Archive | 2021 RSS feed for this section

Mass (2021)

12 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Mass” was an indie film I missed in theaters last fall, and I finally got to watch it recently. What did I think of it?

This would have made my top-10-of-2021 list for sure. “Mass” is a treasure of a film–one that’s probably going to stay with me for a great amount of time.

“Mass” is the screenwriting-directing debut of actor Fran Kranz (best known for roles in movies like “The Cabin in the Woods,” “The Village,” and Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”), and it’s mostly set inside one room in the basement of an Episcopalian church in which two couples meet and discuss something important and devastating. (I mention this because I was surprised this wasn’t originally a play; it has the makings of a great one–but no, Kranz decided to create a dialogue-driven story in which both the dialogue and screen acting take over the scenario. Props to him for making this move.)

One couple is played by Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton; the other, by Reed Birney and Ann Dowd. These four veteran character actors are amazing together. Also very good is Breeda Wool (an actress I loved in the Stephen King adaptation series “Mr. Mercedes”), who plays a nervous, friendly, and very apologetic church worker who wants to make sure everything is ready for this meeting in a prologue that eases us in with a little bit of lightheartedness before things get…well, I won’t spoil it (though, I’m sure you can figure out soon enough what the four people are discussing).

Basically, what this meeting is about is to let a lot of emotional damage and weight be eased by saying the things that weren’t said before. Some of the rhetoric involved in the situation is brought up, but the film doesn’t pretend to know everything because it’s obvious the characters don’t know everything (which also adds to their turmoil). All they can do is talk and hope that they reach some kind of an understanding about how and why what happened happened. (I like how it eases into the heavier topics as well. No one just comes right out and verbally blames someone for the incident.)

With Kranz’s screenplay combined with brilliant performances from four brilliant actors, “Mass” is a film I can’t recommend enough. And I won’t lie…this would have been really close to #1 on my year-end list, had I seen it in 2021.

2021 Review

31 Dec

By Tanner Smith

It’s the most wonderful time of the year–celebrating the holidays, spending time with loved ones, and of course, perfect for a movie guy like me, checking out all the film critics’ year-end lists.

By now, I have a reason to hate making these lists–while they’re a reflection of how I feel in the moment, they don’t represent the changes of perception to the subjected movies, and how could they? (Many of these movies on the list, I’ll have only seen once as of now.) But at the same time, I still love making these lists for three reasons–because I like looking back at the past year at the end of said-year, I like looking back on them years later to see what’s changed, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to change my opinion of how I felt in the moment (I can only change my opinion of a movie after more time and viewings pass).

I’ve seen many movies in 2021. However, at the time making this list, I’ve missed a few well-received titles such as Being the Ricardos, Mass, CODA, Don’t Look Up, The Power of the Dog, and The Lost Daughter. But that doesn’t mean I’m never going to see them, and if I like one of these movies enough, I’ll find reasons to write about them.

Oh, and there are two movies on my list that have made critics’ year-end lists for 2020–to that, I say they were released to the public in 2021 and thus they’re qualified for my list. (You’ll know them when you see them.)

So let’s get started!

I’ll do things a little differently this time. For starters, I will present my top-10 list first–and in alphabetical order simply because…well, it’s my list and I’ll do with it what I want. So, here they are–my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2021 (in alphabetical order)!

  1. Bo Burnham: Inside
    Is it really a movie or a comedy special? Why is that even a debate? Let it be what it wants to be; for me, comedian-musician’s Bo Burnham’s visual album that represents being alone in quarantine is one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen all year! My favorite song on the playlist: “Facetime With My Mom Tonight.” Available on Netflix.

2. C’mon C’mon

I love writer-director Mike Mills’ work and I’m glad to have seen his latest film in time for a year-end list for once. This is a beautiful movie about connecting and with a moving performance from Joaquin Phoenix and wonderful moments of gentleness and sincerity.

3. Language Lessons

“Bo Burnham: Inside” and “Language Lessons” are two sides of the same coin–they show us what can be done when we’re forced to make art using very limited resources while in isolation. Director/co-writer/co-star Natalie Morales and her collaborator Mark Duplass might have played my favorite movie duo of the year as two lost souls who virtually find each other.

4. Licorice Pizza

Whew! Saw this one just in time, and man, am I glad I did! The great filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has delivered what I think is one of his absolute best works with this uplifting and sweet-natured 1970s period piece about the awkwardness and charms of first love. A wonderful film. (Maybe the reason this list is alphabetical is because not enough time has passed for me to properly rank it. Is it #5? #2? #1?? Check back with me in a month or so.)

5. Minari

Here’s one of the two 2020 holdovers that made it onto my 2021 list because come on, it was officially released to the public in early 2021, so that’s how I see it. (Fun fact: this was also the first movie I saw in a cinema since before the pandemic happened.) “Minari” is a beautiful film with moving performances and a touching story about family and ambition.

6. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Disney has presented some great animated treasures in 2021. But while Sony’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” doesn’t have the grand scale of “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the warmth of “Luca,” or the emotional impact of “Encanto,” it is my favorite animated film of the year because it’s just a ton of fun. Available on Netflix.

7. A Quiet Place Part II

Instead of letting this sequel to the 2018 horror smash hit “A Quiet Place” go straight to streaming in 2020, writer-director John Krasinski and Paramount Studios decided to wait a full year to give us this wholly entertaining thrill ride to the big screen. And God bless them for it, because this is a great sequel.

8. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Yep, it’s the number-one movie of the year, and I, an unapologetic Spider-Man fan, can see why! I was very impressed with the previous “Spider-Man” movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“Spider-Man: Homecoming” made my 2017 list; I still stand by that)–but even I had no idea that it was all leading to what is undoubtedly one of the greatest films in the MCU. Tom Holland, who was already immensely likable as Peter Parker, grew into being a great Spider-Man; the directing from Jon Watts is top-notch (even above his work on the previous movies); and…I didn’t know being a fan of the other “Spider-Man” movies (from outside the MCU) would pay off in such a major way! (Does this mean I don’t have to apologize for liking “The Amazing Spider-Man” anymore?)

9. The Water Man

“The Water Man” is proof that the family film is alive and well even today–both children and their parents can get something out of this beautiful story filled with tense adventure and well-deserved drama plus appealing characters going through it all. Check it out, show your kids, and prepare for an interesting blend of fantastical legend and human interest.

10. West Side Story

Steven Spielberg’s take on the classic “West Side Story” is not just another film–it’s an experience. Everything about this musical screams “OUTSTANDING!” The cinematography, the choreography, the acting from the outstanding cast, the set pieces, and of course, the music direction are more than enough for me to say go check it out–but there’s more to it than all that: modern context helps make the hindsight look clearer. I’m surprised Spielberg hasn’t made a musical before.

And now…my OTHER Top 10 of 2021 (also in alphabetical order)!

  1. Belfast–Kenneth Branagh’s heartwarming personal story
  2. Encanto–I still can’t get that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno-no-no” song out of my head!
  3. Ghostbusters: Afterlife–THIS was the “Ghostbusters” follow-up I was waiting for!
  4. Luca–simply delightful Disney/Pixar flick
  5. Nightmare Alley–Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times put it best: ” a great, great movie about some bad, bad people.”
  6. Nomadland–this is the other “2020 holdover” I mentioned.
  7. Raya and the Last Dragon–Disney had a great year!
  8. Ride the Eagle–I love indie dramedies, and both this and “Language Lessons” were my two favorites this year. Great work from actor Jake Johnson.
  9. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings–Great year for the MCU too!
  10. Val–A loving tribute to actor Val Kilmer helped by Val’s son Jack. Available on Amazon Prime.

And now, a bunch of honorable mentions, in no particular order: Long Weekend, Fear Street Part Three: 1666, Old, Adrienne, The Suicide Squad, The White Tiger, The Stylist, tick, tick…Boom!, Jakob’s Wife, No Sudden Move, Last Night in Soho, Stillwater, Our Friend, Candyman, Slaxx, Together Together, The Vigil, Passing, Judas and the Black Messiah, Operation Varsity Blues, Pig, My Salinger Year, and Shiva Baby.

And last but…maybe least, I dunno…I have to mention this one film in particular because whether it’s good or bad, I don’t care because it’s the silliest movie I’ve seen all year (and one of the most entertaining–as I said in my review of the movie, it’s my kind of silly). It’s the German import Help, I Shrunk My Friends.

There is no way I can further defend it better than I’ve already tried in my initial review, so you can check that out–my opinion of it hasn’t changed; it’s still one of the more bonkers and entertaining films I’ve seen this year, and that has to count for something!

And that’s it! I love this time of year and I love going into a new year not knowing what truly great movies await me. There’s only one way to find out and that’s support local art, go to the movies, and because streaming services are bigger now than ever, give some underappreciated Netflix Originals a chance.

See you later!

C’mon C’mon (2021)

9 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m not gonna lie–I had to sit with what I just saw for about 10 minutes before writing about “C’mon C’mon.”

I’m a big fan of writer-director Mike Mills’ work–he makes deeply personal films about inter-family relationships and characters I deeply care about. With his 2011 drama “Beginners,” it was Ewan McGregor learning from his father (Christopher Plummer) how to relate to someone again. With 2016’s 20th Century Women, it was Annette Bening struggling to relate to her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) in changing times. And now with “C’mon C’mon,” we have the always-interesting Joaquin Phoenix in one of his softer roles as a radio journalist having to connect with his 9-year-old nephew.

I didn’t see “20th Century Women” in time for my best-of-2016 list (and only after did I check out “Beginners,” so obviously that one wasn’t on the 2011 list either)–this time, I can finally have a Mike Mills film on my year-end list.

As I mentioned, Phoenix plays a radio journalist named Johnny, who goes around different cities asking many different children questions about particularly heavy topics like how they see the future. One of the great touches of the film is when he teaches his little nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) how to use his equipment to record natural sound as they walk around the city–whether Johnny knows it or not, it’s helping open up Jesse’s mind to the world around him.

Side-note: there’s already critics asking why this film had to be presented in black-and-white, especially since it seems set in modern times and there were two recent films set in the past (Belfast and Passing) that were also in B&W–I will not argue against this decision, especially because all this talk about the future helps give the film a sense of timelessness. (Plus, Johnny and Jesse are often walking around the city streets of Los Angeles, New York, and/or New Orleans–Jesse lives in LA, Johnny takes him with him to NY, and the two later visit NO–and the cities always look great in black-and-white.)

NY-based Johnny calls his LA-based sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), with whom he doesn’t usually talk except on occasions such as the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death, and Viv needs a favor from him. She needs to go to Oakland to be with her manic-depressive soon-to-be ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy), because he had another breakdown recently, and she needs Johnny to look after her 9-year-old son Jesse. So, Johnny moves into Viv’s house to be with Jesse, who is a very strange but also very bright little boy. Naturally, the two don’t know how to get along, but as some time passes, he decides he likes the little tyke and doesn’t mind being a parent.

But naturally, this is only the beginning. With Viv’s permission, Johnny takes Jesse back to New York with him so he can get back to work and spend more time with him. Of course, with Jesse being a little kid who lives in a world all his own, Johnny realizes that this parenting gig isn’t as easy as he thought. When he tells Viv about how difficult things are with him, she responds, “Welcome to my f***ing life”–but she also assures him that nobody knows what they’re doing and there are going to be times when you want to be away from your kid and times when you love your kid, but you just have to keep going.

There are beautiful moments of gentleness and sincerity in the moments where Johnny and Jesse truly bond together, and there are heart-stopping dramatic moments such as when Johnny loses Jesse on a busy city street(!)–one of the things I love about Mike Mills films is the way he balances lighthearted humor and heavy emotional drama. The relationship between uncle and nephew is at the heart of the movie and it’s wonderful seeing seasoned veteran Joaquin Phoenix and pre-pubescent newcomer Woody Norman interact together as these two characters.

C’mon C’mon is one of my favorite films of 2021 and I’ll make sure it gets a spot on my year-end list.

Passing (2021)

19 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Netflix’s “Passing” looks at an age-old issue in the Black community: light-skinned Black people “passing” as white.

“Passing” is the screenwriting/directing debut of actress Rebecca Hall, who adapted the screenplay from a 1929 novel of the same name and for whom this was a deeply personal project, as her grandfather was Black but passed for white. The result is a gem with skillful filmmaking, gorgeous cinematography, and two extraordinary leading performances at the center of it.

Set in New York City in the 1920s, “Passing” is focused on two light-skinned Black women who were good friends in the 1910s but went their separate ways after. Irene aka Rene (Tessa Thompson) now lives in Harlem and has settled down with a doctor for a husband (Andre Holland) and two children, and is a member of the Negro Welfare League. She’s doing some shopping downtown (and doing her best to hide certain features so the posh white people don’t know she’s Black) when she encounters her old friend Clare (Ruth Negga)…who has reinvented herself as a glamorous blonde, married to a wealthy man who doesn’t know she’s Black. As Clare brings Rene up to her hotel suite for a drink, Clare’s husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard), arrives and already shows his colors as slimy and bigoted and never sorry for it (of course never realizing the ethnicities of present company). Clare welcomes herself into the lives of Rene and her family, hoping to rekindle her friendship with Rene. But of course, things aren’t as simple as they may seem…

“Passing” was shot in black-and-white, giving Hall and cinematographer Eduard Grau ample opportunity to emphasize skin color–it’s much more effective than if it were done in color.

This film has a great cast. Both Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson are Oscar-worthy in their roles; they’re able to get across the numerous layers their conflicted characters are covered with. (It’s also the first time I’ve truly seen Thompson, who was good in the “Creed” movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, disappear into a role.) Alexander Skarsgard is of course great as the oily creep, Andre Holland is solid as Rene’s husband who has mixed feelings about where his kids are growing up, and Bill Camp, one of today’s best and understated character actors, turns up as a celebrated white author who is the guest of honor at an NL dance party.

The overall point of “Passing” is made pretty clear, as everyone is passing as something else one way or another, no matter what the race, sexuality, social stance, etc. And I was intrigued by how Rebecca Hall, who proves to be a very capable director, gets it across.

“Passing” is now available on Netflix.

Language Lessons (2021)

17 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t often do this on my blog, because it’s more about other people’s films than my own, but I’m going to plug my short film “Cassandra.” It’s a 43-minute comedy-drama that takes place entirely through video-chat. I co-wrote and directed it and it can be seen on YouTube here.

What does this have to do with the film I’m reviewing, titled “Language Lessons?” Well, this film also tells its story through a webcam-perspective format and I was kind of jealous of it for that.

No joke–many times throughout “Language Lessons,” I kept thinking to myself, “Oh THAT’s how I was supposed to make our video-chat movie!” But at least now I can tell those who told me they couldn’t get through the first 8 minutes of “Cassandra” that there IS a way to do it. And this is that way.

I mean it; “Language Lessons” is one of my absolute favorite films of the year. I love this movie.

“Language Lessons” is, like I said, told entirely through webcam and focused on two characters played by Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass. (Morales also directed the film and co-wrote it with Duplass.) And it’s about a Spanish teacher (Morales) and her student (Duplass) who form a friendship over a long period of online Spanish lessons.

Mark Duplass is one of my favorite people working in the film industry, and this, I believe, is his very best work. Just when I think I’m going to get the Duplass I already know and love from his other works, such as Safety Not Guaranteed and Creep, he shows some heavy dramatic chops I didn’t even know he had. There’s a scene in which he’s coping with tragedy and he has an emotional breakdown in trying to figure out how to tell people about it–that was the moment I talked to the screen: “Dang, Mark, you should get an Indie Spirit Award nomination for this!”

Natalie Morales is a skillful director (and soon after watching this film, I checked out her other film, “Plan B,” available on Hulu–very good work there too) and a winning screen presence as a friendly soul who first teaches her student and then is there for support. She deserves Indie Spirit recognition as well, especially when we see more levels to her character late in the film.

Being a film centered on two people through virtuality, “Language Lessons” is a 90-minute conversation piece. Not only are the two people such appealing personalities that work off each other wonderfully, but the conversations they have are interesting to listen to (and watch, seeing as how those who don’t already know Spanish will need to read subtitles much of the time). That’s the reason I watch indie dramedies: to watch characters I care about go through life the best ways they know how.

“Language Lessons” is now available to rent/buy on-demand and will be available on DVD/Blu-Ray next month–and I highly recommend it.

Now…maybe I should start writing another webcam movie, huh?

The Water Man (2021)

17 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Water Man” is a charming and moving family film directed by acclaimed actor David Oyelowo, who proves to be a successful director based on this first effort. It feels like he took elements from the classic ’80s Spielbergian kid-adventures like “The Goonies” and “E.T.” and put a modern spin on them. In today’s movies, we can have a couple of kids going on an extraordinary adventure…while also dealing with real terrors such as leukemia, abuse, and even a wildfire.

Oh, and there’s some monster out there or…something.

“The Water Man” is about a young boy named Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) who learns of the legend of the Water Man, which dwells in the woods near his hometown and has harnessed the power of immortality. Believing the Water Man is real and can help save his ailing mother (Rosario Dawson), he, along with an older girl named Jo (Amiah Miller) who claims to have seen the legend itself, goes on a quest to find him.

Both the young actors are outstanding and their characters are richly drawn. (Though, Jo’s backstory is a little too easy to figure out upon first viewing, but it’s still compelling.) I was invested in their journey, especially because I didn’t know what was going to happen or even if this Water Man character was real. And in the end, I cared deeply about what became of these kids–and that goes for the adults too, from the leukemia-stricken mother to the struggling father (played by Oyelowo himself) to the helpful sympathetic police officer (Maria Bello) to the man who is absolutely certain that the Water Man is 100% real (he’s played by the great Alfred Molina).

“The Water Man” is proof that the family film is alive and well even today–both children and their parents can get something out of this beautiful story filled with tense adventure and well-deserved drama plus appealing characters going through it all. Check it out, show your kids, and prepare for an interesting blend of fantastical legend and human interest.

Help, I Shrunk My Friends (2021)

17 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Ohh boy, how am I going to defend this one?

“Help, I Shrunk My Friends” plays like a cheesy sitcom episode that runs for an hour-and-a-half and doesn’t leave you with anything except a few cheap laughs. But I have to admit…I not only laughed, but I smiled too.

No kidding. I actually enjoyed this film as a piece of mindless fun, which at some point or another is just what I need. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too–you won’t know unless you see it.

“Help, I Shrunk My Friends” is a German import dubbed into English. (And I’m not going to sugarcoat it–the English dubbing is AWFUL.) It’s also a sequel to two other badly-dubbed family films, “Help, I Shrunk My Teacher” and “Help, I Shrunk My Parents” (don’t you love it when the titles tell you what to expect?), both equally cheesy and dopey and not really worth recommending–so why is this third movie worth recommending?

As strange as it may sound, I admire this film for growing up with the adolescent main characters. The previous two films starred prepubescent kids dealing with something odd and supernatural; this time, it’s the same group of kids, only they’re teenagers (about 15 years old), they’re swearing up a storm (and one even flips another the bird at one point), and they’re oddly enough involved in a story that serves as a parable for hormones. (Bear with me; I’ll get to that.) In a strange way, these films represent a coming-of-age “Up Series” aspect as we see these kids grow up with each film.

Now, where does the “shrinking” aspect come in? Well, all of these films take place in a prep school that is haunted by the ghost of the late warlock Otto Leonhard (Otto Waalkes), whose spells include shrinking people to about seven inches tall with help from a magical marble and a bowl. Through Leonhard’s will, the sphere spins round and round inside the bowl, then fire and smoke burst up, and shazam! You’re suddenly shrunk. (Weird, but somewhat inventive.) In this film, Leonhard’s ghost grants the power of Shrinking to our young hero named Felix (Oskar Keymer) to protect all of his magical artifacts kept on display.

But Leonhard didn’t count on the possibility of a teenage boy having trouble sorting out priorities, as Felix uses his new powers to impress the pretty new girl in school, named Melanie (Lorna zu Solms), to shrink a magical necklace for her to wear as a bracelet. (This necklace/bracelet glows when certain people are near, revealing someone’s attraction.) When Felix’s friends accuse Melanie of stealing items and get on his case since they know he’s too smitten to see their side, Felix gets mad and shrinks all four of them–Mario (Georg Sulzer), Robert (Eloi Christ), jokester Chris (Maximillian Ehrenreich), and most notably, Ella (Lina Huesker), who has a not-so-secret crush on Felix (who, of course, sees her as just a friend).

Well, it turns out they were right–Melanie has been helping an old grudge-fueled witch, Hulda Stingbeard (Andrea Sawatzki), and two teenage bullies (Cosima Henman and Tobias Schafer) steal Leonhard’s book of spells so Stingbeard can extinguish his spirit and…I dunno, rule the world or something like that. Melanie is also a kleptomaniac and has stolen the magic marble, which means it’s going to take a while for Felix to get his friends back to normal size. Thus results in a crazy adventure in which Felix must keep his now-tiny friends safe before they all must face the villains and inevitably foil their plans.

The villains are the strangest and funniest aspect of the movie. Stingbeard was seen in the previous film as an old nemesis of Leonhard’s who was shrunken and resized as a rapidly-aging (because apparently shrinking causes you to age 10 times faster) practically-skeleton-like monster who has spastic rapid movements when she’s not depending on mobility via wheelchair–she also barks orders to her young assistants to the point where I’m wondering why they even bother taking her crap for so long. The two assistants, who eventually capture the shrunken kids and treat them to deadly games of killer tops in a nicely-done sequence (btw, the digital effects here are actually quite impressive), get some good laughs as well, particularly when they bicker like your typical high-school couple.

They definitely score more laughs than the antics involving Felix’s dope of a father who becomes a chaperone for a school overnight and adds pretty much nothing when he’s asked to look after the other students while Felix and his friends save the day.

There is a charm to the way Felix, a likable young protagonist, has to handle the responsibility of protecting his ghostly mentor’s property, keeping his friends safe, even shrinking himself to rescue them from the two regular-sized bullies, and questioning whether or not to trust Melanie to help him–not to mention, the love-triangle cliche I usually can’t stand in movies is interesting here when we have Ella trying to talk some sense into Felix who is smitten by Melanie. And being a “shrinking” story, you would hope to see some fun action with differing sizes–while there aren’t many, there is a fun chase scene involving the shrunken kids riding a big skateboard to pursue the villains.

“Help, I Shrunk My Friends” doesn’t have the humor or even the smarts of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” nor is it even something I would tell my friends to seek out immediately. Look, I’m here to tell you–this movie is silly. Don’t come at me with your comments that it’s too silly. But it’s my kind of silly and that’s why I have trouble telling you that I had a fun time watching “Help, I Shrunk My Friends.”

Belfast (2021)

17 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Belfast” is acclaimed writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s deeply personal tale based somewhat on his young childhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland before he and his family emigrated to England when he was 9 years old. And with its black-and-white cinematography on top of the autobiographical aspect, many (MANY) reviewers have made their comparisons to Alfonso Cuaron’s equally personal and masterful “Roma.”

BTW, stop. OK? Just…stop. That was “Roma,” this is “Belfast.” Let’s move on, shall we?

Oh, and other critics have pointed out how the specific use of color to blend with the mostly-B&W visuals is more obvious than necessary. I say, so what? It’s effective either way.

Well, yeah, it is clear that the reason visual mediums such as the silver screen, the TV screen, and the theater stage display their art in color to our 9-year-old protagonist beholding them is to give him an escape from the black-and-white bleak troublesome world he has to live in. But come on. It’s still effective.

The whole film is effective and wonderfully crafted, paying tribute to those in Belfast who, in the late 1960s, either had to stay or leave (or be sadly lost) when a violent war practically destroys their peaceful neighborhoods. And it does so from the point of view of a child, which keeps us on ground level when going through this world. It also makes the “colorful” (forgive the pun) moments, such as when the boy and his family delight in seeing the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in a cinema, all the more precious–while, at the same time, it also makes the scarier, more violent moments a little more romanticized.

Buddy (Jude Hill, adorable throughout) is our little guide through a working-class neighborhood in 1969 Belfast. As the movie opens, he’s enjoying playing a game on his block when suddenly, a violent mob of anti-nationalist Protestants arrive and set fire to the Catholic houses they come across. (We don’t get a lot of detail regarding the history of this civil war–Branagh is careful enough to give us just what we need to know. Even those who aren’t familiar can tell that this isn’t about religion; more so, it’s about nation.)

With all going on outside, there’s also personal issues occurring inside, as Buddy’s family has to consider the future now more than ever. Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) works as a laborer in England and is often away for business, while Ma (Caitriona Balfe) has to care for Buddy and his older brother and also deal with Pa’s dealings that keep leaving the family in heavier debt. When Pa has the idea to uproot the family to Sydney or England, she argues that they barely even afford to stay here.

Ma also argues that everything she knows is right here in Belfast–that includes Ma’s parents (the wonderful pairing of Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench), with whom Buddy is often spending time. These two people are delightful to watch. They bicker and make jokes at each other’s expense, but you can feel the love they share for each other and they’re also wonderful grandparents to little Buddy. (Grandpa even helps Buddy with his math homework–Buddy doesn’t want to merely do well in school; he wants to get to know a smart classmate, Catherine (Olive Tennant), on whom he has a crush.)

There’s so much for Kenneth Branagh to pack into his sentimental nostalgic trip that it’s amazing he’s able to succeed in giving us a satisfying film that only runs about an hour and 37 minutes (usually filmmakers think they need an extra hour, so this was a pleasant surprise). When the time comes for Buddy’s family to truly consider where they’re supposed to be at this point in life (do they wait out the war or do they move far away), it’s not hard to feel for them and hope they find some happiness while surviving together. The cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos is outstanding, the acting is nomination-worthy, and the writing and directing from the already-skilled Kenneth Branagh show me that he doesn’t need Shakespeare or great visual technique to warm my heart. “Belfast” is a great film.

The Fear Street Trilogy (2021)

15 Sep

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! I’m going to try my best to be as vague as possible in summarizing some plot details for those who haven’t seen the Netflix horror trilogy as of yet–but you can’t be too careful.

Three horror movies in three weeks? Exclusively on Netflix? Sold!

The Netflix miniseries known as “the Fear Street trilogy,” directed by Leigh Janiak and based on novels written by R.L. Stine, was quite the event in the summer of 2021. Each film in the trilogy paid homage to popular horror films and tropes of a certain time while telling a bigger story about the setting, its characters, and what haunts both of them.

The three films were released on a weekly basis, and to make matters better, each installment got better as they went along. Let’s talk about them:

Fear Street Part One: 1994

Smith’s Verdict: ***

“Fear Street Part One: 1994” is influenced by 1990s slasher films, most notably “Scream” (right down to the stunt casting at the beginning, declaring the trilogy’s first victim). There’s a lot of ’90s nostalgia (including maybe too much of the ’90s-centric soundtrack), some surprising twists, grizzly horror sequences, and yes, a lot of blood. (Note: This is not R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” material being adapted here–this is hard-R (or hard-TV-MA) material we’re dealing with here on Fear Street.) What results is a decent slasher flick that will get people interested in checking out Part Two of the series.

Also like in “Scream,” we get references to classic horror films such as “Jaws,” “Night of the Living Dead,” and “The Shining.” But this first installment of “Fear Street” may remind people more of Netflix’s popular series “Stranger Things,” which like this film involves a lot of nostalgia (this is as deep-rooted in the ’90s as “Stranger Things” is deep-rooted into the ’80s) and savvy teens solving deadly mysteries. It just so happens these kids are going up against zombies and slasher killers (and zombie slasher killers).

“Part One: 1994” is set in Shadyside, a mid-American town with a dark history of gruesome murder that dates back centuries. These murders are different time after time, but there are similarities that some locals can’t help but notice–but just to say people from Shadyside are simply bad seeds is an easier pill to take than to believe people from Shadyside are cursed, right?


But just ask the locals of the neighboring town of Sunnyvale, where everyone is rich and safe and looks down at Shadyside like they’re no better than sewer scum.

Another massacre has occurred in Shadyside, this time by a killer in a skull mask. (Something that adds to the mystery is the revealed identity of the killer right away, thus raising interesting questions already in the first act.) But things are about to get a lot worse, as a group of Shadyside teenagers accidentally disturb the resting place of a witch who cursed the town centuries ago and is responsible for the string of different local murders to come. What was whispered about (and even joked about) before is now all too real for these kids, as they are stalked by figures that represent Shadyside’s history of murder. These risen-from-the-dead monsters include: a psychotic milkman, the aforementioned skull-mask killer, a summer-camp slasher (who looks like Jason from “Friday the 13th Part 2,” with the burlap sack over his head), and my personal favorite, a happy-singing female slasher who delights in slashing with a straight razor (and singing a happy tune).

The key characters are Shadysiders Deena (Kiana Madeira), her brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), and her friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), plus Sunnyvaler Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), who used to live in Shadyside before moving. (Deena and Sam also used to be a couple before the move affected them both.) They need to figure out why the killers keep coming for them and solve the mystery of the curse before it’s too late.

What results is a wild goose chase and numerous clues to follow along, as well as some gruesome kills amongst characters (including one notably graphic scene involving a bread slicer which is definitely one-of-a-kind), that make “Fear Street Part One: 1994” an entertaining thrill ride to go along for.

Upon first viewing, the characters aren’t much to write home about (though Josh the kid brother was likable enough and Kate and Simon had some funny lines here or there), and even though I commend this horror series for giving us an LGBT couple in Deena and Sam, I didn’t care for either of their characters because they seemed thinly drawn…which is why I’m glad this is a trilogy and not just one stand-alone movie, because that leaves room for opportunity to get the audience to care about the characters by the end.

Did I? Well, let’s find out, ’cause I was going to check out Part Two anyway.

Fear Street Part Two: 1978

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Well, while some questions may have been answered in “Part One: 1994,” there’s still plenty of mysterious territory for “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” to delve into. The film begins in 1994, where Deena visits the reclusive Shadysider C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs) and demands answers, knowing she went through events similar to her and her friends. Knowing full well what she’s talking about, C. Berman tells a story and takes us back to the summer of 1978…

Welcome to Camp Nightwing, where the feud between Shadyside and Sunnyvale has the kids partaking in a brutal game of capture-the-flag. (Sheesh, for all the crap Sunnyvale dumps all over Shadysiders, why do Shadyside kids even go to this camp?) Sarcastic and trouble-making Shadysider Ziggy (Sadie Sink, Max of “Stranger Things”) is particularly chastised (and even hung up on a tree and burned on the arm–YIKES, kids can be cruel!), while her older sister Cindy (Emily Rudd) tries to keep out of trouble, thus straining the sisters’ relationship.

Oh, and get this–apparently, the only campers who smoke dope and engage in premarital sex are the ones from Shadyside. Because, of course. Sunnyvale always has to have the morality, don’t they–let’s not forget they’re the ones who spend the duration of the camp dumping all over their neighbors. (With the summer-camp setting, “Part Two: 1978” is obviously paying homage to “Friday the 13th,” but its bullies are just as ruthless and mean-spirited as those in another summer-camp slasher-horror flick, “Sleepaway Camp.”)

Oh, and only a Shadysider must be possessed by a demonic curse, thus embarking on a killing spree about the campground. That’s exactly what happens, as Cindy’s mild-mannered boyfriend suddenly becomes a violent axe murderer and chases his girlfriend and her friend Alice (Ryan Simpkins, “Brigsby Bear”). Thus, we have the origin of the Camp Nightwing Killer, who was brought back from the dead in “Part One: 1994.”

Secrets are revealed, the body count rises, and despite being a summer camp with many different places to run and hide, there’s very few options left for our main characters to run and hide as they try to figure out how to survive the night. “Part Two: 1978” is an effective chiller made even better with the context of its previous chapter–not only am I entertained (and suitably creeped out) by the material, but I’m involved in a decades-long mystery I want to learn more about.

And it got me interested in seeing “Part Three: 1666,” which would undoubtedly give us the origin of the notorious witch and the curse laid upon the town. Will it disappoint?

Fear Street Part Three: 1666

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Nope. It didn’t disappoint. They saved the best for last.

And what’s even better is even though I didn’t “love” Parts One or Two, I was thankful for watching them to get to this point. Even the 1994 characters of Deena and Sam, neither of whom I cared much about in “Part One: 1994,” grew to become more compelling characters that I cared very much about here in Part Three. How? Well, I won’t say here.

And again, I’m trying to be careful here in mentioning plot details, especially now that we’re at the end of the trilogy. There’s still a possibility that some readers of this review haven’t seen the trilogy yet.

Anyway, now we’re in the year 1666, and we’re going to get the answers we’ve been waiting for. How did everything in this setting lead to all the mayhem and terror we’ve come to encounter in 1978 and 1994? Is there more of a connection than we initially thought? We’re put right into how it all happened here. (And to make things a little more interesting, pretty much all of the characters in this mid-17th century era are portrayed by actors from Parts One and Two.)

We’re taken to 1666, at the establishment before Sunnyvale and Shadyside were divided in two. Right off the bat, I buy the setting. The costumes and sets are authentic enough and the cinematography helps bring me into the era. Sometimes, the accents are muddled and there are some historical accuracies to needlessly nitpick, but let’s be fair here–this isn’t “The VVitch.”

Sarah Fier (Madeira again), who will become the notorious witch who cursed Shadyside, gets involved in a secret romantic affair with Hannah (Welch again)…which doesn’t bode well at all when the village’s water is poisoned, the food supply is spoiled, and the local pastor commits an unspeakably evil act. Thus, everyone in the village is convinced there is evil brought upon them and are looking for someone to blame–and sadly, two women being intimate together is enough to make them the target of a witch-hunt. (The social commentary here is surprisingly very effective.)

There is a real witch around here, one that reads from a book of spells, and…really, I should stop here in discussing the 1666 story. Let me just say that this film is a solid case for the heard-before messages of “don’t believe everything you hear” and “history is made by the winners.” I was surprised to find myself really getting into the sad plight of these protagonists and what sacrifices were made that split the establishment into Shadyside and Sunnyvale and cursed the town of Shadyside for centuries to come. When it reached its climax, I was surprisingly emotionally invested. Where I enjoyed having fun with Parts One and Two as cheesy entertaining slasher flicks, Part Three pulled the chair out from under me.

We do return to 1994 (complete with the title card of “1994: PART 2”), so that Deena and surviving co. can use what she learned about the true origins of the Shadyside curse to bring an end to it all. While the 1666 portion, which takes up half of the film’s running time, is the most riveting and intriguing and even emotional of Part Three, I’m still glad I stuck around for the remainder of the 1994 story. Not only does the Deena-Sam relationship redeem itself to the point where I cared deeply for them, but we’re also treated to one crazy (and blood-splattered) climax that brings the previous monsters back for one last hurrah. And it’s a lot of fun to watch.

And so, I’ve completed the “Fear Street” trilogy and had a very good time. What a finish!

How good was “Fear Street Part Three: 1666?” It made me appreciate the previous films a little more than I did before. That’s why as much as I recommend Part Three, the whole trilogy deserves to be seen as whole.

Luca (2021)

18 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

While the latest Disney/Pixar film “Luca” (now available on Disney+) is getting decent reviews from critics, a lot of ’em are still declaring it one of Pixar’s weakest films, to which I say, “Oh so picky.”

What do you want me to say, that it’s not as heartwarming as “Soul” and “Coco,” as clever as “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” as groundbreaking as the “Toy Story” movies, “Up,” and “Inside Out?” OK, it’s not, there you go. Now I can talk about how awesome it is as “Luca.”

“Luca” is the latest Pixar film to make something cute and lovable out of what we would normally find frightening and repulsive. As was the case with the monsters in “Monsters, Inc.,” the dead people in “Coco,” and the rats in “Ratatouille” (…actually, the rats are still a tad repulsive), I don’t see little kids being frightened by the sea creatures in “Luca,” even after a “Jaws”-inspired opening in which fishermen are met by a quick-witted creature and quickly get away from the “horrifying monster.”

Luca is the name of our main character (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a “sea monster” who is as offbeat-adorable as many Pixar protagonists. Much like Ariel the Little Mermaid, Luca has a fascination with the surface world while his parents (Maya Rudoplh and Jim Gaffigan) forbid him to explore beyond the underwater world because (of course) humans are the real ones to fear.

Things change when Luca makes a new friend in another sea creature, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), and discovers that all sea creatures can pass as human when they’re out of the water. As real boys, Luca and Alberto become the best of friends and get into all kinds of misadventures in their own little world above surface, which involves a lot of “Jackass”-like stunts with makeshift Vespas. Their want for a REAL Vespa drives them to a fishing village, where they learn that if they win prize money in an annual sports competition, they can buy their own Vespa and travel the world! (Makes sense to me.)

Thus begins their literal fish-out-of-water story as Luca and Alberto befriend a local girl named Giulia (Emma Berman), train for the competition (which involves bicycle-racing and fast-eating), and attempt to fit in with the townspeople–as long as they don’t get wet, their secret is safe. (Oh, and did I mention the competition also involves swimming?) Meanwhile, they have to put up with a local bully named Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), who unlike most Pixar bullies such as Randall (“Monsters, Inc.”) and Chef Skinner (“Ratatouille”) is consistently funny (he’s like Gaston of “Beauty and the Beast,” only without the muscles). And Luca’s parents, who also approach the surface, try to find their son. (The parents’ methods of finding Luca by splashing water onto all the local boys are some of the funnier parts of the movie.)

Yeah, some of this is standard stuff, but as is the case with the best Pixar movies, there’s something special underneath (forgive the pun) the surface. That is the bond between Luca & Alberto and the developing relationship between Luca & Giulia which threatens that bond. What started off as a classic “Little Mermaid” story became Pixar’s equivalents of “Stand By Me” and “The Kings of Summer.” As a result, it grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go.

“Luca” is a great summertime movie, not just because it includes people having fun and adventure in the season, but because summer is the season in which solid bonds are formed and tested. And that is what is at the heart of the story of “Luca”: the relationship between Luca & Alberto and what other desires could break them apart. And of course, having Jacob Tremblay (who’s been acting in movies since preschool) and Jack Dylan Grazer (so entertaining in “Shazam” and the “It” movies) supply the voices helps too.

“Luca” was the directorial debut of Enrico Casarosa, who usually does art work for other Pixar movies, and I was also pleasantly surprised to find that frequent Pixar writer Mike Jones’ co-writer for this one was Jesse Andrews, best known for writing both the novel and film adaptation of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” They add to the charm and humor of this coming-of-age fantasy that is of course, as is typical of Pixar, also beautifully animated.

Yeah, I know I mentioned the animation last in this review of a Pixar film, but c’mon, it’s Pixar–would you expect anything less than stellar visuals? Even “The Good Dinosaur” had pretty imagery.