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Moxie (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Somewhat (or definitely) influenced by “Mean Girls” (written by director Amy Poehler’s best friend Tina Fey–wonder if Fey gave Poehler any pointers), “Moxie” is a funny, sweet, inspirational high-school dramedy about a quiet girl who fights back against the campus hierarchy. In this case, it’s a battle against the campus patriarchy–taking the place of Regina George is handsome, popular, smarmy jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger).

Who is going after the school’s golden boy? That would be Vivian (Hadley Robinson), a wallflower junior who is proud to ignore and be ignored by many of her peers (except for her best friend Claudia, played by Lauren Tsai). This semi-shallow view changes when she notices that a transfer student, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), is also being ignored–by the school principal (Marcia Gay Harden), no less–when she tries to report that Mitchell is harassing her. This opens Vivian’s eyes to the sexism and misogyny going on in the school (such as a list ranking female students) and she decides she’s going to do something about it. So, inspired by Lucy’s no-BS policy and her mother’s teen rebel days, she creates an anonymous girl-power zine called “Moxie.” She leaves copies in the girls’ restroom for students to find, and just like that, a movement has begun.

These are problems still present in many American public schools–the football team gets most of the funding, other teams can’t afford new uniforms, the dress code is ridiculous and filled with double standards, and many people, even those with authority, just won’t listen when certain issues are mentioned. These are among the things that “Moxie” (both the zine and the movie) addresses.

Poehler also co-stars in the movie as Vivian’s mother, who is the exact opposite of the mother she played in “Mean Girls” and thank God for that. She’s learned a thing or two since her high-school days and when things inevitably get too intense for Vivian in secretly keeping Moxie going, she’s there to help her out with some important knowledge. (Poehler in “Mean Girls” was a wannabe “cool mom”–Poehler in “Moxie” actually IS a cool mom.)

All of the young actors are great here. Hadley Robinson is an appealing lead to follow and she has great chemistry with Lauren Tsai as her best friend–it’s heartbreaking when the two inevitably get into an argument about the way things are going because of the zine (which is why it’s heartwarming when they inevitably make up again). Alycia Pascual-Pena turns in a terrific performance as the rebellious Lucy, who leads the Moxie movement forward and won’t take any crap from anybody. (I love her first scene, in which she questions today’s relevance of “The Great Gatsby” in English class–even when Mitchell tries to silence her, she won’t have it.) There’s also a winning performance from Nico Hiraga as a kind skateboard geek named Seth, whom Vivian takes a liking to–the end of their first date is one of the film’s highlights.

Also among the film’s highlights is the clever dialogue brought on by writers Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer (who adapted the screenplay from the YA novel by Jennifer Mathieu) and an empowering ending that would have been cheesy had it not been set up properly by the capable hands of director Poehler.

I think that Netflix Original teen movies are getting much better (the best in recent memory being “The Half Of It”)–following the exceptional “To All the Boys: Always and Forever” a few weeks prior, “Moxie” is further evidence of that. It’s funny, charming, and features some truly awesome teens at its center.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There is a gripping Netflix Original film called “Operation Varsity Blues,” and it’s one of my favorite films of 2021 so far.

Directed by Chris Smith (who also gave us entertaining documentaries such as “American Movie” and “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”), “Operation Varsity Blues” is a docudrama that creatively digs into the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal. It uses transcripts from real wiretap conversations and incorporates them into reenactments from actors playing the parts of the people involved. Matthew Modine takes center-stage as Rick Singer, who masterminded the whole scheme of dozens of parents paying him off to bribe elite schools into letting their under-qualified kids in. (This included high-profile parents such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.)

I always liked Modine in other works such as “Full Metal Jacket,” but here he turns in what is probably his best performance. How good is he? We do see the real Rick Singer interviewed about an hour into the film, and it’s practically uncanny how close he is to the real thing.

Other actors portray the wealthy parents who didn’t ask many questions when Singer informed them that it would cost tens of millions of dollars to send their kids to Stanford or USC or what have you.

“Operation Varsity Blues” begins with your average high-school senior’s dream come true, as we see recordings of numerous kids each celebrating getting accepted into the school of their choice. That makes it all the more heartbreaking when a half-hour later, after we’ve been sucked into Singer’s con game, we get footage of other students, upset and sobbing that they didn’t get into their choice schools. (One of them even says they feel worthless.) It’s so easy to feel empathy for these young people because it’s more than likely four out of five of us have been there before.

And then to find out that ultra-rich parents paid someone to get their children into whatever premium university they wanted? That has to hurt.

“Operation Varsity Blues” did a very good job sucking me in as it detailed the scandal from the seemingly harmless beginning to its numerous clients to the moment it all came crashing down, with one arrest after another.

With more and more evidence piling up to prove why college isn’t especially necessary for most people in today’s society, I think this intriguing film came at just the right time. “Operation Varsity Blues” is now available on Netflix and I highly recommend it.

Malcolm & Marie (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you felt uncomfortable watching the lengthy argument scenes in films such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff,” “Before Midnight,” and “Marriage Story”…this film is definitely not for you. However, if you’re looking for a film about a couple testing each other’s love, with solid characterization, brilliant acting, and skillful direction, you can’t go wrong streaming “Malcolm & Marie,” available on Netflix.

John David Washington and Zendaya play a filmmaker named Malcolm and his supportive girlfriend named Marie. They’ve just returned home from the premiere of Malcolm’s latest film. Marie lets Malcolm know pretty quickly that something is bothering her. What is she upset about? Well, she says it’s because he didn’t thank her in his speech to the audience–even though he thanked his parents and his elementary school teachers and an usher at a theater he worked at as a kid (that last one might not have been real) but neglected to mention her. It’s also indicated that Malcolm’s film was inspired by her in a sense (and she also supported him every step of the way making this film).
This escalates into a fight where both egos go at it with each other…but it’s only the beginning. It’s going to get worse and worse and worse…

Like I said, it gets pretty uncomfortable. But it’s also fascinating to watch both these extremely talented actors show off their extreme talents, guided by the deeply layered screenplay by director Sam Levinson (who also directed Zendaya in the series “Euphoria”). I wasn’t even halfway through the 106-minute running time when I was getting genuinely concerned how this long night was going to end!

Will this couple stay together? Will they separate? Do they deserve each other? What does that even mean??

I also have to give kudos to Levinson and his crew for making this film under the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Oh, and this film also delivers a LOT of shots at film critics (including a lengthy tirade by Malcolm about a POSITIVE review!) as a way of a character distracting himself from the real issue at hand. And I’m just assuming by the film’s mere 58% on Rotten Tomatoes that some critics aren’t responding to that very well…you do know that if you’re going to get offended at JOKES towards critics, you’re proving the movie right, don’t you?

Bottom line: “Malcolm & Marie” is a darkly sardonic, sharply written, brilliantly acted look into the longest night of this couple’s life.

A Quiet Place Part II (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let me tell you right at the beginning–the best way to see “A Quiet Place Part II” is in a theater, which is why I’m glad it wasn’t released on-demand during the pandemic. I’m glad I waited to see it in a theater because it’s terrific.

I really like A Quiet Place, and I’m glad it set a new standard for new mainstream horror films. I was looking forward to “Part II” because I was curious to see what was going on outside the central characters’ farmhouse (where the first film mostly took place). The concept is similar to what “Dawn of the Dead” did after “Night of the Living Dead”–taking us outside the familiar settings to see how other places are affected by a terrible outbreak.

But first, we get a wonderfully executed and very chilling prologue in which we see the beginning of the invasion. You see how our familiar characters (played by writer-director John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe) lived in a normal world before all of a sudden, everything has changed…

It’s not zombies that turned the world to hell in this universe–instead, it’s apparently a bunch of beastly alien creatures that really, REALLY do not like sound and hunt/kill every sound they hear. (You can’t help but wonder how these things, if they came from another planet, managed space travel!)

After the prologue, which was a great way to ease moviegoers back into this terrifying universe, we flash forward to about a year-and-a-half since the initial attacks (and pick up where the first film left off). And, also similar to “Dawn of the Dead,” our main characters–mother Evelyn (Blunt), daughter Regan (Simmonds), and Marcus (Jupe)–learn that it’s not just the monsters that are to be feared in the outside world, which they (with a newborn baby in tow) decide to venture into. From that point on, “A Quiet Place Part II” is a delicately crafted, chilling, and even emotionally driven monster movie.

As with the first movie, a lot of “A Quiet Place Part II” rides on visual storytelling–expressive acting, excessive atmosphere, and carefully chosen dialogue. (Having many of the characters communicate through sign language, since Regan is deaf, adds to it as well.) When a sudden loud noise could trigger one of the monsters to attack (how many of these things could be in one area??), such as when someone steps into a bear trap and screams in pain as anyone would, it’s fascinating to see how these people continue living/surviving in this post-apocalyptic world of silence.

I mentioned the carefully chosen dialogue, and an example of this comes from a new character played by Cillian Murphy. We’re introduced to him briefly in the prologue as a seemingly mild-mannered person; he’s a totally different person when we see him again later. His few lines of dialogue carry many amounts of emotional weight. While I’m praising the acting, I was especially drawn by the performance of Millicent Simmonds as Regan, the deaf daughter–she’s excellent here. (Simmons is also deaf in real life.)

In “A Quiet Place Part II,” there are good scares, great moments of suspense, wonderful acting, nicely-done character development, and expert cinematography, shot with 35mm film. (And without giving it away, I also loved the ending.) With such great aspects in a horror film, it’s easy to look over the little things such as my constant questioning of how the predatory creatures manage to function–and I just enjoy a good thrill ride.

Solos (Amazon Prime Series) (2021)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

The anthology series “Solos,” released via Amazon Prime, features episodes that have one thing in common: the theme of human isolation. Seeing as how most of us spent a great part of 2020 in self-isolation, we could relate. But the question is, how many stories in this seven-episode series can we see ourselves in? How many can we see others in? And more importantly, should we care?

Well, obviously, yes, we should care. Did I care? Well, let’s take a look at each individual episode…

Leah (Episode 1)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Morgan Freeman narrates each episode by setting us up for what we’re about to see. For Episode 1 (“Leah”), he narrates: “If you traveled to the future, could you escape your past?”

“Solos” gets off to a good start with an intriguing, well-written episode called “Leah.” (Side-note: Each episode is named after its central character.) Anne Hathaway stars in a deeply-layered performance as Leah, a brilliant physicist who is obsessed with time travel and works/lives in her mother’s basement (which looks more like a Dave & Busters, if you ask me–I was expecting her to play the slots for tickets on one of the devices with blinking lights). Well, she gets her answer, resulting in some tricky conversations with two versions of herself. The dialogue, written by series creator David Weil, maintains a delicate balance between sparky/funny and heavy/philosophical–and that also goes for the episode’s tone as well, with skillful direction from Zach Braff. But the real reason “Leah” works is because of Anne Hathaway’s performance. In one half-hour-long short film, Hathaway has to play up all the emotions we know she’s capable of from films such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Les Miserables”–not only is she game for it; she gives us even more. Some people will have trouble with the ending, and I can understand if they do–without giving it away, I saw it as inevitable rather than disappointing. So far, so good. Now, to the next one…

Tom (Episode 2)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Freeman’s narration: “Imagine meeting yourself. Who do you see?”

Episode 2, “Tom,” doesn’t waste any time–it jumps right into it…I wish that were praise but it’s more of a criticism here. The problem is I wish they had wasted a little time to ease us into a fascinating development that we’re just supposed to accept even though we don’t know a damn thing about where we’re supposed to be. Here, we see Anthony Mackie as Tom getting angry at…Anthony Mackie as Tom. This “reunion” (as Tom 2.0 calls it, to Tom’s anger) is brought about as a way of Tom to replace himself as he doesn’t have much time left to live. (Apparently, in this future, you can pay 30 grand for another version of yourself.) Tom is angry from the start, thinking Tom 2.0 looks nothing like himself (but really, he’s just being picky), and this leads into a conversation between the two Toms about what Tom paid for and what Tom 2.0 is responsible for. Confused? Well, it makes more sense the way they put it. The idea is fascinating, much of the dialogue is riveting, and Anthony Mackie does as well with a dual performance as Anne Hathaway did in the previous episode–but the story element of having someone else replace you after death doesn’t feel fully developed. The episode is 24 minutes long; I wish writer-director David Weil had taken at least 2-3 more minutes for a little more world-building.

Peg (Episode 3)

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Freeman’s narration: “How far will you travel to find yourself again?”

“Peg,” Episode 3, does jump right into things, but unlike with Episode 2, I can understand fairly quickly (within 3 minutes) where Peg is and how Peg got here. Pretty satisfying so far, thanks to carefully chosen dialogue–that’s going to be the thing I listen for, since each episode takes place in one location with one person (or one person who is multiplied in some fashion) and the viewers need something to latch onto in the beginning. Here, we have Helen Mirren as 71-year-old Peg, who is part of an experiment (seemingly with other senior citizens) that has her hurtling through the farthest reaches of space. She’s been afraid to take chances and now here she is in a spacecraft (and sporting a tight red spacesuit) and communicating with an AI as she considers how she got here and what she might expect in her remaining years wandering the universe. (There. Within the first few minutes, I’m hooked.) Helen Mirren is nothing short of spectacular in this role–if there’s any distinguished British actress who can make a space odyssey seem dignified and beautiful, it’s Helen Mirren. Even before she marvels at the moon upon gazing at its majesty through the craft’s window, I was with her. We get to know this person named Peg and we feel for her when her destination is…well, you probably already know it, but you’ll stay with her to get to it. “Peg,” directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, is melancholy, beautifully written, and marvelously acted–and it’s the best the series has to offer so far. God bless you, Helen Mirren–you will always be The Queen.

Sasha (Episode 4)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Is the threat outside greater than the one within?”

“Sasha,” Episode 4, is set 20 years after some kind of virus outbreak has kept everyone inside–including Sasha, played by Uzo Aduba. It’s her birthday today–why not venture outside, as Sasha’s AI (yes, another AI in this series) suggests? Sasha, very comfortable on her couch, with a novel in one hand and a wine glass in the other, puts it bluntly: “F*ck. That. S*it.” Whoops, there’s a cough after another gulp of wine, but not to worry, as the AI assures her, she does not have the virus. “Would you like another nose swab?” asks the AI. “NO!” she quickly protests. Barely a minute into “Sasha,” we know where we are. Sasha is content after all this time, with her AI, which calls itself her “companion bot”…or maybe she’s just too used to her daily routines…or maybe she’s in complete and total denial and doesn’t want to venture into the world outside her comfortable home…you know what, I’m just gonna stop explaining the story here. The best thing each of these episodes has to offer is the journey of self-discovery–when one is kept inside one place for an extended period of time, they’re given time to self-reflect. But with Sasha, where does it end? When does contentment become self-hazardous? Is Sasha in danger of wasting her life while she keeps herself inside, not living her life? And what about the people in her life? Truly moving work from Uzo Aduba kept me intrigued and wondering, and so far, this is the most effectively unnerving episode in the series.

Jenny (Episode 5)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Do you wish you could take back the worst day of your life?”

Oh boy…this one, I’m still processing. I mean…yikes. This is actress Constance Wu’s finest hour (or “finest 22 minutes”), playing a drunken young woman named Jenny, dressed as a winged angel and seemingly stuck in some kind of waiting room and going on a lone tangent. She is telling us about the worst day of her life…and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. The way the ramble goes from funny to dark…you just know she’s had better days in her life. This episode starts off hilarious and ends up being tragic…and I apologize for the constant use of ellipses, but it’s to further the point that this one kind of broke me inside (just a little, anyway). And the ending…I refer you to my first exclamation: “Oh boy…”

Nera (Episode 6)

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Freeman’s narration: “Who decides who belongs in the world?”

You know, after that last episode, I was starting to wonder if “Solos” might be getting a little high on itself in its philosophical questions. But with two episodes left, I’m curious to see if it can keep momentum going. (I haven’t disliked any of the episodes so far–even Episode 2 had something to it that caused me to recommend it.) I pressed play for Episode 6, “Nera,” and started streaming, not expecting much…

This is the best episode in the series. Much as I loved Constance Wu’s descent into madness and even Helen Mirren’s recollection of her life, even those treasures of “Solos” doesn’t match what Nicole Beharie’s poor Nera has to go through. Nera is completely alone in a cabin where a harsh winter storm is keeping everyone inside. She is pregnant…and giving birth TONIGHT! She calls her doctor and can’t get through (she can’t even get through to 911), so she has no choice but to have the baby all by herself–rather quickly too, but…that’s just the beginning of this unusual ordeal. With scary direction by Tiffany Johnson and a riveting script by Stacy Osei-Kuffour, “Nera” works wonderfully as a short film but has great potential to be expanded into a feature film. There’s something sinister about this episode’s story, especially when Nera’s baby is revealed to be more than expected and when mentions of a new fertility treatment (previously used by Nera) are dropped. What results is freakish and terrifying and something I’d love to see more of in the future. (I’m sure neither Johnson nor Osei-Kuffour nor even David Weil will be reading this review, but I implore to them–please make this into a feature film. I will pay to see it.)

And finally, we come to…

Stuart (Episode 7)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Who are you if you can’t remember who you are?”

We finally see what Morgan Freeman has to do with “Solos” besides vague philosophical questions to lure us into each episode. In Episode 7, “Stuart,” Freeman plays Stuart, an old man suffering dementia. And he’s not alone in this episode–no, it’s not an AI he gets to interact with but a young man named Otto (Dan Stevens). Otto is reminded that “solos” aren’t allowed visitors (oh, NOW I get it…I think), but he becomes an exception when he travels a long way to visit Stuart. (Stuart is apparently living his last days in this futuristic treatment center that I can deduce is responsible for the plights of characters in the previous episodes–that is not the only connection the others, I assure you.) Otto has come to give Stuart “memory implants” that seem to made everything come back to Stuart. Stuart remembers everything with ease…but he doesn’t remember Otto. Who is Otto? And where is this going? I’ll leave that for you to discover.

A very solid finish to an exceptionally strange and intriguing series.

“Solos” is available on Amazon Prime.

My Salinger Year (2021)

6 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“My Salinger Year,” based on the memoir by Joanna Rakoff, is set in 1995, where bookstores took over big cities and big business feared computers and the Internet and people actually read physical printed works in magazines and books–being published back then meant a great deal then than it does now!

In “My Salinger Year,” written and directed by Philippe Felardeau, lead actress Margaret Qualley (Andie McDowall’s daughter, best known for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) shines as aspiring young writer Joanna. Upon leaving Berkeley to pursue writing in New York City, Joanna has a bright optimism that foresees a bright future for her career that she even takes a cheap, crappy apartment because she knows all the best writers started off in cheap, crappy apartments. She also takes a job as an assistant for a tough, no-nonsense literary agent named Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), whose agency represents none other than J.D. Salinger. (Salinger is reclusive, but he still telephones Margaret every now and again. Sometimes, Joanna answers the call–even though Joanna hasn’t even read “The Catcher in the Rye,” she’s still starstruck.)

Joanna isn’t entirely fulfilled as a “secretary,” as she sees the job, but it does have its perks such as reading Salinger’s fan mail…and then there are unpleasantries such as writing back to the fans to bear the bad news that Salinger doesn’t receive his fan mail anymore. (The agency has kept it ever since the Mark David Chapman incident, during which he held a copy of Catcher in the Rye when he was found shortly after assassinating John Lennon.)

Also, as expected, Margaret is not the easiest person to work for–Sigourney Weaver, playing the part, is always great at making everyone feel inferior to her. (But as expected in roles like this, she does have a pivotal scene in which she lets her guard down and lets us see the real person.)

Soon enough, Joanna takes it upon herself to respond to the fan letters personally, because as she sees it, why would anyone want to get a response like “sorry we cannot forward your kind words to Mr. Salinger?” This may anger some, but help others–but at least she’s writing and not dictating. She also manages to strike up somewhat of a friendship with Salinger himself over the telephone. (Salinger is played in both voice and silhouette by Tim Post.)

I love the atmosphere of this 1995 setting–maybe it’s the literary setting and all the books lined up against the walls, but it has a lovely nostalgic feel to it. I also liked the little touches such as Joanna and her novel-writing overly opinionated boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth) washing dishes in the bathtub because THEIR APARTMENT HAS NO SINK–and there’s also these inserts of the fans who wrote the letters, many of whom are not as deranged or weird as we might think, which I thought was a nice touch.

And being a writer myself, I identified with the main character feeling less inspired as she works an unfulfilling job. When Joanna goes for so long without doing her own writing, I feel for her. When she’s given a kind offer to submit work to the New Yorker, I’m happy for her. I want her to get back to work doing what she loves doing!

I mentioned that Margaret Qualley shined in the role of Joanna, and that might be an understatement. As much as I liked her in movies like “The Nice Guys” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” I waited for her to truly impress me with a role that gave me a lot to process. But with Joanna in “My Salinger Year,” there are so much power to it that she’s able to deliver in a wonderful performance. I wished Joanna the absolute best in the end, and that’s a tribute to Qualley’s work.

Even though I’m giving “My Salinger Year” 3.5 stars (with only a few nitpicks here or there), I give Margaret Qualley’s performance an even more enthusiastic 4-star rating.