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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.

Us (2019)

23 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s one thing to encounter a sinister-looking family of four (…whom you first noticed standing in a straight line in your driveway in the shadows at night—the first hint that they’re probably not “friendly”). It’s another thing when after they show their lack of benign nature…hey wait a minute, that one looks like your husband. And those two little ones look like your children. And that one looks like you! “It’s us,” your son whimpers. And these “evil usses” (if I may quote “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” for a moment) are scissors-wielding maniacs who simply want to stalk and kill their counterparts.

That’s the hook for “Us,” writer-director Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his extremely successful hit, “Get Out” (one of my new favorite movies). And where it goes from there…whoa.

Peele has only made two movies (“Us” and “Get Out”), both of which are horror films. And before that, he was best known for sketch comedy (TV’s “Key and Peele”). I think it’s safe to say that Peele has an affinity for storytelling rather than simply create a series of moments he really wants to execute somehow. When people talk about both films, they’re going to remember how well each story worked overall, with not just a short series of moments that caught their attention but a whole bunch of moments and how they helped build and build to something that would keep audiences discussing it for a long time to come. (Meet me in ten years, and we’ll see if that’s true after Peele’s next few films. I sincerely hope so.) That is but one of the reasons Peele’s screenplay for “Get Out” won the Academy Award.

But back to “Us.” The film centers on a family of four—Adelaide (Lupita N’yongo) & Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex)—who go on summer vacation at their lake house in Santa Cruz, CA. Overprotective Adelaide wants to relax, but when overexcited Gabe buys a cheap boat and takes the kids on a little day trip to the Santa Cruz beach/boardwalk, it’s not so easy for her. But if she thought that was bad…

Did I mention there was a creepy prologue, set in 1986, involving Adelaide as a young girl who encounters something scary and traumatizing at a boardwalk funhouse with a mirror maze? Do I need to?

Anyway, fast-forward to later that night, as everyone’s about to get ready for bed, when suddenly, THE POWER’S OUT! And as Jason points out to his parents, there’s specifically “a family” in their driveway. And it is a family, it looks like—two adults, two children, all silhouetted in shadow. One of the funnier moments involves Gabe, who behaves as if he’d rather be the star of a lighthearted TV family sitcom than a disturbing horror/thriller, as he tries to challenge the potential intruders off the property. But they don’t take to that very well, and that’s when things go from strange to funny to chilling…and then a little funny again. Funny thing is, even with Gabe’s one-liners to off-set the tension when things go from bad to worse, it still feels like how someone like him would react in such a situation…and that’s before it becomes revealed what these sinister people look like.

We get a wonderfully crafted sequence following the doppelgängers invading the family’s home and revealing themselves to be “the shadows.” They look like the family, even mirror some of their movements, but they’re obviously very different beings. Once they sit them down in the living room, Adelaide’s counterpart, dubbed “Red,” tells them a story (and in a croaky voice, no less) that helps explain that they need to untether themselves from their hosts (hence the pairs of scissors they carry with them). That’s when the chase begins, as it becomes a race to outrun their attackers and survive the night. Jason attempts to outsmart his disfigured double by playing games; Gabe uses his new cheap boat to play against his Frankenstein’s-Monster-like double’s advances; and the two mothers go against each other. And that’s just the beginning…

Oh, and Jason’s opposite (who wears a mask) skitters along the floor on all fours…yikes.

There’s a message in this story about the haves and the have-nots between these comfortably well-off people and their downtrodden doubles, which thus helps go with the underlying commentary about the American Dream. Not particularly subtle, but it helps pave the way for what’s to follow in the next hour or so. And that’s all I’ll say about that here.

The creepiness factor is more than effective; it’s involving. What would we do if we were in that scenario? What would we feel? Thankfully, the characters Peele has given us in his meticulously crafted screenplay are as smart as they come. Yes, there are moments as in a *typical* slasher film when we wish they would “get out,” to coin a phrase, out of a certain situation, but we get why they were in that situation to begin with—many of the things our main characters do are not just to survive but to save each other.

What these doubles truly are, what they represent, whether or not this was an isolated incident, what happens next…I’ll leave for you to discover. As “Us” continues, it grows into a fascinating yet disturbing chiller that says more than we might suspect (which is what the best horror films truly do) and does so with enough twists and turns to keep us invested, enough entertainment value to market it to the mainstream horror audience, an effective style aided by great cinematography (by Mike Gioulakis, who also shot other effective chillers such as “It Follows” and “Split”), and a strong, likable, well-acted cast of characters we can root for. (Oh, and chilling memorable music from Michael Abels…when’s the last time a music composer has been praised for a recent horror film??)

On a personal note, will I watch “Us” as many times as “Get Out,” which I already called one of my new personal faves? “Get Out” certainly had more of the entertainment value to add onto the well-defined characterization, remarkably clever storytelling, and symbolic themes that fit perfectly with clever social commentary (“Get Out” represents just damn good filmmaking, period). “Us” is definitely entertaining, and a good chunk of credit for that goes to the balance of horror and comedy (and of course, Gabe’s behavior helps too), though it does have a touch of the atmospheric bleakness and symbolism of “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” and “Hereditary,” three brutally disturbing horror films that I can only watch once or twice a year because they did their jobs “too” well. (Maybe some day, I’ll write about the “kind” of horror films I “prefer” to watch repeatedly.)

All I know are two things: one is that I will definitely see “Us” again because I want to get everything Jordan Peele threw at me the first time, and the other is I can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele comes up with next.