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Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Final Girls (2015)

15 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…I want a sequel to “The Final Girls!” Why is there still not a sequel to “The Final Girls”?? People will see it!…Or somebody will!…I will!

“The Final Girls” is a satirical horror film about a group of modern-day young adults who are magically teleported into a 1980s slasher film–think “Last Action Hero” meets “Scream.” And now, in order to see the end of the film and hopefully get back home, they have to help the ’80s protagonists fight off a mysterious masked killer. What complicates things is that one of the ’80s kids was played in reality by the deceased mother of one of the millennials, and she’s not ready to lose her again.

The film was co-written by Joshua John Miller (along with M.A. Fortin), whose father is Jason Miller, who was best-known for playing Father Karras in “The Exorcist.” I can’t help but feel like writing this screenplay was like a form of therapy for him. (And another fun fact: Joshua Miller was best-known for acting as the little punk from ’80s cult classics “River’s Edge” and “Near Dark”–I know he plays different characters, but c’mon, he’s still the same little jerk in each film.)

But even with its heart, it’s still a horror-comedy. Does the comedy work? Yes…for the most part. The deconstructing of the slasher-movie tropes is very well-done, including how even being genre-savvy doesn’t always save your life. The killer, named Billy, is obviously molded after Jason Voorhees and the “Black Christmas” killer (also named “Billy”). They try to work in as many types as possible for the disposable teens–the Stud, the Sexpot, the Virgin, the Final Girl, and more. And it’s also nice to see these millennial youths play parental roles to these ’80s stereotypes.

What I don’t like so much about the film is that the ’80s stereotypes don’t feel even like “’80s stereotypes.” They feel like millennials trying to play ’80s so they can have an excuse to be as impolitically correct as possible. Did they really expect me to buy Adam DeVine as a jock stud from the ’80s? Bullsh*t. I have the same problem with Angela Trimbur as the ’80s Sexpot–again, I’m not seeing as much of a type as much as someone trying to perform community theater. Even for an ’80s slasher film, you gotta try harder than this.

Though, I will say…they are more memorable than most disposable teens in real ’80s slasher films.

Speaking of which, the main characters themselves are likable enough for me to want to follow them. It’s not really an actor’s movie, but it is important to have appealing players in any film, no matter how satirical it may be. Taissa Farmiga is a fun protagonist, Alexander Ludwig is convincing as a sensitive jock, Nina Dobrev is funny as a conceited slutty type, Alia Shawkat is also funny at being Alia Shawkat, and Thomas Middleditch is irritating without being ear-numbingly so. Also, Malin Akerman as the ’80s Virgin who doesn’t know her character is played by someone’s late mother is very sweet and effective.

Again, not an actor’s movie. But give credit where it’s due.

And judging from the entertaining blooper reel at the end, it looked like everyone had a fun time making this flick. If I were involved, I’d probably have a blast too. I definitely had fun watching this film…and I’d undoubtedly have fun watching a sequel if they would just make one already!

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

12 Oct

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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

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

11 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, let’s talk about the major anti-authority movie of 2015. No, it’s not “The Big Short.” Instead, it’s “Straight Outta Compton.”

Do I even need to describe this one? This film was a big hit because no one needed to tell them it wasn’t going to be.

For those few who don’t know, it’s basically a two-and-a-half-hour tribute to NWA, a group of young rappers who became famous for what was dubbed “reality rap,” mostly reporting on the horrid things they saw on the streets in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Young black men would get stopped and even handcuffed by police even for the mere act of standing there.

Oh, how far we haven’t come…

“Straight Outta Compton” is a conventional biopic, which is both its main strength and its main weakness. We know the drill–the early days starting out with big ambitions, creative people getting together to make some magic, getting a big break, moving to big performances, the introduction to the downfalls of fame, the controversies, the fighting, the breakups, the tragedies…..let’s face it, it all sounds familiar. I guess just about every celebrity goes through it all one way or another.

But why do we keep watching music biopics? Because even the same stuff is different for everybody that goes through them. And if it’s told well with interesting characters and smart writing, we still get something special.

The first hour-and-a-half or so has the best parts of the movie. It’s interesting to see how these kids start out–Eazy-E is a drug dealer, Dr. Dre performs his mixes wherever he can, Ice Cube is writing lyrics on the school bus, and so on. And it’s great to see them work together, such as in this clip where they lay down a track for the first time.

The second hour or so is the least interesting, as we see the gradual fall of NWA. But it still does consist of compelling material, such as what NWA has become after many of them have left to do their own thing, the hustling manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) continues to show favoritism towards E, and Dre teams up with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor, very chilling), and then…tragedy strikes.

Yeah, the film does drag from time to time. But strangely, when the credits roll, and we get the real-life footage of the actual NWA, I find myself thinking, “Yeah…that WAS good! In fact, I think it should’ve gone on longer!” Director F. Gary Gray (who also directed the Ice Cube-penned “Friday”) and screenwriters Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff (who were nominated for an Oscar for their script) clearly had a story to tell and were going to try hard to create one of the best music biopics ever made.

All the actors are terrific. Jason Mitchell is winning and charismatic as Eazy-E, Corey Hawkins is a solid Dr. Dre, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube…you know, now that I’ve seen Jackson in other movies since “Straight Outta Compton” (“Ingrid Goes West,” “Long Shot”), I don’t have to see him as “Ice Cube’s son” but “O’Shea Jackson Jr., a very talented actor.” That just makes his performance as Ice Cube (his own father) all the more interesting. He’s great here.

And, uh…OK, let’s address the elephant in the room. Because the real Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are among the film’s producers, there’s no mention of Dre’s publicized violence against women. But…at least they don’t try to make the NWA members into role-model types? I dunno, it is a bit disconcerting that a lot of the real important negative attitudes are either merely glanced at or ignored entirely.

But then again, it’s not really about that; maybe it’s simply about the impact these people had on culture, telling the truth the best way they knew how and becoming famous for it. And as such, it’s a pretty solid film.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Martian (2015)

8 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” lost some of its appeal after seeing it a few more times.

But only some. And it’s not even that big a deal; it’s just a nitpick I have. Honestly, the movie is still really good, and I like to watch it from time to time…though, I usually fast-forward through its scenes set on Earth.

Except for Donald Glover’s cameo–that’s still gold.

You have an astronaut/botanist who’s left for dead and stranded on Mars, and he has to do whatever he can to survive until help and (hopefully) rescue finally come. That’s the hook.

You have a subplot involving his crew in space, who don’t know their partner is still alive until they’re halfway home. That’s an interesting addition.

…And then, you have the people at NASA (played by great actors like Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, and Mackenzie Davis) reporting his death, finding out later that he’s still alive and on Mars, having to admit that they messed up, worried that they’ll look bad with the truth, yadda yadda yadda–I don’t need that, and I don’t care about that. They do find a way to bring him home (again, thanks to Donald Glover), but you could’ve just had the development come with the other astronauts, and nothing would’ve been missed. Plus, it would’ve decreased the film’s runtime by about 20-25 minutes!

I don’t care if it was in the book this was based on–it’s just not that interesting.

But thankfully, most of the focus is on where it should be, with Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut who was part of a crew whose Mars mission is complicated by a strong dust storm. Thinking Mark died in the storm, the rest of the crew abort the mission and leave without him. But he is still alive; however, he’s unable to communicate with his crew or with Earth, meaning his only rescue option is the next Mars mission, four years later. So, now he has to find ways to survive until he can figure some things out–luckily, he’s a botanist, so he can find ways to grow food…on a planet where nothing grows.

What’s great about this story, aside from the interesting developments that our main character has to go through? (I mean, being trapped on a whole other planet–that’s WAY worse than being trapped on a desert island.) It’s how he responds to it. He, of course, has his initial moment of panic and concern (and this is after he’s had to perform self-surgery to get a piece of debris out of himself!), but then he simply asks, “What should I do now?” And he goes and finds ways to keep on going in what may or may not be a hopeless situation. That’s what I love about this film–Mark’s an optimist. He doesn’t give up easily, even when things go from bad to worse–he’ll just find a way to make it work again because he’s determined not to die on Mars.

Another thing I really like about “The Martian” is its sense of humor. With a sharply written script by Drew Goddard (most famous for “The Cabin in the Woods” and…well, now this), the moments of levity in this survival story are much appreciated. And it also helps that Mark is given some of the funnier lines in the movie.

Here are some of my favorites:
-“Mars will come to fear my botany powers.”
-“I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”
-“I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.”

Let’s see, was this script nominated for an Oscar? Please let the answer be “yes.” *scrolls through Wikipedia*………Yes!

Blend a comic script with Ridley Scott’s serious direction, and you have something unique. That’s really what it comes down to, more than “The Martian” being humorous–it’s hopeful. When it’s on Mars or on the spacecraft with the rest of the crew (played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie), the film really works. On Earth, however, not so much….again, except for the Donald Glover cameo. (I hope I never have to say this about another movie with Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, and Mackenzie Davis!)

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The End of the Tour (2015)

7 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films………why is “The End of the Tour” not on my top-20-of-the-decade list?

Well, there’s a ridiculous BS reason as to why. Same reason as to why there’s only one MCU movie that’s going to be on my list. The way I made the list was I split the choices into separate categories to make it easier to choose some over others. “The End of the Tour” fit into the Biopic category, and there’s one biopic that I’d feel bad for leaving off the list…this wasn’t it.

But I LOVE this film–believe me, I do! I have a select group of dialogue-heavy films available on streaming services that I just like to listen to on my phone while I’m driving or walking through the mall or the library or whatever. “The End of the Tour,” currently available on Netflix, is one of them.

The dialogue in this film’s screenplay is BRILLIANT. It reminds me a lot of Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, in that it’s mostly centered around two smart people sharing smart ideas and philosophies. And here, we have reporter/novelist David Lipsky and the late enigmatic author David Foster Wallace–two smart guys who bond together by simply discussing their views on life for just a few days.

Played by Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, I could listen to these two smart guys talk about anything. What does it mean to have something you don’t want? What if you didn’t know you didn’t want it? What if you want it and don’t know how to get it? Who can you truly trust when you have this “celebrity” status? Do you think you’re performing some sort of “social strategy” to alter your persona to less intelligent, average Joes? They even discuss other things like “Die Hard,” Alanis Morrissette, even masturbation.

What makes the conversations especially interesting is that Lipsky convinced his Rolling Stone editor to let him write a piece on Wallace while he’s on the last stages of his book tour promoting his ingenious novel “Infinite Jest.” (At least, I heard “Infinite Jest” was “ingenious.” I never read it…I think I’m scared to.) That’s because he hero-worships Wallace for having the fame that he desires. (As the film opens, Lipsky has just published a novel himself, but chances are it won’t go anywhere.) So, he’s happy to be having these pleasant chats with him, and vice versa (though, Wallace is a bit uncertain as to Lipsky’s “agenda” for the article–he even tells him at one point, “This is nice…this is not real.”). And then, late in the film, Lipsky decides to call Wallace out on what he’s seen so far on the tour, which is that Wallace, who must obviously be “brilliant” to write this long, allegorical novel, is performing some sort of act around him and other people so that they won’t be intimidated. Wallace’s response is amazing. What he’s basically saying is that everybody wants to be perceived in certain ways because we want to please other people. Therefore, we WILL adopt different personas.

I’m guilty of it. And you are, too.

The film was directed by James Ponsoldt, who also directed one of my favorite teen films, “The Spectacular Now.” And it was written by Donald Margulies, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright famous for “Dinner with Friends.” It was also based on the real Lipsky’s novel “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” which he wrote based on tape recordings he made with the real Wallace–I’d be interested in reading that…I don’t know why I haven’t yet.

I love “The End of the Tour.” I love the dialogue. I love the two lead performances from Segel and Eisenberg. And I love how it makes me feel each time I watch (or listen to) it.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: It Follows (2015)

6 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, IT FOLLOWS!

You know how many bad supernatural-teen-thrillers there are? Films with malevolent supernatural presences that seem to target an annoying group of bland teenagers? Sometimes, you come across a good one, but for the most part, they’re pretty disposable. And then, you get It Follows…

Remember when Paul Thomas Anderson made “Punch-Drunk Love,” giving an otherwise-typical Adam Sandler comedy the arthouse treatment and gave it more depth than we didn’t think could be found? Well, filmmaker David Robert Mitchell gave the same treatment to an otherwise-typical supernatural-teen-thriller, with “It Follows.” Think about it–we have teens being stalked by an invisible presence that wants nothing more than to kill them. It’d be so easy (scratch that–TOO easy) to screw this up. But instead, Mitchell left room open for analysis by keeping enough questions unanswered, providing plenty of atmosphere to add to the terror we’re facing by using striking cinematography, and even setting it in a time that’s hardly defined, with old-timey cars & TV sets, a few modern-day devices, and even a futuristic compact Kindle…or whatever that thing was.

The characters are still the same as you would see in most other supernatural-teen-thrillers–there’s hardly anything special about them. But…eh. They’re real enough; I’ll accept them, mostly because they’re set in this movie’s world and that makes me realize this is a neat alternative to most supernatural-teen-thrillers that have only the slightest amount of creativity and not the slightest bit of atmosphere.

The late, great French director Jean-Luc Godard once said the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. That about sums it up here.

Anyway, what does “It” represent in “It Follows?” It can be transferred through sex, which makes it easy to label “It” as a metaphor for an STD and a cautionary warning for safe-sex. When I first saw the film, I thought it was that simple. But now, I realize it may be something deeper than I thought. Our main character, Jay, wants to explore the world of adulthood, thinking of it as freedom. And you know how a lot of teens think when it comes to the subject of sex–for example, in their world, sex makes boys into “men.” But with adulthood comes responsibility & consequence, and THAT could be what “It” represents–Jay has sex with this guy she likes, then feels like she’s walking on air while she’s talking about what she used to imagine when she was old enough to date…and then the guy holds her captive for a little while and warns her that this “thing” will follow her just as it followed him, and if it catches her, she’ll die. The only way to get rid of it to pass it along and make it someone else’s problem. It may slowly walk towards her, but it won’t stop. And it’ll look like someone she knows or just another face in the crowd…

(Though, it’s easy to point it out–just look for the person who’s either naked or wearing white clothing…and walking slowly with blank facial expressions.)

“It” could mean anything here–death, consequence, guilt, inner demons becoming outer demons, etc. Whatever it is, it’s out there and the characters who are targeted by it can either live with it and/or do something about it or just let it take them. If they ignore it, they’ll surely suffer for it. I like that it’s left open to analyze, and it can be analyzed in many different ways, so there’s hardly any wrong answers.

It’s also interesting to think about–CAN you escape it, like take a plane to leave the country or something? Or will it board the plane with you? Or will it keep walking to where you’re going? Can it swim across the ocean?

I like the way “It Follows” ends. Actually, it doesn’t end–it stops. We don’t know if the characters have ultimately escaped “It” or not; we just know they’re stuck with the knowledge that it could still be out there, waiting for them and/or coming for them. They’re adults now, and they have to live with adult responsibilities & consequences for their actions. Whether they like it or not, they’re stuck with it.

And it won’t stop.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Mistress America (2015)

5 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…whether you like “Mistress America” or not depends on how much you like Greta Gerwig. Case in point: I like Greta Gerwig a lot, so I like “Mistress America” a lot.

A bit of an exaggeration, to be sure. But it’s the best I can come up with.

Gerwig also co-wrote the film with director Noah Baumbach–they also collaborated together on “Frances Ha,” one of my favorite films of the decade.

In “Mistress America,” Gerwig takes center stage as Brooke, a wacky, extremely confident, adventurous, highly lively, sometimes unbearable, overall lovely gal who lives for New York as well for simply living. And she knows so many awesome people, and she has all these amazingly incredible projects in the works, and she’ll even force herself onto the stage of a rock concert.

How did Richard Roeper describe her? “The initially entertaining but ultimately exhausting, self-appointed life of the party who won’t leave, even after the life has been drained of the party.”

Some critics weren’t so kind to “Mistress America” for Gerwig’s extreme portrayal of The Life Of Every Party. But for a brisk 84 minutes, I was happy to be in her company. I didn’t think she wore out her welcome. I could see how she would for others, but I can’t help it–there’s just something about Greta Gerwig that sticks with me and I can’t shake it off.

“Mistress America” is essentially a screwball comedy, with eccentric characters spewing a whole lot of dialogue with impeccable comic timing while on zany misadventures. I don’t know how long it took Baumbach to get these actors to find the right rhythms for each of these dialogue-driven scenes, but the effort is definitely appreciated.

Lola Kirke co-stars as Tracy, an 18-year-old college freshman who is very bright but not very sociable. Even when she finds a guy she can get along with because of their mutual aspirations in creative writing, the guy doesn’t stick around for too long before he finds a girlfriend of his own. Now bored in New York, Tracy reaches out to her stepsister-to-be: Brooke. Brooke, who’s 12 years older than Tracy, shows Tracy a great time while tagging her along for a wild night on the town.

Side-note: I relate just about every bit to the opening-credit sequence that shows Tracy trying to adjust to college life. Been there, lived that.

Tracy sees a unique character in Brooke (who is essentially a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who won’t reveal her true self), which inspires her to write a short story about her (giving her written counterpart the name “Meadow”). So, she decides to follow her around even longer, secretly taking notes as she goes along. Soon enough, the journey leads them (along with Tracy’s would-be boyfriend and his jealous girlfriend) to Connecticut where Brooke reunites with an old flame and an old foe.

This is the part where some critics who weren’t particularly invested in Brooke before would tune out. This is where the screwball-comedy aspect ventures into outrageous farce. More characters, more snappy dialogue, much going on, everything paying off…I had a blast! Critics like Roeper and James Berardinelli were turned off by it; I thought it made the film even more appealing.

Tracy sees right through Brooke, that she’s more talk than action and she should live more in the real world. When Brooke ultimately (and inevitably) finds out that Tracy’s been taking notes and writing stories about her, she explodes because it’s not her at all. Tracy counters back with an excellent point: that Brooke hardly ever shows herself for who she truly is. (She even uses her dead mother as an excuse for not confronting reality with other people.) Even at 18, Tracy is the smartest person in the film, even if she does need a lesson in social behavior. (Don’t we all, though.)

But as good as Lola Kirke is as Tracy, it’s Greta Gerwig as Brooke that will make or break “Mistress America” for people. She didn’t break it for me. I like her a lot, so I like the movie a lot.