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Disney+ Original Movies (Togo, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, Stargirl)

4 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Wondering what else to watch on the streaming service Disney+ when you already revisited Disney movies/shows you grew up with? Believe it or not, there is some good, quality Disney+ Original content besides “The Mandalorian” (the “Star Wars” series that finally put divisive fans in perfect harmony). There are three Disney+ Original movies I can recommend for being just as solid and entertaining via streaming on a small screen as they would be via projecting on a big screen. 

In chronological order of release, here are three mini-reviews of three solid movies available exclusively on Disney+.

Togo (2019)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hey, remember the Universal Studios animated 1995 film, “Balto,” supposedly based on a true story? Sure you do. Do you care about the TRUER true story that inspired it? Not especially. Do you know anything about musher Leonhard Seppala and his dog Togo who contributed even more to the 1925 serum run to Nome that inspired “Balto”? Well, whatever the case, “Togo” is an entertaining watch if just for a little insight into these two key figures in rescuing an Alaskan town from an epidemic. 

Willem Dafoe stars as Seppala, who sincerely cares for his dog Togo. As a puppy, Togo is too small for mushing. But as Togo gets older, he proves his worth as he leads Seppala and other sled dogs on a treacherous trek to bring medicine to their small Alaskan town of critically ill children. This obviously means we get intense scenes of conflict upon this journey (and unlike the recently-released “The Call of the Wild,” I can tell they used actual canines instead of CGI for the most part), but what surprised me were the scenes that take time to show Dafoe and his lovable doggie companion forming what looks to be a genuine connection. 

Those scenes are sure to make any dog lover happy, but there’s also a good deal of well-executed sequences of great danger, such as a highlight in which Togo and company must race their way across a quickly dissipating field of ice! (Good use of green-screen here, and again, I feel like the actual dogs are really there!)

Some of the pacing is a bit slow (and I’m sure it’s also not 100% historically accurate), but I forgive it because there are several great moments throughout the film that make “Togo” overall entertaining and heartwarming. 

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (2020)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of the reasons I was interested in “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” was because it was a Disney movie that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, which I thought was unheard of…even if the director/co-writer was Sundance favorite Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” “Win Win,” “Spotlight”). (But to be fair, he was also one of the credited writers for Disney/PIXAR’s “Up,” so that automatically makes him a Disney favorite too.)

“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” based on the book series of the same name, is about a wildly imaginative little boy named Timmy Failure (yes, that is his real name) who holds his own private-detective agency (the attic of his mother’s house is his office) and whose partner is an imaginary giant polar bear. (That polar bear, named Total Failure, will put a smile on any cynic’s face.) Timmy goes on many different misadventures when his mother’s Segway goes missing and races all about town (Portland) to find it. Along the way, he learns lessons about “normal” and “different” and…it’s actually a pretty heartfelt conclusion that the movie leads to. 

The film is very funny, in the same grounded, character-driven way that McCarthy can direct a kid’s fable. But it also feels like it’s about something as well. In the way this environment is set up and seen through this wild child’s eyes, as well as how he sees the people around him who either want to scold or help him due to his self-destructive behavior, it’s a film that kids will enjoy just for the comedic deadpan nature of the wacky antics this likable kid embarks upon. But it’s also enjoyable for adults who remember what their childhood was like and what taught them to put at least one foot in the real world. 

I like this movie. You did good, McCarthy—you can actually make a good fable (and make me forget about “The Cobbler”). 

Stargirl (2020)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Stargirl” is a coming-of-age high-school movie based on the novel of the same name by Jerry Spinelli. (I haven’t read yet, though strangely, many of Spinelli’s other works are no stranger to me.)

Directed by Julia Hart and also co-written by Hart and her partner Jordan Horowitz (they also collaborated together on wonderful indie fare such as “Miss Stevens” and “Fast Color”), “Stargirl” is about a 16-year-old student named Leo (played by Graham Verchere) who has spent years blending in with his classmates (after an incident involving his favorite necktie, which he wore at school when he was 9) in a school where nothing happens. (In fact, the school is so uneventful that the trophy case has always been empty.) He’s fine with his status until he’s attracted to a new girl in school, simply because she’s so…DIFFERENT. She dresses in rainbow-influenced wear and sings while strumming a ukulele—oh, and her name is Stargirl. (Her real name is Susan, but Stargirl is the name she prefers because it suits her identity.) But Leo’s not the only one turned on by her eccentricities—the moment she performs the Beach Boys’ “Be True To Your School” in the middle of the field at a football game, it raises everyone’s spirits, thus making her the school’s “good-luck charm.” Before too long, Leo engages in conversation with Stargirl, thus beginning an interesting relationship that of course changes his life forever. 

Even though we’ve gotten many, MANY movies that contain messages about “being yourself,” we still need them. After all this time, most of us are still afraid of appearing even slightly foolish in front of large crowds—and this is especially true of high-schoolers, who need movies like this. As these movies go, “Stargirl” is one of the best to come around recently—and for a high-school movie released by Disney (and featuring musical sequences at that—don’t worry, it’s as far away from “High School Musical” as you could get), that’s especially impressive. 

Leo is a genuinely nice and likable kid. Stargirl (played by Grace VanderWaal of America’s Got Talent—not a very polished actress, but with this role, that doesn’t matter) is charming and adorable but not without fears and vulnerability, which surface late in the film. I like Leo and Stargirl individually and I like Leo and Stargirl together. 

The cinematography is lovely, the writing is solid, both our leads are appealing, we get some much-appreciated mature moments here and there, and I was invested throughout the whole film. Even when I wasn’t smiling at the film, I was still invested. 

I didn’t expect to find a new coming-of-age high-school movie on the same level as John Hughes’ best-known works or “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Love, Simon” brought to me by Disney+. But it’s here and it’s available to stream for your viewing pleasure. 

2019 Review

28 Jan

2019 Review

By Tanner Smith

I realize I haven’t done a lot of writing since concluding my Looking Back at 2010s Films series. (I guess you could say it took a lot out of me–I haven’t even reviewed any new movies in two months.) But now it’s that time…the time that should’ve come for me weeks ago: looking back at my favorite films of 2019!

Better late than never.

Some critics have said that 2019 was a particularly weak year for movies, and I would agree…if the cinematic year overall depended on your enjoyment of Glass, It: Chapter Two, Star Wars Episode IX, The Lion King, Super Size Me 2, and Where’d You Go Bernadette.

But first, my least favorite films of 2019 (in alphabetical order)–Annabelle Comes Home, Brightburn, In the Tall Grass, The Laundromat, The Lion King, Tall Girl, and Where’d You Go Bernadette. (“Bernadatte” was the most disappointing film of the year for me because until this year, I never saw a film from Richard Linklater I didn’t like. Not even his “Bad News Bears” remake.)

And what about TV seasons? Were there some I saw, let alone enjoyed? Yes, there were five (remember, I’m a movie guy)–5) Easy: Season 3 (Netflix), 4) The Chef Show (Netflix), 3) Stranger Things 3 (Netflix), 2) Mr. Mercedes: Season 3 (Audience Channel), and 1) The Mandalorian (Disney Plus).

Why is it that “Mr. Mercedes” always ends up at #2 on these year-end reviews?? I love this series–why isn’t a new season ever #1 for me?

Oh, did I forget something? No, I didn’t–Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne is an honorable mention for my favorite *films* rather than *series* this year………….*I* liked it!!

And, before I talk about all the films I liked this year, I have to mention some 2019 films I missed that I’ll most likely catch up with in the following year: Jojo Rabbit, Ford v. Ferrari, Fighting With My Family, Ad Astra, Hustlers, John Wick Chapter 3, Waves, Apollo 11, The Two Popes, and Judy.

And now, we come to my most personal favorite films of 2019. But first, I’ll mention my honorable mentions, of which there are quite a few: Honey Boy, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Untouchable, The Souvenir, Velvet Buzzsaw, The Mustang, Happy Death Day 2U, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Blinded By the Light, I Lost My Body, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Fast Color, Antiquities, Frozen II, and The Peanut Butter Falcon.

But of course I can’t stop there. So here are some more films from this year that I enjoyed: Arctic, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, El Camino, It: Chapter Two, Midsommar, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Rocketman, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, Harriet, Always Be My Maybe, I am Mother, The Man in the Trunk, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken, Yesterday, Paddleton, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, High Flying Bird, Glass, Long Shot, Gloria Bell, Teen Spirit, Klaus, Captain Marvel, Isn’t It Romantic, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

Oh, but there’s also The King, Aladdin, Greener Grass, Beats, Family, Pet Sematary, Child’s Play, Dumbo, Sweetheart, Let It Snow, Wine Country, I’m Just F*cking With You, The Perfect Date, and Someone Great.

Now which 20 (or 21–there’s a tie in here) films did I enjoy more than those? Here we go–these are my Top 20 Favorite Films of 2019!

20. The Lighthouse–Funny, when I first saw this film, I “admired” it more than I “liked it.” There was something very alienating about it in execution and performance…but in hindsight, that’s what I love about it.

19. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World–This was the year I came around to fully appreciating DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise. If the beautifully animated, emotionally powerful The Hidden World is the end of a trilogy, it’s definitely a strong swansong.

18. Shazam!–This one’s just a whole lotta fun! I had a big smile on my face throughout most of this highly enjoyable romp from DC.

17. Dolemite is My Name–Eddie Murphy is BACK! Welcome home, Eddie, I’ve missed you so. This is a hilarious, raunchy, even heartfelt film about the making of the blaxploitation-era classic “Dolemite” and the rising star of Rudy Ray Moore, the comedian who made it happen. And it’s a fun, heartfelt biopic with a highly charismatic lead. Available on Netflix.

16. Luce–Whoa. I’m glad I knew very little about this one going in, because it surprised the hell out of me. To say this film is “powerful” and “effective” doesn’t describe my feelings towards it–I was terrified.

15. Knives Out–Boy, was I glad this wasn’t a traditional (read: predictable) murder mystery. Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” is fresh, new, and pure entertainment–and I loved that I didn’t know how it was going to play out. And as a plus, seeing it a second time made the film even more enjoyable. I will happily see a spin-off film with Daniel Craig’s private eye Benoit Blanc!

14. Booksmart–Sometimes, all I need is raunchy fun. And it all comes down to the writing, which puts a fresh take on the last-day-of-high-school-movie subgenre. It’s funny and clever and just my cup of coffee. 

13. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood–What I liked most about Tarantino’s latest is its laid-back tone. This film is about nothing and yet about something at the same time, not unlike the Coen Bros’ “The Big Lebowski.” Will this film have as much staying cultural power? Time will tell. But “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is one of my favorite films of the year.

12. Love, Antosha–This documentary about the late young actor Anton Yelchin sort of broke me. Everything I learned about this talent was a lot to take in. But at the same time, I was delighted to know him a little better this way. Because of that, this was one of the most emotionally affecting films of the year for me.

11. The Irishman–Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is a VERY long movie, and yes, I think a lot of it could have been trimmed. But perhaps if it was, some of its power brought on by its atmosphere, environment, and characterization that was brilliantly set up might have been taken away…but MAN I’m glad this was available on Netflix where I could pause, rewind, and take a break every now and again!

10. The Farewell–This represents the kind of film I love to watch again and again–a “dramedy” (comedy-drama) that is appealing, emotionally honest, witty, and compelling all at the same time. If there’s anything more important than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s a comedy that can make you feel. Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical “The Farewell” is a beautiful film that handles both the comedy and the drama flawlessly.

9. A tie between Joker and Uncut Gems–Cheating, you say? Well, it’s my list, and I’ll do what I want with it. Both character-based dramatic thrillers are as effective as they are brilliantly acted. And while I’m happy for “Joker” getting so much Oscar recognition, I agree with (almost) everyone else that “Uncut Gems” was badly snubbed.

8. Us–A very clever commentary on the haves and the have-nots (one of two–the other’s coming up on this list), with a very intriguing premise and beautiful execution from writer/director Jordan Peele, who proves yet again that he’s one of the most talented filmmakers working today. A satisfying horror film.

7. 1917–One of the best cinematic experiences I had [last] year comes from one of the best World War I films ever made. (I think both DP Roger Deakins and director Sam Mendes have outdone themselves with this one!)

6. Little Women–I saw Greta Gerwig’s beautiful adaptation of the popular Louisa May Alcott novel twice, and I’ll definitely be seeing it many more times in the near future. There have been many different adaptations of this book–I think I like this one even more than the wonderful ’94 version!

5. Doctor Sleep–Mike Flanagan, the best director working in the horror film genre today, had a major challenge with this sequel to “The Shining”: respect and appeal to the legacy of not only filmmaker Stanley Kubrick but also novelist Stephen King. He pulled it off big-time.

4. Toy Story 4–Nine years after a satisfying conclusion with “Toy Story 3,” I get a “Toy Story” sequel I didn’t know I wanted. And it was as moving as reuniting with old friends (in the best possible way).

3. Marriage Story–Yes! Another Netflix film! (God bless Netflix!) Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” contains some of the best acting (from Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, and Laura Dern–all of whom are currently nominated for Oscars for this) and writing (from Baumbach, also nominated) of 2019. Emotionally powerful and true, this is a film I won’t forget anytime soon.

2. Avengers: Endgame–It’s amazing when I think of how far the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come since its origin over 11 years ago. Once it was going, we knew it was building up to something huge, and thankfully, it didn’t disappoint. For a long while, this was my favorite film of 2019. But there’s one better. Which is it…?

My absolute personal favorite film of 2019 is…

  1. Parasite–I went into this crushing commentary of the haves and the have-nots almost completely cold … I came out of it excited to tell everyone about it. Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” was one of the best films of the decade.

I love this time of year! Let’s see what the start of the new decade has for us…

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#17

2 Dec

By Tanner Smith

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

17) PARASITE (2019)

This is a tricky one for me. I saw Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” only once a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve had the rough draft of this decade-end top-20 list for several months…am I *positive* I want to include it so soon? Isn’t there another 2019 film I’ve seen more than once that I hold in high regard? (“Avengers: Endgame,” perhaps?)

I had to think long and hard about this choice before I realized…I’m fairly certain there won’t be a better film for the rest of this year than this.

Having seen some of Bong’s other works, such as “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” what I admire about this director is his ability to layer each key character and scenario with brilliant effectiveness. I think back to Roger Ebert’s quote, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” I can’t walk into a Bong Joon Ho film and expect anything predictable. (Even the trailer for “Parasite” was thankfully vague.) To say he thinks outside the box would be an understatement–that’s how creative he is as a filmmaker and as a storyteller.

I love everything about “Parasite.” The commentary. The satire. The filmmaking. The acting. The characterization. The story. The buildups. The resolutions. The script!! This is some of the most brilliant writing of the decade!

Is it a horror? A drama? A thriller? All of the above? Yes.

And seeing as how “Parasite” is still in theaters as of the writing of this post, I still can’t bring myself to even give away the slightest spoilers. So…I’m going to stop here. I know it’s lazy, and I’m sincerely sorry. But I still need to be fair.

Besides, I think I earned myself a break after my angry words in my #19 post.

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

22 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hooray! Spider-Man’s back after being “snapped” from existence in “Avengers: Infinity War” and brought back to kick some spidey ass in “Avengers: Endgame!” Speaking of which, spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame!” (Not just that Spider-Man is back, obviously—that’s kind of a given.) You’ve been warned. 

Even with more Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in the works, “Avengers: Endgame” worked wonderfully as a finale for all the MCU material we’ve seen in the past eleven years. But even so, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which takes place after those events, works as an effective epilogue to “Endgame.” (It’s also much lighter than the heavy epic scale of “Endgame”—not that there’s anything wrong with that.) 

Directed by Jon Watts (who also directed “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) and led by Tom Holland (the best live-action Spider-Man representation), “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is more practical and refreshingly so—lighthearted with a down-to-earth, humorous touch (I mean, for a Marvel superhero movie). 

Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) and his high-school friends, including his best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) and potential love interest M.J. (Zendaya), are “blipped” back to existence after Thanos finger-snapped half the Earth’s population away in “Avengers: Infinity War” (and the Avengers brought them back in “Avengers: Endgame”)—how convenient; most of their old classmates have already aged five years in their absence. (There’s a funny bit when we find out Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) mentions she vanished as well before she was suddenly brought back into her old apartment, which is now rented by someone else.) 

I personally would like to see more of what that must be like for others who were “blipped” away for five years. Think about it—if you were 16 and your little brother was 13, and you were suddenly blipped while time went on for everyone else including your brother, if you came back after five years, your brother would suddenly be older than you. How would that sibling dynamic work for you nowadays? That’d be an interesting story to follow. 

But I digress.

Peter is still mourning the loss of his mentor, Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), who died in the final battle of “Endgame.” He still wants to prove himself worthy of being Iron Man’s protege—a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, if you will—but he also wants to have somewhat of a social life as a high-school kid as well. He joins his classmates on a trip to Europe, and he couldn’t be more excited, mostly because he hopes to get closer to his crush, M.J. 

But uh-oh! Something serious is happening here. Venice is being torn apart by a mysterious, huge, seemingly water-based monster, causing Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) to recruit him to save the day. They also brought in someone else to help: Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has his own supersuit as well as his own skills, resources, and charisma that match Peter’s late mentor. He even gets a hero name: Mysterio.

Is it really a spoiler to say Mysterio isn’t really on the up-and-up? 

I have a complicated relationship with the “Spider-Man” movies—whenever a good one comes out, I always tell people it’s “the best ‘Spider-Man’ movie.” Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2,” Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and especially the wonderful, animated, highly energetic “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Well, I was perfectly satisfied to say that “Spider-Man: Far From Home” was “a good Spider-Man movie.” But then…we get the mid-credits scene. Every MCU movie has something extra to keep audiences through the end credits to tease the next adventure. This particular one made me drop my jaw before I exclaimed to myself, “Holy cow, WAS that the best Spider-Man movie??” I won’t give it away here, but I will say that now I’m REALLY curious to see the next Spider-Man movie, just to see what happens!

Maybe I’m overreacting. But still, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is a solid Spider-Man flick. Tom Holland is still a highly charismatic Peter Parker and the film goes deeper into the anxieties that comes with the responsibility of being Spider-Man. Whenever the film deals with Peter trying to have a social life as himself while still doing what he can as Spider-Man, it’s great. My favorite scene is when, without giving much away, he literally ends up in a maze of illusions that present his own fears and insecurities. 

I’m not a huge fan of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio, because he’s more interesting before he reveals his true nature and then he just becomes another villain. But that’s really more of a nitpick because the reveal does lead to some cool action and also some nicely-done character moments (including my favorite scene I just mentioned). 

The overall focus of “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is still where it should be: with the burden of being Spider-Man getting heavier and heavier for this kid who’s becoming a man in the process. And I’m always going to be interested in seeing the journey progress…especially after that mid-credits scene. (Seriously, I have to know! That was a hell of a cliffhanger!) 

Joker (2019)

22 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I can’t say “Joker” is one of the most “fun” movies I’ve seen this year, but it’s definitely one of the most unforgettable.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s just so demented and disturbing and tense and twisted and oddly fascinating at the same time…in other words, it’s the perfect Joker movie!

Oh wait, I’m supposed to come out of this movie wanting to commit heinous crimes and partake in bloody anarchy–that’s what the media told people to be afraid of, right?

Btw, don’t say anything like that about a movie unless you’ve actually seen it, because that makes you look pretty stupid.

“Joker” is a dark, gritty, violent character study that serves as the origin story for one of the most devious comic-book villains of all time: the Joker. I’ve seen comic-book movies that ask complex questions about the hero, such as where does one draw the line in the ways of vigilante action and whatnot. But Joker asks more challenging questions that most people wouldn’t want to know the true answers to, such as…what roles do WE play in the creation of a killer?

In that sense, this isn’t a film that glorifies violence–it’s not even a sympathetic origin story. Instead, it’s more of a cautionary tale about a guy who feels left out by society that doesn’t want to understand or help him, which causes things to go from bad to total horrific sh*t-storm.

But if you do see this movie and are appalled by something that could be seen as irresponsible or dangerous, that’s fair enough. Not everyone is going to have the same reaction. But see the movie before you decide.

Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as Arthur Fleck, the sad, mentally-unstable clown-for-hire who doesn’t know what to do with his life…until he commits his first act of horrific violence and suddenly feels more alive because of it. Slowly but surely, we see this guy transform into one of the most storied, psychopathic comic book villains of all time.

A major surprise for me was that it was so easy for me to forget I’m watching a DC comic-book movie. Compared to the tone of this film, “The Dark Knight” feels more like your typical comic-book film. This film was directed by Todd Phillips (who was previously best-known for comedy hits like “Road Trip,” “Old School,” and the “Hangover” movies), and a lot of people have compared his storytelling to a Scorsese film (particularly “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”)–but I don’t see it as a Scorsese-ripoff either. I think Phillips was inspired by touches of those films and added some touches of his own without copying Scorsese’s style.

The way the story develops was so chilling that there were times when I couldn’t move. Usually, I twitch in my seat or shake my legs out of nervousness during a good scary movie–but not this time. This time, there were numerous sequences during which I was frozen in place, just shocked at what was happening and what could happen next.

It’s a nightmare, and a well-crafted one at that.

Like I said, “Joker” is not necessarily a “fun” movie. If I want an entertaining film from DC, I’ll just watch “Shazam!” again.

Last thing I’ll say for now is there’s a moment I can’t help but appreciate from early in the film. It’s when Arthur watches a standup comedy show and takes notes on how to be influenced for his own performance–one of the notes he takes struck me to the core, that to win over the audience (which serves as a metaphor for general society), you have to act like you don’t have a mental illness.

The word I think I’m looking for is DAMN!

The Farewell (2019)

22 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If there’s anything more important than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s one that makes you feel. “The Farewell” is a wonderful comedy-drama that goes for both the comedy and the drama at high goals, and succeeds at both.

“The Farewell” is a semi-autobiographical film from writer-director Lulu Wang, about a young woman, named Billi (well-played by Awkwafina, who stole scenes in last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians”), who doesn’t know how to feel about her Chinese family keeping her beloved grandmother’s fatal illness a secret. The grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou) is unaware that an entire wedding ceremony is happening in Changchun, China, just so everyone in the family can be there with her one last time. Billi, who’s spent most of her life in America (and lives in New York), sees a moral dilemma here (as did I—I didn’t know this was a common cultural thing with Chinese families) and wonders if she should tell her or not. 

Where to start with this film? For one thing, the family dynamic is wonderfully presented. It feels real, is written and acted beautifully, and reminds me of the complicated, ridiculous, and overall loving aspects of many extended families, such as my own. 

The acting is spot-on. Awkwafina is truly moving as the underachieving, emotional Billi—so much so that I had to keep reminding myself that this was the same hilarious loony from “Crazy Rich Asians.” (She has impressive range as an actress.) Shuzhen Zhou as Nai Nai (“Grandma”)…it’s a cliche to say someone in this type of role will “melt your heart,” but I can’t help it—she’s adorable and she melted my heart. Also good are Tzi Ma and Diana Lin as Billi’s parents who are dealing with this distressing secret while hiding under a shield. 

I love that this family can just take a moment every now and again and just talk—and I’m interested in what they have to say. There’s an extended dinner sequence in which the family talks about whether or not moving from China to America is the right thing. Is the American Dream a myth? Some think so, others don’t. It’s one of the best scenes in the film.

And last but not least, this film knows when to bring the levity. It’s not always a downer—sometimes, it’s very funny. But like with “50/50,” another “dramedy” that deals with heavy issues, this film knows death and cancer are never funny but the different ways people react to a situation like that can be humorous—and not with cheap laughs, either.

“The Farewell” is both appealing and emotional, and it’s one of the best films of 2019. I can’t recommend it enough.

Oh, and it’s rated PG! Remember when you could tell a mature story without containing adult language or imagery? So does Lulu Wang. 

Doctor Sleep (2019)

21 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Doctor Sleep” is the sequel to “The Shining”…but is it a sequel to Stephen King’s novel “The Shining” or Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic “The Shining”? It’s no secret that Kubrick took a lot of creative liberties with King’s original ideas, to which King expressed his disappointment—on the other hand, it’s hailed by a majority of cineastes as one of the greatest horror masterpieces of all time because its atmosphere and execution caused us to fill in many blanks that we actually cared to fill in. (There’s even a documentary, “Room 237,” about all of the fan theories surrounding many of the film’s ambiguities.) 

King wrote a sequel to his original novel, titled “Doctor Sleep,” and writer-director Mike Flanagan, who established himself as a modern master of horror with movies like “Hush,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” and another King adaptation, “Gerald’s Game,” as well as a hit Netflix horror series, “The Haunting of Hill House,” is making it into a film. But not only is it to be a faithful adaptation of the “Doctor Sleep” novel—it also has to work as a sequel to Kubrick’s “The Shining,” because that’s what movie audiences who love the original want to see. That’s a really tough challenge to take: appeal to both Kubrick fans and King fans—and you thought Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” (based on a Kubrick script) was ambitious! 

Well, no need to worry. It works wonders either way you look at it. “Doctor Sleep” is a terrific horror film and one of Flanagan’s most successful in an already-long line of gripping horror films. 

Our main character is Dan Torrence, who was the little boy (“Danny”) that was terrorized along with his mother (Alex Essoe, playing the Shelley Duvall role from the original film). Played by Ewan McGregor, he’s an aimless, alcoholic drifter who one day decides to get away from himself, as the experiences that haunted his childhood, which he’s tried to keep locked up using his psychic abilities (or “shine”) for many years, are still getting to him. After trying to drown out the senses of his gifts with booze, he wants to use it to help people (and himself). He travels to the small town of Frazier, New Hampshire, where he attends AA, gains a friend in his sponsor, named Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), and gets a job in hospice to care for dying people. (He knows when people are about to die and, using his shine, gives them each one last moment of peace and reassurance that there is life after death.) 

Fade to eight years later, when Dan has now cleaned up and bettered himself, and he also communicates telepathically with someone else who has the same psychic ability: a teenage girl named Abra (Kyleigh Curran), who is afraid to make her gifts known even to her parents. When a pack of nomadic, monstrous, humanistic beings is caught on her radar, Abra comes to Dan for help in stopping them from causing any more damage than they’ve already caused. Dan is reluctant as it seems these “people” are too dangerous, but before long, he knows he can’t let them get away with their doings. 

Let’s talk about these guys, shall we? They roam the country to capture, torture, and kill psychic children to feed off of their souls (or their “Steam,” as they call it)—they keep what’s left of the children’s essences in containers to feed off of when they need it. In return, they live longer lives than the average person. They may look ridiculous as somewhat of a ‘60s touring hippie rock band (complete with tour bus), but they are terrifying—especially in a gruesome sequence in which they snatch an innocent Little-Leaguer (Jacob Tremblay) and torture him to death to feed on more steam. They’re led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, wonderfully, subtly diabolical here), named for the black hat she always wears. Rose is near-immortal as she knows the ways of getting more steam (mostly by astral projection to seek more targets). 

Oh, and there’s a member on their team who can easily manipulate people’s minds by speaking to them. This is Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), a 15-year-old new member of the pack. Having her around makes things even more unsettling as she can easily convince someone to fall into one of their traps. 

They learn of Abra’s power, particularly that it’s stronger than they’ve ever faced before. Despite the possibility that she could fight back and overpower them, Rose insists on going after her to feed off her steam. Dan agrees to help Abra go against them when the time comes.

What surprised me most about “Doctor Sleep” (and what shouldn’t surprise me about any Mike Flanagan film by now) is that it put character and atmosphere ahead of terror and jump-scares. So much of the film depends on the acting, the writing, and the directing to keep us invested. They all work terrifically. Ewan McGregor is excellent as Dan Torrence, who is trying to move past his childhood traumas through alcoholism and then by getting away from himself before ultimately using his shine to help those in need. Up-and-comer Kyleigh Curran “shines” (forgive the pun) as Abra, a sweet, bright girl who is ready for battle when someone deserves to suffer for the horrific deeds they’ve done. We’re given plenty of time to witness the establishment of both interesting characters before they’re thrust into madness with Rose the Hat and co. Once that gets going, it’s an entertaining ride that also isn’t afraid to delve into deeper territory at times. 

As for the question as to whether this film is more “King” or “Kubrick,” I’d say it’s more “King.” Most of the time, watching the film is equal to the same experience as reading one of his stories. It’s more accessible than Kubrick’s work, which is to say that it’s more narratively polished and straightforward. But there are many visual cues that remind viewers of his work on “The Shining,” so that it still feels like a fitting sequel. And what’s even better is that it doesn’t rely TOO much on people having seen the original film (though it’s more of an interesting experience if you have seen it), and the scenes that call back to it (which have unfairly been dubbed as “fan service” by other critics) are satisfying because of its context within THIS story and not the previous story. 

I loved “Doctor Sleep” for being what it is and being a lot better than it could have been. How does it rank against “The Shining?” That’s both a fair and unfair question, but one is obviously all Kubrick and the other is obviously King (and Flanagan, obviously)—so, I guess it comes down to the question of are you fine with a more-than-suitable companion piece with more emotion than anticipated? I’m more than fine with it, which is why “Doctor Sleep” is one of my favorite films of 2019. 

Parasite (2019)

21 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I went into Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” as cold as possible. (And thankfully, the film’s trailer was vague enough.) I came out of it feeling like I had experienced something rather amazing. 

There were so many things in this funny, insightful, clever, ambitious story that I couldn’t see coming, and then by the end of it, I realize it was all inevitable. And it was masterfully done by a director whose work I’ve admired before (“Snowpiercer,” “Okja”)—“Parasite” is most definitely his magnum opus. 

“Parasite” is a darkly funny, totally insightful, intelligent social satire with so many narrative twists and turns that kept me on edge for a majority of its running time and (HYPERBOLE ALERT) made me very appreciative of the art of innovative cinema. This has always been Bong’s strength—even when we think we know where something is going when the rug has ALREADY been pulled out from under us, he always finds another way to keep us invested until the very end. 

I will be as spoiler-free as possible—as I mentioned, you should go into this one knowing as little as I did. I won’t even dig deep into the film’s setup aside from what’s in the trailer. Speaking of which, this is the story of two four-person families in South Korea. One family is super poor, the other super rich. (And as a clever touch to the setting, the rich live high up on a mountain and the poor live below the streets—wait until you see what can happen in a rainstorm.) Our main protagonists lie within the poor family, as the film opens by showing us the only spots available in their cramped basement home where the Wifi connection is strongest. Dad (Song Kang-ho) and Mom (Jang Hye-jin) are unemployed and not very motivated, but son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-sik) is an ambitious go-getter and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) is an aspiring con artist—both teens take their shots wherever they can and are very good at what they do. The next opportunity comes with Ki-Woo is hired as an English tutor for the wealthy, privileged Park family (the aforementioned rich family). His student is Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the teenage daughter of Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) and Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), whose common sense (or tact) don’t match their wealth. Ki-Woo is able to earn their trust, which leads to a complicated con. He’ll bring in Ki-jung as an “art therapist” for the odd, rambunctious little son of the family, and the family never has to know she’s related to Ki-Woo. (And all she knows about “art therapy” is from studying Google results, but damn if she doesn’t act like she knows exactly what she’s talking about!) So that leaves their parents—how to get them hired by the family for any purposes such as chauffeur and housekeeper…

OK, we have an interesting thing going on here, especially when the “have-nots” experience the perks of the “haves” like a family of this sort would. They even take time out to analyze the situation, such as how would the Park family act if they were as poor as this family? We get to know all members of both families—there’s even a quiet domestic drama unfolding underneath the surface of this seemingly happy rich married couple, as Dad tries to manipulate some answers out of Dong-ik. We get to know the prejudices between classes. We learn a few things that could be used for or against certain characters (there are some great clues here, looking back on the film after seeing it initially). All of that is interesting and intriguing. And then…

Whoa. Definitely didn’t see that coming. 

And from that point on, it’s an unpredictable series of twists and turns that grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go until it was done with me. As crazy as it is, it still feels real because the characters feel like real people, even when they do things that aren’t the best (or even morally sound) decisions. We’re with them when they go through one crazy situation after another and while I’m wondering how they’re going to get out of this, I’m also wondering how things could possibly get worse. Bong Joon Ho’s storytelling here is nothing less than creatively brilliant. 

“Parasite” is one of the best films of 2019 and one of the best films of the 2010s—the acting is excellent across the board, the directing is top-notch to say the least, the writing is brilliant with many different layers to it, the visual style is lovely, and the whole film overall just reminds me that there are gems like this hitting the screens that it would be a shame to miss. 

It’s good that even if I can’t get too deep into the story for a spoiler-free review, I can still get across how it affected me.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)

11 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I enjoyed “How to Train Your Dragon” more than I expected to, given its admittedly-cheesy storyline, because it showed skill and strength to make it feel fresh and new. “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” I liked even more because it added to the ideas of the original, which all great sequels do. “How to Train Your Dragon” has become DreamWorks’ most surprising franchise since “Kung Fu Panda,” and I had hopes for this third installment: “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.” Did it live up to those hopes?

Trick question. Yes, it did. As the (possibly-) final installment in this successful, fun and even heartwarming series of animated films about Vikings and dragons, it’s just as enthralling and exciting and gorgeously animated as the previous two films, but because this is our farewell to these characters (unless we’ll catch up with them nearly a decade later, a la “Toy Story 4”), it’s also very emotionally satisfying. You will believe a boy and his dragon will make you feel things.(That’s as much as I can reveal without spoiling anything, but I’ll add that the resolution is more inevitable than it is predictable.) 

Will “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” be the last we see of these characters? Maybe, maybe not. But as the concluding chapter of this particular trilogy, it’s wonderful seeing them wrap up their story as is. 

Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel, whose “honking-goose” voice is actually acknowledged at one point by a supporting player), the young protagonist of the previous movies, is now the chieftain for the Viking village of Berk, which lives in perfect harmony with dragons. He, along with his dragon Toothless and his friends (including his betrothed fiancee Astrid, voiced again by America Ferrera), leads raids to rescue captured dragons and bring them back to the village, leading to overpopulation. Seeking to fix the problem, Hiccup decides to use his late father’s notes to try and track down “the Hidden World,” where dragons live in peace. But he has to make haste with help from all villagers, as the villainous Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who hunts and kills dragons, seeks to kill Toothless, as he is a Night Fury, the species of dragon that Grimmel wants to rid the world of. Knowing it takes a dragon to trap a dragon, he uses a female Night Fury (a light skinned one—a Light Fury) to attempt to lure Toothless into his trappings. 

Grimmel isn’t a very complex villain, but compared to the previous film’s villain (just a ruthless warlord), he at least has a slimy charisma to himself and does deliver as much comedy as threats. But the film isn’t necessarily about him or his plan—he’s merely a McGuffin (though an entertaining one). It’s more about Hiccup’s coming-of-age journey to lead people with confidence and courage while also learning how to cope with change as he’s encouraging everyone else to accept it. He has to lead the villagers to a new place to call home where they’ll be safe from Grimmel’s further advances while he also has to come to grips with the very real possibility that’s eventually going to have to let Toothless, who has fallen in love with the Light Fury, break away from his only friend. It’s an engaging personal quest to follow, and Hiccup continues to grow as a character with each passing movie. His crisis of confidence is further assisted by returning characters such as Astrid and Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) by his side. 

Oh, and there’s also Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), one of Hiccup’s comic-relief friends whose main purpose is to give Hiccup some “helpful” advice, most of which is about the concept of “marriage,” which Hiccup and Astrid are both unsure about. Tuffnut’s sister Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) had a good share of the comedy in “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (and she has one great scene in which she’s captured by the villains and then let go because she’s so damn annoying); this time, Tuffnut has that distinction. A little obnoxious, but I’d be lying if I said he didn’t get a few laughs out of me.

And speaking of laughs, there’s a great comedic moment that feels like a Chaplin/Keaton silent film…but with dragons. It’s when Toothless tries to engage in “dating” with the Light Fury and has trouble impressing her. (It also doesn’t help that he can’t fly on his own, and the Light Fury spends very little time off the ground.) Toothless is nothing short of adorable here. 

But how do the visuals hold up? I think each “How to Train Your Dragon” movie looks better and better. The flying scenes are still incredible. The animation of the characters and the world around them is always impressive. And the scenic elements are wonderful—with the excellent cinematographer Roger Deakins on hand as visual consultant, I’m not the least bit surprised how great it looks. 

If this is the last time we see Hiccup or Toothless, at least we had three terrific movies to spend time in their company. “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is an exceptional final chapter in an effectively fun trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll revisit all three films in a row in the near future. 

It: Chapter Two (2019)

6 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“It” (or “It: Chapter One,” released in 2017) was a horror classic—both scary and deep. I loved it, and I considered the possibilities of a worthy sequel. I knew the direction it was going to go, with the kids from “Chapter One” having grown up in “Chapter Two” to return to their hometown and combat their childhood traumas in the form of a demonic clown named Pennywise. 

This story was already covered in the first adaptation of Stephen King’s original novel, in a 1990 TV miniseries—but while the material with those kids was solid and effective enough, even its director agreed that the stuff with the adult counterparts simply wasn’t as good. But I wasn’t cynical about this cinematic retelling, because I felt there was a great story and a great horror film that can be executed with the very idea of adults looking back on the things that terrified them as children and having to confront the past again. 

“It: Chapter Two” wasn’t exactly that. But it was still enough of an interesting ride that I’ll recommend it and see it again. 

Remember in “Chapter One,” when the kids encounter Pennywise (played chillingly by Bill Skarsgard) and other silly monsters in a haunted house? It was a fun detour, in an “Evil Dead” sort of way. But that’s all it was: a detour. Not all of the scares in “Chapter One” were meant to be that way. And that’s the big problem I have with “Chapter Two”—MANY of them are executed in that insane, over-the-top fashion.

At first, I thought, this makes sense—since It’s favorite form is a clown, it stands to reason that It will use “clownish” ways to mess with people it plans to eat/destroy. And to be fair, some of it is fun, such as when our main characters encounter goofy horrors within fortune cookies at a Chinese restaurant. But in a horror film that runs 170 minutes(!) long, it’s probably better to save that kind of insanity for the climax rather than give us great chunks of that ahead of time. 

For example, remember that creepy old lady from the teaser trailer that got audiences interested from the start? In the movie, she turns into something that’s not so “creepy.” 

But this is still the skillful work of director Andy Muschietti, who also helmed “Chapter One.” And he still gives us solid characterization from the characters (who I’ll get to in a bit), as well as some genuinely frightening and tense moments—these include a very creepy scene in which Pennywise manipulates a little girl with a facial birthmark, an encounter with Pennywise in a carnival funhouse (go figure), and the film also opens with a harsh, savage beating of a gay couple, half of whom becomes Pennywise’s first victim. (That serves as effective commentary—a vicious hate crime is what awakens the demon that plagues this small town.) 

So, here we are, meeting up with “the Losers Club” having grown up since the original and left this town of Derry, Maine behind (for the most part) and now come back because they swore 27 years ago to return if Pennywise returned after they thought they defeated It. Many of them have forgotten the experiences with It—when they return, it doesn’t take them terribly long to remember why they’re there. And after considering turning away again and leaving it all behind, they all realize that they can’t let It get away and claim any more victims, and so they stay and fight—only this time, they’re determined to kill it and stop it forever. 

Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the town librarian, is the only member of the Losers who stayed in Derry, and thus is the one who remembers. When Pennywise claims its first victim, Mike rallies all of the other Losers, who have all gone their separate ways to become successful one way or another:

  • Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) was the ringleader of the Losers as a child, having brought his friends together to fight the monster after it killed his little brother Georgie. Now he’s a best-selling novelist/screenwriter and married to a successful actress. But everyone, including director Peter Bogdanovich (interesting cameo), tells him he has trouble with his endings.
  • Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), who was subject to many nasty rumors in school and abused by her father, is now a fashion designer. But she’s also in a bad relationship with an abusive husband. 
  • Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) has slimmed down in a major way after being overweight as a child and is now a hunky architect. (Side-note: Brandon Crane, who played Young Ben in the 1990 miniseries, cameos here as a partner in Ben’s firm. I thought that was pretty cool.) 
  • Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is still the “trashmouth” he was when he was a kid, only now he’s a stand-up comedian. 
  • Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransome) is still a hypochondriac, but he now has the appropriate job of risk assessor. (And ironically, when he gets the call about the news, he gets into a slight traffic accident.) 
  • Stanley Uris (Andy Bean), the most fearful and reluctant member of the Losers, is now an accountant. His tale is the most tragic of the bunch, as when he gets the call from Mike about Pennywise’s return, he decides not to come back to Derry…in fact, he kills himself. (This happens early in the film—I wouldn’t call it a spoiler.) 

Since the Losers have grown up and put the past behind them, they have practically become the adults that wouldn’t help them as children. This is what I meant when I said there was some great potential in a story like this—these characters can not only overcome their past and change their future as a result, but they can right many wrongs that were made to It’s other targets. Once these characters are reunited (or at least, most of them are reunited), we’re on board and ready to follow them wherever they go…even though, I’ll admit, there is something silly about square adults going up against a clown that most people can’t even see. Pennywise is more of a conventional horror-movie monster this time around than the horrifying demonic presence he was in “Chapter One,” which also means there’s something more off-putting and terrifying about this thing going after small children than grown adults. 

(But Bill Skarsgard still does a game job as Pennywise. He’s always fun to watch.) 

All of the actors playing the grown Losers are terrific, especially Isaiah Mustafa who plays Mike as someone who has been through hell and is waiting for a way out, James Ransome who is both sincere and funny as Eddie, and especially Bill Hader, who knocks it out of the park as Richie, who of course is one of those comics who uses humor as a defense mechanism for his own insecurities. (And of course, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, who have already proven themselves as accomplished actors, are very good here as well.) When they’re alone, facing individual terrors brought on by It, they’re very effective. But they’re even better when they’re together. 

Oh, and I forgot to mention the return of the child actors from “Chapter One” reappearing in flashback sequences in “Chapter Two.” On the one hand, it’s great to see these kids again after we’ve come to know them well in a whole movie before. But on the other hand…there is some CG reworking to make them younger, since they’ve obviously gotten a little older in the two years prior. Some of it is actually quite unnoticeable…while the rest of it (especially with Jeremy Ray Taylor as young Ben) is on the same distracting uncanny-valley level as Grand Moff Tarkin in “Rogue One.” 

I’m recommending “It: Chapter Two” as a fun, well-crafted, GOOD horror movie, but at the same time, I’m disappointed when I keep imaging the GREAT horror film it could have been. Maybe if, as I said, more focus was brought onto purely tense and psychological terror than a lot of CGI boo-scares and grossout visuals (not to mention, a lot of spider-based visuals too), it would have been right up there with “Chapter One,” which I still think is a great movie. But I can’t deny I still had fun with much of “Chapter Two,” and when it does give me what I asked for, with a few tense, creepy moments here or there and the trials of our main characters (not to mention the solid chemistry amongst them all), it is quite satisfying. And at the very least, as the conclusion to a nearly-five-hour horror story, it feels like the end. The whole story has been told, the original book’s structure has been covered, and there’s no reason for Pennywise the Dancing Clown (or It) to return…is there?