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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.

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.