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Eighth Grade (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I did not want to see this film. A film about the hardships and awkwardness of experiencing eighth grade (even if it’s just from one eighth grader’s perspective) did not sound like my cup of tea. (I didn’t care if critics were praising it across the nation—critics also praised the well-crafted yet utterly miserable “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” a film about a shy 7th grade outcast.) My reason for this—I don’t have many fond memories of eighth grade, especially after a terrible seventh grade year. (Though, that’s not to say there weren’t bright spots here or there.) Any film that effectively captures what it’s like to be an outcast in junior high school is not going to appeal to me.

But…there is a first time for everything. I did catch Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” on DVD just recently…and I want to see it again as soon as I finish this review.

Many of us remember what it was like to be 13-14 years old. Even if we were popular in school, we still faced many a challenge within ourselves and within our social circles, such as going through puberty, finding our sexual identities, maintaining particular images for people, and other awkward, confusing aspects that come with the age. We went through hard enough times when we were alone—add school to it, and it makes things even more uncomfortable!

We know this. We went through it. And even though things are far different now than they were when we were in eighth grade (thanks to social media), that doesn’t matter because today’s eighth-graders still go through it. Do I have to bring it up? Yes, for this reason—“Eighth Grade” is a sweet, intelligent, sometimes-funny, sometimes-unsettling, always-accurate slice of life that I think today’s eighth-graders will gain a lot of insight from in order to feel better about themselves. (Forget the “R” rating—this film was made for the teens who need it!)

“Eighth Grade” is told from the perspective of shy 13-year-old Kayla (brilliantly portrayed by a natural Elsie Fisher). She has a collection of YouTube videos in which she sits in front of the camera and delivers advice to her peers. In these videos, she seems smart, outgoing, nice, and energetic…outside the videos, she’s mostly quiet, has no friends to hang with in the school hallways, and is practically invisible to all except her loving father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who’s been looking after her ever since her mother walked out on the family years ago. The film centers on Kayla going through her last week of eighth grade—she goes to a popular girl’s party, she tries making other friends, she shadows a high-schooler, she goes from one awkward situation after another in just a few days… I would turn the DVD off, and yet I kept watching. Even though there are many moments in which I was cringing for Kayla (particularly when the popular girl, Kennedy, has a puzzled reaction to her birthday present), I was impressed with each scenario played out. She goes through embarrassing moments and feels just as (if not more) shy and self-conscious as she usually does. But she keeps going anyway. It’s like she wants to follow her own advice—she knows what she has to do (for the most part—who knows the right answers at age 13?), and she just has to find the courage within herself to do it. (And it may be due to Fisher’s performance or Burnham’s writing/directing or a combination of both, but it’s impossible not to root for Kayla during all of this.)

Social media plays a big part in the film. It’s no secret that today’s teens are obsessed with it, and it’s summed up in a brilliant montage of Instagram and BuzzFeed images (set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”). It’s not seen as a criticism or a harsh judgment about how teens need to relate (sometimes, it’s used to help them relate by arranging to meet people in person)—it’s just seen as how today’s teens view the world. (And boy, don’t I feel old—apparently, according to an interview, actress Elsie Fisher argued to writer/director Bo Burnham, who’s 27, that teens don’t use Facebook…a social media outlet I use heavily.) And Kayla uses her YouTube videos to help express herself, because she can’t do it any other way. A biting piece of social commentary if ever I saw one is that teens contain two different personas—one for social media, the other for the real world. (Speaking of Kayla’s videos, there’s a brilliant piece of editing that incorporates them to help set up certain scenarios in the film.)

At first, I was ready to criticize Josh Hamilton’s portrayal of Kayla’s supportive father, who seems too nice and perfect and always ready to be there for his daughter in her time of need. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it actually makes sense—this man represents the parents that try to reach out to help their children in these times, even though they don’t want their help (or don’t want to admit it, at least), just as Kayla wants to ignore his parental advice until she feels like she’s at her lowest point. If he’s a little “perfect,” let it be—we don’t know what he’s going through in trying to connect with her anyway, so he may actually be hiding something we don’t get to see. Why criticize that?

“Eighth Grade” is a simple, effective indie film about how the little things feel even bigger, especially for a young teen. There’s no flowing narrative and no “big” moments for our protagonist. It’s just a modern-day slice-of-life about an eighth-grade girl going through the last week of school. That’s all it needed to be. What was the point of it all? It’s summed up in an unforgettable closing monologue in one of Kayla’s videos about how if we can survive this particular part of our lives, we can probably survive other particular points in the future as well. “Eighth Grade” doesn’t have a conclusion in which everything is woven together like a neatly-sewn quilt—it simply stops at a point in which we feel nothing but the best for this shy girl we’ve gotten to know for a solid hour-and-a-half, because hardly anyone else would.

And to think I didn’t want to…

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Juliet, Naked (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Juliet, Naked”—awkward title; doesn’t really demand to be projected on a marquee of your local cinema, does it? (There are other jokes I could’ve made about the title, but let’s just move on to the review.)

“Juliet, Naked” is based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, directed by Jesse Peretz (“Girls”), and features three brilliant comic performances from Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, and Chris O’Dowd as three of the most offbeat, neurotically insane movie characters of 2018. (That last part is truly what makes me recommend this film—I admittedly haven’t read Hornby’s novel nor have I seen Peretz’s previous accomplishments, though if they’re as witty and sharp as what’s presented in “Juliet, Naked” (or other film adaptations of Hornby’s work, like “High Fidelity” or “About a Boy”), that counts for something.) It’s a winning, charming romantic comedy with three characters heading in different directions in life—one wants something more than what she has, one tries again and again to connect with other people, and the other is content with where he is.

That first person is Annie (Rose Byrne delivering some of her best work). She’s quiet, sweet, and tolerates her boyfriend Duncan with whom she has lived for 15 years…even though his true love is actually (and not so secretly) the life and music of the mysterious musician Tucker Crowe. She becomes more resentful of her time with Duncan because she feels like there are more chances out there that she could take.

The second person is Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). He’s a singer-songwriter who was moderately popular in the early 1990s before he mysteriously (and suddenly) vanished. He’s become a legend for all obsessed fans of his music, most of whom come together to visit a fanmade website that is devoted to all things related to Tucker Crowe (complete with absurd theories about where he is now).

And the third…is the blogger who created the site: Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a college professor. As stated before with Annie, he cares about very little apart from Tucker Crowe. Either Annie has the patience of a saint or Duncan’s never going to stop to smell the roses and count his blessings—either way, Duncan’s pretty obnoxious about his obsession with either Tucker Crowe’s music or the sound of Tucker Crowe’s voice. (Side-note: Tucker Crowe’s music is hardly an important factor here…though, what little we hear of the music sounds like hardly anything other than easygoing alt-pop sounds.) Duncan is the least realized character of the three in this film, but at least O’Dowd is solid and funny in the role. (Additional side-note: stay through the credits for a hilarious payoff.)

In “Juliet, Naked,” someone sends Duncan a CD titled “Juliet, Naked,” which turns out to be an undiscovered demo filled with unfinished versions of the songs that would end up in Tucker Crowe’s most infamous album, “Juliet.” (There—now you have an explanation for the title.) Annie finds it first and listens to it, much to the dismay of Duncan. She posts a very negative review of the CD on Duncan’s site, which results in a surprising email response from Tucker Crowe himself, saying she “got it right.” So, unbeknownst to Duncan, Annie and Tucker Crowe correspond through email and get to know each other’s awkward secrets before they decide to meet in person. Among the secrets of the life of Tucker Crowe: he lives in his ex-wife’s garage, he has more than one ex, and he has several children scattered throughout the world, thus indicating that he’s trying to rearrange many aspects of his life that don’t involve music.

I won’t dare reveal what happens when Duncan ultimately (and inevitably) meets his long-time idol for the first time…what you might be thinking in your head may be funnier than what actually occurs, but it’s still just as awkward and funny, I assure you.

What makes “Juliet, Naked” work are the flawed characters (played wonderfully by all three actors—and there’s also Lily Brazier in a funny side-role as Annie’s lesbian sister) and the writing behind them (originated from Nick Hornby and adapted by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins). Where it truly shines is the low-key romance that slowly develops between Annie and Tucker, who are two flawed people trying to get their lives sorted out.

Another thing I want to comment upon is the use of improvisation. This is an Apatow-produced romantic comedy—many films produced by Judd Apatow tend to stall during numerous scenes of heavy improvisation from actors who aren’t given much control and are almost desperate for laughs. But with “Juliet, Naked,” the laughs come from a witty script and the improvs feel (gasp!) NATURAL. (I turn back to the scene in which Tucker and Duncan meet for example.) It doesn’t feel forced in the slightest, and I admire the film (and the actors’ abilities) for that.

“Juliet, Naked” is a carefully observed romantic comedy about people who are getting older, don’t know where they’re going in the future, and need help, whether they know it or not. Sometimes, it’s sweet (without being sugary). Sometimes, it’s funny (without being mean). And overall, it’s a little film with more heart than a title like “Juliet, Naked” would make anyone think.

Wildlife (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I write this in confidence, to what few readers I have—Paul Dano’s directorial debut “Wildlife” made me cry.

There were numerous times in attending the cinema in the past decade in which I’ve felt immense emotions toward films that contained genuine human-interest drama. But so few of them actually brought tears to my eyes. With “Wildlife,” I couldn’t help myself. With the amount of domestic stress that occurs in this 107-minute hard-hitting family drama, I couldn’t help but watch in sadness as the central situation went from bad to worse.

Three elements were essential to making “Wildlife” so emotionally devastating and effective as a result:

  • Dano, who’s best known as a capable character actor, proves to be a capable director as well. He shows confidence in dramatic storytelling—as cliché as this may sound, it feels as though he’s directing from the heart. (Dano also wrote the script, along with his long-time girlfriend Zoe Kazan, who wrote “Ruby Sparks,” one of my personal favorite films.)
  • The acting is excellent from all three principal performers—Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, and juvenile actor Ed Oxenbould (from “The Visit”—thankfully, he’s grown a little since his prepubescent white-boy-rapper-wannabe persona in that flick). If the acting didn’t work as well as it does here, I might have had a different reaction to their plights.
  • The story for “Wildlife” is told from the perspective of Oxenbould, who plays a teenage boy who watches his parents’ marriage fall apart gradually and harshly. It’s hard not to feel anything for this poor kid as he tries to keep everything together in his unpredictable household.

“Wildlife,” based on the novel of the same name by Richard Ford, is set in early-1960s Montana. Gyllenhaal, Mulligan, and Oxenbould play a “typical” American family of three. Jerry (Gyllenhaal) works at a golf course where he chats up with rich folks (to the annoyance of his boss). Jeanne (Mulligan) mostly stays at home and helps raise their teenage son Joe (Oxenbould), who plays football even though he’s not particularly interested in it. This is a time when America was changing, men work, women stay home and cook dinner, and football was practically a requirement for growing boys. Of course, things are destined to change for this family. (I think it’s been common knowledge at least since the 1980s that the idea of the quintessential American Family is never “typical” or “normal.”) Jerry loses his job, which causes him to reconsider his point in life. So, to help out, Jeanne gets a job at the YMCA and Joe gets his first employment, working at a photo lab. But that doesn’t help anything, as Jerry decides to leave the family temporarily to assist in fighting a nearby wildfire, leaving an emotionally distraught wife and a confused 14-year-old son…

Watching the film a second time, I got the sense that this has happened before, that this family has suffered misfortunes in another town before this film began and tried to start over again. The more I study the character of Jerry, the more clear it is that he’s not a man who takes the hardships of life lightly and he just wants what he thinks every other man in his position has. (I think the 1987 horror-thriller “The Stepfather” featured a similar character…but let’s not go there.) Many of the decisions made by the key characters are dumb, selfish ones, but they’re made because these people are each in a state of misperception. I understood where they were coming from, and that’s why while a part of me wanted them to just recognize the good things in life, the rest of me simply wished that they would.

Because the acting was on-point, because Dano gave his actors breathing room to let the scenes play naturally, and because the results felt effective and real (with no melodramatic errors to get in the way), I felt strongly for the characters and the harsh realities they faced. By the end of the film (which results in a brilliant final shot that indicates ambiguous hope for the future), I couldn’t help but wish they would end up finding their footing in the changes brought upon them. And that’s what got me to cry—it’s as unlikely as it is likely. “Wildlife” is one of the best films of 2018.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Reclusive author Lee Israel is a miserable case. She used to have one of her novels on the New York Times bestseller list, and now she’s in her early 50s, lives alone with her 12-year-old cat, has her previous books selling for 75% off at a nearby bookstore, and can’t get her agent’s attention. When she finally barges into her agent’s office to ask for a $10,000 advance for a new book she’s writing so she can pay her bills and provide healthcare for her cat, the agent bluntly tells her that she couldn’t be able to give her a $10 advance because hardly anyone will buy her book. Lee smarts off to her, and her response is she’s not successful enough to be a bitch.

This is a scene set early into the proceedings of the indie drama “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” a film that tells Lee Israel’s story based on her own autobiographical novel of the same name, and I knew right away that director Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty knew what they were doing here. And the rest of the film didn’t disappoint.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a drama with little bits of dark comedy and cynical wit sparkled throughout, which is something I always appreciate in a film that strives for a realistic feel (and something most “serious” filmmakers also need to keep in mind). Sharp writing and solid direction keep it flowing, but the most important ingredient that makes “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” truly memorable is the leading performance by Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel.

McCarthy is best known for starring in mainstream comedies like “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy,” “Identity Thief,” “Tammy,” and “Ghostbusters (2016).” She occasionally plays it straight, such a solid supporting performance in “St. Vincent,” but she’s best known for her crass mouth and constant improvisation (which grates on me from time to time). Here, for “Can You Ever Forgive Me”, she takes center-stage, playing this loner, depressed, angry author who could easily be the life of the party (like McCarthy usually plays in other movies) but chooses not to be. And McCarthy does brilliant work here, in a performance that should land her an Oscar nomination.

The story for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” involves Lee Israel as she discovers a get-rich-quick scheme that gets her good money for a while: to forge letters “written” by talents such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward and sell them to collectors for a hefty price. She’s able to convince just about everyone she sells them to…for a while. Before it’s too late or too soon, the authorities catch wind of Lee’s scam. So, she enlists the help of her friend, the charming, flamboyant Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, very good here) to take over the task of selling her future fakes. (Another thing I love about this film: McCarthy and Grant are fabulous together.) But soon after that, the jig is up…

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is based on a true story from the early-1990s, and the real Lee Israel (who died in 2014) wrote about the whole experience in a novel, which inspired the screenplay. You can tell how much detail was put into the production. There are enough biting insights to keep anyone who has only the slightest bit of interest in writing invested, you get a good sense of the world of collectibles and memorabilia, and cinematographer Brandon Trost also has a great eye for the era as well. And director Heller, who’s now helming the upcoming Tom Hanks Mr. Rogers biopic, has a bright future ahead of her. But first and foremost is Melissa McCarthy’s stellar leading performance as Lee Israel—she’s funny but also bitter and nonetheless earns our empathy. It’s one of the finest performances of the year in one of the best films of the year; a film that effectively blends comedy and drama without getting distracting.

Halloween (2018)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

40 years ago, we got John Carpenter’s 1978 classic “Halloween,” a truly scary low-budget thriller about a killer that continued to lurk in the dark and stalk (and kill) unsuspecting teenagers. It was scary because it represented the looming presence of fate and death and ended on a chillingly ambiguous note: that evil is still out there and while we can evade it for some time, it can still come for you at any time…

Since then, there have been countless sequels (including one that tried a different story—“Halloween III”), neither of which I can recommend. (It was also remade in 2007 by Rob Zombie; I can’t recommend that one either.) And now, in 2018, we get a sequel that pretends all of the other sequels don’t exist. It’s a “Halloween” sequel, directed by talented filmmaker David Gordon Green, that’s directly following the original film 40 years later.

Already, we’re off to a good start…though simply giving it the same title as the original is confusing. (I get that they can’t call it “Halloween II,” because there were already two movies by that name…but now, there are three movies titled “Halloween”!)

The killer, Michael Myers, is no longer the brother of survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). He’s simply Michael Myers, an enigmatic figure that stalks and kills—the “boogeyman,” if you will. Four decades after killing a few people in Haddonfield, Illinois (actually, he’s killed more people if you include “Halloween II”…but they’re not including it, so I won’t either), Michael Myers has been institutionalized and studied long since then. Meanwhile, survivor Laurie has led a life of ruin and misery since then—she’s a nutty survivalist, living in a fortress-like secluded house, carrying a ton of armory hidden underneath, and obsessing over the possibility that Myers will escape and come for her and finish what he started.

That’s a very slim possibility, especially after 40 years of Myers being locked up and Laurie continuing to wait for him. But if he didn’t somehow escape, we wouldn’t have a movie, would we? Anyway, he escapes a bus filled with other mentally ill prisoners and makes his way back “home”…

And of course this happens on the night before Halloween, so that Myers can come to Haddonfield and stalk new victims on Halloween night!

In the process of Myers’ lurking and killing, we get some neatly executed horror moments, such as how he retrieves his infamous mask and when he walks through a suburban neighborhood filled with trick-or-treaters. And we also get some nice, funny moments too, such as when one of Myers’ potential victims reassures the boy she’s babysitting that everything’s fine when the kid knows better. (That kid, played by Jibrail Nantambu, is an absolute riot—I wish he had more screen time!) But we also get a lot of uninteresting moments too, particularly with Laurie’s teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) and her friends (Virginia Gardner, Dylan Arnold, Miles Robbins, and Drew Scheid) who we all know are generic teens lined up to be stalked, killed, or both.

Oh, and there’s also the creepy Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), the psychiatrist who looked after Myers long after Dr. Loomis (the doctor from the original, played by the late Donald Pleasance). Where he falls into this story is as uninteresting as it is blatantly odd (and random).

However, as we learn, the film isn’t really about them. It’s about Laurie’s chance at closure, getting a chance to fight back at the one that’s the cause of her turmoil and misery for four decades. (Though, I think she got off easy, as her friends were murdered forty years ago, while she survived—but I think you could call that “survivor’s guilt.”) We saw something like this in “Halloween H20,” in which Laurie fought Michael 20 years after the original incident, but it was merely a glimpse. This “Halloween” sequel delves deeper into the concept of “victim empowerment,” and it leads to a neatly executed final act in which Laurie has to protect her granddaughter, as well as her daughter (well-played by Judy Greer), and ultimately face her foe as an avenging angel. The roles are reversed this time—originally, Myers was the hunter, but now, Laurie is. What results is a climactic final act that is both fun and suspenseful.

For all the moments in “Halloween (2018)” that don’t work, there are still plenty of other moments that really do. Credit for that goes to director David Gordon Green and his collaborators, one of whom was John Carpenter himself—they know how to shoot the horrific moments and keep the tension flowing, and I appreciate the new direction they were willing to take this story, while paying callbacks to the original that don’t feel forced. (One callback in particular made me smile—it involved one character looking down below at another in a similar way at the end of the original. That’s all I’ll say about it.) Jamie Lee Curtis plays the most interesting character, which makes almost everyone else hardly relevant outside of playing “dead meat,” but it just makes every moment she appears on-screen more special because it’s building up to something big with her. And I like that producer Jason Blum (of Blumhouse Productions, which mostly specializes in horror films) was able to add a modern spin on the popular Halloween franchise, so that modern terrors and old-school suspense combine for an effective horror film. “Halloween (2018)” is the “Halloween” sequel I was waiting for. Do I wish there was a little less predictability with many of the side characters? Yes. But considering all the other “Halloween” sequels that this particular one ignores, I’ll take what I can get.

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.

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.