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New West (Short Film)

30 Aug

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s difficult to review a good comedy. When its key purpose is to make you laugh, there are only so many different ways a reviewer can say, “That’s so funny!” And because humor is subjective (meaning, there will also be so many different ways another reviewer can say, “That’s not funny!”), it’s even more difficult to get across in a written (and relatively straight-faced) review what made this reviewer laugh out loud.

However, I was one of 200+ audience members who laughed repeatedly and consistently at (and with) a 45-minute energetic, hilarious, and unapologetically raunchy/crude comedy, titled “New West,” upon its theatrical premiere in Little Rock, AR on August 25, 2022. If you don’t believe my recommendation, consider one of the others’.

There. That’s it. Review over? Well, no, because I should probably describe the story to give you an idea of what kind of film I’m reviewing here.

Here’s the setup: cowboy Gene (Zach Keast) and horse Trigger (co-writer Coty Greenwood in a latex horse mask) were a duo of bandits and performers. (Their biggest act was as a singing duo, with a jolly old-Western song that I still hum to myself five days after seeing the film.) But then they split up, with Trigger holding onto (and enjoying) the wealth he carried over and Gene enduring life in a downward spiral. But when circumstances cause Gene (now played by Matt Jordan) and Trigger to team up against some vicious gunslinging varmints (many of whom wear black suits and sport Dia de Los Muertos masks), it may just be what they needed to come to terms with the past and the present. And they’re gonna have a crazy adventure along the way…

“New West,” directed and shot by Jordan Mears, is a laugh-a-minute romp in the same comic rhythm as the best spoof movies (such as “Airplane!” or “Naked Gun”) albeit with the gutsiness of the works of Trey Parker & Matt Stone (“South Park”) and the viscera and profane bite of a Quentin Tarantino flick. But it also has a heart to it–if anyone stays with the ridiculous amount of scatological humor throughout the entirety of the film, there is a moving story of friendship and reconciliation.

Yes. I looked. It is there. It’s amazing what you can find in a ridiculous and fun film when you’re not scoffing at its other, less “sophisticated” material. And if you’re going to criticize a film for doing what it set out to do in the first place, chances are you probably couldn’t do it any better.

Let me put it this way–it’s one thing to laugh at Trigger, a character who always wears a horse mask throughout the entire film, but it’s another thing to not only accept it but to feel for the character too. And that itself is funny to me.

Look, all I can tell you about the rest of the comedy in “New West” is that it’s shot well, it’s executed flawlessly, the timing is on point, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I did what Jordan Mears wanted me to do when watching this comedy: I laughed and laughed and laughed.

So, there you go–that’s my way of saying, “That’s so funny!” And it wasn’t as difficult as I thought, either.

Tsunami (Short Film)

28 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Tsunami” is a short drama about a couple arguing as sad truths are revealed and the gloves are off. The topic of a supposed-loving couple’s intense argument makes for intense drama in films such as Before Midnight and “Malcolm & Marie,” in which we got to know about the couple prior to (or even through) the confrontation–but in the case of “Tsunami,” which at a brisk 15 minutes doesn’t have a lot of time for very thorough characterization, we don’t really know much about this couple at the center.

HOWEVER (yes, me spelling “however” in all caps was intentional), when we’ve heard the cases stated by both parties involved, gained some revelations in a character’s privacy, and ultimately empathized with what is truly on display here (and I’ll do my best not to give away any plot spoilers here*)…you realize you know what you need to know about these people in a short character-based/conversation-driven drama.

You also realize that you may have been here before, whether you want to admit it or not. (Even if you haven’t, the purpose of many films of this nature is to allow you to empathize with other people, so there you go.)

The couple in question in “Tsunami,” directed by Joel Shafer, is Raymond (Earl McWilliams) and Janine (Franchesca Davis, who also wrote the film). The opening shot shows us a typical wedding photo of the lovely couple on their special day before tracking over to a bitter Janine walking around their apartment, waiting for Raymond to come home from work. As he enters, he’s chatting on the phone (well, not “chatting”; more like he’s arguing already with someone else) and doesn’t even notice Janine’s bitter facial expression…even when he gets off the phone, casually kisses his wife on the cheek like nothing’s out of the ordinary, and goes on about how messy his day was.

Oh Raymond…you should pay more attention.

This brilliant introduction (shot beautifully, as is the rest of the film, by Devonte Brown, whose long one-camera-takes add to the film’s atmosphere) speaks volumes about where this couple is in life–so much so that you might want to brace yourself for where the uncomfortable situation is about to go as Janine wants to have a little talk…which may or may not affect their future together. The resulting centerpiece of “Tsunami” is a brilliantly written and acted verbal battle that had me concerned as well as invested.

(NOTE: The “Tsunami” in the title is a metaphor–the film’s IMDb description reads: ‘[Both Raymond and Janine] have always managed to weather the storm, however this particular storm may by the demise of their relationship. Can it survive?’)

A certain topic (one that is the cause of many separations and divorces) is brought up that escalates the argument and it helps not only raise the tension but also to get us in the mindset of these two. There’s also a surprising development at the end that truly got to me. (And just to get us in the feels, we even are treated to a flashback of a better time between the once-romantic couple.)

And that helps my point–you don’t need to know everything about a couple to think about what they’re going through. In “Tsunami’s” 15 minutes, I was able to catch on to a lot of things and satisfied to find myself pondering about the rest. With the aid of expert direction from Shafer, terrific cinematography from Brown, and of course great acting from McWilliams & Davis (the latter of whom also wrote brilliant dialogue for the script), “Tsunami” is a raw, effective display of marital conflict and domestic verbal confrontation that got under my skin.

*Yes, I know it’s unfair not to give away spoilers for a short film I cannot share at this moment–when it is released online, I’ll come back and share it with you. Then you’ll see what I mean (I hope).

The Black Phone (2022)

28 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I was curious to see the horror film “The Black Phone” just because it features one of my favorite likable everyman actors, Ethan Hawke, playing against type as a child-snatching masked madman/killer–it’s also from Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, the same director and writers behind another Hawke-centric horror film, Sinister, which I really liked.

I think “The Black Phone” is even better. I mean it, guys–this film got me GOOD!

It even got me in the first act. It takes about 25 minutes before our lead kid character, Fin (Mason Thames), is snatched by the aforementioned scary-ass creepo-psycho known as The Grabber (Hawke)–but well before then, I was already scared for this kid and his sister/buddy Gwen (Madeleine MacGraw), as they deal with not only school bullies but also an abusive alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) who beats them with his belt. Somebody get these kids some help!!

All the while, we keep hearing of the disappearances of local kids who are last seen (sadly, by only the audience) with a creepy black van approaching them. One of them was a friend of Fin’s; another was a brief acquaintance at Fin’s baseball game, calling Fin’s pitching arm “mint” (the film is set in 1978; thanks to the 1979-set “Super 8,” I know what “mint” means). Vibes of IT with stranger-danger undertones get me creeped out before Fin even encounters the Grabber…

Can I just take a moment to say Ethan Hawke is pretty much perfect in this role? I’m familiar with him as the likable everyman in the “Before” movies, “Boyhood,” and “Training Day”–but here, he’s having a lot of fun playing pure evil. We don’t get a lot of background on this Grabber character, let alone a name, but all we need to know is he is very unstable, has a particular and sinister mindset, loves to play with his victims, and has disposed of many innocent children already. Even though he wears a mask most of the time (and I mean many different creepy masks), I can feel his facial expressions change underneath it…and it’s disturbing. Very disturbing.

Anyway, Fin gets locked in a basement dungeon by the Grabber who says he wants to “play a game” with Fin. But Fin knows anyone who has ever been down here has never resurfaced alive. There’s a black phone connected to the wall that is disconnected and doesn’t seem to work…or does it? Whatever its use is, it could help Fin find a way out, escape with his life, and/or dispatch the killer.

Every attempt Fin tries to escape and every encounter he has with the Grabber whenever he comes downstairs to visit him (he even watches him sleep at one point….yikes) gave me THE CREEPS. I don’t use that expression often, but that’s what “The Black Phone” did to me–this film gave me. The. CREEPS. Shivers up and down my spine. Half a dozen times.

You get the point (I hope).

Derrickson’s direction is on-point and I can tell both he and Cargill both have a passion for great horror filmmaking. And they also both know that in a great horror film, you can’t have horrificness without love or compassion–that’s where Fin’s loving sister Gwen comes in; Gwen has psychic visions and has had glimpses of previous victims before and now she’s determined, some would say hellbent, to find her brother. (She’s even allowed to have a few funny moments here or there too, particularly when she’s praying to Jesus for help and uses some particular choice words.)

With the aid of a hella scary villain in Hawke, two excellent juvenile actors playing characters I root for, and a great sense of atmosphere and care, Derrickson & Cargill have taken a short story by Joe (son of Stephen King) Hill and turned into a horror film that I think is determined to be treasured and revered for years to come.

It’s earned a definite spot on my year-end list, that’s for sure.

S#!%house (2020)

10 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Don’t you love it when you tell people that you’re highly recommending a genuinely sweet indie dramedy…and it’s called “Shithouse”?

Well, that’s what I’m doing because “Shithouse” (stylized as “S#!%house”) is one of the most touching and beautifully insightful films I’ve seen in a long time. (I missed it when it was released in 2020, but I guarantee it would have ranked high on my year-end list.) So what makes a movie called…”S#!%house”…so special? I’ll try and explain.

The story: Alex (Cooper Raiff, who also wrote and directed the film) is a young college freshman dealing with loneliness. He’s far from home; he has no friends; he doesn’t get along with his party-animal roommate Sam (Logan Miller–Martin from Love, Simon); and he regularly calls his mother (Amy Landecker) and kid sister (Olivia Welch) to chat. (Even when Alex attends a frat party, at the titular dwelling, and gets hit on by a gorgeous young woman, he makes up an excuse to leave and call Mom. This Alex kid isn’t your typical college-movie character even at the start–he needs help. Bad.) It’ll take a special someone to get him out of his comfort zone, and he finds that “special someone” in his dorm’s RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), who invites him to her room to “hang out” (even Alex knows what she means by that). After hooking up, they spend a pleasant night of conversation (as well as misadventures about town) together.

Sounds very much like Before Sunrise, right? Do we need another “In Search of a Midnight Kiss”? (Maybe, but that’s not the point.) Well, it’s not that simple. By the time their night ends, we’re only at the halfway point of the film. And where “S#!%house” goes from here is where it truly shines, as freshman Alex goes on an important coming-of-age journey where his innocent emotional vulnerability puts him in conflict with sophomore Maggie’s experienced and attitudinal (and self-isolated) flair. It’s not pretty and it’s quite uncomfortable at times, but as I watch it unfold, I realize that it doesn’t matter that “S#!%house” is set in college days–this is a film I needed to watch now, in adulthood. This is a film about connecting with new people, coping with loneliness, stepping out of your comfort zone, learning (and maintaining) boundaries, and knowing when to say OK. And I think we could all use a film like it.

Cooper Raiff is this film. He made “S#!%house” on a micro-budget at college with his friends, and he approaches the material with honesty and special care. There are laughs in his film, but never at the characters’ expense–they come more from a place of relating; even the comic-relief a-hole roommate (played by Logan Miller, who is too good at playing brash jerks in movies) has more dimensions than we’d initially give him credit for. (There’s also a comic device involving subtitles from a stuffed dog Alex keeps on his bed–even that gives us insight into Alex’s thought process.) It’s all about how this kid, who is away from home for the first time and has an idealized version of relationships, grows up after learning harsh truths. Raiff wrote, directed, and starred in the film as the kid in question–not only can I feel the energy and passion he brings to the script, the production, and the role, but I’m also a little hard-pressed to find the right comparison to his mix of DIY filmmaking and heartfelt storytelling. (Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” for instance, didn’t feel nearly as honest as this–nor did Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” which involved a lot more than your typical DIY passion-project style.) Cooper Raiff is on the right track for his debut feature; I eagerly anticipate what he does next. (He’s also a very good actor, which makes it easier for us to care for him when he does something like send his would-be girlfriend way too many Instagram messages, not remotely aware he’s being clingy.)

“S#!%house” shows that the DIY style of filmmaking is alive and well and reminds us that new voices demand to be heard. And more importantly, it’s just a really terrific film.

That is an unfortunate title, though. “S#!%house”? I get the feeling Cooper Raiff gave it that title so the Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus would use this clever pun: “this Shithouse don’t stink.”

7 Days (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“7 Days” is the latest from Duplass Brothers Productions (executive produced by Mark & Jay Duplass, two of my favorite people in the indie-film world) and it recently won the Indie Spirit award for Best First Feature. So, what did I think of it?

“7 Days” is one of my favorite films of the year and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

It seems enough time has passed to accept more films centered around the Covid-19 pandemic. Next week, we’re going to get a pandemic-based comedy from the big-timers (Judd Apatow’s “The Bubble,” coming to Netflix)–this week, we get the more grounded “7 Days,” which takes mostly in one rural house during the first week of quarantine and is centered on two characters who are stuck together, don’t get along much, and then…well, you probably know the drill–but just because it’s predictable doesn’t mean it’s not fun or well-executed or moving.

But “7 Days” is indeed fun and well-executed and moving, for two obvious reasons: the acting and the writing.

Karan Soni, a likable presence in “Safety Not Guaranteed” (another Duplass Brothers production) and the “Deadpool” movies, plays Ravi, and Geraldine Viswanathan (the young reporter from HBO’s “Bad Education”) plays Rita. Ravi and Rita are two Indian-American young adults set up on a prearranged date by their traditional parents. It doesn’t go very well–he’s too forward and awkward (probably as a result of being too forward) and they don’t really click–even before Rita’s true self is revealed to Ravi shortly after their picnic date, Ravi is convinced she is not his “wife.”

Oh, did I mention it’s March 2020?

During their awkward date is when they get alerts from all over declaring everything closed and demanding everyone take shelter. Ravi has no car and the car-rental service isn’t reliable, so Rita lets Ravi stay in her home for a little while. This is when Ravi notices some things that Rita didn’t list on her dating-site profile: she’s anti-traditional, she eats meat, and she drinks, all of which turns Ravi off entirely. (Oh, and her house is too messy for high-strung Ravi’s liking–at one point the next day, he practically begs to clean.) Rita also has a secret of her own (only a bit of which Ravi overhears early on, in a hilarious moment) and she’s a bit impulsive (and she also does something to Ravi that no one should EVER do; even tight-assed people have boundaries, for goodness sake). Oh, and Ravi is still going on prearranged online dates (one of which is right in front of Rita who insists on texting him advice).

It’s a classic will-they-won’t-they scenario, as the trapped-together Ravi and Rita talk more, get to know each other, let down their defenses, trust one another, learn to relate with each other, and maybe…well…just maybe.

Both Soni and Viswanathan portray convincing, well-defined characters, are fun to watch, and more importantly for the material, are great together. Soni also co-wrote the script with director Roshan Sethi, and it’s a neat blend of screwball comedy and realistic drama.

I liked “7 Days” a lot–it’s very funny and sweet. It’s in limited theaters now, so see if it’s playing anywhere near you.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.