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My Favorite Movies – Eighth Grade (2018)

23 May

By Tanner Smith

Here’s a film from a couple of years ago that I did not want to see, that I didn’t expect to see again (or even WANT to see again), and that I DEFINITELY didn’t expect to call it one of my new favorites!……And yet here we are.

A film about the hardships and awkwardness of experiencing eighth grade (even if it’s just from one eighth grader’s perspective) did not sound like my cup of tea. (I didn’t care if critics were praising it across the nation—critics also praised the well-crafted yet utterly miserable “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” a film about a shy 7th grade outcast.) My reason for this—I don’t have many fond memories of eighth grade, especially after a terrible seventh grade year (Though, that’s not to say there weren’t bright spots here or there.) Any film that effectively captures what it’s like to be an outcast in junior high school is not going to appeal to me.

Why do you think there are more movies about high-schoolers than middle-schoolers? Because who wants to remember what middle school was like??

But I’m glad I took a chance on this film: Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.

Many of us remember what it was like to be 13-14 years old. Even if we were popular in school, we still faced many a challenge within ourselves and within our social circles, such as going through puberty, finding our sexual identities, maintaining particular images for people, and other awkward, confusing aspects that come with the age. We went through hard enough times when we were alone—add school to it, and it makes things even more uncomfortable!

We know this. We went through it. And even though things are far different now (thanks to social media) than they were, say, 15 years ago, that doesn’t matter because today’s eighth-graders still go through it. Do I have to bring it up? Yes, for this reason—”Eighth Grade” is a sweet, intelligent, sometimes-funny, sometimes-unsettling, always-accurate slice of life that I think today’s eighth-graders will gain a lot of insight from in order to feel better about themselves. (Forget the “R” rating—this film was made for the teens who need it!)

But what would adults get out of it? Well, why did standup comedian Bo Burnham make it to begin with? Because he often suffered panic attacks before performances and wanted to create a story that dealt with anxiety. He chose the eighth-grade setting because he considers it a crucial period of self-awareness. He said in a Huffington Post interview, “I wanted to talk about anxiety and what it feels like to be alive right now, and what it is to be unsure and nervous. That felt more like middle school than high school to me. I think the country and the culture is going through an eighth-grade moment right now.”

What did I get out of it myself? Why do I avoid “Welcome to the Dollhouse” like the plague and yet hold a special place in my heart for “Eighth Grade?” Because as honest and uncomfortable as “Eighth Grade” can be, it comes from a place of both love and hope. After this film’s end, I get the feeling that while Kayla (wonderfully played by Elsie Fisher) will still suffer anxiety attacks as time goes on and she gets older, she will not only overcome them but she will never be alone. I think she’s going to be OK.

My favorite scene: as much as I love the speech made by Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton) near the end of the film (it’s a great “father” speech that reminded me of a similar one in Call Me By Your Name), my favorite scene is one that takes us right in the middle of Kayla’s anxiety, as she nervously enters the pool party and is unsure about what to do next.

Really good stuff here.

My Favorite Movies – More 2010s Films (That I Already Covered Before)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

For the “My Favorite Movies” series, I have a lot of films to write about…but some films from the past decade, I already talked about in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series. Because I love these movies so much, I should have more to say about them that I didn’t before–and when I do, I’ll make separate posts for each of them. But for now, here are the 2010s films I already covered before that I consider “new favorites”:

Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls
Before Midnight
Life Itself
Ruby Sparks
Inside Out
Whiplash
Boyhood
Gravity
Get Out
Frances Ha
The Social Network
The Spectacular Now
Take Shelter
Midnight Special
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spotlight
Parasite
Hugo
Fruitvale Station
Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Llewyn Davis
Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War
Spider-Man: Homecoming
War for the Planet of the Apes
Chronicle
Big Hero 6
Kung Fu Panda 3
The Wind Rises
Columbus
Argo
Attack the Block
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Boy Erased
Super Dark Times (mmm…actually, I might have more to say about that one in the future)
Gerald’s Game
Let Me In
The Visit
The Invitation
The Final Girls
Ouija: Origin of Evil
The Sacrament
ParaNorman
Split
Sinister
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Stuck
The Way, Way Back
The Edge of Seventeen
Gifted
The Kids are All Right
Searching
Unfriended
Everybody Wants Some!!
Short Term 12
Operation Avalanche
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I, Tonya
Miss Stevens
The End of the Tour
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Lean on Pete
True Grit
The Big Sick
Tangled
It Follows
Safety Not Guaranteed
Sing Street
Logan
Bridesmaids
It
Mistress America
Creed
The Disaster Artist
Private Life
Love & Mercy
Green Room
Last Flag Flying
50/50
Love, Simon
Buried
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Hush
Cop Car
127 Hours
10 Cloverfield Lane
Blue Ruin
The Gift
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

And there are many other films from the 2010s that I will talk about (or talk more about) at some point (such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “Begin Again,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and others)–and like I said, if I have more to say about each of these treasures, then I’ll say it–but until then, those are some of my personal favorite films of the 2010s.

And if you came into this series late, also check out my posts for other 2010s favorites such as Sleepwalk With Me, Don’t Think Twice, The Land of Steady Habits, Brad’s Status, 20th Century Women, Cedar Rapids, mid90s, Lady Bird, The Farewell, The Dirties, and Lights Out.

My Favorite Movies – The Land of Steady Habits (2018)

18 May

By Tanner Smith

This Netflix Original film didn’t make my year-end list for 2018–it wasn’t even in my honorable mentions. I liked it when I saw it…I didn’t think I’d be watching it about 10 more times in the following two years or so.

But it’s great–better to realize it late than never.

“The Land of Steady Habits” was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, who specializes in slice-of-life dramedies such as “Walking and Talking,” “Please Give,” and “Enough Said.” (She also co-wrote Can You Ever Forgive Me? and directed a couple great episodes of “Parks and Recreation.”) As much as I like “Enough Said,” about which I’ll probably have a post in the future, “The Land of Steady Habits” might be her best work.

MIGHT be. (Her debut film “Walking and Talking” gets better each time I see it.)

Ben Mendelsohn stars as Anders, a former Wall Street trader who has no idea what he wants out of life anymore except not to do the things he’s used to. He divorces his wife Helene (Edie Falco) and goes into early retirement–and he left her their house as what he sees as a generous gesture…even though he’s not paying the mortgage anymore.

Anders is full of sh*t. And that’s the point–he represents the type of flawed individual who doesn’t possess the disciplinal nature that causes them to act selflessly. As the film continues, we go from getting angry at this tool to empathizing with him as his humanity surfaces further. Oh, and he’s also still very much enamored with his ex-wife and shows up to parties where she might be…and where old friends would rather he just disappear. But also, Helene also has a new boyfriend. (He’s played by Bill Camp, one of the best character actors working today, as evidenced by his appearances in “Wildlife,” Love & Mercy, Midnight Special, and a whole bunch of other films from the past few years.) But Anders soon meets Barbara (Connie Britton), a single mother with the sharp wit and equally unorthodox demeanor that just might be what Anders needs right now. Many of the other characters in this film are also full of sh*t–this includes Anders and Helene’s 20something-year-old son Preston (Thomas Mann), a former drug addict who still lives with his mother, takes a job as a reading teacher (a job his mother got him), and has no aspirations in life. (Anders sometimes has to play the “tough-love” card on him, even though he’s not really one to talk.) There’s also Sophie & Mitchell Ashford (Elizabeth Marvel and Michael Gaston), who seem to be going through the same thing with their drug-addict teenage son Charlie (Charlie Tahan) that Anders and Helene went though with Preston but would rather pretend there’s nothing wrong unless it best suits them. (Shades of Ordinary People here.)

All of the actors are fantastic here, but the one that impressed me the most was Charlie Tahan, who has a small but pivotal role in this film. He was great as the troubled teenage killer in Super Dark Times; here, he’s not violent, but he’s still very much troubled. Also, his story of how he uses art as a form of escapism is truly moving–I’ve seen this story aspect many times in other movies, but it takes the right character, the right dialogue, and the right delivery to truly sell it. His interactions with Anders, with whom he often gets high (once on PCP!), are wonderfully handled as well, and Mendelsohn is a great foil for Tahan. (Charlie Tahan is one of my favorite young actors working today–I should check out “Ozark” now, shouldn’t I?)

Obviously, at age 28, I’m not old enough to know enough people like Anders to say “The Land of Steady Habits” is totally accurate–but it does FEEL real, other critics have used their own personal experiences to relate to it, and I did know plenty of people like Preston and Charlie. (…I still know those people, actually–hell, I even see a little bit of myself in Preston.)

Why is it one of my new favorites? I think it’s just the spirit of it–the droll, sardonic, cynical spirit of it all. Or maybe I see it as a cautionary tale about what could happen to me if I don’t take what I learned in school or from my parents and put it all to good use in adulthood. Or maybe I just see it as a way of feeling comfortable whenever I inevitably screw up, because that’s just what happens, whether I intend to or not.

Either way…”The Land of Steady Habits” speaks to me.

My Favorite Movies – mid90s (2018)

26 Apr

By Tanner Smith

Maybe I should just stop rewatching movies and just let my original thoughts be. I fear change………

How DARE subsequent viewings of certain movies force me to like them better than my initial mild recommendations deserved??

My biggest issue with Jonah Hill’s directorial debut mid90s upon first viewing was the ending. I said in my initial review, “I’m all for ambiguous conclusions, but I don’t think there was a conclusion to be found at all. […] 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.”

Hey, IDIOT-PAST-TANNER–did it ever occur to you that maybe Hill’s intention with the ending was to leave his audience with that exact type of nostalgic feeling??

Set in the mid-1990s (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 aka “Sunburn”, 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 very 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 nowadays, but probably not back then…maybe.

OK, now I’m going to talk about the ending, so SPOILER ALERT!!!

Everything DOES add up at the end of “mid90s”–Sunburn takes the biggest hit he’s ever had (and ends up in the hospital), he makes amends with his abusive older brother, his mother finds out in a wonderful quiet moment how much his friends care about her son, and Ray, the older kid, reassures Sunburn that he doesn’t have to hurt himself anymore.

“mid90s” doesn’t end with a bang, but it instead chooses a quieter approach–I just didn’t see it that way the first time and I felt empty as a result.

Actually, none of what I just said is why my opinion has changed so highly on “mid90s.” (They’re good factors, though.) No, the part that really got me was what happens after–Fourth Grade, who has minimal dialogue throughout the film and is constantly filming everything with a video camera, shows his friends a movie he put together based on stuff he’s filmed. It’s a montage of all the good times they all have together. We know all of these kids have their troubles–but none of that matters when they’re together because they help each other get over those issues by just having a good time together.

I had something similar happen to me in my life with my old friends (I was filming everything, which basically means I was Fourth Grade)–my friends were upset about something, more upset than I was, and so I put together a little film about all of us having fun together prior to the disappointment we all faced (because I didn’t want them thinking of it as anything other than a fun time with friends).

Really good stuff here. Good job, Jonah.

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

4 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I think about Brett Haley’s “Hearts Beat Loud” after seeing it at least 10 times in the last two years since its theatrical release, I ask the questions…

Did we really need the best-friend character played by Ted Danson, who is also a bartender so that we can make “Cheers” references in reviews regarding this film? 

What about our protagonist’s mother played by Blythe Danner, who is always shoplifting and getting arrested by police so her son can bail her out? Does she have much purpose in this story?

Come to think of it, what about Toni Collette as the landlady for the protagonist’s record store? Even though the two have an interesting relationship together, I have to wonder…does she even need to be here?

And once I answered that last question, I answered the other two questions about the aforementioned side characters who seemingly serve no real purpose. Yes, we do need Danson. Danner does serve a purpose in this story. And Collette did need to be here. 

Why? Because…why not? 

Sometimes, when you see a movie, you ask certain questions like, “Did Tony Hale really have to play his role so over-the-top in ‘Love, Simon’?” And you keep coming back to those movies because there’s something about the main aspects of it that keep you distracted from questioning the others. Then, after seeing the movie for a certain number of times, it dawns on you—not only do you love this movie, but the little things that didn’t seem so important before suddenly feel like elements you would miss if they were removed. My point is, these side characters in “Hearts Beat Loud” exist in the world our lovable main characters live in, and they don’t seem so extraneous to me anymore, now that I’ve seen the film many times. I feel like they do have a place in this universe. They may not have much to do with the main story, but I feel like they do have a lot to do with how we see the main characters. 

Sorry, I know I have a film to review, but I feel like I just started a seminar for indie-film supporting character usage. (That wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually…)

Anyway, “Hearts Beat Loud” is a lovely father/daughter tale about Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman in his finest film role by far), a former musician who now owns a failing record store in Brooklyn, and his recent-high-school-graduate daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), who is about to leave to study pre-med in California. Sam wants to study and spend more time with her new girlfriend Rose (Sasha Lane), but Frank wants to spend more time with Sam before she leaves. One night, he insists that they have their habitual musical jam session together, where they record a song together (written by Sam) called “Hearts Beat Loud.” 

Despite Sam not wanting to start a band with her father, Frank puts the song on Spotify, under the name “We’re Not a Band.” Unexpectedly, it becomes a viral success, thus urging Frank to pursue a new career together with his daughter as a music duo. But Sam, despite having musical interests of her own, doesn’t share her father’s dream. 

This is an emotionally rich father/daughter story about a father using his interests in an attempt to keep his daughter at home because he isn’t ready for her to leave the nest and fly away. In the end, it becomes more of a story about the two of them sharing an interest in music for one last quality father/daughter time. Even if Frank doesn’t win Sam over to his dream, he accepts the fact that Sam will have her own life, Frank will have to set his sights a little lower than expected, and the music they created together for a brief time will be something they will always remember. 

And speaking of music, I love the songs in “Hearts Beat Loud.” Aside from the title track, there’s also a song about Sam’s feelings toward Rose (“Blink (One Million Miles)”) and another about Frank’s feelings toward losing his business (“Everything Must Go”). The songs were composed by Keegan DeWitt, and they’re all memorable and wonderful to listen to. They serve as effective mood pieces, especially an early version of “Everything Must Go” that truly reflects Frank’s current mood in this scene—I won’t lie; I added that piece to my personal playlist.

Oh, and there’s also the flirting between Frank and Leslie (the landlady played by Collette) that turns into somewhat of a fling. And then there’s Frank’s out-of-touch mother (Danner), who is mainly there for comic relief. And there’s Dave (the bartender played by Danson), who is probably here to give Frank someone to chat with occasionally. Like I said, these side characters have very little to do with the main plot of “Hearts Beat Loud”—the girlfriend, Rose, arguably has more of a purpose to the story because Sam realizes she’s not only leaving behind a father but also a summer romance, thus adding to Sam’s confusion about her current status. But I have to admit, the others make for good company and are played by appealing actors. And each time I see the film again, I don’t want to fast-forward past them. 

It’s the story of these two well-rounded, lovable characters that kept me coming back to “Hearts Beat Loud” in the first place, and because I got to know them well, it made me want to those around them well too. 

“Hearts Beat Loud” has so much going for it—a memorable soundtrack, a heartfelt story about this father and daughter, and a charming feel all throughout. It’s an indie mix that I don’t mind listening to every once in a while. 

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#15

12 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight

15) SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018)

Avengers: Endgame was originally going to make this list. The Marvel Cinematic Universe came so far this decade, and with “Endgame,” they gave us one hell of a wild ride that worked as an emotional (as well as thrilling) climax for the whole franchise (as least for this phase, anyway). It was also my favorite film of 2019…and then “Parasite” came along and blew me away by how original and new and brilliant and wonderful it was.

So, I had to remove one title off the list–“Endgame” or “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” One Marvel-hero cinematic property or another. I chose “Spider-Verse” simply because…I like it a little better.

By the way, I categorize these choices–with the exception of #1 (my favorite film of the decade), each selection on this list is chosen for being the best of a certain theme or genre or even formula. (Though, there are exceptions–for example, I can’t think of another film like “Parasite.”) I think a part of me found enough of a gap in between “Endgame” and “Spider-Verse” to differentiate them and attempt to place them both on the list.

(And that’s also the reason I couldn’t make room for other 2010s films I hold dear to my heart–like The End of the Tour, Inside Llewyn Davis, Black Panther, Lady Bird, The World’s End, Mud, The Artist, Boy Erased, The Hate U Give, The Way, Way Back, Short Term 12, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Hush, 127 Hours, Arrival, True Grit, The Big Sick, Sing Street, Logan, It, The Disaster Artist, Three Identical Strangers, and 50/50. There you have it–an Honorable Mentions list.)

OK, enough stalling–let’s talk about how awesome “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is!

In the 2000s, we had Sony’s “Spider-Man” film franchise of three movies involving the Marvel web-slinging superhero. In the early 2010s, Sony decided to reboot the franchise with The Amazing Spider-Man, which went in a gritty direction that worked well…until the disastrous “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Then came the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which brought Peter Parker/Spider-Man into the same mix with Iron Man, Captain America, and so on, in Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Avengers: Infinity War (with two more movies to come). And it was very satisfying to see a new, flat-out entertaining rendition of one of my favorite superheroes…but even I thought there could be something more.

Enter “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” a weird, zany, ultra-creative, beautiful, inventively animated, great big ball of entertainment that was like nothing I expected to see in a cinematic “Spider-Man” movie and became the “Spider-Man” movie I didn’t know I was waiting for.

I’ve already lost count as to how many times I’ve seen it!

The story–Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is a Brooklyn teenager who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly gains (of course) spider-like abilities not unlike Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Chris Pine), the costumed hero of New York. Spider-Man tells Miles he can help him get used to these powers, but soon after, he is killed by Kingpin (Liev Schrieber), which Miles witnesses. Miles decides to be the new Spider-Man in respect to his fallen hero, but he doesn’t know where to start. That changes when he encounters ANOTHER Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) from another dimension–only this one is cynical, heartbroken, not Spider-Man anymore, heavier and out of shape, and more or less selfish. Miles has the key to sending Peter home, and so Peter decides to coach Miles into being Spider-Man in exchange for his help.

Oh, but there’s more–they also gain a team of allies, each one from their own alternate dimension. There’s Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) aka Spider-Woman; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage–YES!!), a shadowy Spider-Man from the ’30s; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), anime heroine with a spider-like robot companion; and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney)…a pig with spider-like abilities. I want a movie about each and every one of these characters!

The visual style of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is stunning! It’s rich with vibrant colors, filled with very clever inside jokes and comic-book traits, and very active with energy. (You want watching a movie to equal the experience of reading a comic book–here it is!) The blend of 2D and 3D animation works wonderfully too–when I first saw it, it took a little while to get used to the character movements, but when it really got going, I was invested.

Miles is a great lead to follow. Voiced by Shameik Moore, who was great in 2015’s “Dope,” he’s a very likable kid with a lot of charm and also plenty of vulnerability to make us care about him and root for him when he ultimately becomes Spider-Man.

And I also buy into the plight of the cynical, heartbroken Peter, voiced by the often-reliable Jake Johnson. You can tell this guy has seen it all and lost a lot and already given up on life. And it’s Miles that gives him purpose: as a teacher. When he knows he needs to do better, it’s hard not to root for him as well.

With the exception of Gwen, who becomes Miles’ friend upon meeting her at school, the other Spider-heroes aren’t given plenty of time to develop. But they make a great team that provide support and their own individual kick-ass (sometimes hilariously so) action moves. (Speaking of which, the action is both thrilling when it needs to be and also lots of fun for all the right reasons.)

With so many alternate Spideys and a complicated plan to send them all back home (lest they disintegrate from existence in this dimension), you’d think this would all be hard to keep track. But that’s another reason this Oscar-winning (for Best Animated Feature) “Spider-Man” flick is as celebrated as it is: the screenplay is fantastic. The storytelling is “marvelous” (pun intended), it’s great for both comic-book fans and general movie audiences, the characterization is wonderfully told, it’s sweet when it needs to be, it’s often hilarious with great comedic (and comic) writing, and like I said before, it’s just one great big ball of entertainment that I can’t help but come back to again and again.

It’s been a year since I first saw “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and I’m sure it will continue to be my friendly neighborhood Spider-Man classic.

And I can’t wait to see the sequel.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: A Star is Born (2018)

26 Nov

By Tanner Smith

I knew “Black Panther” wouldn’t get the Best Picture Oscar this year, so there had to be another nominee I could root for that would probably win. My choice: Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born.” (Actually, I had two; the other was Alfonso Cuaron’s excellent “Roma.”)

“A Star is Born” is the kind of rags-to-riches story the Academy loves to recognize, and for “A Star is Born,” I see no flaw in their recognition. This is a REALLY good film, proving that it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a familiar story as long as it’s presented in a fresh, different way that still has us applauding afterwards. You know the story for “A Star is Born”–a famous celebrity meets a struggling performer and gives her time to shine, thus causing her star to rise and his own to fall.

In this case, we have Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, who also directed the film), a famous country-rock star who plays his heart out to thousands of fans who still love him even when he’s past his prime. He’s his own worst enemy, very weary and consistently drunk, like a lot of sad successes. But he’s there to hear aspiring singer-songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) sing at a bar–he goes backstage to meet her, they spend a nice evening together, they even collaborate on a new song together, and it seems like that’s the end of it, right?

Wrong. Jack is captivated by Ally and isn’t going to forget about her so easily. He invites her to his next show, where she’ll stand in the wings…and he begins to play the song she wrote with him that night. He gestures for her to come onstage and join in, and though she’s hesitant…she does. She sings her heart out and amazes everyone in the audience.

Thus…a star is born.

This entire first act of the film, which is about 45 minutes in a two-hour-10-minute movie, is wonderful. First of all, the song Jack sings in the opening (“Black Eyes”) is incredible (and I’m not a music critic–though I like to think I have good taste) and lets you know what this guy is all about, as does the following scene which shows what he’s like OFFstage as he simply tells his chauffeur he just wants to go somewhere to get a drink. Second of all, when he and Ally converse, it feels like they genuinely share a connection–they are both listening to each other. Ally knows the guy is famous and she is afraid he’s there just to pick her up, but she does let her guard down when she sees the guy is pretty OK. This is the highlight of the film for me–Cooper and Gaga feel like real people sharing a relationship together. And third, when Ally goes up onstage and sings with Jack, it’s a magical cinematic moment that rivals such moments from previous versions of a similar story.

Oh, and the song they play together is “Shallow.” I know everyone’s tired of this song, and so am I. But as with “Frozen” and its overplayed single “Let It Go,” I can’t let the fact that it’s overplayed get in the way of what a solid song it is. (Though, I would like to hear other good songs from the soundtrack as well–there are a few more that deserve recognition too.)

The rest of the film is pretty solid and powerful too, as we see Ally go through the usual BS of what it means to make it in the entertainment business. Even when she doesn’t understand it, she can’t bring herself to question it all to her manager (well-played by Rafi Gavron) because it’s her time to shine and she’s been waiting for it! But we also see Jack’s fall from stardom, as he just gets worse with alcoholism and loses himself…and his brother/PR-manager (Sam Elliott). (The scene in which Elliott gets into an intense fight with Cooper is heartbreaking and shows some of Elliott’s finest moments as an actor.) Because we’ve gotten to know Jack and Ally so well, we want to see everything go well for them…and we feel very bad when they don’t.

Speaking of which, I missed the confrontation between Ally and her manager for practically instigating the tragic action that ends the story–that a-hole needed to get his; I hope she fired his ass.

Lady Gaga is wonderful as Ally. I’ve already known she could sing, I DEFINITELY already know she had confidence as a performer, and now I know she can act. And act well. Cooper is also great–I already knew HE could act, but now he’s delivered what I think is his most impressive work. (And he’s also a hell of a good director, as it turns out.)

“A Star is Born” is above all a film about love and connecting–from the loveliness of meeting someone special for the first time to the bittersweet stages of a progressing romance to the sad moments where one brings the other down one way or another to…well, I won’t go into that. I cared about this movie because I cared for these two characters. And I’m always down for a film about a special relationship between two interesting people.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Black Panther (2018)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

It’s the superhero movie that finally convinced the Academy that mainstream action fare can count as “Best Picture worthy” too! Not “The Dark Knight.” Not “Logan.” But “Black Panther.”

And I freaking LOVE it. In fact, “Black Panther” is one of top 3 favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. When I heard it was nominated for so many Oscars (including Best Picture), I cheered and applauded. I would be mad at the Academy for excluding “The Dark Knight” and “Logan” from consideration for the highest category (and they are in many ways superior films), but what’s done is done, so let’s move along.

I gotta be honest–even though the character arc for T’challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in “Captain America: Civil War” was both strong and satisfactory, I wasn’t really rushing to see a “Black Panther” movie. (But can you blame me? Spider-Man’s movie was coming!) But when I saw it, I was blown away.

First and foremost, the world of Wakanda is outstanding! Wakanda is a secret land in Africa that possesses the most advanced technology hidden from the rest of the Earth. It’s this advanced city hidden with a cloak, and I’m guessing this is where the effects budget went, because it looks amazing.

We can add Wakanda to the fictional worlds we’d like to explore, along with Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Narnia, Asgard, Pandora, among others–now, we have Wakanda (forever!).

T’challa is prince of Wakanda, about to be appointed king to keep the peace within the kingdom. (Though, usually, there’s a brutal fight for the throne–guess that’s just the way it goes for peace.) But then along comes Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has a history with Wakanda and hates that their technology that could benefit mankind is kept secret. So, he comes up with a plan to rally as many Wakandans to his side to invade and attack those who abuse their power, starting with battling T’challa in a duel for the throne.

My second favorite thing about “Black Panther”: Killmonger. Played with such conviction by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger plays a villain whose motivations you can surprisingly get behind. You understand why he does what he does even if he does push it beyond morals and ethics, and he’s easily identifiable even though he’s the villain. When he takes charge, you buy it. When he reveals who he is to the public, you feel a little sorry for him. When he reveals his ultimate plan, you see why people would stand by him.

My ranking of the MCU villains are as follows: Thanos, Killmonger, Vulture (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”)–what a relief; I thought Loki was the best they could come up with in terms of villainy.

The director of this film was Ryan Coogler, who also directed Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed.” I think this director knows how to play to the actor’s strengths.

I also like the side characters, including T’challa’s sister, who comes up with many different gadgets for her brother to use as Black Panther in battle. She’s a lot of fun. And I also liked Martin Freeman as an American CIA agent who suddenly experiences firsthand what Wakanda is all about–first, he’s confused and even bitter about what he sees; but soon enough, his discovery turns into an enlightening journey. (Oh, and Andy Serkis plays a nasty schemer who thinks Killmonger is working for him but really he’s the one being scammed–do I even need to say Serkis is a ton of fun in this role?)

The visual effects…are not particularly strong. Even I will admit I’ve seen better, especially in other MCU movies. But they’re not TOO bad either, and they’re still put to good effect, especially in the gripping car chase midway through the film–that sequence is still strong, in my opinion.

But that’s really the only thing I have to complain about “Black Panther,” and thankfully, the effects are not what’s important with the movie. You could even argue that T’challa is the least interesting character in the movie, which is unfortunate considering the film is named after his alter-ego. But we do get a sense of who he is, and I think what’s more important is the way those around him (whether they stand by him or against him) react to his decisions, which will affect the future of Wakanda’s hierarchy.

So, in that regard, “Black Panther” is more about interesting ideas and character than it is about pyrotechnics, whether real or CG. And that’s why it’s become so well-regarded by critics, audiences, and even the Academy.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

As much as I would love to talk about “Thor: Ragnarok,” one of my favorite entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I decided to skip over it for two reasons. 1) It’d just be a collection of my favorite scenes that made me laugh and smile (plus an analysis of Bruce Banner aka The Incredible Hulk, who’s put to great use in the flick). 2) “Avengers: Infinity War” sort of varies actions and motivations in “Thor: Ragnarok” rather…pointless–and that’s just within the first 10 minutes! (That’s kind of a bummer.)

But seriously, I love “Thor: Ragnarok.” It’s the “Thor” movie I didn’t know I wanted. There. Review over. Let’s talk about “Avengers: Infinity War.”

I can imagine that in 1980, movie audiences rushed to see “The Empire Strikes Back,” the sequel to one of their favorite movies (“Star Wars”), expecting something just as incredible…and I can also imagine that they were totally scarred by the uncompromising misery brought on by its dark twists and turns.

Well, in 2018, movie audiences felt the exact same thing. We went into “Infinity War,” expecting something big and epic and worthy of something to make us feel great inside…but alas, we left the theater feeling sad and empty and lost. And I’m certain many fanboys (or “fanatics”) retreated to their parents’ basements and sobbed, “WHY, MARVEL, WHY?!”

I may be wrong, but “Avengers: Infinity War” was probably the most hyped mainstream blockbuster since “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” We’ve spent many Marvel movies building up the coming of the otherworldly villain Thanos and these things called the Infinity Stones. Well now, he’s definitely here and he’s trying to get all the Stones so that he can wipe out half the population of the whole galaxy. And not only that–this time, I’m actually interested! I got so tired of the “foreboding” moments that warned us of Thanos; I wanted him to actually do something for once! Well now, he’s been built up so much, I had to wonder what’s so special about him.

As it turns out, Thanos is the best, most complex villain the MCU has to date. As played with incredible motion-capture work by Josh Brolin, he’s always the most interesting person on screen–and that’s saying something, considering we’ve spent several movies with the Avengers themselves! (But don’t worry–the Avengers themselves are still great heroes to follow. A hero’s only as great as their villain, after all.)

As the film begins, Thanos has appeared on Thor and Loki’s ship, destroying everyone on it. (Yeah…”Thor: Ragnarok” was all about saving the people on that ship. See what I mean now?) He beats up the Hulk and sends him down to Earth, where he transforms back into Bruce Banner and warns the Avengers that “Thanos is coming” (for real this time). Thanos is looking for the Infinity Stones so that he can fit them onto the Infinity Gauntlet, which will gain him godlike powers, thus allowing him to fulfill his lifetime goal of wiping out half of all living things. Everyone is called into action: Iron Man, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Hulk, War Machine, Falcon, Black Panther, and yes, the Guardians of the Galaxy. The Stones are spread out throughout the universe, and so, they’re all split into groups to try and gain the upper hand, hoping to track down Thanos and/or each of the Stones before he can grab them.

SO much happens in this two-and-a-half hour long movie, it’s easy to miss something. But that’s not a bad thing–I’m always interested in whatever each group is up to, and whenever it cuts back to one, I’m not wondering why we’re not cutting back to another right away. We’ve spent many movies getting to know the Avengers, and now they’re in the ultimate fight with so much at stake. And they’re up against the ultimate bad guy. This movie’s gonna be awesome!

And a lot of it IS awesome, with intense superhero action and intergalactic battles and battles on land and more! The rest of it is pretty moving, as we see even Thanos has something to lose as well–we don’t condone his actions or his intents at all, but we understand why he wants to do all of this.

So, for about two hours and 10 minutes, we’re enjoying ourselves with this intense, compelling, enjoyable Marvel flick…and then, the ultimate tragedy occurs.

And thus, many children in the audience are scarred for life just as their parents were in 1980.

OK, let me get to one personal gripe: I can’t help but think back to a moment in which Peter Quill aka Starlord clearly had the upper hand and could have managed to stop everything once and for all, but no, his damn ego got in the way AGAIN.

Grrrr…….remember in my “Spider-Man: Homecoming” review, when I talked about how much Tony Stark aka Iron Man learned from his terrible mistakes brought on by his own ego and tried to better himself through his actions for the team (and for Spider-Man, for whom he was a mentor)? Well, the main thing I look forward to in “Guardians of the Galaxy 3” is that Starlord grows the hell up…especially after he returns in “Avengers: Endgame,” he still holds onto his ego!! Seriously, this is getting old. I don’t find it funny or charming anymore–this guy pisses me off just like Iron Man pissed me off long ago. But if Iron Man can change, Starlord can change…maybe.

Whew! Had to get that off my chest. Anyway, “Avengers: Infinity War” was a big movie that paid off. And it gave audiences both what they wanted and what they needed. They wanted a big story with big battles and higher stakes–they got that. They needed something that would make them ponder and think about how they got to the inevitable resolution–they DEFINITELY got that. What could possibly happen with the Avengers in their next movie? We had to wait a whole year to find out!

Would it be worth the wait? Well…I’ll get to “Avengers: Endgame” soon enough.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

5 Nov

By Tanner Smith

As I’m sure most people were last December, I was totally surprised by this addition to Netflix: not just a “Black Mirror” movie but a “Black Mirror” INTERACTIVE movie!

I’m fascinated by video games that serve as movies, during which you control the character’s actions and thus control the story. When they’re done right, such as “Until Dawn” on PlayStation 4, it can make for a most entertaining experience.

And “Bandersnatch” didn’t disappoint. My fiancee and I watched (er, “played”) it together at first. Then, as soon as it was over, we did it again. Then, a few days later, my parents came over to my apartment and we also played it together.

I’ve played it several times since its original Netflix release, and I know that director David Slade (“Hard Candy”) and writer/”Black Mirror” creator Charlie Brooker did their homework and created as many scenarios and paths as possible to make every decision matter…until they decide to let you try something else again, but even that, I didn’t mind because “Bandersnatch” itself is a story about different outcomes within the butterfly effect.

The greatest joy I get from an interactive movie is getting into both mindsets of a filmmaker and a film critic. It’s not simply a matter of what I would do if I made the hard choices but more a matter of what choice seems the most logical given the story that’s already been set up from the other decisions I’ve made.

Too “gimmicky” for a “Black Mirror” narrative? If I’m enjoying myself, I don’t care about that.