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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.)

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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.

The Final Girls (2015)

14 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Final Girls” wants to be both a satire and a loving homage to ‘80s slasher horror films, but I don’t recall any “Friday the 13th” or “Sleepaway Camp” film (and yes, I’ve seen my share of those films) with a universe so…colorful. Let me explain—“The Final Girls” is about a bunch of modern teenagers who are magically transported into the world of an ‘80s slasher film they were watching, and this new dimension is the mid ‘80s in full Technicolor. The flowers are artificially colored, the leaves are brightly green, the characters wear bright colors, and so on. This is more like “Hot Tub Time Machine’s” interpretation of the ‘80s than, say, “The House of the Devil.” (Both “The Final Girls” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” apparently picked the same ‘80s year too: 1986. Odd coincidence.)

But no one should be complaining too much, because the overly-retro look of the exaggerated movie-‘80s adds to the fun. We can associate it with the ‘80s, and that’s good enough. “The Final Girls” is meant to be a spoof rather than a genuine horror film. And while it lampoons its own nostalgic callbacks with self-awareness, it embraces them with admiration too. We get the stereotypes (the jock, the slut, the token minority, etc.) lined up for slaughter by a silent, demented killer in a secluded summer camp, accompanied by present-day young people who observe the madness.

The main character of “The Final Girls” is Max (well-played by the appealing Taissa Farmiga), a college student whose mother (Malin Akerman) played one of the many victims in a popular mid-‘80s slasher film, entitled “Camp Bloodbath.” A year after her mom dies in a car accident, Max reluctantly agrees to appear at a “Camp Bloodbath” retrospective as a favor to Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), the nerdy stepbrother of Max’s sarcastic hipster friend Gerty (Alia Shawkat, “Arrested Development”) who arranges the screening at a local theater. Accompanying Max, Duncan, and Gerty are Max’s sensitive-jock crush, Chris (Alexander Ludwig), and an unwelcome Vicki (Nina Dobrev), who can’t seem to get over the fact that she and Chris are broken up. Soon after the movie starts, the theater is caught on fire, and the five kids try to escape behind the screen. They realize too late they have actually escaped through the screen and into the movie itself.

They find that the movie plays on a loop and the only way to get out of it is to go through it with the central characters. This proves to be a difficult task, as things seem too real in this world, especially the killer who waits in the woods for the perfect (and appropriate—or inappropriate) moments to strike. Now they have to try and make it through the film without becoming victims themselves.

Another difficulty in this journey is the reunion between Max and her mother—er, her mother’s character, in her early 20s. Max wants to make sure her mother doesn’t fall victim to the killer, thus trying everything possible to change the course of the film. The relationship between Max and her mother is very strong and helps bring an emotional backbone to a film that is otherwise a joyful romp. The film is surprisingly serious-minded when it comes to this aspect’s themes of loss, redemption, and fear of losing again. On top of that, both actresses play their roles very well. And this relationship also has light comedic purposes, such as Max having to play mother to her own mother, whose character is eager to lose her virginity to the class-A horn dog Kurt (Adam DeVine), which will of course result in her murder by the on-looking killer. That’s funny, but it’s also emotional when you consider that she feels the need to protect her from the hardships of the real world.

One of the film’s running gags is that these five central millennial characters have to play practical parental roles to these ‘80s-movie archetypes such as teaching the airhead slut Tina (Angela Trimbur), And these types are more than exaggerated, which should irritate me but strangely left more of an impact on me as it went on. Maybe it had to do with the context of 2015 archetypes going through all this—somehow, it makes me wonder what people are going to make of this young generation decades from now. What would they see in us (or in our movies) that we simply don’t see ourselves today?

Wow, I just wrote myself into a philosophical topic in a review of a broad comedy.

You know what? I’ve said enough. Check out “The Final Girls.” It’s entertaining. It’s funny. It’s cute. It’s even touching at times. It’s well-written, and it’s worth nothing one of the writers was Joshua John Miller, whose father was Jason Miller (well-known as Karras of “The Exorcist” fame); maybe he developed the character of Max as a way of dealing with his own parental loss. And of course, it’s very colorful. Metaphorically and literally.

The Martian (2015)

12 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Martian” has an intriguing premise: an astronaut is left behind on Mars after a fierce storm caused his crew to believe he was dead. Now he’s alone and stranded on a desolate planet and must rely on his skill, inner strength, and wit to survive and find a way to contact Earth. From there, it’s a question of whether or not he can leave Mars and get home.

One of the biggest pleasures of this science-fiction drama, based on the novel by Andy Weir, is the humor that allows itself within it. It’s relatively realistic and believable in its science (at least, for me—I’m not a scientist) and its dramatic moments are warranted and very effective. But at the end of the movie, it’s easy to realize it was still a lot of fun. The film has a sense of humor, with a clever, sharp script, which requires the characters to say many witty lines of dialogue.

Some examples:

  • “Mars will come to fear my botany powers,” states astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) when he realizes he has to “grow food on a planet where nothing grows.” Luckily, he’s a botanist.
  • “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”
  • “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
  • At the time NASA officials finally realize one of their astronauts is stranded on Mars, one of them (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) wonders “what this does to a man psychologically.” The immediate cut back to Mars results in probably the funniest moment in the movie (which I will not reveal here).

I wasn’t surprised by this welcome comic angle to what would otherwise be just a tense, dark sci-fi thriller when I realized who wrote the screenplay—Drew Goddard, who wrote and directed the delightfully entertaining “The Cabin in the Woods.” However, I was surprised to find it was directed by Ridley Scott, who has made films such as “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” and “Prometheus,” neither of which are as cheerful or even as adventurous or hopeful as “The Martian.” I still like those movies, but I kind of appreciated this change of pace more.

And that’s really what it comes down to, more than the movie being humorous—it’s hopeful. The main character is an optimist. Even though he’s trapped on a desolate planet with very few resources on hand, he simply states, “I’m not going to die here.” So he does everything possible to make sure everything’s going to be fine (and also that he believes it himself). Even when things are at their darkest and he starts to doubt himself, he knows that it’s better to die fighting than not try to survive. I admire stories that show how a lone survivor in a dire situation copes with seclusion (like “Cast Away,” “Gravity,” “127 Hours,” “Touching the Void,” among others), and “The Martian” has a real good share of challenges, both internally and externally, and they’re all captivating.

The film cuts back and forth from Mark’s experiences on Mars to the many attempts of NASA on Earth seeking to find a way to save him. A month after mission controller Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) and NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) made the news of Mark’s death public, they do become aware of his survival, and they find ways to communicate as they race to find a solution to the problem. This is, of course, after stick-in-the-mud PR director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) mentions how bad it would make NASA look if they announced they were wrong about Mark’s death—nice sense of priorities there. (Commentary!) The film also cuts to Mark’s crew in space (played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie), as they realize what’s happened as well and have to make a choice to either defy authority to turn around and go back for Mark or continue straight on to Earth and hope for the best.

Another statement about the humor—it’s low-key. The film doesn’t lose sight of the urgency of the situation at hand, but it also knows to lighten up at times, which I greatly appreciated. But the main reason it works perfectly in a story that would otherwise be a dark, deep, depressing exploration of a man’s awareness in a remote area is because these characters feel like real people. Many of the things they say feel like what most of us would say, even the one-liners; in fact, especially the one-liners—most of us like to joke in order to relieve ourselves of some stress at times. (I know I do.) The scenes in which Mark expresses himself in his video logs leave opportunity for this humor to shine in particular. Even in the scenes set on Earth, even though they’re not widely comedic, they are played with a relaxed susceptibility.

I could relate to Mark easily; he feels like a real, likable, easy-going person and not merely a plot device. A lot of credit for that goes to Matt Damon, who turns in one of his truly best turns in a long career of strong performances (right up there with “The Departed” and “Good Will Hunting”). He shines brightly in a movie in which he’s allowed to, having only himself to work with. He has to portray every emotion imaginable in this ordeal—fear, optimism, enjoyment, hopelessness, anxiety, agony, whatever…and he does it all brilliantly. There isn’t a false note in this performance at all.

Of course, I can’t talk about a movie set on Mars without talking about the look—Mars looks suitably unwelcoming as is expected, the special effects are top-notch, and the visuals are nicely done. What else can I say? But then again, what all do I want to say? The effects aren’t the focus of the movie, which is always a refreshing change of pace for a sci-fi film.

I mentioned “The Martian” in my “2015 Review” post. I said, “With this and the new Star Wars film, maybe now we’re moving toward an era where our sci-fi blockbusters can have characters most of us optimistic wiseasses can actually relate to.” What I meant was, if these movies can continue to have their characters say things most general audiences would say if they were in the same situations, that makes the characters more relatable and therefore more sympathetic, and therefore they make us more willing to care for them. Keep this up, filmmakers of mainstream blockbusters, and we’ll be out of a cinema slump that people on the Internet claim we’re living in. (By the way, guys, that’s not true—just keep looking for movies like this one.)

Contracted: Phase II (2015)

27 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ½*

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I begin my review of “Contracted: Phase II,” I should clarify something from my review of its predecessor, the 2013 body-horror film “Contracted.” I refrained from using a certain word that other reviewers were using; just one word that gave me a pretty good idea of how the film was going to end. Since this film picks up where the first one left off, I might as well just use said-word now. (And if you’re reading this, chances are you saw the first film to begin with.) The word used by critics was “zombie.” The main character, Samantha (Najarra Townsend), has been going through bizarre, scary changes, including her body falling apart, and guess what—she turns into a zombie. I bet you thought it was just a very messed-up sexually-transmitted disease, didn’t you?

Yes, apparently B.J., the sicko who gave Samantha the sickness to begin with (and is not played by Simon Barrett this time), is the carrier for a would-be zombie apocalypse.

Our hero in this sequel is Riley (Matt Mercer, reprising his role from the original). If you saw the original, you remember him as the guy who barely had a role aside from having a hopeless crush on Samantha, and it led to the point in which Samantha presumably gives him the disease near the end of the film. I remember writing in my review that I didn’t think that was warranted, since we hardly knew anything about him. And it’s amazing to see that even though most of this sequel is centered around him, I still don’t know a damn thing about him, nor do I care. He’s dull, uninteresting, and unsympathetic—he made me wish for the return of the comic-relief druggie from the original film. (That guy, played by Charley Koontz, does come back late in the film—I really wish he took center stage in this one.) I don’t blame Mercer for this; he just has nothing to work with.

Anyway, “Phase II” picks up where “Contracted” left off, with Samantha becoming a zombie and attacking her mother (Caroline Thompson) before being shot dead by police. And like I said, Riley now has the disease Samantha had in the original. His body’s falling apart, he feels a strange sensation despite his doctor saying he’s clean, and he tries to find answers as to what’s happening to him.

There’s really nothing to this movie. It’s pretty pointless, to say the least. The questions raised from the first film are answered, but they were answers most of us have figured out before we saw this second one anyway. There are some disgusting gory moments to gross the audience out, such as when Riley pulls a broken fingernail out of a claw mark on his back or when his nosebleed becomes too messy (and even leaks into cheese dip at a memorial service—blech) or even pulling out a maggot from under his skin…but then what? What else is there to this movie? There’s no mystery to keep us invested, either with Riley or with the police detective, Crystal (Marianna Palka, sporting an on-again/off-again American accent), investigating mysterious dead bodies, because we know what’s happening to Riley and we know what the detective is going to find. If nothing new could be added, why make a sequel at all? The original ended at just the right moment—nothing more was needed.

All the titular “Phase II” turns out to be is spreading the disease around, which was already implied in the original film—we understood that very quickly; B.J. was going to be responsible for creating more (sigh) zombies. (“Mankind is a bacteria that needs to be obliterated,” he says at one point.) The film tries to take a new interesting turn by having Riley attempt to track down B.J. and kill him, but even that doesn’t work because nothing about this development in both the story and the character of Riley turning into a public avenger seems interesting, let alone convincing.

The first “Contracted” worked as a character study with some horrific body-horror elements attached. This second film is not only a retread (minus interesting characters) but also a failed zombie movie—tame, weak, and ironically bloodless (figuratively). Needless to say, “Contracted: Phase II” suffers from the disease shared by most unnecessary horror films—the Pointless Sequel Syndrome.

A Girl Like Her (2015)

15 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Afterschool Specials. Lifetime movies. ABC Family (er, sorry—Freeform) Original Movies. Some of the films in either of these categories are well-done. But they have a reputation among many for throwing out several manipulative, bland, not-especially-well-made films that tell stories that deal with important issues that aren’t as effective they should be, as a result of being insipid. How do you make a film that tackles an important issue while making it well?

Simplest answer: make it well. Focus on the writing, the characters, the direction. Take the issue from a clear-eyed point-of-view. Write people who could be you or people you know. Don’t just base it on what you see/hear; base it on what others see/hear too, maybe. Hell, take risks. Think outside the box (the box within which most of the offenders continue to think).

Take school-hallway bullying. This is still a big problem in society, and for as long as it’s been around, I’m sorry to say it shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. Making a film about bullying and the tragedies that result from it is not an easy task, as most films that try to tackle the issue end up being either wishy-washy or flat-out ordinary. Not that any film is going to make something go away, no matter what it is, but there needs to be some good attempts.

Amy S. Weber’s “A Girl Like Her” is a very good attempt. This is the kind of film teachers should show their students that just could maybe—maybe—raise a few eyebrows.

“A Girl Like Her” is a “mockumentary” (a fictional story told in documentary-style fashion), but it might as well be real; its emotional honesty about an important subject made me forget that everything was scripted and actors were playing roles (even though I’d seen one of them—Jimmy Bennett—in many other movies before, like “Orphan” and “Trucker”). The high school portrayed in the film could be any high school. The students feel real. And so on. Even if it doesn’t entirely work (I mean, it is possible some people would forget cameras are rolling on them and say certain things, but it is unlikely), I praise it for attempting to understand the mindset of both of the school bully and the bully’s victim.

A documentary is being filmed at a high school that is being proclaimed as one of the top 10 in America. The documentary’s director (played by the director herself, Weber) finds an interesting angle after student Jessica Burns (Lexi Ainsworth) attempts suicide and rumors indicate that the harassment she received from popular girl Avery Keller (Hunter King) might be responsible.

The film constantly switches points of view by showing additional footage from time to time—footage recorded by Jessica, her best friend & video geek Brian (Bennett), and even Avery herself, as she’s asked by the director to show what her life is like. We learn that Avery has in fact harassed Jessica countless times in the halls and even through text messaging and email. Brian gave Jessica a secret camera hidden in a necklace (and he filmed some things with his own camera as well), because he felt this behavior had to be exposed somehow. We also learn that Jessica didn’t want it brought to light, because she thought things would only get worse rather than better. And more importantly, we see what Avery’s home life is like: she comes from a dysfunctional family with an overbearing mother who demands too much, and she tries to hide it as best as she can. And of course, when more and more rumors pile on about her part that led to Jessica’s attempted suicide, she’s in denial, claiming she couldn’t have done that much damage.

Anyone remember the 2012 documentary “Bully?” (You know, the one that caused that ridiculous MPAA rating controversy?) Anyone else think that should have been called “Bullied” instead? After all, it didn’t focus on any of the bullies; just the victims of bullying. What did the bullies go through in their lives? What caused them to inflict harm onto others? “A Girl Like Her” mercilessly shows a lot of the physical and verbal abuse perpetrated by Avery onto Jessica (and it’s pretty hard to watch—the movie doesn’t shy away from it, which is another honorable element to its success), but then in the last third, it pulls off an incredibly surprising trick: making us empathize with the bully too, as the gravity of the true hurt Avery caused comes crashing down on her, internally and externally. It leads to an ending that may be a little too immaculate, but it is very effective nonetheless and adds to the cautionary-tale aspect. And Hunter King portrays the part extraordinarily well in a final monologue that led to chills running down my spine.

“A Girl Like Her” is a powerful film with three winning performances (King, Ainsworth, and Bennett) and a careful examination about a problem still being faced today. Will it change the way things are? Probably not. But as I said before, it’s a real good attempt.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yes, I know I’m late in reviewing this one. But hey, better late than never, right? And I’m actually glad I’m reviewing this movie now that I’ve seen it a third time, because even though I enjoyed the film the first time I saw it, I found myself enjoying it more and more the second and third viewings.

“The Force Awakens,” the seventh episode in the “Star Wars” universe, is a return to greatness in the franchise, nearly 40 years after the release of the original “Star Wars” (now known to us all as “Episode IV: A New Hope”). Since then, there has been an excellent sequel (“The Empire Strikes Back”), a passable conclusion to the trilogy (“Return of the Jedi”), two major disappointments disguised as prequels (“The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones”), one watchable prequel (“Revenge of the Sith”), and an animated TV series (“The Clone Wars”), all with an enormous fan base surrounding it all, making the franchise a monster of fandom, merchandising, all that good stuff. Now comes “The Force Awakens,” a joyous, thrilling, riveting, awesome space-opera thrill-ride that I have no shame in calling my third-favorite “Star Wars” adventure, behind “The Empire Strikes Back” and “A New Hope.”

Actually, considering the downward spiral the franchise has turned into, I think “A New Hope” would have been a more appropriate subtitle for this episode!

“The Force Awakens” could be titled “Star Wars: The Next Generation.” The characters we’re familiar with, such as Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), are more like supporting players to the new key characters in this new story—Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)…well, I won’t give anything about him away here. The new characters include heroes such as a defective, rebelling Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), a young scavenger-turned-heroine named Rey (Daisy Ridley), and a wisecracking Resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), as well as new villains, such as the imposing Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his second-in-command General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson).

The story: 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi,” a new evil galactic military organization known as the First Order is terrorizing the galaxy. Resistance fighter/pilot Poe Dameron and his cute little droid, named BB-8, hold the key to the future of the rebellion: a map to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, who may be the last great hope. BB-8 escapes with the knowledge, but Poe is captured by the First Order. Fortunately, one of the Stormtroopers, Finn, has developed a conscience and decides to escape and help Poe. He ends up on the junkyard wasteland planet of Jakku, where BB-8 also happens to be, and they’re both found by Rey. Being of a new generation, Rey isn’t sure what to believe in and thinks Luke Skywalker and the Force are part of some mythology. But when she learns what knowledge BB-8 contains and that soldiers of the Dark Side will do anything to obtain it, she and Finn find themselves in a crazy adventure to find the Resistance. Along the way, they come across the old, wise Han Solo, the villainous Kylo Ren, and all kinds of strange beings and situations before playing a part in a plan to destroy the First Order’s new concepts for domination.

That’s as best as I can describe it without digging into spoiler territory (even though some of the plot details are practically memes now but I’ll still be nice for those who haven’t seen the film). And yeah, okay, obviously there are questions that can be asked, such as how this First Order came to be. But visually, “The Force Awakens” is so good at telling the story that I let them slide and just see if they might be answered in some way or another in later installments (which there are sure to be).

The new heroes are likable and well-developed (for the most part). Finn, played brilliantly by John Boyega (who I also loved in “Attack the Block”), reacts to many of these crazy “Star Wars”-ish situations the same way I think most people would, and as a result, he has the funniest lines. Rey is a strong, plucky, resourceful heroine. Poe hasn’t had much time to shine yet, but…eh, maybe in Episode VIII. And BB-8 is a cute little toy—er, I mean, droid. The villains are either complex, intimidating, or both. The more you know about Kylo Ren, who sports an attire much like Darth Vader originally did, the less you’re intimidated by him, but fortunately, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s a three-dimensional villain, in ways I won’t give away here, and I’m interested to see where his story goes in later installments. The one who is consistently intimidating throughout the film is General Hux, who reminds me of Adolf Hitler in a sense, particularly when he addresses a crowd. And it’s nice to see the old heroes again. The closest one of the old characters to play a crucial part is Han. It’s good to see Han fly the Millennium Falcon again, interact with Leia and Chewy, and crack some more one-liners, but you can also tell the character has aged mentally as well as physically. In addition to good writing, the subtleties in Ford’s performance make this character more complex than before. And even when his resolution is pretty predictable (which everyone in the audience I saw it with seemed to agree on), it’s still heartbreaking because of who he was, who he is, and who he has become, which is a real hero. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

The director is J.J. Abrams, who I think outdoes himself here, as much as I enjoy “Mission: Impossible III,” “Star Trek,” and “Super 8.” For one thing, there aren’t many noticeable lens flares (rim-shot). For another, the pacing is excellent. For another, the action is very impressive. And he also co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan, who originally penned the great “The Empire Strikes Back,” and the best part about the writing is the humor—I’m so relieved that this big, bombastic sci-fi adventure had developed a sense of humor. This is one of those rare instances in which the comic relief serves the story as well as make audiences laugh. I feel like with this film and “The Martian,” we are approaching an era in which filmmakers don’t have to take their epic stories so seriously that they’re not fun.

“The Force Awakens” is the start of a new trilogy of “Star Wars” films (Episode VIII will be directed by Rian Johnston, and Episode IX by “Jurassic World’s” Colin Trevorow). I’m excited to see where the franchise continues to go in this direction. Here’s hoping this is the start of something new and something improved.