Archive | August, 2014

Streetwise (1985)

24 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The first shot of Martin Bell’s documentary “Streetwise” is a medium-shot of a teenage boy named Rat, drenched with water and staring off into space deep in thought. It’s followed by a faraway shot of him climbing up a side-rail on a bridge and then jumping off. The camera follows his 50-foot plunge into a river. Over this is his narration:

“I love to fly. It’s just, you’re alone in peace and quiet and nothing around you but clear, blue sky. No one to hassle you, no one to tell you where to go or what to do. The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the f*cking world.”

This sets the underlying grim tone for the whole film “Streetwise,” which is a documentary about young street people in Seattle—streetwise teenagers and young adults who lead empty lives. Most of them are homeless. Most of them are con artists. Most of them are seen roaming the busy streets of Seattle, begging for spare change. Some are prostitutes; others, pimps. It’s hard to tell which is worse—that most of them are more or less content with their freedom or that hardly anyone is helping them.

Take Erin (a.k.a. Tiny), for example. She’s a 14-year-old prostitute who cons herself into calling her clients “dates.” She sees her mother every now and then, mostly to borrow money or makeup. But the mother just figures that Tiny’s prostitution is “just a phase she’s going through.” When stating this in the film, she doesn’t seem at all concerned that Tiny might develop an STD or become pregnant by any of these “dates.” And get this—there’s even a moment in which she tells her daughter not to bug her. Why? “I’m drinkin’.”

Then there’s Dewayne, a 16-year-old beggar/thief as well as a drug addict. He doesn’t get any help from his father because he’s in jail. He does wish he was around to look out for him.

Rat, short, 17, and a loudmouth, has no help either. He lives with an older man, Jack, in an abandoned hotel and has about the same daily routines as Dewayne with no guidance, no help, and not much to care for when he finally hops a train to leave the city, which he constantly talks about with his girlfriend, Tiny, who doesn’t want him to leave.

Then there’s Shellie, a 16-year-old blonde prostitute. In probably the most upsetting moment in the film, she has an argument with her mother about what her perverted stepfather did to her when she was little and didn’t know what he was doing. Shellie sounds sad and miserable just talking about it. What is her mother’s response? “Yeah, but he doesn’t do it anymore.”

These are only four of the kids that are the subject of “Streetwise,” one of the most heartbreaking films about troubled youth that I have ever seen. This was based on a 1983 Life magazine article on a group of the homeless and/or abandoned children who roam the streets and become hookers, beggars, thieves, squatters, dealers, junkies, and hustlers. The film came about as an extension of that, as writer Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark team up with director Martin Bell to first gain the trust of many of these kids for weeks, and then bring in their cameras to film their routines, eavesdrop on conversations, and explore the usual flophouses, abandoned buildings, and mean streets that these kids spend most of their days in. We even see how one of them (Rat) manages to get food for free through a trick. He orders a pizza with an odd choice of topping on it, then waits for a while until it’s tossed in a dumpster, so it’s there waiting for him.

These are not all bad kids. They know their ways of getting by, they’re tough enough to manage, they look out for each other since no one else will (one prostitute’s income even pays for the clothes of another streetwise girl), and yes they break the law, but how many legal ways are there for young people to use to care for themselves on the street?

Something I have to wonder about this film is, is any of this staged? There are many moments that are shot and edited like a “real” film, as if these people don’t notice the cameras on them or around them. Do they really want to say what they say, particularly Tiny’s mother when she tells Tiny not to bug her because she’s drinking? Or what about when Tiny breaks down during a tender moment with Rat—I sort of wondered why she didn’t just turn to the camera and ask the people around to go away? Or what about when Dewayne visits his father in prison? It plays kind of like a parody of estranged father-son relationship, as if the father is telling Dewayne what he wants people to hear. But then again, that’s probably what he wants Dewayne to hear too, which actually says a lot considering the other parents you see in this film!

However it was all done, it doesn’t make the finished product “Streetwise” any less effective. At its most tragic is in its ending when we attend the funeral of one of the kids…and it’s so empty. Only a few people, such as the deceased boy’s father, a few social workers, and some strangers, attended the funeral; not even his closest streetwise friends came to mourn. What’s worse is that even though this is a solid example showing the scenario of these kids’ lives, nothing changes after this death. After the funeral scenes, we see these kids one last time, going through their usual procedures. It says a lot about some of their futures.

NOTE: It’s worth noting that Rat and Tiny have made it out of this lifestyle since this film was released in 1985. According to Wikipedia, Rat is married with children and has grandchildren, and Tiny (I’ll just call her Erin Blackwell now) has gotten worse as time went on, until cleaning up and settling down in the mid-2000s with a husband. Another (Lulu, whom I’m sorry I forgot to mention is an 18-year-old angry lesbian who gets involved in the wellbeing of some of these kids in the film, and seen as somewhat heroic) is sadly stabbed to death soon after the film’s release.

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Boyhood (2014)

23 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of following characters through real time. I think that’s why I enjoy Michael Apted’s “7-Up” documentary series, because each film, released every seven years, shows the same people as they progressed since we last saw them. Richard Linklater did kind of the same with his “Before” trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight”), following fictional characters through real time (in this case, 18 years with nine years between each film). But with “Boyhood,” Linklater has taken that concept quite a step further. He has made a film that shows moments from the life of a boy growing into a man over the course of twelve years. How did Linklater do this? By getting his core cast together once every year for 12 years. It’s not exactly like “Hoop Dreams,” the documentary that followed the lives of two young men closely for about six years—each year, Linklater and his cast & crew get together and make a short film, and when it’s finished, it’s all compiled into one big epic to create the ultimate slice-of-life; a chronological coming-of-age tale showing the life of a young man from age 6 to 18.

By making it like this, the actors are allowed to develop their portrayals of the characters as they age. We get to watch these actors grow up on screen and it changes the way we look at this film in a sense of knowing it’s the same actor playing the same character rather than having different actors play the same character from time to time in most movies.

“Boyhood” is a great film and is already being hailed as a masterpiece and a landmark film, and thankfully it’s not a gimmick film where its background history makes it great. I’m not sure what all I can say about it that no one else has already, but I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s start with the actors and characters. Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter) play siblings Mason and Samantha. Mason is first seen as a typical, curious-minded little boy who constantly fights with his sister who is a precocious little brat. We follow these two children over the next decade as they grow and mature as events in their lives slowly shape up their future. We see them do what most young people do as they grow up—discover the opposite sex, experience heartbreak, try some drugs, drink alcohol. By the end of the film, when they’re both in college, Mason is a thoughtful, good-hearted college freshman and Samantha is a self-assured young woman, and they both know the feeling of freedom, having moved out of their mother’s house.

But we’re also treated with professional actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette who also play characters that grow. Arquette plays Mason and Samantha’s single mother, Olivia, whom they live with. Olivia is struggling to make ends meet and trying to keep a social life intact while also carrying the huge responsibility of motherhood while the kids’ father, Mason Sr. (Hawke), is away in Alaska following some dream. (At least, that’s what Olivia and her mother tell the kids—for all we know, Mason Sr. could be in jail or they just didn’t want him around at this time; it’s like when your parents tell you, when you’re a little kid, how they “sent your dog to live on a farm.”) We get to see Olivia come of age in this film as well—she will marry and divorce a second time, explore new romantic relationships, struggle with finances, go back to school, finally get a job she likes, and ultimately find herself. When you first see her, she is a somewhat bitter young woman who isn’t all that proud to be a parent; that becomes clear when she has to call off a date because of Mason and Samantha at home—she states out loud that she’d like nothing better to do than to go out and have fun. By the end of the film, she tries to stay connected to her children and resents the fact that they’ll both be leaving.

Mason Sr. is in these kids’ lives as well, seeing them on every other weekend and during summers. At first, he’s the typical absentee father with big ambitions that make him sound like he’s just full of it (and he has a kick-ass car which he will have to sell later on, to Mason’s disappointment). He’s in a band and likes to spew some B.S. life lessons (wait ‘til you hear his philosophy when he takes Mason and Samantha bowling), but over the course of the film, he does become a better person and even settles down with a new wife and kid while still staying connected to Mason and Samantha whom he still loves.

Hawke and Arquette each give some of the best performances of their careers (Arquette, in particular, deserves Best-Supporting-Actress consideration come wintertime), but it’s amazing how these two unprofessional child actors, Coltrane and Linklater, were able to remain in character all these years even as they go through their own growing-up in their own real lives.

Things happen in this film that don’t always pay off because that’s the way life is. Sometimes it is random; mostly it is pivotal; other times it’s essential; and so on. And “Boyhood” is very successful at showing these moments in the lives of these people, particularly Mason (hence the title suggesting his coming of age). People come in and out of their lives and we don’t hear back from a few of them; one day they’re interested in one thing but indifferent about it later; etc. I think the only time “Boyhood” comes close to semi-typical melodrama is when Olivia’s second husband, an alcoholic, loses his temper at the dinner table and pushes Mason, Samantha, and his own two kids around when Olivia leaves for a while. (That dinner-table scene is almost laughable, but it’s not very long.) Soon after, he isn’t seen again after Olivia and the kids have left him. Where did he go? What will become of the other kids? Will they be put in a foster home if the alcoholic is reported unfit for parental care? Life just goes on like that.

“Boyhood” is a simple, universal story, told through Mason’s eyes, that is so easy to relate to. I felt like I knew this kid or even was this kid, and I definitely felt like I knew those around him. That’s why it moved me so much. As time goes on, as the film continues in its nearly-three-hour running time, it’s very, very important that the growth and coming-of-age of this kid and his family are shown. Not only did I see them grow; I wanted to know what was going to happen to them for another 12 years. “Boyhood” is an ambitious project that absolutely paid off, and it’s by far one of the best films of 2014.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

13 Aug

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

“Muppets Most Wanted” is the latest in the re-invigorated Muppet franchise, following 2011’s “The Muppets” which welcomed Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fonzie, and others back after years in limbo, and I wouldn’t mind getting more of these every few years or so. “Muppets Most Wanted” is more enjoyable than the 2011 film and about as charming as that and the best Muppet movies. It’s cute, funny, and giddily engaging; fun for kids and adults, particularly those who share fond nostalgia for the Muppets.

“Muppets Most Wanted” has what you expect from a Muppet movie—the Muppets, songs, a quick pace, visual gags, suitable humor, and lots of brief cameos. The story is a take on the spy-movie genre and the mistaken-identity concept, as it turns out there’s a criminal on the loose who resembles Kermit the Frog in every way except for a mole on his cheek. This is Constantine, who has escaped from a maximum security Gulag and has a plan in mind. His plan is to kidnap Kermit, sticks a fake mole on his cheek to remove his identity, and replaces him as Kermit is thrown into the Gulag. Constantine, disguised as Kermit, fools the other Muppets (barely) as they embark on their world tour. The world tour is a ruse for Constantine and his sidekick Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who acts as the Muppets’ manager, to steal as many valuable objects as possible before reaching to carry out a plan to steal England’s Crown Jewels.

Meanwhile, Kermit is locked inside the Gulag with no way of escape, as it is run by a crazed stage-obsessed dominatrix (played by Tina Fey, sporting a Russian accent) who winds up falling in love with Kermit…weird. Somehow he has to either break out of prison or patiently wait for his friends to figure out what’s happened and come and save him.

The story for “Muppets Most Wanted” is the least interesting element, but I guess you don’t see these movies for the stories because they’re equally unexceptional. This one doesn’t even make much sense (for example, why would the bad guy use lots of money to bribe newspaper reporters to write positive reviews for the shows while he’s also stealing lots of money and valuables during the shows?). What makes it fun to watch is the quick humor, which is kid-friendly but adults can laugh at it too. There are funny lines, funny visuals, funny use of cameos (for example, who doesn’t love to watch Danny Trejo, as a rough prisoner, sing a solo in “A Chorus Line?”), and a very funny subplot involving Sam Eagle’s CIA agent teaming up with Ty Burrell’s Pink Panther-like French detective and going through the usual buddy-movie situations. Watching these two together makes me laugh each time they showed up again. I hope they return together again in the next Muppet film.

I know that may be vague in explaining the comedic elements in this review, but one of the downsides to reviewing a comedy is omitting references to what’s funny, so that audiences can see and laugh for themselves. I can’t even go into the musical numbers, except to say that they’re purposefully overdone for us to laugh at.

It’s good to see these familiar faces again, and the Muppet performers do great jobs at supplying voiceover work for them (though I’m still a little thrown off when I hear the new voice given to Miss Piggy). They make these likable, appealing, funny puppets come to life. And speaking of which, it’s about time Kermit stands up to Miss Piggy who is too quick to be in love with him. (You’ll see.)

Ricky Gervais gets the least funny material to work with, despite one funny musical number in which he dances while acknowledging he’s only a sidekick to a frog. Ty Burrell is funny, as I said. Tina Fey, as the crazed Gulag warden, is freaking hilarious! I could listen to her yell with that over-the-top Russian accent for hours.

“Muppets Most Wanted” is as good as the other good Muppet movies. There’s enough to laugh at, even more to smile at, and it makes for an enjoyable, cute comedy to go see.

The Book of Lambs: The 48-Hour Film Project (Short FIlm)

11 Aug

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

I grew up a member of a Baptist church, and one of the things I and other high-school kids back then were required to do on occasional trips was go door to door in suburban neighborhoods and spread the Word while delivering pamphlets. I remember me and my friends appreciating what we were doing but often worrying that the next house we visited would be “the wrong one.” “The Book of Lambs,” Joshua Harrison’s entry for the 2014 Little Rock 48-Hour Film Project, takes that fear a step further, and I think that’s why it appealed to me right away. Here, we have two Christian boys going about their route to spread the Word…and then suddenly get mixed up in an exorcism! That is a terrific premise brought to life in an inventive seven-minute dark-comedy that was shot and edited for competition in just 48 hours.

Most of the action takes place in a rural home, where our two main characters, young Christian men named Isaiah and Jeremiah (heh), expect to either 1) carry through their mission, or 2) have the door slammed in their faces immediately. But instead, the boys (played by Harrison Tanner Dean and co-writer Matt Maguire) find themselves pulled into a truly bizarre situation they didn’t expect: a group exorcism for a demon-possessed woman in an upstairs bedroom. They’re reluctant but don’t have much choice, as their Christian beliefs can help save the day.

Or, as unorthodox Father Ray (Mark Johnson) puts it, “Let’s go drop a Cosby sweater on the devil!”

There’s a lot thrown into this short film, including a pagan journal, odd characters in masks (to be fair, I don’t think the main characters, including Father Ray, know what they’re doing here either), a laid-back exorcist (played by Bob Boaz) whose payoff is hilarious, and a very funny montage (with opera music playing over it) that involves numerous attempts to defeat the demon (I love the bit where one of the boys takes time for a few “selfies”). It all makes for a funny short that makes me wonder what the writing process for this would have been like for director Harrison and his co-writers, Maguire and John Schol. The night they wrote this script, they must’ve had silly grins on their faces. And the day they filmed it, I’m willing to bet they let the actors improvise, because they seem to enjoy themselves here too. And the night and following day they edited it…I imagine most of them were probably very tired after staying awake for nearly 48 hours. (Hey, that’s how it goes.)

“The Book of Lambs” is an absurd story, yet it’s fun and enjoyable. And I can tell this is a film made by people who must have had fun making it. That makes up for the short’s technical faults. I mean, it’s edited nicely and shot well enough, but the audio recording can be particularly distracting for the most part. But when I’m smiling, I don’t care that much about that.

Oh, and I need to give Harrison’s 48-Hr team, Team Bearshark, props for creativity from the very beginning. For those who aren’t familiar with the 48-Hour Film Project, it begins with a kickoff that has each team draw a random genre to work with (conceive, shoot, and edit) for the following 48 hours. They drew a “wild” card, which for them was “animal film.” What did they do? Where do “animals” fit in? Oh…just watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lUBheBxScs

NOTE: “The Book of Lambs” received two awards at the 48-Hr 2014 Awards Ceremony: Best Directing and Runner-Up for Best Film.