Archive | November, 2019

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#19

29 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my favorite films of the past decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road


The first time I saw Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” it broke me. Even when I knew how it was going to end, I still wasn’t ready for it. I was sad, angry, and frustrated that what happened at the end of this film actually happened in real life.

“Fruitvale Station” is based on the events leading to the death of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man who was killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officers within the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. The murder was witnessed by the present transit passengers stopped at the Fruitvale station where it happened. Many of these onlookers recorded the incident on their phones and shared it online, sparking a ton of interest and controversy.

Before writer-director Ryan Coogler begins his dramatized telling of what led up to this event, he makes the bold choice of showing us a recorded video of the incident (and cutting it off just as we hear the gunshot).

“Fruitvale Station” was Coogler’s feature debut. He was a graduate student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts when Grant was shot and killed. Since then, he held a passion for making a film about Grant’s last day, with the intent of telling the story that you usually wouldn’t find in the media: who Oscar Grant was. Coogler met and worked with Grant’s family to learn more about Grant, and then he had a big opportunity in 2011 when Forest Whitaker decided to support the project when his production company was looking for new talent to mentor.

In 2013, “Fruitvale Station” premiered at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for drama, and screened again at Cannes before it was released in theaters in July. It received a ton of praise from critics and audiences, and it’s easy to see why. This is a terrific film.

And it introduced us to a truly talented director in Ryan Coogler, who went on to revive the “Rocky” franchise by taking it in a different direction before making a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie that would challenge its audience (no, the other movie)–an impressive track record, to say the least!

All three of Coogler’s movies so far feature actor Michael B. Jordan, another great young talent who broke through this decade. In “Fruitvale Station,” he portrays Oscar Grant, a young parolee trying to stay out of trouble. It’s impossible to dislike him–he feels all too real, and it’s also to Jordan’s credit as a natural actor that we see him as a regular guy, flaws and all. He can get angry and impatient, but he also shows a genuine love for those who love him. When you make a film based on a real person, it’s easy to turn that person into a saint. But with “Fruitvale Station,” it seems Coogler was more focused on showing us who he was and who would miss him.

Nothing dramatic happens to Oscar in the day leading up to his death. He goes about his day preparing for his mother’s birthday party and a New Year’s night out with his girlfriend and their friends, and he’ll also spend time with his four-year-old daughter in the meantime. But there is something else to this day as well–he wants to turn his life around. He’s on parole, so he seeks to get a legitimate job–he was fired from a supermarket position, apparently weeks ago, and so today he’s trying to get his job back; and he even throws out the last of his drugs, which he was going to sell. He tells his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who isn’t very pleased that he’s been selling drugs in the time since he was fired, and he assures her that he’s going to find a way to keep going…and before they drop their daughter off at Sophina’s sister-in-law’s for the night before meeting their friends, Oscar tells Tatiana that they’ll go to Chuck E. Cheese the following morning…

Because we know how this story will end, each of these actions feel all the more meaningful and tragic because we know these are Oscar’s final moments of his life. The family and friends that Oscar interacts with are never going to see him again after this day.

What aids in the film’s effect is the use of handheld cameras to add some rawness to the proceedings, rather than rely on polished cinematography (which a lot of film-school graduates love to show off). And thanks to the first-rate acting from everyone involved (not just Jordan and Diaz but also Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother), “Fruitvale Station” both looks and feels real. When the incident finally occurs in the last 15 minutes of the film, even though I knew it was coming, I still wasn’t ready for it.

And…OK, let’s talk about the incident as it truly happened. The reason the BART officers arrived at the Fruitvale station to apprehend Oscar was because he was involved in a fight on the train with a thug he was in prison with. (Actually, they didn’t single out Oscar–they pulled off the train everyone they thought might have been involved in the fight.) The cops had their tasers out, pointed toward their detainees against the platform wall. One thing led to another, and Oscar was pinned to the floor by a cop who tried to arrest him for “resisting an officer.” He couldn’t reach Oscar’s hands, he unholstered his gun, and shot him in the back.

It was a time of confusion that led to ultimate tragedy. The officer who fired the shot was sentenced to two years for involuntary manslaughter after claiming he mistook his gun for his taser and released after 11 months. And the other officers involved were fired. All I can say is…that’s three less inept police officers in the world. Because, that’s what they were: inept. Whether Oscar disrespected them or not, that doesn’t matter. Whether the officer truly was reaching for his taser or not, that doesn’t matter. They panicked, they handled it all wrong, and they weren’t meant to be cops.

Whew. Glad I got that out of my system.

“Fruitvale Station” isn’t an easy film to watch. But it’s one that definitely made an impact on me. I will see it again a few more times, but it depends on the mood I’m in. But when I play the DVD, the ending has the same impact on me each time. And that’s why it’s on my decade-end top 20.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#20

27 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Another decade comes to an end, which means it’s time for movie lovers such as myself to look back at all of the movies released within the decade and narrow down which ones stood out the most for them. And if you look at my ridiculously long list of “honorable mentions,” you’ll see that it was tough for me to single out even an extra 30 for a top-50, let alone a top-20–but there are 20 movies I DIDN’T mention, and those are the selections I will be looking at one-by-one.

Let’s begin with my #20 choice–one of the greatest, most riveting, most brilliantly made, and yes, most financially/critically successful action movies to ever grace the silver screen:

20) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)


George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” is awesome. There’s no other way to put it. It’s simply awesome in every aspect I can think of. Miller waited 30 years since 1985’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (which I still like, maybe more than I should) to bring “Mad Max” big to cinemas. Now, with a new cast and more resources thanks to a bigger budget, he has created “Mad Max: Fury Road,” in a few ways a sequel but in other ways a reboot. Either way you look at it doesn’t matter–at least, it didn’t matter to me. It’s one of the greatest action movies I’ve ever seen.

In this high-octane, unbelievably effective post-apocalyptic tale, set in a harsh desert wasteland where civilization has collapsed, Tom Hardy struggles to survive as the title role. Water is precious. Freedom is a long ways away. And everyone needs gasoline to fuel their many awesome-looking vehicles that brave the desert from time to time. That’s really the only setup we need for a story that’s as straightforward as they come.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is a two-hour chase movie. It begins as a loner, Max, is captured by a warlord named Immortan Joe and his bloodthirsty pack of “war boys” to be one of their blood donors to fuel them and ready them for battle. But as Furiosa (Charlize Theron) defies Immortan Joe and flees with Immortan Joe’s five wives to release them from captivity and deliver them to a better place far from him. One of the “war boys,” Nux (Nicholas Hoult), joins his pack along a manhunt in stopping Furiosa, bringing Max with him. After losing the others in one hell of a sandstorm (mixed with lightning!), Max joins forces with Furiosa, Nux is put into the mix as well, and they work together to avoid Joe’s cronies before fighting them off in the name of freedom for them all.

Lots of pyrotechnics, impressive visual storytelling, amazing gadgets and vehicles built for the setting, a badass hero, and a deadly atmosphere to combat it all–all of that is what “Mad Max: Fury Road” delivers for us. The CGI is used to add layers to the environment and is not cartoonishly over-the-top, and the editing isn’t as fast and incomprehensible in the same way Michael Bay makes millions of dollars with his mindless action flicks. Here, a lot of the setting is practical, computers are used to make it look more fitting (with a lot of oranges and reds to create a color scheme that spells out what this environment is like), and we’re also treated to long tracking shots to get a feel for where we are–a great counterbalance for the crazy closeups that often appear to show the characters’ determinations. But the badass hero isn’t Max after all–it’s Furiosa. She’s the one with purpose, determination, a plan, and numerous ways of gaining the upper hand–and Theron has to play the role with minimal dialogue, using mostly her facial expressions to constantly get across what kind of person she is and what she’s up to. Despite having the title role in four movies (he is “The Road Warrior” after all), Mad Max has never really been the most important part of this franchise’s environment anyway–it’s always been the world around him, as well as the characters he comes across, that he interacts with that made it all interesting.

And even better–you don’t have to have seen the other “Mad Max” movies to get into this one.

Oh, and about Immortan Joe’s five wives, for whom Furiosa races to seek freedom–they’re all supermodel-like, as if they’re being prepared for a magazine shoot. At first, I wondered why this was necessary, until I realized, this is how Joe prefers to see them, as they’re often referred to as “breeders.” Thus, they flee to seek their own identity and independence. But they’re not useless either–each of them proves their worth one way or another.

So, we have Max, Furiosa, Nux, and the five women going up against Immortan Joe and his colorful baddies in one extended action scene after another in which Max and Furiosa have to devise one improvised plan after another. It’s never boring–it’s paced fantastically and with carefully chosen dialogue and some emotion to make sure we can catch our breath and learn a thing or two about them and their situation.

Oh, and there’s a blind metal guitarist whose guitar shoots flames…I don’t know why that’s a thing, but I love it!

“Mad Max: Fury Road” runs for two hours. It goes by very fast. Every time I watch it, I don’t get tired of it. I just sit back, relax, and have myself a hell of a good time.

Prepping for My Top 20 Films of the 2010s

26 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Well, it’s getting close to that time–the time when I count down my top 20 favorite films of the decade.

When I started this series of “Looking Back at 2010s Films,” I did not anticipate the many, many, MANY movies I would be “looking back” on. And I think I’m only halfway done covering the 2010s films I really like (or really hate–I only wrote three negative posts in this series). But I figure, I should get started with my #20 choice real soon, despite not writing about “enough” 2010s films that aren’t on the list. So, if I feel the need to write about another film from the decade, I’ll do it (even if it’s during 2020). I’m just saying…the time is come.

BUT FIRST…here are the closest things I have to “honorable mentions” (separated via category):

Great for the Whole Family–“Toy Story 3,” “Paddington 2,” “Coco,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Kung Fu Panda 3,” “A Monster Calls,” “Frozen,” “Tangled,” “ParaNorman,” “The Lego Movie,” “Big Hero 6”

“Based on a True Story” (as far as YOU know)“127 Hours,” “The End of the Tour,“The Stanford Prison Experiment,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Argo,” “Love & Mercy,” “Boy Erased,” “I, Tonya,” “Dolemite is My Name,” “The Wind Rises,” “First Man,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Impossible,” “Molly’s Game,” “The Tale,” “First They Killed My Father,” “Loving,” “Southside With You,” “Bernie,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” “Bridge of Spies”

New Life into the Franchise“Logan,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Black Panther,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Creed,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Skyfall,” “Mission: Impossible–Fallout,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” “The Muppets”

True Lives of Interesting People“Three Identical Strangers,” “Stories We Tell,” “Big Sonia,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “Rich Hill,” “Man Shot Dead,” “West of Memphis,” “Love, Antosha,” “Amy,” “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” “Free Solo”

Listen to Them!–“When We Walk,” “The Hate U Give,” “Blindspotting,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”

“True Grit” (Gritty, Compelling Dramas/Thrillers)“True Grit,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Prisoners,” “First Reformed,” “Mud,” “Leave No Trace,” “Room,” “Joker,” “Cop Car,” “Buried,” “Drive,” “Lean on Pete,” “Winter’s Bone,” “Wildlife,” “Blue Ruin,” “Two Step,” “Come Morning,” “Gone Girl”

“Dramedy”“50/50,” “Short Term 12,” “The Way, Way Back,” “The Big Sick,” “20th Century Women,” “The Descendants,” “The Farewell,” “Everybody Wants Some!!,” “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” “Mistress America,” “Private Life,” “Columbus,” “Chef,” “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” “Bridesmaids,” “The Meyerowitz Stories,” “The Kids are All Right,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “Don Jon”

Screen of Terror“Let Me In,” “It,” “Doctor Sleep,” “Hush,” “Attack the Block,” “Us,” “The VVitch,” “Split,” “The Babadook,” “Green Room,” “Lights Out,” “Hereditary,” “The Gift,” “Gerald’s Game,” “It Follows,” “The Invitation,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Super Dark Times”

Just Flat-Out Fun/Funny“The World’s End,” “Deadpool,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “Shazam!,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “22 Jump Street,” “Turbo Kid,” “This is the End”

Coming-of-Age High School Dramedy“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Eighth Grade,” “Booksmart,” “The Edge of Seventeen,” “mid90s,” “Love, Simon”

Celebration of Creativity!“Sing Street,” “Operation Avalanche,” “A Star is Born,” “Birdman,” “Brigsby Bear”

Magical Realism“Life of Pi,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “The One I Love”

And the Rest“The Artist,” “Roma,” “Arrival,” “Her,” “Inception,” “La La Land,” “Chronicle,” “The Master,” “Flight,” “Dunkirk,” “Searching,” “Moonlight,” “Last Flag Flying,” “Gifted,” “Call Me By Your Name”

MAN, I hope I didn’t miss anything…but I fear I did. (I can’t help it–I love movies so much!)

And don’t expect me to even touch upon all the short films I reviewed for this blog–because, chances are I’ve missed a lot of great ones in the past few years since I regularly reviewed a whole bunch of them. BUT…is there a better one than Mark Thiedeman’s “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls”? If there is, I haven’t seen it. (But I may make a special post for that one, if it’s not in the decade-end top-20.)

See you guys in the #20 post!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: A Star is Born (2018)

26 Nov

By Tanner Smith

I knew “Black Panther” wouldn’t get the Best Picture Oscar this year, so there had to be another nominee I could root for that would probably win. My choice: Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born.” (Actually, I had two; the other was Alfonso Cuaron’s excellent “Roma.”)

“A Star is Born” is the kind of rags-to-riches story the Academy loves to recognize, and for “A Star is Born,” I see no flaw in their recognition. This is a REALLY good film, proving that it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a familiar story as long as it’s presented in a fresh, different way that still has us applauding afterwards. You know the story for “A Star is Born”–a famous celebrity meets a struggling performer and gives her time to shine, thus causing her star to rise and his own to fall.

In this case, we have Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, who also directed the film), a famous country-rock star who plays his heart out to thousands of fans who still love him even when he’s past his prime. He’s his own worst enemy, very weary and consistently drunk, like a lot of sad successes. But he’s there to hear aspiring singer-songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) sing at a bar–he goes backstage to meet her, they spend a nice evening together, they even collaborate on a new song together, and it seems like that’s the end of it, right?

Wrong. Jack is captivated by Ally and isn’t going to forget about her so easily. He invites her to his next show, where she’ll stand in the wings…and he begins to play the song she wrote with him that night. He gestures for her to come onstage and join in, and though she’s hesitant…she does. She sings her heart out and amazes everyone in the audience.

Thus…a star is born.

This entire first act of the film, which is about 45 minutes in a two-hour-10-minute movie, is wonderful. First of all, the song Jack sings in the opening (“Black Eyes”) is incredible (and I’m not a music critic–though I like to think I have good taste) and lets you know what this guy is all about, as does the following scene which shows what he’s like OFFstage as he simply tells his chauffeur he just wants to go somewhere to get a drink. Second of all, when he and Ally converse, it feels like they genuinely share a connection–they are both listening to each other. Ally knows the guy is famous and she is afraid he’s there just to pick her up, but she does let her guard down when she sees the guy is pretty OK. This is the highlight of the film for me–Cooper and Gaga feel like real people sharing a relationship together. And third, when Ally goes up onstage and sings with Jack, it’s a magical cinematic moment that rivals such moments from previous versions of a similar story.

Oh, and the song they play together is “Shallow.” I know everyone’s tired of this song, and so am I. But as with “Frozen” and its overplayed single “Let It Go,” I can’t let the fact that it’s overplayed get in the way of what a solid song it is. (Though, I would like to hear other good songs from the soundtrack as well–there are a few more that deserve recognition too.)

The rest of the film is pretty solid and powerful too, as we see Ally go through the usual BS of what it means to make it in the entertainment business. Even when she doesn’t understand it, she can’t bring herself to question it all to her manager (well-played by Rafi Gavron) because it’s her time to shine and she’s been waiting for it! But we also see Jack’s fall from stardom, as he just gets worse with alcoholism and loses himself…and his brother/PR-manager (Sam Elliott). (The scene in which Elliott gets into an intense fight with Cooper is heartbreaking and shows some of Elliott’s finest moments as an actor.) Because we’ve gotten to know Jack and Ally so well, we want to see everything go well for them…and we feel very bad when they don’t.

Speaking of which, I missed the confrontation between Ally and her manager for practically instigating the tragic action that ends the story–that a-hole needed to get his; I hope she fired his ass.

Lady Gaga is wonderful as Ally. I’ve already known she could sing, I DEFINITELY already know she had confidence as a performer, and now I know she can act. And act well. Cooper is also great–I already knew HE could act, but now he’s delivered what I think is his most impressive work. (And he’s also a hell of a good director, as it turns out.)

“A Star is Born” is above all a film about love and connecting–from the loveliness of meeting someone special for the first time to the bittersweet stages of a progressing romance to the sad moments where one brings the other down one way or another to…well, I won’t go into that. I cared about this movie because I cared for these two characters. And I’m always down for a film about a special relationship between two interesting people.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

26 Nov

By Tanner Smith

The Coen Brothers’ ode to the late-’50s/early-’60s folk-music scene, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” has become somewhat of a trading secret between movie lovers. Not enough people talk about it, but those that do usually praise it to high heaven. And I can certainly see why. It’s as offbeat and ridiculous as many of the Coen Brothers’ best-known works, but there’s something else to it as well–something that speaks to people (particularly those trying to make it in the arts) through the lead character, who is surly, depressed, and either trying so hard or not hard enough to make a name for himself in folk music. It’s the kind of film (and character) that wouldn’t work for a mainstream audience, because it’s so downbeat and also zigzagging, but would delight indie-scene individuals because both its narrative and characters are identifiable.

The setting is Greenwich Village, 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a broke, homeless folk singer. With his guitar, he comes alive by performing a song. Without his guitar (hell, even WITH his guitar, which he often brings with him), he’s a bum crashing from place to place. And the film is just pretty much following this guy around for about a week as he interacts with friends, family, acquaintances, and new people he comes across. We see his offbeat relationship with an old flame, fellow musician Jean (Carey Mulligan), who is pregnant and doesn’t want the baby if it’s Llewyn’s and not her current boyfriend’s. (“Everything you touch turns to SH*T!” she snaps at him at one point.) We see him collaborate with other musicians–Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver)–for easily the best song in the movie (which admittedly has a very strong soundtrack–I’m humming at least three of these tunes as I write this post), “Please Mr. Kennedy.” We see his rocky relationship with his sister (Jeanine Serralles), from whom he tries to borrow money. We even see him go on a bizarre road trip to Chicago with Roland Turner (John Goodman) and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

Oh, and there’s a cat too…I don’t know why the cat is there, but he’s a great supporting cat.

So many aspiring artists wish to do what they love doing for a living, and they’re often faced with a choice–continue struggling until something great happens to come along and set them for life…or get a “real” job with steady income. Sometimes, the choice is difficult to make because so many of us want to use our talents to our benefit. (Yes, I include myself–I want to make movies, not write about them forever.) That’s the choice Llewyn has to make in the end. (What’s beautiful about the resolution is that there hardly is a resolution–we don’t know the choice Llewyn ultimately makes.) There is a possibility that Llewyn will continue to struggle because he’s gotten used to it, as Jean bluntly insinuates at one point, but if he does make it in the field, he may actually turn out more miserable than he already is. It’s interesting to think about, and that’s one of the main reasons I think people love this movie. This is not your basic “star-is-born” story.

The cast is perfect, the songs are memorably well-suited, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is wonderful, and it’s a Coen Bros. movie through and through. And upon seeing it again, I’m not gonna lie…it came close to making the decade-end top-20 list.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Bridge of Spies (2015)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Steven Spielberg, one of my personal favorite directors working today, has had seven feature films released this decade: “The Adventures of Tintin,” “War Horse,” “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The BFG,” “The Post,” and “Ready Player One.” What do I think of them?

“The Adventures of Tintin” is good fun; “War Horse” is flawed but mostly powerful; “Lincoln” looks/feels great but I’d come back more for Daniel Day Lewis’ lead performance than anything else; “The BFG” is cute enough; “The Post”…I’ll probably see that one again to be fair, because it didn’t do much for me when I saw it before (but everyone else seems to love it); and “Ready Player One” is also good fun. But the one I have the most admiration for is “Bridge of Spies,” a historical drama made with just about as much grit, conviction, style, and intrigue as Spielberg’s “Munich” and “Amistad.”

What makes this one even more interesting? Spielberg works with a script by the Coen Brothers! I’m down!

Set during the Cold War, when Americans and Russians sent spies to each other’s country in paranoia of each other’s nuclear capabilities, the film follows a New York insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), who is hired to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for this performance), who’s been charged for spying for the Soviet Union. Believing Abel deserves a fair trial he most likely won’t get if he doesn’t take the job, he agrees to his case. He’s not able to get his client a “Not Guilty” verdict, but his arguments spare Abel the death penalty because Abel is an honorable servant to his country and he might be useful for a future prisoner exchange. And a prisoner exchange might just be in store, as in a parallel storyline, CIA pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is captured by the Soviets after being shot down in their territory (and failing to hit the self-destruct and/or kill himself, as instructed to do if he were ever caught). So, Donovan is asked to travel to Berlin and talk the KGB and East German representatives into a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers.

All of what I’m describing to you sounds simple, but it’s more complicated than that. Donovan tries his best to defend Abel fairly, while the CIA urges him to push Abel to reveal what he knows, despite Abel being loyal to his country. Donovan becomes one of the most hated men in the country for defending a Soviet spy–his family home even has shots fired upon with his family inside (no one gets hurt, though). We’re told all the stakes for Powers and his fellow CIA recruits if there’s any chance of capture. The CIA thinks a letter from Abel’s wife contains a hidden USSR message. And this is before Donovan goes to East Berlin to meet with the KGB in the Soviet Embassy only to end up with another exchange, this time it’s Abel for an arrested American student for political purposes.

And on and on and on. “Bridge of Spies” is loaded with exposition, as dialogue drives a great deal of the story. You need three key elements to make it work: a great director, hugely talented actors, and more importantly, a sharply written screenplay.

Well, let’s see, we have a screenplay revised from playwright Matt Charman to Joel & Ethan Coen, whose (arguably-) greatest strength is their flair for words. Check one.

Tom Hanks is top-notch as always playing Donovan who knows all the right things to say to get his points across, which for the most part work. Check two.

And Spielberg is on his A-game. Check three.

That’s not to say the entire film is focused on dialogue. Being a Spielberg film, he has unique imagery in his work. For example, there’s an effective contrast between children playing along the newly constructed Berlin Wall and Brooklyn children playing in their backyard (both occur as Donovan looks from the window of an elevated train in both countries), thus reminding him of the freedoms that America is best known for. And there’s a standout scene that shows Powers and his plane being shot down in Soviet territory–everything about this scene is wonderfully executed. It’s exciting, well-crafted, and looks scarily real.

But much of “Bridge of Spies” is dialogue-driven, and in that respect, it also works wonders. It’s a spy cat-and-mouse game, an urban drama, and a conspiracy thriller all rolled into one, and with this director, actor, and team of screenwriters, it’s all highly satisfying. Thank you, Spielberg–you still got it.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Black Panther (2018)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

It’s the superhero movie that finally convinced the Academy that mainstream action fare can count as “Best Picture worthy” too! Not “The Dark Knight.” Not “Logan.” But “Black Panther.”

And I freaking LOVE it. In fact, “Black Panther” is one of top 3 favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. When I heard it was nominated for so many Oscars (including Best Picture), I cheered and applauded. I would be mad at the Academy for excluding “The Dark Knight” and “Logan” from consideration for the highest category (and they are in many ways superior films), but what’s done is done, so let’s move along.

I gotta be honest–even though the character arc for T’challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in “Captain America: Civil War” was both strong and satisfactory, I wasn’t really rushing to see a “Black Panther” movie. (But can you blame me? Spider-Man’s movie was coming!) But when I saw it, I was blown away.

First and foremost, the world of Wakanda is outstanding! Wakanda is a secret land in Africa that possesses the most advanced technology hidden from the rest of the Earth. It’s this advanced city hidden with a cloak, and I’m guessing this is where the effects budget went, because it looks amazing.

We can add Wakanda to the fictional worlds we’d like to explore, along with Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Narnia, Asgard, Pandora, among others–now, we have Wakanda (forever!).

T’challa is prince of Wakanda, about to be appointed king to keep the peace within the kingdom. (Though, usually, there’s a brutal fight for the throne–guess that’s just the way it goes for peace.) But then along comes Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has a history with Wakanda and hates that their technology that could benefit mankind is kept secret. So, he comes up with a plan to rally as many Wakandans to his side to invade and attack those who abuse their power, starting with battling T’challa in a duel for the throne.

My second favorite thing about “Black Panther”: Killmonger. Played with such conviction by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger plays a villain whose motivations you can surprisingly get behind. You understand why he does what he does even if he does push it beyond morals and ethics, and he’s easily identifiable even though he’s the villain. When he takes charge, you buy it. When he reveals who he is to the public, you feel a little sorry for him. When he reveals his ultimate plan, you see why people would stand by him.

My ranking of the MCU villains are as follows: Thanos, Killmonger, Vulture (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”)–what a relief; I thought Loki was the best they could come up with in terms of villainy.

The director of this film was Ryan Coogler, who also directed Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed.” I think this director knows how to play to the actor’s strengths.

I also like the side characters, including T’challa’s sister, who comes up with many different gadgets for her brother to use as Black Panther in battle. She’s a lot of fun. And I also liked Martin Freeman as an American CIA agent who suddenly experiences firsthand what Wakanda is all about–first, he’s confused and even bitter about what he sees; but soon enough, his discovery turns into an enlightening journey. (Oh, and Andy Serkis plays a nasty schemer who thinks Killmonger is working for him but really he’s the one being scammed–do I even need to say Serkis is a ton of fun in this role?)

The visual effects…are not particularly strong. Even I will admit I’ve seen better, especially in other MCU movies. But they’re not TOO bad either, and they’re still put to good effect, especially in the gripping car chase midway through the film–that sequence is still strong, in my opinion.

But that’s really the only thing I have to complain about “Black Panther,” and thankfully, the effects are not what’s important with the movie. You could even argue that T’challa is the least interesting character in the movie, which is unfortunate considering the film is named after his alter-ego. But we do get a sense of who he is, and I think what’s more important is the way those around him (whether they stand by him or against him) react to his decisions, which will affect the future of Wakanda’s hierarchy.

So, in that regard, “Black Panther” is more about interesting ideas and character than it is about pyrotechnics, whether real or CG. And that’s why it’s become so well-regarded by critics, audiences, and even the Academy.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

As much as I would love to talk about “Thor: Ragnarok,” one of my favorite entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I decided to skip over it for two reasons. 1) It’d just be a collection of my favorite scenes that made me laugh and smile (plus an analysis of Bruce Banner aka The Incredible Hulk, who’s put to great use in the flick). 2) “Avengers: Infinity War” sort of varies actions and motivations in “Thor: Ragnarok” rather…pointless–and that’s just within the first 10 minutes! (That’s kind of a bummer.)

But seriously, I love “Thor: Ragnarok.” It’s the “Thor” movie I didn’t know I wanted. There. Review over. Let’s talk about “Avengers: Infinity War.”

I can imagine that in 1980, movie audiences rushed to see “The Empire Strikes Back,” the sequel to one of their favorite movies (“Star Wars”), expecting something just as incredible…and I can also imagine that they were totally scarred by the uncompromising misery brought on by its dark twists and turns.

Well, in 2018, movie audiences felt the exact same thing. We went into “Infinity War,” expecting something big and epic and worthy of something to make us feel great inside…but alas, we left the theater feeling sad and empty and lost. And I’m certain many fanboys (or “fanatics”) retreated to their parents’ basements and sobbed, “WHY, MARVEL, WHY?!”

I may be wrong, but “Avengers: Infinity War” was probably the most hyped mainstream blockbuster since “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” We’ve spent many Marvel movies building up the coming of the otherworldly villain Thanos and these things called the Infinity Stones. Well now, he’s definitely here and he’s trying to get all the Stones so that he can wipe out half the population of the whole galaxy. And not only that–this time, I’m actually interested! I got so tired of the “foreboding” moments that warned us of Thanos; I wanted him to actually do something for once! Well now, he’s been built up so much, I had to wonder what’s so special about him.

As it turns out, Thanos is the best, most complex villain the MCU has to date. As played with incredible motion-capture work by Josh Brolin, he’s always the most interesting person on screen–and that’s saying something, considering we’ve spent several movies with the Avengers themselves! (But don’t worry–the Avengers themselves are still great heroes to follow. A hero’s only as great as their villain, after all.)

As the film begins, Thanos has appeared on Thor and Loki’s ship, destroying everyone on it. (Yeah…”Thor: Ragnarok” was all about saving the people on that ship. See what I mean now?) He beats up the Hulk and sends him down to Earth, where he transforms back into Bruce Banner and warns the Avengers that “Thanos is coming” (for real this time). Thanos is looking for the Infinity Stones so that he can fit them onto the Infinity Gauntlet, which will gain him godlike powers, thus allowing him to fulfill his lifetime goal of wiping out half of all living things. Everyone is called into action: Iron Man, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Hulk, War Machine, Falcon, Black Panther, and yes, the Guardians of the Galaxy. The Stones are spread out throughout the universe, and so, they’re all split into groups to try and gain the upper hand, hoping to track down Thanos and/or each of the Stones before he can grab them.

SO much happens in this two-and-a-half hour long movie, it’s easy to miss something. But that’s not a bad thing–I’m always interested in whatever each group is up to, and whenever it cuts back to one, I’m not wondering why we’re not cutting back to another right away. We’ve spent many movies getting to know the Avengers, and now they’re in the ultimate fight with so much at stake. And they’re up against the ultimate bad guy. This movie’s gonna be awesome!

And a lot of it IS awesome, with intense superhero action and intergalactic battles and battles on land and more! The rest of it is pretty moving, as we see even Thanos has something to lose as well–we don’t condone his actions or his intents at all, but we understand why he wants to do all of this.

So, for about two hours and 10 minutes, we’re enjoying ourselves with this intense, compelling, enjoyable Marvel flick…and then, the ultimate tragedy occurs.

And thus, many children in the audience are scarred for life just as their parents were in 1980.

OK, let me get to one personal gripe: I can’t help but think back to a moment in which Peter Quill aka Starlord clearly had the upper hand and could have managed to stop everything once and for all, but no, his damn ego got in the way AGAIN.

Grrrr…….remember in my “Spider-Man: Homecoming” review, when I talked about how much Tony Stark aka Iron Man learned from his terrible mistakes brought on by his own ego and tried to better himself through his actions for the team (and for Spider-Man, for whom he was a mentor)? Well, the main thing I look forward to in “Guardians of the Galaxy 3” is that Starlord grows the hell up…especially after he returns in “Avengers: Endgame,” he still holds onto his ego!! Seriously, this is getting old. I don’t find it funny or charming anymore–this guy pisses me off just like Iron Man pissed me off long ago. But if Iron Man can change, Starlord can change…maybe.

Whew! Had to get that off my chest. Anyway, “Avengers: Infinity War” was a big movie that paid off. And it gave audiences both what they wanted and what they needed. They wanted a big story with big battles and higher stakes–they got that. They needed something that would make them ponder and think about how they got to the inevitable resolution–they DEFINITELY got that. What could possibly happen with the Avengers in their next movie? We had to wait a whole year to find out!

Would it be worth the wait? Well…I’ll get to “Avengers: Endgame” soon enough.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Super 8 (2011)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

2011–J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” was one of the biggest hits of the summer and one of my new favorite films. I saw it three times in the theater, I had a great time each viewing, I watched it several more times on DVD, I absolutely adored this movie…

Well, now that time has passed, I don’t think I would rate it four stars today. But I still enjoy it and I’d only tone the verdict down to three-and-a-half stars.

When I first saw this film in a theater, it blew me away. The effects were great (that train crash is still spectacular!), the mystery is well-handled, the buildup is nice, the kids are perfectly portrayed (that pyromaniac kid Cary constantly cracks me up), and it’s just the Spielberg-Abrams collaboration I was waiting for and got….But with that said, there are some major problems that became more clear to me, watching this again. First and foremost is the subplot involving the personal “vendetta,” if you will, Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler) has against this one guy, Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard). Maybe it’s just me, but his reasons for feeling (and acting) this way toward not only him but his generally nice daughter could be stronger. I know that it’s because Lamb’s wife had to fill in for Dainard at work and she was killed in an accident as a result, but really, it wasn’t his fault. I get it; Lamb’s a flawed man, as is Dainard, but I just couldn’t sympathize with him, because of his incredibly harsh attitude toward him and his daughter (as sort of guilt by association, I guess). This plot element simply doesn’t work for me anymore and I fast-forwarded through any scenes that bring it up.

That’s my biggest problem with the film. Other little problems include certain plot elements that don’t pay off as well as they should, and…I’ll just say it, I think the ending is kinda anticlimactic. There, I finally admitted the very thing that people have the most issues with about this film. (Though, I still think the last scene is clever and leads to a heartbreaking moment where Joe has to let go of his late mother once and for all, so that made up for it.)

With that said, I still enjoy “Super 8” for much more reasons than my personal issues with it. I still recommend it, just…slightly less highly than I did before? Take that for what it’s worth.

P.S. The kids’ short film played during the end credits? Awesome!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Frozen (2013)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

It’s the big one! “Frozen” became Disney’s most popular, most profitable, most phenomenal animated film since “The Lion King.” For the past six years, it’s been impossible to get away from it–with a ridiculous amount of merchandising in every retail store, theatrical re-releases with sing-along pop-up lyrics for the musical numbers, and of course…”Let It Go,” an inescapable song so overplayed that it even drives people who like the film crazy just from the first few opening notes alone!

Because of the insane amount of popularity “Frozen” has received, there came the inevitable backlash. Is it really that good? Does it deserve this much attention? And so on.

Personally, I don’t think any movie deserves THAT much attention–sometimes, a movie should just be a movie; other times, a movie should be more than a movie; the case for “Frozen” is that it’s even more than that, so of course it’s going to welcome a crazy amount of backlash. So, even with all of that in mind, what do I think of “Frozen”?

It’s very good. In fact, much of it is great. So let’s talk about it.

Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are two princesses who grow up separated from each other in their large castle, because Elsa has a magical ability that controls the cold and she almost killed Anna with it while they were playing together (and Anna’s memory of both that and Elsa’s power was wiped out). The two grow up as polar opposites–Elsa is an introvert after keeping her powers secret for so long, and Anna is a wild extrovert, ready to open herself to anyone who will give her attention. During Elsa’s coronation as queen, Elsa’s powers are accidentally revealed, causing her to run away and leave the kingdom in ice. Anna sets out after her so she can convince her to come back and fix everything, with help from an iceman named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Swen, and a magic, live snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad).

OK, what do I talk about first? Well, I guess I can start with what I haven’t mentioned yet: Anna’s fiance Hans (Santino Fontana). I don’t even think an hour has passed upon Anna and Hans meeting each other before deciding to marry–not too surprising for an animated fairy tale from Disney. What IS surprising and VERY refreshing is everyone’s reaction to it. Wouldn’t you know it, everyone is shocked and appalled that Anna would marry someone she just met! (Imagine that!) This is something Disney romances usually never touch upon, so that’s one of the things that make “Frozen” fresh and worth talking about.

And it actually follows through with a valuable life lesson about being careful who you trust. (I would issue a SPOILER ALERT here, but…eh, why bother? You’ve seen the movie, I bet.) Hans turns out to be the villain–a surprise villain in a Disney movie is not so surprising anymore. But here, it works, because Anna was so open to new ideas and possibilities, including agreeing to marry someone she met in a short amount of time. Put this much trust in somebody, and you’re asking for trouble. Especially for children who watch this movie, that’s a very good lesson.

But it’s not just a lesson for extreme extroverts. Elsa’s extreme introverted nature has consequences as well. Because she never socially interacted, she found herself truly alone with very little means of survival. Good lessons for both sides.

Neither of these two characters are annoyingly extreme, either. Anna is very funny and a lovable lead to follow, and Elsa is respectable and smart. And the side characters are fun too. Kristoff is a bright, resourceful, deadpan sidekick (who also sometimes talks for Swen–this Disney animal sidekick doesn’t talk, which is refreshing). And Olaf…yeah, a lot of people are annoyed by him too. Sometimes, he is a little aggravating, but I don’t mind him overall–for one thing, he’s quieter than most Disney comic reliefs; for another, he’s selfless; and last but not least, his song about waiting for summer (not knowing what the sun will do to a snowman like him) is still funny after all these years.

But that’s only from “Frozen.” For all I know, he’s gratingly obnoxious in “Frozen II,” which I haven’t seen (yet).

OK…let’s talk BRIEFLY about “Let It Go.” It’s a good song. It’s catchy, has a good melody, and is meaningful in terms of serving both the story and character…but WAY overplayed! But to be fair, there are worse songs that have become popular.

The animation is lovely and the visuals are gorgeous–not that I would expect anything less from Disney animation nowadays. The winter in this movie looks like the winter I wouldn’t mind living in. It’s beautiful.

So, yeah. “Frozen” is a very good movie. It’s not its fault people have overpraised, overhyped, and overbought every bit of it…OK, part of that is its fault, as Disney surely loves to manipulate its target audience. But you know what else is overdone in productivity? “A Christmas Story.” “Star Wars.” The Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s just part of the game, I suppose. I’ll watch “Frozen” again this Christmastime (it is a fitting Christmas movie) and enjoy it just as much as before.