Archive | June, 2020

The King of Staten Island (2020)

14 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Scott is a loser. He’s a 24-year-old tattoo-covered man-child trapped in limbo with hardly a foot ready to step into the real world. He still lives with his widowed mother and mostly sits around watching TV and getting high while his younger sister is leaving for college. He’s constantly stoned. He has friends who are equally as unmotivated or unambitious. He doesn’t want to define his relationship with his sort-of girlfriend, even though she’s patient enough to wait for him to come around (and she shouldn’t). At least Scott has a goal…to open up a tattoo parlor that is also a restaurant (“Ruby Tattoosdays,” he calls it…yeah that’ll happen). He’s even about to give a 9-year-old kid a tattoo (in the middle of nowhere, where he and his friends are lazing about) because the kid says it’s OK (that is, until the kid freaks out and runs because the needle hurts). 

Scott needs a wake-up call. And FAST. 

Scott is the main character of “The King of Staten Island,” director Judd Apatow’s latest effort to bring a stage/TV comedian’s talents to film—in this case, it’s Pete Davidson. Davidson plays Scott and also co-wrote the script, originally conceived based on true events from his life. I hope some of these events are exaggerated—there are enough blurred lines between fiction and reality, just like with many of Apatow’s other works, such as “Trainwreck” with Amy Schumer and the Apatow-produced “The Big Sick” with Kumail Nanjiani. Either way, “The King of Staten Island” works just as well because Apatow’s talent of blending hilarious raunchy comedy with moving human drama is put to very good effect here. “The King of Staten Island” is a compelling coming-of-age story about a lazy young adult who confronts his demons and prepares for something new in his life…and it’s also very funny. 

Scott’s world of arrested development is shattered when his kid sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), leaves for college. Actually, no, it’s not that—it’s when his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), who’s been a widow for 17 years, starts dating fireman Ray (Bill Burr). Not only did Scott and Ray get off on the wrong foot (it was Ray’s 9-year-old son that Scott almost tattooed), but Scott feels especially threatened about the intrusion of this new guy in his mom’s life because his late father was also a fireman (who perished on duty*). Ray immediately puts responsibility onto the 20something punk by having him walk his children to school (and Scott also takes a restaurant busboy job, which of course he’s unfit for), and the more Ray and Margie see each other, the more motivated Scott is to split them up fast. 

Minor-spoiler alert, but Scott does succeed in ending the relationship between his mother and the loudmouth fireman. There’s almost an hour left in the film. Where does it go from there? This is the most surprising and refreshing part of “The King of Staten Island”—not only does it show the consequences of Scott’s actions, but it also follows Scott climbing up from rock-bottom, step by step. Scott finds more answers and closure regarding his father whom he desired to know more about. He even finds refuge at Ray’s firehouse, where his father was stationed, and also finds ways to make himself useful there as well. He also finds his true passion, really talks with his mom about dad, and even manages to help someone in dire need (that scene feels a little false, but it’s a climax, so I’ll let it pass). 

None of this film’s back half would have worked if not for the dedicated work of Pete Davidson, who turns in a fully realized performance that allows us to see this unsympathetic jerk flaws and all. Sometimes, Scott is the absolute worst—but he’s always real, and there’s more than enough room in this 2-hour-17-minute long movie to allow him to grow.

The comedy is present mostly from Scott’s snarky remarks and how he relates (or tries to relate) to everyone around him. But the drama is even stronger for exactly that—the comedy is Scott’s defense mechanism (as I’m sure it’s Pete Davidson’s). For every blunt, unfiltered, smart-ass comment, there’s a hint of sad truth when he shares his thoughts as to why firefighters shouldn’t have families. This film has a unique balance that most mainstream “dramedies” could learn from.

The supporting cast serve Davidson terrifically. Marisa Tomei as Margie, Scott’s long-suffering widowed mother, is lovely as always; Bill Burr delivers particularly strong work as the guy who tries to toughen the kid up; Bel Powley deserves her own movie as Kelsey, Scott’s tough-talking but loving potential-girlfriend who wants to pursue city planning; Maude Apatow is good as Scott’s sister who is off pursuing a bright future; Steve Buscemi is always a delight and no different as Papa, senior fireman; and Lou Wilson, Derek Gaines, and Moises Arias (who I want to see in more movies—this guy’s a riot) share great comic timing as Scott’s friends. None of their characters are as developed as he is, but I think that’s the point as we’re supposed to see them through Scott’s eyes.

By the end of “The King of Staten Island,” it’s hard for me not to wish the best for Scott now that he’s found more clarity in the most important part of his life that left him aimless for 17 years. And I hope the same for Pete Davidson. Even though Davidson is popular in his standup acts and on “SNL,” it’s hard not to wonder what demons he’s still struggling with. I hope writing and starring in this film was an effective therapeutic expression. 

*In real life, Davidson’s father was a New York City fireman who died in service during the 9/11 attacks. I get why they altered this detail for the film because it would probably be too much of an overshadow for the film’s comedy. But knowing this information adds an extra layer of pathos.

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

4 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I think about Brett Haley’s “Hearts Beat Loud” after seeing it at least 10 times in the last two years since its theatrical release, I ask the questions…

Did we really need the best-friend character played by Ted Danson, who is also a bartender so that we can make “Cheers” references in reviews regarding this film? 

What about our protagonist’s mother played by Blythe Danner, who is always shoplifting and getting arrested by police so her son can bail her out? Does she have much purpose in this story?

Come to think of it, what about Toni Collette as the landlady for the protagonist’s record store? Even though the two have an interesting relationship together, I have to wonder…does she even need to be here?

And once I answered that last question, I answered the other two questions about the aforementioned side characters who seemingly serve no real purpose. Yes, we do need Danson. Danner does serve a purpose in this story. And Collette did need to be here. 

Why? Because…why not? 

Sometimes, when you see a movie, you ask certain questions like, “Did Tony Hale really have to play his role so over-the-top in ‘Love, Simon’?” And you keep coming back to those movies because there’s something about the main aspects of it that keep you distracted from questioning the others. Then, after seeing the movie for a certain number of times, it dawns on you—not only do you love this movie, but the little things that didn’t seem so important before suddenly feel like elements you would miss if they were removed. My point is, these side characters in “Hearts Beat Loud” exist in the world our lovable main characters live in, and they don’t seem so extraneous to me anymore, now that I’ve seen the film many times. I feel like they do have a place in this universe. They may not have much to do with the main story, but I feel like they do have a lot to do with how we see the main characters. 

Sorry, I know I have a film to review, but I feel like I just started a seminar for indie-film supporting character usage. (That wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually…)

Anyway, “Hearts Beat Loud” is a lovely father/daughter tale about Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman in his finest film role by far), a former musician who now owns a failing record store in Brooklyn, and his recent-high-school-graduate daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), who is about to leave to study pre-med in California. Sam wants to study and spend more time with her new girlfriend Rose (Sasha Lane), but Frank wants to spend more time with Sam before she leaves. One night, he insists that they have their habitual musical jam session together, where they record a song together (written by Sam) called “Hearts Beat Loud.” 

Despite Sam not wanting to start a band with her father, Frank puts the song on Spotify, under the name “We’re Not a Band.” Unexpectedly, it becomes a viral success, thus urging Frank to pursue a new career together with his daughter as a music duo. But Sam, despite having musical interests of her own, doesn’t share her father’s dream. 

This is an emotionally rich father/daughter story about a father using his interests in an attempt to keep his daughter at home because he isn’t ready for her to leave the nest and fly away. In the end, it becomes more of a story about the two of them sharing an interest in music for one last quality father/daughter time. Even if Frank doesn’t win Sam over to his dream, he accepts the fact that Sam will have her own life, Frank will have to set his sights a little lower than expected, and the music they created together for a brief time will be something they will always remember. 

And speaking of music, I love the songs in “Hearts Beat Loud.” Aside from the title track, there’s also a song about Sam’s feelings toward Rose (“Blink (One Million Miles)”) and another about Frank’s feelings toward losing his business (“Everything Must Go”). The songs were composed by Keegan DeWitt, and they’re all memorable and wonderful to listen to. They serve as effective mood pieces, especially an early version of “Everything Must Go” that truly reflects Frank’s current mood in this scene—I won’t lie; I added that piece to my personal playlist.

Oh, and there’s also the flirting between Frank and Leslie (the landlady played by Collette) that turns into somewhat of a fling. And then there’s Frank’s out-of-touch mother (Danner), who is mainly there for comic relief. And there’s Dave (the bartender played by Danson), who is probably here to give Frank someone to chat with occasionally. Like I said, these side characters have very little to do with the main plot of “Hearts Beat Loud”—the girlfriend, Rose, arguably has more of a purpose to the story because Sam realizes she’s not only leaving behind a father but also a summer romance, thus adding to Sam’s confusion about her current status. But I have to admit, the others make for good company and are played by appealing actors. And each time I see the film again, I don’t want to fast-forward past them. 

It’s the story of these two well-rounded, lovable characters that kept me coming back to “Hearts Beat Loud” in the first place, and because I got to know them well, it made me want to those around them well too. 

“Hearts Beat Loud” has so much going for it—a memorable soundtrack, a heartfelt story about this father and daughter, and a charming feel all throughout. It’s an indie mix that I don’t mind listening to every once in a while. 

The Invisible Man (2020)

4 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

With a concept like an invisible stalker, I feel three things need to handled exactly right–1) the directing and atmosphere, 2) the cinematography, and 3) the leading performance.

To say Blumhouse’s “The Invisible Man” handled all three of these crucial elements exactly right would be an understatement—in fact, I was surprised by how effective “The Invisible Man” was. I didn’t think a recent stalker-thriller could give me chills and keep me on the edge of my seat anymore–this one did, and the stalker’s INVISIBLE!

The film was directed and written by Leigh Whannell, whose work I’ve admired before, particularly in writing the first Saw and directing the underrated “Upgrade”–I think he outdid himself here.

The cinematography from Stefan Duscio is also outstanding–much of the time, it feels very voyeuristic (keeping in theme), which makes other certain shots (where we anticipate one thing while waiting for another) all the more chilling.

But more importantly, it’s the leading performance from the target of the invisible stalker: Elisabeth Moss in her career-best work. She plays Cecilia, who, in a very tense and disturbing prologue, barely escapes from her abusive relationship with the wealthy Adrian and tries to be free of him forever. A couple of weeks pass when Cecilia gets the news that Adrian has killed himself and left her with $5 million. The end? Not quite. Even after seeing photos of Adrian’s blood-soaked corpse, she can’t believe he’s truly gone…in fact, she feels like he’s still with her…silently and INVISIBLY stalking her.

Moss handles all of her scenes of paranoia and terror brilliantly and flawlessly. But what I also love about this movie is how we see her from everyone else’s point of view, especially when we learn more about Adrian and Cecilia’s relationship and how Adrian was a sly manipulator to the point where he could psychologically damage people severely. It’s that kind of clever storytelling that I love to see, especially in modern mainstream horror.

And it is scary! The film overall has this feel of “oh man, he’s in here and they can’t see him” creep-factor that never got old, even when it got to its inevitable climax. And there’s one jump-scare that truly got me (you’ll know it when you see it).

Overall, “The Invisible Man” is a film about a young woman trying to regain her independence and put to rest a psychologically damaging relationship, making it an effective stalker-thriller especially for today’s day and age. There’s so much to recommend in “The Invisible Man”–it’s just really damn good.

Disney+ Original Movies (Togo, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, Stargirl)

4 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Wondering what else to watch on the streaming service Disney+ when you already revisited Disney movies/shows you grew up with? Believe it or not, there is some good, quality Disney+ Original content besides “The Mandalorian” (the “Star Wars” series that finally put divisive fans in perfect harmony). There are three Disney+ Original movies I can recommend for being just as solid and entertaining via streaming on a small screen as they would be via projecting on a big screen. 

In chronological order of release, here are three mini-reviews of three solid movies available exclusively on Disney+.

Togo (2019)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hey, remember the Universal Studios animated 1995 film, “Balto,” supposedly based on a true story? Sure you do. Do you care about the TRUER true story that inspired it? Not especially. Do you know anything about musher Leonhard Seppala and his dog Togo who contributed even more to the 1925 serum run to Nome that inspired “Balto”? Well, whatever the case, “Togo” is an entertaining watch if just for a little insight into these two key figures in rescuing an Alaskan town from an epidemic. 

Willem Dafoe stars as Seppala, who sincerely cares for his dog Togo. As a puppy, Togo is too small for mushing. But as Togo gets older, he proves his worth as he leads Seppala and other sled dogs on a treacherous trek to bring medicine to their small Alaskan town of critically ill children. This obviously means we get intense scenes of conflict upon this journey (and unlike the recently-released “The Call of the Wild,” I can tell they used actual canines instead of CGI for the most part), but what surprised me were the scenes that take time to show Dafoe and his lovable doggie companion forming what looks to be a genuine connection. 

Those scenes are sure to make any dog lover happy, but there’s also a good deal of well-executed sequences of great danger, such as a highlight in which Togo and company must race their way across a quickly dissipating field of ice! (Good use of green-screen here, and again, I feel like the actual dogs are really there!)

Some of the pacing is a bit slow (and I’m sure it’s also not 100% historically accurate), but I forgive it because there are several great moments throughout the film that make “Togo” overall entertaining and heartwarming. 

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (2020)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of the reasons I was interested in “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” was because it was a Disney movie that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, which I thought was unheard of…even if the director/co-writer was Sundance favorite Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” “Win Win,” “Spotlight”). (But to be fair, he was also one of the credited writers for Disney/PIXAR’s “Up,” so that automatically makes him a Disney favorite too.)

“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” based on the book series of the same name, is about a wildly imaginative little boy named Timmy Failure (yes, that is his real name) who holds his own private-detective agency (the attic of his mother’s house is his office) and whose partner is an imaginary giant polar bear. (That polar bear, named Total Failure, will put a smile on any cynic’s face.) Timmy goes on many different misadventures when his mother’s Segway goes missing and races all about town (Portland) to find it. Along the way, he learns lessons about “normal” and “different” and…it’s actually a pretty heartfelt conclusion that the movie leads to. 

The film is very funny, in the same grounded, character-driven way that McCarthy can direct a kid’s fable. But it also feels like it’s about something as well. In the way this environment is set up and seen through this wild child’s eyes, as well as how he sees the people around him who either want to scold or help him due to his self-destructive behavior, it’s a film that kids will enjoy just for the comedic deadpan nature of the wacky antics this likable kid embarks upon. But it’s also enjoyable for adults who remember what their childhood was like and what taught them to put at least one foot in the real world. 

I like this movie. You did good, McCarthy—you can actually make a good fable (and make me forget about “The Cobbler”). 

Stargirl (2020)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Stargirl” is a coming-of-age high-school movie based on the novel of the same name by Jerry Spinelli. (I haven’t read yet, though strangely, many of Spinelli’s other works are no stranger to me.)

Directed by Julia Hart and also co-written by Hart and her partner Jordan Horowitz (they also collaborated together on wonderful indie fare such as “Miss Stevens” and “Fast Color”), “Stargirl” is about a 16-year-old student named Leo (played by Graham Verchere) who has spent years blending in with his classmates (after an incident involving his favorite necktie, which he wore at school when he was 9) in a school where nothing happens. (In fact, the school is so uneventful that the trophy case has always been empty.) He’s fine with his status until he’s attracted to a new girl in school, simply because she’s so…DIFFERENT. She dresses in rainbow-influenced wear and sings while strumming a ukulele—oh, and her name is Stargirl. (Her real name is Susan, but Stargirl is the name she prefers because it suits her identity.) But Leo’s not the only one turned on by her eccentricities—the moment she performs the Beach Boys’ “Be True To Your School” in the middle of the field at a football game, it raises everyone’s spirits, thus making her the school’s “good-luck charm.” Before too long, Leo engages in conversation with Stargirl, thus beginning an interesting relationship that of course changes his life forever. 

Even though we’ve gotten many, MANY movies that contain messages about “being yourself,” we still need them. After all this time, most of us are still afraid of appearing even slightly foolish in front of large crowds—and this is especially true of high-schoolers, who need movies like this. As these movies go, “Stargirl” is one of the best to come around recently—and for a high-school movie released by Disney (and featuring musical sequences at that—don’t worry, it’s as far away from “High School Musical” as you could get), that’s especially impressive. 

Leo is a genuinely nice and likable kid. Stargirl (played by Grace VanderWaal of America’s Got Talent—not a very polished actress, but with this role, that doesn’t matter) is charming and adorable but not without fears and vulnerability, which surface late in the film. I like Leo and Stargirl individually and I like Leo and Stargirl together. 

The cinematography is lovely, the writing is solid, both our leads are appealing, we get some much-appreciated mature moments here and there, and I was invested throughout the whole film. Even when I wasn’t smiling at the film, I was still invested. 

I didn’t expect to find a new coming-of-age high-school movie on the same level as John Hughes’ best-known works or “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Love, Simon” brought to me by Disney+. But it’s here and it’s available to stream for your viewing pleasure. 

Bad Education (2020)

4 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

HBO’s “Bad Education,” based on a true story, begins with the implication of a few important questions viewers should ponder. 

For instance, why is it that one of the top public school systems in the country (in this case, New York’s Roslyn School District) has roof leaks (in many different places)? It’s a bit strange, especially considering the school has enough money in the budget for construction of a “Skywalk” for the students to access easily. Wouldn’t there have been numerous budget requests to repair the roof(s)?

And what about the superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman)? He undergoes many a plastic surgery to make himself appear forever youthful. He sports many expensive suits to look stylish each day. He takes expensive trips wherever he chooses. He has a luxurious apartment. 

And what about Tassone’s second-in-command Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney)? She and her family have a fabulous home in the Hamptons. 

No one bothers to ask any such questions, because…well, Tassone is too cool to judge, frankly. Everyone at the school worshipped the direct, charismatic Tassone because he was able to propel the school district one of the highest ranking in the USA. They all trust and respect him—his staff, the students, their parents. But we know he has secrets belonging to a second life (maybe even a third life as well) that he wouldn’t want any of his peers to know about. 

Because the school is so highly regarded, it grants students rides into Ivy League schools of their choice. But as a reporter for the student newspaper discovers, there’s something fishy about the budget. This leads to the discovery of theft brought on by Gluckin. Tassone gets her to resign quietly, under the cover of her having a “serious illness”—but that’s mainly because the embezzlement goes farther than that. The reporter, Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), and her editor, Nick (Alex Wolff), dig deeper into the oddness within the school’s invoices, which promises to expose more than Tassone argues (or threatens) the school will allow. 

Side-note: I mentioned “Bad Education” was based on an actual embezzlement scandal (the largest in public school history) in the mid-2000s—the screenwriter, Mike Makowsky, was a Roslyn student at that time. Apparently, every major newspaper in the tristate area covered the scandal story only after it was exposed in this student paper. I don’t doubt that part is also true, but it’s so awesome that it’s practically unbelievable. 

“Bad Education,” skillfully directed by Cory Finley, approaches this serious subject matter with a dark comic edge—and not with over-the-top asides, such as breaking the fourth wall or celebrity cameos to explain background details or whatever “The Big Short” or “I, Tonya” did. For instance, Tassone’s passive-aggressive approach to those who threaten to expose him and the system for the corrupt crooks they really are make those scenes all the more interesting—you want to laugh at his attempts to cover it up, but at the same time, you know just how far his manipulative techniques can go. There are times when he’ll even attempt to make himself out to be the real victim. Class act. 

It’s played for satire, which is even more effective than performance art. (I like “The Big Short” and “I, Tonya” and “Vice,” to name examples of the based-on-a-true-story performance art pieces, but it wasn’t until I saw “Bad Education” that I realized I needed something a little more subtle.) 

Not a single person asked any questions about how anyone working at a school was able to afford their fancy lifestyles. That’s because no one wants to believe there’s anything suspicious about the behavior from the higher-ups in the fourth highest-ranking school in the country. Even Nick is hesitant about printing Rachel’s story because Tassone is writing his college recommendation letter. 

Hugh Jackman turns in one of his very best performances as Frank Tassone, the narcissistic,  likable authority figure with many secrets as well as talents for impressing those around him. It also helps that he has the ability to form connections with teachers, students, and the students’ parents. There’s a wonderful scene where a worried mother brings in her autistic son, and Tassone is able to connect with him. That’s all I’ll say about the scene—you have to see it to try and interpret what could be on Jackman’s mind as he plays it. I know this is an HBO film, but don’t waste his talent on an Emmy—give him an Oscar nomination!

Also great are Allison Janney as Gluckin and Ray Romano as the school board president who can’t grasp what’s really happening—even when the story is printed and the truth is exposed, he doesn’t want to believe it and his heart is broken. (Romano is turning into one of the most reliable character actors of today’s films.) 

“Bad Education” is sharply written, features excellent acting, and is overall effective at being what it set out to be: a darkly funny, informative study on a 2002 public-school corruption that also serves as an allegory for similar events that are still happening today. Check it out on HBO.