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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

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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.

Booksmart (2019)

25 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Fifteen minutes into “Booksmart,” the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, I knew I was in for a treat.

Our main character, a Yale-bound academic high-school senior/class president/class valedictorian named Molly, overhears a group of burnout classmates make fun of her. She shows herself and puts them down in return, stating that they’ll probably end up with dead-end jobs while she’s going to accomplish great things post-Yale because she’s been studying and working hard all throughout high-school… Any other teen movie, this would be a victorious underdog moment. And Molly’s pretty proud of herself for standing up to her cynical peers. But it’s not that easy (especially after it’s already been established that Molly’s larger-than-life personality crossed with her brains is…kind of a bully, having put down many of her classmates prior to this moment for not being as smart as her). The group reacts in a way that opens up Molly’s eyes, and as a result, sets the film’s story in motion.

Does it get better than that? Well, it does live up to its promise—that this is going to be one of those refreshingly original teenage high-school coming-of-age films that we never get tired of, because when something is done exactly right, it’s always special.

“Booksmart” is a comedy about an honors student who learns just before graduation day that she’s not as smart as she thinks she is, even after learning there’s more for her to do before high-school is over. And God bless director Olivia Wilde and screenwriters Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman for turning out a fresh, sharp, very funny, and very insightful screenplay that gives us what we didn’t know we needed and more.

Anyway, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) realizes that there’s more to life (and high school) than studying and decides to do something about herself, now that graduation day is fast approaching and there’s a big blowout party going on the night before. And she brings along her best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who, like Molly, is as repressed as she is booksmart. Together, they will try to commit four years of high-school debauchery in just one night. I’m sure nothing will go wrong in the slightest…

Basically, they learn that a big party is happening tonight, and they’re determined to make an appearance. Molly wants to share a special moment with a certain guy she claims to have hated before. Amy wants the courage to talk to a cool skater girl (Victoria Ruesga) who might be interested in her as well. But more importantly, they want to show everyone that they can party just as hard as they can study. But there’s one problem: they don’t know where the party is, and they don’t have anyone to call for details, because no one’s ever invited them to anything before! Thus, we get one crazy night of madness and silly/crazy antics, after which nothing will ever be the same.

Ok, so from watching a lot of teen movies, we know there’s going to be a ton of crazy antics, we know there are going to be types of people we’ve seen in other movies (the Mean Girl, the Oddball, the Party Animal, etc.), we know the two best friends are going to have a falling-out after revealing certain truths, then they’ll get back together and discover that they at least have each other, and so on. (Greta Gerwig’s wonderful 2017 film “Lady Bird” set a new standard in making all of that seem entirely fresh and new.) And yet, the way it’s all presented here, it still feels like hardly anything I’ve seen before in these movies. It takes real talent to make something fresh and original out of something familiar.

For one thing, both the humor (most of which is R-rated vulgarity) and the heart (brought on by revealing truths late in the film) feel like they’re part of the same movie. The latter doesn’t feel like it was shoehorned in to fool audiences into thinking it was about more than it actually was intended. Part of the reason we buy into it is because the screenplay is written with enough intelligence to show the characters as real as possible—even when the situations they find themselves in are outrageous and unbelievable, the characters themselves feel real throughout. Thus, when we get to the core of the film, which is about breaking away from your one dear friend with whom you shared your deepest secrets, how to behave in acting on sexual attraction, trying something new and different despite what you’d be leaving behind, and the importance and power of friendship and sisterhood. What Molly & Amy have learned after going through such mayhem as numerous parties, hallucinatory drugs, ride-share hilarity, and even more, is that they have each other.

Even better is that Molly & Amy’s “booksmart” types aren’t the only ones who are given the opportunity to show their true selves to the world. The obnoxious wealthy weirdo, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), gets to show how sad and pathetic (and sympathetic) he truly is after introducing the girls to the world’s loneliest yacht party ever. The mean girl, Hope (Diana Silvers), is more complicated than we would think. Even the consistently drunk and/or stoned party girl, Gigi (Billie Lourd, hilarious), has moments of insight before the night is over. It’s strange—we laugh at these people (and I was laughing out loud at many of Gigi’s antics when I should have been utterly annoyed by her behavior), and yet, at the same time, they feel like real people. Even the adults, who are given briefer roles, are given enough dignity to feel credible—from supportive cool teacher Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams) to the principal with a second income (Jason Sudeikis) to surprisingly Amy’s parents (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow), who are kind, understanding Christian folks who accept their daughter’s homosexuality. I bring up that last part because most movies paint Christians as intolerant of it, whereas this one just shows these parents of a gay teen as good people who are also Christian. (If anything, it’s *Molly* who makes things awkward and uncomfortable when the subject is brought up, to the point where she likes to pretend she and Amy are a romantic couple—that makes all the difference here.) The more surprises “Booksmart” gives us, the fresher it feels.

There is so much I could talk about with this film, particularly the comedic parts of it. I haven’t even mentioned the hallucinatory drug sequence, which had me practically laughing on the floor, or the bizarre encounter with a pizza delivery guy (which leads to a hilarious payoff) or the absolute worst timing ever for bathroom vomiting. The film’s trailers do well without giving away the best jokes, so I’ll be kind and leave that for you to behold as well. But there’s another moment (and it’s my second favorite scene in the film, just behind the scene I already discussed at the opening of this review) that cemented for me that Wilde wasn’t going to go for the obvious joke or even the obvious dramatic resolution—it’s when we ultimately get the confrontation between the two “besties” about a secret that’s been revealed; it leads to an argument that practically stops the entire party as it gets more heated; one of them thinks she’s won the fight, but nope—apparently, the final clincher in response was so brutal and ugly that we don’t even get to hear it. (The audio fades out and the music swells up so that we don’t know what was said but how it impacted the person it was told to.)

There are a lot of moments like that that assured me that “Booksmart” was a film that was worth embracing. The sweet moments are the more special, the funny moments are all the more hilarious, and they’re balanced surprisingly well. When I left the theater for “Booksmart,” I wasn’t just cracking up thinking about that drug sequence again; I was also thinking that Molly and Amy are going to be all right. They’re smart. They learn from mistakes. And whether they’re together or apart, they’ll always have that special bond that unites them, and because they themselves are aware of it, that’s why they’re smart in the end.

Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne

21 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I would issue a SPOILER ALERT, as I did for my “Avengers: Endgame” review a couple weeks ago…but people have no trouble spoiling “GoT” anyway, so why should I be different?

People are complaining all over the Internet about Season 8 of “Game of Thrones” because they don’t like the direction it’s been headed. Well now, it’s there, with the series finale, entitled “The Iron Throne.” Let’s see what people are saying about it…

A mixed reception. Why am I not surprised? People have complained about the finales for “Lost,” “The Sopranos,” and “Seinfeld” too…except those shows didn’t have the crazy amount of social-media craziness (read “silliness”) that “GoT” has received in recent days. (It’s even gotten to the point where over a million fans signed a petition in an attempt to demand HBO to remake season 8…yeah, THAT’s gonna happen, I’m sure.)

As for me, I appreciate the places “GoT” went. It went even darker than expected, the characters went through changes, and I was interested BECAUSE it wasn’t what I expected. (But I never read the books by George R.R. Martin, so take that for what it’s worth.)

“The Iron Throne” picks up where its previous episode “The Bells” left off, with King’s Landing being utterly devastated by the wrath of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), with so many dead and survivors covered with soot and ash. It’s especially heartbreaking when Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) wanders through the debris of the Red Keep to find the corpses of Jaime and Cersei Lannister.

Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Davos (Liam Cunningham) have also survived and find that Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and his men are about to execute captured Lannister soldiers, causing Jon to question his queen.

Daenerys is now in full power, having proved triumphant and won the battle. (The shot of her addressing her troops, with Drogon the dragon hovering behind her, won’t leave my memory anytime soon.) She’s had the power for a while now, but now that she’s obtained the full capacity (and the Iron Throne, now covered in ash as she approaches it), you can tell her blood has run its coldest and her lust for glory is unquenchable. When Jon confronts her about the evil things she’s done, such as killing small children, she simply states, “We can’t hide behind small mercies.”

Before we get to that point, however, Jon still serves Daenerys and defends her actions, even when he knows something isn’t quite right here (as if things have been right before all of this). One of my favorite scenes is a conversation between Jon and Tyrion, who has been imprisoned by Daenerys for treason. Tyrion has clearly learned from all of his mistakes and is willing to pay the consequences for what he’s done throughout the series. And he’s the one who puts things in perspective for Jon. (Tyrion Lannister has always been the best character in the show, simply because he’s the smartest character in the show.)

OK fine, for those who missed the series finale and aren’t given the displeasure of having it spoiled for them, this is where I’ll stop explaining the story and just say what I think of it overall. (I guess I WILL be different.) At 80 minutes, it’s one of the best “films” of the year. Of course, as with just about every “GoT” episode, the cinematography is gorgeous and incredible—not just with the scene of Daenerys directing her troops, but also the scene in which she approaches the Iron Throne (it’s not only bittersweet; it’s kind of beautiful to look at). The acting is very on-point, with Peter Dinklage possibly delivering his most compelling work on the series; I loved seeing his character grow in this episode alone (but again, he’s been growing for a while). Even near the end, when he gives an impassioned, heartfelt speech about why a certain person should lead a kingdom, I listen to every word he is saying and I believe him because of what he’s been through and because of the kind of person he could become in the future. (Don’t rule out the possibility of a sequel series, btw.) And as if fans weren’t accustomed to the sudden deaths of certain characters throughout the series, they are forced to face one of the ultimate, melancholy, not entirely undeserved ends of one of the most infamous characters in “GoT.” Again, I won’t give it away here, but it’s as bittersweet as it is powerful.

There’s also room for a little humor—nothing too forced, just enough to be welcomed after facing some pretty harsh material. With Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) suggests to the remaining leaders that the people should decide for themselves who is worthy to lead from now on…everyone bursts into laughter. (I can’t say this is speaking for the Twitter whiners about the show or even for the American registered voters…but I can’t doubt it either.)

I’m looking through my Facebook feed now, and I’m already seeing memes about the resolution involving Bran Stark, or Bran the Broken (Isaac Hempstead Wright), and regarding what happens with him… Honestly, I didn’t mind it. Maybe it was because Tyrion’s speech about why he deserved it won me over. One critic even argued that the particular resolution should have happened with Tyrion himself…was he even listening to Tyrion’s speech?? The guy’s had enough.

I think “Game of Thrones” wrapped up nicely and effectively with “The Iron Throne.” Hopefully, when those same complainers think about what they’ve gotten over the past eight years and what it amounted to, they’ll be fair and say that they got what they deserved. Maybe they just didn’t want to see their favorite show come to an end. As Stephen King himself tweeted about this season recently, “All good things…” Congratulations to everyone involved, I say.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

6 May

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

A lot of people will complain about going to a movie theater to sit through a three-hour film, in fear of having to leave to go to the bathroom and missing something important on-screen. And I’ll admit, they do have a point. Even the late Alfred Hitchcock once said, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Well, with an epic as entertaining as “Avengers: Endgame,” built up to present the battle of all battles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s definitely important to let it all out right before the movie starts…not to be crude.

Point is, I didn’t miss a thing in this three-hour combination of action and emotion, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

I know fans are worried about spoiling “Avengers: Endgame,” so I’ll keep it mild at best in this review.

After the emotional climax of “Avengers: Infinity War” that left moviegoers shaken to the core, we expect to see something BIG in the follow-up. We know there’s going to be an amazing final battle that will hopefully make everything right again. We know there’s going to be intense drama as well as intense action. We even know at least two of our favorite Marvel heroes are going to die. And we know nothing is going to be the same after this. It’s inevitable—we’ve learned this from “Return of the Jedi,” “The Return of the King,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” among others, and we assume it’ll also be the case for the upcoming “Star Wars” movie too. But what we don’t know is HOW it all plays out—and thus, you gotta see the movie, because we get all that…and more.

Much more. The hype is real, you guys.

“Infinity War” was only “Part One,” building up to “Endgame” for “Part Two.” We’ve lost many of our favorite superheroes, after the all-powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapped his magical fingers and wiped out 50% of all living things. Among those left to rebuild are Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Rhodey/War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Oh, and there’s also Thor (Chris Hemsworth)…he’s had better days, let’s just say. With help from Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), who was called upon by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) before he vanished along with the rest, they defeat Thanos…but then, it’s five years later and they’re not as close to accepting the loss of their loved ones as they say they are.

This is where the film packs an emotional punch. How these people deal with failure makes for great drama, and you feel for them as they try to make things better when it seems they have no other choice but to just live with it. Things change, however, when Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) reappears after having been stuck in the quantum realm the whole time. He finds the remaining Avengers and they fill him in on what’s happened. But wait! They say he’s been gone for five years, and yet he claims it only took five hours to get back to reality. This could mean that the quantum realm leaves open the possibility of time travel…

Needless to say, the Avengers develop a “time machine” and put Scott’s theory to the test. If it works, they have a chance at reversing Thanos’ process and bringing everyone back to life. This results in a “Back to the Future” type of adventure (“BTTF” is even mentioned a few times), in which the Avengers go back in time to prevent Thanos from collecting the Infinity Stones before he can use them all to rid the planet (and other planets) of half of life. (And alternate timelines are mentioned at one point. It doesn’t dwell on the issue, but I am glad they thought of it—“Back to the Future” sort of skipped over it, now that I think about it.) Comedy, action, even a little drama—all of that ensues during this incredible journey.

And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot, except that when we do get finally get the action-packed battle to end all battles, it’d be an understatement to say it was worth the wait.

It’s always great to see great action in these movies, but I was rather in awe of some of the smaller, more personal moments, such as when Scott returns to reality to find that half the world is gone and he frantically searches for his daughter (who was his whole reason for becoming a better person in “Ant-Man” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp”). And when the Avengers are on their time-travel mission, and one of them gets to talk to his own father before the son was born, and that reminds me that I don’t just watch these movies just to have fun—I watch them because I care about these characters…and have fun with them as well. I’m happy to have gotten to know them throughout the years.

I don’t want to go into any more detail, because to talk more about the emotional impact this film made is to spoil the entire film. So, I won’t.

It’s amazing to think how far the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come since its origin 11 years ago, with “Iron Man.” We’ve had many entertaining entries in this series (my personal favorites being “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Black Panther,” as well as “Iron Man”), and the series as a whole took its time developing the immensely appealing characters in stand-alone films before bringing them all together so we can get excited and pumped up when they kick some serious ass. That’s always been the appeal of these movies. (It was never really about the action, as good as it could be.) And we knew it was building up to something huge, and thankfully, it didn’t disappoint. Honestly…I think “Avengers: Endgame” may be the best MCU film by far. It makes me wonder where the MCU will go from here…

I can’t wait to find out.

Last Flag Flying (2017)

1 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Directed by Richard Linklater? Starring Bryan Cranston? With Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell? Based on the sequel novel to the source material behind “The Last Detail,” one of my all-time favorite films? Screenplay co-written by Linklater and the original novel’s author Darryl Ponicsan? It sounds too good to be true, and maybe that’s why I love “Last Flag Flying” as much as I do.

Funny thing is, even though I can see “Last Flag Flying,” based on Ponicsan’s 2005 novel of the same name (which was a sequel to his 1970 novel “The Last Detail,” which was the source material for the 1973 film adaptation), as an “unofficial” sequel to “The Last Detail” (albeit with different characters names & motivations), it still feels like a Richard Linklater film. We still have a small group of characters who are bright and clever enough for the audience to want to follow them around for two hours and listen to what they have to say to each other, which has always been Linklater’s most welcome trademark in his filmography.

Taking the place of “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson in “The Last Detail”), “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young), and Meadows (Randy Quaid) are “Sal” Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell). The “Last Flag Flying” characters are more or less the same as their previous “Last Detail” counterparts, despite some altered details here or there. (And don’t worry—I won’t make too many comparisons in this review.) It’s 2003 when Doc visits the bar of Sal, a former Marine he served with in Vietnam. Sal joins Doc on an impromptu drive the following morning to visit a church where another Vietnam buddy, Mueller (formerly known as “Mauler”), is the reverend. But after a pleasant time of catching up, Doc reveals to his old friends that he’s had a rough year—his wife died of breast cancer, and his son has recently been killed in action in Iraq. And he asks Sal and Mueller for help in burying him. After some consideration (and reluctance), the three embark on a road trip; first to Dover Air Force Base to retrieve the flag-covered coffin and then home to Portsmouth to bury the boy next to his mother. Along the way, they talk about the past, stop in New York City and Boston, and confront the demons they’ve faced for years. Sometimes, it’s very funny (such as when they decide to buy new handy devices called “mobile phones”—wow, was 2003 really that long ago?). Otherwise, it’s very bitter. But before the trip is over, they will help one another get over the past because no one else can.

Linklater observes these three characters with respect, sympathy, and affection. And despite the terrible things they mention having done in the past, Linklater doesn’t judge them either—he has them address the issue head-on and talk about how it affected their lives. That’s where the intense drama comes effectively into play, and because all three men are distinct and memorable, the conversations they partake in are always interesting to follow. And that also makes it more fun when the lighter, comedic moments pop in for much-needed levity—my favorite scene is the aforementioned “cellphone” scene, in which they go into a department store and are amazed and delighted that they can carry a little phone with them at all times and call someone with the same mobile plan for no additional charge!! (This was 2003—back when we actually used cellphones to…talk on the phone.) But the film is all about the journey they take together, so there’s room for both comedy and drama, and as is the case for my favorite Linklater films, I would join these characters’ company for another couple hours.

All three actors—Cranston, Fishburne, and Carell—are excellent, but it’s Cranston that steals the show almost too often. It’s one of his very best performances, and his cocky charisma even rivals that of Jack Nicholson’s 1973 counterpart of the character.

Now…let’s address a potential “elephant in the room”: is “Last Flag Flying” an anti-war movie? Probably. Setting it at the beginning of the Iraq War and seeing consequences from the perspectives of Vietnam War veterans, it’s not hard to make that distinction. And there are a lot of cynical and bitter comments about the military and the overall purpose of war that heavily indicate that while opponents and locations have changed, the reasoning never changes. But at the same time, when the three characters (plus a friend of Doc’s son’s, also a young soldier, with whom they make conversation along the way) get down to it, they still remain loyal patriots who were proud to help serve their country. I think it’s more of an area in which they’ll do what they feel is their duty even if they’re not entirely sure why it’s their duty to begin with (i.e. what they were fighting for). It’s smart in the ambiguous way it’s treated, particularly in the tearjerking final scene in which Doc, now all alone, says goodbye to his son.

Sequel to “The Last Detail”? Eh, it’s a stand-alone film, so no matter. One of Linklater’s best? Definitely. One of the best films of 2017? No doubt. “Last Flag Flying” deserves the same amount of respect I’ve given to “The Last Detail,” and that’s a very high regard indeed.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

29 Mar

 

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

One of my favorite filmmakers is Richard Linklater. No one can write dialogue and direct a large group of actors to convey what he’s going for in his screenplays quite like him. (Well…except for perhaps his French New Wave influences, but work with me here.) He gets a group of characters together from his own memory and/or imagination, gives them interesting subjects to talk about, and like his avid fans, I’m interested in what they have to say, when/where they say it. Among his impressive resume, “Dazed and Confused” is a cult classic that followed 1970s high-schoolers on the last day of school, “Boyhood” showed a boy come of age over the course of 12 years, and his “Before…” trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight”) showed the progression of a romantic relationship—all based on mundane material, made interesting by intelligent writing.

And that also goes for “Everybody Wants Some!!,” a film set in Texas over the course of two days leading up to the first day of college for a bunch of baseball jocks (and in 1980). What do they have to talk about? Oh, they have lots. Competition. Subcultures. Cruising chicks. Pickup techniques. Living in the moment. Nostalgia. And occasionally, baseball. (There’s only one scene which features the players on the field, for “voluntary” practice, which is actually mandatory.)

I think my favorite topic of conversation arrives as one of the team, freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner), realizes that he and the team have partied in many different local scenes—a discotheque, a cowboy bar, and a punk-rock concert—and thus taken on different identities mainly for the prospect of getting laid. “It’s not phony,” his enthusiastic teammate Finn (Glen Powell), assures Jake. “It’s adaptive.” (And this is before they attend a theatre party on campus.) It is adaptive, just as veteran players adapt to newcomers on the field and 18-19-year-olds adapt to being away from home for the first time.

There are many appealing characters in this ensemble, including—McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), who treats everything like a competition, even table tennis for which he meets his match with Jake; Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), who lives for the game and especially the team camaraderie; and Billy “Beuter” (Will Brittain), who is an outcast because of his Southern accent. Finn is my favorite character of the bunch—he’s a senior who is the smartest/sharpest and always has a philosophy on hand whenever one or a few of his teammates partakes in something unusual, whether in the fraternity house or out on the town, and he’s happy to share them with the incoming freshman players.

The film is almost entirely focused on this large group of young men, meaning the women they try and pick up are either underdeveloped or objects for them to try and obtain. Thankfully, there is one exception: Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a performing arts major who notices Jake, which in turn gets him to notice her. (That’s a refreshing take—sometimes in life, you simply like the people who like you.) As Jake tracks her down and starts up conversation with her, she’s able to introduce him (and his teammates, who insist on tagging along) to a whole other side of campus. What results is the sweetest part of the film, as Jake and Beverly form a nice, real connection that could lead to a college romance.

By the time the film ends with the first day of history class, with “Frontiers are where you find them” written on the board, the message is very clear to us after two days of partying in a new place with new potential best friends—wherever you go, there’s always room for opportunity. What comes of that opportunity is an interesting adventure (or “frontier,” if you will). Most of us remember our first time at college and will never forget it. With “Everybody Wants Some!!,” Linklater captures the setting, the tone, and the spirit perfectly. And he gave us some appealing characters with interesting things to say as well.