Poor Mama’s Boy

30 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As “Poor Mama’s Boy” opens, we see a 17-year-old boy, Wesley (Joe Hiatt), fights back against his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Rather than appreciate the brave gesture, his mother (Jennifer Pierce Mathus) snaps back at her son before leaving him to be with the jerk. Wesley hitchhikes to a rural-Arkansas small town (after caring for himself alone for a long period of time) where his kind aunt and uncle (Mary Faulkner and Dustin Prince) take him in. He gets a job at a local grocery store, where he meets Adelia (Madi Yates) with whom he makes friends. Things seem fine, until Adelia turns missing and townspeople have their suspicious eyes on Wesley…

That’s the premise for a tense, effective, even tender indie film written, directed, co-produced, shot, and edited by Dalton Coffey, who clearly had a vision and followed through in such a way that everything else he needed to make it happen was a small but reliable crew and a talented assortment of actors to bring it to life.

Joe Hiatt’s role of Wesley is understated but still solid. He’s a kid who doesn’t want trouble but simply a place to call “home” with people to call “family.” (Shades of Charlie Plummer in “Lean on Pete” to be found here.) I’d say he’s better when he’s silent and absorbing emotions emitted around him, but when he speaks, it’s as if he’s being careful about his words because he’s in a place he doesn’t want to feel he doesn’t belong.

Lynnsee Provence, who appeared in some Arkansas-made features (“Shotgun Stories,” “War Eagle, Arkansas”) and several shorts reviewed by me (“Cotton County Boys,” “Still Life,” “The Man in the Moon”), turns in his best performance as Grady, Wesley’s older brother who left as soon as he found the chance. Now, Wesley wants to reconnect and start a real family bond, but Grady isn’t particularly interested. It’s when things start to go from bad to worse (such as Wesley getting SHOT IN THE ARM by an unknown local) that Grady expresses concern for his younger brother and decides to do what he can to help. This leads to a conflict in the final act in which the deeper meaning of “family” is surfaced, for better or worse.

Also good in the film are Dustin Prince as Wesley’s uncle who sticks up for his nephew when everyone else suspects him of murdering Adelia (if she’s dead), Tom Kagy as Adelia’s surly father who even admits he looks for someone to blame during all of this (I kinda wish we had more of this character), and Kristy Barrington, hilarious as Grady’s drug-addled wife.

The small-town setting is beautifully realized here—you not only feel like you’re there dealing with the situation Wesley found himself into, but you see both the peaceful relaxation/natural beauty of the location and the disturbing layers underneath that make it scary to go through sometime…especially when many of the locals don’t particularly trust you and even want to harm you. If I go to the stream or the bridge that the characters frequent, I’d love it until someone else happened upon it too. (Take it from someone who lived in rural Northeast Arkansas—sometimes, these places can be beautiful; other times, scary.)

By the end of the film, I wanted this “poor mama’s boy” to find happiness in a good place with good people. And when it’s over, there’s an ambiguity that leans more towards hope. Because, he deserves it.

“Poor Mama’s Boy” is available on-demand on Amazon Prime and iTunes, and I recommend you check it out.

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Booksmart (2019)

25 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Fifteen minutes into “Booksmart,” the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, I knew I was in for a treat.

Our main character, a Yale-bound academic high-school senior/class president/class valedictorian named Molly, overhears a group of burnout classmates make fun of her. She shows herself and puts them down in return, stating that they’ll probably end up with dead-end jobs while she’s going to accomplish great things post-Yale because she’s been studying and working hard all throughout high-school… Any other teen movie, this would be a victorious underdog moment. And Molly’s pretty proud of herself for standing up to her cynical peers. But it’s not that easy (especially after it’s already been established that Molly’s larger-than-life personality crossed with her brains is…kind of a bully, having put down many of her classmates prior to this moment for not being as smart as her). The group reacts in a way that opens up Molly’s eyes, and as a result, sets the film’s story in motion.

Does it get better than that? Well, it does live up to its promise—that this is going to be one of those refreshingly original teenage high-school coming-of-age films that we never get tired of, because when something is done exactly right, it’s always special.

“Booksmart” is a comedy about an honors student who learns just before graduation day that she’s not as smart as she thinks she is, even after learning there’s more for her to do before high-school is over. And God bless director Olivia Wilde and screenwriters Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman for turning out a fresh, sharp, very funny, and very insightful screenplay that gives us what we didn’t know we needed and more.

Anyway, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) realizes that there’s more to life (and high school) than studying and decides to do something about herself, now that graduation day is fast approaching and there’s a big blowout party going on the night before. And she brings along her best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who, like Molly, is as repressed as she is booksmart. Together, they will try to commit four years of high-school debauchery in just one night. I’m sure nothing will go wrong in the slightest…

Basically, they learn that a big party is happening tonight, and they’re determined to make an appearance. Molly wants to share a special moment with a certain guy she claims to have hated before. Amy wants the courage to talk to a cool skater girl (Victoria Ruesga) who might be interested in her as well. But more importantly, they want to show everyone that they can party just as hard as they can study. But there’s one problem: they don’t know where the party is, and they don’t have anyone to call for details, because no one’s ever invited them to anything before! Thus, we get one crazy night of madness and silly/crazy antics, after which nothing will ever be the same.

Ok, so from watching a lot of teen movies, we know there’s going to be a ton of crazy antics, we know there are going to be types of people we’ve seen in other movies (the Mean Girl, the Oddball, the Party Animal, etc.), we know the two best friends are going to have a falling-out after revealing certain truths, then they’ll get back together and discover that they at least have each other, and so on. (Greta Gerwig’s wonderful 2017 film “Lady Bird” set a new standard in making all of that seem entirely fresh and new.) And yet, the way it’s all presented here, it still feels like hardly anything I’ve seen before in these movies. It takes real talent to make something fresh and original out of something familiar.

For one thing, both the humor (most of which is R-rated vulgarity) and the heart (brought on by revealing truths late in the film) feel like they’re part of the same movie. The latter doesn’t feel like it was shoehorned in to fool audiences into thinking it was about more than it actually was intended. Part of the reason we buy into it is because the screenplay is written with enough intelligence to show the characters as real as possible—even when the situations they find themselves in are outrageous and unbelievable, the characters themselves feel real throughout. Thus, when we get to the core of the film, which is about breaking away from your one dear friend with whom you shared your deepest secrets, how to behave in acting on sexual attraction, trying something new and different despite what you’d be leaving behind, and the importance and power of friendship and sisterhood. What Molly & Amy have learned after going through such mayhem as numerous parties, hallucinatory drugs, ride-share hilarity, and even more, is that they have each other.

Even better is that Molly & Amy’s “booksmart” types aren’t the only ones who are given the opportunity to show their true selves to the world. The obnoxious wealthy weirdo, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), gets to show how sad and pathetic (and sympathetic) he truly is after introducing the girls to the world’s loneliest yacht party ever. The mean girl, Hope (Diana Silvers), is more complicated than we would think. Even the consistently drunk and/or stoned party girl, Gigi (Billie Lourd, hilarious), has moments of insight before the night is over. It’s strange—we laugh at these people (and I was laughing out loud at many of Gigi’s antics when I should have been utterly annoyed by her behavior), and yet, at the same time, they feel like real people. Even the adults, who are given briefer roles, are given enough dignity to feel credible—from supportive cool teacher Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams) to the principal with a second income (Jason Sudeikis) to surprisingly Amy’s parents (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow), who are kind, understanding Christian folks who accept their daughter’s homosexuality. I bring up that last part because most movies paint Christians as intolerant of it, whereas this one just shows these parents of a gay teen as good people who are also Christian. (If anything, it’s *Molly* who makes things awkward and uncomfortable when the subject is brought up, to the point where she likes to pretend she and Amy are a romantic couple—that makes all the difference here.) The more surprises “Booksmart” gives us, the fresher it feels.

There is so much I could talk about with this film, particularly the comedic parts of it. I haven’t even mentioned the hallucinatory drug sequence, which had me practically laughing on the floor, or the bizarre encounter with a pizza delivery guy (which leads to a hilarious payoff) or the absolute worst timing ever for bathroom vomiting. The film’s trailers do well without giving away the best jokes, so I’ll be kind and leave that for you to behold as well. But there’s another moment (and it’s my second favorite scene in the film, just behind the scene I already discussed at the opening of this review) that cemented for me that Wilde wasn’t going to go for the obvious joke or even the obvious dramatic resolution—it’s when we ultimately get the confrontation between the two “besties” about a secret that’s been revealed; it leads to an argument that practically stops the entire party as it gets more heated; one of them thinks she’s won the fight, but nope—apparently, the final clincher in response was so brutal and ugly that we don’t even get to hear it. (The audio fades out and the music swells up so that we don’t know what was said but how it impacted the person it was told to.)

There are a lot of moments like that that assured me that “Booksmart” was a film that was worth embracing. The sweet moments are the more special, the funny moments are all the more hilarious, and they’re balanced surprisingly well. When I left the theater for “Booksmart,” I wasn’t just cracking up thinking about that drug sequence again; I was also thinking that Molly and Amy are going to be all right. They’re smart. They learn from mistakes. And whether they’re together or apart, they’ll always have that special bond that unites them, and because they themselves are aware of it, that’s why they’re smart in the end.

The One I Love (2014)

23 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!…When Charlie McDowell’s “The One I Love” was released in 2014, reviewers were afraid to go beyond the first scene of the film, lest they risk talking about…the story.

Doesn’t really make sense to me, but I’ll be kind and issue a “SPOILER” alert.

(To be fair, even the film’s trailer is surprisingly very vague about what happens after the 10-minute mark.)

Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are in a marriage rut, for which they take counseling. Why? You name it—they have trouble communicating with each other, he cheated on her, they don’t share that same spark anymore, etc. It’s a variety of reasons. Even when they try to recapture the spontaneity of the past, it doesn’t work. (Sneaking into a neighbor’s pool surprisingly isn’t very risk-taking anymore.) Their marriage counselor (Ted Danson, stepfather of director Charlie McDowell) recommends a weekend retreat where he sends most of his couples who just need to get away together for a little while. He assures them that each of them comes back refreshed and renewed. Ethan and Sophie agree to it, because why not? So, they’re set up alone at a big remote property, a big house with a pool and a guest house…what they find inside that guest house is where things get particularly interesting…

OK, here goes—each time either Ethan or Sophie sets foot into the guest house, one encounters a different version of the other. Sophie goes into the house, Ethan’s hair is slightly messy, he’s more charming and charismatic, and he doesn’t even have his glasses. And with Ethan, Sophie is more of a Stepford wife—eager to please, even preparing bacon for breakfast (something the real Sophie hates). When they (their real selves) become aware of what’s happening, their initial reaction is to flee. But then when they sit and talk about it, they decide they want to try it out a little longer. In spending time with different versions of their significant other, they also lay down some ground rules for each other…which I’M SURE WILL BE FOLLOWED.

Remember “Ruby Sparks,” the brilliant romantic comedy-drama that stated the difference between falling in love with a person and falling in love with an idea of that person? “The One I Love” sort of takes that concept a step further, by having Sophie literally fall in love with the man she thought she loved before, while Ethan is actually willing to work things out with himself and the woman he knows he loves…or does he actually love her…or does he just love the idea of her…? The Sophie that generates around him inside the guest house is more like a trophy wife than a real person, so what does that say about his romantic desires? Whatever this situation is, it’s apparently based on how people in couples see each other and uses that to appeal to their wants/needs in a relationship. Where it goes from there is left to question, especially for Ethan, who grows more concerned about how far Sophie’s willing to take her little “fling.”

I mentioned “Ruby Sparks,” which took an out-of-nowhere, eye-opening dark turn to teach the protagonist a lesson about the woman he wanted to be someone different from herself. “The One I Love” has a consistent dark tone all throughout—much of that has to do with cinematographer Doug Emmett’s shadowy shots, the overall layout of this property, and the director’s ability to make the couple’s problems and their attempts to solve them seem odd and eerie, almost like a Hitchcock setup. And the disturbing situation gets more and more uncomfortable, the more they experiment with it, as it seems there is one potential outcome for this couple—one version of either Ethan or Sophie has to stay while the other goes…but who stays with the other and who goes with the other?

The screenwriter, Justin Lader, makes the bold, smart choice of explaining very little. No one, not even the marriage counselor, comes along to give an expository speech about why this is or why that is. In the end, so much is left open to interpretation, which is the best move—any explanation wouldn’t have satisfied me. It’s just a fun, strange concept that’s played around with as numerous possibilities are taken advantage of, and I was intrigued all the way through “The One I Love.” And the ending, I think, is brilliant and provokes questions as to what the right choice is/was, how does one live with what’s happened, how do you deal with what’s happening around you, and…who IS the one you love?

Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne

21 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I would issue a SPOILER ALERT, as I did for my “Avengers: Endgame” review a couple weeks ago…but people have no trouble spoiling “GoT” anyway, so why should I be different?

People are complaining all over the Internet about Season 8 of “Game of Thrones” because they don’t like the direction it’s been headed. Well now, it’s there, with the series finale, entitled “The Iron Throne.” Let’s see what people are saying about it…

A mixed reception. Why am I not surprised? People have complained about the finales for “Lost,” “The Sopranos,” and “Seinfeld” too…except those shows didn’t have the crazy amount of social-media craziness (read “silliness”) that “GoT” has received in recent days. (It’s even gotten to the point where over a million fans signed a petition in an attempt to demand HBO to remake season 8…yeah, THAT’s gonna happen, I’m sure.)

As for me, I appreciate the places “GoT” went. It went even darker than expected, the characters went through changes, and I was interested BECAUSE it wasn’t what I expected. (But I never read the books by George R.R. Martin, so take that for what it’s worth.)

“The Iron Throne” picks up where its previous episode “The Bells” left off, with King’s Landing being utterly devastated by the wrath of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), with so many dead and survivors covered with soot and ash. It’s especially heartbreaking when Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) wanders through the debris of the Red Keep to find the corpses of Jaime and Cersei Lannister.

Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Davos (Liam Cunningham) have also survived and find that Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and his men are about to execute captured Lannister soldiers, causing Jon to question his queen.

Daenerys is now in full power, having proved triumphant and won the battle. (The shot of her addressing her troops, with Drogon the dragon hovering behind her, won’t leave my memory anytime soon.) She’s had the power for a while now, but now that she’s obtained the full capacity (and the Iron Throne, now covered in ash as she approaches it), you can tell her blood has run its coldest and her lust for glory is unquenchable. When Jon confronts her about the evil things she’s done, such as killing small children, she simply states, “We can’t hide behind small mercies.”

Before we get to that point, however, Jon still serves Daenerys and defends her actions, even when he knows something isn’t quite right here (as if things have been right before all of this). One of my favorite scenes is a conversation between Jon and Tyrion, who has been imprisoned by Daenerys for treason. Tyrion has clearly learned from all of his mistakes and is willing to pay the consequences for what he’s done throughout the series. And he’s the one who puts things in perspective for Jon. (Tyrion Lannister has always been the best character in the show, simply because he’s the smartest character in the show.)

OK fine, for those who missed the series finale and aren’t given the displeasure of having it spoiled for them, this is where I’ll stop explaining the story and just say what I think of it overall. (I guess I WILL be different.) At 80 minutes, it’s one of the best “films” of the year. Of course, as with just about every “GoT” episode, the cinematography is gorgeous and incredible—not just with the scene of Daenerys directing her troops, but also the scene in which she approaches the Iron Throne (it’s not only bittersweet; it’s kind of beautiful to look at). The acting is very on-point, with Peter Dinklage possibly delivering his most compelling work on the series; I loved seeing his character grow in this episode alone (but again, he’s been growing for a while). Even near the end, when he gives an impassioned, heartfelt speech about why a certain person should lead a kingdom, I listen to every word he is saying and I believe him because of what he’s been through and because of the kind of person he could become in the future. (Don’t rule out the possibility of a sequel series, btw.) And as if fans weren’t accustomed to the sudden deaths of certain characters throughout the series, they are forced to face one of the ultimate, melancholy, not entirely undeserved ends of one of the most infamous characters in “GoT.” Again, I won’t give it away here, but it’s as bittersweet as it is powerful.

There’s also room for a little humor—nothing too forced, just enough to be welcomed after facing some pretty harsh material. With Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) suggests to the remaining leaders that the people should decide for themselves who is worthy to lead from now on…everyone bursts into laughter. (I can’t say this is speaking for the Twitter whiners about the show or even for the American registered voters…but I can’t doubt it either.)

I’m looking through my Facebook feed now, and I’m already seeing memes about the resolution involving Bran Stark, or Bran the Broken (Isaac Hempstead Wright), and regarding what happens with him… Honestly, I didn’t mind it. Maybe it was because Tyrion’s speech about why he deserved it won me over. One critic even argued that the particular resolution should have happened with Tyrion himself…was he even listening to Tyrion’s speech?? The guy’s had enough.

I think “Game of Thrones” wrapped up nicely and effectively with “The Iron Throne.” Hopefully, when those same complainers think about what they’ve gotten over the past eight years and what it amounted to, they’ll be fair and say that they got what they deserved. Maybe they just didn’t want to see their favorite show come to an end. As Stephen King himself tweeted about this season recently, “All good things…” Congratulations to everyone involved, I say.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

6 May

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

A lot of people will complain about going to a movie theater to sit through a three-hour film, in fear of having to leave to go to the bathroom and missing something important on-screen. And I’ll admit, they do have a point. Even the late Alfred Hitchcock once said, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Well, with an epic as entertaining as “Avengers: Endgame,” built up to present the battle of all battles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s definitely important to let it all out right before the movie starts…not to be crude.

Point is, I didn’t miss a thing in this three-hour combination of action and emotion, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

I know fans are worried about spoiling “Avengers: Endgame,” so I’ll keep it mild at best in this review.

After the emotional climax of “Avengers: Infinity War” that left moviegoers shaken to the core, we expect to see something BIG in the follow-up. We know there’s going to be an amazing final battle that will hopefully make everything right again. We know there’s going to be intense drama as well as intense action. We even know at least two of our favorite Marvel heroes are going to die. And we know nothing is going to be the same after this. It’s inevitable—we’ve learned this from “Return of the Jedi,” “The Return of the King,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” among others, and we assume it’ll also be the case for the upcoming “Star Wars” movie too. But what we don’t know is HOW it all plays out—and thus, you gotta see the movie, because we get all that…and more.

Much more. The hype is real, you guys.

“Infinity War” was only “Part One,” building up to “Endgame” for “Part Two.” We’ve lost many of our favorite superheroes, after the all-powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapped his magical fingers and wiped out 50% of all living things. Among those left to rebuild are Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Rhodey/War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Oh, and there’s also Thor (Chris Hemsworth)…he’s had better days, let’s just say. With help from Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), who was called upon by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) before he vanished along with the rest, they defeat Thanos…but then, it’s five years later and they’re not as close to accepting the loss of their loved ones as they say they are.

This is where the film packs an emotional punch. How these people deal with failure makes for great drama, and you feel for them as they try to make things better when it seems they have no other choice but to just live with it. Things change, however, when Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) reappears after having been stuck in the quantum realm the whole time. He finds the remaining Avengers and they fill him in on what’s happened. But wait! They say he’s been gone for five years, and yet he claims it only took five hours to get back to reality. This could mean that the quantum realm leaves open the possibility of time travel…

Needless to say, the Avengers develop a “time machine” and put Scott’s theory to the test. If it works, they have a chance at reversing Thanos’ process and bringing everyone back to life. This results in a “Back to the Future” type of adventure (“BTTF” is even mentioned a few times), in which the Avengers go back in time to prevent Thanos from collecting the Infinity Stones before he can use them all to rid the planet (and other planets) of half of life. (And alternate timelines are mentioned at one point. It doesn’t dwell on the issue, but I am glad they thought of it—“Back to the Future” sort of skipped over it, now that I think about it.) Comedy, action, even a little drama—all of that ensues during this incredible journey.

And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot, except that when we do get finally get the action-packed battle to end all battles, it’d be an understatement to say it was worth the wait.

It’s always great to see great action in these movies, but I was rather in awe of some of the smaller, more personal moments, such as when Scott returns to reality to find that half the world is gone and he frantically searches for his daughter (who was his whole reason for becoming a better person in “Ant-Man” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp”). And when the Avengers are on their time-travel mission, and one of them gets to talk to his own father before the son was born, and that reminds me that I don’t just watch these movies just to have fun—I watch them because I care about these characters…and have fun with them as well. I’m happy to have gotten to know them throughout the years.

I don’t want to go into any more detail, because to talk more about the emotional impact this film made is to spoil the entire film. So, I won’t.

It’s amazing to think how far the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come since its origin 11 years ago, with “Iron Man.” We’ve had many entertaining entries in this series (my personal favorites being “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Black Panther,” as well as “Iron Man”), and the series as a whole took its time developing the immensely appealing characters in stand-alone films before bringing them all together so we can get excited and pumped up when they kick some serious ass. That’s always been the appeal of these movies. (It was never really about the action, as good as it could be.) And we knew it was building up to something huge, and thankfully, it didn’t disappoint. Honestly…I think “Avengers: Endgame” may be the best MCU film by far. It makes me wonder where the MCU will go from here…

I can’t wait to find out.

mid90s (2018)

19 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Flag Flying (2017)

1 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Directed by Richard Linklater? Starring Bryan Cranston? With Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell? Based on the sequel novel to the source material behind “The Last Detail,” one of my all-time favorite films? Screenplay co-written by Linklater and the original novel’s author Darryl Ponicsan? It sounds too good to be true, and maybe that’s why I love “Last Flag Flying” as much as I do.

Funny thing is, even though I can see “Last Flag Flying,” based on Ponicsan’s 2005 novel of the same name (which was a sequel to his 1970 novel “The Last Detail,” which was the source material for the 1973 film adaptation), as an “unofficial” sequel to “The Last Detail” (albeit with different characters names & motivations), it still feels like a Richard Linklater film. We still have a small group of characters who are bright and clever enough for the audience to want to follow them around for two hours and listen to what they have to say to each other, which has always been Linklater’s most welcome trademark in his filmography.

Taking the place of “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson in “The Last Detail”), “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young), and Meadows (Randy Quaid) are “Sal” Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell). The “Last Flag Flying” characters are more or less the same as their previous “Last Detail” counterparts, despite some altered details here or there. (And don’t worry—I won’t make too many comparisons in this review.) It’s 2003 when Doc visits the bar of Sal, a former Marine he served with in Vietnam. Sal joins Doc on an impromptu drive the following morning to visit a church where another Vietnam buddy, Mueller (formerly known as “Mauler”), is the reverend. But after a pleasant time of catching up, Doc reveals to his old friends that he’s had a rough year—his wife died of breast cancer, and his son has recently been killed in action in Iraq. And he asks Sal and Mueller for help in burying him. After some consideration (and reluctance), the three embark on a road trip; first to Dover Air Force Base to retrieve the flag-covered coffin and then home to Portsmouth to bury the boy next to his mother. Along the way, they talk about the past, stop in New York City and Boston, and confront the demons they’ve faced for years. Sometimes, it’s very funny (such as when they decide to buy new handy devices called “mobile phones”—wow, was 2003 really that long ago?). Otherwise, it’s very bitter. But before the trip is over, they will help one another get over the past because no one else can.

Linklater observes these three characters with respect, sympathy, and affection. And despite the terrible things they mention having done in the past, Linklater doesn’t judge them either—he has them address the issue head-on and talk about how it affected their lives. That’s where the intense drama comes effectively into play, and because all three men are distinct and memorable, the conversations they partake in are always interesting to follow. And that also makes it more fun when the lighter, comedic moments pop in for much-needed levity—my favorite scene is the aforementioned “cellphone” scene, in which they go into a department store and are amazed and delighted that they can carry a little phone with them at all times and call someone with the same mobile plan for no additional charge!! (This was 2003—back when we actually used cellphones to…talk on the phone.) But the film is all about the journey they take together, so there’s room for both comedy and drama, and as is the case for my favorite Linklater films, I would join these characters’ company for another couple hours.

All three actors—Cranston, Fishburne, and Carell—are excellent, but it’s Cranston that steals the show almost too often. It’s one of his very best performances, and his cocky charisma even rivals that of Jack Nicholson’s 1973 counterpart of the character.

Now…let’s address a potential “elephant in the room”: is “Last Flag Flying” an anti-war movie? Probably. Setting it at the beginning of the Iraq War and seeing consequences from the perspectives of Vietnam War veterans, it’s not hard to make that distinction. And there are a lot of cynical and bitter comments about the military and the overall purpose of war that heavily indicate that while opponents and locations have changed, the reasoning never changes. But at the same time, when the three characters (plus a friend of Doc’s son’s, also a young soldier, with whom they make conversation along the way) get down to it, they still remain loyal patriots who were proud to help serve their country. I think it’s more of an area in which they’ll do what they feel is their duty even if they’re not entirely sure why it’s their duty to begin with (i.e. what they were fighting for). It’s smart in the ambiguous way it’s treated, particularly in the tearjerking final scene in which Doc, now all alone, says goodbye to his son.

Sequel to “The Last Detail”? Eh, it’s a stand-alone film, so no matter. One of Linklater’s best? Definitely. One of the best films of 2017? No doubt. “Last Flag Flying” deserves the same amount of respect I’ve given to “The Last Detail,” and that’s a very high regard indeed.