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La La Land (2016)

17 Feb
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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” Chazelle’s follow-up to the award-winning “Whiplash,” is both in the tradition of the old-fashioned Hollywood Musical and yet at the same time, it’s not quite. It’s in the tradition in that it features singing and dancing as well as stellar cinematography and choreography, it tells a compelling story while doing so, it has the feel of a musical like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “West Side Story” among others, and it enchants the audience. But Chazelle doesn’t rely on all that to make the film great. In fact, he actually moves past the traditional old-school Hollywood-happy-ending to continue the story for an additional half-hour or so, and in doing so, he delivers something far more compelling in the final act than audiences would have expected.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. “La La Land” is the best musical (or at least, best non-animated musical) to come around in a long time. It’s more energetic, nostalgic, and heartfelt than other musicals from the past decade or so (like “Les Miserables” and “Chicago”), while at the same time, it’s something more.

“La La Land” is gloriously made. You could swear Chazelle copied the entire rulebook of moviemaking from the 1950s-1960s. It’s wonderful to look at, with magnificent color pallettes, masterful camerawork that continues for long takes and doesn’t stop moving, and of course, being a musical, fun choreography for the lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, to shine through. You’d think this film was made in that popular era of musicals—even though “La La Land” is set in modern times, it doesn’t feel like it. (And that’s not a bad thing.) The opening scene alone is a masterstroke of nostalgia and effervescence—a musical number on a jammed freeway, where drivers, rather than express anger at their shared predicament, sing and dance together.

The story takes place in Los Angeles and focuses on two struggling artists—jazz musician Sebastian (Gosling) and actress Mia (Stone). They meet in the opening traffic jam (well…sort of; watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean). As time goes on, they spend more and more time together until they eventually fall in love and share a relationship.

It’s basically a love story in which boy meets girl, but here, we see something that you don’t often see in most boy-meets-girl stories—the complications of maintaining the relationship when you’re pursuing your own personal dream. They learn this the hard way when Sebastian can’t play the type of old-school jazz he wants to perform and he works for modern jazz performer Keith (John Legend) just to make some much-needed money. This causes a rift between Sebastian and Mia’s relationship as Sebastian isn’t happy doing what he does, Mia is still struggling in her pursuit of her own dream, they don’t see each other very much anymore, and hearing him talk about how upset he is about his job is too much for her.

Can I just say how ingenious the commentary is, with the Keith-jazz subplot alone? Sebastian wants to cling to his jazz heroes of the past by playing in their style, but Keith, who plays jazz for a more commercial demographic to bring in modern audiences, lets it down harshly that if artists (such as jazz musicians) don’t update for the future, that means people who celebrate the past too much will kill the art. That can actually be a bold statement for “La La Land” itself, because while Chazelle does use many elements of past inspirations for his craft, he tries his best (and succeeds) at bringing in a new way of delivering his own art—taking the things that inspired him, using what modern techniques he learned as a budding filmmaker, and blending them both resulted in something as beautiful as “La La Land.”

The back half of “La La Land” is nothing short of brilliant. If Chazelle really wanted to cling to the traditions of the past, he would’ve ended the film early on and given the audience a lovely happy ending. But no—the film continues for another 30-45 minutes to show the harsh truths of what happens after the couple thinks they’ve had their “happily ever after.” It shows how hard it is for two people who have different goals and ambitions, as well as the even harsher truth that all dreams come with a price. And when trying to be the best at what you can do is not as easy it seems and even harder than people say it is.

There is something I am curious about: what did Chazelle have to go through before he made it big as a filmmaker? Thinking about the films he’s made so far, I notice a pattern. In “Whiplash,” there was a young drummer who got brutally pushed to his limits to be “great,” and it showed the pain the poor kid had to go through to achieve recognition. In “Grand Piano,” which he wrote, Elijah Wood played a pianist who was threatened with death if he hit a wrong note while performing a difficult piece at a concert. And now, we have “La La Land,” in which Chazelle’s characters pursue their dreams, just as his previous characters in “Whiplash” and “Grand Piano” had pursued theirs, and their happy ending is not at all what they expect, and they don’t know how to feel about it. With this pattern, I have to wonder if Chazelle’s films are autobiographical at all…

I don’t want to make “La La Land” sound very depressing, because really, what I just wrote was all in interpretation. The ending, which I won’t give away, is actually rather beautiful and thought-provoking (while it may be upsetting for some audiences who expect something they’re more used to). In fact, it could serve as a short film by itself. It stirred an emotional response from me and my girlfriend when we first saw it—we left the theater talking about it immediately after.

The songs are all great, two in particular stay fresh in my memory (“Audition,” which is Mia’s theme, and “City of Stars,” which Sebastian sings to himself when pondering the future), but it’s Gosling and Stone’s movements, energy, and acting that overcome and astound me. Gosling and Stone aren’t the best singers, but that’s not important—what’s important is how they play every single number, which they do to the best of their abilities. These are performances that make other actors jealous.

There’s no other way to put it—I love “La La Land.” I love everything about it. I love the mixes of the past and the future. I love the energy put into it. I love the rich necessities that make the story more compelling. I love the performances. I love the style and look of it all. I simply love it. It is the best musical I’ve seen in a long time.

The Invitation (2016)

17 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s something to be admired about the Slow-Burn. It’s when you know something is coming (but you’re not exactly sure what), and you’re allowing yourself to be patient enough to ride it all the way through. And then, when the ultimate resolution arrives, it makes you look at the whole film a different way, thus making you want to see it again. (I keep using “you,” but I really just mean myself. But judging by the Internet reception of the film in question, I’m not alone in this.)

Not many recent thrillers have the Slow-Burn, which is why I deeply appreciate the time and effort that was put into Karyn Kusama’s masterful thriller “The Invitation.”

“The Invitation” is a psychological thriller about the dinner party from hell. It begins as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) arrive at a party at Will’s old house in the Hollywood Hills…and they were invited by Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), whom Will hasn’t seen in about two years. (Awkward…) She is now remarried to David (Michiel Huisman), whom she met at a grief-support group meeting. (Little hints at characterization are flashed throughout the film, giving us somewhat of an understanding at Will and Eden’s past.) Also at the gathering are old friends, who join in on Eden and David’s way of establishing “new beginnings.” But there are two mysterious strangers (strangers to the guests, not to the hosts)—Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). These two are part of a cult that helps deal with trauma, and they have an interesting recruitment video to show the guests…one that ends quite disturbingly. This gets Will (and us) a little on-edge and paranoid, especially when he notices little things the others don’t catch on to.

What are these strange people getting at? What’s the secret to Eden’s newfound calmness after tragedy? Why does David keep locking the doors? Is there something to fear? What’s really happening here? Is Will imagining things or should everyone run for their lives? Without giving anything away, “The Invitation” manages to answer these questions in a major way.

It requires a lot of patience and attention to get to where “The Invitation” ultimately builds up to, and I’ll admit my patience was tried a little with each possible answer they could give us to rising questions (without giving us the actual answers most of the time). But somehow, I knew the answer wouldn’t be as rational as characters would like Will to believe (or the audience to believe, for that matter), so I stayed with it, wondering what would happen, when it would happen, and how it would happen. And as much as I would love to talk about the back half of the film, when everything in the story goes to hell, I will leave it for you to discover, because believe me…it is worth it.

Operation Avalanche (2016)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Some day, I’ll write a “Revised Review” for Matt Johnson’s debut feature “The Dirties.” I originally gave it a three-star review, but then as time went on, I wrote an in-depth column about its themes and meanings, after repeated viewings. Now, after seeing it about 40-50 times, I’m unashamed to say it’s one of my new personal favorites and it deserves another review.

But this review isn’t about that. It’s about Johnson’s next film, “Operation Avalanche,” another “faux-documentary” (which shows to be a good style for Johnson, who clearly loves film and filmmaking). Johnson is clearly a filmmaker who loves to take chances—his previous film (“The Dirties”) involved a school shooting, and this one…has a pretty interesting backstory.

“Operation Avalanche” was made illegally (practically), as Johnson and his crew managed to get into locations such as NASA and Shepperton Studios, by disguising themselves as a documentary film crew. Technically, they were telling the truth; but what they were keeping secret was the fact that they were actually making a faux-documentary narrative set in the late-1960s, when NASA was about to launch Apollo 11. (But wait—it gets better.) In the film, they play the film crew hired to stage the moon landing… It’s so crazy, it actually works.

Set in the late ‘60s, the film stars Johnson and Owen Williams (playing themselves, as they did in “The Dirties”) as Ivy League film geeks who are recruited by the CIA and assigned to locate and expose a Soviet spy in NASA. Armed with cameras and two camera operators, they pretend they’re making a documentary about the upcoming race to the moon, and they bug the phones in an attempt to find the spy. But they learn that the U.S. can’t land on the moon, as it’s years behind schedule on the plans. That’s when Johnson comes up with a plan even trickier (and riskier) than the infiltration plan—make a film that simulates a moon landing and make it appear as if it’s Neil Armstrong walking on the lunar surface. They rent a warehouse for a set, build a giant prop that resembles Apollo 11, import sand from certain areas that supposedly resembles the lunar ground, and even get help from Stanley Kubrick (like, the Stanley Kubrick, using photographs and CGI to bring him to life for a brief scene—“Forrest Gump,” eat your heart out). But a hoax this controversial requires the CIA to eliminate any and all participants/witnesses if it all fails…even if they don’t know whether or not it will.

As a filmmaker, Johnson shows how bright he can be when making a film on a micro-budget—he makes the material consistently engaging, he helps us to believe in the story and the execution, and even though he doesn’t like to refer to his films as “found-footage,” it’s hard to deny he knows how to breathe new life into a subgenre that was growing tiresome before. He’s also a very good actor—he’s charismatic and knows how to gain the audience’s attention with his screen presence alone. And as I stated before, he loves to take chances with his films. “Operation Avalanche” could’ve been an easy failure, harping on the popular conspiracy theory that still has people debating to this day. For this film, he presents us with not necessarily his factual interpretation as to the behind-the-scenes of the moon landing (whether it was faked or for real) but with a “what-if” scenario. What if the landing really was fabricated? How would that have been done? What troubles went into it? Etc. Johnson has fun with it.

As with “The Dirties,” “Operation Avalanche” is about an ambitious, film-loving young person wanting to push the boundaries of what he can do with film, without thinking ahead about the consequences first. He wants his fame in helping the government pull off the greatest scam of all time, but what does it matter to anyone but himself? If America found out about it, he’d be the most hated man in the country. And there are also dire consequences for the people helping him. The final moment, in which everything has become all too real and bitter for Johnson, is probably the very best thing in the movie.

But again, as with “The Dirties,” “Operation Avalanche” is also very funny, particularly when it comes to his new film equipment and especially when Johnson is directing Williams in a space suit to hop slowly as if he’s walking on the moon. And there’s also a lot of fun in the film’s in-jokes relating to other films such as Kubrick’s work, which leads to an amazing sequence in which Johnson sneaks his way into Kubrick’s “2001” set to figure out how to use “front-screen projection.” A highlight of this scene—Johnson manages to get Kubrick’s autograph.

The film can also get very tense too, especially in the final act, which includes a car chase shot from inside the pursued car in one take.

“Operation Avalanche” is in the same vein as something like a Christopher Guest mockumentary or an episode of “Documentary Now,” not necessarily “mocking” the style of filmmaking but more appreciating/celebrating it (as well as positively satirizing it). It’s compelling, it’s fun, and it’s yet another example of what a talent Matt Johnson is. I eagerly await his next project, whatever it may be.

2016 Review

8 Jan

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2016 Review

By Tanner Smith

Happy New Year, everybody! It’s that time of year that makes me look back on the previous movie year and consider the films I liked the most and the ones I liked the least. The time I feel like a true film critic!

And as with my 2014 Review and my 2015 Review, I am going to start off my 2016 Review with my least favorites before I get into my true favorites. Just like last year, I have very few films for this category, because I try to save my money for good movies, since I don’t get paid for reviewing films and so I’m not obligated to see some films that people and critics consider bad or trashy. For example, I did not see Nine Lives, Norm of the North, or Why Him? because I had more sense than to think they would do anything for me.

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However, I have no explanation or excuse as to why I rented the dreadful remake of a 2002 film I didn’t even like to begin with. (Maybe a part of me was curious, I don’t know…) Cabin Fever was the worst film of this or any year. There is not a single thing I can think of that was better than the original film by Eli Roth. If anything, this ghastly remake made me appreciate the original just a little bit more. That’s not saying much, but Roth at least had ambition when he made the original—this one just feels dead, dead, dead in the water. And thankfully, I’m not alone in this—last time I checked Rotten Tomatoes, the film has received a rare 0% rating. I don’t even want to waste more time writing about it.

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There was another horrible film I saw this year—one that was a tremendous disappointment to me, because I was sort of anticipating this film ever since I heard about it. It’s Cell, based on a novel by Stephen King and starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson (both of whom starred in another King adaptation, “1408”). This movie was so badly made that it made me wonder how it got a release (not a big release, but still). The dialogue is godawful, the “social commentary” is not subtle in the slightest, it’s near incomprehensible, the effects are average at best, and it takes one bizarre turn after another. But come to think of it…it was actually kind of hilarious. This movie was so laughably bad, embarrassingly awful, and pretty much “The Happening with cellphones.” When the first moment of “panic” hits in this movie, I was laughing my ass off! I had to pause the DVD to let it all out…and it took 20 minutes to calm myself down. Cell is one of the worst apocalyptic thrillers I’ve ever seen, one of the worst movies I’ve seen all year, and one of the most entertainingly terrible films I’ve seen in a long time.

The reason I was looking forward to seeing Cell was because the central premise (that being, our mobile technology turns us into zombies) was very similar to a short film I helped make with YouTube’s Andrew “Nukazooka” McMurry, called “Reboot,” in 2012. Take a look at this film made by some kids for the 48-Hour Film Project and tell me whether or not you think it’s better than anything in Cell.

And then there were three other films I saw in 2016 that I didn’t hate but I didn’t particularly care for that much either. They were:

Batman: The Killing Joke—Another film I anticipated seeing and another one that disappointed me. You’ve heard what everyone says about the film’s opening half-hour—it’s unnecessary, it’s awkward, and it has nothing to do with “The Killing Joke.” I agree. But the actual “Killing Joke” part is pretty good, in my opinion. As an overall film, however, it’s a mixed result.

Ghostbusters—The film that spawned a nonsensical, unnecessary controversy—if you liked it, you were disrespecting the original 1984 classic; if you didn’t like it, you were sexist, apparently just because the leads were female…yeah this was a weird time. I liked parts of this movie, and I thought Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones were very funny and appealing. But the script really needed work. The film was directed by Paul Feig, who directed the very funny “Bridesmaids.” Does anyone else think this movie could’ve been better if actress Kristen Wiig and her “Bridesmaids” collaborator Annie Mumulo co-wrote the script instead? (I mean, come on—their script for “Bridesmaids” was nominated for an Oscar! You had Kristen Wiig already. I assume she’s a Ghostbusters fan…)

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/07/19/ghostbusters-2016/

Greater—I didn’t want to dislike this movie. I have some friends who worked on the film’s crew. But my problem with “Greater” is the same problem I have with most recent faith-based films; its message is too heavy-handed that it loses sense of realism and causes the film to go off-track. The intentions were great, but the results just didn’t affect me.


Before I stray away from negativity, I should list some films I have not seen that I pretty much want to kick myself for not seeing. They are: The Boy and the Beast, The Edge of Seventeen, Fences, The Handmaiden, Hidden Figures, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, A Monster Calls, Moonlight, Nocturnal Animals, OJ Simpson: Made in America, Paterson, Pete’s Dragon

OW! I just kicked myself. I’ll check these films out sometime in the future.

OK, enough negativity. Let’s move on to the films I did see and I did like!

But wait! Why limit myself to films? I saw the Hulu miniseries 11.22.63 (a far more superior Stephen King adaptation than Cell, to say the least!) as well as the popular Netflix Original series Stranger Things. I think those two shows deserve some Special Mentions!

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11.22.63 was a gripping eight-part miniseries that had me hooked from start to finish. Based on the Stephen King novel, “11/22/63,” the story features an English teacher (played by James Franco) who discovers a time tunnel that leads to the early 1960s, which he uses to gather intelligence in an attempt to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But something in time doesn’t want him to succeed… As someone who loves the idea of time-travel and is fascinated by conspiracy thrillers, this miniseries intrigued me and had me on the edge of my seat.

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Watching Stranger Things: Season 1 on Netflix probably provided me with the most entertaining thing all year for me. A loving mix of Spielbergian elements and Stephen King elements, this eight-episode contained season gave us a compelling mystery, a good sense of suspense and horror, a large group of appealing characters to follow, and a madly entertaining adventure from beginning to end. Viewers love it, and it’s easy to see why. If this wasn’t a series, I’d call it my favorite film of the year. (But to be fair, my favorite “film” of the year is pretty damn good too.) I can’t wait for Season 2 this coming year…

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/11/01/stranger-things-season-1-2016/

OK, enough stalling! Let’s get to some good films now!

Honorable Mentions (films that could’ve made the list, in alphabetical order): 10 Cloverfield Lane, Audrie & Daisy, Don’t Breathe, Eye in the Sky, Finding Dory, Hacksaw Ridge, The Little Prince, Manchester by the Sea, Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, Sully, Swiss Army Man

Might As Well Mention These Too, Since 2016 Was A Good Year For Movies: The Accountant, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, The Conjuring 2, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Green Room, Hail Caesar!, The Invitation, The Jungle Book, Lights Out, Midnight Special, Moana, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Rogue One, Sausage Party, Storks, Tallulah

Oh, and I Liked These Too: Blair Witch, The Fundamentals of Caring, King Jack, In a Valley of Violence, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, Risen, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, The Wave

And finally, before I get to the main Top-15 list of my Favorite Films of 2016, I have another Special Mention:

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13THAva DuVernay’s powerful Netflix Original documentary feature about the US prison system simply doesn’t belong on a list that also includes more-mainstream fare such as Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War. But I do think it is a special film that deserves the high praise it has been getting, and so I put it in a separate category by itself. It’s available on Netflix, so check it out when you get the chance.

And now…my Top 15 Favorite Films of 2016!

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  1. Kung Fu Panda 3—2016 was a very good year for animation, and its streak began with the unexpected surprise that was “Kung Fu Panda 3,” the third entry in a series of animated family films that only gets better with each chapter, in my opinion. I’m serious—“Kung Fu Panda” is to DreamWorks Animation what “Toy Story” is to Disney/PIXAR. These films have worked surprisingly well—they’re funny without resorting to pop cultural references, they’re lots of fun while also telling a touching story in each film, they evolve the characters without having them learn the same lesson over and over again, and they’re all visually incredible. And KFP3 is definitely no exception.

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  1. Zootopia—And speaking of outstanding animated works, Disney has had some delightful ones: “Finding Dory,” “Moana,” “The Jungle Book” (well, that one’s mostly animated), and “Zootopia,” the best of the bunch. Strangely enough, I only thought the film was “fine” at first. After a couple more viewings, I appreciated it more and more. It’s an inspiring, gorgeously animated fable that has a valuable message to deliver and delivers it in the most entertaining way it can with its animal cast of characters. The comedy works, the action works, even the drama works surprisingly well. I have but one thing to say that not many people are addressing—shame on the people in charge of marketing for showing the entirety of the film’s funniest scene (the sloth/DMV scene) in one of the trailers. But at least they didn’t spoil the dramatic aspects of the movie.

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  1. The Witch—This was not only a very good year for animation, but also for horror as well. And no film felt as creepy and unsettling to me as “The Witch,” a madly atmospheric and intensely executed thriller that kept me awake the very night I saw it. There are no standard horror-movie tropes to be found in this film. It’s heavy on the chilling atmosphere and the tragedies that surround a family in 1630s Massachusetts who come to fear themselves. It’s a terrible situation brought on by a supernatural entity that becomes even worse as it escalates. It’s both suspenseful and tragically dramatic. It’s quiet, it’s slow, it takes its time developing the issues at hand, it’s grounded in its situation, and that ending…THAT ENDING…you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/12/10/the-witch-2016/

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  1. Hush—As noted, this is a list of my “favorites” of the year. So, even though I think “The Witch” is the “best” horror film of the year, “Hush” is my personal favorite (and the one I’ve seen about six or seven times now). This is a Netflix Original horror film in which a psychopath stalks a deaf-mute woman alone in a secluded house, and it’s masterfully handled by director Mike Flanagan (who had another winning horror film this year with “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” a prequel that was better than it deserved to be). It’s a entertainingly chilling thriller that impressed me the whole way through. Don’t just take my word for it—Stephen King even Tweeted about it, comparing it to both “Halloween” and “Wait Until Dark.”

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/05/11/hush-2016/

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  1. Captain America: Civil War—I could easily call this one “Avengers 2.5: Civil War,” because that’s what it feels like. All these Avengers fighting against each other for reasons that…honestly, are very understandable. The advertising may have had people choose if they were either Team Iron Man or Team Captain America, but the reality is it isn’t that easy to choose. I always admired “superhero movies” that ask the right questions and raise discussion amongst the audience, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has turned in yet another entry that gave the audience what they wanted and much more. And Spider-Man? Awesome!

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/12/10/captain-america-civil-war-2016/

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  1. Everybody Wants Some!!—In the same vein as director Richard Linklater’s 1993 film “Dazed and Confused,” his “spiritual sequel” “Everybody Wants Some!!” perfectly captured the feel and nostalgia of being away from home for the first time and enjoying those days leading up to your first day of college. As is expected of a Linklater film, the writing is outstanding, capturing that certain essence of the human element that reminds me of Eric Rohmer.

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  1. Operation Avalanche—I originally gave Matt Johnson’s “The Dirties” three stars in my review, but it became one of my personal favorite films of recent years as time went on and I found myself admiring it more and more with more viewings. So, I was excited to see what Johnson’s next film was going to be. And when I heard the premise for said-film, “Operation Avalanche,” I was immediately hooked. It goes like this: Set in the late-1960s, a group of CIA agents/film buffs go undercover as a documentary film crew to find a mole inside NASA, and instead, they find a shocking truth…and decide to make a film that stages the moon landing. Conceived as a fake-documentary (much like “The Dirties,” but a little more grounded), this film has fun with documentary conventions, government conspiracy theories, old-style filmmaking, and even Kubrick films (Stanley Kubrick himself even makes a cameo appearance, fascinatingly). Matt Johnson is one of my favorite filmmakers working today; I admire this guy’s ambition. I can’t wait to see what he comes with next.

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  1. TIE—Deadpool and The Nice Guys—I know it’s a cheat, but I had trouble choosing between these two R-rated action-comedies. They’re both crudely smart, they’re both relentlessly thrilling and entertaining, and most important, they’re both funny as hell.

Review of Deadpool: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/05/18/deadpool-2016/

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  1. Hell or High Water—I wasn’t sure where the this quiet Southern-Gothic-like dramatic thriller was going at first. I was getting kind of a Coen Brothers vibe from the feel of the production. But as it went on, I found myself becoming more and more engrossed by it. Brilliant performances by Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster (who I barely even recognized here) aided by incredible cinematography that made the Texas atmosphere shine (…even though it wasn’t really shot in Texas) helped make this a film I won’t forget anytime soon.

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  1. Kubo and the Two Strings—My favorite animated film of the year. This movie is constantly entertaining with hardly a dull moment at all, but it’s also very thoughtful and mature—maybe the kids won’t get as much of the themes as the adults do, but then again, maybe as they get older, these things will stick with them as time goes on. Much like the best family films we grew up watching—we went into them for the entertainment, but the meaning grows on us the more we watch them. That’s what I think “Kubo and the Two Strings” is like. And watching it as an adult, I can already tell you it’s both delightful and meaningful, and it works on so many levels. Keep going, LAIKA—your animated works (including “Coraline” and “ParaNorman”) impress us more and more.

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  1. De Palma—I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this documentary from Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow about the career of filmmaker Brian De Palma, because even though I like some of De Palma’s work (such as The Untouchables, Blow Out, and the underrated Casualties of War), I’m not a big fan of his overwhelming style of filmmaking. And when you get down to it, it’s just a well-known director sitting in front of a camera, telling stories (with clips of his work shown). But the stories he tells are fascinating—I was never bored by what he was saying; even when he’s talking about his movies I don’t particularly care for, I’m still intrigued in what he recollects from those experiences in making them.

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  1. Loving—Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite filmmakers working today, and he had two films released in 2016. One was “Midnight Special,” which I thought was good. The other was “Loving,” which I thought was very good. It’s based on a true story from the late-‘50s-mid-‘60s about a Virginia married couple that was arrested and exiled before they brought their plight to the Supreme Court. Their crime…was being an interracial couple (at the wrong place at a very wrong time). We’ve seen many movies that remind us of how nasty things were back in the day, with racism, segregation, anti-miscegenation, whatever and so on. But “Loving” tells this particular story in a simple, straightforward way that works very effectively without hitting the audience on the head with the message. Powerful performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga also help a lot.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/12/13/loving-2016/

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  1. Arrival—Honestly, I didn’t have much expectations going into this film; all I could think was what this alien-arrival movie could do that hasn’t been done so well already. Then I saw it again, and I thought to myself, “I gotta see that again.” This thought-provoking film surprised me, delighted me in doing so, and even resulted in a discussion between me and my father who saw it with me—what did everything mean, why was this the resolution, and so on. That’s a sign of a great film: when it can get people talking about it for hours after seeing it. I can’t wait to see this movie again.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/11/13/arrival-2016/

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  1. La La Land—One of the best musicals I’ve ever seen. No lie. No doubt. Maybe not even hyperbole. This is a brilliantly done film with beautiful execution, cinematography (and choreography), and story, paying homage to old-style Hollywood musicals while also bringing it to the modern time and showing the dark side of dreams and passion. What happens after the traditional “Hollywood musical” ends? That’s where “La La Land” really cements its status as one of the truly best films of recent years: its second act is honest, truthful, and challenging. Critics love it, audiences love it, I love it. I rarely predict the Oscars, but…I think this is a sure bet for Best Picture.

And my personal favorite film of 2016 is…

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  1. Sing Street—Without a doubt, this is my favorite film of 2016. (Or maybe I’m saying that because it’s the film I’ve seen the most in 2016.) It made me smile, it moved me in a way I didn’t expect, it delighted me in each direction it took, and there was hardly a moment when I wasn’t invested or didn’t have a smile on my face. Shaded with sheer optimism, this film could’ve been just a simple film about a boy who starts his own rock band to impress a girl he likes, and in some way, it is that simple. But that’s what I love about it—there’s a genuine passion thrown into the making of this delightful film that is felt all throughout, like director John Carney (who also made the great musical-drama, “Once”) had this story in his head and wanted to get it out any way he could. His ambition shows in the way he tells the story of this kid growing up in Dublin, falling in love for the first time, relating to his older brother, writing music with his friends, and dealing with the hardships of his life the only way he can (through art). I could easily relate to and sympathize with this kid, Conor (played very well by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and the things he goes through. On top of that, the songs are very good, especially “Up” and “Drive It Like You Stole It” (at least one of those songs needs a Best Original Song nomination). It makes me happy watching this movie again and again; that is why it is my favorite film of 2016.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/11/18/sing-street-2016/

See you next year!

Rogue One (2016)

24 Dec

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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.

Green Room (2016)

18 Dec

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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

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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.