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Boy Erased (2018)

22 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are still “Conversion Therapy” programs being practiced in a select few of the United States. As this piece of information was dropped on me and the audience before the closing credits of the new film “Boy Erased” sent us farewell, I felt a bigger lump in my throat than I did during the scene in which our main character undergoes mental abuse at one of these “Conversion Therapy” programs. That this is still happening in quite a few areas makes me feel for those suffering at the hands of people who probably mean well but for the most part resort to bullying tactics in their attempts at “helping” and “curing” homosexuals.

“Boy Erased” is based on a memoir of the same name written by Garrard Conley, who underwent one of these programs himself and wrote articles that exposed the truth about the harmful aspects of the process. The idea is to “convert” someone who is gay or bisexual and make them heterosexuals, and “Boy Erased” tells the compelling story of one man who challenged the idea by becoming stronger and more well-balanced, both in terms of his sexuality and his individuality.

Jared (Conley’s counterpart, played by Lucas Hedges) has a great life in a middle-class Arkansas community. He has loving parents (Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman), he’s artistic, and people seem to really like him. But things change when he tells his parents that he often thinks about men and might be gay. His mother, Nancy, is heartbroken, while his father, Marshall, a devoted Baptist pastor, feels like his entire universe has been shattered. Marshall gently informs his son that he cannot be gay and live under his same roof. So, Jared agrees to have his parents direct him to a Christian “conversion camp” in Memphis, TN called “Love in Action,” which is dedicated to reprogram men and women who are gay…or who think they’re gay, as the program leader and staff believe it’s a choice to be gay.

Jared isn’t sure of what the program is all about, nor does the shadiness of the day clinic seem to faze him (or his mother, who should be more concerned that nobody will let her inside the premises) upon first arriving—no cellphones are allowed, his journal entries are to be monitored, and no one is to mention anything about what happens within the program. He does it because he wants his father’s love and respect, and, like most Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation, doesn’t want to be seen as an “abomination” in the eyes of God. At first, everything seems fine. The man who runs it, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed this film), seems nice and willing to help him and his fellow “converters.” But over time, he becomes disturbed by Sykes’ methods being forced upon everyone to ensure the conversion is effective. Physical and mental bullying is at hand in the name of helping these people, and it doesn’t take too long for enough to be enough.

I get that many of these “Conversion Therapy” programs do get positive results from people who go through with it. But there are clients who take so much abuse from the people in charge of it before they become even more confused or enraged or both—some of them even kill themselves as a result… This is an aggressive practice that can’t be taken lightly; that Southern White Baptists feel the need to “change” people’s sexual orientation because of their strong beliefs that homosexuality strays people further away from God. (It’s this kind of homophobia that have made fundamentalist religions more fearful of the consequences of being gay…and also the same kind of homophobia that makes gay Christians fearful of coming out to their loved ones and being true to themselves.) While it’s not as active as it was in the last three decades, it’s still unfortunately operational. “Boy Erased” shines a light on not just the idea but also the attitude in general—and it’s very effective in doing so.

One of the reasons for its effectiveness is that the characters aren’t portrayed as black-and-white good guys & bad guys. That’s especially true of Marshall and Sykes. These two could have been written and portrayed as one-dimensional caricatures; instead, they’re portrayed as real people who don’t know the answers, think they’re doing the right thing, and want to find ways to help. You get the sense that Sykes has been through this sort of thing before and is now determined (which is a nice way of saying he’s “fanatical”) to help others. His methods are undoubtedly questionable, as he runs the place as some would run a drug rehab clinic or a boot camp, but that’s what makes his story (while not the key focus) all the more heartbreaking. He’s not a monster; he just doesn’t know how to reach certain people (to say the absolute least).

(Side-note: Please stay and study the texts that reveal updates on how the real-life story played out. What we learn about Sykes makes this character even more interesting.)

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Jared and Marshall, as Jared reveals something to his father that throws his world out of alignment and Marshall has to accept it or lose the son he still loves. He’s a thoughtful, old-fashioned religious man who of course doesn’t understand what his son is going through. But that doesn’t mean he has lost his love for his son. (This is another strength of the film: showing us how Jared’s coming-out not only affects Jared but Jared’s loved ones as well.)

As hard-hitting and gripping as the material is (and it’s VERY hard-hitting and gripping), what makes it all even stronger is the acting that carries it through. Lucas Hedges, one of today’s best young actors (following great work in a role somewhat similar to this one in “Lady Bird” last year), makes it hard for audiences not to feel anything for this kid when he’s happy or sad or upset or angry (all four important emotions to capture for a role like this one). Nicole Kidman delivers some of her finest work as Jared’s mother, who loves her son and knows when he’s sad or hurt that it’s time to step in and help him. Joel Edgerton wrote and directed the film and also knows not to make his character of Sykes into anything less than a bully with an agenda. But the film’s absolute best performance comes from Russell Crowe as Marshall. This is a man whose world is rocked by an important revelation and is forced to confront what he sees as a nearly impossible choice. You can practically feel his heart breaking in certain scenes, particularly in the final act of the film, and Crowe delivers some of his best work as an actor.

When adapting Conley’s book, Edgerton knew not to go for over-the-top melodrama and give us simple answers for these people who are all going through something internally and externally. It simply illustrates a series of injustices and ultimately shows that where there is courage and hopefulness, there is also tolerance and acceptance. As understated as “Boy Erased” may be, I doubt its impact will leave me anytime soon. This is one of the best films of the year.

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Leave No Trace (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Filmmaker Debra Granik must have a real talent for discovering actresses. Think about it—in 2004, she directed then-unknown Vera Farmiga in “Down to the Bone”; in 2010, she made “Winter’s Bone,” the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. I sincerely hope that this streak continues with Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a New Zealand actress who delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen all year and has the makings of a star on the rise. In Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” one of the most moving films of 2018, she delivers a nomination-worthy performance as a teenage girl who is devoted to her mentally struggling father…but tries to find it within herself to drive away from him.

“Leave No Trace” is a harsh and brutal yet heartwarming and terrific drama about a child breaking away from a parent. It begins with Will (Ben Foster), a widower and PTSD-stricken war veteran, and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (McKenzie) illegally living on a nature preserve just outside Portland, Oregon. They’ve made the woods their home, they’ve managed to survive together, and he teaches her how to get through certain scenarios such as the possibility of getting caught and having to run off. She doesn’t know what modern society is like, and he won’t give in to society’s rules anymore to let it happen to his daughter.

One day, they get found out by park rangers and are brought to the authorities. Instead of separating the two (as would happen in a lesser film…and maybe reality, but whatever), Social Services asks the right questions and get the answers that require them to stay together under their terms. (At one point, Tom is offended by the question of whether or not Will abused her in any way. Thankfully, SS is smart enough to realize he hasn’t.)

That’s the first act. The second act continues with Will and Tom living in a house to themselves, meeting community members, getting employment, making friends, etc. Will can’t adjust and won’t allow himself to make much of an effort, whereas Tom makes a very good attempt to belong to this new world she’s now found herself in.

But then, “Leave No Trace” gets even more fascinating when it almost seems it’s getting too predictable. The third act shows Will taking Tom with him to start anew somewhere else, and we see how difficult it is for Will to find comfort and how troubled Tom is when she realizes her father is dragging her down with him.

What makes “Leave No Trace” so special, apart from the excellent performances from both McKenzie and Foster, is that a lot of it plays with minimal dialogue. The acting and the filmmaking are strong enough that we can understand what the characters are going through when they don’t have to project their plight onto each other using a lot of dialogue. I don’t need to be explained why Will feels the need to isolate himself or why Tom would rather try something new than resort to the same thing over and over again, and so on. (Apparently, when Ben Foster signed onto the film, according to IMDb Trivia, he and Granik removed 40% of the dialogue from the script—a brilliant choice.)

The questions of what it means to be a parent, the values of adapting to society, and what it means to care for yourself and for your loved ones are all raised in “Leave No Trace.” And the few answers that we get lead to harsh truths.

Ben Foster is more calm and relaxed than usual, making for an effective performance. But the performance I’m walking away with each time I see “Leave No Trace” is the one by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. I can’t say enough good things about her—she’s just perfect in this role. And I sincerely hope she gets even more work after this.

As with “Lean on Pete,” another film from 2018, “Leave No Trace” isn’t afraid to be harsh and moving one moment and then beautiful and heartbreaking the next. Any film that successfully takes on that bold move is welcome in my theater.

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…

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.

Signs (revised review with spoilers)

8 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I would issue a “SPOILER ALERT,” but how many people who read my blog don’t know about “Signs?”

When I first reviewed M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 hit “Signs,” I was naïve enough as a young reviewer (I think I was about 17 when I wrote the review) to try not to give away any spoilers for a film that was already getting a heap of backlash. “Signs” is a film that was receiving a lot of love before it was getting a lot of hate. And I didn’t even acknowledge the backlash in my review; it was one of the worst reviews I’ve ever written that, for some reason, I decided to post in my blog years later when I started it. Rather than go in-depth about a film that everyone was picking on left and right, I was heavily inspired by Roger Ebert’s review. He gave “Signs” the same star-rating I did (four stars out of four), and he kept it spoiler-free in his review. (I wish I could explain to 17-year-old Tanner Smith the difference between taking inspiration from someone’s work and ripping it off.)

Anyway, “Signs” is a film that gets a lot of criticism that I think is unwarranted. I’m keeping the four-star verdict for this “Revised Review,” because Shyamalan’s “Signs” is one of my personal favorite movies.

I’m not kidding—I love “Signs” un-ironically and wholeheartedly. So now, I’m going to give it the Smith’s Verdict treatment that it deserves.

The film centers on a rural-Pennsylvania family (“20 miles outside Philadelphia,” a caption states)—widower father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and Graham’s two children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). One morning, they awaken to find that in their cornfield are mysterious shapes bent from several of the crops. From above, they look like crop circles. If this were a prank, it’d be one thing; but apparently, it’s happening all over the world and it all seems to be a warning sign for a global invasion from an otherworldly force. Aliens are coming, it seems, and Graham isn’t sure whether to believe it or not, but the others are more than willing to accept the possibility. Before long, the looming danger draws closer and the family has to survive the night…

OK, here goes—it turns out there really are extraterrestrials that come to Earth and mean harm towards mankind. Let’s start off with the ultimate masterstroke in telling this particular alien-invasion story: it keeps the focus on just one part of the world, with one family knowing as much as they can possibly know, from listening to the radio broadcasts, watching TV broadcast news, and even encountering some aliens themselves. Therefore, we as an audience only know what they know. Unlike in “Independence Day,” which featured a large variety of characters in different parts of the world witnessing the extraordinary events as they unfold, in “Signs,” we’re given the absolute minimum of the attack. And I think that’s great—sometimes, less is more.

Unfortunately, this is probably the source of a lot of the complaints & questions people have about “Signs” that they just won’t let be. The aliens have trouble with wooden doors. Water seems to be the only thing that can hurt them. Why would they come to a planet mostly covered with water? Why didn’t they bring any weapons? Because we know so little about the invasion itself, aside from what the group of characters only hears about, many of us are too quick to assume that these are mere plot holes that can’t be filled. But I think they can be…

For one thing, the criticism of the water being the thing that burns the aliens like acid has never been warranted, in my opinion. Think of it like this—if we were on a whole other planet in a whole other galaxy, we could come across something that could be very lethal to us; something that is a natural resource to the planet’s inhabitants. I never understood why people find it hard to believe that the aliens would have a deadly reaction to something they haven’t encountered before.

As for the question of why they would attack Earth, a planet that is mostly composed of water, I refer you to a scene in which the characters listen to a radio broadcast, in which a witness believes that they didn’t come to take over our planet but rather to harvest humans. They couldn’t care less about our planet; they just want as many of us as they could get before they left. And they seemed to have left in a big hurry, leaving only their wounded behind, most likely because of the water. Again, we don’t know for sure because we’re only limited to what we see on this family’s farm, but if some of the aliens landed somewhere where it rained, for example, that’d be enough for a slaughter, a distress call, a retreat, anything.

The final encounter in the film comes when a wounded alien has made its way to the house and nearly kills Morgan with its poisonous gas (luckily, Morgan, having suffered an asthma attack prior, didn’t inhale it because his lungs were too closed up). This is the alien that Graham encountered the previous day at a neighbor’s house, before removing its fingers with a carving knife. So, obviously, because its brethren scattered quickly and left their wounded behind, the alien, after having busted out of the house pantry where he was locked up, must have followed the closest crop circle and found its way to this house. It’s a desperate act that people have also questioned.

Oh, and what about the wood? These things seem to have trouble with wooden doors. (“Scary Movie 3” even mentioned this at one point: “They mastered space flight, but they can’t get through a wooden door?”) But here’s the thing—they have no weapons to aid them. It’s possible that they didn’t find any use for them, because they were only here for us, not for our planet. And here’s the other thing—they did get through the doors! When the family is holed up in the basement, how do you think the aliens ended up outside the door? They busted through the doors upstairs (and the boarded-up windows too—you can see the broken planks near the end of the film). And more importantly, the wounded alien at the end was the same alien that was locked in a kitchen pantry before…so, he obviously broke out. (It’s going to take some effort, guys.)

Something else people love to complain about is how everything seems to come together at the end, with Graham, a former preacher, suddenly gaining his faith back after it seems his wife’s dying words were warnings for the future, leading up to this moment in which Merrill must kill the alien with his treasured baseball bat. (“Merrill…swing away.”) People complain that it’s an unneeded premonition that is forced rather than revealing. Maybe Shyamalan was going for a way for God to provide help, thus restoring Graham’s beliefs (and there’s even a scene early in the film about how there may not be coincidences in the world). But I never saw it as that big a deal. I just saw it as Graham figuring out the best way to save the day while considering the possibility that this is no coincidence. Everybody has their reasons to believe.

And while I’m on the subject, people also complain about Graham leaving the cloth because he originally lost his faith after his wife died. He’s a flawed man, as you can see as the film continues. There are moments, particularly when he talks with Merrill (and especially their conversation about hope and fear), that indicate not only is he not so sure about whether or not we’re all alone in the world with no one to look after us and protect us, but also that he was never entirely sure even when he was a priest. No one is perfect. That’s what I got out of it, anyway.

I will give the critics a little bit of credit—it is a bit odd that the concept of crop circles, something that was dismissed as a big hoax in real-life (and even mentioned in this film at one point), is something that the aliens in this film actually decided to perform (for use of navigational purposes). Kind of coincidental, isn’t it? But then again, don’t some people wonder what would happen those crop circles really were from otherworldly sources? It is the movies, after all—what’s wrong with some wish-fulfillment?

I’ve already mentioned in my previous review how effective the acting is from all four principal actors, how striking the production design is (right down to the stained cross on the wall, which I did not recognize before), how deeply unsettling it is the way Shyamalan uses silence to elevate tension, and how wonderful James Newton Howard’s music score is. But they deserve mentioning again because I think just about everything about “Signs” works. As with “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” “Signs” was a case of a filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan putting his faith into his audience and telling a story using both big and little elements to both satisfy them and make them ponder. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of people didn’t fall for it. But I did, and I’m all the more glad that I took the time to truly think about all the things I mentioned in this review, rather than let the questions linger on in my mind before I decided I didn’t like “Signs.” I love “Signs,” and I will continue to love “Signs” to my dying day. It’s one of my favorite movies, and I will shrug off any more complaints I read about it. To those complaints, I say: it’s not a problem if it can be explained.

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.