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I Am Legend: Special Edition

21 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! If I’m going to review the “I Am Legend” special-edition version, which includes the “controversial” alternate ending (I use quotations for that term because the DVD cover describes it as such), I have to talk about said-“controversial” ending.

I reviewed the 2007 thriller/drama “I Am Legend,” starring Will Smith and based on the Richard Matheson novel, before. I praised most of it (giving it the same three-and-a-half star rating I give to this “Special Edition”), but I did admit the third act was nothing special, especially when in comparison to the preceding two acts. I wrote, “the movie runs on autopilot for its final act, unfortunately. The climax of the movie is just your standard monster-attacking-the-house climax where characters are forced to fight off the enemy, nearly get caught, find some way to fight back—you name it, you got it. The outcome is less than satisfactory. It’s forced.”

I saw the film for the first time in 2007, when it was released. (Also, I wrote the review in 2012, if you were wondering.) I was 15 when I first saw it, and even back then, as a dumb teenage boy who was hungry for destruction in cinema, I noticed the film didn’t end the same way it began. The first two acts of “I Am Legend” weren’t about typical action or horror-movie tropes—it was mostly quiet, with thought-provoking scenes of drama and some carefully-chosen lines of dialogue when discussing the implications of the antagonists’ nature (the antagonists, of course, being the infected sunlight-fearing zombies that take up New York City).

And then the film ends with Will Smith blowing up the “monsters” as well as himself, sacrificing his life to protect the antidote that can reverse the process that turned everyday, ordinary people into this different kind of species… Even as a teenage moviegoer, I wasn’t that enthralled by the film’s resolution.

I’m unsure if I need to remind readers of the plot synopsis of “I Am Legend,” but I’ll attempt to sum it up anyway. Dr. Robert Neville (Smith) is the lone survivor of a plague that wiped out New York City three years before. With no outside communication and the plague reaching out even further, Neville may be the last man on Earth, with only one companion: a loyal dog named Sam. Immune to the virus that killed and/or transformed the infected into predatory zombie-like creatures, Neville spends his days trying to develop an antidote. When times get to be too psychologically anguishing for him, as he seemingly gets nowhere with the experiments, he is suddenly visited by two human survivors, a woman (Alice Braga) and a young boy (Charlie Tahan) who are headed to where they believe a “survivor’s colony” resides outside the island.

Right around this point, “I Am Legend” should be getting more interesting, as issues such as faith and survivor’s guilt are mentioned and discussed in a couple effective moments that are much deserved after numerous quiet, suspenseful scenes with Will Smith alone. But before it can get too deep, the characters are attacked by the creatures that storm Neville’s house. This is where we get the disappointing final act in which it simply doesn’t feel like much is accomplished, despite Neville presumably destroying them all (and sacrificing himself in the process, so that the woman and child can go free with the antidote that ultimately results). It didn’t feel like the right conclusion for such a strong film like this to truly end with.

But I kept saying the film was good, despite a disappointing ending, mainly because everything leading up to it done so effectively. And then…I was told about the original ending. That was when I started to look at the film (and the studio that released it in 2007) in a different (read “negative”) way. The film was treating me, a teenage moviegoer in 2007, with respect and intelligence—no loud violent action sequences, a great deal of silence in both the dramatic moments and the suspenseful moments, and profound issues to be discussed. And then, it decided I needed something I had already seen before in an action-filled climax. That didn’t tick me off so much; what does tick me off today is that if it was released with the original ending, it would’ve given me something even deeper and more profound to ponder long after it was over. That was when I realized that the film I saw in the theater treated me like a thinking adult until the final act, and I want to say “screw you” to whoever made the decision to make such a drastic change.

So, what is the original ending? The ending that would’ve changed everything? The ending that was kept in the “Special Edition” DVD/Blu-Ray release to deliver a more satisfying “I Am Legend”? The ending that gives “I Am Legend” the three-and-a-half star rating on Smith’s Verdict that it truly deserves? Let’s talk about it…

In a clever use of non-verbal communication, the alpha-male creature (Dash Mihok) identifies the subdued female creature (whom Neville was experimenting on to create the antidote, which seems to have finally taken effect). Neville realizes there’s still humanity in these mutants, and taking into account the ingenuity they’ve shown before (such as knowing how to spring a trap for him earlier in the film), he also realizes that they’re not exactly the non-intelligent monsters he thought they were. He gives the creatures the newly-cured woman, whom the alpha male takes with distraught disappointment, and he lets them all go. Thinking back to all the creatures he either killed or experimented on in the long time he’s been the only normal human in the city, he realizes a very harsh truth: they’re not the monster in this world; he is. All this time, he’s been thinking these are horrific monsters that need to be exterminated from our society, but it’s not his society anymore—it’s a brand new world with a newly formed species and he’s the rare breed that won’t adapt to it. In the eyes of the people that now rule the world, he’s the monster that can either be fought or feared, just as he thought of them.

This whole ending is masterfully done! And as a plus, it’s the ending that makes the most sense for this kind of story. It makes the film into a brilliant “eye of the beholder” story that challenges viewers and makes them truly think about what they’ve seen and where the characters can go from the ending. Neville lives in this version, and he and the other surviving humans leave to find other survivors, but…what happens after? It’s less optimistic, but it’s the ending that this thought-provoking end-of-the-world fable deserves.

And some numb-nuts at Warner Bros. must have thought, “Nope! Can’t have that! We gotta treat our younger audience for our PG-13 movie like they’re idiots! We treated them like adults long enough, so let’s just show Will Smith as a martyr or…something!” Whoever made that decision…I can’t stay mad at them for too long because after all, they did learn their mistake and release a DVD with that ending edited into a “director’s cut.” (Side-note: kudos to you, director Francis Lawrence—you knew what you were doing.) And it’s the director’s cut that truly deserves praise, because the ending delivers more in home-media than what it originally promised in the theater.


Cop Car (2015)

3 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Growing up, I didn’t always watch the greatest films. Most of them were straight-to-video family films you could rent at the local video store for a dollar. Most of them involved mischievous kids getting involved in something bigger than them and ultimately saving the day from ruthless (but mostly clumsy) baddies. As a child, I loved watching them because they showed me a world in which children can get away with anything and embark on risky adventures but still come out all right.

I also started to watch the R-rated “Stand By Me” when I was 9 years old (before I would watch it again and again and again), but not even that would’ve prepared me if I saw director Jon Watts’ “Cop Car” at a very young age.

“Cop Car” has a setup that sounds like one of the movies I used to watch way back in the day. Set in the deep South, two pre-teenage boys (played with natural ability by Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson) are running away from home (for reasons never explained, so who cares?) and are walking along empty fields out in the middle of nowhere when they come across…a cop car. It’s a patrol unit abandoned out in the open, and they decide to hit it with a rock…then they decide to play inside it…then they realize that the keys are in it… And this leads to a fun joyride, as the boys drive along fields before taking it to the mostly-empty highway to drive faster. But meanwhile, the Sheriff (Kevin Bacon) wants his car back…

Sounds a bit trite, doesn’t it? Well, what if I told you that the Sheriff is a definite bad guy who disposes of a dead body from the trunk of the cop car? What if I told you there’s something sinister awaiting the boys once they find what’s left in the trunk? What if I told you this plot went from fun adventure to Cormac McCarthy territory, in which the situation becomes more bleak, lives are in jeopardy, and it’s unclear whether these little boys will get out of this alive?

And what if I told you that I loved the directions “Cop Car” kept taking?

This kid’s joyride story takes a dark, disturbing turn as the boys start playing with the artillery left in the backseat (with one of them looking down the barrel of a rifle when he thinks it isn’t working—yikes!), they discover something in the trunk that brings everything to a horrific situation (and with one of the most horrifying monologues I’ve ever heard in a movie—hide your pet guinea pig, kids), and the corrupt Sheriff does what he feels he must do in order to save his reputation and himself in this deadly game of cat-and-mouse. It’s a pulsepounding, suspenseful thrill ride that had me riveted right to the ambiguous conclusion.

We don’t know all the details involving the characters, such as why the boys are running away, who the Sheriff murdered, is the frightened but deadly Shea Whigham character (who shows up late in the proceedings) to be trusted in any other situation, and so on. We’re just put into this journey as the boys are walking and exchanging curse words before coming across the cop car, and off we go. By the time the film got really good, I didn’t care about details that were left out; I was simply involved, and all I knew was how unlikely it seemed that anyone was going to get out of this alive.

The kids feel like real kids. They’re rowdy little boys who think they’re much smarter than they actually are; they do very stupid things (like play with guns; at one point, one tries to shoot the other wearing a bulletproof vest). Because they feel real, the danger for them feels even more real, and that’s when we start to fear for them when they don’t even realize how much trouble they’re in.


Kevin Bacon is a ton of fun in this role of the corrupt Sheriff. He’s menacing but also funny, particularly in the scenes in which he realizes his car is missing, he has to steal the only car around for miles, and he has to come up with numerous ways to keep dispatchers from noticing anything out of the ordinary (and it also doesn’t help for him that he’s not very smart either). He handles it with his usual Kevin Bacon charisma. But the charisma turns to terror, especially when he bluntly tells the boys, “YOU DON’T STEAL A COP CAR!”

The cinematography, by Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Sieple, is gorgeous, delivering a vibe that’s very much Terrence Malick-esque. As the boys are walking along these empty fields and surrounded by nothing but seemingly-endless country, I can’t help but feel the location.

“Cop Car” is darkly terrific and a great thrill ride. And it taught me to never steal a cop car, especially if it’s Kevin Bacon’s.

Man on the Moon (1999)

3 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s often said that humor is subjective—what one finds funny, another finds offensive and/or unforgivably stupid. The late entertainer Andy Kaufman knew this and kept alienating his audience in order to keep around the only people that understood his humor, as few as they may seem. He never liked to do things conventionally; he just liked to put on a show his own way. While some people would declare him a comic genius, others would refer to him as a crazed fool. “Man on the Moon,” the Andy Kaufman biopic created by director Milos Forman (“Amadeus”) and screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Kareszewski (“Ed Wood,” the Forman-directed “The People vs. Larry Flint”), is a wonderful film that illustrates the work of both the genius and the fool.

What aids the film throughout is not only the expert direction by Forman or the detailed script by Alexander & Kareszewski, but it’s the leading performance from Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman that keeps it alive. From beginning to end, Carrey disappears into the role of the late Kaufman and gives a great sense of what the man must have gone through in life. We may not always know what he was thinking, as we are kept out of the loop during much of Kaufman’s extreme antics. But that works in the film’s favor, as we’re supposed to be left wondering what Kaufman is thinking. What’s important is Carrey has some idea as to what he’s thinking for the duration of the film.

For those who don’t know, Andy Kaufman became popular for a comedic character he portrayed in the TV series “Taxi”: a foreign oddball named Latka Gravas. He was also known for doing unpredictable things, such as reading the entirety of “The Great Gatsby” at a college presentation, wrestling women in front of live audiences (which led to a feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler for making a mockery out of wrestling), and other antics that ticked many people off. His practical jokes got to the point where, when it seemed he was dying of lung cancer, hardly anyone believed it when he was sick or even after he had died. (You could say the film even argues at the end that Kaufman is still alive.) His untimely death in 1984 caused people to think back to his career and the insane performances he created. Back in his heyday, his popularity was minimal; nowadays, he’s hailed as a comedic master.

“Man on the Moon” is a slightly fictional biopic that chronicles the highlights of Andy Kaufman’s career. It begins with one of the most innovative prologues I’ve ever seen in any biopic, in which Carrey as Kaufman, using his Latka imitation, berates the movie before it even begins and even starts rolling the end credits after having cut out the entire film, which he describes as “full of baloney.” (But it turns out to be a prank to get rid of audience members who wouldn’t understand Kaufman.) Many biopics don’t have the courage to acknowledge that they made up a lot of material for dramatic purposes; this one just flat-out opens by declaring it isn’t to be taken too seriously.

As the movie continues, we see Kaufman performing on-stage at local bars, meeting agent George Shapiro (Danny DeVito…strangely not reprising his role as Danny DeVito who co-starred with the actual Andy Kaufman in “Taxi” in real life), landing guest appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” getting a contract for “Taxi,” crafting a TV special that ABC executives turn down for being too different, and more. Oh, and there’s also Kaufman’s arch-nemesis: a loud, crass lounge singer named Tony Clifton. The less I say about him, the better…

The more we see of Kaufman’s performance on-stage with the public and off-stage with Shaprio, his writing partner (Paul Giamatti), and his lover (Courtney Love), the less we know about who Kaufman truly is. The best we can gather is that he’s a man who just wants to entertain people in his own ways, and it’s in the quieter moments of the film that we can figure that out, making the more outrageous moments even more telling. (I’ve seen this film about five times now, and I learn more from this character each time.)

Jim Carrey is this movie. He has the look and feel of Andy Kaufman, eerily so that I hardly see the actor in the performance. Carrey does tremendous work here, probably the best performance he’s ever given in a film. (Side-note: watch the Netflix documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” which features never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage about the making of “Man on the Moon.” It shows how deeply Carrey wanted to inhabit the character he was playing. It’s almost psychopathic, the way he attempted method acting here.)

“Man on the Moon” has some pacing issues, particularly toward the final act which feels somewhat rushed, which is unfortunate as we should be feeling more for Kaufman’s plight after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and people wondering if it’s yet another performance art. But it makes up for that with a clever ending and a reveal that I won’t dare give away here. Overall, “Man on the Moon” is a fun (but also deep) film about an entertainer that wanted to entertain, no matter who was part of his audience.

2017 Review

9 Jan

2017 Review

by Tanner Smith


It’s the most wonderful time of the year—the critics’ year-end reviews! Some reviewers do it at the end of the year, while others (like me) wait until the year is over and the New Year has begun. I’ve had this blog since 2013, and I’ve done these year-end reviews since 2014…and I’m still not paid to do this sort of thing yet. (But hey, it could still happen…maybe.) Nonetheless, this is the time when I look back at the films I saw and pat myself on the back for acting like a true film critic.

This was a very surprising year for cinema, particularly mass-market entertainment. I think I enjoyed more blockbusters this past year than any other year—and I’m not kidding, wait until you see what’s on my list if you don’t believe me…or haven’t seen many movies in your local multiplex.

BUT before we get to the pleasant surprises, I of course have to begin this review with my least favorite films of the year. And because I’m still not getting paid to review movies yet, I wasn’t obligated to see the new Transformers movie or “The Mummy” or “The Emoji Movie” or insert-popularly-bad-movie-here. (Side-note: it’s not my intention to undermine those who do get paid to see every movie possible and review them, whether they be good or bad. I appreciate your devotion to your work.)

So, what DID I see that underwhelmed me severely?


Rings—I had a little bit of hope for this unnecessary, late sequel to “The Ring,” a 2002 horror film I genuinely like. It acted like the dreadful “The Ring Two” didn’t exist; I’m hooked already. And it had a neat idea within the “story”: a college professor and his students find the cursed videotape and attempt to study it. But what’s done with it? Nada. A boring young couple watch the tape, try to find out about it, and find out stuff that…we already learned from “The Ring Two!” Well, isn’t that nice. The scares are weak, the conflict is uninteresting, and the ending—what the hell?


Friend Request—I like “Unfriended.” This is not “Unfriended.” This is a supernatural cyber-thriller that is so unaware of itself that its “commentary” is made superficial when our main character’s Facebook Friend count drops in between scenes. I’m not even kidding; the Friend count pops up every now and then, to show that she’s being Unfriended. Because as we all know, that’s what’s important…right?


Don’t Hang Up—The premise sounds fun; some dumb teens delight in prank-calling people, only to end up in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a devious caller that wants revenge for one of their pranks. But come on—there must have been a better way to handle it than with simple “scare” techniques, seemingly-magical killer’s intuition, and some of the more boring teenage characters you can find in a boring teen horror film.

I only truly disliked those three movies. But there are three other movies that made me feel…um, indifferent.

Beauty and the Beast—If you saw my “Top 100 Favorite Movies” post, you know I truly adore the Disney animated film “Beauty and the Beast.” This live-action version just seemed pointless, and while it certainly looked good, all I kept wondering is why I didn’t just watch the animated film again.

Cult of Chucky—Well, I will say that I enjoyed this Chucky movie more than many of the previous Chucky movies. But truth be told, I don’t find Chucky that interesting anymore. He’s just kind of a bore. He likes killing and he has an attitude…OK. At least he encounters some of his more interesting previous victims.

A Ghost Story—I just didn’t get it. I know many critics are praising this film as one of the best of the year, and I admire what director David Lowery attempted to do with this untraditional “ghost story.” But it just didn’t do anything for me, except cause me to wonder, “I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie.” But I dunno, maybe I need to see it again…

Goodbye, Christopher Robin—The story of the creation of Winnie the Pooh is an interesting one, and to be fair, this film gets some aspects right. But due to some awkward performances and an unsteady tone, “Goodbye. Christopher Robin” just didn’t grab me overall.

In Dubious Battle—I forgot I even watched this one, directed by James Franco. Thank God Franco delivered a much better film this year that made people take him seriously as a director.


As with every year-end review on Smith’s Verdict, I’m going to mention the well-received films that I missed in 2017. But before I do that, I’m going to take a look at the films I missed in 2016 that I caught up with in 2017. They are: The Edge of Seventeen, A Monster Calls, Moonlight, and Pete’s Dragon. (Unfortunately, there are still about 8 other relevant 2016 films I still need to see, including the Oscar-nominated “Fences” and “Hidden Figures.” And for the record, both Moonlight and A Monster Calls would’ve made my Top-15-of-2016 list, as would have 20th Century Women and Southside With You, which just slipped by me until way later. Oops.)

But what films did I miss in 2017 that I will see sometime soon in 2018? I’m not including The Post or Phantom Thread, as those haven’t even been released near me yet. Instead, I’ll mention Battle of the Sexes, Blade Runner 2049, Brad’s Status, Call Me By Your Name, Detroit, Downsizing, The Florida Project, Gifted, Good Time, Molly’s Game, mother!, The Shape of Water, Thor: Ragnarok, Wind River.

As I’m writing this, half of these are already available on DVD and Blu-Ray, so I’ll make sure I check them out sooner or later.

Last year, I had two TV/VOD miniseries to talk about and give mentions as special as my favorite films of the year. This year, I’m glad to say that I’ve seen 5 miniseries/series-seasons that I believe deserve mention. So, here is my list of my Top 5 Favorite TV Series of 2017!


5. A Series of Unfortunate Events—This 8-episode Netflix series based on the first four books of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” children’s book series was just a ton of fun. Neil Patrick Harris made for an entertaining Count Olaf, I enjoyed watching the young actors, and I especially laughed at how much it kidded itself with its style and humor even more so than the 2004 film adaptation starring Jim Carrey.


4. Marvel’s The Defenders—It’s the Netflix answer to “The Avengers!” With Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist teaming up to put a stop to something twisted, “Marvel’s The Defenders” is a sometimes messy but overall entertaining action-adventure with likable characters. I’d even say I enjoyed Iron Fist more in this series than I did his own series.


3. Stranger Things 2—One of the most anticipated entertainments of the year, and for me, it had only one disappointment: the much-berated Episode 7. It still had intriguing mystery, our favorite characters were back with some fresh, developing relationships, and once again, it had a neat callback to the ‘80s. I just hope that “Stranger Things 3” takes it easy on poor Will; he’s suffered more than enough already.


2. Mr. Mercedes—Surprise! A show that isn’t on Netflix! I caught this 10-episode-long Stephen King adaptation on The Audience Channel and it riveted me from one episode to the other. It’s based on the first of a trilogy of King’s works surrounding a detective character named Bill Hodges, brilliantly played in the series by Brendan Gleeson. We also get a nice chilling turn from Harry Treadaway as the psychotic Brady Hartsfield, who challenges Hodges to figure out the clues to his sick games. Maybe someday, I’ll write a review for this by itself, because the more I write about it, the more I look forward to the sequel series (based on the continuing King book “Finders Keepers”).

And my favorite TV season of 2017 is…


  1. Nirvanna the Band the Show—I already reviewed this hilarious Viceland series in detail, so you can read about my thoughts if you want to know more about it. Matt Johnson is one of my favorite filmmakers working today, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. He seems to have found his niche with this and his movies, and it’s a trademark that will do him well for future projects as well.


And now, we come to my personal favorite films of 2017. But first, here are some honorable mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Lego Batman Movie, Gerald’s Game, Super Dark Times, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, Psych: The Movie

Might As Well Mention These Too: The Devil’s Candy, Sleight, The Babysitter, Different Flowers, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Power Rangers, Alien: Covenant, Ridge Runners, Creep 2, Kong: Skull Island

Oh, and I Liked These Too: Okja, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, To the Bone, Burning Sands, 1922, Annabelle: Creation, XX


One more mention I want to give is to a film called Big Sonia. This is a documentary about one of the last remaining Nazi Holocaust survivors, named Sonia, who goes to schools, radio stations and even prisons to tell the story of her imprisonment, her survival and the lessons it taught her in order to go through the rest of her life. It’s a heartwarming film that moved me deeply. (And because I saw it just recently, I’m not so sure where to place in the Top 20.)

And now, without any more ado, here are My Top 20 Favorite Films of 2017!


  1. Wonder Woman—I mentioned that 2017 was a great year for mass-market entertainment, and “Wonder Woman” was definitely smarter and more amusing than I ever would have expected. I think DC finally understands that they don’t have to imitate Marvel in order to make a fun movie. They just needed to make a fun movie.


  1. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)—No one makes dysfunctional family comedy-dramas quite like Noah Baumbach, and this one, available on Netflix, is on par with his most well-known film “The Squid and the Whale.” Adam Sandler deserves Best Supporting Actor consideration for his role in this film.



  1. Wonder—This movie pleasantly surprised me. I thought it would be a standard, feel-good, after-school-special type of film that preaches to kids that they should look on the inside rather than judge by appearance. “Wonder” found a way to teach that lesson very effectively, by showing what nearly all of the characters go through instead of focus on one particular child. By doing that, the message is clearer than ever: there is no “ordinary.”



  1. Coco—Not a great year for animation, but Disney/PIXAR has given us another winner the equally funny/heartfelt “Coco,” an enjoyable look at the Land of the Dead. The emotional climax of this film got me a little teary-eyed.


  1. Logan—The Wolverine movie I was waiting for! This gritty, nasty, R-rated journey involving Hugh Jackman as the aging Wolverine and Patrick Stewart as the ailing Xavier had me riveted from beginning to end, for its action and for its drama. This is supposedly Hugh Jackman’s final appearance as the Marvel anti-hero; I’d say it’s a great swan song.


  1. Dunkirk—Seeing this brutally intense WWII film on the biggest screen with the best surround-sound was quite an unforgettable experience. Director Christopher Nolan takes a step away from analytical dialogue for once and just proves with a powerful visual storyteller he can be.


  1. Stronger—One of the most pleasant surprises of the year was David Gordon Green’s “Stronger,” a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a Boston Marathon Bombing victim that loses his legs and is hailed as a hero for identifying one of the bombers. The newfound fame overwhelms him, making it difficult for him to live his life. Gyllenhaal deserves Oscar consideration, as does Tatiana Maslany as his girlfriend that is hurting inside just seeing him hurt.


  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—A few critics are already hailing this as the best film of the year. I admire it, I like it…I don’t like it as much as they do. But I see where the praise is coming from—the comedy and drama are very well-connected (when the characters aren’t merely spouting trigger words), the conflicts are strong and heavy, the character arcs are surprisingly complex, there are no easy answers, and Frances McDormand gives one of the best performances of her career.


  1. Split—M. Night Shyamalan is back, baby! It’s the twist ending that kept me coming back to this film, made me look at the film in a whole new way, and made me like the film more and more with each viewing (and I’ve seen it about five times now). I’m still not going to give away the twist for those who still don’t know…but I will say I am excited to see Shyamalan’s next film. “Split” is scary, intriguing, chilling, well-made, and with a tremendous performance from James McAvoy, who sadly will be forgotten by the Academy this month.



  1. Baby Driver—Director Edgar Wright continues to do what he does best with “Baby Driver”: have fun with conventions, mix comedy and action together, and give us a hell of a good time. His trademarks continued with “Baby Driver,” a compelling, amusing action-adventure with a kick-ass soundtrack, a series of thrilling car chases, and probably one of the best (and most-deserved) death scenes I’ve seen in a long time.


  1. Last Flag Flying—This one caught me totally off-guard. I didn’t know Richard Linklater, one of my favorite directors, even made a “spiritual sequel” to “The Last Detail,” one of my favorite films. But I saw it in a theater, and it is wonderful. It’s not a direct sequel to “The Last Detail” (though you can see similarities in characters from each film); it’s just more like a nice little road-trip with interesting people (in this case, they’re played by Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell as Vietnam War vets questioning the Iraq conflict in 2003 while burying Carell’s son who died in battle) talking about interesting topics. As a film on its own, it’s gripping.


  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming—While most critics consider “Logan,” “Wonder Woman,” or “Thor: Ragnarok” as the best superhero film of 2017 (see, I told you 2017 was a great year for blockbusters), I immensely enjoyed the new “Spider-Man” reboot as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland is an immensely likable Peter Parker/Spider-Man, he’s given funny quips and situations to partake in, and the film is like the Spider-Man movie I was waiting for: a superhero movie about a boy struggling to maintain a social life while thinking he can handle bigger things outside of school. And if you read my review, you also know that I think this presents a great development for Iron Man too, as he becomes mentor to a kid who would otherwise be like him.



  1. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi—Fans are hating on it, and let them hate all they want; they’re not gonna get the movie they play in their heads. Instead, they’re gonna get something that’s as challenging as it is entertaining, and I admire this film for being just that. It’s this “Star Wars” movie that reminds me of why we need “Star Wars.”


  1. War for the Planet of the Apes—Talk about a film I didn’t expect to like so much! As much as I admired “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” I was somewhat cynical about “War for the Planet of the Apes,” because I didn’t think it would go anywhere I wouldn’t see coming. But man, was I wrong. This is a great movie! It’s a powerful, emotional, gripping action-drama that denied conventions and provided plenty more substance than I would’ve ever expected. This “Planet of the Apes” prequel/reboot saved the best for last. And will somebody give Andy Serkis the Oscar recognition he deserves already?!


  1. The Big Sick—My favorite romantic comedy to come out in a long time. I’ve often said in this blog that something more important than a comedy that can make you laugh is a comedy that can make you feel. “The Big Sick” both made me laugh and gave the feels, and the balance of comedy and drama works perfectly. This may be a career breakthrough for Kumail Nanjiani as well.



  1. Lady Bird—If I were to make a list of the Best films of 2017, Greta Gerwig’s excellent directorial debut “Lady Bird” would’ve made the #2 slot. As my favorites, I put it at #5. But my appreciation for the film still exists, as a coming-of-age comedy-drama involving a Catholic schoolgirl just going through the ups and downs of senior year while dealing with a stressful home life… You know, I tried to explain this film to a friend soon after I saw it, and it sounded nothing like the film I saw. That’s because, while the film does have certain conventional elements in it, they’re treated in a way that seems like we haven’t seen them before. And I highly applaud Gerwig for that. A great performance by lead actress Saoirse Ronan deserves Oscar recognition, as does the editing, which is the best I’ve seen in any film all year.



  1. It—Stephen King had a banner year for his film adaptations (“Mr. Mercedes,” “Gerald’s Game,” “1922,” the much-maligned “Dark Tower” movie), and his most successful (in terms of critics and box-office numbers) is my favorite of the year, “It.” Very rarely do the scares work as effectively as the coming-of-age aspects in the same movie. Additionally, the young actors are all excellent as a group of kids terrorized by a shapeshifting clown that knows their deepest fears. This was labeled as “Chapter One”; I can’t wait for “Chapter Two.”



  1. Spielberg—This HBO-released documentary about the life and career of my favorite filmmaker Steven Spielberg. I learned more about this man in a two-and-a-half-hour movie than I ever expected to after being a fan of his for years. This is the second year in a row in which I included a documentary about a filmmaker in my best-of list (the other being 2016’s “De Palma”); I wonder if there will be a “Scorsese” or a “Lucas” or a “Coppola” coming in 2018…



  1. The Disaster Artist—One of the best movies about moviemaking I’ve ever seen, and coming from an unlikely source: the making of one of the most laughably bad movies ever made, Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” James Franco directs the film and stars as Wiseau in a brilliant performance that shows us an enigmatic man with feelings and passion, even if some people just don’t get what he’s thinking (actually, a lot of people don’t know what he’s thinking). I had a blast watching this passionate, hilarious and even moving portrait about an attempt to make a name in show business.

And my favorite film of 2017 is…


  1. Get Out—Most of you probably already knew this was coming, as I already included it in my “Top 100 Favorite Movies” post. I saw this in February, when it was released, and no other film came close to topping my list of 2017. I love “Get Out.” I love the mystery, I love the suspense, I love the comedy, I love the commentary, I love the drama, I love the script, I love the story, I love Jordan Peele’s direction, I love that I can learn something new each time I watch it (and I’ve watched it numerous times this year). If I thought 2016 was a great year for horror, I hadn’t seen anything yet. “Get Out” is better than every solid 2016 horror film combined (and there were some pretty great ones!). You get it already—I love “Get Out.” It’s everything I look for in suspenseful entertainment, and more. Nothing was going to come close to the experience I had watching it in a theater for the first time. And no other film made me more excited to learn more about it with subsequent viewings. And for all those reasons, “Get Out” was my favorite film of 2017 and is one of my top 100 favorite movies, period.


Man, I love movies. I look forward to seeing what surprises come to theaters (or on Netflix) in 2018! Will there be a film I like more than “Get Out?” We shall see…

Heavyweights (Revised Review)

26 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yep, it’s “Revised Review” time again! And I would say it’s “Guilty Pleasure” time again, except I hold no guilt in liking “Heavyweights” whatsoever. It’s one of my childhood favorites, and when I wrote my mixed review (saying I liked it until the end), I thought I was telling myself I had outgrown the silly humor, the clichéd plot, the overdone stereotypical characters, and the conventional sports-movie ending. But I should’ve told myself, “Come on! You enjoy many parts of this movie, you love watching it every once in awhile, and even the ending isn’t that bad. At least give it three stars for being something you like!”

It is true; I do enjoy watching “Heavyweights” every once in awhile. I loved it as a kid and watched it over and over and over again, so much so that I had most of it memorized by the time I realized the clichés and the stereotypes and whatnot. Because of that, I thought I wasn’t supposed to cut it too much slack as a film critic. How silly I was, because while “Heavyweights” does have those familiar elements to it, there’s an edge that makes them more enjoyable than in something like “The Mighty Ducks” (which featured some of the same actors and crew members three years earlier). (Maybe since-accomplished Judd Apatow, providing one of his first screenwriter credits in his career by co-writing this movie, had something to do with that edge.)

So, because of that, I’m giving it three-and-a-half stars instead of three, because I just like “Heavyweights” that much!

The main character of “Heavyweights” is an 11-year-old overweight boy named Gerry (Aaron Schwartz). His parents send him, against his wishes, to a fat camp called Camp Hope, which is advertised to make overweight boys lose weight and have fun in the process. Gerry is bummed about it until he makes friends with his cabinmates, including Josh (Shaun Weiss) and Roy (Kenan Thompson in one of his early roles, just before Nickelodeon’s “All That”), who are not serious about losing weight. (They even hide food in secret compartments in their cabin.)

But before the first day at camp is even over is when the trouble starts. The friendly owners of the camp (played by Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller—I dunno, are they wasted cameos?) announce that their positions are taken over by self-assured fitness guru Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller), who is determined to make the kids lose weight quickly. Why? So he can make a quick buck with an infomercial about weight loss. He makes life at camp a living hell for the kids, and so the kids fight back and take control of the camp and their lives.

From this point forward, I would like to issue a SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen the movie before, check it out and then come back to read the rest of this review.

Everything builds up to an ultimate confrontation between Perkis and the kids (in which, in a neat little twist, Perkis’ parental issues come into play as he lashes out at the parents: “PARENTS! YOU’RE ALL THE CAUSE OF MY…THEIR PROBLEMS!”). But the movie continues with the kids earning their self-respect, going up against the athletic bullies from the camp across the lake (“Camp MVP”). This is what I complained about before, in my original review. But I really don’t have that much to complain about anymore. It’s dealt with quickly, isn’t boring, and it has its share of funny jokes here or there (such as when one of the jocks mistakes the Mona Lisa for Cher). Yeah, the big race is predictable. Yeah, the ultimate happy-ending is a bit much. But did I complain about the slow-clap at the end of one of my favorite movies, “Lucas”? No way. So why should I complain about this final act when, really, my problems with it are mere nitpicks?

This is what happens when a kid tries to become a serious film critic—he lets nitpicks of a silly, fun film get the better of him in a “serious review.”

“Heavyweights” is full of memorable, colorful characters, which is part of the reason I keep coming back to revisit the film. The kids are entertaining to watch and played by good comic actors, and the adults just have as much fun. Tom McGowen plays a good-natured counselor character named Pat, who is downgraded to janitor upon Perkis’ arrival because Perkis sees his weight as less of a motivator for the kids. Leah Lail is the attractive new nurse who becomes the apple of Pat’s eye; she doesn’t have as much to do as the rest of the cast in terms of humor, but she is likable enough. Paul Feig (yes, Paul Feig of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Bridesmaids” fame) scores a few laughs as a skinny counselor named Tim. And then there’s Ben Stiller as Tony Perkis and Tom Hodges as a buff, foreign counselor named Lars. Man, are these two lots of fun to watch—very funny and memorable at the same time. Stiller plays the part of Perkis with a few parts Fonzie and other parts Wayne from “Wayne’s World” and much original talent—a mixture that would fit him well for a similar role in “Dodgeball” nine years later. Even in the smallest comedic moments, such as when he jogs in the woods near his cabin, he’s wonderful. (“Come on, you devil log!” he exclaims as he stops to lift a log in his path.)

I mentioned that Judd Apatow, in the early stages of his career (which would lead to bigger and better things), is one of the writers of the film, and it actually makes sense. For what could have otherwise been a deplorable, standard summer-camp romp for Disney, Apatow gives the material a much-needed edge with a lot of witty one-liners, an awareness of itself, and colorful characters that don’t get dumbed down (for the most part). He and Paul Feig went on to create “Freaks and Geeks,” and honestly, I think I like “Heavyweights” almost as much as my favorite episodes of that series.

Yes, there are some things that are overdone. For example, there are some slapstick pratfalls that get more groans than laughs from me. And I guess it should bother me that the idea of satirizing the infomercial-weight-loss concept isn’t stretched out to its full potential (and accidentally treating the overweight kids as the problem, if you really think about it—none of the kids end up with serious pain as a result of the “system”). But I can’t sit here and let my original review of “Heavyweights” remain on without some redemption from me, a person that genuinely enjoys the movie and will probably watch it again now that I’ve talked about it some more. It even made it go out and buy the Blu-Ray, which has tons of bonus material about the making of the film, a commentary with cast & crew, an hour-and-a-half of deleted/extended scenes, and even more.

Any film that gets me excited about extensive bonus features on the Blu-Ray doesn’t deserve a mixed review.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

20 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I review the latest movie about Spider-Man, I want to talk about a certain side element to it that really surprised and impressed me: Iron Man.

As you know, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a sequel to “Captain America: Civil War.” (Though, that was a sequel to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”…which was a sequel to—you know what, forget it, most of you know the MCU’s continuity by now; I only meant “Civil War” was the introduction to Spider-Man.) If you recall, in that movie, Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) recruited a high-school boy, Peter Parker (Tom Holland), to assist in an emergency Avengers situation because the kid is secretly Spider-Man, a masked vigilante that is super-strong and has spider-like reflexes. In “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Peter is excited for possible new opportunities to prove himself as an up-and-coming Avenger. But being a kid with huge ambitions, which only grow the longer he waits for a call back into action with the Avengers, can lead to him going in over his head on an ego trip. So who has to be his mentor and set him straight?

That’s right—Tony Stark. Why am I impressed by this? Because between “Iron Man” and “Civil War,” Stark has proved himself to be irresponsible, egotistical, unlikable, and even straight-up dumb in his decisions (telling a terrorist where he lives with no back-up plan, creating a device that could doom humanity while thinking it could save it, etc.). In “Civil War,” he felt the weight of what his deeds led to and wanted to assume responsibility for them. And he still makes mistakes and doesn’t always think straight, but you can tell he’s trying to be better—after all, the reason he became Iron Man in the first place was to do good! And now that this kid is reminding him of himself, he has an opportunity to teach him to be better. He even warns Peter at one crucial point, “Don’t do anything I would do.” This is a great development for Iron Man; one I’ve been waiting a long time for.

Oh right, I have a Spider-Man movie to review, don’t I? Don’t misunderstand; the Iron Man element is not the biggest thing to take away from it. It’s just a welcome addition to the MCU, a neat continuation of a sideplot in “Civil War,” and all-around awesome for a would-be Avenger getting advice from Iron Man! (Among Iron Man’s advice to Spider-Man, yet again bringing down Peter’s expectations to be an Avenger: “Couldn’t you just be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man?” Ouch.)

Now let’s talk about “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” As I said, in “Civil War,” 16-year-old Peter Parker was discovered by Tony Stark and brought on board as Spider-Man to assist in a fight between squabbling Avengers. (And this is recapped in a wonderful video-diary montage, with footage recorded by Peter, chronicling what we didn’t see leading up to the fight, his point of view of the fight, and what happened after the fight. I’m not gonna lie—if I was in that situation, I would document it too.) Since then, he can’t help but wonder when will be the next time he’ll get a call to fly around with Iron Man and hang out with Captain America and so on. Time goes on, and he’s stuck just performing good deeds around his neighborhood. But how much can he do and how long can he wait before he’s called to leave the city and save the universe? Well, he can try to balance out his ambitions and his classwork for a start, which is even harder than it sounds.

We get as much of Peter Parker’s high-school comedy/drama that we do of Spider-Man’s neighborhood crusades. So while Spidey is thwarting criminal deeds downtown and uncovering a sinister plot to use alien technology (left over from fragments of the infamous battle in “The Avengers”), Peter is preparing for the Academic Decathlon, letting his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) in on his secret, and working up the guts to ask his crush Liz (Laura Harrier) out to the Homecoming Dance. It sounds like a lot to juggle for a mainstream superhero film, but director Jon Watts (who also made the terrific “Cop Car”) and his team of screenwriters manage to intertwine the storylines well enough that we can believe Peter’s struggles in trying to maintain both identities as high-schooler Peter Parker and “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.”

And it’s also funny too. Peter and Ned have great chemistry and are a goofy duo to laugh at and with. Spider-Man has winning quips due to Peter’s chippy personality. And there’s also humor in how Spider-Man is in over his head—at one point, he catches a guy trying to break into his own car (oops).

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” also deserves credit for giving us a compelling, complicated, NOT-forgettable antagonist (thank God, I thought Loki was the best the MCU could offer). This is The Vulture (Michael Keaton), a criminal mastermind with a bone to pick with the government after his working-class duties were taken over, leading to him wanting to exact revenge. And thanks to leftover bits of alien tech (and some little gizmos from Avengers Headquarters as well), he’s able to create some deadly weapons and even a suit that allows him to fly, hence the name The Vulture. Spider-Man catches wind of some of these strange devices and meets The Vulture face-to-face, leading to him going on a desperate raid that’s more of a job for The Avengers to handle. It’s actually more complicated than what I just described, but to say any more would be spoiling certain details. But Michael Keaton is great in the role, charming and sinister when the occasion calls for either.

Overall, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is more of a coming-of-age story, as it starts with Spider-Boy wanting to become Spider-Man. He may call himself Spider-Man already, but he’s still a kid with much growing up to do; something Iron Man tries to teach him. He has his abilities, but he also has impatience, doubt, awkwardness, and overwhelming desire, all of which he has to overcome in order to be the man he’s meant to be. This is something that I think is handled better in this version of “Spider-Man” than the other cinematic versions of the superhero. And Tom Holland does an excellent job at portraying the character going through all these changes—I enjoyed his likable performance in “Civil War,” and here, he’s even better.

Sony is back to teaming up with Marvel to gain co-possession of the Spider-Man character, and that makes me very nervous because of how quickly they’ve given up after major blunders such as “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” (I hope they have enough sense not to quit and reboot the film franchise yet again.) But “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a very enjoyable movie. It works as a continuation of the MCU, it works as a Spider-Man movie, and overall, it works as a coming-of-age film, with just the right man to mentor the boy.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

20 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In my review of Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding,” I praised the film but I concluded by saying “I’m just glad I’m not Margot’s son.” I can say something similar about the Meyerowitzes in this review of Baumbach’s latest film “The Meyerowitz Stories,” subtitled “New and Selected”—something like, “I’m just glad these guys aren’t my problem.”

But my review of “The Meyerowitz Stories” is still positive. I don’t know how Baumbach is able to find the craft out of creating stories with such shallow, neurotic, sometimes despicable people, such as with “The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg,” and of course “Margot at the Wedding,” but I was getting used to his more simple, (mostly) gentler approaches with “Frances Ha,” “While We’re Young,” and “Mistress America.” But here he is back to form with the Netflix comedy-drama “The Meyerowitz Stories,” a film that takes the “fun” out of “dysfunctional family.”

Showing in a chronological series of vignettes featuring the same set of characters (hence, the titular “stories”), we have the Meyerowitzes, a family now in instability (actually, I think they’ve always been in instability). Retired-sculptor-turned-art-professor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) and his fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) want to sell the old New York apartment and move upstate. This is news to Harold’s oldest son Danny (Adam Sandler), who had hoped to crash at the apartment for a while after his 18-year-old daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) goes off to college. He’s recently divorced and his stay-at-home-dad status is changing, and to add more salt in the wound that can only be described as “underachieving dissatisfaction,” he’s a failed musician too. Danny and his clinically-depressed sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who is even more pathetic than Danny in ways that are at the same time explained and unexplained as the film continues, were often in the shadow of their half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller), Harold’s son from his second marriage. Matthew is the one with all the accomplishments, having gone into finance in LA rather than art in NY. That was probably a good move, because Harold and Danny often complain about their failures in art. Harold particularly, when he’s not boasting about Matthew’s successes, is not afraid to let everyone know about his own self-pity, going on about how he felt his sculptures deserved a wider audience.

Needless to say, these people need some serious help. Harold is an obsessive boor who lets out his arrogance on his family, Danny is pathetically seeking his affection, Matthew seems fine but has his own demons as well, and Jean, well…no comment. We gradually find out more about these people with each passing vignette (all of which are labeled by the character we switch focus to), and it’s mostly done with dialogue. And this is where Baumbach’s skill really shines: as an expert wordsmith who creates biting dialogue out of every uncomfortable situation he can find for his unstable characters. Sometimes it’s sharp and funny, sometimes it’s dark and deep, and mostly, it’s both, showing us there’s more beneath the surface. And he’s also effective in showing the dynamics of this family, particularly in the envy one member feels for another (from another generation) and how the oldest son is slowly but surely becoming like his father, whether he likes it or shouldn’t like it.

By the end of the film, we don’t know where these people are going, but we hope they’re going somewhere far better (and healthier) than they’ve been before.

But “The Meyerowitz Stories” isn’t so serious that you can’t get a laugh, because sometimes, the film is very funny. Dialogue aside, Baumbach finds ways to bitingly satirize both the modern-art and film-school scenes, with Harold’s lackluster art and Eliza’s amateur film projects that are so outrageous that I won’t even explain them in this review; they’re really funny.

Nearly every review is surprised by Adam Sandler’s excellent dramatic turn as Danny in this film, and while they’re not wrong, I never doubted Sandler’s skilled work as an actor…especially since he’s been able to show that in more than a few movies in between his Happy Madison productions. But whatever—Sandler’s great here, doing what he does best as an actor. Dustin Hoffman isn’t afraid to show just how insufferable Harold can be, as well as how feared and respected he can be. Ben Stiller, in his third Baumbach film, is solid as usual. Elizabeth Marvel is impressively messy. And young actress Grace Van Patten brings a new spark and much-needed energy to the proceedings.

I can enjoy “Margot at the Wedding” while thanking God that I don’t have to deal with miserable, excruciating Margot in real life, because the misery and humor made for tender insights and snappy comedy. And I can say the same thing about “The Meyerowitz Stories” and the Meyerowitzes. Baumbach’s material can be a little alienating in some of his films (which is probably why I’ve preferred his Greta Gerwig collaborations a little more), but I can’t deny the power he can deliver when treading through uncomfortable waters. “The Meyerowitz Stories” is effective without having us hate the characters too much.