my favorite of the year, “It.” Very rarely do the scares work as effectively as the coming-of-age aspects in the same movie. Additionally, the young actors are all excellent as a group of kids terrorized by a shapeshifting clown that knows their deepest fears. This was labeled as “Chapter One”; I can’t wait for “Chapter Two.”

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2017/09/08/it-2017/

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  1. Spielberg—This HBO-released documentary about the life and career of my favorite filmmaker Steven Spielberg. I learned more about this man in a two-and-a-half-hour movie than I ever expected to after being a fan of his for years. This is the second year in a row in which I included a documentary about a filmmaker in my best-of list (the other being 2016’s “De Palma”); I wonder if there will be a “Scorsese” or a “Lucas” or a “Coppola” coming in 2018…

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2017/12/26/spielberg-2017/

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  1. The Disaster Artist—One of the best movies about moviemaking I’ve ever seen, and coming from an unlikely source: the making of one of the most laughably bad movies ever made, Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” James Franco directs the film and stars as Wiseau in a brilliant performance that shows us an enigmatic man with feelings and passion, even if some people just don’t get what he’s thinking (actually, a lot of people don’t know what he’s thinking). I had a blast watching this passionate, hilarious and even moving portrait about an attempt to make a name in show business.

And my favorite film of 2017 is…

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  1. Get Out—Most of you probably already knew this was coming, as I already included it in my “Top 100 Favorite Movies” post. I saw this in February, when it was released, and no other film came close to topping my list of 2017. I love “Get Out.” I love the mystery, I love the suspense, I love the comedy, I love the commentary, I love the drama, I love the script, I love the story, I love Jordan Peele’s direction, I love that I can learn something new each time I watch it (and I’ve watched it numerous times this year). If I thought 2016 was a great year for horror, I hadn’t seen anything yet. “Get Out” is better than every solid 2016 horror film combined (and there were some pretty great ones!). You get it already—I love “Get Out.” It’s everything I look for in suspenseful entertainment, and more. Nothing was going to come close to the experience I had watching it in a theater for the first time. And no other film made me more excited to learn more about it with subsequent viewings. And for all those reasons, “Get Out” was my favorite film of 2017 and is one of my top 100 favorite movies, period.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2017/02/24/get-out-2017/

Man, I love movies. I look forward to seeing what surprises come to theaters (or on Netflix) in 2018! Will there be a film I like more than “Get Out?” We shall see…

Heavyweights (Revised Review)

26 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yep, it’s “Revised Review” time again! And I would say it’s “Guilty Pleasure” time again, except I hold no guilt in liking “Heavyweights” whatsoever. It’s one of my childhood favorites, and when I wrote my mixed review (saying I liked it until the end), I thought I was telling myself I had outgrown the silly humor, the clichéd plot, the overdone stereotypical characters, and the conventional sports-movie ending. But I should’ve told myself, “Come on! You enjoy many parts of this movie, you love watching it every once in awhile, and even the ending isn’t that bad. At least give it three stars for being something you like!”

It is true; I do enjoy watching “Heavyweights” every once in awhile. I loved it as a kid and watched it over and over and over again, so much so that I had most of it memorized by the time I realized the clichés and the stereotypes and whatnot. Because of that, I thought I wasn’t supposed to cut it too much slack as a film critic. How silly I was, because while “Heavyweights” does have those familiar elements to it, there’s an edge that makes them more enjoyable than in something like “The Mighty Ducks” (which featured some of the same actors and crew members three years earlier). (Maybe since-accomplished Judd Apatow, providing one of his first screenwriter credits in his career by co-writing this movie, had something to do with that edge.)

So, because of that, I’m giving it three-and-a-half stars instead of three, because I just like “Heavyweights” that much!

The main character of “Heavyweights” is an 11-year-old overweight boy named Gerry (Aaron Schwartz). His parents send him, against his wishes, to a fat camp called Camp Hope, which is advertised to make overweight boys lose weight and have fun in the process. Gerry is bummed about it until he makes friends with his cabinmates, including Josh (Shaun Weiss) and Roy (Kenan Thompson in one of his early roles, just before Nickelodeon’s “All That”), who are not serious about losing weight. (They even hide food in secret compartments in their cabin.)

But before the first day at camp is even over is when the trouble starts. The friendly owners of the camp (played by Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller—I dunno, are they wasted cameos?) announce that their positions are taken over by self-assured fitness guru Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller), who is determined to make the kids lose weight quickly. Why? So he can make a quick buck with an infomercial about weight loss. He makes life at camp a living hell for the kids, and so the kids fight back and take control of the camp and their lives.

From this point forward, I would like to issue a SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen the movie before, check it out and then come back to read the rest of this review.

Everything builds up to an ultimate confrontation between Perkis and the kids (in which, in a neat little twist, Perkis’ parental issues come into play as he lashes out at the parents: “PARENTS! YOU’RE ALL THE CAUSE OF MY…THEIR PROBLEMS!”). But the movie continues with the kids earning their self-respect, going up against the athletic bullies from the camp across the lake (“Camp MVP”). This is what I complained about before, in my original review. But I really don’t have that much to complain about anymore. It’s dealt with quickly, isn’t boring, and it has its share of funny jokes here or there (such as when one of the jocks mistakes the Mona Lisa for Cher). Yeah, the big race is predictable. Yeah, the ultimate happy-ending is a bit much. But did I complain about the slow-clap at the end of one of my favorite movies, “Lucas”? No way. So why should I complain about this final act when, really, my problems with it are mere nitpicks?

This is what happens when a kid tries to become a serious film critic—he lets nitpicks of a silly, fun film get the better of him in a “serious review.”

“Heavyweights” is full of memorable, colorful characters, which is part of the reason I keep coming back to revisit the film. The kids are entertaining to watch and played by good comic actors, and the adults just have as much fun. Tom McGowen plays a good-natured counselor character named Pat, who is downgraded to janitor upon Perkis’ arrival because Perkis sees his weight as less of a motivator for the kids. Leah Lail is the attractive new nurse who becomes the apple of Pat’s eye; she doesn’t have as much to do as the rest of the cast in terms of humor, but she is likable enough. Paul Feig (yes, Paul Feig of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Bridesmaids” fame) scores a few laughs as a skinny counselor named Tim. And then there’s Ben Stiller as Tony Perkis and Tom Hodges as a buff, foreign counselor named Lars. Man, are these two lots of fun to watch—very funny and memorable at the same time. Stiller plays the part of Perkis with a few parts Fonzie and other parts Wayne from “Wayne’s World” and much original talent—a mixture that would fit him well for a similar role in “Dodgeball” nine years later. Even in the smallest comedic moments, such as when he jogs in the woods near his cabin, he’s wonderful. (“Come on, you devil log!” he exclaims as he stops to lift a log in his path.)

I mentioned that Judd Apatow, in the early stages of his career (which would lead to bigger and better things), is one of the writers of the film, and it actually makes sense. For what could have otherwise been a deplorable, standard summer-camp romp for Disney, Apatow gives the material a much-needed edge with a lot of witty one-liners, an awareness of itself, and colorful characters that don’t get dumbed down (for the most part). He and Paul Feig went on to create “Freaks and Geeks,” and honestly, I think I like “Heavyweights” almost as much as my favorite episodes of that series.

Yes, there are some things that are overdone. For example, there are some slapstick pratfalls that get more groans than laughs from me. And I guess it should bother me that the idea of satirizing the infomercial-weight-loss concept isn’t stretched out to its full potential (and accidentally treating the overweight kids as the problem, if you really think about it—none of the kids end up with serious pain as a result of the “system”). But I can’t sit here and let my original review of “Heavyweights” remain on smithsverdict.com without some redemption from me, a person that genuinely enjoys the movie and will probably watch it again now that I’ve talked about it some more. It even made it go out and buy the Blu-Ray, which has tons of bonus material about the making of the film, a commentary with cast & crew, an hour-and-a-half of deleted/extended scenes, and even more.

Any film that gets me excited about extensive bonus features on the Blu-Ray doesn’t deserve a mixed review.