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My Favorite Movies – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

20 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are two of my top 100 personal favorite movies–but if I had to extend that list to a top 400-500, I would make room for two other “Star Wars” movies in particular. And one of them is definitely Rogue One.

“Star Wars” (or “Episode IV: A New Hope”) showed our space-traveling heroes using the newly-received plans for the galaxy’s Rebel Alliance to find a weakness in the Imperial Starfleet’s Death Star and blow the big mother up. But who got hold of the plans in the first place and how did they get out? That’s what “Rogue One” is about–you could call it “Episode 3.9,” since it ends where “A New Hope” begins.

And while “A New Hope” was a fun, rousing space adventure, “Rogue One” feels more like a war film–still a rousing space adventure but with a darker edge to it. A lot of the action is on ground-level, which gives it a great sense of scale. When the Imperial Walkers are storming the beach, I get a sense of how big they are; when the Death Star is seen from below, it’s a tense moment because we know what it means; when shooting goes on in the streets, you get a sense for how quickly they have to think with a blaster; and so on. Watching this “Star Wars” movie, I felt like I was there.

The setup is buildup as our key heroic characters go from place to place, finding one answer after the other, barely escaping death, finally knowing what they’re up against, etc. Then late in the movie, it picks up even more as they decide to step up and take a huge risk in bringing the Death Star plans to light. What results is what even the film’s detractors will label as (I’m gonna go a little crazy here) A FREAKING AWESOME CLIMAX OF EPIC PROPORTIONS!!!!

OK, I’m calm now.

I’ve already seen a lot of backlash towards this movie, specifically for it being short on character and thus short on depth. This is just my opinion, but I think that’s unfair. Sure, we don’t know Jyn Erso or Cassian Andor or Chirrut Imwe as well as we know other “Star Wars” characters such as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, Rey, or Finn–and how could we, considering we got to know the latter characters for more than one movie? But it’s not like the former have no character, and I, for one, knew just enough about them to want to keep following them to the end. I liked Jyn’s attitude (and how it changes through her arc of finding reason for hope in the galaxy), I liked Cassian as an intriguing anti-hero (he shoots first and asks questions never), I liked the friendship between Force-minded Chirrut and mercenary Baze Malbus, and I especially like the anti-3PO mannerisms of the droid K-2SO. (There’s also Bodhi Rook, the defected Imperial Pilot–we don’t know why he defected, but c’mon, do you need a reason to stick around with the Empire?) They’re acted wonderfully, they’re likable, and they’re a diverse group of heroes I was glad to see in action.

And because (spoiler alert) you know none of them are going to make it out alive during this important mission, what was also important was how big their ultimate sacrifice felt. For me, it worked very well.

The rest of the backlash came for the film’s writing and plot holes…I don’t care, OK? No film is perfect, and the strengths for all of my favorite movies outweigh the flaws.

However…I have to talk about the CGI to bring back Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Have I changed my mind about how the effect looks almost five years since my initial review? Well…not really. I mean, it’s still impressive and the uncanny valley doesn’t distract as much as other similar effects–there are some instances, however, where it gets a little weird. (But I will say it’s better than the effect of bringing back young Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia for about 10 seconds.) At least now, I can talk about how great the effect is for K-2SO–actor Alan Tudyk had to wear a green suit, stand on stilts, and wear robotic-like armor while filming the scenes, and then computers handled the rest of the effects work. That’s a great exercise in using both computers and practical effects. (Phoebe Waller-Bridge underwent the same method as droid L3-37 in “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”)

So they brought back Grand Moff Tarkin–that’s not who I remember most. I remember…the return of Darth Vader. His big scene near the end of the movie is still chilling and excellent even today. In this moment, I’m reminded of why he was one of the scariest movie villains in history.

In my original review, I criticized the villainous Orson Krennic for being “weak” and “not as memorable as Darth Vader or Kylo Ren.” (Yeah, way to compare, idiot past-Tanner.) Since then, I’ve seen this actor, Ben Mendlesohn, in other things like The Land of Steady Habits, “Mississippi Grind,” and the TV series “The Outsider,” and…I dunno, seeing him again here as the villain, I can’t help but smile, perhaps with recognition. Maybe he’s still a weak villain and I just like seeing this actor play him. I don’t know…but this series is called “My Favorite Movies,” so I shouldn’t really care either.

Overall, I just love “Rogue One” for being what it is: a spectacular, fast-paced, rousing thrill ride (though, again, with some real heaviness brought to the mix). It’s not just “A Star Wars Story”–it should be called “A Hell of a Star Wars Story!” I liked it when I first saw it in a theater; I love it even more now.

NOTE: I will say, for all the things I love about this movie, I don’t like Bor Gullet. I get that the Rebels are very paranoid and are using extreme measures against a former enemy pilot who came to them for help, but…really? They’re using a giant squid creature that senses your feelings, lies, wrongdoings, etc.? Why is that here??

My Favorite Movies – Moonlight (2016)

1 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Will anyone EVER forget the 2017 Oscars Best Picture controversy? No way. That was a total embarrassment for the Academy–they gave the presenters the wrong envelope for the biggest award of the night, the producers of La La Land had to surrender their trophies (which they did, with style and grace, thankfully), and the whole thing was a nightmare…but it was funny to watch!

Whatever. I think the Oscars are on their way out anyway…maybe.

Anyway, Moonlight won, instead of “La La Land.” And it made a lot of indie filmmakers very happy that the fancy-schmancy Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences decided to honor a small film in this way. Did it deserve it?

Well, yeah. Obviously I think it’s a great film. I’m talking about it like it’s one of my top 300-350 favorite movies, aren’t I?

“Moonlight,” directed by Barry Jenkins, is the story of the life of an African-American gay man named Chiron, told in three parts–from boy to teenager to adulthood. But what is it truly about? It’s not merely an exploration of a man coming to terms with his sexuality. It’s a film that shows how important it is to love yourself before you can love others, especially in a world where it’s hard to embrace who you are because it makes others uncomfortable. It’s often said in other sources that if you don’t love yourself, the insecurities get the better of you, which leads to unpleasant confrontations with the people in your life. That would help explain the behavior of Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris)–when I saw this film a second time, the scene in which she goes through mixed emotions while on crack, I couldn’t help but wonder what was on her mind, how she grew up, what brought her to this, and more. This is a person who doesn’t love herself and thus doesn’t treat her son with the love he deserves. And once I considered that, that made their reunion many years later all the more powerful. (That’s all I’ll say about that.) And so here you have Chiron, who is going through so many issues in life, doesn’t have many people to call his friends or family, is confused about himself, faces intolerance and poverty, and could easily go down the wrong path for the rest of his life (which is why it’s alarming when he commits a certain act in his teenage years). With confidence and love, he can overcome these things and turn it all around, which is what we hope will be the case when he reunites with his old school friend Kevin.

Barry Jenkins knows just how to tackle this subject by making the themes universal so that even audience members who aren’t gay or black or even male can find something big in this small film that they can completely relate with. But of course, it’s one thing to have a gripping script with a look/feel that seems genuine; it’s another if the right actors can pull off these roles. And boy, do they. The cast is across-the-board excellent, with all three main actors capturing all three sides of Chiron brilliantly. Naomie Harris is also brilliant showing the angry and bitter but also human and sad sides of a single mother with too many problems of her own to show love and affection to her son. And last but certainly not least, Mahershala Ali is outstanding as Juan. It’s not a big role, as he’s only present for the first segment, but to say he makes the most of it would be an understatement.

Now, I have a little story I want to share, and it’s my favorite scene too—I missed seeing this film in 2016 and only saw it after it won the Best Picture Oscar; Ali’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar clip convinced me I had to see it as soon as possible. It’s a scene in which little Chiron confides in Juan that he hates his mother. Juan’s response: “I hated my mom too…I miss her like hell now, though.”

Ali is one of those actors that always gets my attention these days, because I think he’s one of the best–I DARE you to look at his performance in “Moonlight” and then look at his performance in Green Book, and tell me he doesn’t have a wide range!

“Moonlight” is a film that is absorbing, rich, and more importantly, real. Much of it is bleak, but that’s what’s needed for the more uplifting, sobering aspects to take effect. The ending successfully shows that in life, there are no ways of going back (and no reason to either), the things you go through make you who you are, and where you go from here on out is ultimately up to you. That it all comes a film that is this well-acted and well-executed makes it all the more powerful and deserving of the Best Picture win.

My Favorite Movies – More 2010s Films (That I Already Covered Before)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

For the “My Favorite Movies” series, I have a lot of films to write about…but some films from the past decade, I already talked about in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series. Because I love these movies so much, I should have more to say about them that I didn’t before–and when I do, I’ll make separate posts for each of them. But for now, here are the 2010s films I already covered before that I consider “new favorites”:

Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls
Before Midnight
Life Itself
Ruby Sparks
Inside Out
Get Out
Frances Ha
The Social Network
The Spectacular Now
Take Shelter
Midnight Special
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Fruitvale Station
Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Llewyn Davis
Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War
Spider-Man: Homecoming
War for the Planet of the Apes
Big Hero 6
Kung Fu Panda 3
The Wind Rises
Attack the Block
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Boy Erased
Super Dark Times (mmm…actually, I might have more to say about that one in the future)
Gerald’s Game
Let Me In
The Visit
The Invitation
The Final Girls
Ouija: Origin of Evil
The Sacrament
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Way, Way Back
The Edge of Seventeen
The Kids are All Right
Everybody Wants Some!!
Short Term 12
Operation Avalanche
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I, Tonya
Miss Stevens
The End of the Tour
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Lean on Pete
True Grit
The Big Sick
It Follows
Safety Not Guaranteed
Sing Street
Mistress America
The Disaster Artist
Private Life
Love & Mercy
Green Room
Last Flag Flying
Love, Simon
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Cop Car
127 Hours
10 Cloverfield Lane
Blue Ruin
The Gift
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

And there are many other films from the 2010s that I will talk about (or talk more about) at some point (such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “Begin Again,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and others)–and like I said, if I have more to say about each of these treasures, then I’ll say it–but until then, those are some of my personal favorite films of the 2010s.

And if you came into this series late, also check out my posts for other 2010s favorites such as Sleepwalk With Me, Don’t Think Twice, The Land of Steady Habits, Brad’s Status, 20th Century Women, Cedar Rapids, mid90s, Lady Bird, The Farewell, The Dirties, and Lights Out.

My Favorite Movies – Don’t Think Twice (2016)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

I talked about Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me recently and also mentioned that I didn’t even know about it until I saw his other film “Don’t Think Twice.” But I wouldn’t have known about “Don’t Think Twice” if I hadn’t worked at a movie store three years ago–I was alphabetizing the Blu-Rays, I got to the Ds, I found something called “Don’t Think Twice” featuring all these talented funny people, and the cover included a highly positive review blurb from one of my favorite film critics (Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune). I was like, “What is this??”

When I got home from work, I found the film on Netflix. So I check it out, and…yeah, it’s really freaking good!

Since then, “Don’t Think Twice” is no longer on Netflix and I still don’t own it, so it’s one of the DVDs I often check out from the library pretty much each visit.

“Don’t Think Twice,” written and directed by Mike Birbiglia (who also co-stars in the film), is about a New York improv troupe called The Commune. They’re a group of friends who each have normal, mundane lives and boring jobs, but when they perform together, that’s when they all feel alive. Right away, I’m sure a lot of my struggling-artist friends can relate (because I certainly can!!).

I want to use this opportunity to appreciate the awesome cast in this movie. Mike Birbiglia plays Miles, who founded the troupe and also teaches improv while he’d rather gain a spot as a regular on the SNL-type variety TV show “Weekend Live.” (It’s pretty much the same as “SNL,” but you know–copyright and stuff.) Keegan-Michael Key plays Jack, who is undoubtedly the most talented of the troupe (but often shows off when he feels the mood dying). Gillian Jacobs plays Sam, the troupe’s emcee and Jack’s girlfriend. Kate Micucci is Allison, who also uses her talent and ideas for other ventures, such as a graphic novel in the works. Tami Sagher is Lindsay, who lives off her wealthy parents. And last but not least, Chris Gethard is Bill, who just doesn’t feel it with the improv as much as he used to.

Those are the briefest character descriptions I could come up with for this post, but trust me when I say all six of these people are well-defined, three-dimensional characters, and they’re all acted wonderfully.

The story for “Don’t Think Twice” kicks in as Jack showboats during a Commune performance in which a Weekend Live staff member is in the audience. He and Sam are invited to audition for the show, which angers the rest of the group (though they do their best to voice their support because that’s what friends do…hard as it may be). Sam blows off her audition because she feels more comfortable doing smaller improv-type stuff like The Commune rather than in the big leagues with Weekend Live…..Jack, however, earns a spot on the show.

This film is not only funny in the ways it deals with realistic issues that improv performers face but it can also be brutally honest, such as when one admits he doesn’t feel the joy in performing as he used to, another wants to find other ways to break into the field, and the most heartbreaking of all, when your friends want you to pitch their ideas to your superiors when your superiors couldn’t care any less about YOU.

In the process, those who aren’t entirely affiliated with improv also learn more about the art, such as how it’s always important to agree with the setup because “it’s all about the group.”

And once again, I have to point out my stance on comedy-dramas (“dramedies”), which is: if there’s anything more important than a comedy that makes you laugh, it’s a comedy that makes you feel. I can laugh at a lot of the antics The Commune come up with on stage, and I can also laugh at a couple of the situations that follow off stage–but more importantly, because of that, I can feel something when, say, Bill faces a family crisis and/or Sam has self-esteem issues.

I don’t know how I missed “Don’t Think Twice” when it was initially released, but I’m glad I found it when I did. Three years later, it’s still a wonderful, funny, moving film…I’ll probably watch it again today, because why not?

My Favorite Movies – 20th Century Women (2016)

9 May

By Tanner Smith

I’m not sure I have a favorite type of movie, but small, observant, down-to-earth character pieces are right up there for me.

One of the best of the past decade is writer/director Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women–there’s no telling how many times I’ve streamed this film on Netflix by now.

And I don’t say this about every one of these movies, but I would like to see more movies that show these characters as they develop over time (something like Richard Linklater’s “Before” movies).

Set in Santa Barbara 1979, it’s about a single, middle-aged mother named Dorothea (Annette Bening) whose 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is discovering girls and music and other stuff in a confusing time for him.

And it’s not just a coming-of-age for the boy; it’s a coming-of-age for the mother too, because she herself gets tested along the way of her son’s journey through life. Dorothea believes in letting Jamie go off on his own and make his own mistakes, but there are times when that worries her, especially when Jamie nearly dies in a game with his friends. (I speak from experience–teenage boys do the dumbest things when they get bored.) Thus, she recruits her boarder, punk-loving Abbie (Greta Gerwig, always a delight), and Jamie’s neighbor girl-friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), to help him. Abbie introduces the kid to her favorite music and the punk scene, and Julie teaches him how to fit in with the other guys their age (and even that becomes kind of a wake-up call for her). All of this confuses Dorothea, who feels out of step with the times and wonders herself what this modern world does to someone who wants to become an adult–what does that mean nowadays, and so on.

All of these people connect and then grow apart, but it’s moments like these that a lot of us can never forget because they and the people within those moments helped shape who we are.

The characters, which also include a working-class handyman named William (played by Billy Crudup) who lives in Dorothea’s boarding house, are all very interesting and keep me coming back to this film again and again so I can be in their company and learn something more about them through each subsequent viewing.

That’s the kind of film I love–films that introduce me to such appealing characters and how they get around in the world they live in.

My favorite scene: Dorothea and William check out two different albums to see which side of the punk scene they would belong to. They can’t get into Black Flag, but they have a fun time grooving to the Talking Heads’ The Big Country. For a Talking Heads fan like me, this scene is pure satisfaction.

My Favorite Movies – Lights Out (2016)

15 Apr

By Tanner Smith

You know, I sometimes don’t know right away whether or not a movie I see will become a “favorite.” Sometimes, I’ll see it and give it a positive review and want to see it again. And after a good amount of time, I’ll have seen it enough times so that when I’m reorganizing my DVD/Blu-Ray collection, I pick up that particular one and think to myself, “Yeah…I think this IS one of my favorite movies! Maybe not in the top 100 but top 200 maybe?”

Believe it or not, David F. Sandberg’s 2016 supernatural horror film “Lights Out” is one of those movies. Why? I’ll try to explain.

Based on Sandberg’s truly scary short film of the same name, “Lights Out” tells the story of a broken family trying to survive as a supernatural demonic entity haunts them–and the monster can only overpower you in the dark. In the light, you’re safe. In the dark, you’re doomed!

“The Babadook,” this is not. In fact, it’s a much simpler film than the complex “The Babadook”–but that’s part of what I like about it. “Lights Out” has the attitude of a mainstream horror film but a serious message about fighting depression underneath the surface.

The characters are all well-developed and interesting. Maria Bello delivers great work as Sophie, the mother of an adult daughter named Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and a pre-teen son named Martin (Gabriel Bateman)–she has mental health issues that seem to be worsening and it worries little Martin as she seems to be talking to herself…or is she? Things get creepier when it becomes clearer to Martin that there is someone else with his mother–someone who told her to stop taking her medications because “she” can make everything better for Sophie. Martin can’t sleep at night because of what’s happening, so Rebecca, who has been estranged from Martin and Sophie for a while especially after her father mysteriously died (we see in a very creepy prologue, featuring Billy Burke as the father, how he died), now has to play a parental role to protect him as it seems things aren’t safe with Sophie as long as this thing is with her. When Rebecca learns of who/what this thing is, she and Martin learn they have to protect Sophie from it as well.

They feel like real people I can identify with. There’s another character worth mentioning because he’s my favorite in the whole film: Bret (Alexander DiPersia), Rebecca’s boyfriend. Any other horror film would have written this guy as your one-dimensional idiotic jerk who would be the first to die. But not only is Bret supportive, loyal, and resourceful–he lives!

“Lights Out” was made by someone who clearly loves horror movies enough to know when to break the rules and when to follow them, and like Mike Flanagan (the king of modern American horror these days), he puts atmosphere and character ahead of scares so that we care about who the scares are happening to.

Now, as for the ending…I was a little unsure about the ending because you could look at it many different ways. One way is that there’s a sacrifice from one character that had to be made to protect the others. Another way is to look at it as tragic that it had to happen. Another way is to think there were many other alternatives to this. Another way, the sickest way, is to say this ending promotes suicide, which I definitely don’t think is the case. There is an extended ending (seen on the film’s Blu-Ray) that doesn’t really work because it makes it seem pointless overall. Without giving it away, I think the ending works as a way of combining tragedy and the will to keep fighting because things are always going to be tough. Plus, it’s amazing I’m even thinking so hard about this for a horror film in which it’s destined that people die.

Whatever the case, I know David F. Sandberg worked really hard in making this more than just another mainstream supernatural horror film. He made a mainstream supernatural horror film that is truly about something. And it’s also given me inspiration in writing my own horror films these past couple years, so I know the film has had that effect on me.

My favorite scene: would it surprise anyone if I said it was the “cellphone scene?” Those who know the film know what I’m talking about.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#14

12 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


Yet another film that didn’t make my initial year-end list is now recognized years later as one of my favorites of the decade. First, it was “Spotlight”; now, it’s Midnight Special. It’s always great to have your feelings about a movie change after subsequent viewings, isn’t it?

Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories,” Take Shelter, Mud) had two films released in 2016: “Midnight Special” and Loving. I initially gave three-and-a-half stars to “Midnight Special” and gave it credit for being what it was even if it didn’t exactly leave so much of an impact on me upon first viewing. And I gave four stars (my highest rating) to “Loving” simply for being a well-made drama with excellent acting and a timeless message.

How many times have I seen “Loving” since its original theatrical release three years ago? Once…but that’ll probably change soon.

Now, how many times have I seen “Midnight Special” since its original release? Well…I’ve lost count.

There are movies that I know are great because all the right elements are in place (and I will give them credit for that, hence my four-star review of “Loving”)…but with a lot of those movies, I feel like as time goes on, I realize they hardly require more than a couple viewings, because once I have the movie I expect to be great, there aren’t many surprises. As a result, I “admire” the movie more than I “like” it.

Then there are movies that I don’t have many expectations for or that I hardly know anything about, and then I get pleasantly surprised by what’s presented to me. Maybe I won’t think much of it at first, but as time goes on, I’ll feel the urge to watch it again and learn something more the second time. Then, I think to myself there’s probably far more here for which I originally gave credit. More time goes on, and I watch the movie a few more times, and I don’t realize until later…it’s becoming one of my new favorite movies.

That kind of movie is so fascinating, especially when I think back to when I originally saw it for the first time. Little did I know it would become one of my favorite films of the decade.

My point is Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” gets better and better each time I see it. In a track record of five great films, Nichols is always interesting and rarely disappoints. With “Midnight Special,” he’s given me something to absorb, think about, and enjoy more times than I can count.

“Midnight Special” is a sci-fi road-trip drama featuring two men who are on the run with a little boy (the son of one of the men) in tow who seems to have special abilities. The government seeks him because he seems to possess secret information, the religious cult that held him and raised him want him back because they see him as a savior, and the boy’s father (Michael Shannon) just wants to keep him safe.

“Midnight Special” was Nichols’ first studio achievement (making a film for Warner Bros.). And unlike many indie filmmakers who get their time to shine in the studio system, he was able to maintain final cut. (The budget needed for the production was small, so WB agreed to give him plenty of room.) Part of me doesn’t want to be so cynical as to how limited space directors are given when working in the mainstream…but another part of me truly appreciates the freedom that Nichols was given. At the very least, couldn’t you imagine the vagueness of this story’s execution thrown out the window for simple explanations? (At its worst, they probably would’ve had Adam Driver’s NSA character deliver every possible answer to each raised question, a la the psychiatrist’s deduction in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”)

What I love about “Midnight Special” is exactly that: its vagueness. There is development upon development upon development in this story, and none of it feels forced or tacked-on. It feels very well thought-out, and I admire Nichols for putting faith into his audience to stay with the oddness (and the realism added to the strange and unusual) all the way through to the end. Why is the boy wearing goggles? Why do his eyes glow? How is he able to do the things he does? How does he know what he knows? Why does the government want him so badly? What were the cult’s intentions? And so on. It’s a delight seeing this story unfold–instead of being angry for getting more questions than answers, I’m actually intrigued by what’s already happening in front of me. That’s a sign of great filmmaking (and it reminds me of why Nichols is one of my favorite filmmakers).

Even the characters are somewhat vague–we just know enough about why we should root for them and yet we have to fill in the blanks ourselves about what brought them here. That’s another thing I love about this movie: all the central characters–Roy (Michael Shannon), Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and Sevier (Adam Driver)–are so interesting and beautifully realized while still leaving much for me to think about with them. I don’t know if I have everything right involving their backgrounds or even their true intentions…but it’s fun to think about.

All of that leads to the ending, which confused many people (and most critics who somewhat resemble people) even more than when 10 Cloverfield Lane ultimately gave its audience what it was secretly building up to. Like “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Midnight Special” ended its story with so much and yet so little at the same time. And that’s a good thing.

Something else I love about this movie (and what I touched upon in the review originally) is the theme of parenthood. While the agents see this little boy as a weapon and the cult sees him as the second coming, the heroes are the ones who want to look out for his wellbeing. And it’s during this journey that they have to ask themselves what truly is best for this special child. Even if Roy worries about him when he has no choice but to let him fulfill his destiny, he knows that’s part of being a parent as well.

However, that does lead me to my one little nitpick of the film. Alton’s mother, Sarah, reveals to Lucas in one line of dialogue that she was broken apart from the cult that raised Alton and that Roy couldn’t do anything but watch as the cult leader practically took him as his own. (This also indicates that Roy was part of the cult long before he met Sarah, and perhaps she ultimately didn’t belong.) “He watched another man raise Alton for two years,” she says, “something I couldn’t even do.” She’s reunited with her son for less than 24 hours on this desperate trek when she realizes she may have to let him go. She’s the one to tell Roy that they all have to be ready to lose him… I don’t know if I buy her acceptance of that, considering she’s probably been leading a lonely life ever since she was separated from her son for two years. But still, that’s only a minor nitpick I have with the film.

On a deeper level, “Midnight Special” is more than mainstream sci-fi entertainment. It’s a wonderful, brilliant film that deserves more credit than I originally gave it. Better late than never, but I embrace this film wholeheartedly.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

12 Nov

By Tanner Smith

One of the best, most surprising animated treasures of the 2000s was DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda,” starring Jack Black as a panda who learns kung fu…thinking about what I just wrote baffles me for how stupid it seems and yet delighted that it actually worked.

And it definitely worked. Released in 2008, “Kung Fu Panda” was not only beautifully CG-animated and very funny AND wonderfully choreographed (for animation, providing as many kung fu styles as possible takes incredible skill)…but it was also rather moving and beautiful when it needed to be, and it taught a valuable lesson that speaks to both kids and adults: we all have unique skills that help make us who we are.

Three years later, in 2011, we got “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which was even better. More atmosphere, more action, more visual treasures, and most surprising of all, more emotions–you will believe Jack Black as Po the Kung Fu Panda will make you feel things!

I could make a Looking Back on 2010s Films post about “Kung Fu Panda 2,” but honestly, I think I’d rather write about “Kung Fu Panda 3,” my favorite of the trilogy.

Yes, it’s a trilogy with a conclusion…unless DreamWorks decides to go the PIXAR/”Toy Story 4″ route and meet back up with familiar characters years later. (I’d be fine with that, if it’s done well, like with “Toy Story 4.”)

With each passing film, we see a neat progression in Po’s character. In the first movie, Po was a mere kung fu enthusiast (and flabby panda) who was chosen to become the Dragon Warrior to combat a dangerous villain and bring peace to the valley. No one believed in him until he was able to find the skills within himself to get the job done.

But with “Kung Fu Panda 2,” we’re reminded that it’s not as simple as that to become what you desire to be. Po had to search within himself to find out who he truly is and not just who he wants to be. (Oh, and he also had to find out about his origins, as his father’s a duck who obviously adopted him.) Through it all, he finds inner peace. A satisfying resolution for an even more satisfying sequel. Where can we go from there?

Well now we have “Kung Fu Panda 3.” What are we going to tackle with this one? Well, this time, Po has to be a teacher. Already, I’m intrigued. Po is still excitable and energetic. He has mastered many of the ways of kung fu, but we see he still has a lot more to learn. Now, Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) is stepping down as master of the Furious Five and appointing Po as the new guy in charge. But even Po knows he’s not ready for this responsibility–and thankfully, we get a scene early on in which Master Shifu states the reason he wants Po to teach is so Po himself can learn something new, because he shouldn’t get used to what he already knows. Pretty good point there.

Anyway, Po is visited by another panda in the valley, named Li (Bryan Cranston), who it turns out (GASP!) is Po’s birth father! It’s a happy reunion that turns into more than that when it turns out Li may be able to help in defeating a new all-powerful villain, the chi-stealing warrior Kai (J.K. Simmons). You see, pandas possess the hidden secrets of the power of “chi,” which translates to “life force” or “energy flow.” The more Kai can possess from those he comes across, the more powerful he becomes. Thus, Po has to travel with Li to the secret panda village to learn chi. But it’s going to be harder than it seems, as Po is interacting with his own species and finally learning how to be…a “panda,” for the first time in his life.

Oh, and Po’s adoptive father–you know, the goose (James Hong)–is understandably jealous of Po’s new attachment to the father he never knew. Thankfully, this subplot isn’t as annoying or even as distracting as it could have been. And its resolution is actually kind of touching…but not as effective as…

You know, it’s baffling and kind of disconcerting that “Kung Fu Panda 3” didn’t get the attention it deserves. Critics recommended it mildly at best. It was released in January, when it could/should have been a fitting summer release. And of the three “Kung Fu Panda” movies, this was the only one not to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

People just see it as just another “Kung Fu Panda” movie, which is a shame, because…I love this movie.

Why do I favor this one over the previous two? Because it’s a definite proper conclusion in this sense: it’s the only one in the trilogy that came through with its original promise. You ever notice that what usually defeats the previous villains is some kind of magic that was never fully explained, defeating the purpose of the message the films try to get across, that it’s best to find your own inner strengths? Well, this time, even though the mystic Wuxi finger hold (which I still don’t get) plays a role in the climax, the focus is still on what Po is able to teach his fellow pandas in the ways of kung fu. He teaches them to use their abilities to their advantage, and in a fresh, inventive way, it truly works. There’s an ancient Chinese saying that kung fu lives in everything we do–this is a Kung Fu Panda showing us how! As strange as that may sound, it’s truly effective.

Now, I can just predict some troll commenting, “Haha I’m writing an angry comment on your blog–is THAT kung fu? XP” To that, I say, “It just might be.”

And as Po learns who he himself really is, it’s actually very emotionally satisfying. I can’t help it–the “Kung Fu Panda” trilogy is better than it had any right to be. With the right skills and writing and technical wizardry, you can make even the silliest ideas work wonders.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

In 2015, the MCU had a confusing time. Fans were outraged at “Avengers: Age of Ultron” for not living up to the standards of “The Avengers,” yet they were enthralled with “Ant-Man,” a romp in which our hero shrinks to the size of an ant. Sounds a bit topsy-turvy, doesn’t it?

What would we get next? 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War”–the film everyone proclaimed the real “Avengers” sequel (minus Hulk and Thor).

This film was awesome–this was what really pushed the MCU to the next level, which is what we needed in two years. It did more than its set formula required.

After the tragic casualties of the events in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” along comes the question of a government agreement to control the Avengers. Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) wants to go along with it, since he feels guilty for the innocents who perished in their battles. But Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t sure what to think, especially when it comes to what should be done with his old friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who was brainwashed to become the lethal Winter Soldier. Should he be brought to justice for his crimes or should there be an alternative, since he did things beyond his control? The more things go on, the more a rift occurs between the Avengers, as many of them don’t agree with each other and a line is drawn and eventually crossed.

Thus…one of the greatest sequences in any MCU movie…as Captain America, Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are confronted by Iron Man, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Vision (Paul Bettany) at an airport where they engage in battle!! Did I miss anybody? Yep! Two important figures–T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the prince of an African nation called Wakanda who has immense strength and wants to avenge his father who was assassinated by the Winter Soldier; and Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland), a New York teen with spider-like abilities who is recruited by Stark for a quick favor and then it’s back to Aunt May’s, mister (it’s a school night, after all).

It’s hero against hero, skill against skill–how will this awesomeness conclude?? This sequence was only as ongoing as it needed to be.

Oh, and there’s a villain pulling the strings here. His motivation is that he wants to see the Avengers suffer for their actions that claimed many lives. Even he’s not the strongest Marvel villain, we can understand what brought him here.

What makes this one so compelling is that we know exactly why something has to happen when it does. We get what drives our heroes in this scenario. And it was also a pleasant surprise to get behind Stark again, after I was aggravated by his idiotic decisions in previous MCU movies. (In “Iron Man 3,” he shouted his home address to a terrorist on live TV. Where did he think he was going with that??) Here, he put his abrasive, cynical ego aside for a while to think about the consequences of many actions that he was partially the cause of.

It’s weird that when the film was advertised, the marketing asked fans if we were on Team Captain America or Team Iron Man, as if there was a clear choice to make. I don’t think there was, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s just different ideologies clashing, and you understand both of them. It’s tough for me to decide whose side I would choose. I bet if Peter knew what each side was fighting for, he’d have trouble thinking about it too. (But dude! Tony Stark is asking me for help! This is cool!! I better suit up!)

Speaking of whom, Tom Holland nailed it as Spider-Man. After seeing him in this movie, I was more than excited to see what he would do in future MCU movies. He’s very likable, has great quippy one-liners, and feels like a real kid caught in the middle of such craziness. (Yeah, he’s not really Spider-MAN yet so much as Spider-Boy, but that’s the fun of a coming-of-age journey–we knew he’d earn that title eventually.)

Black Panther is an interesting, compelling figure, and while his vengeance motivation is clear and obvious, what kept me interested was where he was going to go once he found out who was truly behind his father’s assassination. Once his resolution came along, I was behind him.

And trust me, I’ll get to his 2018 movie soon enough–that’s one of my absolute favorites in the MCU. But first, I gotta talk about all three MCU movies from 2017: a great year for Marvel movies (and not just for Logan, either).

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon” is a remake of the 1977 Disney romp of the same name…in name only. There is a boy named Pete and there is also a dragon…that’s about it. And I am very OK with that.

Let’s face it–the 1977 version, which I grew up with, is too silly and corny to try to replicate. I’m surprised Disney even considered a remake of it at all. But with the recent collection of Disney live-action remakes that we’ve been getting (and are still coming), they saw an opportunity for SOME nostalgia that could bring in SOME profit. So, why not give us something new with that title?

Well, when I first saw the trailer, I was very cynical about it. It didn’t look like anything new–it looked like “E.T. with a dragon.” So, I missed it in theaters, even despite film critics praising it.

But my fiancee insisted we watch the Blu-Ray (which she bought for me as a Valentine’s gift) together. So, I gave it a chance…and I was pleasantly surprised.

Don’t get me wrong–it does have the very things I was afraid it would have: an antagonist who doesn’t listen to reason and a rousing climax in which the dragon is captured and needs to be rescued. But it also has some deep, powerful, emotional moments that I didn’t expect–enough to make for an impressive, memorable, and quite lovely family film.

But it didn’t start very promisingly. It opens with a happy family, so you can predict just how quickly the parents are going to be out of the picture so that the little boy can go off on his own adventures. This is followed by whimsical music and a whimsical voiceover narration from Robert Redford as the local old coot who tells the kids the same stories about a dragon that lives within the nearby forest. And of course, his daughter, a park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard), continuously brushes off his tales, even in front of the kids (oh come on!).

I thought to myself, “Oh, this is gonna hurt.”

But then, it quickly caught my interest with a neat sequence that could almost be compared to “The Black Stallion,” as we see how this little boy from the beginning has grown in the wild for six years thanks to the help of his lone companion: a green, cute dragon named Elliot (named after a character in a storybook).

Watching these two together, I strangely buy their connection. For one thing, the dragon looks great, with wonderfully convincing CGI and a remarkably expressive face that gets a lot of character across. For another, the kid is a very good actor (Oakes Fegley) and genuinely acts as if he’s playing with a big imaginary beast. And the filmmaking is very well-done here as well. Director David Lowery (whose previous film was the underrated “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and later films would be “A Ghost Story” and “The Old Man & The Gun”) knows to capture the atmosphere and environment just right if this is going to work. And the quiet moments with Pete and Elliot together work wonderfully. (Considering his experimental work and Disney’s studio tactics, I take it this is another case of a director not arguing with studio demands but instead compromising with them, just as Mike Flanagan did with “Ouija: Origin of Evil”–different movie, but the point still remains.)

I would’ve liked to see more of how Pete and Elliot survive together–that could have made a whole movie on its own. But we still have this story to get to, so let’s see what we got. Pete is discovered by the ranger, who takes him in to meet her family as she tries to figure out where he came from. Sounds about right, you say? Well, even this is well-handled, as Pete, who’s been away from civilization for far too long, struggles with his new surroundings. But he does come to trust the ranger and her daughter, who’s about the same age as Pete, and he does give it a chance because he feels like this is the closest thing that came close to a family for him since his parents were tragically killed. This is what I like; I care for this…now let’s talk about what I don’t care for.

The ranger’s hotheaded brother-in-law (Karl Urban) sees the dragon in the woods and is determined to catch it. And just as Pete takes the family into the forest to introduce them to Elliot (P.S. I like that the dragon is revealed to them in the middle rather than the end of the story), the jerk tranquilizes Elliot and takes him away, resulting in the kids and the ranger racing to save him in one big chase scene… The point of this whole sequence, outside of Disney thinks the audience needs to be woken up from time to time (note the unnecessary chase scenes in “Christopher Robin” and “Mary Poppins Returns,” for example), is that Pete has to come to terms with the reality that a dragon isn’t what he needs when there’s a family that will care for him. But I think this point could have been made in other ways.

To be fair, the brother-in-law is not a one-dimensional bad guy–he does see the error of his ways. But did we really need this whole situation? I was really getting into the scenes with Pete adapting to civilization, Pete befriending the family, and Elliot looking on as he knows he’s losing his best friend. Those scenes are the heart of the story.

But they do make up a good portion of the movie, so as long as they’re well-done, I guess I’ll have to accept the climax that will of course end well for our main characters.

And I will take it over “brazzle, dazzle days” in which our oh-so-jolly good guys are having so much fun painting lighthouses and cleaning windows with their clothed buttocks. (Man the original “Pete’s Dragon” was WEIRD. If you haven’t seen it, check out CinemaSins’ video about it on YouTube.)

It’s easy to call this new “Pete’s Dragon” the best of the modern Disney live-action remakes, because it does something completely different from its source material (which, let me remind you, wasn’t all that special to begin with). But while I obviously don’t think it’s great, I do think it’s good–Lowery’s head was in the right place overall and he came up with a satisfying film even if it could have been improved in some areas. There are many things for me to keep coming back to it and to tell others to check it out as well.

NOTE: There is another Disney live-action remake I really like that did stay true to its original source but also adds and improves upon certain aspects of it: Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book.” I’ll probably write about that one too.