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Creep 2

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A few years ago, indie filmmakers Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass went out to the woods to make a movie with their limited resources. What resulted was “Creep,” an effectively creepy (forgive the pun) found-footage movie starring Duplass as an unsettlingly peculiar individual whom Brice isn’t sure whether or not to trust. I would issue a SPOILER WARNING here, but if you’re the slightest bit interested in seeing “Creep 2,” then you probably already know how “Creep” ended. It’s no secret going into “Creep 2” that Duplass’ titular “creep” character is no mere weirdo; he’s a serial killer.

Part of the fun of the original “Creep” was trying to figure out just what was up with this strange man (Duplass) whose company our protagonist (Brice) is stuck with throughout the movie. He’s clearly not well, he has a lot of issues, he says/does things that are unnerving, and it gets worse and worse until it ultimately ends violently, thus finally revealing that it was all a setup for one of the “creep’s” filmography that involves murders. “Creep” is one of the killer’s movies about his individual killings, and now we have “Creep 2.”

(Whew. That one paragraph saved me the trouble of reviewing “Creep.” For the record, I give it the same rating as “Creep 2”: three stars out of four.)

Now that we know Mark Duplass’ character is a psychopathic murderer with creative ambition, where do we get suspense in this sequel? Well…what if our protagonist was an unsuspecting amateur video artist who’s curious to see what this guy is all about? You see, Sara (Desiree Akhavan), creator of an online documentary web series called “Encounters,” films her “encounters” with strangers who place ads for her to answer/investigate. She answers an ad from Aaron (Duplass) to visit/film him for monetary reasons, and she’s curious especially after Aaron reveals he is a serial killer. He assures her that he won’t kill her, and she has little reason to trust him (thankfully, she arms herself with a hidden knife). All he wants is for her to film his expressions of reaching the age of 40 and feeling like he’s run out of inspiration for future works. And this is where we get another strange delight: the serial killer has a midlife crisis.

As with the previous film, “Creep 2” is presented in first-person camera perspective, in documentary format, still keeping the audience on-edge and not knowing what to expect. It’s refreshing to note that for all the times we say we’re tired of the “found-footage”/”faux-documentary” gimmick, there are still times when we can say it can still be done effectively.

The suspense in “Creep 2” comes from the question of whether or not Aaron is serious when he says he’s considering quitting the “art” of killing, seeing it more as a “job” than a “religion” (among many funny lines of dialogue sprinkled throughout the film for Duplass to bring levity to an otherwise tense thriller). He confides in Sara, who keeps filming him in his times of excitement and depression and inconsistent strangeness. That leads to the bigger question, which is whether or not Sara is safe. And if so, then for how long?

I liked “Creep 2” better than the first “Creep,” despite giving them both the same rating (ratings are hardly meaningful anyway—just read what I have to say instead of focusing on the stars). It’s just as refreshing but also funnier, more tense, and, for lack of a better word, creepier. Duplass is clearly having a ton of fun with the role, which is more compelling with each layer that gets peeled throughout these movies, and Akhavan is a refreshing protagonist who is scared of her company but tries to remain calm as she tries to learn more about him carefully. And I confess I didn’t know where this story was going and it delighted me that it continued to surprise me. I’m not sure where Duplass and director Patrick Brice can go from here with a possible “Creep 3,” but I’d sure like to find out.

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The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

5 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “Cloverfield” film series, created by J.J. Abrams’ company Bad Robot, continues to intrigue me in terms of creativity and surprise, both in substance in its entries and its ability to sneak up on the audience. Last time, with the secret entry “10 Cloverfield Lane,” nobody was aware of its existence until about a month before its theatrical release. This time, with #3, entitled “The Cloverfield Paradox,” everything was kept secret until the Super Bowl, during which a trailer was revealed to viewers…and immediately followed up with the film’s release on Netflix! (Now that’s a pleasant surprise, more pleasant than who actually won the Super Bowl, for some people.)

All three films are science-fiction horror films that take place within the same universe, but they don’t all revolve around the same characteristics. (Actually, there are a few that are noticeable, but they’re not among the focuses of the films. I wouldn’t worry about trying to connect all three films together just yet.) Instead, they all take familiar elements from similar scenarios (the monster-movie, the contained-thriller, the space-station/haunted-house) and present new things to them to put the audience in a world of intrigue, terror and thought. For the first “Cloverfield” in 2008, we had a found-footage approach to a Godzilla-like story; for “10 Cloverfield Lane,” we were kept underground for a large portion of the film until we were aware of what was really going on upstairs; and for “The Cloverfield Paradox,” most of the action is set in a space station, where something goes really, really wrong that may result in bad things on Earth that may or may not have to do with elements from the first two films.

(That’s all I’ll say without giving away spoilers, but really, are you expecting anything less than…”Cloverfield”-esque elements?)

Set in the near future (not quite specified in terms of time), Earth is undergoing an energy crisis. The Cloverfield station is launched by collective space agencies to complete a particle accelerator that will help save the planet (or, as someone on Earth argues, could bring it to its destruction). After two years, the accelerator finally seems to work. But then, after launching it toward Earth, something goes wrong, and the crew onboard the Cloverfield station find themselves experiencing all sorts of inconsistencies in the universe and even in themselves.

What’s happened? Why does everything seem off? Why do things appear/disappear? What’s happening on Earth? And who is the strange passenger that seemingly appears on the ship and knows more than the crew does about her? What’s the connection to the other “Cloverfield” films? Some of these questions are answered, while others are best left to interpretation (unless you see the film a second time and something clicks in your mind, leading to a probable conclusion). And also, much like with “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the filmmakers (which, in this case, include producer J.J. Abrams and director Julius Onah) don’t feel the need to spoon-feed their audience with numerous details. We’re just thrown into a drastic situation, and these things are what our characters have to go through.

There’s some good character moments as well, particularly involving an appealing, fully-developed lead heroine named Hamilton, played very well by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She has a tragic backstory and a husband (Roger Davies) she left on Earth, and so when certain things about this new phenomenon are revealed to her, she has choices to make that aren’t easy to figure out as one may think. There’s also a nice moment in which we see a crew member named Kiel (David Oyelowo) crying by himself after the trouble starts, and then he collects himself before returning to his crew to take command. Most of the side characters (the rest of the Cloverfield crew) are types, but they’re likable types, particularly Chris O’Dowd as the comic-relief who has a particularly bad experience involving one of his body parts and yet still has one-liners to crack.

It’s easy to make the comparison to “Alien,” seeing as how most of the action takes place on this space station and Hamilton could be seen as a Ripley-type. But “The Cloverfield Paradox” has enough dark colors in its production design of this space station to give it its own identity (much more than 1997’s “Event Horizon,” which must have stolen the set from “Alien” to make up for its lack of original style). The CGI visual effects are effectively done, which made me wish I could’ve seen this film on a big screen rather than a small screen. (And I saw this film on my smartphone, which is too small a screen for a film of this spectacle.) But to be fair, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is less about spectacle & action and more about thrills & story.

Look at it like an updated “Star Trek: The Next Generation” story with weird occurrences on the USS Enterprise (or better yet, the “Lost in Space” movie some of us were waiting for). There’s mystery, there’s intrigue, there’s fear, there’s paranoia, there’s questions, there’s answers, and then there’s a resolution that some audience members may approve of while others may be disappointed. Either way, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is an effective confined-space thriller (literally in space) and a very pleasant surprise to stream on Netflix just after its announcement during the Super Bowl.

Note: I heard a fourth “Cloverfield” film has completed production, and this one intrigues me more than the others—it’s set in WWII and is described as a “supernatural Nazi thriller.”

Before I Wake (2018)

3 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This was not supposed to happen. A horror film released on the first weekend of January (and on Netflix, no less) is not supposed to be this thought-provoking. It’s not supposed to keep me wondering about this supernatural aspect or that origin of the central boogeyman in the story. But nevertheless, “Before I Wake,” directed by Mike Flanagan (the best horror director working today—see “Oculus,” “Hush,” “Gerald’s Game,” and even “Ouija: Origin of Evil”), is a horror film that could’ve been released on New Year’s Day, and it still would’ve been noticed as something good.

(Actually, this was originally supposed to be released theatrically in September 2016, on the same day as “The Disappointments Room” and “Blair Witch”…needless to say, I would have preferred seeing this horror film over either of those other two.)

Remember that “Twilight Zone” episode in which Bill Mumy was an odd child that could make his many wishes come true? Well, for young Cody (Jacob Tremblay, one of the best child actors working today), it’s the same principle—his dreams become reality. He goes to sleep, and the objects of his dreams manifest themselves physically. For instance, upon moving into the house of his new foster parents and learning about their long-lost son, the foster parents, Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane), see their son right there in the living room as soon as Cody is asleep. But that’s not all—Cody is suffering trauma due to his mother passing away, seemingly taken away from him from a dark entity known as The Canker Man. So, just as his pleasant dreams become reality, so does The Canker Man.

I have to be honest and say that supernatural horror stories involving some kind of demonic presence are starting to bore me, mainly because it just seems ghosts & demons can just…do things. It doesn’t matter if it’s consistent or how much time passes in between hauntings or even what is the extent of their abilities. They just do…whatever they want. So, as “Before I Wake” was continuing, I didn’t care about what exactly The Canker Man was…until the final act, when we figure out what Cody has gone through before meeting his foster parents, and there’s a psychological twist that makes everything we’ve seen before a lot more interesting. I grow tired of over-the-top horror-movie climaxes, but this one had me intrigued. (No, I won’t give it away here.)

Mike Flanagan is a director who truly knows and love movies. He’s shown special talent in the horror genre, and it’s clear he’s not making these films simply to frighten or give us visceral reactions—he wants to tell stories with genuine characters and give us an effective thrill ride while we’re getting to know these people and admiring the craftsmanship as well. And even though The Canker Man is frightening, it’s where he comes from that makes his presence (and the film, by default) something to think about. And I give props to Flanagan for not giving us yet another weirdly-defined ghost/demon that can’t be explained.

Much of the film has to do less with scares and more with dealing with childhood phobias and coping with parental mistakes, as Cody has many skeletons in his closet even at the age of 8 and Jessie and Mark are struggling with the death of their own child while they have to care for this new boy in their home (Mark feels responsible for his son’s drowning in the bathtub). And I appreciated Flanagan’s methods in making it more than a standard horror film in which a child is scared by a random boogeyman. The film also brings interesting developments with Jessie, such as: if she can see her son when Cody sleeps, is she using Cody to continue fulfilling the wish of seeing him again, and how far will that go? (Mark, of course, knows better—this isn’t their dead son at all; it’s only Cody’s interpretation of their son, from what Cody saw in photos/videos of him.) This causes Jessie to think more about what it means to be a mother, especially when she does something that makes authorities see her as unfit to care for Cody.

“Before I Wake” has its flaws, such as narrative pacing issues, but its heart is in the right place, it had me guessing throughout and thinking afterward, and it is rather scary at times. “Before I Wake” is an effective horror film…I just wish I saw it back in September 2016. But it’s a good way to start the year 2018.

American History X (1998)

3 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a scene in Spike Lee’s 1989 racial drama “Do the Right Thing,” in which the black pizza-delivery boy Mookie confronts the white pizza-chef Pino about his racist remarks. Pino claims to hate African-Americans, and yet his favorite actor and his favorite basketball player (and possibly his favorite musician) are all dark-skinned. Mookie calls him out on it. How does Pino respond? “It’s different […] I mean, they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.”

We don’t know why racism is still around, and that scene illustrates the probability that maybe the racists themselves don’t know either. “To me, it’s different.” I can’t be the only one who sees Pino’s “defense” as nothing more than pathetic.

But because of that, we know Pino wouldn’t actually act out on his prejudice against other races, particularly black people. He just comes off as a big mouth. I want to smack him, but I’m not scared of him. I am, however, scared of dumb White Rage group members (of groups like the KKK or the skinheads) because they do act out their rage and try to justify their brutal actions towards members of different races.

“American History X” is a disturbing drama that provokes questions/thoughts about racial hatred and doesn’t try to answer most of them itself. It features characters that follow the hatred with blindness and don’t give a moment’s thought to the world around them (and by the time most of them do, it’s nearly too late).

Edward Norton turns in a powerful performance as Derek Vinyard, one of the most active members of a white supremacist movement in Venice Beach, secretly led by Cameron (Stacy Keach) who stays in the shadows to keep his record clean. Derek is an inspiration to his fellow hate-filled disciples, as he seems angrier and is more charismatic than the rest—they listen to whatever he says, just as he listens to what Cameron says. But one night, everything changes when he kills two black men who tried to steal his car and is arrested by police and thrown in prison for three years. While inside, he faces some harsh truths, the harshest one being, with all the roughnecks and lifers and make up his inmates, he’s the minority. When he’s released three years later, he’s a changed man and wants to present that to his family and friends, but it’s easier said than done, especially since many of his close ones now hail him as a hero for the night he was arrested…

There’s one scene that attempts to give some idea as to where Derek got his hatred (in a flashback to a family dinner scene in which his father (William Russ) declares his cynicism against minorities in town), but overall, the film isn’t about why prejudice is around—instead, it shows how it can harshly affect the lives of a man and his family and friends. And when a change of heart comes, the film shows that it isn’t easy to demonstrate it with mere apologies or simple actions.

I really have to credit director/cinematographer Tony Kaye (who, for the record, has disowned the film for being against his earlier vision) for the genuine, disturbing feel in the scenes that show pure anger. Many of them are hard to watch, such as when Derek argues with his mother (Beverly d’Angelo) and sister (Jennifer Lien) for bringing in a teacher (Elliot Gould) who not only disagrees with his way of thinking but is also Jewish. Many of these scenes (unfortunately) ring true and you feel the angry words that are coming out of Norton’s mouth. (But the problem with these scenes is the unnecessary amount of extremely tight close-up shots that distract from the moment rather than make us feel like we’re in the moment.)

The film is told in non-linear fashion, with past events (Derek’s rise to power, the dinner scene, the murder, Derek’s whole prison experience) presented to us in black-and-white. I would have preferred if these events were told chronologically. In giving us early present scenes from the perspective of Danny (Derek’s younger brother, played by Edward Furlong), we lose track of focus fairly quickly. Danny learning about his brother, whom he idolizes and whose footsteps he tries to follow, isn’t as interesting as Derek’s development. With that said, Derek is a completely developed character. We see what set him off, what his influence was to people, why other people feared him, and more importantly, we understand why his attitude changes and feel bad when it seems he can’t be a more positive influence to the same people he led in the movement. We know a lot about Derek; not so much about Danny or their anxious mother or their liberal sister or the fat man (Ethan Suplee) that joins the movement to get strength he can’t get elsewhere or Derek’s girlfriend (Fairuza Bulk) who simply follows her man or even the black high-school principal (Avery Brooks) that wants to help both Derek and Danny. (I would’ve liked to see a movie about what the principal has to go through.) All of the actors do serviceable jobs, but the entire film rests on the shoulders of Edward Norton.

It is true that Tony Kaye is not particularly a fan of this film (and even tried to credit himself as “Alan Smithee” and even “Humpty Dumpty”), and long since this film’s release in 1998, I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t speaking out as a publicity stunt. I understand where he’s coming from; I empathize with filmmakers whose original vision is altered by producers (and even, in this case, the lead actor himself Edward Norton, who had the script changed midway through shooting). But Kaye shouldn’t be too resentful of the film; after all, it has grown a cult following from people whose eyes were opened by the film’s power (and is also a topic of discussion for most film schools). “American History X” may have its small amount of problems, but it also has its considerable amount of raw power.

Maybe Pino should take a look at this film…

Click (2006)

27 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are “movies starring Adam Sandler” (“Punch-Drunk Love,” “Spanglish,” “Funny People,” “Reign Over Me”) and then there are “Adam Sandler movies” (movies produced by Sandler and starring him to put him up front in attempts to maintain his popularity—“The Waterboy,” “Big Daddy,” “Grown Ups,” “I Now Pronounce Chuck & Larry,” and many more). Sandler can act really well (his terrific performance in “Spanglish,” in particular, breaks my heart), and he can also be very funny…even though a majority of those “Adam Sandler movies” don’t do good jobs of showing his comedic talents. Thankfully, there are exceptions—I like “Happy Gilmore,” “50 First Dates,” “The Wedding Singer,” and the subject of this review, “Click.”

Of the section of “Adam Sandler movies” I find enjoyable, “Click” is probably my favorite. It has its typical “Sandler-esque” crude humor, but it has a bigger heart to it and an unexpected level of pathos that surprisingly make the movie more than what it could’ve been. There are laughs, but there is also a lot of drama as well—drama of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” class.

Sandler plays Michael Newman, an architect who works so hard to get a promotion in his firm that he barely has time to spend with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two kids. He misses his son’s swim meet, he has to cancel the annual summer camping trip, and he can’t enjoy have a family dinner without his arrogant jerk of a boss (David Hasselhoff) calling him constantly. Adding onto the agitation is his inability to turn on the TV without turning on the ceiling fan or opening the garage, and so he sets out late at night to buy a universal remote control. The only place open is “Bed, Bath & Beyond.” In the “Beyond” section is where the mysterious Morty (Christopher Walken) works. Morty takes Michael to the “Way Beyond” section and brings him the universal remote to end all universal remotes…

It turns out this remote controls everything in Michael’s universe. He pushes the pause button, and everything pauses around him. He clicks rewind, and he can revisit favorite memories. He can even fast-forward through parts of his life he’d rather skip, like arguments with his wife, slow traffic, and sad moments when his kids are let down. This leads to many funny moments such as he plays with the color setting on himself, making him appear yellow (pirate), then green (Hulk), then purple (Barney), until he finally gets a good tan (Julio Iglesias). And it also has its inventive moments too, such as when Michael explores features from his “Main Menu,” such as his “making-of” and a moment with commentary by James Earl Jones.

But Michael learns that the remote is no toy, as it seems to learn his fast-forwarding patterns and is skipping through larger portions of his life. This is where the dramatic aspects come in. Michael learns the hard way that he needs to put more focus on what he has rather than what he doesn’t have, because his life will just go by quickly otherwise. It’s hard to believe this is in the same film that also features crude jokes with side characters including Michael’s wife’s friend (Jennifer Coolidge, really annoying) and some grossout humor including a long fart joke. While the comedic aspects in the first half of the movie are broad, they’re toned down as the situation involving this dangerous remote becomes more serious. And it works because Michael is a relatable guy and his plight is recognizable—he wants everything to go well, but his priorities are out of place. We feel bad for him when he loses so many precious times (and even loved ones) and is in danger of losing even more. And it’s because Sandler is so good at playing the “everyman” that we want things to go well for the character.

“Click” is a bit uneven, but for what it set out to do, it works. Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s touching, and overall, it has a good point to make: don’t fast-forward through the most important parts of your life, figuratively. There’s more I can find here than I could in many other “Adam Sandler movies,” so I use “Click” as a prime example of what they could be.

Power Rangers (2017)

23 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Recruit a team of teenagers with attitude!” You want teenagers with attitude? You’ll get them in this new version of “Power Rangers.”

I liked “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” as a kid. I had some of the Rangers’ action figures, I wore out the VHS tape of the 1995 feature-length spinoff from watching it so many times, and I even watched some of the spinoff TV series as well (“Wild Force,” “Ninja Storm,” “Galaxy”). But then something happened.

I grew up…but the Power Rangers didn’t grow up with me.

But it still stays with a lot of people who obviously didn’t outgrow it like I did (including Internet reviewer Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug, who has his own “History of the Power Rangers” web series). A good chunk of those people didn’t particularly care for the new direction the 2017 reboot of the franchise (simply titled “Power Rangers”) took upon hitting the big screen. This new direction was adding complexities, grit, and even “PG-13” to the fun and to the characters, whereas everything in the previous series and movies was consistently lighthearted and silly and “PG” (or “Practically G”).

And as strange as it may seem, even though I outgrew the Power Rangers franchise…I actually liked this movie.

It does have some major flaws, however. A majority of the dialogue isn’t particularly good, some of the jokes fall flat (especially one involving a cow early in the proceedings), there’s an inconsistency of tone (which I’ll get to later), and the climactic battle involves a McGuffin to be found at a Krispy Kreme. Just as “Happy Gilmore” had a lot of Subway and “Talladega Nights” had a lot of Applebee’s, the final act of “Power Rangers” practically belongs to Krispy Kreme. There’s even a scene in which the film grinds to a halt as the central antagonist enjoys a delicious donut.

But thankfully, the good elements of “Power Rangers” outweigh the bad. The story is surprisingly terrific; for a Power Rangers movie, having an impressive story is quite an accomplishment. It has its typical superhero origin story, with five teenagers discovering a buried, abandoned spaceship and some mystical stones that give them amazing abilities, but it also uses themes of friendship, leadership, and teamwork in ways that work surprisingly well. I was surprised by how much I was getting into a Power Rangers story!

Another reason for getting so invested in this Power Rangers story is a big one: all five of our young heroes are terrific! I don’t mean to merely say that the actors are appealing (which they certainly are). I mean this film about a team of superheroes manages to set each character up and develop them properly. They’re all different youngsters with different problems and one thing in common: each other. One kid, named Jason (played by Dacre Montgomery), is a former football jock which makes him qualified to be the leader of this group, but he also has to learn responsibility which is tough for any young man. Another, Kimberly (Naomi Scott), used to be a mean-girl type on campus, and her reason for losing her old friends is more complicated and surprisingly brutal, which teaches her to move forward. Another, Billy (RJ Cyler, from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), is an autistic victim of bullying whose brains help save the day. Another, Zack (Ludi Lin), is a loner who cares for his ill mother. And last but not least is Trini (Becky G), who feels uncomfortable in her own skin due to her struggles with her sexual orientation.

Yes, people. The Power Rangers are actually “teenagers with attitude” in this updated version, not like the squeaky-clean, perfect, bland teens in the series. Imagine that!

Moving past some inane lines of dialogue these young actors have to read from a script, these kids feel like real kids with real problems, which is a most pleasant surprise, especially for a Power Rangers movie. And they work great together, slowly warming up to one another after being strangers, training for combat, having to work together as a team, and finding that common element that will ultimately bind them as such. There’s a scene midway through the film in which they sit around a campfire and discuss their problems, and it’s the best scene in the film because it feels warm and genuine and even kind of deep. I would see a sequel to ‘Power Rangers” simply to see these characters again.

But wait, you might wonder, this doesn’t sound like a Power Rangers movie. Don’t worry, because there are still Power Rangers elements here. We have characters like the Rangers’ advisor Zordon (Bryan Cranston, slumming it as a face in a wall but never quite shows it), Zordon’s annoying robotic assistant Alpha (voiced by Bill Hader), and the Rangers’ ultimate archrival, Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a former Ranger who seeks to obtain a hidden stone (buried underneath a Krispy Kreme) and creates a giant golden monster to forcibly take it for her. And there are still the Zords, the Rangers’ heavily armored vehicles that can form as one if need be. And there’s still a big fight in the city between the Mega-Zord and a gigantic mutant beast. And yes, there’s still that awesome theme song from the original show that plays when the Rangers are finally headed for battle. But another problem with “Power Rangers” is kind of an odd one: it works best when it isn’t trying to be “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” It has kind of an inconsistent tone, especially when it comes to Rita, who is more silly than threatening. Banks is having a ton of fun with the role, but her scenes and the Rangers’ scenes have a distracting contrast. Alpha isn’t as annoying as he is in the show, but his comic-relief moments still come off as forced. But the scenes with Zordon work well (hey, every origin story needs a wise instructor). And even if the action is pushed aside to make room for a big bombastic final act, I didn’t mind…except that it might be a little late by that point. The film is two hours long, and most of the running time is devoted to character development that intense action seems a little out-of-place.

But then again, it is a “Power Rangers” movie, so…I dunno. Look, I liked the movie for reasons I didn’t expect to. That’s about all I can say about “Power Rangers” anymore. It’s fun, it’s well-acted, it’s even compelling at times. The action is there, the Power Rangers callbacks are there, and even some of the silliness is there; you just have to get through some solid character development…and resist the urge to get some donuts after viewing the film.

Sleight (2017)

17 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Sleight,” directed and co-written by J.D. Dillard, is a film that tells the familiar dangers of urban society that we’ve seen in other films and even on the news, but in doing so, it inserts a fascinating element of trickery: the troubled young man caught up in trouble with gangs and drugs is masterful at illusion.

He’s a street magician, performing card tricks, floating quarters, and making swift motions. And he’s excellent at it. But being the sole provider for his younger sister requires more than spare change on the street for performing magic tricks. So, he’s a street performer by day and a drug dealer by night, making runs for a local crimerunner.

You expect things to go wrong for this 18-year-old kid, and they do. Soon, he, his sister, and his girlfriend are in danger, and he figures the best way to escape them is to face them. Predictable, yes, but the way “Sleight” goes about bringing this story to life is intriguing, particularly it comes to how the kid is able to perform these tricks and what he must do to get out of this mess.

An engaging lead helps a lot too. Jacob Latimore stars as the kid, named Bo, and his performance is nothing short of brilliant. He forces you to feel his plight (see what I did there?) and understand what he does and why he has to do it to survive. Even when things are at their most deadly, in a particularly tense scene in the middle, you see him balance the fear he feels with trying to keep a game face in front of people who will otherwise kill him. The supporting characters are good too, with Bo’s sister Tina played by Storm Reid and Bo’s girlfriend played by Seychelle Gabriel. Latimore and Reid play off each other perfectly, and you buy them as brother-and-sister. Gabriel plays an appealing love interest, who doesn’t know Bo’s nightly duties and is able to listen and understand when he finally comes clean.

Then there’s Dule Hill, a character actor who has done great work as mild-mannered schmoes in TV shows like “Psych” and “The West Wing.” Here, he plays the gang leader Angelo, and he’s quite effective at playing a straight-up A-hole, perhaps channeling Giancarlo Esposito’s despicable character in the similarly-themed 1994 film, “Fresh.”

Everything builds to an inevitable climax in which Bo must use his hidden abilities against Angelo and his gang in order to get control of his life back and protect the people he loves, after everything has gone almost completely to hell. By then, I forget about how expected the outcome will be and remember that the most important thing is how Bo is going to pull it off. By that point, I am engrossed in the character and all I care about is him making it out of this messy situation.

I’m recommending “Sleight” for what isn’t easy to do, which is to take something familiar and keep it engaging and intriguing. But after seeing it, do yourself a favor and forget about the “open-ended” ending. It’s highly unneccesary, especially when taking into consideration that “Sleight” already told a full story with hardly any loose ends to be tied in a sequel. “Sleight” told the whole story. There is a fitting epilogue that gives closure, and then everything almost feels botched by just one last scene that ends the film on an ambiguous note when it didn’t need to.

I know Jacob Latimore will be forgotten by the Academy when it comes down to announcing next year’s nominees for Best Actor, but he won’t be forgotten by me, because I think his is one of the best performances of the year. “Sleight” may be forgotten by most people because it’s a small film being released so early in the year (from what I can tell, the Academy has an attention span of 3-4 months maximum), but I can’t forget good work by talented people. And that is the greatest trick of them all.