Archive | December, 2016

Rogue One (2016)

24 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

With the arrival of last year’s smash hit, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” the “Star Wars” franchise was back, and Lucasfilm/Disney was going to prove it. Not only were there going to be two further “episodes,” but there was also going to be a series of “Star Wars anthology” films in between said-episodes. To every “Star Wars” fan, this was great news, and while they would wait for “Episode VIII” in 2017, they were definitely going to see the first entry in the anthology: “Rogue One.”

(By the way, I know “Rogue One” is marketed as “A Star Wars Story.” That’s not how I’m going to label it. It sounds too run-of-the-mill.)

If you thought “The Empire Strikes Back” (Episode V) and/or “Revenge of the Sith” (Episode III) was dark, you haven’t seen anything yet. “Rogue One,” set just before Episode IV (which spawned the franchise in the first place), is darker, grittier, and more of a war film than we would expect from the franchise (funny, seeing how it’s called “Star WARS”). It still has its share of spectacular, rousing moments of sci-fi adventure and lighthearted, witty one-liners, but when it takes its dark turns, it gets pretty heavy. When characters are in battle, you have to be able to accept that there probably won’t be any turning back.

“Rogue One” works fine as a stand-alone film, but it’s even better when associated with the other films. Actually, those who don’t appreciate the silly turns taken in the prequels (Episodes I-III) will appreciate this film more as “the prequel we’ve been waiting for.”

The film’s heroine is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a bright, spunky, heated soldier and criminal. She’s also the daughter of scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), who tried to escape the ruthless Empire before he was forced back in to design the planet-destroying Death Star. At first, Jyn wants nothing to do with the Empire or the terrorists that follow, but when she receives a message from Galen that includes crucial information about the Death Star, she joins a group of Rebels on a mission to retrieve the original structural plans and bring them to the attention of the Alliance. (It should probably come as a surprise to no one that they succeed. But like any good movie, what really matters is how they succeed.)

Among the band of would-be heroes are badass pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), extremist Rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker), defective Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind monk warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Chirrut’s friend & fellow warrior Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and comic-relief robot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk)—a wonderfully diverse cast of characters.

Director Gareth Edwards (“Monsters,” “Godzilla”) was given some difficult tasks to perform in making this “Star Wars anthology” film—neatly tie it in to Episode IV, pay respect to George Lucas’ original vision, and make a war movie in the “Star Wars” universe. He succeeds in all three tasks. “Rogue One” is still set in the “Star Wars” universe, but it doesn’t feel entirely like what we’re used to. There’s something new and something old. It has to do with the execution, the feel of the piece, and also the way the war aspects in particular seem grounded and realistic. For example, when those giant mechanical-elephant things (and I’m sorry for forgetting what they’re called) are attacking, they’re seen from the ground perspective of the soldiers fighting them. This makes us feel the size and impending danger of these oncoming obstacles. You can feel the stakes are higher in this one.

Darth Vader returns in this one (and is again voiced by James Earl Jones), as many people were wondering before the film’s release. He’s only on screen for about five minutes total, but when he shows up…let’s just say there’s an action that reinforces the reason we were afraid of this guy.

And speaking of returning “Star Wars” characters, I can’t neglect to mention the reappearance of Grand Moff Tarkin, played in Episode IV by the late Peter Cushing. Using high-quality CGI effects, this character was brought back for somewhat of a supporting role. This easily could’ve been a downfall for the film, and yet, even though I’m distracted by the fact that this isn’t really Peter Cushing but a recreation of the deceased actor (with the aid of computers, a stand-in, and possibly a voice imitation), I have to say they did an impressive job “reviving” him and giving him a new performance. To my surprise, I buy it.

Also in terms of tying in to Episode IV, “Rogue One” managed to ingeniously resolve a flaw that has plagued many fans for decades. I won’t give it away here, but you’ll know it when you see it.

My only real problem with “Rogue One” is the villain. It’s not that Ben Mendelsohn doesn’t do fine work as Orson Krennic, the Empire’s Director of Advanced Weapons Research. But when you put him next to previous “Star Wars” villains like Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, he simply isn’t as memorable.

But the heroes are an appealing bunch. Even though Jyn is the one we grow closer to, due to knowing much of her background, the others are still fun to follow. Cassian is a dashing pilot, which would inspire shades of Han Solo, but actor Diego Luna makes the role his own. (Plus, I like how he represents a side of the Rebel Alliance that not many would expect. This guy isn’t to be messed with.) Chirrut Imwe provides many of the more awesome moments of action plus some appreciated deadpan humor. And K-2SO is a great addition—this droid doesn’t whine as much as C-3PO, and he provides the film’s biggest laughs with his snarky manner.

Oh, and a friend of mine (who is a “Star Wars” fan) says I should mention the use of composer Michael Giacchino’s replacement of John Williams’ iconic “Star Wars” score. It’s fine. It’s a bit distracting, but it still feels very “Star Wars”-ish.

Simply put, “Rogue One” is a compelling “Star Wars” entry, with riveting action, a more grounded feel, and a perfect splice of this “anthology piece” and Episode IV. This can only be the start of something great for “Star Wars”; I look forward to the next “Star Wars anthology” film in addition to Episode VIII.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

18 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Size change in fiction has always fascinated me. It’s interesting to imagine the world you live in from a different perspective. What would it look like if you were bigger? Or smaller? Disney’s 1989 smash hit “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” took it to the extreme, shrinking its heroes to ¼ inch in height so that an ordinary backyard becomes a treacherous jungle for them to trek through.

How does this happen? Well, brilliant but hapless scientist Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis) invented a machine that could shrink things down to microscopic size if he could get it to work. One of the neighbors’ sons, Ron (Jared Rushton), accidentally hits a baseball through the window and it somehow fixes the machine’s problem upon hitting it, causing it to work all too well, shrinking Ron, Ron’s older brother Russ (Thomas Brown), and both of Wayne’s own kids, Amy (Amy O’Neill) and Nick (Robert Oliveri). They’re too small to get Wayne’s attention, and they get swept up and taken out with the trash. So now they must travel miles worth of enormous backyard, where they come across many dangerous obstacles—bees, sprinklers, lawnmowers, and more.

Will they be saved? Will they be restored to normal size? Well, seeing as how it’s a family adventure by Disney, don’t feel bad in correctly assuming the answer to both questions is “yes.” Just have fun with this comedic, thrill-packed adventure and enjoy what it has to offer, which is a darn good time.

The thing that intrigues me the most about “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is its visuals. For a film released in 1989, many of the effects hold up surprisingly well. The sets are outstanding, with oversized props and glorious attention to detail. The jungle-like backyard looks unwelcoming. The animatronics, such as a giant friendly ant and a monstrous scorpion, look convincing—the ant especially will steal your heart…or at least it stole mine. At one point, one of the miniature kids is thrown into a bowl of Cheerios and milk, and it looks amazing. Even some of the blue-screen effects, such as a dangerous ride on top of a soaring bee, look nice. (Though, not all the blue-screen shots are well-done, such as when the kids are falling through the air—it’s a bit awkward. But those are so few and far between superior effects.)

If “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” were all about the look, it’d be fine, but I was engrossed by the human characters walking through it all. The kids are all likable and are given room to develop and…”grow” (forgive the pun). Russ starts as a meek wimp who quits the football team and the behest of his former-jock father, Big Russ (Matt Frewer), and as the film continues, he becomes a swashbuckling hero and an unofficial leader of the minute group. Amy is a popular but shallow teenage girl who just wants to “get home, get big, and get to the mall,” but throughout the journey, her priorities change for the better. Nick is a pre-teenage version of his father, and all he wants is to be heard by his father; he gets his chance by providing an important clue by the end of the film. My favorite development came from Ron, who starts off as a bratty 12-year-old jock and is still a wise-guy by the end of the film but much friendlier. All four young actors do good jobs, but Jared Rushton as Ron impressed me the most.

But the film’s main comedy comes from the two sets of parents—Wayne and Diane Szalinski (Marcia Strassman) and Big Russ and Mae Thompson (Kristine Sutherland). Rick Moranis is delightful as Wayne, goofy enough for us to laugh at him but more than likable enough too. He’s a perfect everyman. (Honestly, I like Moranis’ work here a little more than his goofier roles in “Ghostbusters” and “Spaceballs.”) And speaking of “goofy,” Matt Frewer is surprisingly effective as Big Russ, a man who goes through his own change while worrying about his missing kids. Most of the laughs come from Wayne’s inventive method of searching the yard for the kids without even touching the ground, Big Russ’ reactions to Wayne’s bizarre behavior, and the byplay between parents trying to work together but simply can’t (er, they can, but they…won’t).

Oh, and there’s also the Szalinski family’s dog, Quark, who of course knows more than the human characters. Simply put, this dog is a delight. Anytime the camera is on him, he’s a natural actor.

The film is a ton of fun but it isn’t great. I get that it’s just supposed to be a fun adventure, but sometimes I think things turn out a little too well for these kids. Also, I’m not so sure James Horner’s music score is the best fit for this material—it’s a little too foreboding and overly serious at times. It makes scenes that are already intense (such as when the kids are about to be sucked into a lawnmower) overly so.

And I have to ask—where in the world did that killer scorpion come from?! It leads to a neat-looking fight between the scorpion vs. the ant and the kids vs. the scorpion, but seriously, where did that thing come from?

But whatever. “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is loads of fun and in the great tradition of Disney. Much of it still holds up today as it did in 1989 when it was originally released, and I have fun watching it now as much as I did when I was a kid watching it over and over.

Green Room (2016)

18 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Just read the premise for writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room”: a punk-rock band must fight to survive a night in a bar run by ruthless neo-Nazis run by Patrick Stewart. Admit it—you want to see this film on the basis of that concept alone.

I’ll be honest and say I was expecting a more conventional (albeit fun and thrilling) film than the one I actually saw (thrilling but definitely not “fun” in the “conventional” sense). It’s a brutally realistic chiller that had my stomach knotted up and got under my skin. And it confused me; but it only confused me because nothing was happening the way I expected it to happen. Then I realize, that’s a good thing! Let me give an example—in this film, someone comes in to help and you expect him to save the day, but what happens instead? Out of the blue, he gets a shotgun blast to the face! No buildup, no tense music—it just happens. And I’m not even going to mention what someone does with an ultra-sharp razor blade.

This simple, straightforward thriller that begins with the introduction of our soon-to-be-in-jeopardy protagonists—a four-member punk-rock band called the Ain’t Rights. They don’t partake in social media, they siphon gas for their van in which they all live/sleep, and they’re not as “hardcore” as they like to think they are but they try. They go from gig to gig collecting as much money as they can, but their next gig is one they’ll wish they avoided. It’s a bar in a part of the Pacific Northwest populated by rednecks and neo-Nazis. After playing their set, all they have to do is collect their payment and leave. But oops—bassist Sam (Alia Shawkat) left her phone in the green room backstage and guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin) has to retrieve it…only to discover a dead body in the green room. A murder has occurred, and before Pat can call the police, he and the band, including two other members Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner), are kept inside the green room while the bar’s owner, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), tries to think of what to do. His plan: close the bar early so the patrons can leave, call in his band of brutes and thugs (as well as man-eating attack dogs), somehow lure the band outside, and murder them, thus eliminating all witnesses. Knowing the danger they’re in, the band, as well as a bystander named Amber (Imogen Poots), realize they must fight to survive if they are even going to consider leaving the room.

The film is an exercise in realistic violence in response to the question of what people can do to other people when facing against each other. I mentioned the shotgun to the face and the razor blade, but there’s also a hand that’s nearly chopped off, a machete to the neck, and even a dog after someone’s throat. This isn’t a film for anyone who’s easily squeamish. The violence is handled in an unpredictable way so that anyone invested in the material will be on-edge wondering what will happen next. As expected from a film like this, you wonder how the characters are going to get out of one situation before they get into another one. But this is a film that disposes of a few of these characters quicker than anyone would have expected.

Who is the right audience for “Green Room”? That’s a difficult question to answer. Certainly not people looking for a b-movie thriller where you whoop and cheer for the bad guys to get their comeuppance. This isn’t a gutsy, go-for-it thrill ride; it’s more of a nightmare, as one character proclaims by the end of the story. Nothing feels overwritten or exaggerated—it’s just a matter of saying, “This is what happens when this happens, so save your popcorn for a different movie.” In that sense, maybe “Green Room” is only for people who just want to see “what happens when this happens,” based on the premise I opened the review with.

“Green Room” is a well-executed thriller with an intriguing hook and a fascinatingly original take on the situation. The actors are terrific (especially Stewart, who is more subtle than a frothing-at-the-mouth bad guy), the cinematography is top-notch, and as was Saulnier’s intent, it left an impact on me that might have actually been better than what I expected.

Loving (2016)

13 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“You shouldn’t have done what you did.” “You should’ve known better.” Those are only some of the remarks thrown at Richard Loving in the 1960s, whose deeds have put him and his wife in trouble with the law. If you don’t know who Richard Loving is, you may be wondering what he did to warrant these statements. Well…he married a woman and got her pregnant.

You may be thinking, “So what?” Well his wife, Mildred, was black and they lived in Virginia at a time when interracial marriage was prohibited by law. They were forced to leave the state and leave their family behind as well in order to start raising a family. Otherwise, they were going to spend time in prison.

You’ve heard many history stories about how horrible racism, prejudice, and anti-miscegenation were back in the day. It’s hard to think that’s what it was really like in that time, but it was true. Richard and Mildred Loving were exiled from their home simply because they were an interracial couple and there was a law that forbade them to be. After years of raising children and living a new life as a family, they were finally able to bring their case to the US Supreme Court. Due to “Loving v. Virginia,” the state laws prohibiting interracial marriage were invalidated.

That story is told in “Loving,” a new film by one of my favorite modern filmmakers, Jeff Nichols. He tells it in his usual low-key, underplayed style of filmmaking, which definitely works to the film’s advantage. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in 2016, which came as a surprise for me because I usually try to brush off movies that remind us of how horrid many white people back in those days unless they have something else to say about how things affect society nowadays. But this film found a way to tell its story about its dated situation by not preaching to the audience (save for a speech at the end, but it’s earned by that point) and simply showing us how everything affects the key characters by keeping it solely focused on them. It’s a straightforward “based-on-a-true-story” film, and a very strong, effective one at that.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga star as Richard and Mildred Loving, and they deliver two of the best performances of the year. If one or both of these actors don’t receive Oscar recognition, I will be very upset. They’re both very subtle in the ways they get their emotions across. Their characters don’t proclaim everything on their mind and at their strongest moments comes minimal dialogue, meaning they have to act to the best of their ability. They pull it off greatly.

And that’s another strength to “Loving.” It avoids melodramatic traps. The way Nichols approaches this material smoothly delivers something that feels real and something that deserves to be acknowledged and considered. The film looks right, feels right, and is done right.

Midnight Special (2016)

13 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A lot goes into raising and protecting a child…and to say no one does a bang-up job doing it in “Midnight Special” is an understatement. When characters aren’t holding this kid captive, others are on the run with him from the government. You see, the child is special…meaning he has special supernatural abilities, and he needs to be protected. By the end, the people who have his best interests at heart aren’t even entirely sure they made the right decision. (No spoilers here, btw.)

“Midnight Special” is a science-fiction drama brought to us by writer-director Jeff Nichols, one of my favorite filmmakers working today. While this film isn’t quite up there with his previous films (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” and “Mud”—all three I hold in very high regard), I still think it has a lot to offer, particularly in terms of its themes of parenting and guidance.

The film is also in the same vein as something like Disney’s “Escape to Witch Mountain” and John Carpenter’s “Starman,” as people go on the road on the run from other people who are out to get this person who could be from another world and brought here to bring a message to humanity.

As the film opens, two men—Roy (Nichols regular Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton)—are in a motel room, watching a news story about a manhunt for a kidnapped 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Alton is in the room with him, meaning they’re the ones who have taken him. Alton doesn’t seem nervous or scared by them at all; in fact, Roy is the boy’s father. But it’s back on the road again, as authorities are hot on their trail, and we see the people who have looked after Alton before. It’s a religious cult run a welcome Sam Shepard cameo who believes something is coming soon and that Alton is their savior. Things get more complicated when it turns out this cult has worshipped numeric sequences brought to them by Alton, and these numbers mean something to the government, who now want to find Alton to know how he knew about them. The numbers also lead to a specific location, which Roy and Lucas try to get to.

For much of the movie, we’re not sure of who (or what) exactly Alton is. Why does he wear protective goggles? Why does he know what no one else knows? Is he from another planet? Is he the Second Coming? What all can he do with his abilities?

And with whom does he truly belong? We’re rooting for Roy to keep this boy safe, and he tries his best to protect him, but he’s not quite as well-equipped as he thinks he is and sometimes makes sloppy decisions. Lucas (not a family member but an old friend of Roy’s) does too, but again, he wants to look out for him too. Soon, Roy’s estranged wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), is brought into the mix, and she loves the boy too. As they eventually get some kind of answer as to what Alton’s true purpose is, both parents have to make an important decision about what’s best for him. I’m entertained by the road-trip aspect of “Midnight Special,” but it’s the parental aspect that’s the most fascinating and could cause discussion about what it means to be responsible for someone.

The truth reveals itself at the end of their journey, and while it doesn’t answer every question people might have about what has unfolded, it doesn’t choose not to say certain things. I’ll admit I was unsure about the resolution upon the first viewing, but watching it again made me reconsider something else that was on my mind about it. (Besides, it’s not like I wanted Nichols to have the conflicted NSA specialist character played by Adam Driver to come out and spell out to us what everything meant.)

“Midnight Special” is very well-made with gripping cinematography by Adam Stone and with Nichols showing his strengths in his first studio film. It’s also wonderfully acted, with great performances by everyone in the cast, especially Michael Shannon who turns in some of his most subtle work. And more importantly, it reminds us of the power of visual storytelling. It’s an enthralling film that delighted me, shocked me, and kept me engrossed even after I left the theater.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

10 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was one of the best entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since its release, we’ve had another origin story with “Ant-Man” and the next “Avengers” sequel (and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but none of those characters make an appearance until “Vol. 2”). We still have a while to wait for the ultimate two-part “Avengers” story involving something called “the Infinity Stones”—you know, the things that were only hinted upon in previous MCU films since “Thor: The Dark World” but every comic-book reader seems to know everything about? So, while we’re waiting for that, we have “Avengers 2.5: Civil War.” Er…no, I’m sorry, it’s “Captain America: Civil War,” featuring many of the Avengers in action (excluding Hulk and Thor). But we have something close enough, plus new Avengers. The result is the most exciting superhero movie I’ve seen this year.

The events of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” aren’t ignored. In fact, that film’s climax set up the issues in “Captain America: Civil War.” If you recall (and if you don’t, don’t worry—you’ll catch on), there were many casualties in the devastation of Sokovia at the hands of the Avengers. Because of this, the United Nations wants to oversee and control the Avengers. Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) doesn’t trust the government over his own judgment, but Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) feels immense guilt over his part in the incident and agrees to oversight. On Stark’s side are Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Vision (Paul Bettany), and on Cap’s side are Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). Things get even more complicated when Cap’s childhood-friend-turned-enemy-weapon Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) aka The Winter Soldier returns from obscurity and is reprogrammed by the bad guys to kill. Cap breaks many rules in protecting him in order to find more answers in order to help him. His allies on the UN issue follow him, leading to battle lines being drawn between them and Stark’s followers.

There’s a lot that happens in this film, including the introduction of two new recruits: Black Panther and Spider-Man. T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is the prince of the African nation of Wakanda whose father has fallen victim to an attack brought on by The Winter Soldier. Out for vengeance, he joins Stark’s side, as Stark is after Cap to get to Bucky. Then, there’s Spider-Man, who also joins Stark and is the hero about whom I was both excited and nervous. I’m a Spider-Man fan, and seeing what Sony continued to do with the character after good starts and bad finishes made me cross my fingers that Disney/Marvel would finally serve him well. And what did I get? The best version of Spider-Man I’ve ever seen on film. Played brilliantly by Tom Holland, Peter Parker aka Spider-Man is charismatic and energetic as well as quippy and resourceful. I watch this kid, and I’m not thinking of Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield—this is Spider-Man! I can’t wait to see him in this summer’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

The villain isn’t very memorable, but his motivations, which are revealed later, are. That brings me to one of the movie’s biggest strengths: nothing is black and white. Sure, there are other ways of doing things than what some of the characters do here, but that adds to the moral complexities that are scattered all over the movie. The advertising makes a big thing out of “Team Captain America” and “Team Iron Man” and “whose side are you on” and so forth, but the thing about this movie is that the decision of who to side with is not an easy one. This can cause audiences to discuss many of the moral/ethical obligations sure to be brought up.

While I’m on the subject of seeing where Iron Man comes from, I have to commend this movie for making me care about Tony Stark/Iron Man again. Lately, I’ve been on the fence about this guy, after he’s made dumb decision after dumb decision—telling a terrorist where he lives, building a machine that could do good or bad even after he’s had a vision telling him he’s responsible for destruction, and so on. These things made me want to smack him in the face after he said another witty remark, because this guy wasn’t claiming responsibility for anything that was his fault. But thankfully, he does claim responsibility here. He feels a lot of responsibility over what happened in “Age of Ultron” and you can tell he wants to make up for it. This is the side of Tony Stark I’ve been waiting to see for a long time.

Blah, blah, blah. What about the action? Well, it’s there and it’s done well. But it’s nothing too special…until it gets to an extended action sequence midway through, in which the Avengers are fighting each other. This is an amazing sequence and the one people have come to see. To see the heroes we’re all familiar with suddenly facing each other is a fascinating concept by itself, but to see them use their skills on each other is even more entertaining to watch. While a part of you wants them to listen to reason and talk about why they’re fighting, another part of you can’t help but enjoy the battle. The effects are well-done, the pacing is fast as lightning, and there is room for surprises, particularly with a new development in Ant-Man’s technology.

“Captain America: Civil War” is an enormously entertaining MCU entry, though a part of me is admittedly afraid that the MCU can only go down from here. But then again, another part of me is excited to see what is to come anyway. Especially “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” We have a few months until we get to see that one—I’m crossing my fingers (and my toes as well) that it gives us what we want/need from the web-slinging superhero.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

10 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When Marvel Studios brought us its Marvel Cinematic Universe, movie audiences found themselves looking forward to a new continuing chapter in…well, whatever adapted-from-comics saga it would throw at them. It began with a promise made in the first “Iron Man” movie that an “Avengers” movie would actually happen, and it released movie upon movie upon movie to assure us it would come, from “The Incredible Hulk” to “Iron Man 2” to “Thor” to “Captain America: The First Avenger.” And when “The Avengers” finally hit, it gave them a hell of a good time and exactly what they wanted to see—superheroes working together and a load of action scenes for them to partake in. Then, after seeing the origin stories of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, audiences were curious to see where they were going to go next before the next Avengers movie. With Iron Man, they had “Iron Man 3.” With Thor, they had “Thor: The Dark World.” Both were decent movies, but there needed to be something more. A lone-superhero sequel that truly upped the ante in terms of action, thrills, story, and even comedy and drama; and not just filler to catch up with the heroes. (I may like “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World” fine, but when I really think about it, it is sort of “filler” before the next Avengers movie.)

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is that movie.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” was a fun origin story for whom people say is the bland Boy Scout of the Avengers. Adapting the comic-book hero for a movie was a difficult task, but thankfully the movie was fun. However, you have to wonder: how do you make something complex out of a patriotic do-gooder? Well, with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” sibling directors Joe & Anthony Russo and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely have found a way.

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (played again by Chris Evans), is adjusting to life in the modern world, after awakening from decades of suspended animation. Not only does he have a list of pop culture to catch up on (for a treat, pause the DVD/Blu-Ray to see what else is on the list), but many of the people he knew are gone and his old girlfriend is now an ailing elderly woman. But that’s not all. His old-school ideals must make way for subtler threats and difficult moral complexities—nothing is as simple as he was brought up to believe. Things get even more difficult when it seems SHIELD is slowly being taken over by HYDRA, an enemy organization. Before Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) falls victim to a HYDRA attack brought on by the ominous Winter Soldier, he instructs Captain America to trust no one. So Cap, along with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen), go rogue as they find answers as to who exactly is behind this. They partake in battle after battle as they discover some harsh truths about the people they know/meet as well as the identity of the Winter Soldier himself.

What elevates this exciting action-thriller to more compelling levels is its dramatic aspect, mostly centered around the character of Steve Rogers. The struggles he faces as a person are heartbreaking, as he tries to get used to living in this world he’s not too familiar with—a world in which his old friends are either gone or fading. The scene in which he visits his old girlfriend, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), is particularly affecting. And as a hero, he has more to deal with, such as being hunted by the people he works for, facing newer threats with political agendas alien to him, and even the upsetting idea that he’s not doing as much good for the world as he wants to. All of this helps make the character of Captain America more interesting and complicated than we would’ve expected. I appreciate what went into his development in this movie. And when it becomes revealed who the Winter Soldier is, it only makes it more difficult and gripping.

But whatever. People weren’t there for its psychological issues; they were there for the action. And “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” doesn’t disappoint. They’re perfectly executed, fast-moving, and exciting. That’s really all I can say about it, except that because the film takes time out to establish the environment and develop the relationships of the characters, we care about what’s at stake here. It doesn’t feel like a typical superhero movie; there’s more than meets the eye with it.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is one of the best movies the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer. It knows how to tell the story, it knows what to focus on, and it knows what to deliver when the time calls for it. There’s more to the film that I already explained in the review, so if you want to find out what I mean by that, I recommend you check the movie out and see what else it has to deliver.

The Witch (2016)

10 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

2016—a surprising good year for horror. Among the titles I enjoyed watching: “Hush,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Don’t Breathe,” “The Conjuring 2,” “Lights Out,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “The Invitation,” “Green Room,” and of course, the popular Netflix series “Stranger Things.” But for some reason, I didn’t see a film called “The Witch,” which people have labeled the best horror film of the year. But I recently rented the DVD and gave it a watch…

And then something strange happened: I had trouble sleeping that night.

Then, on the next day, I thought back to the other titles I mentioned in the above paragraph and I realized: as much as I enjoyed the thrills and suspense those movies had to offer, none of them really got under my skin. Don’t get me wrong—they were fun to watch and had me on-edge during crucial tense moments. But I can watch them again with no problem at all. I get the feeling that if I watched “The Witch” again, I would need to brace myself, even though I would know what’s coming. That’s the effect this film had on me. It’s a deeply unsettling, heavily atmospheric, incredibly disturbing, exquisitely made film that gave me the chills.

“The Witch” is a mix of a horror film and a period drama. (In fact, I think this film may be what I looked for and missed in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.”) Set on a small farm in the middle of some woods in 1630s Massachusetts, it’s centered solely on one small set of characters: a Puritan family who recently arrived from England after being banished from their church for vague reasons, which I think have to do with their interpretation of the New Testament. The parents are farmer William (Ralph Ineson, chillingly good here) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and the children are teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pre-teenage Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and infant Samuel. They live in the woods, far from the Puritan settlement.

When I write a review about how things slowly but surely go wrong for a group of characters in a horror film, you would expect the occurrences to start small, like disappearing pets or farming animals, objects becoming lost, or even a strange sight in the woods. But no—the horror truly begins early on, as the little baby Samuel disappears. That is a truly unsettling scene, when Thomasin is watching him and playing peekaboo, and suddenly, he just vanishes. Already, this causes grief and fear for the family, who pray endlessly. It begins a terrible time of paranoia, dread, uncertainty, ideals heading south, condemning, and more disturbances.

The film doesn’t throw everything at us, like a typical supernatural thriller would do. It gradually shows the situation getting worse and worse, with a slow build and very few details (shades of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” are merited). We’re not even sure of everything happening around this family. Is there a witch living in the woods causing all the trouble? Is there another explanation? Whatever is happening escalates to darker, deeper areas, and the family is surely doomed.

The horror is found in small, simple chilling moments. I already mentioned the disappearance of the baby, but there’s another bit that truly got me. I won’t give it away, but it involves the milking of a cow. Above all, there’s something I’ve always found chilling about people imposing their will on other people because of their religious beliefs; that’s why, when the family starts to see each other as being associated with the evil outside, I was held in suspense, terrified of what might happen. And the less I say about the ending, the better…

But the best aspect of “The Witch” by far is its execution. This film is heavy on its chilling atmosphere. It’s painted in bleak colors. You can practically feel the environment, which also means you can feel the immense tension. The attention to detail delivered to us by writer-director Robert Eggers (who worked mostly as a production designer before he made this film) is brilliantly done. Execution is key to the film.

I often use the phrase “a film I won’t forget anytime soon” to describe the effect a good film has on me. I use it again for “The Witch,” because any film that can keep me awake at night definitely qualifies as…a film I won’t forget anytime soon. It truly is the best horror film of the year.