Archive | Four Stars **** RSS feed for this section

American Animals (2018)

8 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

NOTE: This may be one of my new favorites, but I decided to go back to the standard-review format. (Maybe after another viewing or two, I’ll add a My Favorite Movies post about it.) I am giving it four stars because I feel it deserves it. (But really, what do these stars mean anyway?)

In writer-director Bart Layton’s brilliantly-crafted docudrama “American Animals,” we find ourselves asking the very same question as its interview subjects do: why?

As in, why did these good boys do this bad thing?

They came from good homes. They had no criminal records. They had no reason to commit this crime that ruined their good names.

And it was meant to be a harmless theft too. It didn’t turn out that way. (It was also very horribly planned out–let’s just say, professional thieves, they are not.)

“American Animals” tells the true story of four young men who in the mid-2000s attempted to pull off a heist at the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Their plan was to steal the library’s rare-book collection and sell them off to underground art dealers.

But this is not your typical documentary with brief dramatic reenactments of the events told to us by the interviewees (i.e. the real-life people who recall the incident and more). A majority of the film belongs to the dramatization of the choices made by the boys who planned this heist. And they’re played by familiar young talents such as Evan Peters (Quicksilver in the “X-Men” movies), Barry Keoghan (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), Jared Abrahamson (“Hello Destroyer”), and Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen, Everybody Wants Some). (We also get nice work from character actor Ann Dowd in a pivotal role as an unsuspecting librarian.)

However, for the context, we are treated to testimonials from the real-life people who perpetrated the event: Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen II. (In addition, some of their parents, one of the culprits’ teachers, and even the real-life librarian are sharing details with us as well.) The way these people tell this story in the present-day, looking back at what they did in the mid-2000s, it’s almost as if even they don’t fully understand why they did this.

(Note: This narrative device not only leaves plenty of room for analysis; it also makes for some comedic moments as well, such as when Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard have contradicting memories as to where Spencer first told Warren about the rare-book collection. Unreliable narrator, anyone? What makes the scene better is when the real-life Warren interacts with fictional Warren to assure him to trust Spencer’s memory better than his own as he was drunk and/or stoned that night.)

I mentioned that writer-director Bart Layton crafted this story brilliantly, and I wasn’t exaggerating–there is so much to desire about this art-imitates-life (or life-imitates-art) approach. The complicated editing by Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, and Julian Hart is also very impressive, making for a great mix of documentary and crime-drama.

How did all this begin? Well, in the beginning, we follow the college life of art student Spencer (Keoghan), who lacks inspiration. (He even tears through his canvas of a new work because it doesn’t satisfy–I’m not sure if the real Spencer really did that.) He confides in his troublemaking childhood buddy Warren (Peters) that he wants something exciting (or even tragic) to happen. (Note: Keoghan and Peters share convincing chemistry as the oil-and-water type of friendly duo.) When Spencer is given a tour of the library’s special collection of rare books, such as a first edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” he and Warren share a thought: what if we could steal it? And not just that book, but all the books?

How hard could it be?

The idea grows particularly in Warren’s head to the point where Warren even travels to Amsterdam to meet with black-market art buyers for an answer to how much they would pay for these books.

Millions, Warren assures Spencer upon arriving home. Millions. And thus, it’s on! They bring in two other boys, Eric (Abrahamson) and Chas (Jenner), and come up with a plan so crazy and far-fetched that it could only work in the movies…

What happens when they attempt the heist, I’ll leave for you to discover if you don’t know the story already. (I didn’t.) Layton has fun with the lighthearted approach upon planning the heist before pulling the rug out from under us to show how serious and real and unplanned the situation really is. That’s because, while the film is entertaining, there’s a real sense that Layton is making the film in an attempt to understand why this event happened and why these four kids felt compelled to go about this plan that ruins their lives.

These are four white, rich, jaded college boys who already have pretty much everything they need in life. It’s like they do this for the excitement, because it’s different, because it’s risky, because it gives them purpose, or whatever. Even with its narrative structure, “American Animals” doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to the questions it raises–it leaves room for its audience to analyze the situation. And it’s both fun and interesting to think about.

“American Animals” is one of the smartest and most intriguing heist films I’ve ever seen–I can’t think of another that kept my attention as much as this one.

Minari (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m not usually one to spend $19.99 for premier access on-demand for a new film (especially if the rental only lasts for two days). So, a few months ago, I went back to a movie theater to see a film called “Minari,” which was about to receive numerous accolades. It was my first time inside a theater since before the COVID-19 pandemic. And I couldn’t have asked for a better new movie.

“Minari” was one of the top awards contenders and has been referred to by critics as one of the best films of 2020…but seeing as how it wasn’t released to the public until February of 2021, I’m counting it as a 2021 film. (My mind is already made up–this film will appear on my best-of-2021 list. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did the same thing for “Being There” and “The Black Stallion” when those movies weren’t released publicly until the following year.)

Anyway, simply put, “Minari” is a beautiful film.

Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, whose semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story is told here, “Minari” is centered on a Korean-American family that moves to rural Arkansas in the ’80s to achieve the American Dream. Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun in the best performance of his career) wants to grow Korean foods in 50 acres of inexpensive land and sell them to markets wherever he can. The family’s new dwelling is a mobile home with quite a leap to get up to the front door. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) isn’t too fond of the idea of living here because they live out in the middle of nowhere with no neighbors and she misses her South Korean home and the family’s prior home in California, where she and Jacob were barely making a living as chicken testers. (They work in a hatchery near their Arkansas home, determining the gender of newborn baby chicks.) Jacob and Monica’s children are 10-year-old Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and 7-year-old David (Alan Kim)–little David serves as a stand-in for director Chung and a conduit for the audience as well, as a lot of the film is seen through his eyes.

This Asian-American family isn’t ostracized by the community when they attend church services and social events–the locals are more fascinated by and curious about them. Once a kid roughly David’s age gets past the strangeness of seeing an Asian person in this town, he quickly becomes friends with David. The closest thing Jacob has to a friend is his eccentric evangelical farmhand: Paul (Will Patton), who seems very strange but is a dedicated hard worker and has nothing but respect and admiration for Jacob. (I always loved Will Patton’s work, but this may be one of his most memorable roles. He’s amazing here.)

A lot of the film is watching this family adjust to these new surroundings. How do they prepare for a tornado when their home is in danger of being sucked away if it touches down? How do they get water if they don’t want to pay for it to save funds? What about Monica and Jacob’s marriage when they have conflicting ideals? What about David’s heart condition when the nearest hospital is an hour away? Can Jacob handle both hard work in farming and his job at the hatchery? (There’s a wonderful transformation that comes when we see he isn’t as fast at his job as he used to be.) What happens to the male baby chicks in the hatchery…actually, I probably would’ve been better off staying ignorant about that.

And so on. It’s a wonderful slice of life. And it gets even better when Monica’s mother leaves South Korea to live with the family. This is Soonja (played brilliantly by Yuh-jung Youn), who practically steals the movie whenever she’s on-screen. This character is the wacky-hilarious-grandma you’ve read about in many screenplays, but you haven’t seen her in a movie quite like this. There’s a lot of laughs and a great big heart to her. And I love the relationship she has with her grandson David, who hates her at first (at one point, he’s very mean to her face and then…well, you’ll have to find out) and grows to love her because she loves him regardless.

I love, LOVE this movie. “Minari” was a very special treat and a truly heartwarming tale of family and ambition. It’s superbly acted, wonderfully shot, and written and directed with a great amount of passion and heart by Lee Isaac Chung.

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.

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.

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.

Joker (2019)

22 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Farewell (2019)

22 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Sleep (2019)

21 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parasite (2019)

21 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Whoa. Definitely didn’t see that coming. 

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

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

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

20th Century Women (2016)

13 Jun

20th-century-woman.jpg

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

Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” feels like a classy, edgy, bittersweet novel you could read in peace and silence and tell your friends about over cups of coffee. If I didn’t catch sight of the Best Original Screenplay nomination for this film at the 89th Academy Awards (before seeing the film on DVD), I would’ve thought this script was adapted from such a novel. But nope—the script is original and seemingly semi-autobiographical, based on elements of writer-director Mills’ childhood. Maybe it feels like a novel because of all the detail he inserts into both the writing and the directing, as well as the deep characterization within all five (yes, FIVE) key characters of the story. It feels authentic, drowns in nostalgia, and is presented like a deeply composed character study in which you want to stay and be absorbed by as much information about the people and their environment as possible.

“20th Century Women” takes place in Santa Barbara, CA in 1979. It’s a time when the fads are punk music and skateboarding, Jimmy Carter is looking more tired on TV, and just about everyone smokes. The story, such as it is, mainly revolves around the concerns of a middle-aged mother for her 15-year-old son—will he grow up to be “a good man” being raised in this world? She enlists the help of the boy’s would-be girlfriend and two tenants of her boarding house to make sure he’s on the right track.

I’ll go over these characters one at a time. We’ll start with the semi-autobiographical protagonist (i.e. Mills’ fictional childhood counterpart): Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann). Jamie’s a young, impressionable, likable, lost boy. He’s like a puppy everyone wants to be there for (everyone except his male peers, of course). He tries new things, tries to fit in with the local skater boys, wants to experience sex, and like most teenage boys, doesn’t really know what he wants in life and hides his personal fears. He’s a good kid who could grow up to be a good man.

There’s an older girl in Jamie’s life: Julie (Elle Fanning), who lives near the boarding house Jamie’s mother (I’ll get to her later) runs. She’s depressed, sexually active, and often spends the night in Jamie’s bed to escape the unpleasantness of her home life. Does she know sharing the same bed with Jamie while sharing a platonic relationship with him adds to his confusion and horniness? At one point, Jamie suggests they have sex, but Julie tells him having sex will ruin the special friendship they share.

One of the tenants in the boarding house is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 20something, purple-haired, punk music loving, artistic photographer, who developed her lust for life after beginning treatment for cervical cancer. I don’t know if it’s the character as written so much as the way Gerwig portrays her, kind of like the flip side of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, but Abbie is my favorite character in a film that is rich with character.

Another tenant is a middle-aged, hippie-style carpenter for the boarding house. (I’m not sure how good of a handyman he is, considering the house constantly looks like it’s being renovated, making me wonder when he moved in and when the house first needed repairs.) He’s an easy charmer with all the right pickup techniques for women and thankfully the sense not to take advantage of them…as much as he’d like to. He’s a good guy who helps out from time to time, not just with repairs but with advice.

And last but definitely not least, we have Jamie’s 55-year-old, chain-smoking, emotionally complex mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), who asks these three people to help raise her son in this time of crisis, because she herself is unsure she’s doing a good enough job on her own. She spends so much time trying to figure out what is going on with everybody that she never bothers to find it beneath herself to discover what’s happening with her. That also includes the cultural changes happening around her—why do teens do what they do, what’s with the new music, why is smoking more dangerous now than it was when she was growing up, etc. She’s so open to the world that when her old car catches on fire in a parking lot, she even invites the firemen over for dinner. Even at the end of the film, we’re not so sure who this person is, but at the same time, she doesn’t entirely know either. But it’s still interesting to try and find out.

Much of the film is about the world that her tenants introduce both her and her son into. What’s fascinating about this journey is that there’s no one main character. The narrative voiceover is shared by all of them, so we can see and feel what these characters see and feel. I’m not so sure we needed this constant narration, because thanks to Mills’ brilliant writing, these characters aren’t played as quirky types. But I am glad it is there because I did appreciate getting into their mindsets. Even Dorothea, for as complex as she is, still comes across as a real person—a mysterious one we can only try and figure out.

The acting is fantastic, but it really comes down to Mike Mills and his script. His characters are wonderful company for a couple hours and his message is presented effectively through them. Times change, but people will always be strange and/or beautiful and/or complex and/or annoying and/or all of the above. All of that is portrayed wonderfully in “20th Century Women,” a film that challenges, provokes discussion, and more importantly, pleases.