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Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#9

20 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 (2017)

Jordan Peele’s Get Out…man, do I love this movie!

When I first saw it in a theater in February 2017, I was blown away by this tense, enthralling, thought-provoking, flat-out entertaining allegorical horror film. It was one of the best, most unforgettable moviegoing experiences of my life–sitting in a theater, watching this crazy mystery unfold on the big screen, taking in every setup, wondering impatiently where it was going, wanting to know more, praying that the payoff wouldn’t disappoint, and even at one point whispering to the patron sitting next to me, “I am so close to running out of here screaming if I don’t get some answers right now!” It was that great mixture of uncomfortableness and entertainment that I don’t see much of in movies.

It was my favorite film of 2017, and I even included it in my Top 100 Favorite Movies list. My feelings towards it hasn’t changed in the slightest.

“Get Out” has everything I look for in mainstream entertainment–likable characters, neat atmosphere, social commentary, effective comic relief, and best of all, a feeling of nervousness as I wait on-edge for something you know is bound to happen…but I don’t know what’s going to happen or how or when. That it uses uncomfortable issues such as liberal guilt and jealous racism to craft its story and create a balance of comedy and terror makes for a film that is just brilliantly entertaining while also delivering a subtle social message.

And I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one to recognize its genius, as it since picked up so many accolades, including the Academy Awards (with four nominations, including Best Picture, and winning Best Original Screenplay which I applauded).

I also love to watch the reactions of those who are seeing it for the first time and discussing it with them afterwards. The scene in which our hero Chris (well-played by Daniel Kaluuya, who was nominated for his performance) has a strange encounter with the maid (Betty Gabriel) always delivers a reaction towards everyone I show it to–and even when I watch it again, I get a visceral reaction every time she inches closer to the camera (and Chris…and us): something along the lines of recoiling and exclaiming, “Don’t come near me!” It’s also great to see them absorb the answers to the questions that have been built up for a good chunk of the movie–it’s not what they expect and it’s wonderfully creative in how it’s all handled.

And for that reason, even though the film is almost three years old, I’m still reluctant to go into too much detail about it. I want people who haven’t seen “Get Out” to go into it just like I did and come out of it feeling…is “fulfilled” too strong a word?

I love this movie. I remember calling 2016 a great year for horror films–The Invitation, The VVitch, Ouija: Origin of Evil, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Green Room, Lights Out, and Hush. Little did I know that just a couple months into 2017, I would realize all of those films were just preparing me for the best horror film of the decade.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

With “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe gave us a lighthearted teenage coming-of-age story in which a charismatic high-school kid wants to become an Avenger and sets out to prove himself by becoming a neighborhood friendly Spider-Man. How did it turn out?

Well, as per my typical response to a really good Spider-Man movie (“Spider-Man 2,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”), I thought it was the best Spider-Man movie to come. The story of Spider-Man has always appealed to me, so I’m always looking for that one movie that not only does it right but also does it differently from the others.

In “Homecoming,” Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (played by Tom Holland) is only 15-16 years old, so he still has a lot of growing up to do as Spider-Boy before he becomes Spider-Man. That itself is a journey I’m interested in, especially for the MCU, in which his mentor is not Uncle Ben but Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).

Neither Uncle Ben nor his murder are even mentioned in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” so we don’t really know what drives Peter to help people outside of Iron Man recruiting him for the events in “Captain America: Civil War” and Peter wanting to prove he can still do great things for the Avengers. The closest we get is a scene from “Civil War,” in which Tony asks Peter why he wants to be Spider-Man and Peter replies that he wants to “stand up for the little guy.”

The Avengers ghost Peter, who continues to call and check in, despite no one answering his calls unless he’s about to do something that’s going to look bad for everybody. So, he sets out to prove himself by investigating a series of strange robberies performed with alien technology left over from the attack in “The Avengers.” He tries to trace the source of the weapons and comes across a villain known as The Vulture (Michael Keaton), who is really a blue-collar worker who wants revenge for his job being ruined. Stark wants Peter to stay out of this because it’s too big for him, but Peter insists that he knows something he doesn’t and sticks to it.

Oh, and there’s a Homecoming dance his school is preparing for, and Peter wants to ask his classmate Liz (Laura Harrier) to go with him. Plus a house party run by bully Flash (Tony Revolori), who’s actually more dorky than Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) combined. Plus a field trip to Washington, D.C. that goes awry. Director Jon Watts (“Cop Car”) and his team of screenwriters have taken an MCU superhero movie and included a John Hughes teen formula into it, making for a fresh, funny, very enjoyable Marvel movie.

I mentioned in my original review that I really like Tony Stark’s progression as a character, since he’s made terrible mistakes as Iron Man in a few MCU movies prior before seeking to redeem himself in “Civil War” and then becoming Spider-Man’s mentor by basically warning him not to fall into the same traps he did. Every high-school coming-of-age story usually includes a mentor/student bond–here, it’s between Spider-Man and Iron Man. And it would only get more interesting and even heartbreakingly effective as the MCU would continue in the next two years.

Tom Holland is my favorite Peter Parker, Michael Keaton makes for an intriguing villain (especially when you learn his true identity), many of the side characters are likably goofy in their unique New York way, and when Peter has to rise to the challenge of becoming the hero he needs to be (rather than the hero he *wants* to be), it’s easy to root for him. So, I thoroughly enjoyed “Spider-Man: Homecoming” even more than “Spider-Man 2” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” simply because of how charming and likable it is.

But little did I know that something very special was waiting for me…and I’ll get to that awesomeness soon enough.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

22 Nov

By Tanner Smith

In 2011, we had a surprise hit with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a sort-of prequel (kind of a reboot) to how the “Planet of the Apes” of its popular film series came to be. I certainly didn’t need this “sort-of prequel” but I was very surprised at how interesting and fresh it turned out to be. In 2014, we got a sequel: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a darker, more compelling man-versus-ape story than I ever would have anticipated. Then, in 2017, we got a concluding chapter for this “Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy.” “War for the Planet of the Apes.” It seemed to be building up to something, which should be obvious to us all that it doesn’t end well for mankind. From “rise” to “dawn” to “war”…let’s see what “War for the Planet of the Apes” has for us…

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is, in my opinion, the best “Planet of the Apes” movie ever made, maybe even better than the 1968 classic that started it all.

Talk about saving the best for last. (I don’t think there’s anywhere else for this franchise to go after this, so that’s a high compliment.)

This is a hell of a film. It’s powerful. It’s gripping. It’s complex. It’s brutal. it’s heartbreaking. It’s everything I didn’t know a “Planet of the Apes” movie could be. It even made me forget about how great “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was, because this one topped that!

The story, told from the apes’ perspective, involves Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his army of apes still having to fend for themselves against human soldiers who want to hunt and kill them. Caesar has tried time and time again to have peaceful coexistence between humans and apes, but the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) wants nothing more than to wipe every single last one of them out. Seeing no other alternative, Caesar embarks on a suicide mission to track down and kill the Colonel.

As the title suggests, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is building up to the end-all of one final battle between man and ape. But director Matt Reeves (who also directed “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) has something more on his mind, such as what it all means for both man and ape. The evils and casualties of war. The question as to whom is the true animal. Racism allegories. What it means to exact revenge. The sacrifices that are made. And so on. This doesn’t feel like a mere “Planet of the Apes” movie; it feels like a genuine war movie!

And it’s all done RIGHT. When the action kicks in, it’s exciting. When the drama settles in, it’s very moving. When characters are allowed to sit and discuss a few things, it means something. Even its comic relief, a scared, abused ape named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) whom Caesar and his crew come across, is done exactly right. In any other movie, this would have been akin to Jar Jar Binks.

The film can also take some time out to warm your heart. One of Caesar’s partners is Maurice (Karin Konoval), a wise orangutan who always has the right answers for Caesar. Along the way, Caesar and co. encounter a young mute girl (one of the wild humans they come across), and Maurice is the one to take care of her during the journey. I loved Maurice in the previous “Planet of the Apes” film, and seeing him care for this little girl melted my heart.

Notice how so far, I’ve talked so much about every other aspect that makes this film successful except for the effects factor? Well, how do the apes look? How do you make it credible? Well…if I thought they were put to great use in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” then they’re put to SPECTACULAR use in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Caesar, Maurice, Bad Ape, every one of the “apes” look amazingly REAL. It’s the best motion-capture work I’ve ever seen in a film. And it was so wonderfully done that I wanted Andy Serkis to get an Oscar nomination just for bringing Caesar to life with much expression and dignity. How often do you see a bunch of CG creations and NOT notice that it’s computers at the source of them? It’s outstanding for all the right reasons.

I prayed for this one to win Best Visual Effects at the Oscars. (I didn’t take into account the first-rate effects of “Blade Runner 2049.”)

Where CAN the “Planet of the Apes” franchise go from here? It’s hard to tell. Maybe…remake 1968’s “Planet of the Apes,” with the updated technology? I don’t know. But I guess I’d be curious to find out if there IS something planned.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

21 Nov

By Tanner Smith

As fun as “Guardians of the Galaxy” was upon first viewing, much of it sort of wore off on me after watching it again. But “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” which I have seen about four times now, is just about every bit the comedic, insane, energetic sci-fi romp that I like to revisit from time to time. (Not quite up there with “Serenity” for me–that’s the high standard I hold for this kind of fun sci-fi movie–but there are a lot of times when it reminded me of such.)

Yes, there are some things that still bug me about the Guardians themselves (especially Peter Quill’s arrogant personality), and yet…they don’t bug me AS MUCH as they should. Instead, I’m just having fun embracing this movie’s sense of humor, its vibrant colors, its effects, its pacing, and even its drama–and its characters are fun enough to get me through it.

The Guardians of the Galaxy–Peter Quill aka Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel), only this time he’s been regenerated and is now Baby Groot, designed to sell toys–are back and on the run. Looking for a place to hide, they encounter a celestial named Ego (Kurt Russell), who it turns out is Peter’s father. He can create anything much like a god (and can also destroy them if he wants) and seems like a good guy, so they crash with him. But as follows the formula for this kind of Marvel movie, something about Ego just doesn’t feel right. Peter doesn’t see it at first, of course, because he’s glad to find his father and bond with him, as well as discover who he himself is.

Yondu (Michael Rooker), the space pirate who sort of raised Peter as a drunk, abusive father type, is back into the mix, although his connection with Peter is called more into question, making for an interesting family dynamic. Other family dynamics are considered here. For example, one of the Guardians’ captives is Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s vengeful sister who wants to break free so she can kill her; the longer she’s with these people, the more she wants to assist them. And the Guardians consistently bicker and try to one-up each other in the downtime–one of them brings up that they’ve become like a “family” as a result. That’s actually a pretty telling statement. This movie is more than just intergalactic battles–it’s about relationships. And I admire this film for that.

Oh, and there’s a giant Pac Man that attacks…because that kind of thing works in a movie like this.

Everything in “Vol. 2” feels elevated from the first movie. The sense of humor is upped, the effects (from captivating to cheesy) are better, the emotions are more present, the worlds are more visually impressive, and it just overall feels more fun.

I mentioned Peter’s abrasive personality before, and sometimes, his ego is too much–sometimes, I want to smack some sense into this jerk. But I get that it’s part of his character and it’s a question of where he goes with certain choices he’ll have to make in the future. He does at least get when others are about to cross the line (otherwise, he wouldn’t be a Marvel superhero)–he even asks Rocket at one point, “What is your goal here? To get everyone to hate you?” So…I guess I give it a break here.

BUT as for his actions in “Avengers: Infinity War”…I’ll get to that later.

What else can I say but…”I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”

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 piñata 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!