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Why am I not the critic I used to be?

26 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I don’t write many negative reviews anymore. But when I was starting out with this blog, I had a pretty good balance of positive and negative. Sometimes, I would purposefully seek out supposed “bad” movies just so I could add on to their piles of bad reviews.

I was too influenced by other film critics such as Siskel & Ebert and Richard Roeper. But they got/get paid to see movies and give their two cents about them. I just did it so I could stay active.

But the thing is, I’m an artist too. I’m a filmmaker. And I’ve grown a lot since I started this blog. I’ve also learned…that if you look for something to dislike about a movie, you’re going to find it. It’s easy. And it’s lazy. What takes effort is crafting the art and looking for the good things in other art.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s just not fun for me to write negative reviews anymore.

What movie did I say I hated most? Freddy Got Fingered. Well, you know what? Tom Green deliberately set out to make a troll movie and he succeeded big-time. I will never see this movie again…but I will strangely admire Green for his efforts.

What other movies was I too harsh on?

Reality Bites. I don’t hate that movie nearly as much as I did before. In fact, I still own it on DVD for the good things in it plus the interesting audio commentary from director Ben Stiller and writer Helen Childress.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Everything that bugged me about this intriguing chapter in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise don’t bother me anymore. In fact, watching it again recently, I think I like it.

The Happening. So much of this movie doesn’t work, but I can see what M. Night Shyamalan set out to accomplish. Why fault him for that?

Armageddon. C’mon…it’s goofy as hell and I think that was Michael Bay’s intent.

Angels in the Outfield. I grew up with this movie. My criticisms still hold true, but it didn’t do anything to harm me at all.

Evil Dead. I needed to see this movie for what it was and not what I wanted it to be. It’s a decent remake.

Short Circuit. I still like “Short Circuit 2” more, but still, why give one-and-a-half stars to Johnny Five?

Toy Soldiers. This movie could have been written a lot better. But look at all the pyrotechnics that was put into it!

Three Amigos! Really, past-Tanner? It’s not THAT bad.

Neither is Child’s Play 2. Or Uncle Buck. Or The Grinch.

Half-a-star to Kazaam, huh? Is that why it’s one of my guilty pleasures?

At least I admitted in mostly-negative reviews for movies like Exorcist II, The Last House on the Left, Mommie Dearest, Top Gun, White Water Summer, The Good Son, and Red Dawn that they each had their own merits to them.

Even “North,” the film that inspired Roger Ebert’s “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie,” I don’t particularly care for it but at the same time I think director Rob Reiner and writer Alan Zwiebbel suffered enough because of it. And they just wanted to make a fun comedy–they didn’t intentionally set out to make a bad movie.

Oh, and 2 stars to Good Burger?? C’mon, you love that movie and you know it! Oh, and 2 stars to the 1990 miniseries Stephen King’s It? Is that why you watch it every once in a while–just to make sure you don’t like it? (Boy, I’m glad I didn’t review “Hocus Pocus” at all.)

I think what I’m ultimately trying to say is that I shouldn’t have tried kidding myself back then about being a “serious” film critic. I’m both a movie lover and a filmmaker, and I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life.

Luca (2021)

18 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

While the latest Disney/Pixar film “Luca” (now available on Disney+) is getting decent reviews from critics, a lot of ’em are still declaring it one of Pixar’s weakest films, to which I say, “Oh so picky.”

What do you want me to say, that it’s not as heartwarming as “Soul” and “Coco,” as clever as “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” as groundbreaking as the “Toy Story” movies, “Up,” and “Inside Out?” OK, it’s not, there you go. Now I can talk about how awesome it is as “Luca.”

“Luca” is the latest Pixar film to make something cute and lovable out of what we would normally find frightening and repulsive. As was the case with the monsters in “Monsters, Inc.,” the dead people in “Coco,” and the rats in “Ratatouille” (…actually, the rats are still a tad repulsive), I don’t see little kids being frightened by the sea creatures in “Luca,” even after a “Jaws”-inspired opening in which fishermen are met by a quick-witted creature and quickly get away from the “horrifying monster.”

Luca is the name of our main character (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a “sea monster” who is as offbeat-adorable as many Pixar protagonists. Much like Ariel the Little Mermaid, Luca has a fascination with the surface world while his parents (Maya Rudoplh and Jim Gaffigan) forbid him to explore beyond the underwater world because (of course) humans are the real ones to fear.

Things change when Luca makes a new friend in another sea creature, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), and discovers that all sea creatures can pass as human when they’re out of the water. As real boys, Luca and Alberto become the best of friends and get into all kinds of misadventures in their own little world above surface, which involves a lot of “Jackass”-like stunts with makeshift Vespas. Their want for a REAL Vespa drives them to a fishing village, where they learn that if they win prize money in an annual sports competition, they can buy their own Vespa and travel the world! (Makes sense to me.)

Thus begins their literal fish-out-of-water story as Luca and Alberto befriend a local girl named Giulia (Emma Berman), train for the competition (which involves bicycle-racing and fast-eating), and attempt to fit in with the townspeople–as long as they don’t get wet, their secret is safe. (Oh, and did I mention the competition also involves swimming?) Meanwhile, they have to put up with a local bully named Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), who unlike most Pixar bullies such as Randall (“Monsters, Inc.”) and Chef Skinner (“Ratatouille”) is consistently funny (he’s like Gaston of “Beauty and the Beast,” only without the muscles). And Luca’s parents, who also approach the surface, try to find their son. (The parents’ methods of finding Luca by splashing water onto all the local boys are some of the funnier parts of the movie.)

Yeah, some of this is standard stuff, but as is the case with the best Pixar movies, there’s something special underneath (forgive the pun) the surface. That is the bond between Luca & Alberto and the developing relationship between Luca & Giulia which threatens that bond. What started off as a classic “Little Mermaid” story became Pixar’s equivalents of “Stand By Me” and “The Kings of Summer.” As a result, it grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go.

“Luca” is a great summertime movie, not just because it includes people having fun and adventure in the season, but because summer is the season in which solid bonds are formed and tested. And that is what is at the heart of the story of “Luca”: the relationship between Luca & Alberto and what other desires could break them apart. And of course, having Jacob Tremblay (who’s been acting in movies since preschool) and Jack Dylan Grazer (so entertaining in “Shazam” and the “It” movies) supply the voices helps too.

“Luca” was the directorial debut of Enrico Casarosa, who usually does art work for other Pixar movies, and I was also pleasantly surprised to find that frequent Pixar writer Mike Jones’ co-writer for this one was Jesse Andrews, best known for writing both the novel and film adaptation of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” They add to the charm and humor of this coming-of-age fantasy that is of course, as is typical of Pixar, also beautifully animated.

Yeah, I know I mentioned the animation last in this review of a Pixar film, but c’mon, it’s Pixar–would you expect anything less than stellar visuals? Even “The Good Dinosaur” had pretty imagery.

The Stylist (2021)

8 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Actress Najarra Townsend was the best part of the 2013 body-horror film Contracted, in which she played a troubled florist transforming into a zombie; she’s even better in Jill Gevargizian’s tense, bloody & atmospheric thriller “The Stylist” as a troubled and very lonely hairstylist who has a horrid habit of…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Townsend turns in a wonderful performance as Claire, the stylist. Claire is great at her work, transforming her clients effectively as they go on about their day and she listens sympathetically. She practically lives for her clients as, outside of work, she has no one (except her adorable dog) and completely unhappy with her life.

Oh, and she also invites clients for appointments after hours so that she can then drug them and then murder them…and then scalp them to wear their hair as wigs. (YIKES! Never go into a place of business for a visit after hours, especially in a horror film.)

Both Gevergizian and Townsend gives us a sympathetic eye into Claire’s world from the way she tries to put herself in her customers’ shoes to how she gets angry with herself when she feels awkward about a social encounter. We never lose sight of the fact that Claire is a psychopathic serial killer, and it’s intriguing that we’re shown her development into total self-destruction. We’re disturbed by her, and yet at the same time, we’re able to feel for her as well. Much of the film focuses on her many instances of feeling lonely, and it’s to the credit of both this writer-director (as well as Gevergizian’s co-writers Eric Havens and Eric Stolze) and this actress that I’m glued to the screen even in these quieter moments. “The Stylist” is a remarkable character study.

Brea Grant (a talented filmmaker herself, having come off of the sharply-satirical chiller “12-Hour Shift”) co-stars in “The Stylist” as Olivia, a future bride who is one of Claire’s regular clients whom Claire wants to get more of. Claire’s going to style Olivia’s hair one way or another, but she wants more than that–she gets herself invited to her bachelorette party and tries to socialize to not much avail. What happens after…well, let’s just say we go a little beyond “Single White Female” territory at this point.

The scenes in which Claire and Olivia sort of bond are delicately handled and both actresses play it really well. And they add on to the tragedy that is to come thanks to Claire’s inner turmoils and (ahem) stylistic tendencies. (It even speaks to the very real truth that it’s even harder to make new friends as adults.)

I also want to give praise to other actors, such as Jennifer Seward, Davis DeRock, Millie Milan, and Sarah McGuire, who have small but pivotal roles.

The ending isn’t predictable so much as inevitable, but I appreciated how there were no easy answers in its regard. (It’s also very chilling and the actors play it rather well.)

“The Stylist” is less a horror film about who lives and who dies–instead, it’s more a horror-drama about how far gone the killer will go down the rabbit hole of murder. Add some stellar camerawork by Robert Patrick Stern to Najarra Townsend’s great work and Jill Gevergizian’s top-notch direction, and “The Stylist” is a horror film that definitely has a style all its own.

The White Tiger (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of the more telling moments in Ramin Bahrani’s expertly-crafted “The White Tiger” comes roughly early into the proceedings. We’re in Bangalore, India in the mid-2000s (with the story being told from 2010). Our narrator and protagonist Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), the poor son of a rickshaw driver, manages to get a job as a chauffeur for wealthy Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his American-born wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Ashok’s rich, successful (and corrupt) father known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjreker) treats Balram like a slave and even hits him twice, to Pinky’s dismay. She protests, “You can’t do that in America!” The Stork’s replay: “This isn’t America.”

That it isn’t. But one of the things many of us will learn from news stories (and/or stories like this one), it’s that the poor, when pushed too far, will go to great lengths to break out of the caste system and possibly overcome the rich to find their own pathways to success–no matter what country they live in.

“The White Tiger” is adapted from a Booker Prize winning novel by Aravind Adiga, a close friend of masterful filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who directs the film adaptation in a style similar to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” in how we see Balram’s story told in flashbacks (and through voiceover narration) about how he got to a certain point in his life and what he plans to do next. Needless to say, it’s not easy–in fact, even though there are somy amusing and cynical touches brought to the storytelling, “The White Tiger” is a rather dark and disturbing tale about the sacrifices this ambitious Indian slumdog makes during his pursuit of happiness.

We’re already in Balram’s mindset with this early line of VO narration: “The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time.” In introducing himself in this manner, we have a pretty good idea of what he aspires to be and what he’s willing to go through (and hide within himself) to achieve it. We also get a flash of his childhood–as a young boy in Laxmangarh, he is seen as bright and able to achieve great things. (He’s also referred to as a “white tiger,” which is a way of meaning he’s someone special.) But when his father is unable to pay off The Stork, who is the corrupt landlord of the family’s village, Balram is no longer able to attend school. (His father also ties from consumption, with no doctor to treat him.)

As a young man, Balram is able to find his way into the chauffeur job, working for Ashok, who treats him like a friend rather than a slave, and Pinky, who is sympathetic towards him. His friendship with the two leads to a night of reckless partying and driving, especially when Pinky takes over for Balram at the wheel…which leads to a tragic accident. This tragedy is a heavy reminder of Balram’s current place in this brutal world, and it’s a catalyst for the next step in Balram’s journey of self-satisfaction. He is going to take control of his own life from this point forward, and it’s not going to be pretty.

“The White Tiger” is a bitingly sharp satire of how class structure can be a cutthroat game in India, and it’s also an exceptionally vivid character study about this man, played perfectly by Adarsh Gourav and written brilliantly by Bahrani (who earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay). Whether you root for Balram or want nothing to do with him (and the film does a great job keeping that delicate balance), you still understand why he does certain things.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” this is not. In fact, there’s even an unsubtle dig at that flick: “Don’t believe for a second that there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of the chicken coop.” It’s all the more tragic when you realize how many people are still struggling in the “chicken coop” that is their country.

“The White Tiger” is a rough and masterfully crafted look at how far some people will go to stray away from a life of victimhood no matter who gets in their way–and it’s as powerful a film as this great filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani, can deliver. I won’t forget this film anytime soon.

“The White Tiger” is available on Netflix.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There is a gripping Netflix Original film called “Operation Varsity Blues,” and it’s one of my favorite films of 2021 so far.

Directed by Chris Smith (who also gave us entertaining documentaries such as “American Movie” and “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”), “Operation Varsity Blues” is a docudrama that creatively digs into the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal. It uses transcripts from real wiretap conversations and incorporates them into reenactments from actors playing the parts of the people involved. Matthew Modine takes center-stage as Rick Singer, who masterminded the whole scheme of dozens of parents paying him off to bribe elite schools into letting their under-qualified kids in. (This included high-profile parents such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.)

I always liked Modine in other works such as “Full Metal Jacket,” but here he turns in what is probably his best performance. How good is he? We do see the real Rick Singer interviewed about an hour into the film, and it’s practically uncanny how close he is to the real thing.

Other actors portray the wealthy parents who didn’t ask many questions when Singer informed them that it would cost tens of millions of dollars to send their kids to Stanford or USC or what have you.

“Operation Varsity Blues” begins with your average high-school senior’s dream come true, as we see recordings of numerous kids each celebrating getting accepted into the school of their choice. That makes it all the more heartbreaking when a half-hour later, after we’ve been sucked into Singer’s con game, we get footage of other students, upset and sobbing that they didn’t get into their choice schools. (One of them even says they feel worthless.) It’s so easy to feel empathy for these young people because it’s more than likely four out of five of us have been there before.

And then to find out that ultra-rich parents paid someone to get their children into whatever premium university they wanted? That has to hurt.

“Operation Varsity Blues” did a very good job sucking me in as it detailed the scandal from the seemingly harmless beginning to its numerous clients to the moment it all came crashing down, with one arrest after another.

With more and more evidence piling up to prove why college isn’t especially necessary for most people in today’s society, I think this intriguing film came at just the right time. “Operation Varsity Blues” is now available on Netflix and I highly recommend it.

Malcolm & Marie (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you felt uncomfortable watching the lengthy argument scenes in films such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff,” “Before Midnight,” and “Marriage Story”…this film is definitely not for you. However, if you’re looking for a film about a couple testing each other’s love, with solid characterization, brilliant acting, and skillful direction, you can’t go wrong streaming “Malcolm & Marie,” available on Netflix.

John David Washington and Zendaya play a filmmaker named Malcolm and his supportive girlfriend named Marie. They’ve just returned home from the premiere of Malcolm’s latest film. Marie lets Malcolm know pretty quickly that something is bothering her. What is she upset about? Well, she says it’s because he didn’t thank her in his speech to the audience–even though he thanked his parents and his elementary school teachers and an usher at a theater he worked at as a kid (that last one might not have been real) but neglected to mention her. It’s also indicated that Malcolm’s film was inspired by her in a sense (and she also supported him every step of the way making this film).
This escalates into a fight where both egos go at it with each other…but it’s only the beginning. It’s going to get worse and worse and worse…

Like I said, it gets pretty uncomfortable. But it’s also fascinating to watch both these extremely talented actors show off their extreme talents, guided by the deeply layered screenplay by director Sam Levinson (who also directed Zendaya in the series “Euphoria”). I wasn’t even halfway through the 106-minute running time when I was getting genuinely concerned how this long night was going to end!

Will this couple stay together? Will they separate? Do they deserve each other? What does that even mean??

I also have to give kudos to Levinson and his crew for making this film under the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Oh, and this film also delivers a LOT of shots at film critics (including a lengthy tirade by Malcolm about a POSITIVE review!) as a way of a character distracting himself from the real issue at hand. And I’m just assuming by the film’s mere 58% on Rotten Tomatoes that some critics aren’t responding to that very well…you do know that if you’re going to get offended at JOKES towards critics, you’re proving the movie right, don’t you?

Bottom line: “Malcolm & Marie” is a darkly sardonic, sharply written, brilliantly acted look into the longest night of this couple’s life.

A Quiet Place Part II (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let me tell you right at the beginning–the best way to see “A Quiet Place Part II” is in a theater, which is why I’m glad it wasn’t released on-demand during the pandemic. I’m glad I waited to see it in a theater because it’s terrific.

I really like A Quiet Place, and I’m glad it set a new standard for new mainstream horror films. I was looking forward to “Part II” because I was curious to see what was going on outside the central characters’ farmhouse (where the first film mostly took place). The concept is similar to what “Dawn of the Dead” did after “Night of the Living Dead”–taking us outside the familiar settings to see how other places are affected by a terrible outbreak.

But first, we get a wonderfully executed and very chilling prologue in which we see the beginning of the invasion. You see how our familiar characters (played by writer-director John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe) lived in a normal world before all of a sudden, everything has changed…

It’s not zombies that turned the world to hell in this universe–instead, it’s apparently a bunch of beastly alien creatures that really, REALLY do not like sound and hunt/kill every sound they hear. (You can’t help but wonder how these things, if they came from another planet, managed space travel!)

After the prologue, which was a great way to ease moviegoers back into this terrifying universe, we flash forward to about a year-and-a-half since the initial attacks (and pick up where the first film left off). And, also similar to “Dawn of the Dead,” our main characters–mother Evelyn (Blunt), daughter Regan (Simmonds), and Marcus (Jupe)–learn that it’s not just the monsters that are to be feared in the outside world, which they (with a newborn baby in tow) decide to venture into. From that point on, “A Quiet Place Part II” is a delicately crafted, chilling, and even emotionally driven monster movie.

As with the first movie, a lot of “A Quiet Place Part II” rides on visual storytelling–expressive acting, excessive atmosphere, and carefully chosen dialogue. (Having many of the characters communicate through sign language, since Regan is deaf, adds to it as well.) When a sudden loud noise could trigger one of the monsters to attack (how many of these things could be in one area??), such as when someone steps into a bear trap and screams in pain as anyone would, it’s fascinating to see how these people continue living/surviving in this post-apocalyptic world of silence.

I mentioned the carefully chosen dialogue, and an example of this comes from a new character played by Cillian Murphy. We’re introduced to him briefly in the prologue as a seemingly mild-mannered person; he’s a totally different person when we see him again later. His few lines of dialogue carry many amounts of emotional weight. While I’m praising the acting, I was especially drawn by the performance of Millicent Simmonds as Regan, the deaf daughter–she’s excellent here. (Simmons is also deaf in real life.)

In “A Quiet Place Part II,” there are good scares, great moments of suspense, wonderful acting, nicely-done character development, and expert cinematography, shot with 35mm film. (And without giving it away, I also loved the ending.) With such great aspects in a horror film, it’s easy to look over the little things such as my constant questioning of how the predatory creatures manage to function–and I just enjoy a good thrill ride.

Solos (Amazon Prime Series) (2021)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

The anthology series “Solos,” released via Amazon Prime, features episodes that have one thing in common: the theme of human isolation. Seeing as how most of us spent a great part of 2020 in self-isolation, we could relate. But the question is, how many stories in this seven-episode series can we see ourselves in? How many can we see others in? And more importantly, should we care?

Well, obviously, yes, we should care. Did I care? Well, let’s take a look at each individual episode…

Leah (Episode 1)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Morgan Freeman narrates each episode by setting us up for what we’re about to see. For Episode 1 (“Leah”), he narrates: “If you traveled to the future, could you escape your past?”

“Solos” gets off to a good start with an intriguing, well-written episode called “Leah.” (Side-note: Each episode is named after its central character.) Anne Hathaway stars in a deeply-layered performance as Leah, a brilliant physicist who is obsessed with time travel and works/lives in her mother’s basement (which looks more like a Dave & Busters, if you ask me–I was expecting her to play the slots for tickets on one of the devices with blinking lights). Well, she gets her answer, resulting in some tricky conversations with two versions of herself. The dialogue, written by series creator David Weil, maintains a delicate balance between sparky/funny and heavy/philosophical–and that also goes for the episode’s tone as well, with skillful direction from Zach Braff. But the real reason “Leah” works is because of Anne Hathaway’s performance. In one half-hour-long short film, Hathaway has to play up all the emotions we know she’s capable of from films such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Les Miserables”–not only is she game for it; she gives us even more. Some people will have trouble with the ending, and I can understand if they do–without giving it away, I saw it as inevitable rather than disappointing. So far, so good. Now, to the next one…

Tom (Episode 2)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Freeman’s narration: “Imagine meeting yourself. Who do you see?”

Episode 2, “Tom,” doesn’t waste any time–it jumps right into it…I wish that were praise but it’s more of a criticism here. The problem is I wish they had wasted a little time to ease us into a fascinating development that we’re just supposed to accept even though we don’t know a damn thing about where we’re supposed to be. Here, we see Anthony Mackie as Tom getting angry at…Anthony Mackie as Tom. This “reunion” (as Tom 2.0 calls it, to Tom’s anger) is brought about as a way of Tom to replace himself as he doesn’t have much time left to live. (Apparently, in this future, you can pay 30 grand for another version of yourself.) Tom is angry from the start, thinking Tom 2.0 looks nothing like himself (but really, he’s just being picky), and this leads into a conversation between the two Toms about what Tom paid for and what Tom 2.0 is responsible for. Confused? Well, it makes more sense the way they put it. The idea is fascinating, much of the dialogue is riveting, and Anthony Mackie does as well with a dual performance as Anne Hathaway did in the previous episode–but the story element of having someone else replace you after death doesn’t feel fully developed. The episode is 24 minutes long; I wish writer-director David Weil had taken at least 2-3 more minutes for a little more world-building.

Peg (Episode 3)

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Freeman’s narration: “How far will you travel to find yourself again?”

“Peg,” Episode 3, does jump right into things, but unlike with Episode 2, I can understand fairly quickly (within 3 minutes) where Peg is and how Peg got here. Pretty satisfying so far, thanks to carefully chosen dialogue–that’s going to be the thing I listen for, since each episode takes place in one location with one person (or one person who is multiplied in some fashion) and the viewers need something to latch onto in the beginning. Here, we have Helen Mirren as 71-year-old Peg, who is part of an experiment (seemingly with other senior citizens) that has her hurtling through the farthest reaches of space. She’s been afraid to take chances and now here she is in a spacecraft (and sporting a tight red spacesuit) and communicating with an AI as she considers how she got here and what she might expect in her remaining years wandering the universe. (There. Within the first few minutes, I’m hooked.) Helen Mirren is nothing short of spectacular in this role–if there’s any distinguished British actress who can make a space odyssey seem dignified and beautiful, it’s Helen Mirren. Even before she marvels at the moon upon gazing at its majesty through the craft’s window, I was with her. We get to know this person named Peg and we feel for her when her destination is…well, you probably already know it, but you’ll stay with her to get to it. “Peg,” directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, is melancholy, beautifully written, and marvelously acted–and it’s the best the series has to offer so far. God bless you, Helen Mirren–you will always be The Queen.

Sasha (Episode 4)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Is the threat outside greater than the one within?”

“Sasha,” Episode 4, is set 20 years after some kind of virus outbreak has kept everyone inside–including Sasha, played by Uzo Aduba. It’s her birthday today–why not venture outside, as Sasha’s AI (yes, another AI in this series) suggests? Sasha, very comfortable on her couch, with a novel in one hand and a wine glass in the other, puts it bluntly: “F*ck. That. S*it.” Whoops, there’s a cough after another gulp of wine, but not to worry, as the AI assures her, she does not have the virus. “Would you like another nose swab?” asks the AI. “NO!” she quickly protests. Barely a minute into “Sasha,” we know where we are. Sasha is content after all this time, with her AI, which calls itself her “companion bot”…or maybe she’s just too used to her daily routines…or maybe she’s in complete and total denial and doesn’t want to venture into the world outside her comfortable home…you know what, I’m just gonna stop explaining the story here. The best thing each of these episodes has to offer is the journey of self-discovery–when one is kept inside one place for an extended period of time, they’re given time to self-reflect. But with Sasha, where does it end? When does contentment become self-hazardous? Is Sasha in danger of wasting her life while she keeps herself inside, not living her life? And what about the people in her life? Truly moving work from Uzo Aduba kept me intrigued and wondering, and so far, this is the most effectively unnerving episode in the series.

Jenny (Episode 5)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Do you wish you could take back the worst day of your life?”

Oh boy…this one, I’m still processing. I mean…yikes. This is actress Constance Wu’s finest hour (or “finest 22 minutes”), playing a drunken young woman named Jenny, dressed as a winged angel and seemingly stuck in some kind of waiting room and going on a lone tangent. She is telling us about the worst day of her life…and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. The way the ramble goes from funny to dark…you just know she’s had better days in her life. This episode starts off hilarious and ends up being tragic…and I apologize for the constant use of ellipses, but it’s to further the point that this one kind of broke me inside (just a little, anyway). And the ending…I refer you to my first exclamation: “Oh boy…”

Nera (Episode 6)

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Freeman’s narration: “Who decides who belongs in the world?”

You know, after that last episode, I was starting to wonder if “Solos” might be getting a little high on itself in its philosophical questions. But with two episodes left, I’m curious to see if it can keep momentum going. (I haven’t disliked any of the episodes so far–even Episode 2 had something to it that caused me to recommend it.) I pressed play for Episode 6, “Nera,” and started streaming, not expecting much…

This is the best episode in the series. Much as I loved Constance Wu’s descent into madness and even Helen Mirren’s recollection of her life, even those treasures of “Solos” doesn’t match what Nicole Beharie’s poor Nera has to go through. Nera is completely alone in a cabin where a harsh winter storm is keeping everyone inside. She is pregnant…and giving birth TONIGHT! She calls her doctor and can’t get through (she can’t even get through to 911), so she has no choice but to have the baby all by herself–rather quickly too, but…that’s just the beginning of this unusual ordeal. With scary direction by Tiffany Johnson and a riveting script by Stacy Osei-Kuffour, “Nera” works wonderfully as a short film but has great potential to be expanded into a feature film. There’s something sinister about this episode’s story, especially when Nera’s baby is revealed to be more than expected and when mentions of a new fertility treatment (previously used by Nera) are dropped. What results is freakish and terrifying and something I’d love to see more of in the future. (I’m sure neither Johnson nor Osei-Kuffour nor even David Weil will be reading this review, but I implore to them–please make this into a feature film. I will pay to see it.)

And finally, we come to…

Stuart (Episode 7)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Who are you if you can’t remember who you are?”

We finally see what Morgan Freeman has to do with “Solos” besides vague philosophical questions to lure us into each episode. In Episode 7, “Stuart,” Freeman plays Stuart, an old man suffering dementia. And he’s not alone in this episode–no, it’s not an AI he gets to interact with but a young man named Otto (Dan Stevens). Otto is reminded that “solos” aren’t allowed visitors (oh, NOW I get it…I think), but he becomes an exception when he travels a long way to visit Stuart. (Stuart is apparently living his last days in this futuristic treatment center that I can deduce is responsible for the plights of characters in the previous episodes–that is not the only connection the others, I assure you.) Otto has come to give Stuart “memory implants” that seem to made everything come back to Stuart. Stuart remembers everything with ease…but he doesn’t remember Otto. Who is Otto? And where is this going? I’ll leave that for you to discover.

A very solid finish to an exceptionally strange and intriguing series.

“Solos” is available on Amazon Prime.

Between Two Valleys (Short Film)

28 Apr

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Between Two Valleys” is a short film that was made for the 2018 Kansas City 48-Hour Film Project Competition. A filmmaking team enters the contest, picks a random genre, and has 48 hours to make a film with the selected genre. Director Joshua Leonard of YouTube’s Blue Boy Cinema drew “High School Drama,” which…honestly, is just too easy.

You know what’s not so easy? Making a COMEDY based on high school drama. Hmm…how about parodying high-school melodramatic tropes?? And so, Leonard and his co-writer Sarah McGuire (who also co-stars in the film) crafted a witty, bitingly satirical script based on your typical teenage-house-party scene–and their team put together a hilarious short as a result.

“Between Two Valleys” is supposed to be an episode of your usual TV teen drama, complete with a colorful intro (which includes the actors looking to the camera and smiling with their credits on display), a brief recap to show where the characters are in this stage, and a “To Be Continued…” that I honestly hope gets continued some day. (I know I keep getting ahead of myself–sue me, I love this short.)

One of the subtle jokes that went over my head upon first viewing is the use of the film’s cast. I had a chat with one of the actresses recently and mentioned her appearance in the film. She responded, “[‘Between Two Valleys’] makes me laugh because we’re all clearly in our 30s!” She had a point–none of the “teens” in this film were played by teens; so I had to wonder if this was Leonard’s commentary on how most teen soap operas that this film parodies don’t feature actual teenage talent. (Or maybe they just didn’t have any younger members on their 48-Hour team.) The cast members of “Between Two Valleys,” which include McGuire, Nicole Hall, Eric Boedeker, Heather Elaine, and Jeff Smith certainly look young…but not that young. Therefore, they’re perfect for this material.

The film’s main trio of best friends are a bookish wallflower girl named Janie (Hall), a shy nerd named Noah (Boedeker), and an artistic smartmouth named Ellie (McGuire). There’s a party at Ellie’s house, where Janie hopes to get with the popular jock Billy (Smith) who is currently dating the class snob Val (Elaine) and Noah is pressured to come out of his shell. I wished there was more for Ellie to do, since Sarah McGuire brings a great sense of wit to her role and has a lot of funny lines as well (one of which is a meta reference to the typical “high school drama” cliches)–but there’s only so much a short film can have in 7 minutes (a running time that was one of 48-Hour’s main requirements).

Oh, and there’s also Ellie’s mother Eileen (Christie Courville), whose role in the film I’m not even going to begin to describe to you–let me just say that her resolution upon first viewing had me laughing on the floor! (It’s tough enough to review a comedy because there’s only so many times I can say, “That’s funny!” To review a short comedy is even tougher.)

It looks like all of the actors had a real good time making this film (and Heather Elaine’s final line of dialogue cracks me up each time), and Leonard and his crew weren’t lazy in making it either. It’s very well-made, with a great tracking shot that introduces us to the party and the guests–credit for that goes to cinematographer Nicholaus James. It goes to show a dedicated team of artists can make a quality piece of work in just 48 hours.

“Between Two Valleys” is almost three years old, and so, any amount of hopes for a continuation of this story is a bit much at this point. But you take what you can get. This is a funny story all by itself. It’s well-made, gamely acted, and sharply written.

The film is available on YouTube. Check it out here.

Note: “Between Two Valleys” won an award in the 2018 48-Hour competition: Best Ensemble Cast.

My Salinger Year (2021)

6 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“My Salinger Year,” based on the memoir by Joanna Rakoff, is set in 1995, where bookstores took over big cities and big business feared computers and the Internet and people actually read physical printed works in magazines and books–being published back then meant a great deal then than it does now!

In “My Salinger Year,” written and directed by Philippe Felardeau, lead actress Margaret Qualley (Andie McDowall’s daughter, best known for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) shines as aspiring young writer Joanna. Upon leaving Berkeley to pursue writing in New York City, Joanna has a bright optimism that foresees a bright future for her career that she even takes a cheap, crappy apartment because she knows all the best writers started off in cheap, crappy apartments. She also takes a job as an assistant for a tough, no-nonsense literary agent named Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), whose agency represents none other than J.D. Salinger. (Salinger is reclusive, but he still telephones Margaret every now and again. Sometimes, Joanna answers the call–even though Joanna hasn’t even read “The Catcher in the Rye,” she’s still starstruck.)

Joanna isn’t entirely fulfilled as a “secretary,” as she sees the job, but it does have its perks such as reading Salinger’s fan mail…and then there are unpleasantries such as writing back to the fans to bear the bad news that Salinger doesn’t receive his fan mail anymore. (The agency has kept it ever since the Mark David Chapman incident, during which he held a copy of Catcher in the Rye when he was found shortly after assassinating John Lennon.)

Also, as expected, Margaret is not the easiest person to work for–Sigourney Weaver, playing the part, is always great at making everyone feel inferior to her. (But as expected in roles like this, she does have a pivotal scene in which she lets her guard down and lets us see the real person.)

Soon enough, Joanna takes it upon herself to respond to the fan letters personally, because as she sees it, why would anyone want to get a response like “sorry we cannot forward your kind words to Mr. Salinger?” This may anger some, but help others–but at least she’s writing and not dictating. She also manages to strike up somewhat of a friendship with Salinger himself over the telephone. (Salinger is played in both voice and silhouette by Tim Post.)

I love the atmosphere of this 1995 setting–maybe it’s the literary setting and all the books lined up against the walls, but it has a lovely nostalgic feel to it. I also liked the little touches such as Joanna and her novel-writing overly opinionated boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth) washing dishes in the bathtub because THEIR APARTMENT HAS NO SINK–and there’s also these inserts of the fans who wrote the letters, many of whom are not as deranged or weird as we might think, which I thought was a nice touch.

And being a writer myself, I identified with the main character feeling less inspired as she works an unfulfilling job. When Joanna goes for so long without doing her own writing, I feel for her. When she’s given a kind offer to submit work to the New Yorker, I’m happy for her. I want her to get back to work doing what she loves doing!

I mentioned that Margaret Qualley shined in the role of Joanna, and that might be an understatement. As much as I liked her in movies like “The Nice Guys” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” I waited for her to truly impress me with a role that gave me a lot to process. But with Joanna in “My Salinger Year,” there are so much power to it that she’s able to deliver in a wonderful performance. I wished Joanna the absolute best in the end, and that’s a tribute to Qualley’s work.

Even though I’m giving “My Salinger Year” 3.5 stars (with only a few nitpicks here or there), I give Margaret Qualley’s performance an even more enthusiastic 4-star rating.