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Black Panther (2018)

18 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s no secret that “Black Panther” was going to be a big box-office hit. Ever since Chadwick Boseman’s African badass T’Challa clawed his way through “Captain America: Civil War,” fans were wondering when they would see him again in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Would they have to wait for “Avengers: Infinity War”? Nope. Along came director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (who made the excellent “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”) to give them a stand-alone dramatic action-thriller, simply titled “Black Panther.” But what was it that kept movie theater audiences coming back to it?

The answer, I’m afraid, doesn’t warrant much of an analysis. Everyone knows it—it’s because “Black Panther” is REALLY freaking good.

What’s especially impressive is that the previous MCU entry was “Thor: Ragnarok,” which was overall a fun, silly comedy (standing out among the other MCU movies which are mostly serious with comedic elements) and mostly poked fun at itself. “Black Panther,” on the other hand, is played almost 100% straight. It has a goofy moment here or there (mostly having to do with one of the key villains, played by Andy Serkis), but even then, it’s not forced in an attempt to wake the audience up if they were getting too bored. (The humor mostly comes from the human-interest-like interactions among the characters.) “Black Panther” didn’t need forced comic relief to be “good”—it just had to be GOOD in order to be “good.”

But maybe “good” isn’t enough to completely get across how I feel about “Black Panther.” Let me put it this way—I’m a big fan of “Iron Man” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” my two favorite MCU movies, and I think “Black Panther” is every bit as good as those two (if not better).

“Black Panther” is more or less self-contained (though there are a couple slick callbacks to one or two MCU elements—don’t forget the usual after-credits scene). There’s no origin story to show us how this superhero, T’Challa/Black Panther (again played by Boseman), became who he is, but it is the story of an important time that allowed the character to understand the highs and lows of becoming who he is. It’s more or less a “real” story, with many twists and turns among conflicting issues and a few extra details delivered along the way. Oh, and there are some bombastic CGI blockbuster-appropriate battles too. The film has it all, it makes for a great time at the movies and one of my (and several moviegoers’) favorite films of the year so far.

What else does it have? In my opinion, it also has the best MCU villain by far. Let’s face it, Loki is fun, but he’s more of a clown that wants what he wants. And Michael Keaton’s Vulture (of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) is sympathetic only to a point. But for “Black Panther,” we have Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, who’s becoming director Coogler’s trademark actor, having starred in “Fruitvale” and “Creed”). He has revenge on his mind and he’s a red-blooded killing machine, but when you learn more about him, you understand why he acts the way he does throughout the film. You see, Wakanda, where most of the key characters reside and T’Challa is ascending to the throne, is a hidden, independent African nation with many secrets that could benefit the rest of the world, including the most highly advanced technology that assists Black Panther and his companions, such as scientist sister Shuri (the scene-stealing Letitia Wright), superspy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), on their missions. Killmonger is appalled that Wakanda’s leaders keep the nation’s magnificence to itself when its resources could help thousands of millions of people in need or maybe even the entire population of the world.

The guy isn’t someone you want to mess with and at times, he needs to be taken down. But there’s also more to him than what I’ve already said about him, and by the end, he’s the best villain because he wants different things for complex reasons and will take drastic measures in order to do so.

And that’s what makes the best MCU movies so great (I’m moving away from the word “good” this time). In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a hero who wants to do good is conflicted because the answers aren’t so easy. In “Black Panther,” T’Challa learns that same lesson, but there’s also more for him to learn, because he’s become King. He learns the hard way that the most difficult task in ruling a nation is to also be a good person. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Everything leads up to a huge battle between T’Challa’s loyal subjects and Killmonger’s growing army. It’s a lot of fun and visually pleasing, but…come on, we already knew that was going to be the case. But I won’t fault it for being done well either.

What have I left out? Two things. One is, the rest of the supporting cast is spectacular, including Forest Whitaker as T’Challa’s wise uncle Zuri, Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother Queen Ramonda, Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi, Martin Freeman as a trustworthy CIA agent who gets in on the action eventually, and Andy Serkis hamming it up as unethical mercenary Ulysses Klaue. The whole ensemble cast is especially incredible. The other is, Wakanda itself. Just when I think there’s no other visually-pleasing cinematic world to take me to, I marvel (forgive the pun) at the attention to detail given to this otherworldly place. Wakanda may join Hogwarts and Middle Earth as the great movie locales of the 21st century.

We all knew “Black Panther” was going to be good, but I’m not entirely sure we knew it was going to be THIS good. And yet, here we are. And we keep coming back to it after it graced us with its presence on DVD/Blu-Ray, and the year isn’t over yet! I’m certain people will still talk about it at the end of the year and maybe even after that. I know I will.

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Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (2018)

10 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t know the most famous comedians personally, but lately, I get the feeling they use their comedy as defense mechanisms. They can make me laugh, but I’m always going to wonder what they’re going through off-stage or off-screen. After watching the Netflix documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” I can’t watch a wacky Jim Carrey performance the same way again. And now comes the HBO documentary about the life and times of Robin Williams, called “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.” Ever since Williams allegedly committed suicide in 2014, it made me wonder why a funnyman who made so people (including me) laugh and feel good about themselves would feel the need to do that. Learning more about him through online articles which included interviews from those closest to him, it disturbingly made sense. “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” effectively backs up the truly sad notion that Robin Williams, for as brilliant as he was, was a sad man in constant pain.

Through in-depth interviews with Williams’ family & friends (including Billy Crystal, who was one of his closest friends), never-before-seen outtakes from his appearances on TV and movies (including a hilarious blooper from his appearance on “Sesame Street,” with Elmo), and even a retrospective interview from Williams himself (recorded 2013-2014) that provides an eerily effective voiceover narration in various portions of the film, director Marina Zenovich (who also directed the documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”) does a brilliant job in presenting us with the love & manic energy that came with Williams’ comedic antics while also being able to let us know just what was going on deep inside him. Balancing knowledge of his life in performance and his personal life painted a clear portrait of Robin Williams that is unforgettable and very powerful.

I realize the film that probably sums up the life and career of Robin Williams the most is the 1987 war-comedy “Good Morning, Vietnam.” That was a film about an entertainer who kept the troops in the Vietnam War laughing in times when entertainment didn’t seem possible or even necessary. The more I watch that film, the more I realize we know very little about the character…and then I wonder who he really is and what he’s going through outside his field job. Someone should create a film-theory subject based on the possibility that this character represents the real Robin Williams and the film represents both what we know and what we don’t know about him.

Overall, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” is the four-years-late eulogy for Robin Williams that I needed. It hurt me deeply when I first heard the news about his passing, because I grew up with many of his performances (particularly in “Aladdin” and “Mrs. Doubtfire”) and was able to appreciate his more adult humor in his standup, in his R-rated movies (including “Good Morning, Vietnam,” which I already mentioned), and his more mature film roles (“Good Will Hunting,” “One Hour Photo,” among others). It was even sadder to learn more about his personal life, which included not only depression but also broken marriages and addiction, and what might have led him to do what he did. But this documentary reminded me why he was famous, why he was impactful to audiences, and more importantly, why he was so damn funny.

Love, Simon (2018)

8 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Love, Simon” is an important step for a mainstream comedy-drama to take: about the struggles of a closeted gay high-school teenager. We’ve seen quite a few indie films about the subject, and there were also some mainstream high-school dramedies with LGBT supporting characters (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Power Rangers”). But “Love, Simon,” based on Becky Albertalli’s YA novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” is the first wide-theatrical-release teenage comedy that focuses on what a homosexual teen goes through when he considers coming out to his loved ones.

Sexual orientation aside, this character finds love in unexpected places, which is generally what happens in conventional teen films. But like other conventional teen films, “Love, Simon” has a lighthearted tone. It plays the material safe with a cheerful, uplifting feel. At first, I didn’t know how to feel about it, now that I know how difficult it must be for real-life closeted teens to keep their true selves hidden out of fear of being isolated or worse. “Love, Simon” doesn’t ignore how hard it is for a gay kid to come out, but it doesn’t entirely play for realism either. But the more I thought about other films that cover teenage struggles (“Juno” with teenage pregnancy, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” with mental disorders, “The Fault in Our Stars” with cancer, etc.), I realized those films played it more or less safe with those real issues too. And “Love, Simon” is charming and likable for the same reasons the other films are charming and likable.

(Besides, there’s a film coming out this fall, called “Boy Erased,” that’s probably going to deal with darker, more realistic themes about a gay teen coming out. If we’re going to have that, why complain about this?)

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer,” “Jurassic World”) stars in a winning performance as Simon Spier, your average suburban high-school senior with loving parents (Josh Duhamel & Jennifer Garner), a nice little sister (Talitha Bateman), and three good friends (Leah, played by Katherine Langford; Nick, played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.; and Abby, played by Alexandra Shipp). He has an enormous secret he’s not ready to tell anybody yet: he’s gay. He’s known it for quite a while now (ever since his “Harry Potter” bedroom poster gave him his awakening), but he confides in a secret email buddy, simply labeled “Blue,” about when would be the right time to tell anybody and risk messing up a life he loves. Blue is an anonymous classmate who is also gay and not ready to come out, and so, Simon and Blue communicate often, not letting on their real identities to each other (Simon calls himself “Jacques”).

But things go wrong when an obnoxious classmate, Martin (Logan Miller), discovers one of Simon’s emails to Blue and uses it to blackmail him in an attempt to get closer to Abby, whom he has a crush on. This results in numerous misunderstandings and confusing moments that cause Simon’s friends to wonder what’s really going on, while Simon is still trying his best to keep his secret until the time is right for him. But Martin isn’t making things any easier.

This character of Martin is utterly hateful, but he’s also all too real. We’ve seen this particular pathetic social outcast in high school (maybe we even were that character in high school, and we just didn’t know it). He’s pushy, kind of a bully, looking for friends in the wrong places, and obnoxious as a result. With that said, the problem with the character isn’t necessarily with him (though some of his actions are a bit forced, in order to keep the story flowing)—it’s that the things he does late in the film, which are inexcusable and make you hate him even more, have no repercussions. There are two side characters who perform a homophobic prank which results in a great verbal takedown by a teacher played by the very-funny Natasha Rothwell—couldn’t Martin have gotten the same treatment by this teacher? I would have loved to see this little turd get some kind of comeuppance.

The strengths of “Love, Simon” come from Simon’s interactions with his family and his friends. Once you know that he has this big secret, it makes those scenes intriguing to watch, because you know he’s testing these people, making sure they’re going to stay true to him if he stays true to them. With that in mind, the already-immensely-likable Simon earns more of the audience’s sympathy. We want him to find happiness, we want him to be comfortable with himself as well as with other people, and we also want him to find out who Blue is. That’s another strength with “Love, Simon”: finding out who Blue is. Is it the cool guy from the Halloween party? Is it the cute guy who works at Waffle House? Is it the sweet, sensitive guy from drama class? It’s a nice mix of mystery and comedy that keeps the film going in a tender direction.

I think everyone who hasn’t seen the film knows that by the end of the film, Simon’s secret is out. I won’t reveal everything that happens here, but I will say that the way the aftermath is handled is very effective. We get to see how everyone feels about it, and we see the differences from the opening act to the third act, and it’s handled very maturely. (Well, for the most part, it’s handled maturely—the film doesn’t go too far in the darker, more realistic territory when it comes to something like this.)

And then comes the question of whether or not heterosexual audience members, particularly teenage ones, will gain something from “Love, Simon.” I’d say so. Simon is an average teen with things in his life to feel good about and other things to be very uncertain about, and those latter things are kept inside for so long. So many teens can relate to that. And one of the best things about the final act of “Love, Simon” is that it addresses that. Simon has an important line near the end, “No matter what, announcing who you are to the world is pretty terrifying.” And that about sums it up.

Lean on Pete (2018)

13 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve seen gritty, realistic indie films about the issues faced by young people. I’ve seen movies about a boy growing a special bond with an animal, namely a horse. I haven’t seen a film quite like “Lean on Pete,” which is a unique hybrid of both. I could try and describe this film to peers/colleagues, and I wouldn’t come close to being accurate. Yes, “Lean on Pete” features a boy and his horse, trying to get through a world that doesn’t understand them. But there’s far more on this film’s mind than what you might expect.

What “Lean on Pete” ends up being is a sometimes-sweet, sometimes-harrowing, always-emotionally-gripping drama about a good boy trying to find a place to call “home.” In the process of a teenage boy trying to locate the American Dream, we’re obliged to view something that could best be described as “The Grapes of Wrath” mixed with “The 400 Blows.” (As much as I hate to compare one particular film to two other particular films, that’s the best method I could use to try and describe “Lean on Pete” to people. But this is a review, so let’s try and move on.)

The thing that makes writer-director Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete” even more special is that it’s not afraid to have it both ways with the audience—it wants to punch them in the gut with gritty realism and harsh truths, but it also wants to touch their hearts and make them feel hopeful and positive too. To do both is always tricky but also very welcome. When the film delves into scenes of deep, dark truth, it makes the lighter moments all the more appreciated.

Our hero is a 15-year-old boy named Charley, played excellently by Charlie Plummer (“King Jack”), who has recently moved to Portland, Oregon from Spokane, Washington, after his ne’er-do-well father (Travis Fimmel) got a new job opportunity. All his friends & football teammates are far away, he has a lot of time all to himself, and his dad spends more time with loose women than his own son, but Charley does his best to deal with it. (One of the most refreshing things about this film is that this kid tries to look at the bright side of things instead of mope and complain all the time about his plight.)

Things look up when he comes across a racetrack, where he’s offered a job from a horse trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi) to become a stablehand and help care for the horses, one of which is an aging quarter-horse named Lean on Pete. Charley enjoys the pay, but he enjoys the company of the horses more. (And of course, Del becomes a father figure to Charley; as crotchety as he may be, he does occasionally show signs of warmth. Not that Charley’s actual father is a bad dad; it’s just that he has a hard enough time taking care of himself, let alone a teenager.) Charley likes Lean on Pete more and more, but as Del and a vet jockey named Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) warn him, “Horses aren’t pets.” They see these horses as little more than assets that need to be used as long as possible. When Charley learns what happens to horses when they get too old and used up, he becomes more concerned about Lean on Pete’s wellbeing.

Through unexpected circumstances, which I won’t explain here, Charley runs away, taking Lean on Pete with him on an unpredictable journey. Together, they make their way across the American Desert to see Charley’s loving Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott), whom Charley hasn’t seen since childhood. Along the way, Charley meets many interesting characters who deserve films of their own. Some are willing to help him; others, not so much. But the most intriguing thing about these encounters is they all seem to represent different ideals of the American Dream, particularly the tragic types of those who have tried and failed. What’s even more tragic is that even Charley has to do some of these things in order to survive.

There’s a particularly telling scene in which Charley talks to Lean on Pete about one of the memories he often likes to look back on. It’s a simple time but it meant a whole lot to him. Back in Spokane, one of his football teammates invited him over to his house for breakfast one morning. In a nice house with a nice family and good food and pleasant conversation with good company, Charley felt like he was home. The way he describes the importance of this fond memory makes you realize what it truly is this poor kid truly wants, even if it’s just one more day like that. My heart went out to Charley, and I hoped against hope that he would find what he was looking for. And I can imagine other people who see “Lean on Pete” will have the same wish.

In the end, “Lean on Pete” isn’t about a boy and his horse so much as it is about a boy looking for home. With great acting, excellent cinematography, and a weight to the story that feels “real,” “Lean on Pete” is a very special film that I will call one of the best films of 2018.

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.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you’ve read my review of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” you know that one of my biggest pet peeves in comedies is the kind of self-referential humor I referred to as “Kind of Aware But Not Quite.” The definition I used is “when a film is so self-aware that it has a character point out the clichés, thinking that commenting on it will make it less of a cliché.” But if you also read my reviews of “The Big Short” and “Deadpool,” you know I’m not against all self-aware comedy and that sometimes it can work to a film’s advantage. Really, it’s a matter of how well it’s written in order to work effectively.

There is a moment midway in David Wain’s hyper-aware biopic “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” that made me both laugh loudly and smile widely. It’s when the film’s narrator does something I think a lot of movielovers wish would happen in many other “based-on-a-true-story” biopics: he lists all of the things that happened in real-life that were not focused upon for this story and cut either for a shorter running time or “…just because [we] didn’t feel like it.” That’s the kind of poking-fun at the creative liberties of biopic storytelling that made the whole film work for me.

“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” tells the story of Doug Kenney, the influential but disturbed comedic genius who co-founded National Lampoon magazine and was responsible for launching the careers of many famous comedians such as Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, and many others. He had a lot of things going for him…and also a lot of things going against him, such as drug dependency and commitment issues. For a biopic about such an artist to work, you might expect something along the lines of Richard Attenborough’s “Chaplin” or Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Instead, we get something not as tedious or as heavy-handed—an ultra-meta comedy that pulls no punches in inside-jokes and fourth-wall breaking.

Mind you, it doesn’t ignore the heavier material; it just chooses not to dwell on it so much. It seems like the movie Doug Kenney himself would have wanted about himself.

Doug Kenney died at age 33 (to this day, people are unsure if he fell from a cliff or jumped off). But we still have a narrative device to tell the story, walk into scenes, and talk directly to the camera: a version of a modern Doug (played by Martin Mull). He’s there to reassure the audience that everyone knows they’re making a farce about something true to life, even going as far as to call out the actors playing comedic icons—“These actors don’t look exactly like the real people, but do you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? Do you think Will Forte is 27?”

And yes, Will Forte does star in the movie as younger Doug, who takes up a majority of screen-time. As the story begins, Doug is celebrating his time at Harvard University, creating the Harvard Lampoon into something more outrageous and wacky. Once the college days are over, however, Doug wanders aimlessly, dragging his friend/writing-partner Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson, wonderfully droll here) along with him. Wanting to continue making funny magazines for a career, Doug and Henry launch National Lampoon magazine, filling it with the blackest comedy and the most disgraceful material, resulting in them gaining popularity (even if many groups end up suing them for being offensive). The magazine helped launch the careers of many promising writers (most of which aren’t focused upon in this movie, which Modern Doug acknowledges) and also, with its hour-long radio program (The National Lampoon Radio Hour), put many comedians in proper notice. The supporting cast mainly consists of game actors portraying comedic icons, the most effective of which are Jon Daly as Bill Murray, John Gemberling as John Belushi, and Joel McHale as Chevy Chase (fitting, seeing as how McHale and Chase were co-stars on the TV series “Community”).

As time goes on, and many of his colleagues continue their careers with “Saturday Night Live,” Doug sets his sights on something higher, like movies. Thus, he co-writes “Animal House,” which becomes one of the highest grossing movies of all time, which is a big accomplishment for a lowbrow comedy. His next film is “Caddyshack,” directed by Harold Ramis, which is Doug’s way of sticking it to the country-club snobs his father associated with. But executives aren’t seeing his vision, he’s not proud of how the movie is turning out (especially after seeing “Airplane!” which is a gigantic comedic hit), and his depression and drug dependency gets worse as a result. (Side-note: the scenes that recreate the atmosphere of the makings of “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” are spot-on; I would’ve like to see more of that.) There are people in his life that want to help him, like his second wife Kathryn Walker (Emmy Rossum) and Chase. But nothing anyone tries to say or do to help him is enough.

OK, that sounds a little depressing. And honestly, it is. But would you rather the film just ignore it altogether? That’d be even worse, wouldn’t it? So, props to director David Wain and writers John Aboud & Michael Colton for doing what they can with this kind of material while also trying to have fun with it as well. “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” ends with Young Doug and Modern Doug meeting each other at Doug’s funeral and attempting to influence the mourners to “laugh, dammit!” Somehow, I get the feeling Doug Kenney would’ve liked the ultimate result of this scenario.