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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Revised Review)

16 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yep, it’s “Revised Review” time again. This time, the subject is “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth entry in the Harry Potter movie franchise. When I first reviewed it, I gave it three stars. I liked it, but I think my mind was more focused on the previous films, particularly “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (one of my personal-favorite films, period). To me, the pace seemed off, I was confused where the story was going, and I just knew that it was going to lead to another cliffhanger which would pave the way for another sequel which would pave the way for another cliffhanger which would lead to the ultimate climactic battle to end all battles in this Harry Potter universe.

(By the way, if you’re wondering, I haven’t read all of the books. I read the first three and then quit, only because I enjoyed the movies so much, I wanted them to surprise me.)

As time went on, however, I re-watched all the “Harry Potter” movies in a row, once in a while. And suddenly, as I was taking in more of what “The Order of the Phoenix” had to offer, I realized its success in what it was trying to do. This was a different “Harry Potter” movie—one that would provoke thought, ask questions about similarity/difference, and prepare us for something darker and heavier to come. As a result, it is now my second-favorite “Harry Potter” movie (behind “The Chamber of Secrets,” which is as fun as this is insightful).

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” begins with 15-year-old budding wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) sitting bitter and alone on a swingset in a playground. This shot alone sets the tone for the film—Harry feels isolated and knows that something is coming that will transform him from a child to an adult, and he’s not sure he wants to let go of childhood yet. (Maybe I’m reading too deep, but that’s always what I got out of it.) In the previous film, the dreaded Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) was brought back from the dead, and Harry was the sole witness. For a while, it seems nobody believes him and he’s all alone. But after a seemingly-predetermined incident causes Harry to be expelled from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry for using magic outside of school to protect himself, it turns out there’s a small secret society of witches/wizards called the Order of the Phoenix, including Harry’s godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), that has formed outside the Ministry of Magic since Harry’s allegation of Voldemort’s return. They’re preparing for a fight that is sure to come, and they try to keep Harry out of it as much as possible, despite Harry’s desperate need to get involved.

The Order, along with Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), manage to get Harry enrolled back in school, but trouble soon comes brewing, as it always does whenever Harry and his two best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), get involved in whatever’s happening at this dangerous school (keep your kids away from this place, parents!). Firstly, most of Harry’s classmates think Harry is lying about Voldemort’s return to cover up another reason for the death of another student (caused by Voldemort). Secondly, the school is slowly but surely being controlled by a new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor: Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), who also aids in the Ministry. She and Harry clash because of Harry’s “lies” and because she won’t teach defensive spells to students.

Oh, and need I also mention that hormones come creeping in during all of this, leading to Harry’s first kiss with his crush Cho Chang (Katie Leung)? Hasn’t this kid gone through enough confusion in his already-loaded life?

Once it becomes clear to other students that Harry is telling the truth, Harry, Ron, and Hermione bring them together to start their own secret group, called Dumbledore’s Army, to teach/learn defensive spells for when the time comes to battle Voldemort’s forces. And it seems they may have to begin defending themselves sooner than they thought…

I’m going to look at my original review (posted on this site) and point out some things I wrote then that I change my mind about now.

“It is […] my least favorite in the franchise.” Right away, I take that back.

“Harry’s best friends […] aren’t given anything special to do, save for a few short scenes of humor.” We already had four whole movies prior to set up the characters and their friendship together, and the focus in this one is entirely on Harry. So why did I let that bother me?

“And it’s annoying when Hermione is correcting Harry for something he knows is right.” Hermione doesn’t see the things that Harry sees, leading to a friendship with Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) who sees the strange and unusual (I mean, by Hogwarts’ standards). Jeez, younger-critic-Tanner—picky much?

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t like Luna Lovegood. It’s a one-note loony role that just plain annoyed me.” OK, fine, I did think that was the case for one of the most beloved characters in the series. Yes, I still think the character is one-note loony, but my feelings towards her have softened a bit the more times I watched the later Harry Potter movies. She’s sweet, she’s likable, and she didn’t deserve the slam I gave her in my original review.

It seems the problems I had with the movie were mere nitpicks for being “different.” Reading my old review of this movie again, I can’t help but be reminded of the initial reception critics/audiences had toward “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.” Now known as one of the greatest sequels of all time, it took a while for people to warm up to its new ideas back then. That’s essentially how I feel about “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”—I wasn’t ready for the darker directions it was going to take (and it was darker compared to the new directions taken in “The Prisoner of Azkaban” and “The Goblet of Fire”). Subsequent viewings caused me to admire it for taking the series in a more complicated turn, which was also used to develop the character of Harry even further.

And that’s something I didn’t even notice the first time I reviewed the film, let alone acknowledge in the review. Harry is a role model—he wants to do what is right, he wants to do his part in protecting his friends and others, and he demands justice for wrongdoings. That’s fine and all, but what makes the character more compelling here is his inner turmoil. He’s still a kid going through struggles in growing up, and on top of that, he’s experienced tragedy, such as the murders of his parents and peers, and he’s constantly being ignored for either negligence of knowing the truth or for a greater cause when he wants to be involved. This makes him angry, and he gets even angrier as the movie continues. At one point, he admits he’s afraid of becoming more and more like Voldemort. He even notices some similarities between him and Voldemort growing up as Tom Riddle.

Voldemort knows this. He wants to use Harry’s anger to tempt him into joining him and/or giving into the dark arts. In a wonderful moment near the end, Harry has a chance to kill one of Voldemort’s cohorts out of anger for the murder of one of Harry’s most trusted companions, and this is when Voldemort strikes into his mind, using his subconscious against him. Harry has experienced such tragedy and guilt and turmoil, which can lead to further such issues if he acts on them out of vengeance. An important line of dialogue from earlier in the film comes to mind during this scene, as Sirius Black assured Harry, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” Harry is able to win the inner battle with Voldemort by recognizing the differences between himself and Voldemort. As he puts in a wonderfully biting statement, “You’re the weak one. And you’ll never know love. Or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.”

(I’m not going to lie—every time I watch this scene, I feel a lump in my throat every time he says that line. It’s delivered perfectly by Radcliffe.)

In my original review, I did praise the final half for giving us a gripping glimpse into “magic battle,” which both sides of the fight attacking one another, with Harry and friends in the middle. “Magic battle” would become better realized by “Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” but this climax is still intriguing. And I also praised Imelda Staunton’s performance as Umbridge. Who wouldn’t? She portrays one of the most despicable creatures in any movie I’ve ever seen, and I will not use that as an exaggeration. She punishes students severely for speaking out about issues that go against authority (whether she believes Voldemort is back and is trying to cover it up for the Ministry or not, it’s no excuse to scar Harry’s hand for telling “lies”). She won’t teach students to defend themselves for practically-conservative reasons. She has a sweet demeanor most of the time, but tick her off and she will find a way to get you. Staunton plays the role perfectly; it’s frightening, the way she pulls it off. I think it’s the smile… anyone who can do terrible things and keep that smile is worthy of hatred. (I mean hatred towards the character, not the actress—I’m certain Imelda Staunton is a nice woman in reality.)

This was director David Yates’ first going into the Harry Potter universe (and he would go to direct more Harry Potter films since). The tone he uses is very effective; it almost feels like we’re walking into a dream. We’re not entirely sure what’s real and what’s imagined, and so there’s that sense of unease that settles throughout the film.

I may have underappreciated “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” when I first saw it (and reviewed it), but this is my chance at redemption for my mistakes. I love this film even more today, and I have no second thoughts in giving it a four-star rating. (In hindsight, this deserves a four-star rating more so than “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” which does not hold up as well for me today. Maybe I’ll do a revised review for that one too, someday…)

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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.

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.

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.

Moonlight (2016)

8 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning—some spoilers ahead!

Oscars viewers who were distraught by the snubbing of the game-changing coming-of-age film “Boyhood” for the Best Picture statue are now redeemed after another groundbreaking coming-of-age film took home the award (but just barely—look up the 2017 Oscars controversy if you don’t know about it already). That film is Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a small indie film that portrays three important moments in time for a young gay black man, as he grows from child to teenager to adult. Critics and film-festival audiences adored it, as did more mainstream audiences when the film hit theaters, and it became the “little film that could (and did).”

And for good reason—it is a REALLY good film. I missed it before I wrote my “2016 Review” post for this blog, but it surely would’ve made my top-5-films-of-the-year.

“Moonlight” shows us three chapters in the life of our main character Chiron. It’s like a trilogy of 40-minute short films in a way, starting with the segment titled “Little,” in which we first meet him as a young boy (played by Alex Hibbert) nicknamed Little. He lives in a Miami ghetto with his single mother (Naomie Harris) but would rather not spend nights at home often, due to his mother being constantly strung out on drugs and knowing more about punishing her son than showing affection towards him. When local drug pusher Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds him hiding from bullies in an abandoned house, Chiron doesn’t want to go home and instead spends the night at Juan’s before he finally tells Juan where he lives. Juan becomes Chiron’s father-figure (and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) is like a surrogate-mother), as Chiron’s real father is nowhere to be found. He teaches him to swim, gives him crucial advice and tells him he’s going to grow up facing more troubles. But he also teaches him the importance of reacting such troubles.

Then we flash-forward to the next segment, titled “Chiron,” when Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is a high-school teen, still dealing with his angry, drugged-out mother and enduring rougher bullying than before. He also has a sexual awakening after a long period of figuring things out within himself. Juan is out of the picture (though Chiron still spends some nights at Teresa’s), but Chiron still has a friend in classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). But in the midst of his troubles comes peer pressure, which leads to a violent encounter that causes a rift between him and Kevin.

The final segment, “Black,” features Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) as a 20something-year-old man with a new nickname: Black. He’s left Miami and moved to Atlanta after spending some time in juvenile hall, and he’s now a drug dealer, much like his mentor Juan was. He’s still sensitive and thoughtful, but you couldn’t tell by looking at his now-muscular appearance. He returns to his hometown, where he reunites with his mother and Kevin. The reunion between Chiron and Kevin is more meaningful, as the two catch up, Kevin talks about how he turned his life around, Chiron admits his true feelings, and the ending is ambiguously hopeful (more positive than how the film began).

“Moonlight” is not merely an exploration of a man coming to terms with his sexuality. It’s a film that shows how important it is to love yourself before you can love others. It’s often said in other sources that if you don’t love yourself, the insecurities get the better of you, which leads to unpleasant confrontations with the people in your life. That would help explain the behavior of Chiron’s mother Paula—when I saw this film a second time, the scene in the “Chiron” segment in which she goes through mixed emotions while on crack, I couldn’t help but wonder what was on her mind, how she grew up, what brought her to this, and more. This is a person who doesn’t love herself and thus doesn’t treat her son with the love he deserves. And once I considered that, that made their reunion in “Black” all the more powerful. (That’s all I’ll say about that.) And so here you have Chiron, who is going through so many issues in life, doesn’t have many people to call his friends or family, is confused about himself, faces intolerance and poverty, and could easily go down the wrong path for the rest of his life (which is why it’s alarming when he commits a certain act in “Chiron”). With confidence and love, he can overcome these things and turn it all around, which is what we hope will be the case when he reunites with Kevin.

The subject of an African-American male growing up gay is rarely seen in films, and director Barry Jenkins knows just how to tackle it: by making the themes universal so that even audience members who aren’t gay or black or even male can find something big in this small film that they can completely relate with. (And this is an odd observation, but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of camera-shaking in the successful attempts to make the camerawork look/feel more “realistic.”)

But of course, it’s one thing to have a gripping script with a look/feel that seems genuine; it’s another if the right actors can pull off these roles. And boy, do they. The cast is across-the-board excellent, with all three main actors capturing all three sides of Chiron brilliantly. Naomie Harris is also brilliant showing the angry and bitter but also human and sad sides of a single mother with too many problems of her own to show love and affection to her son. And last but certainly not least, Mahershala Ali is outstanding as Juan. It’s not a big role, as he’s only present for the “Little” segment, but to say he makes the most of it would be an understatement. Now, I have a little story I want to share—I missed seeing this film in 2016 and only saw it after it won the Best Picture Oscar; Ali’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar clip convinced me I had to see it as soon as possible.

“Moonlight” is a film that is absorbing, rich, and more importantly, real. Much of it is bleak, but that’s what’s needed for the more uplifting, sobering aspects to take effect. The ending successfully shows that in life, there are no ways of going back (and no reason to either), the things you go through make you who you are, and where you go from here on out is ultimately up to you. That it all comes a film that is this well-acted and well-executed makes it all the more powerful and deserving of the Best Picture win.

It (2017)

8 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It can be anything. It can be the very thing you fear most. It sleeps for years and then resurfaces to feed on children. It feeds on their fears. In order to do that, it becomes what they’re afraid of. It can be anywhere. It knows what scares you. It uses that to get to you. That is what makes It one of the most terrifying abstract figures in literature.

Best known as its favorite and primary form as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, It comes from the 1986 1000+-page novel by Stephen King, titled “It.” In the novel, it’s a mysterious, frightening entity that can’t be explained (well, technically, it is kind of explained in King’s “Dark Tower” series) and can be vanquished by its would-be victims by one thing: overcoming fear. The lesson here is, in conquering fear, you gain power, which is something the characters learn in King’s novel, the 1990 two-part TV miniseries, and now this 2017 cinematic upgrade, all of which are titled “It.”

However, until you get to that point, there’s a whole lot going bump in the night…

The basic idea of all three platforms of “It” is something that’s fascinated me since I first watched the miniseries at age 10: fears coming to life, terrorizing children and only being defeated by facing them head-on. The miniseries doesn’t entirely work, but there are elements from King’s original novel that still do, and I wondered what could be done with a current theatrical reboot. And how did this 2017 upgrade turn out, directed by “Mama” director Andy Muschietti?

Well, if you saw the Verdict above, you’re not surprised when I say “It” is a blast!

After spending a half-decade in development hell, it’s nice to see that the final product of “It” is very well-made and effective at capturing the essence of the book while also becoming more or less its own thing. The novel and the miniseries told two stories—one involved a group of seven outcast children facing off against It, the other involved those same kids grown up and facing It again upon its return. This film only tells one: the kids’ story. That’s right—this is only “Chapter One,” and it makes way for a “Chapter Two,” in which 27 years later (or in our movie world, 2 or 3 years), both It and our heroes (grown up) will return.

(I would issue a SPOILER ALERT, but who doesn’t know by now that this is part of a two-story…story?)

Thankfully, this “Chapter One” of “It” doesn’t feel like it needs a “Chapter Two.” “It” has the power to stand on its own feet with just enough buildup and payoff to the stories of these characters and does not necessarily rely on a future installment to answer important questions. It’s a strong narrative that satisfies, intrigues, and yes, frightens.

Our protagonists are a group of 11-12-year-old outcasts that form together because they’re bullied, they come from unhappy homes, and their friendship is the best thing they can ask for in an otherwise boring summer. They call themselves The Losers Club and are constantly harassed by adults who don’t understand them and a sadistic bully and his cohorts. They also have each seen It in many different forms (followed by the clown form)—for stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), it’s his little brother Georgie, who is missing and presumed dead despite Bill’s persistent search for him; for hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), it’s a leper; for Jewish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), it’s a horrifying painting in his rabbi father’s office; for home-schooled and lone black kid Mike (Chosen Jacobs), it’s his parents being burned alive; for the club’s lone girl Beverly (Sophia Lillis), it’s her demented father and possibly menstruation (…you’ll see in the movie); for overweight new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), it’s the morbid history of his new town (of Derry, Maine); and for cut-up Richie (Finn Wolfhard), it’s…clowns. (Tough break there, Richie.) They come to each other about their own experiences with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) and learn more about It. Bill, desperate to get his brother back in the hopes that he’s still alive, rallies his friends together to fight back.

The main strengths of “It” come from the development of these young characters, what they go through in this town, and what they’re most afraid of that they must overcome in order to survive. At 2 hours and 10 minutes, “It” takes the proper time necessary to flesh out all seven of these kids and give the audience a good sense of who they are, what they’ve gone through, and what kind of people they’ll become. When they’re together, it’s gripping material (it’s, I dare even say, of of “Stand By Me” quality, to quote another King adaptation). All of these young actors are excellent and easily watchable, and you really buy them as friends. When they’re alone, it’s unnerving—whenever each of these characters goes through something unsettling, you fear for them because they are terrified. From the opening scene, which pulls a big no-no in modern horror movies (disposing of a young child), you know this thing is powerful, terrifying, and out there. And it’s targeting these poor kids, who have enough to go through already.

Those scenes put a chill down my spine, but that’s not to say Pennywise the Clown isn’t scary. On the contrary. Portrayed by Skarsgard in a nice mixture of performance and CGI, Pennywise is not to be ignored in this film. You don’t see as much of him as you would expect from the trailer, but when he does show up, I’ll just say it’s pretty unnerving. Skarsgard doesn’t imitate Tim Curry’s popular portrayal of the character from the miniseries; instead, he makes the role his own.

I admired “It” for taking the time to carefully establish the horrors faced by the characters instead of simply making it a freak show with a demented killer clown at the center. While there is some gore and some jump-scares, this is a horror film that relies heavily on tension and psychological terror. By the time the film reached its inevitable hard-hitting horror-movie traditional climax, it’s hard not to root for the kids to succeed in both conquering their fears and beating It as harshly as possible. (You could practically call the film a “superhero movie” in how it goes about its final act.) “It” stays true to the essence of King’s scary novel (while making some notable changes and omitting certain questionable aspects from the novel), and it’s a great thrill ride as a result.