Archive | November, 2016

Sing Street (2016)

18 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve always been a fan of coming-of-age movies, especially when they succeed at balancing comedy and drama so well. That’s not an easy task to pull off, and it could result in an uneven mess. But when you do it right, you can expand your audience. It’s like this—you have a gritty, realistic story you want to tell, but you also have lighthearted elements that work within the context; that lightheartedness keeps audiences in; the audiences laugh and smile; then they notice what else the film has to offer and get sucked in even further; they talk about it afterwards; they tell their friends; their friends check it out; and there you go.

Then again, maybe that only happened to me. Basically, I heard the buzz about this film, “Sing Street,” and so I watched it on Netflix—now I’m practically imploring other people (including readers of this review) to see it.

I love “Sing Street.” This may be the film I’ve been waiting to see for a long time—a very charming, fun film that also tells a gripping story about growing up, brotherhood, and turning your personal turmoil into art. It was brought to us to the very talented Irish writer/director John Carney, whose 2007 musical “Once” stole many people’s hearts by stating what music can do to its characters and to the audience, much like this film does.

“Sing Street” takes place in Dublin, 1985. 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is caught in the middle of an unpleasant home life, in which his parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) won’t stop squabbling. His older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) escapes the household tension by smoking weed, while Conor ventures outward. After his parents transfer him from a prestigious private school to a rowdy Catholic school, he finds himself going from an unpleasant home life to an unpleasant school life—or just an unpleasant life overall, which is helped a little bit by watching new music videos with Brendan. Everything changes when he sees a pretty girl across the street from school and decides to walk over and talk to her.

This is Raphina (Lucy Boynton), and she’s everything Conor only dreams about—tall, beautiful, cool (in a very ‘80s sort of way—remember this film is set in 1985), and a model. But he asks her to be a video for his band, which she shockingly agrees to do. There’s only one problem—he doesn’t have a band! But soon enough, he puts one together out of some classmates who have musical talent and promotes himself as lead singer. Calling themselves “Sing Street,” they start off gaining inspiration from popular bands at the time, such as Duran Duran, but they soon come up with their own material and continuously create song after song after song, as they get better and better. For Conor, this is his way of escaping reality. His parents won’t stop fighting and his personal bully, as well as the school’s principal, won’t stop tormenting him. But if he can bring his music to London with dreams of making it big, he has something to aim for in a new journey. After all, in this bleak time when there are hardly any jobs to be found and many Dubliners are emigrating to London, why shouldn’t he go to London and be a rock star?

This film not only speaks to teenage garage bands who make their own love songs instead of play them on stereo for possible love interests, but it also speaks to many others. It’s easy for people to see themselves in one or two of these characters. Many of them are people who aspire for something greater than what they have, and this film represents “the dreamer” in various ways—for example, there’s the dreamer that awaits the dream to come true, the dreamer that regrets not chasing the dream at first, the dreamer that lives through art, and even the dreamer that actually does go to London to seek the dream. We all have ambitions and dreams in real life and things always get in the way. “Sing Street” speaks to all of us.

It even gets the fantasies right. There’s a scene in which Sing Street is making another amateur music video and trying to make it a ‘50s American prom setting (based on what they saw in “Back to the Future”). They have very little production design and very few extras who don’t get the concept of what dancing was like in that era, but what Conor imagines, in a very well-done fantasy sequence, is greater than they could possibly pull off.

And the film is also a touching tale about brotherhood. I love the realistic brotherly relationship between Conor and Brendan. Brendan isn’t the typical jerk of an older sibling you see in many coming-of-age movies—he’s more helpful than he is condescending, his criticisms of Conor’s band help him along the way, and he wants his little brother to succeed where he hasn’t. Sometimes, he loses his temper, but as you get to know more about him, you understand why he does this.

But of course, I can’t neglect to talk about the music. It’s unfair to say the music in a musical is “unmemorable” after only seeing it once—I mean, Roger Ebert even thought the songs in “The Lion King” would be forgotten back when that movie was released. There is one song from “Sing Street” that I can hum to myself as I write this review (“Drive it Like You Stole It,” a very catchy tune), but I can’t forget how good the other music-video sequences made me feel as I was watching them. And maybe after I see this film a few more times (which I surely will), the songs will stay with me over time.

If there is a line of dialogue I will take from this movie (and not from a song lyric), it’s this one: “I’m going to try and accept it and get on with it and make some art.” Conor says this in reference to how he’s going to deal with being a world full of “morons and rapists and bullies” because that’s just how life is. The artist in me appreciated that moment, just as the critic in me appreciated “Sing Street.” It’s wonderfully executed, brilliantly acted, charming to the max, and one of the best films of the year.

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Arrival (2016)

13 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

First contact. It’s a subject explored in many science-fiction stories. If extra-terrestrial life came to Earth, what would it mean? Why would the aliens come here? How would we react? Etc. It’s a fascinating concept to think about—what if we are not alone in the universe? It seems we’ve covered everything that could be done with this scenario—either the aliens are hostile (“Independence Day,” “War of the Worlds,” “Signs”) or they’re friendly (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Superman”) or they’re here to warn us (“The Day The Earth Stood Still,” “The Abyss”) or they’re stranded here until humans assist them to get home (“E.T.,” “Starman”). Bottom line is, we’ve been through this many times before in movies. So, when French-Canadian “Prisoners”/”Sicario” director Denis Villeneuve’s alien-arrival drama/thriller “Arrival” came to light, I had to wonder—what could this film do that countless other films haven’t already?

“Arrival” beings with the “arrival” of 12 huge quadrilateral ships that hover above the ground at random locations all around the world. Because it’s difficult to communicate with whatever is inside them, no one knows what to make of them—are they dangerous or just visiting or what? Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) of the US government calls upon Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a professional linguist, to see if she can make anything of the symbols the aliens use to attempt to communicate. She’s reluctant at first to join the first contact team near one of the ships, but she leads kind of an empty life, so she decides to join because she feels she has nothing to lose. Paired with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she boards the ship, sees the aliens in their true form (giant seven-legged creatures), and begins to decipher the alien language. She also teaches the aliens human vocabulary so that eventually the team can get an answer to the big question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”

To start off, the film’s tone is set just right, to make it feel like this is really happening; that otherworldly ships have landed on Earth and it’s unknown why the beings inside them are here. The focus is kept on one set of characters in one location near one of the 12 ships scattered all over the world. All we know that’s happening elsewhere is what they see/hear through webcam chats and television media. By using this simple method of storytelling, it not only makes the unknown more unnerving but it also makes the audience more anxious.

But whatever—that’s a given in alien-arrival films, to make the unknown more mysterious until the aliens’ intention is revealed later. What is the film really about? Communication. I won’t give away how, but the communication this film investigates isn’t merely between humans and aliens; it shows the importance of it in a way I can’t explain without talking about spoilers. It’s best I just get across in this review how this film affected me as a critic and a filmgoer and let you go in with a virgin experience.

All I can say about the last half-hour is this: I didn’t see it coming, and I surely didn’t expect to be as fascinated by it as I was. It even raised a discussion with my father, whom I saw it with. I was surprised how much this film left us with more to talk about than I expected it to.

In an outstanding career consisting of 5 Oscar nominations (in 10 years!), Amy Adams turns in one of her best roles here. It’s one of her more serious and psychologically challenging roles, and she is nothing short of perfect in performing it. The more I got to learn about her character, the more I felt for her. And then when I learn something critical about her, it makes her all the more fascinating. But again, I can’t explain why here.

I don’t know how I can continue reviewing this film without giving away some important elements, because “Arrival” really is more than I’m letting on. It’s a powerful, intriguing and thought-provoking drama/thriller that surprised me, delighted me in doing so, and was a wonderful experience all the way through. I really wish I could go into it some more, but maybe someday, after a second viewing, I’ll come back with an analytical review in which I talk about the mysteries’ answers that fascinated me.

Spotlight (2015)

13 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I wrote for a newspaper before. It was The Echo, the campus newspaper for UCA (University of Central Arkansas); I wrote for three semesters, and some of the reviews on this blog made it in the Entertainment section. (Not too shabby.) I wasn’t always writing reviews (or columns) for it, however. A requirement for writing for the paper was reporting on current events, either for News, Campus Life, or Sports. I thought it would be easy at first—just go in, report what I see, and make sure I name my sources and get my facts right. The more I did it, the more difficult it became. I had to get different kinds of information from sources that were either unattainable or hard to get in contact with, and I had to write the story before a certain deadline that would keep crunching down.

There. I have my campus newspaper-reporter story out of the way. Now I’m going to talk about “Spotlight,” a film about investigative journalism at its most challenging. I’m aware of the differences between my experiences in The Echo and what happens in this film (in addition to what happens in big newspaper businesses in real life). I just thought I’d mention it here to state that if I thought it was hard writing an article about a heart-disease lecture or Green Week on Campus (among others) for The Echo, I hadn’t done anything yet.

“Spotlight” is one of the best films about newspaper reporting, if not the absolute best. It focuses on a particular story that our main characters—a team of investigative reporters—are trying to dig up over a long period of time. It begins with the team’s interest in the story and it ends with the story being published, meaning the main storyline of “Spotlight” involves the process of getting the story.

“Spotlight” involves the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team—editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They’re a small group of journalists who write in-depth investigative articles after spending months conducting an abundant amount of research. In 2001, their new story comes after the Globe’s new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), learns of a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represented numerous families alleging their children were sexually abused by Catholic priests. Baron wants the Spotlight team to investigate. Rezendes meets with Garabedian, who reluctantly tells him that there’s much more going on here than meets the eye. The Spotlight team interviews victims and lawyers, and it becomes clear that this isn’t just a 4-13 case number. It’s a widespread conspiracy, with at least 90 cases of scandal and cover-up. The team realizes how risky it is to go after such a powerful institution as the Catholic Church, but they go ahead with the story anyway, spending months to get the full scoop and expose the truth.

“Spotlight” is based on actual events—in early 2002, Spotlight published the story and it triggered a storm that caught the attention of both the country and the world. The whole film is seen through the perspective of this team of journalists, and the audience discovers what they uncover, through conducting interviews, following leads, and so on. Much of the film takes place in the newsroom, and so you get a sense that this is their life (we only get glimpses of their home lives, because the film is less about character than about the job). Director Tom McCarthy (director of small indie favorites such as “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, has a great eye for the material and makes the wise decision of approaching it with tact and realism without resorting to melodrama. He gets the journalists’ intrigue within the investigation and uses it with respect.

The characters are secondary to the most important aspect of the film, which is to show the harrowing process of this type of investigative journalism. But it takes great acting from those portraying the journalists to really sell it. Thankfully, the ensemble acting is nothing short of brilliant. Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, d’Arcy James, and Schreiber look and feel exactly right for their roles, right down to their mannerisms (for example, I love how McAdams keeps scribbling notes as she walks away from a property she got kicked out of). Plus, they undersell certain scenes that would be overly emotional; they play it like any regular person absorbing new, disturbing information would. You can tell they’re upset by what they uncover, but they’re taking it in rather than breaking down and throwing things across the room in anger. There’s only one blow-up scene in which Ruffalo gets angry and explodes, but even that’s not overdone. Speaking of Ruffalo, he’s perfect as an intensely aggressive reporter who won’t stop until he gets what he needs—he earned his Oscar nomination. In fact, the whole cast should’ve been nominated; not just Ruffalo and McAdams. (Seriously, Academy—the Indie Spirit Awards have an Ensemble Acting award, and you should too.)

Even though there were too few occasions where I could see myself in these characters, having worked on a smaller paper for a brief period of time, I could recognize close to everything as being true to life. It makes me wonder how I would feel if I was working for this paper and working with this team and getting this particular story. I will tell you this: it would’ve made me proud to fight with giants and do whatever it takes to get the word out and expose the truth. I feel the passion in the Spotlight team and it makes me glad there are more investigative journalists out there fighting to remove the curtains behind which people hide with their dark injustices.

“Spotlight” was one of the best films of 2015—I really wish I knew that when I did my “2015 Review.” I put it in the Honorable Mentions when it should’ve been placed as #2 on my Top-10-of-2015 list. Watching it again and reviewing it now, I recognize my mistake and attempt to take it back with a four-star rating and nothing but praise for this brilliant film. (And hey, it won the Best Picture Oscar, so there’s that too.)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 2 (2015)

12 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Previously on Smith’s Verdict…

From the “Mockingjay—Part 1” review—“[Mockingjay—Part 1”] is hard to criticize except to say it’s not a complete film. I’m rating it three stars, with it amounting to an optimistic ‘incomplete’ status. It’s just a film leading us into ‘Part 2,’ and is it is, it’s worthwhile for audiences and fans of the original source material. […] ‘Mockingjay Part 2’ has the potential to be great.”

I get why “Mockingjay,” the third book in the “Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins, was split into two movies. For one thing, it’s a long book, and only the biggest “Hunger Games” fans would pay to see a 3+ hour long movie based on it. And for another, making two films was an opportunity for the studio to make double the amount of money it would make if it were just one film. (It’s a move that I honestly think is unnecessary—see the unfortunate mess the “Divergent” series is in.) Yes, it is a long book, but most readers will agree it moves at a snail’s pace. I give credit to the writers for adapting it as close to the source material as they could to please the fans, but I think “Mockingjay” would have been stronger as one film, if they took a few elements from “Part 1” (including the ending) and trimmed a little bit of “Part 2,” “Mockingjay” would have been as strong as “The Hunger Games” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

With that said, “Mockingjay—Part 2” is a solid conclusion to what has always been a riveting film series. It’s well-paced, it ties up loose ends, and it ends brilliantly (I’ll get to that later). This entry is bleaker than the other two, which is necessary, since it takes us to the fight to the end between dystopian rule and rebellion. Not everything is going to be easy; if it were, there wouldn’t be as many deaths.

“Part 2” of course picks up where “Part 1” left off, with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), after being rescued from the devious Capitol, unexpectedly choking his former lover, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Peeta has been brainwashed to believe that everything the Capitol is doing is largely because of Katniss’ actions. Distressed by this, Katniss agrees to join a group assault on the Capitol, so she can finally confront and possibly assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

One of the things that strikes me about this film is how complicated it is in its story. Peeta believes Katniss is the cause of so much destruction and is only making the Capitol worse. What’s strange is, in a way, he’s right. But Katniss does what she does in the name of survival and is trying to hold on to what she has, as well as a good moral center—but the problem is, she doesn’t always know what’s best and even though she sometimes goes against what she’s told to do by her allies, she knows her allies’ advice isn’t the best decision either. That is a strong asset to this movie—it shows the complications of doing the right thing in this corrupt, violent society, and it’s never clear exactly what the right thing is. What matters in this world are survival and holding onto your moral center as much as possible.

This is as much a credit to Jennifer Lawrence’s brilliant work as an actress, but I like how you can see Katniss’ inner struggle to do what she can and must in this insane world she didn’t make. On top of that, she’s made up to be a symbol to the media—someone who did something rebellious and paved the way for the Resistance. So now, the President of the Resistance, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), wants to use her as a decoy for others to move in ahead of her, but as the raid continues, she’s less interested in becoming a martyr and a decoy than becoming a savior and a heroine. And then, when something horrible happens to one of her loved ones, you’re not sure how she’s going to react/retaliate (that is, unless you read the book).

Other critics complain that “Mockingjay—Part 2” starts off at a slow pace. On the one hand, I can see what they mean. But on the other hand, I don’t mind because I see the turmoil these people are going through before the big raid on the Capitol, and it’s fascinating to see how their minds work. This film needed that time to build things up, so I could feel what they were feeling. And no, there isn’t a lot of action (and a few action scenes are scattered far apart), but I think people misunderstand—this isn’t the epic-battle conclusion in the same way “The Return of the King” was for “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Deathly Hallows” was for “Harry Potter”; it’s still a conclusion, but it’s one that uses wits instead of weapons. The final half-hour of the film isn’t a big, bombastic action climax—it’s a battle of brains. It leads to an unexpected resolution that I honestly commend this film for delivering us instead of taking the easy way out.

If you read my reviews of the previous “Hunger Games” movies, you know I’m not a fan of Gale (Liam Hemsworth). So, something I was interested in while seeing this final chapter was how this love triangle between him, Katniss, and Peeta was going to work out. I won’t give away what becomes of Gale, but I will say it only reinforces my statement that Gale was an unnecessary character. (But on the plus side, nothing too big was made of the “love triangle”; it’s played in a mellow way.)

The action scenes are very well-done, with solid direction by Francis Lawrence. There are scenes of combat that are brutally tense, but the highlight of the film is an “Aliens”-like sequence in which the rebels fight for their lives in a sewer tunnel against Capitol-trained man-monster things. That was a very chilling scene that had me on the edge of my seat.

I appreciated “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2” for making a tough point about the moral uncertainty of war in the midst of providing a conclusion most of us have been waiting for. It’s not an action-packed thrill ride, but it’s not supposed to be. If you’re willing to dig beneath the surface of the story, you’ll find that it’s saying deeper than expected.

Stranger Things: Season 1 (2016)

1 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Rarely do I review TV shows on Smith’s Verdict (and no, my Top 15 Favorite “How I Met Your Mother” Episodes post doesn’t count), but in the case of “Stranger Things” Season 1, I simply couldn’t resist.

“Stranger Things” is a Netflix Original series that took the world by storm within the first few days it premiered. Viewers go crazy for it, and I completely understand why. This eight-episode-long story within this first season provides an answer to the question, “What would happen if Steven Spielberg directed a Stephen King story?” There are callbacks to Spielberg’s earlier work (such as “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jaws,” “The Goonies,” “Poltergeist,” among others) as well as King’s earlier work (“It,” “Carrie,” “Stand by Me,” “Firestarter,” “Salem’s Lot,” among others), so it’s easy to tell products by Spielberg and King gave creators known as The Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross Duffer) some inspiration to tell a story in tradition to them. The Duffer Brothers pay homage to these stories while making one of their own. Let me put it this way—I’m not blind to certain things that are reminiscent of this or that Spielberg or King story, but at the same time, I’m not thinking to myself, “Maybe I should watch that instead.” That’s a major strength of the series itself.

I’m going to review the first season overall as if it were one long movie, because that’s pretty much how I saw it anyway—a 6-7 hour long movie that I never got tired of watching. (Each episode runs about 45-55 minutes.) This is going to be roughly spoiler-free—any story details going past episode 2 will not be written about here.

Set in a small Indiana town in November 1983, “Stranger Things” begins with the mysterious disappearance of a young boy. While police chief Hopper (David Harbour) starts to investigate and the boy’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) put up “missing” posters while frantically looking for him, the boy’s friends—Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin)—begin their own search. The boys come across a strange girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) with a limited vocabulary…and psychokinetic abilities. They find that there might be a connection between her and the boy’s disappearance. Meanwhile, something is out there, collecting people in town. The closer the boys, Joyce, and Hopper, along with Jonathan and Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), get to learning the truth, the more they attract the attention of an ominous government agency…and something even more threatening.

As soon as I was done with the first episode, I knew I had to keep watching to see what was going to happen. The mystery is built up beautifully. Who is this girl? Where did she come from? What’s the story behind this government agency? What happened to the boy? What’s that thing out there? And so on. It shocked me how beautifully woven together many parts of the story were. We get many different stories that eventually connect together by Episode 7—we have the boys learning as much about Eleven (whom they dub “El”) as they can; we have Joyce discovering ways of otherworldly contact with her missing son (such as using Christmas lights to communicate); we have Hopper learning something suspicious about the agency; and we have the sexually intrigued Nancy whose priorities change when her friend Barbara (Shannon Purser) goes missing, leading to working with Jonathan to investigate. There are many characters to follow, but funnily enough, I never dreaded the moment one set of characters returned. I was interested in these characters and their stories, wanting to know what was going to happen.

And the touches of ‘80s pop-culture are fun too, with a Carpenter-like techno score and a soundtrack consisting of hits including an effective running use of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” This may not be the exact style we come to expect from a typical ‘80s product, but that’s because it was made in the mid-2010s (duh). That means we’re not afraid to go more outward in writing when we have something we feel passion for. (Look at today’s TV—it’s a great time for storytelling in TV.)

The acting is across-the-board solid. Winona Ryder is brilliant as the frantic mother who is desperately seeking answers and will not brush off the oddities she discovers as side-effects of grief. Harbour is pretty good too—his character, who is a drug addict on top of being a horrible cop, grew on me as the season went on; Harbour nails the dramatic scenes that are called for when we learn more about his past. The kids are all fantastic actors—not a single false note is found in either of them; what makes their team effort work is their ability to act like real friends. Heaton is excellent as well, as a shy high-school outcast who steps up as a hero. And then there’s Matthew Modine as the man behind most of the madness—let’s just say I wanted to punch this guy right in the jaw after I kick him in the groin.

Millie Bobby Brown gives the series’ best performance as Eleven. She had to convey emotions using just her eyes and body language and she is easily sympathetic while pulling them off. I hope she returns in Season 2.

“Stranger Things” is madly entertaining from the beginning to the end. It leaves room for a sequel season (Season 2, which comes out next year), and I’m excited to see it. What’s left to do? What’s left to see? What’s left to investigate? I’m excited to find out.