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Creed II (2018)

16 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Remember “Rocky IV?” Of course you do—how could you forget that epic silliness that stuck out like a sore thumb in a franchise that was so riveting in its grounded reality? (It’s the film that’s too goofy for me to hate.) Well, as much as we like to mock it (in good fun), we have no choice but to accept it as canon in the “Rocky” timeline. After all, it is what ultimately killed off the character of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed…at the hands of a Russian super-boxer (whose “I must break you” became a popular phrase). And then, “Creed” came along in 2015 and introduced us to Apollo’s son from a secret affair, Adonis “Donnie,” who was born after Apollo’s death and has grown up to be trained by Rocky Balboa to make it as a fighter in his own right. Thus, we had no choice but to accept Apollo’s cause of death as part of the continuing “Rocky” story.

And now comes its sequel, “Creed II.” Who should return for this one? That same Russian super-boxer himself, Ivan Drago (again played by Dolph Lundgren), and his son who challenges Donnie to a fight. Well, this should be interesting—how can you take Drago seriously in a movie?

“Creed II” found a way.

Yes, as silly as the setup sounds (the son of Apollo Creed goes up against the son of the man who killed his father in the ring), it’s remarkable the amount of development and care is given to Drago after all this time. He still has minimal dialogue (though it’s still more than his mostly-silent performance in “Rocky IV”), but he gets across what’s happened to him after Rocky took him on in the ring in his home country. He lost his belt and his cred in Russia, his family has gone through shame, his wife (Brigitte Nielsen) has left him, and he has raised his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), on two things—boxing and vengeance. With clever writing (and fine understated acting from Lundgren, on top of that), this boxing equivalent of a supervillain has now become (gasp!) a character. Who would have thought?

“Creed” seemed like the perfect sendoff to the “Rocky” franchise—a great way to say goodbye to the wonderful character of Rocky Balboa (who Sylvester Stallone has portrayed wonderfully all this time, despite the franchise going back and forth with hits and misses). But while Rocky is still alive, there is still more to explore with him in “Creed II,” such as wishing he would connect with his estranged son and training Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) just as Mickey taught him in the past. Plus, as the title suggests, this isn’t Rocky’s story anymore—it’s Donnie’s. And Donnie still has some growing up to do.

Now that Donnie is regarded as the new heavyweight champion of the world, this is where Ivan and Viktor Drago come in. They arrive in Philadelphia to challenge Donnie to a fight with Viktor, and there’s nothing Donnie would like better than to give a Drago a piece of his mind to avenge his father. But as Rocky points out, Viktor was raised entirely on hatred, which will make him an even more intimidating force to brawl with in the ring. But Donnie isn’t backing down.

In the meantime, Donnie has proposed to his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and wants to start a family with her. The love story between Donnie and Bianca has that sweet touch that made the love story between Rocky and Adrian in the first couple of “Rocky” movies so special. That’s because while Donnie has a large amount of confidence in many things, it’s Bianca that makes him the most nervous because he’s afraid of letting her down.

Both of these opponents—Donnie and Viktor—have something to lose. Donnie could suffer the same fate as Apollo; Viktor could lose everything just as his father did. Even when “Creed II” follows the same formula that leads to a climactic fight, what’s more important and interesting is that I actually care about who wins in the end, just as I did with the best of the “Rocky” movies.

It’s always nice to see Stallone in his most comfortable role of his career (the role that gave his career a major boost to begin with), but it’s even better to know that he had a hand in screenwriting again, writing the script with Juel Taylor after Ryan Coogler took over both writing and directing for “Creed.” If we get a “Creed III,” which seems likely, I’ll be interested in seeing what else he can come up with for the beloved character of Rocky Balboa.

Speaking of directing, Steven Caple Jr. (who previously made a Sundance hit, The Land, unseen by me—though, I’m sure I’ll check it out soon enough) does a more than capable job keeping the story as grounded as possible, which helps us accept a universe that now has to allow Ivan Drago as a “real person,” more or less.

Even if the fighting scenes aren’t very original (especially after the groundbreaking one-shot fight in “Creed”), a lot of “Creed II” works because of what’s happening outside the ring. For a sports movie, especially one that involves boxing, that’s a definite plus. The heart is still in this franchise, and I’ll happily see “Creed III” if and when we get it.


Poor Mama’s Boy

30 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As “Poor Mama’s Boy” opens, we see a 17-year-old boy, Wesley (Joe Hiatt), fights back against his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Rather than appreciate the brave gesture, his mother (Jennifer Pierce Mathus) snaps back at her son before leaving him to be with the jerk. Wesley hitchhikes to a rural-Arkansas small town (after caring for himself alone for a long period of time) where his kind aunt and uncle (Mary Faulkner and Dustin Prince) take him in. He gets a job at a local grocery store, where he meets Adelia (Madi Yates) with whom he makes friends. Things seem fine, until Adelia turns missing and townspeople have their suspicious eyes on Wesley…

That’s the premise for a tense, effective, even tender indie film written, directed, co-produced, shot, and edited by Dalton Coffey, who clearly had a vision and followed through in such a way that everything else he needed to make it happen was a small but reliable crew and a talented assortment of actors to bring it to life.

Joe Hiatt’s role of Wesley is understated but still solid. He’s a kid who doesn’t want trouble but simply a place to call “home” with people to call “family.” (Shades of Charlie Plummer in “Lean on Pete” to be found here.) I’d say he’s better when he’s silent and absorbing emotions emitted around him, but when he speaks, it’s as if he’s being careful about his words because he’s in a place he doesn’t want to feel he doesn’t belong.

Lynnsee Provence, who appeared in some Arkansas-made features (“Shotgun Stories,” “War Eagle, Arkansas”) and several shorts reviewed by me (“Cotton County Boys,” “Still Life,” “The Man in the Moon”), turns in his best performance as Grady, Wesley’s older brother who left as soon as he found the chance. Now, Wesley wants to reconnect and start a real family bond, but Grady isn’t particularly interested. It’s when things start to go from bad to worse (such as Wesley getting SHOT IN THE ARM by an unknown local) that Grady expresses concern for his younger brother and decides to do what he can to help. This leads to a conflict in the final act in which the deeper meaning of “family” is surfaced, for better or worse.

Also good in the film are Dustin Prince as Wesley’s uncle who sticks up for his nephew when everyone else suspects him of murdering Adelia (if she’s dead), Tom Kagy as Adelia’s surly father who even admits he looks for someone to blame during all of this (I kinda wish we had more of this character), and Kristy Barrington, hilarious as Grady’s drug-addled wife.

The small-town setting is beautifully realized here—you not only feel like you’re there dealing with the situation Wesley found himself into, but you see both the peaceful relaxation/natural beauty of the location and the disturbing layers underneath that make it scary to go through sometime…especially when many of the locals don’t particularly trust you and even want to harm you. If I go to the stream or the bridge that the characters frequent, I’d love it until someone else happened upon it too. (Take it from someone who lived in rural Northeast Arkansas—sometimes, these places can be beautiful; other times, scary.)

By the end of the film, I wanted this “poor mama’s boy” to find happiness in a good place with good people. And when it’s over, there’s an ambiguity that leans more towards hope. Because, he deserves it.

“Poor Mama’s Boy” is available on-demand on Amazon Prime and iTunes, and I recommend you check it out.

mid90s (2018)

19 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Teenagers can be very obnoxious. (That shouldn’t be news to anybody—we were teens ourselves; we know how we behaved.) With a group of teens, that adds extra layers to the obnoxiousness. We’d say things to our friends that we couldn’t tell anyone else, though honestly, it was usually to try and keep up with our peers who had risqué stories that may or may not be true. (When you had to ask about certain things involving sex, you showed your lack of experience, thus lowering your ranking in the group.) A lot of us have been there, and hopefully, most of us have grown up a lot since then.

Jonah Hill remembers it. But he also remembers why the teenage group was there to begin with: not to one-up each other with debauchery and offensiveness, but to be there for one another when no one else will. He remembers the crudeness of being a teenage boy amongst other teenage boys, but he also remembers the friendship and loyalty that was always underneath the surface of the group. He grew up as a teen in the mid-1990s, but this sort of behavior is present with teenagers in every era. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that his directing debut, the aptly-named “mid90s,” was set in its time because it was made today and it’s about us, whether it’s for looking back on our teenage years (to see if we behaved similarly to the young characters or if we had a teenage life more relaxed and stable than what’s presented here) or even to see how similar today’s teens are compared to those from the mid-90s (technology obviously not being a factor in this argument).

Set in summer-1996 Los Angeles, “mid90s” is the story of a short, skinny, good-natured 13-year-old boy named Stevie (Sunny Suljic), whose home life isn’t very welcoming. His single young mother (Katherine Waterston) is nice and tries to care for him, but she’s somewhat irresponsible and a little too sharing about her romantic interests. Stevie looks up to his 18-year-old older brother Ian (and often sneaks into his bedroom to catch glimpses of pop culture to keep up with what’s “cool”), but Ian (Lucas Hedges) is a bully who pushes around and abuses his little brother every chance he gets. The kid is shy and socially awkward, but when he spots a group of loudmouthed, racially diverse skateboarding teens at the local skate shop, he can’t help but attempt to fit in with them. He buys Ian’s skateboard (for some of Stevie’s Nintendo games, of course—Stevie would never give up his Discman!) and spends more time around the hangout where he eventually gets noticed and (yay!) Is asked to fetch a jug of water for the skateboarders! Now he’s in with this ragtag team of “cool kids”—unofficial ringleader & skilled skater Ray (Na-kel Smith); Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), dim-witted aspiring filmmaker; F***S*** (Olan Prenatt), the jokester nicknamed for his excited exclamations; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the younger, more stern one of the group who shows Stevie the ropes. (It’s clear to us that Ruben is the least popular of the group because of his attitude and that he sees himself as someone for Stevie to look up to. Pretty pathetic.) Stevie earns the nickname “Sunburn” (after taking part in one of the group’s most hilarious discussions about whether or not dark-skinned people can get sunburned) and he becomes an amusing asset to the group due to his naïveté and willingness to impress everyone.

It’s the summer that changes everything for this young man, as he smokes his first cigarette, drinks his first beer, barely survives an attempt to pull off a dangerous skateboarding stunt, tries drugs given to him by his friends, has his first sexual encounter with an older girl, and violently stands up to his bully of a brother. In less than 85 minutes, writer/director Jonah Hill is able to fit in as many rites of passage for a boy becoming a man in the ‘90s youth culture, and he doesn’t criticize as much as he observes. (Hill himself was 13 in 1996, so I wonder how much of this material is autobiographical.) But more importantly, he’s also able to fit in as much context for his likable young lead’s development as needed, even as unpleasant as presenting him as masochistic (he hits himself when he’s alone and, after a brutal fight with Ian, nearly asphyxiates himself with a Super Nintendo controller cable). The kid needs help, and whether his friends are the positive outlet for it or not, it’s at least something he can use for now. (Of course, his mother doesn’t see it that way—her son shows up at home intoxicated, she’s there to confront the boys right there in the skate shop despite her son’s protests.)

These mid-90s skater boys talk the way real-life mid-90s skater boys talked. (Often when these kids talked, I was reminded of Larry Clark’s 1995 slice-of-life “Kids.”) They’re crude, vulgar, homophobic, chauvinistic, idiotic, and more. But Hill never apologizes for it.* He just shows it how it was/is (no doubt many of these “deep discussions” are still held by modern teenage boys). And it makes the quieter moments amongst a couple of the kids all the more meaningful and welcome. An example: today, it’s normal for teens to show that they care for one another, but back in the mid-90s, it wasn’t “cool” to care unless you were already “cool” to begin with. Ray is certainly the “cool” one of the group, but he also has a heart, which he shows in a scene in which he consoles Stevie by sharing that the other boys have worse home lives than him (one’s family is poor, one’s mom is a drug addict, one is delving deeper into alcohol and drugs, and Ray lost his younger brother in an accident). Ray and Stevie are alone in this scene, because it’s highly doubtful the others wish for their personal lives to be shared with this kid, but I think it’s fair to assume that if he showed this side of himself otherwise, nobody would mind.

“mid90s” is very well-written and well-directed, with Hill and his crew putting as much detail into the time period as possible without forcing anything. And it’s very well-acted, with everyone from the kids (especially Suljic, Smith, and Hedges) to Katherine Waterston (playing the only key adult in the film) delivering very strong work. And there are little moments here and there that add very little and very much at the same time (Stevie gives his brother a CD he thinks he’ll like, but the brother ignores it; Stevie tries the same skateboard trick over and over again in his driveway; the kids make friendly conversation with a homeless man; among others). What I didn’t like about “mid90s” was the ending. I’m all for ambiguous conclusions, but I don’t think there was a conclusion to be found at all. Without giving it away, something happens to these kids, and we’re given an epilogue in which we’re not sure what to think (or think about). (And I don’t think a particular character reacted accordingly to the incident either.) At the end of “mid90s,” I don’t feel like much was accomplished. But thankfully, that’s not what I’m going to remember for time to come, when I’m thinking of “mid90s.” I’m going to remember the memorable characters, the effective time capsule, and my own teenage memories.

*According to IMDb Trivia, Hill thought the dialogue amongst the boys would get both him and the film in trouble, and so he considered shooting a scene in which the kids debate over whether they should be talking like that. Producer Scott Rudin talked him out of it, asking Hill, “Would you guys have had this conversation back then?”

Minding the Gap (2018)

25 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It figures that in 2018, a year with three fine indie films about skateboarders (“Skate Kitchen,” “Minding the Gap,” and “Mid90s”), the best of them would be the lone documentary, “Minding the Gap.” “Skate Kitchen” and “Mid90s” succeeded by evoking realism, while “Minding the Gap” simply captures it. By default, I suppose that makes it the best (although I know it can be argued that it’s much trickier to bring about natural realism in fiction)—when you know what’s happening on-camera is happening to real people, and you’re invested in their personal lives, it’s all the more impressive. And “Minding the Gap” works particularly because it introduces us to some of the most interesting film characters of 2018. And they’re real.

Some people need an outlet for their turmoils and frustrations. For the ones in “Minding the Gap,” that outlet is skateboarding. They go skating in the park. They go skating in the street. They trespass on private property just for the thrill of skating in places they’re not supposed to. And they’re good at it, because they’ve practiced it since childhood. Sure, they slip and fall every now and again, but they get right back up and keep going. (Obvious metaphor, I know.) But who are they off the boards?

Zack Mulligan has the bad-boy vibe that adds to his charm and charisma. But when he’s drunk or stoned, that’s when his persona turns surly, disturbed, and violent. He’s married and has a baby son, and it’s very clear to us (and his wife) that he’s unfit to be a parent. He cares for his child, but he has trouble with the responsibility. And he’s too much for his wife, Nina, to bear as well, and the feeling’s mutual. One of the heavier moments in the film is when we learn that Zack has physically abused Nina, having escalated from a loud argument. A revealing moment in the film is when Zack states to the camera that “bitches” need to be hit from time to time…

Kiere Johnson supports his single mother by working as a dishwasher. He still suffers the emotional scars brought on by abuse long ago, and he tries to control his own anger issues. (An example of his anger goes back to childhood, as seen in a home-movie in which he spends a good amount of time breaking a skateboard for spite.)

Bing Liu is the film’s director, and these two (Zack and Kiere) are his best friends since childhood (which means they’re more than comfortable being documented by his cameras all the time). Bing has his issues too, which are brought up as he interviews his immigrant mother about a time during which his stepfather abused him. (Domestic abuse is a common theme in this film, as it’s a common theme in all their lives.) The most emotional moment comes when the mother tearfully tells her son she should have been more aware of things back then.

Bing, Zack, and Kiere have been friends since middle school through their love of skateboarding, and it’s clear that Bing is saying that they skate to feel the freedom they wish they had all the time. It is not just a hobby to them. All three of them live in Rockford, Illinois, which like most small towns, is depressing, poor, and dying. But they carry on because they feel they have no alternative.

Bing’s camera captures everything effectively, the editing is fantastic, the music score is suitably low-key and somber, and we have four people (Bing, Zack, Kiere, Nina) whose lives we’re invested in because we desperately want things to turn out better for them in the future. But in the end, you realize “Minding the Gap” was Bing’s way for his friends to express themselves, and I think that’s a very good start.

The film is available on Hulu.

Private Life (2018)

23 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Film-school students (or at least, aspiring screenwriters) could learn the “write-what-you-know” methods simply from watching Tamara Jenkins’ personal comedy-drama “Private Life.” I’m assuming everything the characters are undergoing/discussing in the film is based on personal experience. (After all, this is only Jenkins’ third film in 20 years and her first since 2007’s “The Savages.” Why come back for a project about a topic she wouldn’t know anything about?) I’ve seen this film five times since its release on Netflix a few months ago, and each time I see it, I’m fascinated by the amount of technical detail brought into the subject of IVF—or rather, the subject of the ups and downs of IVF. Probably because it’s barely even touched upon in any film I can think of.

“Private Life” focuses on a middle-aged married couple, Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), who desperately want to have a child. They try pretty much everything they can think of, including artificial insemination, vitro fertilisation, and other expensive methods they come across, just to reassure themselves that they’re trying to have a child by any means necessary. They even tried adoption at one point, only to be sadly let down by an out-of-town pregnant teenager who stopped contacting them after numerous FaceTime chats. They try everything they can think of, and this is where the comedy and drama blend wonderfully—because it’s played so realistically with two appealing, good-natured people, you laugh because you find ways to relate to their situation.

If Jenkins herself hasn’t gone through any of the things Richard and Rachel have tried (though I’m assume she relates to it one way or another), then she’s clearly done her research in exploring the plight real-life couples go through in this situation. The way she portrays it in the film generates sympathy.

Anyway, Richard and Rachel are visited by their 25-year-old niece, Sadie (wonderfully played by Kayli Carter with a neat blend of perkiness and confusion). She’s a college-writing student who gets to finish the program in absentia, and she gets to stay with Richard and Rachel, with whom she’s very close. They decide to ask Sadie for her eggs, as they’ve also decided to inseminate Rachel with a donor egg. She agrees, which leads to yet another tough process on the road to hopefully resulting in a child Richard and Rachel can call their own, even though the sometimes-bright, otherwise-naive-and-immature Sadie is already becoming their surrogate daughter as time goes by.

At two hours and four minutes, the film moves slowly, which for most quiet character pieces/slices of life can lead to moments of sagging that probably could have been trimmed or edited out. But to be fair, I think that’s an effective way for Jenkins to tell her audience to pay close attention to what these characters are doing, notice their plight, and learn some new things about something that some people may see as an easy process (which now I know it’s definitely not). I appreciate that.

Part of the film’s success, aside from the utterly brilliant acting from all three principals (and supporting actors such as Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch as Sadie’s unsure parents—this is the best film work I’ve ever seen from Shannon), is the tone. As with Jenkins’ previous film, “The Savages,” “Private Life” is told with a sardonic tone that is just right for the material. Jenkins wants us to feel for the characters, and she knows the best way to reach the audience is with comedy. But most importantly, the comedy is only effective if Jenkins keeps it at a grounded level—this way, we’re not laughing at the characters so much as laughing because we know what these numerous absurdities and setbacks feel like in any pressing scenario. (Though, a few tears are more appropriate than laughs.)

Whatever you think happens in “Private Life” is only because you’ve seen so many films that you think you can expect anything conventional. But you’d be wrong—the story is not told in a conventional sense in which it’s easy to figure the outcome by the final act. That was another pleasant surprise about the film: the final act is extraordinary in the way it tells us that whatever end may occur in this long, hard process, what’s more important is how these people react to it and move on in life. Speaking of which, how does “Private Life” end? On a hopeful note? On a bitter note? It’s for us to decide. I really like this film, and I look forward to Jenkins’ next film in the future.

2018 Review

31 Dec


2018 Review

by Tanner Smith

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The time I refer to is when critics (even amateur ones like myself, who don’t get screeners in advance) get to look back on the whole year and sum up which films they liked the most. I always like to read those lists from other critics, particularly from pros like Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times, James Berardinelli of Reelviews, and Chris Stuckmann of YouTube. And I always like to make one for myself every year. But this year, I’ve come to a realization…

These lists are kind of pointless.

I love to make them each year. And I loved making my Top 100 Favorite Movies post back in November 2017 and my Next Top 150 Favorite Movies post just a few months ago. But what did I realize in the time since making both of those lists? It’s that while movies don’t change, our attitudes toward them do. Making a Top 250 list of my favorite movies and announcing it publicly on maybe wasn’t the smart choice because there are always going to be other movies that will find a special place in my heart after a certain number of viewings…especially ones that make me wonder why I didn’t initially place them in my year-end lists.

For example, in my 2015 Review, The Stanford Prison Experiment and Spotlight were two of of the Honorable Mentions for my Best-of-2015 list. Now, they’re two of my top 200 personal favorite movies.

See what I mean?

But I think the reason people like to make these year-end lists, and also why I like to make them too, is because they capture how we feel in the moment, especially when we want to celebrate the best movies the year had to offer us. We may think differently of certain ones after repeated viewings, but in the moment, it feels like there’s nothing stronger.

Why continue to stall? I’m going to make this year-end Review anyway. And I’ll probably keep making them for years to come. So let’s do this…

As I always do with these year-end Reviews, I’ll begin the 2018 Review with my least favorite films of the year. And, because I don’t willingly seek out films that have gotten overwhelmingly bad reputations (well…except The Cloverfield Paradox, which snuck up on everyone and disappointed them; but come on, I liked that film), I actually didn’t “hate” any film this year. However, I was disappointed by and gave mixed reviews to a few films I did check out this year. What were those? These are them, in alphabetical order:


  • The 15:17 to Paris—This was based on an incident in which a small group of people prevented a terrorist attack from occurring, and director Clint Eastwood, in reenacting the event, got the actual heroes to relive the moment. A film with good intentions, to be sure. But the script tries too hard to stretch out moments that take place before the fateful train ride and emphasize that something big is coming in these people’s lives. A documentary about the making of this film would be more interesting.


  • Josie—Eric (Contracted) England’s neo-noir slow-burn thriller contained good acting (from Sophie Turner and Dylan McDermott) and occasional strong moments of drama and suspense. But it just wasn’t enough to enthrall me overall. (Watch me warm up to it with repeated viewings, the same way I did with A Ghost Story, which I ended up giving a positive review long after a mention in this similar list in the 2017 Review.)


  • Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom—This one was actually pretty close to being named my worst pick of the year, because it just wasn’t what I wanted from a “Jurassic” movie. (I’d even argue that it ended where it should have begun.) But there were a few moments in it that kept me calling it anything other than a mere disappointment than an overall-bad flick.


  • The Kindergarten Teacher—A lot of critics really liked this one…I thought it was creepier than I think it was going for. (And no, I didn’t see the original Israeli film it was based on.)


  • The Nutcracker and the Four Realms—Would somebody tell Disney that not everything has to be an unnecessary forgetful action-adventure version of something we’re familiar with? I think most of us already have, and Disney is just not listening.


  • A Wrinkle in Time—Ava Duvernay’s Disney bomb had quite a few winning emotional moments and some uniquely visually pleasing scenes…in between many awkwardly acted scenes with an annoying Reese Witherspoon, an irritating Mindy Kaling, and an overly self-indulgent Oprah Winfrey (who spends half of her role as a giantess—the jokes write themselves).

I won’t mention The Open House, the much-maligned Netflix horror film, because…I only saw that one while listening to Chris Stuckmann & John Flickinger’s mocking commentary over it. So, it doesn’t count. (Side-note: that commentary is one of the more entertaining things I’ve seen this year.)

So, there you go. Nothing I hated this year. And last year, there were three films I hated. Either I made wise decisions to skip certain movies or I’m just too impressionable by the 97 films I did see.

Yes, 97!! I know most critics see over a hundred films per year. But I’m doing this on my own time, so I’m proud of myself for at least seeing more films this year than I did any other year. But there were still a few that I missed (and would still like to see in the future), and those are: Bumblebee, First Man, The Hate U Give, If Beale Street Could Talk, Mary Poppins Returns, Shoplifters, Sicario II, Vice, What They Had, Widows, and You Were Never Really Here

But what about the ones I missed before making my 2017 Review? Did I catch up on any of those? Yes, quite a few: Battle of the Sexes, Brad’s Status, Call Me By Your Name (which I reviewed), Downsizing, Gifted, Molly’s Game, The Shape of Water, Thor: Ragnarok (which ended up on my Next Top 150 Favorite Movies list), and Wind River. Those were among the films I listed in my 2017 Review that I would have liked to see. But what about the ones that surprised me that were originally released in 2017 and I caught up with in 2018? Do I even need to say it’s I, Tonya? Nope—because who doesn’t love that film? Other pleasant surprises were Columbus, Brigsby Bear, and Happy Death Day.

There’s another list I want to bring up before I go into my favorite films of 2018. Last year, I had seen 5 TV/VOD series-seasons, and I acknowledged them all because I thought it was impressive that a diehard movie buff like me would take the time to check out these lengthy stories. How many did I see this year? Five, again! And one of them wasn’t Jessica Jones: Season 2…why haven’t I watched that yet?? Whatever, let’s do it: My Top 5 Favorite TV Series of 2018!


  1. MST3K: The Gauntlet—They had me at “Mac & Me.” That’s all I’ll say.


  1. The Sinner: Season 2—I watched the first few episodes of this season with my parents while visiting them once…the next time I visited, I wanted to watch the rest. The Sinner: Season 2 was a uniquely chilling and riveting series that made me want to check out Season 1.


  1. American Vandal: Season 2—Just before seeing Season 2, my fiancée and I checked out American Vandal: Season 1. I was utterly surprised to find that this mockumentary series about a high-school prank gone wrong (done in the style of popular true-crime series) was not only humorous but also very insightful in its depiction of underachieving high-school students. And Season 2, which goes even bigger with its concept (and is also very “meta” about that as well), is every bit as funny and deep.


  1. Mr. Mercedes: Season 2—I rewatched Mr. Mercedes: Season 1 (which I placed at #2 in this similar list last year) before checking out Season 2; I liked it even better the second time. Maybe that will happen with Season 2…I certainly hope so, because the season finale STILL has me perplexed!

And my favorite TV season of 2018 is…


Oh, you already know what it is even without knowing what I willingly seek out in terms of series-seasons. It’s The Haunting of Hill House—I love it for the same reasons everyone else loves it: it’s a horror series with as much emotion and drama as horror and tension. Its creator, Mike Flanagan (whose films I’ve highly recommended on this blog), knows how to balance the terror and drama perfectly. That it’s based on the same source material as my personal favorite horror film (“The Haunting”) is a definite plus. This may actually be my favorite film of the year…a very lengthy film at that. But I have to be consistent and talk about my favorite “films” of 2018. So, I’ll be fair. (And maybe someday, I’ll write a full review for this wonderful series.)


And now, we come to my most personal favorite films of 2018. But first, some honorable mentions…actually, let’s scratch out the “some” and replace it with “23” honorable mentions because I just can’t help myself: A Quiet Place, Incredibles 2, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Private Life, Ben is Back, BlacKkKlansman, Deadpool 2, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Filmworker, Before I Wake, The Favourite, Annihilation, Skate Kitchen, Green Book, Hold the Dark, Hereditary, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Crazy Rich Asians, Creed II, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Bohemian Rhapsody, Overlord, and Love, Simon.

But if you know me, you know I can’t stop there. Other films I really liked this year included, in alphabetical order: 22 July, American Animals, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Blaze, Borg vs. McEnroe, Chappaquiddick, The Cloverfield Paradox (no regrets), The Death of Stalin, Dumplin’, The Endless, Entanglement, Game Night, Hearts Beat Loud, Isle of Dogs, Juliet Naked, The Land of Steady Habits, Mandy, Mowgli, The Mule, The Old Man & the Gun, Outside In, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Ready Player One, A Simple Favor, Summer of 84, Tully, Unsane, and We the Animals 

And, I might as well mention these too: 6 Balloons, Alex Strangelove, Cam, Christopher Robin, Halloween, I Can Only Imagine, Kodachrome, Measure of a Man, New Year New You, Nothing to Hide, The Ritual, Solo, Sorry to Bother You, Support the Girls, Thoroughbreds, and Unfriended: Dark Web

 Now…which 20 films did I enjoy more than those? Let’s do this: these are my Top 20 Favorite Films of 2018!


  1. Avengers: Infinity War—The Marvel Cinematic Universe Avengers movie we’ve all been waiting for…while eagerly waiting for the NEXT MCU Avengers movie coming in just a few months from now! It’s amazing how far the MCU has come in the 10 years since it started. No one suspected it would become of the most popular movie franchises in history, but here we are. And Avengers: Infinity War gave us exactly what we wanted: a high-octane, 150-minute-long thrill ride that ended with more gasps than we anticipated. Like everyone else who went along for the ride, I can’t wait for Endgame.


  1. First Reformed—One of the most riveting films of the year, Paul Schrader’s mesmerizing drama about faith being challenged also featured one of the best performances of the year, from Ethan Hawke as a small-church pastor who goes through an odd series of events that forces him to question his faith. Where he goes from there is as emotional as it is convincing. And the ending…whoa.


  1. Mission: Impossible—Fallout—The “Mission: Impossible” film series has gotten better and better, but I don’t think they can top Fallout, the sixth entry in the franchise. This was an astounding action film; probably the best James Bond movie that didn’t feature James Bond. If it’s anything other than pure adrenaline, I’ll still take it. It’s that impressive.


  1. Can You Ever Forgive Me?—Marielle Heller’s tightly directed biopic about a failed author (played brilliantly by Melissa McCarthy) who finds other ways to make a living is funny, insightful, and brilliant all at the same time. It effectively blends comedy and drama without distraction.



  1. Paddington 2—The best family film of the year, no question about it. This movie about a cuddly talking bear practically demands you to love it…and I did. If not for the bear, if not for Hugh Grant’s comedically magnificent performance, if not for the antics the bear gets into…then just see it because it’s charming and cute.


  1. A Star is Born—This is everyone’s choice for the Oscars (whose nominations are soon to be announced), and I don’t blame them. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut not only showed everyone that Cooper could direct and sing (we already knew he could act), but it also showed them that he could do it extraordinarily well. Just as impressive is Lady Gaga, who is heart-meltingly good.


  1. Free Solo—I saw quite a few documentaries this year (some more of which will appear in the rest of this list), and one of the most invigorating was Free Solo, a film about a man who risks his life to give it more excitement and meaning, by free-climbing hundred-foot rock faces while leading up to the ultimate climb El Capitan. Even though I knew he’d survive (if he didn’t, this would be a snuff film), that didn’t mean my heart didn’t reach out to this guy in his rough attempts.


  1. Searching—I saw this mystery-thriller twice in theaters within the same week (I don’t normally do that); it was even more fun the second time. Knowing the twists in the story from the first viewing and still having a great time the second viewing is a major compliment for a film like this. Review:


  1. Blindspotting—Hard-hitting and soul-shaking, but also funny and energetic, this film is practically ingenious in the way it takes horrific subject matter and inserts some satirical biting comedy into it while also being brutally honest about it. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal co-wrote and co-starred in this film, and they deserve all the recognition they can get for it.


  1. Wildlife—This was one of two films I saw this year that made me cry. I couldn’t help it. It was powerfully acted and wonderfully executed, and when it reached a boiling point late in the film, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the central characters. This was actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut (he also co-wrote the script with his long-time girlfriend Zoe Kazan); I can’t wait to see what else he does in this field. Review:


  1. Lean on Pete—Lean on Pete was not only one of my favorite films of 2018; it also had my favorite film protagonist of 2018. And that was 15-year-old Charley (played wonderfully by Charlie Plummer), a kid who keeps on in life despite all the rough goings he continues to come across. This is more than the typical boy-and-his-horse story you might expect upon hearing about the film—you’re making a big mistake if you expect something less deep than what you get. Review:


  1. A 3-way tie between Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Whitney, and Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind—All three of these films are biographical documentaries centered around late talents (Fred Rogers, Whitney Houston, and Robin Williams) who took on the entertainment business and won, creating unforgettable legacies that can be treasured through films like these. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is obviously the best known of the three, but the other two deserve attention as well.


  1. Boy Erased—I don’t have enough kind words to say about this highly effective drama from Joel Edgerton. It does right what so many Oscar-bait dramas of this sort do wrong. Review:


  1. Roma—I caught Alfonso Cuaron’s 2-hour-plus slice-of-life drama on Netflix just as everyone went crazy over it, and at first…I didn’t see what the big deal was. The first hour or so isn’t particularly investing, but the remaining hour or so was so powerful it made me realize the necessity of the time leading up to it. This is a quietly effective portrait of how little things in life can affect us deeply. Will I watch it as many times as Cuaron’s similarly themed Y Tu Mama Tambien (#27 on my Top 100 Favorite Movies list)? Time will tell.


  1. The Tale—The Oscars are probably going to ignore Laura Dern’s amazing performance in this HBO-released drama because…it’s HBO-released. Well, last year, they recognized Netflix-released films as…films. So, I guess there’s a first time for everything. But anyway, Laura Dern gave one of the best performances of the year in one of the most powerfully disturbing films of the year, and it deserves to be seen and admired. Review:


  1. Leave No Trace—This film, directed by Debra Granik (who previously made Winter’s Bone 8 years ago), is simply wonderful. With excellent acting, gorgeous cinematography, an emotional center, and very few words, this film managed to get across themes of isolation, family, breaking away, and other mature themes…all while maintaining a PG rating. (Remember when that rating actually meant something other than “Practically G”?) And I sincerely hope this jump-starts the career of young up-and-comer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who deserves an Oscar nomination for her work here. Review:


  1. Eighth Grade—The one critically acclaimed I didn’t want to see this year turned out to be one of my favorites. Yes, it reminded me of the uneasy, awkward times of junior high. But it also reminded me of the good, pleasant times (at least by comparison) that made the experience not entirely miserable. As a result, this film about the last week of eighth grade for a socially inept girl (played very well by Elsie Fisher) is effective without being depressing or cloying. Review:


  1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—I was the guy who gave four stars to both Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” and Marc Webb’s reboot “The Amazing Spider-Man,” simply because I’m such a fan of the web-slinging Marvel superhero that I’ll ever so highly appreciate pretty much any new Spider-Man movie that “feels” right. Maybe I was overexcited, even though I do enjoy both Spider-Man movies. And I’ll stand by my praise for last year’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (which I gave three-and-a-half stars even from the start). But I gave four stars to Into the Spider-Verse, the new animated take on Spider-Man, and I’m calling it my third favorite film of 2018…and I’m fairly certain I’ll stand by it as time goes by. This was a ton of fun and I look forward to seeing it again very soon. It may be the Spider-Man movie that I’ve been waiting for all this time. Review:


  1. Black Panther—Avengers: Infinity War may have been the MCU movie we wanted, but Black Panther was probably the MCU movie we needed. It was one of the biggest hits of the year for that very reason. Perhaps it was overhyped as the year went on since its February release date. But I don’t care. The film we got turned out to be one of my personal favorite MCU movies, right up there with “Iron Man” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” This was more than your typical superhero movie—it asked tough questions and didn’t have easy answers; the characters were better developed, especially the villain; and the non-action scenes were just about as compelling as the action sequences. It’s as simple as this: I freaking LOVED this film. Review:

For a long time, Black Panther was my favorite film of the year. Every time I saw a new emotionally gripping film, like The Tale or Won’t You Be My Neighbor? or Leave No Trace, I would think “This is my favorite film of the year”…and then, time would pass, and I would keep going back to Black Panther. So, I had to think long and hard before making my ultimate decision for #1. And what did it turn out to be?


  1. Three Identical Strangers—I hear a fictional cinematic retelling is being told of the story this excellent documentary is centered on. I’m not entirely sure that’s a good idea, because this true-life story is so unbelievable that only a documentary (or a written memoir) could help convince audiences that this really happened. And within the first few minutes of Three Identical Strangers, which combined both interviews and dramatic reenactments to present this extraordinarily fascinating story of three triplets who met for the first time at age 19, I was hooked and ready to see what the rest of the documentary had to offer. I was thoroughly impressed from start to finish, but more importantly, I was emotionally invested. I felt for these people while I was also fascinated by their true story about how they met and where their lives went from there. It reminded me that sometimes, documentaries can give me richer characters and more compelling situations than most fictional stories, because truth can be stranger than fiction. I loved this film wholeheartedly. It’s wonderfully made, had numerous twists and turns that kept me intrigued, contained memorable characters in real-life people, and also might have provoked more discussion than any other film I’ve seen all year. And for that reason, plus many more, Three Identical Strangers is my favorite film of 2018.

Man, I love this time of year! See you in 2019!

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

22 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve liked more Spider-Man movies than I’ve disliked them. I like Sam Raimi’s 2002 smash-hit “Spider-Man.” I thought “Spider-Man 2” was even better (and I gave it four stars because hey Roger Ebert did so that was OK…eh, if I’m being honest, I’d still give it four stars if I re-reviewed it). And I really liked “Spider-Man: Homecoming” last year, after “Captain America: Civil War” brought the web-slinging hero into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Oh, and there’s also Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” to which I immediately gave four stars after seeing it twice in theaters in the summer of 2012…maybe I was hoping it would go in a better direction than it ended up into to justify the rating. (THAT Spider-Man movie, I’ll write a Revised Review about.) And the less said about “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the better…

Oh, whatever, let’s talk about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which is hands-down the best Spider-Man movie yet! (And I will NOT hesitate in giving it four stars, because I also think it’s one of the best films of the year. It’s definitely one of my favorites of the year.)

This Spider-Man movie has it all. The pathos. The humor. The fun. The excitement. Everything that most Spider-Man fans look for in a Spider-Man movie, it’s here. Nothing more, nothing less, and God bless America!

Sorry, sorry, let me collect myself before continuing…

OK, I’m back. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a wonderful comic-book film. It’s strange and unusual, which adds to the highly effective dramatic elements that help elevate the story material and the necessary comedic aspects, while also paying homage to previous versions of the Marvel-Comics superhero so that it can move on with a different story. Some parts parody the formula, other parts are adding to it, and overall, it’s an affectionate respect to the hero we know and love.

And did I mention it’s also animated? As in, they take advantage of every clever visual touch that could be added to a great Spider-Man story, right down to the exclamation word bubbles lifted from a comic book to pop onto the screen? Do I need to mention that it’s visually pleasing as a result? Do I need to? It’s just the icing on top of the cake.

Our hero is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore, the talented young actor from 2015’s “Dope”). He’s a bright but awkward teenaged boy who’s just been transferred to a private school that his stern policeman father (Bryan Tyree Henry) is forcing him to attend. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, and this stuffy school isn’t helping anything. His life changes, however, when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider one night. This of course gives him super spidey-sense and web-slinging abilities that make for one awkward situation after another until he comes across the costumed hero himself, Spider-Man (Chris Pine). Unfortunately, the humongous, psychotic Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) comes along and kills Spider-Man/Peter Parker, but not before Spidey’s final words to Miles are to stop Kingpin from destroying the world with his dimension-jumping device that could doom the city. Sound weird? It gets even weirder as Miles comes across…Spider-Man. Huh?

Actually, this is an alternate version of Spider-Man/Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson). He’s heavier built, his origin story is slightly different, and he’s cynical and heartbroken after being Spider-Man was too much for him. He’s been brought here due to a malfunction in the dimension machine, which seems to have brought out other versions of Spider-Man, such as Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), anime heroine Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and even Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Together, they team up to stop Kingpin’s insane plan and also help Miles control his powers so that he can take up the slack of this dimension’s new Spider-Man and keep New York City safe.

Admittedly, the story contains so much material, and yet it doesn’t feel overstuffed. There is a lot to absorb, and the right amount of time is taken to let the audience take in what they are seeing right in front of them. The things that are important are given the most focus, and everything else thankfully doesn’t feel like filler—they’re here to further aid the film’s delightfully witty and fun tone. And the best part is while a hardcore comic-book fan can admire the directions “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” takes, a casual fan can still watch it, admire it, and enjoy the ride.

The movie is a total blast, and the comedy, action, and drama all blend beautifully to make for one hell of an entertaining experience. And I think because it’s animated, it’s allowed to take more chances than it could have if it were live-action. Or maybe it would’ve worked fine if it were live-action. Either way, I’m perfectly content with what I got, because “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a ton of fun that I can’t wait to return to in the near future.