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Love, Victor (Limited Series) (2020)

11 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Love, Victor” is a series available exclusively on Hulu. (I usually don’t review series, but whatever–here I go…)

This is a sequel/spin-off to the hit teen film “Love, Simon.” When I first saw “Love, Simon,” I liked it fine. But after seeing it again (and a few more times since then), I celebrate it for the game-changing and beautiful gem that it is–it’s a wonderful film.

For those who don’t know, “Love, Simon” was about a closeted gay high-school kid (named Simon) who searched for his soulmate while finding the courage to tell his family and friends his secret. I did mention in my original review that Simon had it easier than most gay teens who have a tougher time with coming out of the closet than he did, especially since he had understanding, sympathetic family & friends and even the support of the entire school. Though, when you think about it, John Hughes movies weren’t any grittier.

(2018, the year “Love, Simon” was released, did give us two grittier films about the subject: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “Boy Erased,” the latter of which ended up on my year-end list.)

Anyway, now we have the 10-episode series “Love, Victor,” about a Latino teen (named Victor) who goes to the same high school as Simon did. Simon and his boyfriend Bram are now in college in NYC, but the high school in Atlanta is still looking back on the events of “Love, Simon,” finding inspiration in Simon’s act of courage. Well, Victor (played by Michael Cimino) isn’t so inspired–in fact, he even emails to Simon, “Screw you for having the world’s most perfect, accepting parents, the world’s most supportive friends. Because for some of us, it’s not that easy.”

He’s right.

Victor is either unsure about his sexuality or just doesn’t want to admit it to himself, but he feels that if he comes out about it, it will hit his religious parents hard. And the parents (and his sister Pilar) are going through enough right now, especially after the move from Texas. He tries to put his focus on other people, including his new high-school friends such as his annoying geeky buddy Felix (Anthony Turpel), the popular rich girl Mia (Rachel Hilson) who connects with Victor, and the handsome (and gay) Benji (George Sear), whom Victor has a crush on, thus complicating things with Mia, who doesn’t know that Victor is struggling with his sexual orientation.

Victor can only trust Simon as they correspond through email back and forth. (And yes, Simon, played by Nick Robinson who was also a producer for this series, does narrate numerous parts of all 10 episodes as well as make a brief but important appearance in one of the later episodes.) Simon knows that Victor’s deal isn’t the same as his own, but he still finds ways to help inspire him to keep moving forward.

Victor is a likable lead and is played very well by Cimino, but I was surprised (more than I should have been, considering it’s a 10-episode series) to find room for development amongst the other characters. Felix has his own fling with a popular girl who would rather have their relationship kept secret. Benji has a boyfriend but still harbors some feelings for Victor, which results in an awkward encounter when he invites him on a road trip later. We find out more about the parents and why they uprooted the whole family to start a new life. Victor’s sister Pilar (Isabella Fierra) slowly but surely finds ways to help other people besides herself.

And then there’s Mia, who I think is the most interesting character in the series. Played wonderfully by Rachel Hilson, Mia has to go through A LOT. First of all, her father brings home a new woman and is thinking seriously about a future with her–Mia still isn’t over her mother abandoning them. Secondly, she is in love with Victor and they do start a romance, but she doesn’t understand why Victor’s interests in her seem to turn on and off at random. That’s the most moving part of the whole series to me–when you love someone who knows they can’t love you back in the same way, isn’t that sad? And Victor, who does care for Mia, wants to tell her the truth but doesn’t want to hurt her any further than she’s already been hurt…but that just hurts her more, sadly.

All 10 episodes are solid and wonderfully written, with one character development as interesting as the next. If I had to pick my least favorite one, it’d probably be episode 8, in which many of our side characters are brought together for a little “Breakfast Club” homage (right down to one of them thrusting his arm into the air)–that felt a little forced to me.

“Love, Victor” will most likely have a second season (or at least, that’s the hope for the creators–the series ends on a cliffhanger). I’ll definitely be interested in seeing what happens with Victor, his family, Mia, Benji, Felix, and others in the future. It’s a solid series.

Words on Bathroom Walls (2020)

2 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Charlie Plummer is one of my favorite young actors working today. He has a certain innocence and world-weariness to himself that comes through in each role he plays, and it’s always interesting to see him work because of that. In 2018, he delivered an excellent performance as my favorite character of the year: Charley in Lean On Pete. In 2019, he was the lead in the Hulu dramatic limited series “Looking for Alaska” (based on the John Green novel). And just a couple of months ago, in October 2020, he gave another truly impressive performance in Spontaneous. Now, here in “Words on Bathroom Walls,” he plays probably his most challenging role to date. He’s up to the challenge.

In the film, based on the award-winning novel by Julia Walton, Plummer plays Adam Petrazelli, a nice teenage boy with a potential future in culinary arts…who is also diagnosed with schizophrenia. He hallucinates terrifying situations in which rooms are filled with blackness and/or a flaming inferno, has imaginary friends including a heavyset bodyguard ready to pounce on anyone who comes near him, and is often derided by a tormenting disembodied bass-tone voice that always seems to be with him. Adam’s inner demons become all too real to him, which leads to consequences in trying to escape them–one of which results in his school friend getting severely burned in chemistry class and Adam getting expelled for his own good.

“Words on Bathroom Walls” is a mainstream-friendly teen movie similar to John Hughes’ movies, Love, Simon, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in that while it plays it safe with a serious issue, it still does a service to it while also being a charming, likable, entertaining film with appealing characters and a worthy message.

That being said, I’m not sure that Adam’s invisible friends (which include a hippie girl, the aforementioned bodyguard, and a horny-best-friend type) who come and go in Adam’s life are necessarily an accurate representation of what it means to live with schizophrenia (they mostly serve as comic relief)–but they’re not overly exaggerated that they lose the respect the movie deserves, in my opinion. (I could be very wrong here–but they didn’t bother me that much.)

Anyway, Adam goes through a medical trial to treat his illness and isn’t allowed to cook anymore (not with big knives at least). His caring mother (Molly Parker) and her new boyfriend (Walton Goggins), whom Adam isn’t so sure about, get him enrolled in a Catholic school, headed by Sister Catherine (Beth Grant), who wants no mention of his condition whatsoever. Adam is here to get good grades, take his medications, and graduate–that’s what Sister Catherine wants to hear and that’s also what Adam wants to believe. But he’s very uncertain about his own future, further evidenced by witnessing a mentally ill homeless man–he wonders if that’s what’s going to happen to him. (Adam even wonders at one point why everyone cares so much about cancer and yet don’t want to acknowledge schizophrenia. There are moments of thought-provoking truth here.)

The light at the end of this long tunnel comes in the form of Maya (Taylor Russell), class valedictorian with secrets of her own. He takes a liking to her and gets her to tutor him in math, and from there sparks a touching romance that also includes a date at an outdoor-screening of “Never Been Kissed” (THAT old classic).

Another helpful supporting character on Adam’s road to safety is the kindly Father Patrick (Andy Garcia). Adam confesses he doesn’t believe in God–Father Patrick assures him that he’ll listen anyway.

I should also mention the actors playing the imaginary friends: AnnaSophia Robb plays the flighty hippie chick; Lobo Sebastian is the bodyguard; and Devon Bostick is Joaquin, the kind of smarmy best friend you’d find in teen movies. They do what they need to do, and they’re good company, despite playing caricatures (which I think is the point anyway).

What is the message of “Words on Bathroom Walls?” Basically, it’s that everyone deserves to be recognized, which we see in many teen movies. But it’s also something more than that here–Adam wants more than just to be loved; he wants to be independent and do what he loves. And it works very well here. The moment Adam shows Maya what his true passion is (which is to cook and to go to culinary school), I knew I was in, especially when his hands started to shake. I was surprised by how wrapped up I was in his struggle.

Plummer carries this movie like a champ; it’s another top-notch performance to add to his resume. I remember seeing his first film King Jack at the final Little Rock Film Festival back in May 2015–he appeared for a Q&A with director Felix Thompson. I remember thinking this kid was going to go places. How right I was.

Echo Boomers (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Echo Boomers,” the feature debut from director Seth Savoy (whose work in short films I’ve admired in the past). is about a group of millennial activists who break into wealthy residences, steal valuables, trash the place, and get paid for what they consider a hard day’s work.

Did I say “trash the place?” I meant they f***ing DESTROY each house they break into.

Their general political message is to make middle-aged rich people suffer while their generation is struggling to make ends meet–and as a result of delivering/selling their stolen items to Mel (Michael Shannon), who runs a legit business while also providing the youths with the addresses to rob, they live carelessly. Of course, the irony of making money while partaking in heavy criminal activity (their own “Millennial Mob,” if you will) is that they’re self-entitled a**holes who spend everything on heavily expensive items such as clothing and cocaine, because what the hell, they’re gonna get more of it anyway.

Robin Hoods, they are not…necessarily.

A common criticism I’ve seen against this film is that it “takes itself too seriously,” and indeed, I was about ready to agree, especially when Michael Shannon’s Mel takes this operation just as seriously as the young people when (in my opinion) a toned-down authority-figure type would have been more effective. But the reason I appreciate this film more than other crime movies involving young adults, like “The Bling Ring” and “American Animals,” is because while those movies included youths who committed crimes due to apathetic boredom, these characters feel more of a purpose. Whether you agree with their statement or not (and like I said, it can be difficult to root for them), it’s more interesting to follow them. Because of that, I do admire how seriously the material is taken.

The film’s frantic kinetic energetic style keeps the audience on-edge as we see just how much joy these kids get out of what they do and especially when things start to go wrong, which they inevitably do. It’s the familiar message about how gaining more makes you want even more of it and so forth (that’s just how it goes).

The young actors, who include Patrick Schwarzenegger as the lead, Alex Pettyfer, Hayley Law (great in Spontaneous), Gilles Geary, Oliver Cooper (welcome back, Costa), and Jacob Alexander, all turn in good performances. And as much as I criticized the character portrayed by Michael Shannon…c’mon; it’s Michael Shannon. The guy could play a mobster in “Kangaroo Jack” and he’d still be incredible to watch.

There’s just such a heart and energy to “Echo Boomers” that I have to congratulate Seth and his co-writers Jason Miller and Kevin Bernhardt for. And I look forward to seeing what they do next.

The Hike

13 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

NOTE: The film I’m reviewing has not been released yet, so consider this an “early review.”

“‘The Hike’ Drinking Game: The Next Time You Watch This Film, Take A Shot Everytime Vinnie Almost Falls Down Or Touches His Face. You Will Not Make It To The End…” -Post-credit stinger for “The Hike”

“The Hike” is a horror film made for cheap by a group of friends–a group you can tell just wanted to go up to some mountains and make a fun indie horror flick. It’s set in the woods, as a couple (played by co-writers Vinnie Vineyard and Kandi Thompson, who collaborated with the film’s director Luke Walker) go on this titular “Hike” for a camping trip–anyone who has seen any horror film knows that when you think you’re alone and isolated…someone with malevolent intentions might be creeping around. (There just aren’t enough dramas about camping, are there? They all have to be horror films.)

The couple comes across some disturbing photographs and a camera with something apparently even more disturbing (we never see what’s on the camera, but a change in filter indicates something is wrong before the characters can announce it). But why should they let a trek towards a ranger station (so they can report this evidence) get in the way of a good time when they could be trying out some ‘shrooms? By the time they get further along the trail and come across some troublesome folks (and yes, they’re burly mountain men with huge machetes and a bow-and-arrow), they’re already in danger.

There’s nothing that is particularly groundbreaking about this amateurish production, save for a particularly laughable extended sequence in the final act that had me going, “Are you kidding me? Is this really what we’re doing right now?” But the spirit of the thing kept me invested in staying to the end. I knew the people who made this film were making a film not for critics but for fun–and who am I to get in the way by stating what they already know and criticizing it for that reason?

There are some funny one-liners, such as when the couple argues about whether or not their potential oppressors are “rednecks” (she says they can’t be, because of their shoes), and Vinnie Vineyard is sincerely dopey as the male lead. And being a horror film, there are at least a couple of moments that I found particularly unnerving, such as when a character is alone with a lighter in a dark cave. There’s also a continually surfacing legend involving something called “Spearfinger” that may or may not be relevant to anything the characters are facing, but you never know…

I dunno, I just had fun with “The Hike.” Call it the side of me that appreciates both the art of filmmaking and the spirit/passion that comes from people working together to make something. All I know is I wouldn’t have fun picking on “The Hike,” and so I recommend it instead.

Secret Window (2004)

1 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“You stole my story.”

That is how Stephen King’s novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden” (part of his “Four Past Midnight” collection) begins, with a quote that directly accuses the protagonist, an author, of plagiarism. It’s that one simple quote: “You stole my story.” Right away, King has us–we’re hooked. And that’s why he’s one of the greatest writers, if not THE greatest.

The novella’s film adaptation, simply titled “Secret Window,” gets the audience on-edge when the accuser, John Shooter, is played with a terrifying presence, with a radiation of danger and malevolence as well as an off-putting Southern drawl and sh*t-eating grin, by John Turturro. From the moment he uses that line, “You stole my story,” I am immediately unnerved by this guy. No wonder author Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) is freaked out by this hat-wearing stranger who shows up at his door and claims he “stole his story.”

Anyway, that is where the story gets going, with this reclusive author Mort Rainey, who’s already going through mental-health issues mostly caused by a divorce from his cheating wife (Maria Bello), and now he finds that this stranger shows up with a manuscript that seems very similar to a book he wrote. It’s not enough that Shooter pesters Mort, however. He turns out to be very dangerous, killing his dog and threatening to kill him and those around him if he doesn’t get recognition.

“Secret Window” is a strange film for me, because while there are many parts of it that I find very slow, and like a lot of people, I’m not so sure I completely buy into the ending, there are still several moments in it that captivate me, particularly the story involving these two writers who are pretty much at each other’s throats most of the time before one of them gets very aggressive. All of that is very intriguing, and I’m always interested when Shooter pops back up again.

But that becomes a problem for most people who see this movie–that aspect of the overall story goes in a direction that makes it a lot less interesting. I won’t give it away here, but…I don’t know, I agree with people’s complaints about it, and yet at the same time, it is still interesting to me (but not as interesting as it could’ve been).

What “Secret Window” truly is is a parable for what writer’s block can do to a person when they’re lacking influence/inspiration on top of feeling a lot of stress, and on that basis, it is an intriguing type of story that only King could come up with.

I still like to watch “Secret Window” again for the setup in particular. Depp is delightfully quirky on top of playing a complex character, the domestic-dispute stuff between him and Bello is interesting enough, and again, I loved the dynamic between Depp and Turturro and the things that come from that. And I will say this about the twists of the final half…the very last revelation is very chilling in just how WEIRD it was. I’ll never forget it, and I think it made the overall film close enough for me to say “Yeah…it is a solid film. I’ll watch it again later.” I think it’s Stephen King’s writing that made it work no matter how crazy things became as a result of the twists in the final act.

Disney+ Original Movies (Togo, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, Stargirl)

4 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Wondering what else to watch on the streaming service Disney+ when you already revisited Disney movies/shows you grew up with? Believe it or not, there is some good, quality Disney+ Original content besides “The Mandalorian” (the “Star Wars” series that finally put divisive fans in perfect harmony). There are three Disney+ Original movies I can recommend for being just as solid and entertaining via streaming on a small screen as they would be via projecting on a big screen. 

In chronological order of release, here are three mini-reviews of three solid movies available exclusively on Disney+.

Togo (2019)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hey, remember the Universal Studios animated 1995 film, “Balto,” supposedly based on a true story? Sure you do. Do you care about the TRUER true story that inspired it? Not especially. Do you know anything about musher Leonhard Seppala and his dog Togo who contributed even more to the 1925 serum run to Nome that inspired “Balto”? Well, whatever the case, “Togo” is an entertaining watch if just for a little insight into these two key figures in rescuing an Alaskan town from an epidemic. 

Willem Dafoe stars as Seppala, who sincerely cares for his dog Togo. As a puppy, Togo is too small for mushing. But as Togo gets older, he proves his worth as he leads Seppala and other sled dogs on a treacherous trek to bring medicine to their small Alaskan town of critically ill children. This obviously means we get intense scenes of conflict upon this journey (and unlike the recently-released “The Call of the Wild,” I can tell they used actual canines instead of CGI for the most part), but what surprised me were the scenes that take time to show Dafoe and his lovable doggie companion forming what looks to be a genuine connection. 

Those scenes are sure to make any dog lover happy, but there’s also a good deal of well-executed sequences of great danger, such as a highlight in which Togo and company must race their way across a quickly dissipating field of ice! (Good use of green-screen here, and again, I feel like the actual dogs are really there!)

Some of the pacing is a bit slow (and I’m sure it’s also not 100% historically accurate), but I forgive it because there are several great moments throughout the film that make “Togo” overall entertaining and heartwarming. 

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (2020)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of the reasons I was interested in “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” was because it was a Disney movie that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, which I thought was unheard of…even if the director/co-writer was Sundance favorite Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” “Win Win,” “Spotlight”). (But to be fair, he was also one of the credited writers for Disney/PIXAR’s “Up,” so that automatically makes him a Disney favorite too.)

“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” based on the book series of the same name, is about a wildly imaginative little boy named Timmy Failure (yes, that is his real name) who holds his own private-detective agency (the attic of his mother’s house is his office) and whose partner is an imaginary giant polar bear. (That polar bear, named Total Failure, will put a smile on any cynic’s face.) Timmy goes on many different misadventures when his mother’s Segway goes missing and races all about town (Portland) to find it. Along the way, he learns lessons about “normal” and “different” and…it’s actually a pretty heartfelt conclusion that the movie leads to. 

The film is very funny, in the same grounded, character-driven way that McCarthy can direct a kid’s fable. But it also feels like it’s about something as well. In the way this environment is set up and seen through this wild child’s eyes, as well as how he sees the people around him who either want to scold or help him due to his self-destructive behavior, it’s a film that kids will enjoy just for the comedic deadpan nature of the wacky antics this likable kid embarks upon. But it’s also enjoyable for adults who remember what their childhood was like and what taught them to put at least one foot in the real world. 

I like this movie. You did good, McCarthy—you can actually make a good fable (and make me forget about “The Cobbler”). 

Stargirl (2020)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Stargirl” is a coming-of-age high-school movie based on the novel of the same name by Jerry Spinelli. (I haven’t read yet, though strangely, many of Spinelli’s other works are no stranger to me.)

Directed by Julia Hart and also co-written by Hart and her partner Jordan Horowitz (they also collaborated together on wonderful indie fare such as “Miss Stevens” and “Fast Color”), “Stargirl” is about a 16-year-old student named Leo (played by Graham Verchere) who has spent years blending in with his classmates (after an incident involving his favorite necktie, which he wore at school when he was 9) in a school where nothing happens. (In fact, the school is so uneventful that the trophy case has always been empty.) He’s fine with his status until he’s attracted to a new girl in school, simply because she’s so…DIFFERENT. She dresses in rainbow-influenced wear and sings while strumming a ukulele—oh, and her name is Stargirl. (Her real name is Susan, but Stargirl is the name she prefers because it suits her identity.) But Leo’s not the only one turned on by her eccentricities—the moment she performs the Beach Boys’ “Be True To Your School” in the middle of the field at a football game, it raises everyone’s spirits, thus making her the school’s “good-luck charm.” Before too long, Leo engages in conversation with Stargirl, thus beginning an interesting relationship that of course changes his life forever. 

Even though we’ve gotten many, MANY movies that contain messages about “being yourself,” we still need them. After all this time, most of us are still afraid of appearing even slightly foolish in front of large crowds—and this is especially true of high-schoolers, who need movies like this. As these movies go, “Stargirl” is one of the best to come around recently—and for a high-school movie released by Disney (and featuring musical sequences at that—don’t worry, it’s as far away from “High School Musical” as you could get), that’s especially impressive. 

Leo is a genuinely nice and likable kid. Stargirl (played by Grace VanderWaal of America’s Got Talent—not a very polished actress, but with this role, that doesn’t matter) is charming and adorable but not without fears and vulnerability, which surface late in the film. I like Leo and Stargirl individually and I like Leo and Stargirl together. 

The cinematography is lovely, the writing is solid, both our leads are appealing, we get some much-appreciated mature moments here and there, and I was invested throughout the whole film. Even when I wasn’t smiling at the film, I was still invested. 

I didn’t expect to find a new coming-of-age high-school movie on the same level as John Hughes’ best-known works or “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Love, Simon” brought to me by Disney+. But it’s here and it’s available to stream for your viewing pleasure. 

It: Chapter Two (2019)

6 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“It” (or “It: Chapter One,” released in 2017) was a horror classic—both scary and deep. I loved it, and I considered the possibilities of a worthy sequel. I knew the direction it was going to go, with the kids from “Chapter One” having grown up in “Chapter Two” to return to their hometown and combat their childhood traumas in the form of a demonic clown named Pennywise. 

This story was already covered in the first adaptation of Stephen King’s original novel, in a 1990 TV miniseries—but while the material with those kids was solid and effective enough, even its director agreed that the stuff with the adult counterparts simply wasn’t as good. But I wasn’t cynical about this cinematic retelling, because I felt there was a great story and a great horror film that can be executed with the very idea of adults looking back on the things that terrified them as children and having to confront the past again. 

“It: Chapter Two” wasn’t exactly that. But it was still enough of an interesting ride that I’ll recommend it and see it again. 

Remember in “Chapter One,” when the kids encounter Pennywise (played chillingly by Bill Skarsgard) and other silly monsters in a haunted house? It was a fun detour, in an “Evil Dead” sort of way. But that’s all it was: a detour. Not all of the scares in “Chapter One” were meant to be that way. And that’s the big problem I have with “Chapter Two”—MANY of them are executed in that insane, over-the-top fashion.

At first, I thought, this makes sense—since It’s favorite form is a clown, it stands to reason that It will use “clownish” ways to mess with people it plans to eat/destroy. And to be fair, some of it is fun, such as when our main characters encounter goofy horrors within fortune cookies at a Chinese restaurant. But in a horror film that runs 170 minutes(!) long, it’s probably better to save that kind of insanity for the climax rather than give us great chunks of that ahead of time. 

For example, remember that creepy old lady from the teaser trailer that got audiences interested from the start? In the movie, she turns into something that’s not so “creepy.” 

But this is still the skillful work of director Andy Muschietti, who also helmed “Chapter One.” And he still gives us solid characterization from the characters (who I’ll get to in a bit), as well as some genuinely frightening and tense moments—these include a very creepy scene in which Pennywise manipulates a little girl with a facial birthmark, an encounter with Pennywise in a carnival funhouse (go figure), and the film also opens with a harsh, savage beating of a gay couple, half of whom becomes Pennywise’s first victim. (That serves as effective commentary—a vicious hate crime is what awakens the demon that plagues this small town.) 

So, here we are, meeting up with “the Losers Club” having grown up since the original and left this town of Derry, Maine behind (for the most part) and now come back because they swore 27 years ago to return if Pennywise returned after they thought they defeated It. Many of them have forgotten the experiences with It—when they return, it doesn’t take them terribly long to remember why they’re there. And after considering turning away again and leaving it all behind, they all realize that they can’t let It get away and claim any more victims, and so they stay and fight—only this time, they’re determined to kill it and stop it forever. 

Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the town librarian, is the only member of the Losers who stayed in Derry, and thus is the one who remembers. When Pennywise claims its first victim, Mike rallies all of the other Losers, who have all gone their separate ways to become successful one way or another:

  • Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) was the ringleader of the Losers as a child, having brought his friends together to fight the monster after it killed his little brother Georgie. Now he’s a best-selling novelist/screenwriter and married to a successful actress. But everyone, including director Peter Bogdanovich (interesting cameo), tells him he has trouble with his endings.
  • Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), who was subject to many nasty rumors in school and abused by her father, is now a fashion designer. But she’s also in a bad relationship with an abusive husband. 
  • Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) has slimmed down in a major way after being overweight as a child and is now a hunky architect. (Side-note: Brandon Crane, who played Young Ben in the 1990 miniseries, cameos here as a partner in Ben’s firm. I thought that was pretty cool.) 
  • Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is still the “trashmouth” he was when he was a kid, only now he’s a stand-up comedian. 
  • Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransome) is still a hypochondriac, but he now has the appropriate job of risk assessor. (And ironically, when he gets the call about the news, he gets into a slight traffic accident.) 
  • Stanley Uris (Andy Bean), the most fearful and reluctant member of the Losers, is now an accountant. His tale is the most tragic of the bunch, as when he gets the call from Mike about Pennywise’s return, he decides not to come back to Derry…in fact, he kills himself. (This happens early in the film—I wouldn’t call it a spoiler.) 

Since the Losers have grown up and put the past behind them, they have practically become the adults that wouldn’t help them as children. This is what I meant when I said there was some great potential in a story like this—these characters can not only overcome their past and change their future as a result, but they can right many wrongs that were made to It’s other targets. Once these characters are reunited (or at least, most of them are reunited), we’re on board and ready to follow them wherever they go…even though, I’ll admit, there is something silly about square adults going up against a clown that most people can’t even see. Pennywise is more of a conventional horror-movie monster this time around than the horrifying demonic presence he was in “Chapter One,” which also means there’s something more off-putting and terrifying about this thing going after small children than grown adults. 

(But Bill Skarsgard still does a game job as Pennywise. He’s always fun to watch.) 

All of the actors playing the grown Losers are terrific, especially Isaiah Mustafa who plays Mike as someone who has been through hell and is waiting for a way out, James Ransome who is both sincere and funny as Eddie, and especially Bill Hader, who knocks it out of the park as Richie, who of course is one of those comics who uses humor as a defense mechanism for his own insecurities. (And of course, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, who have already proven themselves as accomplished actors, are very good here as well.) When they’re alone, facing individual terrors brought on by It, they’re very effective. But they’re even better when they’re together. 

Oh, and I forgot to mention the return of the child actors from “Chapter One” reappearing in flashback sequences in “Chapter Two.” On the one hand, it’s great to see these kids again after we’ve come to know them well in a whole movie before. But on the other hand…there is some CG reworking to make them younger, since they’ve obviously gotten a little older in the two years prior. Some of it is actually quite unnoticeable…while the rest of it (especially with Jeremy Ray Taylor as young Ben) is on the same distracting uncanny-valley level as Grand Moff Tarkin in “Rogue One.” 

I’m recommending “It: Chapter Two” as a fun, well-crafted, GOOD horror movie, but at the same time, I’m disappointed when I keep imaging the GREAT horror film it could have been. Maybe if, as I said, more focus was brought onto purely tense and psychological terror than a lot of CGI boo-scares and grossout visuals (not to mention, a lot of spider-based visuals too), it would have been right up there with “Chapter One,” which I still think is a great movie. But I can’t deny I still had fun with much of “Chapter Two,” and when it does give me what I asked for, with a few tense, creepy moments here or there and the trials of our main characters (not to mention the solid chemistry amongst them all), it is quite satisfying. And at the very least, as the conclusion to a nearly-five-hour horror story, it feels like the end. The whole story has been told, the original book’s structure has been covered, and there’s no reason for Pennywise the Dancing Clown (or It) to return…is there?

Paper Towns (2015)

27 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER ALERT! I’m going to talk about the ending of “Paper Towns,” because it’s the main reason I’m recommending the film.

The term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in the 2000s. Google describes it as “(especially in film) a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist.”

You’ve seen them in movies before—Natalie Portman’s quirky, messy character in Zack Braff’s “Garden State,” Kirsten Dunst’s spunky, helpful flight attendant in Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown,” Zoe Kazan’s blunt criticism of the trope in her penned “Ruby Sparks,” among others. They’re not real—they’re just constructs of a hopelessly romantic male writer’s imagination. As a character explained in “Ruby Sparks,” “Quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real. No woman is going to identify with this story.”

Why do I bring this up in a review for “Paper Towns?” Because every criticism I could throw at this movie suddenly means nothing when the movie ends.

What do I mean by this? Our main character, a high school student named Quentin is fascinated by the very idea of this spunky, quirky, popular girl who lives across the street from his house. One night, she unexpectedly arrives at his bedroom window and asks him to join her on her all-night journey to perform all sorts of tasks, like humiliating pranks on her friends and boyfriend for reasons of revenge. The next day, she’s missing. She seems to have run away. Quentin discovers that she left clues that lead to where she might have gone.

Who IS this person? She seems too interesting to be true. When Quentin finally does learn the truth, he finds…she is too interesting to be true. And she knows it. She doesn’t know herself, so others don’t really know her either.

On the one hand, it’s troubling when you’re steps ahead of the main character on his quest. But on the other hand, it’s refreshing that the screenwriters (or rather, the author of the novel of the same name the film is based on) were smart enough to let the character learn the lesson nonetheless. It would’ve been less interesting if we had easier answers and an overly romantic ending.

“Paper Towns” is based on a young-adult novel by John Green, who also penned “The Fault in Our Stars.” (Fun Fact: the film adaptations of both of these novels were written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.) Like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns” has a nice blend of comedy and drama and some memorably appealing characters, only this one has more of a fun, mystery edge to it. This quirky, mysterious girl, Margo (Cara Delevingne) has brought Quentin “Q” (Nat Wolff, who played the comic-relief in the “Fault in Our Stars” film adaptation) to assist in her revenge plan for her boyfriend cheating on her with her best friend, and now, rather than start a nice relationship with Q the next day, she doesn’t turn up in school. Where is she? Q finds a clue in her bedroom that indicates she might have run away to a “paper town” (a fake town created by mapmakers to protect copyright). The more he looks into it, the more clues he finds that serve as a map to the location where she might be. He brings his two best friends, whip-smart Radar (Justice Smith) and obnoxious Ben (Austin Abrams), in on the mystery, and Margo’s best friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) join in on the fun as well. Before long, all five embark on a road-trip to the paper town. What they find along the way isn’t as important as what they discover along the way (of course), but when they return to school in time for prom, they are all changed people.

Q is the least interesting character in the film. He’s just your typical bland, likable, awkward teen hoping to have a good time in high school. Though, as played by Nat Wolff, he is at least likable. His friends are much more interesting, and thankfully, they’re given plenty of room to develop. Radar is loyal to his girlfriend, though he’s embarrassed to introduce her to his family. Why? Get this—his family has the largest collection of Black Santa figures decorated all throughout the house. (I’m not making this up.) Ben is borderline obnoxious and consistently funny—he’s given room to grow outside the horny, annoying comic relief he could’ve been if we didn’t get enough time to know him.

That’s the purpose of the story—to get to really know people. Lacey isn’t just a blonde knockout, Radar’s girlfriend isn’t a stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t know how to have fun, and of course, beneath Margo’s shroud of mystery lies someone more complex than you might think. More so than the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” However, my biggest problem with the movie (and I don’t think the ending could be blamed for this one) is that Margo just isn’t all that interesting to me to begin with, and I think that might be because Delevingne isn’t that charismatic of a performer to make me totally invested in the puzzle that is her character. But then again, the movie isn’t really about her as much as it is about Q’s love for her and his friendship with Radar and Ben. I really liked seeing these kids interact with each other and with Lacey and Angela.

With quick pacing by director Jake Schreier, dialogue from Neustadter and Weber that feel like realistic teenage banter, and a fine cast, “Paper Towns” is a cute, fun mystery-drama that is effective (especially) to the end.

Brad’s Status (2017)

27 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Get over yourself, Ben Stiller—er, I mean, Brad. Quit complaining about everything and shut the hell up, Ben—er, Brad.

I think Brad Sloan in Mike White’s “Brad’s Status” is the perfect role for Ben Stiller. In “The Meyerowitz Stories,” “While We’re Young,” “Greenberg,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and even the “Night at the Museum” movies, among others, we’ve noticed in the past decade just how good Stiller is at playing a neurotic who is hardly satisfied with where he is at his point in life. Stiller has played self-centered, passive-aggressive, humorously unhappy men who are hard to like but even harder to hate. And now we have “Brad’s Status,” which is probably the most aware of Stiller’s trademark niche.

He plays Brad Sloan—is it even a shock to describe him as bitter and resentful from the get-go? When we first meet him, he’s lying awake in bed, sharing his inner monologue with us about how great his old friends have it—Craig (Michael Sheen) is a best-selling author; Billy (Jermaine Clement) is now retired and living in Maui, having sold his company; Jason (Luke Wilson) is a filthy-rich CEO; and Nick (Mike White) is a Hollywood director. What about Brad? He runs his own non-profit organization and lives a nice life with his loving wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and musically-talented 17-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams)… Thank God when Brad wakes up Melanie and starts groaning about money, she’s there to tell him not to compare themselves to the wealthy, because somebody had to tell this guy he has a good status. But the movie continues (that’s only the first few minutes), and we haven’t heard the last of his complaining…

Brad takes Troy on a cross-country plane trip to visit colleges. Wanting the best for his son, while at the same time worrying that he’ll be as resentful towards him as he is towards his wealthy friends, Brad commits a series of mistakes he hopes to make up for by getting him an interview with the Harvard dean of admissions. Along the way, he has so many encounters with people that should wake him up to be okay with his current status, including a sour dinner date with Craig and, my personal favorite, a failed attempt to get a co-ed, an Indian-American music student named Ananya (Shazi Raja), to see things his way. (She drops the hammer on him, stating he has white man’s privilege, while she knows kids in India who are lucky to have something to eat.)

All of this sounds like I’m criticizing the film, but I’m not. I’m actually recommending it. I imagine everyone at some point or another tries to compare their lives with the lives of everyone they know—are they doing better than some, worse than others? And it never seems to be good enough. But the point of “Brad’s Status,” in which the main character has a midlife crisis, is that this feeling does exist. And it passes. The ending is ambiguous, but there is a ray of hope that Brad will be fine with his status.

A lot of reviews for “Brad’s Status” has praised the music score by Mark Mothersbaugh, a discordant score with a lot of staccato strings. And for good reason—it’s the perfect score to accompany a 40something year old man who is full of regret and constantly thinks about where he would be today if he just did things different. It’s usually there over Brad’s voiceover narration, which makes it all the more effective.

With the aid of White’s insightful screenplay (and directing), Stiller nails the role. Sometimes, he’s frustrating to watch (to the point where I want to look away), but even so, he’s always convincing and it’s not too difficult to understand why he thinks this way throughout the film. He is what makes “Brad’s Status” an important study in how to cope with a nervous breakdown. This guy may not be easy to like, but just remember—this could be us some day.

mid90s (2018)

19 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Teenagers can be very obnoxious. (That shouldn’t be news to anybody—we were teens ourselves; we know how we behaved.) With a group of teens, that adds extra layers to the obnoxiousness. We’d say things to our friends that we couldn’t tell anyone else, though honestly, it was usually to try and keep up with our peers who had risqué stories that may or may not be true. (When you had to ask about certain things involving sex, you showed your lack of experience, thus lowering your ranking in the group.) A lot of us have been there, and hopefully, most of us have grown up a lot since then.

Jonah Hill remembers it. But he also remembers why the teenage group was there to begin with: not to one-up each other with debauchery and offensiveness, but to be there for one another when no one else will. He remembers the crudeness of being a teenage boy amongst other teenage boys, but he also remembers the friendship and loyalty that was always underneath the surface of the group. He grew up as a teen in the mid-1990s, but this sort of behavior is present with teenagers in every era. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that his directing debut, the aptly-named “mid90s,” was set in its time because it was made today and it’s about us, whether it’s for looking back on our teenage years (to see if we behaved similarly to the young characters or if we had a teenage life more relaxed and stable than what’s presented here) or even to see how similar today’s teens are compared to those from the mid-90s (technology obviously not being a factor in this argument).

Set in summer-1996 Los Angeles, “mid90s” is the story of a short, skinny, good-natured 13-year-old boy named Stevie (Sunny Suljic), whose home life isn’t very welcoming. His single young mother (Katherine Waterston) is nice and tries to care for him, but she’s somewhat irresponsible and a little too sharing about her romantic interests. Stevie looks up to his 18-year-old older brother Ian (and often sneaks into his bedroom to catch glimpses of pop culture to keep up with what’s “cool”), but Ian (Lucas Hedges) is a bully who pushes around and abuses his little brother every chance he gets. The kid is shy and socially awkward, but when he spots a group of loudmouthed, racially diverse skateboarding teens at the local skate shop, he can’t help but attempt to fit in with them. He buys Ian’s skateboard (for some of Stevie’s Nintendo games, of course—Stevie would never give up his Discman!) and spends more time around the hangout where he eventually gets noticed and (yay!) Is asked to fetch a jug of water for the skateboarders! Now he’s in with this ragtag team of “cool kids”—unofficial ringleader & skilled skater Ray (Na-kel Smith); Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), dim-witted aspiring filmmaker; F***S*** (Olan Prenatt), the jokester nicknamed for his excited exclamations; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the younger, more stern one of the group who shows Stevie the ropes. (It’s clear to us that Ruben is the least popular of the group because of his attitude and that he sees himself as someone for Stevie to look up to. Pretty pathetic.) Stevie earns the nickname “Sunburn” (after taking part in one of the group’s most hilarious discussions about whether or not dark-skinned people can get sunburned) and he becomes an amusing asset to the group due to his naïveté and willingness to impress everyone.

It’s the summer that changes everything for this young man, as he smokes his first cigarette, drinks his first beer, barely survives an attempt to pull off a dangerous skateboarding stunt, tries drugs given to him by his friends, has his first sexual encounter with an older girl, and violently stands up to his bully of a brother. In less than 85 minutes, writer/director Jonah Hill is able to fit in as many rites of passage for a boy becoming a man in the ‘90s youth culture, and he doesn’t criticize as much as he observes. (Hill himself was 13 in 1996, so I wonder how much of this material is autobiographical.) But more importantly, he’s also able to fit in as much context for his likable young lead’s development as needed, even as unpleasant as presenting him as masochistic (he hits himself when he’s alone and, after a brutal fight with Ian, nearly asphyxiates himself with a Super Nintendo controller cable). The kid needs help, and whether his friends are the positive outlet for it or not, it’s at least something he can use for now. (Of course, his mother doesn’t see it that way—her son shows up at home intoxicated, she’s there to confront the boys right there in the skate shop despite her son’s protests.)

These mid-90s skater boys talk the way real-life mid-90s skater boys talked. (Often when these kids talked, I was reminded of Larry Clark’s 1995 slice-of-life “Kids.”) They’re crude, vulgar, homophobic, chauvinistic, idiotic, and more. But Hill never apologizes for it.* He just shows it how it was/is (no doubt many of these “deep discussions” are still held by modern teenage boys). And it makes the quieter moments amongst a couple of the kids all the more meaningful and welcome. An example: today, it’s normal for teens to show that they care for one another, but back in the mid-90s, it wasn’t “cool” to care unless you were already “cool” to begin with. Ray is certainly the “cool” one of the group, but he also has a heart, which he shows in a scene in which he consoles Stevie by sharing that the other boys have worse home lives than him (one’s family is poor, one’s mom is a drug addict, one is delving deeper into alcohol and drugs, and Ray lost his younger brother in an accident). Ray and Stevie are alone in this scene, because it’s highly doubtful the others wish for their personal lives to be shared with this kid, but I think it’s fair to assume that if he showed this side of himself otherwise, nobody would mind.

“mid90s” is very well-written and well-directed, with Hill and his crew putting as much detail into the time period as possible without forcing anything. And it’s very well-acted, with everyone from the kids (especially Suljic, Smith, and Hedges) to Katherine Waterston (playing the only key adult in the film) delivering very strong work. And there are little moments here and there that add very little and very much at the same time (Stevie gives his brother a CD he thinks he’ll like, but the brother ignores it; Stevie tries the same skateboard trick over and over again in his driveway; the kids make friendly conversation with a homeless man; among others). What I didn’t like about “mid90s” was the ending. I’m all for ambiguous conclusions, but I don’t think there was a conclusion to be found at all. Without giving it away, something happens to these kids, and we’re given an epilogue in which we’re not sure what to think (or think about). (And I don’t think a particular character reacted accordingly to the incident either.) At the end of “mid90s,” I don’t feel like much was accomplished. But thankfully, that’s not what I’m going to remember for time to come, when I’m thinking of “mid90s.” I’m going to remember the memorable characters, the effective time capsule, and my own teenage memories.

*According to IMDb Trivia, Hill thought the dialogue amongst the boys would get both him and the film in trouble, and so he considered shooting a scene in which the kids debate over whether they should be talking like that. Producer Scott Rudin talked him out of it, asking Hill, “Would you guys have had this conversation back then?”