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Spielberg (2017)

26 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential (and one of my personal favorite) filmmakers of all time. The impact he left on the world (and on me) with over four decades of classic films such as “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Schindler’s List,” “Jurassic Park,” the “Indiana Jones” movies, and “Saving Private Ryan,” among many more, will never be forgotten. No other mainstream director is as successful as he is, and when he leaves this world, his legacy will be remembered for years to come. That’s why when I heard there was a two-and-a-half-hour HBO documentary about his life & career, I had to check it out, if only to see if there was something about Steven Spielberg that I didn’t know before.

And it turned out there was. For example, that scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) breaks down at the dinner table and his oldest son shouts repeatedly, “Crybaby!”—it turns out that was something young Steven did as a child when his own father cried at the dinner table. It’s no secret that Steven had some father issues (and it shows in his work, with father figures being either absent or distant). His parents’ divorce had an intense effect on him, which then led to a theme in his movies. To hear him talk in an extended interview about what he went through as a child when the divorce happened, how it affected his life since then, and so forth, is something special. Even though I had some idea of how deeply it affected him, it turns out that idea was nothing like I thought.

Throughout the documentary “Spielberg,” created by documentarian Susan Lacy (of PBS’ “American Masters”), Spielberg goes into detail about various things in an extended interview (split up with clips of his films and interviews with critics, film historians, actors, colleagues and family members). He speaks honestly about personal interests, feelings and misfortunes, and opens up in a way that lets us know the man behind the camera like we never have before. The film goes on for two-and-a-half hours; I easily could’ve stayed for another hour. (Actually, I think there could be more material to make another documentary, from what was deleted from interviews of Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, among many other major talents.)

Now I’ll take a little detour here to talk about something else. In 2016, there was a terrific documentary about director Brian De Palma’s career (titled “De Palma”). One of the highlights of that film was the old home-movie footage showing evidence of De Palma’s friendship with Spielberg (and De Palma is interviewed in “Spielberg” too); it made me wish I could see more of that. Well, in “Spielberg,” I get my wish, with even more home-movie footage of young 1970s versions of Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola and De Palma hanging out and shooting pool together, as they were members of the “New Hollywood club”—young filmmakers that exploded with big hits at the box-office and often consulted with one another as colleagues and as close friends. (Spielberg and De Palma’s advice/criticisms of Lucas’ “Star Wars” are priceless.) I would love to see a whole documentary about the friendship these guys had back in the day.

But back to “Spielberg.” It’s just wonderful to hear Spielberg talk about what brought him to the movies (“Lawrence of Arabia” was the one that influenced him the most), what themes he continued in his works (personal fear, family deterioration/reunification, fight for freedom & justice), and how they reflect on his own life (he even states at one point that his movies are like his therapy). I doubt I could ever watch a Spielberg film the same way again.

The documentary goes the extra mile by giving us something even more special: interviews with Spielberg’s mother Leah Adler (who died before the film’s release, at age 97) and father Arnold Spielberg. Steven had spent years resenting his father for ending the marriage between him and his mother (Arnold even told Steven and his three sisters that it was he that ended things with Leah) and has used the theme of the absent/distant father again and again in his movies. And it’s here that we find that the healing process has already begun, as we are treated to Arnold’s interview in which he, at age 100, talks about how he himself was affected. This story of the Spielberg family could make for its own Spielberg movie by itself.

There’s plenty more treats in “Spielberg” to admire, such as how Spielberg treated the child actors in “E.T.,” how he got the job at Universal Studios in his early 20s, how he came to grips with his own Judaism (and how the creation of “Schindler’s List” helped him even more), reacted to his failures (“1941”) and embarrassments (omitting certain parts of the source material for “The Color Purple”), the times he traumatized his younger sisters as children, and his marriage/divorce with Amy Irving, which is sad, considering his own experience with divorce (and now having put his firstborn son Max through the same experience he went through as a child). With “Spielberg,” we’re given numerous insights into the director’s life & career, how the artist’s life is reflected onto his work. Getting an understanding of Spielberg’s craft is not merely one of many reasons I give “Spielberg” my highest rating; it’s the most important one.

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Lady Bird (2017)

20 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How in the world am I going to describe “Lady Bird” in a way that makes it sound even a little like the film I saw and admired?

Well, I can try… let’s see… “Lady Bird” is an independent film about a rebellious Catholic schoolgirl going through her senior year. As she looks for colleges far away from home, she goes in and out of relationships with her peers, struggles with her mother who is hard on her, and has experiences that readies her for the roughest experience of all: life.

See? The way I described it makes it sound dissimilar to the same film I want to write about, which is about all of those things. But they’re handled in a way that makes it feel fresh and original, like a coming-of-age film unlike any other I’ve seen before. Even the depressing, similarly-unusual “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is nothing like this film.

“Lady Bird” is the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the film and has established herself as a fresh female voice in independent film while collaborating with Noah Baumbach for films such as “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” (both of which she shares a writing credit). She is able to pull off everything in “Lady Bird” in such a way that while we’ve seen elements of the story before, what she does with them feels totally new. It’s an independent film that doesn’t fall into the typical indie traps. It’s not self-assured in how bright it is. It’s not talking down to us with its many insights. And it can be harsh while not being terribly so and funny while also being moving. Gerwig knows what she’s doing here, and you wouldn’t guess this was her first time directing.

The film is semi-autobiographical, set in the early 2000s and inspired by Gerwig’s experiences in growing up in Sacramento, California. The always-wonderful actress Saoirse Ronan portrays the young-Gerwig counterpart, Christine McPherson, who prefers to be labeled “Lady Bird” because she hates her given name and prefers a name that’s deeper. She hates life in Sacramento and wants to go somewhere less boring, and so she tries applying for colleges “out East,” even though no one, not even the guidance counselor and especially not her mother (Laurie Metcalf), sees that actually happening, as she’s not the best student.

Lady Bird has one friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), with whom she shares a true bond, as both of them are on the lower end of the high-school spectrum (but not the lowest end). And she has a neverending feud with her mother, who is having a hard-enough time working double-shifts as a nurse without dealing with her difficult daughter. Her father (Tracy Letts) shows more care and affection towards her, but he’s going through a tough time of his own, having lost his job, battling depression, trying to keep the family financially stable, and even applying for the same new job as his adopted son Miguel. She thinks things are going to get easier and gentler when she meets Danny (Lucas Hedges), a cute, “perfect” boy who becomes her boyfriend. But even that sweetness doesn’t last long. Then, Lady Bird finds herself breaking away from Julie, falling in with mean-girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), finding a new boyfriend, having her first sexual encounter, discovering harsh truths about herself and those around her, and finding herself on the very edge of adulthood.

I tried, but I don’t think I fully related how unique “Lady Bird” is with that basic plot, even though it sounds similar to other movies (movies like “The Edge of Seventeen,” which came out last year, come to mind when I try and describe what happens in “Lady Bird”).

I admire the editing of “Lady Bird.” It’s tightly edited at 90 minutes, despite so much happening in this year of the life of this 17-year-old girl. That’s because Gerwig knows not to give us filler. If a scene is straying for too long, it cuts immediately to the next scene. If there’s a misunderstanding occurring, we suddenly cut away to later, when the misunderstanding is being discussed realistically instead of awkwardly drawn out. When there’s a betrayal, it immediately cuts to quiet contemplation of said-betrayal before the tears come up. Then it’s on to the next situation. This is how it is throughout the entire film, and I greatly appreciated the trimming of the fat.

What helps is that every situation is handled just right, with Gerwig’s screenplay being smart enough to know what’s realistic, what’s memorable, and what’s just right for the material. Whether it’s the comedy (such as when Lady Bird and Julie are discussing masturbation while eating communion wafers), the drama (such as the brutal confrontations between daughter and mother), or the quiet, sweeter moments (such as when Lady Bird and Danny are looking at the stars and even naming one of them to call their own), all of it is as brilliant as it is straightforward.

I loved Ronan’s work in this film. She plays a character that feels so real you could reach out and touch her. And it also helps that she’s written well, to the point where I could practically see Gerwig coming out through her. But I can’t neglect to say how I loved the supporting cast, which is across-the-board terrific. Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, even the smaller roles such as Stephen Henderson who gets a laugh with almost every scene he’s in as a drama teacher (who gets a little too into the dramatic exercises at one point)—they’re all worthy of their own movie.

Many details of “Lady Bird” may seem familiar at first glance, but look closer when you see the film and you’ll see the power in said-details. We see this girl grow up, and even at times when she’s a little too rough, she’s still empathetic. And by the end of the film, she still has some growing up to do. The only difference is she comes to realize that. And with that said, not only do I want Gerwig to make another film (hell, another 10 films, she’s that good), but I also want a sequel to “Lady Bird.” I want to see where Lady Bird and the other characters end up.

The Big Sick (2017)

20 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What’s more challenging than a comedy that can truly make you laugh? A comedy that can truly make you feel.

(That wasn’t a joke…unless you consider comedies that try for drama and fail or dramas that become unintentional comedies.)

And for me, there are but a handful of comedies that make me equally laugh and feel—“City Lights,” “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “50/50,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” among a few others. Thankfully, I feel the need to make room in that hand for “The Big Sick,” a romantic comedy with good laughs, winning characters, and moments of drama that make us want everything to turn out alright for them.

“The Big Sick” is semi-autobiographical, and I’ll get to that after I describe the basic plot. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani stars as himself as a young, Pakistani, aspiring stand-up comic who wants to live the American Dream while his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are more traditional in their Pakistani culture. They’re fine with him doing stand-up comedy and not being a lawyer or a doctor, and all they ask is that he marry a Pakistani Muslim woman. Every time Kumail comes over for dinner, there’s always a young, single Pakistani-American woman who just “happens to be in the neighborhood” and comes in to join, invited by Kumail’s parents as a way of pressuring him to marry. (As Kumail explains, “In Pakistan, arranged marriage is just marriage.”) During one of his gigs, a pretty, young white woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) heckles him (well, actually, she just yells “whoo-hoo!” but as Kumail explains, any sort of audience reaction other than laughter is considered “heckling” because it can throw a comic off his game). After the show, he chats her up, and this starts a complicated love affair.

Kumail and Emily get along lovely, but before long, Emily realizes how complicated Kumail’s deal is. He won’t take her to meet his parents, who would disapprove of this interracial relationship. This causes them to break up, and this is when things get even worse. Emily falls ill shortly after the breakup, and Kumail is there to sign for her to be put into a medically induced coma in the hospital so that doctors can find out what’s wrong with her. To make matters more awkward, Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), are in town to be there when Emily wakes up…and while they wait with Kumail, who hasn’t met them before, they already know he ended things with her and that he’s kind of a jerk. Awkward levels rising! But the situation allows the three of them to bond as Kumail realizes how much he does care for Emily and how difficult it’s going to be to make his own parents understand what he wants.

And so here we have a “romcom” that’s beyond your regular “romcom,” as the girl is unconscious for most of the movie and the boy hopes she comes out of this alright so he can admit his true feelings for her. That Kumail and Emily are so cute together for the first half-hour or so of the film makes us want them to stay together, even when the truth about Kumail’s insecurities and family are revealed, leading to the breakup (which then leads to the coma—bad timing). It’s also important that we feel the growth and change within Kumail as his world comes crashing down on him in this confusing time in his life, and he just has to admit to himself and his parents about his feelings, even if it means the possibility of being disowned.

But the most interesting part about “The Big Sick” is its inspiration. The film is based on a true story that actually happened to the film’s two screenwriters, who turn out to be Kumail Nanjiani and the real-life Emily (Emily V. Gordon), who went through this unusual courtship 10 years ago and are now married.

Yeah, I know—spoiler alert, I guess; Emily turns out OK and she and Kumail live happily ever after. And they ended up writing one of the best romantic comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

Everything about the film works. The romance is fun to watch, as Kumail and Emily deliver great chemistry with witty, cutesy banter (and one very funny moment involving Emily trying to sneak out at night for reasons I’ll leave you to discover). The scenes with Kumail and his family at dinner are convincing and effective, with light comedy (such as Kumail’s mother acting surprised by every new visitor/potential-bride) and some quiet pathos. The scenes with Kumail and his stand-up colleagues (both talented and untalented) on and off stage are very funny and true, with convincing dialogue that establishes Kumail’s American ambitions. The stuff involving Kumail and Emily’s parents waiting worriedly while finding common ground with each other is very well-done. The film makes me feel and laugh. It does exactly what “50/50” did just as well as that one did, which is take real, complicated, difficult issues, show them for what they are, find the humor that can be found wherever it is, bring the convincing amount of levity, and there you have the makings of a sleeper hit. When the characters feel real and you understand what they’re going through, you’ll stay with them, feel with them, and laugh with them.

But the film is a comedy, and the Judd Apatow producer credit makes note of that, and the laughs aren’t forced; they just come naturally so that you’re not confused by what kind of movie you’re watching when it comes to the more serious moments. My favorite funny moment is when Emily’s parents come to see Kumail do his stand-up, and Beth has the perfect reaction to a heckler who shouts a racist remark. (That’s all I’ll say about that, but let’s just say Holly Hunter shines in that moment.)

I’m not too familiar with Kumail Nanjiani’s work as an actor, so I’m not sure of the limits of his range. But seeing him play a fictional version of himself, he does a solid job. He’s likable, a bit narcissistic, and believable, making for a lead we can root for. And he’s acting as himself based on a true-life experience involving him, so of course he’s going to put his all into it.

Ever since her brilliant work in 2012’s “Ruby Sparks,” one of my favorite romance films, I can’t help but admire Zoe Kazan in everything she’s done since. And as Emily, she’s wonderful. She lights up the screen with her presence, and even when she’s in a coma for much of the movie, I don’t feel that she’s entirely left us.

Anumpam Kher and Zenobia Shroff are both terrific in their roles, trying to make their roles more than one-dimensional strict parents and show how upset they can be because of their love for their son mixed with their own traditions. Holly Hunter is great as Emily’s feisty, tough mother, while Ray Romano, as Emily’s pushover father, shows dimensions I never would’ve expected.

There is just so much for me to admire about “The Big Sick” that I embrace it wholeheartedly. And I almost forgot to mention the director, Michael Showalter, which might be forgiven seeing as how the script might be the thing that truly makes the movie. But Showalter deserves credit for bringing the vision to life. In fact, everyone deserves credit for how well this film turned out. The director. The writers. The cast. Apatow. The whole crew. And it’s one of the best films of the year.

Moonlight (2016)

8 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning—some spoilers ahead!

Oscars viewers who were distraught by the snubbing of the game-changing coming-of-age film “Boyhood” for the Best Picture statue are now redeemed after another groundbreaking coming-of-age film took home the award (but just barely—look up the 2017 Oscars controversy if you don’t know about it already). That film is Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a small indie film that portrays three important moments in time for a young gay black man, as he grows from child to teenager to adult. Critics and film-festival audiences adored it, as did more mainstream audiences when the film hit theaters, and it became the “little film that could (and did).”

And for good reason—it is a REALLY good film. I missed it before I wrote my “2016 Review” post for this blog, but it surely would’ve made my top-5-films-of-the-year.

“Moonlight” shows us three chapters in the life of our main character Chiron. It’s like a trilogy of 40-minute short films in a way, starting with the segment titled “Little,” in which we first meet him as a young boy (played by Alex Hibbert) nicknamed Little. He lives in a Miami ghetto with his single mother (Naomie Harris) but would rather not spend nights at home often, due to his mother being constantly strung out on drugs and knowing more about punishing her son than showing affection towards him. When local drug pusher Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds him hiding from bullies in an abandoned house, Chiron doesn’t want to go home and instead spends the night at Juan’s before he finally tells Juan where he lives. Juan becomes Chiron’s father-figure (and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) is like a surrogate-mother), as Chiron’s real father is nowhere to be found. He teaches him to swim, gives him crucial advice and tells him he’s going to grow up facing more troubles. But he also teaches him the importance of reacting such troubles.

Then we flash-forward to the next segment, titled “Chiron,” when Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is a high-school teen, still dealing with his angry, drugged-out mother and enduring rougher bullying than before. He also has a sexual awakening after a long period of figuring things out within himself. Juan is out of the picture (though Chiron still spends some nights at Teresa’s), but Chiron still has a friend in classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). But in the midst of his troubles comes peer pressure, which leads to a violent encounter that causes a rift between him and Kevin.

The final segment, “Black,” features Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) as a 20something-year-old man with a new nickname: Black. He’s left Miami and moved to Atlanta after spending some time in juvenile hall, and he’s now a drug dealer, much like his mentor Juan was. He’s still sensitive and thoughtful, but you couldn’t tell by looking at his now-muscular appearance. He returns to his hometown, where he reunites with his mother and Kevin. The reunion between Chiron and Kevin is more meaningful, as the two catch up, Kevin talks about how he turned his life around, Chiron admits his true feelings, and the ending is ambiguously hopeful (more positive than how the film began).

“Moonlight” is not merely an exploration of a man coming to terms with his sexuality. It’s a film that shows how important it is to love yourself before you can love others. It’s often said in other sources that if you don’t love yourself, the insecurities get the better of you, which leads to unpleasant confrontations with the people in your life. That would help explain the behavior of Chiron’s mother Paula—when I saw this film a second time, the scene in the “Chiron” segment in which she goes through mixed emotions while on crack, I couldn’t help but wonder what was on her mind, how she grew up, what brought her to this, and more. This is a person who doesn’t love herself and thus doesn’t treat her son with the love he deserves. And once I considered that, that made their reunion in “Black” all the more powerful. (That’s all I’ll say about that.) And so here you have Chiron, who is going through so many issues in life, doesn’t have many people to call his friends or family, is confused about himself, faces intolerance and poverty, and could easily go down the wrong path for the rest of his life (which is why it’s alarming when he commits a certain act in “Chiron”). With confidence and love, he can overcome these things and turn it all around, which is what we hope will be the case when he reunites with Kevin.

The subject of an African-American male growing up gay is rarely seen in films, and director Barry Jenkins knows just how to tackle it: by making the themes universal so that even audience members who aren’t gay or black or even male can find something big in this small film that they can completely relate with. (And this is an odd observation, but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of camera-shaking in the successful attempts to make the camerawork look/feel more “realistic.”)

But of course, it’s one thing to have a gripping script with a look/feel that seems genuine; it’s another if the right actors can pull off these roles. And boy, do they. The cast is across-the-board excellent, with all three main actors capturing all three sides of Chiron brilliantly. Naomie Harris is also brilliant showing the angry and bitter but also human and sad sides of a single mother with too many problems of her own to show love and affection to her son. And last but certainly not least, Mahershala Ali is outstanding as Juan. It’s not a big role, as he’s only present for the “Little” segment, but to say he makes the most of it would be an understatement. Now, I have a little story I want to share—I missed seeing this film in 2016 and only saw it after it won the Best Picture Oscar; Ali’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar clip convinced me I had to see it as soon as possible.

“Moonlight” is a film that is absorbing, rich, and more importantly, real. Much of it is bleak, but that’s what’s needed for the more uplifting, sobering aspects to take effect. The ending successfully shows that in life, there are no ways of going back (and no reason to either), the things you go through make you who you are, and where you go from here on out is ultimately up to you. That it all comes a film that is this well-acted and well-executed makes it all the more powerful and deserving of the Best Picture win.

It (2017)

8 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It can be anything. It can be the very thing you fear most. It sleeps for years and then resurfaces to feed on children. It feeds on their fears. In order to do that, it becomes what they’re afraid of. It can be anywhere. It knows what scares you. It uses that to get to you. That is what makes It one of the most terrifying abstract figures in literature.

Best known as its favorite and primary form as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, It comes from the 1986 1000+-page novel by Stephen King, titled “It.” In the novel, it’s a mysterious, frightening entity that can’t be explained (well, technically, it is kind of explained in King’s “Dark Tower” series) and can be vanquished by its would-be victims by one thing: overcoming fear. The lesson here is, in conquering fear, you gain power, which is something the characters learn in King’s novel, the 1990 two-part TV miniseries, and now this 2017 cinematic upgrade, all of which are titled “It.”

However, until you get to that point, there’s a whole lot going bump in the night…

The basic idea of all three platforms of “It” is something that’s fascinated me since I first watched the miniseries at age 10: fears coming to life, terrorizing children and only being defeated by facing them head-on. The miniseries doesn’t entirely work, but there are elements from King’s original novel that still do, and I wondered what could be done with a current theatrical reboot. And how did this 2017 upgrade turn out, directed by “Mama” director Andy Muschietti?

Well, if you saw the Verdict above, you’re not surprised when I say “It” is a blast!

After spending a half-decade in development hell, it’s nice to see that the final product of “It” is very well-made and effective at capturing the essence of the book while also becoming more or less its own thing. The novel and the miniseries told two stories—one involved a group of seven outcast children facing off against It, the other involved those same kids grown up and facing It again upon its return. This film only tells one: the kids’ story. That’s right—this is only “Chapter One,” and it makes way for a “Chapter Two,” in which 27 years later (or in our movie world, 2 or 3 years), both It and our heroes (grown up) will return.

(I would issue a SPOILER ALERT, but who doesn’t know by now that this is part of a two-story…story?)

Thankfully, this “Chapter One” of “It” doesn’t feel like it needs a “Chapter Two.” “It” has the power to stand on its own feet with just enough buildup and payoff to the stories of these characters and does not necessarily rely on a future installment to answer important questions. It’s a strong narrative that satisfies, intrigues, and yes, frightens.

Our protagonists are a group of 11-12-year-old outcasts that form together because they’re bullied, they come from unhappy homes, and their friendship is the best thing they can ask for in an otherwise boring summer. They call themselves The Losers Club and are constantly harassed by adults who don’t understand them and a sadistic bully and his cohorts. They also have each seen It in many different forms (followed by the clown form)—for stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), it’s his little brother Georgie, who is missing and presumed dead despite Bill’s persistent search for him; for hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), it’s a leper; for Jewish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), it’s a horrifying painting in his rabbi father’s office; for home-schooled and lone black kid Mike (Chosen Jacobs), it’s his parents being burned alive; for the club’s lone girl Beverly (Sophia Lillis), it’s her demented father and possibly menstruation (…you’ll see in the movie); for overweight new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), it’s the morbid history of his new town (of Derry, Maine); and for cut-up Richie (Finn Wolfhard), it’s…clowns. (Tough break there, Richie.) They come to each other about their own experiences with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) and learn more about It. Bill, desperate to get his brother back in the hopes that he’s still alive, rallies his friends together to fight back.

The main strengths of “It” come from the development of these young characters, what they go through in this town, and what they’re most afraid of that they must overcome in order to survive. At 2 hours and 10 minutes, “It” takes the proper time necessary to flesh out all seven of these kids and give the audience a good sense of who they are, what they’ve gone through, and what kind of people they’ll become. When they’re together, it’s gripping material (it’s, I dare even say, of of “Stand By Me” quality, to quote another King adaptation). All of these young actors are excellent and easily watchable, and you really buy them as friends. When they’re alone, it’s unnerving—whenever each of these characters goes through something unsettling, you fear for them because they are terrified. From the opening scene, which pulls a big no-no in modern horror movies (disposing of a young child), you know this thing is powerful, terrifying, and out there. And it’s targeting these poor kids, who have enough to go through already.

Those scenes put a chill down my spine, but that’s not to say Pennywise the Clown isn’t scary. On the contrary. Portrayed by Skarsgard in a nice mixture of performance and CGI, Pennywise is not to be ignored in this film. You don’t see as much of him as you would expect from the trailer, but when he does show up, I’ll just say it’s pretty unnerving. Skarsgard doesn’t imitate Tim Curry’s popular portrayal of the character from the miniseries; instead, he makes the role his own.

I admired “It” for taking the time to carefully establish the horrors faced by the characters instead of simply making it a freak show with a demented killer clown at the center. While there is some gore and some jump-scares, this is a horror film that relies heavily on tension and psychological terror. By the time the film reached its inevitable hard-hitting horror-movie traditional climax, it’s hard not to root for the kids to succeed in both conquering their fears and beating It as harshly as possible. (You could practically call the film a “superhero movie” in how it goes about its final act.) “It” stays true to the essence of King’s scary novel (while making some notable changes and omitting certain questionable aspects from the novel), and it’s a great thrill ride as a result.

Nirvanna the Band the Show (Viceland Series)

26 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m particularly fond of filmmaker Matt Johnson’s work. “The Dirties” is a film that has really grown on me with time (and repeated viewings), and I thoroughly enjoyed his film last year, “Operation Avalanche.” Johnson’s trademark style is “faux-documentary” done in guerilla fashion. (He goes in, he shoots a scene, he gets out, no matter who’s an actor or not—is it real or staged? He lets you decide.) This style of filmmaking suits him well with his new web series “Nirvanna the Band the Show,” made for Viceland.

“The Dirties” and “Operation Avalanche” are essentially dramatic feature films laced with comedic flavoring. But “Nirvanna the Band the Show” is straight-up comedic. In fact, I may just stop calling this “faux-documentary” and start calling it “mockumentary,” since that’s basically what this is. Nothing is to be taken seriously in the slightest, movie references that took up most of the dialogue for “The Dirties” are replaced with head-on lampoons of popular movies, and it’s easier to make the comparison to something like “Borat” with this series than it is to compare Johnson’s feature films to even a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

The basic premise of the 8-episode 22-minute-per-episode “Nirvanna the Band the Show” is about Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol (who both created the series and play “themselves”; another staple of Johnson’s work) as two Toronto musicians who desperately want to perform a gig at the Rivoli. That’s the groundwork for the entire series, which leads to all kinds of hijinks as Matt tries everything he can think of to get this one gig. This includes—sneaking an ad in a local newspaper, building their own Christmas parade float, sneaking a film into the Sundance Film Festival, and even taking a sick child from a hospital in order to befriend him and, in return, get him to wish to the Make-a-Wish Foundation to have Matt and Jay perform at the Rivoli. And if you think that’s strange, just wait until the final episode…

It’s all outrageous, completely ridiculous, and just flat-out funny all the way through from the first episode to the eighth. It’s a lot of fun to watch for many reasons, but one of the main ones, for me at least, was I kept wondering how Johnson was going to pull off each comedic set piece, only to be pleasantly surprised that he actually can. He pulled them off in ways I didn’t expect. And the best part—Johnson pulls them off with absolute effort, putting his all into everything he’s got.

As with Johnson’s previous works, he uses the documentary-style approach to improvise with a plot detail in mind. With lapel mikes and sometimes-hidden cameramen, he and Jay out to the streets of Toronto to act out the situations that need to be in the episode and mix them with natural reactions of unsuspecting bystanders who can’t believe what these two nuts are saying or doing. Some of these “bystanders” are actors in on it, but even if you know that, it’s still very funny to watch their reactions to all this.

Much of the comedy in the essentially-dramatic “The Dirties” came from Johnson’s character and how much of a movie buff he is, constantly making reference after reference to whatever movie he can think of (which led to the film’s best sight gag—the choice of fonts for the end credits, which I won’t give away here). For “Nirvanna the Band the Show,” Johnson takes that up a notch not by merely referencing the movies but paying pure homage to them. In the first episode, there are numerous allusions to “Jurassic Park” (including a very funny revelation as to why Samuel L. Jackson’s character is so calm—something I hadn’t even thought of before!). In another episode, which is Christmas-related, “Home Alone” is the subject of satire. In another episode, sitcoms are spoofed, with a drastic situation and a race to make things right again (and the opening credits are even done in the style of ‘80s sitcom “Growing Pains”—I almost died laughing at that part). In another episode, Matt is temporarily blind in an episode that began with opening credits that are remarkably similar to Netflix’s “Daredevil” series, and…well, you can probably guess what happens later. And so on.

Oh, and how is Matt blinded in this episode? He watches the “Star Wars” movies for the first time and is so captivated by them that he sits too close to the TV screen. That is hilariously unfortunate…as is what happens when he and Jay go to the premiere showing of “The Force Awakens.”

My favorite episode is the fifth, which takes place in Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival, where “Operation Avalanche” premiered. In this one, Matt makes a short film set in a high school and is quickly thrown out (why do I get the feeling this is how “The Dirties” was really made?), but he gets enough footage to sneak a film into Sundance and gain attention for it. (Oh, and the short film is called “Operation Avalanche.”) Johnson and co. used their Sundance opportunity to make an episode out of whatever they could, and I highly respect them for it.

It took some time for me to get used to Jay McCarrol (who composes music for Johnson’s works) as his comedic foil, because I’m so used to seeing Owen Williams in that role in the features. But he held his own well here, and it’s nice to see him on piano and scoring the scenes in the Nirvanna the Band studio as Matt is mentioning idea after idea—you can tell he has passion in his craft just as Johnson has passion in his as well.

I really enjoyed “Nirvanna the Band the Show” and it only furthered my admiration for Matt Johnson as a filmmaker. He’s not afraid to take chances or try new things with his style, and it turns out he’s very good at it. Once again, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

7 Apr

HoopDreams_ArthurAgee1

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Following your dreams is not an easy road to take. That’s the overall message of the three-hour documentary “Hoop Dreams.” This film chronicles five years in the lives of two teenage boys (from their freshman year of high school to their freshman year of college) as they pursue a dream that proves to be more difficult than they imagined; that dream is to play professional basketball. At the beginning of the film, they are 14 years old, they’re high school basketball players, and they each have the confidence that they will make it to the NBA in the future. And by the end, they have learned the hardships of inner-city life and it’s never easy to blend your fantasy with reality.

The boys are Chicago youths named William Gates and Arthur Agee. We get to know on and off the court. We meet their families and learn just how hard it is balance basketball with academics and family crises. We learn what great games will mean to each of them. We learn what one injury can mean to a player who needs to keep playing to maintain success. We even see the struggles their families go through to just to survive at home. Through the five years registered on film, we as an audience are caught along a documentary journey that plays like narrative fiction. We get to know these people and hope for the best for them,

And we feel sorry for them when it seems they won’t make it the way they thought they would. Sure, they’re stars on their high-school basketball teams, but that doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to be moved over to the NBA. And we see how hard they have to be pushed in order to be greater than they are in their talent on the court—William, constantly pushed by Coach Pingatore at St. Joseph High School and even suffers a series of knee injuries, even states at one point, “It became more of a job than a sport to play.”

There’s a reason “Hoop Dreams” has gone on to its beloved status as one of the best documentaries of all time (even championed by the late Chicago film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel as the best film of 1994; and Ebert went on to call it the best film of the decade). Its real drama is captivating, and anyone & everyone can identify with these people because we all have dreams and hopes, and sometimes we need rude awakenings, not unlike what William and Arthur go through. We have ambitions and goals, but life gets in the way sometimes and our dreams can get harder to accomplish. To see this film is to feel the poignancy of these characters because you realize these aren’t merely “characters” thought up by a screenwriter—they’re real people being captured on camera by filmmakers like director Steve James to tell an important story about the difficulties of following dreams.

You could see “Hoop Dreams” as a sports movie or a feel-good drama, but “Hoop Dreams” is really a film about the struggles of life. It’s involving, compelling, and made me think more about my own dreams and what it truly means in the attempt to accomplish them. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen; one that deserves to be treasured.