Archive | 2019 RSS feed for this section

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?

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

25 Oct

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a sweet film—very sweet and funny and likable. Sometimes, it’s a little too sweet to the point of reaching “corny” levels. But darn it, there were too many moments during which I had a smile on my face.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon,” written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, is reminiscent of a Mark Twain story, as two misunderstood outsiders embark on a cross-country journey to find something meaningful in life (and part of that journey takes place on a raft on the open sea). In this case, we have Zak and Tyler, two strangers who join together and become close friends along the way.

Zak is a Down Syndrome patient (and is played by Zack Gottsagen, who himself has Down Syndrome). He has been abandoned by his family and left at an old folks’ home because there’s nowhere else for him to go. He’s obsessed with an old videotape which features a pro wrestler, known as the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and he escapes his prison to find him. He has no money, no clothes, and no master plan of his own—he simply wants to find his way down to the Saltwater Redneck’s camp where he can pursue his dream of being a pro wrestler.

Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a rebellious, troublemaking fisherman who signs his own death warrant when he messes with the wrong people, thus putting himself on the run. Zak stows away on his boat during the getaway, and at first, Tyler doesn’t want anything to do with him. But soon enough, his good heart shows as he just can’t leave this guy alone and promises to take him where he wants to go.

What begins as an interesting partnership turns into a sweet friendship as it becomes clear that Tyler may be the only person Zak has ever encountered who sees what Zak CAN do rather than what his disability limits him to. And as it turns out, Zak isn’t as helpless as he would appear. The scenes with these two together are wonderful—the two actors play brilliantly off each other, the escalation of the friendship feels natural, and they pretty much make the movie as special as critics have made it out to be. (I happily jump aboard that train.)

The smiles on my face didn’t even fade when Zak’s caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), inevitably finds the two and questions Zak’s safety in Tyler’s company. But even she can’t deny there’s more to Zak than meets the eye as well (particularly in a scene that got the biggest laugh in the theater in which I first saw the film), and she becomes part of this new family. For a character like this, that was a refreshing take.

I will revisit this film time and time again just to revisit the lovely chemistry between these characters.

What didn’t quite work for me was the ending. It’s a little too neat without much of a satisfying payoff, and for a film like this, you need that final moment that will make you want to immediately tell your friends to go see this movie. After seeing it the first time, I merely mustered a “yeah it was good” to my friends.

I’m still giving “The Peanut Butter Falcon” 3 1/2 stars rather than 3 because Gottsagen, LaBeouf, and Johnson make the movie work wonders.

Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019)

25 Oct


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Every actor needs that one role that’s perfect for them to display their true talents. For Jillian Bell, a comedienne best known for side roles in “22 Jump Street,” “The Night Before,” “Office Christmas Party,” and “Fist Fight,” among others, that role is taking center-stage in the comedy-drama “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” I’ll be honest—I wasn’t rushing to see this film because I’m generally not a fan of Bell’s previous works (she didn’t do a thing for me). But I’m glad I did, because now I’ve seen what she can really do when she’s in a starring role that shows exactly what an impressive actress she is.

She has her usual dry cynical wit that she’s become best known for. But unlike her previous outings in film, I don’t think she’s improvising as much as trusting the material she’s working with. And it’s a truly solid, character-driven screenplay delivered by the film’s director Paul Downs Colaizzo. (This film is also Colaizzo’s debut.) As a result, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” presents an effective coming-of-age story with an excellent performance from a more-than-capable leading lady.

If there’s something more special than a comedy that can make an audience laugh, it’s one that can make them feel. For every time I’m laughing through the film, there was also a moment with harsh truth to it that made me feel for the characters and the situations they were in.

The titular Brittany (Bell) is a mess. She’s a 28-year-old party animal. She’s often sarcastic and bitter and cruel. She’s selfish. She uses humor as a defense mechanism. (I mean, don’t we all, sometimes?) She can be cold. She needs to get her life together. What sets her on this personal journey to better herself is a trip to an inexpensive doctor who will hopefully prescribe her with Adderall. Who knew he’d be the real deal and show concerns for Brittany’s health given that she’s close to morbidly obese?

She of course laughs off the doc’s advice to lose 50 lbs. at first, but soon enough, she does take his words to heart and decides to take up running regularly. Her party-hardy social-media-obsessed roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee) doesn’t take the idea seriously, but luckily, their neighbor, Catherine aka “Money Bags Marge” (Michaela Watkins, one of today’s finest character actors), is a fitness enthusiast…thus, it’s time for Brittany to stop referring to Catherine as “Money Bags Marge” if she’s going to ask for her help.

And help Brittany, Catherine does. Brittany joins her running club, where they both meet Seth (Micah Stock), who is insecure about his being out-of-shape, since his husband is in shape and their kid has that certain children’s energy and Seth wants to get in shape before they adopt a second child. (That way, he can keep up, you see.) Brittany, Catherine, and Seth jog and work together in preparation for running in the New York City Marathon. Can Brittany lose the weight in time and change her life in the process?

Well, yeah—you can guess she does. But it’s not an easy road to walk (or run). Along the way, Brittany learns some difficult realities about herself, the people around her, and the attitudes she’s been giving towards it all. It’s compelling and works effectively. It’s also fun to see other people in her life, such as her brother-in-law Demetrius (Lil Rel Howery of “Get Out”—do I even need to say he’s hilarious in this?) and Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a purposeless millennial who also works with Brittany in the same dog-sitting job (and may also be Brittany’s potential love interest). They help Brittany open her eyes to who she is and the better person she can become, because she is the only true obstacle she has to face in order to change.

There, of course, has to be a clincher—a moment that really shows Brittany at her worst so that she can turn away from the others and truly self-reflect so that she can become a truly better person. And unfortunately, that moment, which occurs at Demetrius’ birthday party where she snaps at an overweight female guest, is my least favorite part of the movie. We’re supposed to see Brittany at the end of her rope before she bounces back and learns the error of her ways, but this scene wasn’t written as strongly as it could have been and it sort of came off as random rather than plausible.

But we still get to root for Brittany at her best after seeing her at her worst, and I’m glad to be rooting for her when (spoiler alert) she does run the marathon, as the title suggests. And much of it is not only thanks to a sharply written script but also to Jillian Bell’s sense of conviction that shows she truly has range as an actress. Brittany has so much baggage, but that doesn’t stop us from rooting for her and caring for her. “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a pleasant surprise.

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

22 Oct


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Two years ago, “Happy Death Day” was a pleasant surprise—a slasher film that was actually good.

OK, that statement may seem mean, but the point is I had a lot of fun with the movie. And especially for an era when our best horror films tend to stray away from slasher-killers and moves more toward ideas and imagination, it’s refreshing to see a film about a slasher-killer written with ideas and imagination.

It was a success, and so a sequel was inevitable. Would it match its predecessor in any way, shape or form?

Yes. It. Would.

Brief recap: A college sorority girl, nicknamed Tree (Jessica Rothe), experiences a time-loop that causes her to repeat her birthday over and over again…and it’s also her death-day, as each time, she’s brutally slaughtered by a masked killer. Did I mention the killer wears a creepy baby mask? Believe it or not, that’s the campus mascot. She eventually solves the mystery of who the killer is and thus, she’s finally able to live and see tomorrow. It was the story of a total bitch who became a better person under unbelievable circumstances.

“Happy Death Day 2U,” the sequel, contains more of a sci-fi edge to it (though there are still some horror aspects left over—it is a Blumhouse production after all) and kind of reminds me of the zany, goofy fun of “Back to the Future Part II.” (And yes, that title is dropped here, just as “Groundhog Day” was in the previous film.) We get an explanation for the time-loop this time, and we’re also taken into a parallel dimension and reminded of the possibilities of a multiverse.

Tree is dying again and again…again. Why? Because, this time, she’s in another universe, in which her new boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard) is now dating the bitchy sorority queen Danielle (Rachel Matthews), who seems nicer this time around, her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who turned out to be the killer in the previous film, is now Tree’s closest friend, and HER DEAD MOTHER IS ALIVE!!…oh, and that damned baby-masked killer is on the loose again. Poor Tree just can’t catch a break. But who is it this time?

A trio of science-student stereotypes—Ryan (Phi Vu, reprising his brief role from the original film as Carter’s roommate), Samar (Suraj Sharma), and Dre (Sarah Yarkin), thankfully reminding us of “Real Genius” rather than “Revenge of the Nerds”—are responsible for the time-loop. You see, they’ve created a machine that is intended to slow time down. Instead, not only has it caused people (or maybe just Tree—I’m not really sure) to relive day after day but it also opened up a door to a parallel universe. So now, Tree, in the new world, has to convince the trio that their machine works so that they can create new algorithms in order to test the device again in order to send Tree back home, but it will take several tries, and so, Tree has to come back again with the previous equations memorized…meaning she has to die again and again (again, again) in order to convince them again in order to finally get it right.

Sounds confusing, but…OK, it is a little confusing—keep a notepad handy if you watch this one. You thought “BTTF Part II” was loaded with paradoxes? Whew!

Usually, I have a real beef against sequels that cause me to repeat the very things that characters have done in previous installments because…they are doing it…AGAIN. But thankfully, “Happy Death Day 2U” has every bit as much of a sharp script as its predecessor, with a lot of wit in a “Scream” sort of way and surprisingly, a great deal of heart.

I mean it, too. For as funny and creative and twisted as “Happy Death Day 2U” is, it can also be very heartwarming as well. As I mentioned, Tree’s mother (Missy Yager), who died in an accident on Tree’s birthday long ago in Tree’s universe, is alive in this universe. This gives Tree a hard choice to make, as she sees her as a reason not to go back. The character of Tree is able to grow some more this time around (hah! Tree? Grow? I get it.), and Jessica Rothe handles these scenes rather beautifully.

But of course, as with the first movie, her comedic moments are definitely on-point. She’s fantastic here.

Oh, right. We have the killer again. Did we really need him/her for this one? Eh, maybe not. But we expected the return.

The characters we’ve seen before are welcomed back and worth rooting for (and Carter in particular is one of the few horror-movie boyfriends I can tolerate), the mix of sci-fi, comedy, and horror is uniquely handled, and if there’s another sequel to be made with these capable hands (which also include writer/director Christopher Landon), I’ll be interested in seeing it. And I’ll surely watch “Happy Death Day 2U” as many times as I’ve watched “Happy Death Day.”

But that still doesn’t answer the question…what school has a baby for their mascot??

Fast Color (2019)

7 Oct


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a star on the rise. I just know in my heart that a Hollywood director or producer is going to discover her excellent leading performance in Julia Hart’s “Fast Color” and  hire her in a mainstream studio film, whether it be a comedy or a sci-fi epic or the next Marvel movie, that will give her more exposure. She deserves the attention, as does “Fast Color.”

In the film, Mbatha-Raw plays Ruth, a young woman on the run because she has superhuman abilities—because, where there’s someone who has superpowers, there’s always some secret government agency that wants to hunt them down, capture them, and lock them up. (If these people would watch “Stranger Things,” in which the government agents get their brains smushed by telekinesis, they’d at least consider the option of offering them positions to help make the world a better place…as long as they don’t hound them for it.) She has violent seizures that cause earthquakes, even in places where there shouldn’t be earthquakes. And she has trouble controlling them. When she was a teenager, one of her seizures nearly caused the death of a family member and she left her mother’s house and never looked back.

Years later, she travels from place to place, always on the run, in fear that she’ll hurt somebody with another seizure and that someone in power will find her and take her away. Early in the film, she finds that her fear is justified, as she gets a ride from who she thinks is a kind stranger but is really a government agent who, of course, wants to take her with him. She fights back as soon as he holds up a syringe, and she finds there’s nowhere else to go but back home.

This is also set in a dying world where it hasn’t rained in years (and water is a precious commodity)—in a refreshing change of pace, these government slimeballs aren’t seeking mutants just because they’re afraid of their powers or because they think they’re interesting; instead, it’s to see if they can use their mysterious powers to bring the world back to life. How they go about it, however, could be worked on—will these people ever learn?

Anyway, Ruth returns to her childhood home, a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere. She’s reunited with her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint, fantastic here), who is stern and overprotective, especially of her adolescent granddaughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney). Ruth is Lila’s mother and hasn’t seen Lila since she was a baby, and now, this is an opportunity to mother, daughter, and granddaughter to connect as a family.

Oh, and Bo and Lila have their own abilities as well. It also seems Lila has mastered her abilities way better than Ruth could ever attempt, which leads to interesting conversations between the two, which leads to a few sweet dramatic moments together. We also understand Bo’s reasoning to protect Lila as she tried to protect Ruth long ago—sometimes, she even has to protect Lila from Ruth, whether Ruth intends harm or not. And Ruth learns to see the bright side in her own abilities, which she never wanted in the first place.

All three are compelling, well-defined characters that keep the film at a grounded level. And the direction from Julia Hart (whose previous film was the comedy-drama “Miss Stevens”) helps make the film more than it could have been. It feels like a superhero origin story with real people.

Where this intriguing dynamic of three different generations of supernatural abilities leads, I’ll leave for you to discover. All I can say is I thought I was going to be disappointed. Instead, I was left with much to discuss with someone else who has seen it. (And I’ll be showing this film to my fiancee Kelly, for sure. Can’t wait to discuss it with her.)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is at the center of “Fast Color,” and her performance, which has a great blend of vulnerability, confusion, and anger, is the kind that should gain a lot of awards attention (but probably won’t, sadly). But I get the feeling something bigger is in store for her. And she deserves it. She’s great in this film, she’s been great in other films (“Beyond the Lights,” “The Cloverfield Paradox”), and she’ll be great in many others to come.

Shazam! (2019)

16 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What could happen if a 14-year-old boy was given superhuman abilities? That’s the premise that “Shazam!,” based on the DC Comics superhero, wants to play with, as our teenage main character, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), becomes a superhero after taking the power of the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). Actually, it’s six powers: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Put the names of all six Greek gods together and you get the acronym “SHAZAM!” Oh, and he also transforms into the buff adult body of Zachary Levi and dons a red superhero wardrobe with a lightning symbol on the front, so therefore, we get kind of the “Superman” version of “Big.” (There’s even a reference to “Big” midway through the film—you’ll know it when you see it, if you’re a fan of “Big.”)

A little background—Billy has been searching for his mother (who lost him years ago) for the longest time and has hopped from one foster home to another because of his search which involves him getting into trouble one time too many. He’s taken in to another foster home, with a couple who seem like loving parents. But that’s not enough for Billy and neither are his foster siblings, including his roommate, the physically disabled geeky foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the adorable, energetic little foster sister, Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman). But he still feels the need to help them out any way he can, such as protecting Freddy from some bullies. While running from said-bullies, he happens upon the Wizard Shazam, who has searched for the right soul to hand his powers to—now that he’s dying, he has no choice but to give them to Billy.

Now in the form of Shazam, Billy lets Freddy in on the secret as they test his new abilities (and record before uploading it to YouTube to gain popularity), and of course, they have the time of their lives. (And luckily, Billy doesn’t stay in superhero form all the time—he can transform from boy to hero to boy again to hero again by simply saying the name “Shazam!”) But before long, Billy learns the obvious—with great power comes great responsibility. After rescuing passengers of a runaway city bus from certain death, Billy learns of an even bigger problem: a supervillain, spawned from Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who spent his life searching to obtain the Shazam abilities after they were denied to him as a child. (Wizard Shazam kept testing different people around the world and turned them down as soon as they proved unworthy.) Now, he’s obtained the controlling powers of the Seven Deadly Sins, who come to life and wreak havoc on humanity. Billy has to stop doing dumb teenager things with his superpowers and go up against Sivana and the demonic beings to save the day.

The villain is the weakest part of the movie for me, but at least the clever screenplay (written by Henry Gayden) has as much fun with him to make it better—for example, he has his typical villain monologue far away from where Shazam can hear it and he’s completely unaware. (I always wanted to see that in a superhero film.)

Speaking of which, what makes “Shazam!” most enjoyable is its lightheartedness and its ability to score laughs by playing with superhero-movie conventions, especially when Billy and Freddy continue to test the superpowers to see what Shazam can and can’t do. But I was surprised by a lot of the dramatic portions of the film as well. “Shazam!” can be heartfelt with emotional weight and depth, especially in the scenes in which Billy looks for his mother and bonds with is foster siblings (who are all distinct and very likable), and it doesn’t feel like it belongs in a different movie. The broad comedy and heavy drama in this superhero flick work surprisingly well together. Credit for that not only goes to the actors, who put their all into their work, but also the guidance of director David F. Sandberg (best known for horror films “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation”).

Oh, and it can also get pretty intense, especially when it comes to the Seven Deadly Sins…they perform a massive slaughter at an office meeting before terrorizing little children! (Parents, the PG-13 rating has warned you.) Inconsistent? Perhaps. But it reminded me of an ‘80s family-adventure that didn’t care who it was made for.

Being a film set in the DC extended universe, you’d think it’d be more about setting up the next DC film, which is something many of its installments fell victim to. But all that’s cared about with “Shazam!” was telling its own story (with only a few brief mentions of Superman and Batman). With effective writing, a fun spirit to it, and a wonderful, engaging performance from Zachary Levi as well as all the young actors, “Shazam!” is an extremely fun and well-made lighthearted superhero fable.

Booksmart (2019)

25 May


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Fifteen minutes into “Booksmart,” the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, I knew I was in for a treat.

Our main character, a Yale-bound academic high-school senior/class president/class valedictorian named Molly, overhears a group of burnout classmates make fun of her. She shows herself and puts them down in return, stating that they’ll probably end up with dead-end jobs while she’s going to accomplish great things post-Yale because she’s been studying and working hard all throughout high-school… Any other teen movie, this would be a victorious underdog moment. And Molly’s pretty proud of herself for standing up to her cynical peers. But it’s not that easy (especially after it’s already been established that Molly’s larger-than-life personality crossed with her brains is…kind of a bully, having put down many of her classmates prior to this moment for not being as smart as her). The group reacts in a way that opens up Molly’s eyes, and as a result, sets the film’s story in motion.

Does it get better than that? Well, it does live up to its promise—that this is going to be one of those refreshingly original teenage high-school coming-of-age films that we never get tired of, because when something is done exactly right, it’s always special.

“Booksmart” is a comedy about an honors student who learns just before graduation day that she’s not as smart as she thinks she is, even after learning there’s more for her to do before high-school is over. And God bless director Olivia Wilde and screenwriters Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman for turning out a fresh, sharp, very funny, and very insightful screenplay that gives us what we didn’t know we needed and more.

Anyway, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) realizes that there’s more to life (and high school) than studying and decides to do something about herself, now that graduation day is fast approaching and there’s a big blowout party going on the night before. And she brings along her best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who, like Molly, is as repressed as she is booksmart. Together, they will try to commit four years of high-school debauchery in just one night. I’m sure nothing will go wrong in the slightest…

Basically, they learn that a big party is happening tonight, and they’re determined to make an appearance. Molly wants to share a special moment with a certain guy she claims to have hated before. Amy wants the courage to talk to a cool skater girl (Victoria Ruesga) who might be interested in her as well. But more importantly, they want to show everyone that they can party just as hard as they can study. But there’s one problem: they don’t know where the party is, and they don’t have anyone to call for details, because no one’s ever invited them to anything before! Thus, we get one crazy night of madness and silly/crazy antics, after which nothing will ever be the same.

Ok, so from watching a lot of teen movies, we know there’s going to be a ton of crazy antics, we know there are going to be types of people we’ve seen in other movies (the Mean Girl, the Oddball, the Party Animal, etc.), we know the two best friends are going to have a falling-out after revealing certain truths, then they’ll get back together and discover that they at least have each other, and so on. (Greta Gerwig’s wonderful 2017 film “Lady Bird” set a new standard in making all of that seem entirely fresh and new.) And yet, the way it’s all presented here, it still feels like hardly anything I’ve seen before in these movies. It takes real talent to make something fresh and original out of something familiar.

For one thing, both the humor (most of which is R-rated vulgarity) and the heart (brought on by revealing truths late in the film) feel like they’re part of the same movie. The latter doesn’t feel like it was shoehorned in to fool audiences into thinking it was about more than it actually was intended. Part of the reason we buy into it is because the screenplay is written with enough intelligence to show the characters as real as possible—even when the situations they find themselves in are outrageous and unbelievable, the characters themselves feel real throughout. Thus, when we get to the core of the film, which is about breaking away from your one dear friend with whom you shared your deepest secrets, how to behave in acting on sexual attraction, trying something new and different despite what you’d be leaving behind, and the importance and power of friendship and sisterhood. What Molly & Amy have learned after going through such mayhem as numerous parties, hallucinatory drugs, ride-share hilarity, and even more, is that they have each other.

Even better is that Molly & Amy’s “booksmart” types aren’t the only ones who are given the opportunity to show their true selves to the world. The obnoxious wealthy weirdo, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), gets to show how sad and pathetic (and sympathetic) he truly is after introducing the girls to the world’s loneliest yacht party ever. The mean girl, Hope (Diana Silvers), is more complicated than we would think. Even the consistently drunk and/or stoned party girl, Gigi (Billie Lourd, hilarious), has moments of insight before the night is over. It’s strange—we laugh at these people (and I was laughing out loud at many of Gigi’s antics when I should have been utterly annoyed by her behavior), and yet, at the same time, they feel like real people. Even the adults, who are given briefer roles, are given enough dignity to feel credible—from supportive cool teacher Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams) to the principal with a second income (Jason Sudeikis) to surprisingly Amy’s parents (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow), who are kind, understanding Christian folks who accept their daughter’s homosexuality. I bring up that last part because most movies paint Christians as intolerant of it, whereas this one just shows these parents of a gay teen as good people who are also Christian. (If anything, it’s *Molly* who makes things awkward and uncomfortable when the subject is brought up, to the point where she likes to pretend she and Amy are a romantic couple—that makes all the difference here.) The more surprises “Booksmart” gives us, the fresher it feels.

There is so much I could talk about with this film, particularly the comedic parts of it. I haven’t even mentioned the hallucinatory drug sequence, which had me practically laughing on the floor, or the bizarre encounter with a pizza delivery guy (which leads to a hilarious payoff) or the absolute worst timing ever for bathroom vomiting. The film’s trailers do well without giving away the best jokes, so I’ll be kind and leave that for you to behold as well. But there’s another moment (and it’s my second favorite scene in the film, just behind the scene I already discussed at the opening of this review) that cemented for me that Wilde wasn’t going to go for the obvious joke or even the obvious dramatic resolution—it’s when we ultimately get the confrontation between the two “besties” about a secret that’s been revealed; it leads to an argument that practically stops the entire party as it gets more heated; one of them thinks she’s won the fight, but nope—apparently, the final clincher in response was so brutal and ugly that we don’t even get to hear it. (The audio fades out and the music swells up so that we don’t know what was said but how it impacted the person it was told to.)

There are a lot of moments like that that assured me that “Booksmart” was a film that was worth embracing. The sweet moments are the more special, the funny moments are all the more hilarious, and they’re balanced surprisingly well. When I left the theater for “Booksmart,” I wasn’t just cracking up thinking about that drug sequence again; I was also thinking that Molly and Amy are going to be all right. They’re smart. They learn from mistakes. And whether they’re together or apart, they’ll always have that special bond that unites them, and because they themselves are aware of it, that’s why they’re smart in the end.