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Revisiting: Halloween (2018)

7 Oct

By Tanner Smith

I really like “Halloween”…er, Halloween 2018…couldn’t they have called it “Halloween Returns?” I get why they wouldn’t call it “Halloween II,” seeing as how there are already two “Halloween II’s”…then again, there are now three “Halloweens!!”

How about “Halloween: 40 Years Later?” Or “Halloween: Laurie v. Michael?” Or “Halloween: The Return of Great Filmmaking & Good Reviews For a Halloween Movie?”

I’ll stick with calling it “Halloween 2018” because to me, there’s only one “Halloween”: John Carpenter’s Halloween, one of my favorite scary movies of all time.

David Gordon Green’s “Halloween?” It’s good too. I liked it when I first saw it in a theater. A few more viewings at home, it gets better.


Why do I like it so much? Well, for one thing, it’s the “Halloween” sequel I was waiting for…mostly because it pretended that the other sequels didn’t exist. (Not only are Michael Myers and Laurie Strode not blood-related anymore, but also, Ben Tramer is probably alive again!) I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of retconning everything in previous sequels, but…c’mon, did you really believe Laurie Strode was Michael Myers’ sister?

Btw, I don’t hate “Halloween II”–I only hate parts of it.

Secondly, they got David Gordon Green as director and he’s tackled every other genre but horror–he and his co-writer Danny McBride (yes, THAT Danny McBride) have a clear admiration for the source material, and so they put their talents to good use here. They pay homage to parts of “Halloween” while adding some new, modern techniques. (And that goes for the music too–its alterations add to the more tense sequences late in the film.)

Third, they got Jason Blum as producer–he can make three “Halloween” sequels at the cost of one “Friday the 13th 2009!” (You don’t need 19 million dollars to make a slasher movie!!)

And fourth, much of this film is hella tense! I can’t remember the last time in a slasher movie where I actually FELT the fear of a teenager about to be killed by a masked madman. And the climax with Laurie? Awesome.

Maybe it’s because I’ve seen this new “Halloween” so many times, but I don’t really have that much to complain about anymore.

A lot of critics complain about the random comedic bits thrown in here and there–I don’t really have a problem with it. To me, it just shows more atmosphere. Even the dad’s unfunny “peanut butter” joke…it’s a dad joke. Of course it’s not meant to be funny.

Oh, and what about the jerk boyfriend who survives because he’s never seen again for the rest of the movie? I like my horror films to be unpredictable. If he comes back in “Halloween Kills” and/or “Halloween Ends,” I dunno–maybe he has a Steve-from-Stranger-Things type of development or maybe he gets killed in the first act of “Halloween Kills.”

What about the kid that Vicky was babysitting? He’s never seen again either….that’s because he was the smart one for getting the hell out of the house!! Aren’t we always complaining about horror-movie characters NOT doing that? Actually…I heard a theory that since “Halloween Kills” is supposedly more intense and takes no prisoners, this kid, Julian, is probably going to die…man I hope that’s not the case. That’d be like killing John Connor in “Terminator: Dark Fate.” (Wait…)

What about Judy Greer’s character of Laurie’s daughter and the line everyone makes fun of (“The world is not a dark and evil place! It is full of love and understanding!”)? Guys…she had a rough childhood and she’s married to a loser. It’s not that hard to get why she wants to believe everything is fine.

But what about the doctor who turns out to be evil and then gets killed?……..Well OK, I think that part could’ve been developed a little more. Makes me wonder if they’re going to try something like that in the sequels.

If I keep thinking about how the sequels will turn out, I’m gonna turn into a disappointed “Star Wars” fanatic.

I like “Halloween 2018”–I like Jamie Lee Curtis, I like the atmosphere, I like that it feels more like Halloween night than the original “Halloween” (to be fair, this one has a bigger budget, so they could afford more decor), I like the pumpkin in the opening credits, I like the climax, and more importantly, I like that I can like a “Halloween” movie again.

And I look forward to seeing “Halloween Kills”…and then “Halloween Ends”…and I’m sure that’ll be the last we see of the Boogeyman…

But maybe not.

My Favorite Movies – Creed II (2018)

17 Sep

By Tanner Smith

Yep, Creed II now joins Rocky, Rocky II, and Creed in my collection of favorites. In fact, God’s honest truth here…I even think about “Creed II” more than I think about “Creed!”

“Creed” is a great film and an even greater sequel in the “Rocky” franchise (or rather, “Rocky/Creed” franchise). It breathed new life into the story of the familiar character of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), gave us new engaging characters in up-and-coming boxer Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and deaf musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and didn’t need to retcon the other sequels in order to further the story. Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Black Panther) did a remarkable job here.

I love it. It’s great–and so is “Creed II.”

Ryan Coogler isn’t at the helm this time (though he did help produce it; he’s also a producer for the upcoming “Creed III”). But we have Stallone writing again (co-writing this screenplay with Juel Taylor, with story by Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker) and welcomed a bright young director named Steven Caple Jr. (whose debut film “The Land,” I did see after my initial review of “Creed II”–very good work; check it out!). Plus, Ivan Drago, the Russian super-boxer from “Rocky IV” played by Dolph Lundgren, is back–and what’s even better is that Lundgren (along with Stallone, who created the cartoonish-villain character of Ivan (“I must break you”) Drago way back in the 1980s) humanized the character years later for this story.

That’s one of the things I, as well as other “Rocky” fans, love about “Creed” and “Creed II”–the events of the otherwise-silly (but still somewhat awesome) “Rocky IV” (particularly the death of Apollo Creed at the hands of Drago in the ring) are carried over for dramatic effect and consequence. Drago and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) are the antagonists of “Creed II,” and they feel more like real people with emotional conflict surrounding them, thus making the familiar character of Ivan Drago all the more interesting. When I learn about the shame he went through in his home country after he lost to Rocky in the ring decades ago, and now he’s training his son to be the next best killing machine decades later, I’m very curious to see which direction he’ll go in the final act when a lot more is at stake than in your typical sports drama. (It’s also great to see Brigitte Nielsen back and reprising her role from “Rocky IV” for a few minutes of screen time–even her appearance leads to dramatic tension late in the film.)

The heroes are still very appealing. Donnie is still cocky and abrasive, but he’s also still learning (the hard way, to say the least) and he has moments of greatness in him. I liked Bianca better in this film than in the previous film, though that may be because I like her and Donnie together now that they’ve been a couple for a while. (I felt the same way about Adrian in “Rocky II”–by the way, I love the callback to the proposal scene from that movie.) And of course, there’s Rocky Balboa himself–still getting older, still long past his glory days, but most importantly, still there for those who need him. Just when I thought “Creed” gave us what was left of Rocky’s complexity, “Creed II” reminds us that while there’s still Stallone, there’s still Rocky–and he’s always welcome anytime.

There’s a lot for me to really like about “Creed II,” and I can’t wait to see “Creed III” (which is directed by Adonis Creed himself, Michael B. Jordan). I’ll keep seeing these movies if they keep giving me people to care about and emotional weight to be invested in.

And keep an eye out for this Steven Caple Jr. character–I think he’s going places.

American Animals (2018)

8 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

NOTE: This may be one of my new favorites, but I decided to go back to the standard-review format. (Maybe after another viewing or two, I’ll add a My Favorite Movies post about it.) I am giving it four stars because I feel it deserves it. (But really, what do these stars mean anyway?)

In writer-director Bart Layton’s brilliantly-crafted docudrama “American Animals,” we find ourselves asking the very same question as its interview subjects do: why?

As in, why did these good boys do this bad thing?

They came from good homes. They had no criminal records. They had no reason to commit this crime that ruined their good names.

And it was meant to be a harmless theft too. It didn’t turn out that way. (It was also very horribly planned out–let’s just say, professional thieves, they are not.)

“American Animals” tells the true story of four young men who in the mid-2000s attempted to pull off a heist at the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Their plan was to steal the library’s rare-book collection and sell them off to underground art dealers.

But this is not your typical documentary with brief dramatic reenactments of the events told to us by the interviewees (i.e. the real-life people who recall the incident and more). A majority of the film belongs to the dramatization of the choices made by the boys who planned this heist. And they’re played by familiar young talents such as Evan Peters (Quicksilver in the “X-Men” movies), Barry Keoghan (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), Jared Abrahamson (“Hello Destroyer”), and Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen, Everybody Wants Some). (We also get nice work from character actor Ann Dowd in a pivotal role as an unsuspecting librarian.)

However, for the context, we are treated to testimonials from the real-life people who perpetrated the event: Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen II. (In addition, some of their parents, one of the culprits’ teachers, and even the real-life librarian are sharing details with us as well.) The way these people tell this story in the present-day, looking back at what they did in the mid-2000s, it’s almost as if even they don’t fully understand why they did this.

(Note: This narrative device not only leaves plenty of room for analysis; it also makes for some comedic moments as well, such as when Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard have contradicting memories as to where Spencer first told Warren about the rare-book collection. Unreliable narrator, anyone? What makes the scene better is when the real-life Warren interacts with fictional Warren to assure him to trust Spencer’s memory better than his own as he was drunk and/or stoned that night.)

I mentioned that writer-director Bart Layton crafted this story brilliantly, and I wasn’t exaggerating–there is so much to desire about this art-imitates-life (or life-imitates-art) approach. The complicated editing by Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, and Julian Hart is also very impressive, making for a great mix of documentary and crime-drama.

How did all this begin? Well, in the beginning, we follow the college life of art student Spencer (Keoghan), who lacks inspiration. (He even tears through his canvas of a new work because it doesn’t satisfy–I’m not sure if the real Spencer really did that.) He confides in his troublemaking childhood buddy Warren (Peters) that he wants something exciting (or even tragic) to happen. (Note: Keoghan and Peters share convincing chemistry as the oil-and-water type of friendly duo.) When Spencer is given a tour of the library’s special collection of rare books, such as a first edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” he and Warren share a thought: what if we could steal it? And not just that book, but all the books?

How hard could it be?

The idea grows particularly in Warren’s head to the point where Warren even travels to Amsterdam to meet with black-market art buyers for an answer to how much they would pay for these books.

Millions, Warren assures Spencer upon arriving home. Millions. And thus, it’s on! They bring in two other boys, Eric (Abrahamson) and Chas (Jenner), and come up with a plan so crazy and far-fetched that it could only work in the movies…

What happens when they attempt the heist, I’ll leave for you to discover if you don’t know the story already. (I didn’t.) Layton has fun with the lighthearted approach upon planning the heist before pulling the rug out from under us to show how serious and real and unplanned the situation really is. That’s because, while the film is entertaining, there’s a real sense that Layton is making the film in an attempt to understand why this event happened and why these four kids felt compelled to go about this plan that ruins their lives.

These are four white, rich, jaded college boys who already have pretty much everything they need in life. It’s like they do this for the excitement, because it’s different, because it’s risky, because it gives them purpose, or whatever. Even with its narrative structure, “American Animals” doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to the questions it raises–it leaves room for its audience to analyze the situation. And it’s both fun and interesting to think about.

“American Animals” is one of the smartest and most intriguing heist films I’ve ever seen–I can’t think of another that kept my attention as much as this one.

My Favorite Movies – If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

28 Aug

By Tanner Smith

Very rarely do I use the term “beautiful” to describe a film. (The most recent one I called “a beautiful film” was Minari.) Director Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” is indeed a beautiful film, following the equally-remarkable Moonlight.

Granted, there’s a lot of roughness in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Despite its 1970s setting, a lot of issues being addressed within this story are sadly still relevant today. The film isn’t a pleasant nostalgic look back at “the good old days”–instead, it’s more of a cautionary tale during which we lament that injustices towards innocents happened back then…and still happen today.

So, why is “If Beale Street Could Talk” worthy of the term “a beautiful film?” Because, after these characters at the center of the story, all of whom we’ve come to understand and sympathize with, have undergone some truly sad circumstances, there is a real sense that they will continue living the best way they can because they have each other to lean on–and when times are tough, that’s the best you can truly hope for.

I guess it was a little too tough for the Oscars, though, seeing as how it didn’t reach the same surge as “Moonlight.” You know for whom it wasn’t too tough? The Film Independent Spirit Awards, to the rescue yet again! (Is that a common theme in my favorite movies of this past decade?)

“If Beale Street Could Talk” received Indie Spirits for Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Supporting Female. In a year that also included great nominees such as Eighth Grade and Leave No Trace, I could find any faults in the voters’ decisions. (It wasn’t totally shut out by the Academy, to be fair–it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Music Score, and it won for Best Supporting Actress.)

Based on the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, “If Beale Street Could Talk” takes place in Harlem in the early 1970s (and give credit where it’s due, the setting feels like another world with its great attention to detail for the time period). Our two protagonists are lovebirds Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). Tish narrates the story and tells us about how she and Fonny looked forward to a wonderful life together (they knew each other ever since they were little)…until everything changed.

Fonny has been falsely accused of rape and is in jail. The whole thing was a setup by a racist cop, and because the victim (who was raped, but not by Fonny) has fled the country and could not testify, it was Fonny’s word against the cop’s. So now, who knows what the future holds in store for Tish and Fonny now that they’re separated by the glass wall that separates them during Tish’s visits.

Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s baby, and Tish’s family is supportive (and also trying their hardest to see what they do to defend Fonny)…which is more than can be said for Fonny’s family.

Actually, Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) seems like a relatively okay guy. But Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and Fonny’s sisters, on the other hand…yikes.

In probably the best (and most intense) scene in the film, Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo) invite Fonny’s family over to the family apartment so they, Tish, and Tish’s sister (Teyonah Parris) can share the blessed news of Tish delivering new life into the world. Well…Fonny’s fanatically religious mother doesn’t feel so blessed and lets Tish know immediately that neither she nor the child will be welcomed into the family.

What happens next, I’ll leave for you to discover–the scene gets pretty heavy after that, when Tish’s mother and sister come to Tish’s defense (and Tish lets out some words she’s been aching to let out probably long before this moment).

It’s a great scene, and it leads me to another reason as to why I identify the film as “beautiful”: it has a real notion of faith and love. In this scene, we have two different, conflicting versions of “faith.” Tish’s family sees Tish’s pregnancy as a reason of celebration, while Fonny’s family is mostly so self-righteous that to them it’s the opposite of a blessing. One’s faith is more authentic than the other. And one is more loving than the other too.

The extent of love comes with a pivotal sequence late in the film in which Tish’s mother visits Puerto Rico to find the rape victim and convince her to come back and testify, in an effort to help Fonny out of jail and help her daughter make her vision come alive. What results is another heartbreaking scene, in which…well, it hurts to write about (and it’d be a spoiler anyway). Regina King is excellent in these scenes; she sells the love that she feels for her daughter and for those in her daughter’s life.

Midway through the film, there’s another heavy moment, set before Fonny’s jail time (the film is told non-linearly), in which Fonny’s old friend Daniel (Bryan Tyree Henry) joins Fonny after being released from prison. He tells Fonny about the tough times he endured behind bars, and it’s especially heartbreaking because we know Fonny is about to feel more or less the same things he felt.

That’s another thing I love about the film–the non-linear story structure adds more emotional weight due to scenes like that. And there’s also the moment in which Fonny first comes across that same cop that would set him up…

Faith and love is what keeps Tish and Fonny going, and they’re what will keep them going too. And long after the film is over, I can’t help but be optimistic about their future.

Because they deserve it.

My Favorite Movies – Leave No Trace (2018)

30 Jul

By Tanner Smith

I think it’s time to admit I won’t be talking about Winter’s Bone in this series. After many, many viewings in nearly 11 years, I still really like the film, but I think I like its lead character (Ree, played by Jennifer Lawrence) more than anything else–so it’s a movie with some favorite “moments” but not really one of my favorite films overall.

Yeah, watch me suddenly change my mind after watching it again and being like, “OK it’s one of my favorite movies now!”

However, Leave No Trace, “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik’s follow-up film, is one that I think is going to stay with me for a long time to come–characters, story, atmosphere, and all.

Watching this film in a theater (the Glenwood Arts Theater in Leawood, Kansas, three years ago) was like an emotional experience, as it felt like the passions of the characters were overwhelming me and I had no choice but to pay attention and fear for them as well as admire them. This is one of those films in which you feel like the characters’ actions and words are reaching out from the screen and touching you. I think much of that has to do with the fact that not much is explained about their situation(s) through a lot of dialogue. It’s just the expressions and carefully-chosen dialogue delivered by powerful actors in brilliant performances that help carry the emotional weight of the characters’ story. Do it right, and the audience can feel like they’re in a whole other place for nearly two hours.

When “Leave No Trace” opens, we meet a father and his teenage daughter–Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie)–living quietly in nature. We don’t know why they’re here or who they are, but we’re immediately intrigued by how they live. It gets revealed fairly quickly that they do live in modern times but not with modern civilization–they mostly live off the land, mind their own business, and only go to the town market once in a while for some supplies.

It’s only through a few props (like newspaper clippings) and a few actions (such as Will’s visceral reactions to helicopters) that we learn Will was a soldier who is now living with PTSD–he has found peace in nature and brought his daughter up to appreciate it the same way he does.

But they’re living in this nature park illegally, and so they’re caught and brought to social services. Thankfully, this isn’t one of those stories in which authority tries to split the father and daughter because they think the father’s a bad influence. (Though, they do make their concerns known because Will & Tom’s way of living is unknown to them. “Your dad needs to provide you shelter and a place to live,” Tom is told. “He did,” Tom replies.) They instead provide a house for Will and Tom to live in, in exchange for Will working on a Christmas tree farm. While Tom is open to trying new things and adapting to this change in her life, Will isn’t having any of it.

And I’ll leave it at that, because honestly, where it goes from there is even more intriguing.

Thomasin McKenzie has received many accolades for her brilliant performance as Tom, but it always bothered me that she was considered a “supporting” actress, because really, the film is seen through her character’s eyes. It’s interesting to meet a teenage girl who wasn’t born into the kind of life or privilege that most of us are accustomed to, and to see her in tune with nature just like her father, who we can gather has lived a life that failed him severely, makes me wonder constantly how she’s going to react to change. And her reactions to a lot of what she sees is pretty refreshing, because she wants to actually try new things.

And it’s even more interesting when you think about it and realize that it takes a lot to not conform–for example, Will refuses a cellphone when offered and that’s seen as a big deal.

My favorite scene: Without giving much away, it’s near the end and a nonverbal understanding between father and daughter when a decision is made.

Wonderful stuff here. And after watching “Leave No Trace” again today, it still leaves a hell of an impression on me.

My Favorite Movies – Wildlife (2018)

30 Jul

By Tanner Smith

One of my top 20 personal favorite movies is an indie dramedy called Ruby Sparks, starring real-life long-time couple Paul Dano & Zoe Kazan. Kazan also wrote the film’s screenplay, and as much as I like her as an actress (and she does indeed have appealing screen presence–check out The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), I’d like her even more if she wrote more films.

Well, there is another–this one was written by both Kazan and Dano. And Dano directed the film as well. I’ll take it!

Wildlife is an adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name. When Dano requested the rights to adapt the novel to film, Ford told him this: “I am grateful to you for your interest in my book, but I should also say this in hopes of actually encouraging you. My book is my book, your picture, were you to make it, is your picture. Your movie maker’s fidelity to my novel is of no great concern to me. Establish your own values, means, goal. Leave the book behind so it doesn’t get in the way.” Dano got his blessing…but he’d never written a screenplay before–lucky for him, his long-time girlfriend Kazan has. (Yes!) So they worked together in adapting the screenplay.

I’ve never read the book. But someday, I’d like to, if only to see how different it is from the film, which I admire a great deal.

Dano proves to be a darn good director too. His passion shows, as does his ability to communicate with his actors.

Set in the early 1960s, Wildlife is told from the perspective of 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould). (Oxenbould is best known for playing comedic relief in movies like The Visit and “Better Watch Out”–I sometimes have to remind myself this calm, mild-mannered young man is the same actor from those movies.) He and his family live in a small Montana town, where his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) works as a golf pro at a country club and is very friendly with the clients. But because Jerry refuses to stay out of the way, he loses his job–even when he’s offered it back shortly after, he refuses due to excessive pride. Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) looks for work herself, and since Jerry won’t look for a new job, Joe gets work too, at a photography studio.

Soon, Jerry leaves the family to help fight forest fires in the nearby mountains. Jeanette is left to care for Joe and the household. But the situation gets more complicated when she starts an affair with an auto dealer named Warren Miller (Bill Camp, one of our most reliable character actors working today), which confuses and worries Joe. Whenever Joe tries to confront her about what he knows is going on, it’s like she doesn’t want to be a mother but a free person now that Jerry’s out of the picture (even temporarily).

Carey Mulligan delivers her best performance here, in my opinion. I’ve liked her work before in other movies and she deserved all the accolades she received recently for her daring work in “Promising Young Woman”–but here, she truly shines. She plays a motherly figure whose natural sweetness dies down when her ideals are suddenly changed and she becomes her own person. Courage? Confusion? Maybe both? Do we shun her for it? No, not necessarily. But she’s easily empathetic. Jeanette is an interesting, compelling character to study each time I watch the film.

Which, of course, means that Mulligan was ignored by the Oscars. Indie Spirit Awards to the rescue yet again! (Mulligan was nominated for Best Female Lead and the film also garnered nods for Best First Feature and Best Cinematography, for Diego Garcia’s stellar cinematography.)

The film is all about Joe coming of age and realizing that his parents aren’t perfect, they make mistakes for their own pride and pleasures, and…he’s either going to grow up into a well-adjusted individual or a mom-obsessed psychotic killer. (But I’m an optimist, so I’ll hope for the former.) The moment that truly got me was when Joe witnesses his father do something insanely rash when he finds about Jeanette’s affair. There’s a long tracking shot of Joe running off in tears. Was this Dano’s blatant tribute to a similar shot in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows? I don’t care–it still worked for me.

OK, so maybe “Wildlife” isn’t wholly original in its depiction of a American nuclear family unwinding, but when it works, it’s still effective. And with acting this good and directing this skilled, I’ll take it.

And I look forward to what else Paul Dano and/or Zoe Kazan will direct/write in the future.

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
Get Out
Frances Ha
The Social Network
The Spectacular Now
Take Shelter
Midnight Special
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Fruitvale Station
Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Llewyn Davis
Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War
Spider-Man: Homecoming
War for the Planet of the Apes
Big Hero 6
Kung Fu Panda 3
The Wind Rises
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
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Way, Way Back
The Edge of Seventeen
The Kids are All Right
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
It Follows
Safety Not Guaranteed
Sing Street
Mistress America
The Disaster Artist
Private Life
Love & Mercy
Green Room
Last Flag Flying
Love, Simon
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
The Stanford Prison Experiment
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.