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David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

7 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” was a Broadway show that was a modified version of David (formerly of The Talking Heads) Byrne’s “American Utopia” album, and this HBO film is a live recording of the performance. It includes many of Byrne’s solo singles and also a few Talking Heads songs like “Burning Down the House,” “This Must Be the Place,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Road to Nowhere” (my favorite Talking Heads song)–so, being the Talking Heads fan that I am, I checked out the film on HBO Max.

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” is one of my favorite films of the year.

The fact that this concert film was directed by Spike Lee may shock you at first, but there’s a number involving a powerful cover of Janelle Monae’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” which is updated with tragic current events (a trademark Lee-ism). This happens late in the film, and it made me think back to what I had seen prior–I had been having so much fun watching this incredible performance, I didn’t have time to think about how much more it is than “just a concert film.”

We got David Byrne, who is pushing 70 by now and still has everything that made him famous to begin with long ago. We got his backup band, who are all dressed in the same grey wardrobe and playing their instruments live (most of it is percussion, with a couple of basses here or there–Byrne wants to emphasize that the songs are performed live). We have all these different styles of songs, which is no surprise to anyone who’s a fan of Byrne and/or Talking Heads. We have all these different camera positions/movements that might even make the makers behind the “Hamilton” film envious. And we have all these topics such as human connection, the importance of voting, climate change, immigration, and, as I implied above, police brutality towards African-Americans. What does it all amount to in this film? I think it all represents connection through art, at which both Byrne and Lee excel. We admire and appreciate the hard work that was put into the art by the artists and we come away from it feeling somewhat enlightened by it.

But I don’t want to make “David Byrne’s American Utopia” sound so serious that people who are exhausted by the state of the world won’t get a kick out of it, because it truly is A TON OF FUN. I think anyone who is down or depressed before streaming this film on HBO Max will smile at least once or twice or about 10 times by the end of its hour and 45 minutes of running time. Byrne and the band are clearly having a great time and they want to share that great time with us–they even dance with the audience in the final number, and everyone’s just up and dancing and having loads of fun!

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” is such a joyous entertainment that I cannot recommend enough, and it’s going to earn a high ranking on my year-end list for sure.

Yes, God, Yes (2020)

3 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For every high-school teenager’s sexual awakening, there’s a movie made to exploit it for broad comedic purposes. But there’s a film that handles it differently. While there are funny moments in it, it’s a surprise to see that it’s handled very delicately. It’s a sweet and sincere little indie gem that knows how difficult it can be if you’re not sure about whether or not what you’re feeling is good or bad.

The film’s title… “Yes, God, Yes.” OK, it doesn’t sound very delicate, but trust me when I say this film, about a sexually-awakened teen, takes teens more seriously than others.

Natalia Dyer of “Stranger Things” fame is 25 years old and probably going to play high-school-aged characters until she’s 35-40. She absolutely shines here as naive, innocent 16-year-old Alice, who is sexually inexperienced–that’s why when there’s a rumor spreading in the halls of her strict Midwestern co-ed Catholic high school that she performed a sexual act for a male classmate, she has no idea what anyone is talking about. (It’s not true–it’s just a rumor.)

A funny running joke is she quietly tries to figure out what “tossing the salad” means and she doesn’t get valid answers until near the end. I should also mention that this film takes place in fall 2000, so she doesn’t have a smartphone to give her a proper definition of the term.

Yep–2000. Alice goes on AOL chat rooms. She has a contraband cellphone that she mostly uses to play that addicting “snake” game we all remember. And she watches “Titanic” on VHS–actually, to be specific, she watches the making-love scene of “Titanic” and rewinds it again because she’s so fascinated by it.

While in one of the chat rooms, she comes across provocative photos of a couple having sex. This leads her to discover masturbation for the first time–she’s surprised to learn the effect of it and even more surprised that she enjoys it.

But she’s brought up to believe that it’s a sin. In school, she’s taught that any sort of sexual activity outside of marriage is punishable by eternal damnation. She doesn’t know what to think of everything she’s discovering except that she’s curious about it. When the rumor that she hooked up with classmate Wade (Parker Wierling) gets her slut-shamed, she seeks to redeem herself by attending a school camping retreat that she hopes will put her back on a pathway to righteousness. But while she’s there, she learns more ways of pleasuring herself, develops a crush on hunky senior Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), and learns something about a seemingly angelic senior (Alisha Boe) and even about hip, 30something priest Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) that has her asking even more questions.

By the way, if you’re wondering, none of the scenes in which Alice practices masturbation are portrayed in graphic fashion. Writer-director Karen Maine, who wrote the film as a semi-autobiographical account of her own experience as a youth, cares more about how she feels rather than what she feels, which is a huge difference and makes the film all the more refreshing for it.

I’m not sure how Catholics would take to this material, but I’m a Christian and I found “Yes, God, Yes” to be smart, engaging, and quite funny–especially when Alice visits a nearby bar and has a heart-to-heart with lapsed-Catholic lesbian (Susan Blackwell, wonderful), who teaches her more valuable life lessons than any of her teachers/mentors had attempted. It leads to a wonderful scene near the end in which Alice gives a speech (it’s not forced–everyone has to express themselves at this retreat) about how we shouldn’t feel the need to hide who we are, because Jesus himself would want everyone to treat each other with respect and honesty.

And that about sums it up.

Side-note: This may or may not be an odd aspect to praise about a film, but I admire that this film is only 77 minutes long (including credits). It’s as long as it needed to be, and I don’t know why certain other films feel the need to be overlong.

Words on Bathroom Walls (2020)

2 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Charlie Plummer is one of my favorite young actors working today. He has a certain innocence and world-weariness to himself that comes through in each role he plays, and it’s always interesting to see him work because of that. In 2018, he delivered an excellent performance as my favorite character of the year: Charley in Lean On Pete. In 2019, he was the lead in the Hulu dramatic limited series “Looking for Alaska” (based on the John Green novel). And just a couple of months ago, in October 2020, he gave another truly impressive performance in Spontaneous. Now, here in “Words on Bathroom Walls,” he plays probably his most challenging role to date. He’s up to the challenge.

In the film, based on the award-winning novel by Julia Walton, Plummer plays Adam Petrazelli, a nice teenage boy with a potential future in culinary arts…who is also diagnosed with schizophrenia. He hallucinates terrifying situations in which rooms are filled with blackness and/or a flaming inferno, has imaginary friends including a heavyset bodyguard ready to pounce on anyone who comes near him, and is often derided by a tormenting disembodied bass-tone voice that always seems to be with him. Adam’s inner demons become all too real to him, which leads to consequences in trying to escape them–one of which results in his school friend getting severely burned in chemistry class and Adam getting expelled for his own good.

“Words on Bathroom Walls” is a mainstream-friendly teen movie similar to John Hughes’ movies, Love, Simon, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in that while it plays it safe with a serious issue, it still does a service to it while also being a charming, likable, entertaining film with appealing characters and a worthy message.

That being said, I’m not sure that Adam’s invisible friends (which include a hippie girl, the aforementioned bodyguard, and a horny-best-friend type) who come and go in Adam’s life are necessarily an accurate representation of what it means to live with schizophrenia (they mostly serve as comic relief)–but they’re not overly exaggerated that they lose the respect the movie deserves, in my opinion. (I could be very wrong here–but they didn’t bother me that much.)

Anyway, Adam goes through a medical trial to treat his illness and isn’t allowed to cook anymore (not with big knives at least). His caring mother (Molly Parker) and her new boyfriend (Walton Goggins), whom Adam isn’t so sure about, get him enrolled in a Catholic school, headed by Sister Catherine (Beth Grant), who wants no mention of his condition whatsoever. Adam is here to get good grades, take his medications, and graduate–that’s what Sister Catherine wants to hear and that’s also what Adam wants to believe. But he’s very uncertain about his own future, further evidenced by witnessing a mentally ill homeless man–he wonders if that’s what’s going to happen to him. (Adam even wonders at one point why everyone cares so much about cancer and yet don’t want to acknowledge schizophrenia. There are moments of thought-provoking truth here.)

The light at the end of this long tunnel comes in the form of Maya (Taylor Russell), class valedictorian with secrets of her own. He takes a liking to her and gets her to tutor him in math, and from there sparks a touching romance that also includes a date at an outdoor-screening of “Never Been Kissed” (THAT old classic).

Another helpful supporting character on Adam’s road to safety is the kindly Father Patrick (Andy Garcia). Adam confesses he doesn’t believe in God–Father Patrick assures him that he’ll listen anyway.

I should also mention the actors playing the imaginary friends: AnnaSophia Robb plays the flighty hippie chick; Lobo Sebastian is the bodyguard; and Devon Bostick is Joaquin, the kind of smarmy best friend you’d find in teen movies. They do what they need to do, and they’re good company, despite playing caricatures (which I think is the point anyway).

What is the message of “Words on Bathroom Walls?” Basically, it’s that everyone deserves to be recognized, which we see in many teen movies. But it’s also something more than that here–Adam wants more than just to be loved; he wants to be independent and do what he loves. And it works very well here. The moment Adam shows Maya what his true passion is (which is to cook and to go to culinary school), I knew I was in, especially when his hands started to shake. I was surprised by how wrapped up I was in his struggle.

Plummer carries this movie like a champ; it’s another top-notch performance to add to his resume. I remember seeing his first film King Jack at the final Little Rock Film Festival back in May 2015–he appeared for a Q&A with director Felix Thompson. I remember thinking this kid was going to go places. How right I was.

The Rental (2020)

2 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Thanks to today’s modern conveniences, we can go online and check for highly positive ratings on a restaurant or a hotel or an Airbnb homestay (instead of just take a chance on it regardless of customer reviews)…but we forget that there’s always that one chance that something will still go terribly wrong with our own experiences there.

How bad could it be? Well…worse than a one-star rating would suffice, let’s just say.

The characters in the low-key, chilling, stylish, and witty horror film “The Rental” are a small group of people who rent a large remote seaside dwelling for the weekend. Nothing wrong with a little time away from home…but this is a horror film, so even if they don’t know something’s bound to go horribly wrong, we sure do.

Directed by Dave Franco (brother of James and actor in films such as The Disaster Artist), making his feature directorial debut, and co-written by Franco and mumblecore king Joe Swanberg (who directed Franco in the Netflix series “Easy”), “The Rental” is very sly in setting up these four main characters as real people with moral dilemmas and easing the audience into the terror that is to come. Without giving away many particulars, lest I spoil the fun of discovering them for yourself, it begins as two couples–Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand), who is also Charlie’s business partner–take a trip to this house on the Oregon coast for a weekend getaway, get high on ecstasy the first night, and, uh…Mina and Charlie hook up in the shower.

So far, we’re a half-hour in and “The Rental” just seems like an ordinary indie “dramedy.” It isn’t until about 10 minutes later that a chilling discovery is made that could kick things into high tension.

Oh, and why don’t Charlie and Mina call the police when they make this discovery? Because then, it would expose their little fling to Michelle and Josh! Priorities, of course.

That’s about as far as I’m going to go in describing the story of “The Rental” because going into the more chilling aspects of it cold is part of the fun, as things go from relaxing to uncomfortable to straight-up nightmarish for these people who don’t even suspect that there’s far more here than meets the eye. When answers are revealed, some may be turned off due to its ability to negate many other parts of the film, but that’s another reason I liked it–it uses an old-fashioned Hitchcockian approach to unraveling this chilling mystery.

I’ll sum up my final thoughts: The actors are solid, their characters are well-defined, Franco proves to be a capable director, the cinematography from Christian Sprenger captures the perfect establishing moods for both day and night, and what begins as an effective ensemble character piece smoothly descends into a twisted horror film. All of that, plus the creepiest ending (or rather, ending-credits) I’ve seen in a long time, makes “The Rental” more than worth recommending.

Echo Boomers (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Echo Boomers,” the feature debut from director Seth Savoy (whose work in short films I’ve admired in the past). is about a group of millennial activists who break into wealthy residences, steal valuables, trash the place, and get paid for what they consider a hard day’s work.

Did I say “trash the place?” I meant they f***ing DESTROY each house they break into.

Their general political message is to make middle-aged rich people suffer while their generation is struggling to make ends meet–and as a result of delivering/selling their stolen items to Mel (Michael Shannon), who runs a legit business while also providing the youths with the addresses to rob, they live carelessly. Of course, the irony of making money while partaking in heavy criminal activity (their own “Millennial Mob,” if you will) is that they’re self-entitled a**holes who spend everything on heavily expensive items such as clothing and cocaine, because what the hell, they’re gonna get more of it anyway.

Robin Hoods, they are not…necessarily.

A common criticism I’ve seen against this film is that it “takes itself too seriously,” and indeed, I was about ready to agree, especially when Michael Shannon’s Mel takes this operation just as seriously as the young people when (in my opinion) a toned-down authority-figure type would have been more effective. But the reason I appreciate this film more than other crime movies involving young adults, like “The Bling Ring” and “American Animals,” is because while those movies included youths who committed crimes due to apathetic boredom, these characters feel more of a purpose. Whether you agree with their statement or not (and like I said, it can be difficult to root for them), it’s more interesting to follow them. Because of that, I do admire how seriously the material is taken.

The film’s frantic kinetic energetic style keeps the audience on-edge as we see just how much joy these kids get out of what they do and especially when things start to go wrong, which they inevitably do. It’s the familiar message about how gaining more makes you want even more of it and so forth (that’s just how it goes).

The young actors, who include Patrick Schwarzenegger as the lead, Alex Pettyfer, Hayley Law (great in Spontaneous), Gilles Geary, Oliver Cooper (welcome back, Costa), and Jacob Alexander, all turn in good performances. And as much as I criticized the character portrayed by Michael Shannon…c’mon; it’s Michael Shannon. The guy could play a mobster in “Kangaroo Jack” and he’d still be incredible to watch.

There’s just such a heart and energy to “Echo Boomers” that I have to congratulate Seth and his co-writers Jason Miller and Kevin Bernhardt for. And I look forward to seeing what they do next.

I Used to Go Here (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s right there in the title–“I Used to Go Here.” You ever go back to your old school (whether it be grade school, middle school, high school, or college) and expect the ghosts of your old classmates to still hang around the cafeteria or the student center? That feeling is perfectly captured as the protagonist in this wonderful indie gem, “I Used to Go Here,” visits her alma mater and notices what has changed and what hasn’t. She even attends a house party in the place where she used to live, now mingling with today’s students as if she never even left.

Written and directed by Kris Rey (whose previous film was the underrated Cobie Smulders indie dramedy “Unexpected”), “I Used To Go Here” is about a 30ish-year-old writer named Kate (played by Gillian Jacobs) who is invited to her alma mater to read from her newly-published novel. Her book tour has been cancelled due to low ratings (as established by her overly cheerful publicists) and plus her fiance dumped her, so why not go back to school? While there, she reconnects with her favorite writing professor (Jemaine Clement) and finds herself connecting with a group of new students who now live in her old house. But more importantly, she comes to terms with weighing both her successes and her failures long after college.

Side-note: it’s such a strange coincidence that I’ve been chatting with a buddy of mine about how things have changed and/or not changed since college, and now here’s a film about a person in a most uneasy time for her, in her mid-30s, when her college dreams didn’t quite pan out (and she also learns that things that did work out didn’t do so the way she expected). I’m in my late 20s, and I already identify with her. (And my buddy would too.)

Anyway, “I Used To Go Here” is a delightful little film. Gillian Jacobs, a comedienne whom I’ve liked in shows like “Community” and movies like “Don’t Think Twice,” delivers a wonderful performance as Kate–she keeps the film on a grounded level; honest yet lighthearted at the same time. My favorite scene is when she reads from her book to a crowd–it feels like even she knows she’s lucky her novel got published in the first place.

And then there’s A LOT of colorful supporting characters–I was surprised to find not only how funny these people are but how memorable they all are. Screenwriter Rey clearly has an affinity for each one…well, except for Jorma Taccone’s bit part as Kate’s old college acquaintance–the film just sort of forgets about him after a couple brief scenes. Jemaine Clement is smooth, authoritative, and a bit blunt as the professor; Cindy Gold is brilliant as the no-nonsense B&B proprietor (do not lose your keys!!); Zoe Chao is very funny as Kate’s best friend whom Kate calls from time to time; and then there’s the group of helpful, likable college kids played by Forrest Goodluck, Josh Wiggins, Brandon Daley, Khloe Janel, and Hannah Marks, all of whom make good company for Kate and have their own little quirks. (Particularly, Daley as “Tall Brandon” has a payoff late in the film that was so funny, I had to pause the movie to collect myself.)

Oh, and there’s also Rammel Chan as Kate’s guide Elliot, who is very, VERY enthusiastic about his duties–he’s my favorite character in a film that is rich with character.

Even when Kate and the kids go on a little half-baked mission to expose someone’s implied wrongdoings, I was happy to go along for the ride with these people. And in the end, I just hope for the best with Kate and her future career as a writer–hopefully she’ll write a better book, one that’s more from the heart.

I’d read it.

All the Bright Places (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a film on Netflix that tackles grief, bipolar disorder, and suicide…but this isn’t “13 Reasons Why.” “All the Bright Places,” based on a YA novel by Jennifer Niven, is not an easy film to sit through, as it takes these issues very seriously. But it is an important film to get through because of that same reason. (The producers even went out of their way to list many helpful resources on the film’s website. There’s also a note during the end credits: “This film is dedicated to those who have been impacted by mental health concerns, suicide, or grief. If you’re struggling or know someone who is, you can find more resources at”)

Netflix was already in hot water because “13 Reasons Why” premiered with a depiction of a teenage suicide in graphic detail, so much so that they had to edit that scene out two years later. In adapting the book “All the Bright Places” into a film and dealing with teenage depression and suicide, Niven, her co-screenwriter Liz Hannah (“The Post,” “Long Shot”), and director Brett Haley (Hearts Beat Loud) agreed with Netflix that they need to take extra care while presenting tragedy as earnest as possible. (They even brought mental health professionals on board as consultants.)

Btw, there are mild spoilers from this point forward.

The film is about two high-school teens, Violet (Elle Fanning) and Finch (Justice Smith), who are each grappling with their own personal demons. Violet has survivor’s guilt after surviving a car accident that killed her sister, and Finch has manic episodes, which puts him on probation in school (where students refer to him as “the Freak”). When he first meets her, she’s standing at the ledge of a bridge, contemplating suicide.

Finch decides to help heal Violet, and as they work together on a class project, his advances work in helping her come out of her shell. But when she tries to help him in return, he doesn’t go for it. And things get more complicated from there…

If you’re looking for a typical Netflix teen romcom, check out The Half Of It or “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” or “Candy Jar,” because “All the Bright Places” gets pretty heavy.

There is a death. It occurs off-screen, leaving it open to our interpretation what exactly happened, as details about the death are left purposefully vague. Was it suicide? Was it an accident? While “13 Reasons Why” delves deep into meanings about why its suicide happened, “All the Bright Places” asks us to open a conversation about its tragedy ourselves. Why? Because what happened and why it happened is never as simple as we might like to think.

Some of this is even explained in more detail in the book, but author Niven agreed some things should be left vague in the film. “All the Bright Places” is not manipulative or exploitative in the slightest–it was made by people who genuinely wanted to help other people.

And for that reason, it’s one of my favorite films of the year.

Spontaneous (2020)

8 Oct

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s just a normal day at school until something totally unexpected and truly terrifying happens when a student suddenly dies. No, it’s not a school shooting, though one parent admits to fearing that was the case upon hearing of the tragedy. Instead, it’s…spontaneous combustion.

That’s right–a high-school senior just suddenly explodes like a balloon filled with blood, sending the whole town in a panic. No one knows why it happened or even if it will happen again. But things get even scarier when it does happen again…a lot. More of the upperclassmen at Covington High School are randomly exploding without rhyme or reason. The crowd is celebrating a high-school football game–one of the players goes kaboom! Our young protagonist enjoys a nice drive with friends and then suddenly…well, you get the idea.

That’s the setup for Brian Duffield’s “Spontaneous,” a terrific dark comedy with plenty of surprises in its cynical humor and (I’m not kidding here) its smart insight in how modern-day teenagers react to tragedy around themselves. As funny as this film is (and it’s very funny at times), it’s also quite moving and sincere when it needs to be.

After the first tragic combustion, a kind boy named Dylan (Charlie Plummer) sees this as a sign to live life to the fullest, which not only includes buying his own car (or in this case, his own milk truck–how random) but also revealing his true feelings to his crush from afar. That would be Mara (Katherine Langford), the film’s sassy, sarcastic narrator who doesn’t take everything seriously, let alone her own future. Not even the explosions of her own classmates seem to faze her all that much–she and her bestie Tess (Hayley Law) can only comment on how weird it all is.

Anyway, after Dylan starts up conversation with Mara (by sending “Dick” pics of Richard Nixon–“Sorry if it’s crooked,” texts Dylan), they start hanging out together and connecting like they wouldn’t have before. Thus starts a relationship that continues even when the rest of their class is in quarantine while the government tries to come up with some kind of cure to prevent further kids from blowing up.

After that, well…I’ll leave that for you to discover. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this film, which is not only very funny in a dark, cynical way (the way that Duffield, the writer of the Netflix bloody gem “The Babysitter,” could deliver–and this is his directorial debut)…but it’s also very insightful and pretty moving, again, when it needs to be. When you think about these kids who think nothing bad can happen to them and their whole lives are ahead of them and then suddenly this unexplained epidemic comes along, think of how much anxiety and fear comes from such a wakeup call.

(Note: It’s amazing that this film came out when it did, considering it was made two years before the COVID-19 global pandemic. You can make many parallels to it, strangely.)

Mara goes through the stages of it all–jokes about the situation, then denial, depression, lashing out irrationally, everything–and it’s an intriguing, compelling character growth that comes out of it. All I’ll say about the ending is that I think it’s perfect for this material. It’d be somewhat preachy if it weren’t so damn funny.

What helps elevate this film from typical “cult movie” status, which I think it’s destined to become*, is the interesting relationships that many characters have with each other. Mara and Dylan are cute, funny, and lovely together and they complement each other perfectly. Mara and Tess are a wonderful duo of best friends (the best “best-friendship” I’ve seen in a long time), as their witty banter develops into something more as the film progresses and they fear one or the other might explode. And Mara also has a nice relationship with her parents (played very well by Piper Perabo and Rob Huebel)–funny, loving, obviously concerned, and even going as far as to allow their daughter to do drugs with them. (They know she’s not good at hiding her marijuana.)

“Spontaneous” could have just been your typical cynical dark comedy just to provoke a shocked response from the audience–it’s more than that. By the end of the film, I’ve laughed, my heart leapt for these characters, I bought the romance, and I believed in what the film got across in the end. This is an ambitious dark comedy that pays off in a superb way.

*There are already plenty of reviews for “Spontaneous” that reference an obvious comparison: the ’80s cult dark teen comedy “Heathers” once or twice. I personally feel like this film is more mature, but don’t quote me on that.

Under the Sun (Short Film)

7 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sad as it is, we still need more movies serving as anti-prejudice parables because there are still many groups of people in today’s society that are victimized and often attacked by other groups of people who have their own idea of “normal.”

Take the 28-minute short film “Under the Sun.” What is the conflict? Well, it’s an unspecified time in the future–you can tell because it’s set in a bleak city that looks like sunset all day every day, people don’t often dress in color, and there are glitchy florescent advertisements on wall screens. No wonder people are miserable…oh, and there’s also a breakthrough in medical science that allow people to undergo surgeries that result in cybernetic augmentations (while their human minds remain intact).

Dem derrty rerberts dernt berlerng wit’ uss nerrmal ferrks! Subtitled: “Them dirty robots don’t belong with us normal folks!” That’s over-the-top hater speak for “I do not particularly care for those with that kind of alteration.”

“Under the Sun,” written and directed by Kansas City’s Samuel Tady, conveys this idea very effectively, with good commentary and skillful filmmaking. (For a short sci-fi film made on the cheap, the production values are pretty impressive.) We do see this kind of thing happening today, with violent hate groups and casual bystanders (you know, the kind that “support” a cause without actually doing anything), and this film comments on the complicated issues of all sides through a science-fiction parallel–one in which the remaining humans who haven’t been augmented look upon the half-cybernetic individuals as a threat to society and thus treat them like second-class citizens.

Solymar Romero plays Meadow, a woman with a replacement robotic arm. Her journey gains interest in an audience because she feels halfway between human and cybernetic. When she sees a cybernetic person being attacked by a hate group, she turns away. When she sees the story of his attack on the news, as the victim’s cousin Dominic (Alfredo Mercado) expresses his disdain for how the situation is being handled, she starts to listen. After meeting a new augmented friend, Zetta (Valeri Bates), and having her eyes opened wider by everything happening around her, she learns there’s a time when something has to be done about current wrongdoings.

The film is surprisingly rich with character. (I shouldn’t say “surprisingly,” but I’ve seen many sci-fi stories where characters are more of a side thing to the environments they inhabit.) I’ve already mentioned Meadow, Dominic, and Zetta, all of whom are interesting protagonists to follow. But there’s also the group of anti-cyborg demonstrators, led by Daina (Meredith Lindsey) and Nick (Samuel Kelly), who take a new recruit: James (Zachary Weaver). We don’t know where their hatred of cyborgs comes from, but I can’t pass them off as one-dimensional violent bully types because there are sadly more people like this in the real world (again adding to the film’s social commentary, whether the augmentations stand for race, disability, sex, or whatever). Of the trio, James’ story is predictable but still well-handled due to a solid performance from Weaver–when he sees the extent of what these people do in order to spread their anti-cyborg message, he starts to question his morals/ethics. He’s an angry college-aged kid trying to find a place in this world, so he’s at that point where he needs to figure out what to do. Predictable, yes, but it works.

There’s also a character who represents the type we know all too well: the well-meaning but socially-unfocused type of person who will voice their support without actually taking the time and effort to do something for a certain group or cause. (Instead, they use semi-sincere statements such as “I have a friend who’s [such-and-such]” or whatever makes them look good.) That character is played by Meadow’s all-human friend Stella (Debbie Diesel). Her interaction with Dominic, whom she saw on TV news, is the most priceless moment in the film.

Stella also has a brilliant payoff at the end, in which all key characters (Meadow, Zetta, Dominic, James, Daina, Nick, Stella) are fatefully brought together to partake in a climax in which there is a clear winner and loser…or is there?

“There’s thousands like us,” one of the villains states, regarding the anti-cyborg demonstration. True, but A) who exactly is “us”? And B) There are more of the rest of us than one would like to think. It’s just a matter of who stands up first (or next). I think that message is at the core of “Under the Sun,” and I recommend the film for its well-meaning, imaginative, and powerful storytelling.

Check out the film on YouTube.

The Half Of It (2020)

13 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t review enough Netflix teenage romcoms, but I have seen my fair share, from the good (“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”) to the mediocre (“Tall Girl”) to the pretty-bad (“Sierra Burgess is a Loser”) to the laughable (“The Kissing Booth”). Why review those movies when I could review the one Netflix teen flick I think stands high above the rest? So let’s talk about Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever”…

I apologize—that’s a series, and I rarely review series. You want my review of that? Here it is: “Never Have I Ever” is the best Netflix Original teen romcom yet. There you go. Now let’s talk about writer/director Alice Wu’s “The Half Of It,” which is a step above “good,” which means it’s pretty darn good. 

“The Half Of It” is Wu’s queer take on the “Cyrano de Bergerac” story. And when I first heard that, I groaned because another Netflix teen romcom (“Sierra Burgess is a Loser”) already used similar elements, and not to good effect. But to quote the late Jean-Luc Godard, “The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.” Thus, “The Half Of It” succeeds where the other movie failed. (I know there are fans of “Sierra Burgess,” and I don’t want to dump all over that movie so much, but it just didn’t work for me at all.) 

“The Half Of It” stars Leah Lewis in a star-making performance as shy, awkward, intelligent high-schooler Ellie Chu, whom her classmates pay to write their essays for them. Because she’s so good with words, a goofy football jock, Paul (Daniel Diemer), hires her to write a love letter to his crush, the pretty popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Though reluctant at first, she agrees to help him woo her. In the process, Ellie and Paul become good friends…which makes things very difficult as she also develops romantic feelings for Aster. 

That’s basically the gist of it. Even though many parts of “The Half Of It” feel familiar, the way Wu plays them does not. From the visually intriguing opening scene, which illustrates the idea of a “soul mate,” we already know we’re in good hands. Wu also more than enough care for her characters to make them more than the archetypes we’ve read about in young adult novels (or seen in young adult novel-to-film adaptations). 

“The Half Of It” is a film about desire. Ellie hasn’t felt anything towards another person because she’s so closed-off—and now, she experiences friendship with Paul and a growing longing for Aster. Paul feels something for Aster, even if he isn’t entirely sure what it is (though he’s pretty certain he’s in love—a lot of us remember what that high-school self-assurance is like). Aster is trapped in a constant loop with the in-crowd on campus, and thus isn’t allowed to express her true desire just yet. (Again, it’s high school—you do what you can do.) Aster kind of reminded me of Lea Thompson’s character in the John Hughes dramedy “Some Kind of Wonderful,” struggling between placement in the high-school hierarchy and truly expressing herself.  All three key characters are well-developed and also wonderfully acted. 

Wu’s script and direction, which I’m guessing (having not read many articles about the making of the film as of now) comes from a place of semi-autobiographical truth, are tender-hearted and result in numerous scenes that made me feel for these people. Another character my heart reached out to is Ellie’s father, played by a wonderful Collin Chou—even before his inevitable big speech in the final act (because these movies always have one), I loved this guy.

Speaking of speeches, there’s one scene that felt false to me. (And it’s not the scene involving a character’s homophobia—I think given the film’s small-town setting, there were enough subtle touches to set that up.) It’s a scene set in a church where our key characters each get a chance to give speeches about what they’ve lied about and what they’ve learned and so on. It’s a “courtroom-outside-a-courtroom” moment, which usually don’t work. However, I’m willing to give it a slight pass because I found the payoff to be pretty hilarious, resulting in my favorite line, “Now THAT’s divine intervention!” (That line, by the way, was delivered by an effective Becky Ann Baker as a teacher. As someone who grew up with “Freaks and Geeks,” it was great to see her in another teen flick.)

But even with that bit of forced melodrama, I still very much enjoyed “The Half Of It.” I loved what these characters had to say to each other (whether it’s about artists or loneliness or God or even something called “taco sausage”). I loved Leah Lewis in the lead role. I loved how Wu was able to turn the small-town setting into its own character. And with the exception of the church scene, I also loved how so many issues were handled with just the right touches. I haven’t seen Alice Wu’s previous film, “Saving Face,” made 16 years before this one. I’ll happily check that one out, as well as whatever Wu delivers in the future.