Archive | 2014 RSS feed for this section

My Favorite Movies – Laggies (2014)

10 Mar

By Tanner Smith

The American indie film scene felt a tragic loss in 2020 with the passing of filmmaker Lynn Shelton. Her entries in the “mumblecore” micro-budget film movement (such as “My Effortless Brilliance” and “Humpday”) made a unique impression. Everyone associated with her (including frequent collaborator Mark Duplass, who himself was a name in “mumblecore”–that’s the last time I use that word, I apologize) remember her as a lively presence that couldn’t be matched. And what’s more inspiring is that while the indie film scene was (and still is for the most part) predominantly “young” (most of the new filmmakers are in their 20s), she made her first film near the age of 40–that is a message that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. She also improved upon her career with more films with bigger name actors, more prospects and resources, and a lot of television work–and it all seemed to really suit her fine.

While I could be writing about her most infamous film, “Humpday,” which gets better the more I watch it, I’m instead going to write about the 2014 comedy-drama “Laggies,” which she directed. “Laggies” is one of the most approachable of indie films: a happy medium between “indie” and “mainstream”–popular actors playing real characters in a down-to-earth setting with doses of comedy to level the insecurities the characters face. (Other examples include the Duplass brothers’ “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.”) In this case, it’s a coming-of-age tale involving Keira Knightley as an aimless 20something that finds her way with help from a high-school senior and her dad (the kid and her dad are played by Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell–when you can afford talent like this in a grounded story like this, you’re already doing well for yourself).

And I love it.

While Shelton didn’t write the screenplay (that distinction goes to novelist Andrea Siegel), it still has the distinct feel of a Lynn Shelton project. (And again, for a dip into the mainstream, this is a very good thing–she showed here what she could do with more money and more collaboration.) The dialogue doesn’t feel totally scripted; the characters feel real; the comedy doesn’t feel forced; and it feels like something Lynn Shelton would make to show what else she could do outside the (*sigh* I’m sorry) mumblecore field.

Keira Knightley, doing an admirable job hiding her English accent, plays Megan, an aimless 28-year-old living in Seattle. She twirls a sign for her father’s (Jeff Garlin) tax office, she’s in a relationship with her high-school sweetheart (Mark Webber), and she’s still very close to her high-school friends. It seems something is off in her relationships; even when she cracks jokes around her friends, she feels like the odd one out as hers don’t land with them. (There’s also a moment in which she just walks into her parents’ house to chill and watch TV, something that her father is totally fine with but her mother is confused by.) And she clearly likes her boyfriend if they’ve been together for so long, but when he proposes to her…she doesn’t know how to react or what to feel.

Megan flees, needing time to think, and that’s when she meets a group of high-schoolers who are outside a liquor store and ask her to buy booze for them. After doing so (hey it’s a rite of passage, right?), Megan joins the teens for a night out and sparks a connection with one of them, named Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz). (The other teens are distinct and well-played by Kaitlyn Dever, Dylan Arnold, and Daniel Zovatto.) This is a good night for Megan–these kids aren’t judging her; they’re accepting her for who she is.

Megan spends more time with Annika and meets her single-parent lawyer father Craig, played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell–Rockwell in this role reminds me of his memorable, wisecracking, energized character in “The Way, Way Back” if he matured a little more. Megan is hiding out from friends and family to figure things out, but her story for staying with Annika and Craig is that her apartment lease expired before she has to move somewhere else. (Good enough, I guess.) Annika confides in her and Craig gradually trusts her–they even have a deeper connection they probably expected. But soon enough, the truth is going to have to come out and Megan will have to make tough decisions for her life…

Let’s talk a little about that, because the more times I watch “Laggies,” the more fascinating the subtext becomes. I’ve seen many movies that tackle arrested development and the reluctance of some people to embrace the future…but with “Laggies,” it’s a little more complicated than that. When the film begins, we’re inclined to see Megan as living in the past, seeing her high-school years as the best of her life. She and her friends are growing up together, but she seems like the odd one out. Something is different…but it doesn’t become clear what that is until midway through the film, when one of her friends (Ellie Kemper) confronts her for not being a part of the plan. What plan? Well, it’s the plan they all made as graduating high-school kids–to do everything together, do the normal, boring, everyday-life thing together, and whatever. Megan’s stasis is not from the fear of growing up; it’s from the fear of being held back by something much less than what she herself wants. That’s why these teenagers are like a breath of fresh air to her–they have all these possibilities lined up for them, and she wants to feel that way again.

It’s a very intriguing and innovative concept for this kind of film, and it’s handled beautifully–Megan isn’t the one living in the past; her friends are, and they’re trying to drag her down with them. So now she needs to decide what she’s going to do next.

With Lynn Shelton’s empathetic direction, Andrea Siegel’s layered screenplay, and solid performances from Knightley and Rockwell, “Laggies” is a terrific reminder that maturity is something that can be attained, whether you realize it or not, however old you are, or even whether or not you recognize if you already have it. Much credit for this well-earned message goes to the late, great filmmaker Lynn Shelton. She jumped at the opportunity for a career when other people might tell her it’s too late, she learned and grew from each project, and she left a terrific legacy. (By the way, check out “Humpday” if you haven’t already–that film’s a treasure. I also highly recommend others she made, such as “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Outside In.”)

And she will always be missed.

My Favorite Movies – Creep (2014)

12 Jan

By Tanner Smith

THIS is how you do found-footage horror!

I love “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Sacrament” and “Rec,” but “Creep”…WHOA!

I haven’t watched “Creep” in a long while. I’ve seen its sequel, “Creep 2,” more times just because I think it’s more interesting as its own kind of dramatic-thriller type. But “Creep” is straight-up psychological-horror and after seeing it again, almost like I was seeing it for the first time (except I know the twist obviously)…

I forgot how unsettling this movie is–even when you know the twist going into it, there’s still a lot of “uncomfortable” to sit through. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it, guys–this movie scared the bejesus outta me.

“Creep” is a microbudget indie thriller created by Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice, who just decided at one point to go out to a cabin in some woods and make their own movie in which a videographer may or may not be in danger of his “creepy” subject. This was a brilliant setup for the first-person perspective setup, with our main character being a videographer named Aaron (played by Brice, who also directs the film) and filming his experience in answering an ad for a strange man named Josef (Duplass) who asks him to follow him around with his camera for a couple days. When Josef who’s already shown to have very strange qualities becomes even more disconcerting, we have no idea where this film is going to go and neither does Aaron–we ourselves are with it along with him, trying to piece some things together. THAT is how you do a found-footage/faux-doc movie!

How off-putting is Josef? I swear, it’s like you took the cringe factor out of comedies like “The Office” and “Borat” and inserted it into a horror film–you laugh but it’s OK because the alternative is to SCREAM (not just because you feel uncomfortable but because you fear for your own life at the same time)!

Mark Duplass is one of my favorite talents, but his work here makes me want to run far away from him as quickly as possible–he’s THAT creepy.

“Creep” is simplicity at its finest. For a movie about just two guys making a movie in a cabin, it makes an impression.

A hell of an impression!

Both Creep and Creep 2 are available on Netflix.

My Favorite Movies – Begin Again (2014)

20 Oct

By Tanner Smith

Here’s a movie that I watched for the first time during quarantine in 2020 and I instantly fell in love with.

“Begin Again,” written & directed by John Carney (who also made Once and Sing Street)…you know, I don’t like that title. “Begin Again?” I’m just gonna call it “Twice,” because it’s essentially a Hollywood remake of Carney’s indie hit “Once.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with it having many shades of “Once.” Far from it. In fact, I absolutely praise and adore this movie for being so great at being what it is: a wonderfully acted & executed “a-star-is-born” story with equal parts domestic realism and fairy-tale sweetness.

I rented the DVD from the library before quarantining with my family during lockdown in 2020. Soon after watching it (for the first time), I’ve shown it to my mom, who loves it as much as I do, and we watched it countless times together.

I could say I don’t know how I missed this movie when it was released in 2014, but maybe I was too focused on films like Boyhood and Life Itself to pay attention to much else. But better late than never.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo star in the movie. Knightley plays an English singer-songwriter who joins her boyfriend (Adam Levine, strangely not playing himself) who’s a pop icon making it big in New York City. That her talents are underappreciated by his record label is bad enough, but he’s also been having an affair with one of his assistants. This leads her to perform a sad ballad at an open-mic rathole, where no one seems to pay attention to her…except for Ruffalo, who plays a depressed, alcoholic, washed-up record producer who hears magic in her performance.

The moment I saw that scene, in which Ruffalo watches and listens to Knightley perform her song “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” was when I knew I was going to love this movie. Upon first viewing, I had to rewind and replay it three times before continuing the rest of the film. Everything about that scene made me happy. It’s a moment in which Ruffalo shines as a down-on-his-luck alcoholic depressive suddenly finds purpose.

It’s also a good song, which leads me to another reason for me to love this movie: the original soundtrack is very impressive! As the movie progresses, with Ruffalo producing an album for Knightley and her newly recruited backup band in a most unconventional way (not recording inside a studio but all over NYC outside), we get catchy tracks like “Coming Up Roses” and “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home,” all of which I would happily pay for, download, and listen to repeatedly!

Oh, and there’s a song Knightley and James Corden (playing her friend who helps with the album) perform a breakup song for Levine over voicemail. The song (“Like a Fool”) is good, but there’s a moment where Corden tries to bring a kazoo into the accompaniment that freaking kills me! (Corden gets a lot of flack as an actor, but he’s funny and likable here as Knightley’s friend.)

The only songs I didn’t care for were the ones I don’t think I was supposed to like, such as Levine’s remixed pop hits. Whenever they play, I mock, “Ugh! I’m sick of Maroon 5!”

And I love the overall spirit of these talented people “going indie,” as I like to put it, and creating their art without the help of wealthy studio execs. (You could argue that’s a bit hypocritical, since this film was made and released by a big studio. But do I care? NO!)

The biggest song that apparently got a lot of attention after this film’s release was “Lost Stars,” which was also nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar. We hear many versions of this song (including a horrible studio-influenced remix), but the final version, performed by a sincere Levine…..yeah it’s pretty great. (Congrats, movie–you got me to like a 2010s Adam Levine song.)

So, yeah! I love “Begin Again”–er, “Twice.” I love it as much as any other movie made by this super-talented filmmaker who clearly loves music and film and the way the two can blend together to convey emotion and passion.

My Favorite Movies – More 2010s Films (That I Already Covered Before)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

For the “My Favorite Movies” series, I have a lot of films to write about…but some films from the past decade, I already talked about in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series. Because I love these movies so much, I should have more to say about them that I didn’t before–and when I do, I’ll make separate posts for each of them. But for now, here are the 2010s films I already covered before that I consider “new favorites”:

Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls
Before Midnight
Life Itself
Ruby Sparks
Inside Out
Get Out
Frances Ha
The Social Network
The Spectacular Now
Take Shelter
Midnight Special
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Fruitvale Station
Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Llewyn Davis
Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War
Spider-Man: Homecoming
War for the Planet of the Apes
Big Hero 6
Kung Fu Panda 3
The Wind Rises
Attack the Block
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Boy Erased
Super Dark Times (mmm…actually, I might have more to say about that one in the future)
Gerald’s Game
Let Me In
The Visit
The Invitation
The Final Girls
Ouija: Origin of Evil
The Sacrament
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Way, Way Back
The Edge of Seventeen
The Kids are All Right
Everybody Wants Some!!
Short Term 12
Operation Avalanche
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I, Tonya
Miss Stevens
The End of the Tour
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Lean on Pete
True Grit
The Big Sick
It Follows
Safety Not Guaranteed
Sing Street
Mistress America
The Disaster Artist
Private Life
Love & Mercy
Green Room
Last Flag Flying
Love, Simon
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Cop Car
127 Hours
10 Cloverfield Lane
Blue Ruin
The Gift
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

And there are many other films from the 2010s that I will talk about (or talk more about) at some point (such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “Begin Again,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and others)–and like I said, if I have more to say about each of these treasures, then I’ll say it–but until then, those are some of my personal favorite films of the 2010s.

And if you came into this series late, also check out my posts for other 2010s favorites such as Sleepwalk With Me, Don’t Think Twice, The Land of Steady Habits, Brad’s Status, 20th Century Women, Cedar Rapids, mid90s, Lady Bird, The Farewell, The Dirties, and Lights Out.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#2

30 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash, 4) Inside Out, 3) Ruby Sparks

2) LIFE ITSELF (2014)

If it wasn’t for the Roger Ebert, the late Pulitzer Prize winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 to his death in 2013, I wouldn’t be writing about movies today. The way he always expressed his opinion on a movie really spoke to me–it was never really about what he thought of the movie, but rather, it was about what he had to say about it. He inspired me to find my own voice–I always knew I loved movies, but Ebert taught me how to express my feelings about them.

I was a big fan of Ebert’s. Every week, I would keep up with his latest reviews online. I became obsessed with vintage episodes of his TV show (“Siskel & Ebert”) with the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel. I was one of the people that continuously tuned into the short-lived 2011 revival, “Ebert Presents At the Movies” (with central critics Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnivetsky). When I read the news of his death, I was devastated–I never met my hero and I would never get to.

Over a year later, “Life Itself,” a documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) that was more or less based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, would be released in cinemas. I already knew I would love it, but even I didn’t think I would love it this much.

The documentary is a mixture of interviews (with mostly friends/ colleagues), old video clips of “Siskel & Ebert” reviews and Ebert interviews (among others), and new footage shot by James, which consist of Ebert in the hospital and in rehab being treated for a hip fracture, before being called in again for treatment of thyroid cancer that he’s been battling for years…which would then lead to his tragic death.

The new stuff is the most intriguing, as we get a powerful look at Ebert’s last days. But the rest makes it all the more meaningful. It paints a clear portrait of not just the professional film critic that he was but the person that he was as well. And it’s not afraid to be honest about the portrayal–his former colleagues have some unflattering stories about him from way back when, for example. (And we also get some hilarious outtakes of Ebert and Siskel arguing and insulting each other, giving us a clear sense of their love/hate relationship.) We see Roger Ebert here, flaws and all.

My personal favorite interviews are amongst the filmmakers that owe a great deal of debt to Ebert for being among the first to recognize their talents–Errol Morris (“Gates of Heaven,” one of Ebert’s favorite movies), Gregory Nava (“El Norte”), Ava De Vernay (whose debut film was the family drama “I Will Follow”), and Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart”–also, his film “99 Homes” was dedicated to Ebert). I also liked the voice actor chosen to narrate passages from the book for the movie–Stephen Stanton, who voiced Ebert on the animated comedy sketch show “Robot Chicken.”

When his widow Chaz Ebert gives a heartfelt interview in regards to her husband’s death, it’s tear-worthy–no joke; I got a little teary-eyed at the end of this film.

“Life Itself” is my favorite documentary of the decade because it feels like the most human documentary of the decade. It’s truly moving, it paints a compelling portrait of a man, his passion, and his family/friends, and it’s so wonderful and powerful that it pained me that the Academy Awards neglected it for Best Documentary Feature consideration. Thankfully, it has 25 other wins and 33 nominations (according to IMDb) to its name because it deserved all the recognition it received. And it’s one of my favorite films of the 2010s.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#5

27 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood

5) WHIPLASH (2014)

When I first saw Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, there was one scene that I didn’t quite agree with. It’s a scene in which aspiring drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) has dinner with his father (Paul Reiser) and his aunt, uncle, and two cousins. Andrew’s father has made an effort to encourage Andrew in his pursuit to a music career, and so now, Andrew is trying to express to his relatives how he feels about it. But that’s not important to them–not nearly as important as one cousin’s football skills and the other cousin’s “heading up Model UN, soon-to-be-Rhodes-Scholar or who knows what” (the aunt’s words). The aunt and uncle patronize the father’s “Teacher of the Year” award before asking condescendingly how Andrew’s drumming is going. Andrew tries to impress them, saying he’s one of a core dummer in the accomplished jazz orchestra and is one of the youngest in the band. Are they impressed? Nope. They just flat-out say in their own words that there’s no career in drumming (while Andrew’s father just sits by and doesn’t stand up for him). All they really want to talk about is their kids’ accomplishments, practically rubbing it in both Andrew’s and his father’s faces. Andrew snaps back, stating how being recognized as a great musician is his idea of success. Does this work? No way. In fact, HIS FATHER joins the bandwagon of the relatives and states bluntly, “Dying broke, drunk, and full of heroin at 34 would not be my idea of success.”

It gets more uncomfortable from there.

When I first saw this scene, it felt like the least effective part of the movie. I didn’t believe any family would behave like this. But seeing it again and studying it, not only does it give Andrew more purpose to push himself further in his craft, which then leads to conflict of goal, ambition, and identity by the film’s climax, and not only is it beautifully executed and written…but it is probably THE most effective scene in the movie, because it feels more real than I originally thought before.

So many people can relate to this scene one way or another, and more than half of those people have felt Andrew’s emotions here–anger and bitterness because the talent that gives you the most joy and purpose is underrated while others’ talents being gloated about are overrated. And not only is hard to express yourself–even if you could, you won’t be heard most of the time.

I know now that so many people have been there…and so have I.

“Whiplash” is a movie about an aspiring artist (Andrew) pushing himself to be great and the hard-as-nails teacher (Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons) that shoves him to be great. And it’s GREAT. “Whiplash” is a hell of a movie, one that gets better and better each time I see it. It asks tough questions with difficult answers, it’s brilliantly staged, acted, and edited, each development in Andrew’s pursuit to greatness is always interesting, I love the unconventional take on the instructor-student dynamic, and the ending is one of the most emotionally compelling finales I’ve ever seen.

I rated this film three-and-a-half stars instead of four because of that one scene. Now that I have no problems with the scene, I rate it four stars easily. It’s one of my new favorite movies.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#6

23 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties

6) BOYHOOD (2014)

Did you hear about Richard Linklater’s latest ambitious project? A musical that he’s supposedly going to be making for the next 20 years? Man, if I thought his 12-year filmmaking process for Boyhood was ambitious…

Linklater is one of my favorite filmmakers because of how he experiments with relationships and time in most of his films. Are we the same as who we were years ago? What’s different about us now? What can we learn from certain past incidents? Etc. That’s everything he covers with the overall effect of his “Before…” trilogy, which is overall a brilliant look at first love, second chances, and aftereffects of such. And with “Boyhood,” he outdoes himself beautifully, showing an ordinary American boy and his family coming of age over the course of 12 years.

There are many ways this project could have gone wrong. What if Ellar Coltrane, the young actor he cast in the pivotal role, grew into a bad actor over the course of this process? He cast his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, in the film as the boy’s sister decided she didn’t want to do this anymore? (Actually, she did try to get out of it before her father convinced her to stay.) They even prepared for who would take over if Linklater had suddenly died at any point before production was completed–Ethan Hawke, who worked with Linklater many times and plays the kids’ biological father in this, volunteered.

But it worked! It paid off. We have 12 years shown to us in chronological order as Mason (Coltrane) grows from age 6 to age 18, and we see his family–sister Samantha (Lorelei), mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and father Mason Sr. (Hawke)–come of age as well. Nothing particularly special happens–it’s just a collection of small moments that so many of us can relate to.

Movies are typically ways of escaping reality, but if a film can truly capture reality, it’s something marvelous, especially if it brings you into the world of characters who feel like real people. And this film, chronicling 12 years in the life of a boy and his family, is like the ultimate slice-of-life picture.

On top of its truly remarkable behind-the-scenes story is a rich, detailed portrait about the lives of this kid growing into a man, his sister who grows up with him, and even the coming-of-age of their parents as they become more mature as well. We get brief stories within the over-two-and-a-half hour long running time, but things happen in this film that don’t always pay off because that’s the way life is, and Linklater knows that. Sometimes it is random; mostly it is pivotal; other times it’s essential; and so on.

And “Boyhood” is very successful at showing these moments in the lives of these people. People come in and out of their lives and we don’t hear back from a few of them; one day they’re interested in one thing but indifferent about it later; and so on.

“Boyhood” is a simple, universal story, told through Mason’s eyes, that is so easy to relate to. I felt like I knew this kid or even was this kid, and I definitely felt like I knew those around him. That’s why it moved me so much. As time goes on, as the film continues in its nearly-three-hour running time, it’s very, very important that the growth and coming-of-age of this kid and his family are shown. Not only did I see them grow; I wanted to know what was going to happen to them for another 12 years.

“Boyhood” is an ambitious project that absolutely paid off, and it’s one of the best films from a brilliant filmmaker.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Big Hero 6 (2014)

19 Nov

By Tanner Smith

I’m going to get to writing about “Frozen” soon enough, because it’s Disney’s biggest hit (to say the absolute least!!). I already talked about “Tangled,” a very enjoyable romp. Other terrific Disney animated films from the 2010s include “Zootopia,” “Moana,” and “Wreck-It Ralph”–but today, I want to talk about what I think is their most “pure fun” animated film from this decade: “Big Hero 6.”

Remember when the Oscars didn’t nominate “The Lego Movie” for Best Animated Feature? Well, I feel a little better about that since they gave Disney’s “Big Hero 6” the honor.

“Big Hero 6” is conventional, cliched, and kind of predictable…but damn it if it also isn’t a ton of fun!

It’s an origin story for a team of superheroes, as a lovable collection of techno-savvy geeks band together and decide to suit up as a super-team to go up against a techno-savvy baddie. To their aid is a robotic companion, now programmed to kick some serious butt. Along the way, there’s tragedy, comedy, and of course, a life lesson that our main hero has to learn as well as the main villain.

Would it surprise you that this is based on a Marvel comic? Didn’t really surprise me, either.

Oh, and it also takes place in a future city known as San Fransokyo, a hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo–there’s not any explanation for this joining, but it makes for a pretty visual sight when we go to some different spots of this world here and there.

It begins as Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) is convinced by his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) to join his science college to better his creative mind. Hiro comes up with a unique robotic invention and unveils it at a science fair, but it seems someone is out to get it for himself and starts a fire in the building that claims the life of Tadashi. (It wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some sort of tragic death, right?) Hiro is left with Tadashi’s own robotic invention–a portly Pillsbury Doughboy lookalike designed as a health care robot, named Baymax (Scott Adsit). At first, Hiro doesn’t want to admit he needs help in any way, even though he’s clearly suffering from loss of his brother. But when it becomes clear to him why his brother died (that it was no accident), he decides to get to the bottom of it. He rallies Tadashi’s genius classmates–cowardly laser specialist Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), quirky chemist Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), bitter engineer Go Go (Jamie Chung), and comic-book loving slacker Fred (T.J. Miller)–to help him out, and he also reprograms Baymax to become a lean (er…OK, not lean), mean (actually, he maintains his calm manner) fighting machine (thanks to karate styles in movies) to back him up.

Baymax is adorable. He speaks in a soothing voice, has many resources (including hugs) to help those in need of medical attention, and is the perfect toy for Disney to sell to children.

They go through all the motions of the origin story. They encounter a masked supervillain that they think is someone in particular but really turns out to be someone else for another reason. And of course, the villain’s motivation mirrors the hero’s selfish desire, which leads to a moral that both need to learn before the credits roll. Yes, admittedly, “Big Hero 6” doesn’t have much that’s “new,” per se, but when it works, it’s not only one of the most entertaining animated movies of the decade–it’s also one of the most touching. By the end, I wanted to tell Hiro that everything’s going to be OK and we all suffer and get through loss at some point of our lives.

Hiro is the most well-developed of the kids, which mostly comprise of generic types–the stoner, the goth, the wuss, the loony. But I like them all for the same reasons I like the kids in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” who were also generic types. They’re more than likable enough to follow and they add to the fun. They each get their time to shine.

The action is fun and wonderfully animated (like I would expect anything less from Disney animation). The themes of loss and redemption are well-done. And when it’s all said and done, it doesn’t matter what we have or have not seen before in other movies before–what matters is how well it’s all handled. “Big Hero 6” is a ton of fun.

Also, stick around after the end credits (this is a Marvel movie, after all). It’s a pretty golden moment that follows.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Wind Rises (2014)

12 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Hayao Miyazaki’s swansong, this was said to be. Well, a few more years will change anyone’s mind, as he seemingly has another film in the works. But it wasn’t the first time he announced retirement anyway. Who am I to complain? If he wants to keep making films, let him.

“The Wind Rises” is one of Miyazaki’s best. It shows his strengths as a visionary animation director. It’s visually stunning, has a beautifully told story, and is just an overall fantastic film. It’s also the first time Miyazaki tackled a “true story,” so that’s just as impressive. It’s a story loosely based on aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who came up with the design of the Japanese Zero fighters, which were used in WWII.

Thankfully, neither the character nor the film have a political agenda to get across. We know what damage and tragedies came from this creation, with many lives lost at the hands of the fighter pilots. But the character of Jiro didn’t know that would happen–he just felt happy to create something unique and special…it just turned out that “something” was a weapon.

The film doesn’t focus on the controversies that spawned from what this creation led to, but it doesn’t ignore them either. It instead focuses on the wonder and majesty of bring something new and innovative to life. That is what the film is about–it’s a fable about dreams, creativity, and passion.

And the way the film explores the creative process is imaginative. We see Jiro’s dreams and fantasies (in which he converses with his hero, a late Italian aviator voiced by Stanley Tucci), and we also see little things that inspire him, even something as small as a curvy fish bone that inspires his ultimate design.

But the film is also very downplayed. Characters talk about what should be done and what needs to be in order to make it work, in realistically effective fashion. The visually amazing sequences that Miyazaki does best are saved for dream/fantasy sequences, which was a wise decision for a film like this.

Oh, and here’s an interesting tidbit: human voices are largely used as sound effects, such as engine roars. I don’t know exactly why, but I think that’s ingenious.

So maybe Miyazaki hasn’t called it quits yet. Whatever his next film turns out to be, I’ll be interested in seeing it.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

9 Nov

By Tanner Smith

In my Looking Back post on “How to Train Your Dragon”, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen the “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels. I didn’t even see the first movie again for nine years–but after I did, I knew I had to check out the next two chapters.

What makes a good sequel work? When it continues the story they started and ended with before. “How to Train Your Dragon” (spoilers, I guess) ended with a Viking village learning to unite with once-feared dragons after the odd man out–the scrawny, awkward Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel)–taught them the hard way that there are benefits to training them. Now, with “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” we have a promising setup: years later, the village is living in perfect harmony with dragons. Immediately, you know not everyone, especially those outside the village, is going to be fine with that, so there are possibilities with the concept.

And thankfully, there are many terrific ideas at work with this sequel. A madman wants to raise a dragon army. There are other Dragon Riders. Hiccup’s long-lost mother is involved here. And more.

How does the movie turn out? Well, not only did I like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” every bit as much as “How to Train Your Dragon,” but I think it’s even better.

Just when I thought “Kung Fu Panda” was DreamWorks’ most enjoyable franchise.

Director Dean DeBlois took inspiration from “The Empire Strikes Back,” one of the greatest sequels in film history. And it makes sense. That film also continued the original story with new ideas and twists to add further layers. That includes expanding the scope. What “The Empire Strikes Back” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” have in common is they both take the audience to different places and introduce us to new ideas that make us think about what was before and what could be in the future.

The characters from the first film are welcomed back, including the dragons which all have different expressions and identities. Hiccup is still a likable lead, and he’s given more room to grow in this environment he’s still trying to find his place within. Also, it’s amazing I haven’t gotten annoyed by Jay Baruchel’s gratingly nasal voice by now–guess it just adds to his character. I also like Astrid (America Ferrara), Hiccup’s fellow dragon-rider and girlfriend, better in this sequel–she has more to do and is stronger and more resourceful, but she doesn’t have to try so hard to prove it, which is a huge relief. Hiccup’s father Stoik (Gerard Butler) is still a stubborn ass but for different reasons this time–one of the strengths of both “Dragon” movies is that this brutish character isn’t a one-note angry Viking. Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson), Stoik’s close friend, is still effective comic-relief (though not much else). Oh, and we also have Hiccup and Astrid’s obnoxious friends from the first movie (voiced by Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig)…you know what? At least two of these four actually got some laughs out of me this time around! I especially like Ruffnut (Wiig) and her strange infatuation with one of the new antagonists: a Viking named Eret, “son of Eret” (Kit Harrington). (The moment she allows herself to be captured in slow-motion by Eret’s net and she drones, “Take me,” while holding her arms out–that had me laughing on the floor!)

The new characters include the aforementioned Eret, the dragon trapper that sets the plot in motion, as Hiccup and the dragon Toothless discover a plot to build a dragon army for the mysterious Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a ruthless warlord who wants destruction all around. But more importantly, we have Valka (Cate Blanchett), a dragon rescuer who has created a safe haven for dragons and lives solely amongst them. OH, and she’s also Hiccup’s mother!

So now, we have more room for backstory and character development to gain, more secrets to learn about with the dragons, and more of this visually impressive world we get to discover. This is just what was needed for a “How to Train Your Dragon” sequel and I absolutely loved it.

And the animation is of course spectacular. The flying scenes were a definite highlight in the first movie. They’re just as gorgeous if not even better in the second movie. I really wish I had seen this film on a big screen (and in 3-D) just to absorb the glory of Hiccup and Toothless flying in the wide-open sky. (This time, Hiccup has his own manmade wings to soar alongside Toothless rather than ride on top of Toothless.)

There are even some emotionally beautiful moments too, as you would expect with the reunion between Hiccup and Stoik and Valka. But something else happens late in the film (and I won’t give it away) that I didn’t think the film would tackle…and it did. Damn.

Even though I wasn’t sure about the idea of including a villain for the sequel when the first movie didn’t need one, and admittedly Drago’s motivation for conquering dragons is a little too obvious, I bought it because I thought this one was inevitable.

I made a mistake ignoring the “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels, and I will see the third movie, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” real soon. Will it be just as good as the other two, will it be even better, or will just be a serviceable sequel? I don’t know…but I’m going to find out!