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. 

Bad Education (2020)

4 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

HBO’s “Bad Education,” based on a true story, begins with the implication of a few important questions viewers should ponder. 

For instance, why is it that one of the top public school systems in the country (in this case, New York’s Roslyn School District) has roof leaks (in many different places)? It’s a bit strange, especially considering the school has enough money in the budget for construction of a “Skywalk” for the students to access easily. Wouldn’t there have been numerous budget requests to repair the roof(s)?

And what about the superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman)? He undergoes many a plastic surgery to make himself appear forever youthful. He sports many expensive suits to look stylish each day. He takes expensive trips wherever he chooses. He has a luxurious apartment. 

And what about Tassone’s second-in-command Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney)? She and her family have a fabulous home in the Hamptons. 

No one bothers to ask any such questions, because…well, Tassone is too cool to judge, frankly. Everyone at the school worshipped the direct, charismatic Tassone because he was able to propel the school district one of the highest ranking in the USA. They all trust and respect him—his staff, the students, their parents. But we know he has secrets belonging to a second life (maybe even a third life as well) that he wouldn’t want any of his peers to know about. 

Because the school is so highly regarded, it grants students rides into Ivy League schools of their choice. But as a reporter for the student newspaper discovers, there’s something fishy about the budget. This leads to the discovery of theft brought on by Gluckin. Tassone gets her to resign quietly, under the cover of her having a “serious illness”—but that’s mainly because the embezzlement goes farther than that. The reporter, Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), and her editor, Nick (Alex Wolff), dig deeper into the oddness within the school’s invoices, which promises to expose more than Tassone argues (or threatens) the school will allow. 

Side-note: I mentioned “Bad Education” was based on an actual embezzlement scandal (the largest in public school history) in the mid-2000s—the screenwriter, Mike Makowsky, was a Roslyn student at that time. Apparently, every major newspaper in the tristate area covered the scandal story only after it was exposed in this student paper. I don’t doubt that part is also true, but it’s so awesome that it’s practically unbelievable. 

“Bad Education,” skillfully directed by Cory Finley, approaches this serious subject matter with a dark comic edge—and not with over-the-top asides, such as breaking the fourth wall or celebrity cameos to explain background details or whatever “The Big Short” or “I, Tonya” did. For instance, Tassone’s passive-aggressive approach to those who threaten to expose him and the system for the corrupt crooks they really are make those scenes all the more interesting—you want to laugh at his attempts to cover it up, but at the same time, you know just how far his manipulative techniques can go. There are times when he’ll even attempt to make himself out to be the real victim. Class act. 

It’s played for satire, which is even more effective than performance art. (I like “The Big Short” and “I, Tonya” and “Vice,” to name examples of the based-on-a-true-story performance art pieces, but it wasn’t until I saw “Bad Education” that I realized I needed something a little more subtle.) 

Not a single person asked any questions about how anyone working at a school was able to afford their fancy lifestyles. That’s because no one wants to believe there’s anything suspicious about the behavior from the higher-ups in the fourth highest-ranking school in the country. Even Nick is hesitant about printing Rachel’s story because Tassone is writing his college recommendation letter. 

Hugh Jackman turns in one of his very best performances as Frank Tassone, the narcissistic,  likable authority figure with many secrets as well as talents for impressing those around him. It also helps that he has the ability to form connections with teachers, students, and the students’ parents. There’s a wonderful scene where a worried mother brings in her autistic son, and Tassone is able to connect with him. That’s all I’ll say about the scene—you have to see it to try and interpret what could be on Jackman’s mind as he plays it. I know this is an HBO film, but don’t waste his talent on an Emmy—give him an Oscar nomination!

Also great are Allison Janney as Gluckin and Ray Romano as the school board president who can’t grasp what’s really happening—even when the story is printed and the truth is exposed, he doesn’t want to believe it and his heart is broken. (Romano is turning into one of the most reliable character actors of today’s films.) 

“Bad Education” is sharply written, features excellent acting, and is overall effective at being what it set out to be: a darkly funny, informative study on a 2002 public-school corruption that also serves as an allegory for similar events that are still happening today. Check it out on HBO.

Composer vs. Filmmaker: Hans Zimmer’s Score to The Dark Knight

6 May

By Josh Rousseau (composer) and Tanner Smith (filmmaker)

NOTE FROM TANNER: This is something my musician friend, Josh, wanted us to work on together–what does a composer take from a music score in a film and is it any different from the point-of-view of a filmmaker/critic? Obviously, I’m not going to be as specific in my review as Josh is here, but I’m still willing to give my two cents on the subject. So, to get it started, we’re going to talk about the infamous Hans Zimmer score in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Scene 1: “Why So Serious?” (The Joker’s Theme)

Josh’s review: Here we go! Analyzing one of my favorite scores, and one of the scores that started the new modern epic sound. This scene starts out with the suspenseful ticking clock sounds that Zimmer loves to use for momentum. Then as soon as we see what could be our iconic villain, we get his famous motif on electric cello (sliding a dissonant 2 note chord up the strings). Zimmer himself described this as “a string that keeps on stretching but never breaks”. Then we hear the same dissonant chord played in a sort of groovy rhythm in violins (another Joker motif that we hear throughout the film). This piece of music is a great example of electronic instruments like the pulsing synth basses and percussion combining with live orchestral elements like the string players. The music dips down during the standoff between the last two clowns. Which is a good choice. Sometimes less music is the correct choice to fit the emotion of the scene. When we finally see The Joker himself, we get one big dark minor chord. This piece of music breaks rules! It has both a sense of chaos and control (it has dissonance and rule breaking with the note choice, but control with the specific rhythms), very much like The Joker himself.

Tanner’s review: This is what starts the film with a bang–a bank heist that shows us the dark, gritty world we’re going to fight our way through in this new Batman flick. It’s thrilling, gorgeously executed, and sets the tone early on for the chaos that our main villain, the Joker, stands for. And the best part–it doesn’t feel like your typical action-movie opener. We need the right music for this scene, and this is the perfect choice. Why? Because it doesn’t make a big deal about itself. It flows with the scene rather than distract from it. And given that the score is composed with a bombastic orchestra, that’s saying something!

Scene 2: “A Dark Knight” (Ending Theme)

Josh’s review: This clip starts off with the Harvey Dent/Two Face theme which is mostly subtle dark chords and was probably written by James Newton Howard (it matches his style). At the point where Batman says “I’m not a hero” though, this theme starts. This theme is a variation of the Batman theme from Batman Begins with the pulsing violin ostinato (repetitive rhythmic groove), but it develops more and has a beautiful soaring melody. The first of this track is a more traditionally orchestral than most of the music in this movie. It doesn’t have a ton of electronic stuff in it, and it’s mostly strings, brass, and timpani drum (not like the huge tribal drums we hear in the action scenes) until the end where it brings back the electronic elements, and the big drums to close out the movie into an epic finale.

Tanner’s review: Whoa…that was one of the best movies I ever saw in my life… If you’re like me, you came out of “The Dark Knight” feeling like your world was rocked severely after witnessing an ending that was uncompromisingly dark and brutally compelling. It deserved a hell of a closing theme, and it got one! Using mostly percussion and violin, we get a haunting, bombastic score that says one thing to you, which is, “That was the f***ing Dark Knight.” Remember what I was saying about the music in the first scene about how the music didn’t make a big deal out of itself? Well, by this point, it earned its ability to go big or go home.

And that’s it for now. Maybe we’ll do some more in the future!

2019 Review

28 Jan

2019 Review

By Tanner Smith

I realize I haven’t done a lot of writing since concluding my Looking Back at 2010s Films series. (I guess you could say it took a lot out of me–I haven’t even reviewed any new movies in two months.) But now it’s that time…the time that should’ve come for me weeks ago: looking back at my favorite films of 2019!

Better late than never.

Some critics have said that 2019 was a particularly weak year for movies, and I would agree…if the cinematic year overall depended on your enjoyment of Glass, It: Chapter Two, Star Wars Episode IX, The Lion King, Super Size Me 2, and Where’d You Go Bernadette.

But first, my least favorite films of 2019 (in alphabetical order)–Annabelle Comes Home, Brightburn, In the Tall Grass, The Laundromat, The Lion King, Tall Girl, and Where’d You Go Bernadette. (“Bernadatte” was the most disappointing film of the year for me because until this year, I never saw a film from Richard Linklater I didn’t like. Not even his “Bad News Bears” remake.)

And what about TV seasons? Were there some I saw, let alone enjoyed? Yes, there were five (remember, I’m a movie guy)–5) Easy: Season 3 (Netflix), 4) The Chef Show (Netflix), 3) Stranger Things 3 (Netflix), 2) Mr. Mercedes: Season 3 (Audience Channel), and 1) The Mandalorian (Disney Plus).

Why is it that “Mr. Mercedes” always ends up at #2 on these year-end reviews?? I love this series–why isn’t a new season ever #1 for me?

Oh, did I forget something? No, I didn’t–Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne is an honorable mention for my favorite *films* rather than *series* this year………….*I* liked it!!

And, before I talk about all the films I liked this year, I have to mention some 2019 films I missed that I’ll most likely catch up with in the following year: Jojo Rabbit, Ford v. Ferrari, Fighting With My Family, Ad Astra, Hustlers, John Wick Chapter 3, Waves, Apollo 11, The Two Popes, and Judy.

And now, we come to my most personal favorite films of 2019. But first, I’ll mention my honorable mentions, of which there are quite a few: Honey Boy, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Untouchable, The Souvenir, Velvet Buzzsaw, The Mustang, Happy Death Day 2U, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Blinded By the Light, I Lost My Body, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Fast Color, Antiquities, Frozen II, and The Peanut Butter Falcon.

But of course I can’t stop there. So here are some more films from this year that I enjoyed: Arctic, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, El Camino, It: Chapter Two, Midsommar, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Rocketman, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, Harriet, Always Be My Maybe, I am Mother, The Man in the Trunk, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken, Yesterday, Paddleton, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, High Flying Bird, Glass, Long Shot, Gloria Bell, Teen Spirit, Klaus, Captain Marvel, Isn’t It Romantic, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

Oh, but there’s also The King, Aladdin, Greener Grass, Beats, Family, Pet Sematary, Child’s Play, Dumbo, Sweetheart, Let It Snow, Wine Country, I’m Just F*cking With You, The Perfect Date, and Someone Great.

Now which 20 (or 21–there’s a tie in here) films did I enjoy more than those? Here we go–these are my Top 20 Favorite Films of 2019!

20. The Lighthouse–Funny, when I first saw this film, I “admired” it more than I “liked it.” There was something very alienating about it in execution and performance…but in hindsight, that’s what I love about it.

19. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World–This was the year I came around to fully appreciating DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise. If the beautifully animated, emotionally powerful The Hidden World is the end of a trilogy, it’s definitely a strong swansong.

18. Shazam!–This one’s just a whole lotta fun! I had a big smile on my face throughout most of this highly enjoyable romp from DC.

17. Dolemite is My Name–Eddie Murphy is BACK! Welcome home, Eddie, I’ve missed you so. This is a hilarious, raunchy, even heartfelt film about the making of the blaxploitation-era classic “Dolemite” and the rising star of Rudy Ray Moore, the comedian who made it happen. And it’s a fun, heartfelt biopic with a highly charismatic lead. Available on Netflix.

16. Luce–Whoa. I’m glad I knew very little about this one going in, because it surprised the hell out of me. To say this film is “powerful” and “effective” doesn’t describe my feelings towards it–I was terrified.

15. Knives Out–Boy, was I glad this wasn’t a traditional (read: predictable) murder mystery. Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” is fresh, new, and pure entertainment–and I loved that I didn’t know how it was going to play out. And as a plus, seeing it a second time made the film even more enjoyable. I will happily see a spin-off film with Daniel Craig’s private eye Benoit Blanc!

14. Booksmart–Sometimes, all I need is raunchy fun. And it all comes down to the writing, which puts a fresh take on the last-day-of-high-school-movie subgenre. It’s funny and clever and just my cup of coffee. 

13. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood–What I liked most about Tarantino’s latest is its laid-back tone. This film is about nothing and yet about something at the same time, not unlike the Coen Bros’ “The Big Lebowski.” Will this film have as much staying cultural power? Time will tell. But “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is one of my favorite films of the year.

12. Love, Antosha–This documentary about the late young actor Anton Yelchin sort of broke me. Everything I learned about this talent was a lot to take in. But at the same time, I was delighted to know him a little better this way. Because of that, this was one of the most emotionally affecting films of the year for me.

11. The Irishman–Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is a VERY long movie, and yes, I think a lot of it could have been trimmed. But perhaps if it was, some of its power brought on by its atmosphere, environment, and characterization that was brilliantly set up might have been taken away…but MAN I’m glad this was available on Netflix where I could pause, rewind, and take a break every now and again!

10. The Farewell–This represents the kind of film I love to watch again and again–a “dramedy” (comedy-drama) that is appealing, emotionally honest, witty, and compelling all at the same time. If there’s anything more important than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s a comedy that can make you feel. Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical “The Farewell” is a beautiful film that handles both the comedy and the drama flawlessly.

9. A tie between Joker and Uncut Gems–Cheating, you say? Well, it’s my list, and I’ll do what I want with it. Both character-based dramatic thrillers are as effective as they are brilliantly acted. And while I’m happy for “Joker” getting so much Oscar recognition, I agree with (almost) everyone else that “Uncut Gems” was badly snubbed.

8. Us–A very clever commentary on the haves and the have-nots (one of two–the other’s coming up on this list), with a very intriguing premise and beautiful execution from writer/director Jordan Peele, who proves yet again that he’s one of the most talented filmmakers working today. A satisfying horror film.

7. 1917–One of the best cinematic experiences I had [last] year comes from one of the best World War I films ever made. (I think both DP Roger Deakins and director Sam Mendes have outdone themselves with this one!)

6. Little Women–I saw Greta Gerwig’s beautiful adaptation of the popular Louisa May Alcott novel twice, and I’ll definitely be seeing it many more times in the near future. There have been many different adaptations of this book–I think I like this one even more than the wonderful ’94 version!

5. Doctor Sleep–Mike Flanagan, the best director working in the horror film genre today, had a major challenge with this sequel to “The Shining”: respect and appeal to the legacy of not only filmmaker Stanley Kubrick but also novelist Stephen King. He pulled it off big-time.

4. Toy Story 4–Nine years after a satisfying conclusion with “Toy Story 3,” I get a “Toy Story” sequel I didn’t know I wanted. And it was as moving as reuniting with old friends (in the best possible way).

3. Marriage Story–Yes! Another Netflix film! (God bless Netflix!) Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” contains some of the best acting (from Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, and Laura Dern–all of whom are currently nominated for Oscars for this) and writing (from Baumbach, also nominated) of 2019. Emotionally powerful and true, this is a film I won’t forget anytime soon.

2. Avengers: Endgame–It’s amazing when I think of how far the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come since its origin over 11 years ago. Once it was going, we knew it was building up to something huge, and thankfully, it didn’t disappoint. For a long while, this was my favorite film of 2019. But there’s one better. Which is it…?

My absolute personal favorite film of 2019 is…

  1. Parasite–I went into this crushing commentary of the haves and the have-nots almost completely cold … I came out of it excited to tell everyone about it. Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” was one of the best films of the decade.

I love this time of year! Let’s see what the start of the new decade has for us…

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#1

31 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash, 4) Inside Out, 3) Ruby Sparks, 2) Life Itself

And my favorite film of the 2010s is…

1) BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013)

Yes, it’s the latest (final, perhaps?) chapter of Richard Linklater’s much beloved “Before…” trilogy that is my personal favorite film of the 2010s. The whole trilogy of films is among my absolute all-time favorite movies, so for this decade-end list, there was no question that my #1 choice would be Before Midnight, released in 2013.

But wait. In my post about The Spectacular Now, I mentioned that I had trouble choosing between four films for my #1 pick of the 2013-end list. Why didn’t I choose “Before Midnight” right away? Well, for one thing, time changes minds unpredictably, and so obviously, it’s what I would pick for the best film of 2013 now. Second of all, I didn’t have a very pleasant time when I first saw this movie in a theater (with a very talkative and irritable little girl sitting a few rows behind me–I’m guessing her parents dragged her to see this sequel to two other movies that I assume she would have no interest in whatsoever??)–I still reviewed the film the way it was meant to be (or the way I wanted it to be), but I was “looking” at the film rather than “seeing” it. Now that I’ve “seen” “Before Midnight,” I can’t deny it–it’s an excellent film that made its mark on me (better late than never).

“Before Sunrise” (1995) was a wonderful romance about two young people (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who meet by chance and spend a wonderful night together before separating…until nine years later, with “Before Sunset” (2004), where they finally meet up again and wonder if this is a second chance. Now it’s another nine years later, and we have “Before Midnight.” Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) have been together all that time, they have twin daughters, and this is a film about what *is*, rather than what might have or could have been.

By this point in their relationship, the honeymoon phase is over and now they have to think about what the future holds. It begins as Jesse says goodbye to his vacationing son, with whom he attempts to maintain a relationship with after divorcing his ex-wife. (The boy lives in Chicago with his mother–Jesse and Celine live in Paris.) Jesse feels a disconnect between him and his son and feels he’s failing as a father to him. Leaving the airport, he mentions to Celine a potential move to Chicago, which Celine immediately turns down. But that’s not the end of that debate. This scene, which is made up of about 15 minutes of dialogue (none of which is improvised–all of it is as written by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy), is wonderful. Not only do Hawke and Delpy exhibit the same chemistry as we’ve seen in the previous “Before…” films, but they also show how it’s developed over time–bitter and knowing, but still with charm to themselves that they can’t deny to each other.

For a good chunk of the film, Jesse and Celine are in the company of friends in the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, discussing life and love. The things they talk about in this middle portion of the film are explored as someone as innovative as Linklater would write–and with Hawke and Delpy themselves aiding him, I’ll listen to these people talk anytime.

And then, it’s back to Jesse and Celine, as they’re to have a romantic night alone in a prepaid hotel room. It starts pleasant enough, as they walk around outside and talk about whatever; they still enjoy each other’s company, even if they’re tired of each other’s certain characteristics, and then…they get to the room. A chance at romance is gone as soon as an action is mistaken for another meaning, the wrong thing is said, and the debate about whether or not to move to America is brought back again. This escalates into a fierce argument that goes on…and on…and on…and I don’t know who to side with. They both make strong points…even if those points could have been expressed a little differently.

This is the final act of the film: a heated argument in which a couple’s present and future are brought to question. Is this a rough patch? Will it mend? Is this the end of their relationship? I don’t know, but I’m on edge to find out, especially since I’ve gotten to know these two people for three whole films!

“Before Midnight” is a film that illustrates that love is easy but relationships are very difficult. Once the honeymoon stage is over, there’s still the present and future to consider. That we’ve gotten to know and love these two characters through these movies makes it all the more effective when we see this issue brought to light with them. The passage of time is evident with them, and that makes this third film the most powerful of the “Before…” trilogy because it’s the most eye-opening and thought-provoking.

Will there be a fourth “Before…” film? It’s possible this is the end of a trilogy, as it ends on a beautifully ambiguous (but somewhat hopeful) note that challenges both romantic viewers and cynical ones. But then again, I wouldn’t mind seeing what would become of them nine years after the most important argument of their relationship (if they’re still together by then). Perhaps Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy are ready to leave these characters behind, or maybe they have yet to let them go. All I know is I’m down for another chapter in this story.

As time goes by, I have no doubt that movies like “Life Itself” and “Ruby Sparks” will stay with me. But not quite like “Before Midnight” surely will. For that reason, among many others, “Before Midnight” is my favorite film of the 2010s.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#2

30 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash, 4) Inside Out, 3) Ruby Sparks

2) LIFE ITSELF (2014)

If it wasn’t for the Roger Ebert, the late Pulitzer Prize winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 to his death in 2013, I wouldn’t be writing about movies today. The way he always expressed his opinion on a movie really spoke to me–it was never really about what he thought of the movie, but rather, it was about what he had to say about it. He inspired me to find my own voice–I always knew I loved movies, but Ebert taught me how to express my feelings about them.

I was a big fan of Ebert’s. Every week, I would keep up with his latest reviews online. I became obsessed with vintage episodes of his TV show (“Siskel & Ebert”) with the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel. I was one of the people that continuously tuned into the short-lived 2011 revival, “Ebert Presents At the Movies” (with central critics Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnivetsky). When I read the news of his death, I was devastated–I never met my hero and I would never get to.

Over a year later, “Life Itself,” a documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) that was more or less based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, would be released in cinemas. I already knew I would love it, but even I didn’t think I would love it this much.

The documentary is a mixture of interviews (with mostly friends/ colleagues), old video clips of “Siskel & Ebert” reviews and Ebert interviews (among others), and new footage shot by James, which consist of Ebert in the hospital and in rehab being treated for a hip fracture, before being called in again for treatment of thyroid cancer that he’s been battling for years…which would then lead to his tragic death.

The new stuff is the most intriguing, as we get a powerful look at Ebert’s last days. But the rest makes it all the more meaningful. It paints a clear portrait of not just the professional film critic that he was but the person that he was as well. And it’s not afraid to be honest about the portrayal–his former colleagues have some unflattering stories about him from way back when, for example. (And we also get some hilarious outtakes of Ebert and Siskel arguing and insulting each other, giving us a clear sense of their love/hate relationship.) We see Roger Ebert here, flaws and all.

My personal favorite interviews are amongst the filmmakers that owe a great deal of debt to Ebert for being among the first to recognize their talents–Errol Morris (“Gates of Heaven,” one of Ebert’s favorite movies), Gregory Nava (“El Norte”), Ava De Vernay (whose debut film was the family drama “I Will Follow”), and Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart”–also, his film “99 Homes” was dedicated to Ebert). I also liked the voice actor chosen to narrate passages from the book for the movie–Stephen Stanton, who voiced Ebert on the animated comedy sketch show “Robot Chicken.”

When his widow Chaz Ebert gives a heartfelt interview in regards to her husband’s death, it’s tear-worthy–no joke; I got a little teary-eyed at the end of this film.

“Life Itself” is my favorite documentary of the decade because it feels like the most human documentary of the decade. It’s truly moving, it paints a compelling portrait of a man, his passion, and his family/friends, and it’s so wonderful and powerful that it pained me that the Academy Awards neglected it for Best Documentary Feature consideration. Thankfully, it has 25 other wins and 33 nominations (according to IMDb) to its name because it deserved all the recognition it received. And it’s one of my favorite films of the 2010s.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#3

30 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash, 4) Inside Out

3) RUBY SPARKS (2012)

“Quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real.” That is a line of dialogue from the wonderful magical-realism-based comedy-drama Ruby Sparks that needs to resonate with people who are constantly looking for their “ideal” mate.

“Ruby Sparks” is a film in which a lonely, desperate, hopeless-romantic writer named Calvin (Paul Dano) writes about a manic-pixie-dream-girl type named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, Dano’s real-life girlfriend and this film’s screenwriter). She’s the woman of his dreams, but she’s also someone who’s only real in his mind, which is something his brother Harry (Chris Messina), who is married and knows the honeymoon phase never lasts, tries to break down for Calvin, who simply won’t listen. But before long, it turns out he doesn’t feel the need to listen, as suddenly Ruby herself is manifested physically into his real life. At first, he thinks he’s gone crazy, until it becomes clear that other people can see her too. (There’s no explanation for why she’s suddenly “real,” and I don’t need one either. There’s only one throwaway line: “It’s love! It’s magic!”) Everything seems perfect for Calvin, until Ruby starts to develop thoughts and feelings of her own, which scares Calvin into thinking she’ll leave him. He realizes he can alter her personality and tries to change her to his liking…and by doing so, he also realizes that what he wants simply is not real and will never be.

I used to like “Ruby Sparks” just as an inventive, endearing comedy-drama, with some fantasy and romance and something to say about relationships. But it wasn’t until I was a few months into my relationship with my girlfriend (who is now my fiancee after five years) that I really started to appreciate it. I saw it a few times (and reviewed it) about a year before the relationship started. Then soon after that, I revisited the film and it had a strange effect on me. I found myself considering the main character (a writer named Calvin, played by Paul Dano) and the film’s theme of reality vs fantasy, and then I started analyzing my relationship with my girlfriend (Kelly) and what it meant to me.

I felt like Calvin at some point in my life—desperate for a relationship with a wonderful woman and having a clear idea of the kind of person I wanted her to be, failing to realize that the person I’m after isn’t a real person at all. It’s just an idea of who I thought I deserved in my life. In the film, Calvin learns this the hard way, and the line of dialogue that really cements it for him (and for us as an audience) is delivered by his ex: “The only one you wanted to be in a relationship with was you.”

It took me quite a while to learn it too and get what the film was really trying to say. There are times when my introverted nature gets the better of me, but when Kelly wants me to interact and be more sociable at a party or something, I’ll at least make an effort (something Calvin hardly attempts) even if it doesn’t always work out. There are times when I notice our differences as well as (or sometimes more than) our similarities, but I don’t try to change her to my exact liking. And if there’s a problem, we talk about it. We try to find a solution and we usually do. And we’ve been together for five years now. (And we’re engaged!)

So, it’s like personal experience blended with the messages of this 2012 indie film and influenced me to be the best I can be in a long-lasting relationship, and I didn’t even know it until I revisited the film whilst still in the beginning stages of my relationship. Since then, it’s become one of my all-time favorite films (#15 on my Top 100 Favorite Movies list), period.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#4

28 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash

4) INSIDE OUT (2015)

Disney/PIXAR, what have you given us this decade? “Toy Story 3,” “Toy Story 4,” “Coco”–all of them are great. “The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2” and “Cars 3”–never saw them, saved my money for “Incredibles 2,” which was really good (albeit very late to the party). Brave–eh. “Monsters University”–not bad. “Finding Dory”–very good.

Disney/PIXAR has had some ups and downs these past 10 years, but that doesn’t matter…because this decade, they also gave us Inside Out, one of the best Disney films I’ve ever seen and probably the best Pixar film I’ve seen too (right up there with “Up” and “Toy Story 2”).

It has an interesting idea–the emotions we feel are manifested by our own inner universes–and it’s able to do just about everything great that can be done with it. The personalized emotions that help make a girl named Riley who she is are Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Joy is the chief emotion, which constantly throws her overboard whenever Sadness wants to step in and ruin core emotions with her very touch. As Riley moves from Minnesota to California with her parents, Joy has to help her make the best of it. But something goes wrong, and Joy and Sadness are ejected from the master controls. Fear, Anger, and Disgust try to take charge in the meantime, resulting in Riley snapping at her parents, not trying to make new friends, and even thinking about running away. Joy and Sadness have to work together in order to make their way back to the control room to settle Riley’s emotional state.

Brilliant. Bright. Funny. Imaginative. Profound. Moving. Sometimes sad. All of these adjectives can be used to describe the power of “Inside Out.”

This world is amazing. Memories are created and stored in collections of glass spheres, whether they’re short-term, long-term, or forgotten entirely. And there are also theme parks connected with one another, with the themes being dreams, nightmares, her favorite sport (hockey), imagination, and so on. It’s amazing to see how this “world” inside a person’s head works. There’s a dark abyss where forgotten memories are stored and eventually fade away, a dream-land that resembles a Hollywood studio where actors act out Riley’s dreams and nightmares, and all sorts of inventive components. As Joy and Sadness go on this journey through the subconscious, they encounter many strange things like abstractness, fears, daydreams, and even a forgotten imaginary friend, named Bing Bong (Richard Kind).

But the story and character development are just as impressive as the environment they’re set in. It balances funny and dramatic perfectly, as we laugh at the insane inventiveness of how this world works and how some of the emotions run it (or try to run it), but more importantly, we learn something that most of us don’t like to think about: the importance of the emotion of sadness. This is exactly what the overall film is about: balance. Joy and Sadness have to learn to get along, and Joy constantly pushes her aside because she feels Riley doesn’t need her, but over time, she realizes that not only do they have to work together but that Sadness is more important to the team of emotions than anyone would give her credit for–in fact, Joy learns in a brilliant scene late in the film that Joy and Sadness are essential together.

What I really love about this development is that the film stays true to its own message it’s been pushing all along: that it’s OK to be sad because that’s part of growing up. In order to adapt, we need all of our emotions in order to get through whatever. There are many things in life we can’t get back, and “Inside Out” knows that. Instead of bringing back many elements from the first couples acts of the story, they stay gone and are replaced with new ones, because that’s part of the process of coming of age. For a Disney film to play this message of stuff-happens-and-you-gotta-deal-with-it, this is pretty gutsy and very much appreciated.

I would love to see a sequel to “Inside Out” that shows the difficulties of Riley growing up, but I would also love to see spinoffs with other people and their emotions trying to cope with whatever change comes their way.

I love “Inside Out.” I wanted this to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars–I already knew it was a dead lock for Best Animated Feature, but that’s beside the point. This isn’t merely the best animated film of the decade–it’s one of the best films, period.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#5

27 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood

5) WHIPLASH (2014)

When I first saw Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, there was one scene that I didn’t quite agree with. It’s a scene in which aspiring drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) has dinner with his father (Paul Reiser) and his aunt, uncle, and two cousins. Andrew’s father has made an effort to encourage Andrew in his pursuit to a music career, and so now, Andrew is trying to express to his relatives how he feels about it. But that’s not important to them–not nearly as important as one cousin’s football skills and the other cousin’s “heading up Model UN, soon-to-be-Rhodes-Scholar or who knows what” (the aunt’s words). The aunt and uncle patronize the father’s “Teacher of the Year” award before asking condescendingly how Andrew’s drumming is going. Andrew tries to impress them, saying he’s one of a core dummer in the accomplished jazz orchestra and is one of the youngest in the band. Are they impressed? Nope. They just flat-out say in their own words that there’s no career in drumming (while Andrew’s father just sits by and doesn’t stand up for him). All they really want to talk about is their kids’ accomplishments, practically rubbing it in both Andrew’s and his father’s faces. Andrew snaps back, stating how being recognized as a great musician is his idea of success. Does this work? No way. In fact, HIS FATHER joins the bandwagon of the relatives and states bluntly, “Dying broke, drunk, and full of heroin at 34 would not be my idea of success.”

It gets more uncomfortable from there.

When I first saw this scene, it felt like the least effective part of the movie. I didn’t believe any family would behave like this. But seeing it again and studying it, not only does it give Andrew more purpose to push himself further in his craft, which then leads to conflict of goal, ambition, and identity by the film’s climax, and not only is it beautifully executed and written…but it is probably THE most effective scene in the movie, because it feels more real than I originally thought before.

So many people can relate to this scene one way or another, and more than half of those people have felt Andrew’s emotions here–anger and bitterness because the talent that gives you the most joy and purpose is underrated while others’ talents being gloated about are overrated. And not only is hard to express yourself–even if you could, you won’t be heard most of the time.

I know now that so many people have been there…and so have I.

“Whiplash” is a movie about an aspiring artist (Andrew) pushing himself to be great and the hard-as-nails teacher (Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons) that shoves him to be great. And it’s GREAT. “Whiplash” is a hell of a movie, one that gets better and better each time I see it. It asks tough questions with difficult answers, it’s brilliantly staged, acted, and edited, each development in Andrew’s pursuit to greatness is always interesting, I love the unconventional take on the instructor-student dynamic, and the ending is one of the most emotionally compelling finales I’ve ever seen.

I rated this film three-and-a-half stars instead of four because of that one scene. Now that I have no problems with the scene, I rate it four stars easily. It’s one of my new favorite movies.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#6

23 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties

6) BOYHOOD (2014)

Did you hear about Richard Linklater’s latest ambitious project? A musical that he’s supposedly going to be making for the next 20 years? Man, if I thought his 12-year filmmaking process for Boyhood was ambitious…

Linklater is one of my favorite filmmakers because of how he experiments with relationships and time in most of his films. Are we the same as who we were years ago? What’s different about us now? What can we learn from certain past incidents? Etc. That’s everything he covers with the overall effect of his “Before…” trilogy, which is overall a brilliant look at first love, second chances, and aftereffects of such. And with “Boyhood,” he outdoes himself beautifully, showing an ordinary American boy and his family coming of age over the course of 12 years.

There are many ways this project could have gone wrong. What if Ellar Coltrane, the young actor he cast in the pivotal role, grew into a bad actor over the course of this process? He cast his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, in the film as the boy’s sister decided she didn’t want to do this anymore? (Actually, she did try to get out of it before her father convinced her to stay.) They even prepared for who would take over if Linklater had suddenly died at any point before production was completed–Ethan Hawke, who worked with Linklater many times and plays the kids’ biological father in this, volunteered.

But it worked! It paid off. We have 12 years shown to us in chronological order as Mason (Coltrane) grows from age 6 to age 18, and we see his family–sister Samantha (Lorelei), mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and father Mason Sr. (Hawke)–come of age as well. Nothing particularly special happens–it’s just a collection of small moments that so many of us can relate to.

Movies are typically ways of escaping reality, but if a film can truly capture reality, it’s something marvelous, especially if it brings you into the world of characters who feel like real people. And this film, chronicling 12 years in the life of a boy and his family, is like the ultimate slice-of-life picture.

On top of its truly remarkable behind-the-scenes story is a rich, detailed portrait about the lives of this kid growing into a man, his sister who grows up with him, and even the coming-of-age of their parents as they become more mature as well. We get brief stories within the over-two-and-a-half hour long running time, but things happen in this film that don’t always pay off because that’s the way life is, and Linklater knows that. Sometimes it is random; mostly it is pivotal; other times it’s essential; and so on.

And “Boyhood” is very successful at showing these moments in the lives of these people. People come in and out of their lives and we don’t hear back from a few of them; one day they’re interested in one thing but indifferent about it later; and so on.

“Boyhood” is a simple, universal story, told through Mason’s eyes, that is so easy to relate to. I felt like I knew this kid or even was this kid, and I definitely felt like I knew those around him. That’s why it moved me so much. As time goes on, as the film continues in its nearly-three-hour running time, it’s very, very important that the growth and coming-of-age of this kid and his family are shown. Not only did I see them grow; I wanted to know what was going to happen to them for another 12 years.

“Boyhood” is an ambitious project that absolutely paid off, and it’s one of the best films from a brilliant filmmaker.