Archive | November, 2018

Searching (2018)

28 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are people who will compare “Searching” to “Unfriended,” because they share the same gimmick of setting a movie entirely within the confines of a mobile device. Well…almost. “Unfriended” (and another similar film, “The Den”) kept the focus coming from one computer screen and mostly in real time. “Searching” tells its story through various forms of media—laptop screens, cellphone screens, public news footage, YouTube videos, hidden-camera surveillance footage, even GPS. If nothing in the story for “Searching” can be recorded in any way, shape or form, then it didn’t happen. “Searching” utilizes just about every modern convenience imaginable to tell its story, and thankfully, it doesn’t feel forced.

Directed and co-written by Aneesh Chaganty, “Searching” is a tense, suspenseful, very effective mystery-thriller that had me on-edge, kept me guessing, and delighted me in doing both.

John Cho stars in a great, understated performance as David Kim, a widower raising his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La). After the death of Pamela (Sara Sohn), David’s wife and Margot’s mother, the two barely communicate, save for text messaging and FaceTime. Margot disappears one day (and David doesn’t realize she’s missing until well into the next day), and it’s every parent’s worst dream come true—David’s daughter is missing, she’s not returning his calls, he gets more frantic by the passing minute, and now we have a gripping mystery…

As he believes something is very wrong here, David receives the help of police detective Vick (Debra Messing) and also does his own investigative work by looking through Margot’s laptop she left behind before her disappearance. In addition to contacting her online friends to see if they have any answers, David also combs through her Facebook, her Tumblr, and other sites she’s been sharing pieces of her life with. While he’s doing this, he learns the sad truth that the girl he comes to know through the online clutter is not the daughter he thought he knew, as he discovers new things about Margot that he didn’t know before. Add that to the question of what could have possibly happened with Margot, and David’s world is shattered uncomfortably.

The mystery surrounding this girl’s disappearance is very effective in how pieces of this complicated puzzle keep coming into place. But “Searching” takes it a step further by having a deep emotional center. Through a powerfully poignant opening sequence, we see David and Pamela raise their daughter up until Pamela’s tragic death. (This is told to us using various videos—one great little touch is the progression of the technology with the passage of time.) It’s a simple technique, but we immediately understand the toll this woman’s death has taken on her husband and child, and it’s very well-done. According to a making-of special (which appears on the DVD extras), writers Chagantry and Sev Ohanian first came up with the opening scene to make the story more character-driven and were able to develop the rest of the story through the characterization. I don’t doubt it, because the rest of the film works mainly because you feel you know David and are heartbroken when he realizes Margot hasn’t been the same since Pamela’s death, and neither has his relationship with Margot.

It’s all played with a great deal of credibility. The way Chagantry tells this story, with various forms of media at the assistance, it feels real. And the storytelling at hand here is very fresh, very tense, and very rewarding because not all the answers are easy to guess by the end of the film. It’s an intriguing mystery with a great deal of heart. It can generate emotion as well as it can raise suspense.

What also plays a big part in the film’s credibility is the lead performance by John Cho, who is utterly brilliant in the role of a troubled father desperate to find his missing daughter if for no other reason than to somehow reconnect with her. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for him, even when he does something like track down and humiliate one of Margot’s peers who cracks a joke about her “missing” status. It’s easy to understand his mindset throughout the film.

I’m not sure “Searching” would have worked nearly as well if it was shot and edited more like a traditional film instead of the electronic-media approach. I feel like it had to be presented in this format, not merely because it turns the viewers into voyeurs of these characters’ personal lives or simply that it’s a neat, effective way of telling this story, but because it can also show how our modern conveniences at hand can come in handy in desperate times. (Though, I get the feeling it may also teach overprotective parents to control their kids’ mobile devices.) But overall, I admire the unconventional manner than Chagantry chose to tell this deeply effective story. If that didn’t work, I probably wouldn’t love “Searching” as much as I do. I saw it twice in theaters, and I look forward to more viewings at home.

A Quiet Place (2018)

28 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Horror films can generate effective scares with ominous music & dialogue…but a horror film like John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” is one that reminds me how easy that can be. What’s tricky is building suspense and creating thrills through visual storytelling. “A Quiet Place” manages to pull it off, and it’s one of the best horror films in recent memory. (And even though we’ve had many terrific horror films in the past couple years, one of which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, I don’t think I’ll call that “hyperbole.”)

“A Quiet Place” is centered on one family: the Abbotts (Krasinski as dad, Emily Blunt as mom, Millicent Simmons as daughter, Noah Jupe as son). They’re one of the few families that are still surviving the aftermath of some sort of alien invasion, even as many of the otherworldly creatures still stalk the earth. Life as they know it has ceased to exist for a long, long time, and they rely on two things in order to survive—one is each other, but the most important is complete silence. You see, these things attack at the slightest loud noise, and being that they’re still in their area (and even killed off another family member in a creepy prologue), living in silence is the best way to maintain survival.

We don’t see the attack—the film begins on “Day 89,” after it. We’re not even entirely sure as to how it happened. (Though, we do get some imagery such as newspaper headlines to give us a few clues here or there.) We just know it’s not as important as what survivors have to do next. These unfriendly beings took over our world, and our main characters just have to deal with it. That’s a neat hook, and it’s interesting to see how people in this new world get through their daily routines with almost total quietness. (They also communicate through sign language, as the daughter is already deaf—that detail itself raises suspense as she wouldn’t be able to hear a noise she herself may cause.) Things start to get even more dangerous when the expecting mother is about to have a new child, and everything has to be set in order to protect the family during the delivery. But no matter what they do, danger still comes for them…

The tone and atmosphere play an enormous role in the film’s success. The quiet in this film is practically deafening; it made me realize how claustrophobic it can make someone feel. When a loud noise finally comes up, you’re instantly on-edge because you can’t shake the feeling that something terrible is about to happen… Krasinski proves to be a masterful director in how he can rely on visual storytelling to keep the audience engaged and on the edges of their seats, and he uses the simplest methods to keep us invested. (One particular setup involves a nail…you know what that’s going to lead to, even if you don’t know when it will pay off.)

An obvious comparison is M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” which also featured an alien attack from the perspective of one rural family in a farm setting. But with this particular family trying to find ways to keep quiet while trying to stay together, you can’t deny they have more complications to encounter in this particular case.

The gripes I have with “A Quiet Place” are mere nitpicks. While the sound design is carefully controlled for the most part, it’s when Marco Beltrami’s musical score kicks into gear during certain scenes that the effect those scenes could’ve gotten are somewhat lost in translation. And while I give credit to Krasinski for not dwelling on early long shots of the creatures, which are CG spider-like beasts, I wish he could’ve continued that “less-is-more” technique in the climax. And for a film that does so well in relying on silence to scare us, it still couldn’t resist a few jump-scare moments here or there, unfortunately.

But I can’t let little things like that get in the way of how I ultimately feel about “A Quiet Place.” It’s a gripping, compelling, scary, well-acted, wonderfully-shot chiller. It’s a terrific exercise in quieting down and using understated terror methods to get a reaction from us. And…yikes, that nail…

Boy Erased (2018)

22 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are still “Conversion Therapy” programs being practiced in a select few of the United States. As this piece of information was dropped on me and the audience before the closing credits of the new film “Boy Erased” sent us farewell, I felt a bigger lump in my throat than I did during the scene in which our main character undergoes mental abuse at one of these “Conversion Therapy” programs. That this is still happening in quite a few areas makes me feel for those suffering at the hands of people who probably mean well but for the most part resort to bullying tactics in their attempts at “helping” and “curing” homosexuals.

“Boy Erased” is based on a memoir of the same name written by Garrard Conley, who underwent one of these programs himself and wrote articles that exposed the truth about the harmful aspects of the process. The idea is to “convert” someone who is gay or bisexual and make them heterosexuals, and “Boy Erased” tells the compelling story of one man who challenged the idea by becoming stronger and more well-balanced, both in terms of his sexuality and his individuality.

Jared (Conley’s counterpart, played by Lucas Hedges) has a great life in a middle-class Arkansas community. He has loving parents (Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman), he’s artistic, and people seem to really like him. But things change when he tells his parents that he often thinks about men and might be gay. His mother, Nancy, is heartbroken, while his father, Marshall, a devoted Baptist pastor, feels like his entire universe has been shattered. Marshall gently informs his son that he cannot be gay and live under his same roof. So, Jared agrees to have his parents direct him to a Christian “conversion camp” in Memphis, TN called “Love in Action,” which is dedicated to reprogram men and women who are gay…or who think they’re gay, as the program leader and staff believe it’s a choice to be gay.

Jared isn’t sure of what the program is all about, nor does the shadiness of the day clinic seem to faze him (or his mother, who should be more concerned that nobody will let her inside the premises) upon first arriving—no cellphones are allowed, his journal entries are to be monitored, and no one is to mention anything about what happens within the program. He does it because he wants his father’s love and respect, and, like most Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation, doesn’t want to be seen as an “abomination” in the eyes of God. At first, everything seems fine. The man who runs it, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed this film), seems nice and willing to help him and his fellow “converters.” But over time, he becomes disturbed by Sykes’ methods being forced upon everyone to ensure the conversion is effective. Physical and mental bullying is at hand in the name of helping these people, and it doesn’t take too long for enough to be enough.

I get that many of these “Conversion Therapy” programs do get positive results from people who go through with it. But there are clients who take so much abuse from the people in charge of it before they become even more confused or enraged or both—some of them even kill themselves as a result… This is an aggressive practice that can’t be taken lightly; that Southern White Baptists feel the need to “change” people’s sexual orientation because of their strong beliefs that homosexuality strays people further away from God. (It’s this kind of homophobia that have made fundamentalist religions more fearful of the consequences of being gay…and also the same kind of homophobia that makes gay Christians fearful of coming out to their loved ones and being true to themselves.) While it’s not as active as it was in the last three decades, it’s still unfortunately operational. “Boy Erased” shines a light on not just the idea but also the attitude in general—and it’s very effective in doing so.

One of the reasons for its effectiveness is that the characters aren’t portrayed as black-and-white good guys & bad guys. That’s especially true of Marshall and Sykes. These two could have been written and portrayed as one-dimensional caricatures; instead, they’re portrayed as real people who don’t know the answers, think they’re doing the right thing, and want to find ways to help. You get the sense that Sykes has been through this sort of thing before and is now determined (which is a nice way of saying he’s “fanatical”) to help others. His methods are undoubtedly questionable, as he runs the place as some would run a drug rehab clinic or a boot camp, but that’s what makes his story (while not the key focus) all the more heartbreaking. He’s not a monster; he just doesn’t know how to reach certain people (to say the absolute least).

(Side-note: Please stay and study the texts that reveal updates on how the real-life story played out. What we learn about Sykes makes this character even more interesting.)

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Jared and Marshall, as Jared reveals something to his father that throws his world out of alignment and Marshall has to accept it or lose the son he still loves. He’s a thoughtful, old-fashioned religious man who of course doesn’t understand what his son is going through. But that doesn’t mean he has lost his love for his son. (This is another strength of the film: showing us how Jared’s coming-out not only affects Jared but Jared’s loved ones as well.)

As hard-hitting and gripping as the material is (and it’s VERY hard-hitting and gripping), what makes it all even stronger is the acting that carries it through. Lucas Hedges, one of today’s best young actors (following great work in a role somewhat similar to this one in “Lady Bird” last year), makes it hard for audiences not to feel anything for this kid when he’s happy or sad or upset or angry (all four important emotions to capture for a role like this one). Nicole Kidman delivers some of her finest work as Jared’s mother, who loves her son and knows when he’s sad or hurt that it’s time to step in and help him. Joel Edgerton wrote and directed the film and also knows not to make his character of Sykes into anything less than a bully with an agenda. But the film’s absolute best performance comes from Russell Crowe as Marshall. This is a man whose world is rocked by an important revelation and is forced to confront what he sees as a nearly impossible choice. You can practically feel his heart breaking in certain scenes, particularly in the final act of the film, and Crowe delivers some of his best work as an actor.

When adapting Conley’s book, Edgerton knew not to go for over-the-top melodrama and give us simple answers for these people who are all going through something internally and externally. It simply illustrates a series of injustices and ultimately shows that where there is courage and hopefulness, there is also tolerance and acceptance. As understated as “Boy Erased” may be, I doubt its impact will leave me anytime soon. This is one of the best films of the year.

Leave No Trace (2018)

19 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Filmmaker Debra Granik must have a real talent for discovering actresses. Think about it—in 2004, she directed then-unknown Vera Farmiga in “Down to the Bone”; in 2010, she made “Winter’s Bone,” the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. I sincerely hope that this streak continues with Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a New Zealand actress who delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen all year and has the makings of a star on the rise. In Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” one of the most moving films of 2018, she delivers a nomination-worthy performance as a teenage girl who is devoted to her mentally struggling father…but tries to find it within herself to drive away from him.

“Leave No Trace” is a harsh and brutal yet heartwarming and terrific drama about a child breaking away from a parent. It begins with Will (Ben Foster), a widower and PTSD-stricken war veteran, and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (McKenzie) illegally living on a nature preserve just outside Portland, Oregon. They’ve made the woods their home, they’ve managed to survive together, and he teaches her how to get through certain scenarios such as the possibility of getting caught and having to run off. She doesn’t know what modern society is like, and he won’t give in to society’s rules anymore to let it happen to his daughter.

One day, they get found out by park rangers and are brought to the authorities. Instead of separating the two (as would happen in a lesser film…and maybe reality, but whatever), Social Services asks the right questions and get the answers that require them to stay together under their terms. (At one point, Tom is offended by the question of whether or not Will abused her in any way. Thankfully, SS is smart enough to realize he hasn’t.)

That’s the first act. The second act continues with Will and Tom living in a house to themselves, meeting community members, getting employment, making friends, etc. Will can’t adjust and won’t allow himself to make much of an effort, whereas Tom makes a very good attempt to belong to this new world she’s now found herself in.

But then, “Leave No Trace” gets even more fascinating when it almost seems it’s getting too predictable. The third act shows Will taking Tom with him to start anew somewhere else, and we see how difficult it is for Will to find comfort and how troubled Tom is when she realizes her father is dragging her down with him.

What makes “Leave No Trace” so special, apart from the excellent performances from both McKenzie and Foster, is that a lot of it plays with minimal dialogue. The acting and the filmmaking are strong enough that we can understand what the characters are going through when they don’t have to project their plight onto each other using a lot of dialogue. I don’t need to be explained why Will feels the need to isolate himself or why Tom would rather try something new than resort to the same thing over and over again, and so on. (Apparently, when Ben Foster signed onto the film, according to IMDb Trivia, he and Granik removed 40% of the dialogue from the script—a brilliant choice.)

The questions of what it means to be a parent, the values of adapting to society, and what it means to care for yourself and for your loved ones are all raised in “Leave No Trace.” And the few answers that we get lead to harsh truths.

Ben Foster is more calm and relaxed than usual, making for an effective performance. But the performance I’m walking away with each time I see “Leave No Trace” is the one by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. I can’t say enough good things about her—she’s just perfect in this role. And I sincerely hope she gets even more work after this.

As with “Lean on Pete,” another film from 2018, “Leave No Trace” isn’t afraid to be harsh and moving one moment and then beautiful and heartbreaking the next. Any film that successfully takes on that bold move is welcome in my theater.

Eighth Grade (2018)

19 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I did not want to see this film. A film about the hardships and awkwardness of experiencing eighth grade (even if it’s just from one eighth grader’s perspective) did not sound like my cup of tea. (I didn’t care if critics were praising it across the nation—critics also praised the well-crafted yet utterly miserable “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” a film about a shy 7th grade outcast.) My reason for this—I don’t have many fond memories of eighth grade, especially after a terrible seventh grade year. (Though, that’s not to say there weren’t bright spots here or there.) Any film that effectively captures what it’s like to be an outcast in junior high school is not going to appeal to me.

But…there is a first time for everything. I did catch Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” on DVD just recently…and I want to see it again as soon as I finish this review.

Many of us remember what it was like to be 13-14 years old. Even if we were popular in school, we still faced many a challenge within ourselves and within our social circles, such as going through puberty, finding our sexual identities, maintaining particular images for people, and other awkward, confusing aspects that come with the age. We went through hard enough times when we were alone—add school to it, and it makes things even more uncomfortable!

We know this. We went through it. And even though things are far different now than they were when we were in eighth grade (thanks to social media), that doesn’t matter because today’s eighth-graders still go through it. Do I have to bring it up? Yes, for this reason—“Eighth Grade” is a sweet, intelligent, sometimes-funny, sometimes-unsettling, always-accurate slice of life that I think today’s eighth-graders will gain a lot of insight from in order to feel better about themselves. (Forget the “R” rating—this film was made for the teens who need it!)

“Eighth Grade” is told from the perspective of shy 13-year-old Kayla (brilliantly portrayed by a natural Elsie Fisher). She has a collection of YouTube videos in which she sits in front of the camera and delivers advice to her peers. In these videos, she seems smart, outgoing, nice, and energetic…outside the videos, she’s mostly quiet, has no friends to hang with in the school hallways, and is practically invisible to all except her loving father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who’s been looking after her ever since her mother walked out on the family years ago. The film centers on Kayla going through her last week of eighth grade—she goes to a popular girl’s party, she tries making other friends, she shadows a high-schooler, she goes from one awkward situation after another in just a few days… I would turn the DVD off, and yet I kept watching. Even though there are many moments in which I was cringing for Kayla (particularly when the popular girl, Kennedy, has a puzzled reaction to her birthday present), I was impressed with each scenario played out. She goes through embarrassing moments and feels just as (if not more) shy and self-conscious as she usually does. But she keeps going anyway. It’s like she wants to follow her own advice—she knows what she has to do (for the most part—who knows the right answers at age 13?), and she just has to find the courage within herself to do it. (And it may be due to Fisher’s performance or Burnham’s writing/directing or a combination of both, but it’s impossible not to root for Kayla during all of this.)

Social media plays a big part in the film. It’s no secret that today’s teens are obsessed with it, and it’s summed up in a brilliant montage of Instagram and BuzzFeed images (set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”). It’s not seen as a criticism or a harsh judgment about how teens need to relate (sometimes, it’s used to help them relate by arranging to meet people in person)—it’s just seen as how today’s teens view the world. (And boy, don’t I feel old—apparently, according to an interview, actress Elsie Fisher argued to writer/director Bo Burnham, who’s 27, that teens don’t use Facebook…a social media outlet I use heavily.) And Kayla uses her YouTube videos to help express herself, because she can’t do it any other way. A biting piece of social commentary if ever I saw one is that teens contain two different personas—one for social media, the other for the real world. (Speaking of Kayla’s videos, there’s a brilliant piece of editing that incorporates them to help set up certain scenarios in the film.)

At first, I was ready to criticize Josh Hamilton’s portrayal of Kayla’s supportive father, who seems too nice and perfect and always ready to be there for his daughter in her time of need. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it actually makes sense—this man represents the parents that try to reach out to help their children in these times, even though they don’t want their help (or don’t want to admit it, at least), just as Kayla wants to ignore his parental advice until she feels like she’s at her lowest point. If he’s a little “perfect,” let it be—we don’t know what he’s going through in trying to connect with her anyway, so he may actually be hiding something we don’t get to see. Why criticize that?

“Eighth Grade” is a simple, effective indie film about how the little things feel even bigger, especially for a young teen. There’s no flowing narrative and no “big” moments for our protagonist. It’s just a modern-day slice-of-life about an eighth-grade girl going through the last week of school. That’s all it needed to be. What was the point of it all? It’s summed up in an unforgettable closing monologue in one of Kayla’s videos about how if we can survive this particular part of our lives, we can probably survive other particular points in the future as well. “Eighth Grade” doesn’t have a conclusion in which everything is woven together like a neatly-sewn quilt—it simply stops at a point in which we feel nothing but the best for this shy girl we’ve gotten to know for a solid hour-and-a-half, because hardly anyone else would.

And to think I didn’t want to…

Juliet, Naked (2018)

19 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Juliet, Naked”—awkward title; doesn’t really demand to be projected on a marquee of your local cinema, does it? (There are other jokes I could’ve made about the title, but let’s just move on to the review.)

“Juliet, Naked” is based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, directed by Jesse Peretz (“Girls”), and features three brilliant comic performances from Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, and Chris O’Dowd as three of the most offbeat, neurotically insane movie characters of 2018. (That last part is truly what makes me recommend this film—I admittedly haven’t read Hornby’s novel nor have I seen Peretz’s previous accomplishments, though if they’re as witty and sharp as what’s presented in “Juliet, Naked” (or other film adaptations of Hornby’s work, like “High Fidelity” or “About a Boy”), that counts for something.) It’s a winning, charming romantic comedy with three characters heading in different directions in life—one wants something more than what she has, one tries again and again to connect with other people, and the other is content with where he is.

That first person is Annie (Rose Byrne delivering some of her best work). She’s quiet, sweet, and tolerates her boyfriend Duncan with whom she has lived for 15 years…even though his true love is actually (and not so secretly) the life and music of the mysterious musician Tucker Crowe. She becomes more resentful of her time with Duncan because she feels like there are more chances out there that she could take.

The second person is Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). He’s a singer-songwriter who was moderately popular in the early 1990s before he mysteriously (and suddenly) vanished. He’s become a legend for all obsessed fans of his music, most of whom come together to visit a fanmade website that is devoted to all things related to Tucker Crowe (complete with absurd theories about where he is now).

And the third…is the blogger who created the site: Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a college professor. As stated before with Annie, he cares about very little apart from Tucker Crowe. Either Annie has the patience of a saint or Duncan’s never going to stop to smell the roses and count his blessings—either way, Duncan’s pretty obnoxious about his obsession with either Tucker Crowe’s music or the sound of Tucker Crowe’s voice. (Side-note: Tucker Crowe’s music is hardly an important factor here…though, what little we hear of the music sounds like hardly anything other than easygoing alt-pop sounds.) Duncan is the least realized character of the three in this film, but at least O’Dowd is solid and funny in the role. (Additional side-note: stay through the credits for a hilarious payoff.)

In “Juliet, Naked,” someone sends Duncan a CD titled “Juliet, Naked,” which turns out to be an undiscovered demo filled with unfinished versions of the songs that would end up in Tucker Crowe’s most infamous album, “Juliet.” (There—now you have an explanation for the title.) Annie finds it first and listens to it, much to the dismay of Duncan. She posts a very negative review of the CD on Duncan’s site, which results in a surprising email response from Tucker Crowe himself, saying she “got it right.” So, unbeknownst to Duncan, Annie and Tucker Crowe correspond through email and get to know each other’s awkward secrets before they decide to meet in person. Among the secrets of the life of Tucker Crowe: he lives in his ex-wife’s garage, he has more than one ex, and he has several children scattered throughout the world, thus indicating that he’s trying to rearrange many aspects of his life that don’t involve music.

I won’t dare reveal what happens when Duncan ultimately (and inevitably) meets his long-time idol for the first time…what you might be thinking in your head may be funnier than what actually occurs, but it’s still just as awkward and funny, I assure you.

What makes “Juliet, Naked” work are the flawed characters (played wonderfully by all three actors—and there’s also Lily Brazier in a funny side-role as Annie’s lesbian sister) and the writing behind them (originated from Nick Hornby and adapted by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins). Where it truly shines is the low-key romance that slowly develops between Annie and Tucker, who are two flawed people trying to get their lives sorted out.

Another thing I want to comment upon is the use of improvisation. This is an Apatow-produced romantic comedy—many films produced by Judd Apatow tend to stall during numerous scenes of heavy improvisation from actors who aren’t given much control and are almost desperate for laughs. But with “Juliet, Naked,” the laughs come from a witty script and the improvs feel (gasp!) NATURAL. (I turn back to the scene in which Tucker and Duncan meet for example.) It doesn’t feel forced in the slightest, and I admire the film (and the actors’ abilities) for that.

“Juliet, Naked” is a carefully observed romantic comedy about people who are getting older, don’t know where they’re going in the future, and need help, whether they know it or not. Sometimes, it’s sweet (without being sugary). Sometimes, it’s funny (without being mean). And overall, it’s a little film with more heart than a title like “Juliet, Naked” would make anyone think.

Wildlife (2018)

19 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I write this in confidence, to what few readers I have—Paul Dano’s directorial debut “Wildlife” made me cry.

There were numerous times in attending the cinema in the past decade in which I’ve felt immense emotions toward films that contained genuine human-interest drama. But so few of them actually brought tears to my eyes. With “Wildlife,” I couldn’t help myself. With the amount of domestic stress that occurs in this 107-minute hard-hitting family drama, I couldn’t help but watch in sadness as the central situation went from bad to worse.

Three elements were essential to making “Wildlife” so emotionally devastating and effective as a result:

  • Dano, who’s best known as a capable character actor, proves to be a capable director as well. He shows confidence in dramatic storytelling—as cliché as this may sound, it feels as though he’s directing from the heart. (Dano also wrote the script, along with his long-time girlfriend Zoe Kazan, who wrote “Ruby Sparks,” one of my personal favorite films.)
  • The acting is excellent from all three principal performers—Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, and juvenile actor Ed Oxenbould (from “The Visit”—thankfully, he’s grown a little since his prepubescent white-boy-rapper-wannabe persona in that flick). If the acting didn’t work as well as it does here, I might have had a different reaction to their plights.
  • The story for “Wildlife” is told from the perspective of Oxenbould, who plays a teenage boy who watches his parents’ marriage fall apart gradually and harshly. It’s hard not to feel anything for this poor kid as he tries to keep everything together in his unpredictable household.

“Wildlife,” based on the novel of the same name by Richard Ford, is set in early-1960s Montana. Gyllenhaal, Mulligan, and Oxenbould play a “typical” American family of three. Jerry (Gyllenhaal) works at a golf course where he chats up with rich folks (to the annoyance of his boss). Jeanne (Mulligan) mostly stays at home and helps raise their teenage son Joe (Oxenbould), who plays football even though he’s not particularly interested in it. This is a time when America was changing, men work, women stay home and cook dinner, and football was practically a requirement for growing boys. Of course, things are destined to change for this family. (I think it’s been common knowledge at least since the 1980s that the idea of the quintessential American Family is never “typical” or “normal.”) Jerry loses his job, which causes him to reconsider his point in life. So, to help out, Jeanne gets a job at the YMCA and Joe gets his first employment, working at a photo lab. But that doesn’t help anything, as Jerry decides to leave the family temporarily to assist in fighting a nearby wildfire, leaving an emotionally distraught wife and a confused 14-year-old son…

Watching the film a second time, I got the sense that this has happened before, that this family has suffered misfortunes in another town before this film began and tried to start over again. The more I study the character of Jerry, the more clear it is that he’s not a man who takes the hardships of life lightly and he just wants what he thinks every other man in his position has. (I think the 1987 horror-thriller “The Stepfather” featured a similar character…but let’s not go there.) Many of the decisions made by the key characters are dumb, selfish ones, but they’re made because these people are each in a state of misperception. I understood where they were coming from, and that’s why while a part of me wanted them to just recognize the good things in life, the rest of me simply wished that they would.

Because the acting was on-point, because Dano gave his actors breathing room to let the scenes play naturally, and because the results felt effective and real (with no melodramatic errors to get in the way), I felt strongly for the characters and the harsh realities they faced. By the end of the film (which results in a brilliant final shot that indicates ambiguous hope for the future), I couldn’t help but wish they would end up finding their footing in the changes brought upon them. And that’s what got me to cry—it’s as unlikely as it is likely. “Wildlife” is one of the best films of 2018.

My First Published Feature Film (Not a Review!)

6 Nov

It should have occurred to me long before that I don’t have to use this blog just for movie reviews. I’m a filmmaker too–I should be as open on my blog as I am on my own Facebook page. So, here goes: I made a micro-budget independent feature film and got it published on Amazon Prime.

It’s called “The Focusing Effect.”


The premise goes like this: A film-student (played by yours truly, Tanner Smith) wants to succeed as a filmmaker and jump-start a career with a great documentary. This documentary project is called “The Dumpers and the Dumpees,” and it’s about getting both sides of particular breakup stories amongst his classmates. With help from his girlfriend (Kelly Woodruff) and his sister/roommate (Kayla Esmond), he makes the film and decides to make it even stronger by including a new story: one involving a surly classmate (Daniel Lee Harris) and his snobby ex-girlfriend (McKenzie Stell). But when a disturbing secret is revealed and developed, things go from bad to worse as the lives of our main characters are in jeopardy…

“The Focusing Effect,” made entirely in Central Arkansas, is presented in first-person perspective and edited like a faux-documentary, with interviews, v-logs, and candid footage telling the story. In telling a narrative-fiction story using this style, this posed a stressful (which is to say, “exciting”) directing challenge, because it meant takes had to go on for extended periods of time, which meant the acting had to be on-point (and not “100% realistic,” just “realistic enough”). Casting myself in the lead role seemed like it made perfect sense, since it was my script (from a story thought up by me, Kelly Woodruff, and our friend/co-editor Nikki Emerson) and I took it to heart, so I was determined not to screw it up. (Though, that’s not for me to decide whether or not I screwed it up.) Kelly Woodruff plays my character’s girlfriend, and she was my girlfriend in real-life (and now, she’s my fiancee)–we didn’t have to worry about perfecting our chemistry, but we did have to take the time to convincingly convey the proper emotions in the scenes in which our characters argue. The other key players are Daniel Lee Harris and Kayla Esmond, both of whom have acted in several made-in-Arkansas films. These two were game, professional actors, and they helped elevate the material one way or the other. As for crew, it was mostly just my friends who were willing to help out, many of which also appear in the film as the fake-documentary’s interviewees.


“The Focusing Effect” was a micro-budget passion-project my friends and I made just out of film-school (the University of Central Arkansas film program), and I didn’t want to just make a “found-footage horror film.” I had made plenty of documentary shorts (mostly behind-the-scenes stuff) and two doc features while planning this film, and I wanted to come up with a narrative-fiction story that’s portrayed as if it was edited by a film student from his candid camera footage. (Matt Johnson’s “The Dirties” was also an inspiration.) It was basically a way of using our limited resources to our advantage in order to make this movie.

At its surface is a thriller story about an amateur documentary filmmaker who risks his relationship with his girlfriend (and his life) to push the envelope for a film that could’ve just been a fun project all by itself. But at its core is a cautionary tale about how far documentary filmmaking can go in terms of finding the perfect topic, story, and resolution. Even when my character looks back at the comedic parts of his film, he realizes it’s not so fun anymore because he’s exploiting his interview subjects’ embarrassments and selfish wants/needs–and he’s in danger of falling into that same trap with his own girlfriend.

And that’s before we get to the grisly final act, in which the blood hits the fan…

The film was a lot of fun to make. We broke a lot of rules and made our own choices in the whole process of making it, because we felt we could get away with it. That feeling of freedom reminds me of why I love making movies.

But it is a horror film in a way, and one of the challenges I was glad to meet was finding new ways to use the first-person camera perspective to induce fear. I think we found a few effective ones, but my favorite one is Kelly’s contribution. It’s a scene midway through the film, in which our characters are discussing the potential dangers of continuing the project…unaware that there’s someone in the background watching them! (They don’t realize it until later when they look at the recorded footage.)

By the way, this is why the film is called The Focusing Effect. It’s a reference to a psychology term that indicates how people put so much focus on one thing that they neglect to recognize something more important happening around them.


“The Focusing Effect” is available on Amazon:

If you hate the film, if you decide to check it out, you never have to take me seriously as a movie reviewer ever again. At the very least, I hope it makes you understand my passion for both film and filmmaking.

Thanks for reading!

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

5 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Reclusive author Lee Israel is a miserable case. She used to have one of her novels on the New York Times bestseller list, and now she’s in her early 50s, lives alone with her 12-year-old cat, has her previous books selling for 75% off at a nearby bookstore, and can’t get her agent’s attention. When she finally barges into her agent’s office to ask for a $10,000 advance for a new book she’s writing so she can pay her bills and provide healthcare for her cat, the agent bluntly tells her that she couldn’t be able to give her a $10 advance because hardly anyone will buy her book. Lee smarts off to her, and her response is she’s not successful enough to be a bitch.

This is a scene set early into the proceedings of the indie drama “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” a film that tells Lee Israel’s story based on her own autobiographical novel of the same name, and I knew right away that director Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty knew what they were doing here. And the rest of the film didn’t disappoint.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a drama with little bits of dark comedy and cynical wit sparkled throughout, which is something I always appreciate in a film that strives for a realistic feel (and something most “serious” filmmakers also need to keep in mind). Sharp writing and solid direction keep it flowing, but the most important ingredient that makes “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” truly memorable is the leading performance by Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel.

McCarthy is best known for starring in mainstream comedies like “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy,” “Identity Thief,” “Tammy,” and “Ghostbusters (2016).” She occasionally plays it straight, such a solid supporting performance in “St. Vincent,” but she’s best known for her crass mouth and constant improvisation (which grates on me from time to time). Here, for “Can You Ever Forgive Me”, she takes center-stage, playing this loner, depressed, angry author who could easily be the life of the party (like McCarthy usually plays in other movies) but chooses not to be. And McCarthy does brilliant work here, in a performance that should land her an Oscar nomination.

The story for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” involves Lee Israel as she discovers a get-rich-quick scheme that gets her good money for a while: to forge letters “written” by talents such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward and sell them to collectors for a hefty price. She’s able to convince just about everyone she sells them to…for a while. Before it’s too late or too soon, the authorities catch wind of Lee’s scam. So, she enlists the help of her friend, the charming, flamboyant Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, very good here) to take over the task of selling her future fakes. (Another thing I love about this film: McCarthy and Grant are fabulous together.) But soon after that, the jig is up…

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is based on a true story from the early-1990s, and the real Lee Israel (who died in 2014) wrote about the whole experience in a novel, which inspired the screenplay. You can tell how much detail was put into the production. There are enough biting insights to keep anyone who has only the slightest bit of interest in writing invested, you get a good sense of the world of collectibles and memorabilia, and cinematographer Brandon Trost also has a great eye for the era as well. And director Heller, who’s now helming the upcoming Tom Hanks Mr. Rogers biopic, has a bright future ahead of her. But first and foremost is Melissa McCarthy’s stellar leading performance as Lee Israel—she’s funny but also bitter and nonetheless earns our empathy. It’s one of the finest performances of the year in one of the best films of the year; a film that effectively blends comedy and drama without getting distracting.

Halloween (2018)

5 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

40 years ago, we got John Carpenter’s 1978 classic “Halloween,” a truly scary low-budget thriller about a killer that continued to lurk in the dark and stalk (and kill) unsuspecting teenagers. It was scary because it represented the looming presence of fate and death and ended on a chillingly ambiguous note: that evil is still out there and while we can evade it for some time, it can still come for you at any time…

Since then, there have been countless sequels (including one that tried a different story—“Halloween III”), neither of which I can recommend. (It was also remade in 2007 by Rob Zombie; I can’t recommend that one either.) And now, in 2018, we get a sequel that pretends all of the other sequels don’t exist. It’s a “Halloween” sequel, directed by talented filmmaker David Gordon Green, that’s directly following the original film 40 years later.

Already, we’re off to a good start…though simply giving it the same title as the original is confusing. (I get that they can’t call it “Halloween II,” because there were already two movies by that name…but now, there are three movies titled “Halloween”!)

The killer, Michael Myers, is no longer the brother of survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). He’s simply Michael Myers, an enigmatic figure that stalks and kills—the “boogeyman,” if you will. Four decades after killing a few people in Haddonfield, Illinois (actually, he’s killed more people if you include “Halloween II”…but they’re not including it, so I won’t either), Michael Myers has been institutionalized and studied long since then. Meanwhile, survivor Laurie has led a life of ruin and misery since then—she’s a nutty survivalist, living in a fortress-like secluded house, carrying a ton of armory hidden underneath, and obsessing over the possibility that Myers will escape and come for her and finish what he started.

That’s a very slim possibility, especially after 40 years of Myers being locked up and Laurie continuing to wait for him. But if he didn’t somehow escape, we wouldn’t have a movie, would we? Anyway, he escapes a bus filled with other mentally ill prisoners and makes his way back “home”…

And of course this happens on the night before Halloween, so that Myers can come to Haddonfield and stalk new victims on Halloween night!

In the process of Myers’ lurking and killing, we get some neatly executed horror moments, such as how he retrieves his infamous mask and when he walks through a suburban neighborhood filled with trick-or-treaters. And we also get some nice, funny moments too, such as when one of Myers’ potential victims reassures the boy she’s babysitting that everything’s fine when the kid knows better. (That kid, played by Jibrail Nantambu, is an absolute riot—I wish he had more screen time!) But we also get a lot of uninteresting moments too, particularly with Laurie’s teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) and her friends (Virginia Gardner, Dylan Arnold, Miles Robbins, and Drew Scheid) who we all know are generic teens lined up to be stalked, killed, or both.

Oh, and there’s also the creepy Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), the psychiatrist who looked after Myers long after Dr. Loomis (the doctor from the original, played by the late Donald Pleasance). Where he falls into this story is as uninteresting as it is blatantly odd (and random).

However, as we learn, the film isn’t really about them. It’s about Laurie’s chance at closure, getting a chance to fight back at the one that’s the cause of her turmoil and misery for four decades. (Though, I think she got off easy, as her friends were murdered forty years ago, while she survived—but I think you could call that “survivor’s guilt.”) We saw something like this in “Halloween H20,” in which Laurie fought Michael 20 years after the original incident, but it was merely a glimpse. This “Halloween” sequel delves deeper into the concept of “victim empowerment,” and it leads to a neatly executed final act in which Laurie has to protect her granddaughter, as well as her daughter (well-played by Judy Greer), and ultimately face her foe as an avenging angel. The roles are reversed this time—originally, Myers was the hunter, but now, Laurie is. What results is a climactic final act that is both fun and suspenseful.

For all the moments in “Halloween (2018)” that don’t work, there are still plenty of other moments that really do. Credit for that goes to director David Gordon Green and his collaborators, one of whom was John Carpenter himself—they know how to shoot the horrific moments and keep the tension flowing, and I appreciate the new direction they were willing to take this story, while paying callbacks to the original that don’t feel forced. (One callback in particular made me smile—it involved one character looking down below at another in a similar way at the end of the original. That’s all I’ll say about it.) Jamie Lee Curtis plays the most interesting character, which makes almost everyone else hardly relevant outside of playing “dead meat,” but it just makes every moment she appears on-screen more special because it’s building up to something big with her. And I like that producer Jason Blum (of Blumhouse Productions, which mostly specializes in horror films) was able to add a modern spin on the popular Halloween franchise, so that modern terrors and old-school suspense combine for an effective horror film. “Halloween (2018)” is the “Halloween” sequel I was waiting for. Do I wish there was a little less predictability with many of the side characters? Yes. But considering all the other “Halloween” sequels that this particular one ignores, I’ll take what I can get.