Archive | February, 2019

Minding the Gap (2018)

25 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It figures that in 2018, a year with three fine indie films about skateboarders (“Skate Kitchen,” “Minding the Gap,” and “Mid90s”), the best of them would be the lone documentary, “Minding the Gap.” “Skate Kitchen” and “Mid90s” succeeded by evoking realism, while “Minding the Gap” simply captures it. By default, I suppose that makes it the best (although I know it can be argued that it’s much trickier to bring about natural realism in fiction)—when you know what’s happening on-camera is happening to real people, and you’re invested in their personal lives, it’s all the more impressive. And “Minding the Gap” works particularly because it introduces us to some of the most interesting film characters of 2018. And they’re real.

Some people need an outlet for their turmoils and frustrations. For the ones in “Minding the Gap,” that outlet is skateboarding. They go skating in the park. They go skating in the street. They trespass on private property just for the thrill of skating in places they’re not supposed to. And they’re good at it, because they’ve practiced it since childhood. Sure, they slip and fall every now and again, but they get right back up and keep going. (Obvious metaphor, I know.) But who are they off the boards?

Zack Mulligan has the bad-boy vibe that adds to his charm and charisma. But when he’s drunk or stoned, that’s when his persona turns surly, disturbed, and violent. He’s married and has a baby son, and it’s very clear to us (and his wife) that he’s unfit to be a parent. He cares for his child, but he has trouble with the responsibility. And he’s too much for his wife, Nina, to bear as well, and the feeling’s mutual. One of the heavier moments in the film is when we learn that Zack has physically abused Nina, having escalated from a loud argument. A revealing moment in the film is when Zack states to the camera that “bitches” need to be hit from time to time…

Kiere Johnson supports his single mother by working as a dishwasher. He still suffers the emotional scars brought on by abuse long ago, and he tries to control his own anger issues. (An example of his anger goes back to childhood, as seen in a home-movie in which he spends a good amount of time breaking a skateboard for spite.)

Bing Liu is the film’s director, and these two (Zack and Kiere) are his best friends since childhood (which means they’re more than comfortable being documented by his cameras all the time). Bing has his issues too, which are brought up as he interviews his immigrant mother about a time during which his stepfather abused him. (Domestic abuse is a common theme in this film, as it’s a common theme in all their lives.) The most emotional moment comes when the mother tearfully tells her son she should have been more aware of things back then.

Bing, Zack, and Kiere have been friends since middle school through their love of skateboarding, and it’s clear that Bing is saying that they skate to feel the freedom they wish they had all the time. It is not just a hobby to them. All three of them live in Rockford, Illinois, which like most small towns, is depressing, poor, and dying. But they carry on because they feel they have no alternative.

Bing’s camera captures everything effectively, the editing is fantastic, the music score is suitably low-key and somber, and we have four people (Bing, Zack, Kiere, Nina) whose lives we’re invested in because we desperately want things to turn out better for them in the future. But in the end, you realize “Minding the Gap” was Bing’s way for his friends to express themselves, and I think that’s a very good start.

The film is available on Hulu.

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Private Life (2018)

23 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Film-school students (or at least, aspiring screenwriters) could learn the “write-what-you-know” methods simply from watching Tamara Jenkins’ personal comedy-drama “Private Life.” I’m assuming everything the characters are undergoing/discussing in the film is based on personal experience. (After all, this is only Jenkins’ third film in 20 years and her first since 2007’s “The Savages.” Why come back for a project about a topic she wouldn’t know anything about?) I’ve seen this film five times since its release on Netflix a few months ago, and each time I see it, I’m fascinated by the amount of technical detail brought into the subject of IVF—or rather, the subject of the ups and downs of IVF. Probably because it’s barely even touched upon in any film I can think of.

“Private Life” focuses on a middle-aged married couple, Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), who desperately want to have a child. They try pretty much everything they can think of, including artificial insemination, vitro fertilisation, and other expensive methods they come across, just to reassure themselves that they’re trying to have a child by any means necessary. They even tried adoption at one point, only to be sadly let down by an out-of-town pregnant teenager who stopped contacting them after numerous FaceTime chats. They try everything they can think of, and this is where the comedy and drama blend wonderfully—because it’s played so realistically with two appealing, good-natured people, you laugh because you find ways to relate to their situation.

If Jenkins herself hasn’t gone through any of the things Richard and Rachel have tried (though I’m assume she relates to it one way or another), then she’s clearly done her research in exploring the plight real-life couples go through in this situation. The way she portrays it in the film generates sympathy.

Anyway, Richard and Rachel are visited by their 25-year-old niece, Sadie (wonderfully played by Kayli Carter with a neat blend of perkiness and confusion). She’s a college-writing student who gets to finish the program in absentia, and she gets to stay with Richard and Rachel, with whom she’s very close. They decide to ask Sadie for her eggs, as they’ve also decided to inseminate Rachel with a donor egg. She agrees, which leads to yet another tough process on the road to hopefully resulting in a child Richard and Rachel can call their own, even though the sometimes-bright, otherwise-naive-and-immature Sadie is already becoming their surrogate daughter as time goes by.

At two hours and four minutes, the film moves slowly, which for most quiet character pieces/slices of life can lead to moments of sagging that probably could have been trimmed or edited out. But to be fair, I think that’s an effective way for Jenkins to tell her audience to pay close attention to what these characters are doing, notice their plight, and learn some new things about something that some people may see as an easy process (which now I know it’s definitely not). I appreciate that.

Part of the film’s success, aside from the utterly brilliant acting from all three principals (and supporting actors such as Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch as Sadie’s unsure parents—this is the best film work I’ve ever seen from Shannon), is the tone. As with Jenkins’ previous film, “The Savages,” “Private Life” is told with a sardonic tone that is just right for the material. Jenkins wants us to feel for the characters, and she knows the best way to reach the audience is with comedy. But most importantly, the comedy is only effective if Jenkins keeps it at a grounded level—this way, we’re not laughing at the characters so much as laughing because we know what these numerous absurdities and setbacks feel like in any pressing scenario. (Though, a few tears are more appropriate than laughs.)

Whatever you think happens in “Private Life” is only because you’ve seen so many films that you think you can expect anything conventional. But you’d be wrong—the story is not told in a conventional sense in which it’s easy to figure the outcome by the final act. That was another pleasant surprise about the film: the final act is extraordinary in the way it tells us that whatever end may occur in this long, hard process, what’s more important is how these people react to it and move on in life. Speaking of which, how does “Private Life” end? On a hopeful note? On a bitter note? It’s for us to decide. I really like this film, and I look forward to Jenkins’ next film in the future.

Southside With You (2016)

8 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

His response? “You think I’m cute?”

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

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

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

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