Spontaneous (2020)

8 Oct

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s just a normal day at school until something totally unexpected and truly terrifying happens when a student suddenly dies. No, it’s not a school shooting, though one parent admits to fearing that was the case upon hearing of the tragedy. Instead, it’s…spontaneous combustion.

That’s right–a high-school senior just suddenly explodes like a balloon filled with blood, sending the whole town in a panic. No one knows why it happened or even if it will happen again. But things get even scarier when it does happen again…a lot. More of the upperclassmen at Covington High School are randomly exploding without rhyme or reason. The crowd is celebrating a high-school football game–one of the players goes kaboom! Our young protagonist enjoys a nice drive with friends and then suddenly…well, you get the idea.

That’s the setup for Brian Duffield’s “Spontaneous,” a terrific dark comedy with plenty of surprises in its cynical humor and (I’m not kidding here) its smart insight in how modern-day teenagers react to tragedy around themselves. As funny as this film is (and it’s very funny at times), it’s also quite moving and sincere when it needs to be.

After the first tragic combustion, a kind boy named Dylan (Charlie Plummer) sees this as a sign to live life to the fullest, which not only includes buying his own car (or in this case, his own milk truck–how random) but also revealing his true feelings to his crush from afar. That would be Mara (Katherine Langford), the film’s sassy, sarcastic narrator who doesn’t take everything seriously, let alone her own future. Not even the explosions of her own classmates seem to faze her all that much–she and her bestie Tess (Hayley Law) can only comment on how weird it all is.

Anyway, after Dylan starts up conversation with Mara (by sending “Dick” pics of Richard Nixon–“Sorry if it’s crooked,” texts Dylan), they start hanging out together and connecting like they wouldn’t have before. Thus starts a relationship that continues even when the rest of their class is in quarantine while the government tries to come up with some kind of cure to prevent further kids from blowing up.

After that, well…I’ll leave that for you to discover. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this film, which is not only very funny in a dark, cynical way (the way that Duffield, the writer of the Netflix bloody gem “The Babysitter,” could deliver–and this is his directorial debut)…but it’s also very insightful and pretty moving, again, when it needs to be. When you think about these kids who think nothing bad can happen to them and their whole lives are ahead of them and then suddenly this unexplained epidemic comes along, think of how much anxiety and fear comes from such a wakeup call.

(Note: It’s amazing that this film came out when it did, considering it was made two years before the COVID-19 global pandemic. You can make many parallels to it, strangely.)

Mara goes through the stages of it all–jokes about the situation, then denial, depression, lashing out irrationally, everything–and it’s an intriguing, compelling character growth that comes out of it. All I’ll say about the ending is that I think it’s perfect for this material. It’d be somewhat preachy if it weren’t so damn funny.

What helps elevate this film from typical “cult movie” status, which I think it’s destined to become*, is the interesting relationships that many characters have with each other. Mara and Dylan are cute, funny, and lovely together and they complement each other perfectly. Mara and Tess are a wonderful duo of best friends (the best “best-friendship” I’ve seen in a long time), as their witty banter develops into something more as the film progresses and they fear one or the other might explode. And Mara also has a nice relationship with her parents (played very well by Piper Perabo and Rob Huebel)–funny, loving, obviously concerned, and even going as far as to allow their daughter to do drugs with them. (They know she’s not good at hiding her marijuana.)

“Spontaneous” could have just been your typical cynical dark comedy just to provoke a shocked response from the audience–it’s more than that. By the end of the film, I’ve laughed, my heart leapt for these characters, I bought the romance, and I believed in what the film got across in the end. This is an ambitious dark comedy that pays off in a superb way.

*There are already plenty of reviews for “Spontaneous” that reference an obvious comparison: the ’80s cult dark teen comedy “Heathers” once or twice. I personally feel like this film is more mature, but don’t quote me on that.

Under the Sun (Short Film)

7 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sad as it is, we still need more movies serving as anti-prejudice parables because there are still many groups of people in today’s society that are victimized and often attacked by other groups of people who have their own idea of “normal.”

Take the 28-minute short film “Under the Sun.” What is the conflict? Well, it’s an unspecified time in the future–you can tell because it’s set in a bleak city that looks like sunset all day every day, people don’t often dress in color, and there are glitchy florescent advertisements on wall screens. No wonder people are miserable…oh, and there’s also a breakthrough in medical science that allow people to undergo surgeries that result in cybernetic augmentations (while their human minds remain intact).

Dem derrty rerberts dernt berlerng wit’ uss nerrmal ferrks! Subtitled: “Them dirty robots don’t belong with us normal folks!” That’s over-the-top hater speak for “I do not particularly care for those with that kind of alteration.”

“Under the Sun,” written and directed by Kansas City’s Samuel Tady, conveys this idea very effectively, with good commentary and skillful filmmaking. (For a short sci-fi film made on the cheap, the production values are pretty impressive.) We do see this kind of thing happening today, with violent hate groups and casual bystanders (you know, the kind that “support” a cause without actually doing anything), and this film comments on the complicated issues of all sides through a science-fiction parallel–one in which the remaining humans who haven’t been augmented look upon the half-cybernetic individuals as a threat to society and thus treat them like second-class citizens.

Solymar Romero plays Meadow, a woman with a replacement robotic arm. Her journey gains interest in an audience because she feels halfway between human and cybernetic. When she sees a cybernetic person being attacked by a hate group, she turns away. When she sees the story of his attack on the news, as the victim’s cousin Dominic (Alfredo Mercado) expresses his disdain for how the situation is being handled, she starts to listen. After meeting a new augmented friend, Zetta (Valeri Bates), and having her eyes opened wider by everything happening around her, she learns there’s a time when something has to be done about current wrongdoings.

The film is surprisingly rich with character. (I shouldn’t say “surprisingly,” but I’ve seen many sci-fi stories where characters are more of a side thing to the environments they inhabit.) I’ve already mentioned Meadow, Dominic, and Zetta, all of whom are interesting protagonists to follow. But there’s also the group of anti-cyborg demonstrators, led by Daina (Meredith Lindsey) and Nick (Samuel Kelly), who take a new recruit: James (Zachary Weaver). We don’t know where their hatred of cyborgs comes from, but I can’t pass them off as one-dimensional violent bully types because there are sadly more people like this in the real world (again adding to the film’s social commentary, whether the augmentations stand for race, disability, sex, or whatever). Of the trio, James’ story is predictable but still well-handled due to a solid performance from Weaver–when he sees the extent of what these people do in order to spread their anti-cyborg message, he starts to question his morals/ethics. He’s an angry college-aged kid trying to find a place in this world, so he’s at that point where he needs to figure out what to do. Predictable, yes, but it works.

There’s also a character who represents the type we know all too well: the well-meaning but socially-unfocused type of person who will voice their support without actually taking the time and effort to do something for a certain group or cause. (Instead, they use semi-sincere statements such as “I have a friend who’s [such-and-such]” or whatever makes them look good.) That character is played by Meadow’s all-human friend Stella (Debbie Diesel). Her interaction with Dominic, whom she saw on TV news, is the most priceless moment in the film.

Stella also has a brilliant payoff at the end, in which all key characters (Meadow, Zetta, Dominic, James, Daina, Nick, Stella) are fatefully brought together to partake in a climax in which there is a clear winner and loser…or is there?

“There’s thousands like us,” one of the villains states, regarding the anti-cyborg demonstration. True, but A) who exactly is “us”? And B) There are more of the rest of us than one would like to think. It’s just a matter of who stands up first (or next). I think that message is at the core of “Under the Sun,” and I recommend the film for its well-meaning, imaginative, and powerful storytelling.

Check out the film on YouTube.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls (Short Film)

17 Jul

By Tanner Smith

I remember over six years ago, this 40-minute short film closed out one of the Arkansas-short showcases at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival. When the end-credits rolled, the audience went wild with loud applause and even louder cheering for over 30 seconds.

I was among the audience members making that noise. I saw many exceptional short films in that festival, but there was something about this one that truly stood out. When it won the award for Best Arkansas Film at the end of the festival, I knew it felt…right.

The film was writer/director Mark Thiedeman’s “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls.” And six years later, I still enjoy watching it from time to time.

Harrison Tanner Dean is immensely likable as Max, a conflicted Catholic schoolboy who attends boarding school and is struggling with both his sexuality and his religious beliefs. That inner struggle is what gives the film its key interest–someone coming to terms with who they are in what is already an awkward time for all of us: the teenage years. This character of Max takes us through the film, which is a great collection of moments in this time in his life–confusing moments, comfortable moments, harsh moments, and victorious moments. All of that makes for an effective coming-of-age film, and by the end of this film, we can’t help but feel (or at least hope for) happiness for Max.

Dean is excellent here, and so is Quinn Gasaway as Andy. Andy is the wisecracking rebel on campus who breaks numerous rules and tries to get under the skin of Father Alphonsus (C. Tucker Steinmetz), who punishes students by humiliating them. He becomes Max’s friend and confidant, leading to a wonderful scene late in the film, in which the two sit at a riverside and talk about their beliefs. It’s short, but it’s an open, frank, and understanding discussion that puts us further inside their heads.

And speaking of solid characterization, I also got that out of Father Alphonsus. Upon first viewing, I saw him as a two-dimensional strict archetype, especially since he seems to punish Max simply for being gay. Watching it again, there was a scene that made me think there was more to this guy than meets the eye–a scene in which Andy serves detention time under him and receives a stern lecture about why he’s not going to kick him out of school. Alphonsus uses a parable about a similar type of student as Andy. That scene gave me an idea as to how Alphonsus’ methods are effective…they’re hardly condonable, mind you, but little things like that let you know how he thinks.

The cinematography from David Goodman is fantastic. I learned from one of the film’s extras that it was shot mostly in natural light, which was a smart choice. The effect made me feel like I was there attending this school with Max and Andy and their classmates. It also helps that the acting from all the other boys is spot-on–early in the film, when they’re goofing off together before class is in session, I could have sworn I was watching a documentary.

Also delivering solid work are Karen Q. Clark as a friendly nun who seems to be the only person who understands and cares for Max, Jim Linsley as a sex-ed teacher who has an unusual way of warning students against masturbation, and Schafer Bourne, delivering a Tom Cruise-like cocky charisma as Max’s bully Kirby, whom Max has to fight in front of the whole school (as part of Alphonsus’ ultimate punishment).

But the real standout of “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls” is Mark Thiedeman himself. As writer and director, he shows how he truly cares for his characters, delivers an atmosphere for them to explore, gives them a few laughs and a few troubles, and teaches them (and as a result, us as an audience) that while it’s easy to give in to the bullying that threatens your identity, it’s harder to grow and to embrace who you are right in their faces. You can tell he put his heart and soul into this project. (I haven’t mentioned that he loosely based the film on his own school experiences in real life–I don’t think I needed to.) And more importantly, it feels true.

I can’t recommend “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls” enough. You can check it out here on Vimeo:

The Half Of It (2020)

13 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t review enough Netflix teenage romcoms, but I have seen my fair share, from the good (“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”) to the mediocre (“Tall Girl”) to the pretty-bad (“Sierra Burgess is a Loser”) to the laughable (“The Kissing Booth”). Why review those movies when I could review the one Netflix teen flick I think stands high above the rest? So let’s talk about Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever”…

I apologize—that’s a series, and I rarely review series. You want my review of that? Here it is: “Never Have I Ever” is the best Netflix Original teen romcom yet. There you go. Now let’s talk about writer/director Alice Wu’s “The Half Of It,” which is a step above “good,” which means it’s pretty darn good. 

“The Half Of It” is Wu’s queer take on the “Cyrano de Bergerac” story. And when I first heard that, I groaned because another Netflix teen romcom (“Sierra Burgess is a Loser”) already used similar elements, and not to good effect. But to quote the late Jean-Luc Godard, “The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.” Thus, “The Half Of It” succeeds where the other movie failed. (I know there are fans of “Sierra Burgess,” and I don’t want to dump all over that movie so much, but it just didn’t work for me at all.) 

“The Half Of It” stars Leah Lewis in a star-making performance as shy, awkward, intelligent high-schooler Ellie Chu, whom her classmates pay to write their essays for them. Because she’s so good with words, a goofy football jock, Paul (Daniel Diemer), hires her to write a love letter to his crush, the pretty popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Though reluctant at first, she agrees to help him woo her. In the process, Ellie and Paul become good friends…which makes things very difficult as she also develops romantic feelings for Aster. 

That’s basically the gist of it. Even though many parts of “The Half Of It” feel familiar, the way Wu plays them does not. From the visually intriguing opening scene, which illustrates the idea of a “soul mate,” we already know we’re in good hands. Wu also more than enough care for her characters to make them more than the archetypes we’ve read about in young adult novels (or seen in young adult novel-to-film adaptations). 

“The Half Of It” is a film about desire. Ellie hasn’t felt anything towards another person because she’s so closed-off—and now, she experiences friendship with Paul and a growing longing for Aster. Paul feels something for Aster, even if he isn’t entirely sure what it is (though he’s pretty certain he’s in love—a lot of us remember what that high-school self-assurance is like). Aster is trapped in a constant loop with the in-crowd on campus, and thus isn’t allowed to express her true desire just yet. (Again, it’s high school—you do what you can do.) Aster kind of reminded me of Lea Thompson’s character in the John Hughes dramedy “Some Kind of Wonderful,” struggling between placement in the high-school hierarchy and truly expressing herself.  All three key characters are well-developed and also wonderfully acted. 

Wu’s script and direction, which I’m guessing (having not read many articles about the making of the film as of now) comes from a place of semi-autobiographical truth, are tender-hearted and result in numerous scenes that made me feel for these people. Another character my heart reached out to is Ellie’s father, played by a wonderful Collin Chou—even before his inevitable big speech in the final act (because these movies always have one), I loved this guy.

Speaking of speeches, there’s one scene that felt false to me. (And it’s not the scene involving a character’s homophobia—I think given the film’s small-town setting, there were enough subtle touches to set that up.) It’s a scene set in a church where our key characters each get a chance to give speeches about what they’ve lied about and what they’ve learned and so on. It’s a “courtroom-outside-a-courtroom” moment, which usually don’t work. However, I’m willing to give it a slight pass because I found the payoff to be pretty hilarious, resulting in my favorite line, “Now THAT’s divine intervention!” (That line, by the way, was delivered by an effective Becky Ann Baker as a teacher. As someone who grew up with “Freaks and Geeks,” it was great to see her in another teen flick.)

But even with that bit of forced melodrama, I still very much enjoyed “The Half Of It.” I loved what these characters had to say to each other (whether it’s about artists or loneliness or God or even something called “taco sausage”). I loved Leah Lewis in the lead role. I loved how Wu was able to turn the small-town setting into its own character. And with the exception of the church scene, I also loved how so many issues were handled with just the right touches. I haven’t seen Alice Wu’s previous film, “Saving Face,” made 16 years before this one. I’ll happily check that one out, as well as whatever Wu delivers in the future.

Palm Springs (2020)

12 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Tell me if you’ve heard this before: this is a movie in which the protagonist is stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day, over and over, again and again AND AGAIN…unless they can find a way to become a better person and/or inspire everyone around them.

No, I’m not reviewing the 1993 Bill Murray metaphysical comedy/drama “Groundhog Day,” but it’s the one movie we think about when we hear that premise. Every time its formula is carried over in other genres—science fiction (“Source Code”). action (“Edge of Tomorrow”), horror (“Happy Death Day”), high-school drama (“Before I Fall”)—we always say the same thing: “That sounds like ‘Groundhog Day.’” 

“Palm Springs,” directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara, is a romantic comedy with the same “Groundhog Day” formula…sort of. Let me explain:

We start off with our main character, Nyles (Andy Samberg), a 30something man-child trapped in an arrested development stage. Literally. Like Bill Murray’s Phil in “Groundhog Day,” Samberg’s Nyles is (I’m using the same phrase again) stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day, over and over, again and again AND AGAIN. When we first meet him, he’s already done it hundreds of times—he’s comfortably content with his situation by now. 

The day is Saturday, November 9. The setting is a posh wedding in Palm Springs, California. Nyles is the plus-one of his self-absorbed and humorously vapid girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who is a bridesmaid. Oh, and she is also cheating on Nyles, who is well aware of it (but what can he do about it?). And every time the loop begins again, she’s the one to wake him up. Nyles and Misty’s sex life is practically empty since Misty doesn’t want to make love because it might smudge her makeup. But MEH. Doesn’t matter to Nyles—he can hook up with a wedding guest, no matter who it may be, and not have to worry about consequences because the next day is always a chance to start over again (LITERALLY). 

Nyles has already accepted being in his continual loop long ago. He can mess with people, he can live the life in this place, he can show up to the wedding and the reception in shorts and a bright Hawaiian shirt (sir, you are the king of Palm Springs weddings), he can get to know everybody present, and he doesn’t have to worry about the future because he’s always living in the now. 

What’s that? Why, yes, “Palm Springs” DOES contain effective commentary for this formula. And that’s one of many reasons I like this movie so much. 

Why is it always just one person experiencing a time loop in these movies? Wouldn’t it be interesting if the main character had some company? Well, here’s where things get even more interesting in “Palm Springs.” The answer (so to speak) for the loop seems to come from inside a nearby cave. After Nyles picks up the wedding bride’s older sister, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), something goes wrong, causing Nyles to retreat inside the cave. Despite Nyles’ warnings not to follow him, she does…and now she’s trapped in the loop too! 

Needless to say, she’s not happy about this. She demands answers from Nyles, who answers as best as he can. They’re both stuck in the same day. No matter what they try to do (and she even travels all the way from Palm Springs to Austin, Texas…only to wake up back in the Palm Springs hotel again!), they always reset every time they fall asleep. 

Well, sh*t. Now what? 

Well, now Nyles and Sarah can form a connection (I mean, after a lot of arguing, of course). Then, they can start having fun together with this opportunity to mess with people just for fun. Then, they can learn some deep life lessons. Then, they can learn about what they could mean to each other. And yeah, it’s a romcom formula to go with the time-loop formula, but you know what? It works. It REALLY works, because both these actors (Samberg and Milioti) are great together. And their characters individually develop into something more than we’d expect, leading to a third act that is actually pretty darn compelling and rich. 

Oh, and I forgot to mention there’s a strange man who seems to have it in for Nyles and continuously shows up at the wedding to kill him. I won’t go into who this character is in this review, but I will say he’s played by JK Simmons, just so I give you more reason to stream this movie on Hulu. 

Anyway, Nyles and Sarah start to wonder if there’s a chance for romance for them. But at the same time, the thought that’s always on Sarah’s mind is whether or not there’s a way out of this loop so they can have a future together. But Nyles, who has been living in the now so long he’s fine with it, isn’t sure he wants to have a future at all. 

“Palm Springs” is one of the most refreshingly original romantic comedies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s sweet, funny, and smart all at the same time, thanks to a great script. The characters (and the actors playing them) are appealing and winning. The directing sprinkles nice touches here and there (such as a party banner that reads “FOREVER”). And most importantly for any romcom, I care deeply about whether or not our main couple in question stays together. 

“Palm Springs” is available exclusively on Hulu. 

The Assistant (2020)

2 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Assistant” got under my skin. This is a film about a day in the life of an assistant (or rather, an assistant to other assistants) in a prestigious movie studio run by an intimidating figure–an all-powerful, abrasive personality with predatory tendencies….if you had told me this studio was Miramax and the chief was Harvey Weinstein, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

Julia Garner plays the assistant, named Jane, who’s been working for this man for a couple of months and is noticing the shady goings-on around this place, not at all helped by the constant angry phone calls from the boss’ wife, demanding to know where he is. And on this particularly long and busy day, she does all the mundane tasks she’s asked to do (arrive just before dawn, turn on the lights, make the coffee, print the daily itineraries, etc.–and that’s just the beginning of her shift), but after a new young woman shows up for another assistant position…and the boss put her up at a fancy hotel and takes off in the middle of the day to meet with her…she decides to speak with the business lawyer.

By this point, we’re about 50 minutes into this quiet, subtle film, written and directed by Kitty Green, where we as an audience are as quietly observant as Jane is and just taking it all in, one piece at a time. And when this scene hits, it hits HARD. The conversation that occurs between Jane and the lawyer (played by Matthew Macfayden) is so painful to watch because it feels all too real. This young woman has protected herself by keeping her eyes open but saying as little as possible, and today, she decides to speak up about what she sees (but still, she’s nervous and trying to choose her words extremely carefully), and this guy thinks so little about her case that he makes her feel foolish for even thinking of speaking out.

An interesting and very effective motif that surrounds “The Assistant” is that we never see the studio chief himself. (We never even learn his name.) We hear his angry outbursts over the phone and we get hints of his behavior from the way others refer to him (jokingly) and evidence left in various spots of the office (such as a woman’s earring found on his sofa…found as Jane was washing off a disgusting stain on said-sofa). His presence is felt all throughout the office, which emphasizes that the main reason no one speaks out is because they’re afraid of him.

“The Assistant” is riveting stuff. It is slow-going, as is the point to show a day in the life of this person and her position in this company. But if you stay with it, I think you’ll be very intrigued (and all the more thankful that men like this pervert are being run out of business when enough people speak out against them).

Note: Upon further investigation, apparently this guy IS based on Harvey Weinstein (again, no surprise here). After the Weinstein scandal broke out, writer-director Green interviewed people who worked for him–including the assistants because they always know everything.

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.

The King of Staten Island (2020)

14 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Scott is a loser. He’s a 24-year-old tattoo-covered man-child trapped in limbo with hardly a foot ready to step into the real world. He still lives with his widowed mother and mostly sits around watching TV and getting high while his younger sister is leaving for college. He’s constantly stoned. He has friends who are equally as unmotivated or unambitious. He doesn’t want to define his relationship with his sort-of girlfriend, even though she’s patient enough to wait for him to come around (and she shouldn’t). At least Scott has a goal…to open up a tattoo parlor that is also a restaurant (“Ruby Tattoosdays,” he calls it…yeah that’ll happen). He’s even about to give a 9-year-old kid a tattoo (in the middle of nowhere, where he and his friends are lazing about) because the kid says it’s OK (that is, until the kid freaks out and runs because the needle hurts). 

Scott needs a wake-up call. And FAST. 

Scott is the main character of “The King of Staten Island,” director Judd Apatow’s latest effort to bring a stage/TV comedian’s talents to film—in this case, it’s Pete Davidson. Davidson plays Scott and also co-wrote the script, originally conceived based on true events from his life. I hope some of these events are exaggerated—there are enough blurred lines between fiction and reality, just like with many of Apatow’s other works, such as “Trainwreck” with Amy Schumer and the Apatow-produced “The Big Sick” with Kumail Nanjiani. Either way, “The King of Staten Island” works just as well because Apatow’s talent of blending hilarious raunchy comedy with moving human drama is put to very good effect here. “The King of Staten Island” is a compelling coming-of-age story about a lazy young adult who confronts his demons and prepares for something new in his life…and it’s also very funny. 

Scott’s world of arrested development is shattered when his kid sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), leaves for college. Actually, no, it’s not that—it’s when his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), who’s been a widow for 17 years, starts dating fireman Ray (Bill Burr). Not only did Scott and Ray get off on the wrong foot (it was Ray’s 9-year-old son that Scott almost tattooed), but Scott feels especially threatened about the intrusion of this new guy in his mom’s life because his late father was also a fireman (who perished on duty*). Ray immediately puts responsibility onto the 20something punk by having him walk his children to school (and Scott also takes a restaurant busboy job, which of course he’s unfit for), and the more Ray and Margie see each other, the more motivated Scott is to split them up fast. 

Minor-spoiler alert, but Scott does succeed in ending the relationship between his mother and the loudmouth fireman. There’s almost an hour left in the film. Where does it go from there? This is the most surprising and refreshing part of “The King of Staten Island”—not only does it show the consequences of Scott’s actions, but it also follows Scott climbing up from rock-bottom, step by step. Scott finds more answers and closure regarding his father whom he desired to know more about. He even finds refuge at Ray’s firehouse, where his father was stationed, and also finds ways to make himself useful there as well. He also finds his true passion, really talks with his mom about dad, and even manages to help someone in dire need (that scene feels a little false, but it’s a climax, so I’ll let it pass). 

None of this film’s back half would have worked if not for the dedicated work of Pete Davidson, who turns in a fully realized performance that allows us to see this unsympathetic jerk flaws and all. Sometimes, Scott is the absolute worst—but he’s always real, and there’s more than enough room in this 2-hour-17-minute long movie to allow him to grow.

The comedy is present mostly from Scott’s snarky remarks and how he relates (or tries to relate) to everyone around him. But the drama is even stronger for exactly that—the comedy is Scott’s defense mechanism (as I’m sure it’s Pete Davidson’s). For every blunt, unfiltered, smart-ass comment, there’s a hint of sad truth when he shares his thoughts as to why firefighters shouldn’t have families. This film has a unique balance that most mainstream “dramedies” could learn from.

The supporting cast serve Davidson terrifically. Marisa Tomei as Margie, Scott’s long-suffering widowed mother, is lovely as always; Bill Burr delivers particularly strong work as the guy who tries to toughen the kid up; Bel Powley deserves her own movie as Kelsey, Scott’s tough-talking but loving potential-girlfriend who wants to pursue city planning; Maude Apatow is good as Scott’s sister who is off pursuing a bright future; Steve Buscemi is always a delight and no different as Papa, senior fireman; and Lou Wilson, Derek Gaines, and Moises Arias (who I want to see in more movies—this guy’s a riot) share great comic timing as Scott’s friends. None of their characters are as developed as he is, but I think that’s the point as we’re supposed to see them through Scott’s eyes.

By the end of “The King of Staten Island,” it’s hard for me not to wish the best for Scott now that he’s found more clarity in the most important part of his life that left him aimless for 17 years. And I hope the same for Pete Davidson. Even though Davidson is popular in his standup acts and on “SNL,” it’s hard not to wonder what demons he’s still struggling with. I hope writing and starring in this film was an effective therapeutic expression. 

*In real life, Davidson’s father was a New York City fireman who died in service during the 9/11 attacks. I get why they altered this detail for the film because it would probably be too much of an overshadow for the film’s comedy. But knowing this information adds an extra layer of pathos.

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

4 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I think about Brett Haley’s “Hearts Beat Loud” after seeing it at least 10 times in the last two years since its theatrical release, I ask the questions…

Did we really need the best-friend character played by Ted Danson, who is also a bartender so that we can make “Cheers” references in reviews regarding this film? 

What about our protagonist’s mother played by Blythe Danner, who is always shoplifting and getting arrested by police so her son can bail her out? Does she have much purpose in this story?

Come to think of it, what about Toni Collette as the landlady for the protagonist’s record store? Even though the two have an interesting relationship together, I have to wonder…does she even need to be here?

And once I answered that last question, I answered the other two questions about the aforementioned side characters who seemingly serve no real purpose. Yes, we do need Danson. Danner does serve a purpose in this story. And Collette did need to be here. 

Why? Because…why not? 

Sometimes, when you see a movie, you ask certain questions like, “Did Tony Hale really have to play his role so over-the-top in ‘Love, Simon’?” And you keep coming back to those movies because there’s something about the main aspects of it that keep you distracted from questioning the others. Then, after seeing the movie for a certain number of times, it dawns on you—not only do you love this movie, but the little things that didn’t seem so important before suddenly feel like elements you would miss if they were removed. My point is, these side characters in “Hearts Beat Loud” exist in the world our lovable main characters live in, and they don’t seem so extraneous to me anymore, now that I’ve seen the film many times. I feel like they do have a place in this universe. They may not have much to do with the main story, but I feel like they do have a lot to do with how we see the main characters. 

Sorry, I know I have a film to review, but I feel like I just started a seminar for indie-film supporting character usage. (That wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually…)

Anyway, “Hearts Beat Loud” is a lovely father/daughter tale about Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman in his finest film role by far), a former musician who now owns a failing record store in Brooklyn, and his recent-high-school-graduate daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), who is about to leave to study pre-med in California. Sam wants to study and spend more time with her new girlfriend Rose (Sasha Lane), but Frank wants to spend more time with Sam before she leaves. One night, he insists that they have their habitual musical jam session together, where they record a song together (written by Sam) called “Hearts Beat Loud.” 

Despite Sam not wanting to start a band with her father, Frank puts the song on Spotify, under the name “We’re Not a Band.” Unexpectedly, it becomes a viral success, thus urging Frank to pursue a new career together with his daughter as a music duo. But Sam, despite having musical interests of her own, doesn’t share her father’s dream. 

This is an emotionally rich father/daughter story about a father using his interests in an attempt to keep his daughter at home because he isn’t ready for her to leave the nest and fly away. In the end, it becomes more of a story about the two of them sharing an interest in music for one last quality father/daughter time. Even if Frank doesn’t win Sam over to his dream, he accepts the fact that Sam will have her own life, Frank will have to set his sights a little lower than expected, and the music they created together for a brief time will be something they will always remember. 

And speaking of music, I love the songs in “Hearts Beat Loud.” Aside from the title track, there’s also a song about Sam’s feelings toward Rose (“Blink (One Million Miles)”) and another about Frank’s feelings toward losing his business (“Everything Must Go”). The songs were composed by Keegan DeWitt, and they’re all memorable and wonderful to listen to. They serve as effective mood pieces, especially an early version of “Everything Must Go” that truly reflects Frank’s current mood in this scene—I won’t lie; I added that piece to my personal playlist.

Oh, and there’s also the flirting between Frank and Leslie (the landlady played by Collette) that turns into somewhat of a fling. And then there’s Frank’s out-of-touch mother (Danner), who is mainly there for comic relief. And there’s Dave (the bartender played by Danson), who is probably here to give Frank someone to chat with occasionally. Like I said, these side characters have very little to do with the main plot of “Hearts Beat Loud”—the girlfriend, Rose, arguably has more of a purpose to the story because Sam realizes she’s not only leaving behind a father but also a summer romance, thus adding to Sam’s confusion about her current status. But I have to admit, the others make for good company and are played by appealing actors. And each time I see the film again, I don’t want to fast-forward past them. 

It’s the story of these two well-rounded, lovable characters that kept me coming back to “Hearts Beat Loud” in the first place, and because I got to know them well, it made me want to those around them well too. 

“Hearts Beat Loud” has so much going for it—a memorable soundtrack, a heartfelt story about this father and daughter, and a charming feel all throughout. It’s an indie mix that I don’t mind listening to every once in a while. 

The Invisible Man (2020)

4 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

With a concept like an invisible stalker, I feel three things need to handled exactly right–1) the directing and atmosphere, 2) the cinematography, and 3) the leading performance.

To say Blumhouse’s “The Invisible Man” handled all three of these crucial elements exactly right would be an understatement—in fact, I was surprised by how effective “The Invisible Man” was. I didn’t think a recent stalker-thriller could give me chills and keep me on the edge of my seat anymore–this one did, and the stalker’s INVISIBLE!

The film was directed and written by Leigh Whannell, whose work I’ve admired before, particularly in writing the first Saw and directing the underrated “Upgrade”–I think he outdid himself here.

The cinematography from Stefan Duscio is also outstanding–much of the time, it feels very voyeuristic (keeping in theme), which makes other certain shots (where we anticipate one thing while waiting for another) all the more chilling.

But more importantly, it’s the leading performance from the target of the invisible stalker: Elisabeth Moss in her career-best work. She plays Cecilia, who, in a very tense and disturbing prologue, barely escapes from her abusive relationship with the wealthy Adrian and tries to be free of him forever. A couple of weeks pass when Cecilia gets the news that Adrian has killed himself and left her with $5 million. The end? Not quite. Even after seeing photos of Adrian’s blood-soaked corpse, she can’t believe he’s truly gone…in fact, she feels like he’s still with her…silently and INVISIBLY stalking her.

Moss handles all of her scenes of paranoia and terror brilliantly and flawlessly. But what I also love about this movie is how we see her from everyone else’s point of view, especially when we learn more about Adrian and Cecilia’s relationship and how Adrian was a sly manipulator to the point where he could psychologically damage people severely. It’s that kind of clever storytelling that I love to see, especially in modern mainstream horror.

And it is scary! The film overall has this feel of “oh man, he’s in here and they can’t see him” creep-factor that never got old, even when it got to its inevitable climax. And there’s one jump-scare that truly got me (you’ll know it when you see it).

Overall, “The Invisible Man” is a film about a young woman trying to regain her independence and put to rest a psychologically damaging relationship, making it an effective stalker-thriller especially for today’s day and age. There’s so much to recommend in “The Invisible Man”–it’s just really damn good.