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Looking Back at 2010s Films: mid90s (2018)

11 Oct
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She said see you later boy: Stevie (Sunny Suljic) stars in Jonah Hill’s Mid90s.

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, let’s talk about Jonah Hill’s directorial debut that you could swear was made in the mid-1990s: “mid90s.”

Set in the mid-90s (obviously), “mid90s” is about a short, scrawny 13-year-old boy named Stevie (Sunny Suljic) who falls in with a crowd of skateboarders to escape the abuse of his older brother. He of course comes of age and learns he doesn’t have to take the hardest hits, on or off the board. Call it “The Sandlot” meets “Kids.”

Jonah Hill does a really good job as a first-time director. If I didn’t know any better (or recognize today’s actors like Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston), I’d swear this film was actually made in the mid 1990s. The aesthetic is reminiscent of a ’90s indie flick, and the passive-aggressive attitudes of these ’90s teens feel genuine.* (In fact, it’s rumored that a theater projectionist asked the distributor where they found a lost treasure from the 1990s…I hope that’s not true, but that says something about the film’s quality.)

Besides, we need a break from the ’80s anyway, right?

There’s hardly a plot here, but that’s not what matters–what matters is the emotions that are felt throughout. This poor kid has been pushed around and beaten up by his jerk older brother, and he takes up skateboarding as a sporty means of escape…mainly because when he falls, he’s used to getting hurt. This is disturbing and screwed up–it makes you feel for the kid even more, even when his friend Ray (Na-kel Smith) tells him after the most brutal accident, “You literally take the hardest hits out of anybody I’d ever seen in my life. You know you don’t have to do that, right?”

And it’s not just the sport that can used as a means of escape–it’s who you’re sharing the escape with that also truly matters. These other kids have their own problems, but altogether, each other is what they need to get through.

Would I relate to any of the kids if I saw this film at a younger age? I’d see a part of myself in Stevie, but if I’m being honest…I think I was more like Fourth Grade, the kid who’s always filming with a video camera because he wants to make movies someday. I was pretty dumb at that age (and filming stuff constantly) but not dumb enough to say some of the things he says in this movie. (“Can black people get sunburned?”) But I won’t go there.

*The authenticity of the kids, of course, means there’s a lot of misogynistic and homophobic language, which sadly was common in the mid-90s. Hill wanted his characters to discuss why they talk like that, but producer Scott Rudin (who himself is gay) advised against the idea, stating he didn’t think anyone would have this conversation in the mid-90s. Hill also said in an interview, “I’m not celebrating it–I’m just telling the truth. Why are artists supposed to be like the moral police? YOU make the decision.” Meaning, this is a conversation that would probably most definitely take place in 2018-2019, but probably not back then…maybe.

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Looking Back at 2010s Films: Searching (2018)

10 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, you remember “Unfriended?” “The Den?” Other minimalist “cyber-thrillers” that were told entirely from the point-of-view of a computer screen? Well, those films were only setting us up for what would become the best of this particular “subgenre.”

That film is “Searching,” a mystery-drama about a father desperately trying to find her missing daughter. He does so by using potential clues left from her computer–her social media, her calendar events, just about anything and everything that could possibly lead to answers to numerous questions about her. And yes, the entire film is told through media–computer screens, phone screens, camera monitors, news feed, you name it.

It’s just a gimmick used as a device to tell the story, but with that said, I appreciate the lengths that director Aneesh Chaganty went to to further the story with as minimal techniques as possible and still make it effective. And with a mystery such as this, using as many online resources as possible, to do it well using this gimmick is impressive indeed.

John Cho stars as David, the widowed father who tries everything he can think of to obtain more answers about his teenage daughter Margot’s disappearance. With this film and 2017’s drama “Columbus” (which I’ll get to later), Cho has come quite a long way since his comedic roles as the “MILF” guy in the “American Pie” movies and the uptight stoner who went to White Castle and Guantanamo Bay with his buddy Kumar. He’s proven to be a more than capable dramatic actor, and he’s absolutely terrific here. There’s not a moment in Searching where I don’t feel for him–I want to help this poor guy because he’s going through a living hell. Every time he comes to another dead end after thinking he’s finally going to get THE answer he’s been searching for (the question being, “where the f is my daughter??”), it’s heartbreaking.

Cho was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for this performance–yet another reason for me to appreciate the Indie Spirits more than the Oscars.

“Searching” also has a great amount of heart to it, established with an emotional prologue that shows the family dynamic of David, Margot, and Pam, who would die of cancer. From these first few minutes, we see how this tragic death affected the lives of both David and Margot. Margot feels very alone and closes herself off from everyone, including her father. When she disappears, David realizes he doesn’t know his own daughter anymore and has to learn all he can about her through her social media in order to gain some insight about what might have happened to her, where she could be, etc. He finds he’s closed himself off from her as well.

This mystery-thriller is as good at going for the emotions as it is generating suspense, and I applaud it for that. The mystery itself is pretty intriguing and just as much so the second time.

Also, here’s a wonderfully effective, biting piece of commentary that I appreciate. David questions Margot’s classmates who admit they weren’t really Margot’s “friends” because she was too shy and closed-off. Later, when an Amber Alert is set up and Margot becomes a trending topic, THOSE SAME PEOPLE are making tearful videos about how much they “loved” Margot and that she was their “best friend.” It’s true that so many of us don’t really hop on board a certain issue until that issue becomes popular, and I thank the film for showing that in this way. (There are even a bunch of attention-hungry jerks who hop on board to blame David for it all.)

“Searching” is an engaging, taut thriller that wouldn’t work in a more conventional filmmaking fashion because it’d be difficult to get across more of Margot’s inner life via traditional flashbacks. This is the computer-POV gimmick done right, and I wonder how it could be topped.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Free Solo (2018)

9 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, I’ve done a lot of Oscars-bashing lately while doing this series. But now, for this one, I don’t have to. They recognized this harrowing documentary for exactly what it was: the year’s best documentary.

“But wait!” you may say. “What about ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’?! That was the highest-grossing documentary of 2018 and it was SNUBBED!” Well…we already knew ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ would be something special because we knew who Fred Rogers was and appreciated the film for simply being a biographical documentary about the man and his life. It didn’t have to take many chances. It was very good at being what it was, but what else was it going to be?

But “Free Solo” was something new. It was a harrowing doc about a free-solo climber who set out to free climb Yosemite’s El Capitan–its elevation, 3,000 feet!

I believe the word you’re searching for is “GULP!”

Yeah, Alex Honnold became the first (and only, so far) climber to free solo that particular high-as-heaven climb up El Capitan. (Captain Kirk tried it in “Star Trek V”…he didn’t make it; in fact, he could’ve freaking DIED!) And this is a documentary that chronicles the event after taking the time to allow us to get to know him. There are people who will miss him if he falls, and there’s always going to be that very real possibility that he will fall.

Most of the film shows how Alex is going to pull this off, even if he has to consider rough areas where he slips (with a rope attached to him) that he can’t mess up on when he does it without support. This raises the suspense when we do see him ultimately go for it.

Just because we know the outcome (that he doesn’t fall–I hope that’s not a spoiler) doesn’t mean there isn’t tension when we see him go through with it. I’m terrified of heights, and my heart went out to this guy as I watched him climb this damn thing without anything to catch him if he falls. (The filmmakers themselves fear it too–they know they could be making a snuff film if something goes wrong!) There’s a lot of anxiety and suspense that leaps off the screen during this final act, and the fact that he pulled it off and that everyone was able to capture it from different angles (without breaking Alex’s concentration) is a testament to the hard work that went into this ordeal.

When it’s over, I feel like cheering for everyone involved. And I guess the Oscar voters did too.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Blindspotting (2018)

8 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, there’s a moment in “Blindspotting” when a young black man is walking alone in a risky neighborhood in Oakland, CA.

A cop car seems to be following him. He tenses up. WE tense up because he has a gun. It’s not even his gun–he took it away from his friend before some crazy stuff could go down. But you think once the police find the gun if they stop and question him that he’s going to be able to explain the situation? This man hasn’t done anything wrong, he’s finally off probation, and if he gets caught with this gun, he could end up in jail, or worse. And then…the cop’s light shines on him as he turns around.

It’s a quiet moment but it’s also an extremely terrifying moment because it feels real.

And that’s just one of many memorably chilling moments in “Blindspotting,” one of the underrated films from last year. Like “Do the Right Thing” 30 years ago, “Blindspotting” is a film about race relations that is brutally honest. Intense and sometimes very humorous, but still brutally honest.

The film stars (and was co-written by) Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, longtime friends who came up with the script inspired by their own experiences in the Bay Area. Diggs plays Collin, who is finally done with probation after serving a brief prison sentence after partaking in a fight (how and why the fight came about, I’ll leave for you to discover–it’s hilarious). Casal plays his best friend Miles, a loudmouth who is always looking for trouble–if Collin slips up again, Miles is probably partially responsible. Collin, who’s black, has to reminded time and time again by other people that if the police show up when trouble goes down, they’ll ignore Miles because he’s white but Collin will be the one who’s arrested or shot. He doesn’t want to believe that, nor does he want to believe Miles’ rambling that the neighborhood is being “changed” by “hipsters.” But he’s haunted by his witnessing of an Oakland cop (Ethan Embry) shooting and killing an unarmed black man on the street, which doesn’t raise his confidence either.

Those scenes in which he keeps seeing that cop in his dreams and in his reality let us know how heavy the weight of Collin’s world continues to crush down on him.

But there are other scenes to help lighten the mood, such as when the fight that Collin went to jail for is described in extreme detail by Utkarsh Ambudkar (who I recently saw again in “Brittany Runs a Marathon”)…in what could be described as “Drunk History”-style. (Surprisingly, this was only one of two movies last year that took that comedic storytelling style–the other one was “Ant-Man & The Wasp.”)

‘Blindspotting” is a film with moments of harsh reality and energetic creativity.

I mentioned “Do the Right Thing” before, and it’s hard not to compare these two movies not just in terms of statement but in terms of style. Remember how in “Do the Right Thing,” we had a couple musical moments and a montage of people of different races directing racist insults to the camera? Well, “Blindspotting” has spoken-word raps, sometimes to take place of traditional dialogue. Its payoff is a climactic moment that you’ll have to see to believe–it’ll either work for you or it won’t. It worked for me.

And of course…the Oscars ignored another treasure with this one. Let’s see, did the Indie Spirits look at this one…?

Yep–Daveed Diggs was nominated for Best Male Lead for his brilliant performance.

Check this one out if you haven’t already.

And for the record, I’ve never even bothered to try a bottle of green juice ($10 a bottle?? c’mon), and I don’t plan to either. (Those who’ve already seen the film will get that reference.)

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

8 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, I’m starting to realize why I’m talking about all of these movies that probably won’t make my best-of-the-2010s list…because LISTS ARE A JOKE!!! They change after time and it’s like others don’t even matter. Well, they matter to me, dammit!

I mean, obviously I’m still going to do it, but…where was I going with this?

Ah whatever, let me just talk about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the Oscar-winning documentary…oh, it wasn’t even nominated because the Oscars are a joke. (God bless the Indie Spirits though! Even they knew the Oscars were a joke.)

Obligatory introduction describing the importance of Fred Rogers and his iconic PBS show here…do I even need to go into that? All I can add is I grew up with it. So let’s move on…

I don’t know how people who aren’t familiar with Mr. Rogers would respond to this documentary, but I hope they got a pretty good idea as to how culturally impactful he was to Gen-Xers and Millennials (among others). But for me and most other people who grew up with the show, it’s an excellent companion piece.

To be completely honest, there were three movie moments from 2018 that made me a little teary-eyed (no joke)–one was in ‘Boy Erased,” in which a gay teen received a verbal thrashing at conversion camp; one was in “Wildlife,” as Joe realized his parents’ relationship was done for good; and the other was near the end of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” as Fred Rogers’ funeral was protested by Westboro Baptist (because what else were those miserable, hate-fueled asses going to fart upon with their spare time?)…and there were children there holding signs as well–one of the interviewees of the documentary took notice that the children didn’t look very happy. That was heartbreaking, especially when you know just how important Fred Rogers was in using television to shape young minds.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is basically a standard, straightforward biographical documentary about Mr. Rogers, and obviously in terms of filmmaking, it can’t compete with “Free Solo” or “Minding the Gap” (two Oscar-nominated docs that you could argue took more chances than this)…but it’s just so freaking GOOD at being standard and straightforward and respectful and all that! (I doubt it’s possible to make a “negative” film about Mr. Rogers anyway…I mean, unless it was made by one of those jerks who thought Mr. Rogers’ message about children being special meant they didn’t have to achieve anything–weren’t those guys even AWARE of Barney the Dinosaur?)

At least the 34th Film Independent Spirit Awards, who awarded “WYBMN?” the documentary award, knew how special this film was–yet another reason for me to gain more interest in the Indie Spirits than the Oscars.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

7 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, why are we always surprised when comedic actors play it straight?

Seriously–are there any comedic actors who CAN’T play it straight? Why are we always surprised when Adam Sandler turns in a solid dramatic performance or Jason Segel or Bill Murray or Chris Tucker or Seth Rogen or Marlon Wayans or Kristen Wiig or Albert Brooks–I could go on and on, but you get my point. They can stay committed to comedic bits; they can stay committed to going outside of that too.

Same goes for Melissa McCarthy–critics were surprised to see a different side to her, given her reputation as a loud, obnoxious, abrasive personality in several mainstream comedies (one of which even gave her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress). She also had a dramatic supporting role in “St. Vincent” in 2014, but hardly anyone saw that. In Marielle Heller’s biopic “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” she takes center-stage as Lee Israel, a failed novelist who made a living by forging celebrities’ memorabilia and selling it. She forges letters “written” by Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, among others, and sells them to collectors for huge amounts of cash. Her fakes are so believable, and she’s able to keep it going for a while, but of course, she has to get caught. (That’s not a spoiler–this is based on a true story.)

McCarthy is wonderful in this film (and thankfully she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her work). She has to be drinking constantly, she has to be resentful of her falling career, she has to lash out on the wrong people, she does all these illegal activities to earn money–it takes work to make someone like that likable, and McCarthy pulls it off. Actually, she plays it like the exact opposite of the kind of character she’s used to–she’s not the life of the party, but she COULD be if she opened herself up to society.

It’s when we see her with her only friend (outside of her 12-year-old cat), a charming but weathered gay man named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, also nominated for his fine work), that we see what it’d be like to be around her when she lowers her defenses, and she can make for good company.

Oh, and best of all–SHE DOESN’T IMPROVISE! That’s one of my pet peeves about her comedic work–sometimes, she doesn’t trust the script enough to be funny, and she’ll try so hard to make people laugh that she’ll ramble after the bit should be over. Here, she trusts the writing of a script (that was also nominated, for Best Adapted Screenplay) and Heller’s direction.

The script, by the way, was written by Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener. Whitty is a playwright best known for the stage musical “Avenue Q,” but Holofcener has become well-known to me after I saw both this film and the Netflix Original film she directed (“The Land of Steady Habits”), which were both released around the same time. Then I would look up what else she wrote and/or directed and check out these other indie treasures, like “Walking and Talking,” “Lovely and Amazing,” “Friends With Money,” “Please Give,” and “Enough Said”…and it turned out I had apparently seen some “Parks and Recreation” episodes she did (and one episode of “Togetherness”). Now that I know who she is, I’m very glad her work for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has been recognized by so many Screenplay awards.

Marielle Heller previously made the solid indie coming-of-age film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which I only learned about from the audio commentary from The Lonely Island film “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” in which she made a cameo as a documentary filmmaker “best-known for the great indie flick ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl.'” (When I looked up the film was when I found out Heller was Jorma Taccone’s wife.)

Her next film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, comes out this fall, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Lean on Pete (2018)

7 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, I missed “Lean on Pete”┬áin theaters–I didn’t even know about it. But when I worked at Vintage Stock and we got a series of trailers for upcoming DVD releases, I noticed one with many festival laurels and critical blurbs praising it–the sound wasn’t on the TV set that displayed the trailer, and it just looked like a typical boy-and-his-horse story. But if film critic Richard Roeper gave it four stars, I knew it would be anything but “typical.”

When it was released on DVD, I rented it, checked it out…and was blown away.

“Lean on Pete” is a film about a 15-year-old boy who gets a job looking after an aging racehorse, named Lean On Pete. He learns the horse is bound for slaughter because he’s slowing up, and when he ends up in a situation where he may go into care, he steals Lean On Pete and sets off on a journey to find his aunt, with whom he hasn’t been in contact for years.

Think “The Grapes of Wrath” meets “The 400 Blows.”

“Lean on Pete” is a beautiful film–not always heartwarming but always compelling. The kid in this movie, Charley (played by Charlie Plummer), is a good kid who endures many hardships (and sometimes has to do the wrong thing to get ahead), and it’s so hard not to root for him to find what he’s looking for. What IS he looking for? He just wants a place to call “home.”

My favorite scene comes late in the film, in which Charley is walking with Lean On Pete through the frontier and he tells him about a time when he was invited to breakfast by one of his friends. This kid’s a football jock, so you would think he’s got other things to talk about. But no–he was just happy to be accepted somewhere with people he liked. That’s all he wants. Like Marge from “Fargo” or Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Charley from “Lean on Pete” has learned what others need spelled out for them–that the simplest pleasures are the greatest treasures.

I remember seeing this kid Charlie Plummer represent a film he starred in four years ago (called “King Jack”) at the Little Rock Film Festival and thinking he’d have a great career ahead of him. Well now, he’s been in a Ridley Scott film (“All the Money in the World”), he was considered for the MCU’s Spider-Man for a while, he’s appeared in a few more indie flicks (including the thriller “The Clovehitch Killer”)–he’s barely 20 years old; I hope he keeps up the good work!

Charlie Plummer IS this film. If “Lean on Pete” works for you, then it’s because of him. If “Lean on Pete” doesn’t work for you, meaning you don’t tear up or at least feel some kind of sympathy for this kid, then you might be dead. Take that for what it’s worth.