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Serenity (2005)

9 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s talk about the one-season cultural-favorite TV show called “Firefly.” Created by the always imaginative Joss Whedon (who was also the mind behind the beloved TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” before he went on to delight even more audiences with the “Avengers” movies), “Firefly” is an entertaining series that was ahead of its time, and it’s a shame it was cancelled after only 14 episodes (only 11 of which aired from late 2002 to early 2003). Set in the distant future, after an intergalactic civil war, “Firefly” followed the adventures of a rebel spaceship crew. They pick up a young doctor as a passenger, who brings on board his telepathic younger sister to protect her from the government that has secretly been training her as a weapon. The main story arc of the show revolves around keeping the girl protected before ultimately welcoming her as part of the “family” the crew has created for themselves. Undoubtedly due to the series’ witty sense of humor and flair for adventure, the series grew a large fan base.

After “Firefly’s” cancellation, neither the fans nor Whedon and his devoted cast were ready to let go. So, Whedon wrote a screenplay that served as a continuation of the series and sold it to Universal Studios. That screenplay became the exciting 2-hour-long sci-fi adventure known as “Serenity,” which delighted “Firefly” fans and, even better, got more people to find the series and check it out themselves.

You don’t have to have seen “Firefly” to understand the background of the setting and the characters (though, if you have, it helps enrich the viewing experience even further). The prologue sets up the story nicely and effectively, as we learn we are in the distant future, after mankind left an overpopulated Earth to colonize a new solar system. The Alliance from the central planets is an all-powerful, authoritarian-like government that seeks to govern everyone. A schoolteacher explains it to one of her pupils, a little girl who refers to the Alliance as “meddlesome”: “We’re not telling people what to think—we’re just trying to show them how.” That pupil grows up to be River Tam (Summer Glau), a 17-year-old telepath who is forcibly manipulated by the Alliance to become a psychic assassin. Her brother, Simon (Sean Maher), rescues her and they both find refuge onboard the Firefly ship, called Serenity.

Serenity is captained by Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who was among the Independents of the outer planets who fought the Alliance in a civil war. Now he, along with his crew which includes second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres), pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), enforcer Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite) cruise through the galaxy, looking for as many jobs as possible on different planets, in order to keep flying and surviving. River’s ability to read minds becomes useful during heists, and thanks to Simon’s medical training, he proves his worth as well. But having them both on board becomes riskier when River’s mental state becomes even more questionable and dangerous, as it seems she can turn into a killing machine when an Alliance-approved advertisement sends her a subliminal message. The situation gets worse when it turns out the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has been sent by the Alliance to capture River and return her. But the crew gets defensive and faces off against him and other galactic baddies to protect River and solve a prolonged Alliance-involved mystery.

“Serenity” is very entertaining as a space-opera (and it keeps in the tradition of the series with delightfully witty lines of dialogue), but it’s also surprisingly thought-provoking. It raises questions such as what it means to live in society, what rules to follow and/or break, and when one finds individual freedom. The main problem with the Alliance is that they want to control everyone and make them think the same as they do. The Serenity crew make their own decisions, but they’re mostly bad decisions. But the film is very clever in showing what the world can be like “without sin,” as it’s described later in the climax, and it means that it’s important to have compromise rather than complete control, because taking away free will makes for an unhealthy environment, which is something the Alliance doesn’t want to believe.

The Operative is a most intriguing villain (not seen previously in the series). He represents the morally-wrong mindset of the Alliance as one person: a man who will do anything to create “a world without sin.” But in continually doing his deeds, which involve brainwashing and even killing people, he loses more of his humanity. What’s even more interesting about this character is that he knows what he’s doing is wrong (he even admits it to Mal at one point), and yet he continues to do it because he believes in a higher goal.

The Operative provides an effective contrast for Mal. In the series, Mal befriends another Serenity passenger, a pastor named Book (Ron Glass, who reprises the role briefly but still significantly in the movie), despite Mal not having faith, which is an “elephant in the room” when these two are alone together. So, it continues in “Serenity” that he still hasn’t found his faith, but by the end of the story, he has come so far in his renegades with his crew that he ultimately believes in himself, and he believes that everyone should find their own self-worth and that alone is worth fighting for.

I’ve said enough about the natures of both the protagonist and the antagonist without giving away spoilers, but I should probably mention the Reavers, who were introduced in the series as cannibalistic savages that dwell just outside of civilized space. They’re in the film too, and they play a crucial part in the climax…and all I’ll say is that knowing the origin of Reavers makes the themes all the more stronger.

As you could tell from my lengthy analyses, there’s a lot to be found beneath the surface of “Serenity.” (And to be fair, you would probably have to see the movie more than three times to find more than is easily delivered to you…like I did.) But the film is still a ton of fun, whether you look deep enough or not. The central characters, the Serenity crew, are appealing and they share great chemistry together—think the trucker/outlaw equivalent of the USS Enterprise crew. And the script is littered with numerous funny lines of dialogue, most of which are delivered by Jayne, the mercenary of the group who is just as dumb, impatient, and rough as Animal Mother in “Full Metal Jacket” (maybe that’s why Adam Baldwin got the part in the first place). Among my favorites is his very first line: “We’re gonna explode? I don’t wanna explode!”

Here’s a humorous exchange between Mal and Jayne in the middle of an argument: “You wanna run this ship?!” “YES!” (pause) “Well…you can’t.”

The action is also nicely handled (which is no surprise, considering how bombastic the action is in Whedon’s “The Avengers,” seven years after “Serenity”), from the fistfights to the spaceship battles. But “Serenity” isn’t about action and space battles—it’s about story and character, which it has an abundance of. It’s sad to say that “Serenity” wasn’t a box-office success, because I would’ve loved to see a film franchise that continues the adventures of these likable characters with wit. But if “Serenity” is the ultimate conclusion to “Firefly,” it’s a damn great one. To put it another way, I would much rather have this movie than nothing at all after the 14 TV episodes that came before it. “Serenity” is one of my all-time favorite science-fiction films and a more-than-worthy successor to a beloved (albeit short-lived) TV series.

La La Land (2016)

17 Feb
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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” Chazelle’s follow-up to the award-winning “Whiplash,” is both in the tradition of the old-fashioned Hollywood Musical and yet at the same time, it’s not quite. It’s in the tradition in that it features singing and dancing as well as stellar cinematography and choreography, it tells a compelling story while doing so, it has the feel of a musical like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “West Side Story” among others, and it enchants the audience. But Chazelle doesn’t rely on all that to make the film great. In fact, he actually moves past the traditional old-school Hollywood-happy-ending to continue the story for an additional half-hour or so, and in doing so, he delivers something far more compelling in the final act than audiences would have expected.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. “La La Land” is the best musical (or at least, best non-animated musical) to come around in a long time. It’s more energetic, nostalgic, and heartfelt than other musicals from the past decade or so (like “Les Miserables” and “Chicago”), while at the same time, it’s something more.

“La La Land” is gloriously made. You could swear Chazelle copied the entire rulebook of moviemaking from the 1950s-1960s. It’s wonderful to look at, with magnificent color pallettes, masterful camerawork that continues for long takes and doesn’t stop moving, and of course, being a musical, fun choreography for the lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, to shine through. You’d think this film was made in that popular era of musicals—even though “La La Land” is set in modern times, it doesn’t feel like it. (And that’s not a bad thing.) The opening scene alone is a masterstroke of nostalgia and effervescence—a musical number on a jammed freeway, where drivers, rather than express anger at their shared predicament, sing and dance together.

The story takes place in Los Angeles and focuses on two struggling artists—jazz musician Sebastian (Gosling) and actress Mia (Stone). They meet in the opening traffic jam (well…sort of; watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean). As time goes on, they spend more and more time together until they eventually fall in love and share a relationship.

It’s basically a love story in which boy meets girl, but here, we see something that you don’t often see in most boy-meets-girl stories—the complications of maintaining the relationship when you’re pursuing your own personal dream. They learn this the hard way when Sebastian can’t play the type of old-school jazz he wants to perform and he works for modern jazz performer Keith (John Legend) just to make some much-needed money. This causes a rift between Sebastian and Mia’s relationship as Sebastian isn’t happy doing what he does, Mia is still struggling in her pursuit of her own dream, they don’t see each other very much anymore, and hearing him talk about how upset he is about his job is too much for her.

Can I just say how ingenious the commentary is, with the Keith-jazz subplot alone? Sebastian wants to cling to his jazz heroes of the past by playing in their style, but Keith, who plays jazz for a more commercial demographic to bring in modern audiences, lets it down harshly that if artists (such as jazz musicians) don’t update for the future, that means people who celebrate the past too much will kill the art. That can actually be a bold statement for “La La Land” itself, because while Chazelle does use many elements of past inspirations for his craft, he tries his best (and succeeds) at bringing in a new way of delivering his own art—taking the things that inspired him, using what modern techniques he learned as a budding filmmaker, and blending them both resulted in something as beautiful as “La La Land.”

The back half of “La La Land” is nothing short of brilliant. If Chazelle really wanted to cling to the traditions of the past, he would’ve ended the film early on and given the audience a lovely happy ending. But no—the film continues for another 30-45 minutes to show the harsh truths of what happens after the couple thinks they’ve had their “happily ever after.” It shows how hard it is for two people who have different goals and ambitions, as well as the even harsher truth that all dreams come with a price. And when trying to be the best at what you can do is not as easy it seems and even harder than people say it is.

There is something I am curious about: what did Chazelle have to go through before he made it big as a filmmaker? Thinking about the films he’s made so far, I notice a pattern. In “Whiplash,” there was a young drummer who got brutally pushed to his limits to be “great,” and it showed the pain the poor kid had to go through to achieve recognition. In “Grand Piano,” which he wrote, Elijah Wood played a pianist who was threatened with death if he hit a wrong note while performing a difficult piece at a concert. And now, we have “La La Land,” in which Chazelle’s characters pursue their dreams, just as his previous characters in “Whiplash” and “Grand Piano” had pursued theirs, and their happy ending is not at all what they expect, and they don’t know how to feel about it. With this pattern, I have to wonder if Chazelle’s films are autobiographical at all…

I don’t want to make “La La Land” sound very depressing, because really, what I just wrote was all in interpretation. The ending, which I won’t give away, is actually rather beautiful and thought-provoking (while it may be upsetting for some audiences who expect something they’re more used to). In fact, it could serve as a short film by itself. It stirred an emotional response from me and my girlfriend when we first saw it—we left the theater talking about it immediately after.

The songs are all great, two in particular stay fresh in my memory (“Audition,” which is Mia’s theme, and “City of Stars,” which Sebastian sings to himself when pondering the future), but it’s Gosling and Stone’s movements, energy, and acting that overcome and astound me. Gosling and Stone aren’t the best singers, but that’s not important—what’s important is how they play every single number, which they do to the best of their abilities. These are performances that make other actors jealous.

There’s no other way to put it—I love “La La Land.” I love everything about it. I love the mixes of the past and the future. I love the energy put into it. I love the rich necessities that make the story more compelling. I love the performances. I love the style and look of it all. I simply love it. It is the best musical I’ve seen in a long time.

Loving (2016)

13 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“You shouldn’t have done what you did.” “You should’ve known better.” Those are only some of the remarks thrown at Richard Loving in the 1960s, whose deeds have put him and his wife in trouble with the law. If you don’t know who Richard Loving is, you may be wondering what he did to warrant these statements. Well…he married a woman and got her pregnant.

You may be thinking, “So what?” Well his wife, Mildred, was black and they lived in Virginia at a time when interracial marriage was prohibited by law. They were forced to leave the state and leave their family behind as well in order to start raising a family. Otherwise, they were going to spend time in prison.

You’ve heard many history stories about how horrible racism, prejudice, and anti-miscegenation were back in the day. It’s hard to think that’s what it was really like in that time, but it was true. Richard and Mildred Loving were exiled from their home simply because they were an interracial couple and there was a law that forbade them to be. After years of raising children and living a new life as a family, they were finally able to bring their case to the US Supreme Court. Due to “Loving v. Virginia,” the state laws prohibiting interracial marriage were invalidated.

That story is told in “Loving,” a new film by one of my favorite modern filmmakers, Jeff Nichols. He tells it in his usual low-key, underplayed style of filmmaking, which definitely works to the film’s advantage. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in 2016, which came as a surprise for me because I usually try to brush off movies that remind us of how horrid many white people back in those days unless they have something else to say about how things affect society nowadays. But this film found a way to tell its story about its dated situation by not preaching to the audience (save for a speech at the end, but it’s earned by that point) and simply showing us how everything affects the key characters by keeping it solely focused on them. It’s a straightforward “based-on-a-true-story” film, and a very strong, effective one at that.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga star as Richard and Mildred Loving, and they deliver two of the best performances of the year. If one or both of these actors don’t receive Oscar recognition, I will be very upset. They’re both very subtle in the ways they get their emotions across. Their characters don’t proclaim everything on their mind and at their strongest moments comes minimal dialogue, meaning they have to act to the best of their ability. They pull it off greatly.

And that’s another strength to “Loving.” It avoids melodramatic traps. The way Nichols approaches this material smoothly delivers something that feels real and something that deserves to be acknowledged and considered. The film looks right, feels right, and is done right.

The Witch (2016)

10 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

2016—a surprising good year for horror. Among the titles I enjoyed watching: “Hush,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Don’t Breathe,” “The Conjuring 2,” “Lights Out,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “The Invitation,” “Green Room,” and of course, the popular Netflix series “Stranger Things.” But for some reason, I didn’t see a film called “The Witch,” which people have labeled the best horror film of the year. But I recently rented the DVD and gave it a watch…

And then something strange happened: I had trouble sleeping that night.

Then, on the next day, I thought back to the other titles I mentioned in the above paragraph and I realized: as much as I enjoyed the thrills and suspense those movies had to offer, none of them really got under my skin. Don’t get me wrong—they were fun to watch and had me on-edge during crucial tense moments. But I can watch them again with no problem at all. I get the feeling that if I watched “The Witch” again, I would need to brace myself, even though I would know what’s coming. That’s the effect this film had on me. It’s a deeply unsettling, heavily atmospheric, incredibly disturbing, exquisitely made film that gave me the chills.

“The Witch” is a mix of a horror film and a period drama. (In fact, I think this film may be what I looked for and missed in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.”) Set on a small farm in the middle of some woods in 1630s Massachusetts, it’s centered solely on one small set of characters: a Puritan family who recently arrived from England after being banished from their church for vague reasons, which I think have to do with their interpretation of the New Testament. The parents are farmer William (Ralph Ineson, chillingly good here) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and the children are teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pre-teenage Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and infant Samuel. They live in the woods, far from the Puritan settlement.

When I write a review about how things slowly but surely go wrong for a group of characters in a horror film, you would expect the occurrences to start small, like disappearing pets or farming animals, objects becoming lost, or even a strange sight in the woods. But no—the horror truly begins early on, as the little baby Samuel disappears. That is a truly unsettling scene, when Thomasin is watching him and playing peekaboo, and suddenly, he just vanishes. Already, this causes grief and fear for the family, who pray endlessly. It begins a terrible time of paranoia, dread, uncertainty, ideals heading south, condemning, and more disturbances.

The film doesn’t throw everything at us, like a typical supernatural thriller would do. It gradually shows the situation getting worse and worse, with a slow build and very few details (shades of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” are merited). We’re not even sure of everything happening around this family. Is there a witch living in the woods causing all the trouble? Is there another explanation? Whatever is happening escalates to darker, deeper areas, and the family is surely doomed.

The horror is found in small, simple chilling moments. I already mentioned the disappearance of the baby, but there’s another bit that truly got me. I won’t give it away, but it involves the milking of a cow. Above all, there’s something I’ve always found chilling about people imposing their will on other people because of their religious beliefs; that’s why, when the family starts to see each other as being associated with the evil outside, I was held in suspense, terrified of what might happen. And the less I say about the ending, the better…

But the best aspect of “The Witch” by far is its execution. This film is heavy on its chilling atmosphere. It’s painted in bleak colors. You can practically feel the environment, which also means you can feel the immense tension. The attention to detail delivered to us by writer-director Robert Eggers (who worked mostly as a production designer before he made this film) is brilliantly done. Execution is key to the film.

I often use the phrase “a film I won’t forget anytime soon” to describe the effect a good film has on me. I use it again for “The Witch,” because any film that can keep me awake at night definitely qualifies as…a film I won’t forget anytime soon. It truly is the best horror film of the year.

Sing Street (2016)

18 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve always been a fan of coming-of-age movies, especially when they succeed at balancing comedy and drama so well. That’s not an easy task to pull off, and it could result in an uneven mess. But when you do it right, you can expand your audience. It’s like this—you have a gritty, realistic story you want to tell, but you also have lighthearted elements that work within the context; that lightheartedness keeps audiences in; the audiences laugh and smile; then they notice what else the film has to offer and get sucked in even further; they talk about it afterwards; they tell their friends; their friends check it out; and there you go.

Then again, maybe that only happened to me. Basically, I heard the buzz about this film, “Sing Street,” and so I watched it on Netflix—now I’m practically imploring other people (including readers of this review) to see it.

I love “Sing Street.” This may be the film I’ve been waiting to see for a long time—a very charming, fun film that also tells a gripping story about growing up, brotherhood, and turning your personal turmoil into art. It was brought to us to the very talented Irish writer/director John Carney, whose 2007 musical “Once” stole many people’s hearts by stating what music can do to its characters and to the audience, much like this film does.

“Sing Street” takes place in Dublin, 1985. 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is caught in the middle of an unpleasant home life, in which his parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) won’t stop squabbling. His older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) escapes the household tension by smoking weed, while Conor ventures outward. After his parents transfer him from a prestigious private school to a rowdy Catholic school, he finds himself going from an unpleasant home life to an unpleasant school life—or just an unpleasant life overall, which is helped a little bit by watching new music videos with Brendan. Everything changes when he sees a pretty girl across the street from school and decides to walk over and talk to her.

This is Raphina (Lucy Boynton), and she’s everything Conor only dreams about—tall, beautiful, cool (in a very ‘80s sort of way—remember this film is set in 1985), and a model. But he asks her to be a video for his band, which she shockingly agrees to do. There’s only one problem—he doesn’t have a band! But soon enough, he puts one together out of some classmates who have musical talent and promotes himself as lead singer. Calling themselves “Sing Street,” they start off gaining inspiration from popular bands at the time, such as Duran Duran, but they soon come up with their own material and continuously create song after song after song, as they get better and better. For Conor, this is his way of escaping reality. His parents won’t stop fighting and his personal bully, as well as the school’s principal, won’t stop tormenting him. But if he can bring his music to London with dreams of making it big, he has something to aim for in a new journey. After all, in this bleak time when there are hardly any jobs to be found and many Dubliners are emigrating to London, why shouldn’t he go to London and be a rock star?

This film not only speaks to teenage garage bands who make their own love songs instead of play them on stereo for possible love interests, but it also speaks to many others. It’s easy for people to see themselves in one or two of these characters. Many of them are people who aspire for something greater than what they have, and this film represents “the dreamer” in various ways—for example, there’s the dreamer that awaits the dream to come true, the dreamer that regrets not chasing the dream at first, the dreamer that lives through art, and even the dreamer that actually does go to London to seek the dream. We all have ambitions and dreams in real life and things always get in the way. “Sing Street” speaks to all of us.

It even gets the fantasies right. There’s a scene in which Sing Street is making another amateur music video and trying to make it a ‘50s American prom setting (based on what they saw in “Back to the Future”). They have very little production design and very few extras who don’t get the concept of what dancing was like in that era, but what Conor imagines, in a very well-done fantasy sequence, is greater than they could possibly pull off.

And the film is also a touching tale about brotherhood. I love the realistic brotherly relationship between Conor and Brendan. Brendan isn’t the typical jerk of an older sibling you see in many coming-of-age movies—he’s more helpful than he is condescending, his criticisms of Conor’s band help him along the way, and he wants his little brother to succeed where he hasn’t. Sometimes, he loses his temper, but as you get to know more about him, you understand why he does this.

But of course, I can’t neglect to talk about the music. It’s unfair to say the music in a musical is “unmemorable” after only seeing it once—I mean, Roger Ebert even thought the songs in “The Lion King” would be forgotten back when that movie was released. There is one song from “Sing Street” that I can hum to myself as I write this review (“Drive it Like You Stole It,” a very catchy tune), but I can’t forget how good the other music-video sequences made me feel as I was watching them. And maybe after I see this film a few more times (which I surely will), the songs will stay with me over time.

If there is a line of dialogue I will take from this movie (and not from a song lyric), it’s this one: “I’m going to try and accept it and get on with it and make some art.” Conor says this in reference to how he’s going to deal with being a world full of “morons and rapists and bullies” because that’s just how life is. The artist in me appreciated that moment, just as the critic in me appreciated “Sing Street.” It’s wonderfully executed, brilliantly acted, charming to the max, and one of the best films of the year.

Arrival (2016)

13 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

First contact. It’s a subject explored in many science-fiction stories. If extra-terrestrial life came to Earth, what would it mean? Why would the aliens come here? How would we react? Etc. It’s a fascinating concept to think about—what if we are not alone in the universe? It seems we’ve covered everything that could be done with this scenario—either the aliens are hostile (“Independence Day,” “War of the Worlds,” “Signs”) or they’re friendly (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Superman”) or they’re here to warn us (“The Day The Earth Stood Still,” “The Abyss”) or they’re stranded here until humans assist them to get home (“E.T.,” “Starman”). Bottom line is, we’ve been through this many times before in movies. So, when French-Canadian “Prisoners”/”Sicario” director Denis Villeneuve’s alien-arrival drama/thriller “Arrival” came to light, I had to wonder—what could this film do that countless other films haven’t already?

“Arrival” beings with the “arrival” of 12 huge quadrilateral ships that hover above the ground at random locations all around the world. Because it’s difficult to communicate with whatever is inside them, no one knows what to make of them—are they dangerous or just visiting or what? Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) of the US government calls upon Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a professional linguist, to see if she can make anything of the symbols the aliens use to attempt to communicate. She’s reluctant at first to join the first contact team near one of the ships, but she leads kind of an empty life, so she decides to join because she feels she has nothing to lose. Paired with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she boards the ship, sees the aliens in their true form (giant seven-legged creatures), and begins to decipher the alien language. She also teaches the aliens human vocabulary so that eventually the team can get an answer to the big question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”

To start off, the film’s tone is set just right, to make it feel like this is really happening; that otherworldly ships have landed on Earth and it’s unknown why the beings inside them are here. The focus is kept on one set of characters in one location near one of the 12 ships scattered all over the world. All we know that’s happening elsewhere is what they see/hear through webcam chats and television media. By using this simple method of storytelling, it not only makes the unknown more unnerving but it also makes the audience more anxious.

But whatever—that’s a given in alien-arrival films, to make the unknown more mysterious until the aliens’ intention is revealed later. What is the film really about? Communication. I won’t give away how, but the communication this film investigates isn’t merely between humans and aliens; it shows the importance of it in a way I can’t explain without talking about spoilers. It’s best I just get across in this review how this film affected me as a critic and a filmgoer and let you go in with a virgin experience.

All I can say about the last half-hour is this: I didn’t see it coming, and I surely didn’t expect to be as fascinated by it as I was. It even raised a discussion with my father, whom I saw it with. I was surprised how much this film left us with more to talk about than I expected it to.

In an outstanding career consisting of 5 Oscar nominations (in 10 years!), Amy Adams turns in one of her best roles here. It’s one of her more serious and psychologically challenging roles, and she is nothing short of perfect in performing it. The more I got to learn about her character, the more I felt for her. And then when I learn something critical about her, it makes her all the more fascinating. But again, I can’t explain why here.

I don’t know how I can continue reviewing this film without giving away some important elements, because “Arrival” really is more than I’m letting on. It’s a powerful, intriguing and thought-provoking drama/thriller that surprised me, delighted me in doing so, and was a wonderful experience all the way through. I really wish I could go into it some more, but maybe someday, after a second viewing, I’ll come back with an analytical review in which I talk about the mysteries’ answers that fascinated me.

Spotlight (2015)

13 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I wrote for a newspaper before. It was The Echo, the campus newspaper for UCA (University of Central Arkansas); I wrote for three semesters, and some of the reviews on this blog made it in the Entertainment section. (Not too shabby.) I wasn’t always writing reviews (or columns) for it, however. A requirement for writing for the paper was reporting on current events, either for News, Campus Life, or Sports. I thought it would be easy at first—just go in, report what I see, and make sure I name my sources and get my facts right. The more I did it, the more difficult it became. I had to get different kinds of information from sources that were either unattainable or hard to get in contact with, and I had to write the story before a certain deadline that would keep crunching down.

There. I have my campus newspaper-reporter story out of the way. Now I’m going to talk about “Spotlight,” a film about investigative journalism at its most challenging. I’m aware of the differences between my experiences in The Echo and what happens in this film (in addition to what happens in big newspaper businesses in real life). I just thought I’d mention it here to state that if I thought it was hard writing an article about a heart-disease lecture or Green Week on Campus (among others) for The Echo, I hadn’t done anything yet.

“Spotlight” is one of the best films about newspaper reporting, if not the absolute best. It focuses on a particular story that our main characters—a team of investigative reporters—are trying to dig up over a long period of time. It begins with the team’s interest in the story and it ends with the story being published, meaning the main storyline of “Spotlight” involves the process of getting the story.

“Spotlight” involves the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team—editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They’re a small group of journalists who write in-depth investigative articles after spending months conducting an abundant amount of research. In 2001, their new story comes after the Globe’s new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), learns of a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represented numerous families alleging their children were sexually abused by Catholic priests. Baron wants the Spotlight team to investigate. Rezendes meets with Garabedian, who reluctantly tells him that there’s much more going on here than meets the eye. The Spotlight team interviews victims and lawyers, and it becomes clear that this isn’t just a 4-13 case number. It’s a widespread conspiracy, with at least 90 cases of scandal and cover-up. The team realizes how risky it is to go after such a powerful institution as the Catholic Church, but they go ahead with the story anyway, spending months to get the full scoop and expose the truth.

“Spotlight” is based on actual events—in early 2002, Spotlight published the story and it triggered a storm that caught the attention of both the country and the world. The whole film is seen through the perspective of this team of journalists, and the audience discovers what they uncover, through conducting interviews, following leads, and so on. Much of the film takes place in the newsroom, and so you get a sense that this is their life (we only get glimpses of their home lives, because the film is less about character than about the job). Director Tom McCarthy (director of small indie favorites such as “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, has a great eye for the material and makes the wise decision of approaching it with tact and realism without resorting to melodrama. He gets the journalists’ intrigue within the investigation and uses it with respect.

The characters are secondary to the most important aspect of the film, which is to show the harrowing process of this type of investigative journalism. But it takes great acting from those portraying the journalists to really sell it. Thankfully, the ensemble acting is nothing short of brilliant. Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, d’Arcy James, and Schreiber look and feel exactly right for their roles, right down to their mannerisms (for example, I love how McAdams keeps scribbling notes as she walks away from a property she got kicked out of). Plus, they undersell certain scenes that would be overly emotional; they play it like any regular person absorbing new, disturbing information would. You can tell they’re upset by what they uncover, but they’re taking it in rather than breaking down and throwing things across the room in anger. There’s only one blow-up scene in which Ruffalo gets angry and explodes, but even that’s not overdone. Speaking of Ruffalo, he’s perfect as an intensely aggressive reporter who won’t stop until he gets what he needs—he earned his Oscar nomination. In fact, the whole cast should’ve been nominated; not just Ruffalo and McAdams. (Seriously, Academy—the Indie Spirit Awards have an Ensemble Acting award, and you should too.)

Even though there were too few occasions where I could see myself in these characters, having worked on a smaller paper for a brief period of time, I could recognize close to everything as being true to life. It makes me wonder how I would feel if I was working for this paper and working with this team and getting this particular story. I will tell you this: it would’ve made me proud to fight with giants and do whatever it takes to get the word out and expose the truth. I feel the passion in the Spotlight team and it makes me glad there are more investigative journalists out there fighting to remove the curtains behind which people hide with their dark injustices.

“Spotlight” was one of the best films of 2015—I really wish I knew that when I did my “2015 Review.” I put it in the Honorable Mentions when it should’ve been placed as #2 on my Top-10-of-2015 list. Watching it again and reviewing it now, I recognize my mistake and attempt to take it back with a four-star rating and nothing but praise for this brilliant film. (And hey, it won the Best Picture Oscar, so there’s that too.)