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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/

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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.”

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

5 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disaster Artist (2017)

5 May

 

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creep 2

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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