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Brad’s Status (2017)

27 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Get over yourself, Ben Stiller—er, I mean, Brad. Quit complaining about everything and shut the hell up, Ben—er, Brad.

I think Brad Sloan in Mike White’s “Brad’s Status” is the perfect role for Ben Stiller. In “The Meyerowitz Stories,” “While We’re Young,” “Greenberg,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and even the “Night at the Museum” movies, among others, we’ve noticed in the past decade just how good Stiller is at playing a neurotic who is hardly satisfied with where he is at his point in life. Stiller has played self-centered, passive-aggressive, humorously unhappy men who are hard to like but even harder to hate. And now we have “Brad’s Status,” which is probably the most aware of Stiller’s trademark niche.

He plays Brad Sloan—is it even a shock to describe him as bitter and resentful from the get-go? When we first meet him, he’s lying awake in bed, sharing his inner monologue with us about how great his old friends have it—Craig (Michael Sheen) is a best-selling author; Billy (Jermaine Clement) is now retired and living in Maui, having sold his company; Jason (Luke Wilson) is a filthy-rich CEO; and Nick (Mike White) is a Hollywood director. What about Brad? He runs his own non-profit organization and lives a nice life with his loving wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and musically-talented 17-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams)… Thank God when Brad wakes up Melanie and starts groaning about money, she’s there to tell him not to compare themselves to the wealthy, because somebody had to tell this guy he has a good status. But the movie continues (that’s only the first few minutes), and we haven’t heard the last of his complaining…

Brad takes Troy on a cross-country plane trip to visit colleges. Wanting the best for his son, while at the same time worrying that he’ll be as resentful towards him as he is towards his wealthy friends, Brad commits a series of mistakes he hopes to make up for by getting him an interview with the Harvard dean of admissions. Along the way, he has so many encounters with people that should wake him up to be okay with his current status, including a sour dinner date with Craig and, my personal favorite, a failed attempt to get a co-ed, an Indian-American music student named Ananya (Shazi Raja), to see things his way. (She drops the hammer on him, stating he has white man’s privilege, while she knows kids in India who are lucky to have something to eat.)

All of this sounds like I’m criticizing the film, but I’m not. I’m actually recommending it. I imagine everyone at some point or another tries to compare their lives with the lives of everyone they know—are they doing better than some, worse than others? And it never seems to be good enough. But the point of “Brad’s Status,” in which the main character has a midlife crisis, is that this feeling does exist. And it passes. The ending is ambiguous, but there is a ray of hope that Brad will be fine with his status.

A lot of reviews for “Brad’s Status” has praised the music score by Mark Mothersbaugh, a discordant score with a lot of staccato strings. And for good reason—it’s the perfect score to accompany a 40something year old man who is full of regret and constantly thinks about where he would be today if he just did things different. It’s usually there over Brad’s voiceover narration, which makes it all the more effective.

With the aid of White’s insightful screenplay (and directing), Stiller nails the role. Sometimes, he’s frustrating to watch (to the point where I want to look away), but even so, he’s always convincing and it’s not too difficult to understand why he thinks this way throughout the film. He is what makes “Brad’s Status” an important study in how to cope with a nervous breakdown. This guy may not be easy to like, but just remember—this could be us some day.

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First They Killed My Father (2017)

27 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve always found it interesting when a historical tragedy is seen from the perspective of a child. How do they react to the horrible things we read about in history books today? What do they do when trying to survive these events? Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” was effective at showing the coming-of-age of a young privileged boy becoming wiser and more resilient after time in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. And here, we have Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father,” in which a 5-year-old girl endures labor camps and child-soldier training during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia—a time when about 2 million were either killed by execution or died from starvation in the 1970s.

Based on the memoir of the same name by Loung Ung and adapted by Ung and Jolie, “First They Killed My Father” begins with a look at the middle-class family life of 5-year-old Loung (Sreymoch Sareum) and her loving family in Phnom Penh. She plays with her many siblings, she dances to a pop song on the radio, she lives a life of relative peace that you know is going to be ruined somehow. And then, the Communist Khmer Rouge soldiers take over and force people to leave their homes and evacuate the city, giving the impression that the Americans will bomb it.

Now poor and powerless, Loung and her family are now joining refugees and doing whatever it takes to survive this ordeal. It’s especially sad when we realize beforehand that they will inevitably be separated and brutally beaten and/or killed. Other families are separated, people are executed by the soldiers, and eventually, Loung ends up in a labor camp, where she’s trained as a soldier herself.

Loung witnesses so much destruction and brutality at the age of 5, and much of the film is seen through her perspective. It rides on her facial expressions as she reacts accordingly to these terrible incidents surrounding her. We know she’s too young to fully comprehend the mayhem, but we also know that this is the new normal for her. She does all the things she’s forced to do because that’s what she feels she has to do, because there’s no other choice. It’s actually more powerful than if someone just said of a certain attack, “Oh, how horrifying.” It’s instead reflected on a young child’s face.

Jolie proves to be a strong, capable director here (I’ve yet to see any of her other directorial efforts, including “Unbroken”), and I admire her ability to tell the real Loung Ung’s tragic coming-of-age story without getting preachy (and even creating it with Ung herself; Ung and Jolie wrote the screenplay together). Also great is the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, who helps make the film feel bigger than it could’ve been.

My only criticism is the running time of 2 hours and 16 minutes. While Jolie knows for the most part not to let shots or scenes linger for too long, I still think the film could have benefitted from removing a couple scenes here or there, mostly because we already get the point. But then again, I guess since we need this film, it can be as long as it deserves to be. Maybe it’s more of a nitpick than a criticism, but it is what’s keeping me from rating it four stars. (But three-and-a-half is still high enough for me.)

Why do we “need” this film? Because it’s what Ung remembers from a brutal time in history and we shouldn’t forget it. That’s why we need films like this and “Empire of the Sun,” and to be made with talented filmmakers is a bonus. “First They Killed My Father” is a small but important treasure.

Last Flag Flying (2017)

1 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Directed by Richard Linklater? Starring Bryan Cranston? With Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell? Based on the sequel novel to the source material behind “The Last Detail,” one of my all-time favorite films? Screenplay co-written by Linklater and the original novel’s author Darryl Ponicsan? It sounds too good to be true, and maybe that’s why I love “Last Flag Flying” as much as I do.

Funny thing is, even though I can see “Last Flag Flying,” based on Ponicsan’s 2005 novel of the same name (which was a sequel to his 1970 novel “The Last Detail,” which was the source material for the 1973 film adaptation), as an “unofficial” sequel to “The Last Detail” (albeit with different characters names & motivations), it still feels like a Richard Linklater film. We still have a small group of characters who are bright and clever enough for the audience to want to follow them around for two hours and listen to what they have to say to each other, which has always been Linklater’s most welcome trademark in his filmography.

Taking the place of “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson in “The Last Detail”), “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young), and Meadows (Randy Quaid) are “Sal” Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell). The “Last Flag Flying” characters are more or less the same as their previous “Last Detail” counterparts, despite some altered details here or there. (And don’t worry—I won’t make too many comparisons in this review.) It’s 2003 when Doc visits the bar of Sal, a former Marine he served with in Vietnam. Sal joins Doc on an impromptu drive the following morning to visit a church where another Vietnam buddy, Mueller (formerly known as “Mauler”), is the reverend. But after a pleasant time of catching up, Doc reveals to his old friends that he’s had a rough year—his wife died of breast cancer, and his son has recently been killed in action in Iraq. And he asks Sal and Mueller for help in burying him. After some consideration (and reluctance), the three embark on a road trip; first to Dover Air Force Base to retrieve the flag-covered coffin and then home to Portsmouth to bury the boy next to his mother. Along the way, they talk about the past, stop in New York City and Boston, and confront the demons they’ve faced for years. Sometimes, it’s very funny (such as when they decide to buy new handy devices called “mobile phones”—wow, was 2003 really that long ago?). Otherwise, it’s very bitter. But before the trip is over, they will help one another get over the past because no one else can.

Linklater observes these three characters with respect, sympathy, and affection. And despite the terrible things they mention having done in the past, Linklater doesn’t judge them either—he has them address the issue head-on and talk about how it affected their lives. That’s where the intense drama comes effectively into play, and because all three men are distinct and memorable, the conversations they partake in are always interesting to follow. And that also makes it more fun when the lighter, comedic moments pop in for much-needed levity—my favorite scene is the aforementioned “cellphone” scene, in which they go into a department store and are amazed and delighted that they can carry a little phone with them at all times and call someone with the same mobile plan for no additional charge!! (This was 2003—back when we actually used cellphones to…talk on the phone.) But the film is all about the journey they take together, so there’s room for both comedy and drama, and as is the case for my favorite Linklater films, I would join these characters’ company for another couple hours.

All three actors—Cranston, Fishburne, and Carell—are excellent, but it’s Cranston that steals the show almost too often. It’s one of his very best performances, and his cocky charisma even rivals that of Jack Nicholson’s 1973 counterpart of the character.

Now…let’s address a potential “elephant in the room”: is “Last Flag Flying” an anti-war movie? Probably. Setting it at the beginning of the Iraq War and seeing consequences from the perspectives of Vietnam War veterans, it’s not hard to make that distinction. And there are a lot of cynical and bitter comments about the military and the overall purpose of war that heavily indicate that while opponents and locations have changed, the reasoning never changes. But at the same time, when the three characters (plus a friend of Doc’s son’s, also a young soldier, with whom they make conversation along the way) get down to it, they still remain loyal patriots who were proud to help serve their country. I think it’s more of an area in which they’ll do what they feel is their duty even if they’re not entirely sure why it’s their duty to begin with (i.e. what they were fighting for). It’s smart in the ambiguous way it’s treated, particularly in the tearjerking final scene in which Doc, now all alone, says goodbye to his son.

Sequel to “The Last Detail”? Eh, it’s a stand-alone film, so no matter. One of Linklater’s best? Definitely. One of the best films of 2017? No doubt. “Last Flag Flying” deserves the same amount of respect I’ve given to “The Last Detail,” and that’s a very high regard indeed.

A Ghost Story (2017)

24 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What was it I said in my 2017 Review post about David Lowery’s experimental supernatural-based film “A Ghost Story”?*

“I just didn’t get it. I know many critics are praising this film as one of the best of the year, and I admire what director David Lowery attempted to do with this untraditional “ghost story.” But it just didn’t do anything for me, except cause me to wonder, “I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie.” But I dunno, maybe I need to see it again…”

Oh, and see it again, I did…about five or six times. No joke—I checked out the DVD from my local library about five or six times, simply because…I wanted to see it again. Maybe “see it again” isn’t the right expression; “experience it again” is more appropriate for this film.

Here’s how it goes. Casey Affleck (“C”) and Rooney Mara (“M”) play a young couple living a comfortable life in rural Texas. Their relationship is rocky, as he’s an aspiring musician who is so wrapped up in his craft that he puts most things aside, including her. Before we even have much of a chance to get to know them, he dies in a car accident. After she identifies the body at the hospital, he rises in the very sheet he’s covered with. (Thus, the ghost spends the rest of the film looking like a child’s Halloween costume, complete with two oval-shaped holes for his eyes to see through.) From that point forward, the silent and unseen C goes on an existential journey, going back to the house where he watches as M grieves and tries to go on with her life and ultimately becomes witness to events that occur in the present, the future, and even the past. (We also get somewhat of an answer as to why ghosts tend to make a mess of things in haunted houses in horror movies.)

The first time I saw “A Ghost Story,” it threw me off. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and I wasn’t sure writer-director Lowery was even sure of what he wanted his film to be. It’s a nontraditional ghost story that I think had something to say about existence and time, as it simply shows (with as little verbatim as possible) what a deceased person experiences in the afterlife. Even when I was watching it for the first time, I knew there were parts of it that were simply beautiful in effectively disturbing ways…then there were other parts that I thought could have been summed up a lot quicker than the film thinks we could understand. I mentioned in the aforementioned quote that “I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie”—that’s in reference to a scene in which Rooney Mara, playing a widow in mourning, sits alone on her kitchen floor and, in one unbroken take, eats a pie in real time. We get it—she’s grieving, expressed through stress-eating. But we’re stuck watching this scene go on and on to the point where instead of feeling the appropriate emotions for the character, all I’m thinking is…”I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie.”

(Side-note: She apparently did not. Who could blame her? It was made of vegan chocolate, according to IMDb Trivia.)

But yes, critics did praise “A Ghost Story” as one of the best films of 2017. Having it given it a few more chances, I can definitely say I see why. The film is a unique experience. It’s perhaps a little too full of itself, but I can’t deny it’s still unforgettable. Maybe I was a little too fidgety when I first saw it and wasn’t ready for this small film to enthrall me with its intriguing vision of the mysteries of life and death (and after that). But now, I admit, albeit ambivalently perhaps, that “A Ghost Story” is one of a kind and worth recommending. (I can’t even work up the nerve to give a three-star rating, so three-and-a-half it is.)

Lowery apparently loves to take us on a neat ride, with many twists and turns as he takes us through time, whether it’s forward or backward. It’s to his credit as a filmmaker that breaking traditions in a film’s usual timeline is one of the important things that makes “A Ghost Story” all the more intriguing. More importantly, he’s also not afraid to challenge viewers to think about their own existence as well as existence in general. We don’t get any easy answers, but the questions are worth discussing about. (Though, I could’ve done without the scene in which a would-be philosopher practically spells out the basic theme of the film—that’s the one scene that seemed forced to me.)

Better late than never. I may have misunderstood “A Ghost Story” the first time around. Maybe I didn’t even want to understand it. Either way it goes, here’s my apology for my first viewing…and also my apology to you for never taking Smith’s Verdict seriously again.

*2017 Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/01/09/2017-review/

Gerald’s Game (2017)

14 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

2017 was undoubtedly a banner year for Stephen King in terms of media adaptations based on some of his works. Within just a couple of months (August 2017 to October 2017), there was a solid TV series based on his novel “Mr. Mercedes” (part of a trilogy, with a second season based on the second novel “Finders Keepers” getting a release), the cinematic version of his “It” became one of the highest grossing horror films of all time, and there were two other gripping King adaptations released exclusively to Netflix: “1922” (based on a King short story) and “Gerald’s Game.” One has to wonder what King did with his residual checks, but it’s good to know he has little reason to be ashamed (for the most part).**

“Gerald’s Game,” the subject of this review, is based on King’s 1992 novel with an interesting hook: a survival-thriller/character-study about a woman who is handcuffed to a bed in an isolated cabin…and is still bound when her husband suddenly dies of a heart attack. The admittedly-thin premise becomes a great conduit for terror and survival, but the novel is more about character than about horror. Who can come in to bring more humanity and depth to what would otherwise be a passable (but not particularly special) thriller? Mike Flanagan, the director of a tragic disintegrating family drama disguised as a supernatural thriller (“Oculus”), the prequel nobody wanted but became a well-crafted horror film with believable characters (“Ouija: Origin of Evil”), and a brilliant home-invasion thriller with unexpected twists (“Hush”).

Mike Flanagan is the best director working in the horror film genre recently, because he knows how to draw in an audience and keep them on-edge while treating them with respect. His films are chilling for all the right reasons. And that includes “Gerald’s Game,” which is faithful to its source material, and more.

As I mentioned, the central character, a woman named Jessie (Carla Gugino), spends most of the story handcuffed to a bed. This was part of a kinky sex game her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) wanted to play with her at their remote vacation house, and it’s quite disturbing when the game consists of imagining rape with a captive. Jessie isn’t too eager to play, but she’s already tied to the bedposts when she calls out her husband on how sick his fantasy is. The married couple has already had problems before, and this role-playing game doesn’t make matters any better. Jessie demands Gerald unlock the cuffs, Gerald refuses…and then Gerald has a heart attack and dies. (Whoops.)

With no way of calling out for help and no one in the area plus a rabid stray dog that comes in the house to take bites out of Gerald’s corpse, Jessie is stuck on the bed, alone with her own thoughts as she tries to figure out how she’s going to get out of this predicament (if she ever does). Much of the novel is told through inner monologue and memory—how does Flanagan handle the delivery of exposition? By having Jessie partake in hallucinatory conversations with imaginary versions of Gerald and herself—these two sort of play as Jessie’s devil (Gerald) and angel (a stronger version of herself) on her shoulders, if you will. It’s an interesting move that’s played very effectively, and it also helps give more insight into Jessie’s thought process.

We get some good chilling moments of t&t (tension & terror) from the idea of the hungry meat-eating dog coming and going as he pleases to the possibility that there may actually be somebody coming into the house at night and not just another hallucination Jessie is imagining. And we also get compelling moments of survival that rival moments from “127 Hours” and “Buried” (two other movies in which a character is stuck in one place for a long period of time), such as how she manages to get drinks from a cup of water left on a shelf above the bed. But more importantly, “Gerald’s Game” works brilliantly as a character study. We get a well-rounded portrait of Jessie, not just with fantasy conversations with manifestations of her fear and her strength but also with flashbacks that reveal the origins of her guilt and her mental bindings. These scenes involve Jessie’s father (played by a surprisingly chilling Henry Thomas), who does something more chilling and disturbing than anything the flesh-eating dog does in this film. With his other films, Flanagan has always shown how important his characters are while also remembering he’s still making horror films, and with “Gerald’s Game,” he knows how important King’s characters are as well.

The acting is top-notch. Carla Gugino is excellent as Jessie. She captures the weight of the situation her character feels throughout the film, and she’s able to play with different emotions she goes through, from fear to sadness to relief, among others. We like Jessie, sympathize with her, and root for her when she attempts the inevitable escape. But I can’t leave out Bruce Greenwood, who has an arguably trickier role—he not only has to play Gerald but he also has to play Jessie’s exaggerated version of Gerald.

There’s a 10-minute epilogue that ties up all loose ends in the film. In the novel, this took about 50 pages to wrap up and is considered to be some of King’s least successful writings. Seeing the film for the first time on Netflix, I thought the final 10 minutes was unnecessary. But seeing it again, I realized it was absolutely necessary. It gave Jessie the redemption she (and to an extent, we) needed after going through her own personal hell, and it made the film overall less of a standard horror film and more of an appreciated character drama.

Mike Flanagan knows what he’s doing. With “Oculus,” “Hush,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “Before I Wake,” and “Gerald’s Game,” he’s already made five effectively solid horror films. Let’s hope for five more, because he knows what it takes to make us fear and, more importantly, he also knows what it takes to make us care. “Gerald’s Game” is probably his most accomplished work; Stephen King should be proud.

**Yes, there was also the badly publicized “Dark Tower” movie released in cinemas before any of those other projects. Why bring up the negatives when there were many positives

Call Me by your Name (2017)

14 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I could try and analyze the meaning of the flies. There are flies buzzing around visibly on-screen throughout Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by your Name,” and I thought it was just a coincidence…until one came back in the final shot. That’s when I thought there might have been something more to them in this film. Like, maybe Guadagnino is trying to say that a fly’s life is short and not appreciated until it’s too late, or something like that. But if even Guadagnino is declining to explain the meaning behind them, why should I bother trying to figure it out myself?

Thankfully, there is more to “Call Me by your Name” than…flies. (The moment I started typing that, I immediately realized it could be the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written. Hence, the ellipsis.) Nearly every other review of this film brought up the flies. I’m not returning back to this film for the damn flies; I’m returning because it’s a beautifully made, emotionally atmospheric film that works brilliantly as a study in mood and passion.

The film is a lovely equivalent of a lazy, breezy summer day. When it shows our main character alone in his room, with nothing but his thoughts and the diegetic sounds of the world outside, it’s difficult not to feel like I’m there with him or not to feel like I’ve been there before. When he’s swimming with family and friends or going on a nature hike with someone, the atmosphere of the surroundings is felt all throughout. The outside world is a character in itself; Guadagnino and his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom are inviting us to become part of this powerful atmosphere, and it really works.

Now, this I can analyze! “Call Me by your Name” is a film about finding hidden passions within one’s self, and nature can allow those things we keep deep within ourselves to shine through. Think about it—have you ever gone away somewhere like the woods or the boonies or an isolated country home and felt like you were inspired to pursue something special that you weren’t entirely sure about before? Well, in “Call Me by your Name,” the countryside of summer-1983 Northern Italy and the boredom surrounding it pushes the characters on their journey of self-discovery.

It’s even paced like a slow, worry-free summer day. Guadagnino is patient about showing us what the characters are going through while letting us take in the beautiful scenery & environment. There’s nothing to do in this location anyway (except to discuss philosophy, music, art, and such), so there’s nothing to hurry about either.

Oh, right. I should explain who these people are. They are 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio is a precocious artistic teen who joins his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) to the family summer home in Northern Italy (or, as the opening caption states, “*Somewhere* in Northern Italy”). What’s there to do here? “Wait for summer to end,” he bluntly tells Oliver, a hunky American doctoral student staying with the family for a summer internment. (Elio’s father is a professor of Greco-Roman culture who takes in a new student every summer.) Oliver is everything Elio isn’t. Elio is shy and awkward and gangly and unsure of himself, while Oliver is ultra sure of himself and built like Michelangelo’s David sculpture.

These two young men start off trying to one-up each other, but before long, Elio takes notice of Oliver’s bravado and physique. Eventually, it becomes revealed that Oliver has strong feelings for him. When they succumb to the mutual lust they’ve developed, that’s when a complicated relationship begins that will change Elio forever.

There are no worries or any concerns that would be addressed or dealt with if the film was set anywhere else at this time. Setting it in the early ‘80s in a carefree summer surrounding allows a same-sex relationship such as this to properly develop, whereas if it were set someplace else, with it being outside the norm, narrow-mindedness would have gotten in the way.

However, it is a bit disconcerting that this relationship is happening to a teenager and a 20something, especially when Oliver seems to be leading Elio on half of the time. (Though, apparently, the age of consent in Italy is 14. Take from that trivia what you will.) But, for the sake of character development, let’s look past that and see it as a true coming of age for the Elio character. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is, and thanks to this fling with the older, more mature and sophisticated Oliver, he’s able to deal with something as drastic as heartbreak (you know this isn’t going to end well once the summer ends) and possibly learn from it later in life. (By the way, the final shot that shows us an unforgettable development in Elio is so well-done, it will haunt me for years to come.)

And speaking of “later in life,” Guadagnino has confirmed that he is indeed planning a sequel to this film that will catch up on these characters years later. As someone who admires the concept of revisiting people in films (the “Before…” trilogy, the “Up” series), I’d like to see it. If the same mood and atmosphere is brought to that film as it was to this film, I think something special will come of it.

That’s not to say the film is without flaws. As I mentioned, it feels slowly placed, intentionally. And because of that, it includes scenes that could either be trimmed down or cut out entirely. I get what the intentions were, to make us feel more and more what this particular summertime feels like. But at two hours and 10 minutes, I think we already get the point here or there. (That’s why the rating for this review is three-and-a-half stars rather than four stars, despite what seems like over-praise.)

But back to the praising. Timothee Chalamet was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and deservedly so (again, that ending shot…wow), but I’m a bit disappointed by the snubbing of Armie Hammer for his equally impressive work. I’ve seen Hammer do well in films like “The Social Network,” but here, he shows a great deal of complexity and range that could lead to more roles similar to this in the future. And then there’s Michael Stuhlbarg, who doesn’t have much to do in the father role (and as a professor, we hardly even see him do any “professor” duties). He makes up for that in a scene near the end, in which he’s allowed to give a brilliant speech to his son about how he shouldn’t forget the experience he’s had.

That speech lets you know what the film has been about this whole time. Life contains a lot of pain, and it’s important to embrace it rather than try to forget it. Pain is essential to growing in life, because we carry things with us that make us who we are today. It’s how we deal with it that truly matters. What happened between Elio and Oliver did happen, it came and went, and it’s a memory and a secret that Elio will keep forever. And on that level, “Call Me by your Name” works wonders.

I get that more than I ever will get…the flies.

NOTE: Something else I want to praise is the music, particularly two songs by musical artist Sufjan Stevens: “Mystery of Love” (which was nominated for an Oscar) and “Visions of Gideon.” There are many times when song placements in movies just seem desperate to me. And while these songs are certainly used to make us feel what the characters are feeling, even though the acting is already doing that job well, there’s something about the ways they’re used here that makes it all work like magic.

Brigsby Bear (2017)

13 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING!

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

Anyway, I’ll repeat: SPOILER WARNING!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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