Archive | June, 2019

Paper Towns (2015)

27 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER ALERT! I’m going to talk about the ending of “Paper Towns,” because it’s the main reason I’m recommending the film.

The term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in the 2000s. Google describes it as “(especially in film) a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist.”

You’ve seen them in movies before—Natalie Portman’s quirky, messy character in Zack Braff’s “Garden State,” Kirsten Dunst’s spunky, helpful flight attendant in Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown,” Zoe Kazan’s blunt criticism of the trope in her penned “Ruby Sparks,” among others. They’re not real—they’re just constructs of a hopelessly romantic male writer’s imagination. As a character explained in “Ruby Sparks,” “Quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real. No woman is going to identify with this story.”

Why do I bring this up in a review for “Paper Towns?” Because every criticism I could throw at this movie suddenly means nothing when the movie ends.

What do I mean by this? Our main character, a high school student named Quentin is fascinated by the very idea of this spunky, quirky, popular girl who lives across the street from his house. One night, she unexpectedly arrives at his bedroom window and asks him to join her on her all-night journey to perform all sorts of tasks, like humiliating pranks on her friends and boyfriend for reasons of revenge. The next day, she’s missing. She seems to have run away. Quentin discovers that she left clues that lead to where she might have gone.

Who IS this person? She seems too interesting to be true. When Quentin finally does learn the truth, he finds…she is too interesting to be true. And she knows it. She doesn’t know herself, so others don’t really know her either.

On the one hand, it’s troubling when you’re steps ahead of the main character on his quest. But on the other hand, it’s refreshing that the screenwriters (or rather, the author of the novel of the same name the film is based on) were smart enough to let the character learn the lesson nonetheless. It would’ve been less interesting if we had easier answers and an overly romantic ending.

“Paper Towns” is based on a young-adult novel by John Green, who also penned “The Fault in Our Stars.” (Fun Fact: the film adaptations of both of these novels were written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.) Like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns” has a nice blend of comedy and drama and some memorably appealing characters, only this one has more of a fun, mystery edge to it. This quirky, mysterious girl, Margo (Cara Delevingne) has brought Quentin “Q” (Nat Wolff, who played the comic-relief in the “Fault in Our Stars” film adaptation) to assist in her revenge plan for her boyfriend cheating on her with her best friend, and now, rather than start a nice relationship with Q the next day, she doesn’t turn up in school. Where is she? Q finds a clue in her bedroom that indicates she might have run away to a “paper town” (a fake town created by mapmakers to protect copyright). The more he looks into it, the more clues he finds that serve as a map to the location where she might be. He brings his two best friends, whip-smart Radar (Justice Smith) and obnoxious Ben (Austin Abrams), in on the mystery, and Margo’s best friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) join in on the fun as well. Before long, all five embark on a road-trip to the paper town. What they find along the way isn’t as important as what they discover along the way (of course), but when they return to school in time for prom, they are all changed people.

Q is the least interesting character in the film. He’s just your typical bland, likable, awkward teen hoping to have a good time in high school. Though, as played by Nat Wolff, he is at least likable. His friends are much more interesting, and thankfully, they’re given plenty of room to develop. Radar is loyal to his girlfriend, though he’s embarrassed to introduce her to his family. Why? Get this—his family has the largest collection of Black Santa figures decorated all throughout the house. (I’m not making this up.) Ben is borderline obnoxious and consistently funny—he’s given room to grow outside the horny, annoying comic relief he could’ve been if we didn’t get enough time to know him.

That’s the purpose of the story—to get to really know people. Lacey isn’t just a blonde knockout, Radar’s girlfriend isn’t a stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t know how to have fun, and of course, beneath Margo’s shroud of mystery lies someone more complex than you might think. More so than the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” However, my biggest problem with the movie (and I don’t think the ending could be blamed for this one) is that Margo just isn’t all that interesting to me to begin with, and I think that might be because Delevingne isn’t that charismatic of a performer to make me totally invested in the puzzle that is her character. But then again, the movie isn’t really about her as much as it is about Q’s love for her and his friendship with Radar and Ben. I really liked seeing these kids interact with each other and with Lacey and Angela.

With quick pacing by director Jake Schreier, dialogue from Neustadter and Weber that feel like realistic teenage banter, and a fine cast, “Paper Towns” is a cute, fun mystery-drama that is effective (especially) to the end.

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Brad’s Status (2017)

27 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Get over yourself, Ben Stiller—er, I mean, Brad. Quit complaining about everything and shut the hell up, Ben—er, Brad.

I think Brad Sloan in Mike White’s “Brad’s Status” is the perfect role for Ben Stiller. In “The Meyerowitz Stories,” “While We’re Young,” “Greenberg,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and even the “Night at the Museum” movies, among others, we’ve noticed in the past decade just how good Stiller is at playing a neurotic who is hardly satisfied with where he is at his point in life. Stiller has played self-centered, passive-aggressive, humorously unhappy men who are hard to like but even harder to hate. And now we have “Brad’s Status,” which is probably the most aware of Stiller’s trademark niche.

He plays Brad Sloan—is it even a shock to describe him as bitter and resentful from the get-go? When we first meet him, he’s lying awake in bed, sharing his inner monologue with us about how great his old friends have it—Craig (Michael Sheen) is a best-selling author; Billy (Jermaine Clement) is now retired and living in Maui, having sold his company; Jason (Luke Wilson) is a filthy-rich CEO; and Nick (Mike White) is a Hollywood director. What about Brad? He runs his own non-profit organization and lives a nice life with his loving wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and musically-talented 17-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams)… Thank God when Brad wakes up Melanie and starts groaning about money, she’s there to tell him not to compare themselves to the wealthy, because somebody had to tell this guy he has a good status. But the movie continues (that’s only the first few minutes), and we haven’t heard the last of his complaining…

Brad takes Troy on a cross-country plane trip to visit colleges. Wanting the best for his son, while at the same time worrying that he’ll be as resentful towards him as he is towards his wealthy friends, Brad commits a series of mistakes he hopes to make up for by getting him an interview with the Harvard dean of admissions. Along the way, he has so many encounters with people that should wake him up to be okay with his current status, including a sour dinner date with Craig and, my personal favorite, a failed attempt to get a co-ed, an Indian-American music student named Ananya (Shazi Raja), to see things his way. (She drops the hammer on him, stating he has white man’s privilege, while she knows kids in India who are lucky to have something to eat.)

All of this sounds like I’m criticizing the film, but I’m not. I’m actually recommending it. I imagine everyone at some point or another tries to compare their lives with the lives of everyone they know—are they doing better than some, worse than others? And it never seems to be good enough. But the point of “Brad’s Status,” in which the main character has a midlife crisis, is that this feeling does exist. And it passes. The ending is ambiguous, but there is a ray of hope that Brad will be fine with his status.

A lot of reviews for “Brad’s Status” has praised the music score by Mark Mothersbaugh, a discordant score with a lot of staccato strings. And for good reason—it’s the perfect score to accompany a 40something year old man who is full of regret and constantly thinks about where he would be today if he just did things different. It’s usually there over Brad’s voiceover narration, which makes it all the more effective.

With the aid of White’s insightful screenplay (and directing), Stiller nails the role. Sometimes, he’s frustrating to watch (to the point where I want to look away), but even so, he’s always convincing and it’s not too difficult to understand why he thinks this way throughout the film. He is what makes “Brad’s Status” an important study in how to cope with a nervous breakdown. This guy may not be easy to like, but just remember—this could be us some day.

First They Killed My Father (2017)

27 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve always found it interesting when a historical tragedy is seen from the perspective of a child. How do they react to the horrible things we read about in history books today? What do they do when trying to survive these events? Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” was effective at showing the coming-of-age of a young privileged boy becoming wiser and more resilient after time in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. And here, we have Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father,” in which a 5-year-old girl endures labor camps and child-soldier training during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia—a time when about 2 million were either killed by execution or died from starvation in the 1970s.

Based on the memoir of the same name by Loung Ung and adapted by Ung and Jolie, “First They Killed My Father” begins with a look at the middle-class family life of 5-year-old Loung (Sreymoch Sareum) and her loving family in Phnom Penh. She plays with her many siblings, she dances to a pop song on the radio, she lives a life of relative peace that you know is going to be ruined somehow. And then, the Communist Khmer Rouge soldiers take over and force people to leave their homes and evacuate the city, giving the impression that the Americans will bomb it.

Now poor and powerless, Loung and her family are now joining refugees and doing whatever it takes to survive this ordeal. It’s especially sad when we realize beforehand that they will inevitably be separated and brutally beaten and/or killed. Other families are separated, people are executed by the soldiers, and eventually, Loung ends up in a labor camp, where she’s trained as a soldier herself.

Loung witnesses so much destruction and brutality at the age of 5, and much of the film is seen through her perspective. It rides on her facial expressions as she reacts accordingly to these terrible incidents surrounding her. We know she’s too young to fully comprehend the mayhem, but we also know that this is the new normal for her. She does all the things she’s forced to do because that’s what she feels she has to do, because there’s no other choice. It’s actually more powerful than if someone just said of a certain attack, “Oh, how horrifying.” It’s instead reflected on a young child’s face.

Jolie proves to be a strong, capable director here (I’ve yet to see any of her other directorial efforts, including “Unbroken”), and I admire her ability to tell the real Loung Ung’s tragic coming-of-age story without getting preachy (and even creating it with Ung herself; Ung and Jolie wrote the screenplay together). Also great is the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, who helps make the film feel bigger than it could’ve been.

My only criticism is the running time of 2 hours and 16 minutes. While Jolie knows for the most part not to let shots or scenes linger for too long, I still think the film could have benefitted from removing a couple scenes here or there, mostly because we already get the point. But then again, I guess since we need this film, it can be as long as it deserves to be. Maybe it’s more of a nitpick than a criticism, but it is what’s keeping me from rating it four stars. (But three-and-a-half is still high enough for me.)

Why do we “need” this film? Because it’s what Ung remembers from a brutal time in history and we shouldn’t forget it. That’s why we need films like this and “Empire of the Sun,” and to be made with talented filmmakers is a bonus. “First They Killed My Father” is a small but important treasure.

20th Century Women (2016)

13 Jun

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

Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” feels like a classy, edgy, bittersweet novel you could read in peace and silence and tell your friends about over cups of coffee. If I didn’t catch sight of the Best Original Screenplay nomination for this film at the 89th Academy Awards (before seeing the film on DVD), I would’ve thought this script was adapted from such a novel. But nope—the script is original and seemingly semi-autobiographical, based on elements of writer-director Mills’ childhood. Maybe it feels like a novel because of all the detail he inserts into both the writing and the directing, as well as the deep characterization within all five (yes, FIVE) key characters of the story. It feels authentic, drowns in nostalgia, and is presented like a deeply composed character study in which you want to stay and be absorbed by as much information about the people and their environment as possible.

“20th Century Women” takes place in Santa Barbara, CA in 1979. It’s a time when the fads are punk music and skateboarding, Jimmy Carter is looking more tired on TV, and just about everyone smokes. The story, such as it is, mainly revolves around the concerns of a middle-aged mother for her 15-year-old son—will he grow up to be “a good man” being raised in this world? She enlists the help of the boy’s would-be girlfriend and two tenants of her boarding house to make sure he’s on the right track.

I’ll go over these characters one at a time. We’ll start with the semi-autobiographical protagonist (i.e. Mills’ fictional childhood counterpart): Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann). Jamie’s a young, impressionable, likable, lost boy. He’s like a puppy everyone wants to be there for (everyone except his male peers, of course). He tries new things, tries to fit in with the local skater boys, wants to experience sex, and like most teenage boys, doesn’t really know what he wants in life and hides his personal fears. He’s a good kid who could grow up to be a good man.

There’s an older girl in Jamie’s life: Julie (Elle Fanning), who lives near the boarding house Jamie’s mother (I’ll get to her later) runs. She’s depressed, sexually active, and often spends the night in Jamie’s bed to escape the unpleasantness of her home life. Does she know sharing the same bed with Jamie while sharing a platonic relationship with him adds to his confusion and horniness? At one point, Jamie suggests they have sex, but Julie tells him having sex will ruin the special friendship they share.

One of the tenants in the boarding house is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 20something, purple-haired, punk music loving, artistic photographer, who developed her lust for life after beginning treatment for cervical cancer. I don’t know if it’s the character as written so much as the way Gerwig portrays her, kind of like the flip side of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, but Abbie is my favorite character in a film that is rich with character.

Another tenant is a middle-aged, hippie-style carpenter for the boarding house. (I’m not sure how good of a handyman he is, considering the house constantly looks like it’s being renovated, making me wonder when he moved in and when the house first needed repairs.) He’s an easy charmer with all the right pickup techniques for women and thankfully the sense not to take advantage of them…as much as he’d like to. He’s a good guy who helps out from time to time, not just with repairs but with advice.

And last but definitely not least, we have Jamie’s 55-year-old, chain-smoking, emotionally complex mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), who asks these three people to help raise her son in this time of crisis, because she herself is unsure she’s doing a good enough job on her own. She spends so much time trying to figure out what is going on with everybody that she never bothers to find it beneath herself to discover what’s happening with her. That also includes the cultural changes happening around her—why do teens do what they do, what’s with the new music, why is smoking more dangerous now than it was when she was growing up, etc. She’s so open to the world that when her old car catches on fire in a parking lot, she even invites the firemen over for dinner. Even at the end of the film, we’re not so sure who this person is, but at the same time, she doesn’t entirely know either. But it’s still interesting to try and find out.

Much of the film is about the world that her tenants introduce both her and her son into. What’s fascinating about this journey is that there’s no one main character. The narrative voiceover is shared by all of them, so we can see and feel what these characters see and feel. I’m not so sure we needed this constant narration, because thanks to Mills’ brilliant writing, these characters aren’t played as quirky types. But I am glad it is there because I did appreciate getting into their mindsets. Even Dorothea, for as complex as she is, still comes across as a real person—a mysterious one we can only try and figure out.

The acting is fantastic, but it really comes down to Mike Mills and his script. His characters are wonderful company for a couple hours and his message is presented effectively through them. Times change, but people will always be strange and/or beautiful and/or complex and/or annoying and/or all of the above. All of that is portrayed wonderfully in “20th Century Women,” a film that challenges, provokes discussion, and more importantly, pleases.

The Cobbler (2015)

13 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t like to hate on movies (anymore), particularly indie comedy-dramas (“dramedies”) that dabble in magical realism. I find them fascinating—I love “Ruby Sparks,” about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl suddenly brought to life; I admired “The One I Love,” about a couple being forced to examine their relationship through their ideal selves; and “Birdman” won Oscars for reasons, obviously. With “The Cobbler” being given a down-to-earth tone by the deeply talented Tom McCarthy, who made such wonderful low-key dramas such as “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” and the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” and guided by an admittedly interesting premise, you’d think this would be a sure-fire sleeper…

What IS the premise? Adam Sandler plays Max Simkin, who works as a cobbler in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His life isn’t anything to brag about—he cares for his ailing mother (Lynn Cohen), he cares very little for the shop (or his customers), he ignores the prying of the barber named Jimmy (Steve Buscemi) who works in the shop next door, and he’s just a miserable sadsack. Oh, if only something magical could come along to live his life some purpose. And thankfully, something unexpected happens once he brings out an old stitching machine to repair local thug Ludlow’s (Method Man) shoes, and he tries them on. Suddenly, whoa! He looks in the mirror and he sees Ludlow staring back at him! It turns out the stitching machine is magic—if you repair someone’s shoes with it, and then put on the shoes, you become the literal owner of the shoes. (Of course, the shoe sizes have to match Max’s, which luckily, they do.)

Max uses the ability to become other people for some exciting reasons, such as living as someone else for a day because anyone else’s life is more interesting than his own. But then, it gets WEIRD… Here’s an example: Max wears the shoes of his late father (Dustin Hoffman) and transforms into him so that he can have a romantic dinner with his mother to make her happy… I don’t want to know what happened after that dinner, but I hope he let his mother down gently (not in the way you’re thinking!).

As if that wasn’t creepy enough, he also becomes a handsome Brit (Dan Stevens) so he can score with his beautiful girlfriend…in the shower (where he has to keep the shoes on—ha ha). That’s not charming—that’s really, really disturbing. I don’t think the crazy Adam Sandler of his own Happy Madison comedies would attempt to go this far.

Adam Sandler is a very likable, charming fellow (when he wants to be) and can be very funny (again, when he wants to be). And he’s a really good actor, as established in non-Happy-Madison-related productions such as P.T. Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” James L. Brooks’ “Spanglish,” Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.” (Not that he’s not a good actor in the Happy Madison movies—it’s just that you don’t see those movies for acting ability.) But here, when I should be feeling for this self-loathing, life-hating, poor guy, I’m instead questioning his morals and ethics when he does so many creepy things once he obtains this magical ability. It’s so uncomfortable that it actually makes “The Cobbler” harder to watch than most Happy Madison movies…MOST of them.

When he does use the machine to serve a good cause (saving the community his shop is set up in), I care very little because what leads him to it and what occurs as a result is laughable in all the wrong ways. The story gets more ridiculous as it goes along, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re given a twist at the end that had me facepalm myself and say, “Are you kidding me?!”

“The Cobbler” should have been a sweet fable about a guy learning to be more comfortable with himself as he becomes other people. It had a great lead and a great director, but the script just needed a lot of rewrites in order to make it work. Thank God McCarthy bounced back with “Spotlight” just a few months after this film’s release. Otherwise, it would’ve destroyed him. And Sandler still has a few good ones to deliver, so I’ll be on the lookout for those.