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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.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

22 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve liked more Spider-Man movies than I’ve disliked them. I like Sam Raimi’s 2002 smash-hit “Spider-Man.” I thought “Spider-Man 2” was even better (and I gave it four stars because hey Roger Ebert did so that was OK…eh, if I’m being honest, I’d still give it four stars if I re-reviewed it). And I really liked “Spider-Man: Homecoming” last year, after “Captain America: Civil War” brought the web-slinging hero into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Oh, and there’s also Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” to which I immediately gave four stars after seeing it twice in theaters in the summer of 2012…maybe I was hoping it would go in a better direction than it ended up into to justify the rating. (THAT Spider-Man movie, I’ll write a Revised Review about.) And the less said about “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the better…

Oh, whatever, let’s talk about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which is hands-down the best Spider-Man movie yet! (And I will NOT hesitate in giving it four stars, because I also think it’s one of the best films of the year. It’s definitely one of my favorites of the year.)

This Spider-Man movie has it all. The pathos. The humor. The fun. The excitement. Everything that most Spider-Man fans look for in a Spider-Man movie, it’s here. Nothing more, nothing less, and God bless America!

Sorry, sorry, let me collect myself before continuing…

OK, I’m back. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a wonderful comic-book film. It’s strange and unusual, which adds to the highly effective dramatic elements that help elevate the story material and the necessary comedic aspects, while also paying homage to previous versions of the Marvel-Comics superhero so that it can move on with a different story. Some parts parody the formula, other parts are adding to it, and overall, it’s an affectionate respect to the hero we know and love.

And did I mention it’s also animated? As in, they take advantage of every clever visual touch that could be added to a great Spider-Man story, right down to the exclamation word bubbles lifted from a comic book to pop onto the screen? Do I need to mention that it’s visually pleasing as a result? Do I need to? It’s just the icing on top of the cake.

Our hero is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore, the talented young actor from 2015’s “Dope”). He’s a bright but awkward teenaged boy who’s just been transferred to a private school that his stern policeman father (Bryan Tyree Henry) is forcing him to attend. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, and this stuffy school isn’t helping anything. His life changes, however, when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider one night. This of course gives him super spidey-sense and web-slinging abilities that make for one awkward situation after another until he comes across the costumed hero himself, Spider-Man (Chris Pine). Unfortunately, the humongous, psychotic Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) comes along and kills Spider-Man/Peter Parker, but not before Spidey’s final words to Miles are to stop Kingpin from destroying the world with his dimension-jumping device that could doom the city. Sound weird? It gets even weirder as Miles comes across…Spider-Man. Huh?

Actually, this is an alternate version of Spider-Man/Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson). He’s heavier built, his origin story is slightly different, and he’s cynical and heartbroken after being Spider-Man was too much for him. He’s been brought here due to a malfunction in the dimension machine, which seems to have brought out other versions of Spider-Man, such as Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), anime heroine Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and even Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Together, they team up to stop Kingpin’s insane plan and also help Miles control his powers so that he can take up the slack of this dimension’s new Spider-Man and keep New York City safe.

Admittedly, the story contains so much material, and yet it doesn’t feel overstuffed. There is a lot to absorb, and the right amount of time is taken to let the audience take in what they are seeing right in front of them. The things that are important are given the most focus, and everything else thankfully doesn’t feel like filler—they’re here to further aid the film’s delightfully witty and fun tone. And the best part is while a hardcore comic-book fan can admire the directions “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” takes, a casual fan can still watch it, admire it, and enjoy the ride.

The movie is a total blast, and the comedy, action, and drama all blend beautifully to make for one hell of an entertaining experience. And I think because it’s animated, it’s allowed to take more chances than it could have if it were live-action. Or maybe it would’ve worked fine if it were live-action. Either way, I’m perfectly content with what I got, because “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a ton of fun that I can’t wait to return to in the near future.

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

9 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. Just read this next paragraph and decide for yourself if you think it’s a true story or something Hollywood would have rejected on the spot:

A community-college freshman is recognized by strangers on campus, even though he has no idea who they think he is. Someone asks him questions, and it turns out he shares the same birthday, the same adoption agency, and of course the same physical features (such as meaty hands) as his friend, to whom he takes to visit. It turns out these two are identical twin brothers who meet each other for the first time at age 19. When the story reaches the news, who should happen upon it but ANOTHER BROTHER?? Yep—it turns out there were triplets who were separated at birth. (There were actually quadruplets, but the fourth brother died at birth.) After having finally discovered one another by chance, they become close friends. But that’s not all. It turns out the triplets’ separation was part of an experiment brought on the adoption agency to try on a “nature-versus-nurture” study, by placing the three infants with families at different economic levels—one wealthy, one middle-class, one blue-collar…

It’s a story so unbelievable it HAS to be true. And upon watching the first few minutes of Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers,” a gripping, unbelievably riveting documentary that tells the triplets’ story, I was blown away by the fact that this wasn’t written for the screen. As the film continued, I was even more impressed to learn more about where they came from and why all of this was done to/for them.

I should just stop the review right here, because the less you know about “Three Identical Strangers” going in, the better. And while I don’t want to give away much of what we learn from this wonderful documentary, I will say what I took away from it in the end: the importance of loving, sensitive parenting, no matter what economic class these people were raised in.

“Three Identical Strangers” captures that meaning brilliantly. At times, it’s very funny the way many of these things worked out. Other times, it’s infuriating when you think about the people who tried to play God with these infants. And the rest of the time, it’s bitterly tragic, especially in the case of the depression all three of the triplets go through, particularly one named Eddy, and the direction that takes. But it also makes you think about what would have happened to you if you had been raised differently or if your own siblings had been raised differently. All that matters in the end is nature and the kind of parenting that’s important in everyone’s life.

I loved “Three Identical Strangers” so much. It’s wonderfully made, has numerous twists and turns that kept me invested, contained memorable characters in real-life people, and also might have provoked more discussion than any other film I’ve seen all year. (And yes, that includes “The Tale” and “Leave No Trace.”) It’s a compelling, fascinating documentary that will definitely be ranked high on my best-films-of-2018 list.

The Tale (2018)

8 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The story you are about to see is true…as far as I know.”

That’s the narrating line of dialogue that opens writer-director Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” and it reminds us of the infamous quote, “Truth is in the eye of the beholder.” “The Tale” is Fox’s account of an incident that happened to her when she was very young (in her early teenage years, even), how she came to terms with it, and how she tried to find answers from other people who were involved. The answers are not clear from the others, but she knows what happened to herself.

“The Tale” is documentarian Fox’s fictional telling based on a story she wrote at age 13…that was based on her experiences as a victim of sexual abuse. It’s a film that is as powerful as it is uncomfortable. And it’s undoubtedly one of the most important films in recent memory for that very reason.

Laura Dern stars in a truly excellent performance standing in for Fox, playing a documentary filmmaker named Jennifer. She seems to be doing well for herself, enjoying a nice Manhattan apartment with her long-time fiancé (Common), working hard on doc projects, and teaching non-fiction film at a local university. But even before her overprotective mother (Ellen Burstyn) demands an explanation after discovering an essay she wrote at age 13, we begin to suspect some uneasiness within her, as she seems somewhat closed-off and self-loathing and is more interested in her documentary subjects. (Commentary!)

What is this essay her mother found from decades ago? Well, it’s about a “relationship” that developed between 13-year-old “Jenny” (Isabelle Nelisse) and her “older” boyfriend. Upon rereading the essay, Jennifer remembers just how “old” this man was. He was her professional coach from an intensive horse training camp she attended: Bill Allens (played in flashbacks by Jason Ritter and in present-day by John Heard), who was in his 40s when he began sexually grooming Jenny before he would “make love” with her.

As Jennifer starts to read more and more into her past, she realizes the true terror of what came upon her by a man she had come to trust and admire at such a young age. Being an investigative documentarian, she uses her skills to look further into what happened that fateful summer over 30 years ago. “The Tale” is able to move from present-day events to flashbacks, as she’s learning more about what truly happened and what MAY have happened, without a hint of clumsiness. There’s one bit I loved in which we’re first taken back to that summer when Jennifer was 15, when she’s corrected that she was 13 and thus we’re returned to the same scenes (only played by a different actress than who we started with)—that lets us know right away that truth and memory, especially in a case like this, don’t always go hand in hand. The more Jennifer realizes the harsh difference between what she thought was happening in the moment and what actually happened in hindsight, the more she can’t deny of the hauntings of her past and how it affected her even at age 48.

What happened with 13-year-old Jenny, 40something Bill, and the tall, beautiful and exotic horseback-riding coach Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), with whom Bill was having an affair, is not as “beautiful” as Jenny would like to believe, though we can understand how she would have felt that way. In her mind, she was a girl who felt older than she was, being taken seriously by two mature, classy adults who gave her attention and let her in on their secrets. (To show even more of how different 13-year-old Jenny was from 48-year-old Jennifer, we even see the two interact with each other, as Jennifer shares a “conversation” with her past self and tries to recollect and understand what really happened with Jenny.) It’s fascinating to see Jennifer reconnect with people from her past, such as Mrs. G (played in present-day by Frances Conroy) and other women who attended the camp as girls, and yet it’s also incredibly disturbing when certain points of truth rise to the surface…

In making the film, Jennifer Fox makes the brave choice by not merely hinting at the physical abuse she encountered at a young age—she instead takes special care in showing us the horrific seduction from an adult man to a young girl and the eventual physical action, using adult body doubles for the rape scenes. She wants us to know what she felt, both then and now. And we’re with her fictional counterpart, played brilliantly by Laura Dern, every step of the way, right down to the moment in which she confronts present-day Bill head-on. It’s painful and uncompromising and equally brilliant and powerful.

What we have in “The Tale” is a “tale” of people who believe in what they feel in an attempt to shield themselves from the true harshness that they’re committed to. Jenny believed she was experiencing love for the first time, Bill believed in his own sick and creepy methods, Mrs. G believed in her reasons for having her own extramarital matters, and so on. Jennifer begins to believe that the faults of her haunted subconscious were caused by her own doing, when in actuality, it was the people who used her and took advantage of her that were responsible. The journey she embarks on will determine who she was as Jenny, who she is as Jennifer, and how she got from there to here. “The Tale” is one of the best films of 2018; one I will definitely not forget anytime soon.

Searching (2018)

28 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are people who will compare “Searching” to “Unfriended,” because they share the same gimmick of setting a movie entirely within the confines of a mobile device. Well…almost. “Unfriended” (and another similar film, “The Den”) kept the focus coming from one computer screen and mostly in real time. “Searching” tells its story through various forms of media—laptop screens, cellphone screens, public news footage, YouTube videos, hidden-camera surveillance footage, even GPS. If nothing in the story for “Searching” can be recorded in any way, shape or form, then it didn’t happen. “Searching” utilizes just about every modern convenience imaginable to tell its story, and thankfully, it doesn’t feel forced.

Directed and co-written by Aneesh Chaganty, “Searching” is a tense, suspenseful, very effective mystery-thriller that had me on-edge, kept me guessing, and delighted me in doing both.

John Cho stars in a great, understated performance as David Kim, a widower raising his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La). After the death of Pamela (Sara Sohn), David’s wife and Margot’s mother, the two barely communicate, save for text messaging and FaceTime. Margot disappears one day (and David doesn’t realize she’s missing until well into the next day), and it’s every parent’s worst dream come true—David’s daughter is missing, she’s not returning his calls, he gets more frantic by the passing minute, and now we have a gripping mystery…

As he believes something is very wrong here, David receives the help of police detective Vick (Debra Messing) and also does his own investigative work by looking through Margot’s laptop she left behind before her disappearance. In addition to contacting her online friends to see if they have any answers, David also combs through her Facebook, her Tumblr, and other sites she’s been sharing pieces of her life with. While he’s doing this, he learns the sad truth that the girl he comes to know through the online clutter is not the daughter he thought he knew, as he discovers new things about Margot that he didn’t know before. Add that to the question of what could have possibly happened with Margot, and David’s world is shattered uncomfortably.

The mystery surrounding this girl’s disappearance is very effective in how pieces of this complicated puzzle keep coming into place. But “Searching” takes it a step further by having a deep emotional center. Through a powerfully poignant opening sequence, we see David and Pamela raise their daughter up until Pamela’s tragic death. (This is told to us using various videos—one great little touch is the progression of the technology with the passage of time.) It’s a simple technique, but we immediately understand the toll this woman’s death has taken on her husband and child, and it’s very well-done. According to a making-of special (which appears on the DVD extras), writers Chagantry and Sev Ohanian first came up with the opening scene to make the story more character-driven and were able to develop the rest of the story through the characterization. I don’t doubt it, because the rest of the film works mainly because you feel you know David and are heartbroken when he realizes Margot hasn’t been the same since Pamela’s death, and neither has his relationship with Margot.

It’s all played with a great deal of credibility. The way Chagantry tells this story, with various forms of media at the assistance, it feels real. And the storytelling at hand here is very fresh, very tense, and very rewarding because not all the answers are easy to guess by the end of the film. It’s an intriguing mystery with a great deal of heart. It can generate emotion as well as it can raise suspense.

What also plays a big part in the film’s credibility is the lead performance by John Cho, who is utterly brilliant in the role of a troubled father desperate to find his missing daughter if for no other reason than to somehow reconnect with her. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for him, even when he does something like track down and humiliate one of Margot’s peers who cracks a joke about her “missing” status. It’s easy to understand his mindset throughout the film.

I’m not sure “Searching” would have worked nearly as well if it was shot and edited more like a traditional film instead of the electronic-media approach. I feel like it had to be presented in this format, not merely because it turns the viewers into voyeurs of these characters’ personal lives or simply that it’s a neat, effective way of telling this story, but because it can also show how our modern conveniences at hand can come in handy in desperate times. (Though, I get the feeling it may also teach overprotective parents to control their kids’ mobile devices.) But overall, I admire the unconventional manner than Chagantry chose to tell this deeply effective story. If that didn’t work, I probably wouldn’t love “Searching” as much as I do. I saw it twice in theaters, and I look forward to more viewings at home.