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Looking Back at 2010s Films: Columbus (2017)

11 Nov

By Tanner Smith

One of the bonus features on my Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray collection for Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy is a wonderful video essay called “On Cinema and Time.” It looks at many of Linklater’s films (including the “Before” trilogy, of course) and Francois Truffaut’s “Antoine Doinel” film series (spawned by “The 400 Blows”) to look into the styles of distinctive filmmakers who can be labeled as “auteurs.” And it was done brilliantly. (Side-note: please watch it here.)

Who made the video? A filmmaker best known for his video essays, simply known as Kogonada (or, : : kogonada). He’s all about content, form, and structure of film, and his video essays are about trademarks and aesthetics used by filmmakers. Other sources for his essays include Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, among others.

I remember thinking, this is a fascinating “movie buff” (for lack of a better word) and he should write/direct a feature film some day. Well, he did–a wonderful conversation-driven comedy-drama called “Columbus.”

The film takes place in Columbus, Indiana. One of our two main characters is Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young architecture enthusiast who graduated high school, works at the local library, likes to walk around local architecture and pretend she’s a tour guide providing important information to people, and also cares for her mother, who is a recovering drug addict. The other is Jin (John Cho), an American who works in South Korea translating literature to English and comes to Indiana to care for his estranged father, who is now in a coma after he was supposed to give a lecture about architecture.

Jin and Casey meet by chance, strike up conversation, and find they share a rapport. Jin hates architecture, leading Casey to tell him about her favorite buildings, which then leads Jin to ask WHY they’re her favorite structures. In talking about this stuff, they also open up about themselves, such as how Jin feels resentful towards his father since he buried himself into his work and how Casey would love to pursue her dreams of working in architecture but feels pressured to look after her mother. The two help each other out, even when they both stubbornly state they don’t need help.

I mentioned the “Before” trilogy and how Kogonada’s video essay was used to illustrate Linklater’s style of presenting philosophy and time through cinema. Watching “Columbus,” I can’t help but feel like this is the style Kogonada took inspiration from. Most of it is not so much “dialogue” driven as it is “conversation” driven, as the “Before” trilogy was. That’s not to say he steals Linklater’s style; he just puts his own spin on it, with his own writing, characters, and style. He’s telling his own story through words, and he’s also doing it through architecture–many of the film’s static shots are framed in such a way that we can appreciate the design of the setting just as Casey appreciates the structures of her favorite buildings. He’s practically forcing you to look at what he has to show you.

Jin and Casey are two interesting people communicating both through conflict and despite conflict. They need each other to talk with/to, and as a result, we learn more about each one of them and what they have to go through. That makes the scenes in which they’re with other people, such as Jin with his father’s assistant (Parker Posey) and Casey with her coworker Gabriel (Rory Culkin), all the more interesting when you note the contrast between they want to talk about and what they’re afraid to talk about. Thus, each time Jin and Casey revisit each other to talk some more, I’m all the more invested in what they have to say next.

John Cho is very good as Jin–it’s great to see the guy who was known as the “MILF guy” in the “American Pie” movies and the first half of “Harold & Kumar” get opportunities to shine as a dramatic actor. (He was even better in “Searching” in 2018.) But the real star of the film for me is Haley Lu Richardson as Casey. I’ve liked her in movies like “The Edge of Seventeen,” “Split,” and “Support the Girls,” among others–“Columbus” gives her the role she was born for. She’s brilliantly natural, she has great screen presence, I feel for her character from beginning to end, and she delivers a true heart to the film that I can’t praise enough. I want to hug her when she’s upset, I want her to follow her dream, I feel bad for her when something goes unexpectedly, and I smile for her when she does something she even remotely likes. She’s nothing short of wonderful here.

There’s a lot of sadness in “Columbus,” which is why Jin and Casey need their outlets to let out their emotions. But there’s also a lot of possibilities for them to move past it all and embrace what they have and what they could get. Much of it has to do with love–the sacrifices for it as well as the avails…kind of like what goes into architecture as well.

Kogonada has another feature in the works: a science-fiction drama called “After Yang,” starring Colin Farrell. With this guy at the helm, I look forward to seeing that film as well.

Looking Back at 2010s Series: American Vandal (Netflix Series)

5 Nov

By Tanner Smith

I’m changing it up a little this time–talking about a TV series in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series. Even though I am a movie guy, there are some shows I like to make time for.

And I rewatched both seasons of the Netflix Original series “American Vandal” again recently, so I figured, it is a 2010s treasure and I should look back on it.

“American Vandal” is something special. What drew me in was its ambition to parody/make homage to the true-crime documentary shows (such as “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”) that crazy white people seem to go crazy for. (And as a white person myself who saw half the first season of “Murderer” with mild interest and enjoyed the entirety of “The Jinx” with great interest…I kind of get it.) It’s a mockumentary series that makes it appear to be told from a teenage perspective, as a high-school AV crew makes a documentary series as they investigate an impactful crime on campus. What kind of crimes? Well…season 1 is finding out who spray-painted phallic images all over the vehicles in the high-school faculty parking lot and season 2 is about who might have caused all of the students in the school cafeteria to defecate themselves.

Side-note: I first found out about “American Vandal” because my fiancee’s mother thought it actually was a true-crime show–when she described the crimes to me, I knew something was off about it. That’s when I decided to check it out and it became clear to me that it was a mockumentary rather than an actual documentary (…mostly because I recognized an actor from “22 Jump Street” playing a high-school student).

So I was intrigued, because I’m a supporter of the found-footage/faux-documentary format and I was curious to see how this would turn out.

Watching season 1, I was of course laughing at how seriously this silly juvenile crime (drawing penises all over teachers’ cars) was taken in the same purpose as “Making a Murderer.” But then, the rug was pulled out from under me and I realized something. This series was not particularly interested in comedy to sell us on its true intent. Instead, creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda used humor to lure us in and then went in for the kill (so to speak) about how heavy the consequences are for an underachiever who is accused of a ridiculous prank that could ruin his future. That stuff is handled in gripping serious manner, and rather than accuse the filmmakers of inconsistent storytelling, we realize that they’ve been setting us up for it the whole time, because what they really wanted to do was provide effective social commentary about the way high-school teens are treated and even how they treat themselves in times of crisis. If you’re a class-clown, you’re the prime suspect for a heinous prank that you may have had no involvement in. And if you didn’t, hardly anyone will believe your story. Your teachers won’t trust you, some won’t listen, and even more unfortunate, the rest will throw you under the bus because they refuse to believe you.

I won’t give away the ending, but we’re left on a very bitter note that provides a cautionary warning relative to how high-school underachievers are treated on campus.

As good as season 1 is, I think season 2 is even better.

The creators of the show within the show, high-school sleuths Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), have gained national popularity due to their “American Vandal” series that documented their previous investigation. They receive numerous inquiries to use their techniques to solve more crimes (including a murder!), but they only answer one: an incident at a Catholic high school during which the students who drank the lemonade at lunch, which was laced with laxatives, were forced to defecate all over campus in horrid fashion at costly expenses. The culprit is anonymously addressed as “The Turd Burglar.” And that’s not all–other poop-related pranks occur on campus. A piƱata turns out to be filled with excrement, and a t-shirt launcher at a pep rally…well, you get the idea. One student steps up the principal and the police to accuse a friend of the crimes, and the friend, an oddball outcast named Kevin (Travis Tope), is brought in to confess. Kevin is kicked out of school and placed under house arrest. But there’s one problem: he was a victim of the initial cafeteria prank as well. Unless he “shat” himself on purpose, something’s wrong here. Thus begins another heavy investigation to see who else might have been involved and when/where the Turd Burglar might strike again…

OK, so “American Vandal” features a lot of gross, juvenile humor. But like I said, it’s a bait-and-switch type of thing. Season 2 has even more to say about teenage life than what we thought Season 1 covered already. This time, without giving too much away, it’s about how teens live most of their lives on social media, which is a common problem today (as many paranoid adults will make you believe).

(Yeah, I know I get analytical in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series, but in the case of this series, I want people to go in not knowing much. I’m just summing up the lessons at work and then moving along.)

Despite its disgusting setups, “American Vandal” is a wonderful series. I would love to see it progress into a potential season 3. Maybe the next one will feature a crime centered on that “time of the month” for high-school girls…you know they would go there.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Super Dark Times (2017)

26 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Fun fact: I met this film’s director, Kevin Phillips, once (at the Fantastic Cinema & Craft Beer Festival in Little Rock in the summer of 2017). Nice guy.

“Super Dark Times” is a slow-burn thriller that escalates into bloody violence, sheer terror, and complete loss of innocence…and even during all that escalating, things are already “super dark!”

Don’t believe me? It opens with two cops killing a dying deer that made its way through a window at school, as one of our main characters watches in awe…that’s only a hint of the bloodshed that’s to come!

Things get worse when four boys, alone in an open field, play around with a sword…you probably already know what happens there.

When I watch scenes like that (and a scene from “Boyhood” in which kids play with saw blades), I tense up because I’m afraid something might happen. (Sometimes, I’m right–the film wouldn’t be called “Super Dark Times” if things didn’t get…”super dark,” thanks to scenes like that.) It makes me think back to when I was a kid growing up in the country and thank God that the stupid things my friends and I did back then didn’t get us hurt and/or killed!

I mean, we always felt like we knew what we were doing, and nothing terrible ever happened. But sometimes, I wonder, what if… ah, forget it, we were careful and things were fine. (But even so, I’m never letting my kids play with weapons.)

“Super Dark Times” is a film about a group of kids who think they’re invincible and nothing can go wrong…until EVERYTHING goes wrong. The youngest kid wants to ignore it all and move on with his life. One kid is too busy trying to accept the responsibility of making sure not everything goes to hell that he keeps having to turn down the advances of his own crush! And then, the other kid…

You know what? In my long ramblings this past month, I’ve talked about spoilers and what I think they mean in analysis (with the exception of “The VVitch”), but this time, I’m just going to say check it out and see what you make of it. It’s currently streaming on Netflix–if you have an account (and can stomach the material I already mentioned here), give it a watch!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Gerald’s Game (2017)

26 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

“Gerald’s Game” gets better each time I see it, and I can’t believe I complained about the ending when I first saw it, because this film NEEDED it! It needed the right amount of positivity & resolution after spending an hour-and-a-half in someone’s personal hell. (And it only lasted eight minutes, which is good for something that was originally about 50 pages in the original novel!) It made the film all the more special.

“Gerald’s Game” is based on a Stephen King novel whose story is told from a character who spends most of the time trapped in bed, handcuffed to the posts. How do you make a movie like that? Or, at least, how do you keep it interesting? The same way you make an interesting movie about a character trapped in a canyon (“127 Hours”) or a coffin (“Buried”)–you get a great actor and an even better director. This film’s star: Carla Gugino, in her best role to date. This film’s director: Mike…freaking…Flanagan!

I was already a fan of Flanagan’s by the time “Gerald’s Game” was released on Netflix, after seeing “Oculus,” “Hush,” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil.” So, I had a feeling “Gerald’s Game” would be really good. What he created in adapting King’s novel was something special: the kind of film that practically demands be watched more than once so that more things can be developed and explored when the audience is given the knowledge of where it’s going and where it’s been. The best kind of film, particularly the best kind of horror film, is the one that keeps you coming back for more.

Flanagan’s next film is another King adaptation: “Doctor Sleep.” I can’t wait to see how that one turns out.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Happy Death Day (2017)

22 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

“Happy Death Day” is a time-loop movie, in which a character has to repeat the same day over and over again in order to right some wrongs and possibly save some lives. But unlike “Source Code” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” this time-loop movie actually has the guts to reference “Groundhog Day” at least once. In this case, it’s a college sorority girl, Tree (Jessica Rothe), who gets killed by a masked killer (actually, the mask is of the campus’ mascot…a baby…wtf?), and…wakes up to repeat the day over again. Then she gets killed again…then she wakes up again…then she gets killed again and again and again, until she ultimately finds out who did it…or keeps doing it!

I was surprised by how much I liked “Happy Death Day.” It was a PG-13 slasher film that actually worked. It had a good sense of humor about itself, which made it fun, and it also benefitted from a really solid character arc for our main character, Tree, who starts off as bitchy and unlikable and then earns our sympathy by the end of the movie.

Much of the film’s success is because of Jessica Rothe’s performance as Tree. Tree is a mean-girl type who is harsh to pretty much everyone she meets, lets a lot of people down, turns down nice guys, and is pretty much a horrible person; thus, this time-loop she’s trapped in gives her ample opportunity to change herself for the better…if she lives through the day for once! Rothe has to portray the character in many different ways that show her progression–she’s mean, she’s picky, she’s confused, she’s scared, she’s regretful, she’s a fighter, she’s sweet–and it never feels forced! She can even be funny too–there’s a scene in which she gets away from the killer, only to be pulled over by a patrol cop, and she realizes she can escape death if she gets arrested and spends the night in a jail cell…so she straight-up tells the cop she’s drunk, stoned, under all kinds of influences (“You name it, man, I’m on it!”). I love that–she plays it so well. This is a good example of character development, when a character I start out disliking gradually turns into someone I wouldn’t mind revisiting again in the future.

SHE is the reason I saw “Happy Death Day 2U!” (I’ll get to that one soon.)

As a little foot-note, I’ll add that I liked Carter, the nice, awkward romantic-interest (played by Israel Broussard). I’m at that point in the horror film genre where if the main character is an average, bland, shy, awkward geek with a heart of gold, I immediately don’t care anymore. But thankfully, Carter’s written with a little more wit and intelligence than several other characters of the sort, the actor’s simply likable, and he and Tree have good chemistry together. (“Oh hey. You’re up–” “SILENCE!”)

Not bad for a movie from the director of “Paranormal Activity 5” and “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.”

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

14 Oct

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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: Split (2017)

12 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, for me, the best kind of film is the film you don’t expect to like/love as much. They’re far more interesting than the films you go in expecting to like/love, because with those films, they’re usually exactly what you expect to see, without much of a surprise. And those films keep people from coming back to them so often. But when other films contain twists and turns to keep the story coming and going, you can go back and rewatch those films with the knowledge you have from the first viewing and look at them in a different way. Maybe you’ll think less of them because things don’t add up as well as you thought, but then again, maybe you’ll like them even more because you know there’s more to discover and admire about them.

When it comes to M. Night Shyamalan, when he can succeed at this sort of thing, he can make some great films that get better the more you watch them. “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” “Split”–these are four of Shyamalan’s films you have to watch more than once. (Even a few more viewings of “The Village,” which I know a lot of people hate, are worthwhile in order to understand it more.)

“Split” was a big risk for Shyamalan to take. He had to put total faith in his audience to stay with it all the way through to the end, even when things get head-scratchingly odd in the final act. And it apparently paid off, as the film was both a critical hit and a financial success. I get the feeling that it was a box-office hit because people had to see the film once, tell their friends to go see it, and then revisit the film to notice more hints and clues that point to the final story-twist making sense.

That’s what I did. And I have to admit, the first time I saw it, I wasn’t sure exactly where the story was going. But I stayed with it because I felt like it leading me somewhere, and I wanted to know where…

Much of the film is based on the idea that hasn’t been entirely scientifically proven about Dissociative Identity Disorder (D.I.D.), that one personality is so different from the others that it can take on physical traits that the others couldn’t handle or the personalities actually become who they think they are. As with similar movies like “Psycho” and “Fight Club,” “Split” isn’t to be taken too seriously–it’s just a thriller that has some fun with the concept. And in “Split’s” case, it’s about a man with 24 different personalities, one of which is a beastly killer known as The Beast. He feeds on those who don’t know true suffering, such as sheltered young people with no problems in the slightest, whom he declares as “impure.” Watching the film again, I realized this was a way to counteract for his host’s tragic abusive childhood (as hinted in a flashback late in the film).

I’m going to go into spoilers here, so SPOILER ALERT!!!

The Beast is real. It changes size, his veins bulge, he climbs walls, he’s super-strong, and seemingly can’t be destroyed–use a knife against him, the blade breaks apart; pelt him with a shotgun, it just barely breaks the skin. It kills (and eats) two of the three girls captured by The Horde (the personalities that serve The Beast’s purposes). Why doesn’t he kill the third girl, our main character Casey Cooke, even though her attempts to fight back are hardly successful? Because he can tell by the scars on her body that she knows what it’s like to understand pain and suffering whereas the other two were probably self-entitled rich girls who had everything go perfectly well for them up until now. By the end of the film, we have it figured out that Casey is often brutally assaulted by her uncle who took her in after her father died. (These are things that aren’t clearly explained, but we pick on them pretty easily.) So now, when Casey behaves the way she does throughout the film, we now understand why during the second viewing. She knows how to survive because she’s been going through this stuff for half of her life.

When she’s finally rescued and her uncle comes to pick her up, she has a look on her face that could read one of two things–either she’s going to stand up to her son-of-a-bitch guardian now that she’s faced unspeakable evil, or she’s going to report him to C.P.S. and be rid of him. Either way, I get the feeling she’s not going to take any more crap from him.

Having seen “Glass,” I was glad to find out that she’s living a happier life. Kudos to Casey!

I love “Split.” It gets better each time I see it, with new things to discover and think about. Shyamalan put a lot of passion into this project, and it didn’t backfire. He thought the whole thing through the same way he thought the story of “The Sixth Sense” all the way through, and it really shows! I haven’t even mentioned the thorough production design, the fitting cinematography, the chilling music score, or even James McAvoy’s brilliant performance in which he has to portray many different personalities with different facial expressions and body language. There’s a lot to this movie even before the big twist was revealed at the end (that “Split” is set in the same universe as “Unbreakable”) that fascinated me simply because it was made by a person who loves movies and respects his audience. I felt glad to see that Shyamalan was BACK in a major way, and um…I’ll talk about “Glass” sometime in the near future.