Archive | May, 2018

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Revised Review)

16 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yep, it’s “Revised Review” time again. This time, the subject is “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth entry in the Harry Potter movie franchise. When I first reviewed it, I gave it three stars. I liked it, but I think my mind was more focused on the previous films, particularly “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (one of my personal-favorite films, period). To me, the pace seemed off, I was confused where the story was going, and I just knew that it was going to lead to another cliffhanger which would pave the way for another sequel which would pave the way for another cliffhanger which would lead to the ultimate climactic battle to end all battles in this Harry Potter universe.

(By the way, if you’re wondering, I haven’t read all of the books. I read the first three and then quit, only because I enjoyed the movies so much, I wanted them to surprise me.)

As time went on, however, I re-watched all the “Harry Potter” movies in a row, once in a while. And suddenly, as I was taking in more of what “The Order of the Phoenix” had to offer, I realized its success in what it was trying to do. This was a different “Harry Potter” movie—one that would provoke thought, ask questions about similarity/difference, and prepare us for something darker and heavier to come. As a result, it is now my second-favorite “Harry Potter” movie (behind “The Chamber of Secrets,” which is as fun as this is insightful).

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” begins with 15-year-old budding wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) sitting bitter and alone on a swingset in a playground. This shot alone sets the tone for the film—Harry feels isolated and knows that something is coming that will transform him from a child to an adult, and he’s not sure he wants to let go of childhood yet. (Maybe I’m reading too deep, but that’s always what I got out of it.) In the previous film, the dreaded Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) was brought back from the dead, and Harry was the sole witness. For a while, it seems nobody believes him and he’s all alone. But after a seemingly-predetermined incident causes Harry to be expelled from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry for using magic outside of school to protect himself, it turns out there’s a small secret society of witches/wizards called the Order of the Phoenix, including Harry’s godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), that has formed outside the Ministry of Magic since Harry’s allegation of Voldemort’s return. They’re preparing for a fight that is sure to come, and they try to keep Harry out of it as much as possible, despite Harry’s desperate need to get involved.

The Order, along with Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), manage to get Harry enrolled back in school, but trouble soon comes brewing, as it always does whenever Harry and his two best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), get involved in whatever’s happening at this dangerous school (keep your kids away from this place, parents!). Firstly, most of Harry’s classmates think Harry is lying about Voldemort’s return to cover up another reason for the death of another student (caused by Voldemort). Secondly, the school is slowly but surely being controlled by a new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor: Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), who also aids in the Ministry. She and Harry clash because of Harry’s “lies” and because she won’t teach defensive spells to students.

Oh, and need I also mention that hormones come creeping in during all of this, leading to Harry’s first kiss with his crush Cho Chang (Katie Leung)? Hasn’t this kid gone through enough confusion in his already-loaded life?

Once it becomes clear to other students that Harry is telling the truth, Harry, Ron, and Hermione bring them together to start their own secret group, called Dumbledore’s Army, to teach/learn defensive spells for when the time comes to battle Voldemort’s forces. And it seems they may have to begin defending themselves sooner than they thought…

I’m going to look at my original review (posted on this site) and point out some things I wrote then that I change my mind about now.

“It is […] my least favorite in the franchise.” Right away, I take that back.

“Harry’s best friends […] aren’t given anything special to do, save for a few short scenes of humor.” We already had four whole movies prior to set up the characters and their friendship together, and the focus in this one is entirely on Harry. So why did I let that bother me?

“And it’s annoying when Hermione is correcting Harry for something he knows is right.” Hermione doesn’t see the things that Harry sees, leading to a friendship with Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) who sees the strange and unusual (I mean, by Hogwarts’ standards). Jeez, younger-critic-Tanner—picky much?

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t like Luna Lovegood. It’s a one-note loony role that just plain annoyed me.” OK, fine, I did think that was the case for one of the most beloved characters in the series. Yes, I still think the character is one-note loony, but my feelings towards her have softened a bit the more times I watched the later Harry Potter movies. She’s sweet, she’s likable, and she didn’t deserve the slam I gave her in my original review.

It seems the problems I had with the movie were mere nitpicks for being “different.” Reading my old review of this movie again, I can’t help but be reminded of the initial reception critics/audiences had toward “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.” Now known as one of the greatest sequels of all time, it took a while for people to warm up to its new ideas back then. That’s essentially how I feel about “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”—I wasn’t ready for the darker directions it was going to take (and it was darker compared to the new directions taken in “The Prisoner of Azkaban” and “The Goblet of Fire”). Subsequent viewings caused me to admire it for taking the series in a more complicated turn, which was also used to develop the character of Harry even further.

And that’s something I didn’t even notice the first time I reviewed the film, let alone acknowledge in the review. Harry is a role model—he wants to do what is right, he wants to do his part in protecting his friends and others, and he demands justice for wrongdoings. That’s fine and all, but what makes the character more compelling here is his inner turmoil. He’s still a kid going through struggles in growing up, and on top of that, he’s experienced tragedy, such as the murders of his parents and peers, and he’s constantly being ignored for either negligence of knowing the truth or for a greater cause when he wants to be involved. This makes him angry, and he gets even angrier as the movie continues. At one point, he admits he’s afraid of becoming more and more like Voldemort. He even notices some similarities between him and Voldemort growing up as Tom Riddle.

Voldemort knows this. He wants to use Harry’s anger to tempt him into joining him and/or giving into the dark arts. In a wonderful moment near the end, Harry has a chance to kill one of Voldemort’s cohorts out of anger for the murder of one of Harry’s most trusted companions, and this is when Voldemort strikes into his mind, using his subconscious against him. Harry has experienced such tragedy and guilt and turmoil, which can lead to further such issues if he acts on them out of vengeance. An important line of dialogue from earlier in the film comes to mind during this scene, as Sirius Black assured Harry, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” Harry is able to win the inner battle with Voldemort by recognizing the differences between himself and Voldemort. As he puts in a wonderfully biting statement, “You’re the weak one. And you’ll never know love. Or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.”

(I’m not going to lie—every time I watch this scene, I feel a lump in my throat every time he says that line. It’s delivered perfectly by Radcliffe.)

In my original review, I did praise the final half for giving us a gripping glimpse into “magic battle,” which both sides of the fight attacking one another, with Harry and friends in the middle. “Magic battle” would become better realized by “Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” but this climax is still intriguing. And I also praised Imelda Staunton’s performance as Umbridge. Who wouldn’t? She portrays one of the most despicable creatures in any movie I’ve ever seen, and I will not use that as an exaggeration. She punishes students severely for speaking out about issues that go against authority (whether she believes Voldemort is back and is trying to cover it up for the Ministry or not, it’s no excuse to scar Harry’s hand for telling “lies”). She won’t teach students to defend themselves for practically-conservative reasons. She has a sweet demeanor most of the time, but tick her off and she will find a way to get you. Staunton plays the role perfectly; it’s frightening, the way she pulls it off. I think it’s the smile… anyone who can do terrible things and keep that smile is worthy of hatred. (I mean hatred towards the character, not the actress—I’m certain Imelda Staunton is a nice woman in reality.)

This was director David Yates’ first going into the Harry Potter universe (and he would go to direct more Harry Potter films since). The tone he uses is very effective; it almost feels like we’re walking into a dream. We’re not entirely sure what’s real and what’s imagined, and so there’s that sense of unease that settles throughout the film.

I may have underappreciated “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” when I first saw it (and reviewed it), but this is my chance at redemption for my mistakes. I love this film even more today, and I have no second thoughts in giving it a four-star rating. (In hindsight, this deserves a four-star rating more so than “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” which does not hold up as well for me today. Maybe I’ll do a revised review for that one too, someday…)

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Brigsby Bear (2017)

13 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING!

Originally, I wasn’t going to write about “Brigsby Bear.” Why? Well, because I think the best way to see this movie is to not know much about it beforehand. I came into this movie cold, without much knowledge of the plot, other than it involved some kind of children’s program involving a guy in a ratty bear costume, with a gigantic bear helmet with a moving mouth. And so, I thought it was best for everyone else to do the same…not that many people read my blog anyway—when I had that in mind, I thought, just do it already.

Anyway, I’ll repeat: SPOILER WARNING!

“Brigsby Bear” is an original piece of independent cinema; one that I think should be cherished and studied. Even when it’s in danger of becoming one of those indie Sundance-fitting “dramedies” that seem too high on their own spirits, it continues to bounce back with loads of charm and sentimentality (and originality) that I can’t help but want to hug this movie for being what it is. And what it is, is one of my favorite films of recent years. (This would have been high up on my best-of-2017 list, had I seen it a few months before. But better late than never, right?)

I’ll tread lightly here as I go into the story of “Brigsby Bear.” For starters, just who is Brigsby Bear, anyway? Well, he’s the star of a low-budget, educational sci-fi television show that teaches unusual moral lessons such as “curiosity is an unnatural emotion!” He’s a heroic bear with loyal sidekicks (the Smile Sisters) with whom to team up and battle a dastardly villain called the Sun Snatcher. Each episode features something new and educational (including complicated math problems) and ends with a lesson addressed to the show’s viewing audience. (If you thought Barney was too much for little children, wait until you see what Brigsby Bear has to offer. We do get to see many clips of the show, and it’s a riot.)

Who’s watching the show? James. He has an obsession with the show and everything within it, having grown up with it throughout the years. James (played by the film’s co-writer, Kyle Mooney) is in his mid-20s and has collected every VHS volume of the series since childhood. He’s way too old to still be trapped in the world of Brigsby, and yes, you could say it’s an unhealthy obsession, but then we see his upbringing and we see that it’s all he knows. This is where things get even stranger, particularly with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), who speak to him with the tact and sensitivity a parent gives to a young child, and his home, which is actually an underground bunker. (I watched this film with my fiancée, and her reaction was the same as mine: what’s going on here??)

OK, that’s the setup. Where is this going? There are many ways this story could go from here. Are they in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in which they’re the only survivors? Is that why they wear gas masks when they go outside? Well, it turns out that James’ “parents” aren’t his parents at all; they abducted James when he was an infant and created this whole ruse to keep James from going outside. Not only that; they created the Brigsby Bear show themselves, to teach James about the way things are outside to keep him entertained, to educate him, and to keep him from wanting anything else out of life.

Now rescued by police and reunited with his birth parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), James has to adapt to a whole new world with a whole new family (including a younger sister, played by Ryan Simpkins), numerous activities, and all kinds of different pop culture. Much of it is nice and welcoming, including people who want to help him (such as a friendly cop played by Greg Kinnear, a therapist played by Claire Danes, and a creative teen played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and entertaining movies (such as a satirical look at family sports comedies), but everything else overwhelms James, as it’s all too much for him to take in, making him feel lost in this strange, big universe. He’s also still transfixed on the power brought to him by Brigsby, which makes sense as it’s the only source of entertainment he’s been used to for decades. He needs to see the next episode…or make one on his own…

And this is where I, as an aspiring filmmaker, fell in love with “Brigsby Bear.” Much of the movie involves James, his new friend who likes to experiment with visual effects, and many helpful others making their own Brigsby Bear movie, complete with costume. If I thought the making-a-movie sequences in “Be Kind Rewind” where wonderfully strange and whimsical, I hadn’t seen anything yet. What’s even better is that it’s also sweet.

And that’s where I’ll stop writing about the story. There’s more to enjoy about “Brigsby Bear,” and I don’t feel like I’ve spoiled too much of the movie. But again, I warned you there would be spoilers and that it’s best to go into this movie as cold as possible. Maybe I’m writing this review for myself, because I immediately felt like writing about it after I saw it.

It would’ve been so easy to make James the butt of so many mean-spirited jokes about how he doesn’t understand the way the world is and/or how socially awkward he is as a result. But thankfully, this movie treats the situation delicately, because Mooney, director David McCary, and co-writer Kevin Costello like James and don’t want to embarrass him. That’s what I admire most about “Brigsby Bear.” (I dare even say I actually enjoyed this fish-out-of-water story a lot more than “Being There,” with Peter Sellers, an obvious comparison.)

“Brigsby Bear” is a wonderful film with a good sense of humor and an even greater heart to go with it. If there’s anything more important than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s a comedy that can make you feel. That’s exactly how I describe “Brigsby Bear.”

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

5 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, let’s get this over with. I know a lot of “Star Wars” fans are hurling backlash like crazy (though, to be fair, some of them are lowering their weapons again after seeing this film a second time), and I’m going to try and address it while also giving my interpretation as to why it’s happened.

“The Last Jedi” is Episode VIII in the (mostly-) beloved “Star Wars” franchise. Released two years after Episode VII (“The Force Awakens”), audiences were concerned that it would be a pale copy of “The Empire Strikes Back,” seeing as how “The Force Awakens” was seen as a pale copy of “A New Hope.” What they saw instead was something new with characters introduced in the previous film with only a few flashes of “The Empire Strikes Back” (and “Return of the Jedi” as well) in a story that offers hardly any easy answers to difficult conflict while also giving us a wild thrill ride. And that, in my opinion, is exactly what “Star Wars” sequels need to be…despite countless “Star Wars” fans complaining that “The Last Jedi” went past the norm even though they were previously complaining that it was too in the norm before with “The Force Awakens.”

(By the way, this is what happens when audiences put too many expectations in their highly anticipated movies: they almost become predetermined to dislike them.)

It’s time to be more open-minded to new ideas and new movies, because let’s face it, we’re not going to get the movies we love again because we already have them. “Star Wars” (“A New Hope,” that is; I never call it that regularly though) and “The Empire Strikes Back” are two of my favorite movies, and I can watch them whenever I want. What I need are more “Star Wars” movies that will entertain and challenge me, like “The Last Jedi” did. Maybe Episode IX will satisfy the naysayers, since I’m not sure anyone could guess where it’s going to go. (And trust me, I’m not going to try.)

OK, enough of that. Let’s get to reviewing “The Last Jedi.”

“The Last Jedi” gives us what we expect to see in a “Star Wars” movie—thrilling space battles, tense showdowns between blaster and lightsaber, imposing villains, brave heroes, and even a little drama to be found in connection to the light and the dark sides of that ever strangely fascinating entity known as The Force. But there’s something more to element of the “internal struggle” that is not only satisfying but also compelling and deep. How often in modern action movies do I feel so strongly for what the heroes and the villain are feeling deep within themselves that they can’t fully communicate to others? When humanity and the pursuit of victory and/or answers to inner desires are at war with each other constantly, what comes next in the name of survival?

This question comes through in the characters of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey is a rebellious would-be fighter against the sinister First Order, which Kylo Ren partially commands. The Force connects them somehow, for some reason, and even though Rey is already determined to see Kylo as her enemy, it turns out things aren’t as simple as that. Just as things didn’t appear to be so black-and-white in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Rey learns that Kylo Ren still has his humanity, even if it’s shrouded by anger, resentment, and vengeance that is constantly overtaking him.

These characters become more fascinating to me the more I know about them, as does the character of Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper who defected and ran to join the rebels in the war. Even when escape is on his mind to evade battle, he still stays to defend his allies, whom he now calls his friends. Finn was already an interesting character when we realized a Stormtrooper could no longer be a faceless assassin; now we get to see him grow as a person.

I mentioned in my review of “The Force Awakens” that I liked the character of dashing hero Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) but also wished he could’ve been utilized more. I knew that in the follow-up, he would get more screen-time, which could be open for more opportunities for development. And I was right in ways I didn’t expect. In “The Last Jedi,” he’s an anxious brave who wants to shoot first and ask questions later. When it seems that the methods of his superiors aren’t giving direct results, he sets out to prove that his ways are more effective. And in the end, he learns that being stealthy is going to help win the day instead of loud, conspicuous heroics. That’s such a refreshing arc for this type of character; it would’ve been too easy for him to prove that his ways are the right ways, but instead, he’s proven otherwise.

And yes, let’s get to the more familiar characters we know from the previous “Star Wars” films. General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) is trying to figure out the best way to survive another day without rushing into a new attack mission and risking more lives, as she knows from the past only makes things worse. Something happens to her midway through the film that a lot of fans have spewed negative emotions about, but honestly…I didn’t mind it so much. It involves The Force, to which her connection to it has already been established, and I was open to the possibility of her using it to her advantage. That’s all I’ll say about it, for those who haven’t seen the movie yet. And then there’s Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), finally back in the story after so many years of exile. Rey seeks to be taught the Jedi way and sees him as her best hope. But it’s not as simple as, say, Yoda teaching Luke the ways of The Force long ago. Luke feels that the Jedi religion needs to come to an end due to numerous major mistakes made in the past by himself and other Jedi Knights (you can look back to the prequels for their biggest errors of judgment). His development leads to yet another internal conflict that leaves much for the viewers to take in (that is, when they want to).

I’m being very vague about the story and other details involving characters. Even though most readers have seen “The Last Jedi” by now, I’ll be kind for those who still haven’t and tell you that I think it’s worth watching as long as you open your mind up to new ideas. If you can’t do that, you’re especially going to be confused rather than delighted at the new developments in The Force and the abilities one can do when in full control of it…

Come on, guys. Who are we to decide what The Force can make “Star Wars” characters do anyway?

Also, I have to add—this movie is also very funny. Thankfully, Rian Johnson follows J.J. Abrams’ lead from “The Force Awakens” in allowing the audience to breathe and take in a few good laughs here and there. (Luke’s initial reaction upon seeing Rey for the first time is a definite highlight. We waited two years in between films for that?)

If I have a problem with the movie, it’s that it seems like a solid hour-and-a-half-long movie trying to pad itself out with some filler, particularly with Finn and a new ally, a spunky, warm fan-girl type named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) as they embark on their own side-journey while the more interesting stuff is happening with Rey, Luke, Poe, and Kylo Ren. But even that, I don’t mind that much, because it is interesting to see more of this universe (even if the social commentary they come across in their travels is a little too on-the-nose).

Oh, and there’s also the Porgs, the new creatures obviously here to sell more toys… Whatever, they’re there.

I won’t even complain about the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who’s just some jerk in control of everything. Remember, we thought the Emperor in “Return of the Jedi” was “just some jerk in control of everything” before we saw him fleshed out more in the prequels. Maybe Episode IX will at least give us some answer as to who he was.

There are a lot of surprises to be found in “The Last Jedi,” and I admire writer/director Rian Johnson for the ability to entertain us while also treat us like we can take a little complexity here or there. And I’m glad to hear that some naysayers are changing their minds about this movie after seeing it again and thinking more about the possibilities it opened up. Here’s hoping more of them will learn to lighten up and find better reasons for hating a movie.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

5 May

 

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”…what an oddity. Said to be one of the worst movies ever made and since 2003 has formed an ever-growing cult of audiences that delight in seeing it on the big screen every now and then, everything about it just seems “off.” It was clearly made with a budget and a crew, but with the leadership of a strange individual like Tommy Wiseau (who wrote the script, directed the film, and most notably, stars in it too), everything falls apart real fast. There’s hardly a story (just a bunch of random moments that “supposedly” come together by the end), the acting is horrid, and supposed “serious” scenes come off as laughably bad. Many bad movies are bad because they’re boring or unwatchable, and while parts of “The Room” cross that border (can we say “numerous overlong gratuitous sex scenes”?), it’s every other part that makes it so bad that it’s strangely wonderful.

The story behind the making of “The Room,” before it was ever even thought to go on to unexpected success with devoted movielovers, is a fascinating one, told to us originally by Wiseau’s supporting actor/long-time friend Greg Sestero, who co-wrote a biographical novel called “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.” That novel has since been adapted by director/actor James Franco, who saw something in Wiseau and “The Room” that reminded him of himself and his own works. This inspired him to create a cinematic retelling of the story, called “The Disaster Artist.”

James Franco directs the film and also stars as Tommy Wiseau, the bizarre actor/would-be-filmmaker whose absurdities make him extremely difficult to comprehend. We still do not a thing about what goes on in Tommy’s mind, what’s his reason for his weird mannerisms, when he’s serious, and when he’s putting on a performance to make an effort to stand out. The thing is, he does stand out and he wants to put on a show. The extensions of his show are hard to understand, which is what makes him grating to be around but also strangely fun too. There is something to Franco’s performance that still makes him human, despite other onlookers seeing him as if he’s from another planet. Underneath the ego and the oddities of himself is someone who just wants to be noticed…it’s just that it can be easy to forget that when he pulls another stunt.

The film’s central protagonist is Greg Sestero (played by Dave Franco), a would-be actor who first meets Tommy in an acting class in San Francisco. Because he’s an average guy (which, thankfully, is not to say “boring”; he’s quite likable), seeing Tommy through his eyes is probably the best move to follow, since Franco too doesn’t know a lot about the real Tommy Wiseau. Greg sees him as bizarre and unusual but also fearless and risk-taking. He asks to perform a scene with him, which leads to the two hanging out, becoming friends, and soon enough, moving together to Los Angeles to pursue Hollywood acting careers together. But it turns out to be hard for Greg (who at least gets signed by an agency) and even harder for Tommy. That’s when Tommy gets the idea to write and direct and, more importantly, star in his own movie, with Greg’s help…

Money is apparently no object, as Tommy spends constantly. He buys (not rents) equipment to shoot his film (which would be titled “The Room”) using digital and film, he’s able to pay his cast & crew a great salary (even when his shooting schedule goes overboard), and even when his script supervisor (played with great dry wit by Seth Rogen) goes to cash a huge check at the bank for the first time, he’s shocked to learn Tommy’s account is “a bottomless pit.” But Tommy is not the greatest director, having trouble communicating how he wants his actors to perform the scenes. Nor is he the greatest actor, using uniquely inexplicable inflections that make already-horrible lines of dialogue seem utterly ridiculous. And even worse, he makes life on set miserable for everybody—he’s highly demanding, he has a documentarian spy on crew members who mock him, he shows up late to the shoot frequently, he doesn’t supply his crew with water or air conditioning, and he gives everybody a negative attitude, which puts a real strain on the already-unlikely friendship between him and Greg. The guy has no idea what he’s doing when it comes to filmmaking, and everybody can see the disaster that’s coming. What nobody expects is the art to be found within the disaster…

It’s strange watching this film and having to remind myself that this is no mere piece of fiction; it’s based on true events that actually happened. There really is a person like this, there really is a film like “The Room” out there, and I’m fairly certain viewers of this film who are unaffiliated with “The Room” are going to be scratching their heads. Even with the film beginning with talking heads of celebrities (such as J.J. Abrams, Adam Scott, Kevin Smith, among others) talking about the strange beauty of “The Room” and even side-by-side comparisons at the end showing us real clips from “The Room” and reenacted versions for “The Disaster Artist,” it’s hard to believe it’s not an act. Maybe Tommy Wiseau is an act, but the story is not.

Either way it’s looked upon, “The Disaster Artist” is a highly entertaining film. It’s entertaining for the effective mixture of drama and comedy, with a nicely formed friendship at the center between Tommy and Greg, a great sense of fun in the sequences that recreate scenes from “The Room” (“Oh Hi Mark”), and a truly engaging story about following ambition, even if it leads to unexpected victories. I love “The Disaster Artist” for being exactly what it’s meant to be, whether answers regarding the identity of Tommy Wiseau are revealed or not.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you’ve read my review of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” you know that one of my biggest pet peeves in comedies is the kind of self-referential humor I referred to as “Kind of Aware But Not Quite.” The definition I used is “when a film is so self-aware that it has a character point out the clichés, thinking that commenting on it will make it less of a cliché.” But if you also read my reviews of “The Big Short” and “Deadpool,” you know I’m not against all self-aware comedy and that sometimes it can work to a film’s advantage. Really, it’s a matter of how well it’s written in order to work effectively.

There is a moment midway in David Wain’s hyper-aware biopic “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” that made me both laugh loudly and smile widely. It’s when the film’s narrator does something I think a lot of movielovers wish would happen in many other “based-on-a-true-story” biopics: he lists all of the things that happened in real-life that were not focused upon for this story and cut either for a shorter running time or “…just because [we] didn’t feel like it.” That’s the kind of poking-fun at the creative liberties of biopic storytelling that made the whole film work for me.

“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” tells the story of Doug Kenney, the influential but disturbed comedic genius who co-founded National Lampoon magazine and was responsible for launching the careers of many famous comedians such as Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, and many others. He had a lot of things going for him…and also a lot of things going against him, such as drug dependency and commitment issues. For a biopic about such an artist to work, you might expect something along the lines of Richard Attenborough’s “Chaplin” or Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Instead, we get something not as tedious or as heavy-handed—an ultra-meta comedy that pulls no punches in inside-jokes and fourth-wall breaking.

Mind you, it doesn’t ignore the heavier material; it just chooses not to dwell on it so much. It seems like the movie Doug Kenney himself would have wanted about himself.

Doug Kenney died at age 33 (to this day, people are unsure if he fell from a cliff or jumped off). But we still have a narrative device to tell the story, walk into scenes, and talk directly to the camera: a version of a modern Doug (played by Martin Mull). He’s there to reassure the audience that everyone knows they’re making a farce about something true to life, even going as far as to call out the actors playing comedic icons—“These actors don’t look exactly like the real people, but do you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? Do you think Will Forte is 27?”

And yes, Will Forte does star in the movie as younger Doug, who takes up a majority of screen-time. As the story begins, Doug is celebrating his time at Harvard University, creating the Harvard Lampoon into something more outrageous and wacky. Once the college days are over, however, Doug wanders aimlessly, dragging his friend/writing-partner Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson, wonderfully droll here) along with him. Wanting to continue making funny magazines for a career, Doug and Henry launch National Lampoon magazine, filling it with the blackest comedy and the most disgraceful material, resulting in them gaining popularity (even if many groups end up suing them for being offensive). The magazine helped launch the careers of many promising writers (most of which aren’t focused upon in this movie, which Modern Doug acknowledges) and also, with its hour-long radio program (The National Lampoon Radio Hour), put many comedians in proper notice. The supporting cast mainly consists of game actors portraying comedic icons, the most effective of which are Jon Daly as Bill Murray, John Gemberling as John Belushi, and Joel McHale as Chevy Chase (fitting, seeing as how McHale and Chase were co-stars on the TV series “Community”).

As time goes on, and many of his colleagues continue their careers with “Saturday Night Live,” Doug sets his sights on something higher, like movies. Thus, he co-writes “Animal House,” which becomes one of the highest grossing movies of all time, which is a big accomplishment for a lowbrow comedy. His next film is “Caddyshack,” directed by Harold Ramis, which is Doug’s way of sticking it to the country-club snobs his father associated with. But executives aren’t seeing his vision, he’s not proud of how the movie is turning out (especially after seeing “Airplane!” which is a gigantic comedic hit), and his depression and drug dependency gets worse as a result. (Side-note: the scenes that recreate the atmosphere of the makings of “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” are spot-on; I would’ve like to see more of that.) There are people in his life that want to help him, like his second wife Kathryn Walker (Emmy Rossum) and Chase. But nothing anyone tries to say or do to help him is enough.

OK, that sounds a little depressing. And honestly, it is. But would you rather the film just ignore it altogether? That’d be even worse, wouldn’t it? So, props to director David Wain and writers John Aboud & Michael Colton for doing what they can with this kind of material while also trying to have fun with it as well. “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” ends with Young Doug and Modern Doug meeting each other at Doug’s funeral and attempting to influence the mourners to “laugh, dammit!” Somehow, I get the feeling Doug Kenney would’ve liked the ultimate result of this scenario.

Creep 2

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A few years ago, indie filmmakers Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass went out to the woods to make a movie with their limited resources. What resulted was “Creep,” an effectively creepy (forgive the pun) found-footage movie starring Duplass as an unsettlingly peculiar individual whom Brice isn’t sure whether or not to trust. I would issue a SPOILER WARNING here, but if you’re the slightest bit interested in seeing “Creep 2,” then you probably already know how “Creep” ended. It’s no secret going into “Creep 2” that Duplass’ titular “creep” character is no mere weirdo; he’s a serial killer.

Part of the fun of the original “Creep” was trying to figure out just what was up with this strange man (Duplass) whose company our protagonist (Brice) is stuck with throughout the movie. He’s clearly not well, he has a lot of issues, he says/does things that are unnerving, and it gets worse and worse until it ultimately ends violently, thus finally revealing that it was all a setup for one of the “creep’s” filmography that involves murders. “Creep” is one of the killer’s movies about his individual killings, and now we have “Creep 2.”

(Whew. That one paragraph saved me the trouble of reviewing “Creep.” For the record, I give it the same rating as “Creep 2”: three stars out of four.)

Now that we know Mark Duplass’ character is a psychopathic murderer with creative ambition, where do we get suspense in this sequel? Well…what if our protagonist was an unsuspecting amateur video artist who’s curious to see what this guy is all about? You see, Sara (Desiree Akhavan), creator of an online documentary web series called “Encounters,” films her “encounters” with strangers who place ads for her to answer/investigate. She answers an ad from Aaron (Duplass) to visit/film him for monetary reasons, and she’s curious especially after Aaron reveals he is a serial killer. He assures her that he won’t kill her, and she has little reason to trust him (thankfully, she arms herself with a hidden knife). All he wants is for her to film his expressions of reaching the age of 40 and feeling like he’s run out of inspiration for future works. And this is where we get another strange delight: the serial killer has a midlife crisis.

As with the previous film, “Creep 2” is presented in first-person camera perspective, in documentary format, still keeping the audience on-edge and not knowing what to expect. It’s refreshing to note that for all the times we say we’re tired of the “found-footage”/”faux-documentary” gimmick, there are still times when we can say it can still be done effectively.

The suspense in “Creep 2” comes from the question of whether or not Aaron is serious when he says he’s considering quitting the “art” of killing, seeing it more as a “job” than a “religion” (among many funny lines of dialogue sprinkled throughout the film for Duplass to bring levity to an otherwise tense thriller). He confides in Sara, who keeps filming him in his times of excitement and depression and inconsistent strangeness. That leads to the bigger question, which is whether or not Sara is safe. And if so, then for how long?

I liked “Creep 2” better than the first “Creep,” despite giving them both the same rating (ratings are hardly meaningful anyway—just read what I have to say instead of focusing on the stars). It’s just as refreshing but also funnier, more tense, and, for lack of a better word, creepier. Duplass is clearly having a ton of fun with the role, which is more compelling with each layer that gets peeled throughout these movies, and Akhavan is a refreshing protagonist who is scared of her company but tries to remain calm as she tries to learn more about him carefully. And I confess I didn’t know where this story was going and it delighted me that it continued to surprise me. I’m not sure where Duplass and director Patrick Brice can go from here with a possible “Creep 3,” but I’d sure like to find out.