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mid90s (2018)

19 Apr

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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?”

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Minding the Gap (2018)

25 Feb

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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

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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

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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 smithsverdict.com 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:

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  • 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.

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  • 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.)

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  • 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.

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  • 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.)

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  • 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.

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  • 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!

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

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  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.

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  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.

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  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…

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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.)

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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!

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/05/can-you-ever-forgive-me-2018/

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/28/searching-2018/

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  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.

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  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: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/19/wildlife-2018/

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  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: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/07/13/lean-on-pete-2018/

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  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.

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  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: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/22/boy-erased-2018/

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  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.

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  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: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/12/08/the-tale-2018/

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  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: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/19/leave-no-trace-2018/

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  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: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/11/19/eighth-grade-2018/

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  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: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/12/22/spider-man-into-the-spider-verse-2018/

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  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: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/08/18/black-panther-2018/

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?

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  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

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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.

Green Book (2018)

21 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Even when we know almost exactly what we’re going to get in a particular movie, we still embrace it because it gives us what we want AND need. And that’s the case with “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s road-trip comedy-drama about race relations in the 1960s. We all know race relations were troublesome in that era (and some will argue they’re not at their strongest nowadays, either—but let’s not go there), and so, we know more or less what we’re going to get from this movie about a white tough-guy chauffeur/bodyguard (from the Bronx) who is hired by a black sophisticated pianist (who lives right above Carnegie Hall, literally) to travel through the Midwest and the Deep South for a two-month tour. We know these two are going to bicker and argue for a good portion of the trip before letting down their defenses and getting to know one another better. And we know they’re going to encounter a good deal of racism (some of which is “polite” racism from good-natured Southern folks, but it’s still racism). We know there’s going to be a big blow-up moment between the two in which one reveals something about themselves that changes everything. And we know they’re going to become friends.

Well, we do get all of that in “Green Book.” But…so what? Just because we have a pretty good idea of how things are going to turn out for the most part, that doesn’t make the movie any less good, powerful, or endearing. And that’s all that “Green Book” becomes: a lovely, sentimental road movie with two interesting characters and something to say about where we were then and where we are now.

Based on a true friendship between Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and Don Shirley, “Green Book” takes place in the last couple months of 1962, as bouncer/enforcer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), who earns the nickname by being able to talk himself out of almost any tight spot, is hired to drive the renowned pianist Doc Shirley (Mahershala Ali) of the Don Shirley Trio through the Midwest before going into the Deep South. Assisting Tony is “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook that lists the state-by-state locations that will serve black travelers.

We get an “Odd Couple” sort of relationship between Lip and Doc, as Lip is more abrasive, outgoing, and a real wiseass, whereas Doc is more reserved, the straight man to Lip’s antics. And what also makes things complicated is Lip’s deep-rooted racism, as established in an early moment when he throws away two glasses used by two black repairmen after his wife serves them drinks. But he needs the work, and the job to drive this black man around pays well, so he knows he has to do what he has to do. It’s his story being told in “Green Book” (which is also co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of the real-life Tony Lip), and so it’s important that the audience understand how his development from ignorance into tolerance comes to be, especially since we all know it’s inevitable. (And I’m not just saying that because the real-life story Lip and Doc remained friends to their dying days, shortly within each other, which is pretty interesting and cool—I’m mostly saying it because we know the change is predictable in this type of story.) Thankfully, the development is not only convincing; it’s welcoming in ways that I didn’t expect. There’s not a moment in this progression that feels rushed; it feels natural and real, and we welcome the changes in Lip’s worldview.

“Green Book” was directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, who is still best-known as one half of the Farrelly brothers who were responsible for such outrageous raunchy comedies as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.” I’m glad he can remind us any good filmmaker can make any type of movie, no matter what their reputation. But also, while he knows to capture the weight of the heavier situations that are definite for his protagonists to come across (such as the Southern “gentleman” who is glad to let the Don Shirley Trio play in his mansion…as long as Doc doesn’t use his bathroom), he also knows to lighten the mood with comedic moments, such as when Lip stops for Kentucky Fried Chicken (in Kentucky!) and practically begs Doc to try some after he admits he’s never tried it before, and especially when Doc helps Lip in writing letters to his loving wife (Linda Cardellini, underused but still effective)…letters that are written better than what Lip could have come up with, to say the least. And yet the comedy doesn’t feel forced; most of it comes from the characters being themselves and interacting with each other, and thus when their working relationship elevates into trusting friendship, we understand how it happened.

All of that is well and good, but there is one very important element that makes “Green Book” worth recommending and seeing again: the acting. The acting from both Viggo Mortensen as Lip and Mahershala Ali as Doc is unbelievably excellent. If we didn’t buy their performances for even a slight moment, the whole film would’ve fallen apart real fast. (And I don’t think I’m exaggerating in that remark.) I look at Ali and I don’t see the stonefaced drug dealer he portrayed in his Oscar-winning performance in “Moonlight”; I see someone 100% different, the reserved, suave, cultured Dr. Don Shirley, who keeps his nose in the air and his demons wrapped tight inside himself. He’s great, but it’s not really his story being told here. Instead, it’s the story of Tony Lip, played by Mortensen, who has delivered many a strong performance in his busy career…and I think this one might be his best. He has a credible New York accent and he’s gained a lot of weight for the role, but the attitude he brings to the character is what makes him very interesting. His ability to talk his way out of anything plus his violent temper proves to be both a blessing and a curse, and it’s when Tony Lip realizes both aspects that his character starts to go through a fascinating change. I’m sincerely hoping for an Oscar nomination for Mortensen in this role, because he deserves it.

“Green Book” as a film isn’t very subtle, as most of the characters’ journey is painted in broad strokes. But the performances are excellent and what make the film the treasure that it is. They help make the inspirational true-story aspects all the more effective, and as a result, “Green Book” is a predictable winner but a winner nonetheless.

Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)

10 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, let’s get this out of the way—the only thing “Unfriended: Dark Web” has in common with “Unfriended,” the 2015 film to which it claims to be a sequel (or continuation), is that they both occur in real-time via computer screen. That’s about it. They’re both horror films (although one is more of a supernatural horror and the other is along the line of psychological terror) that happen to share the same in-computer gimmick. (And just a couple months after “Dark Web” was released, we got “Searching,” a superior thriller that did even more with the gimmick. But we’re not going into that topic today.) I should be annoyed by this bit of lazy marketing, but at the same time…I don’t want a sequel to “Unfriended,” a film that works perfectly fine as a stand-alone story. So, instead of getting that, we have something different that also carries the name “Unfriended” above its title “Dark Web.” How does it work as its own creation?

Both “Unfriended” and “Dark Web” are horror films that serve as parables for how the Internet rules our lives. With the former, it was a cautionary tale about cyber-bullying. With the latter, it’s about how we often take the Internet for granted. While neither of them are to be taken too seriously (they are mainstream escapist entertainments after all), they do provide good attempts at capturing the essence of how we live online and commenting on it as well. You could laugh at them, listen to them, or simply accept them for what they are and do both… That’s sort of where I stand. I’ve watched “Unfriended” countless times since I wrote a three-star review for it, and I’ve since regarded it as one of the more entertaining horror films in the past few years. Time will tell whether or not I’ll look at “Dark Web” the same, but…it is still a solid film and I’m recommending it.

As I’ve mentioned, “Dark Web” is a sequel in name and style only. The story and characters are different, there’s a different killer attacking our logged-in Millennial protagonists, and the film digs deep into the concept of cyber-stalking (as much as it can, given limited information prior to production—I don’t know how accurate this film in depicting the Dark Web). The 90-minute hell ride begins as college-aged Matias (Colin Woodell) logs onto a laptop he stole from a cyber café (he claims it had been in the lost-and-found for weeks). He looks through it to get used to it and tries out a new app he’s created that will allow him to communicate better with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), before engaging in online game night with his friends, which include conspiracy-theory podcaster AJ (Connor Del Rio), lesbian couple Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) & Nari (Betty Gabriel), English techie Damon (Andrew Lees), and Asian DJ Lexx (Savina Windyani). Soon enough, problems arise when the original owner of the laptop, known as “Charon IV,” communicates with Matias, demanding his laptop back. When Matias digs deeper into the hidden files in the laptop, it becomes clear that this is no game. Things get even more serious when Charon IV reveals there’s far more here than meets the eye, and before long, Matias must use his wits to find ways to save himself and his friends before people start getting killed one by one…

I have to admire both “Unfriended” movies for being able to turn out stories that couldn’t have been easy to develop with the limitations of telling them in real-time and keeping them restricted to the perspective of one laptop screen. There are some glitches and technical errors here and there (even when they try to capture the realism of when our machines often break down, there are some little things that are easy to nitpick), but they still do well at capturing the realism well enough so that I’m not taken out of the movie altogether. I suppose my biggest gripe with the technical aspect of “Dark Web” was that the video is too crystal clear for anyone who has ever engaged in Skype video calls to take seriously—I guess it was to show a contrast for the static-fueled glitches that occur whenever the Dark Web users enter the video screens, but it’s not particularly subtle. But even that is taking too much from a nitpick.

In ditching the supernatural aspect that kept the story for “Unfriended” going, “Dark Web” goes for a more “realistic” approach and made it more of a dark thriller that has something to say about how dangerous it is to spend much of our lives online. For those who are affected by this approach, it is either going to lose viewers by losing their credibility or depressing them. I simply saw it as a horror film—nothing more, nothing less. The acting was decent, the story kept me guessing, I liked the twists and turns (especially ones that were aided by the main character trying to keep the main plot secret from his friends as he knows the laptop owner is watching his every click), and while it didn’t leave me with as much of an impact as something like “Searching,” I still appreciate its ability to do much with very few.

I’m not going to get into the multiple endings that “Unfriended: Dark Web” has been known for since it was originally revealed the studio just didn’t know how to end it… But I will say I like the original alternate ending a little better than the DVD’s alternate endings and especially more than the theatrical ending.