Archive | June, 2021

My Favorite Movies – Permanent Record (1988)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

“Permanent Record” is an underrated teen-related film from the ‘80s that deserves to be checked out. What’s it about? Teenage suicide…

Yeah, before this taboo subject was satirized in the black-comedy “Heathers” a year after this film’s release, it was centered on two serious teen films in the mid-1980s. One of them was a made-for-TV after-school special called “A Desperate Exit” (or “Face at the Edge of the World,” as it’s sometimes called), starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Rob Stone. Then, a couple years later, indie filmmaker Marisa Silver, along with a team of three writers, approached the subject with more thoughtfulness in “Permanent Record.”

The suicide aspect doesn’t arrive until midway through the film. Up until that point, we get a nice, accurate (sometimes disturbingly so) portrait of a model high-school student who just wants everything to be “perfect.” David (Alan Boyce) is a good boy. He’s a nice guy, gets good grades, is a talented musician, helps compose the music for the school production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and has just received a good scholarship. To his best friend Chris (Keanu Reeves) and other students in his class (including two played by Jennifer Rubin and Michelle Meyrink), David has it made. But something is wrong here. David doesn’t feel like he can handle all his responsibilities and would rather not be depended on for once. The great thing about this first act, aside from first-rate acting & direction, is just how subtle David seems to be taking his crises as they worsen to him.

When you hear the word “suicide” associated with this film, it should come as no surprise that David does kill himself. At first, his friends think it was an accident that killed him. But then Chris receives a posthumous letter from David, saying nothing went the way he wanted, and that’s when things become clear. What isn’t fully clear to them is why he did it. David was the person they wanted to be and he took his own life when he couldn’t handle the pressure. Or was it for something else as well? And will they follow in his footsteps and do the same thing he did? Nothing is spelled out as to why David committed suicide, but it is hinted that when he expected perfection out of life, he felt he was doomed because it would or could lead to failure and despair. Ultimately, it’s up to the survivors to make the right choices and go on living.

There is much in “Permanent Record” that is cheesy and dated, and some of the dialogue is a little off (that, and sometimes Michelle Meyrink’s line readings are a bit stilted). But there is a lot however that does ring true and are executed very well.

Alan Boyce is very, very good as David, capturing the perfect “model student” to a T. He has such a natural charisma that I’m actually surprised he didn’t go anywhere after this. But as it turns out, he’s not the main focus. The main focus is on David’s best friend Chris, played by Keanu Reeves, who, between “River’s Edge” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” was a rising star. His performance in this film is one of his best, playing a confused kid who has to grow up and face reality when he would rather just kick back and party. A scene that shows Reeves’ remarkable ability is when Chris barely witnesses David’s end–Chris is drunk off his ass when slowly but surely realizes the horrible truth that his best friend is gone.

Another performance I want to single out is Jennifer Rubin (probably best known to horror movie buffs as a punk girl from the third “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie) as a shy girl who secretly loved David. Her scenes with Chris as she talks to him about the future she imagined with them and their friends are heartbreaking. The part that gets me the most could have been the most clichéd but I bought it with no problem—it’s a payoff to David’s “lost song” that he wrote before he died that serves as a memorial for him, during the play. There are other teenagers in this movie, including David’s “friend-with-benefits” who never saw their relationship as more than just sex (and therefore, she has no clear answer for why David committed suicide either) and a nerdy boy who tries to belong with the in-crowd which includes David and Chris and such (he ends up helping with the music for the school play). They get their moments to good effect.

Yeah, some of these actors look too old for their parts, which makes it kind of weird whenever Reeves (24 at the time) keeps asking for beer. But the film is well cast and performed.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the best character in the film. It’s not one of the teenagers; it’s actually the high-school principal, played by Richard Bradford. This is one of the best authority characters in any teen film I’ve seen. He’s understanding, he’s patient, and when he’s impatient or tough, we can understand why. How can we understand why? Because unlike most “teen films,” we do see scenes away from the teenagers that give the principal more character. Thanks to the attention given to him, this is quite possibly the most three-dimensional high-school-principal character I’ve ever seen in a teen-related film, and Richard Bradford does a good job playing him.

“Permanent Record” is well-directed with care by Marisa Silver. Silver’s debut film before this was 1984’s “Old Enough,” which was about two 13-year-old girls from opposite sides of the tracks who become friends for a summer. While I don’t think it’s as good as “Permanent Record,” it does show that this director did have a gift of empathy for her characters and the world they live in. (It’s easy to see why she went from film to literary arts.) That’s especially true of “Permanent Record.”

A few words about Gerry (2002)

10 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Previously on Smith’s Verdict: “And as far as the argument of ‘Last Summer’ being ‘too slow’ for some people goes, well…I’ve seen Gus Van Sant’s ‘Gerry,’ so what else you got?”

“Gerry”…is NOT one of my favorite films, but it is a film that I hold in some special kind of regard because…just because.

It is what it is, and what it is…helps me sleep sometimes. (No joke–when I was going through my early stages of Multiple Sclerosis and suffering some insomnia as a result, this film helped me get some sleep!)

My fellow film buffs are probably giggling when I mention that, but those who have no idea what this movie is, let me tell you: “Gerry” is a film about two guys (played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in a desert…and they wander around…and they talk a little bit…and they walk…and walk…and walk…and walk…and walk………and walk……….and………

That’s it. That’s literally the entire film! Oh, and one of them dies at the end. I would’ve issued a spoiler alert for that, but…nah.

And it’s just…so…fascinating. To think that a director as talented as Gus Van Sant (whose “Drugstore Cowboy,” “Good Will Hunting,” and “Finding Forrester” I really admire) would really go through with this…..

Remember when he remade “Psycho” shot-for-shot? He said he did it “so no one else would have to.” Maybe that’s why he made a film about two guys wandering around in a desert: so no one else would have to. That’s strangely kind of commendable in a sense.

To watch “Gerry” is to be hypnotized–even AFTER you’ve muttered to yourself in a daze, “Good God…they’re really going for it…it’s so boring…so long…when will it end?? I feel so tired…and alone…and confused…what is life…what is love…who am I…”

Is “Gerry” profound or just pretentious? Well…yes. It’s just…beautifully empty.

“Gerry” was part of a trilogy of films Van Sant called his “death trilogy.” He followed “Gerry” with a similarly slow-paced film called Elephant, which showed the mundane average goings-on of a typical high-school day before a shooting occurred. Then came “Last Days,” which was inspired by the death of Kurt Cobain and showed the slow deterioration of a similar rock star. All 3 of these films are slow and uneventful–but they definitely leave an impression.

(Btw, I like “Elephant”–it’s both compelling and terrifying. “Last Days,” I barely remember.)

Overall, “Gerry” just reminds me of something that could’ve been made in film school as an experimental art piece. And it was made by a high-profile director and starred high-profile actors who are hardly given much to do other than spew some BS every several minutes (if even), get in a tough spot where one of them has to jump from a tall boulder, and just…walk…a lot!

I just can’t get emotionally invested in these two guys because I’m not even sure whether or not THEY’RE emotionally invested! At least with Last Summer, I knew who those two guys were!

A film this abstract is something for the Sundance crowd, right? Well…yes and no. Apparently, there were many walkouts during its premiere screening in 2002. I can’t say I blame them, but at the same time…how often do we get movies like this?

This is like the pie scene in A Ghost Story stretched out to 100 minutes. I MEAN, FOR GOODNESS SAKE, THERE’S A LONG SILENT FREAKING SHOT OF THE TWO GUYS WALKING INTO THE SUNRISE AND IT GOES ON FOREVERRRRRRR

That’s it, I’m done talking about “Gerry.” I should’ve stopped at “this film helped me get some sleep!”

I don’t love it, I don’t hate it–it’s just admirable and yet frustrating at the same time.

It is…what it is.

My Favorite Movies – Last Summer (2013)

10 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Mark Thiedeman’s “Last Summer” has this in common with 45RPM–both independent films were made in Arkansas and they both premiered at the 2013 Little Rock Film Festival. (They were also probably the most talked-about selections in the festival.)

I wasn’t as active in the festival as I would be a year later, when I was part of the press and would see as many of the festival’s films as I could. So, I didn’t see “Last Summer” because my mind was more focused on “45RPM” and the made-in-Arkansas short films. When Mark Thiedeman won the LRFF2013 Best Arkansas Director award for “Last Summer” was when I regretted missing it. I’d surely see it some day…

Then I saw Thiedeman’s follow-up film, Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls, at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival–I was as blown away as everyone else who saw it. (“Sacred Hearts,” by the way, is still a masterpiece seven years later–I love coming back to it every now and then. It’s a real treasure of a film.) After practically singing its praises in a review, I wondered when I could see “Last Summer.”

Shortly after, “Last Summer” was released on-demand. So, I checked it out…

I was perplexed. Maybe a little confused. Maybe even a little annoyed. But I was intrigued.

It was very slow. It seemed to rely more on atmosphere than character. It seemed rather void of traditional narrative structure. And by the end, I didn’t feel as emotionally overwhelmed as I think writer-director Mark Thiedeman intended.

I told myself as time went on that it wasn’t for me–but I still thought about it often. I thought about the beautiful cinematography that showed off the summertime nature setting and made me feel like I was there. I thought about that special last summer for most of us before we have to break away from our loved ones. I thought about the film’s small-town setting and how it reminded me so much of my own upbringing in a Northeast Arkansas small town. I thought about that dialogue-heavy opening scene that establishes the mood for the rest of the film. I thought about that ending some more. I thought, hey wait a minute, I should watch this again!

And watch it again, I did. A few more times, actually, on Netflix. And after catching it again recently on Tubi long since that last Netflix streaming (I think it was 3-4 years ago?), I knew I should write about it for “My Favorite Movies”–because it still speaks to me.

“Last Summer” is essentially a 70-minute visual poem about the emotions felt by a teenaged small-town-Arkansan named Luke (Samuel Pettit) who is facing the end of a romance between him and his boyfriend Jonah (Sean Rose), who is leaving for college. Luke is a talented athlete but a mediocre student, whereas Jonah is seemingly great at everything. (According to Luke, Jonah even sold a painting he made when he was 4 years old.) We all had that in common, whether with best friends or with lovers, where the main thing you have in common is each other.

The film begins with an overture, as Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 5” plays over about five minutes of images that will more or less play a part in what we’re about to see. I highly advise you to stick with it because what follows is a key introductory scene establishing character through dialogue.

This scene, which features a conversation between Luke and his summer-school math teacher (Deb Lewis), gives us all the exposition we need, and it’s written carefully and beautifully. It sets us up for the rest of the film, which simply shows us rural working-class homes, small-town life, the boys walking through the woods, and so on. We know what the central dilemma is for Luke and Jonah, which is similar to a theme in one of my personal favorite films, War Eagle, Arkansas–will you stay in your comfortable hometown or will you leave and see what else is out there?

And the best part is that it’s not spelled out for us in this imagery (or even in the voiceovers from the boys that appears at one point or another). Luke and Jonah don’t even exchange a lot of dialogue with each other, but I can still tell how they feel about each other. It takes a talented filmmaker like Thiedeman to pull off something like that.

It also takes talented actors to assist as well. Samuel Pettit is excellent as Luke–he hits every perfect note that he has to portray with this character, and it feels as though he IS this character. Sean Rose is also terrific as Jonah, who arguably has the more complex dilemma of the two leads, seeing as how he knows he has more opportunities than Luke and isn’t sure he wants to fulfill all of them. Also, Deb Lewis does solid work as she sympathizes with Luke’s situation (as seen in the aforementioned expository opener).

Something else I admire about the film is how it was shot. To my understanding, it was shot with Canon DSLR cameras and in natural light, which helps give it that raw passion and style. I don’t see a pretentious indie film project trying to be “edgy”–I see Mark Thiedeman making a labor of love and inviting me to share the experience rather than distract from it.

So, “Last Summer” is not “traditional,” as I mentioned in an above paragraph. So what? Artists have different ways of presenting their art and you either go along with it or you don’t. And as far as the argument of “Last Summer” being “too slow” for some people goes, well…I’ve seen Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” so what else you got?

My Favorite Movies – 45RPM (2017)

10 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Wait…Juli Jackson’s “45RPM” was in film festivals starting 2013 and it wasn’t officially released until 2017?! Well, that just further proves a point I made in other posts–2017 was a darn good year for movies!

What are my absolute favorite movies (my top 5 desert-island movies, if you will)? War Eagle, Arkansas. Stand by Me. Back to the Future. Before Sunrise…..and Juli Jackson’s “45RPM.”

Now, let me just say right off the bat…it can definitely be argued that I have a personal bias towards this film because…well, I’ll get to it in a little bit.

“45RPM” is about an artist named Charlie, who gets a grant to create something new and unlike her previous painted works. But she doesn’t feel inspired to paint anything different because all she thinks about is a song she heard as a child–from her father’s Southern garage-rock band’s 45 LP, which she hasn’t heard since. She believes listening to the song again will help her see the image in her head more clearly, so she goes on a wild goose chase to a record store in Memphis–but it turns out to be a bust. But the store owner, Louie, also develops an interest for the record because his favorite obscure bluesman may have contributed to it way back when. So, Louie brings Charlie along on a road trip through Arkansas. They go to swap meets, garage sales, antique stores, wherever they can find clues that can lead them to a copy of the record if it even still exists.

I was very, very hesitant about calling “45RPM” one of my all-time personal favorite films for a long time. For one thing, I know the director. Juli Jackson, who wrote and directed the film, is an old friend/mentor of mine, and her story of making this film inspires me to this day.

For another, I know many of the actors in it, such as Candyce Hinkle, Johnnie Brannon, Jason Willeyy, Duane Jackson, and other Arkansas talents I’ve worked with since the making of this film.

And also, I’m IN the film! I play the emo laundromat employee who directs Charlie and Louie to another potential clue. (I’m only in it for a minute–filming that scene was one of the best days of my life.)

But I can’t help my feelings towards this wonderful film that I’m more than proud to have been a part of. The writing is excellent; the story is engaging; the two lead characters of Charlie and Louie are very appealing and brilliantly acted by Liza Burns and Jason Thompson; there’s a great feel for Arkansas throughout a great portion of the film (it still feels like home to me); I love that the soundtrack is mostly filled with Southern garage-rock singles; and…I can’t help it–I love, LOVE this movie!!

Every time I watch this film and I know my scene is coming (about an hour and 13 minutes in), I’m very tempted to skip ahead to the next scene. (It’s not my best work as an actor.) But I can’t–because it’s a reminder that I was part of this great film, even for a little while.

When posting about my favorite movies, I like to talk about my favorite scene of the movie in question. Well…for “45RPM,” I have three favorite scenes. One is a scene in which music aficionado Louie tries to communicate to artist Charlie why he doesn’t create his own music–the dialogue in this 3-minute segment is priceless. Another is a scene I loved reading in Juli’s screenplay–it involves a bridge, and that’s all I’ll say about it. And the third is an emotional final moment, filled with clarity and nostalgia.

There aren’t enough kind words I can say about this treasure of a film that I embrace wholeheartedly. And I consider it my personal mission to introduce any new people to it however I can. (One of my personal victories for me this year was getting a coworker of mine to watch it–after he did, he said he loved it, and I told him everything I knew about the making of it.)

I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again: I LOVE this movie!

“45RPM” is available on-demand.

The Stylist (2021)

8 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Actress Najarra Townsend was the best part of the 2013 body-horror film Contracted, in which she played a troubled florist transforming into a zombie; she’s even better in Jill Gevargizian’s tense, bloody & atmospheric thriller “The Stylist” as a troubled and very lonely hairstylist who has a horrid habit of…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Townsend turns in a wonderful performance as Claire, the stylist. Claire is great at her work, transforming her clients effectively as they go on about their day and she listens sympathetically. She practically lives for her clients as, outside of work, she has no one (except her adorable dog) and completely unhappy with her life.

Oh, and she also invites clients for appointments after hours so that she can then drug them and then murder them…and then scalp them to wear their hair as wigs. (YIKES! Never go into a place of business for a visit after hours, especially in a horror film.)

Both Gevergizian and Townsend gives us a sympathetic eye into Claire’s world from the way she tries to put herself in her customers’ shoes to how she gets angry with herself when she feels awkward about a social encounter. We never lose sight of the fact that Claire is a psychopathic serial killer, and it’s intriguing that we’re shown her development into total self-destruction. We’re disturbed by her, and yet at the same time, we’re able to feel for her as well. Much of the film focuses on her many instances of feeling lonely, and it’s to the credit of both this writer-director (as well as Gevergizian’s co-writers Eric Havens and Eric Stolze) and this actress that I’m glued to the screen even in these quieter moments. “The Stylist” is a remarkable character study.

Brea Grant (a talented filmmaker herself, having come off of the sharply-satirical chiller “12-Hour Shift”) co-stars in “The Stylist” as Olivia, a future bride who is one of Claire’s regular clients whom Claire wants to get more of. Claire’s going to style Olivia’s hair one way or another, but she wants more than that–she gets herself invited to her bachelorette party and tries to socialize to not much avail. What happens after…well, let’s just say we go a little beyond “Single White Female” territory at this point.

The scenes in which Claire and Olivia sort of bond are delicately handled and both actresses play it really well. And they add on to the tragedy that is to come thanks to Claire’s inner turmoils and (ahem) stylistic tendencies. (It even speaks to the very real truth that it’s even harder to make new friends as adults.)

I also want to give praise to other actors, such as Jennifer Seward, Davis DeRock, Millie Milan, and Sarah McGuire, who have small but pivotal roles.

The ending isn’t predictable so much as inevitable, but I appreciated how there were no easy answers in its regard. (It’s also very chilling and the actors play it rather well.)

“The Stylist” is less a horror film about who lives and who dies–instead, it’s more a horror-drama about how far gone the killer will go down the rabbit hole of murder. Add some stellar camerawork by Robert Patrick Stern to Najarra Townsend’s great work and Jill Gevergizian’s top-notch direction, and “The Stylist” is a horror film that definitely has a style all its own.

My Favorite Movies – Lost in Translation (2003)

7 Jun

By Tanner Smith

You ever have that experience where you get away from everything for a while, take a nice little fantasy journey, and then you come back to reality a little more enlightened? I love that experience. And this movie is like the cinematic version of that feeling.

The universal acclaim of Sofia Coppola’s sophomore feature “Lost in Translation” was INSANE–critics loved it, audiences loved it, I even think it would’ve won the Best Picture Oscar if “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” had come out the following year!! But that should say something–everyone got something from this film.

And this is the kind of personal-story film that works differently for people. Some will immediately identify with being isolated from your normal routines. Others will identify with the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. Others will feel the connection between two lost souls who find each other in a strange way. And so on.

Whatever the case, I think the reason the film is so beloved is because people have found many things to like about it.

This is one of Bill Murray’s best performances, right next to “Groundhog Day” and “St. Vincent.” Here, he plays more-or-less a version of himself that seeks something simpler for a little while. And he finds it in Scarlett Johansson, in what is probably her breakout role as a young woman who, like Murray, is an American tourist in Tokyo not knowing what to do or why she’s there. In each other, they find friendship and engage in conversation that strengthens their bond and distracts them from the moment they will inevitably separate and go back to their own regular lives.

Sounds a bit like “Before Sunrise,” doesn’t it?

The way they connect on a personal level is truly moving in a film that is both smart and perceptive. And every time I watch it, I feel like I’ve taken a nice trip–one I wouldn’t mind revisiting anytime.

My favorite scene: as much as I love the scenes between Murray and Johansson, my favorite scene is the filming of a commercial Murray is appearing in, which includes the crazy intensity of a director who only speaks Japanese (his translator isn’t very helpful to Murray). I’ve met some directors in my time who are as intense as this guy.

My Favorite Movies – Groundhog Day (1993)

7 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I’m sure many of us who live near Kansas City, Missouri (such as myself) wish we could relive February 2, 2020 (the day the KC Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV) again and again…because due to the pandemic, it felt like we WERE living the same day again and again!

The time-loop story angle had been used before but not to this mainstream-comedy scale. The cleverly droll and also heartfelt writing from the late Harold Ramis (who also directed the film) resulted in a screenplay that was so good that of course the Oscars had to ignore it for Best Original Screenplay.

If I may quote Roger Ebert, who gave it three stars initially but then went on to include it in his Great Movies collection, “‘Groundhog Day’ is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable. It unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is.”

Do I even need to go on after that?

We all know how great “Groundhog Day” is, and I certainly know it too–I first watched it as a teen and loved how creative it was, I studied it in a screenwriting workshop, and it’s yet another example of my favorite type of subgenre: the “dramedy.” There are many parts that are funny and other parts that get me right in the feels, and they all feel like they’re part of the same movie.

Bill Murray is great at playing a jerk, but his role as jerko TV weatherman Phil Conners is probably Murray’s most difficult role to date. It’s also his most accomplished, as we go from hating this guy to laughing at him to empathizing with him and then finally to feeling happy for him. He has to repeat this horribly uneventful, mundane day over and over and over AND OVER again (according to Google, Phil endures the loop for over eight years)–Murray has to sell all the various stages of coping with such a strange and aggravating phenomena, especially when there’s no one he can share it with. That makes it all the more funny when he uses this ability to seduce women. But it’s also all the more heartwarming when he realizes that when he tries to copy something that was genuinely romantic before, it just doesn’t work again.

What’s even more interesting about this role is that Phil doesn’t become a different person–but he does become a better one.

Best Murray performances in my opinion: 3) “St. Vincent,” 2) “Lost in Translation,” 1) “Groundhog Day.” (“Broken Flowers” is a good #4.)

The time-loop concept has been used in other movies since–some to very good effect, like “Source Code,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” the “Happy Death Day” movies, and especially “Palm Springs” (the best of the “Groundhog Day” influences). But there is only one “Groundhog Day.” It’s a wonderful masterpiece for both Harold Ramis and for Bill Murray.

My Favorite Movies – The Post (2017)

7 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Strangely, I didn’t get so into Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” when I first saw it in a theater. I admired it for telling a serious story about a free press at the right time, but I didn’t get much from it apart from that. I think I made the mistake of comparing it to Spotlight–probably a fair comparison, since it’s the Oscar-winning film that set a new standard for “journalism movies” and both films share the same co-writer (Josh Singer). But it’s not really fair to THIS movie.

I’m glad I watched it again on DVD–I noticed a lot more that I didn’t before and grew a new particular fondness for it. In fact…I can admit that I think I spoke too soon when I said Bridge of Spies was my favorite Spielberg film of the 2010s.

There are some doses of romanticized sentimentality and melodrama (plus everyone likes to make fun of the somewhat-forced moment in which Katherine Graham is applauded by a mostly-female crowd as a new heroic figure), but in a lesser movie, those would bother me. The historical accuracy and attention to detail of the early 1970s are spot-on (and the DVD extras help my case there), and the whole film feels like a 1970s dramatic thriller, like “The China Syndrome” or (the most obvious comparison) “All the President’s Men” (to which this film is seen as a prequel). This is director Steven Spielberg and his usual crew (which includes cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn) having a field day with this material. But they’re also telling a serious timely story at the same time, and Spielberg knew the importance of that. In fact, he halted pre-production on one project when he read screenwriter Liz Hannah’s Blacklist draft of “The Post” and immediately went to work on it. Within a year, he had a completed film released and ready for the Academy Awards (for which it was nominated for Best Picture).

That’s not to say Spielberg half-asses “The Post” at all. As I said, he gets a lot of the material spot-on–it’s just that as an added bonus, we get that special Spielbergian magic and edge to it. He cares very deeply about saying the right thing with the right film to be released at the right time. (That was the case with Munich, his take on the war on terror, and it’s the case here, in a film that has allusions to the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.)

“The Post” is set in the early 1970s, but it spoke to audiences in 2017-2018 because it was based on the true story of the Washington Post exposing Pentagon secrets and starting a movement for what we now call “free press,” at a time (during the Nixon administration) when a paranoid President feared such a concept. (Oh how far we hadn’t come…) And that’s why I now admire this film for its journalistic courage and recognition of the power of the First Amendment. (…I’m obligated to say, “Kinda like ‘Spotlight.'”)

At the time, the Washington Post wasn’t taken too seriously–it was seen more as a nice little local newspaper compared to the high standards of the New York Times. But editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks), who treats journalism like a highly competitive game, won’t stand for that. Things change, however, when one of his reporters, Ben Bagdikian (wonderfully played by Bob Odenkirk), comes across the top-secret documents that prove how the Vietnam War was set up. Bagdikian lets Bradlee in on the secret and he of course decides to go for it and print everything for the Post. (This was my biggest problem upon initial viewing of this film, that Bradlee seemed more concerned about beating the Times to this story than getting the story out there–but the more I watch the film, the more I realize, “This is Ben Bradlee–of course he has a clearer agenda than that.”) The Times has already exposed many of the Pentagon Papers–but when Nixon orders the paper to stop, Bradlee sees this as a chance for the Post to take a stand and remind everyone what freedom of speech means.

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine (“Kay”) Graham, heiress and publisher for the Post. We see the real-life Katharine Graham as a journalistic icon now, but back when this movie is set, she had to prove herself. One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is how Graham has to handle herself with an all-male board of directors who didn’t take her seriously and didn’t hide the fact that they didn’t want her in the way, making her unsure of herself. It’s even more interesting that she’s a long-time friend of Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Secretary of Defense who played a major role in America’s involvement with Vietnam–if she gives Bradlee the go-ahead to expose the papers, she’d be turning her back on a friend. (She was also friendly with other Washington insiders–we see her mingling with them at many cocktail parties.) Therein lies the conflict of what’s more important to her (plus the high probability that both she and Bradlee could go to jail for going to print with this), which leads to a conference phone call that is the most suspenseful moment in the film. What results will change Graham for the better.

There’s a lot going on in “The Post” and a lot at stake for the characters and for the country in general. Bradlee knows that there has to be a free press, other people are with him, many people don’t want to risk it due to their own sense of integrities, others want to cover their own asses. It takes an intelligent and sharply written screenplay from Hannah and Singer to keep us on-edge because Spielberg keeps invested with his direction–and it helps further inspire those who dare to expose truth, secrets, or both.

Another thing to admire about “The Post”–the amazing ensemble cast. Even though Streep and Hanks are front-and-center of this film, they are aided by an excellent supporting cast. Aside from Bob Odenkirk (who, in fact, I wanted to see more of upon initial viewing–guess that’s what subsequent viewings are for), there’s also Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross (hey it’s a “Mr. Show” reunion!), Michael Stuhlbarg–just to name a few! They’re all brilliant here and hold their own with Hanks and/or Streep.

My favorite was Odenkirk’s Bagdikian because he played the type of reporter who went on this particular scoop to obtain these documents because he was truly the heart and soul of Bradlee’s newsroom and mainly cared about setting forth the truth.

And that’s what “The Post” is about: exposing the truth…OK, it may take some liberties here and there (as all films do), but its central message is clear. I may have gotten it back then, but I underrated the way it was delivered. And it’s a mistake I won’t make again.

The White Tiger (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of the more telling moments in Ramin Bahrani’s expertly-crafted “The White Tiger” comes roughly early into the proceedings. We’re in Bangalore, India in the mid-2000s (with the story being told from 2010). Our narrator and protagonist Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), the poor son of a rickshaw driver, manages to get a job as a chauffeur for wealthy Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his American-born wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Ashok’s rich, successful (and corrupt) father known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjreker) treats Balram like a slave and even hits him twice, to Pinky’s dismay. She protests, “You can’t do that in America!” The Stork’s replay: “This isn’t America.”

That it isn’t. But one of the things many of us will learn from news stories (and/or stories like this one), it’s that the poor, when pushed too far, will go to great lengths to break out of the caste system and possibly overcome the rich to find their own pathways to success–no matter what country they live in.

“The White Tiger” is adapted from a Booker Prize winning novel by Aravind Adiga, a close friend of masterful filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who directs the film adaptation in a style similar to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” in how we see Balram’s story told in flashbacks (and through voiceover narration) about how he got to a certain point in his life and what he plans to do next. Needless to say, it’s not easy–in fact, even though there are somy amusing and cynical touches brought to the storytelling, “The White Tiger” is a rather dark and disturbing tale about the sacrifices this ambitious Indian slumdog makes during his pursuit of happiness.

We’re already in Balram’s mindset with this early line of VO narration: “The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time.” In introducing himself in this manner, we have a pretty good idea of what he aspires to be and what he’s willing to go through (and hide within himself) to achieve it. We also get a flash of his childhood–as a young boy in Laxmangarh, he is seen as bright and able to achieve great things. (He’s also referred to as a “white tiger,” which is a way of meaning he’s someone special.) But when his father is unable to pay off The Stork, who is the corrupt landlord of the family’s village, Balram is no longer able to attend school. (His father also ties from consumption, with no doctor to treat him.)

As a young man, Balram is able to find his way into the chauffeur job, working for Ashok, who treats him like a friend rather than a slave, and Pinky, who is sympathetic towards him. His friendship with the two leads to a night of reckless partying and driving, especially when Pinky takes over for Balram at the wheel…which leads to a tragic accident. This tragedy is a heavy reminder of Balram’s current place in this brutal world, and it’s a catalyst for the next step in Balram’s journey of self-satisfaction. He is going to take control of his own life from this point forward, and it’s not going to be pretty.

“The White Tiger” is a bitingly sharp satire of how class structure can be a cutthroat game in India, and it’s also an exceptionally vivid character study about this man, played perfectly by Adarsh Gourav and written brilliantly by Bahrani (who earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay). Whether you root for Balram or want nothing to do with him (and the film does a great job keeping that delicate balance), you still understand why he does certain things.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” this is not. In fact, there’s even an unsubtle dig at that flick: “Don’t believe for a second that there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of the chicken coop.” It’s all the more tragic when you realize how many people are still struggling in the “chicken coop” that is their country.

“The White Tiger” is a rough and masterfully crafted look at how far some people will go to stray away from a life of victimhood no matter who gets in their way–and it’s as powerful a film as this great filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani, can deliver. I won’t forget this film anytime soon.

“The White Tiger” is available on Netflix.

Minari (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m not usually one to spend $19.99 for premier access on-demand for a new film (especially if the rental only lasts for two days). So, a few months ago, I went back to a movie theater to see a film called “Minari,” which was about to receive numerous accolades. It was my first time inside a theater since before the COVID-19 pandemic. And I couldn’t have asked for a better new movie.

“Minari” was one of the top awards contenders and has been referred to by critics as one of the best films of 2020…but seeing as how it wasn’t released to the public until February of 2021, I’m counting it as a 2021 film. (My mind is already made up–this film will appear on my best-of-2021 list. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did the same thing for “Being There” and “The Black Stallion” when those movies weren’t released publicly until the following year.)

Anyway, simply put, “Minari” is a beautiful film.

Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, whose semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story is told here, “Minari” is centered on a Korean-American family that moves to rural Arkansas in the ’80s to achieve the American Dream. Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun in the best performance of his career) wants to grow Korean foods in 50 acres of inexpensive land and sell them to markets wherever he can. The family’s new dwelling is a mobile home with quite a leap to get up to the front door. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) isn’t too fond of the idea of living here because they live out in the middle of nowhere with no neighbors and she misses her South Korean home and the family’s prior home in California, where she and Jacob were barely making a living as chicken testers. (They work in a hatchery near their Arkansas home, determining the gender of newborn baby chicks.) Jacob and Monica’s children are 10-year-old Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and 7-year-old David (Alan Kim)–little David serves as a stand-in for director Chung and a conduit for the audience as well, as a lot of the film is seen through his eyes.

This Asian-American family isn’t ostracized by the community when they attend church services and social events–the locals are more fascinated by and curious about them. Once a kid roughly David’s age gets past the strangeness of seeing an Asian person in this town, he quickly becomes friends with David. The closest thing Jacob has to a friend is his eccentric evangelical farmhand: Paul (Will Patton), who seems very strange but is a dedicated hard worker and has nothing but respect and admiration for Jacob. (I always loved Will Patton’s work, but this may be one of his most memorable roles. He’s amazing here.)

A lot of the film is watching this family adjust to these new surroundings. How do they prepare for a tornado when their home is in danger of being sucked away if it touches down? How do they get water if they don’t want to pay for it to save funds? What about Monica and Jacob’s marriage when they have conflicting ideals? What about David’s heart condition when the nearest hospital is an hour away? Can Jacob handle both hard work in farming and his job at the hatchery? (There’s a wonderful transformation that comes when we see he isn’t as fast at his job as he used to be.) What happens to the male baby chicks in the hatchery…actually, I probably would’ve been better off staying ignorant about that.

And so on. It’s a wonderful slice of life. And it gets even better when Monica’s mother leaves South Korea to live with the family. This is Soonja (played brilliantly by Yuh-jung Youn), who practically steals the movie whenever she’s on-screen. This character is the wacky-hilarious-grandma you’ve read about in many screenplays, but you haven’t seen her in a movie quite like this. There’s a lot of laughs and a great big heart to her. And I love the relationship she has with her grandson David, who hates her at first (at one point, he’s very mean to her face and then…well, you’ll have to find out) and grows to love her because she loves him regardless.

I love, LOVE this movie. “Minari” was a very special treat and a truly heartwarming tale of family and ambition. It’s superbly acted, wonderfully shot, and written and directed with a great amount of passion and heart by Lee Isaac Chung.