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Looking Back at 2010s Films: Rich Hill (2014)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Rich Hill is a documentary I saw at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival during its festival run. I remember immediately wanting to write about it upon seeing it, because it affected me that deeply.

It’s a documentary that gives us insight into the lives of three different teenage boys (Andrew, Harley, and Appachey) who live in the impoverished town of Rich Hill, Missouri. We meet their families, see what they do during the day, how they all live, and how they get by, so that we get a melancholy yet hopeful portrait of three boys with families who are not “white-trash,” as Andrew puts it, but “good people.” The one who gets the most sympathy from me is Harley, whose case is so sad that I really hope things are going well for him now.

More than five years later, I do still wonder where these kids are today. I hope wherever they are, they’re doing OK.

“Rich Hill” is now available for streaming.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

5 Nov

By Tanner Smith

After “The Avengers” became a humongous box-office hit, we knew we were going to see something great from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But when?

Well, “Phase Two” begin in May 2013 with “Iron Man 3,” which was fun enough. But then came “Thor: The Dark World” in November 2013, which was dull as dishwater. We needed something that was going to be the next big thing for the MCU! And what’s this? A “Captain America” sequel? OK, let’s see what you got…

One viewing later, everyone was convinced, like “Holy cow this is what I didn’t know I was waiting for and it’s freaking amazing.”

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a film that dared to challenge its audience and it paid off in a major way. We still got the kick-ass action we go to these blockbusters for, and for that matter, we still got Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), among other MCU characters we recognize from other movies. But we got more than that. We got a more complicated story that asked questions we didn’t bother to think about in a movie like this. And as it progressed, it got even more interesting.

Before Steve Rogers was thawed out after being frozen for decades, he was led to believe that there was a simple war he was fighting: obvious good guys and obvious bad guys, no in-between. But now he’s in a world he’s trying to understand, not just because many people he knew are gone or even because of pop culture (about which he makes a list of things to keep track–I’ve paused that moment several times just to read the list), but because things are more complicated within who he thought he was fighting for and why. Now he can’t trust anybody except maybe Black Widow, and the two go on the run from HYDRA, the organization that’s taken over SHIELD, and their newest weapon, The Winter Soldier.

Suddenly, Captain America, the Boy Scout who always wanted to do good in his time, is suddenly the most interesting character in the MCU because he’s now in a time where he’s afraid he’s not doing as much good as he thought. You can tell that it’s eating him up inside that he just doesn’t know who to trust anymore and what’s worth fighting for. And then comes the reveal of the Winter Soldier…

I would issue a SPOILER ALERT but I think we all know by now that the Winter Soldier is Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s buddy from long, long ago, now brainwashed by HYDRA. It becomes a plot point in “Captain America: Civil War,” which everyone saw, so let’s move on and say this was another big strength in the story development for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It adds to Steve’s confusion about what he needs to do. What is his purpose now? To save Bucky? To stop him? Who else is he supposed to be fighting against/alongside? The moment Bucky’s reveal is brought onto us, everyone knew this movie was what we as comic-book movie fans needed. It’s great, and where it goes from there is not “predictable” so much as “inevitable.”

Every twist and turn “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” throws at us feels important and we’re completely invested in what’s going to happen next.

Even a cameo by the late Garry Shandling can feel like a big deal. (“Hail HYDRA.”)

This was the first MCU entry for the Russo Brothers (Anthony and Joe Russo), who would later give us more of the best MCU movies (“Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Avengers: Endgame”). They know we need something new to add to the familiar stuff we want to see, and this would only be the beginning of their impressive MCU track record. (Hah! I use the mild word of “impressive” when they’re responsible for this year’s highest-grossing film!! But you get what I mean.)

For one thing, they didn’t use much CGI. It is there, but it’s not what’s focused upon. It was surprising to find real stuntmen doing their thing or actual sets being built. For another thing, they let the actors play with their roles–reportedly, Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson wrote their own dialogue for many scenes they shared together; that’s why their chemistry as partners is spot-on. Also, the Russo brothers let the characters feel like real people we could know in our own lives–the opening scene introduces Steve to Sam aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and their dialogue together genuinely feels like two war veterans sharing their stories.

And also (and I’m saving this for last because I think it’s really cool), they’re big fans of Honest Trailers, the web series from YouTube channel Screen Junkies that picks apart little details here and there–they aimed for this film to be “Honest-Trailer-proof.” That just lets you know they’re thinking of both the audience and the film critics.

Fun fact: Screen Junkies did an Honest Trailer for this movie, which led to the Russo brothers being interviewed by the channel’s host Hal Rudnick and Honest Trailers writers Dan Murrell and Spencer Gilbert.

So, yeah. This movie’s great. It’s one of my favorite MCU movies. What are my other favorites? Well, I’ll post about those as well in this Looking Back at 2010s Films series…except “Iron Man,” one of my top-3 MCU faves, because that awesomeness came out in 2008.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Oculus (2014)

15 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, my favorite thing about the 2005 dramatic thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is that it left everything up to the viewer’s interpretation, giving us different possibilities as to why something happened the way it did. Was it the supernatural or was it something simpler?

Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” did something very similar in its first hour. It involves two siblings who both went through a traumatic experience involving the death of their parents. The brother has been living in a mental institution since then, convincing himself that it was a violent domestic issue and not the cause of something supernatural he now believes his traumatized mind came up with as a coping mechanism. What was it he thought caused the tragedy? A haunted mirror that manipulates people’s minds. He’s now released and welcomed back by his sister…who now has the mirror and still believes it was what caused the horrible ordeal that killed their parents. So, she decides to bring her brother in as she documents her experiments with the mirror before she attempts to kill it.

(Why she doesn’t bring other people in as witnesses to this apparent supernatural presence, I don’t know, but…never mind.)

I love the first hour of “Oculus,” as the sister is dead-set to prove that her parents were victims of something that can’t be explained that dwells within the mirror itself and brother has spent years proving to himself that it’s not real. Now he has to convince her that things they went through did not happen the way they remember it, but she’s shocked to find that he has no recollection of what she believes truly happened. This is great stuff!

The rest of the film is good too (and you can even make the argument that what happens in the final act isn’t actually what happens). There are some very good chilling moments (including one involving an apple…yecch), some more insight into our main characters slowly but surely going crazy, and an effective way to show flashbacks and have them intersect with present-day events. But that first hour, which allowed us to consider one thing when another thing seemed too obvious from the start, is so damn good, it kind of feels like a different movie. But I still like “Oculus” overall, for challenging me as well as scaring me.

And it was the first film to give filmmaker Mike Flanagan some much-needed attention (he had another film before, a low-budget thriller called “Absentia,” but that hardly went anywhere). Little did he know that it would lead to more projects that would cement his status as one of the very best horror directors working today.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Sacrament (2014)

15 Oct


By Tanner Smith

I stated before that I’m a supporter of the found-footage/faux-documentary format (again, when it’s done right). One of the inspirations I turned to when making my own fake-documentary feature was Ti West’s “The Sacrament.”

“The Sacrament” is a faux-documentary thriller in which a small VICE camera crew (played by AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, and Joe Swanberg) travels to a secluded religious community, where people who were down on their luck come together to live in peace and serve the community founder, simply called “Father” (Gene Jones). Everything seems fine, until they come across some members who beg them to take them away from here. With that tension comes the paranoid possibility that the crew will return home to reveal too much about the community. And with that…comes complete chaos.

The trailer tried to be clever in hiding where this whole ordeal is going, but even if you haven’t seen the movie already, you can tell where this story is going: it’s based on the Jonestown massacre.

But even so, “The Sacrament” is a gripping thrill ride. Once everything goes to hell, it’s just a question of which of our main characters could survive and how long it will take before they finally make their way out of this horrible experience. And unlike most first-person-perspective movies, I’m not wondering why the characters keep filming everything–they’re a media group getting as much of the story as they can in the hopes that they can get out of this situation with their lives and reveal it to the world. I buy that.

And because I buy that, I’m constantly on-edge when everything goes from bad to worse, because we’re seeing things mostly through the eyes of our protagonists, whether they’re hiding from armed guards or running to a new location. We even get disturbing footage from the antagonists as well, after they take one of the cameras–the most brutal scene that comes from this is a static-shot scene in which someone is forcibly poisoned and dies in his sister’s arms. The poor guy…

Oh, and I should also mention that because our heroes are camera operators & documentarians, that creates a perfect alibi to keep shots steady, except for when they’re running for their lives while filming! It’s the little things that prevent criticism…except for when it comes to people who claim the idea of exploiting the Jonestown massacre for horror-movie purposes is in bad-taste. (It’s just a movie.)

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Creep Movies (2014, 2017)

14 Oct


By Tanner Smith

I’m a supporter of the found-footage/fake-documentary format, but I should emphasize that I’m only a fan of it *when it’s done right.* When it is, it can make for an effective thrill ride in putting the viewer in the shoes of the character holding the camera, and thus making the viewer an inactive part of the story.

Don’t get me wrong–there are some terrible ones; but the ones that make us wish they’d go away only make the good ones good enough to make us wonder what else could be done with the approach. Some of my favorite examples include not only the popular ones like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” but also “The Sacrament,” “The Visit,” “Chronicle,” “V/H/S,” “REC,” and…the “Creep” movies.

“Creep” was 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!

OK, now I have to talk about the ending so that I can talk about the film’s sequel, “Creep 2″…even though “Creep 2” itself is already a spoiler for “Creep” anyway. So, SPOILER ALERT!!!

The whole film, this whole time, has been edited by Josef long after he took Aaron’s footage for himself…after killing Aaron and filming himself doing it. It turns out Josef is a serial killer who loves to make movies out of his murders, with beginnings, middles, and endings…..yikes.

Again, THIS is how it’s done with the subgenre! It’s chilling and disturbing in all the right ways.

“Creep 2,” I think is even better. Brice & Duplass didn’t just remake “Creep”; they continued the story with something that I can’t recall having seen in any horror film–Duplass’ serial-killer character, whose real name is NOT Josef apparently, is going through a midlife crisis…the serial killer is going through a midlife crisis…

That’s just oddly fascinating.

This time, the videographer he’s brought on board for his next project is amateur web-series creator Sara (Desiree Akhavan). As soon as she arrives at his cabin, he makes it quite clear to her that he’s a killer, and he announces that he asked her to come make a film about his own end, thus creating his “magnum opus.” Sara is smart enough to keep on-guard but isn’t quite sure exactly where he’s going with this. Where this goes…let me just say I’m curious to see “Creep 3,” if it does go anywhere.

And yes, there is a “Creep 3” in the works. I’ll be interested to check it out!

Both “Creep” movies are on Netflix–I recommend you check them both out for a good scare or two!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Guest (2014)

14 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, here’s the setup to “The Guest”: a stranger named David (Dan Stevens) arrives to a family’s house, saying he was a friend of their late son who served and died in combat, and after he earns their trust, he slowly but surely reveals his true colors as someone diabolical…

It sounds familiar, but it doesn’t feel familiar. But unlike “The Gift,” which also did something different with a familiar setup, “The Guest” isn’t interested in providing psychological insight into human behavior while providing a familiar setup. Instead, it’s just a good fun time, with action, comedy, horror, and occasional drama. And it never takes itself too seriously–it’s like if “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” combined with “The Terminator.”

There’s more than a handful of good, memorable scenes in “The Guest.” One of my favorites is when David protects the youngest son (Brendan Meyer) against some school bullies, follows them to a bar where they’re too young to be drinking, and totally trashes them, blackmailing the bartender not to say anything. Both “The Guest” and “John Wick” were released in the same year–I’d easily rival this scene in “The Guest” with the club scene in “John Wick.”

Of course, things are not right with David, who turns out to be sinister (though thankfully vague in his reasons as to why). And it leads to a fight to survive…in a Halloween funhouse maze…with ’80s-’90s techno music playing throughout! What a way to end a thrill ride, right?!

Well, at least, the climax made me forget my little gripes I have about the film, like a few slow portions (particularly in the middle act) and some poor acting from side roles. And there’s also Dan Stevens. This was my introduction to him, having not seen one episode of “Downton Abbey,” and he’s fantastic in this film. One moment, he’ll be a cool guy to have a beer and chat with…then the next, he’s hurling grenades in a diner, killing all inside.

Side-note: there’s a little pet-peeve I have with these movies, when someone tries to tell someone else some horrible news and the response is “You’re just saying that.” Why would somebody just say something like that?? It’s right up there with “it’s only the wind” as one of my biggest pet-peeves in horror movies.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Hunger Games Movies (2012-2015)

12 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, let’s talk about the “Hunger Games” movies!

I read the first two (out of three) books in the “Hunger Games” series by Susanne Collins when I first heard the movies were being made. I skipped the last book, because…well…the second book (“Catching Fire”) didn’t really grab me as much as the first one did.

About a year later, “The Hunger Games,” the movie, was released. I really liked it. I thought it was well-acted with great performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Lenny Kravitz, among others. And I thought it had great social commentary about what we perceive as entertainment, what draws the most attention in times of crisis, what classes find valuable, and so on. Yes, it is very dizzying with its constantly shaky camera movements and the whole purpose of an action film is to actually SHOW the action…but to be fair, I don’t want to see the bloody deaths of children. (Btw, even though they aren’t shown in graphic detail, this movie should’ve gotten an R rating! PG-13, my ass.) I will criticize the heavy amount of closeups and the actual “hunger” of the Hunger Games going ignored, but the shaky-cam? Eh. Doesn’t bother me that much.

Even though I wasn’t entirely sold on the second book, “Catching Fire,” I was still curious to see how that film adaptation would turn out…and to my amazement, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” turned out to be even better than the first movie! (It’s my favorite of the four “Hunger Games” movies.) I don’t know if it was a case of toning the material down while still getting a clear understanding about what made it worth selling to begin with, or if the new director (Francis Lawrence, taking over for Gary Ross) with a different style had something to do with it (I CAN SEE THE ACTION NOW), or whatever. But either way, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had elements of what made “The Hunger Games” compelling and added to it by deepening the themes, broadening the characters, exploring the environment this story is set in, and heading into darker territory. This was like the “Empire Strikes Back” of young-adult book adaptations! And I loved it–and I still hadn’t read “Mockingjay,” the final book, so where was it going to go from there??

They split “Mockingjay” the movie into two parts (because of course they did).

“Part 1” is fine–it still has more of that commentary coming out and giving us more survival techniques for the resistance in this war-driven world, and Jennifer Lawrence carries a great deal of it (of course). But “Part 2” is where things get REAL good. This is the final resolution, the story that’s going to make things right…or are they? We get a lot of tough questions and even tougher answers, and we find ourselves asking, what would WE do if we had the upper hand on our enemies? It’s a lot more thought-provoking than I expected. There isn’t a lot of action in it, but I didn’t need a “Return of the King” type of climax for this series that’s talking to people about hard choices, such as moral uncertainty of war–I just needed something deeper than that. And I got it. And I admired this franchise for taking that risk.

My ranking of the films:
1. Catching Fire
2. Mockingjay Part 2
3. The Hunger Games
4. Mockingjay Part 1