Archive | June, 2021

Moxie (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Somewhat (or definitely) influenced by “Mean Girls” (written by director Amy Poehler’s best friend Tina Fey–wonder if Fey gave Poehler any pointers), “Moxie” is a funny, sweet, inspirational high-school dramedy about a quiet girl who fights back against the campus hierarchy. In this case, it’s a battle against the campus patriarchy–taking the place of Regina George is handsome, popular, smarmy jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger).

Who is going after the school’s golden boy? That would be Vivian (Hadley Robinson), a wallflower junior who is proud to ignore and be ignored by many of her peers (except for her best friend Claudia, played by Lauren Tsai). This semi-shallow view changes when she notices that a transfer student, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), is also being ignored–by the school principal (Marcia Gay Harden), no less–when she tries to report that Mitchell is harassing her. This opens Vivian’s eyes to the sexism and misogyny going on in the school (such as a list ranking female students) and she decides she’s going to do something about it. So, inspired by Lucy’s no-BS policy and her mother’s teen rebel days, she creates an anonymous girl-power zine called “Moxie.” She leaves copies in the girls’ restroom for students to find, and just like that, a movement has begun.

These are problems still present in many American public schools–the football team gets most of the funding, other teams can’t afford new uniforms, the dress code is ridiculous and filled with double standards, and many people, even those with authority, just won’t listen when certain issues are mentioned. These are among the things that “Moxie” (both the zine and the movie) addresses.

Poehler also co-stars in the movie as Vivian’s mother, who is the exact opposite of the mother she played in “Mean Girls” and thank God for that. She’s learned a thing or two since her high-school days and when things inevitably get too intense for Vivian in secretly keeping Moxie going, she’s there to help her out with some important knowledge. (Poehler in “Mean Girls” was a wannabe “cool mom”–Poehler in “Moxie” actually IS a cool mom.)

All of the young actors are great here. Hadley Robinson is an appealing lead to follow and she has great chemistry with Lauren Tsai as her best friend–it’s heartbreaking when the two inevitably get into an argument about the way things are going because of the zine (which is why it’s heartwarming when they inevitably make up again). Alycia Pascual-Pena turns in a terrific performance as the rebellious Lucy, who leads the Moxie movement forward and won’t take any crap from anybody. (I love her first scene, in which she questions today’s relevance of “The Great Gatsby” in English class–even when Mitchell tries to silence her, she won’t have it.) There’s also a winning performance from Nico Hiraga as a kind skateboard geek named Seth, whom Vivian takes a liking to–the end of their first date is one of the film’s highlights.

Also among the film’s highlights is the clever dialogue brought on by writers Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer (who adapted the screenplay from the YA novel by Jennifer Mathieu) and an empowering ending that would have been cheesy had it not been set up properly by the capable hands of director Poehler.

I think that Netflix Original teen movies are getting much better (the best in recent memory being “The Half Of It”)–following the exceptional “To All the Boys: Always and Forever” a few weeks prior, “Moxie” is further evidence of that. It’s funny, charming, and features some truly awesome teens at its center.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There is a gripping Netflix Original film called “Operation Varsity Blues,” and it’s one of my favorite films of 2021 so far.

Directed by Chris Smith (who also gave us entertaining documentaries such as “American Movie” and “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”), “Operation Varsity Blues” is a docudrama that creatively digs into the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal. It uses transcripts from real wiretap conversations and incorporates them into reenactments from actors playing the parts of the people involved. Matthew Modine takes center-stage as Rick Singer, who masterminded the whole scheme of dozens of parents paying him off to bribe elite schools into letting their under-qualified kids in. (This included high-profile parents such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.)

I always liked Modine in other works such as “Full Metal Jacket,” but here he turns in what is probably his best performance. How good is he? We do see the real Rick Singer interviewed about an hour into the film, and it’s practically uncanny how close he is to the real thing.

Other actors portray the wealthy parents who didn’t ask many questions when Singer informed them that it would cost tens of millions of dollars to send their kids to Stanford or USC or what have you.

“Operation Varsity Blues” begins with your average high-school senior’s dream come true, as we see recordings of numerous kids each celebrating getting accepted into the school of their choice. That makes it all the more heartbreaking when a half-hour later, after we’ve been sucked into Singer’s con game, we get footage of other students, upset and sobbing that they didn’t get into their choice schools. (One of them even says they feel worthless.) It’s so easy to feel empathy for these young people because it’s more than likely four out of five of us have been there before.

And then to find out that ultra-rich parents paid someone to get their children into whatever premium university they wanted? That has to hurt.

“Operation Varsity Blues” did a very good job sucking me in as it detailed the scandal from the seemingly harmless beginning to its numerous clients to the moment it all came crashing down, with one arrest after another.

With more and more evidence piling up to prove why college isn’t especially necessary for most people in today’s society, I think this intriguing film came at just the right time. “Operation Varsity Blues” is now available on Netflix and I highly recommend it.

Malcolm & Marie (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you felt uncomfortable watching the lengthy argument scenes in films such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff,” “Before Midnight,” and “Marriage Story”…this film is definitely not for you. However, if you’re looking for a film about a couple testing each other’s love, with solid characterization, brilliant acting, and skillful direction, you can’t go wrong streaming “Malcolm & Marie,” available on Netflix.

John David Washington and Zendaya play a filmmaker named Malcolm and his supportive girlfriend named Marie. They’ve just returned home from the premiere of Malcolm’s latest film. Marie lets Malcolm know pretty quickly that something is bothering her. What is she upset about? Well, she says it’s because he didn’t thank her in his speech to the audience–even though he thanked his parents and his elementary school teachers and an usher at a theater he worked at as a kid (that last one might not have been real) but neglected to mention her. It’s also indicated that Malcolm’s film was inspired by her in a sense (and she also supported him every step of the way making this film).
This escalates into a fight where both egos go at it with each other…but it’s only the beginning. It’s going to get worse and worse and worse…

Like I said, it gets pretty uncomfortable. But it’s also fascinating to watch both these extremely talented actors show off their extreme talents, guided by the deeply layered screenplay by director Sam Levinson (who also directed Zendaya in the series “Euphoria”). I wasn’t even halfway through the 106-minute running time when I was getting genuinely concerned how this long night was going to end!

Will this couple stay together? Will they separate? Do they deserve each other? What does that even mean??

I also have to give kudos to Levinson and his crew for making this film under the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Oh, and this film also delivers a LOT of shots at film critics (including a lengthy tirade by Malcolm about a POSITIVE review!) as a way of a character distracting himself from the real issue at hand. And I’m just assuming by the film’s mere 58% on Rotten Tomatoes that some critics aren’t responding to that very well…you do know that if you’re going to get offended at JOKES towards critics, you’re proving the movie right, don’t you?

Bottom line: “Malcolm & Marie” is a darkly sardonic, sharply written, brilliantly acted look into the longest night of this couple’s life.

A Quiet Place Part II (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let me tell you right at the beginning–the best way to see “A Quiet Place Part II” is in a theater, which is why I’m glad it wasn’t released on-demand during the pandemic. I’m glad I waited to see it in a theater because it’s terrific.

I really like A Quiet Place, and I’m glad it set a new standard for new mainstream horror films. I was looking forward to “Part II” because I was curious to see what was going on outside the central characters’ farmhouse (where the first film mostly took place). The concept is similar to what “Dawn of the Dead” did after “Night of the Living Dead”–taking us outside the familiar settings to see how other places are affected by a terrible outbreak.

But first, we get a wonderfully executed and very chilling prologue in which we see the beginning of the invasion. You see how our familiar characters (played by writer-director John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe) lived in a normal world before all of a sudden, everything has changed…

It’s not zombies that turned the world to hell in this universe–instead, it’s apparently a bunch of beastly alien creatures that really, REALLY do not like sound and hunt/kill every sound they hear. (You can’t help but wonder how these things, if they came from another planet, managed space travel!)

After the prologue, which was a great way to ease moviegoers back into this terrifying universe, we flash forward to about a year-and-a-half since the initial attacks (and pick up where the first film left off). And, also similar to “Dawn of the Dead,” our main characters–mother Evelyn (Blunt), daughter Regan (Simmonds), and Marcus (Jupe)–learn that it’s not just the monsters that are to be feared in the outside world, which they (with a newborn baby in tow) decide to venture into. From that point on, “A Quiet Place Part II” is a delicately crafted, chilling, and even emotionally driven monster movie.

As with the first movie, a lot of “A Quiet Place Part II” rides on visual storytelling–expressive acting, excessive atmosphere, and carefully chosen dialogue. (Having many of the characters communicate through sign language, since Regan is deaf, adds to it as well.) When a sudden loud noise could trigger one of the monsters to attack (how many of these things could be in one area??), such as when someone steps into a bear trap and screams in pain as anyone would, it’s fascinating to see how these people continue living/surviving in this post-apocalyptic world of silence.

I mentioned the carefully chosen dialogue, and an example of this comes from a new character played by Cillian Murphy. We’re introduced to him briefly in the prologue as a seemingly mild-mannered person; he’s a totally different person when we see him again later. His few lines of dialogue carry many amounts of emotional weight. While I’m praising the acting, I was especially drawn by the performance of Millicent Simmonds as Regan, the deaf daughter–she’s excellent here. (Simmons is also deaf in real life.)

In “A Quiet Place Part II,” there are good scares, great moments of suspense, wonderful acting, nicely-done character development, and expert cinematography, shot with 35mm film. (And without giving it away, I also loved the ending.) With such great aspects in a horror film, it’s easy to look over the little things such as my constant questioning of how the predatory creatures manage to function–and I just enjoy a good thrill ride.

My Favorite Movies – Moonlight (2016)

1 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Will anyone EVER forget the 2017 Oscars Best Picture controversy? No way. That was a total embarrassment for the Academy–they gave the presenters the wrong envelope for the biggest award of the night, the producers of La La Land had to surrender their trophies (which they did, with style and grace, thankfully), and the whole thing was a nightmare…but it was funny to watch!

Whatever. I think the Oscars are on their way out anyway…maybe.

Anyway, Moonlight won, instead of “La La Land.” And it made a lot of indie filmmakers very happy that the fancy-schmancy Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences decided to honor a small film in this way. Did it deserve it?

Well, yeah. Obviously I think it’s a great film. I’m talking about it like it’s one of my top 300-350 favorite movies, aren’t I?

“Moonlight,” directed by Barry Jenkins, is the story of the life of an African-American gay man named Chiron, told in three parts–from boy to teenager to adulthood. But what is it truly about? It’s not merely an exploration of a man coming to terms with his sexuality. It’s a film that shows how important it is to love yourself before you can love others, especially in a world where it’s hard to embrace who you are because it makes others uncomfortable. It’s often said in other sources that if you don’t love yourself, the insecurities get the better of you, which leads to unpleasant confrontations with the people in your life. That would help explain the behavior of Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris)–when I saw this film a second time, the scene in which she goes through mixed emotions while on crack, I couldn’t help but wonder what was on her mind, how she grew up, what brought her to this, and more. This is a person who doesn’t love herself and thus doesn’t treat her son with the love he deserves. And once I considered that, that made their reunion many years later all the more powerful. (That’s all I’ll say about that.) And so here you have Chiron, who is going through so many issues in life, doesn’t have many people to call his friends or family, is confused about himself, faces intolerance and poverty, and could easily go down the wrong path for the rest of his life (which is why it’s alarming when he commits a certain act in his teenage years). With confidence and love, he can overcome these things and turn it all around, which is what we hope will be the case when he reunites with his old school friend Kevin.

Barry Jenkins knows just how to tackle this subject by making the themes universal so that even audience members who aren’t gay or black or even male can find something big in this small film that they can completely relate with. But of course, it’s one thing to have a gripping script with a look/feel that seems genuine; it’s another if the right actors can pull off these roles. And boy, do they. The cast is across-the-board excellent, with all three main actors capturing all three sides of Chiron brilliantly. Naomie Harris is also brilliant showing the angry and bitter but also human and sad sides of a single mother with too many problems of her own to show love and affection to her son. And last but certainly not least, Mahershala Ali is outstanding as Juan. It’s not a big role, as he’s only present for the first segment, but to say he makes the most of it would be an understatement.

Now, I have a little story I want to share, and it’s my favorite scene too—I missed seeing this film in 2016 and only saw it after it won the Best Picture Oscar; Ali’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar clip convinced me I had to see it as soon as possible. It’s a scene in which little Chiron confides in Juan that he hates his mother. Juan’s response: “I hated my mom too…I miss her like hell now, though.”

Ali is one of those actors that always gets my attention these days, because I think he’s one of the best–I DARE you to look at his performance in “Moonlight” and then look at his performance in Green Book, and tell me he doesn’t have a wide range!

“Moonlight” is a film that is absorbing, rich, and more importantly, real. Much of it is bleak, but that’s what’s needed for the more uplifting, sobering aspects to take effect. The ending successfully shows that in life, there are no ways of going back (and no reason to either), the things you go through make you who you are, and where you go from here on out is ultimately up to you. That it all comes a film that is this well-acted and well-executed makes it all the more powerful and deserving of the Best Picture win.