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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.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Sorry to Bother You (2018)

19 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…so I’m more than halfway through Boots Riley’s satirical social-commentary “Sorry To Bother You,” and I think I know where it’s going to go…MAN WAS I WAY OFF!!!

I mean…WOW! I am so sorry I ever considered calling “Sorry To Bother You” “predictable.” Even as it makes its solid and thought-provoking arguments about racial issues, this film becomes totally freaking crazy! I have to give credit to writer-director Boots Riley for taking risks.

And no, I’m not going to give it away here, because that would not be cool.

Now I need to be honest…I’m not quite on the “love” train with people who sang the high praises of “Sorry To Bother You.” As much as I admire the film, “liking” it is another thing. Some of the running jokes don’t really do much for me and moments that are supposed to provocative instead feel forced. But there are still many big laughs, an effective social satire, and like I said, some insanely creative (and just straight-up INSANE) twists that I can’t help but admire. I mean…they went there. (And besides, other people love it, so I figured I should talk about it.)

The film stars Lakeith Stanfield (who keeps showing up in recent films even when I don’t expect him to) as Cassius “Cash” Green (get it? “cash is green”?), who wants to move up in the business world. He gets a job at a large telemarketing firm and isn’t very good at making sales…until a veteran (played by Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” when making a sales pitch. And so, he does (with David Cross dubbing as his “white voice”), and thus, he becomes successful and gets a major promotion, joining the higher-ups in the firm and scoring highly illegal multi-million-dollar deals. He’s having such a great time that he can’t tell he’s headed somewhere he doesn’t know he doesn’t want to be…

Yes, it sounds predictable, and I bet you think you know where it’s going…but you’re wrong.

I mean, obviously, it’s a given that Cash will see the error of his ways and focus on what’s truly important, like his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and the labor movement led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun). You don’t have to be a genius to figure that one out…but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Armie Hammer as the super-rich, smug, racist, totally full-of-himself billionaire that…well, I already said I wouldn’t give it away, so I’ll just stop here.

“Sorry To Bother You” is the kind of film where you have to show it to a close friend┬ájust to see what they think of it because it IS that crazy and you just have to wonder what other people make of it!

Seriously, Stanfield’s character in “Get Out” has seen some crazy sh**, but I think THIS would be too much for him!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: mid90s (2018)

11 Oct

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

By Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Searching (2018)

10 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Blindspotting (2018)

8 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check this one out if you haven’t already.

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