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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.

Looking Back at 2010s Series: American Vandal (Netflix Series)

5 Nov

By Tanner Smith

I’m changing it up a little this time–talking about a TV series in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series. Even though I am a movie guy, there are some shows I like to make time for.

And I rewatched both seasons of the Netflix Original series “American Vandal” again recently, so I figured, it is a 2010s treasure and I should look back on it.

“American Vandal” is something special. What drew me in was its ambition to parody/make homage to the true-crime documentary shows (such as “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”) that crazy white people seem to go crazy for. (And as a white person myself who saw half the first season of “Murderer” with mild interest and enjoyed the entirety of “The Jinx” with great interest…I kind of get it.) It’s a mockumentary series that makes it appear to be told from a teenage perspective, as a high-school AV crew makes a documentary series as they investigate an impactful crime on campus. What kind of crimes? Well…season 1 is finding out who spray-painted phallic images all over the vehicles in the high-school faculty parking lot and season 2 is about who might have caused all of the students in the school cafeteria to defecate themselves.

Side-note: I first found out about “American Vandal” because my fiancee’s mother thought it actually was a true-crime show–when she described the crimes to me, I knew something was off about it. That’s when I decided to check it out and it became clear to me that it was a mockumentary rather than an actual documentary (…mostly because I recognized an actor from “22 Jump Street” playing a high-school student).

So I was intrigued, because I’m a supporter of the found-footage/faux-documentary format and I was curious to see how this would turn out.

Watching season 1, I was of course laughing at how seriously this silly juvenile crime (drawing penises all over teachers’ cars) was taken in the same purpose as “Making a Murderer.” But then, the rug was pulled out from under me and I realized something. This series was not particularly interested in comedy to sell us on its true intent. Instead, creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda used humor to lure us in and then went in for the kill (so to speak) about how heavy the consequences are for an underachiever who is accused of a ridiculous prank that could ruin his future. That stuff is handled in gripping serious manner, and rather than accuse the filmmakers of inconsistent storytelling, we realize that they’ve been setting us up for it the whole time, because what they really wanted to do was provide effective social commentary about the way high-school teens are treated and even how they treat themselves in times of crisis. If you’re a class-clown, you’re the prime suspect for a heinous prank that you may have had no involvement in. And if you didn’t, hardly anyone will believe your story. Your teachers won’t trust you, some won’t listen, and even more unfortunate, the rest will throw you under the bus because they refuse to believe you.

I won’t give away the ending, but we’re left on a very bitter note that provides a cautionary warning relative to how high-school underachievers are treated on campus.

As good as season 1 is, I think season 2 is even better.

The creators of the show within the show, high-school sleuths Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), have gained national popularity due to their “American Vandal” series that documented their previous investigation. They receive numerous inquiries to use their techniques to solve more crimes (including a murder!), but they only answer one: an incident at a Catholic high school during which the students who drank the lemonade at lunch, which was laced with laxatives, were forced to defecate all over campus in horrid fashion at costly expenses. The culprit is anonymously addressed as “The Turd Burglar.” And that’s not all–other poop-related pranks occur on campus. A piñata turns out to be filled with excrement, and a t-shirt launcher at a pep rally…well, you get the idea. One student steps up the principal and the police to accuse a friend of the crimes, and the friend, an oddball outcast named Kevin (Travis Tope), is brought in to confess. Kevin is kicked out of school and placed under house arrest. But there’s one problem: he was a victim of the initial cafeteria prank as well. Unless he “shat” himself on purpose, something’s wrong here. Thus begins another heavy investigation to see who else might have been involved and when/where the Turd Burglar might strike again…

OK, so “American Vandal” features a lot of gross, juvenile humor. But like I said, it’s a bait-and-switch type of thing. Season 2 has even more to say about teenage life than what we thought Season 1 covered already. This time, without giving too much away, it’s about how teens live most of their lives on social media, which is a common problem today (as many paranoid adults will make you believe).

(Yeah, I know I get analytical in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series, but in the case of this series, I want people to go in not knowing much. I’m just summing up the lessons at work and then moving along.)

Despite its disgusting setups, “American Vandal” is a wonderful series. I would love to see it progress into a potential season 3. Maybe the next one will feature a crime centered on that “time of the month” for high-school girls…you know they would go there.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Boy Erased (2018)

4 Nov

By Tanner Smith

SPOILERS!!!

Ugh! “Boy Erased” didn’t make my decade-end top 20 either? Seriously??

I loved this film when I first saw it, and I’ve seen it about four times since–each time, it’s gotten an emotional reaction out of me…the first time made me cry.

The moment in Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased” that made me cry–midway through the film, Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is a Christian conversion camper who is already uneasy about the “methods” being used to “cure” homosexual teenage boys…and it’s this point when he realizes he needs to get out of there: when one of his fellow campers is repeatedly, physically beaten with a Bible…not just by the therapists but by his own father. My heart wept for the poor kid.

Three cinematic moments from 2018 legitimately made me cry–the funeral discussion in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s drunken arson attempt in “Wildlife,” Jared’s revelation in “Boy Erased.”

This moment is followed by Jared standing up to Victor Sykes (Edgerton), who is trying to force a reason for hatred out of Jared. Jared can’t take it anymore–he won’t lie to “save” himself and he doesn’t hate his father; he challenges Sykes. He storms out of the room and yells as he exits: “I hate YOU! But what does that help?!” And that’s when he decides he’s getting out of there.

He tried as best as he could, for his father, a small-town Arkansas pastor played by Russell Crowe. His father gave him an ultimatum–go to the camp and be “cured” of his homosexuality, or be kicked out of the family. Jared either wants to believe something is wrong with him or simply doesn’t want to be shunned by his father (or both), but he chooses to undergo conversion therapy. His loving mother (Nicole Kidman) is rather submissive of her husband’s deal but wants to help her son any way she can. When she finally understands that something is wrong well into the program, she doesn’t back down in helping Jared break free. Soon, his father realizes the harm that these conversion therapy programs cause but isn’t ready to admit it to himself or to his family.

That leads to the emotionally powerful ending, in which four years have passed and Jared hasn’t been on speaking terms with his father. He can’t take it anymore–after writing an article that exposes the wrongdoings of the program, he comes back home to confront his father. He doesn’t simply want him to hold himself accountable for his actions–he wants him to love him as his son. And here’s a brilliant move in the telling of this story, which results in some of Russell Crowe’s finest moments as a dramatic actor–the father, having held on to his strict religious beliefs probably his whole life, isn’t fully accepting of his son’s sexual identity but also isn’t ready to lose him. The two reconcile with somewhat of an understanding, on a beautifully ambiguous note.

I’ve just described three of many powerful scenes in “Boy Erased,” a film that asks (or rather, demands) families to accept and love their LGBT children. And it does so tenderly and tactfully…which is why I’m frankly surprised and a bit disheartened that it didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Don’t get me wrong–it didn’t necessarily bomb; it was able to make its budget back. And it was well-reviewed (mildly positive, from the reviews I’ve read, but still positive) by critics. And it was nominated for some accolades (Hedges was nominated for a Golden Globe; Nicole Kidman for a Critic’s Choice Award; among others). Watching it again today (before writing this post), I can’t help but feel like it deserved more. More people should have talked about this film; awards shows should have recognized the script (which was adapted from a real-life memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley); Russell Crowe’s superb performance should’ve gotten more attention; and what about the Oscars?

Well, I’m not going to forget this film. It’s too good for that. And it was only the second directorial outing for Joel Edgerton, whose previous film, the psychological thriller The Gift, definitely impressed me. Edgerton knows and loves movies and he knows what it takes to get audiences debating and discussing over particular issues such as bullying and identity. (Edgerton has also gone on-record stating that he himself was a bully, so it’s interesting to see him as someone seeking redemption.)

I mentioned in my original review that Edgerton’s character of Victor Sykes, the therapy group leader, becomes more interesting in hindsight. Why did I say that? Because of an ending caption that outs him as gay–after leaving the group, he lives in New York City with his husband. This film did such a great job of showing the characters as realistic people with more-or-less moral/ethical dilemmas that even the ones who seemed like caricatures can be looked at in different ways. Why do they do what they do? How were they brought up? What is their thought process? Among many other questions that probably don’t even need answering. I can name so many bad “Oscar-bait” melodramas that have answers as simple as “they’re just jerks.”

But with “Boy Erased,” these characters are as complicated as real-life people.

NOTE: And speaking of “real-life people,” my parents know the real Jared Eamons (Garrard Conley) and his parents. And they have both pointed out the one fact-vs-fiction flaw they just wouldn’t let go: that Garrard’s mother (Martha Conley) isn’t nearly as tall as Nicole Kidman.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Hate U Give (2018)

4 Nov
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By Tanner Smith

If there’s a movie that should have received a lot more attention in 2018, it’s “The Hate U Give.”

And I missed it too. I didn’t see it until it hit Blu-Ray well into 2019. If I had seen it on the big screen wherever I could, I would have championed the film so hard! (Not that it would’ve made that big a difference–but you know what they say: every little bit helps. Right?)

This would have ranked high on my year-end Top 20–I really think it’s that good.

It’s a film about race relations. Modern-day race relations. One of the biggest hits of the year (maybe you’ve heard of it–the Oscar-winning “Green Book”) dealt with race relations at a distance, whereas this film (and “Blindspotting,” for that matter–another small treasure from 2018) deals with it head-on. For some reason, we don’t like to deal with this issue unless it’s set in an era in which it was at its worst. We seem to forget that things aren’t so peachy-keen today either! (Actually, we don’t forget it, because we see it often in today’s media!)

OK, I’m not going to be the young liberal white guy that makes a political statement (I’m more of a centrist anyway–what place do I have in politics?) in a blog post that looks at an excellent film. So let me talk about the film…

“The Hate U Give” is a coming-of-age story based on the young-adult novel of the same name by Angie Thomas. Our main character is 16-year-old Starr (yes, with two “R’s”), who lives two identities in her life. One of them hangs out at home in her impoverished, predominantly African-American neighborhood. And the other goes to a prestigious, predominantly white prep school, where she doesn’t want to be labeled as the “poor girl from the hood,” so she has white friends calling her “girl” and overcompensating by overexposing black culture around her.

Starr has trouble balancing out both identities, especially when she has to keep her white potential-boyfriend, the preppy but sincere Chris, a secret from her old-school father, Maverick. She’s not comfortable at home either, knowing first-hand the effects of drugs and gangs and racism at an early age. She’s unsure where she belongs, as she’s uncomfortable either way.

Starr’s worlds collide one fateful night when she witnesses a friend being shot dead by a police officer (who mistook the friend’s hairbrush for a gun at initial glance) and is handcuffed by his side. Since then, she opens her eyes and realizes she can’t live two different identities anymore. Thus, she sets out to find her own voice.

The story of the killing is national news, but Starr’s identity as witness is kept secret to everyone outside of her family. Her prep-school friends know nothing of her involvement, and Starr’s troubling attempt to keep it secret bears down on her, especially when it becomes clear that her friends have no idea what they are talking about regarding the subject. She does agree to be interviewed on TV to testify her role as long as her identity is still hidden, but the name-drop of a neighborhood gang gets her in more hot water than expected. And that’s only the midway point for this dilemma.

Some of the most brutally honest moments involving race relations occur with Starr’s prep-school friends. For example, her classmates stage a “Black Lives Matter” walkout, but it’s clear to Starr that they’re not very troubled by the tragic incident as much as they are excited to have an excuse to miss class. And there’s also her boyfriend Chris, whom Starr starts to distrust, especially after he says he doesn’t see color when he sees her (to which she replies that he needs to see her race). But in a sweet development, he does come around to seeing her point and he sticks with her because he does genuinely care for her, and she becomes less ashamed of him (as do we).

The direction from George Tillman, Jr. is terrific, as he handles both the quiet, heartfelt moments and the (very) tense, violent moments flawlessly–even when things go from bad to worse (I’m talking “street riot” kind of worse), we still feel like we’re in the same universe that was set up before and this was inevitable. The writing from the late Audrey Wells (who died of cancer shortly before the film’s release) adapts the book beautifully, stating such effective social commentary and brilliant characterization. All of the acting is spot-on from everybody, from Russell Hornby as Starr’s father to Sabrina Carpenter as who Starr was her best friend. But there is obviously one standout that practically makes most of the movie: Amandla Stenberg as Starr. She delivers a performance that is nothing short of brilliant as a 16-year-old girl who would like nothing more than live a normal life as a regular 16-year-old girl but sadly has no choice in the matter. Stenberg has been a star on the rise since “The Hunger Games”–I can’t wait to see what she does next.

I did mention that things go from bad to worse in this story, but don’t mistake the film as a depressing outlook for a hopeless future. It does remind of the struggle that many people (mostly young people) face against an unfair, corrupt system by sticking to their beliefs, but it also shows that the battle can be won (even if they’re still fighting the war).

“The Hate U Give” deserves more attention. It’s available for streaming, on DVD, on Blu-Ray, what have you–I can’t recommend it enough…it got an A+ on CinemaScore, for crying out loud! Doesn’t that mean anything to anybody?

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Overlord (2018)

29 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

“Overlord” is part wartime drama, part horror flick, part B-monster-movie, and overall entertaining and thrilling as hell–a terrific, energetic, tension-fueled thrill ride that you either accept or you don’t. I accepted every tense, crazy moment of it and had a real good time in the process.

Just look at the premise and tell me if it might be your cup of tea: on the eve of D-Day, a few American soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines and discover secret Nazi experiments. What do they find? Well…Nazi zombies.

Yeah, why not?

It’s like a big-budget b-movie with the right combination of energy and clever filmmaking, and for as over-the-top as it gets (especially towards the final act, when all hell inevitably breaks loose), that’s just part of the fun.

The film opens with a bang as the soldiers are dropped into a French village, where Nazis have a radio tower in a church, which our heroes are sent to destroy. The plane crash and parachuting escape themselves are so intense that it reminded me of two Spielberg moments: the brutal Normandy sequence in “Saving Private Ryan” and the paratrooper’s jump in “Bridge of Spies.” Can you imagine jumping out of a falling plane fired upon by the enemy, and making the jump with all the fire, explosions, gunfire, and debris all around you as you try to parachute and land safely?

The paratrooper we follow is Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo, “Fences”). He joins up with a few others–Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), who takes command; Private Tibbet (John Magaro), our welcomed, trashmouthed comic-relief; and Private Chase (Iain De Caestecker), a photographer. They encounter a young French woman, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who helps them and hides them in the attic of her mother’s house, as they figure out how to continue their mission of blowing up the tower.

Admittedly, the characters are rather underdeveloped, but they’re all played by appealing actors, particularly a sense of innocence given by a likable Jovan Adepo and a commanding presence from the leadership of Wyatt Russell, plus a good mix of obnoxiousness and charisma from a Brooklyn-accented John Magaro–his annoyed interaction with Chloe’s kid brother, who just wants someone to play baseball with, is priceless. But “Overlord” isn’t about character as much as it is about story. What helps is an incredible amount of buildup. We’re already told that the Nazis have some very grisly goings-on in the church, as a French civilian threatens Chloe that “they’ll take [her] to the church” if she’s caught outside past curfew. We also learn that Chloe’s aunt, confined to her bedroom, is ill due to her own experience in the church. We know something is up here, and the mystery makes for intriguing buildup, even if we do know the payoff. The plot thickens as Boyce sneaks inside the church and makes a few odd, twisted discoveries of his own…

This leads to a payoff of pure insane entertainment, as our good old boys go up against the dirty Nazis…some of which are invincible beyond belief, thanks to the experiments.

Much of it is very grisly (and gives the film a deserved R-rating), and much of it, I was surprised to learn, is done with practical effects. There are more practical effects than CGI effects, so that the actors involved can react accordingly. Thus, the audience can react as they do if they’re in the moment as well. There’s a moment involving a broken neck of a reanimated corpse…and that’s all I’ll say about that except that I appreciate the old-school trickery that was used for the effect.

Fans of Bad Robot (the company that produced the film) were disappointed that “Overlord” was not a new “Cloverfield” sequel. I personally didn’t care for that. I was just glad to get the fun movie that I got.