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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.

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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.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

12 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s the movie that nobody expected to like and yet totally surprised them! (And seeing as how it was the fifth highest-grossing film of 2017, I’m assuming audiences originally went to see it to hate on it?…And then they got so surprised they told their friends to see it too?) “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a quasi-sequel to the 1995 film “Jumanji,” based on the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. In the book and the ’95 movie (starring the late Robin Williams), a mystical board game unleashed an array of ruthless, unearthly jungle animals onto a small town to wreak havoc.

The players of the game had to continue until they finished so that all could return to normal, and in the meantime, they had to run from a stampede of rhinos & elephants and fend off gigantic mosquitoes & spiders, a man-eating flower pod, and even horrific CGI monkeys, among others. The fun of the movie was discovering what could appear next for the characters to defend themselves against (and having a likable Robin Williams guide the audience through the madness added onto the fun).

And now, we have “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” in which the evil game is given an upgrade. Not only does it transform from board to video, but it also sucks players into the game for them to play in the otherworldly jungle. It also might be a little tamer, considering the scarier creatures of the ’95 movie are nowhere to be found here. (But there’s still a ruthless villain and some vicious hippos, rhinos, and other jungle animals to fight off.) That’s because this is more of a lighthearted adventure film whereas the first movie was more like a horror film disguised as a family-adventure. It’s fun, funny, playful, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” from director Jake Kasdan, has more in common with “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” than “Jumanji” (funnily enough, both “Honey” and “Jumanji” shared the same director, Joe Johnston), with four kids braving a treacherous jungle in order to find their way back home and learning something about themselves in the process. In this case, our trekking young heroes are nerdy Spencer, gigantic jock Fridge, stuck-up popular girl Bethany, and shy Martha. During a day of detention together, they come across the Jumanji game console and decide to play it. Big mistake…

Suddenly, they’re transported into the game and not played by young actors Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, and Morgan Turner anymore. Instead, they’re switched into the bodies of their video-game avatars—Spencer is now dashing, strong Dwayne Johnson; tall Fridge is now short Kevin Hart; Martha is now tall, striking Lara Croft-like Karen Gillan (complete with tiny top & shorts not fit for a jungle trek); and Bethany is now…Jack Black (uh-oh!). This is where the movie really shines, as these popular actors poke fun at their images. It’s a lot of fun watching Johnson play a scrawny teen trapped in a giant muscular body and taking note of his physical appearance, and it’s especially fun watching Jack Black play a self-absorbed mean-girl trapped in the body of “an overweight middle-aged man” to her absolute horror. The gimmick is they get to play opposite their usual personalities, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

Our heroes have to go along the game’s journey through a world they didn’t make, while adjusting to new sets of skills and fending off the monstrous jungle obstacles, in order to finish the game and return home. Another fun element of the film is the video-game logic that they often come across, such as non-player characters that repeat programmed responses, cut-scenes that reveal backstory, and ominous music that lets them know trouble is afoot (in this case, it’s the sinister drumming sounds that Jumanji is famous for).

Something I didn’t quite understand, though, is why we often cut back to the game’s villain, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), in scenes that could have easily been treated like cut-scenes. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if our heroes didn’t know what to do next and then they found themselves observing another cut-scene in which Van Pelt unintentionally reveals an answer to a clue, and then they realize “Oh yeah we should try that”? Cannavale is wasted in the role anyway, without much juicy material to handle, but it would’ve helped fix what I saw as an annoying plot hole.

Before the film’s release, people were worried that this movie would disrespect the memory of Robin Williams by “rebooting” the film. (Those same people also forget that the original movie was based on another source material, so another adaptation isn’t completely hard to understand.) Thankfully, they were relaxed when they realized it wasn’t so much a “reboot” as a “sequel,” which becomes clear as the main characters come across the old dwelling place of the Robin Williams character. The new inhabitant (played by Nick Jonas) states, “It’s his place; I’m just living in it.” It’s the little things that fix bigger things.

Overall, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a lot of fun. And much of the fun comes from watching these four actors play these roles with the greatest of ease. Dwayne Johnson is at his least Dwayne Johnson-est, Kevin Hart has his share of great Kevin Hart freakout moments (such as when he exclaims he doesn’t have the “top two feet of [his] body,” Karen Gillan gets to play kick-ass female action hero perfectly (and also partakes in a very funny scene in which she tries “flirting”), and Jack Black, in a role that easily could’ve terribly wrong, is hilarious and even surprisingly brilliant in a gender-swapping role. The movie is two hours long, but I could easily watch these four for another two hours. Guess that’s all the more reason to see the movie again.

Spielberg (2017)

26 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential (and one of my personal favorite) filmmakers of all time. The impact he left on the world (and on me) with over four decades of classic films such as “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Schindler’s List,” “Jurassic Park,” the “Indiana Jones” movies, and “Saving Private Ryan,” among many more, will never be forgotten. No other mainstream director is as successful as he is, and when he leaves this world, his legacy will be remembered for years to come. That’s why when I heard there was a two-and-a-half-hour HBO documentary about his life & career, I had to check it out, if only to see if there was something about Steven Spielberg that I didn’t know before.

And it turned out there was. For example, that scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) breaks down at the dinner table and his oldest son shouts repeatedly, “Crybaby!”—it turns out that was something young Steven did as a child when his own father cried at the dinner table. It’s no secret that Steven had some father issues (and it shows in his work, with father figures being either absent or distant). His parents’ divorce had an intense effect on him, which then led to a theme in his movies. To hear him talk in an extended interview about what he went through as a child when the divorce happened, how it affected his life since then, and so forth, is something special. Even though I had some idea of how deeply it affected him, it turns out that idea was nothing like I thought.

Throughout the documentary “Spielberg,” created by documentarian Susan Lacy (of PBS’ “American Masters”), Spielberg goes into detail about various things in an extended interview (split up with clips of his films and interviews with critics, film historians, actors, colleagues and family members). He speaks honestly about personal interests, feelings and misfortunes, and opens up in a way that lets us know the man behind the camera like we never have before. The film goes on for two-and-a-half hours; I easily could’ve stayed for another hour. (Actually, I think there could be more material to make another documentary, from what was deleted from interviews of Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, among many other major talents.)

Now I’ll take a little detour here to talk about something else. In 2016, there was a terrific documentary about director Brian De Palma’s career (titled “De Palma”). One of the highlights of that film was the old home-movie footage showing evidence of De Palma’s friendship with Spielberg (and De Palma is interviewed in “Spielberg” too); it made me wish I could see more of that. Well, in “Spielberg,” I get my wish, with even more home-movie footage of young 1970s versions of Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola and De Palma hanging out and shooting pool together, as they were members of the “New Hollywood club”—young filmmakers that exploded with big hits at the box-office and often consulted with one another as colleagues and as close friends. (Spielberg and De Palma’s advice/criticisms of Lucas’ “Star Wars” are priceless.) I would love to see a whole documentary about the friendship these guys had back in the day.

But back to “Spielberg.” It’s just wonderful to hear Spielberg talk about what brought him to the movies (“Lawrence of Arabia” was the one that influenced him the most), what themes he continued in his works (personal fear, family deterioration/reunification, fight for freedom & justice), and how they reflect on his own life (he even states at one point that his movies are like his therapy). I doubt I could ever watch a Spielberg film the same way again.

The documentary goes the extra mile by giving us something even more special: interviews with Spielberg’s mother Leah Adler (who died before the film’s release, at age 97) and father Arnold Spielberg. Steven had spent years resenting his father for ending the marriage between him and his mother (Arnold even told Steven and his three sisters that it was he that ended things with Leah) and has used the theme of the absent/distant father again and again in his movies. And it’s here that we find that the healing process has already begun, as we are treated to Arnold’s interview in which he, at age 100, talks about how he himself was affected. This story of the Spielberg family could make for its own Spielberg movie by itself.

There’s plenty more treats in “Spielberg” to admire, such as how Spielberg treated the child actors in “E.T.,” how he got the job at Universal Studios in his early 20s, how he came to grips with his own Judaism (and how the creation of “Schindler’s List” helped him even more), reacted to his failures (“1941”) and embarrassments (omitting certain parts of the source material for “The Color Purple”), the times he traumatized his younger sisters as children, and his marriage/divorce with Amy Irving, which is sad, considering his own experience with divorce (and now having put his firstborn son Max through the same experience he went through as a child). With “Spielberg,” we’re given numerous insights into the director’s life & career, how the artist’s life is reflected onto his work. Getting an understanding of Spielberg’s craft is not merely one of many reasons I give “Spielberg” my highest rating; it’s the most important one.

Lady Bird (2017)

20 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How in the world am I going to describe “Lady Bird” in a way that makes it sound even a little like the film I saw and admired?

Well, I can try… let’s see… “Lady Bird” is an independent film about a rebellious Catholic schoolgirl going through her senior year. As she looks for colleges far away from home, she goes in and out of relationships with her peers, struggles with her mother who is hard on her, and has experiences that readies her for the roughest experience of all: life.

See? The way I described it makes it sound dissimilar to the same film I want to write about, which is about all of those things. But they’re handled in a way that makes it feel fresh and original, like a coming-of-age film unlike any other I’ve seen before. Even the depressing, similarly-unusual “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is nothing like this film.

“Lady Bird” is the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the film and has established herself as a fresh female voice in independent film while collaborating with Noah Baumbach for films such as “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” (both of which she shares a writing credit). She is able to pull off everything in “Lady Bird” in such a way that while we’ve seen elements of the story before, what she does with them feels totally new. It’s an independent film that doesn’t fall into the typical indie traps. It’s not self-assured in how bright it is. It’s not talking down to us with its many insights. And it can be harsh while not being terribly so and funny while also being moving. Gerwig knows what she’s doing here, and you wouldn’t guess this was her first time directing.

The film is semi-autobiographical, set in the early 2000s and inspired by Gerwig’s experiences in growing up in Sacramento, California. The always-wonderful actress Saoirse Ronan portrays the young-Gerwig counterpart, Christine McPherson, who prefers to be labeled “Lady Bird” because she hates her given name and prefers a name that’s deeper. She hates life in Sacramento and wants to go somewhere less boring, and so she tries applying for colleges “out East,” even though no one, not even the guidance counselor and especially not her mother (Laurie Metcalf), sees that actually happening, as she’s not the best student.

Lady Bird has one friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), with whom she shares a true bond, as both of them are on the lower end of the high-school spectrum (but not the lowest end). And she has a neverending feud with her mother, who is having a hard-enough time working double-shifts as a nurse without dealing with her difficult daughter. Her father (Tracy Letts) shows more care and affection towards her, but he’s going through a tough time of his own, having lost his job, battling depression, trying to keep the family financially stable, and even applying for the same new job as his adopted son Miguel. She thinks things are going to get easier and gentler when she meets Danny (Lucas Hedges), a cute, “perfect” boy who becomes her boyfriend. But even that sweetness doesn’t last long. Then, Lady Bird finds herself breaking away from Julie, falling in with mean-girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), finding a new boyfriend, having her first sexual encounter, discovering harsh truths about herself and those around her, and finding herself on the very edge of adulthood.

I tried, but I don’t think I fully related how unique “Lady Bird” is with that basic plot, even though it sounds similar to other movies (movies like “The Edge of Seventeen,” which came out last year, come to mind when I try and describe what happens in “Lady Bird”).

I admire the editing of “Lady Bird.” It’s tightly edited at 90 minutes, despite so much happening in this year of the life of this 17-year-old girl. That’s because Gerwig knows not to give us filler. If a scene is straying for too long, it cuts immediately to the next scene. If there’s a misunderstanding occurring, we suddenly cut away to later, when the misunderstanding is being discussed realistically instead of awkwardly drawn out. When there’s a betrayal, it immediately cuts to quiet contemplation of said-betrayal before the tears come up. Then it’s on to the next situation. This is how it is throughout the entire film, and I greatly appreciated the trimming of the fat.

What helps is that every situation is handled just right, with Gerwig’s screenplay being smart enough to know what’s realistic, what’s memorable, and what’s just right for the material. Whether it’s the comedy (such as when Lady Bird and Julie are discussing masturbation while eating communion wafers), the drama (such as the brutal confrontations between daughter and mother), or the quiet, sweeter moments (such as when Lady Bird and Danny are looking at the stars and even naming one of them to call their own), all of it is as brilliant as it is straightforward.

I loved Ronan’s work in this film. She plays a character that feels so real you could reach out and touch her. And it also helps that she’s written well, to the point where I could practically see Gerwig coming out through her. But I can’t neglect to say how I loved the supporting cast, which is across-the-board terrific. Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, even the smaller roles such as Stephen Henderson who gets a laugh with almost every scene he’s in as a drama teacher (who gets a little too into the dramatic exercises at one point)—they’re all worthy of their own movie.

Many details of “Lady Bird” may seem familiar at first glance, but look closer when you see the film and you’ll see the power in said-details. We see this girl grow up, and even at times when she’s a little too rough, she’s still empathetic. And by the end of the film, she still has some growing up to do. The only difference is she comes to realize that. And with that said, not only do I want Gerwig to make another film (hell, another 10 films, she’s that good), but I also want a sequel to “Lady Bird.” I want to see where Lady Bird and the other characters end up.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

20 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I review the latest movie about Spider-Man, I want to talk about a certain side element to it that really surprised and impressed me: Iron Man.

As you know, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a sequel to “Captain America: Civil War.” (Though, that was a sequel to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”…which was a sequel to—you know what, forget it, most of you know the MCU’s continuity by now; I only meant “Civil War” was the introduction to Spider-Man.) If you recall, in that movie, Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) recruited a high-school boy, Peter Parker (Tom Holland), to assist in an emergency Avengers situation because the kid is secretly Spider-Man, a masked vigilante that is super-strong and has spider-like reflexes. In “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Peter is excited for possible new opportunities to prove himself as an up-and-coming Avenger. But being a kid with huge ambitions, which only grow the longer he waits for a call back into action with the Avengers, can lead to him going in over his head on an ego trip. So who has to be his mentor and set him straight?

That’s right—Tony Stark. Why am I impressed by this? Because between “Iron Man” and “Civil War,” Stark has proved himself to be irresponsible, egotistical, unlikable, and even straight-up dumb in his decisions (telling a terrorist where he lives with no back-up plan, creating a device that could doom humanity while thinking it could save it, etc.). In “Civil War,” he felt the weight of what his deeds led to and wanted to assume responsibility for them. And he still makes mistakes and doesn’t always think straight, but you can tell he’s trying to be better—after all, the reason he became Iron Man in the first place was to do good! And now that this kid is reminding him of himself, he has an opportunity to teach him to be better. He even warns Peter at one crucial point, “Don’t do anything I would do.” This is a great development for Iron Man; one I’ve been waiting a long time for.

Oh right, I have a Spider-Man movie to review, don’t I? Don’t misunderstand; the Iron Man element is not the biggest thing to take away from it. It’s just a welcome addition to the MCU, a neat continuation of a sideplot in “Civil War,” and all-around awesome for a would-be Avenger getting advice from Iron Man! (Among Iron Man’s advice to Spider-Man, yet again bringing down Peter’s expectations to be an Avenger: “Couldn’t you just be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man?” Ouch.)

Now let’s talk about “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” As I said, in “Civil War,” 16-year-old Peter Parker was discovered by Tony Stark and brought on board as Spider-Man to assist in a fight between squabbling Avengers. (And this is recapped in a wonderful video-diary montage, with footage recorded by Peter, chronicling what we didn’t see leading up to the fight, his point of view of the fight, and what happened after the fight. I’m not gonna lie—if I was in that situation, I would document it too.) Since then, he can’t help but wonder when will be the next time he’ll get a call to fly around with Iron Man and hang out with Captain America and so on. Time goes on, and he’s stuck just performing good deeds around his neighborhood. But how much can he do and how long can he wait before he’s called to leave the city and save the universe? Well, he can try to balance out his ambitions and his classwork for a start, which is even harder than it sounds.

We get as much of Peter Parker’s high-school comedy/drama that we do of Spider-Man’s neighborhood crusades. So while Spidey is thwarting criminal deeds downtown and uncovering a sinister plot to use alien technology (left over from fragments of the infamous battle in “The Avengers”), Peter is preparing for the Academic Decathlon, letting his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) in on his secret, and working up the guts to ask his crush Liz (Laura Harrier) out to the Homecoming Dance. It sounds like a lot to juggle for a mainstream superhero film, but director Jon Watts (who also made the terrific “Cop Car”) and his team of screenwriters manage to intertwine the storylines well enough that we can believe Peter’s struggles in trying to maintain both identities as high-schooler Peter Parker and “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.”

And it’s also funny too. Peter and Ned have great chemistry and are a goofy duo to laugh at and with. Spider-Man has winning quips due to Peter’s chippy personality. And there’s also humor in how Spider-Man is in over his head—at one point, he catches a guy trying to break into his own car (oops).

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” also deserves credit for giving us a compelling, complicated, NOT-forgettable antagonist (thank God, I thought Loki was the best the MCU could offer). This is The Vulture (Michael Keaton), a criminal mastermind with a bone to pick with the government after his working-class duties were taken over, leading to him wanting to exact revenge. And thanks to leftover bits of alien tech (and some little gizmos from Avengers Headquarters as well), he’s able to create some deadly weapons and even a suit that allows him to fly, hence the name The Vulture. Spider-Man catches wind of some of these strange devices and meets The Vulture face-to-face, leading to him going on a desperate raid that’s more of a job for The Avengers to handle. It’s actually more complicated than what I just described, but to say any more would be spoiling certain details. But Michael Keaton is great in the role, charming and sinister when the occasion calls for either.

Overall, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is more of a coming-of-age story, as it starts with Spider-Boy wanting to become Spider-Man. He may call himself Spider-Man already, but he’s still a kid with much growing up to do; something Iron Man tries to teach him. He has his abilities, but he also has impatience, doubt, awkwardness, and overwhelming desire, all of which he has to overcome in order to be the man he’s meant to be. This is something that I think is handled better in this version of “Spider-Man” than the other cinematic versions of the superhero. And Tom Holland does an excellent job at portraying the character going through all these changes—I enjoyed his likable performance in “Civil War,” and here, he’s even better.

Sony is back to teaming up with Marvel to gain co-possession of the Spider-Man character, and that makes me very nervous because of how quickly they’ve given up after major blunders such as “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” (I hope they have enough sense not to quit and reboot the film franchise yet again.) But “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a very enjoyable movie. It works as a continuation of the MCU, it works as a Spider-Man movie, and overall, it works as a coming-of-age film, with just the right man to mentor the boy.

The Big Sick (2017)

20 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What’s more challenging than a comedy that can truly make you laugh? A comedy that can truly make you feel.

(That wasn’t a joke…unless you consider comedies that try for drama and fail or dramas that become unintentional comedies.)

And for me, there are but a handful of comedies that make me equally laugh and feel—“City Lights,” “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “50/50,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” among a few others. Thankfully, I feel the need to make room in that hand for “The Big Sick,” a romantic comedy with good laughs, winning characters, and moments of drama that make us want everything to turn out alright for them.

“The Big Sick” is semi-autobiographical, and I’ll get to that after I describe the basic plot. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani stars as himself as a young, Pakistani, aspiring stand-up comic who wants to live the American Dream while his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are more traditional in their Pakistani culture. They’re fine with him doing stand-up comedy and not being a lawyer or a doctor, and all they ask is that he marry a Pakistani Muslim woman. Every time Kumail comes over for dinner, there’s always a young, single Pakistani-American woman who just “happens to be in the neighborhood” and comes in to join, invited by Kumail’s parents as a way of pressuring him to marry. (As Kumail explains, “In Pakistan, arranged marriage is just marriage.”) During one of his gigs, a pretty, young white woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) heckles him (well, actually, she just yells “whoo-hoo!” but as Kumail explains, any sort of audience reaction other than laughter is considered “heckling” because it can throw a comic off his game). After the show, he chats her up, and this starts a complicated love affair.

Kumail and Emily get along lovely, but before long, Emily realizes how complicated Kumail’s deal is. He won’t take her to meet his parents, who would disapprove of this interracial relationship. This causes them to break up, and this is when things get even worse. Emily falls ill shortly after the breakup, and Kumail is there to sign for her to be put into a medically induced coma in the hospital so that doctors can find out what’s wrong with her. To make matters more awkward, Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), are in town to be there when Emily wakes up…and while they wait with Kumail, who hasn’t met them before, they already know he ended things with her and that he’s kind of a jerk. Awkward levels rising! But the situation allows the three of them to bond as Kumail realizes how much he does care for Emily and how difficult it’s going to be to make his own parents understand what he wants.

And so here we have a “romcom” that’s beyond your regular “romcom,” as the girl is unconscious for most of the movie and the boy hopes she comes out of this alright so he can admit his true feelings for her. That Kumail and Emily are so cute together for the first half-hour or so of the film makes us want them to stay together, even when the truth about Kumail’s insecurities and family are revealed, leading to the breakup (which then leads to the coma—bad timing). It’s also important that we feel the growth and change within Kumail as his world comes crashing down on him in this confusing time in his life, and he just has to admit to himself and his parents about his feelings, even if it means the possibility of being disowned.

But the most interesting part about “The Big Sick” is its inspiration. The film is based on a true story that actually happened to the film’s two screenwriters, who turn out to be Kumail Nanjiani and the real-life Emily (Emily V. Gordon), who went through this unusual courtship 10 years ago and are now married.

Yeah, I know—spoiler alert, I guess; Emily turns out OK and she and Kumail live happily ever after. And they ended up writing one of the best romantic comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

Everything about the film works. The romance is fun to watch, as Kumail and Emily deliver great chemistry with witty, cutesy banter (and one very funny moment involving Emily trying to sneak out at night for reasons I’ll leave you to discover). The scenes with Kumail and his family at dinner are convincing and effective, with light comedy (such as Kumail’s mother acting surprised by every new visitor/potential-bride) and some quiet pathos. The scenes with Kumail and his stand-up colleagues (both talented and untalented) on and off stage are very funny and true, with convincing dialogue that establishes Kumail’s American ambitions. The stuff involving Kumail and Emily’s parents waiting worriedly while finding common ground with each other is very well-done. The film makes me feel and laugh. It does exactly what “50/50” did just as well as that one did, which is take real, complicated, difficult issues, show them for what they are, find the humor that can be found wherever it is, bring the convincing amount of levity, and there you have the makings of a sleeper hit. When the characters feel real and you understand what they’re going through, you’ll stay with them, feel with them, and laugh with them.

But the film is a comedy, and the Judd Apatow producer credit makes note of that, and the laughs aren’t forced; they just come naturally so that you’re not confused by what kind of movie you’re watching when it comes to the more serious moments. My favorite funny moment is when Emily’s parents come to see Kumail do his stand-up, and Beth has the perfect reaction to a heckler who shouts a racist remark. (That’s all I’ll say about that, but let’s just say Holly Hunter shines in that moment.)

I’m not too familiar with Kumail Nanjiani’s work as an actor, so I’m not sure of the limits of his range. But seeing him play a fictional version of himself, he does a solid job. He’s likable, a bit narcissistic, and believable, making for a lead we can root for. And he’s acting as himself based on a true-life experience involving him, so of course he’s going to put his all into it.

Ever since her brilliant work in 2012’s “Ruby Sparks,” one of my favorite romance films, I can’t help but admire Zoe Kazan in everything she’s done since. And as Emily, she’s wonderful. She lights up the screen with her presence, and even when she’s in a coma for much of the movie, I don’t feel that she’s entirely left us.

Anumpam Kher and Zenobia Shroff are both terrific in their roles, trying to make their roles more than one-dimensional strict parents and show how upset they can be because of their love for their son mixed with their own traditions. Holly Hunter is great as Emily’s feisty, tough mother, while Ray Romano, as Emily’s pushover father, shows dimensions I never would’ve expected.

There is just so much for me to admire about “The Big Sick” that I embrace it wholeheartedly. And I almost forgot to mention the director, Michael Showalter, which might be forgiven seeing as how the script might be the thing that truly makes the movie. But Showalter deserves credit for bringing the vision to life. In fact, everyone deserves credit for how well this film turned out. The director. The writers. The cast. Apatow. The whole crew. And it’s one of the best films of the year.